A SUMMER AFTERNOON WITH JIMMY CAGNEY – Garry Armstrong

This story goes back to the early ’70s. My mind gets a little bit hazy. I always thought I’d remember everything, but it turns out, you forget. It’s not dementia or Alzheimer’s.

Other stuff happens and the older stuff gets pushed back into the hard drive. We are older computers, you know? We need a faster operating system, bigger drives. Maybe solid state and definitely a much better graphics board, or anyway, that’s what my wife tells me.

I knew he had a house on the Vineyard, but I was a bit shy about personal — non-work meetings — with celebrities, especially Hollywood people. I was ( still am) a serious fanboy. I loved old movies and admire the stars. I grew up with them. I wanted to be them. I settled for reporting, but it wasn’t, as it turned out, such a big step after all.

About James Cagney

I’d just come into Oak Bluffs aboard the Island Queen ferry.  It was the first or second year of nearly twenty summers I’d spend on the Vineyard, sharing a home with a small group of other Boston TV friends and colleagues.

Our first summer home was in Edgartown, off Tilton Street. We laughingly called it “The Tilton Hilton.”

I’d been on Channel 7 for maybe 2 or 3 years at that time. My face was just becoming familiar. I was also starting to get used to being recognized in public. This was a long way for a shy kid from Long Island to come in a short period of time. I was growing into myself.

The Island Queen

I had just turned thirty, the end of “kidhood” and the start of being a man.

As I was getting off the ferry, I noticed a familiar-looking elderly gentleman. I couldn’t quite place his name. As I started towards a cab, the gentleman stopped me and said something like, “Hello, young fella. I hope you don’t mind me you interrupting you. I’ve watched you on television and just wanted to say I enjoy your work”.

I looked more closely and the face was suddenly and immediately familiar.

He said, “I used to be James Cagney. Now I’m just another old guy.”

We both laughed. We shared a bit of small talk about the weather, the ‘touristas’ coming to the Vineyard for the weekend, then more about the weather. People in New England spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the weather. It’s a thing.

There was an awkward silence and James Cagney said, “Would you like to have a beverage and some doughnuts. My place is just down the street a bit.”

I stammered “Ye-Yes, thank you.”

We laughed again and walked away to Cagney’s “cottage” which was a respectable residence covered with the light green or gray Vineyard paint color required for all cottages. Really, it was a small farm, but that would have been bragging. He didn’t brag.

Inside, it was a bit sparse. Neat. Just a few paintings and pictures, all depicting Vineyard and Cape locales. No Hollywood stuff. Cagney saw me staring and smiled, “Yeah, I dabble a bit but I’m really just a hack”.

In the kitchen, over tea and cookies, we had a long, rambling conversation with me talking about my then relatively brief career and James Cagney talking about his (long) career. He called them “jobs” or “shows.” That’s how I learned how most working actors and techs described movies.

I wanted to ask so many questions, but he persisted in talking about the “working part” of filming his pictures. He was “wet behind the ears” when he did “Public Enemy,” the film that shot him to stardom.

Originally he had been a supporting player. The director liked his feisty brashness more than the star’s blandness, so the roles got switched and show biz history was made.

We went on for two or three hours, swapping stories about “suits” we despised.

Our bosses. His studio bosses: the Warner Brothers and my news directors and general managers. I told Cagney about the suit I worked for at Channel 18 in Hartford before I came to Boston. My news director used to sit in the dark, mumbling to no one, like a punch drunk fighter.

Cagney cracked that familiar laughter and told me about working with directors he liked and didn’t like. He said he always focused on getting the job done, using the basics.

Show up on time, meet your mark. Know your lines. It sounded like what Spencer Tracy always said. Cagney nodded in agreement. Just before parting, I told him about my love of westerns.

He grinned, saying, “No way, I’m gonna tell ya about the ‘Oklahoma Kid.’ Bogie and I detested that show. We felt like idiots, kids playing grownups … but I enjoyed riding. I love horses. I have a farm hereabouts.

“The invite is open if you wanna come riding.”

I wasn’t much of a rider at that point. I did learn later, but I had little experience then. I should’ve accepted James Cagney’s invitation anyway. I really wish I had.

And, that’s a wrap. One of those wonderful afternoons. Just talking. Not business. No cameras. A summer afternoon on Martha’s Vineyard. Two guys, cookies, and tea.

