Sunday, May 20, 2012

“The Bavarian Negro”: Deceased Artiste Günther Kaufmann

June 10th of next month will mark the 30th anniversary of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s death. While it seems that Fassbinder’s immense artistic achievement (over a short period of 13 years) will forever remain "a Mount Everest of modern cinema" (to quote Sarris' comment about Berlin Alexanderplatz), any regular viewer of his work feels as if they “know” his ensemble of actors, each of whom portrayed a few dozen different characters. Gunther Kaufmann, who died last week at 64, was one of the few actors whom Fassbinder envisioned primarily as two sorts of characters — friendly American soldiers and gangsters’ henchmen.

Kaufmann had an amazingly active and complicated life. He was born in Munich of a German mother and an African-American soldier father, and grew up in the Munich suburb of Hasenberg — he was nicknamed “the Bavarian Negro” during his career, and called his autobiography The White Negro from Hasenberg! (above). He served in the Navy and then supported himself doing small jobs, until he was cast in Volker Schlondorff’s Baal (1970), which starred Fassbinder.

Although Kaufmann was a married man, he had a relationship with Fassbinder while the young tyro director was making his first features. He first appeared in RWF’s Gods of the Plague (1969) and went on to be in 13 more of Fassbinder’s film and TV projects. He was a burly gentleman who did “look American,” thus his being cast as henchmen and American soldiers — although Fassbinder did give him a wild starring role in Whity (1970) and wrote a terrific supporting role for him as a confused terrorist in The Third Generation (1979).

Like a few of Fassbinder’s actors, he had a bit of trouble finding roles after the director’s sudden death and journeyed to Portugal for a time. He did eventually get back into the German film and TV industry, and worked regularly for decades until he was involved in a real-life situation that was indeed worthy of a melodrama by his old friend.

In 2002, he confessed to the murder of his accountant, whom he claimed he had fallen on while the two were having a physical altercation (as noted, Kaufmann was a big guy). It turned out that Kaufmann’s confession was false, intended to shield his wife, who was dying of cancer and was also a likely suspect for the murder (it is reported on the Net that they had been defrauding the accountant in order to pay for Mrs. Kaufmann’s cancer treatment).

The murder was declared an accident, and Kaufmann was sentenced to over a year of prison time for blackmail and robbery. In 2005, it came to light that his wife had indeed been involved in the murder — she had hired three men who were the actual killers of the accountant, unbeknownst to Kaufmann (which does indeed add to the melodramatic circumstances). Kaufman received a fine and a probation sentence for his phony confession and was released from prison in 2005.

His comeback in show business was very strong, as he again was able to play supporting parts in all kinds of movie and TV productions, including this all-too-cute kids movie about a girl adventurer, titled “Vicky the Viking” in English (not that it ever really came out here):

Kaufman died unexpectedly of heart failure at the point where he was preparing to act in a film based on his autobiography, to be called “God’s Second League” (thanks to the obit on the Fassbinder Foundation site for that tidbit)

He will forever be remembered by filmgoers around the world (including Americans, for whom he represented an unusual sort of “surrogate”) for his acting in the films of Fassbinder. As noted above, one of his best parts came in the very “busy” and incredibly prophetic satire of terrorism The Third Generation, in which he donned both blackface for the “caper” and “aged” makeup for a later sequence.

This is the film that contained ALL of Fassbinder’s players (well, nearly all) and although this trailer isn’t subtitled you’ll be able to understand it. The key point the film makes is that terrorists are a necessary element for capitalist society — capitalists in fact *need* their behavior to justify cracking down on human rights. That message will never be dated.

The best way to close out an obit for for Kaufmann, however, is to spotlight his singing, which was showcased in three of RWF’s films. He sang the opening theme song for Whity, in which his servant character summarizes the plot of the film (he will kill the family he works for, member by member).

His “best” song is, no question, “So Much Tenderness” (written by the inimitable Peer Raben and Fassbinder), which closes out The American Soldier in a grand and bizarre fashion — as a slow-motion scene plays on and on, making audience members laugh then squirm, then laugh and squirm again. Both songs are included in this tribute to the music of Peer Raben, which I created and uploaded to YT upon Raben’s death (the Whity theme is right at the beginning, and “So Much Tenderness” starts around the 2:00 mark):

He also sang a song for the soundtrack of Fassbinder’s last film, Querelle (1982), “Young and Joyful Bandit”:

Saturday, May 12, 2012

“Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear”: the Speaking of Radio website

For me, radio is a magic medium, one that is, to borrow Fred Allen’s phrase about his nemesis (television), “rarely well done” these days. The most famous radio comedians and actors were indeed larger than life and also had incredibly memorable voices, which, naturally enough, had to be serve as their signatures. The wonderful website Speaking of Radio offers literally dozens of interviews with these special (and mostly departed) entertainers.

