Sunday, August 22, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: JOHN CHARLES THOMAS of The Metropolitan Opera

By Steve Crum

For nearly 30 years, JOHN CHARLES THOMAS [Sept. 6, 1891-Dec. 13, 1960] was widely regarded as one of the most gifted operatic baritones of his day. Thomas sang in operas and operettas, as well as in concert recitals, and on records, radio and film. (Well, he appeared in one obscure movie, a silent movie, no less. No singing even in the subtitles.) His repertoire included works by Gilbert and Sullivan, Victor Herbert, and Sigmund Romberg. Sort of a pre-Nelson Eddy, Thomas performed on Broadway in Maytime and Naughty Marietta. His venues included the Washington National Opera, Carnegie Hall, and finally, the Metropolitan Opera in New York City (1934-43). Two years after touring Australia and New Zealand, from 1947-48, he retired.

Thomas was also a rigorous sportsman whose interests were golf, yachting, speedboat racing, and deep sea fishing.
The autographed photo of JOHN CHARLES THOMAS is one of my prized possessions, and it is partially because of Bing Crosby and Al Jolson. I admit I am neither an opera nor operetta fan, but I am a huge fan of Crosby and Jolson. About 40 years ago, I first heard John Charles via a taped Philco Radio Time show broadcast on Armed Forces Radio, Germany, where I was stationed. The show had originally aired April 2, 1947. Crosby's guests were Thomas and the great Jolson.

The show's format was unusual, since the entire half hour was performed as an old time minstrel show. This gave Jolson a chance to sing a rousing "My Mammy"; Crosby soloed on Bert Williams' immortal "Nobody"; and Thomas performed the semi-spiritual, "Gwine to Heaven." All three told corny jokes, kidded each other in the process, and teamed for a grand finale of "Alabamy Bound." Heard today, as 40 years ago and originally, the program is absolutely sensational. Three of the most charismatic performers of all time teamed for arguably the best Crosby radio show ever. THIS is why I purchased the John Charles Thomas signed photo many moons ago, and this is why I still treasure it. Sure the Thomas voice is great, but he also has an infectious laugh and sense of humor. It was all showcased that April evening, 63 years ago, a month before I was born. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
After he officially retired, John Charles Thomas joked and sang on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx...1957:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010


By Steve Crum

This NBC-Radio gag publicity photo features EDDIE CANTOR with his protege and singer DINAH SHORE. Evidently, as they would have us believe, the piano keyboard cover has been slammed on Eddie's hands as Dinah feigns shock mixed with amusement. Probably photographed between 1940 and 1943, when Dinah was the female singer on Cantor's weekly "Time to Smile" radio show, it is a unique posing to say the least. Cantor had "discovered" Shore on NBC-radio's "The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street," and then signed her to his program. Stage techniques Cantor then taught her on his show were carried on by Shore for the rest of her long career. [from Steve Crum's show biz memorabilia collection]
"The Apostle of Pep" and "Banjo Eyes" were two nicknames given to EDDIE CANTOR, and which he embraced, during a career that enveloped vaudeville, Broadway, radio, records, motion pictures and TV. Cantor, born Edward Israel Iskowitz [Jan. 31, 1892-Oct. 10, 1964], was a dean of show business, talented as a comedian, singer, dancer, actor, composer, and author. He is considered a close runner-up to Al Jolson as one of the greatest entertainers of all time. Cantor was a sensation in radio (#1 in ratings), Broadway (#1 attraction of the Ziegfeld Follies), and movies (#1 box office in Samuel Goldwyn musicals like Whoopee!). He was also an outspoken political progressive, which at one time cost him a radio program.
DINAH SHORE, born Frances Rose Shore in Tennessee [Feb. 29, 1916-Feb. 24, 1994], was a singing star (80 charted pop hits, 1940's-1950's), television star (Chevy Shows, 1951-63; daytime talk shows, 1970-80), and successful promoter of women's professional golf, via her Colgate Dinah Shore Golf Tournament (now called the Kraft Nabisco Championships). Despite an early childhood polio affliction, she became one of golf's best players.

Some of Dinah's biggest hits were Blues in the Night, I'll Walk Alone, The Last time I Saw Paris, and You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To. Her weekly singing of her sponsor's signature song, See the USA in Your Chevrolet (followed by her pronounced, thrown kiss to the audience) is probably better remembered than her commercial recordings. She also appeared in several movies, including Up in Arms (1944) with Danny Kaye.

