Letter From Los Angeles
November, 2012
© 2012 Joel

Quote of The Issue

We’re both sons of Abraham.- One of two young men, one brought up Jewish, the other Muslim, who discover they were switched at birth in The Other Son.

Runners Up

New York has a 100-year flood every two years now.- Governor Andrew Cuomo

No climate change my ass!- Joel

Christmas is not your birthday.- Hollywood United Methodist Church

Other Quotes

If the world as we know it gets destroyed, it will be destroyed by habit: the male habit of trying to solve problems with violence and the fundamentalist habit of responding to differences with fanaticism.- Rev. Galen Guengerich

The personality susceptible to the dream of limitless freedom is a personality also prone, should the dream ever sour, to misanthropy and rage.- Jonathan Frazen, from his novel Freedom.

I will never refer to someone who pickets Planned Parenthood but lobbies against common-sense gun laws as “pro-life.”- Tom Friedman

Elizabeth Taylor tops list of high-earning dead celebrities.- CNN Headline

It’s comforting to know she’s still doing well.- Joel

Much More Than Fat and Feisty

Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey. Feisty. Fat. Republican. Anti-Union. Profane.

A real man, too. The Governor’s praising my favored candidate for his response to Sandy is utterly beside the point. Chris Christie is more than a wrong-thinking bully; he’s a leader.

Mainly Mary

Thank you Maryland, Maine and Minnesota for your support of same- sex marriage. Winning in Bigot Bachman’s state makes it all the more delicious. And a lesbian will represent Wisconsin in the Senate. I may write another chapter of “Growing Up Gay” yet.

Class Dismissed

Romney’s blaming his defeat on Obama’s “gifts” to interest groups and his earlier remarks about the 47% demonstrate the man has not a shred of class. Many Republicans back me up on this.

Sandy Sucks and We’re All Vulnerable

Today the water in our building was turned off temporarily for repairs- what a dreadful inconvenience! Friends who live below 34th Street in Manhattan lost power for several days post-Sandy, certainly a mess, but nothing compared to what others endure in Staten Island, Long Island and New Jersey. A Manhattan mother came home to find her children murdered by their nanny and I whine about my water.

Unquestionably many of our troubles are self-inflicted, however things we can’t control are here to stay. I’m hardly advocating pessimism, but taking our relative good fortune for granted and neglecting to be thankful is an error. We’re all vulnerable.


Enough Texans (over 115,000 and counting) have signed a petition of secession to warrant attention from the White House. If memory serves, prohibiting states from seceding was settled somewhere in the 1860s. Individuals, however, may go anywhere they please.

I recommend several countries to which our freedom-craving secessionists can repair. One offers outstanding Chinese food, another caviar and vodka. There’s the land where you’re at liberty to speak North Korean, and a region full of dates and camels.

Disaffected Texans would be free to abuse woman, rig elections, avoid taxes, slaughter neighbors and hate all they want, although not as free to dissent or ever leave the country.

The Middle East, Again

Perhaps because I’ve just seen The Other Son, no great work of art but an affecting movie, I’m bummed out by what Hamas and Israel have been doing to one another’s children and their families. Killing and dismembering are an offense to the God to which both sides claim exclusive access. Bleating “they started it,” parroting the truism that a country must defend itself, and calling civilian casualties “unfortunate” obscures this central moral issue.

I am also irritated by cliches. Asking what the United States would do if Canada or Mexico lobbed missiles into New York State or San Diego is asking the wrong question. I’m not certain I’d want our president to respond in kind, biblical injunctions notwithstanding. Killing innocents hardens hatreds, prolongs conflicts and frequently plays into the enemy’s hands. Hamas welcomes the slaughter of Gazans as a pretext to further their aggression against Israel.

If the United States were threatened by its enemies or their proxies near our borders, I’d hope we wouldn’t let things get this far. Wait a minute! Didn’t we successfully defuse a missile crisis with a determined enemy fifty years ago?

Election 2012

A politician’s task was to bring reality and policy into the greatest possible accord with the idea and the principled.- Jon Meecham in Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power

Scientists have finally discovered what’s wrong with the human brain. On the left side there is nothing right, and on the right side there is nothing left.- A forward from a reader.

If a crowded sardine in a tin can,
Baby, you can can-can too.- Cole Porter

You’ve been waiting for this segment, haven’t you? The good guys won and the bad guys were defeated. Hah, Hah, Hah? NOT!!!

Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, Sr. was not a man you’d want to meet in some dark alley. A vanquished opponent was therefore astonished by a late election night visit from the mayor long ago. Daly entered his rival’s headquarters unaccompanied, hat in one hand, the other hand outstretched. “I know how losing feels,” he offered.

Of course I’m glad Obama won- why wouldn’t I be? But unless Richard Daley’s and Chris Christie’s generosity count for nothing, we have more to do than simply pout or gloat. In the next edition I’ll share Mat Bai’s analysis of why Barack Obama hasn’t seemed more effective and almost lost this time around, and I’ll likely have a word for Congress, too. For now, I want to talk to you the people.

We all bemoan how polarized the electorate has become, and we all blame one another. Tom Friedman’s insight holds the key to a politically repaired America. “By now, it should be obvious how much America is a center-right/center-left country and how much this center- not the extremes- has dominated the election.”

I may have lost some of you already. You’re thinking, “I should compromise with that bunch of bums?” Here’s what Congressman Tom Cole (R., Oklahoma) now understands. “Most members were just taught a lesson that you’re not going to get everything you want. It was that kind of election.” Unfortunately, an alarming percentage of Democrats and Republicans polled by the Pugh Research Center think compromise is unacceptable.

Americans need to tell their representatives they’ll settle for nothing less than a conscientious quest for common ground. To paraphrase the title song from Porter’s Can-Can,

If Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles can,
Baby, we can can-can too.

But how? First, be heartened by an election that all of Sheldon Adelson’s, Donald Trump’s and the Koch brother’s billions couldn’t buy, Citizens United notwithstanding. If Obama had lost with the backing of George Soros, Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, my sentiments would have been the same. A determined electorate can make things happen in the face of mighty opposition. More than two hundred years of American history backs me up on this.

Presidential primaries can be reformed so candidates would have to appeal to the political center. We can look to organizations like No Labels that support candidates who recognize they have to give as well as take. I’ve seen it happen. San Francisco’s Log Cabin Republicans, of which I was then a member, dragged that city’s Republican party to the center in the 1980s.

The central players in reform are you and me. Don’t forget to email, call or visit your elected representatives. Use the words of Senator Olympia Snowe (R. Maine) in a recent interview: “Compromise,” “Concessions,” and “Consensus.” Politicians justifiably fear the wrath of their organized, extreme constituents. Backing them with an army of moderation is up to us.

It’s been said that if all sides are a little unhappy with an agreement, good’s been done. Some will have to settle for “unhappier.” Tea Party fanatics will be driven to the margins, evangelicals will discover hate is “out,” and some liberal wet dreams will turn dry as a martini.

If this Liz Warren-loving gay man can, .
Baby, you can give in too.
So I’m no Cole Porter.

Postscript: When she was mayor of San Francisco, Diane Feinstein danced a can-can with members of the City’s Board of Supervisors at a party.

As The Eyes of Diana Vreeland Traveled, So Did Ours

“Life is a banquet,” said Auntie Mame, “ and most poor sons of bitches are starving to death.” From 1903 to 1989 America had its own Auntie Mame in the form of Diana Daiziel Vreeland, fashion editor for Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, consultant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and undeniably a force of nature. The documentary movie Diana Vreeland- The Eye Has to Travel celebrates this arbiter of fashion’s life and contributions. I left the theater not liking Vreeland very much, but I may have changed my mind.

In the early 1970s I spied Diana Vreeland walking briskly up Park Avenue, probably en route the predominantly red apartment she dubbed “a garden in hell.” Wearing a soft tan dress, sensible heels and a large, expensive handbag, her sunglasses resting atop a mound of dark dyed hair, the seventy-something year old looked far more conventionally upper class than her public image. Vreeland always dressed and looked the part she wished to play.

Change the look, she reasoned, and one could change the culture. Diana Vreeland chaired an era of exaggeration. In fashion photos she insisted on highlighting, rather than covering up, such physical anomalies as Twiggy’s longish neck and Barbra Streisand’s beak. Differentness meant a lot to the consciously different Diana, perhaps as an antidote for her unappealing looks. Style may literally have been what got her “out of bed in the morning,” as she was fond of saying. She also loved the word “pizzaz.”

