AN AFTERNOON WITH ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn and I watched an old Dick Cavett interview with Robert Mitchum on TCM (Turner Classic Movies) last night. We laughed a lot. It was a reminder of how good late night talk shows were. It also showed the legendary tough guy Mitchum as an affable and literate man who didn’t take himself seriously.

The Cavett show originally aired in 1970. I met Robert Mitchum the following year. Turned out to be a memorable encounter.

Robert Mitchum was in Boston to shoot “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”, a film about small The_Friends_of_Eddie_Coyletime criminals. There was nothing small time about Mitchum. I lobbied for and got the TV interview assignment. Those were the days of “The big three” television stations in Boston. Two of the stations had prominent entertainment reporters. I was the “go to guy” at my station.

The established entertainment reporters had first dibs on Mitchum. Fine by me. I waited until shooting had wrapped for the day. I lucked out because they finished just before 1pm. The star was in a good mood because his work day was over. We shot one reel of film and I got everything I needed.

Mitchum seemed surprised we weren’t shooting more. Actually, he smiled when I said we had a wrap.

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me. Nothing, I told him. I was through for the day unless I was called for a breaking news story. I also assured him I probably would not be reachable. He smiled. He asked if I knew any quiet places where he could have lunch without being bothered. I nodded and he invited me to join him.

It was a small, dark place. It could’ve been a setting from one of Mitchum’s film noir of the 1940s. He smiled approvingly as we walked in. Several people greeted me. No one gave Mitchum a second look. We settled back with the first of many rounds that afternoon. At one point, Mitchum took off his tinted glasses, looked around the place and said I should call him “Mitch”. I nodded. He wanted to know how I could just disappear for the rest of the day. I told him I had recorded my voice tracks, shot all my on camera stuff and relayed cutting instructions after the film was “souped”. Mitch smiled broadly and went to the bar for another round of drinks.

robert_mitchum_by_robertobizama-d4ktib7We spent the next couple of hours talking about sports, music, women, work and celebrity. He noticed how people would look and nod but not bother us. I told him this was one of my secret places. Blue collar. No suits. He wondered why I hadn’t asked him about the “Eddie Coyle” movie or shooting in Boston.

Not necessary, I told him. Everyone knew about that stuff and it would be mentioned by the anchors introducing my stories. He smiled again, lit one more cigarette, and ordered another round.

It dawned on me that Mitch was leading the conversation. Talking about me. How I was faring as a minority in a predominantly white profession. Just like the movies, I told him. I explained I did spot news stories to get the opportunity to do features which I really enjoyed. He laughed and we did an early version of the high 5.

We swapped some more war stories, including a couple about Katherine Hepburn. He talked about working with her in “Undercurrent” with Robert Taylor when he was still a young actor. Mitch said Hepburn was just like a guy, professional, and lots of fun.

I mentioned meeting the legendary actress after I was summoned to her Connecticut home during my stint at another TV station. Mitch stared as I talked. I had tea with Katherine Hepburn who had seen me on the Connecticut TV station. She liked what she saw but had some suggestions about how I could improve what I did. I never could fathom why Katherine Hepburn would choose to spend time with this young reporter. No modesty. Just puzzlement. Mitch loved the story and ordered another round.

I glanced at my watch and figured I couldn’t stay incognito much longer. This was before pagers, beepers and, mercifully, long before cell phones. Mitch caught the look on my face and nodded.

Mitch walked me to my car and asked if I was good to drive. I tried to give him a Mitchum look and he just laughed. We shook hands and vowed to do it again.

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

IT CAN’T BE THAT BAD, CAN IT?

Can’t Watch This — When was the last time you watched something too scary, cringe-worthy, or unbelievably tacky to continue?


Almost everyday, I am offended by appallingly cliche-ridden, derivative shows proffered as “the next new thing” for us, the obviously dim-witted audience. Not to mention the “reality shows” like “Marriage Boot Camp” which has offended me merely by its advertisements. No, I haven’t watched one of the shows. If I become that senile or desperate, please shoot me.

Form unimaginative scripts, to the failure of the writers to do even the most basic research about the subject matter, to the inevitable use of tired old lines we hear thousands of times — “Stay in the car!” “Be careful out there!” “You’re off the case and on desk duty!” — to which we all say a weary, “Yeah, right, sure,” because no one stays in the car or on desk duty. And wouldn’t you think being careful would not be something of which you needed to remind police officers who’ve been doing it for years?

However, standing out from the crowd of mediocrity is a movie we had never seen. Was it an instinctive knowledge it would be terrible? Presenting (drumroll) …

WUSA (1970) 115 min – Drama | Romance – 12 March 1971

From the IMDB, a plot summary:

Rheinhardt, a cynical drifter, gets a job as an announcer for right-wing radio station WUSA in New Orleans. Rheinhardt is content to parrot WUSA’s reactionary editorial stance on the air, even if he doesn’t agree with it. Rheinhardt finds his cynical detachment challenged by a lady friend, Geraldine, and by Rainey, a neighbor and troubled idealist who becomes aware of WUSA’s sinister, hidden purpose. And when events start spinning out of control, even Rheinhardt finds he must take a stand.

