Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Before Kevin & Jay, there were Skitch & Johnny

SKITCH HENDERSON conducts the Emporia State University Orchestra in April, 1967, just a couple of months after quitting as band leader on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Moments before this unpublished photo was taken, he had displayed his discourteous side. Notice he is without suit coat. The sad story is explained below. [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]
By Steve Crum
KEVIN EUBANKS’ April 12 on-air announcement that he is soon leaving The Tonight Show with Jay Leno after 18 years (15 of them as band leader) recalls a similar event 43 years ago. That was when SKITCH HENDERSON left The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson after his tenure as bandleader from 1961-67. Not long after he left, DOC SEVERINSEN took over as band director. (For the record, MILTON DELUGG was bandmaster briefly in between. Also for history’s sake, Eubanks succeeded BRANFORD MARSALIS.)
As for Skitch Henderson, born Lyle Russell Cedric Henderson on Jan. 27, 1918, his reason for leaving Johnny Carson was far from just wanting to explore new vistas, as Kevin Eubanks seemed to express to Jay Leno the night of his departure announcement. After an illustrious career that began on radio, conducting for Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby on their respective programs, Skitch led the band and did comedy bits on The Tonight Show with Steve Allen until Jack Paar took the reigns, bringing his own bandleader, Jose Melis. Then Skitch returned to The Tonight Show when Carson headlined.
Months after leaving Carson, Skitch Henderson was conducting the Emporia State University (then Kansas State Teacher’s College) orchestra in a one night performance at the Civic Auditorium in Emporia. It was standing room only. At rehearsal, he was all business, demanding, and frequently rude. An impeccable dresser, wearing a suit and tie with vest, Skitch, at one point while before the orchestra, yelled at the school’s orchestra director, Melbern Nixon, to take his coat. Evidently he was too warm. Henderson removed his coat, and purposely let it fall to the ground as the harried Emporia State director literally ran to comply. Henderson did not express any regret or apology. He rudely turned to the musicians and continued his rehearsal. The students observed their revered teacher bending over to pick up Henderson’s coat and carry it off stage like an underling. Skitch Henderson put on his familiar happy face and was full of chuckles during the actual performance the next evening. There’s no business like show business?
During an interview I had with Skitch (for the college newspaper) following rehearsal, he spoke of many things, musical and otherwise. He talked of why he left The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. “‘The Good Ship Lollipop,’ as we have always called the show, has been leaking at the seams for the past year,” Henderson said. Essentially, Henderson revealed he was leaving a sinking ship, ratting out, per se. Funny thing, The SS Tonight Show with Johnny Carson continued its nautical run as more of a super cruiser than a Titanic. Johnny Carson helmed it for another 25 years, followed by Jay Leno’s 18 years at present.
What happened to Skitch Henderson? He guest conducted in personal appearances around the world, recorded albums, composed music, and eventually was leader of the New York Pops before dying on Nov. 1, 2005. In 1975, Skitch spent four months in federal prison for tax evasion, which was probably the second time he experienced that sinking feeling.
And now...Herrrrrreeee's Johnny with Skitch Henderson from New Year's Eve, 1965: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rn5NvC2-zQY

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: EDDIE CANTOR & Family

By Steve Crum

EDDIE CANTOR (Jan. 31, 1892- Oct. 10, 1964) is a true icon in American show business. This multi-talented entertainer excelled as a comedian, singer, dancer, actor and songwriter for over 50 years. Cantor, nicknamed "Banjo Eyes" because of the prominent eyes which he frequently rolled to the delight of audiences, was a showbiz trailblazer, starring in vaudeville and Broadway shows (the latter mostly produced by the great Flo Ziegfeld); via his records and sheet music; starring in enormously popular movies; and headlining his own highly rated TV shows, notably The Colgate Comedy Hour. Though not billed "The World's Greatest Entertainer" as was his close friend and fellow artist, Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor (aka "The Apostle of Pep") was nonetheless a superstar in his own right and one extraordinary entertainer and human being.

Cantor's humanitarian deeds are legendary, and include his establishment (with President Franklin Roosevelt) and naming of "The March of Dimes," created to help fund the campaign to defeat polio.

The Eddie Cantor Story (1953), though not nearly an accurate and worthy enough biography to do Cantor justice, does include Cantor's actual singing on its soundtrack. His vibrant and often soulful singing voice is the film's huge plus factor. Among the dozens of Cantor signature songs are: "If You Knew Susie," "Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider," "Margie," "Makin' Whoopee," and "How Ya' Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm?"
The rarely seen press photo above is dated Nov. 28, 1945, and titled "A Night at the Waldorf." Its text tells the story: NEW YORK--While the other guests are dancing in the Wedgwood Room of the Waldorf-Astoria here, Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Cantor and two of their five daughters, Marilyn (left) and Janet (right) are interested spectators. The eyes of Cantor are popping as usual. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]

For the record, Eddie and his famous wife Ida's other daughters, not shown, are Marjorie, Natalie and Edna.
Eddie Cantor sings "Makin' Whoopee" from 1930's "Whoopee!": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ANRPmTZRqkg

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: Will the real Clarabell the Clown please stand up?

By Steve Crum

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, in 1994, buckskin clad BUFFALO BOB SMITH appeared at Bartle Hall in Kansas City, Mo. as a featured celebrity at the annual auto show. Naturally, Smith brought with him his famed puppet and longtime Doodyville pal, HOWDY DOODY. Among the baby boomers standing in line to meet him (we who had grown up watching the Howdy Doody show on NBC, from 1947-60) was yours truly. Smith reminisced about those early TV years with me and posed (for a small fee) for photos. No doubt I was the 18 millionth fan who had told him how much fun and enjoyment he had provided during my childhood. I was but another “little buddy” of his from the other side of the TV tube.

What I recall most about my few minutes with Buffalo Bob is his anxiety regarding his wife back home in Hendersonville, North Carolina. That area had just suffered a vicious ice storm, and his wife was stranded in their house without electricity. He told me the road to his house was so icy no emergency crews could yet get to her. He was heading back home immediately after the Kansas City gig. I wished him and his wife the best, and got a “Thanks, little buddy” in response.

My regret is I never asked Howdy to speak, forgetting that Bob Smith supplied Howdy’s voice in the TV show. After all, Howdy was sitting there right between the two of us, smiling that wooden smile and silent as a cord of oak. Incidentally, the two similarly posed photos above were taken some 45 years apart. That is Clarabell the Clown (Lew Anderson) to the left in one, and me to the left in the other. I point out my identity since it looks suspiciously like Howdy’s twin brother cheesing beside him.

Sadly, Buffalo Bob died four years later, on July 30, 1998. Following his death, a custody battle for the original Howdy Doody marionette (pictured) ensued. Howdy now resides, ever smiling, in the Detroit Institute for the Arts. [from Steve Crum’s showbiz memorabilia collection]
Some HOWDY DOODY trivia
•BUFFALO BOB SMITH was born Robert Emil Schmidt on Nov. 27, 1917 in BUFFALO, New York.
•The HOWDY DOODY show featured puppets and real life actors portraying: Heidi Doody (Howdy’s sister), Dilly Dally, Mayor Phineas T. Bluster, Chief Thunderthud, Princess Summerfall Winterspring, and Flub-a-Dub (a conglomeration of eight animals!).
•BOB KEESHAN (CAPTAIN KANGAROO) was the first to portray Clarabell the Clown.
•BOB SMITH and HOWDY DOODY had a career rebirth thanks to the nostalgia craze in colleges and universities during the 1970’s.
•HOWDY DOODY had 48 freckles on his face, one for each state--at that time.
Say kids, what time is it?!?! Join the Peanut Gallery here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9pK0hNljoTg

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: Chaplin & Goddard walk the walk

By Steve Crum

RELEASED IN 1936, CHARLIE CHAPLIN'S MODERN TIMES was one of the few comedies to thematically deal with the ongoing Great Depression. Laden with socio-political references to assembly line industry, anarchy, unionism (or lack thereof), homelessness, love, and even drugs (the white powder being consumed in the prison sequence ain't supposed to be C&H sugar), Modern Times was controversial, bittersweet, knee slap hilarious, heartbreaking, incisive, and...well...Chaplin. The film was released nearly 10 years after sound came to motion pictures, yet director, writer, composer, star Chaplin made this one mostly silent, except for recorded music and sound effects. There is sparse dialogue, but at least movie audiences got to hear Chaplin's voice as he briefly sang.

CHARLIE CHAPLIN, born Charles Spencer Chaplin (April 16, 1889-Dec. 25, 1977), filmed Modern Times over a two year period, 1934-35, perfecting as he went. He collaborated with composer David Raksin on the score, since Chaplin could not read music. The hit song Smile was a later result.