Mrs.Vreeland helped make many of the pop stars of her day. What they stood for mattered far less than their “style,” without which, she decreed, one was absolutely “nothing.” Creeps like Wallis Simpson, Charles Lindbergh, Coco Chanel and Truman Capote were companions or among her most admired. Vreeland praised Chanel for liberating women by revolutionizing the way they dressed. The couturier would have liberated a hell of a lot more women- men and kids included- if she had spent less time with Nazis as alleged.

Liberating women from a life of baking pies was one of Vreeland’s main objectives, and in that regard she made a contribution, But were women helped by focusing on the trivial and bizarre? Ethel Merman told Architectural Digest she didn’t need a theatrical background at home because she was inherently theatrical. A critic credits writer Alice Munro with understanding that “the world is strange enough, without need of embellishment.” And, something wrong with baking apple pie?

Madame was not always easy to get along with. Actress Ali McGraw, once her assistant, remembers Vreeland throwing her coat at her upon arriving at the office. (McGaw threw the coat right back yet somehow kept her job.) Vreeland told her sons that Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis flew over their lawn en route his legendary trip to Paris, in itself a flight of fancy . She celebrated wealth and its display, which I’m not certain would play well with her readers in today’s economy. Still, I wonder how many of Vreeland’s observations were meant to be taken literally.

And what of Vreeland’s virtues? She was as much a trend-setter as she was an arbiter of clothes. Style encompasses an attitude as well as its expression. Physical appearance, verve, imagination, humor, habits and inclinations gather neath its wings. Vreeland was an energetic, innovative and demanding writer, organizer and promoter of herself and others. If she were more adept at business she could have ran a motion picture studio ably, I believe.

Vreeland regarded the Belle-Epoque Paris of her childhood as the epitome of grace and beauty, and she had a thing for Russia. (Ballet Ruse performers were guests in Diana Vreeland’s parent’s home.) She also loved the creatures and creations of the 1960s. Although not my favorite decade, I join Vreeland in thanking the 60’s for what they did for women, blacks, gays, dissidents, less than perfect-looking people- and for me. In those ten years I went from a being a hat wearing young Republican to a fan of the Broadway musical Hair.

Freedom to be oneself was a cardinal Vreeland virtue, but was she not merely repackaging conformity? In Vreeland’s world one was free to be a member of the “in” crowd. The days in which well barbered men wore gray flannel suits and women, at least in TV sitcoms, wore pearls around the house were stultifying, I agree. But isn’t fashion, be it in entertainment, merchandise or behavior, a matter of conformity as well? Too often “Be original!” is confused with “Do what others do!”

Our world is more colorful, exciting and, yes, free because Diana Vreeland asked “Why not?” Occasionally, however, one also has to ask the question, “Why?”

May I Please Have Your Autograph: Broadway’s Golden Age

Not now, honey, give it to the doorman.- Ethel Merman

I’m just atmosphere.- Atmosphere

In the mid-1950s Broadway stardom, especially in musicals, was a woman’s world. Names like Rosalind Russell, Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Edie Adams and Judy Holiday blazed in lights above marquees. Their shows, known as “star vehicles,” were conceived to showcase the talents of each particular star. Leading ladies wore stage makeup, mink coats and dark glasses to go to work, and they practiced make-believe. How I wished my kindergarten teacher mom could be like them.

My parents did nothing to discourage my love of Broadway theater, until I told them I wanted to become an actor, that is. Dad bought me the cast album of Bells Are Ringing, comedienne Judy Holiday’s vehicle, the week it was released at the end of 1956. In turn I treated the three of us to front row mezzanine seats for the show the following Christmas. Mom and I sang along with the overture, much to other theater-goers’ consternation. I loved the show and was disappointed with the movie.

On the bus home from school one afternoon I spotted Bernie West. Bernie played the dentist who composed songs on his air hose in Bells Are Ringing on stage and screen, and he lived three blocks from our home in Yonkers. My parents and Lloyd were apprised of this immediately. Then Bernie West received a letter, I received a call and the Wests received me one fine Sunday afternoon.

The West’s apartment had furniture, closets and a kitchen just like ours, and they also had two daughters. Mimi West wasn’t glamorous, and she worked just like my mother. I wanted my actors to be as I’d imagined them: dazzling, sophisticated, and, paradoxically, warm and homey deep inside. Like most teenagers, I wanted safety coated danger in my life. Dad explained, “Actors are as normal as we are,” which, knowing my family, I found difficult to deny.

