Thursday, November 20, 2014

FRANK LOESSER: THE UNDERRATED SONG MASTER

When one reads about the great American songwriters, you always read about Irving Berlin or Cole Porter. There are many songwriters who wrote unforgettable songs who are not remembered as much. One such songwriter is the great Frank Loesser. Loessor was born on June 29, 1910 in New York City. He grew up in a house on West 107th Street in Manhattan. His father had moved to America to avoid Prussian military service and working in his family's banking business.  His parents both prized high intellect and culture and thus Loesser was taught musically in the vein of European composers. He was taught piano early by both his father and his older half-brother Arthur Loesser. Loesser did not like his father's posh taste of music and resisted when he wrote his own music and took up the harmonica. He was expelled from Townsend Harris High School, and from there went to City College of New York (even though he had no high school diploma). He was expelled from the CCNY in 1925 after one year for failing every subject except English and gym. After his many various jobs, he decided that he wanted to write in Tin Pan Alley and signed several contracts with music publishers before his contracts were eventually terminated.

His first song credit is listed as "In Love with the Memory of You", with music by William Schuman, published in 1931. Loesser's early lyrics included two hit songs of 1934, "Junk Man" and "I Wish I Were Twins" (both with music by Joe Meyer, and the latter with co-lyric credit to Eddie DeLange). However, they apparently did not help his reputation, and in later years, he never mentioned them. After signing a six-month contract with Universal Pictures, in 1936 he moved to Hollywood with his new wife. After his contract was up, he was offered another contract by Paramount Pictures. His first song credit with Paramount was "Moon of Manakoora" written with Alfred Newman for Dorothy Lamour in the film The Hurricane. He stayed in Hollywood until World War II when he enlisted into the Air Force. In 1948, he sold the rights to a song he wrote in 1944 and performed informally at parties with his then wife Lynn Garland to MGM. The studio included in the 1949 movie Neptune's Daughter, and the song, Baby, It's Cold Outside became a huge hit. Garland was mad at Loesser for selling what she considered "their song" to MGM. He ended up winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song for the song.


His next musical, Guys and Dolls (1950), based on the stories of Damon Runyon, was again produced by Feuer and Martin. It would become Loessor's greatest work. Guys and Dolls became a hit and earned Loesser two Tony Awards. Bob Fosse called Guys and Dolls "the greatest American musical of all time." A film version was released in 1955, and starred Marlon Brando, Jean Simmons, Frank Sinatra, and Vivian Blaine. In 1950, Loesser started his own publishing company Frank Music Corporation. It was created to control and publish his work but eventually supported other writers such as Richard Adler, Jerry Ross, and Meredith Willson.

After working on the film Neptune's Daughter, he wished to write more than one song for a film. His wish was granted in 1952 when he wrote the music and lyrics for the film Hans Christian Andersen. The movie had notable songs such as "Wonderful Copenhagen", "Anywhere I Wander", "Thumbelina", and "Inchworm". He wrote the book, music and lyrics for his next two musicals, The Most Happy Fella (1956) and Greenwillow (1960).

 In 1956, Lynn and Loesser got divorced, and Loesser then began a relationship with Jo Sullivan, who had a leading role in Fella. He wrote the music and lyrics for How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1961), which ran for 1,417 performances and won the 1962 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and for which he received two more Tonys. The last musical of his that was produced, Pleasures and Palaces (1965), closed during out-of-town tryouts. At the time of his death he was working on Señor Discretion Himself, for which he was writing the book, music and lyrics.


Another unproduced musical, Señor Discretion Himself, premiered after his death. He started working on a musical version of the Budd Schulberg short story Señor Discretion Himself in 1966, but stopped working on it after 2 years. A version was presented in 1985 at the New York Musical Theatre Works. With the support of Jo Loesser, a completed version was presented at the Arena Stage, Washington, DC, in 2004, reworked by the group Culture Clash and director Charles Randolph-Wright. When he was asked why he did not write more shows, he responded by saying, "I don’t write slowly, it’s just that I throw out fast." The New York Times confirmed his hard working habits and wrote that Loesser "was consumed by nervous energy and as a result slept only four hours a night, spending the rest of the time working." Loesser, an avid smoker, died of lung cancer at age 59 in New York City on July 28, 1969. He was survived by his second wife and four children.You may not recognize Frank Loesser by his name like other songwriters, but Loessor wrote some wonderful songs. From World War II songs like "I Don't Want To Walk Without You" to Broadway hits of the 1950s and 1960s, Loesser wrote many of the tunes the country sung and hummmed back then and still do...
















