Friday, April 29, 2011

If they were still alive....

...these notables would be celebrating their birthday today:

Duke Ellington would be 112.  In the world of jazz music, Duke Ellington is as revered as Beethoven or Mozart are in classical music.  And quite deservedly so.  As a composer, he melded the sounds of Africa, the Caribbean and the American South into a sophisticated style all his own.  And as a performer (mostly of his own music), he had few, if any, peers.  Many of his compositions sound newly minted today--timeless classics created by a brilliant and unique man---some called him a 'genius'.  Anyone care to dispute that?  Not me.

Rare photo of W.R. Hearst with his long-time lover, Marion Davies, around the time Citizen Kane came out.

William Randolph Hearst would be 148.  His was one of those great, epic American lives that followed an arc of almost unbelievable highs, as well as lows.  He was born into wealth, but multiply redoubled that inheritance, becoming one of the wealthiest men of the 20th century.  His wealth mostly came from publishing--he had a newspaper empire that stretched from coast to coast, creating a dynastic monopoly.  His life was famously chronicled in Orson Welles's thinly-veiled roman à cléf, Citizen Kane, in 1941.  Welles painted him as a money and power-obsessed monomaniac--which certainly wasn't too far from the truth.  What made Hearst furious, though, was the portrayal of his mistress, Hollywood actress Marion Davies, as a dizzy, untalented lush--which was far from the truth (she was actually a quite talented actress/comedienne).  But as rumor has long had it, what enraged him most of all was Welles's use of the word "rosebud" as the touchstone word of the film.  Allegedly, "rosebud" was the very private term of endearment Hearst used to reference his beloved Marion's mons veneris.  Hearst did everything he could to stop the film from being made, and then tried--in vain--to buy the negative of the film to destroy it.  His fortunes significantly dwindled by the time of his death in 1951.  But Marion Davies stayed by his side to the end--even though his wife steadfastly refused to allow him a divorce.

Tommy Noonan would be 90.  Chances are you don't know him by name--but you'd probably recognize his face.  He was a very popular Hollywood actor in the early 1950's, often playing a befuddled, wide-eyed, likeable fellow in some major films:  A Star is Born, playing opposite Judy Garland in her finest performance; and as the wealthy, confounded suitor of Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  He was only 46 when he died of brain cancer in 1968.


And a very happy birthday to the alive-and-well Celeste Holm, who turns 94 today.  She had a most impressive career, starting with creating the role of 'Ado Annie' in the original production of Oklahoma! on Broadway in 1943.  She won an Oscar in 1947 for Best Supporting Actress in the groundbreaking anti-anti-semitism film, Gentleman's Agreement.  She's appeared in several acknowledged classic films:  High Society, opposite Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby; The Snake Pit; Come to the Stable; but most especially, All About Eve, in which she played Margot Channing (Bette Davis)'s best friend, Karen, who acted as the "conscience" of this classic film.  What must it have been like to try to "hold your own" when playing opposite Bette Davis, giving (arguably) her greatest performance?!  Well, she did, and then some!  She's spot-on perfect in the part--especially in her face-off scene with "evil Eve" (below).  Celeste Holm is still a visible presence on the New York arts and social scene and looks amazingly as she did 60 years ago, when Eve was made.  Cheers to you, Miss Holm...may you  have many more! 

Thursday, April 28, 2011

If they were still alive today.....

....these notables would be celebrating their birthday:

James Monroe would be 253.  He was the 5th president of the United States (1817-1825).  Other than our first president, he is (to date) the only candidate for presidency who ran, unopposed, for his second term in office.  He was also the third of the "founding father" presidents to die on the Fourth of July (John Adams, Thomas Jefferson were the others; he in 1831, the others in 1826).d624b3ce.jpg
Lionel Barrymore (L), as "Old Man Potter" in the immortal It's a Wonderful Life.

The three Barrymore siblings in 1904:  John, Ethel and Lionel.
Lionel Barrymore would be 133.  The oldest of the three Barrymore siblings (with John and Ethel) of the famed acting dynasty, Lionel had a long and illustrious career, on the Broadway stage, but mostly in films, from the early silents through the 1950's.  He delivered many fine and skillful performances (Dinner at Eight, On Borrowed Time); and truth-be-told, some real hambone, over-the-top stuff, too (Rasputin and the Empress, and yes, Grand Hotel).  But all is forgiven and forgotten when watching his unforgettable portrayal of the ultimate cinema "bad guy," the reptilian 'Mr. Potter' in Frank Capra's classic, It's a Wonderful Life.  He pulled every acting trick out of his sizable bag in this career crowning achievement, and he clearly relished playing the part.  In "real life," Barrymore was, by all accounts, an enormously kind, multiply- talented man (he was a skilled composer and painter, too).  He was stricken with crippling arthritis in his fifties, and gradually, performed all his roles from a wheelchair.  He died in 1954 and was eulogized as one of the greatest--and most beloved--artists in Hollywood history.

