Sunday, October 28, 2018

‘The Merv Griffin Show’—with all its showbiz trappings—realized by author Steve Randisi

By Steve Crum
Fans of the long running TV talk/variety program, The Merv Griffin Show, will love the aptly titled The Merv Griffin Show: The Inside Story. I am one of those fans. So is Steve Randisi, who has written a well researched, revealing, and vastly entertaining work about the evolution of the Griffin TV show over its 22 years on the air, 1962-86. Covered in some detail is the life of Griffin himself, on and off stage. 
In the preface, Randisi explains the scope of his writing: “This book is not a full-scale biography of Merv Griffin. Rather, it’s the story of the television program bearing his name.” Still, there is a ton of fascinating information about Griffin’s personal and professional life before and after the TV series that bore his name.
We learn of Grffin’s early showbiz days in the 1940s as “America’s Mystery Voice” singer on local radio, and how his excessive body poundage per se “weighed in” to his fledgling career. Covered are his big band singer days with Freddy Martin, and Merv’s hit song, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts.” 
There is more than passing mention of Griffin’s penchant for creating and producing TV game shows, a period within his resume that began with his hosting of Goodson-Todman’s Play Your Hunch in 1958. Soon he was producing his own game shows, notably Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. Griffin was even composing their theme music. 
But the meat of Randisi’s book is The Merv Griffin Show, and its development and journey from network(s) to syndication. His professional and personal relationship with Johnny Carson is explored in some detail—appropriate considering Carson’s Tonight Show was Merv’s most formidable ratings opponent. 
I particularly enjoyed reading of Arthur Treacher’s tenure on Merv’s show, from being personally chosen as the announcer/sidekick, to his interactions with Merv and his guests. 
Included are backstage vignettes about tardy or absent guests, including a few big names reluctant to go on at the last minute. There are stories about Jack Paar, who influenced Merv’s talk show style, and Jean Arthur, Dr. Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy, Joey Bishop, Eva Gabor, Mike Douglas, Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, George Carlin, and a slew more. They all were guests on Merv’s show, some repeatedly. 
The book’s 420 pages end with a helpful index—in case one seeks specific references regarding dozens of names ranging from Orson Welles to Abbie Hoffman to Joan Crawford, and beyond. Fifty-nine rarely seen photos are icing on this enticing cake. 
Randisi’s book is a fine tribute to Merv Griffin and his long running talk show. As well, it serves as an anecdotal history of mid to latter 20th Century show business.

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

The book is available in both hardback and softback via Bear Manor Media.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Gaga, Cooper headline Oscar worthy stunner, ’A Star is Born’

By Steve Crum
The fourth time is the charm for the newest version (the third remake) of A Star is Born. Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper help make it a marvelous must-see. Cooper is a possible triple Oscar threat here, via co-writing, co-starring and directing…each superbly. Gaga is no less impressive in her film starring debut as singer-songwriter Ally. She dazzles.
The accolades do not stop with Cooper and Gaga. Sam Elliott fans will be ultra pleased with his portrayal of Jackson’s older brother/manager, Bobby. But perhaps the biggest surprise of casting is the nearly unrecognizable comedian Andrew Dice Clay as Ally’s father, Lorenzo. Who knew that “The Dice” was a solid character actor beneath the black leather jacket, affected machismo, and Brylcreemed pompadour? He believably pulls off an aging, slightly balding single dad who frets over his daughter’s livelihood. 
The film’s plot most closely resembles the 1976 rendition starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson. Both concern an alcoholic rock singer (Cooper as Jackson Maine; Kristofferson as John Norman Howard) who crosses paths with a talented unknown singer (Gaga as Ally; Streisand as Esther Hoffman). In both films, the director also collaborated on the screenplay. 
For that matter, William A. Wellman handled both tasks for the 1937 original, non-musical A Star is Born. (Considered a classic, it stars Janet Gaynor and Frederic March.) Wellman’s cowriters were Robert Carson, Dorothy Parker and Alan Campbell. I mention all their names because the subsequent three remakes are based on their original work. That goes for Moss Hart’s 1954 screenplay. In the first two movies, it is Norman Maine (a has-been movie leading man) whose chance meeting with talented hopeful Esther Blodgett leads to their romance, commercial success, and tragedy. 
All that perspective said, this new A Star is Born emerges as an improvement over the ’76 film. (Overall, I still prefer the ’54 Garland version with those Harold Arlen/Ira Gershwin songs.) 
Opening with Jackson Maine performing at a rock concert after ingesting pills washed down with booze, there is immediately something pleasingly different about A Star is Born. Not only is Bradley Cooper a surprisingly good singer, but his presence is emotionally effective because he is not lip synching a previously recorded song. That’s the standard for movie musicals, but Cooper and Lady Gaga sing live here. It adds both credibility and electricity. Relaxing after his concert, Maine stops at a crowded eatery/nightclub wherein Ally is performing (terrifically) Edith Piaf’s signature song, La Vie en rose. He is understandably awestruck, and seeks her out. So begins the friendship that turns into musical camaraderie, encouragement, and love—on both their parts. 
At first, Ally still lives with her Dad, a single parent who has always encouraged her songwriting and singing skills. Soon she is touring with Maine as he deals with depression and increased dependency on alcohol and drugs. As her career ascends, his descends. His plight is worrisome to his older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliott), and long time pal, Noodles (Dave Chappelle in a brief but impressive acting turn). 
A Star is Born is a very special film loaded with 17 original rock songs and intimate ballads, written by and memorably performed by Gaga and Cooper. 
I will go out on a short limb to predict Academy Award nods to Cooper, Gaga and Elliott. Lady Gaga’s days of wearing a meat dress are history. A born movie star is she. 

GRADE on an A-F Scale: A