Sunday, December 30, 2007

R.I.P. in 2007: 60s Stars

Two classic film directors influential in the 60s died on the same day in 2007: Michelangelo Antonioni (Blow up, Zabriskie Point) and Ingmar Bergman (Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, Through A Glass Darkly, etc.)
Laszlo Kovacs was an esteemed and influential cinematographer, beginning with the 60s classics Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and 70s classics Paper Moon and Shampoo.
Denny Doherty was the closest that the Mamas and Papas had to a lead singer. With just a few albums in a few years, this was one of the most important groups of the 60s, here headlining the Monterry Pop Festival, the first of the great 60s music events, organized by Papa John Phillips.

On the right in this photo is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., already a noted political historian when he became an advisor to President John Kennedy, and promoted 60s liberalism as the "politics of hope." His sad duty later was to write indispensable chronicles of JFK and Robert Kennedy, after their assassinations. His book on RFK in particular is well worth reading today.
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R.I.P. 2007: 50s-70s TV Stars

Merv Griffin's talk show in the 60s hosted many of the boomer era
political figures, movie stars, writers and entertainers--even if Merv was a whole different era in himself.

Tom Snyder's Tomorrow show, late night on NBC, was an oasis of inquisitiveness in the 70s. He was opinionated, provocative and unpredictable, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes brilliant.
"Watch Mr. Wizard" with Don Herbert demonstrating science to kids on TV beginning in the 50s. Remember his barely disguised commercials
for breakfast cereals as lessons in nutrition? "Fruit, cereal, milk, bread & butter?" Later generations saw him again, most recently on Nickelodeon.
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Saturday, December 29, 2007

R.I.P. in 2007: 50s TV Stars

Jane Wyman was a well regarded film actress who was among the first to make the transition to television drama. She appeared in various 50s anthologies such as General Electric Theatre, Lux Playhouse and Westinghouse Playhouse. She was a host on The Bell Telephone Hour before hosting her own anthology series, Jane Wyman Presents the Fireside Theatre. It allowed her to play a variety of roles. Later she did guest parts until landing the regular role of matriarch Angela Channing in a popular prime time soap of the 80s, Falcon Crest.
In a long and distinguished career, Kitty Carlisle Hart sang and acted on the stage and on film, then became a socially prominent advocate for the arts in New York. Though she sang in operas and operettas, boomers may remember her in Night at the Opera, starring the Marx Brothers. But she became most familiar as a regular panelist on the 50s quiz show, "To Tell the Truth," as well as a guest on other popular quiz shows of the day.
Tom Poston is also in that photo with Kitty Carlisle as a quiz show regular, though he was better known in the 50s for the expression in this photo--as one of the regulars on the Steve Allen Sunday show, especially the "Man in the Street" routine, for which he won an Emmy. In the 70s he was a recurring character on the Bob Newhart Show. He won several more Emmys there--and married Bob's "wife," Suzanne Pleshette. He had a recurring role on Mork & Mindy and did TV and movie guest parts until his death in 2007 at the age of 85.
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Monday, December 24, 2007

Alice in Disneyland

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Alice in Disneyland

For Boomers, Alice in Wonderland became associated with Christmas through the good offices of Walt Disney. Even before his animated movie version was completed, he showed a scene from it as part of his Christmas television special in 1950, co-hosted by the young Kathyrn Beaumont, who provided Alice's voice in the film. When his Disneyland show became a weekly series, he featured an hour version of the movie as his Christmas shows in 1954 and again in 1964.

All this is revealed on the two disk DVD of the Disney movie, still the best known dramatization of Alice. Moreover, the digitized DVD version reveals its breathtaking use of color, and of course the kind of sumptuous and witty animation that just isn't done anymore. (The people who made Yellow Submarine must have watched it many times.)

Since then, Alice's adventures have been dramatized many times in the movies and on TV. The usual practice was to fill the numerous but relatively small roles with the name actors and comics of the day. A surprising number of these Alices are available on DVD. For instance:

Jonathan Miller did a 1966 television version with Peter Sellers, John Gielgud and music by Ravi Shankar. Ralph Richardson and Michael Crawford were in a 1972 film, with Alice played by the future "Bond girl," Fiona Fullerton.

There was a 1985 version, scripted by Paul Zindel and with music by Steve Allen, that featured Donald O'Connor, Martha Raye, Telly Savalas, Shelley Winters, Sid Caesar and Ringo Starr. Kate Burton was a charming Alice in her first credited role in 1983, co-starring with her father, Richard Burton, as well as Nathan Lane and Maureen Stapleton.

And a 1999 TV movie featured Martin Short, Robbie Coltrane, Ben Kingsley, Christopher Lloyd and Miranda Richardson with Jim Henson's puppets.

By now, Alice is seen on stage (in ballets, musicals and stage plays) around the country at Christmastime. But for my money, that Disney DVD is still the best.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Classic Stuff

I don't remember liking Sour
Apple or Sour Cherry gum, or
even trying them. I remember
Beemans (Chuck Yeager's favorite
when testing hot airplanes in
"The Right Stuff," remember?)
But who could forget Black Jack
gum? It turned your mouth black!
It was great! But what did it taste
like? Sort of licorice?
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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

R.I.P. Elders

The deaths of two classic film directors were announced
within days of each other this week: Ingmar Bergman,
whose movies deeply influenced the Boomer generation
of filmmakers as well as filmgoers (see more on Bergman
He died at age 89.
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Michelangelo Antonioni died at age 94. His films influenced
many filmmakers and cinema buffs of the Boomer film
generation, but he also made several films that directly
reflected on the 1960s, such as Zabriskie Point and his
most famous film, Blow-Up, with Vanessa Redgrave
(pictured here) in an early screen appearance.
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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Classic Stuff

We played baseball a lot in the 50s. Catch in the "vacant lot" between houses, pickup games here and there. For the first few years I had to make do with castoff gloves, which usually were for right handers. I'm a lefty--which means throwing left-handed, catching with the right. So for awhile I had to catch the ball with the glove on my left hand, take the glove off, and throw the ball back.

Then at some point I got my own glove. It was probably a darker leather than this one--this actually looks like the one I have now, though I can't remember when I bought it. But it's a lefty glove. It's leather, as "real" gloves were then, and you used a ointment with a unique, pleasant smell to keep it lubricated. I kept the tube of that blue paste on a narrow shelf next to the stairs leading to the basement. It stayed there for decades. The house has a new owner now, but I wouldn't be surprised if it's still there.
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Tuesday, June 19, 2007


Barry Commoner at 90. NYTimes photo.
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Barry Commoner

He's one of the surviving first wave environmentalists, whose book, The Closing Circle was particularly influential in the 1970s. Born the same year as JFK, Barry Commoner was recently interviewed by the New York Times. There's a new book and a big conference about him upcoming.

In the Times interview, the 90 year old Commoner describes himself as still an optimist, although he is also famous for saying, "When you fully understand the situation, it is worse than you think."

In particular, his Four Laws of Ecology became deeply embedded in the ecological consciousness of activists, and to some extent have become bedrock knowledge for the Boomer generation. They are (from his Wikipedia article)

1.. Everything is Connected to Everything Else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.

2. Everything Must Go Somewhere. There is no "waste" in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.

3. Nature Knows Best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system.”

4. There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch. In nature, both sides of the equation must balance, for every gain there is a cost, and all debts are eventually paid.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007


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The anniversary of Robert F. Kennedy's death comes at a dark moment of intense political polarization, in a nation roiled by an unpopular war characterized by official deceit. Many of Robert Kennedy's words on Vietnam could be dropped into the newspaper today and they would be just as relevant.

It is a time of violence in word and deed. It is a time mortal peril for this country and its institutions, the country and the institutions of which he had a deep knowledge, for which he had a deep commitment. It is a time of mortal peril for the world and its life. His son and namesake knows this--Robert Kennedy, Jr. has been and remains one of our greatest champions of our environment.1968 was a time of political upheaval as well.

In this election year it is well to remember that the revered RFK, if he were a politican today, would be criticized and castigated from one end of the political spectrum to the other, and all over the Internet. He would be charged today, as he was charged then, with opportunism, cynical and self-centered politics, and trading on his name and wealthy family.

Kennedy was himself a polarizing figure, although his words were of reconcilation. That in part was what made him polarizing. His positions on various issues did not satisfy the templates of the left or right. Yet he was the only white politician who had the passionate support and love of many blacks. He was the only political leader who spent time on Indian reservations and tiny Inuit villages as well as southern rural and white West Virgina mountain shanty towns.He inspired passions for and passions against. People wanted to touch him, and he needed to touch others--he seemed to learn through touch. He learned through children, extending the feelings of a father to compassion for all children.

1968 presidential primary campaign.
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He grew up in privilege, and his early meetings with black leaders were not warm. Yet by 1968, when Martin Luther King was shot and killed, his widow asked Robert Kennedy to arrange to have his body moved from Memphis to Atlanta. His impromptu speech, passing on the news of King's assassination in a black neighborhood where he happened to be, is one of his most famous.

If we took Robert Kennedy out of time, and dropped him into our own, he would find a different country in many ways. There are nearly twice as many people in the United States. The racial and ethnic composition has changed. In 1968, one parent usually did the earning for the family, the man in most white families, and increasingly the woman in single parent poor black families. Two paycheck families, let alone two parents with five or six jobs between them, were rare.

Politically, the parties were stronger. Democrats had deep organizations in the cities, and industrial unions were strong. But the Democratic party was also coming apart. JFK knew that by leading on civil rights, the Democrats would lose their hold on the solid South. 1968 would see Richard Nixon exploit this. Vietnam was itself tearing younger people like me away from the party. Eugene McCarthy ran within the party, but he was not really of it. Robert Kennedy was, and his candidacy may have kept many young people in the party.
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Kennedy's first major speech was just after King's death, and after the violent riots that torched and destroyed significant parts of many cities. In some cities, like Washington, it would be more than a decade before those areas recovered.

I could quote his Vietnam speeches, emphasizing the horror for the victims of war. But Robert Kennedy's life, and a great deal of the promise of America, was ended by an act of violence in June 1968. I remember those hours and days. The primary emotion I felt I later understood as this: loneliness. Robert Kennedy's death made this a very lonely country for me.

Robert Kennedy took on that last political fight, knowing the odds were against him, knowing that violence was in the air. He was a warrior for peace. It is important to remember even as we stand up against the cynical and cowardly violence of the rabid right, that Robert Kennedy's last crusade was this: as he said to a largely black audience in that unwritten speech on the night of Martin Luther King's assassination, "Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

RFK with some of his children and
both of JFK's.
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In his next major speech, in Cleveland, Ohio, on April 4, he said this:

"For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, this poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is the slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter. This is the breaking of a man's spirit by denying him the chance to stand as a father and as a man among other men. And this too afflicts us all.

I have not come here to propose a set of specific remedies nor is there a single set. For a broad and adequate outline we know what must be done. When you teach a man to hate and fear his brother, when you teach that he is a lesser man because of his color or his beliefs or the policies he pursues, when you teach that those who differ from you threaten your freedom or your job or your family , then you also learn to confront others not as fellow citizens but as enemies---to be met not with cooperation but with conquest, to be subjugated and mastered.

We learn, at the last, to look on our brothers as aliens, men with whom we share a city, but not a community, men bound to us in common dwelling, but not in common effort. We learn to share only a common fear--only a common desire to retreat from each other--only a common impulse to meet disagreement with force. For all this there are no final answers. Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what program to enact. The question is whether we can find in our midst and in our own hearts that leadership of human purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children's future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be enobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land."
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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movies: To Kill A Mockingbird

Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch with Mary Badham
as his daughter, Scout, in To Kill A Mockingbird.
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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom
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To Kill A Mockingbird

Released in 1962 and starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch , To Kill A Mockingbird was an immediate hit. Peck won the Academy Award for Best Actor, and only Lawrence of Arabia could deny this movie the honor of Best Picture. More than 40 years later, it is still among the most popular and acclaimed movies of all time. Recently the American Film Institute named Atticus Finch as the greatest film hero in the history of movies.

The movie was based on the novel by Harper Lee, also both an immediate and lasting success. She wedded childhood memories with a courtroom drama that struck a chord as the Civil Rights era was reaching its fruition. For example:

In the town of Monroeville, Alabama, a rich man’s son was caught joyriding in a stolen car. His father persuaded the sheriff not to arrest the boy, but to leave the punishment up to him. He imposed three years of house arrest, but it turned into a life sentence when even after that time the young man found he could no longer face leaving the confines of his house, except at night. He became an object of mystery and fear in the neighborhood. Or so the local story goes.

This was Nelle Harper Lee’s hometown in the 1930s. She left it for college, then law school in her father’s footsteps, though she stopped just shy of completing her degree. Instead she went to New York, where she worked as an airline reservations clerk and accompanied her childhood friend, Truman Capote, as he researched his book about two murderers in Kansas, In Cold Blood. (Catherine Keener plays her in the film Capote, and looks very much like her 1960s photos.)

[text continues after photos]

Gregory Peck with Harper Lee as the movie was shooting.
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Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote and Catherine
Keener as Harper Lee in Capote (2005).
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She began writing in earnest in the mid 50s, returning frequently to Alabama to nurse her ailing father. One Christmas in Manhattan, a songwriter friend and his wife gave her a unique gift—a year’s income, to support her writing. (The songwriter was Michael Brown, who made his reputation and probably his fortune producing industrial musicals for clients like DuPont and Woolworth.)

She used it to write the first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1961, and remains among the top 10 best selling novels from then until now. It is one of the five most assigned novels in American schools, and American librarians recently voted it the best novel of the twentieth century.

Harper Lee transformed memories of her childhood: her father was the inspiration for Atticus Finch, Truman Capote became Dill, and that ghostly young man was the probable prototype for Boo Radley. (That story is not well known, by the way. I found it in an academic thesis online by the director of a University of Alabama production of the play, who visited Monroeville.)

To refresh your memory of the story: Atticus Finch is the widowed father of the tomboy Scout (Harper Lee’s self-portrait) and Jem (Scout’s older brother). Atticus is a lawyer appointed to defend Tom Robinson, a young black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. This event is based partly on a case of her father’s, and partly on the infamous Scottsboro Trials of young black men falsely convicted of raping a white woman, also in the 1930s, when Harper Lee was about the same age as her fictional stand-in, Jean-Louise, known as Scout.

Boo Radley's sculptures of Scout and Jem.
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Mary Badham with Robert Duvall as Boo Radley.
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Lee’s first submitted version of the work was reportedly more of a series of linked stories (ironically, a very hot form in fiction at the present moment.) But her publisher insisted on a more unified novel.

Lee was able to achieve this partly by following in linear time the education of the young girl, Scout and her brother, Jem, and partly by weaving a few important themes throughout the book. The first was about innocence, both of children and of “the mockingbird”—the innocent who only sings and does no one any harm—which applies to both Tom Robinson, the accused black man Atticus defends, and to Boo Radley, the neighbor who lives in darkness, the stranger in their midst who receives their projections of violence, and is therefore a source of fear.

He is different (and a kind of artist, who creates sculptures and leaves them for the children to find, along with talismans of his own “normal” childhood). He is literally unseen, and so represents the aspects of people we are blind to, because of our preconceptions. This obviously applies to race, and there is also a strong theme of class in the novel—which cuts both ways. (It can be argued that Atticus has his own class prejudices.)

The second theme, which follows from the first and is explicitly stated as a lesson to the novel’s children, is that of cultivating empathy and understanding by trying to see the world from the other’s perspective (as Scout does finally when she stands on Boo Radley’s porch at the end), by metaphorically living in someone else’s skin, walking in their shoes. This is a lesson about life and specifically about race. It remains the most crucial lesson in our public as well as private lives, and so this too accounts for this novel’s standing.

It is reinforced in other ways throughout the novel, notably by the brief story of Mrs. Dubose, a surly neighbor who insults everyone, including Scout and Jem, and says harsh things about Atticus. When Jem loses his temper and destroys her garden flowers, Atticus sends him to Mrs. Dubose to apologize and make restitution. Mr. D. requires him to read aloud to her everyday. When she dies, they learn that she was always in pain and addicted to morphine, which accounted for her harsh behavior. She decided she would die free of her addiction, and Jem reading to her was a way for her to bear the pain. It’s another example of assumptions and projections contradicted by understanding, as well as a story of redemption and the power of simple acts to do good.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck reviewing the script.
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As the Civil Rights Movement came to fruition in the early 1960s, the book struck a chord. So did the equally classic 1962 movie version.

The movie has quite a pedigree behind the camera. Alan Pakula produced it (today perhaps even more renowned as a director), Robert Mulligan directed, Elmer Bernstein wrote the musical score, and the screenplay was written by Horton Foote, the Texan playwright, who had written extensively for television drama and later wrote many acclaimed movie scripts, including Tender Mercies for Robert Duvall.

Harper Lee was a consultant on the movie and present for the filming (mostly on a backlot in California.) She and other participants formed lifelong friendships on that set. She and Gregory Peck in particular remained close. As she watched the first scene being shot she was seen to shed a few tears: he reminded her so much of her father.

Young Mary Badham, who played the six year old “Scout,” also kept in touch with Peck for the rest of his life. She felt close to him immediately on the set, and between takes would be seen hanging onto him in his lap. She called him “Atticus” ever after.

Mary Badham and Gregory Peck between takes.
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