It can be difficult to tell compliments from insults. You’d think it would be easy and obvious, but it isn’t.
As a child, my mother comforted me with her classic witty lines. Somewhere in my head, I can still hear her. A lonely, probably odd child, it took me a long time to find my social persona. But Mom could always reassure me in her own special way.
“There’s someone for everyone,” she assured me. “Even you.”
And then there was the clothing my mother made for me. It was gorgeous, fashionable and of far better quality than the other girls wore. The Mean Girls (those girls have been around forever and live everywhere) just said, “Eww! Where did you get that ugly dress?”
It wasn’t ugly. They were ugly.
Nicer, kinder people (adults mostly) would say, “Oh, your mother must have made that for you. It’s so … interesting.”
As a young woman, I put on a lot of weight. Before I eventually got rid of that hundred and fifty pounds, there were some great lines from “friends” who knew just the right words to make me feel good.
“You dress really well for a fat girl.”
“I don’t think of you as fat. You’re just Marilyn.”
Later on, no longer fat, but still me, compliments have streamed in nonstop.
“I thought you were a nun. Don’t you own anything that isn’t black?”
My all-time favorite, from the woman who never managed to get my first husband to the altar, though had he lived longer, she might have worn him down (she just needed another decade or two) and who couldn’t figure out the source of my continuing popularity with men. I said: “I’m nice to them. I make them feel special.”
“I do that too,” she whined. (No, she didn’t.) “But,” she continued, getting more nasal by the minute, “How come they marry you?”
It’s heading toward the end of April and the Sox, last year’s series winners, are having a hard time. While not in last place, they’ve lost more than often than they’ve won. Many of the teams who were supposed to be leading their division are not doing well.
It’s early yet. If they are still tanking by the end of May, we’ll have to get serious about worrying. Garry would normally be obsessively glued to the television, but when his team isn’t playing well, he’s afraid to watch. He thinks watching is a jinx.
The sportscasters were talking about somebody getting stuck with an error because he couldn’t catch a ball on a bad bounce and how hard it is to catch them when they take an unpredictable bounce.
This got me thinking about stickball.
These professional players get gazillions of dollars to play professional baseball. They have parks with groundskeepers, bases, uniforms, baseballs, and even bats! How would they do without all that fancy stuff, huh?
We didn’t have any of that. No siree. We played that old-time American favorite, stickball. We hit with old broomsticks using a pink rubber Spalding ball — which might or might not be round.
The broomsticks were worn out. If it was any good, your mother was using it, so before you got to play, it had to be pretty beat up.
The ball? Half the time, they weren’t even round anymore. They had lumps of pink rubber which had — long in the past — been balls with bounce.
In hometown stickball, assuming you actually hit whatever was thrown (dubious), you had no way to predict where it would go. All bounces were bad. An old, not-round Spalding rubber ball could go anywhere.
The bases were “the red car over there” and “the big maple tree in front of Bobby’s house.” Everyone agreed the manhole cover was home because it was more or less in the middle of the road. Third base was the drainage grate over the sewer. Watch your feet and DON’T let the ball go down the drain.
It left the game wide open for serious disputes about fair versus foul. The team who was most vigorous in pursuing fairness or foulness got the call, especially since we were our own umpires and decisions were voted on and the bigger team (by numbers or just physically bigger) always won.
If those super highly paid athletes had to play stickball, how well do you think they’d do? I’d like to see those tough major leaguers playing stickball with a worn-out broomstick and an old pink Spalding ball bouncing wildly all over the place.
The first time I rode the Cyclone, I was 8, as were my friends. Mary’s mom dropped us at the rides and went to visit a friend while we girls rode the Cyclone for hours. It was off-season and if there weren’t any people waiting, they’d let kids stay on as long as they could.
I rode that beast many more times until a few years ago when my bones and Garry’s said “Enough!” and we said goodbye.
And this is as reckless as we ever got. Reckless enough!
There is no doubt in my cluttered mind that 1969 was the most memorable year of my life. None. Of all of the events that have happened through the years, I can not say that any other years stands out like this one.
When you are a Senior in high school and people tell you to enjoy it because these late high school, early college (if you go to college) years are the best years of your life, it is hard for you to believe.
Surely better times will come along, you think. You cling to that belief for many years. Then you realize something.
The years around your high school graduation may, in fact, have been the best years of your life. They are the touchstone. They are the yardstick by which all future events are measured. They contain the moments you treasure, and they are locked away in your memory vault for all time. They are the springboard that launched you into adulthood.
My first high school closed and I went to another for one year. Our class play is the extracurricular activity that introduced me to many of my classmates. Most seniors joined the spring musical which was South Pacific. It was a great experience as a large cast worked together at a common goal. It turned out well.
Meanwhile, a series of astounding events filled the spring and summer of ’69. In April the convicted assassin of Senator Robert Kennedy, Sirhan Sirhan, was sentenced to the death penalty in California, but the state would eliminate the death penalty and he would never be executed. He is still incarcerated and is now 75 years old.
In May Apollo 10 took off for the moon. It was just a dress rehearsal for Apollo 11. On July 20th the world watched in wonder as Neil Armstrong stepped onto the surface of the moon. President Kennedy had promised the nation in May of 1961 we could accomplish this by the end of the 1960s, although he did not live to see it himself.
