Archive for the OBITS Category

R.I.P. Rich Conaty

Posted in OBITS, Radio (Old Time Radio) with tags , , , , , on February 10, 2017 by travsd

o-rich-conaty-570

Well, I’m, very blue today to hear that Rich Conaty has passed. I’d heard that he was very sick, but I somehow missed the news that he’d left us. I’ll let my 2009 profile on him stand as my tribute.

I had the pleasure of Rich’s company many a time — got to ride shotgun as he hosted his influential WFUV radio show The Big Broadcast, and hung out with him at Vince Giordano’s gigs. In fact it was Rich who introduced me to Vince, back when he and the Nighthawks had their weekly engagement at a very funky old place in Chinatown. Rich was a generous guy and (it seemed to me) oddly lonely for someone so well known and loved. And I was always really perplexed and intrigued by the fact that he’d discovered that early big band music on his own; it wasn’t handed down to him by an elder practitioner. (I don’t know why it seems that weird to me; it parallels my relationship to vaudeville). At any rate, I find I’m beginning to eulogize him and I doubt I will top my previous appreciation so here it is.  Bon Voyage, Rich — thanks for all the pleasant sounds.

Tribute to a Teacher

Posted in CULTURE & POLITICS, ME, OBITS with tags on February 7, 2017 by travsd

16507860_10210955148010943_3374176719296457155_n

I learned this weekend the devastating news that a pivotal person in my life was near death. Even hearing that it was close in these raw, heartbreaking days was enough to double me over with grief. I cried myself to sleep at four in the afternoon. I just now got the news that she had passed — how perfect to hear it at the same time I learn the news about Betsy Devos’ confirmation as Secretary of Education. For my friend Lee Mania was a schoolteacher. She must have been so distraught at the developments of the past few weeks. I hate to even think of her witnessing the country we’re about to become. Her passing now is merciful.

Lee was my best friend’s mom, and she came into my life when I was about 11 or 12 years old, at a time in my life when she was the IDEAL person to have nearby. The way some kids sprout up like bean poles, or suddenly grow beards, or bulky biceps, I felt the thoughts in my head, the words on my tongue expand and multiply with terrifying, dizzying swiftness. And with my home life I could have gone in so many ways — I kid you not, I could have been Timothy McVeigh. There was anger and violence and alcoholism and dark, dark discourse behind the walls of my own house. And there was real danger of my echoing it, perpetuating it. But I had a number of great teachers. Including Lee, who wasn’t my teacher, but taught me. To this day, I think of her as one of the most brilliant people I ever knew. She was incredibly articulate, erudite and funny. She bantered. And she talked to young people (she taught fifth grade) with the kind of respect most grown-ups reserve for other adults. She was the first adult in my life who seemed to sense who I was and knew how to talk to me, how to converse in such a way so to include ALL of me, and in so doing, she catalyzed my transformation into who I am right now. That’s not too strong to say.

Lee was kind and patient and the most rational person I had ever met. In fact, her parenting style was so calm, I didn’t even recognize it as such at first. They used to have this little Japanese car; I’d slam the lightweight door shut when I got in, adolescent fashion, and she’d say “You know, you really don’t have to slam that.” She must have had to say it 50 times before I understood that she was asking me not to do it. That was not how behavior got corrected in my house.

Her son Matt was my best friend from grades 7 through 12. When I was about 13 she brought the pair of us to the JFK Library up in Boston soon after it opened. A small thing for them, to have me along. For me, it was the sort of thing that changed my life. And so much that she valued, like her love of Bob Dylan, got transmitted to me by hanging out with her son.

Yeah, I’m an absolute fuckin’ wreck right now. But there’s something just kind of perfect about her leaving us just now. Just perfect. All I got at the moment besides sorrow is a world of gratitude and a determination to deserve the investment she made in me. Lee, you were a really, really good teacher.

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

corey27n-4-web

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. Mary Tyler Moore

Posted in Comediennes, Comedy, Dance, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television, Women with tags , , , , , , on January 26, 2017 by travsd

mary-tyler-moore-longer-flip-252c-circa-1970

We would certainly be remiss if we didn’t lay down a few words in honor of the late Mary Tyler Moore.

As I tweeted yesterday, she influenced many of us not just as a comedienne but as an example and a role model. I’m a white working class male, and she influenced my world outlook immensely. The Mary Tyler Moore Show ran during highly impressionable years of my life (1971 through 1977, and thereafter in syndication). I knew it was seminal only in retrospect. Growing up watching her, I always took it for granted that it was the most natural thing in the world that a single woman should choose to pursue a career and that she should be respected in the workplace. Unlike Marlo Thomas in That Girl (1966-1971), there was no fiance constantly waiting the wings and her career goals weren’t pie in the sky. She dated men, and sometimes it was even hinted that they stayed the night.  But her career seemed to be her priority. She later backtracked some on this takeaway, but really that is the message her show sent.

