Letter From Los Angeles
April 2014
© 2014 Joel

Quotes of the Issue

My hat goes off to everyone who (changes gender) because they are trying to be true to themselves. It takes an enormous amount of courage. And if any army can’t respect courage, then there’s something wrong. – Lt. General David Morrison, Chief of Australian Army

If you worry less about what people think of you, you can pick up an astonishing amount of information about them. – Pamela Druckerman, New York Times

Druckerman’s observation has been my rule of thumb since I was two. – Joel

Ukraine Related Quotes

Putin is coming out as a thug and showing his true colors. – David Gergin

There is no such thing as an expert on Russia, just various forms of ignorance. – A former U.S. Ambassador to Russia

Destroying the old order is a lot easier than building a new one. – Fareed Zakaria

As ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitment to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, “What about Iraq?” To win this conflict, we must restore the United States as a model. – Former Ambassador Michael A. McFaul

In poker and politics
Brother
You’ve gotta have
That slippery hap-hazardous
commodity
You’ve gotta have the cards.
Sheldon Harnick (from Fiorello)

One conquers in the end by being just. – Nicholas Gordon

Stand Your Ground Quote

I’m glad I’m not a young black man in Florida (Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis). I’m glad I’m not a middle aged black woman in Florida (Marissa Alexander). I’m glad I’m not anyone in Florida. – Joel

Fort Hood Murders
Let’s Get Something Straight

That anyone comes back from war completely sane is a miracle. – Joel

America has a bad mass shooting problem... and all (mass shootings) have been perpetrated by men with guns. – Rachel Maddow

The anxiety, depression and possible PTSD of Specialist Ivan Lopez, who killed three individuals and wounded sixteen others at Fort Hood on April 2, is being offered as an explanation for his behavior. The correlation between these forms of mental illness and violence are far from firm, however, and I’m not buying this pseudo-explanation.

Most mentally ill individuals don’t hurt anyone other than themselves; most murderers are sane. The mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of crimes than to be the perpetrators. Veterans of wars struggle valiantly with the consequences of what we’ve required of them despite our caring for them mostly in the abstract. When vets murder, the victim is usually themselves.

I want mental health to be a front and center priority for the military and for everybody else, and I’m not denying the role mental illness can play in violent or disruptive behavior, but let’s get one thing straight. How many people can the looniest loon simultaneously take out with a crazy look or with a knife? Had the twenty individuals at the Pittsburgh high school been shot instead of stabbed, they (and likely others) would now be dead. Thank God the perpetrator did not have access to a more lethal weapon. Maliciousness kills far more often than crazy. Stupid, it’s the guns.

Veterans

A recent New York Times op ed piece urges us not to avoid talking with veterans about their experiences because “we can never understand.” Those of us who haven’t served need to know, and face, what happens when men and women go to war.

Our Missing Plane (And Lots of Fancy)

“And now we turn to our panel of experts...What did happen to Malaysia Flight 370?” asks the Anderson Cooper figure in David Horsey’s cartoon in the Los Angeles Times.

A medium gazing at her crystal ball offers, “I see a tall dark stranger with fluids in his carry-on bag...” A ghastly-looking guest proclaims, “This has all the hallmarks of collision between the NSA, Mossad and Opus Dei!” “Hold on a sec,” pipes in an aging hippie with his eyes upon an I-Pad. “I’m sure I’ll find it on Craigslist.” The cartoon’s title? “News When There Is No News.” Ride ‘em, David Horsey!

Few doubt that our cable stations, primarily CNN, have been blessed with an eye for the marketable story. Feigned familiarity and compulsory jocularity give way to carefully composed long faces as newscasters endlessly discuss the plane’s whereabouts with a variety of “experts” who do not work for free. I’m not insensitive to the human loss or unaware of the implications for traveler safety and international intrigue implicit in the aircraft’s disappearance, and I don’t want Fight 370 to become the twenty-first century’s Judge Crater* either, but enough is quite enough.

When will the incessant TV coverage wind down, especially if 370 is never found? When a juicy murder trial or celebrity shocker of a story comes along, of course.

* Younger readers: look Judge Joseph Crater up.

Undies (aka Bitchy Briefs)

My fantasy is to be in Copenhagen, that otherwise lovely Scandinavian capital, witnessing the directors of its zoo being euthanized due to breeding issues and eaten by a pack of lions in front of a group of kids, just as they’ve done to some of their giraffes.

Since Avenue Q and The Lion King, every production, it seems, has to feature puppets, e.g. a recent Madama Butterfly at the Met. Why not have Teddy bears portray Willy Lowman, Blanche Du Bois, Mary Tyrone and Hamlet in their respective plays?

“FU Bucks” Mean Dough, Not Doe

Financial industry bonuses paid in 2013, which exceeded the total income of minimum wage earning Americans in the same year by $11 billion, are known to Wall Street’s highest paid as “F.U.” money. Put more delicately, recipients’ wealth frees them from having to be nice to anyone. Barney Frank is glad he gained that freedom when he retired from Congress. Joseph Kennedy was said to have given each of his sons a million dollars so they’d be free to tell him to go to hell.

Whom would you treat (or have treated) differently if you no longer needed them? Whom would I?

Ukraine In Diplomatic Perspective
A Life Lesson For Us All

Gloria Vanderbilt, Anderson Cooper’s ninety year old mother and a household name to many of a certain age, famously wished that her Aunt Gertrude Whitney had been strong, not merely tough. Although I’m not infrequently merely tough with others, I try to keep those words in mind.

Whether or not President Obama, America’s allies or the U.N. are being tough enough with Putin’s Russia has been debated with some fervor these past few weeks. Sam Tanenhaus has provided some useful historical perspective in “A History Lesson That Needs Relearning” in The New York Times, March 2, 2014. He argues that “the image of a chessboard... has indeed become a familiar metaphor for the Cold War. But it is misleading. Many decisions remembered today for their farsighted, tactical brilliance were denounced in their day as weak-willed. And big, public gestures often made less difference than the small hidden ones.”

Tanenhaus contends that “the Cold War was defined from the outset less by outright confrontation than by caution. And with caution came adjustment, compromise, improvisation and at times retreat.” In an age of political intransigence and action movies, such a winning strategy may be hard to understand .

The writer backs up his assertions with excellent examples from the experience of such well-known wimps as Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy and Reagan. Ike ‘consistently opted for stability over conflict.” When the Soviets invaded Hungary in 1956, the United States did “nothing. Counteraction would only provoke Moscow to tighten its noose and perhaps ‘go back to Stalinization,’ Eisenhower explained.”

JFK resolved the potentially explosive Cuban missile crisis “by a secret bargain” which included removing U.S. missiles from Turkey. Richard Nixon “also cut deals with the Soviets,” including mutually reducing nuclear stockpiles. President Reagan “showed restraint” when the Soviets put down Poland’s Solidarity.

Tanehaus brings his thesis up to date. “Calculations like these are the true prologue to the approach that Mr. Obama seems to have adopted in trouble spots from Syria to Ukraine.” His final thought we all need to take to heart. “The truth is that the Cold War was less a carefully structured game between two (chess) master than a frightening high wire act, with leaders on both sides aware that a single misstep could plunge them into the abyss.” Thank God, then, for mutual assured destruction and for presidential wisdom.

“We Overcame” Will Trump “We Shall Overcome”

I dedicate this segment to an L.A. neighbor, probably temporary, as many of our theatrical neighbors are. The handsome young African American consistently returns my greetings brusquely. His manner may reflect his mood, or something else. Perhaps he has resolved not to “smile when he doesn’t feel like it” merely to “ensure the comfort of others,” as you’ll read about below. If that’s so I admire him. (If he’s just a grump, that’s tough.)

In a recent sermon, Rev. Galen Guengerich related U.S. Naval Commander Theodore Johnson’s experiences with race in America. The officer, scholar and writer reports hearing a “symphony of locking car doors” as he walks through parking lots, having to “smile when he doesn’t feel like it,” and feeling compelled to “adapt a body language to convey passivity.” He understands that “the principal crime (Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis) committed was being black and not sufficiently prostrating themselves to ensure the comfort of others.”

Commander Johnson described his unease about being the only person of color running around a high school track one afternoon. “The presence of my blackness in a space where (others) hadn’t expected to encounter it placed the onus on me to make them comfortable.” Imagine adding that to the pressures and burdens of a lifetime.

That the heavy lifting of ameliorating- better, eradicating- racism is up to white Americans is excruciatingly obvious. The To Do List includes reversing attempts to suppress the African American vote, improving economic and educational opportunity, encouraging and mentoring, reforming the criminal justice system and coming to terms with any prejudice they hold within themselves. (Nobody’s perfect, of course. I find myself looking a second longer at certain black men I pass along the street, but that’s quite another story.)

The ultimate measure of progress will be when African Americans needn’t care more what others think of them than their Caucasian neighbors do.

My Favorite Movies

Movies are “storytelling that moves.” Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, Los Angeles

In honor of the recent Awards season (and this Los Angeles resident’s relief that it has past), I’d like you to know about my favorite movies. Like a late friend who, having reached a certain age, resolved to read only well-written fiction, I have a standard for what I see on screen. The script, direction, photography and acting have got to be top drawer in my opinion. That “everybody” likes a particular movie doesn’t count and never did.

I value most the artistry that gets to my emotions. My favorites aren’t high brow by any mean- most are popular favorites- but I believe they’re excellent motion picture theater. In alphabetical order, then, ten of approximately twenty. Next month I’ll complete the list.

Born Yesterday (1950) Give Judy Holiday a good role and she gives us back a classic. Who can ever forget “Will you do me a favor, Harry” (who was named for studio head and bully Harry Cohn)? “Drop dead.”

Blazing Saddles (1974) Whether it’s the incendiary line about unlikely sheriff Cleavon Little, or Mel Brooks’ Yiddish speaking Indian chief, this is the rare comedy that consistently splits my sides.

Casablanca (1942) Few can argue with this selection, if for no other reason than many in the cast were themselves refugees from World War II, and that everyone involved donated a percentage of their pay to help rescue other Nazi victims. Isabella Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman’s daughter, talks about her mother’s ambivalence about Casablanca, and how the look in her eye changed subtly when people praised the film. But what did Ingrid Bergman know?

Dark Passage (1947) I love this film noir classic for its originality, performances, and because that I know its San Francisco locations well. (Hint: I’m a sucker for stories set in San Francisco.)

Day of the Locust (1975) Nathaniel West’s story of Depression Era Hollywood scares me more than monster movies because of its relevance to the America of today. I treasured the film before I befriended the actor who plays the studio head’s wife in the drunken party scene. Red headed Gloria endured take after take because she was so nervous driving a classic car filled with actors up the curvy road to the Frank Lloyd Wright mansion that was supposed to be her home. Her improvised “I’ve gotta pee” made the final cut.

Double Indemnity (1944) Billy Wilder (whose grave inscription reads “I’m a writer, No one’s perfect”) and Raymond Chandler collaborated on a noir that Fred MacMurray, Barbara Stanwyck and Edward G. Robinson brought to life, and to death.

Doubt (2008) Without a doubt Meryl Streep’s best performance. Philip Seymour Hoffman, R.I.P.

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) Granted the prose is a little purple, but Gregory Peck is perfect in this courageous take on anti-Semitism ironically set in America immediately following World War II. Some of the lines Moss Hart gave the characters should be enshrined.

La Cage Aux Folles (1978) “La Cage” is a comic love song to everyone who is considered “different.” Don’t even mention the remake known as Birdcage.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) I love Bogie, Mary Astor, Sidney Greenstreet and everybody in the cast. How many of you know how Dashiell Hammett’s story really ends? If I can read the last paragraph of the novel in a bookstore, so can you.

To be continued after an edition-long Intermission

May I Please Have Your Autograph?

Get Off My Book, Thomas Ego Hampson

Friendly Shirley Verrett, jolly Jessie Norman and Germanic Hildegard Behrens are among the few opera stars whose autographs grace our collection. A few years ago at Tanglewood while I was waiting for a friend, famed baritone Thomas Hampson, who had performed that afternoon, grabbed my program without asking and signed with his own pen. Not knowing whether to laugh or cry, I chose the former.

Thanks for The (Many) Memories

Three well-known individuals, two of whom gave us autographs, died in February. Sid Ceaser, who lived to ninety-one, brought sketches from TV’s landmark Your Show of Shows to the San Francisco stage twenty years ago. He also brought his partner Imogene Coca, who made it to age ninety-four.

Coca, whose autograph we also have, deserves mention as a senior whose example matters. In her seventies while rehearsing, again in San Francisco, the comedienne was operated on for cancer. Two weeks later she was back onstage. The night we got Ceaser’s signature I thanked him for the performance, his TV triumphs, and for taking care of himself. The shy performer smiled and thanked me for the latter, for he had conquered a drug and alcohol habit decades earlier.

Joan Mondale was chatting with a friend when I interrupted her for an autograph at Tanglewood in 1985. I also got her husband to sign and mock-scolded him for not defeating Reagan in 1984. Walter Mondale laughed with me.

A decade later on a TV interview, newly appointed Ambassador to Japan Mondale, mentioned that his wife Joan was a potter. I heard it with a capital “P” and wondered what Joan’s family name mattered to the Japanese. I more than earned my PhDuh.

Shirley Temple Black was on the board of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, although we never met and I never got her autograph. I’m not sentimental about Temple’s childhood stardom, but she served her country later on.

The Segment Proper

Somewhere, I am certain, we have Patricia Neway’s autograph- I can picture her angular handwriting in my mind. Neway, who died at ninety-two, played the Mother Abbess in the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music. Hers is the voice that introduced Climb Every Mountain to the world. I feel embarrassed every time I think of her.

In 1963 Neway took part in a forgettable musical that ran off Broadway. Morning Sun boasted book and lyrics by Fred Ebb, who, with John Kander, later gave us Cabaret. Another attraction was Danny Lockin, who was just our age and just our type. You’ve seen him as Barnaby Tucker in the movie Hello, Dolly. Fourteen years later the bisexual Lockin was mutilated and murdered by a man he picked up in a southern California bar.

How could we not be in the audience one fine Sunday afternoon? And how could we not pay our respects to The Sound of Music’s Neway? What we told the stage doorman, however, was technically inaccurate. “Please tell Miss Neway that two fellows she met in The Sound of Music are here to see her” hinged on the preposition “in,” which needed to be “at.”

We waited patiently in the wings, and suddenly there was Patricia Neway, arms outstretched and grinning ear to ear. When she gushed, “It’s so good seeing you again” we knew we were in trouble. For whom had she mistaken us, the boys who played Frederick and Kurt van Trapp? (Not likely Rodgers and Hammerstein, the latter being dead.)

“What are you doing now?” she continued, and I knew we had to make our move. “Lloyd and I are in college,” I replied, and her expression changed. She hadn’t counted on a Lloyd. “Remember us? We stood outside the stage door every Saturday because we knew Marion Marlowe, Kathy Dunn and Billy Snowden.” Neway’s expression remained unchanged as she thanked us and retired to her dressing room.

If you couldn’t take us anywhere nice even then, let me tell you about Claudette Sutherland. At the height of the How To Succeed In Business success in the early 1960s, soprano Joan Sutherland stunned opera goers with her debut at the Met. As How to Succeed played across 46th street from Sound of Music, we became acquainted with the cast, of course.

Claudette Sutherland played Smitty, the scratchy female voice in the “There’s No Coffee!” number, to perfection. Whenever we passed her I would announce in a voice that carried to New Jersey, “There goes Joan Sutherland.” Claudette took the kidding kindly and often chatted with us. Recently we’ve been in touch by phone and email, as she lives in L.A. and teaches writing. Claudette, let’s go to lunch.

Rudy Vallee, who played J.B. Bigley, a major character in the How To Succeed show and in the movie, was not an easy man to like. One objection to his performance was that he mumbled, another, mine, that he could not act. My Uncle Lester had been Vallee’s musical arranger in the 1920s, so I just had to introduce myself.

The early radio and recording star (God knows why) came to the theater dressed like the stuffy CEO he played. When I mentioned Lester, Vallee asked for him and expressed regret that my uncle was no longer with us. When I praised the reputedly stingy Vallee for helping a musician who had fallen on hard times, he rushed backstage.

Until the late 1960s Lloyd and I had initiated contact with the actors. In 1969 a major television star, then on Broadway, initiated a short-lived relationship. Lloyd and I decided to add some color to our upper West Side apartment after living there three years. After working an entire afternoon, we took a break and walked down to Broadway.

Leaving the stage door of the Ambassador Theater was Mr. Television himself, Milton Berle. The former vaudevillian’s early 1950s TV variety show was so popular that Chicago’s sewers were quiet until the program’s credits rolled. Since he died I’ve learned that Berle was the last person you wanted to meet in an alley that wasn’t brightly lit.

The star approached us, extended his hand and greeted me with “Hi, Jim.” “My name is Joel,” I responded. “Well I knew it was a name that begins with J,” Berle seriously replied. “Have you boys seen my show? (We hadn’t.) Previews begin next weekend. After the show come backstage and see me,” which is exactly what we did.

The Goodbye People, was bad beyond imagination. I remember Berle’s playing a curmudgeon with a Hungarian accent, and nothing more. When we entered his dressing suite Berle looked at us like “Who the hell are you?” Nonetheless we were introduced to his wife Ruth and to their guest Cy Feuer, one of Broadway’s most distinguished producers, e.g. Guys and Dolls and How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. We got Berle’s autograph, thanked everyone and beat it out of there.

The next May I Please Have Your Autograph? segment will include two New York society women turned actors, America’s most famous woman playwright, and a related embarrassment at Sardis.

Joel: Letters