Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Things are fine in Mt. Idy [she goes on]

By Steve Crum

Although organ grinders are a long lost part of Americana, they used to set up their temporary street sites in large cities. As a child, I recall seeing one entertaining on a sidewalk during the 1950s at the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City. It consisted of a man, stereotypically an Italian, cranking a stand-up organ while his monkey would entertain passersby with somersaults and makeshift dancing. The music he played was always one tune, perhaps Pop Goes the Weasel, which would sound repeatedly. 

A crowd would gather, the monkey [a small, capuchin type] would take his cute little hat off, tip it, and then pick up a tin cup and hold it out to the watcher(s) for donations. This meant a sparse living for the grinder. No doubt PETA, the ASPCA, and other animal rights groups had much to do with the end of the organ grinder and his monkey as an occupation. All this I say for those under 50 who probably never personally experienced an organ grinder, except maybe in vintage cartoons and movies. [A clip of a more recent organ grinder with monkey: ] That said...

Segue to CLIFF ARQUETTE [1905-74], a funny guy whose act consisted of dressing in slovenly, old man clothing, including crushed hat, and talking about growing up in [fictional] Mt. Idy. [He is the grandfather of Arquettes Patricia, Rosanne, Alexis, Richard and David--all actors.] Assuming the comedy persona CHARLEY WEAVER, his appearances on The Jack Paar Show, The Steve Allen Show, and The Hollywood Squares kept him a leading comic for 20 years. He made record albums, starred in a couple of TV shows, guested on dozens more, and wrote several best selling books. Two of the books were compilations of his Letters from Mama routines, in which he would pull a folded letter from his back pocket, climb up, say, on Paar’s desk, and proceed to read his latest “letter” from his mother. Full of corn and surrealism, the letters told of eccentric Mt. Idy denizens Elsie Krack, Leonard Box, Grandpa Ogg, and other odd folk. A favorite Letter from Mama includes this wild tale regarding an organ grinder [hence the previous explanation and build-up]. It is, in monkey speak, bananas:

“Will you ever forget the time Ludlow Bean fell into the hay bailer, and from then on had to have all of his clothes made square? We’re all proud of Ludlow. When he first came to Mt. Idy, he started out in a small way. He started as an organ grinder, with one small monkey. He worked hard and saved. Two years later he expanded--now he has a pipe organ and a gorilla. He doesn’t have any trouble with people putting money in the cup now.”

Loved that Mama; loved that Charley.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Saying the secret word, or not, with Groucho

By Steve Crum

Groucho Marx met Fr. John Bremner during the 1958 season of You Bet Your Life, Groucho’s popular TV comedy, quiz show. The show began on NBC radio in 1947, and transferred to television for a successful run from 1950-61. Groucho, accompanied by his announcer George Fenneman, would chat and joke with guests. Most guests were non-celebrities.

After five minutes of cajoling, it was time for the quiz. Prize money was not that much, compared to big time quiz shows of the mid-1950s like The $64,000 Challenge. A winning couple on You Bet Your Life usually cashed in for several hundred bucks. But they could take home $10,000. A gimmick was to reward contestants with $100 if the “secret word” were spoken. As Groucho would say each time a couple would enter the stage, “Say the secret word, and divide an extra $100 between you.” If either contestant would say the unknown word in regular conversation, like “soap,” a gangly looking, toy duck [with a Groucho mustache and cigar] would drop by wire from above. Two $50 bills were attached.

Enter John Bremner. In 1958, Bremner was a Roman Catholic priest, and had finished a stint as political columnist for The Tidings, a Los Angeles Catholic newspaper. He would spend 25 years as a priest before devoting his career to teaching the importance of words. From 1969-85, Bremner served as professor of journalism at The University of Kansas. He was Dr. Bremner then, and one of the most respected names in journalism not only on campus but throughout the United States. His two books, Words on Words and HTK are still required reading in journalism schools and by newspaper and magazine writers and editors. When he died from cancer in 1987, students and colleagues were stunned. I was among them.

