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.

LEDA AND THE SWAN – THE MUSICAL

Back in my bright college days, I was a music major. I hung out on the quad with other wannabe musicians on warm sunny days where we planned projects which would make us famous. Symphonies. Great achievements as conductors and composers though my class never produced anyone huge. Medium is as good as we got.

The Concept

My great project was going to be musical comedy based on the myth of Leda and the Swan.

In the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces — or rapes – Leda. I vote for seduction since I have a lot of trouble visualizing being rape by a swan.

Zeus or not, swans are slow and clumsy on land, unlikely to successfully attack anyone or anything. Being heavy-bodied, they have trouble getting airborne. Without hands or arms, rape seems unlikely.

Leda becomes pregnant from the experience. She bears Helen and Polydeuces, both children of Zeus. Simultaneously (and I’d like to know how she managed this), she gives birth to Castor and Clytemnestra – the offspring of her human husband Tyndareus, King of Sparta.

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Leda is able to convince her parents and husband that her extraneous pregnancy is not the result of a lover or promiscuity. “No! Honest to gods, really, no kidding, Mom, Dad, Tyndy … it was Zeus! Not some guy. He was a swan! Really.” Right.

The first … and perhaps my favorite scene … would have to be the first act closer. In this highly emotional musical extravaganza, Leda pours out her distress in a heart-rending lyric soprano rich with passion. In it, she explains that it really truly was Zeus.

I could imagine another hilarious show-stopping moment. The eggs. Her Zeus children are born as eggs. Who sat on the eggs? Did they build a nest on her throne? Did she get her ladies-in-waiting to sit on them while she did her Queen business?

Dialog Tidbit

Leda: The swan didn’t fool me. I knew it was Zeus. You all know how much I love birds and feathers, right? I mean … what girl could resist such a gorgeous bird? No kidding. I wouldn’t lie to you.

Tyndareus, King of Sparta: I want to believe you, but I’m having some problems.

Leda: Trust me, dear. It was Zeus. As a swan. You know how tricky he is.

The All-Important Dream Ballet

In a brilliantly choreographed dream sequence, Leda relives the heady romance of the seduction. Some of the technical aspects of the experience make interesting mental meanderings. How, exactly, did … well … ? It will make a heck of a scene.

How Many Curtain Calls?

I’m telling you — the audience will be on its collective feet! I can hear the applause already. I see the royalties rolling in.

Swan's Nest

I’m a bit long in the tooth now for to write a musical comedy, but I freely offer this incredible concept to anyone who wants to flush it out. It might launch more than one career.

You think?

MARILYN MEETS MOSES AND MR. ROBERTS – GARRY ARMSTRONG

midway-poster“Call me Chuck”,  Charlton Heston beamed down as Marilyn stared up. Manhattan, 1976 and a gathering for the world première of “Midway”. Marilyn and I were in the middle of what they used to call a “gang bang” press conference to publicize the new blockbuster movie. There were scores of writers and columnists from around the world seated at dozens of tables in the posh mid-town restaurant. Everyone wanted scoops from the handful of super stars assembled to meet and greet the media. Think of a wedding where hundreds of people want quality time with the bride and groom. Never happens. Almost never.

“Chuck” Heston and I had met several times in recent years when he stopped in Boston to promote films. Somehow, we became “friends” of a sort. He was fascinated by the TV film equipment we used. I scored a few points when I told him I used to shoot my own film earlier in my career. I never mentioned the mediocrity of my work at a small station where I had to shoot my stories.

We compared notes about film style. He’d shot film when he was in college. I segued to Heston’s first film, “Dark City” and – voila – the “friendship” began. When I mentioned “Will Penny”, an underrated western classic, Heston beamed and we were on a roll. We swapped stories about working for “suits” and laughed a lot. He would always ask for me whenever he visited Boston.

CharltonHeston6X9

Chuck held Marilyn’s hand tightly at the “Midway” press luncheon. She stared up at him. His teeth were yellow. His white turtleneck looked worn and his plaid sports jacket was a bit frumpy. No matter. He looked directly at Marilyn as if no one else was at our table. The well-known entertainment scribes around us seemed a bit agitated. No matter. Chuck told Marilyn he was tired and felt like these PR luncheons were meat markets. Marilyn stared and nodded. He patted her hand, glanced at me and told Marilyn that I was ‘a good man and a fun guy who knew his stuff ‘. I beamed. The other people grew more agitated. Marilyn’s stare turned into a smile. Chuck excused himself for a moment saying he wanted us to meet some friends.