Monday, November 17, 2014

PAST OBITS: EDDIE BRACKEN

Character actor Eddie Bracken was one of the true gems in classic Hollywood cinema. Every movie role he ever had I loved. Here is his obituary from November 16, 2002 from The New York Times...

Eddie Bracken, a character actor whose portrayals of bewildered and long-suffering comic heroes crowned a stage, screen and television career of more than 70 years, died Thursday in Montclair, N.J. He was 87 and lived in Glen Ridge, N.J.

Mr. Bracken made his first major screen splash in 1940's comedies by Preston Sturges, and he remained active until recently. Besides appearances in various television series, he was most widely seen as Mr. Wally, the proprietor of the Disneyland-like Wally World in ''National Lampoon's Vacation'' (1983) and as E. F. Duncan, the proprietor of a large Manhattan toy store in ''Home Alone 2: Lost in New York'' (1992).
Mr. Bracken, who grew up in Astoria, Queens, began as a child actor in the 1920's, but he did not really come into his own until the early 1940's when he made several light comedies in Hollywood, including ''Caught in the Draft'' with Bob Hope in 1941 and ''Sweater Girl'' with June Preisser that same year. Years later, John Corry, writing in The New York Times, called him ''the embodiment of the warm, vulnerable young American.''

Perhaps his strongest roles in that era were in two stand-out Sturges films of 1944, ''The Miracle of Morgan's Creek'' with Betty Hutton and ''Hail the Conquering Hero.'' In ''Hero,'' Sturges cast him as a young man rejected by the Marines because of his hay fever, but who, through confusion and misunderstanding, is welcomed back to his home town as a war hero. It was the kind of situation that had been exploited so effectively in the silent film era by Harold Lloyd, a comedian Mr. Bracken greatly admired.



In the decades ahead, Mr. Bracken continued acting onstage and in the movies and moved into television as well, appearing in several shows, most notably ''Masquerade Party'' on NBC in the 1950's. He also headed his own production company and invested in an electronics company in Chicago and in Downey's, long a popular steak house in Manhattan's theater district. Not all of his investments panned out. In the early 1970's he tried to create a circuit of winter and summer stock theaters, but the plan foundered.

In the 1950's he was Tom Ewell's replacement in the road show version of ''The Seven Year Itch''; in the 1960's he took Art Carney's role in ''The Odd Couple.'' In the 1970's he joined Carol Channing on tour in ''Hello, Dolly!'' and in the 1980's he played the devil (Mr. Applegate), the role Ray Walston had made famous in ''Damn Yankees.

Mr. Bracken was married for 63 years to Connie Nickerson, an actress he met when they were in the same road company. She died in August. He is survived by their children, Judy, Carolyn, Michael, Susan and David, and by nine grandchildren and two great-grandchildren...



SOURCE








Friday, November 14, 2014

LEARN TO CROON: BING CROSBY'S 1930s SONGBOOK

Many movie goers these days consider the movie musical to be nothing more than fluff and fantasy. Most people in real life do not break out in song. That is true, but for moviegoers of the 1930s and 1940s the movie musical was an escape. It was an escape from the pain of poverty during the Great Depression, and it was an escape from the horrors of World War II. Of all the stars during that era, it was Bing Crosby that introduced the most standards. He was the voice of the times.

Bing started out as a singer with the Rhythm Boys in Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra, and then he moved on to making a series of film shorts for Mack Sennett. Those shorts were corny and really were only used to spotlight Bing’s singing, but it got him more popular exposure. Not only did he become a star on radio, but he was also signed to a long term contract with Paramount Studios. He would remain at the studio for almost 25 years.