Before and after her celebrated marriage to B-western cowboy star George Montgomery (1943-62), Dinah Shore was linked with Gene Krupa, James Stewart, Gen. George Patton (!), Frank Sinatra, Dick Martin, Eddie Fisher, Rod Taylor, Andy Williams, Ron Ely, Wayne Rogers, and Dean Martin. The most famous, and most public, of her relationships was with Burt Reynolds.

Dinah Shore won nine Emmy Awards, a Peabody, and a Golden Globe for her television work.
"See the USA in your Chevrolet..." Here, let DINAH SHORE sing it:

Saturday, August 14, 2010


By Steve Crum

Not only do you get three super cowboys for the price of one in 1950's Republic B-western, TRAIL OF ROBIN HOOD, but you get double that...triple that! Yep, pardners, the budget was sky high for this Christmas release of nearly 60 years ago. The plot of the ROY ROGERS vehicle involves "The King of the Cowboys" on the lookout for **gulp** Christmas tree thieves. They are hell bent on a green monopoly by absconding with JACK HOLT'S grade-A quality pines and firs. Riding into town to help drive the Christmas trees to market, as well as beat up the thieves, are Republic Pictures cowboys REX ALLEN, TOM KEENE, WILLIAM FARNUM (actually he was a cowboy star in silent films), KERMIT MAYARD, GEORGE CHESEBRO (who plays bad guys, but is good this time around), MONTE HALE, ROCKY LANE, CRASH CORRIGAN, and TOM TYLER. Roy sings "Every Day is Christmas in the West."
The studio publicity photo (top of page) includes three of the movie's star cowpokes, posing on the set: (from left) MONTE HALE, born Samuel Buren Ely (June 8, 1919-March 29, 2009); ALLAN "ROCKY " LANE, born Harry Leonard Albershart (Sept. 20, 1909-Oct. 27, 1973); and ROY ROGERS aka Leonard Slye (Nov. 5, 1911-July 6, 1998). [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
Roy was always surrounded with the best of the best sidekicks, heroines, and musicians West of the Pecos, including Dale Evans (his wife and frequent leading lady), Gabby Hayes, Smiley Burnette, Pat Brady, Andy Devine, The Sons of the Pioneers, The Riders of the Purple Sage, Bullet, Nellybelle, and Trigger.
Rocky's cowboy career lasted until the mid-1950's when TV had emptied the cowboy B-movie corral. He had played Red Ryder, was featured in action-packed serials, and starred as both Allan Lane and Rocky Lane. His faithful steed Blackjack was always with him. Incidentally, Rocky NEVER sang in any of his movies. His forte was serious action with plenty of knuckle fights and gun play. Lane had two noteworthy jobs after hanging up his spurs, starring in a classic Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode, "Lamb to the Slaughter," and as the voice of Mr. Ed, TV's popular talking horse.
Monte Hale's death last year meant that the last of Republic's cowboy stars was history. Although Monte sang in some of his films, he was not primarily known as a singing cowboy. At the time of his death, he and his wife were managing the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, which they also founded. Monte's last film role was in the modern day western Giant, 1956.
Here is the scene from "Trail of Robin Hood" wherein all the guest star cowboys arrive to help Roy Rogers and Jack Holt:

Tuesday, August 10, 2010


By Steve Crum

CLIFF ARQUETTE'S show business career was, by his
choice, pretty much over by 1956. He chose to retire at that time after decades as an entertainer. In the beginning, he played piano in night clubs, and then in a dance orchestra. He worked in theatre and movies as a musician and comedian, sometimes dressing in funny costumes and makeup for effect. In radio, he was a literal one-man show. While making a living in radio in Chicago, he once did 13 live radio programs at different stations each and every day, shuttling from one studio across town to another.

Then came JACK PAAR. Paar was starring on The Tonight Show in 1959 when one night he asked, "Whatever happened to Cliff Arquette?" Arquette, who happened to be watching Paar that night, recounted his shock over hearing this. "I almost dropped my Scotch," he quipped. Paar soon phoned Arquette, asking him to appear on his show. Dressing up as one of his most popular characters, the old codger from Mt. Idy, Charley Weaver, Arquette appeared, and was a sensation. He became a regular on Paar's late night show, reading his fictional, funny "Letters from Mama." The letters told of bizarre Mt. Idy and the oddball inhabitants therein, including Elsie Krack, Leonard Box, Grandma and Grandpa Ogg, and Ludlow Bean. Paar and Charley (dressed in baggy pants, droopy shirt, rumpled hat, glasses and mustache) would both sit on Paar's desk, dangling their feet, as Charley opened his shtick with, "I got a letter from Mama." He would then read his letter, which of course he wrote in long hand, which might include something like: "Dear Steinway: (Mama always wnted me to be upright and grand.) Things are fine in Mount Idy (she goes on). Birdie Rodd is pretty upset. Saturday night somebody broke into her house and stole her bathtub. She says whoever did it can keep the washrag, soap and the tub, but she would like them to return her mother." During each performance, when Charley would get a rousing laugh at one of his jokes, he would outstretch his arms, facing the audience, and declare, "These are MY people!"

