Letter From The Berkshires
September 2013
© 2013 Joel

Quote of the Issue

Policy-makers must improve distributions of pain that not only are fair but also are seen to be fair. Bank executives and directors who fail to properly oversee their firms’ investments should lose their jobs, their stock options, and their past years’ bonuses- and if shareholders will not impose such penalties- the government needs to do so. Shareholders who voted for such executives and directors should lose their equity. And the president needs to speak to the people, explaining the crisis and the government’s response, over and over again, in language the ordinary voter can grasp. –Bradford DeLong, Professor of Economics, UC Berkeley

Other Quotes

We disagree, but we have a common responsibility to get things done. – No Labels, a bipartisan “Gang of 81” in Congress

The American public is saying, “We’re totally fed up with that part of the world (the Middle East) and can’t wait for the start of the N.F.L. season. How do you like those 49ers?” –Thomas Friedman

The Obama administration and Syria is “a case study in how not to conduct foreign policy.” –Fareed Zakaria

So I suggest instead of demarcating restrooms by sex and causing all of those problems in Colorado, why not just place a giant fig leaf on the door to remind us that our maker didn’t plan on our covering ourselves up with shame. –Harvey Fierstein commenting on the case of a cross gender elementary school student.

Who am I to judge them (gays)? –Pope Francis

Getting Syria

Like it or not- and I don't like it- we've got to strike the Syrian regime. I believe a unilateral military response to the chemical warfare is mistaken because it will likely do more harm than good. Still, I shudder to think of the consequences of reneging. What Obama was thinking when he made the threat, then sought Congressional approval, I'll never understand. A "no" vote would seriously damage American credibility and his presidency.

The broader question is: where the hell are Russia, China, the U.N. and all the world on this?

Summer Reading

Dancing Magicians, the fourth book from the fertile imagination of my online publisher John Caris, offers a kaleidoscope of events in San Francisco, cyberspace and way beyond in which evil gets trampled by the good. I recommend readers sample the first three chapters at http://www.westgatehouse.com/dm.html, which I’m certain will entice you to read more. Magic, alchemy, native American culture, sleuthing, perversity, and warmth and love, pervade the tale.

Fred Budin, a faithful reader, has published The Small Business Primer, available online at Smashword. Readers may contact me for the specific link. Fred has discovered how to have his cake and eat it. Decades ago he abandoned a career in engineering to start a commercial carpet cleaning business which pays the bills and allows him freedom to play golf. You may know other people who yearn to live that way.

Did you know that The Glass Menagerie and The Night of the Iguana both started as short stories? One Arm And Other Stories was published in 1948. The stories are as eerie and compelling as their author and the plays. Gender confusion, loneliness, isolation, humor, ghostliness, strangers, hyper-vulnerability- and characters on a collision course with reality- all make appearances.

Although I have not read Tom Brokaw’s celebrated The Greatest Generation, I received The Greatest Generation Speaks: Letters and Reflections, the best seller’s sequel, as a present. With a minimum of commentary, Brokaw lets the WW II veterans and their friends and families speak for themselves. Sections include War Stories, Loss, Faith, Reunions, Love Stories and Lessons. Readers are transported back to a time the oldest of us remember only from our early youth. And a truth’s revealed. Veterans of the second World War didn’t want to talk “about it” less from modesty than because they couldn’t bear to.

The Best and The Brightest by David Halberstam, 1972, details how the brainiest in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations contracted hubris and got Vietnam all wrong. Like most human affairs, foreign policy making is more devilishly complicated than we imagine. Halberstam’s portraits of the powerful are incomparable. This classic is well worth a second read.

“Bright and Morning Star” (1936) a short story by African American Richard Wright, is a horrifying account of black life in that era’s South which ranks among the finest fiction I have ever read. Don’t be intimidated by dialogue written in “Southern speech”; it’s not difficult to pick up and follow. You would never want the protagonist’s life, but in her circumstances you will want to be just like her.

“Why American Education Fails,” which appears in the May-June, 2013 edition of Foreign Affairs, makes me mad as hell. In twelve pages Jal Mehta expresses what took me an entire series, and he says it even better. Anyone interested in the current condition of our schools and how we got there, get thee to that back issue.

Frisk My Great Big But

I applaud Federal District Judge Scheindlin’s ruling the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” program as discriminatory and in violation of the U.S. Constitution. I take a race-based position nonetheless. Let us continue regular frisking of inner city African Americans and Latinos by all means, but in every instance a proportionate number of whites ought to be humiliated, too, again for no sound reason. Park Avenue and vicinity would be a dandy place to start, wouldn’t you agree? Or, start by stopping me.

Less Crime(s)

The State of California and the Obama administration are considering a novel way to alleviate prison overcrowding, save taxpayers a fortune in court and prison costs and, best of all, reduce crime. Decriminalizing minor drug offenses reduces both crimes and crime, provided the uptight among us and the private prison industry don’t get the upper hand.

The zimmerman Decision

I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. –Harper Lee

Trayvon Martin was an unarmed boy walking home from the convenience store. If only Florida could give him back his life as easily as is giving back George Zimmerman his gun. –The New York Times

We need to have a couple of “conversations” in our fair land. One is about race, the other about guns, who gets to use them, and when and how. –Joel

I’m glad for one thing: the george zimmerman trial is over. We no longer have to look at that Thanksgiving Parade balloon of a killer’s face each time I turn on the TV. I can also avert my gaze from Florida State Attorney angela corey, whose role in Marissa Alexander’s twenty year prison sentence for having fired a warning shot into a garage wall to ward off a violent husband allegedly bent on assaulting her, is beyond forgiveness.

Ms. corey, who appeared on TV immediately following the zimmerman verdict dressed like the madam of a whorehouse, conspicuously sports a cross around her neck. What that cross is meant to symbolize I cannot know, but I see no connection to the merciful and loving Jesus.

Regarding the verdict itself, no one really knows what happened the night george zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin dead, and no one has been held accountable. That zimmerman will have a happy life, however, seems most improbable.

I want to level with my readers about my background. I, too, am African American. Also I’m Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Jewish, Asian, WASP and a dozen other things, as is every one of you. That’s where my conversation about race begins. As the Gregory Peck character in Gentleman’s Agreement advocates in the context of that movie: Christian or Jew, we’re the same.

Julio, Giuseppe, Charlie, Paddy, Mohammed and Moishe

On a recent visit to Palm Springs, CA., we repeatedly heard Mexican gardeners referred to generically as “Julio.” I think the heading more than clearly makes my point.

The following week I had a conversation with a “Julio” while walking along L.A.’s posh Mapleton Drive. This construction worker on his lunch break wanted to talk with a stranger about what he’s learned from reading Darwin, C.S. Lewis and Victor Frankel. I’m glad my ego tolerated being in the presence of someone more intelligent than I.

Here Comes The Bride and The Bride, and The Husband and The Husband

Life’s not worth a damn,
Till you can say,
“Hey world, I am what I am!”
La Cage Aux Folles

This segment is dedicated to the queer combinations of Supreme Court Justices who have given same-sex marriage a needed boost, and also to two Berkshire summer neighbors who are proud of their lesbian daughters’ marriages.

In June, the Supreme Court eviscerated the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8, thereby reversing the denial of federal benefits to married same-sex couples and allowing same sex marriage in the state of California to resume. Unfortunately, they also handed a substantial bone to bigots in their Voting Rights decision.

Bigotry is what it is and has always been about, which brings me to what I call Fierstein v. Sullivan. Actor/playwright Harvey Fierstein asserts that those who “hate the sin but love the sinner” are as responsible for the discrimination and hate crimes as anyone. Conservative gay journalist Andrew Sullivan, an early champion of gay marriage, proposes according opponents the right to their religious freedom, in other words to “tolerate intolerance,” by not referring to them as bigots.

Every gay rights initiative has excluded religious institutions, and I’ve heard no one argue otherwise. No clergy member of any faith is required to marry, sanction, include or even look upon anyone they consider lower in God’s eyes than themselves. Regarding political strategy, we need to strike a balance between avoiding shrill, self-satisfying accusations, as recommended by Andrew, and speaking truth like Harvey.

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Beethoven

Orchestra leaders bought a lot of snake oil in hopes of democratizing the concert experience, and now they have an audience that views classical music as just one among many entertainment options, and as not very entertaining compared with bubble-gum pop and action movies. –Philip Kennicott, “Strike Down the Band,” The New Republic, September 2, 2013

Shut up! – The board chairman of a very famous American orchestra, shouted from the audience during seemingly endless opening remarks by a very famous American conductor.

Funny- we tell our children to grow up and adults to act like children. –Joel

Early this season the lights dimmed at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I prepared to applaud for the conductor. Instead, a member of the orchestra holding a microphone took stage center and introduced himself as the principal horn. For the next five minutes we were treated to remarks that included the folks up front paid a lot of money for their tickets, while those at the rear and on the lawn were cheapskates.

Tanglewood has large screens throughout the property that enable concert-goers to see the conductor and musicians close up, which enhances the experience. The speaker remarked that before the advent of the screens, his section could read magazines and doze when they weren’t “on.” The audience, not wanting to appear not “with it,” laughed gently, as if on cue, at the remarks. The faces on the speaker’s colleagues on the stage smiled not at all. Only after several minutes into the concert was I able to concentrate and enjoy the lovely music.

Of course I fired off an email to the Symphony and got a phone call from a senior orchestra administrator almost right away. She was courteous and enthusiastic, but she said that no one else has complained about the Friday concert talks. I’d like to share my follow-up email with you.

“One area in which the Orchestra is letting us down mightily is ‘the talk.’ A lyric from a Broadway show which is directed at a maid goes 'You are paid to clean, not sing.' I believe musicians and conductors are paid to play, not speak, unless at a children’s series. The opening speech Friday night before last was simply silly.

“Think of a musical genre you dislike, even detest. Would you subscribe to a series of it because of an introductory chat? Youngsters or other potential audience members aren’t going to reason, 'I hate this symphonic stuff, but I’ll suffer through because of the opening speech.' Long-term patrons aren’t likely to stay home or switch to punk or rap if the talks were suddenly discontinued.

“A concert differs from a TV situation comedy. We’re somewhat connected to show biz in L.A., and we know this from experience. The warm-up at recordings of sit coms are among life’s more painful experiences. And, if you really want to rope ‘em in, why not start each concert with a stripper? (I’m joking!)

“Perhaps having the orchestra break into smaller groups to play jazz or the best of other popular forms such as rock before or after concerts would make more sense. The current practice makes none, and frankly, it turns us off.

“None of what I’ve written diminishes our love for the Symphony’s musical accomplishments, and we have total sympathy with the need to attract a younger, wider audience, but I can envision our avoiding Friday concerts or arriving a wee bit late. And, by the way, last night’s French conductor droning on about Debussy was a distraction from the music. We don’t remember Debussy’s Concerto for The Spoken Word.”

I soon received a request for permission to pass my words up to the top. Permission granted. What I left out was this. One can only lead a horse to water. If future generations don’t want the music of yesteryear, be it symphonic, operatic, a form of pop or stage, that’s their loss. Efforts to lure more diverse audiences to musical and theatrical performances border on the pathetic, e.g. Rigoletto in a Vegas 1960s dinner and comic warm-up acts before Shakespearean tragedies. A lyric from another Broadway musical– “Wanna putter? There’s the gutter!”– certainly applies.

May I Please Have Your Autograph?
A Reader’s Collection (This Must Be Catching)

A friend in Los Angeles inherited an autograph collection that was given to mother, Erna Lazarus, one of Hollywood’s earliest successful women writers for the screen. The item is the guest book of old time movie actress Gilda Gray. Ms Gray introduced the popular dance “the shimmy” in the 1920s. She’s represented briefly in the current film version of The Great Gatsby.

Guests of Gilda Gray’s who signed include Vera Ellen, Macdonald Carey, Ray Milland, Betty Hutton, Mona Freeman, Billy De Wolfe, Bob Hope, Dan Duryea, John Payne, Gabby Hayes, Maureen O’Hara, Dooley Wilson (Sam from Casablanca), Mama Liberace, George Liberace, Liberace and Lillian Roth.

Our friend also inherited Gilda Gray’s charm bracelet from TV’s This Is Your Life. I saw both the guest book and the bracelet over dinner. Thank you, dear Dodie, for sharing this with all of us.

Blow A Kiss, Take A Bow

If Lloyd and I crashed a single curtain call on Broadway in the 1950s and early 60s, we must have crashed a hundred. The process was rather simple. As audience members filed out through the front door of the theater, we filed right in to take their place. On the rare occasion we were caught, we waited a minute and sneaked back in.

I loved curtain calls because the actors I had read and dreamed about came out and smiled as no one had before. In less than five minutes I could experience all that attracted me to theater: the lights, costumes, hairstyles, scenery, makeup– in short, the world of make believe. When actors took their bows, all these elements were visible at once. The mere physical arrangement and order of appearance of actors in a curtain call was a performance.

The warm May, 1959 evening when Lloyd and I saw his cousin Ann off-Broadway in Dr. Willy Nilly, we hurried to the real Broadway to meet up with Lloyd’s mother and her boyfriend. They were seeing the hit musical Redhead. As was their custom they occupied three seats, one for each and another for milady’s wrap.

When the doors to the 46th Street Theater opened we walked in and joined in the applause. As if visiting Ann backstage hadn’t been exciting enough, we now saw Gwen Verdon and Richard Kiley bestowing dazzling smiles. (My mother joked she, too, would look good if she had her hair done every day.)

Not long after we experienced the curtain calls of The Entertainer and A Majority of One. At the former we saw Lawrence Olivier acknowledge the applause, at the latter hefty Gertrude Berg. If only I had their lives, I thought.

The bows at Bells Are Ringing were much more personal because our neighbor Bernie West was in the show. Curtain calls of musicals are choreographed, I’m sure you know. The cast comes out in a certain order, usually beginning with the chorus and progressing from the featured players to the stars. Actor’s movements are coordinated with an undercurrent of orchestral selections from the show. Bernie West sprinted from one side of the stage as an actress emerged from the opposite wing to join him in a bow.

At the appointed moment the cast stood aside to allow Judy Holiday, the show’s star, to stride right down the center. The biggest stars shared their bows with no one. After bowing several times, Miss Holiday extended her right hand in the direction of the pit and the audience applauded for the musicians. I found that gesture so impressive that I used it after appearing in a high school production which had no music.

Early 1960s Saturdays were not Saturdays if we didn’t crash The Sound of Music curtain call. The lobby attendant requested that we at least wait until the first flurry of ticket holders left before going in. I think our persistence had finally worn him down. We always stood in the rear just behind the orchestra section and applauded like we belonged there.

First came the chorus of nuns, followed by a few walk-ons and less important players. Things heated up when the Von Trapp children marched out in single file, followed by Liesel and Rolph, the three principal Sisters, Max, Baroness Elsa, the Mother Abbess, the Captain and, finally, Maria. Mary Martin broke with tradition by not demanding that the curtain rise again on her alone before the entire cast was reunited. A Merman or a Holiday would not have heard of such a thing.

The instant the curtain fell, Lloyd and I rushed down front to enjoy the orchestra play a selection of tunes as the audience filed out. The purpose was to keep the mood of the performance going, and, more important, to encourage folks to buy the cast recording. To your intrepid stage-struck friends, the final notes were like a symphony performance.

More than fifty years later I can still hear the entire closing score. First came a continuation of the jaunty title song that had underscored the curtain call, followed by the march “Do, Re, Mi” and “Sixteen Going On Seventeen.” Immediately following the notes of “I’ll wait a year or two,” tympani and horns punctuated the notes of “The hills are alive,” fortissimo, and the show was finally over. Then the pit guitarist, Giovanni Vicari whom we had gotten to know, rewarded us with a smile and the other members wondered who the hell we were.

A life transforming crash happened while we were vacationing in San Francisco in the later 1960s. Hair was finishing its opening night performance as we passed the Curran Theater en route the Clift Hotel. Something was happening in the lobby, so of course we stopped to find out what was going on. Out of the auditorium door bounded Gerome Ragni, the musical’s co-author and co-star, accompanied by the cheers of the audience within. Smiling excitedly, he made a sharp turn and headed back down the aisle for further adulation. No one tried to stop us from following him in.

The assembled cast did something we had never seen before; they invited the audience to join them dancing on the stage. As we headed toward our hotel a short while later, we ran into TV sensations Tom and Dick Smothers, who had seen the show. Dick smiled in response to our recognition and bid us a kind “Hello.”

I also had a life change on that street in San Francisco. When I had seen Hair on Broadway I dressed conservatively because I was conservative, and although not kindly disposed toward hippies, to put it mildly, I loved the show. Something about the energy and uproar in that San Francisco theater changed my attitude. When we got back to Manhattan I grew what hair I had a little longer and began to dress more colorfully, which pleased my mother. Outward manifestations were one thing; I also felt freed up inside. And although I voted for Nixon again in ’72, my politics began to change.

I’ve been asked if we ever sneaked in to see an entire play or musical, and I say without hesitation that we did not. I wouldn’t even upgrade myself to a vacant seat unless the usher gave permission, which happened only once that I recall. Crashing curtain calls and bulling our way backstage, though, were fair game.

Desdemona and Asparagus

Another specimen we encountered regularly on Broadway was the stage doorman, who was employed by the theater, not the show within. Back then stage doormen were older men who boasted old-time show biz backgrounds. Sound of Music doorman Harry, whom we nicknamed, appropriately, Asparagus, had been a pianist for song writers at Broadway’s fabled Brill Building beginning in the 1920s. His counterpart at the Shubert Theater we lovingly nicknamed Desdemona.

Harry’s successor at The Sound of Music was the nicest doorman I have ever known. I would drop by to say “hello” during lunch breaks from my nearby summer job. The excessive heat of Manhattan summer afternoons was at the core of my routine. After chatting with this nameless man, I would comment on how thirsty I had become. That inevitably led to his inviting me to use the water fountain in the wings. From my vantage point I would look across the stage where all the magic happened, then at the darkened house, and I knew that I was home. I think the doorman understood.

You’ve come this far to read about some autographs, so I’ll include a few from The Sound of Music era and a bit beyond. When or where we ever got Virginia Gilmore’s I can’t remember. The actress, who had been married to Yul Brynner, was in deteriorating health when she took her life in Santa Barbara a decade or more later.

One evening in Shubert Alley we spied a familiar couple in their fifties, she with flaming red hair and he, shall we say, having a little trouble walking, heading to a show. The he was Jim Backus, formerly the voice of cartoon character Mr. McGoo and co-star of TV’s I Married Joan. The actor had some trouble understanding what I asked of him. Firmly but patiently, his wife got him to sign.

And who remembers Eddie Hodges? The freckled redhead played the little lisping brother in The Music Man on stage and also Frank Sinatra’s son in A Hole In The Head. I don’t know what became of the grown up Eddie Hodges. For that kind of information you’ll need to consult the Whatever Became Of books by Richard Lamparski. A San Francisco reader recently sent us a volume of the fascinating series.

My favorite item from Whatever Became Of asks,
What became of Ann Sheridan hairdos?
What became of Ann Sheridan padded shoulders?
What became of Ann Sheridan?

(Answer: all of the above are dead.) Sheridan had been a movie star in the 1940s. Would any reader who has Ann Sheridan’s autograph please speak up? If you have one I’ll take you out to lunch. And if you’ve even heard of her I’ll treat you to a coffee- at your expense.

See you at another show the next edition.

Joel: Letters