Also in May, The Who introduced their”rock opera,” Tommy. It was an album of rock songs that told the story of that “deaf, dumb. and blind kid” who “plays a mean pinball.” The “Pinball Wizard” may not have been the first rock opera, but it was the first album to call itself that. Others have followed to varying degrees of success.
The Beatles were still hitting the top of the charts. In May “Get Back” would reach number one. The song would later turn up on the “Let It Be” album. Who knew we were nearing the end of an era that in many ways never ended? In September The Beatles released Abbey Road.
In ’69 I went to the movies a little more often than I do now. Midnight Cowboy came out in May and I recall seeing it in the theater. It was likely then that I first took notice of the Harry Nilsson song, “Everybody’s Talkin’.” It became a favorite. After the movie came out, the song received a lot of radio play.
In June the Stonewall riots took place outside a Greenwich Village, New York City gay bar. A confrontation between police and activists turned ugly over a few days period. Many say it led to the modern gay rights movements. The following year the first gay pride parades were held in several cities, including Chicago. I can not say that I was aware of any of this at the time. However, Stonewall marked an important moment in LGBT history in this country.
On two days in August, The Charles Manson “Family” killed 8 people in murders that would shock the nation. The gruesome details that came out over time were almost too horrifying to be believed. Manson was sentenced to death for his role in the killings, but, like Sirhan Sirhan, his sentence was changed to life in prison when California did away with the death penalty. Manson died in prison in 2017 at the age of 83.
By the time we got to Woodstock We were half a million strong And everywhere there was song and celebration
In August it may not have been a half million people who went down to Max Yasgur’s dairy farm 43 miles from Woodstock, New York, but the crowd was certainly in the hundreds of thousands for the “3 days of peace and music.” Perhaps a half million said they were there. Over the festival, 32 acts performed, sometimes in the rain, while organizers proved rather unprepared for the massive event.
I can not say I knew much about Woodstock in 1969. The film, the music and the many videos that have turned up taught us about the event. It meant little to some of us back home in the Midwest at the time it was happening. The 1970 documentary of the festival won an Academy Award. Joni Mitchell wrote a popular song that was a big hit for Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young who played at the festival. Mitchell had turned it down.
The big news in Chicago that summer for baseball fans was the miracle collapse of the Chicago Cubs. On August 14th the Mets were nine games behind the Cubs in the standings and it looked like the long pennant drought for the northsiders was about to end. Then September happened. The Cubs lost 17 of 25 and the Mets got hot. They went on to win the World Series and the Cubs did not make it to the Fall Classic until 2016.
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.
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.”
James Cagney House
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.
James Cagney with chickens
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.
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.
We 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.
While some songs often come Home To You and say I Wanna Be Your Dog, the artists behind them may have faded into Echo Park. That’s why we are going to have a Birthday party and welcome them back for Apricot Brandy and Bubble Gum Music.
Now if Cinnamon will just let us in, we are ready to blast off into the past. We will bring along Bella Linda, Big Bruce and the California Girl. What is The Worst That Could Happen? I suppose there will be the Games People Play, but we will Kick Out The Jams. Pay no attention to that Hot Smoke and Sasafrass, it just means the party is starting to heat up and There’s Something In The Air.
Don’t worry, I Gotta Line On You, babe, and see that you are ready to Get Together. We will play More Today Than Yesterday because Tracy, when I’m with you, we have all the 45’s we need. Everyone will join in for our Simple Song of Freedom, as well as my top ten one hit wonders of a most memorable year. I see you have waited patiently for some Good Old Rock ‘N Roll, and we will Get It From The Bottom:
10. In The Year 2525, Zagar and Evans. I really liked this song in ’69 and bought the 45. Now I find it a bit obnoxious and repetitious.
9. Take A Letter Maria, R.B. Greaves. This was recorded in August, released in September and sold a million copies by November.
8. Sugar on Sunday, Clique. The song is a cover of an earlier Tommy James and the Shondells’ song.
7. Poke Salad Annie, Tony Joe White. The artist wrote and performed the hit. He found little success recording, but wrote other hits including “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
6. Baby It’s You, Smith. No, it’s not The Smiths. That was a later group. This short lived band is fronted by Gayle McCormick.
5. Love (Can Make You Happy), Mercy. The song was recorded at Sundi and released, and later recorded again at Warner Brothers where the band actually signed. Sundi was sued and their album was no longer allowed distribution. Which version do you hear? You have to check the label, they sound alike.
4. More Today Than Yesterday, Spiral Staircase. The hit was written by lead singer Pat Upton. The group did not last much longer after this million seller.
3. Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye, Steam. We may not have known the song or the fictitious band in ’69, but everyone in Chicago came to know it in 1977 and following years. The White Sox started using the tune to play off opposing pitchers who were being replaced. That was a hit. The group on the album cover and in the old video is a road group that had nothing to do with the recording and is, in fact, lip syncing.
2. Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’, Crazy Elephant. This was another short-lived band that was mainly a studio creation. The song failed to chart when first released, but was re-released a couple of months later and climbed the charts to number 12 in the US.
1. Morning Girl, The Neon Philharmonic. This group was around a few years, then sold off the name. It achieved the big sound by using members of the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. There are bigger hits on this list, as this one only climbed to number 17, but it is one of the ones I remember best.
The lack of good performance videos is due to the fact that many of these groups were not around for very long. Click on any song title to go to a video. Click here for the entire playlist of one hit wonders.
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