HANGING OUT WITH ROBERT “MITCH” MITCHUM – Garry Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

I was getting ready to leave when Robert Mitchum asked what was next for me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch headed back to the bar as I drove away.

“FAMOUS FATHER GIRL” – By ELLIN CURLEY

I just read a memoir by Jamie Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein’s oldest child and I absolutely loved the book!

The central characters are fascinating and complex as well as endlessly entertaining and the circle of friends is mostly famous people who are colorful and fun to read about.

Bernstein with the very young Jamie

Friends of my mother’s, the Coopers, lived in the same Park Avenue building in New York City as the Bernsteins for over a decade and became friends with the Bernstein family.

The oldest Cooper child, still a friend of mine today, was Jamie’s age and played with her for many years. I grew up hearing stories about the Bernstein family through the Coopers, so I feel a connection to them, however tenuous.

Helen Cooper in 1979

One of the stories I heard had to do with an incident at the Bernstein pool in Fairfield, CT. The middle Cooper child heard the word ‘gay’ from one of the adults and went up to another adult and asked him what gay meant. Leonard Bernstein was gay but lived a straight, family life for decades before coming out of the closet. That was necessary during the forties and fifties, and even the sixties, if you wanted to have a significant career. This story takes place during the closeted years.

The adult who the child approached thought it would be funny to tell the curious little girl to go ask Leonard what ‘gay’ was, so she did. Apparently, she got a paean about what wonderful, creative people gay men were and how glorious it was to be gay.

I’m sure this elicited lots of laughter around the pool that day.

The Bernstein’s Fairfield pool patio

Getting back to the book, the main reason it resonated so much with me is that Jamie and my childhoods had a lot in common. I’m only three years older than Jamie and we both grew up Jewish in New York City at the same time. Jamie was only half Jewish, but the Jewish half, Leonard, was strongly Jewish, at least culturally.

We both lived on Park Avenue in the same Upper East Side neighborhood and went to prominent private schools in the city. We both spent summers and some weekends at our second home in Fairfield County, Connecticut – Jamie in the town of Fairfield and me in nearby Easton. Our mothers were both beautiful and fashionable former actresses who entertained often and impeccably.

Jamie at a Bernstein rehearsal

However, the major experience that I shared with Jamie, was living in the shadow of a famous father. The title of Jamie’s memoir is “Famous Father Girl,” a nickname given to her by someone in her grade school class.

My father was not as universally well-known, but in our social circles and in the social science fields, he was a celebrity. Kids at my school knew that my father was an intellectual giant and he was spoken of with respect and awe by their parents, many of whom were psychiatrists, like my father.

My father

Jamie’s mother used to excuse Leonard’s excesses and eccentricities by telling her kids that this is what comes with ‘genius’, and my mother did the same thing. We had to forgive a lot of character flaws and social missteps because my father was a genius.

I can understand why superstars are surrounded by apologists and enablers because I grew up with that dynamic. In fact, my father was absolved of almost all paternal obligations and responsibilities, including talking to his child on a regular basis. At least Leonard Bernstein interacted with his kids, played with them and talked to them all the time when he was around.

Both of our fathers spent a lot of time teaching their children about their fields of expertise. Jamie learned about all styles of music at an early age and I knew about psychology, sociology, anthropology, as well as history and archeology (a favorite topic of my father’s) while still in elementary school. Both of our fathers were also hard acts to follow and we spent our young lives trying not to disappoint our larger than life parents.

Jamie tried to write and sing music for many years and I felt the need to excel academically, at least through college. I got a life, finally, in law school and stopped trying to be at the top of the class, which was a great relief. I’m sure Jamie shared my lifelong feeling of not measuring up in some significant way.

Bernstein’s famous TV series

Ironically, both Jamie and I found our voice and our passion in our thirties by becoming mothers. Years later Jamie found a true career running educational music programs based on her father’s Young People’s Concerts. I found myself in my father’s adjunct career – writer.

He published seven books over the years and numerous professional articles, which I helped my mother edit from the time I was fifteen. I publish blog posts and have the scripts I write with my husband performed by our audio theater group.

Jamie and her book cover

So Jamie and I each took something from our mothers and something from our fathers and later in life, came up with our own mix, creating satisfying lives for ourselves.

MORNING GIRL

Who Sang It Better? by Rich Paschall

Mornin’ girl, how’d ya sleep last night?
You’re sev’ral ages older now

Oh, no, things are different now than they were before
You know love is more than kisses

The Neon Philharmonic – 1969

The Lettermen – 1971

Morning girl, where you been so long?
Your lips have got some color now
A little too much color now
Your clothes have gone from nylon to lace, somehow

Shaun Cassidy – 1976

It was a one hit wonder for The Neon Philharmonic in 1969.  They achieved the big sound by using musicians from the Nashville Symphony Orchestra.  The lead singer was Don Gant. It only made number 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US.  It did somewhat better in Canada.

Although credited to the Lettermen, you are only hearing one of their singers in the 1971 cover. Jim Pike sang with the group from 1959 to 1974 and does the honors here. The Lettermen were quite successful covering the songs of others.

The Shaun Cassidy cover is his first single. It may seem strange that the teen heart-throb of the 70’s is singing different lyrics than the others. That is because he is actually singing a follow-up song from The Neon Philharmonic entitled “Morning Girl, Later.” It had the exact same melody and was meant to take the story, if you could even say there was one, a little further along.  Perhaps it was felt the lyrics were a little better for the young Cassidy than the other one. He was still in high school.

BERNSTEIN VERSUS THE BEATLES – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My mother had a friend named Helen who was tall, thin, blond, classically beautiful and always stylishly dressed and coiffed. She could be a bit ditzy but she was a wonderful friend with a wide circle of people who loved her. She was fiercely loyal and would go to great lengths to help, protect, or defend her friends.

Helen in 1979

Helen lived in the same Park Avenue apartment building in New York City as Leonard Bernstein and the two families became close. Bernstein was a world-renowned conductor and composer whose works ranged from classical pieces to Broadway shows, like “On The Town”, “Wonderful Town”, and his most iconic, “West Side Story”. He conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra for many years and gave popular TV lectures on classical music. In addition, he was an author and a pianist and a flamboyant personality.

Coincidentally, Linda Eastman’s parents also lived in the same building as Helen and Leonard Bernstein and Linda Eastman, who married Paul McCartney. When Paul and Linda visited her parents, word would get out and large crowds of avid Beatles fans would gather outside the building in the hopes of getting a glimpse of Paul McCartney.

Paul McCartney and Linda Eastman in their early years together

One such day, Helen was out with Leonard Bernstein and they returned home to find Paul’s fans congregating outside their apartment building. For some reason, Helen saw Paul McCartney’s fans as a slight to her friend, Leonard Bernstein. So she got on her soapbox and started to lecture the crowd on what a brilliant and creative musician Bernstein was. She listed his composing credits as well as his conducting accomplishments and told the crowd that they should be honored to be meeting him!

Beatles’ fans

Her stump speech for Bernstein went right over the young girls’ heads. But it’s the sign of a true friend when someone goes to bat for you even when her words fell on deaf ears. But I always loved the image of this elegant beauty schooling a bunch of Beatles fans on classical and Broadway music!

SELFIES AND AUTOGRAPHS – Garry Armstrong

Across New England, the Blizzard from hell takes second place to the Patriots’ latest melodramatic postseason victory and relentless march in search of yet another Superbowl championship.

We are literally iced in but that won’t stop die-hard Pats’ fans in their quest for selfies and autographs with their favorite football players. Patriots’ fans, oblivious to the numbing cold are lined up outside numerous venues for a magical second with their heroes. A long second to secure a selfie and an autograph for posterity.

It raises questions about how far people will go for the celebrity snap or signature. What’s the intrinsic value of such possessions?  It varies from financial worth to bragging rights.

Selfies are part of our daily lives now. People documenting the magical and the mundane. There’s a narcissist air to selfies of people wolfing down their favorite food or bathroom mirror closeups to show you’re forever young. If you are compassionate, you will typically post a thumbs-up note of congratulations.

Which invites more such selfies.

But no signature!

That’s a part of our social media lives. The smallest moment gets big attention.

People have always wanted pics or autographs with celebrities. It’s their golden moment! As a kid, I yearned for such mementos with my favorite baseball players or movie stars. I really wanted a photo with Roy Rogers, the king of the Cowboys.

During my working years as a TV News reporter, I met many celebrities, socialized with a few but have very few autographs or pictures. I felt awkward about it.

Even when socializing with the cameras somewhere else, the conversations were relaxed, easy and I thought it would be rude to ask for the pic or autograph. Sometimes the celebs were pleasantly surprised. Robert Mitchum, with a sly grin, asked: “Dude, no pics or autographs?” I smiled, shaking my head and wondering why I just didn’t ask.

Garry with Tip O’Neill – without an autograph

I always thought the legends were more comfortable with my not asking for the snapshot “for my aging aunt who’s a big fan”.  It always sounded so lame and obvious. James Cagney, at his Martha’s Vineyard farm, proudly showed me autographed photos of his early Hollywood friends and peers. He clearly was very proud of the array and talked about his nervousness in approaching William S. Hart, Tom Mix and John Barrymore among other luminaries. I thought it was fine for Cagney because he was a legend. I was just a local TV News reporter.

My biggest regret might be not having asked John Wayne for a picture (1974 – before selfies) even though he was very cordial during our interview. I certainly acted like a fanboy that day, telling everyone – over and over – that John Wayne actually shook my hand.   Eyes rolled in the newsroom as I gushed about meeting “The Duke”.

His shirt says “Living Legend.” AND he gives autographs!

I’ve been retired almost 18 years now and people still stop me for pictures and autographs, usually apologizing for interrupting my grocery shopping. I’m always flattered even surprised, given the length of time I’ve been away from the spotlight. It always “makes my day” when someone says “Hey, I grew up watching you on TV. Would it be okay to take a picture if you don’t mind?” It’s so funny — and the joke is on me, I guess.

Garry getting ready to do his selfie and autograph at Imperial Motors

I was just thinking — who would I love a picture with now?  Most of my heroes are gone. A casual list of “Hey, would you mind if I took a picture with you?” would include Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, Alfred Einstein, Robert Frost (I did an interview but again froze on the picture request), FDR, Eleanor Roosevelt, Vin Scully, Sidney Poitier, and Bette Davis — to name just a few.  Mr. Poitier is still around. I’ve met him once or twice. Maybe he would appreciate this longtime fan.

Garry and Harvey Leonard, famed meteorologist sharing old Dodger baseball memories – Almost as good as an autograph

There are so many “celeb stories” in my memory. I wish I’d had the nerve to ask for that pic.

Selfie?  No, I just looked in the mirror. No, no selfie.

BEFORE THE PARADE PASSES BY

Carol Channing

“I did everything that I ever thought was marvelous.”

It is a universal sentiment: the desire to do the things you enjoy in life while there is still time left. As you get older, you may feel life, and time, passing you by. If you have deep motivation, you will join the parade before it is too late.

When Carol Channing was young, she fell in love with the theater.  So she went to New York City to seek not just fame and fortune, but those Broadway roles that would make her feel alive.  She found them.

She started in 1941, and in 1949 she achieved her big success when she played Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”

She continued on with Broadway success until she hit the biggest Broadway success of all, Dolly Levi.  “Hello Dolly” is the musical version of “The Matchmaker” with music and lyrics by the prolific Broadway songwriter, Jerry Herman.

Carol Channing and David Burns, original run

The widow Dolly was the marriage matchmaker who is asked to find a match for the unmarried, “half millionaire” Horace Vandergelder.  Eventually, Dolly advises her dead husband, Ephram, that it is time to move on with her life and find her own match.  She sets her sights on Horace before it is too late:

Channing found success in movies and television as well as Broadway, but the theater was her greatest love. “It’s very healing. Everybody has their safest place on earth and mine is center stage.”

In 1974 more success came with the musical Lorelei which ran 320 performances, based on the character Channing created in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”  The showed toured the country for almost a year before hitting the Broadway stage.  Along the way the show was being rewritten and fixed up for the Great White Way and fans turned out to see Carol.

The parade never passed Channing by.  She picked up Tony Awards, a Golden Globe, an Academy Award nomination and legions of fans who stayed with her to the end.  She performed her most iconic role, Dolly Levi, over 5000 times through the original run, three revivals, a West End run and national tours. She never tired of the matchmaker who decided to make her own match.

Sources include: “Broadway Legend Carol Channing Dead at 97,” msn.com, January 15, 2019.