And now, part two of the thoroughly thorough Milberger’s breakdown of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Part One is here.
Episode 5: “Doink”
B. Altman and Company was a high-end department store founded in 1896 that had three locations throughout New York City. The location where Midge works on the series was located on 34th Street (near Macy’s) and 5th Avenue. Their flagship store (and the actual exterior location seen on the show) was their third location and stayed open from 1906 to the chain’s closing in early 1990. In 1985, the 5th Ave building was made a New York City Landmark, and today it is the home of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Women’s History Extra: B. Altman’s second location, on 6th Avenue, is now known as part of the Ladies’ Mile Historic District, which was a shopping hub during the late 19th century in New York City. At the time, it was known by this name because it was said to be one of the few places women could shop unaccompanied and feel safe. In terms of prestige and celebrity, it was what 5th Ave later became when the stores on Ladies’ Mile moved uptown, taking their rich clientele with them.
Leslie Caron is a French actress best known at the time for her starring role in the musicals An American in Paris (1951) and Daddy Long Legs (1954), and later, Gigi (1958) – as mentioned in the episode by a patron at B. Altman. Leslie was discovered by Gene Kelly for her first film An American in Paris.
Agnes Moorehead – is totally awesome. You know her as Samantha’s mom and Darren’s mother-in-law, an actual witch, on the 1960s TV series Bewitched. She also appeared in such classics films as Citizen Kane (1941), Dark Passage (1947), Sorry, Wrong Number (1948), and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Her infamous claim to fame was being in the cast of the 1956 film The Conqueror, known not only as one of the worst films of the 1950s, but also for having been filmed in Utah, only 137 miles from what had been a nuclear test site three years earlier, after being assured by the government it was safe… most of the cast eventually died of cancer. [For more on Aggie Moorehead read her Travalanche profile here].
Vivian compares men to famous people, some of whom include:
William Holden, one of the biggest box office draws of the 1950s, was a matinee idol with chiseled good looks and a charming demeanor. His most famous films during the 50s were Sunset Blvd (1950), Born Yesterday (1950), The Country Girl (1954) (for which Princess Grace Kelly won her Oscar), Sabrina (1954), and Picnic (1955). He also played himself on an episode of I Love Lucy.
Ernest Borgnine won an Oscar for the 1955 drama Marty (A key point in the ‘90’s film Quiz Show). He was infamously married to Ethel Merman for less than a month before the couple filed for divorce. Many may also know him from films such as The Poseidon Adventure and Here to Eternity, and on TV in such series as McHale’s Navy and Airwolf. Unlike William Holden, Borgnine was not a matinee idol, but rather a character actor, and therefore not swooned over by young girls of the 1950s, such as Vivian. [For more on Ernest Borgnine, read his Travalanche tribute here.]
Vivian compares women to famous people, some of whom include:
Lena Horne wasn’t just a famous African-American actress, beauty, singer and dancer, but also a civil rights activist who was blacklisted in the 1950s. During World War II, she refused to perform for segregated audiences while touring with the USO. Her career lasted 70 years, as she returned to her nightclub roots after her dismissal from Hollywood during the Red Scare. By the 1960s, she was back on screen, becoming a staple on the variety television programs of the time. In 1963, she participated in the March on Washington.
By 1958, former child star known as one of the great beauties of her time, Liz Taylor was already enmeshed in scandal, when subsequent to her husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash, she ran off with her deceased husband’s best friend, Eddie Fisher – who at the time was married to his first wife, Debbie Reynolds. (Yes, Carrie Fisher’s parents!) Her subsequent films, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Butterfield 8 (1960) (Oscar-winning performance), cemented her persona as a sexpot. She later left Fisher for her long romance (and two marriages) with fellow actor, Richard Burton.
Decca Record Player
Midge has one in her childhood bedroom when we see her move back in with her parents. This player was very popular among young people in the 1950’s because the top locked like a small suitcase for travel… how far tech has come! Note: The album Midge is listening to is a Mort Sahl comedy album!
The Music Man was the big hit musical on Broadway in the late 1950s. Think of Music Man tickets as Hamilton tickets. Imogene and her husband standing Penny and Joel up for their foursome is a bigger snub than you may have realized.