Director: Stuart Rosenberg
Writers: Robert Stone (screenplay), Robert Stone (novel)
Stars: Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Perkins and more.

WUSA_(movie_poster)It looks good on paper, doesn’t it? I mean Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, right? How bad could it be?

Bad. Very bad. The script starts off slow, but degenerates with each passing minute until it is so stunningly awful, so over-the-top hysterical and preachy, you find yourself glued to the screen, mouth hanging open, bits of drool falling from your slack jaw.

If, by some bad juju, this movie is showing on a television near you, save yourself! Find an oldies station and watch an episode of Gilligan’s Island.

There are probably worse movies lurking in the vaults of Turner Classics. I just hope we have the good sense to not watch them.

THE GARNER FILES: A MEMOIR – JAMES GARNER AND JON WINOKUR (2012)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Jim, we already miss you!

Originally posted on SERENDIPITY:

By James Garner and Jon Winokur – Release date: October 23, 2012

garnerfiles

From the first time I saw James Garner on TV as Bret Maverick, I was ever so slightly in love. I watched the show faithfully whenever Garner starred in the episode. They tried adding more Mavericks, but for me, there was only one. Apparently that’s how most viewers felt — when Garner was gone, the show was gone.

When I saw him in “The Americanization of Emily,” our relationship was sealed. I was a fan  for life. Although I have not seen every movie he ever made, I’ve seen most of them. I’ve liked some, loved most. Whenever one of his movies shows up on cable, it goes on the DVR. Fortunately Garry is a fan too.

Now, about the book. If you had the impression that Jim Garner is a plain-spoken guy with strong…

View original 717 more words

CLEARANCE TIME AGAIN

It’s final clearance sale time. It may be the middle of summer according to the calendar, but in retail, summer’s over. Time to clear out and make room for the new fall fashions. Which is why I’m wearing my new orange dress from J. Jill.

Given my druthers, my entire wardrobe would be neutral. Dark, preferably black. Orange makes me feel as if I’m wearing a neon sign, though Garry thinks it looks cute. Not that he would ever wear this color. He’s even more New York than I am. His favorite color is (wait for it) … gray.

When I said I can’t go out in public in anything this bright, Garry said “This is Uxbridge.”

Uxbridge. On the way to the grocery store, we spotted her. A lovely, plump young thing. Wearing very short, tight, purple spandex shorts. With an over-sized bright yellow tee-shirt. Large bouncing breasts and obviously, no bra. But the thing that brought it all together, that made her larger than life, was her long, electric-blue hair.

She was walking while texting, the epitome of fashion in Our Town. Garry and I discussed the possibility she didn’t own a mirror, but decided she probably thought she looked really cool. I suppose that’s why Garry thinks an orange tee dress is no big deal.

The two colors you can always get at clearance sales are orange and purple.

purple and orange sweaters

End of the season shopping provides a limited choice of colors. Purple, orange. Beige. Ghostly white and unhealthy green. Also special colors which were supposed to be hot but weren’t. Named after food, you’ll find cantaloupe, mango, kiwi, aubergine, honeydew, sugarplum, pumpkin, mocha, and vanilla bean. In other words, purple, beige, and orange. Renaming does not a fashion trend make.

I shopped final sales and closeouts long before I was strapped for cash. It’s tradition. My mother raised me to hold fast to one unyielding principle: “Never pay full price.

You aren’t supposed to brag about how much you pay. You’re supposed to brag about how much you didn’t pay. The less you pay, the greater your bragging rights. I was astonished to discover some people are proud of paying a lot when they could have gotten for half off if they’d waited a couple of days. They might have had to get it in purple or orange, but think of the money they’d save!

Would I have different attitude towards shopping if I were richer? I don’t think so. To put it in perspective, in the early 1990s, I got into a tug of war with Carly Simon for possession of a 70% off final clearance silk blouse in a chi-chi shop in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Neither of us was poor. It was principal. It was orange. I won. It was a fantastic blouse.

Bargain hunting is not just for people on a tight budget. For some of us, it’s a contact sport. Somewhere in the ether, Mom is smiling proudly.

NATIONAL BROTHERHOOD WEEK?

Way back in the dark ages, the third week in February (an otherwise dreary and neglected month) was designated National Brotherhood Week. As designated special weeks go, it was never a big hit with the general public. In the 1980s, it disappeared completely. Probably because it failed to sell greeting cards. Which is, I believe, the point of such created events.

brotherhoodweek-624x446

The National Conference for Christians and Jews (NCCJ) came up with the idea of National Brotherhood Week in 1934. Given the current political climate, maybe we can agree more brotherhood year round would be an improvement. Sadly, we no longer have even that one, measly week.

February is now Black History Month which seems to mean movie channels run films featuring non-white stars. Unless you watch PBS or the History Channel where you might see a documentary or two.