“Hank, I want you to meet a couple of friends”, Chuck introduced Henry Fonda to Marilyn and me. The familiar, laconic gait was very real. “Hank” Fonda took Marilyn’s hand looking a little like Wyatt Earp meeting Clementine.

henry-fonda

Marilyn stared up at the film legend. He had incredibly thick, gray eyebrows and, like Chuck Heston, looked very tired. But he smiled as he chatted with Marilyn and said something about how nice it was meeting Chuck’s friends. My, oh, my!!

A notoriously reclusive man who disdained doing publicity things, “Hank” actually seemed at ease as he chatted with Marilyn and acknowledged me. The other people at the table had moved from agitation to resentment while pretending to enjoy the attention we were receiving. Marilyn seemed a bit more relaxed as Fonda continued to chat with her. Chuck nodded in approval as Hank talked briefly about dealing with the press. He talked about the “Mr. Roberts” publicity campaign two decades earlier. That had been personal for him because “Mr. Roberts” had been his baby from stage to screen.

“Hank” looked down at Marilyn and said something about getting too old for ‘this stuff’. He did look very thin and sallow. Fonda’s smile and good humor covered up his physical weariness. Little did we know that his body would give out five years later. Hank and Chuck said goodbye to Marilyn (and me), waved to the others at our table, and walked into the crowd. Marilyn was beaming.

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LET MUSIC FILL THE AIR!

Daily Prompt: Groupthink 

by michelle w. on February 2, 2014

Photographers, artists, poets: show us a GROUP.

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Nothing I can think of more represents “group think” in a positive way than does an orchestra and choir. Here, people coöperate, play their parts in a carefully arranged order. Anyone who plays or sings out-of-order will ruin the harmony, destroy the beauty of the whole. For me, a concert represents human society at its finest.

Working together, all focussed on the success of the group without regard for individual attention. Anyone who has ever worked in a troupe of performers, whether it be dance, music, song or drama understands that coöperation, coördination and putting the welfare of the group ahead of individual achievement is tantamount to success … and how great it feels when it all comes together.

Group think doesn’t necessarily mean the loss of ones individuality, but can mean the subordination of ones talent to create something far greater than any individual could do alone. Let there be music!

Often considered the most beautiful melody ever written — there’s to my mind a good deal of competition in this category, but it is wonderful — this is the finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “Ode to Joy.” Orchestra and chorus, together to make a truly joyous noise!

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REVIEWING THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY, 1964

Cover of "The Americanization of Emily"

The Americanization of Emily (1964) is an American comedy-drama war film written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, loosely adapted from the novel of the same name by William Bradford Huie who had been a SeaBee officer on D-Day.

With a brilliant script by Paddy Chayefsky, it features impeccable direction by Arthur Hill and a radiant Julie Andrews in her first non-musical feature role. James Coburn displays his comedic chops,  which are considerable, and James Garner is perfect as the Admiral’s dog robber … a role he also played in The Great Escape, released the previous year (1963). Chayefsky put a strongly anti-war slant on the story and the film includes some of the most memorable monologues in any movie ever made.

I first saw this in the theatre when it was newly released. It was a powerful experience and stayed with me since. It was a premium time for anti-war sentiment here and abroad, but the movie still suffered from being seen as unpatriotic.

This isn’t a movie that you hear about much although it was nominated for two Oscars – Best Art Direction – (George W. Davis, Hans Peters, Elliot Scott, Henry Grace, Robert R. Benton and Best Cinematography – (Philip H. Lathrop). Julie Andrews was nominated by BAFTA for Best Actress.

It is not available on DVD at the moment, but is available as a download from Amazon.com. It will probably become available again at some point. How and when movies are released or dropped seems whimsical and without any particular logic.

Right before it stopped being available, I made sure to get a copy for us. Many of my favorite movies from the 60s and even through the 1990s are no longer available. I know that downloading and streaming video is all the thing, but I don’t want to be limited to watching movies on my computer nor do I want to be entirely dependent on the whimsical technical capabilities of my cable company. I prefer owning my own media and frankly, I neither like nor trust my cable company. They already have much too much power and charge much more money than they ought.

