Saturday, June 19, 2021

Happy Juneteenth

 June 19th is now America's newest federal holiday -- and the first one to acknowledge slavery, our country's original sin. It's Juneteenth.

On June 19th in 1865, enslaved people in Texas were notified by Union Civil War soldiers that they were free. With President Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation two years earlier, slavery had been abolished. Those Black folks in Texas were free -- and they didn't know it. Texas is the birthplace of Juneteenth celebrations.

My dad was born in Texas. When I was a youngster growing up in South Central Los Angeles, Daddy had an interesting collection of 78s -- records -- and I would listen to some of them on my kiddie record player.  Daddy's tastes went from the jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie to the vocals of Sarah Vaughan and 1940s Paramount Pictures movie star Betty Hutton. He also loved Louis Jordan. In 1940, Jordan recorded a swingin' tune to celebrate what is now a federal holiday.

 

Give a listen to Jordan's JUNETEENTH JAMBOREE.


Happy Juneteenth.







Wednesday, June 16, 2021

IT'S ALL ABOUT RITA MORENO

 Absolutely fascinating. Those are two words that describe award-winning actress Rita Moreno and the new documentary about her.  From Roadside Attractions, it's RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT. The documentary, with on-camera commentary from the very attractive veteran star, succeeds in showing us that there is so much more to her career and life than WEST SIDE STORY on the movie screen and THE ELECTRIC COMPANY on the TV screen. She's been a groundbreaking dancer, singer, actress and avid social activist. The documentary takes us back to the Hollywood politics when she began her film career in the 1950s up to her passionate concern about national politics we've experienced in the last five years. 


 To Rita, leaving her beloved Puerto Rico with her mother to relocate to New York was like a "reverse Oz." Her island was colorful, musical, tropical. The boat ride was miserable and so was the winter in New York when they arrived. But life changed for teen dancer Rita Moreno when she made an impression on visiting MGM movie studio head, Louis B. Mayer. He put her under contract.


 She has survived Hollywood racism, Hollywood sexual harassment, an emotionally abusive romantic relationship with Marlon Brando that drove her to a suicide attempt, a long lack of employment after she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY and she's pulled off some fabulous show biz comebacks on Broadway and TV. She's warm, astonishingly honest, wise, candid, touching and hysterically funny. While showing us her large, comfortable home in the San Francisco area, she describes something on her grounds as looking like "an elephant penis." That is the larger-than-life and resilient Rita Moreno.

Norman Lear and Lin-Manuel Miranda are the executive producers and it's obvious they spent good money to give this production class. 

We see several clips of Moreno's early and frustrating film career. She had to work hard to make something of the similar "native girl" or "Latina spitfire" roles she was constantly assigned. Occasionally she got to show something different -- for instance, her 1920s flapper movie star role in the 1952 MGM classic, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN and Fox's minor 1956 comedy, THE LIEUTENANT WORE SKIRTS. In that, she does a spot-on imitation of Marilyn Monroe's character from THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. She landed a minimal supporting role in the Oscar-winning Fox musical adaptation of Rodgers & Hammerstein's THE KING AND I. Moreno tells us that the role of the Asian slave girl in the 1956 film didn't give her much to play as an actress. Yul Brynner, the star of the movie, agreed.

In regard to how Hollywood treated actors of color, consider this info you won't hear in the documentary.  Dorothy Dandridge made history as the first Black woman to be an Oscar nominee for Best Actress. A huge achievement. The film was 1954's CARMEN JONES. The next role she was offered was the minimal role that eventually went to Rita Moreno in THE KING AND I. Dandridge was advised not to take such a tiny, one-note part after her groundbreaking CARMEN JONES performance. The Black actress did not have another Hollywood film lead role offer for five years after her Oscar nomination. Moreno won her Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1961, and she had no good Hollywood offers for seven years afterwards. Hollywood had no work for a Latina star. Today, there is still Latinx underrepresentation in Hollywood. Eva Longoria, Gloria Estefan, Hector Elizondo and Lin-Manuel Miranda tell us why seeing Moreno onscreen was so significant to them. Other guests who provide observations and comments are Norman Lear, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg and Mitzi Gaynor.

I read Moreno's delightful memoir. In the documentary, she expands on some topics she brought up in the book. Her disgusting encounter with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures studio, and some of his Hollywood pals is an example. On-camera, she accurately describes Cohn as "vulgar and crude." It's no surprise that Moreno is a strong supporter of the Me Too movement,

From being near Dr. Martin Luther King at the historic 1963 March on Washington to working with the Muppets to receiving a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, Rita Moreno has remained remarkable -- and relevant -- as she approaches 90. Trust me on this, RITA MORENO: JUST A GIRL WHO DECIDED TO GO FOR IT is one of the best 2021 features you'll see. She is a living lesson on perseverance, passion and having the courage to find your self-worth.


I'm sure you know she has a supporting role in Steven Spielberg's upcoming remake of WEST SIDE STORY. Rita turns 90 in December...the day before Spielberg's remake opens. 



Friday, June 11, 2021

On JULIA SCOTTI -- FUNNY THAT WAY

 The documentary begins. Julia speaks. She was married. Became a parent. Had a show biz career in stand-up comedy that was going pretty well in the 80s and early 90s. Then Scotti decided to make a change and start a new life at 50 -- as a woman. Julia Scotti is a transgender American. June is PRIDE month and JULIA SCOTTI -- FUNNY THAT WAY, directed by Susan Sandler, is a release worth seeing. With home movies, family photos, archive comedy club footage -- before and after her transition -- plus revealing interviews of Julia and her adult children show us a different side of a member of our trans community. Via Julia's personal and professional journey, director Sandler presents us with fresh insights that may not have occurred to straight people and us gay folks.


For instance, there's the Easter aspect of the transgender transition. The body in its original form no longer lives, then there's a rebirth and emotional resurrection. The person's true spirit is illuminated because the person has come to her or his real truth. You'll see that Rick Scotti was a warm, likeable comedian who did funny if somewhat generic material. In those days, there was minimal representation of openly gay talent. If anything, rejecting a gay man's harmless, casual flirt with a macho verbal insult was a comedy staple in some comedians' routines. Rick Scotti poked fun at gay men even though he was closeted and dating men on the down-low. Frankly, entertainers were afraid of coming out in those days for fear of losing employment. And their fears were justified. As Julia Scotti, a comedian very well into her AARP years, her material is funnier, more specific and fresher as it shoots down ageism and homophobia. I think she'd be perfect to do featured roles on episodes of ABC's THE CONNERS. Julia spoke her truth in her stand-up comedy club act during the dark years of the Trump administration. But explaining her transition to the two very young people who knew her as "Dad" was not at all easy. Here's a trailer.

At the heart of this 1 hour and 10 minutes long documentary is the message to have the courage to come to your own truth, heartbreaking though it may occasionally be. It's about being truthful -- and kind. Julia is not a transgender star like actress/advocate Laverne Cox. Julia has to drive herself to her own gigs as opposed to relaxing in the backseat of a deluxe car as she's driven to her location in a ride provided by those who hired her. I think her non-star status gives this documentary a nice working class relatability. Julia will touch your heart and make you laugh. Julia is definitely someone we should know -- and director Susan Sandler gives us that sweet opportunity in JULIA SCOTTI -- FUNNY THAT WAY. 


Thursday, June 10, 2021

Classic Films and the Classroom

 I have a simple tip for you that could help kids in the classroom. My mother seemed magical when it came to gardening. We had a large backyard. Besides growing an array of colorful flowers, she had all sorts of vegetables growing in our Southern California soil. On Saturdays, when I was a boy, I'd often be her helper and make holes in the soil for bulbs and seeds she'd plant. We talked a lot while gardening. One day, she mentioned a movie she'd loved ever since she was a girl. The movie was THE GOOD EARTH, a prestigious and Oscar-winning 1937 Hollywood classic based on the famous Pearl S. Buck novel of the same name.


 Mom told me about O-Lan, the Chinese peasant wife who ate a peach on the day she married. When she got to her new home with her husband, she planted the seed from the peach in their yard. From that seed, a peach tree grew.


 Later, one day when Mom was off from work and I was home from school, THE GOOD EARTH aired on one of our local Los Angeles TV stations. Mom suggested we watch it together. I could see why she loved it. I loved it too. Seeing the movie, being able to attach movie faces to the characters, planted a seed of interest in me to look for the book in my school library. Mom introduced me to a classic film. That film was a bridge to classic literature.

Fast forward to the spring of 2008. I had a meeting with a representative at the Actors Fund in New York City. During our meeting, her daughter called from Oakland  The rep, a most helpful and friendly woman I'd worked with previously, mentioned that her daughter was a 7th grade teacher and a bit frustrated. The class didn't seem to connect to the book it had just started reading. I asked her what the book was.

"THE GOOD EARTH," she replied.

She didn't know about the 1937 movie. I suggested her daughter show the movie on DVD to the class and then return to the book.