The first movie Bing made for the studio was The Big Broadcast in 1932. The film was basically a spotlight of the popular radio stars of the day with a light plotline in between the songs. Crosby got to introduce some great songs like “Dinah”, “Please”, and the underrated torch song “Here Lies Love”. Bing basically played himself, and he did not really stretch his acting chops in this film. My favorite role in the movie was Bing’s friend, played by comedian Stuart Erwin. The movie catapulted Bing to movie stardom, and he followed it up with a more forgettable movie – 1933’s College Humor. The film was not bad, but even a young 30 year old Bing could not pass for a college student. He did get to sing the great song “Learn To Croon”, which became Bing’s unofficial anthem in those early years. More flimsy films followed in the 1930s, but he introduced a great standard in each of them. In She Loves Me Not (1934), Bing introduced “Love In Bloom”, in Here In My Heart (1935), Bing sang “June In January”, and in Two For Tonight (1935) Bing introduced “Without A Word Of Warning”.

Going back to Bing’s third movie in 1933, he was loaned to MGM Studios for the splashy musical Going Hollywood. It would be one of the best of the earlier Bing films. He was reunited with Stuart Erwin, his love interest was the older Marion Davies, and he got to sing some wonderful Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed tunes like: “Temptation”, “Our Big Love Scene”, and “Beautiful Girl”. Bing would not return to the studio until 1956, and it was the first of only four movies Bing made for the studio. With Bing Crosby being such a big and rising star, I am really surprised Paramount Studios loaned him out in the 1930s as much as they did.


 The movie roles remained forgettable until Bing was loaned out again to Columbia Studios in 1936. For the movie Pennies From Heaven, Bing had his most dramatic role yet as an ex-convict who “adopted” a young child of another convict. It was still not Citizen Kane, but Bing had a lot more to do in this movie than just sing and play a crooner. He also introduced the title song, and a few other great songs like “So Do I”, and “Let’s Call A Heart A Heart”. When Bing went back to Paramount though, he went back to the flimsy musicals, which were quite popular with movie audiences.

Fast forwarding to 1939, Bing made a favorite movie of mine to end the decade. He played real life songwriter and kid show producer Gus Edwards in the movie “biography” The Star Maker. Bing sang some vintage songs, even vintage for 1939, like “School Days” and “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”, while he got to sing the new song “Still The Bluebirds Sing”. The film was another example that Bing was feeling more sure of himself as an actor and could play roles other than a carefree crooner. By making movies like Pennies From Heaven and The Star Maker, Bing was paving the way for meatier roles in the 1940s and even roles that would recognized by the Academy Awards. Bing never could have imagined that back when he was making movies playing a 30 year old college co-ed…



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

JIMMY STEWART: MILITARY HERO





While Jimmy Stewart was establishing his reputation as an actor, the rest of the world was about to go to war.

German occupation in numerous countries in the early part of 1940 led Congress on Sept. 16, 1940 to pass the Selective Service Bill, “the draft.” This bill called for 900,000 men between the ages of 20 and 36 to be drafted each year. Stewart’s draft number was 310.

When his number was called and he appeared at Draft Board No. 245 in West Los Angeles in February 1941, the 6’3” Stewart weighed only 138 pounds, 5 pounds under the acceptable weight level. He was turned down for service. Stewart wanted to fly and serve his country but by May of 1941 he would have been too old to get into flight school.

He went home ate everything he could that was fattening and went back and enlisted in the Army Air Corps, he passed the physical with an ounce to spare and began his military service as a private. While others tried to avoid the draft, he actually wanted to serve in the military. He was the first Hollywood star to enter military service prior or during WWII.

Interested in aviation as a child, he had taken his first flight while still in Indiana from one of the barnstorming pilots that used to travel the Midwest. As a successful actor in 1935 Jimmy was able to afford flying lessons. He received his civilian pilot’s license in 1935, and bought his first airplane. In 1938 he obtained his commercial pilot’s license. He often flew cross country to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by the railroad tracks.

In the military, he was to make extensive use of his civilian pilot’s training. In March 1941 at age 32, he reported for duty as Private James Stewart at Fort McArthur and was assigned to the Army Air Corps at Moffett Field. To comply with the regulations of the Air Corps proficiency board, Stewart required additional 100 flying hours and bought them at a nearby field, at his own expense. He then took and passed a very stiff proficiency board examination.


In January 1942 Stewart was commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. He was then sent to Mather Field in California as a four engine instructor, this included both the B-17 and B-24 heavy bombers. Much to his dismay, Stewart stayed stateside for almost two years working as a flight instructor, until commanding officers finally yielded to his request to be sent overseas. In November 1943, now a Captain and Operations Officer for the 703rd Bomb Squadron, 445th Bombardment Group of the Eighth Air Force, he arrived in Tibenham, England. In March of 1944 he was transferred to the 453rd Bombardment Group at Old Buckenham (Old Buc). Throughout his combat career, Stewart flew as lead pilot in B-24 Liberators.

Stewart’s war record included 20 combat missions as command pilot over enemy territory, including raids deep into Germany to Berlin. He didn't fly the milk runs, and his missions included bombing raids to Berlin, Brunswick, Bremen, Frankfurt, and Schweinfurt. His most memorable mission, Stewart served as the flight leader of a 1000 plain raid to Berlin. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Air Medal with three Oak Leaf Clusters, and the French Croix de Guerre with Palm.

By the end of the war he had risen to the rank of Colonel. After the war he remained with the US Air Force Reserves and was eventually promoted to Brigadier General in 1959. In 1966, he participated in a bombing strike in Vietnam, as an observer on a B-52 bomber. He retired from the Air Force in 1968 and received the Distinguished Service Medal and ultimately, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Upon returning to Hollywood, Stewart took a brief vacation, spending time in his home town with his parents. He then returned to Hollywood and made his first post-war movie, "It's a Wonderful Life" in 1946...



SOURCE

Sunday, November 9, 2014

WHY I DON'T LIKE EDDIE FISHER

My wife always jokes me that I like any performer as long as they are dead. She is partially right. The singers I like from the 1930s to 1950s do not have many of the era’s original performers alive today in 2014. However, just because an entertainer is dead, does not mean I like them. An example of this is Eddie Fisher. When singer Eddie Fisher died in 2010, it wasn’t a big headline. Each one of the obituaries said his daughter is Carrie Fisher, who played Princess Leia in Star Wars. The way the obituaries read you would think his daughter achieved more success than he did. In the early 1950s, no one was bigger. Every record of his a hit. However, poor decisions and a horrible personality made his fall from the top and momumental as his rise to the top. I am one of those people that always say we should separate the personality from the talent. Usually I can do this, but not in the case of Eddie Fisher.

Legend has it that Eddie Fisher was "discovered" at Grossinger's Resort in the Catskills by comic showman Eddie Cantor. Cantor put Fisher on his show, and a star was born. Eddie soon landed a deal with RCA, and a small role in a movie. After a couple of minor hits in 1949, Fisher struck the charts hard with "Thinking Of You" and "Turn Back The Hands Of Time" in 1950. These were followed by "Any Time" and a cover of the Four Aces' "Tell Me Why" in 1951. He was a superstar in records, and even ventured to radio, television, and the movies. He made a movie for MGM even with then wife Debbie Reynolds called Bundle Of Joy (1956). He was in fine voice in the film, but he was so wooden it is no wonder why he did not make more movies.

By the late 1950s Fisher had lost his teen audience and his knack for hit records. He became tabloid fodder and began to take prescription drugs. As the 1960s rolled in, he dumped Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor, who in turn dumped Eddie for Richard Burton. While his personal life disintegrated in the 1960s, Eddie turned to the one thing he could count on: His vocals. Fisher fans guaranteed moderate sales, but otherwise the record buying public took little notice. A couple of minor hits from the 1960s were "Sunrise, Sunset" and the enjoyable "Games That Lovers Play." However, soon the booze and the pills ruined Fisher’s voice and he faded into obscurity.