Garner’s role as Charlie Madison was originally slated for William Holden, with Garner set for the Bus Cummings role played ultimately played by Coburn. Holden dropped out of the project. This was great from Garner’s point of view. He viewed The Americanization of Emily as the best role he had in his long movie career. In interviews, Coburn echoes the sentiment. If one wanted to judge a role by the number of brilliant speeches the leads get to make, this has to be the top vehicle for Garner, Coburn and Andrews. Paddy Chayefsky wrote some of the best dialogue ever heard on stage or screen. He was an actor’s gift and well they knew it.

 

The actors in The Americanization of Emily were aware how important an opportunity the film offered. Great movie roles don’t come along everyday in any actor’s career.

If you can catch this on cable or anywhere, watch it. The script is brilliant, the kind of scriptwriting that’s becoming extinct. For me, the language, the words, will always be the best part of a great film. If you are a “word person,” this is your movie. The acting is first-rate, the photography is perfect. It’s everything you want a movie to be.

AGENT TO THE STARS, J0HN SCALZI – THE AUDIOBOOK, NARRATED BY WIL WHEATON

AgentToTheStars

This was the first book by John Scalzi I ever read. I so loved it, I’ve been following him ever since.

This book is funny, clever, witty. The characters are oddly believable even though the story is totally wacky. Or is it? Michelle Beck — former cheerleader and box office hot ticket is Hollywood agent Tom Stein’s biggest client. Until Tom meets extraterrestrials who hires Tom to represent them. The Yherajk believe their best hope for a peaceful first contact between their race and humanity is via the movies. Even out in space, they know they need a great agent to make it in Hollywood … and they’ve decided Tom is it.

Agent to the Stars stands out as one of the most memorable science fictions books I’ve read in the last decade. Which is saying a lot since I read a great deal of fantasy and science fiction. From my first reading, it has been in my top five favorite sci fi audiobooks and in the perhaps dozen science fiction books I’ve read more than once.

One of the mast interesting things about Scalzi is his ability to write in a wide variety of styles. He can be serious, funny and often, a mix of both. He can be wild and crazy or highly technical — or both –and he makes it work. No one writing in the genre today works harder or produces more good science fiction. This was the first of his books I read, but it hooked me like a fish on a line.i

Read it. If you like sci fi, humor, wit — or just appreciate well-written stories. It will not disappoint you.

Daily Prompt: It Builds Character — Star Struck

I met my first celebrity while working at the Steinway building in New York. Down the street from CBS Studios. It was 1967 and the filming of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was finishing up. For several weeks, each lunchtime I bumped into Sidney Poitier on his way to lunch. He was tall. I’m short. Tall people — even non-celebrities — awe me. And he was oh my wow handsome.

sidney-poitier-barack-obama1We crossed paths at least a dozen times during a three-week period and never once did I have the courage to do more than look yearningly in his direction. Later, I could think of lots of cool stuff I could have said, but I was tongue-tied and incoherent. I  could just look. That would be my pattern with celebrities for the rest of my life, at least on first meeting. If I was able to spend time with them and get past awe, recovering my ability to form words, I could have a conversation.

So while I passed by, mute, other people stopped him, asked for autographs and he graciously complied. But not me.

The area was crawling with celebrities. CBS wasn’t the only studio in the area. NBC’s 30 Rock was not far. And the Russian Tea Room, a very popular eatery for stars of stage and screen was across the street. One day, at the deli where everyone ate — it was the only fast lunch place on West 57th street – I found myself sitting next to George Hamilton. 55 years ago, he was unreal, so good-looking he might have been molded from dreams. What did Marilyn say? He was right next to me at the counter, knee to knee on stools at the counter.

George Hamilton 1“Pass the ketchup, please?” I squawked. It was the only thing I could think of. There’s a very small possibility our hands brushed during the transfer.

Fortunately, stars are familiar with these reactions. They are aware the effect they have on “civilians” and do not necessarily assume we are babbling idiots or mute. They just assume we are star struck. And that’s what we are. Star struck.

I am not normally tongue-tied, but each time I’ve met a celebrity, I can’t say a word. I stand there like a stuffed dummy making gurgling noises. I did once have a little tug of war with Carly Simon over possession of a clearance sale blouse in Oak Bluffs.  We didn’t talk. She pulled. I pulled. She had height on her side; I had grim determination on mine. I got the blouse. She could have out-talked me, but fortunately for me, no words were required. We eye-balled each other and she decided it wasn’t worth a cat fight.