Of course, that message is what most people celebrated yesterday, but now I want to talk about her as a comedian. She was a great one. I seem to recall her saying that her teacher in playing comic scenes was her old co-star Dick Van Dyke, and I started to watch her performances with that in mind, and you can see it. (Apart from her crying routines — the debt there is probably to Lucille Ball. And I have to say, of the two, I vastly prefer MTM’s more subtle and true comic performances over Lucy’s. Lucy only had a sledgehammer in her arsenal, Mary had a full tool kit.)

Recently, when watching 30 Rock I had the revelation that Tina Fey’s show is kind of a mash-up The Dick Van Dyke Show and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. On the one hand, it’s set behind the scenes at a tv comedy show; on the other hand it’s about a single, female tv producer. 30 Rock is way more absurd and surreal, but the core of the situation echoes those pioneering shows, and I would imagine it’s not accidental. Fey is a formidable comic architect, and quite encyclopedic in her knowledge of comedy.

Like Van Dyke, Moore was an incredible dancer; it’s kind of her jumping off point as a performer. It informs both their comedy — and it’s fairly insane that, apart from some variety show appearances, they didn’t co-star in a LOT of musicals. With their array of talents that could potentially have been amazing. But something interesting happened to Moore — and it happens to a lot of actors and comedians when they get very big. Moore wasn’t just a comedian, she became a producer. And with her husband Grant Tinker, she was responsible for a large number of hit tv shows: Phyllis, Rhoda, Lou Grant, The Bob Newhart Show, WKRP in Cincinnati, The White Shadow, Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere. When you are powerful, you acquire dignity and self-assurance. She was no longer young or fresh or goofy by the 1980s. She had gravitas and was even (as she was in Ordinary People) intimidating and scary. She tried many later tv series: The Mary Tyler Moore Hour (1979), Mary (1985-86), Annie McGuire (1988), New York News (1995). None flew, I think partially because you see the show business titan beneath the performer. It’s not uncommon — think of Bob Hope’s last movies.

She’d gone conservative in recent years, I hear. I wonder what she thought of the millions who attended the Women’s March on Sunday, so many of whom she influenced. She’s leaving us at another time of change, when even the mild gains women have made are under serious threat. I already get melancholy and nostalgic when I watch tv. Now there’ll be some added bittersweetness when I see this and think of more innocent times:

maxresdefault

R.I.P. Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus

Posted in Circus, OBITS with tags , , , , on January 15, 2017 by travsd
Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

Hartford Circus Fire, 1944

HEY RUBE!

That’s what you yell when the circus is in trouble, when it’s all hands on deck, when it’s time to start a bucket brigade, or pull up stakes, or generally come to the aid of your family, which means everyone else who works at the circus. The news this morning, that the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus will be folding up for good in May hit me like a ton of bricks — as I just tweeted it feels like I’m on an elevator plunging 50 floors. While I may frequently knock the contemporary incarnation of the RBBB, I hope I’ve always made one thing clear…the Greatest Show on Earth is THE tent pole of American show business and even its theatre. It has been around that long. This is like a long line of grandfathers all dying at the same time. The organization itself is 146 years old, but the producers whose names are in the title were operating long before that. P.T. Barnum’s name has been above a title in show business somewhere for 181 years! The fact that this is happening at the same time as America’s Constitutional government is being dismantled feels symbolic, a mirror image. Everything we have ever known seems to be flying out the window. But as RBBB did so many times before, after the 1944 fire, and in the 1970s when the Feld Family re-invented it for the modern age, I think it is up to us to keep the show going. The show must go on. It is up to us, in whatever way we can do it. We MUST keep the best of our cultural traditions alive for our children.

I’ll be writing a much, much longer tribute to this important American institution and put it up when they go away for good in May. Mean time, you can refer individual posts I’ve written on P.T. Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, James A. Bailey, and various aspects of the show itself. Today I feel immense sadness, a bit of fear (untethered, in a way, in freefall), but also resolved to address this somehow.

R.I.P. Dick Gautier

Posted in Comedy, OBITS, Sit Coms, Television with tags , , , , , on January 14, 2017 by travsd

dg08b

Okay, they’re officially dropping faster than I can pump these out. My normal rule is I only bother with a tribute if I have things to say, but I may have to amend that.

At any rate, I have plenty to say about comic actor Dick Gautier, who passed away yesterday at age 85. (People always want to know how. Who cares how he died? He’s 85, that’s how!) I am precisely the right age to be among what I imagine is the pretty small group of Dick Gautier fans. The primary credit that put him on my radar was of course When Things Were Rotten (1975), the Mel Brooks produced Robin Hood sit com which I blogged about here. Of course, Gautier had worked with Brooks earlier as the robot Hymie in Get Smart, which I watched in re-runs (and need to watch some more, I still have not quite gotten my fill of Get Smart). But mostly where you saw him in the ’70s was in guest shots on other people’s shows. I quite clearly remember him from a 1978 episode of The Love Boat, and he was also on Love American Style, Banacek, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker. He was in the 1977 movie Fun with Dick and Jane which I loved. (I am curious to know why he wasn’t in the 1980 Get Smart movie The Nude Bomb). This is just the tip of the iceberg. He was everywhere in the 70s. He was on all the game shows as well. And he seemed to work pretty steadily through the ’90s.

But he never cracked beyond a certain level. Never became a movie star, never was the star of his own hit series (When Things Were Rotten was not a hit in tv terms). Though he was the original Conrad Birdie in the Broadway production of Bye, Bye Birdie, in the movie the role went to Jesse Pearson. But he worked constantly. He was a truly interesting type, and that’s why I’m inspired to write about him today. He came pretty close to good looking, but with a certain exaggeration of the features that added up to being a parody of conventional good looks, almost like those caricatures of movie stars who made appearances on The Flintstones. In the ’70s he grew his hair out to John Davidson proportions, this great puffy, blowdried and combed pillow of hair. And so he would often be cast as jerky boyfriends, blind dates, and that sort of thing, a kind of second tier George Hamilton. He also had a kind of smirking expression on his face and good delivery on comic lines, which made him natural for light comedy. I feel like his casting as Robin Hood in When Things Were Rotten is roughly the same comic idea as Daphne Zuniga as Princess Vespa in Space Balls, although I can’t exactly say why. Parody of an ingenue, I guess.

Bon Voyage, M. Gautier.

R.I.P. William Peter Blatty (More Than Just “The Excorcist”)

Posted in BOOKS & AUTHORS, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS with tags , , , , , on January 13, 2017 by travsd

tumblr_moo8p9qiuk1qb9nsso1_1280

Just got word that William Peter Blatty has passed away (at age 89) and it’s astounding to me that I don’t have ANYTHING on my blog about him. I know that I must have written something about him somewhere, just not here. Blatty’s best known for a single smash hit (The Exorcist), and we’ll talk about it, but I happen to know about a bunch of his other work as well, and that stuff is also worth celebrating.

The 1965 film "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home". If its Arab stereotypes seem risible, what do we make of the odd fact that Blatty himself was Lebanese?

The 1965 film “John Goldfarb, Please Come Home”. If its Arab stereotypes seem risible, what do we make of the odd fact that Blatty himself was Lebanese?

The main thing you should know about Blatty is that he initially built his reputation as a writer of comedy, and that he was indeed a brilliantly funny and original comedy writer. My pathway in to all this was the fact that in 2007 my friend Jeff Lewonczyk directed a theatrical/musical version of Blatty’s 1963 novel and 1965 movie John Goldfarb, Please Come Home. 

Now, I often regret things that I have done….but this production was one of the few occasions when I regretted something I didn’t do. Unless I’m delusional, I was virtually assured of a role in the production but (it being a musical) I found myself uncharacteristically timid about doing what it took to secure myself the role. Then, when I attended the opening performance, I instantly saw that:  a) it would have been a great deal of fun; b) it would have been exciting as hell; c) it would have been an excellent and necessary growth experience for me as a performer, and d) I could have held my own with most of the performers (except Jay Klaitz, holy cats, that guy is a dynamo!)

C’est la guerre. At any rate, I swear that there’s a Gilligan’s Island episode that riffs on the plot of John Goldfarb, which concerns a pilot and football player who always goes the wrong way. And that should give you an indication of what most of Blatty’s writing is like. Kinda Borscht Belt wacka-wacka.

(Luckily, the following year, I did get a more low-key chance to act in a Blatty script, when Jeff organized a private reading of a play Blatty had adapted from his 1996 novel Demons Five, Exorcists Nothing at the Brick Theater. I remember little about it except it was extremely long, had a cast of thousands, and Mr. Blatty wouldn’t concede the need for cutting any of his brilliant words and ideas, so it never got past the first reading.)

But anyway this was how I learned Blatty was primarily about humor.  Throughought the 60s, he wrote several comedy screenplays, including The Man from the Diner’s Club (1963) for Danny Kaye, and several collaborations with Blake Edwards, including A Shot in the Dark (1964); What Did You Do in the War, Daddy? (1966); and Darling Lili (1970).

affiche-la-neuvieme-configuration-the-ninth-configuration-1980-4

If Blatty has a masterpiece of his own — (apart from The Exorcist, which is a masterpiece he shares with William Friedkin) it is an AMAZING film called The Ninth Configuration (1980), which Blatty used his Exorcist prestige to leverage a rare chance to helm as writer, director and producer. It is based on his 1966 novel Twinkle, Twinkle, “Killer” Kane — it’s a brilliant piece of absurdist theatre in which the inmates literally run the asylum, looping in the Vietnam War, existentialism, and much else. It reminds me a bit of Kurt Vonnegut, and, because of its military setting and a large cast of familiar faces (Stacey Keach, Scott Wilson, Ed Flanders, Neville Brand, Moses Gunn, Robert Loggia and The Exorcist’s Jason Miller), Catch-22. It is of course self-indulgent in the extreme, and completely uncommercial. It might have enjoyed much greater success a decade earlier, but the tide was turning by 1980 — several similar anti-war, anti-establishment films bombed at around the same time. But the film is funny, thought-provoking and kind of jaw-dropping. I highly recommend it. (Also there’s more than a little Marx Brothers influence in it — it’s very Duck Soup. Blatty’s admiration for Groucho shouldn’t be surprising given that it was as a contestant on You Bet Your Life that Blatty earned the dough that finally allowed him to quit his day job and become a full time writer).

flat1000x1000075f-u3

Another interesting film that deserves greater props is the unfortunately titled The Exorcist III (1990), also, written, directed and produced by Blatty and based on one of his novels. Of course he got this rare second chance strictly on the the connection to The Exorcist….but ironically that forced connection is the film’s greatest weakness. The novel was called Legion , and if the film had stuck closer to the original conception it would have retained much more integrity and enjoyed wider circulation. As it is, I think audiences today write it off as a terrible sequel (which it is not) and don’t bother with it. The good news is that in October of last year a director’s-cut version came out; I’m eager to see it. The common thread between this “sequel” and the original Exorcist film is the detective character, originally played by Lee J. Cobb, here played by George C. Scott. Most of the rest of the cast is made up of what might be called the Blatty stock company — Ed Flanders, Jason Miller, Scott Wilson and George Dicenzo, all from Ninth Configuration. And a million other interesting people : Brad Dourif, who’s made a CAREER out of weird movies just like this, as well as the old western star Harry Carey Jr, and Zohra Lampert from Let’s Scare Jessica to Death, and a very young Samuel L. Jackson, and — wait for it — Fabio. 

As for his best known child, The Exorcist (novel, 1971, film 1973): Just a few words here today — it deserves a post of its own, at least the film version does. I was 8 when the film came out; it’s difficult to convey the scale of its cultural impact. I was too young to see it upon its initial release but I vividly recall the excited conversations of all the grown-ups — everyone, it seemed — who’d gone to see it. It was revolutionary in numerous ways: graphic language and imagery, groundbreaking special effects. But these were all largely what Friedkin brought to the table. Have you ever read Blatty’s novel? We had it on our house when I was a kid — I’m quite certain that I read it before ever seeing the actual film. (Here’s the order of how things went with such movies when I was a kid: you read the Mad Magazine parody version first; then maybe the original novel or novelization; then the chopped-up and sanitized and edited version on network television, THEN, years later, the complete film version).

At any rate, I’ve probably read Blatty’s novel The Exorcist 3 or 4 times. And the most notable takeaway? It’s funny. Or at least funnier. The main comic element is that Lieutenant (played by Cobb in the film) who rambles on about Hollywood movies and so forth. Blatty had satirical intentions in the novel, and there’s something there, something about the tension between secular culture and the spiritual realm. But, like we say, we’ll save it for another day.

(Just remembered a typical Blatty comic touch that filtered into The Exorcist. When the demon starts talking to the little girl he first uses the name “Captain Howdy”. I’ve always found that name hilarious, and its an example of his satirical instincts trickling in and maybe going unnoticed by most readers. That’s what Blatty’s usual writing voice was like).

R.I.P., Blatty! I hope the Devil didn’t getcha. (I bet I’m the one millionth customer to make that joke today.)

%d bloggers like this: