Archive for the Jews/ Show Biz Category

Zero Mostel: The High Brow’s Low Brow

Posted in Broadway, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by travsd

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Today is the birthday of the great Zero Mostel (1915-1977).

It would be par for the course that such an eccentric actor and performer as Mostel would also have a highly idiosyncratic career in the bargain. He is best known his hot streak in the 1960s, encompassing the original Broadway production and film versions of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof, and the original film version of Mel Brooks The Producers. These iconic star turns, combined with one of his last roles, as a blacklisted comedian in The Front (1976) helped, I think, to cement a false if welcome image of Mostel as the traditional Jewish-American show biz creature, perhaps someone who had been in vaudeville and burlesque, and then later worked as a Catskills comedian. As it happened, Mostel had the right background for that: Jewish immigrant parents, and a childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. And he was just that kind of a broad, physical comedian, with such a sure-fire repertoire of schtick, that one could be forgiven for thinking he had developed in those time honored schools of show biz. He certainly would have thrived there, with his uninhibited, scenery-chewing mania, his hilarious comic mask with those flashing, popping eyes, and his populist, earthy appeal.

But if you look at his birth year, he was just a little bit too young for vaudeville and burlesque. Technically, he could have performed there as a child or teenager, but as it happens, he didn’t. A precocious, intellectual child, he drifted into show business in the most unlikely way possible — as an art instructor. An accomplished painter himself, he gave gallery talks at New York City museums as part of a New Deal works program in the mid to late 1930s. He was so funny and entertaining, he began to be hired for private parties and other functions. This led to performances at cabarets and night clubs. By the early 40s, he was getting roles on Broadway and in Hollywood films (Dubarry Was a Lady).

Service in the army during World War II, and anti-Communist blacklisting in the early to mid ’50s were speed bumps in his career. A local tv show with Joey Faye in 1948 may have been the closest he ever got to real burlesque. In reality he was drawn to high-brow theatrical roles and Absurdism, including Brecht (The Good Woman of Setzuan on Broadway, 1957), Joyce (Ulysses in Nighttown, off-Broadway 1957-58, Broadway 1974), Beckett (Waiting for Godot, television, 1961), and Ionesco (Rhinoceros, Broadway, 1961, and film, 1974). These critically acclaimed turns helped catapult him into the comic tour de forces he is best known for.

It goes without saying to anyone familiar with his work that Mostel was a bundle of insane, animated energy, a performer of genius, but one of a particular type. He shone best as the untrammeled star of whatever he appeared in. But parts for his special talents — a mercurial Jewish zany in his late 50s — don’t come along every day. Many of his roles in the ’70s tended to hide his light under a bushel, shoehorning him into films in more conventional character parts. He died of an aortic aneurysm following a crash diet at the relatively young age of 62.

For more on slapstick comedy don’t miss my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc. For more on show biz historyconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, Jews/ Show Biz, Vaudeville etc. with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 8, 2017 by travsd

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It undoubtedly speaks to my present state of mind that I wasn’t crazy about Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled The Fuhrer. Someone recommended it to me online just knowing I’d love it, and the title certainly sounds like the kind of thing I’d really go for, for a multiplicity of reasons. But the title mis-sells it. I was expecting and hoping for a real-life story perhaps mixing elements of To Be or Not to Be, I am a Camera, and Schindler’s List, featuring real-life derring-do and heroism by a cabaret performer deep in the heart of the Third Reich…

Instead, the book’s subject turns out to be an American flim-flam artist, vaudeville manager and impresario from Troy, New York named Freeman Bernstein. His “hustle” of Hitler consisted of selling him a few tons of scrap metal under the premise that it was a shipment of nickel, much in demand as Germany was preparing for war. Even as a swindle this strikes me as rather contemptible, lacking whimsy or creativity, just kind of a bottom-feeding theft. I’m glad it happened to Nazis, but if it happened to anyone else I’d say, “Clap that dude in irons and bring him bad food.” Further, the book, in the tradition of its subject, keeps you on the hook for over 300 pages before finally delivering its underwhelming story. It is preceded by pages of lore about the guy’s show biz career running amusement parks and small time vaudeville houses, and crossing paths with the occasional person of note, such as Mae West, to whom he once tried to sell some fake jewels. (It’s not so easy to sell fake diamonds to Diamond Lil).

The book is a labor of love by Bernstein’s great-nephew Walter Shapiro and has the flavor of family anecdote, a long, winding bar-room story at long last set down on paper. I’m going to hang on to it for awhile and perhaps mine it later for vaudeville lore. But at the moment I am much less interested in vaudevillians per se than in VAUDEVILLIANS WHO TOPPLE NAZIS, know’m sayin’?

R.I.P. Professor Irwin Corey: Dead at 102

Posted in Comedians, Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , on February 7, 2017 by travsd

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There’s been lots of chatter on social media since last night and I finally got definitive word from Bob Greenberg: Professor Irwin Corey has passed away at age 102.  Those old enough to remember him from tv, may justifiably ask, “Professor Irwin Corey is still alive???” But here in New York he remained very much present and visible in at least two of the circles I run with. The subset of the comedy community that respects its old timers knows him well, of course. As does the progressive activist community. Irwin was very active well past the century mark, still going out, still being “public” amongst those two groups, attending their dinners and functions and parties and meetings, interacting with people, cherishing the limelight. And, as always happens when you approach and then pass 100, he’s gotten more press than usual in the local papers in recent years.

Irwin’s schtick was very vaudeville: he affected the distracted, disheveled look of the academic intellectual much popularized by Einstein: ill fitting clothes and long, messy hair. He was a kook who would spout nonsense, confusing the convulsed audience while purporting to enlighten them. He started this bit at night clubs and cabarets in the ’40s. In the ’60s, he caught on with the counterculture and tv. By the ’70s, since he was so well recognized, he got lots of bit parts in movies.

At the same time, he was extremely left wing, a radical of the type that had become quite rare in America by the turn of the 21st century. He surely must have been flipping out these last few weeks.

Bob Greenberg, who was his good friend, posted this message last night:

“Irwin passed away at 6:27 PM tonight in his home. He had just eaten Vanilla Ice Cream Swirl followed by Egg Drop Soup. (The Ice Cream didn’t satisfy him so he sent his son out to get the soup.) After the soup he complained that the covers were too heavy on his feet. (This was odd since he usually complained that there wasn’t enough covering him.) His Nurse adjusted them and when she looked up he was gone. “

Farewell to the “World’s Foremost Authority”.

R. I. P. Nat Hentoff

Posted in Comedy, CULTURE & POLITICS, Jazz (miscellaneous), Jews/ Show Biz, ME, OBITS, Stand Up with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2017 by travsd

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Boy! How’s this for symbolic timing? The great journalist Nat Hentoff has passed away at age 91. We need as many men and women like him as we can get at the present moment; and yet I can well understand him, after a 70+ year career, looking at the result of the last election and the challenges ahead, despairing at the impact of his life’s work and refusing to go another step.

When I moved to this city 30 years ago, he was the Great Lion of the Village VoiceI read him weekly there, and pored over a few of his many non-fiction books. His influence on me ended up being enormous. There is no doubt, NO DOUBT in my mind, that my strong reverence for the U.S. Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and the First Amendment in particular, is a result of Hentoff’s hammering that message home in his writing, week after week after week, for decades. It’s central to who I am. Though I never met him, he imparted that wisdom to me, to such an extent that I find myself bewildered that everyone doesn’t possess the same understanding of the document’s frailty and preciousness. It is our only bulwark against tyranny; it has always been under assault even in the best of times; and given the rhetoric of our President-elect, one can only imagine that it about to be gutted and trampled with unprecedented fury. I’m glad to know Nat Hentoff won’t be around to see what’s going to happen to his beloved Constitution.

Hand in hand with his near-worship of our Founding Document was Hentoff’s deep, profound appreciation for America’s national music, jazz. He was of the generation that went for bebop and musicians like Coltrane, Mingus and Roach. In fact, Hentoff may have been our best known jazz critic, and I have always been fascinated by the pairing, the relationship between his music writing and his political writing. Among its myriad and assorted pleasures, jazz was for Hentoff a metaphor for America’s political ideals. Jazz and related improvisational forms (blues, soul, gospel, rock, hip hop) is based on an aesthetic of freedom, but freedom with rules. The musicians need to play together; the solos can be quite far out, but the players always return to the theme and give their bandmates a chance to take their own solos. Anarchy isn’t the point; freedom is. Musical anarchy sounds terrible. (It’s safe to say my making a political metaphor of vaudeville in No Applause was ultimately inspired by Hentoff doing the same thing with jazz.)

The other great theme of Hentoff’s life was education, and he was always very vocal about how he himself was a product of his teachers and mentors. Though he was an atheist himself, it is instructive to me the extent to which he was influenced by two great world religions, Judaism and Catholicism. A Jew himself, he was educated at Boston Latin, where many of his teachers were Catholic. One of his heroes was Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. The area in American politics where Jews have made the biggest impact has been in the courts, which Hentoff believed to be an extension of the great tradition of Talmudic interpretation and disputation. In our system, we argue it out and come to consensus. We don’t give and follow orders from a single individual at the top. At least, that’s the way it has always been.

Some of my readers will find the Catholic influence less fortunate, but to my mind it makes Hentoff even more interesting and valuable and unique and worth emulating, not for the beliefs themselves but because he could not be put in a box. From the Catholics came his absolute reverence for human life, which for him meant 100% opposition to the death penalty, euthanasia, war, torture, and, yes, abortion. I’m not here to defend or argue the latter stance (with which I happen to disagree), but it does make him among the most anomalous abortion opponents ever, an atheist Jew from the Northeast, a strange bedfellow indeed amongst all the Bible thumpers.

This combination made Hentoff among our foremost libertarians, and one equally at home (and not at home) among the left and right. This is the kind of independent thinker I cherish a great deal; there are so bloody few of them.

Another take away from Boston Latin — that excellent classical education made Hentoff a terrific writer. There is so much to be said for this. Unlike many of my favorite critics, I’m not sure I would ever call Hentoff a “talent” or a “wit”. He wasn’t, for example, funny, which makes him one of the few writers I love about whom that can be said. I would call him a “thinker”, someone whose thoughts and ideas were unique and logical and original and passionate. He was less about the words themselves than about expressing his thoughts as clearly as he could. His education allowed him to do that. This meant that, despite the fact that he wasn’t a flashy, poetic, memorable wordsmith, that I still read him all the time for the sake of what he had to say alone. And this meant that I was introduced to tons of subjects I might never have otherwise encountered. The greatest example I can think of is the life and work of independent journalist I.F. “Izzy” Stone.  Stone died in 1989; Hentoff eulogized him at the time, and wrote about his example on many other occasions. Stone was an American hero, a guy with a mission to uncover and communicate the truth, whatever the cost to himself, all day, every day, until the day he died. Hentoff’s admiration for such characters was always infectious.

Someone else I associate with Hentoff is Lenny Bruce. They had so much in common: Jews born in the twenties, verbal guys, whose work embodied the twin themes of jazz and the First Amendment. They knew each other of course. I just found this great clip of the two of them in conservation shortly before Bruce died in 1966, framed with later commentary, circa 1972. Watch it here. Nat Hentoff interviewing Lenny Bruce; that’s pretty much everything. Neither of them believed in heaven, but I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, they’re both there anyway.

Hall of Hams # 110: Norman Lloyd

Posted in Broadway, Hollywood (History), Jews/ Show Biz, Melodrama and Master Thespians, Movies, Radio (Old Time Radio), Television, The Hall of Hams with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 8, 2016 by travsd

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Happy 102nd birthday to Norman Lloyd (Norman Perlmutter, b. 1914), who has enjoyed surely one of the most amazing theatrical careers in history.

Lloyd has been a performer since 1923 — over 90 years. He started out taking lessons and performing at clubs and benefits in his native Brooklyn at the age of nine. He was a prodigy. He graduated from high school at age 15 and enrolled NYU, later dropping out because he said it seemed senseless during the Depression to waste money on an education for a job that likely wouldn’t be there when he graduated. So he focused on the theatre, becoming (at 17) the youngest apprentice at Eva La Gallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre. His first Broadway show was Andre Obey’s Noah (1935). In the 1930s, he worked with the Group Theatre, the Federal Theatre Project’s Living Newspaper Unit, and the Mercury Theatre, for which he played Cinna the Poet in Orson Welle’s legendary production of Julius Caesar (1937-38).

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He initially went to Hollywood in 1939 with the Mercury company to appear in their first planned production at RKO, which was to be Heart of Darkness. When that production appeared to be not forthcoming, he returned to New York, missing the opportunity to be in Citizen Kane. He appeared in a few more Broadway shows, then came back to Hollywood to play a memorable Nazi in Alfred Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942), later appearing in Spellbound (1945), as well. He was in a number of memorable movies throughout the ’40s and early ’50s: The Unseen (an adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, 1945), Jean Renoir’s The Southerner (1945); the all-star World War 2 picture A Walk in the Sun (1945), the Burt Lancaster swashbuckler The Flame and the Arrow (1950), and Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952).

About to fall off the Statue of Liberty's torch in "Saboteur"

About to fall off the Statue of Liberty’s torch in “Saboteur”

In the ’50s and ’60s, he became heavily involved in television as an actors, producer, and director, most notably and consistently on Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1958-1962) and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (1962-1964). In the ’70s, he produced and directed several made-for-tv movies. He appeared in the terrible comedies FM (1978) and The Nude Bomb (1980).

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Then, at 68 years of age he began to play what may be the best known role of his career, as the crotchety Dr. Auslander on St. Elsewhere (1982-1988). And he never stopped! He’s in Dead Poet’s Society (1989), The Age of Innocence (1993), and movie and tv credits right up nearly to the present day — he was in Amy Schumer’s Trainwreck last year (2015)!

Unusually, his essential persona seems to have changed little in all that time. As a young man, he already read as “old man”, bookish, serious, and perhaps a little frail. But that last of course is an illusion. A man who’s still doing movie shoots in his second century is anything but frail. Hat’s off to you today, sir!

R.I.P. Arthur Hiller

Posted in Comedy, Jews/ Show Biz, Movies with tags , , , , , on August 17, 2016 by travsd

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Just heard that Arthur Hiller has passed away at the age of 92. I had been planning a post on this interesting director for a while. It occurred to me a few months ago that certain of his films add up to a case for him as a comic auteur of sorts. Two of his films, The Out of Towners (1970) and The In Laws (1979) are among the funniest feature films of modern times — I have laughed so hard at both of those movies I gave myself bellyaches. And The Hospital (1971) is one of my favorite satires/ black comedies; and a worthy warm-up for screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky’s next outing in the genre, Network. I’ve never been crazy about Silver Streak (1976) but it has to be acknowledged that it was one of the most SUCCESSFUL comedies of its day, is very expertly made, and forever altered the screen careers of both Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder. Nearly as successful was his 80’s comedy Outrageous Fortune (1987) with Shelly Long and Bette Midler. The common denominator among many of his best comedies was interplay between two top notch comedy co-stars. Also worth mentioning in the comedy context are his earlier collaboration with Chayefsky, The Americanization of Emily (1964), Neil Simon’s Plaza Suite (1971), and that strange, factually challenged bio-pic of one of the screen’s greatest comedians W.C. Fields and Me (1976). And earlier oddments like Popi (1969) with frequent collaborator Alan Arkin and The Tiger Makes Out (1967) with Eli Wallach as a guy who’s trying to pick out a woman to kidnap.

He maybe hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves because there is a hit or miss quality to his career overall. It seems like lightning only struck for him occasionally. His biggest success of all was of course the smash hit weepie Love Story (1970), which now seems more of a dated curiosity than a perennial classic. The seventies proved to be his truly solid decade. After that, for the most part he was seriously off his game. One thinks of Author! Author! (1982) as the nadir of Al Pacino’s career prior to his comeback a few years later. There followed lots of other weak outings like Romantic Comedy (1983); The Lonely Guy (1984), which was the first true signal to me of how disappointing Steve Martin’s career was going to be; and the — well, unfortunate — See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989). And we’ll not speak ill of the dead by talking about the movies that came after.

But at his height, as we say, very few film-makers ever made me laugh as hard as he did in a small handful of comedies.  I can’t think of a better way to celebrate his life than by watching those films right now! And maybe checking out some of his interesting films I still haven’t seen…

R.I.P. Fyvush Finkel

Posted in Broadway, Jews/ Show Biz, LEGIT, EXPERIMENTAL & MUSICAL THEATRE, OBITS, Television with tags , , , on August 15, 2016 by travsd

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Was saddened yesterday to hear that Fyvush Finkel has passed at age 93. When a show biz figure dies at that age it is not unusual to be  surprised to learn that they are still alive, for they have often been infirm and retired and out of the limelight for decades.But Fyvush was still going strong, after 80+ years in show business. In fact, he had done a one man show at the Metropolitan Room just five months ago. I was lucky enough to get to interview him  at that time for The VillagerI found him to be funny, sweet, sharp and and an absolute hog for attention. He was just what you’d expect and want him to be. May we all be so lively and full of fun when it is five minutes ’til midnight! The article from back in March is here.

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