The man who took it seriously — even in the old days — as he took all politics seriously, was Tom Lehrer. He taught math at Hahvid (Harvard, if you aren’t from around here). He didn’t write a lot of songs since he, till his dying day (which hasn’t occurred yet as he’s alive and living in California), thought of himself as a math teacher who wrote silly songs. Not as an entertainer.

Despite this unfair self-assessment, I’ve always felt Tom got this particular holiday dead to rights. Ya’ think?

He got a lot of stuff right. Check him out on YouTube. He only wrote about 50 songs and most of them are posted in some video or other. Me? I’ve got the CDs. (Remember CDs?)

LET THE GOOD TIMES ROLL!

Seat Guru – You get to plan a dinner party for 4-8 of your favorite writers/artists/musicians/other notable figures, whether dead or alive. Who do you seat next to whom in order to inspire the most fun evening?


I probably should ask you to define “fun” as well as “fun for whom?” Because we might have very different ideas of fun. Be that as it may, this is my post and in this ghostly dinner do, I am sure that I will have fun just listening and laughing.

My guest list simply has to start with Dorothy Parker because no dinner party is complete without her acerbic with. Any woman credited with saying:

You can lead a whore to culture, but you cannot make her think.

If all the girls who attended the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Take care of the luxuries and the necessities will take care of themselves.

This is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.

is bound to be a hoot at my soiree, don’t you think? Meanwhile, from her dinner date, Oscar Wilde, we get such winners as:

America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up. 

America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between. — Oscar Wilde

I’m sure the two of them would be busy the entire night swapping bon mots.

Next, I think a manly man — Papa Hemingway? He too had a mouth on him and loathed those sappy, intellectuals. And wasn’t afraid to say so. Let’s sit him next to Noël Coward.

There is no hunting like the hunting of man, and those who have hunted armed men long enough and liked it, never care for anything else thereafter. — Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s ultra manly manliness should be an excellent foil for Noël, the gay guy’s gay guy. Talk about duking it out!

He loved me true did Harry-boy and I loved him true, and if the happiness we gave each other was wicked and wrong in the eyes of the Law and the Church and God Almighty, then the Law and the Church and God Almighty can go dig a hole and fall down it.

Hollywood is a place where some people lie on the beach and look up at the stars, whereas other people lie on the stars and look down at the beach.

Finally, because Garry needs a dinner companion of his own, we’ll invite the Duke himself, John Wayne.

“You’re short on ears and long on mouth.”

“I’ve always followed my father’s advice: he told me, first to always keep my word and, second, to never insult anybody unintentionally. If I insult you, you can be goddamn sure I intend to. Third, he told me not to go around looking for trouble. ”
― John Wayne

I won’t sit. I’ll just flit around catching bits of brilliant conversation as it zings past. What a night. I will bring my best camera and take lots of pictures. It can’t get better than this.

Let the good times roll!

FREE AT LAST

Instant Celebrity - If you could be a famous person for a day, who what would you be? Why?


 

Silver-reaingI would choose to be Silver, the Lone Ranger’s horse. Strong, powerful, beautiful. Galloping free on the range, the wind in my mane, my snow-white tail streaming out behind me. Leaping fences, rearing high on my powerful legs declaring myself the king horses.

I might deign to carry one special man — my Ranger — when he rides out to rid the west of the bad guys and make the world a better, safer place. But when the saddle comes off, I will be free again.

White horse free

I will live off green grasses under blue skies. The wind and running streams will be my friends. No beeping, dinging, or buzzing.

No chores to do, schedules to meet, or bills to pay. I will live my life under the sky with no pain or shame of the past — nor fear of the future.

When my life is over, let me rejoin the earth, My Mother.

THE LAST STAND (2013) – BEST MOVIE EVER STARRING A FORMER GOVERNOR

See on Scoop.itMovies From Mavens

Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro. Jaimie Alexander and lots of other people, this is absolutely the best movie ever made by a former governor of California. Or any former governor.

I’m not a very intellectual movie reviewer. That’s just as well, since there is nothing intellectual about this movie.

It’s pretty good. Lots of shooting. Blood spurting. Vicious bad guys. It has the grace to not take itself too seriously, with enough humorous moments and entirely predictable but nonetheless funny lines to make it easy to watch.

“I’m The Sheriff!” growls Arnold and by golly, he is, though Garry and I simultaneously pointed out that he used to be The Governor.

There are a lot of car chases … or maybe not really chases. More accurately, it is exceptionally good stunt driving. They actually did some stunts I’ve never seen before and I really thought I’d seen them all.

Plot? Oh, right. Plot. Okay. Think “High Noon” with a strong whiff of “Terminator.” Or any western movie where the sheriff stands up to some incredibly evil guys and whups their collective asses with the help of his faithful deputies and one old lady with a shot-gun. You’ll be glad to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger, senior citizen, ex-governor gets shot, stabbed and beat up, but walks away proudly in the end. Not into the sunset, but into the local diner. Irv’s Diner. Killing people and catching malevolent drug lords gives him an appetite. I’m just sorry I forgot to buy popcorn. It’s a beautiful, deeply touching, moment.

If you need a violence fix, this is a pretty good choice. It’s well made. Moves right along. Some great artillery and the aforementioned stunt driving.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY ANTON ARMSTRONG, MY BABY BROTHER!

Google my baby brother? Why in the wide, wide world of sports would I want or need to Google my youngest brother? Hold on — I got some ‘splainin‘ to do.

First, you need to understand there’s nothing humble about the oldest and youngest of Esther and William Armstrong’s three sons. They have creds. Lots of creds. My middle brother, Bill, knows how important his brothers are. Just ask him.

Dr. Anton Armstrong, Garry's baby brother

Dr. Anton Armstrong, Garry’s baby brother

Anton Eugene Armstrong is my baby brother. I think he probably likes that “baby” adjective more and more these days. Soon, he’ll start receiving AARP literature — if he hasn’t already. Welcome to my world, little brother.

Anton entered the world center stage on April 26th in a very special year. I was a high school freshman. Dwight D. Eisenhower was beginning his second term as President. John F. Kennedy was the junior Senator from Massachusetts. Elvis Presley was racking up number one singles every week. Two of New York’s three major league baseball teams were quietly hatching plans to abandon us for the west coast, leaving a generation of broken hearts.

Mom called Anton her “old age” baby but she glowed with happiness on his arrival. Mom always liked Anton best! (Spare me the groans). As oldest son in a family without girls, I was not only his big brother but Anton’s chief diaper changer, cook, playmate and baby sitter. He was an adorable baby and a cute kid. My dad, not given to spontaneous emotion, was obviously taken with his youngest son, even calling him “Tony.” I think dad was the only one who got away with calling Anton “Tony.”

It was obvious, from a very early age, that Anton was bright and talented. Even as a toddler, he had a lovely voice that would become memorable in later years. Young Anton would come into my room as I played my 45s. He would memorize two or three lines from my favorite songs. Richie Valens would’ve loved Anton’s take on “Donna”. “Oh, Donna! Oh Donna! Oh Donna!,” Anton would sing repeatedly with perfect tone changes. I figured my baby brother might be a star on “American Bandstand” one day. Wrong ballpark.

My parents decided Anton would flourish in private schools given his intelligence and quest for knowledge, especially his growing interest in choral music. Thus, Anton began attending Lutheran schools, quickly establishing himself as one of the brightest students, grade after grade.

Anton’s academic excellence continued through high school, college and graduate school. He didn’t take anything for granted, immediately giving back by tutoring younger students during summer school.

Anton didn’t forget family. He always stayed in touch no matter how busy his schedule. He would continue this even as his career blossomed and took him to an international stage as director of the world-famous St. Olaf’s Choir. I fondly remember the night when the choir performed a concert in Boston. I covered the event but kept my distance with the TV crew. Anton paused during the concert to make special note of my presence, acknowledging his big brother, one of the city’s most respected reporters. What a moment!

Marilyn and I have seen Anton’s work as a choir director, working with relatively young, inexperienced groups. In two or three hours, he turns them into an ensemble, as if they’ve been singing together for years. Impressive!

Anton has also brought diversity and freshness to the St. Olaf music department, no easy chore in a very traditional program. Anton has done this almost seamlessly while honoring music that has endured for generations.

Marilyn and I didn’t have to worry about music for our wedding. Anton, our good friends Kit Grundstein and Mary Mitchell were memorable and touching in their performances. Both Kit and Mary have gotten a lot of mileage out of singing with my brother.

Anton and Garry

I am used to being recognized after all my years as a TV news reporter. Matter of fact, I kind of expect it. As I said earlier, there’s nothing humble about the oldest and youngest Armstrong brothers. One day, a few years back, I was stopped by some people who asked if I was Garry Armstrong. I smiled and began reaching for the picture postcards I autograph for fans. I stopped when they asked if I was related to the famous Anton Armstrong.

Yes, I was humbled. But I was so very proud when I said “Yes, he’s my baby brother.”

Happy birthday, baby brother!

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

Teen Age Idol

I’m too old for this. Teen age idol? Aw, c’mon.

I was madly in love with Johnny Mathis (who?) then traded him in for Marlon Brando who I thought was very cerebral and deep. I loved (still love) the Beatles. the Doors and the Stones, but they weren’t my idols … just great bands I enjoyed.

I had a bit of thing for Harry Belafonte, but he was hot.

72-Beatles-Imperial_02

it was more than 50 years ago. Seriously. That’s half a century.

If it was ever relevant, it has long passed over into mildly amusing trivia of the distant past.

 

REMEMBERING GOLDEN BOY

This is a juxtaposition of a montage equal to pure cinema.

What? It’s a line from my professor in a college film appreciation course a thousand years ago. I’m able to write about two subjects today because Marilyn is blogging for the first time since her return home from complex heart valve surgery last week. She’s actually writing two blogs. One for today and one for tomorrow. This should be breaking news for all in Marilyn’s extensive bloggers’ family. We’re talking world-wide, pilgrims. It’s a wonderful sign. Marilyn’s energy level is higher and longer than it’s been since her return home. And, as I write, I think that burst of energy is fading. Still, big strides for my fair lady.

Yesterday mostly we watched movies. Funny movies. “Airplane!,” “Hot Shots, Part Deux” and several Mel Brooks classics. No taxing the brain. Last night our viewing included several segments of “Carson on TCM.”

Our favorite cable station is running some of Johnny Carson’s classic interviews. Johnny’s 1975 interview with William Holden was memorable. Holden was doing publicity for “Network” which had opened a couple of weeks earlier. Carson was clearly impressed with the film’s audacious take on network television. William Holden said he was drawn to the film by Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant script. While both admired the film, neither really knew how accurate “Network” would turn out to be. But I’m getting away from my subject.

William Holden. He was my favorite actor of the 1950s. John Wayne was my favorite movie star but Holden was the consummate actor of the period. He was a handsome every-man who could handle drama, action and comedy.

SOB3

William Holden, from S.O.B. (1981)

I’m skipping a lot of detail because this is more of a personal take on William Holden than a full bio. Beginning with his film début in “Golden Boy” (1939), Holden never gave a bad performance in a career that spanned a quarter of a century. Matter of fact, he got better as he got older. Holden (William Beedle, Jr.) honed his craft while under contracts at Columbia and Paramount during the 1940s. His best performance during the early years was probably the newspaper columnist who falls in love with Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn in “Born Yesterday” (1949).

Holden was on a roll with memorable films including “Sunset Boulevard,” “Stalag 17″ (Best Actor Oscar), “Sabrina” (great comedic role), “Executive Suite”, “The Country Girl”, “Bridge On The River Kwai” (rumor has it Sam Spiegel wanted Cary Grant for the Holden role) and “The Moon Is Blue.” That’s just the 1950s. A career for many other actors. I always enjoyed the wry touch William Holden brought to his characters. It was as if the handsome, golden boy leading man wanted you to know he didn’t take himself seriously. I think life mirrored art.

Fast forward to the 1970s. William Holden was now in his fifties but looked much older. It was no secret he had a drinking problem born of insecurity despite his continuing success. “Network” married the skilled actor and insecure man. It bothered me as a fan and a student of movies. Obviously, it was a familiar story but it struck home because I liked William Holden so much.

June 1981. A lazy Saturday in Boston. It was a slow news day. I got a call from a PR agency. William Holden was available for an interview. Turns out Holden and several prominent cast members of “S.O.B” were available. Blake Edwards’ scathing indictment of Hollywood and the movie industry was in trouble. Within the biz, word was that they were trying to freeze the movie out. So, Holden and his fellow stars volunteered to go on a nationwide PR blitz to promote the hell out of “S.O.B.” and not mince any words about their predicament.

So that Saturday I sat in a room with a handful of reporters, maybe fewer than a handful. Those seated at a long table in front of us included William Holden, Julie Andrews, Robert Preston, Richard Mulligan and Robert Vaughn, among others. A lot of B-roll, setup and cutaway shots were done as we warmed up to each other. William Holden personally made sure the pitchers of bloody Marys kept coming.

I got some quality time with Holden alone because the PR agency liked me. I’d done interviews with supporting actors ignored by other media over the years.  The other media people were focused mainly on Julie Andrews and Robert Vaughn. William Holden was alone, working his way through another pitcher of bloodies when I approached.

We hit it off immediately with the drinks helping. I used my familiar shtick of mentioning some of Holden’s lesser known work, including “The Dark Past”, a late 40’s film noir-ish melodrama in which Holden played a psycho killer. Somewhere in our conversation, Holden said he missed William Beedle, Jr. I nodded. He looked at me oddly. I told him Garry Armstrong was my real name. He smiled and said it was a good name. We talked a little about the “S.O.B.” script. He suggested his speech to the suicide-bent director in the movie could be his own eulogy. I nodded again. We finished the pitcher of bloodies.

William Holden looked around the room as the media folks were packing up their gear. He smiled at me, shook my hand warmly and said, “So long, Pal.”

He would die in a motel room five months later — alone.

BERT LAHR – NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION, GARRY ARMSTRONG

It’s been a while since I finished reading the Bert Lahr biography, “Notes on a Cowardly Lion“, written by his son, John. I am still emotionally involved. Why?

Why does a book written more than 40 years ago about a show business figure who peaked more than 70 years ago still sit front and center in my mind? I’m a retired TV and radio news reporter with more than 40 years in “the business”. The “news biz” is journalism, but it’s also performance, even for those of us who strive for objectivity.

Part of the job is celebrity too. When you appear on television five or six days a week for more than four decades, you become a household face. People ask for your autograph. You receive special treatment in stores and restaurants. Twelve years into retirement, folks still recognize me, tell how they grew up watching me on TV and ask for autographs. Mine is a regional celebrity although I’ve encountered fans almost everywhere I’ve travelled in the United States and overseas. I’ve always enjoyed and appreciated my celebrity. Yes, I miss it a bit when I’m not recognized but I don’t get depressed if I go unnoticed. I needed to share a little of my life because it puts my feelings about the story of Bert Lahr’s life into perspective. I really understood in a very personal way where the man was coming from.

Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in Wizard of Oz...

I enjoyed the biographical side of the book. It speaks to history, the history of vaudeville and burlesque, show business venues that are frequently misrepresented. As a self-proclaimed trivia maven, I received a little education. Case in point: Clifton Webb, long perceived as a middle-aged effete, film actor actually was a well-received song and dance man in vaudeville. I learned the difference between vaudeville and burlesque. I came to appreciate the art form of what I used to perceive as Bert Lahr’s overly broad slapstick comedy. I understood how Lahr’s art form suffered at the hands of Hollywood film directors who tried to minimize his well honed craft and squeeze it into their movie concept of musical comedy.

Lahr’s comic genius never really had a chance  to shine in Hollywood. “The Wizard of Oz” was the exception. But that success also spelled disaster in Tinseltown because Lahr never again received a film role like the Cowardly Lion. Years later, he would find similar frustration with television which tried to restrict his comedic moves in variety shows. Lahr didn’t think much of TV comic legends like Milton Berle and Sid Caesar. Ironically, both Berle and Caesar spoke highly of Lahr in lengthy interviews with me — even as they lamented the fading of their celebrity. But that’s another story. Back to Bert Lahr.  Born into poverty, Lahr was always very conscious about being financially secure.

BertLahrEven when he returned to Broadway where he found his greatest success over the years, Lahr never felt financially secure even though he was earning top star salaries. In later years, as a TV pitchman for Potato Chips, Lahr earned more money for a thirty-second commercial than he ever did for starring in a play, movie or TV special. He still didn’t feel financially secure.

Bert Lahr did find some unexpected late professional success with surprising turns in work like “Waiting For Godot” co-starring with the likes of E.G. Marshall. Lahr savored critical acclaim, but was never satisfied even when he received it. For all of his professional and financial success, he was an unhappy man. He was insecure as an aspiring comedian/actor seeking stardom. He was insecure as a star thinking others were always trying to undermine him. He was insecure as an aging, respected legend believing people had forgotten him even though he was recognized everywhere he went. Lahr was miserable as a husband and father — demanding but not giving. Lahr desperately needed the audience — the laughter, the applause — throughout his life. Sadly,  he never appreciated the love and admiration he got from his family.

As the curtain closed on his life — with his loved ones gathered around him — Lahr still longed for his audience and their laughter and applause. He couldn’t let it go and move on, nor appreciate the good things life offered him. Lahr’s loneliness haunted me. The deeper I got into the book, the more painful I found reading his biography. I know first-hand how intoxicating and addictive celebrity is, especially when you fail to appreciate real life. Bert Lahr was never able to see the joys and sorrows of family and friends as “the real thing” that makes it all worthwhile. It’s the celebrity that is unreal and ephemeral.

It’s the people who love you who will sustain you after the curtain closes and the audience departs the theatre. That Lahr was never able to recognize what he had and accept the love that was there for him was his personal tragedy.

It’s a fine biography, but not a joyful reading experience. It is in many ways a cautionary tale, a reminder of how important it is to keep ones perspective and ones feet on the ground.

REMEMBERING RICHARD JAECKEL – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Boston, 1973.

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was warm. We shot in shirtsleeves in the lobby of the TV station. I couldn’t get a studio and was being urged to get the shoot finished as quickly as possible. The “suits” were unimpressed with Richard Jaeckel. James Coburn was the hot interview on the circuit as “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid” was being pushed by publicists. Richard Jaeckel was very pleasant and friendly even before we rolled the camera.

jaeckel -1He asked about what I did. I gave him a snapshot biography back to my radio days and shooting my own film at a previous TV station. He grinned and said it was good to be working with a “grunt”. The rapport was established.

I mentioned having interviewed Gregory Peck a decade earlier, how well we got along. Jaeckel segued into working with Peck in one of his earliest films, “The Gunfighter” (1950).

As Jaeckel talked, I nodded for my cameraman to begin shooting. He smiled. He’d been shooting since Jaeckel and I began swapping war stories. The interview flowed smoothly.

It was more like a conversation between friends than an interview to promote a film. We chatted more than 10 minutes before I mentioned “Pat Garrett” and Jaeckel again smiled, saying he’d forgotten he was supposed to be promoting the film.

He discussed working with the quirky Sam Peckinpah and scene-stealers like Chill Wills. I asked about Bob Dylan, also in the film. Jaeckel’s smile got bigger as he recalled the folk singer’s kid-like behavior working with “movie stars”.

About 20 minutes later, we wrapped the interview. I asked Jaeckel what was next on his schedule. He said he was free for the afternoon. I suggested a pub near the station might be fine for lunch. He quickly agreed.

Drinks and meals ordered, Jaeckel and I began a three-hour conversation touching on family, movie making and the business of promoting movies. We found a common thread in our roots in New York, in our frustration with management and “the suits.”