During my 21 years of teaching journalism at J. C. Harmon High School in Kansas City, Kansas, my students and I were fortunate to sit in on lectures and seminars at KU featuring Dr. Bremner. Many of my students later had him as an instructor at KU. He was an imposing figure at 6’ 5” with white hair. He intimidated students with theatrics and purpose. He cared about the use of words, and he wanted others to care. His students and colleagues knew that, and respected him for it. He certainly changed my writing for the better.

That Bremner agreed to appear as a contestant with host Groucho Marx is somewhat apt. Groucho also loved words. Marx’s quips and puns were central to his lightning wit. Remember these were the pre-journalism professor days of Bremner. He was appearing on the show with the hope of raising money for his church. Groucho knew him only as a priest, and Bremner was dressed as such.

You Bet Your Life has not been rerun for at least 15 years, and that is a shame. But when I chatted with Bremner while he was preparing to lecture my students in 1978, the show, called The Best of Groucho in reruns, had for years been regularly broadcast at various times nationwide. He seemed to know I was going to ask him about his appearance on the show that had just aired locally. For the umpteenth time over the last 20 years it had aired.

“I get calls from friends, relatives and former students all over the world every time that show airs,” Bremner said with forced smile. “Sometimes they call me in the middle of the night while I am asleep. I always tell them, ‘Yes, it was really me,’ and, ‘Yes, I was a priest then’.”

The shocker that sticks with me regarding our conversation is neither that Groucho was both funny and a nice guy nor that the several hundred dollars Bremner made was given to the Catholic Church.

The scoop is that Bremner was tempted to cheat. He and his partner had already won the initial cash, and were waiting backstage to reenter later in the show to answer questions for the big bucks. A producer told him he was so popular with the studio audience that they would like him to win the jackpot. "Since a charity would get my winnings," Bremner said, "I was told it would work out well for everyone. All I had to do was read the questions, supplied with correct answers, before going back on stage."

He refused to cheat. As it turned out, Bremner and his partner lost during the final round, but left with decent winnings nonetheless.

A question begs: Was this the only time a contestant on You Bet Your Life was offered the answers? The quiz show scandals of 1958 involved widespread cheating on such programs, yet Groucho’s show kept running to 1961. By then, virtually all other quiz shows were absent from TV, and remained so for years. Had Bremner gone to authorities and told them of what the Marx show had offered him, maybe Groucho’s reputation and career would have suffered. However, You Bet Your Life remains a legendary quiz show that stayed on the proverbial up and up, without scandal.

“To love words, you must first know what they are,” Bremner later wrote. No doubt he would have a field day editing this piece.
Unfortunately, the Bremner/Groucho show is not available, but here is a clip from another You Bet Your Life episode from Dec. 5, 1957...featuring opera singer John Charles Thomas:

John Bremner tributes: a wonderful piece, The Legend of John Bremner, hosted by Edwin Newman, that includes rare footage of Bremner lecturing 
plus a great story by one of his KU students:

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


By Steve Crum

JOHN BARRYMORE [1882-1942], the renowned silent and sound screen star and grandfather of Drew Barrymore, has a distinction other than his publicized alcoholism. No, it’s not that he was one of the three Royal Family Barrymores of theater and film, Lionel and Ethel being the others. Yes, he was one of W. C. Fields’ drinking buddies, but that is generally known too.

Barrymore, whose Hollywood publicity promoted him as The Great Profile--based on his sculpted facial features, holds a movie star record yet to be broken.


In Don Juan (Warner Brothers, 1926), the first American feature film with sound, Barrymore lip locked a combined 127 times with co-stars Mary Astor and Estelle Taylor. However, you cannot hear either the love smacks or any dialogue since only music and more spectacular sound effects like sword fighting are included on the soundtrack.