Blossom Dearie would be 87.  She was truly "one-of-a-kind".  After just a few bars of one of her songs, you know you are listening to her and no one else.  Her girlish, ersatz-coy renditions still remain fresh and rethought when enjoyed today.  I had the pleasure of seeing/hearing her perform several times, when she was a regular performer at a joint called Danny's on West 46th Street in Manhattan in the early 2000's.  A very intimate place, it was something of a master class, to be able to view such a great singer/pianist up-close.  Though her sound was very sweet, she was one tough cookie.  I saw her throw some hapless kid, about 16 years old, out of the room once.  He had clearly been dragged there by his parents and wasn't having any of it.  As he sprawled back in his chair with his arms crossed, she stopped in the middle of a number and said, "Donald (the manager), give this kid his money his back and get him out of here....he obviously doesn't want to be here any more than I want to have him here".  The audience applauded uproariously as the kid slunk out.  And then, as if nothing had happened, she just continued right on, "....chicks and ducks and geese better scurry...".  What an original!  Her passing in 2009 left a large hole in the New York nightlife scene, where she'd been a staple since the 1940's. 


And a happy 85th birthday to the very much alive Miss Harper Lee, the author of but one novel.  It's an amazing thing that this, her one and only novel, is proclaimed as one of "The" great American novels of all time:  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Straight out of the gate, with only a few magazine articles under her belt, she was able to craft a nearly-perfect tale of childhood and racism in Depression-era Alabama.  She won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature, and just about every other literary award there was.  It remains a best-selling novel, with over 30 million copies of the book in print, in nearly every language.  She's been offered the sun and the moon to follow up Mockingbird with another novel--offers which she has politely, but firmly, refused.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

If they were alive today.... would be the birthday of these famous folks:
Jack Cole choreographing Marilyn Monroe in Let's Make Love, 1960

Rita Hayworth performing "Put the Blame on Mame," choreographed by Jack Cole.

"Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend," choreographed by Jack Cole. He became one of Monroe's best friends and closest advisors, working with her on six of her films.

Jack Cole would turn 100 years old today.  He was one of Broadway and Hollywood's all-time ground-breaking greats...and yet his name is hardly known at all today, which is a great shame.  He imagined some of the most memorable film moments in screen history:  Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (see clip in yesterday's posting); Gilda, which pretty much "created" the Rita Hayworth image; Cover Girl, which put Gene Kelly on the map, and many others.  He had a very singular, unique style that is credited with influencing many subsequent choreographers, most notably, Bob Fosse.  Why is he forgotten today?  Who can say?  But perhaps with this being his centenary year, some new light will be shed upon his great talent and he will be given his due credit as one of the most influential, truly great stars of the 20th century world of dance.

U.S. Grant, aged 26

Ulysses S. Grant would be 189.  The two-term Republican was the 18th president of the United States, as well as a legendary and decorated Commanding General during the Civil War and reconstruction era.  His real name was "Hiram Ulysses Grant" but changed it to "Ulysses Simpson Grant," supposedly because he didn't like the idea of the initials "HUG" on his military locker, and because he liked the idea of sharing the initials of Uncle Sam (likely, an apocryphal story, right?).  Also, he and his wife were supposedly the Lincolns' first choice as their theatre guests on the fatal night that Lincoln was killed---though that, too, is probably apocryphal.  Boy, that box would have been crowded if the number of supposed "first choices" were to all have shown up!

Sandy Dennis would be 74.  If only for her Oscar-winning performance as the dippy, frigid and very complicated 'Bunny' in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolff?, she was clearly a monstrously talented actress.  And her very premature death (of ovarian cancer) at the age of 54 left legions of fans bereft at what would have surely been many more years of brilliant performances.
Coretta Scott King would be 84.  Hers was the face of stoic grace;  etched in sadness, yet with a palpable strength and purpose.  She was a pillar of strength to the legions of her husband's followers and picked up where he left off after he was assassinated.  A great and noble lady.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

If they were still alive.... would be the birthday of these notables:

Frederick Law Olmsted would be 189.  It would be trite to call him "ground-breaking" in his field, since he was the most influential landscape architect in American history---but it's true, and he was.  Most famously, he designed New York's Central Park, setting the bar very high for the design of subsequent civic parks and public spaces.  Some of his other grand projects were Mount Royal Park in Montreal, the Biltmore estate in Asheville, NC, Belle Isle Park in the Detroit River, and the campuses of University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University in Palo Alto, CA.
William Desmond Taylor (L), Charlotte Shelby (R) and Mary Miles Minter (above)

Silent film director William Desmond Taylor would be 139.  His was the first lurid, very well-publicized murder in Hollywood history--and it remains officially unsolved to date.  His body was found by his manservant on the floor of his Los Angeles bungalow apartment on February 1, 1922.  He had been shot to death.  The list of suspects included some very famous names, including popular comedienne, Mabel Normand, and virginal leading lady, Mary Miles Minter.  Several books have been written, theorizing what really happened.  But it seems that no one will ever really know just who did it.  But most signs point toward one Charlotte Shelby, who was the original Hollywood "stage mother from Hell"--and the mother of Mary Miles Minter, who, it turned out, was the lover of Taylor (and whose "virginal" image--and her career, period, were shattered in the wake of the scandal).

Anita Loos would be 118.  She was a startlingly prolific screenwriter in Hollywood from the early years of silent films onward, through the end of the 1950's--an era that was inarguably one that was not very friendly to women.  She was also a playwright and author, whose most successful work was the enormously popular, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, whose lead character 'Lorelei Lee' became a signature role for both Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing. 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

If they were still alive today...

....these notables would be celebrating their birthday:

William Shakespeare would be 447.  Few would argue his placement as history's greatest dramatist in any language.  A few interesting bits of trivia about him:
  • Did you know that none of his original manuscripts survive?  They were written sketchily, with an eye toward performance, rather than posterity.
  • And furthermore, none of his plays were published during his lifetime.  36 of his plays were transcribed by two of his actors, who published them in 1623 in what is known as The First Folio.
  • Shakespeare not only was born on this date---he also died on this date, in 1616, at the age of 52.  Miguel Cervantes, author of Don Quixote also died on the same day.

James Buchanan would be 220.  He was the president who occupied office just before Abraham Lincoln, and his accomplishments were completely overshadowed by Lincoln's.  Buchanan is (to date) the only bachelor president in American history.  Several presidential scholars state that he was also America's only gay president.  He lived for 23 years with another man, William Rufus Devane King, who was vice-president under Franklin Pierce.  King is (to date) the only unmarried vice-president in U.S. history.  The families of both King and Buchanan destroyed their correspondence upon their deaths, leaving to conjecture the true nature of their relationship.
File:King the Vice President.jpg
William Rufus Devane King, Buchanan's longtime roommate.

Ruggiero Leoncavallo would be 154.  He composed one of the greatest, and certainly most popular operas ever written, I Pagliacci.  At first glance, he might be considered something of a "one-trick pony," in that he never composed another opera that achieved general public acclaim.  He did write a version of La Boheme, which suffers greatly by comparison with the competing version by Giacomo Puccini, which is perhaps the most popular opera of all time.  In studying I Pagliacci, it's most surprising to find that he was not a prolific composer, as his writing seems so fully-realized, sophisticated and  beautifully formed.  The famous aria "Vesti la giubba," which was recorded by Enrico Caruso just after the turn of the 20th century, became the first million-selling record and remains a very recognizable tune, even to non-lovers of opera.

Jeez....listen to this one, too! Franco Corelli was such a great singer!

Sandra Dee would be 69.  She was the perfect juvenile lead actress for the late 1950's-early 1960's.  Her romance with--and marriage to--bobby-sox idol, Bobby Darin, was tailor-made for the tabloids and fan magazines.  Her pert, pretty, seemingly-virginal image, it turns out, was merely a mask for a complicated, tormented young woman, whose life spiraled into a vortex of anorexia and drug and alcohol abuse.  She spent her final years a virtual shut-in.  Though they were divorced when he died at the age of 37, it's said that she never got over him.  She died of kidney failure at the age of 62.

Friday, April 22, 2011

If they were alive today... would be the birtday of these notables:

Bettie Page would be 88.  She was the most iconic pin-up girl of the 20th century.  Her trademark image of the sweet looking "good/bad" girl with the bangs transcended her own generation and she continues to populate the fantasies of new generations of drooling boys everywhere.  Hugh Hefner said of her, "Her appearance in PLAYBOY was a milestone," and that “she became, in time, an American icon, her winning smile and effervescent personality apparent in every pose".

Greg Moore would be 36.  The Canadian racecar driver had a very promising career ahead of him when he was killed in a spectacular crash at the Marlboro 500 race in Fontana, California on Halloween Day, 1999.  It was somewhat startling to me to read the headline that day, "GREG MOORE DEAD".  I'd never heard of him before....but my name is also Greg Moore.  Gives one pause for thought...

Actor/playwright Jason Miller would be 72.  He won a Pulitzer Prize-winning for his play, That Championship Season, and as an actor is best remembered for playing Father Damian Karras in The Exorcist.  He was married to Jackie Gleason's daughter, Linda, and their son, Jason Patric, is a well-known actor in his own right (The Lost Boys, After Dark, My Sweet).

And a very happy 65th birthday to the great American filmmaker, John Waters!  The self-proclaimed "Prince of Filth," Waters made a classic triptych of shocking, but brilliant films in the 1970's:  Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living that are, in my opinion, three of the most hilarious films ever made.  They were done on a shoestring budget, with an unknown cast of misfit Baltimore characters, headed by the now-legendary "Divine"--a 300-pound female impersonator--who, it turns out, was a pretty amazing performer.  Waters continues to make films and I keep going to them, hoping, somehow, that the brilliance of his early films will emerge once again.  Unfortunately, he hasn't made a funny film since Serial Mom in the 90's. But his legions of fans keep their collective fingers crossed that he might come up with a winner once again.