I mentioned how I was always “the kid” at every stop in my career. He nodded and jumped in with stories about working with Richard Widmark, John Wayne, Karl Malden and Richard Boone in some of his very early movies. He said they all treated him well but he was always called “the kid”.

richard-jaeckel-dirtydozen-7Jaeckel broke into guffaws when I asked about working with character actors like Jack Elam, Lee Van Cleef and Jack Lambert — all well established screen villains. He said they were the easiest and nicest people to work “jobs” (films) in the business. Jaeckel slid into a brief note about his son, Barry who was a rising tennis player. I quoted some stats which prompted a very pleased grin and a final round of drinks. We ended the afternoon with him picking up the tab, saying he had really enjoyed the day and would check me out on the tube before leaving Boston.

The next evening, just after the 6 pm newscast, I got a call. It was Richard Jaeckel. He’d caught me doing a news piece.

“Good job, Kid”, he said.

“Thanks, Kid”, I replied. We both laughed and wished each other well.

More

“Chisum” is a goodie directed by Vic McLaglen’s son, Andrew. Jaeckel had made it 3 years before “Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid.” It was, he said, fun working with Wayne and a many from the John Ford stock company.

BanacekS1During our lunch,  Jaeckel recounted the off-camera sparring between vets like Bruce Cabot, Ben Johnson,  Forrest Tucker and Duke Wayne versus “kids” like Andrew Prine, Geoff Duel and Christopher George. There were drinking contests with the old guys daring the younger guys to match them shot-for-shot of the hard stuff. The old guys won.

Jaeckel said by the time he made “Chisum” he was regarded as a “tweener” by Wayne and his buddies. He wasn’t harassed like “the kids” but wasn’t quite accepted by the old guys.

Jaeckel said Bruce Cabot was a mean drunk and was reprimanded by Wayne, who himself wasn’t always friendly when he was loaded. Ben Johnson was a friendly, easy-going guy who wasn’t intimated by Wayne who tried to goad his old pal. Christopher George who I met on another occasion confirmed Jaeckel’s stories.

Another Meeting

The second meeting with Richard Jaeckel occurred when “Banacek” was shooting in Boston. We used to have a charity softball game on Boston Common. This time, it was the media all-stars versus George Peppard, the “Banacek” crew and the Playboy Bunnies.

Kegs of beer were set up for both benches. The drinking began before the game and never stopped. Before the first game, the flacks were introducing Peppard to media folks. Jaeckel was a guest star on the “Banacek” series. He pulled Peppard over and introduced me as his buddy, a “grunt” who knew his stuff a holdover from our initial meeting.

Peppard grinned broadly, shook hands and led us behind the bench where he had a carton of his private stock of “the good stuff.” I don’t remember much about the game. I do recall we did justice to the carton of the good stuff. The following day, Peppard –notoriously difficult with the press — turned up for an interview I hadn’t scheduled.

Richard Jaeckel was his driver.

OSCAR ISN’T SACRED BUT WE WATCH ANYHOW

72-oscar-statue

Daily Prompt: Time After Time

We don’t have a lot of traditions. We have a lot of intentions, but they don’t always pan out. But we have one that’s sacred. Okay, not exactly sacred, but we do it every year.

Garry and I watch the Oscars.

We watch them when they are boring. We watch them when we are tired and would like to go to bed. We watched them one year in the pilot’s lounge at the top of a cruise ship on the biggest screen television I’ve ever seen.

Last year, we watched them in Connecticut with friends. For my money, Seth McFarland was the absolutely funniest-ever host.

Ellen DeGeneres was good this year. Pleasant. A kinder, gentler host. But McFarland made me laugh more and laughter always wins the day with me. Her selfie with the stars crashed Twitter and broke all retweet records with more than 2 million retweets.

Garry and I have been together 25 years — officially. Longer unofficially. Much longer entirely off the books. And we always watch the Oscars.

I suppose I should say something about why. I mean, mostly, the show is pretty dull. Insipid speeches thanking everyone the awardee has ever known since birth or even before birth in a previous life. Ho hum productions of the songs of the year. They used to have really bad dance numbers, but eliminated them this year. Drat. That was always good for a groan.

Ellen at oscars

Lacking the bad production numbers, we could gawk at the hideous examples of “one plastic surgery over the line.” Kim Novak was terrible to see. A lovely woman who fixed what didn’t need fixing. We barely recognized her. Then there were all the rest of them, so full of Botox that their faces were all zombified. Rigid. Men and women alike, terrified to be seen getting old.

Garry and I looked at each other and whatever problems we have, we look a lot better than they do. Without plastic surgery, thank you.

And one more thing. How come, since they have the financial wherewithal to buy whatever they want, are so many of them so badly dressed? Can’t buy good taste, eh?

So that’s why we watch the show. To see the new stars, the old stars, the gorgeous dresses from fabulous designers worn by aging stars who should know better. The awful dresses worn by beautiful young starlets who should look in the mirror rather than take the advice of designers.

Ugly tuxedos, terrible hair, bad makeup and some stomach-wrenching plastic surgery. And at least one or two wins for the actors, directors and others who’ve done an amazing job and deserve a victory lap.

The good, the bad and the ugly — it’s all part of the magic of the Oscar night.

