Sunday, June 28, 2020

Intelligent Lives in the Universe

Around 1989 or so I was at the library flipping through a book the title of which I can no longer recall but it was something like Famous Gay People Throughout History. All the usual--and long dead--suspects were there: Sappho, Walt Whitman, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, etc. The book was breezily written, the author realizing that while the historical gayness of Sappho was a no-brainer, when it comes to someone like King James (best known these days for his Bible), it may be more a matter of conjecture. The fun was in the speculation. And the speculation got revved up quite a bit on the book's final page, which dealt with still-living celebrities who had not yet publicly announced their homosexuality. To avoid any lawsuits, the author had simply provided a page of initials, and it was up to the reader to figure out to whom these initials belonged. One set of initials read L.T. It didn't take much guessing on my part to figure out who that was. Not because of any rumors I'd heard but due to the fact that someone had penciled Lily Tomlin right next to it! Whatever anger I might have felt over the defacement of a library book soon gave way to a sense of intrigue. As a kid I had watched Tomlin on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In, and then, as I got older, watched her TV specials, the times she guest-hosted Saturday Night Live, the network showings of her feature films, and her talk show appearances. I found Tomlin funny, and considered myself a fan. Now to find out she was gay! Far from disappointed, I wanted to know more about this aspect of her life. Unfortunately, there was no Internet back then to do further research--remember, I was in the library flipping through a book--and the mainstream media of the day stayed out of Tomlin's personal life, as well they should. And really, it was none of my business. But if that mysterious pencil-carrying library vandal knew this about her, why shouldn't I? It was maybe another ten years before I pieced together not just the puzzle of her life but, as it turned out, her career, too, which has since become public knowledge. So, as this parade-less Pride Month quietly plays itself out, perhaps Tomlin's story can provide a bit of inspiration. It's not a float, but you won't have to go through the trouble of looking for a spot on a crowded sidewalk.

The daughter of Southern Baptists from Kentucky who relocated to Detroit during the Great Depression, Lily Tomlin attended Wayne State University originally intending to study biology, but soon switched her major to drama. However, keep in mind that drama is not always the same as dramatic. After college and in-between auditions and whatever roles she would have gotten from such auditions, Tomlin did stand-up comedy, first in Detroit, and then in New York City. In the latter location, she continued to study acting at the highly-regarded HB Studio. She appeared on TV for the first time in 1965 on The Merv Griffin Show. That and other television appearances brought her to the attention of the producers of the aforementioned Laugh-In. Original cast member Judy Carne was leaving, and Tomlin was brought in as a replacement. Tomlin ended up becoming the last great breakout star to emerge from the sketch comedy show. Among the characters she became famous for were Ernestine, the 1940s-in-the-1960s telephone operator, and Edith Ann, the philosophical, lisping little girl on the big chair. Declining ratings eventually forced the once-popular Laugh-In off the air in 1973, but that had no notable effect on Tomlin's career, at least not in the negative sense. Her first comedy album, This Is a Recording, peaked at #15 on Billboard, the highest ever for a solo comedienne, and won a Grammy. Naturally, there was a demand for an encore. It was how to meet this demand that now proved vexing. Out of economic necessity, Tomlin had written all or most of her stand-up material up to that point, but had never truly considered herself a writer. Her performances were limited  by what words she could come up with to put in her characters mouths. To her fans, that didn't seem like much of a limitation at all, but Tomlin wanted the act to have more depth than she felt she herself was capable. Now that she could afford one, Tomlin set about finding herself a writer.

Enter Jane Wagner. Compared to Lily Tomlin, biographical details are a bit harder to come by, even on her own website. She was born in Tennessee during the 1930s, wrote for the school newspaper, but was also interested in acting and eventually became a leading player at the Barter Theatre in Virginia. Then, like Tomlin, off to New York City to really make it as an actress. Instead, she made it as a designer, creating the  “Teach Me, Read Me” children’s bed sheets for Fieldcrest. Finally, writing. In 1969, when I was in the second grade, Wagner made her first professional sale as a writer, an hour-long children's special (almost immediately adapted into a book) titled J.T. Here's where that gap in her biography becomes, for me, particularly frustrating. Did Wagner send an unsolicited teleplay to CBS, or was this done through an agent? Either way, it was smart of the network to greenlight the project. Kevin Hooks, in an exceptional performance (of which there was another forthcoming in the feature film Sounder, and he was pretty good as Morris Thorpe in TV's The White Shadow, too), is the title character, a young boy living in Harlem who adopts a one-eyed alley cat. I was watching this on the computer a short while ago when I suddenly realized I had seen it the first time around! I remember liking it back then though my second-grade self was much disturbed by the feline's ultimate fate (honestly, my fifty-something self wasn't too pleased about it either.) J.T. went on to win the prestigious Peabody Award. Though ostensibly for children, it certainly can be appreciated by adults. One adult who appreciated it was Lily Tomlin, who then got in contact with Wagner, asking for help on her Edith Ann album. This I find a bit puzzling. J.T. may have been high-caliber television, but it wasn't a comedy. Tomlin never tells you where Edith Ann lives, but I very much doubt that it's Harlem. Nevertheless, Tomlin wanted Edith Ann to be less a caricature of a little girl and more like a real youngster, and Wagner wanted to show everyone that she, too, could be funny. According to Tomlin, when the two finally met in person, they immediately "clicked". 

The result was 1972's And That's the Truth. Unlike on Laugh-In, where Tomlin was dressed up as Edith Ann and addresses the viewer directly, here she relies totally on her voice to achieve the same effect since,  after all, there's no viewer, just a listener (well, there would have been viewers in the night club where this album was recorded, but even there I think she was out of costume.) But instead of being addressed directly, the listener gets to listen in as Edith Ann pesters a neighborhood lady (also voiced by Tomlin) walking to her home and then again at that home itself. The album did well, peaking at # 41 on Billboard's Hot 200 chart. Jane Wagner was also on the writing staff on all four of Tomlin's Emmy Awards-laden specials made between 1973 and 1981. The first three were produced by former Laugh-In writer and future Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels. The fourth, Lily Sold Out, which ends with out heroine in a Las Vegas pool amidst a floating pair of push-up bra inserts, was produced by Wagner. The duo also collaborated on a couple of feature films, Moment by Moment and The Incredible Shrinking Woman, neither one of which garnered much in the way of critical acclaim or box office receipts, but that hardly slowed them down. Their real forte was the stage, where Tomlin got her start, except this time that stage wouldn't be in...

...some cellar nightclub.

In 1977, Tomlin became the first woman to appear solo in a Broadway play, Appearing Nitely, written and directed by Wagner. There were all the old standbys, such as Ernestine the operator, and suburban housewife Mrs. Judith Beesley, and some new characters such as Trudy the bag lady, elderly blues revivalist Sister Boogie Woman, and Rick, a macho habituĂ© of  single bars (among other things, Tomlin pioneered male drag.) The show toured the country, and was made into an album, Lily Tomlin on Stage, that earned a Grammy nomination. But it was Tomlin's and Wagner's next Broadway show, eight years later, that remains their career-defining achievement as a team, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. It's still a one-woman show, but this time, there's actually a narrative running through the whole thing. Trudy the bag lady is receiving alien signals through her tattered umbrella. It seems the otherworldly beings are curious about what we Earthlings are like, and Tomlin provides them with a cross-section of (American) humanity, both male and female. The play won a Tony for Tomlin as Best Actress, and was turned into both a book and a movie. And it's a tribute to Wagner's talents as a writer that the play is now occasionally performed without Tomlin (one Los Angeles production transformed it from a one-person to a twelve-person play, each actor playing a different character.)

As you may have guessed by now, or maybe even have known for decades (I'm talking to you, library book-defacer), Lily Tomlin and Jane Wagner didn't just click professionally but romantically as well.  By the time And That's the Truth went on sale in record shops, they had become lovers, and have remained lovers ever since. And in 2013 they became more than that when they picked up their licenses and were married in a private ceremony. Prior to them tying the knot, they were somewhat discreet about their relationship. In 1975, Time magazine offered Tomlin the cover if she came out, but she said no (two years later, all the TV specials and first Broadway show got her the cover anyway.) Like a lot of celebrities in recent years, Tomlin and Wagner relied on a kind of osmosis to get the word out as the LGBTQ movement picked up steam. You can pass judgement on them for their lengthy discretion if you wish, but few couples, gay or straight, have so successfully merged their professional and personal lives, and for that they should take a great deal of Pride.

The above clip is from the feature film version of The Search for Signs of Intelligence Life in the Universe. In the original stage show you wouldn't have seen the inside of a car with rain pelting the windows, nor Lily Tomlin in three different outfits and three different hairstyles, the editing to pull something like that off downright impossible in a live performance. No, it would have been Tomlin wearing black pants and a white blouse throughout the whole thing, changing only her voice and facial expression as she switched from one character to another. Pure acting.


Saturday, June 20, 2020

Vital Viewing (Wicked, Wicked Ways Edition)

Swashbuckling movie star Errol Flynn was born on this day in 1909. As you can see, he was a very handsome man in the 1930s, when the above picture was taken. Alas,  he led a very debauched life offscreen (best described as liquor and Lolitas), and it eventually took a toll on his good looks. Here he is on a once-popular game show about two years before his death in 1959. He's barely recognizable, and in fact stumps the celebrity panel. See if YOU can spot him:

That's right, Number 3 was the real Errol Flynn, and you can plainly see what effect the ravages of alcohol abuse had on his physical appearance. It left him him severely underweight, which can happen when one's only nutrition comes from a rum bottle. As for his receding hairline, that--

OK! OK! Time to own up. The above clip isn't really from a once-popular 1950s games show. Rather, it's a parody of a once-popular 1950s game show (To Tell the Truth), taken from Steve Allen's once-popular 1950s variety show. Errol Flynn is actually the guy in the middle, Number 2. What I like about that clip, other than that it's funny as hell, is that it puts Flynn's barstool fall from grace in some kind of perspective. He's put on weight, he's puffy-faced, with perhaps only the faintest trace of his former handsomeness. Yet the movie star aura, the charismatic screen presence, is still there. After all, the whole point of the sketch, the punchline, is that it's absurd that anyone would ever confuse Number 3 or even Number 1 with the real Errol Flynn. And for the joke to work, you need the real Errol Flynn to provide contrast. To be sure, had it been the Flynn of the 1930s, the sketch would have been twice as funny. That it's funny anyway shows you that two years before he was felled by a heart attack, Flynn could make, if no longer high school girls hearts flutter, at least the forty-one-year-old Martha Raye fall backwards on her chair.

Speaking of Flynn of the 1930s, here he is in perhaps his most famous role, that of a medieval mugger with a social conscious:

Let's see Barney Fife do that!

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Quips and Quotations (Copyright Renewal Edition)

Superman and Batman have been in continuous publication for over half a century, and it's never been true of any fictional construct before. These characters have a lot more weight than the hero of a popular sitcom that lasts maybe four years. They have become postindustrial folklore, and part of this job is to be the custodian of folk figures. Everybody on Earth knows Batman and Robin. 
          --Comic book scribe Denny O'Neil, circa 1989. You can do the math yourself, but those costumed cuties have now been around a heckuva lot longer than a half a century!


Thursday, June 11, 2020

Noncentral Heating

Hitching for a ride it looks like, but who are they? Well, I'm sure most of you recognize Mary Poppins and Bert the Chimney Sweep, aka, Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, but who are the two dudes flanking them? On the left is composer Richard M. Sherman (who turns 92 today) and on the right his brother, also a composer, Robert B. Sherman (who died in 2012.)  The Sherman Brothers composed many movie scores and wrote many movie songs throughout their decades-long careers, but are best known for their association with Walt Disney (not the corporate monolith we know today, but, at the time, the actual, living, breathing Walt Disney), in particular the classic Mary Poppins,  including this Academy Award-winning paean to carbon residue:

Sure, he's happy now, but wait till his doctor shows him the chest X-ray.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

A Word of Explanation

So where have I been all these months? No, I didn't succumb to the coronavirus, nor do I suffer from the malady mentioned in my most recent post. I admit it was very bad timing on my part to post about one epidemic when another was looming on the horizon. Truth is, I got so caught up in the writing that I paid no attention to the news coming out of Italy at the same time. Imagine my surprise the day after the President's speech--which I skipped--to find every thing had closed, including my beloved public library.

Ah, yes, the public library. As some of you may know, the past twelve years of Shadow of a Doubt has not been composed on any device located in my place of residence but on various computers provided by various branches of the Cuyahoga County Public Library system. Why did I do it that way? Well, it's free Internet they offer, which was very appealing back in 2008 when I was unemployed (in fact, a month before this blog began, I went online for the very first time to fill out a job application for Radio Shack, which so far has gone unacknowledged. Is there even a Radio Shack any more?) Also, I was very computer illiterate at the time, so if I made a mistake and the whole machine started hiccupping on me, I could just go ask the librarian for help, or, if she was busy, I could just, you know, go to another computer. They have more than one.

Alas, there were drawbacks. Such as, libraries close for the night. That wasn't too much of a problem when I was unemployed, or when I had a typical 9-to-5 job for about a year. But that 9-to-5 job disappeared along with the photo albums the company thought it could keep on selling in the age of Instagram. I soon found another job, but one that started when everyone else was going to lunch, and ended when everybody 40 or older began falling asleep in front of the TV. The latter is also about when the libraries closed for the night. That meant my only computer time during the week was about an hour in the morning, which I usually spent leaving comments on other peoples blogs. Weekends I devoted to my own blog (though I sometimes posted later than that to throw everyone--or maybe just one or two people--off-track.) Nevertheless, I got a lot done, and enjoyed myself doing it.

Well, you know what happened next. The world turned into an apocalyptic science-fiction movie. Except instead of this...

...we got this:

Look at Dr. Fauci on the far right.  He's hoping the Flesh Eater-in-Chief doesn't call on him.

Back to my situation. No library, no computer, but as we who made it this far in the 21st century know, that doesn't necessarily mean no Internet. I did have a smart phone. It was impossible--at least for me--to work on my blog from my phone, but I could still leave comments on other people's blogs. Which I did for a while. But I wanted to use the Internet for other things as well, and ended up pushing the phone's data capabilities to the limit. I spent a lot of time on Facebook and Linkedin, adding friends and connections, hoping if I got enough friends and connections, I might get out of the rut I find myself in. That was harmless enough. I also worked on my novel Gigi Freeman--longhand in a notebook at this point--and since in its own weird way it's historical fiction, that required quite a bit of research. One of the novel's major characters is the late Manhattan-based attorney, one-time Joe McCarthy sidekick, and alleged-Donald Trump mentor Roy Cohn, whom, unlike Gigi, was a real person (but don't get the idea that this is going to be anything like Angels in America--Tony Kushner's Cohn was Shakespearean, whereas my Cohn is more like someone you'd see on Gilligan's Island.) I found out Cohn's FBI file was available online, so I decided to check it out. Like you would check out anything else on the Web. Except when I clicked it on, this little word appears in the upper left-hand corner of my smart phone screen: download. All 750 pages of Roy Cohn's FBI was getting downloaded into my phone, and there was nothing I could do to stop it, not even turn the damn phone off, because once I turned it back on, it started downloading again! Once it finally stopped--all in all it took about ten minutes--I clicked the words "Roy Cohn's FBI file" off the screen. No way was I going to chance turning it on. I might end up with Ron Liebman's, Nathan Lane's, and Al Pacino's FBI files as well. So I just clicked the words away. But did they truly go away? My phone was never the same after that. It wouldn't let me stay on any web site for more than a nanosecond. And the keyboard stopped working. No, I take that back. It worked, but wouldn't stay on the screen long enough for me to type three letters in a row. The phone part of the phone still worked fine. That's when I decided to call the cable company.

Now, it just so happens that about the the time my phone started going haywire, I received in the mail a "one-time offer" of an Internet/cable bundle for under $50 a month. I'd been without cable for seven years now, and while I missed it somewhat, it wasn't the necessity of life that the Internet was gradually turning out to be (Take the IRS, for instance. While they strongly encourage you to file your taxes online, they will still grudgingly let you fill out a form. But how do you get this form? You guessed it. You have to order it online. Grrr!) I read the small print to see what the Internet all by itself would cost. Slightly more than it would as part of the bundle. If that was the case, why not also get cable? Except when I called the cable company, the person who answered the phone told me I had misunderstood the offer. The bundled Internet was just under $50 a month AND the bundled cable was just under $50 a month, so I'd actually be paying just under $100 dollars a month. I was about to hang up the phone when I got sucked into a bit of mild haggling. A different bundle was offered: Internet and phone service. I'd be paying a lot less than I was currently paying for use of a smart phone. The Internet would be a little less, too. No cable, but that wasn't originally my goal anyway. I did the math and decided it would be affordable.

I've shown this clip on this blog before, but I'm going to show it again, because I think it will give you a better understanding of the aforementioned math:

Life before pocket calculators.

So I went ahead and got the phone and the Internet. But now there was a new problem. I had a second-hand computer given to me by some friends about ten years ago, so it was about 15, maybe even 20 years old, thus making it...


I didn't know that at first. I complained to the cable company, who, after I described the problem and told them the age of the machine, gave me Microsoft's phone number, and it was they who told me it was obsolete. It wouldn't be had I spent the last ten years getting upgrades, but now it might be too late. I called a couple of computer repair places, and they wanted nothing to do with it. Finally, a relative suggested I try uploading Chrome and see if that helped. It did, but just barely. It took about 20 minutes to access my email. I read three, each which took a minute to open. Then I decided to google "Truman Capote" (another character in Gigi Freeman) and that took ten minutes. Clearly, I needed a new computer. Both Wall-Mart and Best Buy advertised inexpensive laptops, but when I enquired further, both stores were out-of-stock and would be for at least two more weeks. Along with toilet paper, people were apparently hoarding laptops as well.

Amazingly, Target had a single $200 laptop still in stock the Saturday before Memorial Day. I ordered it on my new smart phone, and about 20 minutes later had it delivered to me in that establishment's parking lot. All well and good. Until I started using it. I now realize that for the past 12 years the Cuyahoga County Public Library system has been shielding me from the heartbreak that come with owning a computer. Library computers have been to obedience school, home computers need to be housebroken. A library computer is Lassie, a home computer is Cujo.

For starters, a library computer you just type in your password and start using it. You don't have to worry, care, understand, or even be aware of the difference between a browser and a search engine, between Microsoft and Google, between the company that manufactures the computer, and the cable company that wi-fis the content. It's all the Internet. Just jump in and enjoy! However, on a home computer, the browser and the search engines and the hardware itself seems to be in competition for your attention.  I guess I should be flattered except these things all need different passwords and my non-gigabyte brain can only come up with so many upper case-lower case-numbers-symbols combinations. Just why in the hell do I need a Microsoft account? Microsoft came with the computer. When I go to a bar and order a screwdriver, it's not like I need an account with Minute Maid. The word "security" comes up quite a bit, and I realize identity theft is always a concern. But, jeez, I drive a car that's older than the kid that works the drive-thru at McDonald's. In order to save money at coin-operated laundry machines I wash darks and lights together and often end up with some interesting shade in-between. Steal my identity and you just might end up a member of the working poor. Then there's all these boxes that keep popping up on my screen. Install this, upgrade that. Fail to do so and you risk being strangled in your sleep by the Ghost of Vacuum Tubes Past. And when things go wrong and the screen freezes up, who do I blame? Spectrum? Hewlett-Packard? Satya Nadella? Computer illiterate that I am, I should blame myself actually. But I'm willing to learn, and one way to learn is by reading. Reading instructions, for example. Unfortunately, the concept of an instruction booklet is held with as much regard in Silicon Valley or Redmond, Washington as the New Testament is in Tel Aviv. The one thing that doesn't freeze up is the software's box-making machine, this one telling me that if I have a problem, go to so-and-so's web site. But how the hell do I get to that web site if the computer is frozen? I know, I know. Use your cell phone, and as a matter of fact mine is sitting next to the computer as I type. But think for a moment about the significance of that. In order to survive in the 21st century, you need not one but two Internets! I don't particularly envy the life of a cave man, but there's something to be said for a time when the only technologies were the wheel and fire, neither of which needed to be upgraded every five minutes.

If the above rant was a bit too much for you to get through, perhaps this clip will make you better understand the technical challenges I faced:

Arthur C. Clarke was off by only 19 years.

Finally, I 've had to work a lot of overtime the last few weeks--I know, a rarity in these troubled times--and that's kept me away. But I managed to eke out this post, and they'll be more eking out to come. More quips and quotations, more vital viewing, more pop cultural observations, and more in memoriams. Also, another (this time disease-free) chapter from my nonlinear novel-in-progress, the aforementioned Gigi Freeman. I hope you'll be there.

Oh, and by the way, this song has been running through my head these past few months. Take it away, Gloria:

Lockdown, shmockdown!