The website is the product of several decades’ work by Chuck Schaden, a radio broadcaster (and major fanatic) in the Chicago area. Schaden hosted a radio show called “Those Were the Days” from 1970-2009 and was lucky enough to get interviews with most of the major figures from radio’s past. He nabbed a bunch of them when they were passing through Illinois doing summer stock productions, but also traveled to L.A. to speak to a number of them.

Since pretty much all of these folks are dead now, Schaden (right) has a wonderful archive of both radio and early TV history on the Speaking of Radio site. It notes on the site that he published the interviews as a book, which must’ve been a very thorough history of Thirties-Fifties media, but it’s something else entirely to hear the voices of these folks, especially when they’re talking about topics they deeply love — or are deeply bitter about.

So what does Schaden offer on the site? The audio files aren’t downloadable (that is available for a fee), but you can listen to them for free online. The guest roster, as noted, is insane. It’s easier to cite the people he *didn’t* get to interview (Orson Welles, George Burns) than it is to mention all the seminal folk he did get to talk to. I’ll give it a try, though, based on the 30 or so interviews I’ve listened to in the past month.

Even though Chuck often had a limited amount of time with the A-listers from the Golden Age of Radio (less than 20 minutes), he was able to glean ample amounts of fascinating information. For a brief sampling, I’ll quote the moments I was most impressed by:

— His confabs with radio and early TV superstars Jack Benny, Phil Harris, Alice Faye, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, and Milton Berle.
— Harry Von Zell, the announcer who worked a hell of a lot on old-time radio (several shows simultaneously), describing how he delivered one of the first on-air bloopers ever, by nervously introducing President Herbert Hoover as “Hoobert Heever.”
— The people who were willing to recreate great radio intros and special moments on-air for Schaden, including Mel Blanc, Louis Nye, and Tony Randall.

— Brett Morrison, a very monotone-sounding interview subject, suddenly coming out with a terrific version of the beloved intro to The Shadow, which he played on-air for longer than any other actor. (“Who knows what evil lurks… in the hearts of men…?”)
— Vincent Price, talking about his love of the medium and also of his devotion to fine art, noting that he’s making a Dr. Phibes sequel because the first film really needed a sequel (and he’s not kidding — I love Vinnie).
— The ever-awesome writer-producer Arch Oboler describing what radio can do that other media can’t, by describing a monster (your own real-life worst enemy) creeping up behind you….

— Mike Wallace (right) discussing being the narrator for both The Green Hornet and The Lone Ranger, and the ways in which actors made extra dough (by perfoming the shows three times in succession, for each U.S. time zone!).
— Mel Blanc and Jim Backus talking separately about overcoming health troubles that nearly killed them (in Blanc’s case it was a near-lethal car accident).
— Howard Duff on being blacklisted: “I wasn’t even a good liberal!”

A few riveting negative moments (proving the interviews truly were off-the-cuff):
— Sid Caesar insisting he’s “not bitter,” but going on and on about how bad TV got after the Fifties.
— Hans Conreid responding to one of Schaden’s customary last questions (“Do you ever think radio comedy and drama as we knew it could return?”) by noting that traditional radio programs are completely gone forever (for their part, Joseph Cotton and Howard Duff very much lament the loss).
— Tony Randall maintaining that he had VERY little fondness for old-time radio, as he thought it was mostly badly scripted (with the exception of a few shows — he cites Benny, Fred Allen, and the you-either-love-it-or-you-don’t Vic and Sade).
— Rudy Vallee (above) being utterly charming about his own relative lack of popularity (“My records never sold…”), and then offhandedly telling a story in which he calls comedian Pinky Lee “Jewboy”….

And my two favorites:
— One of my all-time, big-time character actor faves, Sheldon Leonard, talking about how to properly deliver Damon Runyon dialogue.
— And Edgar Bergen not only speaking in his familiar dummy voices for Schaden, but also discussing what it was like to collaborate on writing sketches with the one and only W.C. Fields.

Schaden did indeed make the most of his time with these radio legends. A few other names found in the archive: Kate Smith, Don Ameche, Agnes Moorehead, Ricardo Montalban, Morey Amsterdam, and Ginger Rogers.

I found it fascinating that he refers to what we now term “old-time radio” or “the Golden Age of Radio” as “the radio days.” This was no doubt because network radio programs really ended in the mid-Fifties, which was a mere 15 years before Schaden’s nostalgia program went on the air. It’s interesting to contrast that 20-year “jump” in comparison to our own current binges of “instant nostalgia,” where mediocre items from 5-10 years ago are already packaged in “yes, I remember it well” talking-head TV series. (And the music-video Eighties is deemed as distant as the era of silent movies.)

Sample Schaden’s chats and you’ll find yourself moving back to a simpler era when, yes, voices and imagination mattered. And, while show-biz egos were still of course *incredibly* large, there were very well-regarded nice guys like Jack Benny on the A-list, and the talent involved could justify such ego.

Thanks to Rich Brown for turning me on to the SOR site.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Der Goober-mensch: Deceased Artiste George Lindsey

Character actors who get identified with a single role are blessed and cursed. George Lindsey was one such performer, a gent who studied at the American Theater Wing in NYC, played villains on TV Westerns, and supplied comic voices for cartoons, but was always known (and will always be known) as Goober Pyle, the country hick in the beanie hat.
Lindsey initially played the part, of course, on The Andy Griffith Show from 1964-68 (taking the place of Jim Nabors, who left for his own spin-off series), continued playing the part on the Andy-less Mayberry RFD (1968-71), and then wore the beanie and was referred to by the character name on Hee-Haw for another 20 years. Not bad for a character that was intended as a fill-in hick character.
I can offer little new in the way of Andy Griffith Show and Hee-Haw information, since those shows both had long lives in syndication. I can, however, dote on Lindsay’s forgotten sideline, his work as a Goob-crooner. From the Capitol LP Goober Sings, here’s a ditty called “I Ain’t Good Lookin’ ”:

Another poster has put up Lindsey warbling “Mountain Dew” on Hee-Haw. Perhaps the purest sign of Goober idolatry is this music-video by Moore and Moore. There are supposedly “17 legendary artists,” but I couldn’t name more than a few of ’em.

Would that every man could find the Goober within….

Lindsey donated his scripts and show-biz ephemera to his alma mater, the University of North Alabama. One can only hope that little beanie he wore will dwell in the halls of academia for some time to come.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

A fan turned historian: Deceased Artiste and NYC FM legend Pete Fornatale

The bond between the great radio voices and their audience is a direct one and, oddly enough (given the spatial disconnect), a very emotional one. Free-form FM legend Pete Fornatale created such a bond in his work, whether he was playing music he deeply loved, or stuff that was on the dreaded “playlist.” Like many of the free-form folk who are still with us, Pete also served the function of “curator” of pop-rock culture, teaching, writing books, giving lectures (that were suitably free-form), and trying to keep alive the enthusiasm for music that is now enshrined either as “oldies” or (BAH) “classic rock” while still exploring the work of new folkies and rockers.

Pete’s obits and the tributes from his colleagues at his station, WFUV, all stressed that the guy spent his whole life in his chosen profession — he started as a DJ at his college radio station (which, coincidentally, was the very same FUV) in the mid-Sixties, and then was lucky enough to score a berth at NYC’s leading FM rock station, WNEW-FM, forging a long association that seemed to have contained a lot of his happiest moments and some of the most regrettable (enter: the playlist!).

My own relationship to Pete’s work on radio was somewhat spotty: I noticed in listening to the airchecks that are on the Net that the reason I probably fell away from listening to him and a few other NEW DJs as an adolescent was that I wasn’t into the “arena rock” acts that were emphasized on the station by the late Seventies. I always had (and will always have) a special connection to that incredible air-staff (Allison Steele, Muni, Fornatale, Elsas, Scelsa), but that “dinosaur music” (as I thought of it then, and still sorta do) was being washed away in my mind by new wave and punk.

In researching this piece, it was thus a pleasure to discover the moment in 1982 that Pete created “Mixed Bag,” his nearly 30-year radio show featuring the music he really loved — folk, folk-rock, and basically any quality rock and popular music that fit into his episodic “themes.” This show ran on early Sunday morning (basically the only time he had found when the tightly-playlisted stations he worked at would leave him alone), so I wasn’t hearing Pete for some years (late sleeper that I am).

On the return to WFUV, with his friends and fellow free-form legends Dennis Elsas and Vin Sclesa (who have both followed their own interesting trajectories over the years), it was a joy to hear Pete go off on his audio reveries. In its most recent incarnation, “Mixed Bag” was a fascinating, at times nearly OCD (but very listenable!), exploration of themes or concepts in music. One thing made me have infinite respect for Pete: the fact that, no matter how “out of fashion” an artist was, Pete continued to play them if he loved their music.

Such was the case with Harry Chapin, one of the artists whose work I dearly love, but even I haven’t paid tribute to on this blog or the Funhouse TV show (not because he’s “disapproved of,” but because no new material has emerged and I’ve been distracted by the million other artists whose work has popped up on this rabbit-hole called the Internet). Pete, however, regularly played Harry, and now that he’s gone, I wonder if anyone else will continue to spin those gorgeous and moving story-songs that Chapin made a specialty of.

Speaking of Chapin, Fornatale was not just a DJ who talked the talk — he was a “child of the Sixties” who still made charity a priority, doing dedicated work for the organization Harry created called WHYHunger. Here Pete is introducing a documentary on the Occupy Wall Street Movement this past December at the Paley Center in NYC:
It’s hard to convey what is special about any great radio personality (I had this trouble trying to sum up what Lynn Samuels did in my Deceased Artiste tribute to her). The best way to experience his work is to go to the the NY Radio Archive site, which has a number of recordings of Pete’s great moments available as free MP3 downloads, including:
— an extremely early 1969 fill-in slot, where Pete discusses whether the Jerry Lewis telethon is “legit” or not (fascinating!).
— a gorgeous 1977 interview with Brian Wilson in full “Landy mode.” The interview is particularly touching because Pete tells him at two points how much Pet Sounds and the Beach Boys’ music has meant to him. He also tells Brian how much he is loved, which is particularly moving (given that I saw Brian on Larry King a few years back, and he is still haunted by being what he calls “a bad man”).
— a 1977 segment which, as noted above, reminded me how codified WNEW became as the Seventies wore on. Too much arena- and classic-rock (Yes, Pink Floyd, Santana, Chicago). Perhaps the only song that I loved then and still love is “Time Has Come Today,” which was of course an “oldie” by ’77. You do get to hear Pete playing a tape of the ad he did for the Woodstock festival back in ’69, which is amazing.
— the first “Mixed Bag” from 1982. Utterly invaluable, as it includes a “presentation tape” (that’s what Pete calls it) that was used to sell the idea to WNEW’s management. The first song is Chapin’s “Remember When the Music,” and the first guest is Don McLean, who sounds oddly angry for such a wonderfully sensitive singer-songwriter. The piece de resistance is that Pete’s first themed set is geared to the holidays — he does a set on the topic of loneliness.
—a 2003 clip where Pete plays 1996 interviews with himself and Jonathan Schwartz (the mellow-voiced DJ who always makes me think of Robert Klein’s exquisite parody of him). Schwartz discusses the radio “experts” called in to retool WNEW in the late Seventies, and Pete also weighs in on his growing disillusionment with the station.

In that interview, Pete discusses his friendship with Harry Chapin (how the two met when Pete picked up Harry when he was hitchhiking in Long Island during the Sixties) and digs out the oft-repeated story about how one of his first fan letters for “Mixed Bag” was a note commending him, but noting there were lots of new Eighties folkies who needed airplay (the note was from a then-unsigned Suzanne Vegas). Find this aircheck and many more at the NY Radio Archive.
Now, since this blog is more visually oriented, here are some clips that show different sides of Pete. First some audio of he and Dennis Elsas on WNEW in 1983. Here is rare documentary footage of the station, with some vintage Pete in the middle:
A very odd item, a video docu called “How Audio Recordings are Made” featuring the group The Washington Squares, hosted by a very nerdy-looking Pete!
Pete had a literal who’s-who of singer-songwriters and folkies on his different radio shows. One of the people he said he was proudest to host is the “Old Folkie” himself (thanks, Harry), Mr. Pete Seeger. Here Pete introduces Seeger at the Lone Star in 1985 and here he is interviewing Seeger, Jim Brown (no, no that one), and Roger McGuinn in 2007:
Proving that Pete was a very good interviewer, here’s a rare chat with Leonard Cohen from April 28, 1985, fortunately preserved by a fan. Caught in the morning (and sounding somewhat burnt), Leonard is incredibly honest and funny, sings “Night Comes On” and reads poetry from his Book of Mercy:
Finally, acknowledging Pete’s other “professions,” here he is lecturing on the subject of Woodstock at Queensborough Community College. “Lecturing” is a poor word to capture what he did with an audience — he clearly drew on his years teaching high school English to captivate an audience and, most importantly (this guy clearly remembered what school was like), to keep them awake! (Watch his techniques here to involve the audience, but also to “swerve” things just when they seem to be reaching a mellower tone.)

The last time I saw him host an event, it was a tribute to the Bottom Line at the World Financial Center in the summer of 2011 (or was it 2010?). His sense of enthusiasm was truly infectious, and he did work to keep the audience engaged in a live venue — this was indeed interesting to me, having grown up on the mellower, slow-talking, somewhat nerdy-sounding, older-brotherly DJ voice he used on the radio (no AM Top 40 “puker” was he).

What was most important, though, at that show — as he lamented the loss of that sadly long-gone NYC nightspot that hosted all the non-arena/concert-hall performers who counted in the Seventies and Eighties — and in the clip below is how much he loved talking about this stuff:
Pete was one of the last of a dying breed. Thankfully, in the NYC area, we still have free-form radio legends Bob Fass, Vin Sclesa, and Dennis Elsas not only still with us, but also still on the air on a weekly basis (Elsas is on every weekday on WFUV). We should acknowledge their contribution and treasure it while we still have them.