Lupita-Nyongo-Oscars-2014

It gives us a chance to yell “Ew!!” yet we are ever-ready to praise those who come through the Oscar experience nicely dressed, not surgically remodeled, with some grace and dignity remaining.

We can hardly wait until next year.

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SHADES OF PURPLE AND ORANGE, 50% OFF!

I have a lot of sweaters. Winters are long; this one is endless. Heating oil is expensive. Sweaters fill the gap. I like sweaters anyhow. These are cuddly, warm, soft garments into which I can snuggle when the north wind blows. Most of my sweaters are purple. I’ve got a few in black, a handful in red, but purple rules. Until recently, all my sweaters were black. I’m from New York where women wear black. It’s a right coast thing.

The purpling of my wardrobe occurred gradually. It crept up on me, a sweater at a time … a lavender cashmere here, a dark purple merino there.  Seasons passed until my wardrobe was awash in purple.

purple and orange sweaters

Purple sweaters scream “final mark-down.” One of the perils of waiting until the end of the season is the selection of colors and sizes is limited. As a habitue of end-of-the-season sales, I know what to expect. Lots of purple, white, orange and some nasty shades of green in which no one looks healthy.

Leftovers also include the “specialty colors” designers were sure would be the next big things. They never sell well, so there are plenty of whatever it was in the clearance bins. All normal, neutral colors are gone, but you’ll find fruit salad: cantaloupe , mango, kiwi, aubergine, honeydew, sugarplum, pumpkin, mocha and vanilla bean. But we all knew they were tan, and orange and coral and lavender. No one was tricked and the new names didn’t make old colors the next big anything.

I’m a fan of neutral colors. I’m conservative about color having I spent decades working. Dressing had to be fast, mindless. Neutral colors are the backbone of a working woman’s wardrobe. If your clothing is all black, grey, off-white, taupe, brown, or khaki, putting together an outfit is a piece of cake. Grab a top, a bottom, attach earrings and voilà. It’s a go-anywhere wardrobe for the fashion-challenged. Me.

The years rolled on. I stopped working and had no money or legitimate need for new clothing — except the usual gaining weight so nothing fit (oops). Our persistent lack of money elevated and honed my bargain hunting skills, but … I have always been a bargain hunter.

As far back as I can remember, I’ve hunted down final sales and closeouts, even when I wasn’t strapped for cash. It’s a family tradition. My mother raised me to hold fast to one unyielding principle: “Never pay full price,” or rephrased, “Only fools pay full price.”

I take great pride in scoring really great buys. You aren’t supposed to brag about how much you pay. You’re supposed to brag about how much you didn’t pay. The less you pay, the greater your bragging rights. I was astonished to discover some people are proud of paying a lot for something for which they could have gotten half off if they’d waited a couple of days. That’s weird, don’t you think? Okay, they might have had to buy it in purple or orange, but think of all the money they’d save!

Would I have different attitude towards shopping if I were rich? I don’t think so. To put it in perspective, back in the early 1990s, I got into a tug of war with Carly Simon for possession of a 70% off final clearance silk blouse in a chi-chi shop in Oak Bluffs on Martha’s Vineyard. Neither of us was poor. It was principal. The blouse was orange. I won. It was a fantastic blouse.

Bargain hunting is not just for people on a tight budget. For many of us, it’s a contact sport. Somewhere, in Heaven, Mom is smiling proudly.

THE LAST STAND (2013) – BEST MOVIE EVER STARRING A FORMER GOVERNOR

Last_Stand_2013Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro. Jaimie Alexander and lots of other people, this is absolutely the best movie ever made by a former governor of California. Or any former governor.

I’m not a very intellectual movie reviewer. That’s just as well, since there is nothing intellectual about this movie.

It’s pretty good. Lots of shooting. Blood spurting. Vicious bad guys. It has the grace to not take itself too seriously, with enough humorous moments and entirely predictable but nonetheless funny lines to make it easy to watch.

“I’m The Sheriff!” growls Arnold and by golly, he is, though Garry and I simultaneously pointed out that he used to be The Governor.

There are a lot of car chases … or maybe not really chases. More accurately, it is exceptionally good stunt driving. They actually did some stunts I’ve never seen before and I really thought I’d seen them all.

Plot? Oh, right. Plot. Okay. Think “High Noon” with a strong whiff of “Terminator.” Or any western movie where the sheriff stands up to some incredibly evil guys and whups their collective asses with the help of his faithful deputies and one old lady with a shot-gun. You’ll be glad to know that Arnold Schwarzenegger, senior citizen, ex-governor gets shot, stabbed and beat up, but walks away proudly in the end. Not into the sunset, but into the local diner. Irv’s Diner. Killing people and catching malevolent drug lords gives him an appetite. I’m just sorry I forgot to buy popcorn. It’s a beautiful, deeply touching, moment.

If you need a violence fix, this is a pretty good choice. It’s well made. Moves right along. Some great artillery and the aforementioned stunt driving.

It’s available on Amazon — free for Prime members. Probably on Netflix too. I haven’t checked but usually if it’s on one, you’ll find it on the other.