PAULETTE GODDARD, born Marion Pauline Levy (June 3, 1919-April 23, 1980), was fine and gorgeous support for Chaplin's Tramp character, playing the gamine, Ellen Peterson. A serious relationship between the two actors developed, and they were married in 1936. (The union lasted until 1942.)
The vintage, original United Artists Studio promo photo above shows Modern Times' iconic finale as Chaplin and Goddard's characters walk hand in hand towards their uncertain, hopeful future down the long, winding road. The symbolism is Chaplin through and through, beautifully realized by his long time cinematographer Rollie Totheroh. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
Hear Chaplin sing his song; see him hit the road in Modern Times: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEZON7T9WMU

Friday, April 2, 2010

3D glasses on for ho-hum ‘Clash of the Titans’

By Steve Crum

Is this remake of Clash of the Titans really necessary? Nope, by Kraken. Sure it boasts 3D tech, along with a fresh cast and digitally moving creatures, whereas effects guru Ray Harryhausen’s 1981 effects were accomplished via the jerky, stop motion method. Yet this nearly three decades newer Clash disappoints in pacing, special effects and 3D. The special effects, with the exception of a pretty cool looking Pegasus, are obviously computerized to the extent most combat sequences are in close-up with the dreaded handheld camera look, which always seems a budgetary ploy to hide cheapness. The result is rapid, blurred movements that imply action more than deliver.

Director Louis Leterrier (The Incredible Hulk) and writers Travis Beacham, Phil Hay and Matt Manfred have mostly duplicated director Desmond Cross and writer Beverley Cross’ ’81 film. The retro result is a throwback plot with new faces and digitally Botoxed monsters.

Once again, Perseus (Sam Worthington, who rode the flying Direhorse in Avatar and gallops astride a soaring Pegasus here) is cast out to sea soon after birth because he was fathered by the Greek god Zeus (Liam Neeson). Rescued and raised as a mortal by a kind fisherman, Perseus eventually discovers his heritage, and that he must lead a crusade to overtake the evil god Hades (Ralph Fiennes) who plans to turn earth into hell. There are scenes of Zeus, Hades and fellow gods and goddesses in mythical heaven manipulating Perseus and others on earth as if they are chess pieces.

Perseus and his small army, which includes Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), must overcome challenge after challenge before eventually severing the head of Medusa to avoid unleashing the feared Kraken monster from earth’s bowels. If only the dialogue was a good as this description. SEE the attack of giant scorpions! SEE killer birds of prey! SEE Perseus’ magic sword! See CGI effects galore! Shades of Ulysses, Sinbad and Hercules.

Also SEE the homage, as if the entire movie isn’t a homage, to Ray Harryhausen when his famed mechanical owl is briefly shown before Perseus embarks on his quest. The owl, a fixture of the 1981 movie, is never seen again, yet it reminds us of the original’s semi-classic stature, a quality the 2010 version lacks.

Finally, the 3D is wasted. Not one sequence includes anything remotely leaping out of the screen. (Avatar is now the benchmark of 3D, being jammed with in-your-face dimension.) Sure there is the basic illusion of depth throughout Clash, even during the many talky scenes. But it is pretty static overall.

Therefore, a couple of considerations need to be made at this point regarding the 3D resurgence, as theaters worldwide are being equipped for 3D, and HD-TVs enter the 3D game. First, Avatar set the bar high for 3D with dazzling effects. A movie like Clash of the Titans, with mediocre 3D, signals a major quality control problem for the future of the process. Alice in Wonderland similarly suffered with only a couple of effective 3D bits. It could be said that Avatar revolutionized 3D much like Star Wars did for special effects. Pre-Star Wars fantasy and sci-fi flicks look quaint and pedestrian in comparison.

Secondly, if a 3D movie does not meet higher entertainment standards to justify its own inflated admission price, what is the future of 3D as industry? The 3D fad of the 1950s could be repeating its sad and similar arc by, say, 2011-12. It was a short lived gimmick then; it could be the same now. The big difference is that the investment nowadays is on a greater scale, involving theater chains and the future of home entertainment.

My suggestion after the fact would have been to re-release 1981’s Clash of the Titans, reprocessed in 3D, and forget about any remake. Forget this remake, for sure.
On an A to F grade scale: D+
Peruse Perseus promptly in the Clash of the Titans trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q6CJenNMsb4