All I remember of my conversation with Bernie was sharing my theatrical ambitions and asking about stage make-up. Most cast members applied pancake makeup, I learned, whereas stars like Judy Holiday wore greasepaint. Holiday, born Judith Tuvim in Sunnyside, Queens, had a towering IQ, Bernie accurately reported, and she frequently ignored others because she inhabited a world of her own. A week later my parents met Bernie at the corner grocery store, and I got over the illusion actors only ate at “21.” I always thought my mother paid Bernie an annuity to talk me out of acting and encourage my attending college.

Bernie West’s career began to blossom. In one of his off Broadway musicals a kid named Linda Lavin was in the chorus. On Broadway he played opposite Robert Cummings. Bernie took over for Phil Silvers in Do Re Mi when Silvers went on vacation.

Following one Saturday matinee, a tired Phil Silvers plopped down in one of two limousines parked outside the St. James theater. “Where the hell’s the driver?” was the expression on his face. Knowing Silvers was in the wrong car, I gestured to him wildly through the window, which only made him madder. Finally he realized his mistake and got into the other waiting car. Several years later I approached the flamboyant Silvers on Fifth Ave. and told him I knew Bernie West. He invited me to walk with him to Saks.

In the early 1970s TV producer Norman Lear lured Bernie and his partner Michael Ross to Hollywood to write three segments of an up and coming series, All In The Family, and subsequently promoted them to story editors. When Bernie learned I envied his living is L.A. he vowed he’d live in Rochester, N.Y. if he found work there. Then West and Ross struck out on their own, creating The Jeffersons and Three’s Company. Bernie died in 2011 at the age of ninety-three.

One of the late 1950s biggest hits was The Music Man, which I thought was rather odd. Who cared about early 1900s Iowa when there were Sutton Place salons? Audiences did, and I came to love the score. I spent many a Saturday waiting for the cast to leave the Majestic Theater stage door and walk the long alley out to 45th Street. None of them was going home to Yonkers.

Robert Preston, who played Professor Harold Hill, gave me a hard time. He looked smaller and harried as he hurried down the stage door alley. Stamping out his cigarette in irritation he asked why I wanted his autograph. “Because you’re a star” didn’t do it, but after a little back and forth I broke the will of Robert Preston and he signed. (In early 1990s San Francisco, the young star of Brighton Beach Memoirs, Matthew Broderick, asked us why we waited with the tone of a suspicious cop.)

The Music Man had several Barbaras in its cast. Barbara Cook was of course its lovely star. We mistook Barbara Williams for Miss Cook because, like the earlier mix-up with Elaine Stritch and Jane Carlyle, 1950s actresses looked alike in their dark glasses. By the time we got to see the show, Ms. Williams played the lead. Burt Parks had taken over for Robert Preston and had no problem signing autographs.

We never asked Music Man dancer Barbara Warden to sign anything until years after we met in 1969. Babs, who married legendary musical director Stanley Lebowsky, was to become our friend and business partner. She remained active in show business until she died three years ago in California.

I was already Stage 4 stage-struck when a friend of my parents gave my mother a pair of tickets he couldn’t use. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song was having a final run-through for theater professionals hours before the show’s Broadway opening on December 1, 1958, and Mom and I were in the front row mezzanine again.

Flower Drum Song was a gift that keeps on giving. The previous owner of the condo Lloyd and I just sold in L.A. was Georgette Yau, who played the lead in the original cast of Flower Drum in London. A friend in the Berkshires was a boy in the show’s last weeks on Broadway and went with it on the road. The musical’s director/choreographer was our current friend Patricia Kelly’s husband Gene.

During intermission of that final run-through I found myself facing Michele Reiner, a blonde singer from my holy Bells Are Ringing. I told her what her name was (“You’re Michele Reiner!”) and how much I enjoyed her in the show, which was the truth. “Do you think we have another South Pacific?” I asked, because my mother said Pat Suzuki was another Mary Martin. Reiner’s body language answered in the negative. The show was really kind of dumb, although with lovely music

Lloyd and I experienced “A Hundred Million Miracles” (the flower drum song’s title) at the St. James Theater stage door many a Saturday afternoon. Petit Miyoshi Umeki, then all the rage in movies, was warm and more proficient in English than her stage persona would suggest. Co-star Pat Suzuki was small and wore a mannish raincoat. Jack Soo, who later gained fame on TV’s Barney Miller, had a small featured part which was expanded for him in the movie.