Charley Weaver was resurrected. Arquette rarely appeared except as Charley, including his guest stints on many TV shows, including The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Steve Allen Show, and his popular work on The Hollywood Squares, in which he occupied the bottom left square. Arquette did appear in syrup commercials as Mrs. Butterworth, speaking in a falsetto voice, wearing a matronly dress, but still sporting his mustache.
CLIFF ARQUETTE (Dec. 28, 1905-Sept. 23, 1974) was a Civil War history buff who operated his Charley Weaver Museum of the Civil War in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania for a decade. (It is now the Soldiers National Museum.) A descendant of explorer Meriwether Lewis, Arquette began his own family history. He is a patriarch of actors, not explorers. His son, the late Lewis Arquette, was a familiar presence on TV shows and in films. Perhaps his most memorable role was as J. D. Pickett on The Waltons. Five of his grandchildren have become successful actors: Patricia (star of TV's Medium), Alexis, Rosanna, David (the Scream movies), and Richmond. Before his death due to stroke at age 68, Cliff Arquette had written three best selling books about Mt. Idy. There was also his comedy record album, pictured above. (Note that CHARLEY is misspelled on the album.)

In the introduction to Charley Weaver's Letters from Mama, Jack Paar discussed "the wild old man from Mt. Idy." An excerpt: "Sometimes his jokes are old, and I live in the constant fear that the audience will beat him to the punch line, but they never have. And I suspect that if they ever do, he will rewrite the ending on the spot. I would not like to say that all his jokes are old, although some have been found to be carved in stone. What I want to say is that in a free-for-all ad lib session, Charley Weaver has and will beat the fastest gun alive. Charley Weaver has done more for the success of the 'Tonight' show than anyone who was ever on it. He is my 'wild old man,' and it's understandable, when you realize that before every show he rinses his jockey shorts in turpentine. Nobody will ever catch him."
The rather hairless looking 1947 ABC-Radio publicity portrait of CLIFF ARQUETTE (shown right), sans Charley Weaver, describes Arquette as "...The comedian known for his characterizations of elderly men and women, is starred in a new ABC comedy series, Point Sublime, based on the adventures of general store keeper Arquette in Point Sublime, California. Arquette is helped into and out of his predicaments by his side kick, Mel Blanc. Mondays, 8 p.m., EST." Arquette was a fixture on the radio series from its 1940 beginning on NBC. After it trasnferred to the Mutual Network in 1944, ABC picked it up on Oct. 6, 1947. It then left the air after its first season. [from Steve Crum's show biz memorabilia collection]

Friday, August 6, 2010

Mediocre 'Other Guys' features Ferrell in cop parody

By Steve Crum
When I think of The Other Guys, like virtually any Will Ferrell movie, I think of Olympia Beer. Except instead of the slogan, “It’s the water,” the Ferrell motto is, “It’s the writing.” This is more a negative than a compliment, since The Other Guys suffers from a premise that pays off in the first 10 minutes of the story. Up to that point, the writing is fun, fast, and full of broad parody. The remainder of the film has spurts of laughs, but is laden with a Will Ferrell central character purposely lackluster and dull.

Writers Adam McKay (who also directed) and Chris Henchy deserve a little praise and a bunch of grief over their treatment. At least McKay’s previous screenplays (Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, and Step Brothers) cast Ferrell as aggressive egocentrics and, as such, interesting to watch. Ferrell’s Allen Gamble in The Other Guys plays against that type, and places the prominent comic role upon co-star Mark Wahlberg (as Gamble’s partner, Terry Holtz), who can act humorously, but is not a comedian. It turns out that the funniest person in the movie, after the opening sequence, is Michael Keaton’s police captain, Gene Mauch.

And that opening sequence, without ruining its gag, features Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson. It is slam, bang action, and hilarious.