A swig of Listerine, please.
For a lip smacking taste of a dozen or so Barrymore kisses, go here:

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Emmy, meeny, miny, and even more

By Steve Crum

I’ve said it before: 10 percent of TV’s best programming is higher caliber quality than 90 percent of motion picture (big screen) product. I am talking any comparable, given year for each medium.

Of course, that means there is also 90 percent of television programming--mainly non-drama--that is below par, either leaning toward mediocre or bottoming out. For a positive example, nearly any episode of CSI is better produced, acted, written, and directed than most dramas opening at movie houses. I say most. Now and then, Hollywood movie studios do get it right.

This year’s Emmy nominations focus on the elite top tenth of TV broadcasting. Dramas, comedies, and mini-series are comfortable fits here. That the reality show phenomenon must be represented is regrettable, but not to the millions who thrive on peeking at real competitive humans displaying extreme stress, anger, and joy. Sometimes it is akin to stopping to leer at a car wreck. In high school, where I taught over three decades, it is comparable to the enthusiastic crowd that formed every time a fight broke out in the hall. Exclude me from this mass entertainment. Their wild popularity is reflected by 22 *gasp* reality shows receiving 63 nominations. Ratings dictate. That is truly reality.
There are some surprises this year, led by Tina Fey and her 30 Rock ensemble garnering 22 nominations. That is the highest number for any comedy series in Emmy history. Remember too that in the days of I Love Lucy and The Andy Griffith Show, there were fewer categories. Still, it is a great achievement. Fey is the Elaine May of our time, a powerhouse comedienne, actress, writer and producer.
With 16 nominations, Mad Men continues to baffle the masses. The fact is few have ever seen the series, which kicks off its third season on AMC next month. From the beginning it received critical raves. Its comparably small audience, I among, are loyal fans. Its production values, including acting, set design, directing and even quirky theme music, are top flight.

Mad Men is all about the lives of advertising guys and gals set in an ad agency during the late 1950s through the ‘60s. Great writing too. If you have never seen it, catch it from the beginning since it is episodic. Then, as they used to say in New York’s Madison Avenue parlance, “Run it up a flag pole, and see if you salute.” By the way, the “Mad” in the title refers to Madison Avenue. John Hamm, incidentally, is again nominated for Best Actor. Hamm is also nominated for playing Tina Fey’s flaky boyfriend in several 30 Rock episodes.
When I first saw Kansas City’s own Edward Asner in a CSI: NY episode, playing a former Nazi, with chilling believability, it was obvious: He would be Emmy nominated as Best Guest Actor in a Drama Series. This has been a good year for Asner. He should also be nominated for an Oscar for his voice work in Up. And he should win for both.
Rarely are there ties for Emmys. However, both Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange, playing daughter and mother respectively, deserve like wins for their challenging work in the mini-series, Grey Gardens. Absolutely unforgettable performances.
Finally, a few words about two superb, Best Lead Actor, Miniseries or Movie, nominees: Brendan Gleeson and Kiefer Sutherland. This year, Sutherland missed the Best Actor in a Drama Series for his relentless Jack Bauer portrayal in 24, but he is nominated for his Bauer role in the mini-series that preceded this year’s 24 season, called 24: Redemption. However, Gleeson will win the Emmy due to his awesome acting as Winston Churchill in the mini-series Into the Storm.

Isn’t speculation fun? Just get your own blog and have at it.
Emmy winners will be announced Sept. 20 on CBS.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Hmm time...

Ever notice the similarity between Rowlf the Muppet dog and comic actor Seth Rogen? It's not just that lantern jaw, that Flintstone mouth, and the voice likeness. Whatever, it's obvious they are from the same gene pool.

Except Rowlf is 10 times funnier.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

'Half-Blood Prince' is fun, satisfying Harry Potter installment

By Steve Crum

Evil forces are rampant at Hogwarts in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. So are hormones. In this installment, the sixth of eight based on the wildly popular Harry Potter books by J. K. Rowling, dark spirits boldly surface within and far away from the wizard school Hogwarts. yet with all the death and near death plot ingredients of Half-Blood Prince, Harry and his friends are diverted by matters of adolescence, aka dating, with all its pretentiousness, heartaches, flirts, and smooches. What a curiously effective mix for a Potter flick.

Effective it is. Half-Blood Prince is the best produced, and most entertaining Harry Potter escapade of the past three or four. I won’t say it is superior to the first two of the series, which are my favorites due to their fun atmosphere and lack of the grimness that followed, but Half-Blood is a near perfect delight. David Gates, who directed the last Potter (HP and the Order of the Phoenix) and will helm the next and final two (HP and the Deathly Hallows, Pts. 1 & 2), has obviously honed his skills here. Steve Kloves’ screenplay has verve and balance when it comes to the seesaw of light comedy and horror plot elements. He is also reputedly loyal to Rowling’s novel, as he was in the last three he adapted. Since I have not read the Potter novels, I rely on hearsay in this regard.

The acting is a showcase unto itself. Daniel Radcliffe’s Potter is more credible than ever, with Radcliffe stretching his acting chops beyond trademark looks of bewilderment. He has seriously worked to improve his acting over the years, and it shows. The same praise can be said for his two on-screen pals, Emma Watson (as Hermione Granger) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). They have become the nucleus of a great stock company of Potter players. 

Those players also include an adult cast that, for the most part, have been with the Potter franchise since day one, among them: Michael Gambon (who has successfully replaced the late Richard Harris) as 150 years-old Professor Albus Dumbledore, more than ever a central figure in Half-Blood Prince; Maggie Smith’s Prof. Minverva McGonahall; Dave Legeno’s white-haired Fenrir Greyback; Robbie Coltrane’s comic relief Rubeus Hagrid; and Alan Rickman’s Prof. Severus Snape. There is also the evil witchery of Helena Bonham Carter’s Bellatrix Lestrange, and Ralph Fiennes’ son Hero Fiennes Tiffin as the nasty Tom Riddle at age 11.
Outside of Half-Blood’s focus on Dumbledore, scene stealing is accomplished by Jim Broadbent’s textured performance as returning wizard and Prof. Horace (Magic Potions) Slughorn.

The inherent weakness of any film series dependent on an episodic, continuing story line is that (1) the viewer must have seen--and can recall--the plots and characters from previous films over the last several years; and (2) not all conflicts will be resolved in this or any one episode, but might persist until the next film or films. That does not seem to matter to loyal Potter fans any more than it did to Star Wars fans who held their collective breaths for several years until the finale. Again, there are two more installments after Half-Blood Prince, supposedly in 2010 and 2011, so hold that oxygen.

That certainly said, and without divulging too much, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince opens with Death Eaters raising havoc around and through Hogwarts. This is an very real omen of things to come via the ultimate confrontation between Potter and Dumbledore versus the Voldemort force(s) responsible for killing Harry’s parents. [A pause and reminder that it is assumed anyone reading this has seen the previous Potter movies.]

At the outset, Harry accompanies his mentor Dumbledore to the home of retired Potions Prof. Slughorn (Broadbent). It is an inspired sequence, Slughorn’s home has been ransacked by Death Eaters, and the affable Slughorn is hiding in unique disguise within.   There are various other entanglements as well, some involving potion-spiked chocolates. All this mostly funny teen angst plays out through the story.
Still, there are some eerie, edge of the seat set pieces that thrill. A particularly effective sequence features Potter and Dumbledore on a quest within a water filled cavern. It is a stunner.

Quiddich, the airborne version of soccer essential to playtime competition between the various fraternal houses at Hogwarts, makes a fantastic return in Half-Blood Prince. Basically, a full game is played, the first time since episode two. (Yes, there was a brief Quiddich match in #4.) Except this time, due to the advanced age and size of its participants (Weasley), larger and more streamlined broomsticks are used.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of eight parts of a film phenomenon of our time. Like the Star Wars series, the financial and social impact of the Potter series translates to motion picture history and, eventually, legend. Savor this satisfying episode of its ongoing broomstick ride.
GRADE on an A to F scale: A-

Monday, July 13, 2009

Remembering The Beatles in KC

By Steve Crum

Talk about schmoozing with celebrities! Forty-five years ago, this September 17, The Beatles performed before an SRO crowd of typically screaming teens at the good old Kansas City Athletics Municipal Stadium in Kansas City, Mo. The KC stop was a sort of last minute, penciled-in concert during The Fab Four’s nationwide tour. We can thank the savvy Athletics owner Charles O. Finley for booking the boys. He evidently did it as a favor to his teenaged daughter.

I was not at the concert, but I did make it to the media madness occurring at the Muehlebach Hotel in downtown Kansas City, Mo. where the Mop Tops were staying. Prior to their performance, a press conference was held on the top floor on the hotel.

I do have unpublished photos (see one above) of the craziness occurring on the sidewalk and in the park adjacent to the hotel. Hundreds of teenagers had gathered, and looked skyward to catch a John, Paul, George or Ringo glance. Jokesters in various hotel rooms were throwing fake autographs on slips of paper out their open windows just to get screaming reactions. The Beatles did briefly appear at the very top of the hotel on the penthouse balcony. They waved at the crowd dozens of stories below.

I still have the photo I took of them as they waved, but it is not reproduced here. Unfortunately, I had no telephoto lens, and the images are ultra tiny. Still, it is a rare but nearly invisible shot of the legendary quartet.

The following story by then high school senior [and my pal] Karen Katz is reprinted from her story Beatled Press At Conference, published in the Wyandotte High School [Kansas City, Kansas] student newspaper, The Pantograph, on Oct. 2, 1964:

From the Panto were five staff members: Steve Crum, Janet Barnes, Joe Rodriguez, Sandy Shultz and myself, with high hopes and press passes. We were going to The Beatles Press Conference at the Hotel Muehlbach.

In the lobby of the hotel we approached the desk clerk to ask directions to the conference room. No one knew.

Going upstairs to scout around, we flashed our press passes at a policeman and started by. We were halted and informed that we needed orange stickers reading "Beatles Press." These stickers could be obtained from Mr. Shauff, we were told, with a birth certificate saying, "18 years-old." But all we had were press passes. If at first you don’t succeed, try again--and we did. Again and again and again--but Mr. Shauff was nowhere to be found.

We stood amidst a group of girls around a TV newsman. Suddenly Charles Finley appeared in the lobby. Joe [Rodriguez] walked over to him and began explaining our frantic situation. A crowd was gathering as Finley explained to us he didn’t arrange the conference. But we were persistent.

“How many of you are there?” he asked.

“Five,” I answered.

“I can’t take all of you. I’ll take you.” He pointed to me.

Upstairs I started through a door at the end fo the hall. I was stopped, and Mr. Finley spoke up.

“This girl is from the Wyandotte High School Pantograph, and I think she should be let in as a representative.”

“All right,” the man said, “but don’t scream or anything.”

The carpeted room was filled with newsmen, chairs, cameras and smoke. My hands were shaking, and the room was unusually stuffy.

The Beatles’ public relations man [Derek Taylor] entered and explained how the proceedings would be conducted. Then The Beatles shuffled in. It seemed as if I was staring at magazine cover only this was the living end!

I moved to the front with the radio section of the conference and stood opposite The Beatles.

“Ringo,” I asked, “what are you going to do if it rains tonight and you get tonsillitis?”

He didn’t know, but for $150 thousand [what The Beatles were getting for this gig], what’s tonsillitis?

Then a cameraman offered to take my picture with them. In a dazed state I walked up to Ringo and tugged on his coat sleeve. He put his arm around me! I Smiled as cameras flashed and realized that I was a part of that living magazine cover!
Postscript: Karen, wherever you are--since I have not seen you since 1965, please contact me asap with anything additional you recall about your Beatles experience. I recall when you returned from meeting the boys, you were dazed with glossy eyes and distant smile. Outside the hotel, on the sidewalk, you kept repeating that Ringo actually put his arm around you. Several teenaged girls, strangers to us, nearly ripped your blouse off when they overheard you. But we protected you.

And will forever envy you.
Enjoy this tribute to The Beatles performing in KC that memorable day in '64:

Friday, July 10, 2009

Captain Kangaroo goes to war & more lies

After receiving another breaking news flash about Bob Keeshan and Lee Marvin in a recent e-mail, the time is ripe to reprint a story published many moons ago. I have updated it somewhat.

By Steve Crum

One of my favorite urban legends is the oft told “fact” of an alligator lurking beneath New York City. The gator, the story goes, was originally a baby reptile flushed down someone’s toilet. It not only survived, but grew to enormity. A great tale is this, in fact the basis of the 1980 schlock flick Alligator. But it is all hooey, a croc(k), per se.

There are hundreds of such urban legends--fabricated stories that have survived their way into oral history via our gossiping society--these days spread at light speed through the Internet, iPods, e-mails, cell phones, and so on. If you have a computer, at least once a day you’ll be part of a group mailing of jokes, political spews, and/or words of wisdom and encouragement. Yes, some folks cannot wait to forward that supportive or vindictive (aka political) thought of the day to everyone on their address list. I also receive warm and cuddly animal photos along with Happiness is... captions, which take up a third of my mailbox capacity.

Now and then come those forwarded urban legends. After all is said and immediately erased, it is the latter that stays with me. Urban legends have curious memory power. Currently there are Michael Jackson “legends” being spread. The chestnut about the late Bob “Captain Kangaroo” Keeshan and his military relationship with Lee Marvin and other movie and TV “war heroes” is making the rounds again. So imagine this column is an e-mail from your Aunt Clara as a couple of these urban falsehoods are soundly kicked in their respective, fibbing butts.

Bob Keeshan (TV’s Captain Kangaroo) and Lee Marvin (Oscar winning actor) were decorated war pals. The story goes that years ago on a Johnny Carson Tonight Show, guest Lee Marvin was asked about his war experiences. “Lee,” said Carson, “I’ll bet a lot of people are unaware that you were a Marine in the initial landing at Iwo Jima, and that during the course of the action, you earned the Navy Cross and were severely wounded.”

Marvin responded, “Yeah, yeah...I got shot square in the ass and they gave me the Cross for securing a hot spot about halfway up Mount Suribachi. The bad thing about getting shot up on a mountain is guys getting shot hauling you down. But Johnny, at Iwo, I served under the bravest man I ever knew. We both got the Cross the same day, but what he did for his Cross made mine look cheap in comparison. The dumb bastard actually stood up on Red Beach and directed his troops to moved forward and get the hell off the beach. That sergeant and I have been life long friends.”

Marvin continued: “When they brought me off Suribachi, we passed him and he lit a smoke and passed it to me lying on my belly on the litter. ‘Where’d they get you, Lee?’ he asked. ‘Well Bob, they shot me in the ass and if you make it home before me, tell Mom to sell the outhouse.’ Johnny, I’m not lying. Sgt. Keeshan was the bravest man I ever knew! You now know him as Bob Keeshan. You and the world know him as Captain Kangaroo.”

Both Marvin and Keeshan were indeed Marines during World War II. Marvin was wounded in the buttocks (a severed sciatic nerve), but while in Saipan. Marvin was already shipped back to the United States with a Purple Heart by the time Keeshan was even in basic training (as a reservist, no less). No way could they have crossed paths during the war.

