It's not the best way to ring in the new year, and I don't know that it's any consolation that it actually happened on the last day of the old year, but Betty White no longer walks the earth. Here she is in an interview that she gave about nine years ago, in which, among other things, her own pending mortality is discussed:
That interview focuses on the latter half of Betty's career, the last fifty years or so. Come to think of it, that's a lot of latter! Amazingly, she was already a celebrity at the beginning of that half-century, before she took the television roles that she's best known for today. So what happened back then that boosted her name recognition? Well, if you do a bit of research, you'll come across the following television role, one that she's no longer best known for, on the long-forgotten 1952 sitcom Life with Elizabeth (well, no long-forgotten on YouTube, where you can watch entire episodes):
Photography before smartphones.
Life with Elizabeth was a moderate success. As was a variety show that came shortly thereafter. These moderate successes added up. As did her many talk show and celebrity game show panelist appearances. Betty White was soon a household name, even if that name recognition seemed to exceed any single career accomplishment. She was well-known enough by 1963 to get this gig...
The Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, the television broadcast of which she and Bonanza star Lorne Greene co-hosted for nine years. This is probably my earliest memory of Betty White, though being of elementary school age, I was more eager to see the Bullwinkle balloon than care about who was co-hosting the event. Here's the two of them in 1972:
Watching that, I'm reminded that Betty White could also sing (and so, apparently, could Lorne.)
Though acting had been her main thing early on, by the end of the 1960s, Betty White was much more well-known for playing herself than for any fictional role. But exactly what was "herself"? Co-hosting things like the Macy's and Tournament of Roses parades, she was expected to project an upbeat image, which she may have done a bit too well, coming across to at least one person as "sickeningly sweet". Now, who in tarnation would describe her as that?
The woman on the left, that's who. A script for The Mary Tyler Moore Show called for a hostess of a WJM-TV household hints and cooking show who was perky in front of the camara but could be hard-as-nails off-camera, and sexually voracious as well. Regarding the first of those three characteristics, the perkiness, Moore suggested in a production meeting that it could be someone "like Betty White". Eventually Betty White herself was asked to play Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. Far from being offended at what was originally meant as a self-parody, White acted the role with gusto. That guest appearance led to another, then another, and she was eventually added to TMTMS cast. Here she is along with Ted Knight (as Ted Baxter), Ed Asner (as Lou Grant), and Gavin MacLeod (as Murray Slaughter). Watch:
The Mary Tyler Moore Show transformed White's career, wiping away the previous twenty years of real-life goody-two-shoes TV hosting, all by playing a fictional goody-two shoes TV hostess on a sitcom. How can such a thing be possible? The woman was a comic genius, that's how. Just why it was overlooked for so many decades, well, that's show biz for you.
And as a comic genius, White was no one-trick pony, though she could have easily been regarded as such had she accepted the role of Blanche Devereaux in writer-producer Susan Harris' new sitcom TheGolden Girls. Blanche was, as White said in the interview at the top of this post, a "nymphomaniac", and Sue Ann Nivens arguably had been that. Meanwhile, Rue McClanahan had been offered the part of addled-brained Rose Nyland, which was very similar to the character Vivian Harmon she had played on Maude (which starred Bea Arthur, who now headed the GG cast as Dorothy Zbornak; her mother Sophie Petrillo played by Estelle Getty.) Both wanting to do something different, White and McClanahan switched parts, and a classic sitcom was born. In this clip, Rose warns of the dangers of plastic surgery:
I'm not going to bother explaining to those who don't recognize the name just who Stepin Fetchit is, but he's not somebody you normally would associate with Norway.
Like many famous people nowadays, Betty White appeared in her very own Super Bowl commercial, in 2010:
The Saints beat the Colts that year, but all anybody was talking about the next day was the Snickers commercial, which brought the then-88-year-old White back into the public eye all over again. A successful Facebook campaign got her on Saturday Night Live, the oldest person ever to host the show (much preferrable to a later Facebook campaign that got a crooked real estate developer into the White House.) And she got one more sitcom to cap her career, as a Polish caretaker in Hot in Cleveland. For the final video, I'm not going to show you either SNL or HIC. I've used enough of your time (plus I've been sitting in this chair too long--my rump hurts.) However, I do have one final video...
In 1961, Betty White guested as a celebrity panelist on the game show Password, then at the beginning of its decades-long run. Password emcee Allen Ludden was smitten with White and kept asking her to marry him. Having walked down the aisle twice before, she was reluctant, but eventually said, "I do". They may not have been Liz and Dick, who got married a year later, but their union lasted a lot longer. On YouTube I found this pastiche of their wedded bliss, much of which also was working bliss, as they acted and otherwise appeared in a lot of shows together. It's a good a way end this:
Allen Ludden died in 1981, and never got to see Betty in The Golden Girls. If they're together now, maybe she can catch him up on all the going-ons in St. Olaf.
