Monday, June 28, 2021

Cleo Laine Music Break

 If you are unfamiliar with the glorious jazz voice of Britain's Cleo Laine, treat your ears for a few minutes. I first discovered her artistry during my first professional broadcast job when I was a recent college graduate. I read the weekday morning news on a popular FM rock radio station in Milwaukee. Publicists sent all sorts of record albums to the program director to consider for airplay. Albums that wouldn't be played were placed in a box for staffers to sift through and take home. I saw an album by Cleo Laine. I took it home, played it and I was hooked. This was the late 70s. In the mid 80s, I had the privilege and joy to interview her on New York TV. I was new at WPIX TV and she was a cast member in the Broadway musical, THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD.


Here's Cleo Laine swinging the title tune from another Broadway musical, "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever."

Here's one of the cuts I heard on the Cleo Laine album I took home from work at that FM rock radio station in Milwaukee. From PORGY AND BESS, here's "I Loves You, Porgy."


I hope you enjoyed the  artistry -- and range -- of singer/actress Cleo Laine. 

Sunday, June 27, 2021

Jackie Collins Embraced Diversity

 A documentary about the charismatic, best-selling novelist Jackie Collins airs on CNN June 27th. It's called LADY BOSS: THE JACKIE COLLINS STORY. Starting in the late 1980s, when I was one of the daily VH1 veejays (along with Rosie O'Donnell), Jackie Collins became an unexpectedly dear buddy with our first meeting. She was promoting her naughty and entertaining novel, ROCK STAR, on my show. 


 Jackie, a sophisticated pro at self-promotion, was talking about ROCK STAR. That book kept me thoroughly entertained. She adored the sexy naughtiness, rebellion and vibrancy of the rock scene and it's obvious in that MTV-flavored novel. Jackie was always a delicious guest -- smart, spontaneous, frank and funny. To me, there was a touch of the "Auntie Mame" about her in her manner, in her style, in the way she kicked conservative smugness to the curb and embraced diversity. 


 Just because you and a celebrity click during an interview and establish a good rapport doesn't mean you two are instant best friends. I've clicked with several stars in interviews, if I say so myself, and I worked with Whoopi Goldberg for two years, sitting next to her as we performed on weekday morning radio. However, I couldn't call, text or otherwise contact those stars personally to go grab a bite to eat. I knew how to do my work, be professional and then keep my polite distance.

But Jackie Collins was different. After our first interview experience, on VH1, she kept in touch. She may have been all dolled up in her Beverly Hills best, but there was always a working class warmth and sincerity about Jackie. She had a down-to-earth quality that carried over into her writing.

I interviewed Jackie on VH1, taped an interview in her Beverly Hills home, chatted with her on a live afternoon ABC News magazine show that aired on Lifetime TV and interviewed her on the local Fox TV morning show called "Good Day New York." One time, she was in Manhattan a couple of weeks after a relative died. I knew where she was staying and sent flowers. Her assistant called to thank me on her behalf the very day they were received. When Jackie was pitching her own TV project to a popular cable network, she called to tell me I was part of her pitch. She wanted me as a regular. When she heard I was in L.A. for some auditions, she invited me to a party she threw at a West Hollywood club. It was around the time her movie/TV star sister, Joan Collins, had written a debut novel that had just hit bookstores.

When I saw Jackie at the party, I asked "Did you read Joan's book?"  I giggled after she answered "Yes. Which is probably more than she did."

About Jackie's novels. During the New York summers when I'd see folks reading on the subway, in diners and at the beach, I always noticed how popular Jackie's books were with Black and Brown women. Starting with ROCK STAR, I noticed how racially inclusive her collection of characters were. She created Black and Brown working class professionals who were substantial characters and not just sidekicks or stereotypical. Jackie's affection for the working class was no surprise to me. That's something she had in common with Charles Dickens -- and Jacks had a hardcover copy of pretty much every story Dickens wrote on her bookshelves at home.

I greatly appreciated  the racial diversity in her novels and, in a casual conversation, asked her about it. She told me that she did it on purpose. She included undeniably Black and Brown characters so that, if Hollywood adapted the book into a big screen feature, Black and Brown actors would have work. 

For someone who was such a Hollywood insider, why didn't movie studios give the sexy Jackie Collins best-sellers the same attention it gave Jacqueline Susanne of VALLEY OF THE DOLLS fame? Her books were made into movies. Jackie was a better writer.

One thing about her career as an author that irked her -- and rightfully so -- was that, despite her many novels about Hollywood wives and husbands and her LADY BOSS Lucky Santangelo novels, critics never described her as "prolific." They saved that word for the boys such as Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy. Jackie Collins was indeed a prolific author, one who championed racial diversity long before the Twitter hashtag "Oscars So White" was one thing that made the lack of inclusion a hot topic issue.

2015 was a rough year for me. I was unemployed and financially struggling. A bright spot was receiving an email from Jackie's office. She'd be in New York City in June to promote her new novel and she wanted me to be her interview for a special lunchtime appearance in Bryant Park. Of course, I gratefully agreed to do it.


It was wonderful to see her again in person. I did notice she was slimmer and, physically, a tad slower. But she still had that Jackie energy. As we walked to Bryant Park for the appearance, she asked me how I'd been. She leaned in to give full attention to my answer. I told her that the Recession hiad walloped me. I was living with friends temporarily and seeking work. She looked me straight in the eyes and passionately said, "Don't give up."


The June 18th Bryant Park appearance was a success. I had no idea when I hugged and kissed Jackie good-bye, and thanked her, that she was battling an illness. She passed away a few months later. Jackie Collins was a dear lady who was quite gracious and attentive to me for a long time. I miss her very much.



Friday, June 25, 2021

Hitchcock Weekend on TCM

 If you're a serious fan of films directed by "The Master of Suspense," Alfred Hitchcock, and if you get TCM (Turner Classic Movies), you can plant yourself in front of the TV and be a happy couch potato this weekend. A Hitchcock Binge Weekend begins very early Saturday morning, June 26th, with only Hitchcock films airing through  very late night Sunday. Not only was Hitchcock a famous and innovative film director. Starting in 1955, he became the extremely popular prime time network host of his own TV show. His portly profile in the show's weekly opening and his laconic, tongue-in-cheek, humorously macabre delivery of the introductions made him seem like a distant relative to the Addams Family. He was so popular that comedians did imitations of him on network TV variety shows. His anthology series, ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, aired from 1955 through 1962. The show's popularity brought the director a new, younger audience and made him a most recognizable celebrity. It was during that TV show run when Hitchcock made his 1960 masterpiece, PSYCHO. He was no typical TV host.

Paramount Pictures executives read the PSYCHO script and felt the material was too gruesome to attract an audience. To dim the noted director's enthusiasm for the project without verbally pissing him off, they decided to give him a fairly medium production budget causing him to lose interest in shooting the project. Well, Hitch financed it himself and used the TV crew from his Universal TV show to shoot the Paramount Pictures release on the Universal Studios backlot -- in well under two months. Hitchcock was offered a budget of about $807,000. PSYCHO made $50 million at the box office -- and became a highly influential work of cinematic art. 

The All Hitchcock Weekend on TCM kicks off Saturday morning at 6:00a Eastern with SABOTAGE (1936). The Saturday line-up later in the day includes THE 39 STEPS (1935) and  SABOTEUR (1942) with the famous scene of Norman Lloyd as a villain with vampire-like teeth dangling from the Statue of Liberty. SABOTEUR also has a one-or-two line appearance from celebrated author and noted wit Dorothy Parker as a highway motorist. Also airing Saturday are NORTH BY NORTHWEST, VERTIGO, THE BIRDS and REAR WINDOW.

As for the Sunday line-up: Shirley MacLaine was a Broadway chorus dancer/understudy performing Bob Fosse choreography in the hit musical comedy, THE PAJAMA GAME. Carol Haney had a supporting role and wowed audiences with her "Steam Heat" number. One night, Haney had a broken ankle, Shirley went on for her and Paramount Pictures producer Hal Wallis happened to be in the audience. He felt she ought to be in pictures. Shirley MacLaine made her movie debut in Paramount's THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY airing on Sunday along with James Stewart and Doris Day in THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH, THE LADY VANISHES (1938), SHADOW OF A DOUBT, DIAL M FOR MURDER, MARNIE and PSYCHO starring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins.


Missing is one of my Top 5 Favorite Hitchcock Films -- 1946's NOTORIOUS starring Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains. Man, how I love that movie. It should be in the TCM library.


 To see what other Alfred Hitchcock classics are airing this weekend, just click onto Schedule and then go into Daily Schedule after you log onto -- www.TCM.com.


Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Judy Garland Music Break

There's no denying that Judy Garland was one of the greatest stars to come out of Old Hollywood. 


 With her amazing natural gifts as a singer, dancer and actress, she was so talented that it was almost frightening. From the time she was 13 and under contract to MGM...to 1950 when she was in her late 20s and dropped by the studio, Judy was featured and starred in more musicals than three musical stars who won the Best Actress Oscar have made in their entire film careers -- Julie Andrews (MARY POPPINS), Barbra Streisand (FUNNY GIRL) and Judy's daughter, Liza Minnelli (CABARET). Judy's MGM movie musical credits included BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938, THE WIZARD OF OZ, STRIKE UP THE BAND, BABES ON BROADWAY,  FOR ME AND MY GAL, GIRL CRAZY, PRESENTING LILY MARS, MEET ME IN ST, LOUIS, THE HARVEY GIRLS, EASTER PARADE and SUMMER STOCK. With a voice that seemed to be a golden gift from the gods, she wowed the critics in a spectacular movie comeback. She not only sang but also showed her heartbreaking dramatic depth in a 1954 musical remake of A STAR IS BORN for Warner Bros. The performance brought her a Best Actress Oscar nomination. 


 As an unknown singer with a big band who is later discovered by and falls in love with a fading top Hollywood star (played by James Mason), Judy introduced the song "The Man That Got Away."

Judy was the favorite to win the Oscar, but she lost to Grace Kelly for THE COUNTRY GIRL. Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin's "The Man That Got Away" lost the Best Song Oscar to the title tune from THREE COINS IN THE FOUNTAIN,

You didn't see Judy in the big all-star 1960 movie, PEPE. You hear her sing on a radio while Shirley Jones and Dan Dailey dance to her vocal. Judy Garland sang this Andre and Dory Previn tune to a Best Song Oscar nomination.


You didn't see Judy in 1962's GAY PURR-EE either. It's an animated feature from Warner Bros. about two cats in Paris who have a romantic adventure. Judy Garland and Robert Goulet supplied the voices for the lead furry characters. GAY PURR-EE had an original score of songs by E.Y. Harburg and Harold Arlen, the two men who wrote all the songs for THE WIZARD OZ.


When Judy Garland was 13, before her on-screen duties under her MGM contract really kicked in, the studio loaned her to 20th Century Fox to do a few featured numbers in the college football musical comedy, PIGSKIN PARADE, released in 1936. This was Garland's feature film debut.


In detailing 1954's A STAR IS BORN for a films on TV book, I believe it was film critic and historian Leonard Maltin who wrote that Judy Garland's voice is one of the most enduring sounds of the 20th century.



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 the Actors Fund rep told me that her daughter reported "It worked. The class loved the movie and is now interested in the book."

One summer vacation, during my grade school years, Mom coaxed me to watch the 1935 movie of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM when it was airing one morning on local TV. I didn't understand much of the Shakespearian language but I loved the visuals, James Cagney as Bottom and Victor Jory as Oberon. Dad had a record set of Laurence Olivier, with cast members, in excerpts from the 1948 film adaptation of HAMLET. I listened to it on my record player. Again, I didn't quite understand the Old English language. However, my parents -- a registered nurse and a postal clerk in South Central L.A. -- had introduced me to Shakespeare. Those introductions would pay off when I took English Lit. in high school.

I read ELMER GANTRY by Sinclair Lewis because the 1960 film starring Burt Lancaster was the main feature for one of our Rivers Family nights at the drive-in movies.

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.

Before Astaire Danced on the Ceiling

 In the late 1980s, I was a veejay and talk show host seen daily on the VH1 music channel. Those were three of the happiest, most fulfilling...