Fisher would emerge from now and then, giving an interview where he bad mouthed one of his ex-wives, his children, and fellow singers. In one of his autobiographies, Fisher says he sat next to legendary crooner Bing Crosby, and Crosby was rude and talked about beating his children to Fisher. I not only think the story was exaggerated, I think it never happened. By the end of his life, Fisher was not talking to any of his family, and he burnt any work related bridges he had had.



You would think being discovered by Eddie Cantor, a man who is a definition of work ethic, would have rubbed off on Fisher. Considering his tough workaday roots and years of dead-end struggling for success, it's easy to see how EddieFisher lived for the here and now. Had he known that he would live into his 80s, it's likely that Eddie Fisher would've been a different man. In my opinion, Eddie Fisher had one of the worst personalities of anyone I have ever read about in show business. While, his voice was good, it sometimes bordered on the shrill side. Some of the people that worked with Fisher in the past even said he was tone deaf. So, I admit I do not like Eddie Fisher. My one CD I have of his is collecting dust among the much played albums of Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Al Jolson. When my wife says I only like dead singers, I can tell her I don’t like Eddie Fisher. I guarantee you that her reply will be “Who?”…



Thursday, November 6, 2014

ANGELA LANSBURY AT 89

The most shocking – in a most delightful way – theater news arrived in my email without fanfare. It said that Angela Lansbury will be going on a four-city tour from December through March with “Blithe Spirit,” the Noel Coward comedy for which she won her fifth Tony in 2009.

 At most, stars just want to do 14 weeks on Broadway in a high-profile, high-ticket burst of charismatic marketing, then head back to their real jobs in Hollywood.

It was not always so. As veteran Broadway producer Elizabeth McCann remembers, “Touring was the way of life. Helen Hayes and Katharine Cornell would play in New York for a season and tour for a season. That was the way it operated.” Sarah Bernhardt did nine American tours from 1880 until 1918.

Decades before plays were taped for limited showings in movie houses, people across the country learned to love theater by seeing its royalty – the originals, not second casts – in the flesh in their own cities. McCann isn’t sure exactly when and why the road died for plays, though she agrees the years and years of Carol Channing trouping the land with “Hello, Dolly!” are long gone.

Ah, but it appears that nobody told Lansbury. “I think I didn’t realize that people don’t tour,” she told me in a recent phone interview, probably at least half joking. “But they don’t, you’re absolutely right. And, in some respects, I’m kind of asking myself, ‘Why’? I enjoy going somewhere else … setting the place on fire for a few weeks.”

She understates. After all, last year, she and James Earl Jones did a four-city Australian tour of “Driving Miss Daisy.” That came immediately after she played an irresistible gorgon of a backroom powerhouse on Broadway (with Jones) in “The Best Man” in 2012 and immediately before she brought “Blithe Spirit” to London last spring – her first appearance there in 40 years.
“Dammit,” she said, sounding not a bit like a Dame anointed by Queen Elizabeth in December, “if you still have the guts to get out there … why not?”

In “Blithe Spirit” on Broadway, I remember marveling at her Madame Arcati, the dotty spiritual medium in Coward’s sophisticated 1941 drawing-room comic-fantasy. She appeared to be channeling the lighthearted shrewdness of her iconic Jessica Fletcher from her 12 years in “Murder, She Wrote,” and the impeccably wild comic timing of her Mrs. Lovett from “Sweeney Todd,” the diabolical baker of human meat pies she originated (and for which she won her fourth Tony) in 1979.

Even she admits the response in London was “quite extraordinary. I was like a rock star. The young people, thank God, knew me from ‘Beauty and the Beast’ and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.’ People knew me from those movies and from ‘Murder, She Wrote,’ which is shown in the morning and in the evening in England. People in Europe and the Far East know ‘Murder, She Wrote.’ I am very famous in far-flung places.”

She is amused and pleased by how many “illustrious people love that show,” she says about the series in which she played a mystery writer and master sleuth, pleasantly resolving grisly slaughters against particularly jaunty theme music. “There’s something good about it,” she acknowledges at a distance. “It’s one of the most calming, feel-good shows.”

That can’t happen in theater. She unflappably calls this a “very manageable tour. First, I’ll be in Los Angeles, where I live, so I can drive to the theater or have somebody drive me. Then we do two weeks in San Francisco. That’s a pretty damn nice place to visit, isn’t it? Toronto is a special kind of town. … I did my first ‘Gypsy’ there.” That was before she brought the show to Broadway, where she won her third Tony. Then “Blithe Spirit” goes to Washington, D.C., where she performs in the same National Theatre where she made her first pre-Broadway stage debut nearly 58 years ago to the day.

Jeffrey Richards, a lead producer of the play on Broadway and on the tour, says simply, “She wanted to do it, and we wanted to do it.” More seriously, he continues, “There are these people for whom the stage is sacrosanct.”

He and Lansbury have been planning a Broadway revival of “The Chalk Garden,” Enid Bagnold’s 1955 drama. “It’s very hard to turn down a great role,” she says, “And every role I’ve done seems to have had something wonderfully interesting.” There was a time, shortly after she ended her Jessica Fletcher years, when theatergoers worried that every Lansbury performance would be their last time to see her. When I told her that she faked them out, she laughed and adorably defended herself, “But I didn’t mean to do it.

“I am an elderly woman who still acts like she is 35 and feels that way most of the time, except in the late afternoon.”

SOURCE

Monday, November 3, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: THE SHORT AND TRAGIC LIFE OF ROBERT PEACE

The subject of this post does not really fall into the category of nostalgia or old Hollywood, but I must review this book and share it with you. Since the music on the radio is pretty much horrible these days, I have been listening to our local NPR station when I am not listening to my CDs. I have about a 30 minute drive to and from work each day. They profiled a new book that was coming out and I had to read it – “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League” by author Jeff Hobbs.

No one outside of the New Jersey and Yale community had probably heard of Robert DeShaun Peace, but the biography makes you wish you did. The book is a heartfelt, and riveting biography of the short life of a talented young African-American man who escapes the slums of Newark for Yale University only to succumb to the dangers of the streets—and of one’s own nature—when he returns home.

When author Jeff Hobbs arrived at Yale University, he became fast friends with the man who would be his college roommate for four years, Robert Peace. Robert’s life was rough from the beginning in the crime-ridden streets of Newark in the 1980s, with his father in jail and his mother earning less than $15,000 a year. But Robert was a brilliant student, and it was supposed to get easier when he was accepted to Yale, where he studied molecular biochemistry and biophysics. But it didn’t get easier. Robert carried with him the difficult dual nature of his existence, “fronting” in Yale, and at home.

Through an honest rendering of Robert’s relationships—with his struggling mother, with his incarcerated father, with his teachers and friends and fellow drug dealers—“The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace” encompasses the most enduring conflicts in America: race, class, drugs, community, imprisonment, education, family, friendship, and love. It’s about the collision of two fiercely insular worlds—the ivy-covered campus of Yale University and Newark, New Jersey, and the difficulty of going from one to the other and then back again. It’s about poverty, the challenges of single motherhood, and the struggle to find male role models in a community where a man is more likely to go to prison than to college. It’s about reaching one’s greatest potential and taking responsibility for your family no matter the cost. It’s about trying to live a decent life in America. But most all the story is about the tragic life of one singular brilliant young man. His end, a violent one, is heartbreaking and powerful and unforgettable.

I have been an avid book reader all my life, and when I finished the last 15 pages with my wife and children around, I had tears in my eyes. A book has never reached me like that before. Growing up as a white man in the suburbs, I will never know the plight of Robert Peace or understand it fully, but the author (who was Robert’s college roommate) makes you feel as though you were right there next to Peace the whole time. At times the writing is slightly dry, and the author has a hard time conveying Robert’s life in New Jersey since the author’s life was a life of the upper class and priveldge, but he does his best. I am glad the author wrote this book so people could read about the life of Robert Peace. Then maybe the tragedy of Peace’s life would not be so much in vain…

MY RATING: 9 OUT 10