Married to Garry, I got to meet President Clinton and his family twice. Close and personal with POTUS, most people find they have nothing to say. It’s not just me or the man. It’s the office. The aura of power surrounding it. Not to mention William Jefferson Clinton was a big, handsome guy in whose presence I would likely have been awed even if he weren’t the Prez. I believe I squeaked out “You’re the President; I’m not.” Witty, eh?

It turns out that my behavior isn’t unusual. Regular people in the presence of fame and power tend to stutter or blurt out something stupid. No one is immune, not even celebrities meeting other celebrities. We are all, on some level, Star Struck.

Just once, I’d like to meet someone I admire and say something intelligent. Anything coherent would do.

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ALMOST MEL BROOKS: THE RAVEN (1963)

The Raven (1935 film)

It’s that time of year again. When every television station digs into its archives and hauls out the hoariest old horror flicks they can find. They don’t have to be good or even scary. If they feature one of the “classic” horror movie actors — Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Lon Chaney Jr., Bela Lugosi (you can sing along because I’m sure you know the usual suspects) – it’s good to go.

After avoiding the movie for 50 years, I sat through an entire showing of The Raven. It stars the usual suspects: Vincent Price, Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre. It features some very serious curtain-chewing by Vincent Price who can barely keep a straight face.Given the dialogue, I can well understand why. Boris Karloff is very Boris Karloff. And surprise! There’s a major role for a very youthful Jack Nicholson. Directed by (who else?) Roger Corman.

Jack Nicholson? In a B horror movie? Yesiree. I didn’t recognize him until Garry pointed him out. Then he made a Jack Nicholson face and I said, “OH yeah, that’s Jack.” He did a couple of films with Roger before Easy Rider catapulted him to fame and fortune.

Vincent’s recitation of Edgar Allen Poe‘s at the beginning of the film is (sorry about the pun) priceless. It’s an unintentionally funny poem anyhow, but Price’s recitation  is so camp I realized the movie was never intended to be taken seriously. This was being played for laughs.

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Sure enough, the movie is a comedy. So much so  I felt as if I were watching “Young Frankenstein.” It wasn’t belly laugh or guffaw funny, but it was funny. Kitsch, camp and way over-the-top.

If you haven’t seen it — on purpose or by omission — take a look. I assume it’s playing on more than one cable channel. Consult your guide. It is bound to be playing somewhere. It’s funny and no, it isn’t scary unless you are 3-years-old and extremely easily frightened.

I will not burden you with the plot. It’s irrelevant. Not to worry. It’s just a bunch of old horror movie stars doing their thing, playing parodies of themselves. And a historically interesting performance by a very early Jack Nicholson, long before he found his way to superstardom.

This is a movie that’s fun to watch and surprisingly entertaining.

For extra credit, try reciting “The Raven.” No laughing allowed. Ham it up as much as you can. I’d be surprised if you can come anywhere near Vincent Price’s classic performance. He was The Ham of Hams. I don’t believe anyone before or since can match his lugubrious tones.

WHERE DID YOU GET THAT THING YOU’RE WEARING?

“How come Gibbs is wearing a coat in Arizona in the summer?”

I was talking to Garry. It was an NCIS rerun. We watch a lot of reruns, though this new fall season of TV is shaping up better than I expected, so maybe there will be new shows to watch.

YLE Wardrobe

The question about costumes comes up often and on various shows. One of the more common “huh” moments is when the male lead is wearing a coat and the female lead is skimpily dressed. No explanation needed for that one. But more weird are when each cast member is dressed randomly, apparently without regard for the story in progress. One is wearing a heavy winter coat, another a light denim jacket. A third is in shirtsleeves. Some are clothed in jeans or other casual stuff while others look ready for Wall Street … or a cocktail party. Women are supposedly hiking and running from or after serial killers while they wear 4-inch spikes. My feet hurt just looking.

Garry and I have done a tiny bit of movie “extra” work so I’m guessing it goes like this:  “Go find something that fits in wardrobe and be on set in ten.”

Everyone hustles off to wardrobe, which looks like a jumble sale or the clothing racks at the Salvation Army store. Most of the clothing in wardrobe probably came from some second-hand source or other. Everyone dives in looking for something that fits. As soon as they find an outfit … any outfit … they head for a changing booth, then off to be on set before someone yells at them. Stars get slightly better wardrobe or wear their own clothing. Wearing ones own clothing, both on TV shows and movies is quite common. I understand why.

