OLD BLUE EYES AND THE KID – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I was still a kid, working at the college radio station in Hempstead, New York. I was a little older than the other kids, because I was recently back from my short stint in the Marine Corps. I don’t remember who provided my entrée for that interview, but I remember the night. How could I forget?

As a kid, I listened to big band vocalist Sinatra on “78” records. He was special even then. By the early 60’s, Sinatra was an entertainment institution. Music, movies, television and the subject of myriad publications which alluded to political and criminal intrigue.

How many romantic evenings have all of us had — candles, cocktails and Sinatra playing? He was a legend, America’s most iconic celebrity.

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Heady stuff for a young reporter invited to one of Sinatra’s hangouts. The story was about Jilly Rizzo. He ran a famous night spot in New York. “Jilly’s Saloon” (everybody just called it Jilly’s). It catered to lots of celebrities, but most notably Frank Sinatra and his “rat pack”. My primary focus that night was Jilly himself. We did a low-key chat about his club. Jilly did the talking. About his youth, how hard he worked to make his club a success. I let him talk, which he appreciated. He was fascinating. A real life Damon Runyon character.

The interview wrapped. I figured my night was over. Wrong. Jilly kept referring to me as “Kid”. As I prepared to leave with my engineer, Jilly tugged at my sleeve and motioned for me to follow him.

“Kid”, he said in his raspy voice, “I want you to meet some pals”. Jilly led me to a table filled with lots of cigarette smoke, profanity and laughter. I was a little nervous.

I had cause to be nervous. I made eye contact, my brain began to register and I began to smile blankly. Sinatra, Dino, Sammy, Joey Bishop and other familiar faces looked at me. My brain kept shifting gears. Apparently Jilly had introduced me as “Kid”, a newbie who was okay. That turned out to be my access card.

I realized I had a big glass of scotch in my hand. Frank Sinatra was talking to me, a big glass of scotch in his hand, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. I think I still had a glazed smile on my face.

“So, Kid”, he asked, “What the hell do you do that makes Jilly like you?”

I told him I had been listening to Jilly and found his back story fascinating. I told Sinatra I enjoyed listening rather than talking. It was easier, I volunteered. “You’re on radio and you like to listen rather than talk?”, he asked.

“Yes”, I said. I just stared at him.

He stared back, then said, “Kid, you’re okay”.

FrankSinatra9I slid into some questions about his childhood, about his weight, the difference between his singing and his conversational voice. Sinatra was off and running. The anecdotes had little to do with celebrity and lots to do with the guy behind the legend. I kept listening.

He noticed the tape recorder wasn’t running. Puzzled. I said this was social time. He looked even more puzzled, then shook his head and smiled. Sinatra said he wasn’t used to such treatment. I smiled. An easier smile.

I talked a little about my hearing problems, diction problems. My determination to get things right. Now Sinatra was listening. He said he too had diction problems during regular conversation which he tried to cover up with sarcasm and bluster. I realized he was leaning in as if to confide with me. I also noticed the other celebs had backed away, giving Sinatra privacy.

The conversation continued for another half hour, maybe 45 minutes. Jilly kept checking to make sure our drinks were fresh. I knew other people were staring at us. I figured they were wondering who the hell was this kid chatting up Sinatra. Actually, we were talking about music and radio. I told him about how I loved doing tight segues blending solo vocals, chorals, and instrumentals. He began giving me tips about how to segue some of his music. In a couple of cases, I was already doing it. He loved it.

We talked a little about sports. I told him I was a Brooklyn Dodgers fan and Duke Snider was my favorite player.

Sinatra said Joe DiMaggio and the Yanks were his favorites. I gave him a look and he smiled. Casey Stengel was our peace broker. Earlier that year, I’d spent time with Casey who was managing the fledgling New York Mets. Sinatra laughed at my recollection of conversation with Casey.

“Diction”, we both said and laughed.

Jilly Rizzo finally broke up the chat saying Sinatra was needed elsewhere. Sinatra grumbled, gave me a card and said there would be another time. There would be. Another story for another day.


THE DAILY PROMPT: IMPOSSIBILITY 

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” – the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland.

Garry Hall of Fame Lectern 2

Sometimes, looking back on my life, it’s hard to believe I did all of that and took it in stride. Not six things … a thousand things … done every day as if they were no big deal. They were no big deal at the time. Looking backward, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, turns out they were something special As time slouches on, the memories become increasingly precious and fun to remember.

This is my first connection with the Daily Prompt! And I haven’t finished my first cup of coffee. Never would have expected this!

JUDY COLLINS, AMAZING GRACE – GARRY ARMSTRONG

Marilyn and I had been looking forward to the Judy Collins concert for months. Marilyn bought the tickets last January before her complicated heart surgery. At the time, I wondered if she was being extravagant given our tight budget. I was very wrong. Marilyn figured the concert would give us something to look forward to in the months while she struggled to recover from the surgery.  It’s taken a toll on her body and spirits.

The concert? She was right.

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It didn’t seem particularly right during the long drive into Boston yesterday. Intermittent heavy rain showers made the usually easy Sunday drive a challenge. Often the traffic looked like something out of “Wagon Train.” Yet, by the time we got to Boston, it was all good. A handicapped parking space was available directly in front of the theater — like on television or in the movies. And the rain stopped, just like that.

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We took a quick scan of nearby restaurants and Japanese got our attention. We chowed down on sushi and tempura with plenty of time to spare to make our 7 pm curtain. Marilyn took pictures and we watched as the crowds arrived for the Collins concert. The audience appeared to be three-quarters casually dressed baby boomers. Our kind of folks.

And suddenly, it was time to pack up the camera and find the tickets. Showtime!

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The Wilber is an old theatre. Built in 1914, it’s rather cozy inside and they have arranged the orchestra level as a dinner theater. Both of us had been to the Wilbur in the past, though not recently, so it was a bit of a shock to see how it had changed. Instead of theater seats, there were high, padded bar stools. Wait staff brought refreshments.

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Sometimes you anticipate, but are disappointed. The moment Judy Collins walked on stage, the evening turned magical. Judy Collins has — at 74 years old — not only kept her voice, but improved it. I had not realized what a skilled pianist she is, either. Her musicianship was remarkable and it perfectly suited the cozy theater.

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She entertained with a preferred list of her most popular songs. Folk, Broadway and Standards. There was no forced chit-chat but shared stories and memories of professional life across half a century. Most of the audience, including me, were nodding and smiling. It was our story too. The artists and  music of our generation. The music that was the background to our lives.

The songs brought back a flood of memories. “Send In The Clowns” reminded me of my days in TV news dealing with politicians. “Danny Boy,” always a sentimental favorite, took me back to our honeymoon in Ireland where I discovered my Irish roots. I was smiling with tears in my eyes.

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I thought the concert was over as Judy Collins thanked her pianist-music director while blowing kisses to the audience. It couldn’t be over. Not yet.

It wasn’t over!

Marilyn reassured me as Judy Collins began to sing “Amazing Grace.” Our song. That was the song the bag piper played at our wedding. That our friend sang. Apparently it was everyone’s song because Judy invited the audience to join in and go for the harmony. We sang and filled the 100-year old Wilbur Theater with our voices.

Magic time! We held the last words of “Amazing Grace” for long minutes, the music and our voices echoing through the venerable theater.

A night to remember!

TEN FAVORITE MOVIES* 2014 EDITION – GARRY ARMSTRONG

The title has an asterisk because this is an impossible post. I can’t begin to do justice to all the movies I love when limited to ten. However, a dear friend (and fellow movie maven) asked me to compile such a list for a project.

Inside the Loew's Valencia. Queens, New York.
Inside the Loew’s Valencia. Queens, New York.

I saw my first film at age four in 1946. I recall relatives saying I talked like a grown up, spouting familiar lines. Frequently they were lines from movies. That quirk would continue for the rest of my life right to the present.

I’ve had the good fortune to spend time with many of the legends from old Hollywood, which sometimes clouds my perspective. I become totally immersed with movies. I become part of the film, sharing the feelings of the characters. Love, hate, joy and sorrow. And now …

GARRY ARMSTRONG’S FAVORITE MOVIES –  SEPTEMBER 2014 VERSION

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES – 1946. The first movie I saw. I was 4-years old. Mom and Dad looked like a celebrity couple. Dad, just back from active duty in World War Two, seemed 10-feet tall in his uniform. The film’s theme, GI’s readjusting to civilian life, would become a personal issue in our family.

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – 1960.  If I love movies, I am passionate about westerns! I saw “The Magnificent Seven” 6 times during its first week in the theater. Steve McQueen was “the man”. All the stars were so very cool. Eli Wallach was a hoot as the Mexican bandit leader. His line, “Generosity, that was my first mistake” is my email tag.

INHERIT THE WIND – 1960. Every time it’s on, we watch it. Marilyn and I smile, anticipating the lines, waiting for the Spencer Tracy/Clarence Darrow monologues. The Tracy-Fredric March courtroom scenes are perfect. Two masters at work. Gene Kelly does his best dramatic work as the acerbic H.L. Mencken character.  The film’s an excellent classroom tool for anyone unfamiliar with the Scopes trial.

THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY – 1964. If you love great script and dialogues, this may be the all-time best movie. The real star is the script and its writer, Paddy Chayefsky. James Garner’s favorite movie and best film role. Garner was brilliant! Ably supported by Julie Andrews (her first dramatic role). Hard to watch a gung-ho action war flick after viewing this one.

TOMBSTONE – 1993. I came on board after the second or third viewing of this one because of Marilyn’s love of this version of the Earp saga. It’s fast-paced, well-acted, relatively authentic and beautifully photographed. The film gives us a jolt of vicarious pleasure as the good guys mow down the bad guys. We have coördinated Tombstone tee shirts.

GIGI – 1958. I remember seeing this first run. I was 16, head over heels in love with Leslie Caron. A couple of years earlier, I’d waited outside the tiny Trans-Lux Theatre in Manhattan where Caron’s “Lilli” had a record-breaking run. A wonderful musical. Music, sets, cast. Marilyn and I know the songs and sing along. It never gets old.

SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – 1952. Maybe best musical. Ever. So many wonderful “numbers” including Gene Kelly’s iconic (I know the word is overused) title tune sequence. Once upon a time, I used to dance to work in the rain, just singing and dancing — like Gene Kelly. I got more than a few stares.

SHANE – 1953. Marilyn and I both saw this first run at the Loews Valencia in Queens, New York, but not together. The Valencia was like Radio City Musical Hall. Fantastic and huge, with a starlit ceiling. Alan Ladd’s finest performance thanks to director George Stevens. I’ve seen Shane dozens of times and still marvel at its photography and editing. “Reb” funeral scene is classic, cinematic magic.

S.O.B. – 1981. Blake Edwards scathing take on Hollywood. It didn’t endear him to tinsel town’s movers and shakers and they tried to sabotage S.O.B.’s distribution. William Holden and Julie Andrews head a wonderful ensemble cast. Holden’s dialogue to a suicidal friend could well have been Holden’s own eulogy.

CASABLANCA – 1943.  Who doesn’t love this film? I met co-writer Julius Epstein in the 70’s. He shared lots of great stories about the making of Casablanca. He said every day was crazier than the previous one, with new dialogue arriving as scenes were set up. We saw a remastered Casablanca on the big screen last year, a celebration of its 70th anniversary. Bogie and the gang were in their prime.


Ask me to my ten favorites next month. Different answers! Hoo-Ray for Hollywood!

NOTES ON A COWARDLY LION BY JOHN LAHR — 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 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 traveled 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.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Marilyn Armstrong:

Written by me, with input from Garry, published on HEAD IN A VICE. A movie review for you.

Originally posted on Head In A Vice:

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Today we have my favourite husband & wife blogging team offering us their thoughts on a movie for the ‘Recommended By‘ blogathon. Marilyn & Garry Armstrong have been visiting my site since pretty much its inception, and since they don’t like the horror genre, I always appreciate them visiting. Marilyn runs her blog Serendipity and Garry helps her out when he fancies it, and since he has worked with more famous people than the rest of us could ever dream of meeting, when they offer to join in my projects I am always delighted to have them. Without further ado, offering their thoughts on one of the most popular movies of recent times (and great to see them go against the general consensus!) are Marilyn & Garry from Serendipity.

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NCIS – UXBRIDGE EDITION

NEW THIS SEASON! — NCIS – UXBRIDGE

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Welcome to our first network season. We’ve been long awaiting this opportunity. Let me introduce you to our cast.

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Uxbridge, a small town in south central Massachusetts, has no Navy or Marine presence. No Naval station or training camp. No docks, though we sure do have a lot of river. No seaport. So this is going to be a somewhat less energetic version of the show, but I’m sure we can make it entertaining for you.

Oh, and we don’t have a lab for forensics, but we can build one. It may take a while. I’m pretty sure we can rent some space at a local hospital for a morgue. And, as you can see, we do have a jail.

With Mark Harmon’s sudden retirement, Garry’s lifelong ambition to be a star has finally arrived. In his new role of NCIS team leader, the pace will be a little slower. Also, Garry will have serious trouble keeping a straight face as he runs his lines. His deadpan humor will nonetheless win the hearts and minds of fans throughout the world.

I shall play the role of the crusty old medical examiner. My bad back, heart, and hips make me an unlikely choice for a field agent, I’m afraid. But the dead don’t run fast and with all the medical knowledge I’ve gleaned from being sick for years will come in really handy when I have to use those twenty syllable medical terms.

My friend Cherrie will be the very special agent, Tony’s role, but much less annoying. I’m pretty sure if she were to get the Gibb’s back-of-the-head slap, she’d hit him back and he’d KNOW he’d been hit. Hands off, big fella.Cherrie shooting

Kaity HOFI’ll throw my granddaughter into Abby’s lab. Though she knows nothing about forensics, she’ll really like the costumes and she has more than enough attitude for two or maybe three laboratories.

Finally, there’s the mandatory geek agent. I’ll give that to my son because he knows his way around a computer and he likes to fix stuff anyhow. He will fit right in as he explains exactly how things should work and whatever you did wrong to screw up the machine.

See you next week, same time, same station!!

 


THE DAILY PROMPT: CAST CHANGE!

WHY I LOVE LUCY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I’ve got the end of summer blues. Maybe it’s the lingering memory of last year’s winter from hell. Walter Houston is talk-singing “September Song” in my head and he won’t go away. A phone call from a dear friend who has received some bad news from his doctor just deepens my melancholy. I need to get out of this funk.

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Melancholy. Melancholy Serenade. Serenade of the Bells. The Bells of St. Mary. A silly word link game I play to lighten things. It suddenly reminds me of another August more than three decades ago. Late August and Lucy.

The assignment? Cover Lucille Ball’s arrival in Boston. The nation’s favorite red-head was visiting her daughter, Lucy Arnaz, who was opening in a pre-Broadway show. It was pushing 9 pm, another long day. Yes, I had the end of summer blues.  Lucy finally arrived at Logan Airport, surrounded by an entourage and a gaggle of media.

I hung back, beckoning with my TV smile and waited for things to quiet down. I was looking down at my feet for a long moment when I heard the familiar voice. “What’s the matter, fella, long day?”, Lucille Ball inquired as I looked up, face to face with that very familiar face.

We smiled at each other. Real smiles. Not the phony ones. I didn’t realize it but Lucy had already cued my camera crew and things were rolling along. I’m not sure who was doing the interview.  Mostly we chatted about the “glamour” of TV, celebrity, long working days and Boston traffic.

I signalled the crew to shoot cut-aways, beating Lucy by a second and she winked. We shook hands and Lucy gave me an unexpected peck on the cheek..and another wink as she walked away with her entourage.

Lucy showFast forward to the next afternoon and the end of a formal news conference. Lucy seemed tired as she answered the last question about the enduring popularity of the “I Love Lucy” reruns. I was just staring and marvelling at her patience. She caught the look on my face and gave me a wry smile. As the room emptied out, Lucy beckoned me to stay. We waited until all the camera crews left. She offered me a scotch neat and thanked me for not asking any dumb questions during the news conference.

I asked if she’d gotten any sleep and she flashed that wry look again. Lucy gave me that “so what’s the problem?” look. I muttered something about being burned out and a little blue because summer was fleeting. She laughed. A big hearty laugh. Her face lit up as she pinched my cheeks.

Lucy showed me some PR stills from her “I Love Lucy” days and sighed. I showed her a couple of my PR postcards and she guffawed. Another round of scotches neat.

Lucy talked quietly about how proud she was of her daughter. I just listened. She smiled as she realized I was really listening.

A PR aide interrupted and Lucy looked annoyed. We stood up. I reached out to shake her hands but she hugged me. She pinched my cheeks again and gave me that wry smile again as she walked away.