The rep told her daughter my suggestion. A week later she told me that her daughter reported "It worked. The class loved the movie and is now interested in the book."

I know that THE GOOD EARTH is a very old film -- in black and white yet -- but I think you get the overall idea. Be creative. Be imaginative. Use classic film as an educational tool. A classic film could introduce a kid to other arts.

Monday, May 31, 2021

Memorial Day 2021.

 Heaven bless them all. Today we remember and honor all those who died in the service of our country. We are grateful to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for democracy...so we could be free.

Ironically, today we also remember those who were killed and those who lost all their belongings simply because they were Black Americans here in the Land of the Free. The Tulsa race massacre that occurred in a prosperous African American community of Tulsa, Oklahoma took place 100 years ago today. An estimated 300 citizens were killed in the racist attack. I never, ever heard or read about this American tragedy when I was in school. I first heard about it in 1999 when I was working on a local cable TV show in New York City.

Tonight at 10p Eastern time, Gayle King will host TULSA 1921: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY on CBS.

For a movie to rent on Memorial Day, I have a recommendation for you. Ben Foster doesn't get the publicity that actors like Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio and Channing Tatum get. Nonetheless, Foster is an exceptional actor whose work is always worth watching. He delivered one of his best performances in 2009 indie film, THE MESSENGER.


Ben Foster movingly played a heartsore, troubled veteran back from combat. He's now assigned the task of notifying people of the death of their loved ones in battle. One war widow, played by Samantha Morton, touches his troubled heart. Woody Harrelson co-stars. Click on the link to see a trailer: 👇

https://youtu.be/qnm885kLggY.




Friday, May 28, 2021

The One With The Future TV Star at Starbucks

In July 1994, I booked a couple of days of TV commercial work in Los Angeles. I flew out from New York and the commercial company put me up in a hotel near the Beverly Center. I love early morning walks, especially in California. I took a walk and found a nearby Starbucks. That's where I'd sit for awhile, have coffee and read The L.A. Times. I remember looking at my watch (yes, we still wore watches then) and saw that it was exactly 7:45 as I took my place in the short line of customers. The tall, slim dude in front of me turned around to look out the window and I did a double-take. A month earlier, I'd seen him in a movie. A sorta kinda modern werewolf movie, it was WOLF (1994) starring Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. This guy had a bit part -- one scene and no more than 5 short lines. But that unknown actor playing a New York cop on night duty at the zoo made an impression on me with his look and his line delivery. Before I could tap him on the shoulder and say, "Good work in WOLF," he was motioned over by the barista to step up and place his order.

Come September 1994, I was watching NBC one night and said, "Hey! There's the guy I saw at Starbucks in L.A."

He was David Schwimmer, now one of the lead actors on a new sitcom called FRIENDS. Within 6 months, he went from bit part unknown actor in a sci-fi horror movie to TV star on a new sitcom that ran for 10 seasons. Schwimmer. There's a guy who surely understands what Stanislavski meant when he said "There are no small parts, only small actors."


Have you seen the FRIENDS reunion special that's gotten an abundance of publicity? 


Sunday, May 23, 2021

Rosemary Clooney Music Break

 My affection for Rosemary Clooney began when I was a little boy in Los Angeles. She'd sing on TV shows and I'd hear her records on the radio. The silvery lilt in her voice and the way she caressed lyrics made me swoon.

I started my broadcast career in Milwaukee after I graduated from Marquette University there. I met Rosemary Clooney in the 70s when she was in town for a week during a tour of a popular revue show called 4 GIRLS 4. I was a cub reporter for a local FM radio station and attended an opening night press function. We met and, later in the week, went out for some BBQ ribs. In the 80s, when I was working in New York, I interviewed her on live TV. She invited me to her show at the Rainbow Room and she told me to drop by her dressing room after the show. In 1997, when I was introduced to George Clooney, he smiled and said, "Aunt Rose told me about you."

Rosemary Clooney was a lovely, warm, witty, down to earth person. 


 When I was in college, I discovered her recording of "We'll Be Together Again." It was like discovering gold. Take a listen.

One of the highlights of 1954's WHITE CHRISTMAS is her torch number, "Love You Didn't Do Right By Me." Future WEST SIDE STORY Oscar winner, George Chakiris, is one of her chorus dancers.


I love the album Rosemary Clooney cut with Duke Ellington, She did his songs justice. Here's "Me and You."


Thanks for listening.

Happy Juneteenth

 June 19th is now America's newest federal holiday -- and the first one to acknowledge slavery, our country's original sin. It's...