Letter From Los Angeles
March 2013
© 2013 Joel

Quotes of The Issue

Yesterdays, Yesterdays,
Days I knew as happy,
Sweet sequestered days.
Jerome Kern, songwriter 1885-1945

It’s just dumb, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people.– Barack Obama, referring to Sequester Day, 3/1/13.

The way we’re doing it (the budget cuts) is almost like not having a government– Columnist David Brooks

Did anyone get the license plate of that truck?– Alan Blinder, referring to the perpetrators of the financial crisis in After The Music Stopped .

Runners Up

There are no two sides when it comes to facts.–Randi Rhodes

We’ll veto everything he does.–Republican Senator Lindsay Graham referring to the very budget cut proposals he requested from the president.

Words To Live By

What’s to be done? Beyond taking care of yourself, ask what needs to be done around you. Who needs a kind word or helping hand? Who needs a hug or a pat on the back? Where can you right a wrong or stand up to an injustice? Where can you make peace or soothe a pain?–Galen Guengerich

Corrected Quote from January’s Edition

To a blind, blind world.– Admiral Bridey in On The Beach. (“Mad” would fit just as well.–Joel)

I’m Getting Tired

A thousand people are stranded not that far from safety on a cruise ship, and their legal rights are few. Meteors slam down on Russia. Deaths from gunshots are reported almost every day. A former LAPD officer avenges being fired, allegedly for reporting police abuse, by murdering cops and innocents, and some African Americans almost see his point. A nurse at an independent living facility in Florida refuses to administer CPR, and an eighty-seven year old lady subsequently dies. Congressional Republicans hurt the country because they can’t get their way. Rand (as in Ayn) Paul drones about drones for thirteen hours.

What tires me is having such an easy time finding topics for my letters; my topics come to me. I’d rather sit at the computer stumped for what to write. Sometimes boring’s better.

Don't Cry For He

Jimmy Carter, Michael Moore, Sean Penn, Rep. Jose Serrano and former Congressman Joseph Kennedy have kind words for the late, and in my opinion, unlamented, Hugo Chavez. I'll write more about the flack I've taken for criticizing Fidel Castro and Argentina's Perons in future letters. To the men above I say, "Let's hear it for Evita!"

Interests Si, Positions No

Winners, as distinct from those whom I call losers, negotiate interests, not positions. Here’s the rub when it comes to the forced federal budget cuts known as the sequester. Tea Party interests coincide with no one else's.

Trust Me

Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz recommends that leaders of both political parties begin building trust. Perhaps they could then serve as models for the rest of us.

When is the last time you had a reasonable exchange with someone whose politics you oppose? Conversations degenerate into contests during which we set one another up, parrot talking points, or a play a game of "Got'cha." Even those with whom I agree sometimes rail because they think I don't get the passion right.

I want to go beyond expressing our opinions; I want us to try to work things out. I congratulate two readers, one an L.A. liberal friend from the park with whom I can discuss politics rationally, and a New York conservative who, regardless of our political differences, remains a dear and loving friend. Too bad they're the exceptions.

Boy Oh Boy!

Every day the Boy Scouts of America delays action (on lifting the ban on openly gay members and leaders) is another day that discrimination prevails.–Human Rights Campaign

The British House of Commons approved a measure to legalize same-sex marriage by an overwhelming margin. P.M. David Cameron has championed the cause. And Vive La Catholic France- and Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Argentina and South Africa– all of which guarantee a same-sex right to marry.

Bless an avowedly “conservative, right wing” former RNC chairman, who supports same-sex marriage, too. And my respects to Republicans Meg Whitman, Stephen Hadley, David Stockman, Jon Huntsman, Christine Todd Whitman, wonderful former Massachusetts Governors Weld and Swift, Laura Bush, Colin Powell and, in this context, even Dick Cheney.

Boys at the Scouts, you listening?

Pope-pourri

I love members of the Catholic laity and priests and nuns who lead good Christian lives, and I agree to respectfully disagree with their theology. My message to the Church’s hierarchy is far less generous. Keep your hands off children, stop interfering with women’s reproductive rights, and get out of my gay face.

Repeal Voting Rights? Wrong!

I’m to trust southern states to protect the voting rights of African Americans in light of minority voter suppression in the past election? As a friend quipped in 1977, I’d trust Richard Nixon first.

Young and Rich (I Wish)

In ‘The Late Adopters,’ New York Times Magazine, February 17, 2013, Robert Draper listed words swing voters associate with each of the two major political parties. Republican: Middle-aged white men, narrow-minded, hypocritical, military retirees, religious, corporate greed, conservatives and polarizing. In bold print, OLD and RICH. Democratic: Hand-outs, open-minded, diverse, young people, spending, green. In bold print: CHANGE and LIBERAL.

I want to be every Democrat-associated word except hand-outs, especially “YOUNG,” and I reject every word which is Republican except for “RICH.” Don’t ever say I’m not bipartisan!

For Those Who Live By The Gun

When talk of guns begins, rationality goes out the window.–Paul Krugman

Who wasn’t moved by the presence of gun violence victims and/or their families at the State of the Union address? In a better world we wouldn’t know of any of these folks, and certainly not because their kids were shot to death.

I’ve grown so impatient with politicians- mostly, although not exclusively, Republican- who are in thrall to the NRA, that I’ve come up with this formulation. Let’s divide the country into responsible gun owners and those who own no weapons on the one hand, and Second Amendment fanatics and prospective killers on the other, then permit the latter to maim and kill one another with impunity, provided they leave the rest of us, especially our kids, the hell alone.

Joel To Destry: Please Ride Again

“Those who live by the gun, die by the gun” are the opening lyrics of “The Ballad of the Gun” from the musical Destry Rides Again. Get hold of the 1939 film version of the same title starring Jimmy Stewart and Marlene Dietrich if you can. Stewart plays Tom Destry, a celebrated lawman who is called to a western town to restore law and order. What is unique about crack-shot Destry is that he refuses to carry a gun. I won’t spoil the movie’s sad yet hopeful ending, but in the 1959 musical version that starred Andy Griffith and Dolores Gray, the curtain comes down on the men unfastening and slowly dropping their holsters to the ground as they and the townspeople proclaim:

Those who live by the gun
Die by the gun
Ending with a swift kiss of lead,
And from a high place
Feel the swift embrace
Of a rope going to their head.
Not a none of them dies
Not a one of them dies
Not a none of them dies in bed.

The Gatekeepers Documentary

President Obama will visit Israel this month, providing we haven’t cut the funds to fly him there both ways.–Joel

Diplomacy is a search for common interests, not a reward for good behavior.–Gary Hart

Talk about living and dying by the gun, or by the bomb. The Academy Award nominated documentary, The Gatekeepers, lends perspective to the central conflict in the Middle East. Six former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli CIA, discuss their experience with torture, collateral damage, summary executions, political assassinations, the pitiful leadership vacuum, and the personal costs of what these patriots deem the Israeli occupation. All agree that talks between the parties are indispensable. Israel’s religious right comes in for the heavy criticism it deserves.

None is a man you’d care to meet in some dark alley, yet each regards the Israeli occupation as unsustainable both in practical and moral terms. The filmmaker skillfully builds to each man’s coming to that conclusion. More broadly, the film addresses the efficacy of ongoing wars on terror, which should widen its relevance and appeal.

The Gatekeepers is a sober exposition by a group of Hebrew-talking heads backed by footage from fifty years of Israeli history. This film is not a “feel good evening” at the theater, and those who hold uncompromising positions are advised to stay at home. This movie is a wake-up call to our humanity and common sense. This movie is for keeps.

Joel’s Take on Comedy: Forever Spoiled

The law of the essay is heresy. What is heresy if not the expression of contrarian doubt about communal pieties or orthodox positions?– Philip Lopate, Director of the Nonfiction program at Columbia University

I have a fine sense of the ridiculous, but no sense of humor.– Edward Albee

Shakespeare walks into this bar and.... I’m just kidding. I wanted you to laugh. Laughter lightens our burdens; laughter heals. That’s why we bring it out of one another all the time. That’s why professionals get paid plenty to do them for us.

If you missed the recent TV series Shakespeare Uncovered, lobby your PBS affiliate to run it once again. Superb actors and scholars explore the Bard’s meanings and ambiguities using scenes from various productions. They emphasize Shakespeare’s genius for writing for actors and satisfying his audience.

We’re all acquainted with broad Shakespearean comedy, but what would old Bill think of his audience-pleasing shenanigans if he walked into that bar today? Would he say, albeit eloquently, “Look. As an actor/playwright/producer I knew I had to please my audience. But you folks four hundred years later have been to school, discovered penicillin, bathe regularly and travel ‘round the globe, no pun intended. Here’s something I’ve never told a soul before. I didn’t like the pratfalls and buffoonery; I just had to make a living. What’s your excuse for liking it?”

Welcome to Joel’s take on comedy. I’ve grown tired of Muzak laughter and being told what I should think is funny. My message to a Los Angeles theater company head makes my case. “I told you I don’t like comedy, but that’s not because I don’t laugh or because I’m ultra-serious. I’ve been forever spoiled by the Lucille Balls, Jackie Gleasons, Gracie Allens, Nancy Walkers and Patricia Routledges. I’ve seen perfection.”

“Few individuals have the comic gift.” I continued. “Being an excellent actor or writer is simply not enough. The best primary care doctor can’t be expected to perform brain surgery, which in no way diminishes her or his skill as a physician. Audiences are no help, either. Their laughter is no gauge because they’ve been conditioned to laugh at anything, and they seldom are demanding. The actors in your play tonight have that gift so rare. They passed my acid test; I laughed.”

Today, compulsive laughter appears to be compulsory. I’ve seen audiences laughing before the lights go down. Lloyd recently had a stint in an online presentation. The actors responded with laughter to some footage, and nothing more. As an audience member at a taping of a TV show last season, I was appalled at not being released until we got the laughter right.

Funny business has entered realms where it was formerly off limits. As CNN’s Ali Velshi delivered an appropriately serious report on the budget sequester, Richard Quest, the stooge of a correspondent with whom he shared the screen, could not stop laughing. Turn on your favorite news report, except the PBS News Hour, and watch them squeal with laughter every chance they get. Then imagine finding “President Assassinated,” “Economy Tanks Forever” or “North Korea Decimates Japan” funny. That the public is being underestimated is hardly news. One thing’s certain. Habits are hard, but not impossible, to break.

Today’s ultimate in stage and screen comedy is “over the top,” with its reliance on sight gags and excruciatingly long pauses for effect. The burlesque shtick of old is back in fashion. If audience warm-ups compete with plays for laughs, the creative team lacks faith in their material. The antics at a theater where I live have become so outrageous I no longer attend their shows. The artistic director tipped his hand when he declared his brand of comedy isn’t “cheap.” And this is where Joel’s Incremental Theory of Altering Audience Taste in Comedy makes its entrance.

Theater companies need to make some fundamental decisions. Are they content with the easy laugh? Comedy comes from characters and situations, not just from making funny faces. I urge exposing prospective actors and directors to recorded performances of the masters to learn the secrets of the most effective comedy. This experience is vital for the younger crowd, who are in danger of perpetuating the only comic style they’ve ever known.

The last frontier will be the audience. This is where my fiendish plan comes in. Directors are advised to choose a single moment in which a subtle comic interpretation works as well, if not better, than a broader one, and incorporate it into the performance. Clown around as much as you want the rest of the time, having made your little change. Next season, and not before, make still another minor alteration. At some future date comedy as we know it may be unrecognizable. Audiences will never know what hit them. Theater and film companies will not have lost a dime.

Commercial television is quite a different story. Its mission is to keep the audience awake for the commercials.

May I Please Have Your Autograph: The 1960s
Gossip Mongers of The World Unite!

Writing about celebrities, at times I feel like Hedda Hopper, Walter Winchell and Dorothy Killgallen all rolled into one. For those too young to know these names, the trio were among a handful of the most influential- and vicious- newspaper columnists of their day. Louella Parsons was another member of their clan , but unlike the three above I never saw her.

Hedda Hopper I spotted in a 1960s Easter Parade along Fifth Avenue. She was known as Hedda for her extravagant hats, but her real name was Edla Furry. Her son, actor William Hopper, appeared on TV’s Perry Mason.

Walter Winchell must have worn his ugliness inside. I spotted the former vaudevillian who coined the greeting, “Good evening, Mr. and Mrs. America, and all the ships at sea” at the then new General Motors Building in New York City. He was better groomed and dressed than I expected, with a tall blonde (a midget would have exceeded Winchell’s moral height) on his arm and a satisfied expression on his face.

I’ve saved Dorothy Kilgallen for last because at one time I admired her. Kilgallen had the intelligence and skill to be an excellent reporter. She devoted her talents to Broadway gossip instead. A member of the original TV What’s My Line panel and the co-host of weekday morning radio show Breakfast With Dorothy and Dick, Dick being her Broadway producer husband, Dorothy was a recognizable celebrity. Unfortunately, she died under mysterious circumstances connected with the assassination of JFK.

Dorothy and Dick lived in a townhouse that was said they were barely able to afford on East 68th Street in Manhattan. I first saw Dorothy at the opening night of a Broadway flop her husband produced in the 1950s; later at the opening of The Sound of Music. She wasn’t beautiful, but she had a perfect complexion and dressed to stunning perfection. One night not long before she died, Lloyd and I passed a tipsy Dorothy and Dick around the corner from their home. Having left no doubt, a dazzling party, they were dressed in evening clothes. We politely stared at them and several paces later turned around. They had also turned around to look at us. I’ll never know what would have happened if we had approached them.

Kilgallen targeted late night TV talk show host Jack Paar because he had given Fidel Castro a respectful hearing on his program. Referring to Paar’s daughter, she wrote it was a shame to see a teenage girl so overweight. Paar retaliated on the air by calling Kilgallen “the chinless wonder.”

Paar had also made it clear he hated giving autographs, so when Lloyd and I saw him in front of Sardis restaurant we were hesitant to ask- at first, that is. “Mr. Paar,” I simpered, “I know you don’t like giving autographs, but I’d be honored....” He smiled graciously and signed. We never did get Winchell, Hopper or Kilgallen to do the same for us.

Gossip About Lloyd and Me

Except for our poor parents, you’re the first to know the kind of gossip Lloyd and I manufactured in those days. We were obsessed with actor’s ages, for example. Mary Martin, we decided, was sixty-three when she was forty-six. Merman we pegged at sixty-eight for no good reason either.

Everyone who came out of a stage door got a story of their own. Chorus girls, as female singers and dancers were known before the 1960s, all ran sex clubs on the side in our imaginations. Chorus boys were their customers and pimps. Stars like Martin and Merman were so drunk they had to be held up on stage . (Tallulah Bankhead fit that description aptly.)

Our silliest fantasies were reserved for Grecia and Brona, and I’m not making these names up. The sisters were wardrobe women, the former in The Sound of Music. Each was tall, thin, middle-aged and not at all good-looking. We renamed them Minna and Sinna. Minna was the Secretary of Sin in the Eisenhower and Kennedy, administrations. When Sinna walked down the street she was accompanied by an unseen orchestra playing “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody.” Men fainted in her wake.

Put down that phone and stop calling a psychiatrist. Such were the sexual awakenings of two teenage boys who didn’t go for girls, and who were attempting to demystify well-known theater personalities. Part of their attraction for us was a sense of the fantastic and forbidden. We were also immature and in need of wild experience. After all, we didn’t drink or stay out late at night. Broadway was our way of going teenage crazy. And we were dating, as it turns out, after all.

Off The Books

The autographs I’ve written about thus far are from Lloyd’s two special books. So many others were collected on theater programs and scraps of paper that are currently in storage. I must therefore depend on my superior capacity for remembering trivia, as you will read in sub-segments I label “Off The Books.”

Red-haired, Irish born Maureen O’Hara appeared in a 1960 musical I’m certain none of you have heard of. Christine, whose gorgeous score is sung masterfully by O’Hara and is available on CD, was undeniably a flop. After the show Miss O’Hara, who is alive and in her nineties, headed for her limousine looking even more beautiful and radiant than on the screen. I simply had to get her autograph.

O’Hara’s maid snuck us to the star’s dressing room after a matinee, but she had already left for dinner. One Saturday at noon we waited for O’Hara to arrive at the Forty-Sixth Street Theater. Minutes later a woman wearing a black cloth coat, scarf, dark glasses and no makeup pulled up in a long, black car. Who was this freckle-faced, disguised presence, Miss O’Hara’s secretary? Lloyd recognized the star, who generously signed for both of us and went inside. That’s how we discovered what Maureen O’Hara must have looked like when she first got out of bed.

I Could Have Died

Some of you may remember New Girl In Town, a 1957 Broadway musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie. (The latter will be performed this coming summer by the Berkshire Theater Group in Stockbridge, Ma.) Greta Garbo’s unforgettable “Gimme a whiskey, ginger ale on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby” were from the 1930s Anna Christie movie.

Lloyd and I chased Gwen Verdon, Anna Christie 1957, across 46th Street for an autograph as she scurried to an engagement. Her father in the show was played by Cameron Prud’Homme, who may be remembered as Katharine Hepburn’s father in The Rainmaker.

When I saw the veteran actor leave the stage door, I got his name all wrong. “Carmen Proodhommy (rhymes with ‘prude mommy’),” I exclaimed. “May I please have your autograph?” Carmen Proodhommy was not at all amused. He snapped the correct pronunciation of his name before he signed my scrap of paper. I also got cast member Thelma Ritter’s autograph that afternoon, but I could say her name.

I’m Glad I Lived

In 1960 two musicals, Camelot and Wildcat, opened on Broadway, the former starring Julie Andrews and the latter Lucille Ball. I had no use for TV actors then, including the red headed comedienne I’ve since come to all but worship. In those days Hollywood stars were unwelcome by Broadway audiences and critics. Jack Lemon, Maureen O’Hara and Charlton Heston were casualties of this condescending attitude (and of vehicles unworthy of their talents.) Lucille Ball was no exception.

Wildcat, Ball’s Broadway debut (and finale) was a bore in every way. Lucy Ricardo finally got her break, so to speak, but she should have stayed at home with little Ricky. Ms. Ball could neither sing nor manage musical numbers, the only one worth remembering being “Hey, Look Me Over.”

Ball was also thrown by her still fresh separation from Desi Arnaz, the demands of stage and New York’s winter weather. The show had to shut down for a week because its forty-eight year old star was too ill to go on. At the time she and her children lived at 150 East 69th Street, where, thirteen years later, Lloyd and I lived, too. Our painter told us he repainted Ball’s living room several times, at her expense, till they got the shade of yellow right. Lucille was a perfectionist, but she dropped the ball on Broadway.

To the star’s consternation, audiences came expecting I Love Lucy. Consequently, Ball camped around and broke character, which I resented mightily. The afternoon I saw the show she told another actor, “You remind me of Fred Mertz.” Breaking character dates back to when Al Jolson stopped the show to address his audience directly. (Danny Kaye was to revive that practice in Two By Two in 1971. ) I thought breaking character went out with the advent of the book musical.

Due to its star’s popularity, Wildcat was still running when The League of New York Theaters 1961 baseball season opened in Central Park. I was there for the occasion. Julie Andrews, and Tammy Grimes of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, helped throw out the first ball. Another Ball, Lucille, arrived on the hood of a Model T in her Wildcat costume. As Lucy dismounted we made eye contact, she rubbed her posterior and mouthed, “Oh, my ass!” Stung by her clowning during Wildcat and annoyed by the mild obscenity, I stared and walked away.

Lloyd just missed getting Lucille Ball’s autograph after a Saturday matinee when I was missing. Lucy and guest Vivian Vance were on their way to dinner. Just then Lloyd spotted Desi Arnaz leaving the stage door to join the women and stopped him for his autograph. By then Ball and Vance were in the restaurant, but little matter. We were to meet both ladies in years to come, which I promise to report about in subsequent editions.

Camelot, on the other hand, was a success reminiscent of Broadway’s Golden Era, which by 1960 was well on its way to heaven. Julie Andrews had been a winner in Lerner and Loewe’s previous hit, My Fair Lady, and her co-star, Shakespearean actor Richard Burton, was well regarded but had never sung in public. Lloyd and I were at the stage door opening night. The only autograph we got on that occasion was from audience member Faye Emerson, who signed grudgingly.

Camelot had more than our opening night presence in common with The Sound of Music. Lloyd and I were interested in the boys who played pages in King Arthur’s court. A familiar former Sound of Music stagehand, now with Camelot, approached us before a matinee. “I remember you,” he responded to our friendly greeting. “Tell me why you wait like this?” (Shades of Bernice Saunders, who asked us that the year before.) Again I answered, less than frankly, that we were there for stars like Julie Andrews. “They’re just people,” he advised. We didn’t think they were sardines.

Julie Andrews was no sardine; she seemed closer to a block of ice. She walked to the Majestic stage door alley unusually erect and staring straight ahead. In retrospect I think that she was nervous. Somewhere along the line Lloyd obtained her autograph without me. I don’t want to leave you with a bad impression of Julie Andrews. A friend of ours was house manager for a later Julie Andrews show, possibly Victor, Victoria. Andrews not only catered an end of the run party, she fraternized with everyone.

One fine night we got ourselves a signature from Richard Burton, who was better looking than in photos. Another surprise that evening was a visiting Anthony Quinn, also better looking than you’d think, and, despite his reputation, pleasant to two young fans.

Intermission

Joel: Letters