I know what you're thinking. Today is Christmas. Isn't this Revolutionary War stuff better suited for the Fourth of July? Maybe, but it just so happens that on the night of December 25, 1776, George Washington and his men crossed the Delaware River from Pennsylvania in a surprise attack on Hessian forces camped out in New Jersey, holiday be damned!
None of which means your own holiday has to be damned. After all, there hasn't been a peep out of the Hessians lately. So Merry Christmas everybody, and, please, exercise caution when handling fireworks.
A great many people claim to hate Christmas music, but I'm not one of them. I like a lot of different kinds of music, and all the diverse genres come together most often during the holidays. Think about it. Rare is the radio station that has both Burl Ives and George Michael on its playlist, except in December, when it's not at all unusual to hear both "A Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Last Christmas", one after another, without even having to change the dial. If the different races and different creeds and different nations had the same generosity of spirit as does the average radio programmer from the day after Thanksgiving right up to December 25, the world would be a better place.
Christmas music can be divided into two broad categories: Christmas "songs" and Christmas "carols." So what's the difference between a song and a carol? Well, I've been doing all kinds of googling to find that out, and the answer is a bit unsatisfying. Historically, a carol is a song associated with a festive occasion, and Christmas certainly qualifies. But if we go by that definition, there is no difference! Any song that touches on Christmas is a carol. "Santa Baby" is a carol. "The Chipmunk Song" is a carol. "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" is a carol. Yet I can't imagine carolers such as the ones pictured above going door to door singing those songs, not without getting road salt dumped on their heads. It seems to me that no matter what it says in a dictionary, carolers use some sort of weeding out process before going out and risk having their tongues fall off from frostbite as they make their nightly rounds. After listening to Christmas songs traditionally referred to as carols and those traditionally referred to as songs, I think I've figured that weeding process out. Tradition, in fact, has a lot to do with the difference. As does technology and commercialism. Christmas songs are a relatively recent development, the product of the era of sound recording. Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but as with so many things that have come to define modernity, the device didn't really become a consumer must-have until the 1920s (you probably weren't paying attention because of all the covid news, but modernity celebrated its 100th birthday last year.) And of course, that's also when "record" went from being a word used mostly by historians and county registrars to one that for a while there came very close to being synonymous with music itself. In the 1930s came radio, which briefly competed with the phonograph for the listeners attention, until companies such as the Radio Corporation of America found it was easy to manufacture both and use one to promote the other. Around the same time, movies began talking, and singing. In the 1950s came television. More competition, and even more promotion. And finally, the internet. All of which increased the demand for more, and newer, music, and musical stars--everyone from Bing Crosby to Gwen Stefani--to perform it. It also meant $$$$$$$$$$, and the contracts and copyrights to make sure everyone involved gets their cut. As for Christmas, the holiday simply followed, and eventually even magnified, these trends. Yuletide may have its roots in antiquity, but today it is the very soul of modernity.
Now onto carols (and remember, this is an informal definition.) Carols go back to before the 20th century. The copyrights having long since expired, they're today all in the public domain, and though they've certainly made the transition to the phonograph and radio and television and the internet and can and are sung by pop stars, such songs were originally performed by the aforementioned carolers and church choirs. And that brings up another important difference. While there are a few that are secular in nature, such as "Deck the Halls", most carols are religious. Now, as one of the theologically uncommitted, I'm on the outside looking in, yet I can still enjoy the melodic qualities of a good religious carol and even see the appeal of the lyrical content. (A baby born in a manger grows up to be Messiah? That tops Lincoln's log cabin!) I also think carols, unfairly, are seen by some people, whatever their spiritual bent, as being kind of boring, probably because so many of us as children are forced to sing them in school or church pageants, and those wounds persist. So today what I want you to do is really listen to a carol, just one carol, but performed by three different artists or groups of artists. I don't think you'll be bored, and it just might help you overcome any traumatic childhood memories you may have of holding up a hymn book and trying to look at that and not stare at an audience of bored parents staring condescendingly back at you.
The carol I've chosen is "O Holy Night", aka, and for a very good reason aka, "Cantique de Noël" ("The Christmas Canticle".) The original is in French, and not a song at all. It was an 1843 poem titled "Minuit, Chrétiens" ("Midnight, Christians") byPlacide Cappeau, who was asked by a parish priest in the small winemaking town of Roquemaure to write something to celebrate the renovation of the church's organ. Soon thereafter, Cappeau showed his poem to Adolphe Adam (composer of the ballet Giselle), who agreed to set it to music. They were an odd pair for a church hymn. Cappeau was a political radical and ardent secularist. Adam eschewed politics but was a musical careerist who composed everything from vaudeville tunes to opera, and not a regular churchgoer. However, both were local celebrities in their day, and the priest probably thought having them aboard would be good PR, a way of getting Frenchmen into the pews between revolutions. The song eventually came to the attention of a Massachusetts-based Unitarian minister named John Sullivan Dwight, who had once taught school at the famous (if short-lived) New England Transcendentalist-friendly Brook Farm commune. After that noble social experiment unfortunately fizzled, and all those 19th century proto-hippies were forced to rejoin the Establishment, Dwight became an influential music critic, as well as the publisher and editor of Dwight's Journalof Music. In 1855, Dwight decided to translate Adam's and Cappeau's Christmas carol into English:
O holy night! The stars are brightly shining, It is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth. Long lay the world in sin and error pining, ‘Til He appear’d and the soul felt its worth. A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! O hear the angel voices! O night divine, O night when Christ was born; O night divine, O night, O night Divine.
Led by the light of Faith serenely beaming, With glowing hearts by His cradle we stand. So led by light of a star sweetly gleaming, Here come the wise men from Orient land. The King of Kings lay thus in lowly manger; In all our trials born to be our friend.
He knows our need, to our weakness is no stranger, Behold your King! Before Him lowly bend! Behold your King, Before Him lowly bend!
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother; And in His name all oppression shall cease. Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, Let all within us praise His holy name.
Christ is the Lord! O praise His Name forever, His power and glory evermore proclaim. His power and glory evermore proclaim.
Love one another? Slave is our brother? All oppression shall cease? Yeah, man, like groovy. Anyway, I don't really expect you to remember all those lyrics, but if you stick around, you'll get to hear 'em instead of read 'em. Three times in fact.
I already told you that Placide Cappeau and Adolphe Adam were celebrities in their day. Well, the 1847 premiere of "Cantique de Noël" involved yet another then-celebrity, opera singer Emily Laurey, whose name, unfortunately for her, has since slipped into obscurity (it's hard for a vocalist to attain any kind of posterity when no machine exists to record her voice.) Still, Laurey debuted the song, so as a kind of tribute to her, I've decided the first video should take place in an opera house, this one in Vienna. Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, and José Carreras, aka the supergroup The Three Tenors, sing "O Holy Night", first in its original French and then in (heavily Italian-accented) English:
Um...that was only two tenors, huh? Perhaps Mr. Carreras had a taste for an eggnog shake and snuck out to McD's. Here's hoping he makes it back in time for "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing."
As you know, Christmas marks the birth of Jesus, pictured above. Except that's not really Jesus. Those Judean overlords the Romans may have known how to build roads and aqueducts and amphitheaters, but photography was a bit beyond them. Not that it matters. The nice thing about Christianity is that it can be so democraticat times. True, the average person can't run or cast a vote for Pope, but Christ himself is open to anyone as long as you have an Equity Card and a good agent. You don't have to be Jesus to be Jesus in a movie or rock opera or movie based on a rock opera. So, lower your heads, my children, Ted has arrived:
Pretty spirited, even holy spirited, performance, but does he think he's what they say he is?
Oh, don't worry, I'm not going all secular on you. I said it's an O Holy Night and it's gonna be an O Holy Night. In fact, once Mariah gets out of her jammies and into something more form-fitting, she's headed for church:
I don't know if it's all she wants for Christmas, but Mariah just gave that old carol some soul.
I don't think we're friends exactly. More like compatriots.
I never really left. It is a part of my youth that is always active in my thoughts and part of my overall work as an artist. It stays in a special place.
Nez once told me I should write my own songs because that's where the money is. Boy, I wish I had listened.
I was heartbroken beyond speech. I couldn’t even utter the words "the Eagles" and I loved Hotel California and I love the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo, all that stuff. That was right in my wheelhouse and I was agonized, Van Gogh–agonized, not to compare myself to him, but I wanted to cut something off because I was like, "Why is this happening?" The Eagles now have the biggest-selling album of all time and mine is sitting in the closet of a closed record company?
(I'm assuming the closed record company Nesmith is talking about is RCA, which disappeared in 1986 after it was purchased by General Electric. His main point is that he was an early 1970s pioneer in "country rock". He did have one hit single from that period, "Joanne"--Kirk)
Warner Cable just watered down the idea [Popclips, a late 1970s show on Nickelodeon that Nesmithproduced] and it became MTV.
Where to begin with Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim? How about with this interview he did with another Stephen, Stephen Colbert, back in 2011? Keep in mind this isn't Colbert's current CBS late night talk show, but his earlier one on Comedy Central where he played a mock right-wing pundit. I always found the interview segment particularly intriguing because of how deftly Colbert was able to slip in actual questions that required actual answers while keeping the overall aura of parody intact. It also required that the interviewee be a good sport about the whole thing, and Sondheim was just that:
Stephen Colbert was in a Sondheim show? This I got to see. While I look for it, here's some highlights from Stephen Sondheim's life and career...
No, I'm not asking you to attend this show which was after all in March 2019, a little more than two years ago (in this age of Covid, it seems almost one hundred years ago, huh?) But it's the only picture I could find of Oscar Hammerstein II and a 16-year-old Stephen Sondheim. Hammerstein was a lyricist and librettist who had a good deal of success on Broadway in the 1920s when he teamed up with Jerome Kern to do Show Boat, a musical with an actual story and that dealt with some weighty subject matter like miscegenation and family abandonment (surprisingly, this show was produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, a man not known for social realism.) Hammerstein had a few more hits with Kern and others, but, after six flops in a row, his best days seemed past him by the start of the 1940s. Meanwhile, composer Richard Rodgers had become fed up with his longtime partner, the brilliant but alcoholic Lorenz Hart, and set about finding another lyricist. As you might have guessed, he found Hammerstein and the two set about revolutionizing the Broadway stage by specializing in the "book musical", i.e., a musical where the singing and dancing advances the plot rather than running roughshod over it. Their first big hit, Oklahoma, is a good example of this type of musical (if some cowboy sings he's having a beautiful mornin', you may be curious as to whether that's going to last into the afternoon.) As for Sondheim, born to a well-to-do family, he went to a private school where he became friends with James Hammerstein, Oscar's son. Young Stephen was already interested in musical theatre when James introduced him to his father, and now had an excellent mentor who could help him plot out his own career goals.
Hammerstein gave the teenager four playwriting assignments, the fourth of which, Saturday Night, was completed when Sondheim was 23. It damn near came to fruition, but the whole project fell apart when the producer died (it was finally produced in London in 1997, and has since had an off-Broadway run.) During this time Sondheim had become acquainted with the playwright Arthur Laurents (Home of theBrave.) At a party, Laurents told Sondheim about a project he, choreographer Jerome Robbins, and New York Philharmonic conductor and occasional Broadway composer Leonard Bernstein were working on that would transfer Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet from 16th century Verona to a rough neighborhood in Manhattan where white and Puerto Rican teenage gangs vied for control of the mean streets. Laurents invited Sondheim to write the lyrics. Desiring to be both a lyricist and a composer, Sondheim's first instinct was to turn Laurents down, but decided to talk it over with Oscar Hammerstein first. "Turn itdown?!Are youkidding?!", Hammerstein responded. "This is Leonard-fucking-Bernstein!" Actually, Hammerstein didn't say that at all. I just felt the paragraph needed a little drama. He did tell the young Sondheim that given all the talent involved, this certainly would be a good learning experience, and so the Montagues and Capulets became...
...the Jets and the Sharks.
West Side Story premiered on Broadway in 1957, was a success, and became an even more successful movie in 1961. I've shown the following clip on this blog before, but it's my favorite number in the film, and gives you some idea how eventual Academy Award winner Rita Moreno (in a role originated on stage by Chita Rivera) was able to steal the whole movie right under a lip-syncing Natalie Wood's nose. Watch:
Is pro- and anti-Americanism really a gender thing?
Despite West Side Story's success, Stephen Sondheim's next fifteen shows were notorious flops and he was reduced to working the ticket booth at a strip club near the airport...No, no, I'm just kidding. That's 1930s and '40s burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee in the above photo, and that brings me to Stephen Sondheim's next major work. In 1957 Lee, whose real name was Rose Louise Hovick, wrote her autobiography, and producer David Merrick thought it would make a good musical for Ethel Merman, not as the stripper herself but her mother, the incredibly domineering Mama Rose. Merrick got the WestSide Story team of Laurents, Robbins, and Sondheim together, except this time the latter insisted he write the words and music. Merman, who seems to have been every bit as domineering in real life as the characters she regularly played, insisted the novice composer not write the music. Sondheim once again went to Hammerstein for advice. "Are you kidding?! This is Ethel-fucking-Merman!" Of course, Hammerstein didn't say that, but he did counsel Sondheim that if the show was successful, it wouldn't hurt his career any. And so, the composing chores went to the more-experienced Jule Styne. Gypsy: A Musical Fable opened on Broadway in 1959 and was indeed a success. The show was as much about Mama Rose as her wardrobe-malfunctioning daughter, but we here at Shadow of a Doubt know that sex sells, so you folks are going to get treated to an actual striptease! But which striptease? In the show Mama Rose pushes her up-to-then mostly ignored daughter Louise into burlesque only after favorite daughter June (Havoc) runs off to Hollywood to become a movie star. Louise at first is very comically nervous about disrobing on stage, but gains confidence as time goes on. I wanted the before-and-after. Sandra Church originated the role of Louise on Broadway, but on YouTube there's only a sound recording of that performance. Natalie Wood played Louise in the 1962 movie (this time in her own voice and she sounds fine) but I could only find the "after" performance. Finally, I came across this little gem which seems to have been produced only for YouTube, and stars an actress named Haley Zega. (Additional biographical detail I stumbled upon: as a six-year-old she disappeared for a couple of days in the Ozark National Forest, but fortunately was found unharmed.) Watch:
One notable difference between burlesque and latter-day strip clubs is that in the former the girls never...
...climbed up a pole and slid down. I wonder how that got started anyway. Did some enterprising strip club owner renovate an abandoned firehouse?
The Glory of Rome. Over the centuries it's been an inspiration for countless poems, novels, plays, movies, and multi-part PBS series. It's also inspired at least one musical-comedy, A Funny ThingHappened on the Way to the Forum. Oscar Hammerstein had died in 1960, so in 1961 or so there was so one to talk Sondheim out of insisting that he write both the words and the music, and whatever insistence he gave this time paid off. AFTHOTWTTF--even doing it with just initials tires me out--premiered on Broadway in 1962, and went on to win a Tony for best musical. Curiously, despite doing double-duty as lyricist and composer, Sondheim took home nothing. It must have been the book by Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart that won over Tony voters. Zero Mostel starred on stage, and, unlike Fiddler on the Roof a few years later, got to appear in the movie version as well:
After all that, it damn well better be funny. (It was.)
The Stephen Sondheim era really begins with the above musical that came out in 1970. Originally it was meant as a series of one-act plays by writer George Furth (also an actor, he's best known as the loyal if hapless railroad safe guard in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) that producer Harold Prince took a look at and thought would work better as a musical. Robert has just turned 35 years old and is still single--unusual for a heterosexual male back then. Really just a fear of commitment, he takes a close look at his married friends to see if he can overcome that fear. Unfortunately, their goofy unions do little to bolster his courage. We'll let Sondheim himself tell you what's at play here:
Broadway theater has been for many years supported by upper-middle-class people with upper-middle-class problems. These people really want to escape that world when they go to the theatre, and then here we are with Company talking about how we're going to bring it right back in their faces
Those upper-middle-class people Sondheim spoke of must not have minded getting their upper-middle-class problems right back in their faces, as Company's original Broadway run lasted for 705 performances. It's also been revived many times. If you watched the video at the top of this post, you'll recall Stephen Colbert was in one of those revivals. In fact, it was three nights at the New York Philharmonic in 2011 so as you can imagine this performance had quite a bit of musical accompaniment. It also had several celebrities that one doesn't normally associate with musical theatre. In addition to Colbert, there was Neil Partrick Harris (as Robert), Martha Plimpton, and Jon Cryer. All can be found in the following clip. You'll also get to see a genuine star of music theatre, and a Broadway legend at this point, Patti LuPone (unless you're an over-40 shut-in who never watches GreatPerformances in which case you may know her best as Corky's mom on Life Goes On.) Watch:
If you're surprised that Colbert can act (other than as his usual right-wing pundit character) and sing, don't be. He was a theatre major at Northwestern University.
Swedish filmmaker Igmar Bergman is not someone we normally associate with Broadway musicals. Yet his 1955 movie Smiles of a Summer Night served as the basis for Sondheim's 1973 Broadway hit ALittle Night Music, which introduced what is arguably his best-known song as a lyricist and composer, "Send in the Clowns", sung here by original cast member Glynis Johns (still with us at age 98, though this particular clip is from decades ago):
I get a lot of letters over the years asking what the title means and what the song's about; I never thought it would be in any way esoteric. I wanted to use theatrical imagery in the song, because she's an actress, but it's not supposed to be a circus [...] [I]t's a theater reference meaning "if the show isn't going well, let's send in the clowns"; in other words, "let's do the jokes." I always want to know, when I'm writing a song, what the end is going to be, so "Send in the Clowns" didn't settle in until I got the notion, "Don't bother, they're here", which means that "We are the fools."
No wonder he's sad. All these years he thought that song was about him.
You long-haired freak! Isn't about time you went to a barber?
On second thought, never mind.
Sweeny Todd, a barber who kills people and then has a Mrs. Lovett serve them up to unsuspecting consumers as meat pies, first appeared on newsstands in 1840's London as a character in the anonymously written story "A String of Pearls" that was serialized in The People's Periodical and Family Library, a "penny dreadful", which were to Victorians what slasher films were to moviegoers in the 1980s. I myself haven't read this story, but I understand that it doesn't explain or expect readers to care about what motivates the murderous Todd any more than a Friday the 13th movie expects an audience member to care whether it gets hot under Jason Voorhees' hockey mask. Some 120 years after "A String of Pearls" appeared on the printed page, and after it was adopted for the stage many times with no other goal in mind than to scare the hell out of audiences, an Englishman named Christopher Boyd wrote a play in which he attempted to come up with a motive for Sweeny Todd and make him a somewhat sympathetic character. Sweeny has been jailed for a crime he didn't commit, and now wants to take it out on all humanity. Don't you feel sorry for him now? I don't know if Stephen Sondheim did, but he saw Boyd's play and thought it would make a nifty musical. He brought the idea to producer Harold Prince who saw in it a metaphor for the dehumanization brought on by the Industrial Revolution. As a late product of that Industrial Revolution who occasionally feels dehumanized (though I rarely do anything about it other than work on this blog), I find Prince's vision kind of compelling. However, I should warn the unsuspecting Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Alezandria Ocasio-Cortez voter that a scene like the one here featuring Len Cariou and Angela Lansbury, both from the original 1979 Broadway production--well, this ain't no Michael Moore movie:
Murder, She Sang.
In 1985's Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim returned to the 19th century, but a seemingly more pleasant, pastoral 19th century. George is Georges Seurat, the French post-impressionist painter who pioneered a style referred to a pointillism. Above is his most famous painting in that style, 1884'sA SundayAfternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. While pointillism was obviously abstract in nature--I've never met anybody in real life composed entirely of dots--Seurat relied on human models just as much as any Dutch Master or Rennaissance painter. In this clip, another genuine star of musical theatre (and veteran of many a Sondheim show) Bernadette Peters lets us know what it's like to be one of Seurat's models. Mandy Patinkan plays a preoccupied Seurat. Watch:
Somebody is suffering for somebody's art.
Meet Wilhelm and Jacob, 19th century German intellectuals, best known today for collecting folk stories told by non-intellectual German peasants, and then (after embellishing them a bit) publishing these stories in a series of books. You may be familiar with some of these stories: "Little Red Riding Hood" "Cinderella" "Rapunzel" and "Jack in the Beanstalk" Perhaps your parents read you these stories as a child. Perhaps you read these stories to your children. Of course, we now call such stories fairytales. Contrary to popular belief, none of Wilhelm's and Jacob's stories ended with the phrase "and they lived happily ever after", but that was the general idea. Once they stories were over, they were over. It took until 1986, over 170 years after these stories were first published, for Stephen Sondheim and librettist James Lapine to come up with a sequel.
Without giving away multiple endings, these characters tend to live crappily ever after--if they're allowed to live at all. And they find that supposedly good and noble deeds can have unintended consequences. Such as when you kill a giant, you may make a widow out of the giantess--one pissed-off widow. Maureen McGovern may have summed up this show's central message best when she sang, "There's got to be a morning after...." But Sondheim didn't write that song. So I'll give you one that he did write. And since an encore is kind of like a sequel, let's bring back Bernadette:
Uh...How about at least letting her live aesthetically ever after?
Bernadette's memory is a bit faulty here. She in fact did sing it in the show, but only a snippet as part of the finale with the whole cast singing along with her. The song as a whole was sung by actors playing Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Jack the Giant Killer, and a baker who gets to meet all these famous characters. I tried looking for a clip of that, but to be honest, quickly gave up the search once I stumbled upon Bernadette's version. Call it witchcraft.
Given the parodic Stephen Colbert interview at the top of this post, you'd be forgiven if you thought a musical about assassinations was part of the joke. But it's not. There really was such a musical, Assassins, which premiered off-Broadway in 1990, and made it to the Great White Way in 2004, stopping off at London's West End in-between. The whole motley crew of presidential killers are here: John Wilkes Booth (whom we all know killed Lincoln), Charles Guiteau (whom we all may not know killed Garfield), Leon Czolgosz (McKinley), and Lee Harvey Oswald (JFK). But it doesn't stop there. Seven or eight years ago on this blog I showed a video of an editorial that TV newsman Edwin Newman gave the day Kennedy was assassinated, in which he very calmly, almost wryly, stated that if someone was determined to take out a president, at some personal risk to themselves, they had a good chance of doing so. Well, I don't know if their determination level wasn't up to snuff or what, but the fact is the would-be presidential killers slightly outnumber the successful ones, and they're represented here as well: Giuseppe Zangara (FDR), Samuel Byck (who tried but failed to hijack a plane, hoping to crash it into the Nixon White House), Squeaky Fromme (Ford), Sara Jane Moore (Ford again, just seventeen days after Fromme's attempt), and John Hinckley Jr. (Reagan). The following clip is from a San Diego production of the show:
We're always told they're loners, but look how well they work as an ensemble
In recent years Stephen Sondheim has increasingly been referred to as God by Broadway aficionados, and that almost led me to title this post "God is Dead", but I was told a German philosopher already owns the rights to that phrase. Sondheim was just a man, after all, and one whose songs often dealt with his fellow mortals falls from grace, or their failed attempts to achieve grace, usually in a non-judgmental manner. It's his effect on the theatre that's been divine. There had been others, most notably his old mentor Oscar Hammerstein II, but it was Sondheim more than anyone else who proved that a musical play can be every bit as profound and insightful as any non-musical play, or any literary novel. An American Original, his works will continue to be regularly produced for some time to come (a revival of Assassins has opened on Broadway--it got a good review in the latest issue of The NewYorker--and Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story hits the movie theaters next week.) And I don't know that there's anyone currently around to take his place (Andrew Lloyd Webber? He would have done so by now.) Stephen Sondheim may not have been omniscient, but in the world of musical theatre, he remains omnipresent.
I doubt that the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade was as much an American pop culture institution in 1935 as it is today. Remember, there was no television, so that made it strictly a local event. If you wanted to see it live, you had to be living in, or at least visiting, the tri-state area (New Jersey/New York/Connecticut--though some would add the northeastern most part of Pennsylvania, in which case it becomes the quad-state area.) To encourage the natives or tourists to get out of their houses or hotel rooms on what is often a cold November day, full-page advertisements such as the one above were placed in local papers. Perusing this ad--I saw a larger version that I unfortunately can't reproduce here without taking out the sidebar--one difference from the more modern version stands out: the starting time. 2 o'clock? Are they talking PM? For as long as I can remember, going back to the days when Lorne Greene and Betty White were the parade's television emcees, it started sometime in the morning and was over by noon, and at that point the network was turned over to either the NFL or the Big Ten. Of course, no television, no football game, unless you lived near a stadium. Other than when it began or ended, the parade seems not to have changed all that much. There's floats and big balloons and marching bands and celebrities. Santa, of course, at the end, but in 1935 there were other renowned visitors that you won't see on TV this Thanksgiving, so let's see who they were back then.
In the ad's upper-right-hand corner, to the immediate right of the big exclamation point, there's a small photograph of someone named Tony Sarg. Mr. Sarg may have been well-known in his day, but he's long since fallen into obscurity (even I had to look him up, accepting all kinds of so-called "cookies" to do so.) A German immigrant, Sarg wore many hats during his colorful career, including that of animator, magazine cartoonist, illustrator, designer, and, especially, puppeteer, an art form he helped popularize in the United States, eventually becoming known as the Father of North America Puppetry. Perhaps he also should be known as the Father of North American Ballooners. Sarg was already involved with Macy's as the designer of the department store's robotic window displays when, in 1927, he was asked to come up with some ideas for the Thanksgiving parade, which got its start three years earlier. His idea was the now-familiar but back then quite novel giant balloon, which was essentially a huge helium-filled reverse-marionette, the puppeteers maneuvering the blimp from the ground up. Initially, these balloons were stock figures like toy soldiers or various animals, but as the annual parade gained in popularity, owners of copyrighted characters such as the animated cartoon star Felix the Cat took notice, and let Sarg inflate the characters for publicity's stake. More about one such character, now much more well-known than Felix, in a moment (and if you examined the above ad closely, I'm sure you've already guessed who it is.) Sarg died in 1942, and that I never heard of him is my loss. There's actually quite a bit about him online, so I don't regret accepting--HEY, WHY IS MY COMPUTER RINGING AND WHAT'S ALL THESE BOXES POPPING UP ON THE SCREEN?!
Uh, give me a second, will ya?...
OK, I finally got all that under control. Shall we continue?
You'll have to scroll up a bit to get back to it, but to the left of that avian dirigible in that Macy's ad you'll find the photo of our next celebrity, bandleader Paul Whiteman. Him I've heard of, though I can't say I've followed his career all that closely. He was once referred to as The King of Jazz, but that sobriquet has been grumpily disputed, derided, denounced, and disproven by several generations of outraged jazz aficionados. Like Bill Haley a quarter of a century later, Whiteman was a--no pun intended (by me, anyway)--white man who made black music palatable for white audiences by draining it of its blackness. To be fair to Mr. Whiteman, I went to YouTube to sample some of his musical offerings. What I heard sounded closer to a high school marching band than anything that came from Louis Armstrong or Cab Calloway. But then I like all music, even high school marching bands (sometimes more than whatever game is being played), so I can't say I wasn't entertained. We'll just leave the musical critiques at that. John Philip Sousa's Paul Whiteman's heyday was the 1920s, but he was still a musical force to be reckoned with in the decade that followed. At least on Broadway, where he and his band provided orchestration to several musicals, including Rodgers and Hart's 1935 hit Jumbo. The story of a struggling circus, the show featured actual circus acts, and ended each night with Jimmy Durante lying down on a stage and having his face gently tapped by an elephant's foot! (If you're familiar with the once-famous Durante's once-famous nose, you may wonder if it looked like that before the elephant tapped him. I'll have to look it up, but only if I don't have to accept any more cookies.) As for Whiteman, he was at the parade to promote Jumbo. Jimmy Durante wasn't, and that may be all for the best. Who knows how that elephant would have reacted in front of all those unruly paradegoers?
Now, if you're willing to scroll back up to that ad and look to the right of the big inflatable waterfowl, you'll see a celebrity that I'm not only aware of but am actually a fan of, as well as a fan of the comedy team of which he was a member, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers. He and his sibs Groucho, Chico, and Zeppo had spent the first half of the 1930s at Depression-wracked Paramount Pictures, but just now had moved to the ritzier digs of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, where money grew on papier-mâché trees. How long Harpo, Groucho, and Chico would be allowed to stay at those ritzier digs (for all its supposed excess cash flow, Metro balked at an extra dressing room for Zeppo) all depended on the sucess of their new movie. At Paramount, the outside world, the world of order and restraint, served merely as a backdrop to the boys' anarchic antics, but MGM exec Irving Thalberg thought there were more comic possibilities in having the brothers confront the world of order and restraint head-on. Film buffs may argue about whether the Paramount approach or the Thalberg approach produced the funnier pictures, but their first MGM outing, A Night at the Opera (only in a Marx Brothers movie could opera convincingly represent the world of order and restraint) became and would remain the boys biggest box office hit, and today is still their best-known film. But in November of 1935, that still remained to be seen, and that's why Harpo was there, to promote the flick. (Incidentally, Thanksgiving fell on the 28th that year, and Harpo's birthday was five days earlier, close enough for him to have candles in that pumpkin pie.)
Speaking of Harpo, here's Harpo speaking:
Nothing to do with Thanksgiving, other than my way of giving thanks to a comedy god.
Our final celebrity is the one that dominates that Macy's ad, Donald Duck, looking as he did in 1935. Though for marketing reasons Donald was never able to replace Mickey Mouse as the studio mascot, Walt Disney realized before the moviegoing public did that Mickey's cartoons were destined to reach a creative dead-end, and so subtly, and then not-so-subtly, shifted his company's focus to the duck. As he was so often during his remarkable career, Walt was proved right. Donald was a much funnier character than Mickey, had a much more comedically-adaptive personality than Mickey. Donald appeared in many more cartoon shorts than Mickey, and throughout the 1940s and beyond, was the Disney studio's highest-grossing star. If that wasn't enough, Donald was a major star of comic books as well, in the days before that art form became solely dedicated to superheroes. However, in 1935, all that was still in the future. Donald Duck made his animated debut only a year earlier, and had yet to appear in a cartoon as anything other than a supporting player. So, it was quite an honor for him to appear for the first time in a Macy's parade (Mickey had made his Macy's debut the previous year, as had one of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf.) If you look at the picture at the left, you'll see Donald had a long thin neck back in the day, and almost looks like he could be a baby ostrich instead of a duck.
The balloon followed suit. Unfortunately, it was rainy and windy that day, causing that long neck to sway. Donald sure doesn't look happy about it, does he? This was not only the first, but also the last Thanksgiving for that particular balloon.
27 years later, in 1962, a new Donald appeared at the parade. The long neck had long since disappeared from the cartoons and comic books, and so too from the balloon. Donald looks pleased. This version ran until 1971, and then was retired due to wear and tear, though it did make one more appearance in 1984 to celebrate the duck's 50th birthday. Since that time, while there's been much smaller Donalds seen on floats, there's been no balloon. According to Macy's own Thanksgiving parade web site, licensing issues may be what's holding things up. Which reminds me...
I give thanks for that every time I post on this blog.
And I'm thankful for whoever drops by to look at this stuff. Enjoy the holiday, folks.