NCIS Filming

The real question is not why everyone on a show is poorly or inappropriately dressed. It’s whether or not the people who produce the show think we won’t notice. My theory is they don’t care if we notice or not. They are cheaping out on wardrobe figuring if you and I notice at all, we won’t care or we’ll keep watching anyhow.

It’s a bottom-line driven world and wardrobe is one area where corners can easily be cut.

The thing is, we do notice. You don’t need to be a professional critic or especially astute to see the incongruities of television costuming. Movie costuming is often no better. Whoever is in charge figures if you’ve noticed the clothing, you are must be watching the show. They’ve got you. Why worry?

The thing is, the overriding disdain for viewers adds up over time. Eventually it feels like a virtual slap in the face. As a viewer, I have to assume they think I am astoundingly unobservant or plain stupid … or so hooked on their product they needn’t worry about retaining my loyalty. They are wrong.

NCIS Filming

This nonchalance extends beyond costumes. Sloppy editing, crappy scripts, stupid plots that include blatant factual and continuity errors … Ultimately, we do stop watching. Because it’s obvious they don’t care so why should we?

You notice it on long-running shows that had good scripts and editing but suddenly don’t. The quality of the show starts to slide. Producers are baffled when loyal fans stop tuning in. It isn’t baffling to a normal person but is apparently incomprehensible to producers and network executives.

The most surprising thing is when quality stays high for more than the two initial seasons. Few shows survive more than 3 seasons anymore. An embedded disrespect for viewers is, in my opinion, the root of much of the illness besetting the television industry. They either treat us like morons or discount us because we are too young, too old  or some other incorrect and undesirable demographic. If you are under 18 or over 49, you literally don’t count. There are other, subtler forms of discrimination. Someone decided young people and old people don’t buy enough stuff. No TV for us!  Reality never intrudes into the decision-making process. I’m pretty sure I buy a lot of stuff and so does my granddaughter. Her and her friends are always shopping.

They should be nicer to us. We are, after all, the customers. Aren’t we?

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Magic Time – Induction at the Hall of Fame – Garry Armstrong

From the Hall of Fame induction — September 12, 2013 — pictures of happy people having a really great day. These are the pictures from the ceremony and immediately after it.

At the Hall of Fame, September 2013

At the Hall of Fame, September 2013

Plus, a great picture of us by Bill Brett (Boston Globe) and a rare picture of Garry and his brother, Dr. Anton Armstrong … and Garry at the podium accepting the award. Typically these events are a bit of a letdown, but this one was not. It was just what we wanted it to be and maybe even better!

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LEDA DOES THE SWAN

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The happy couple.

Back in my bright college days, I was for the first 2 years, a music major. When my fellow wannabe musicians hung out on the quad on warm sunny days, we would plan projects that were going to make us famous. Symphonies were planned. Great achievements as conductors and composers were spun as glorious dreams, although I don’t know that my class actually produced anyone who really hit the big time. Medium time seems to be as good as we got.

But my dream, my great project, was a full musical comedy based on the story of Leda and the Swan. I thought Broadway because in those days, there were no computer generated graphics to make the impossible real on-screen. Now, I think perhaps Hollywood would be the correct venue for this masterpiece.

In the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, Zeus, in the form of a swan, seduces, or rapes Leda. Which is never made entirely clear, but I vote for seduction since I have a lot of trouble visualizing getting raped by a swan. Even as Zeus, swans are not agile except in the water and their lack of hands and arms would seem to make rape difficult.

Regardless, Leda becomes pregnant by Zeus as swan. She bears Helen and Polydeuces, both children of Zeus in his swan modality. Simultaneously (I’d like to know how she manages this) she gives birth to Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her human husband Tyndareus, King of Sparta.

In the myth, Leda is able to convince her parents and husband her extra pregnancy was not the result of a lover. No, no! Honest to gods, really, no kidding, it was Zeus who did it. Not merely was it Zeus –not some guy — but he was in the form of a swan!

96-SwansPost-NK_10

Hey, Zeus? Is that you?

My favorite scene would be the first act closer. In a highly emotional musical extravaganza, Leda pours out her distress in a heart-rending lyric soprano rich with passion. She explains — to hubby, mom and dad —  it really truly was Zeus.

Leda: Even in the form of a swan, I knew it was Zeus. And you all know how much I love birds and feathers, right? I mean … what girl could resist such a gorgeous bird who is, after all, top God in the Pantheon? No kidding. I wouldn’t lie to you.

Tyndareus, King of Sparta: I want to believe you, but I’m having a few problems with this.

Leda: Trust me, dear. It was Zeus. He was disguised as a swan. You know how clever he can be.

Later, we all get to see the central event, Leda’s experience. In a carefully choreographed dream sequence, Leda relives the heady romance of the seduction. I’m assuming it was seduction rather than rape. I mean, how big was that swan anyhow? And, uh, some of the technical aspects of the experience make for interesting mental meanderings. How, exactly, did … well … Never mind. This is a G-rated site. Suffice to say it would make a heck of a scene. Now that CGI has come of age, with some well done special effects? Wow. This could have the audience on its feet!

There’s more. Depending on which version of the story you read, Leda either give birth to babies … or lays eggs. Lays eggs? Really?

Zeus and Leda?

Zeus and Leda?

Eggs open up a whole new world of possibilities. If she lays eggs, does she have to sit on them until they hatch? As Queen of Sparta, can she order her court attendants to sit on the eggs while she performs her royal duties?

Does she build a nest? In the palace? Do the hatchlings feel a compelling urge to dive into lakes and ponds? Are they born knowing how to swim? Or more to the point, paddle? Do they have webbed feet? How do they feel about feathers?

I no long feel up to writing a musical comedy, but I freely offer this amazing concept to anyone who feels inclined to flush it out. I think it might just launch more than one career. You think?

Reviewing the Oldies: Along Came Jones (1945)

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I love western movies. I love horses. I love to laugh. What’s better than a funny western? Not much in my opinion.

My favorite — but little-celebrated — movies are western comedies. It isn’t the most popular movie genre, yet there are a reasonable number worth watching. Almost everybody has seen City Slickers and Blazing Saddles. How many people remember Cat Ballou, or have seen Rustler’s Rhapsody? Both charming and very funny movies. Lee Marvin got his only Academy Award for his role in Cat Ballou. On acceptance, he gave credit to his horse who deserved it. But I digress.

Along Came Jones is funny, but it’s gentle and sweet. It’s a love story with Loretta Young as the romantic interest, with Cooper in a role that it pokes fun at westerns and Coop himself without being mean-spirited. The plot is the basic mistaken-identity tale. Easygoing and slightly inept Melody Jones (Gary Cooper) and his friend George (William Demarest) ride into a town. Jones is mistaken for a badass bandit named Monte Jarrad (Dan Duryea) mostly because he has the same initials on his saddle. The mixup earns him a lot of unexpected respect (which he likes) then rapidly changes to trouble and finally love. The real Jarrad is hiding out in the home of his girlfriend Cherry (Loretta Young). In the beginning, she uses Melody to send the law off in the wrong direction, but as she gets to know Jones, her feelings change. There is a happy ending for all.

Cover of "Along Came Jones (Sub)"

Gary Cooper produced the movie and put his own money into it. It gave him a chance to be something other than the grim hero he so often played. In this, he is a lighter and more humorous version of his typical role. It was the only feature film Cooper produced during his more than 40-year movie career and Melody Jones was his favorite role. It’s easy to see why.

It’s a rare feel-good movie that isn’t trite. Cooper poking fun at Cooper is amusing without being over the top. His slow-talking, aw shucks style is perfect. This is an oldie that doesn’t play very often on cable, but it does pop up on Turner Classic Movies from time to time. If you find it, it’s worth watching. If you get TCM, you can find out when it’s playing on their website.

It has stood the test of time surprisingly well. You can see where financial corners were cut, but it doesn’t matter. The movie is character-driven and the scenery is just a stage set.  When we got a DVD player, it was the first movie I bought. It’s available at Amazon in combination with other Cooper movies and rather expensively on its own.

Cropped screenshot of Loretta Young from the t...

There’s no fancy cinematography, no nudity, cussin’, or graphic violence. A bit of shooting, no gobs of blood flowing. The tension won’t raise your blood pressure. It’s got some laughs and lots of smiles.  It’s a pleasant way to dump reality and visit a version of the old west that never was.

From Garry Armstrong, AKA “The Movie Maven”:

I spotted “Jones” when I was surfin’ the overnight movie fare and knew I’d struck gold for both of us. Charlton Heston once told me that Gary Cooper was his favorite actor and inspiration for his own little western “Will Penny”.

Coop was the idol of many, including one young woman in Brooklyn, New York, who decided to name her first-born after the legendary star in 1942. I digress, as usual, when talking about movies. After 15 years of commercial and critical hits, Gary Cooper was top gun at the box office in 1945. One of his favorites was “The Westerner” done 5 years earlier but that was stolen from him by Walter Brennan’s “Judge Roy Bean”.

Cover of "The Westerner"

Cooper loved his character in “The Westerner” and wanted to give him another go on his own terms. Melody Jones would be that guy. A Coop bio I read long ago says he made “Jones” mostly with his own money. Got it released as an independent so he would have last cut rights.

You’ll notice it’s low-budget by the exteriors and “rear projection” scenes, but that hardly matters. Loretta Young also did the movie “for a song”. Coop hand-picked Dan Duryea who was still a very young and aspiring actor with few major film notches, except for “Pride of the Yankees.”

Lane Chandler, one of the bad guys in the film, was originally supposed to do “Wings” (I believe), the silent that gave Coop his big closeup and break for stardom. Coop got that cameo not Chandler — and the rest is history.

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Now Playing on Walpole Community Television

Garry Armstrong, Tom Ellis with Guy Giampapa on Walpole Community Television.

September 2013.

WHAT’S THE SCOOP?

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It seems to me the importance of whatever is going on in the world has an inverse relationship to the amount of attention it gets in the press. By “press,” I’m referring to newspapers, radio, television and other traditional news outlets, newer stuff like social networks, websites and blogs. Plus even newer sources of information such as newsletters and email. “Press” is the collective dissemination of information from a wide variety of perspectives and mediums. These days, it’s a free-for-all. If you care about truth and facts, you will need to do some independent reality checking.

News is loosely defined as whatever news people say it is. Whether or not this actually is news is subjective. The control of news content is not, as many people think, in the hands of reporters or even editors and publishers. Whatever controls exist are defined in corporate boardrooms run by guys like Rupert Murdoch who have no vested interest in keeping us well-informed. The news biz is about power, politics and money. Mostly money. It’s business, not public service.

That would, in theory, make “independent” sources — bloggers, for example — more “honest” … but don’t bet on it. Everybody’s got an agenda. Independence doesn’t equate to accuracy or honesty. They may not be beholden to a corporation or sponsors, but that doesn’t make them neutral or fair. They may be … but then again, maybe not. I’ve read blogs so blatantly lacking in any kind of journalistic ethics it shocked me. I am not easily shocked.

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Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress in which President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m not sure exactly when news stopped being stories about important stuff going on in the world and became whatever will generate a big audience likely buy the sponsors’ products. Money has always driven the news to some degree, but not like today. Now, everything seems to be driven by the bottom-line. It hasn’t improved the quality of the news. Once upon a time, important issues and stories got a free pass, an exemption from needing to have “sex appeal.” Significant news got on the air even if it wasn’t sexy or likely to sell products. Not true any more.

For a brief shining period from World War II through the early 196os and perhaps a bit beyond, the “Ed Murrow” effect was a powerful influence in American news. Reporters were invigorated by getting respect for their work and tried to be “journalists” rather than muckrakers.

When I was growing up, Walter Cronkite was The Man. He carried such an aura of integrity and authority I thought he should be president not merely of the U.S., but of the world. Who would argue with Walter Cronkite? He sat next to God in the newsroom and some of us had a sneaking suspicion God personally told him what was important. If Walter said it was true, we believed. Thus when Cronkite became the guy to get Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat to sit down and talk — the beginning of the Camp David Accords — it seemed natural and right. Who was more trustworthy than Uncle Walter? Who carried more authority? He walked in the glow of righteousness.

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He always made my mother giggle. It was not Walter, the reporter or man who made her laugh. It was his name. “Cronkite” in Yiddish means ailment, so every time his name was announced, my mother, who had a wild and zany sense of humor, was reduced to incoherent choking laughter. It was a nightly event. Eventually she got herself under control sufficiently to watch the news, but the sound of her barely contained merriment did nothing to improve the gravity I felt should surround the news.

To this day, the first thing I think of when I hear Walter Cronkite’s name — something that less and less frequently as the younger generations forget everything that happened before Facebook — is the sound of my mother’s laughter. That’s not entirely bad, come to think of it.

Walter was one of Ed Murrow’s boys, his hand-picked crew at CBS News.

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I can only wonder what the chances are of any of us living to see a return to news presented as news and not as entertainment. Where reporters and anchors check and doublecheck sources before broadcasting a story. Today, Jon Stewart’s comedy news The Daily Show gives us more accurate news than does the supposed “real” news, I like Stewart, but I don’t think this is the way it’s supposed to be.

For a look at the how we got from there to here, two movies spring instantly to mind : Network – a 1976 American satirical film written by the great Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet starring Faye DunawayWilliam HoldenPeter Finch, and Robert Duvall. Its dark vision of the future of news has turned out to be very close to reality. Too close for comfort.

The other, for veterans of the TV wars, is Broadcast News, a 1987 comedy-drama film written, produced and directed by James L. Brooks. The film concerns a virtuoso television news producer (Holly Hunter), who has daily emotional breakdowns, a brilliant yet prickly reporter (Albert Brooks) and his charismatic but far less seasoned rival (William Hurt). When it first came out, it was almost too painful to watch.

And finally, Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom …the HBO series that gives the most realistic look at how it works and sometimes, how it fails … and why it matters.

The world goes on. We think we can’t survive without this or that. We think the world will go completely to Hell without real news and serious reporters but we survive. Maybe the worse for wear, but trucking along. Nonetheless, I’d like real news back on the air. I’d like to see a return to fact-based reporting. I know how old-fashioned that is, but I wish I could believe what I read, what I see, what I hear. I miss being able to trust the information I get. I would like to be less cynical or at the least, discover my cynicism was misplaced.

Just saying.

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Inside An Old Mill

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We went down to Walpole today. Garry was doing a television show with his friend, Tom Ellis, a “wrap up” to his Hall of Fame induction.

Walpole Comm TV

I’d been to Walpole Community Television before. Several times and once, when I was a new author, I was interviewed on a show there. Yet I had never noticed the building was a converted mill. I usually notice architecture, but I guess my mind was on other things.

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Today I noticed. The thing is, the building doesn’t look like a mill — not from the outside, anyway. It’s quite small, as mill buildings go and there’s no river or pond visible. It turns out, there is a small stream which runs alongside the building. Perhaps it was larger a hundred years ago. Probably much of the water has been diverted or sent underground.

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Walpole isn’t in the valley … not the Blackstone or the Merrimack. The river valleys are where I expect to find mills. But really, there are mills — old mills — all over New England. Wherever a river or a stream ran, someone built a mill. Milford, Millis, Millville, Milbridge, Millbury. From Connecticut to Maine, you’ll find the mill towns and the old mills around which the towns grew.

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The mills were our first industry and now, they are gone to China or other places. When the mills left New England, the region’s economy went with it and despite a few short bursts of economic prosperity, the economy has never returned.

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Acceptance In Advance

Getting an award. Accepting an award. Waking up the next day and realizing that the festivities are over and wondering if anyone even remembers the day before … then being pleasantly surprised to discover …yes, they do. It doesn’t hurt to have a lot of pictures posted of the event. It helps the remembering.

With Harvey Leonard (WCVB, Channel 5)

With Harvey Leonard (WCVB, Channel 5)

As a photographer, event photography has never been my strong suit. I don’t have the right equipment and in this case, yes, it does make a difference. The right lens, a good flash unit … they make a huge difference. You want a fast lens or a good strobe that recycles fast and has oomph. And bounce. A really good, fast camera … one that focuses quickly even in low light. I had the camera. I had a lens. A portrait lens. No flash.

Well. I have pretty good equipment, but it was never intended for this purpose because this stuff doesn’t come up all that often. And I can’t afford it. A small matter, but crucial.

When Garry was still working, it came up a lot more often. He hosted events. We were guests at events. Regularly. I used to actually own (and need) a separate formal wardrobe. Garry owned more than one tuxedo. That was then …. not at all now.

Here, in sleepy Uxbridge, fancy dress is anything clean that matches. Or minimally, doesn’t clash. Wearing earrings makes it formal. For men, a belt rather than a drawstring is formal wear. I am not exaggerating. Okay, maybe a little. But not much. It’s more than merely casual here.

The best moment - Garry and Anton, together.

The best moment – Garry and Anton, together.

It’s dress down time every day of the year, but especially on weekends. You should see what people wear going to church. Even the ministers don’t wear suits or ties. So far, never seen the pastor in shorts, but I’m sure it will come soon enough.