In Flower Drum the curtain came up on two iconic actors playing middle-aged Chinese siblings in San Francisco. Keye Luke had played Number One Son in the movie series Charlie Chan, Juanita Hall Bloody Mary in South Pacific. Hall was half Hawaiian, half African American, immensely talented and equally intimidating. Lloyd’s cousin Ann Thomas’s husband, Chet Gierlach, had produced several of Hall’s albums, which gave us an excuse to say “hello.”

Miss Hall, who was known to physically rearrange her fellow actors on the stage, came to work dressed for a party at the embassy. She lived on Fifth Avenue, albeit in the upper 90s. When Lloyd mentioned Chet and Ann the diva opened up. She had a beef with the show’s management which she wasn’t keeping to herself. That past week Hall missed a few performances due to illness. The Rodgers and Hammerstein office told her sick leave had run out, and one more absence and she was out as well. We couldn’t believe show folks could be that inconsiderate, but we later learned that R and H were tough as nails.

Then there were Abarbella Hong and “Atmosphere.” Hong played the rejected lover who sings “Love Look Away” before doing herself in. For a reason known but to God, Lloyd and I got Hong’s autograph every Saturday between the matinee and evening show. She always signed willingly and in good humor. Twenty years later we saw a small film in San Francisco a guy we knew was in. Arabella Hong played his mother.

“Atmosphere” merits an explanation. “Who do you play?” we asked a nondescript Asian man who popped out the St. James stage door after each performance. “I’m just atmosphere,” he answered in a cheery way. We concluded he was telling us his name.

Two other life-changing shows came along late May of 1959. Ethel Merman’s Gypsy and Dr. Willy Nilly opened within a month of one another. The latter was important to us because Lloyd’s cousin Ann was the female lead. Gypsy was important because it was an opportunity to meet Ethel Merman, whose first husband had once been my mother’s teenage beau. “The Merm” was as larger than life offstage as she was on. Knowing that boys our age were in the Gypsy cast was the other reason Lloyd and I roamed the Broadway Theater’s stage door alley.

Backstage Broadway bears little resemblance to how it’s represented on the screen. Some stage doors are located directly off the street, but others, like at the Broadway, the St. James and the Majestic, are at the end of alleys in which you wouldn’t want to be a cat. Stage door Lloyds and Joels loved those alleys, as we did the afternoon of Gypsy’s first post-opening matinee.

Out of a somewhat dated limousine, accompanied by several dated looking gentlemen, popped legend Ethel Merman. Black was the color of her short sleeve dress, the scarf that covered curlers, her sunglasses, and her mood. “Miss Merman, may we please your autograph?” “NOT NOW, HONEY,” she bellowed while continuing to march right past us, “GIVE IT TO THE DOORMAN!” If she only knew how often Lloyd and I have used that expression to pests along the street and on the phone despite it’s being utterly irrelevant.

Of course we didn’t “give it to the doorman.” Months later we caught Merman walking to the theater from her hotel apartment (she never had what could be called a home), and I held the small cake box she was carrying while she signed away. When I mentioned my mother had dated the first of her many husbands, Bobby Levitt, Ethel Merman said she had to be backstage.

On the “Not now, honey” afternoon, however, Lloyd and I had other business. We bought tickets to see Cousin Ann Thomas in Dr. Willy Nilly, which was based on Moliere’s forgettable The Doctor In Spite of Himself. Ann’s fellow players included Howard da Silva and newcomer Nancy Dussault, herself an up and coming Broadway star. Backstage, da Silva signed Lloyd’s book and turned it over to a visiting Joseph Bulloff.

Ann also introduced us to the director, who had worked with da Silva and Bulloff in the original Oklahoma! as its star. I found Alfred Drake disappointing in his looks and manner, but I now understand about a director’s pressure during previews. Drake was charming when we introduced ourselves to him years later, although he was still no Cary Grant.

Six months later my world and Lloyd’s was set ablaze with the advent of The Sound of Music. All our stage door antics were a rehearsal for what came next.

Joel: Letters