Barney Greengrass vs. The Stage Deli
When Herb Smith asks Midge if she’s ever been to the Stage Deli, she replied she’s more “Barney Greengrass.” The Stage Deli was located near the Theater District of New York City, while Barney Greengrass is still located on the Upper West Side (Midge’s hood). This is a small reference to the fact that the whole of show business is a new world for Midge Maisel.
Minnie Pearl and Moms Mabley were character comedians in the same vein as a character in a future episode, Sophie Lennon (Played by Jane Lynch), in the sense that they both sported funny clothes, funny accents and an added persona layered onto their comedy. Still, Minnie and Moms were trailblazers for women in comedy, as well as in Moms’s case, comedic women of color.
Moms Mabley (born Loretta Mary Aiken) was an African American comedian who, like Redd Foxx, started on the Chitlin’ Circuit, becoming extremely popular among the exclusively African American audience. By the young age of 27, she was an out lesbian comedian, which for a woman born in 1894, was a very big deal. In her real life, she would often wear “masculine” clothes. By the 1930s, she was the first female comedian to appear at The Apollo in New York City. It wasn’t until the 1960s that she became known by a larger white audience. Her persona was a of a toothless old woman in a housecoat and a floppy hat who loved younger men, who – much like Redd Foxx – tackled edgy and raunchy topics such as racism and sex. Whoopi Goldberg cites her as an influence (calling it “profound”) and produced a documentary (Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin’ to Tell You (2003)) about Mabley, who was often referred to as “the funniest women in the world.” Jewish comedian Kathy Griffin says Moms Mabley was the first women she ever saw on TV doing comedy. Joan Rivers said in the documentary that somehow Moms had been lost to history. Yet, she took her stage personal from the 1920s all the way to the 1970s. Moms Mabley’s Travalanche post is here.
Minnie Pearl (born Sarah Colley) was a southern comedian known for her southern accent, down home frilly dresses and funny hat – with the price tag still attached. Her comedic persona was a take on the stereotype of the “hillbilly” hick. Her most famous gig was hosting The Grand Old Opry from 1940-1991 and appearing on the television comedy sketch show Hee Haw (1961-1971). She is said to have influenced the next generation of “rural” southern comedians. Minnie Pearl’s Travalanche post is here.
Ricky Nelson grew up before America’s eyes and over many years, playing a version of himself on his parents’ TV and radio series, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. A teen idol, he was said to be the new Elvis, with such hits as “Be-Bop Baby.” His father would have his son play his music on the family’s TV series leading to, in a way, the first ever music videos. He was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1987. He died in a plane crash in 1985.
Herb Smith: “Eve Arden’s a dream! A real dream”
Hack comic writer Herb Smith (Wally Shawn) clams to have written for Our Miss Brooks, touting how amazing Eve Arden, the lead, is to work with. Young people today may know Eve Arden for playing the principal in the film version of Grease and its sequel Grease 2. In the 1950s she was known as teacher Miss Brooks from the above-mentioned radio and television series about a single gal who loved teaching while looking for the right guy to marry her. Known for her height (although only ‘5’7”), her dry, sarcastic, and often deadpan delivery, Eve Arden had already made a name for herself as a character actress in such films as Stage Door (1937), The Marx Brothers At the Circus (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), We’re No Married (1952), and the sit com The Mothers-in-Law (1967-69). She is a female comic legend.
“How far back were you, Cafe Wha?”
The original Cafe Wha? didn’t actually open until 1959, but what remains of it still sits on MacDougal Street in NYC, down the street from The Gaslight Cafe (The outside of the cafe is the same location seen in the show).Performers at Cafe Wha? ranged from folk singers to comedians such as Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, and Joan Rivers. It was part of the coffee house entertainment culture depicted in the series.
Episode 6: Mrs. X At The Gaslight.
An actor known for playing the famous detective Joe Friday on the radio and TV series, Dragnet, Jack Webb was his own cottage industry. When Suzie calls out the B. Altman’s house detective for following her around the store, she is being funny and topical. Dragnet, created by Webb, was the Law and Order of its time, with Jack Webb playing Sgt. Friday from 1951-1970. (More on Jack Webb here.)
Suzie: “Nichols and May totally f***k! I walked in on them once in the bathroom here – Even their f***ing was hilarious.”
When Randall first mentions Nichols and May to Midge, she has never heard of them. Which makes sense, since she’s new to the comedy world, and Nichols and May still had one more year before their comedy album, Improvisations to Music (1959), would enter the Billboard Top 40, and two years before they were to appear on Broadway (1960). They were a sensation, but it was short–lived, and by 1961 the pair had gone their separate ways, but not before making their mark on the new decade. Separately, they would go on to have amazing careers. Mike Nichols became a Tony, Emmy, and Oscar-winning director, while Elaine May, who also took on directing, went on to become one of the greatest female wits and writers of her generation. Nichols also has a Grammy, making him one of the few EGOTs. The pair reunited in the 1990s for the films Primary Colors and The Birdcage. Recently comedian Patton Oswalt said of May, “Avert your gaze as she passes by! That’s Elaine May, god dammit!” More on the team of Nichols and May here.
Rock Hudson is best known for his string of romantic comedies from 1959-1964. It was only after the release of the film Giant (1956), with Liz Taylor and James Dean, that his popularity as a matinee idol was solidified. During this time, he had to keep secret the fact that he was gay, which in the 1950s could end his career. Hudson died in 1985 due to AIDS-related complications, but not before putting a public face to an epidemic that was widely being ignored by the American government and in turn the general public at the time. “I am not happy that I am sick. I am not happy that I have AIDS. But if that is helping others, I can at least know that my own misfortune has had some positive worth.” – Rock Hudson
When the Maisels go out for Chinese food to celebrate Abe’s job at Bell Labs, they end up at the chain restaurant Ruby Foo’s. Ruby Foo’s is named for the woman who founded it, Ruby Foo (Wong), who went on to become one of the first Chinese-American female restaurant owners, helping to bring Chinese food in America to the non-Chinese masses. Starting out in Boston as “Ruby Foo’s Den” in 1929, by the 1940s her establishment attracted the rich and famous, and would go on to have chains in New York, Miami, Washington, and Providence. The stereotype of Jews and Chinese food goes back to the fact that those who kept kosher could eat at a place that didn’t mix meat and dairy; also as more Jews lived more and more in areas among non-Jews, either by urban sprawl or progress, Chinese food restaurants were typically the only places open on Christmas Eve for non-Christians to eat. The first Ruby Foo’s open in New York in 1936.
Episode 7: Put That On Your Plate
When Sophie Lennon says she dreamed of being the next Laurette Taylor, think today’s Meryl Streep – or for you theater people, think more old-school theater names, like Ethel Barrymore or Helen Hayes (two women who have Broadway theaters named after them). Laurette Taylor was a stage actress best known at the time for playing Amanda in the original production of The Glass Menagerie (1944). Almost all the great actors of Sophie’s generation, who came of age in the 1940s, said seeing Laurette Taylor in the role was a mind-altering experience and the best performance they had ever seen, greatly influencing their future work. This is of course the generation of actors who would become synonymous with “The Method” acting technique, which gave rise to a far more realistic, real life, acting style that we know today. Charles Durning remarked that at first he thought they had just pulled Taylor off the street, she was so real. Unfortunately, Taylor’s type of acting didn’t seem to translate to the silver screen, or perhaps she just didn’t like the film industry. Either way, Taylor’s lack of film performances makes her place in history relegated to that of a woman of her time, and not as timeless as she could have been to a modern audience. Still, it appears that modern acting would not be what we know today if not for Ms. Taylor’s influence on a generation, and through them, generations of actors who were born long after Laurette Taylor had passed away. More on Laurette Taylor at her Travalanche post here.
Episode 8: Thank You and Good-Night
Vivian compares women to famous people, some of whom include:
David Niven – British leading man, known for his thin mustache and for films such as The Bishop’s Wife (1947) (with Cary Grant) and as Phileas Fogg in Around The World in 80 Days (1956). Some would say he was having a comeback in the late 1950s. In the 1960s and 80s, he was best known for appearing in the Pink Panther films. For an example of how famous he was: in 1985 he was included on a series of British stamps celebrating British film, along with Sir Alfred Hitchcock, Sir Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, and Vivien Leigh.
Sal Mineo was best known for playing John “Plato” Crawford in Rebel Without A Cause (1955), one of his two Oscar nominations for best supporting actor (the other was Exodus ). Also, appearing in Giant, as mentioned previously here another James Dean film, he was mostly typecast as a troubled teenager. When Susie sarcastically refers to Joel as Sal Mineo it may not only be referring to his dark hair and eyes (Mineo was Italian, not Jewish) it may also be a attempt to mock Joel for his juvenile behavior.
And this wraps it up! On (hopefully) to next season!