The story kicks off with NYC police detectives Christopher Danson and P.K. Highsmith (Johnson and Jackson) showcasing why they are press and public favorites as the most feared and successful cops on the force. The macho duo relish spectacular car chases, tote magnum-plus pistols, and thrive on adulation. They are heroes inside the squad room as well, even to undistinguished officers Gamble and Holtz. They are the forgotten “other guys” referred to in the title. In fact, Officer Gamble prefers being a desk jockey, since he desires nothing more than being an accountant. “I just want to be an accountant for law and order,” says Gamble. His pal Holtz, however, was relegated to a desk job after failing on a security detail involving a well known football star. He desperately wants another chance to prove his mettle.

Inevitably, the two get their chance on the street. There is a bar fight featuring a funny Irish round robin of singing as well as a ballet (!) by Ferrell’s Gamble, and a suicide call gone awry, But the funniest set-up, sustained throughout the film, is Gamble’s insistence that gorgeous women like his wife (Eva Mendes) mean little to him. Yet they are physically attracted to his dorky demeanor everywhere he goes.

Ferrell’s forte, in fact, is the overextended joke or shtick. Do the gag, lace it with outrageousness (like pulling down or off your pants), get the shock value laugh, and...keep on with it, wringing the laugh empty. His humor is of the adult child, often given to the “I hit you last” or “I know you are, but what am I” variety, as in Step Brothers.

Above all, Ferrell’s butt cheeks he displays for absurd hardy-har-hars has been integral to his comedy. That is what’s both right and wrong about his Allen Gamble character in The Other Guys. No booty show here. That is a refreshingly good exclusion. Then again, what does that leave Ferrell with except to overdo each and every set-up. Push the punchline to the max. Squeeze the laugh past its potential. Timing is nothing unless it is exceeded. This is also a common fault of Saturday Night Live sketches, Ferrell’s training ground.

It has been said before that Will Ferrell movies would be funnier if trimmed and refined to a half hour max. The Other Guys sure qualifies.
GRADE on an A to F Scale: C
Enjoy highlights of The Other Guys in its trailer:

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Worth 1,000 Words: SID CAESAR & IMOGENE COCA

By Steve Crum

Sixty years ago, NBC-TV could have opened each program with "Live, from New York, it's...!" Except this was two and a half decades before Saturday Night Live. The referenced program is Your Show of Shows, which ran 160 hilarious, innovative, and ground-breaking episodes for 90 minutes each Saturday night, Feb. 25, 1950-June 5, 1954. Created by Sigourney Weaver's dad, Sylvester "Pat" Weaver, Your Show of Shows starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. Although called a variety show, it is now considered the ultimate sketch comedy, TV showcase, truly the first of its kind. (Note: Caesar and Coca first teamed on TV's Admiral Broadway Review, Jan.-June, 1949.)

Born Isaac Sidney Caesar on Sept. 8, 1922, SID CAESAR is particularly noted for his use of comedy dialect, timing, and body language. He has appeared in several movies, including It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, many TV shows, on Broadway, and is an author. He is fondly remembered playing Coach Calhoun in Grease and Grease 2.

IMOGENE COCA, whose birth name is the mouthful Imogene Fernandez de Coca, was born Nov. 18, 1908. Perhaps her most well known role to modern audiences is Aunt Edna, Chevy Chase's forlorn aunt (remember her leashed dog?) in National Lampoon's Vacation. Coca died June 2, 2001.

Your Show of Shows was live, directed by both Max Liebman and Nat Hiken at various times. Its writers included Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner (who also acted in the sketches), Neil Simon, Danny Simon, and Mel Tolkin. (Larry Gelbart did not write for YSOS, but did write for Caesar's Hour, 1954-57. Woody Allen only wrote for Caesar in later TV specials.)

Rounding out the cast were Howard Morris (Ernest T. Bass on The Andy Griffith Show), Nanette Fabray, and Reiner. The program greatly influenced future sketch comedy programs, particularly The Carol Burnett Show and Saturday Night Live. Your Show of Shows remains a true classic of television history. It inspired Carl Reiner to create his TV gem, The Dick Van Dyke Show. It was also the basis for 1982's My Favorite Year, and Neil Simon's play, Laughter on the 23rd Floor.
The rare still (at left) from Your Show of Shows depicts Sid Caesar in hand flailing intensity as he makes a point to Imogene Coca during one of their memorable sketches. The photo could be of a rehearsal since there is masking tape in various states on and around the floor, probably for stage blocking. [from Steve Crum's showbiz memorabilia collection]
Funny is funny for all time. Enjoy this classic "clock" bit from Your Show of Shows: