HOLLYWOOD FANTASIES, GARRY ARMSTRONG

I love movies. Old movies  Movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I grew up watching these films. They were movies from Hollywood’s golden age when fantasy really trumped reality. These were films seen in theaters. First, second and the beloved third run or neighborhood movies houses.

old hollywood glamor shots

This was before television. The movie theater experience was as much fun as seeing the film. That’s where the fantasy began.

I saw my first movie in 1946. I was four years old. The movie was “The Best Years Of Our Lives”. My Mom and Dad took me to see the film in a big glittery theater in Manhattan. New York. The city that never sleeps. My Dad, in his Army dress uniform with ribbons and medals, had just returned from Europe. World War Two had ended less than a year earlier. I vaguely remembered the headlines. My Dad seemed ten feet tall in his uniform. My Mom was more beautiful than I could ever recall. She looked like a movie actress in one of those popular magazines of the day. I felt as if we were in a movie that evening. It was magical!

I remember some of the scenes from the movie. The returning GIs, looking down on their hometown from the air. The family reunions. The men looked like my father and yet they didn’t. I was bothered, but didn’t understand. I dreamed about the movie that night. My Dad was the star. My Mom was Myrna Loy. I was the son receiving souvenirs from my Dad. I could see myself in the movie.

astair and rogers

That fantasy would replay itself many times over ensuing decades. It grew with the films of my youth. The westerns, especially. I adored westerns. I liked seeing the good guys always beat the bad guys. I liked the way the good guys dressed and the horses they rode. Curiously, none of the guys — good or bad — looked like anyone in my family but that didn’t matter to me. Didn’t think much about it. I was  all of those good guys! Most of all, I was John Wayne. Later, I was so much John Wayne I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. Another story.

As my fantasy grew, I also discovered I was a romantic. This is a guy secret. I liked romantic movies with happy endings. I was Joseph Cotten pursuing Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters” and “Portrait of Jennie”. I was Spencer Tracy, the underdog to Clark Gable, vying for the affections of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert.

Somewhere, stashed away, I have an old notebook. One of those notebooks with lined pages used for compositions in grade school. I used to write imaginary castings for movies with myself as the star opposite Hollywood legends. Actually, I added some reality. I worked my way up from “and introducing Garry Armstrong”, to co-star, and finally star. Fortunately, that notebook was never discovered in class.

Marilyn and I have been watching (again) a series, “MGM – WHEN THE LION ROARED”. It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. As we look at the series, I fantasize again, now at age 72, about being there in Hollywood during its golden age.

MGM_backlot

Fantasy dissolved into a dream last night. I was in 1930’s Hollywood. I was at MGM. I saw the legends. Gable, Tracy, Garbo, Crawford and all the others. The dream unfolded rather skillfully. I was a freelance writer working under a pseudonym in separate quarters. This is how I, a man of color, could exist in that world. It was perfectly splendid. My work was excellent. Others took credit but all knew who I was, especially Louis B. Mayer. I never asked for a raise. My scripts all had the MGM touch.

In real life, I’ve had the chance to meet many of those legends who’ve been part of my dreams. As a TV news reporter, I’ve actually had the opportunity to socialize with some of them. You’ve read about some of them in other posts. It’s funny when reality meets your dreams and fantasies.

I’ve done some extra or background acting. It’s been interesting but the hours are too long, like those I logged for almost 40 years in television. I don’t like getting up early anymore. I haven’t quite closed the door, mind you. I hang onto the fantasy I’ll get “the call” for a lead role in a major movie.

And, the Oscar goes to …

WAITING FOR HOLLYWOOD TO CALL

Challenge of Smiles

My monthly royalty payment from Amazon just came in and I was pleased to see it was up slightly from last month.

A total of $3.89 was directly deposited into my checking account. I am not sure how many book sales this represents (three?), but I’m pleased my book sells at all.

The royalty deposits make me laugh. What should I do with all the money?

teepee book shelf

I could get a small meal from the dollar menu at McDonald’s. It isn’t enough to buy me a coffee at Starbucks. Good I don’t like Starbucks coffee, eh? I can’t think of anything else I could do with the money, but the idea amuses me. Being an author has not turned out exactly as I dreamed.

But you never know. Hollywood might yet call and my book could be the next blockbuster.

Right. Sure. Uh huh!

MY HOLLYWOOD FANTASY – GARRY ARMSTRONG

I love movies. Old movies  Movies from the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. I grew up watching these films. They were movies from Hollywood’s golden age when fantasy really trumped reality. These were films seen in theaters. First, second and the beloved third run or neighborhood movies houses.

This was before television. The movie theater experience was as much fun as seeing the film. That’s where the fantasy began.

HollywoodSign

I saw my first movie in 1946. I was four years old. The movie was “The Best Years Of Our Lives”. My Mom and Dad took me to see the film in a big glittery theater in Manhattan. New York. The city that never sleeps. My Dad, in his Army dress uniform with ribbons and medals, had just returned from Europe. World War Two had ended less than a year earlier. I vaguely remembered the headlines. My Dad seemed ten feet tall in his uniform. My Mom was more beautiful than I could ever recall. She looked like a movie actress in one of those popular magazines of the day. I felt as if we were in a movie that evening. It was magical!

The_Best_Years_of_Our_Lives_film_posterI don’t remember much about the movie. I remember some of the scenes. The returning GI’s looking down at their hometown from the air. The scenes of the town as the taxi took the men to their respective homes. The family reunions. The men looked like my father and yet they didn’t. I was vaguely disturbed but didn’t understand. I dreamed about the movie that night. My Dad was the star. My Mom was the lady played by Myrna Loy. I was the son receiving souvenirs from my Dad. Yes, I could see myself in the movie.

That fantasy would replay itself many times over ensuing decades. But it grew with the films of my youth. The westerns, especially. I adored westerns. I liked seeing the good guys always beat the bad guys. I liked the way the good guys dressed and the horses they rode. Curiously, none of the guys — good or bad — looked like anyone in my family but that didn’t matter to me. Didn’t think much about it. I was  all of those good guys! Most of all, I was John Wayne. Later, I was so much John Wayne I enlisted in the Marine Corps right out of high school. Another story.

As my fantasy grew, I also discovered I was a romantic. This is a guy secret. I liked romantic movies with happy endings. I was Joseph Cotten pursuing Jennifer Jones in “Love Letters” and “Portrait of Jennie”. I was Spencer Tracy, the underdog to Clark Gable, vying for the affections of Myrna Loy and Claudette Colbert.

Somewhere, stashed away, I have an old notebook. One of those notebooks with lined pages used for compositions in grade school. I used to write imaginary castings for movies with myself as the star opposite Hollywood legends. Actually, I added some reality. I worked my way up from “and introducing Garry Armstrong”, to co-star and finally star. Fortunately, that notebook was never discovered in class.

Duke and Lone

Marilyn and I have been watching (again) a series, “MGM – WHEN THE LION ROARED”. It’s a fascinating look at the rise and fall of Hollywood’s most prestigious studio. As we look at the series, I fantasize again, now at age 72, about being there in Hollywood during its golden age.

Fantasy dissolved into a dream last night. I was in 1930’s Hollywood. I was at MGM. I saw the legends. Gable, Tracy, Garbo, Crawford and all the others. The dream unfolded rather skillfully. I was a freelance writer working under a pseudonym in separate quarters. This is how I, a man of color, could exist in that world. It was perfectly splendid. My work was excellent. Others took credit but all knew who I was, especially Louis B. Mayer. I never asked for a raise. My scripts all had the MGM touch.

In real life, I’ve had the chance to meet many of those legends who’ve been part of my dreams. As a TV news reporter, I’ve actually had the opportunity to socialize with some of the legends. You’ve read about some of them in other blogs. It’s funny when reality meets your dreams and fantasies.

I’ve done some extra or background acting. It’s been interesting but the hours are too long, like those I logged for almost 40 years in television. I don’t like getting up early anymore. I haven’t quite closed the door, mind you. I hang onto the fantasy I’ll get “the call” for a lead role in a major movie.

And, the Oscar goes to …

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.

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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CELEBRITY LAUGHS AND A FEW TEARS – HAM: SLICES OF LIFE, SAM HARRIS

Ham: Slices of Life, Essays and Stories by Sam Harris

From the publisher: With a wry style that evokes comparisons to Carrie Fisher, David Rakoff, and Steve Martin, Sam Harris proves that he is a natural humorist. Even The New York Times, in a review of one of his musical performances, called his stories “New Yorker-worthy.”

Ham slices of a life coverUntil I read this book, I’d never heard of Sam Harris. Not merely had I never heard of him, I’d never heard him sing or seen him perform. Not even as a guest on Leno or some other show. How out of touch am I? Well, about 25 years, give or take a decade. I more or less stopped listening to new music sometime in the late 1970s except for the occasional score from a show or movie. I would declare it to be “my bad” except that I don’t feel the least bit apologetic. I’m content with the music I know and love and a great deal of classical music that, to put it in new-speak, never gets old.

When this book came up for review, I took it not because it was a celebrity autobiography but because it promised to be funny and I am always up for a dose of funny.

I am pleased to say the book delivers everything it promises and perhaps a bit more. It is, in many places, laugh out loud, giggly guffaw funny. In those sections which are not funny, the subjects are well-handled, thoughtful and occasionally brought tears to my eyes. Having recently read two celebrity autobiographies that disappointed me because I expected a lot and got little, this was exactly opposite. I expected nothing but got a great deal.

Sam Harris — who I have still never heard sing — is an intelligent, literate guy. His recounting of the celebrity wedding of his pal Liza Minnelli to “the man whose name shall go unmentioned” is hilarious. The 16 essays cover Harris’s life from childhood to performing on Oprah’s first show after 9/11, a recounting that caused me to choke up with painful memories. His disappointing opening for Aretha Franklin during a blizzard — sometimes, the legend is better than reality.

Though poignant in places, the book is more often funny. Which is good because I really like funny.

I am reading Ham on my brand new Kindle Paperwhite. I’m laughing so hard I feel my husband staring at me, wondering what in the world is going on. After ascertaining I am not having a seizure, I tell him it’s a celebrity autobiography … and I think he should read it too because … well … it’s funny. I ask. Turns out, he has never heard of Sam Harris either. We are united in our out-of-touchness.

Growing up a gay kid in Oklahoma had to be rough, but he doesn’t seem to feel sorry for himself. He gives credit to his parents for supporting him even though they didn’t necessarily understand him. He avoids the dreary trough of “kiss and tell” into which so many autobiographies fall. He does manage to include a reasonable amount of self-promotion — it wouldn’t be a celebrity autobiography without it — he doesn’t  wallow in it, either. For a celebrity, he’s almost modest.

But most important, the book is well written. Funny, sad, cogent, literate … it avoids being mawkish or snarky. Yes, there’s gossip, but it isn’t just (or all) gossip. The most revealing information is the author about himself. He is candid about his failings and failures. His alcoholism and recovery. His stubborn refusal to face reality until it bangs him painfully over the head. The problems he has relating to his adopted son and the credit he gives to his partner as a human being and a parent.

It offers enough tidbits about the great and near-great to titillate those of us who enjoy a little titillation … and enough wisdom to make me feel I didn’t waste my time. I can recommend this book with a whole heart and a clear conscience. It’s good. I think you’ll enjoy it. If you are a Hollywood gossip enthusiast, you’ll probably like it even more.

Available starting today on Kindle, from Audible.com, in hardcover and no doubt paperback in short order.