Neither received the Navy Cross. Keeshan entered the Marines just before the war ended, and did not attain the rank of sergeant. There is no evidence, a video even, backing the urban legend.

More recently, another urban legend circulated that the late Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was once a Navy Seal. Still another cites him as an ex-Marine sniper. Both are false.

Mel Gibson was the real life Man Without a Face, the basis of his 1993 film. Radio commentator (now deceased) Paul Harvey devoted an entire segment to the “rest of the story” concerning director-star Mel Gibson’s role in the film, The Man Without a Face. The e-mails I receive include an introduction saying, “Here is a true story by Paul Harvey. Pass it to anyone who you think would find it interesting and inspiring. You will be surprised who this young man turned out to be. Do not look at the bottom of this letter until you have read it fully.”

The lengthy story, written in Harvey style, tells of a young man whose face was horribly disfigured after being attacked by thugs. Thought to be dead, the young man was taken to the morgue, but luckily moaned before he was admitted. After weeks of prayer, a kindly priest hooked him up with a plastic surgeon who miraculously rebuilt his face.

“The young man,” Harvey said, “is Mel Gibson.”

Harvey did not say it. In fact, he never said anything like this about Gibson or anyone in reference to The Man Without a Face. But it makes a good story. I guess.

There is another Mel Gibson falsehood that made the Internet rounds a few years back, claiming Paul Harvey endorsed Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. It is a quite believable and long piece, written in Harvey’s inimitable prose. However, it was actually written by Keith A Fournier, founder of the The Catholic Way web site.

For even more rumor funsters, visit tall tale central on the web at
For a loving tribute to Bob "Captain Kangaroo" Keeshan, please follow this link:

Lee Marvin's memory is celebrated here:

Thursday, July 9, 2009


By Steve Crum

Film scores have been a passion of mine since my youth. In those early days before DVD, CD, cassette, iTunes, Netflix, Laser Disc, VHS, Beta, and even 8-track, the only way to 'bring home' a favorite movie was via its movie soundtrack music on LP aka 33-1/3 rpm. This was also known as a long playing record, young ones. [Perhaps this piece should begin with 'Once upon a time...'] My record album collection of movie scores and soundtracks once numbered at nearly 400. I loved movies big time. Still do. A few of my friends in those bygone days spent a lot more than I did by collecting their favorite movies on 16mm film. But that is another story. Here's your Crummy Trivia regarding classic movie composers:
Who composed the music for both The Robe [1953] and The Greatest Story Ever Told [1965]?
Answer: ALFRED NEWMAN [1901-70]. His name invariably gets a titter from those who think of the moronic mascot of Mad Magazine, Alfred E. Neuman. Composer Newman was a prolific and brilliant musician who is most associated with 20th Century Fox where he wrote hundreds of film scores over several decades. His last score was 1970's Airport. Newman is the uncle of pop composer-performer Randy Newman, and brother of Lionel Newman, a composer and conducter in his own right. It doesn't end there. His other brother Emil, as well as children Thomas, Marie, David, and Grand Nephew Joey [all Newmans] are composers!
For a medley of Alfred Newman's great film scores, follow this link:

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

O'Connor: the song and dance ends

Following Michael Jackson's recent death, many tributes noted his dance expertise. Among a handful of all-time great dancers who preceded Michael is Donald O'Connor. When O'Connor died six years ago, I wrote a loving tribute to him, reprinted below. O'Connor could act, sing and tell jokes for sure, but it was dancing that made him special.

By Steve Crum

Think about the most famous dance number in movie history, and Gene Kelly’s splashy Singin’ in the Rain from the musical of like title is immediately visualized. The next most known movie dance number? Certainly Fred Astaire, arguably film’s greatest dancer, had dozens of brilliant set pieces.

But it is the dynamic Donald O’Connor, whose 78 year-old heart failed Sept. 27 [2003], we think of after Kelly. In fact, many place O’Connor’s Make ‘Em Laugh solo dance classic equal to or above Kelly’s number. Funny that they were both featured in the same movie--no doubt elevating the 1952 film to its regard as Hollywood’s best musical ever. O’Connor was a taskmaster throughout rehearsals and shooting days of Make ‘Em Laugh. His tumbling, pratfalls, and body slams still appear maniacal, hilarious, and tour de force. O’Connor’s runs up walls, backflips, boards to head, floor twists, and facial contortions have elicited the same audience joy for over half a century.

Film critic Roger Ebert recently wrote of O’Connor’s appearance earlier this year at a University of Illinois showing of Singin’ in the Rain. No surprise that Make ‘Em Laugh still astounded and entertained. A young girl asked O’Connor how he ran up that wall. His deadpan reply: “Experience.” O’Connor spent three days in bed recuperating after the sequence was filmed. Fellow cast member Debbie Reynolds said he was undoubtedly covered in bruises.

Like his vaudevillian parents, Donald O’Connor was always the show-must-go-on trouper. He considered himself a song and dance man throughout his career despite numerous awards and star status. Among those awards was an Emmy back in TV’s truly goldie-oldie days for his star stint on 1954’s Colgate Comedy Hour. That is primarily the reason for his two Hollywood Walk of Fame stars: TV and motion pictures. Although O’Connor danced, sang, and acted on TV through 1983 in guest spots on Frasier, Murder She Wrote and others, he is best showcased in movies. Singin’ in the Rain brought him the Golden Globe as Best Motion Picture Actor in a Musical-Comedy, beating out Gene Kelly. Other career highlights include an 11 year-old Donald singing Small Fry with Bing Crosby in 1937’s Sing You Sinners, and the next year portraying Gary Cooper’s title character as a child in Beau Geste.

There were O’Connor’s low budget, Universal teen musicals during the 1940’s in which he paired with slapstick dancer Peggy Ryan. Then the mule. His co-starring with Francis the Talking Mule (voiced by Chill Wills) began with 1950’s Francis, and continuing in five more highly popular flicks until 1955’s Francis Joins the Navy. O’Connor always claimed he quit the series when the mule got more fan mail than he did. The movie musical was in full step during the 1950’s, and O’Connor tapped and spun in some of the biggest of the era: Call Me Madam (1953) opposite Ethel Merman, and There’s No Business Like Show Business (1954), also with The Merm as well as hoofer Dan Dailey; and 1956’s Anything Goes with Bing Crosby.

His one career disappointment was starring in The Buster Keaton Story (1957), which everyone, including O’Connor and Keaton himself, considered a script travesty that focused almost solely on Keaton’s alcoholism. Year after year, failed efforts to get O’Connor to sppear at the annual Buster Keaton Celebration in Iola, Kansas, were attributed to O’Connor demanding too much money. Maybe he did. But my guess is he declined because of the his embarrassment over The Buster Keaton Story.

A real plus of 1997’s Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau starrer Out to Sea was O’Connor’s inspired casting as Jonathan, a cruise ship dance host. By this time, O’Connor rarely performed, and had ongoing health problems. It was his last movie.

On his deathbed, Donald O’Connor the vaudevillian still made ‘em laugh: “I’d like to thank the Academy for my Lifetime Achievement Award that I will eventually get.”
Donald O’Connor Trivia Nuggets:
•Played Huckleberry Finn in Tom Sawyer, Detective (1938)
•Co-starred with Jimmy Durante in The Milkman (1950)
•Replaced by Mickey Rooney in the final talking mule movie
•Featured opposite Robin Williams in 1992’s Toys
•Directed a Petticoat Junction TV episode (1963)
•Produced The Milton Berle Show (1948-53)
•Married twice; four children
•Birth name: Donald David Dixon Ronald O’Connor
Enjoy Donald O'Connor performing Make 'Em Laugh by following this link: