Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The standard-bearer of old Hollywood: Deceased Artiste Skip E. Lowe

On the East Coast we have the icon Joe Franklin, talk show host extraordinaire, “Memory Lane” expert, and all-around quirky NYC character. The West Coast equivalent of Joe was surely Skip E. Lowe, whose show may have begun 25 years after Joe’s (and was done on access rather than commercial TV), but he was another idiosyncratic talk-show host, a devoted fan of Golden Age Hollywood in all its manifestations and quite a character as well.

Skip E. died this week at 85 after having done his L.A. access show Skip E. Lowe Looks at Hollywood (also carried in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and here in NYC) for the last 36 years. Skip’s show was fascinating, even if you’re not a student of Hollywood’s past or the many lower levels of cabaret entertainment. The show was done against a stark, black background, and both Skip and his guest would be shown primarily in close-up.

Skip plastered on his “sincere listening face” throughout the program (I do believe he was interested in what his guests were saying, it was just the expressions he made while they spoke that were mind-blowing). If he wasn’t being seen, he was heard — verbally assenting, repeating what the guest had said, or merely rushing into the next question.

He had a broad knowledge of show-biz history, but occasionally his mind worked faster than his mouth, and he would ask questions like the one repeated in an L.A. Times article about him, "Now, Marilyn Monroe went back with Joe DiMaggio after she committed suicide, didn't she?" (He explained that away by saying he was referring to her previous failed suicide attempts.)

Skip’s life up until the talk show is covered in his two autobiographies (one of which, Hollywood Gomorrah, was just released). Born Sammy Labella, he was a child actor (seen at right at 16) who worked onstage and in film, after a traumatic event in his personal life — it is noted in the same L.A. Times article that he was raped by a group of boys when he was nine years old. He bragged often on his show about his years as a nightclub MC, where he appeared between vaudeville acts and strippers, doing jokes, songs, or merely commenting on the crowd.

Lowe was a show-biz “insider,” who had strong connections to older stars and those who were on the nightclub/cabaret circuit. He proved his connections over the years by getting a very impressive roster of guests for a cable access show. Everyone from Orson Welles and Bette Davis to the individuals highlighted below came by to pass a half-hour chatting with Skip.

In a New York Times article written with love —and a rather glaring mistake in the opening and closing paragraphs that confuses Skip E. with Mickey Rooney (right) — Harry Shearer noted, “His obsessions with show business has [sic] nothing to do with grosses or ratings and everything to do with big breaks and comebacks and wonderful evenings in the theater. That is, it’s a fairyland reading of an industry that has become crueler and greedier than it was in its Golden Age, whenever that was.”

The most “press” Lowe received on a national level was when Martin Short revealed that his fat-suited character Jiminy Glick, the clueless show-biz interviewer, was based “in part” on Skip. I’ve never been a fan of the Glick character (fat-suit humor leaves me completely cold), but I did love Short’s earlier, more wonderfully “inside” material, which included a bizarre moment on The Completely Mental Misadventures of Ed Grimley (1988-89).

For some reason known only to Short and his crew (perhaps to entertain themselves), in one of the Count Floyd segments (with Joe Flaherty reprising his classic no-budget horror-host character), Short came out as a schizophrenic horror folk singer named “Skip E. High,” doing an impression of Lowe but making him a rather strange guitar-playing folksinger. The character struck me as very funny, and this was a few years before I found out about Lowe and realized exactly who Short was paying tribute to (and abusing, let’s be honest).

Two channels on YouTube have some good examples of Skip’s show. The earliest interview that has surfaced is this chat with the ever-feisty Eartha Kitt:

The Kitt interview is so early on that the customary black background hasn’t been introduced on Skip’s show. Here’s a classic Lowe segment, with him interviewing the late Eric Douglas. Skip gets up in arms when he discusses how poor Eric has been worked over by the press! (No, I don’t have any idea why the show is in b&w — that old-movie feel?).

As you can imagine, kids of celebrity parents can be found by the barrelful in L.A. Thus, Skip had on Arthur Marx, and here he has both Christina Crawford (who doesn’t say much in this segment) and the late Christian Brando. At this point (before the murder trial and the spousal abuse court cases), Christian was working as (no shit) a tree surgeon:

One of the most interesting sides of Skip’s career was his connection to the periphery of show biz. Here, from one of the many shows he hosted at an L.A. nightclub is a 98-year-old woman comedian woman doing an “adult” song. Here Skip takes a limo ride with Warhol/Morrissey superstar Holly Woodlawn.

And here, because tribute acts are *everywhere*, is an episode Skip devoted to a pair of impressionists touring as Martin and Lewis (whom he interviews as if they were Dean and Jerry, then as themselves, then again as D&J). At the 5:00 mark of this clip, they do an agonizingly long version of “the Announcer’s Test” (already discussed in this blog entry):

Tony Curtis recounting stories of his youth to Skip:

You can see the full opening of Lowe’s show in this segment featuring Skip’s interview with Milton Berle, discussing his experiences as a child actor:

Shelley Winters was a good friend of Skip’s (although it was more likely the other way around). Here she is on the show:

And here she is celebrating her 85th birthday at an outdoor party. She is sadly unrecognizable due to health problems, but she seems to be having a great time with guests Terry Moore, Rip Taylor, Jackie Stallone, Nanette Fabray, Kaye Ballard, and Rip Taylor:

Skip returned to his first career, acting, with small roles in several films in the Seventies and Eighties. On his website he claims to have appeared in “La Dolce Vita (Award-winning French [!] movie),” but that doesn’t appear anywhere else online. He did, however, play an uncredited doctor in Ilsa, Harem Keeper of the Oil Sheiks (1976) and had a supporting role as a hairdresser in the Blaxploitation movie Black Shampoo (1976). He can be seen at the :54 mark:

Skip did a PSA message about bullying that I’m sure reflected his own past problems. The interesting thing here is that he doesn’t seem to be working from a script (rarely are PSAs ad-libbed, but this one seems like it was home-made):

Skip’s moment in the national news spotlight came in September 1991 when he assaulted businessman (and crook) Charles H. Keating Jr with a powdered blonde wig (taken, an L.A. Times article notes, from an MGM movie travel bag”). Skip apparently lost a great deal of money (close to $80,000, he claimed) because his former business manager invested in Keating’s unsafe “high-yield, high risk” bonds.

Skip is quoted in the Times piece: "’This is for America,’ Lowe said as he took a swipe. ’And this is for the senior citizens you ripped off…. I hated [Keating’s] grinning face and attitude,’ Lowe said. ‘I did something I had to do. It was not just for me but for all senior citizens and for all American people, who have to pay for what he did.’"

In 2008, when John McCain was running for president, Skip did a mock “interview” with a picture of McCain, bringing up the politician’s ties to Keating (Skip calls McCain “an old, grumpy bad man!”). This is cable access at its finest:

When I found out that Skip had died, I immediately flashed on the single most amazing video clip I’ve seen of him (discovered by friend Rich Brown), It’s called “Skip E. Lowe’s Star Sweep.” It consists of Skip walking down Hollywood Boulevard and then settling down on Britney Spears’ star, which he proceeds to clean with a whiskbroom. (The title is blessedly literal.)

He tells young Britney to put her panties back on, to stop getting arrested, to stop being such “a dirty bitch” (bleeped out). I wish he had done more of these segments. Skip, we’re gonna miss ya!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reinhold is gone: Deceased Artiste Gottfried John

Here's a cinema death that most American news outlets left out entirely, Gottfried John, 72. Like Richard Kiel, who died last week, John is best known to mainstream American viewers as a Bond villain (in Goldeneye), but, for international moviegoers, he will forever be most famous for his work with Fassbinder. Most particularly his very memorable turn as the villainous “Reinhold” in Berlin Alexanderplatz (1980).

John had an incredibly memorable face – one could almost say the phrase “character actor” was stamped on it. His filmography indicates that he played many likeable individuals, but Fassbinder explored his menacing side in both Alexanderplatz and In a Year With 13 Moons (1978). In both films he is the catalyst for the hero's behavior and the object of his romantic obsession.

For Fassbinder the key to understanding Alfred Doblin's novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was a short passage about the protagonist, Franz Biberkopf, dancing with his girlfriend but thinking of Reinhold. Thus, Reinhold becomes the central male character in Fassbinder's epic film besides our sad-sack hero Biberkopf, played by Gunther Lamprecht. John cannot be forgotten as the charming criminal who is the focus of Franz's hidden love.

There are few really good resources online (in English) for information about John, so I will include here the Fassbinder Foundation's official “farewell” statement, written by the head of the Foundation, celebrated film editor Juliane Lorenz. I have corrected a few small typos, but this is her statement on the passing of Gottfried John. Her obit begins in media res, with a description of John's memoir:

“Gottfried’s autobiographical novel, Bekenntnisse eines Unerzogenen (Confessions of an Ill-bred Individual), tells the story of a young man born during the Second World War who is taken away from his mother and grows up in children’s homes. His mother later kidnaps him and takes him to Paris, where they are able to live together for the first time – on the banks of the Seine, on an old barge, with little money. At the age of eighteen, the young man’s sole ambition is to become a film actor.

“His mother encourages him and they return to Berlin, where he takes acting lessons, performs his first stage roles and meets Hans Neuenfels, a young, highly talented theater director who casts him in leading roles. For the time being his dream of becoming a film star remains a distant goal. However, he takes his destiny into his own hands, applies to Bavaria Studios in Munich and soon after makes his first film, Jaider – The Lonely Hunter, which is screened at the Berlin Film Festival.

“There he is seen by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who soon afterwards offers him the role of the toolmaker Jochen Epp in Eight Hours Are Not a Day (1972). They want to reach a TV audience of millions and make the world a better place to live in with their films. The Vietnam War is still raging; in West Germany the RAF is unsettling a stalled democracy. The unusual concept for a family series achieves high ratings. 

“The series takes on cult status, making Gottfried John a star and launching a career that sees him soon become one of Fassbinder’s most distinctive actors. It is a career that reaches its highpoint with the role of the stuttering Reinhold Hoffmann in Berlin Alexanderplatz, a project that provides John, RWF and Günter Lamprecht as Franz Biberkopf with a distinguished place in film history.

“I met Gottfried in 1977 during the making of Despair, RWF’s first international film. Fassbinder’s fame and his films with John, the 'visage that brought him a lot of money,' as he later joked, increased the opportunities for this gentle, romantic and also highly intelligent man to pursue his profession abroad, above all in England, France, Italy and the USA, in films such as Goldeneye, Asterix and Obelix Take On Caesar and numerous other international film and TV productions – which raises the question as to where Gottfried John’s less well-known work can be seen. Wasn’t he also a star of German and European film – an actor comparable with Jean Gabin, Jean-Paul Belmondo and Gérard Depardieu?

“In Gottfried we have lost a friend, a seeker, an explorer, an observer. He died on 1 September 2014 in Utting outside Munich. We should endeavor to discover everything he has left to us.” – Juliane Maria Lorenz

There are numerous film and interview clips featuring John on YouTube, the problem for non-German-speakers being that very few have subtitles (including this beautiful-sounding reading of Rilke). By sheer coincidence, my most recent upload to that dreaded site was the “Arthouse directors reflect on Jerry Lewis” montage, which includes the “dance number” from In a Year..., in which Gottfried does a damned good Jerry Lewis impression (at 6:41):

His best known role, though, is Reinhold. Here is the French trailer for Berlin Alexanderplatz (much better than the British one that is also online):

And one poster posted a short, beautiful sliver of the final episode of Alexanderplatz, possibly the only scene in the miniseries where Reinhold appears to have let down his guard. Don't watch this if you don't want to “spoil” the final episode of Alexanderplatz – but, remember, that episode is a “dream” that includes many different variations and renditions of the Franz/Reinhold relationship.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Prince Hal saves the NYC summer

photo by Sherril Schlesinger
This summer the free concerts in the parks were, to be kind about it, pretty meager. The “River2River” fest abandoned popular music concerts (in any guise – rock, folk, jazz), and the Coney Island venue was shut down. The usual suspects booked their most notable acts for pay concerts, or had veritable swarms of human persons lined up to jam into their small spaces for the few really exceptional concerts that were booked. (Lincoln Center Out of Doors had the most interesting programming, and thus had the craziest lines, in some cases stretching around the circumference of LC.)

But last week, at the very tail end of the summer, Hal Willner – whom I've written about before – curated a week of shows at John Zorn's performance space called the Stone, located at 2nd St. and Avenue C (you know – where the East Village gentrification seems to have thrown its hands up in surrender). There were 12 shows in all, ranging from spoken-word performances to full-on concerts. I want to review the four of these shows that I attended, since they were incredibly enjoyable and I haven't seen any other reviews of them online.

When the schedule was originally released, there were a few other items listed (a program of silent films to be accompanied by live music, a reading of poems by Gregory Corso, an evening of Poe) that were jettisoned when Willner announced on the Stone's website various second shows on themes that were already booked.

This was no doubt attributable to the fact that Willner's events seem to grow exponentially – I respond to this as an audience member, since it means that the shows are extra-entertaining and that Willner deeply loves the individual(s) he's paying tribute to. I also can relate as a fellow fan who loves nothing better than to “curate” – each week I wish the Funhouse TV show was 45 minutes or an hour instead of a measly 28 minutes, so I can readily identify with the way that Willner's shows seem to grow as you're watching them (as happened at his fund-raising show for Tuli Kupferberg).

In this case, the most interesting thing about these shows is that, with the exception of a few of the all-music shows, Willner was listed as a lead performer. Having only seen him perform at the Andy Kaufman event he produced and hosted, I did realize he has something of a hammy side, but was not prepared for his earnest performance as the sole reader at a tribute to his friend Allen Ginsberg. But more on that below....
The first of the shows I attended was a salute to the work of King Satirist Terry Southern (I wrote a “101” on Southern for Willner’s tribute started off, appropriately enough, with the first track on the Southern spoken-word album that he produced (lovingly titled Give Me Your Hump!), which is an answering machine message in which Terry tells us what Jackie Kennedy saw on Air Force One when she traveled with the newly sworn-in LBJ (the original notion came from Paul Krassner, but Southern made it into a classically “sick” bit of humor):

Hal then read this wonderful passage from Southern’s last humorous novel Blue Movie. Nile Southern (Terry’s son) read a rare item called “The Last Pusher” (1954) and gave us the happy news that a brand NEW collection of unpublished material from Terry will be out in 2015 (for me, this news alone made me very happy I had attended). Like many of Southern’s pieces, the story starts out quite normally and builds in insanity (and verbosity) as it proceeds.
Terry Southern
Josh Alan Friedman (author of the absolutely classic Tales of Times Square and the “autobiographical novel” Black Cracker) then read an abbreviated version of Terry’s short story “Red Dirt Marijuana.” Actor-filmmaker Tony Torn, author Darius James, and Nile S. then acted out a way-out-there hunting scene in which Hermann Goering and his pals take on wildlife (and find new ways to shoot up drugs).

Darius James then read a short story in which a black court clerk struggles with having been covered in white paste. Josh Alan read to us some letters from Terry, having to do with the Grand Guy’s fascination with a porn star named Nancy Suiter who disappeared from the porn scene (rumors have run wild about her for years, but Josh noted in a response to Terry — who was extremely concerned that she started aging prematurely — that she had merely quit the biz).
Torn, James, Southern (photo by C. Groome)
Capping off the show is this wonderful bit of prose from Candy. Willner took on the role of the horny hunchback (“rub-a-dub, rub-a-dub”) and poet Lee Ann Brown did an excellent job playing Candy, doing a last-minute fill-in for no-show Phoebe Legere.

I’ve been a devotee of Southern’s work since I was but a tiny film geek, and there are few things as wonderful as seeing performers bringing his brilliant, acidic, and completely deranged visions to life in front of you.
Arch Oboler
The next night, Willner staged a tribute to old-time radio legend Arch Oboler and his Lights Out series. This was a rather odd show, in that some of the actors listed in the schedule didn't appear, so the casts of the three radio plays were primarily female. Thus, women played the female as well as the male roles, and the two actors – Willner and Torn – were pressed into repeat duty (in the first play Torn was killed something like three times as three different characters).

Oboler's plays are still incredibly creepy, but watching actors perform them (sincere though they were in their performances) evoked laughter, as Oboler's concept of the supernatural was downright bizarre at times. Witness the first item performed: “Cat Wife” (originally aired on “Lights Out” on 6/17/1936) concerns a husband (played here by Willner) who gets so annoyed at his partying wife (incarnated by Jennifer Charles of the band Elysian Fields) that he calls her a cat – and she turns into one!

The rest of the play then consists of the woman making cat noises while her husband tries to hide the strange truth from the outside world, killing those who discover his little secret. In this play Willner took center stage, although Torn was impressive in differentiating the different murder victims he played. For her part, Charles was quite sexy making, well... cat noises.

The second play in the program, “Come to the Bank” (originally aired on 11/17/1942), became a tour de force for downtown icon Penny Arcade, who played a teacher driven mad by the fact that one of her colleagues (played by Torn) has gotten trapped in the wall of a bank. It seems the gent believed that with the power of his mind he could pass through solid matter, but he wasn't as agile as he had hoped. Penny played the role with such conviction that the audience ceased laughing for a bit and was truly caught up in Oboler's weird universe.

The third and final piece of the evening was the classic Oboler play “Chicken Heart” (from 3/10/37, immortalized by Bill Cosby in a classic monologue). The play is another one of those pieces that, even when performed very straight – as Kembra Pfahler (as the scientist “who knows the truth”) and Karen Mantler did – becomes a sort of campy piece of insane horror (there's no doubt that the play inspired The Blob, as its titular chicken organ begins to absorb a city).
Kembra Pfahler and Karen Mantler (photo by C. Groome)
NYC talk-show legend Joe Franklin provided the voice of the Oboler narrator (on tape), thus adding a level of both “memory lane” and irresistible kitschiness.

Since I'm posting this for posterity, I will note that the shows I wasn't able to attend (money, time – all that good stuff) included two tributes to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, a reading of Allen Ginsberg's poetry by Willner backed by a jazz combo, an Allan Sherman tribute that came out of nowhere (thankfully the second one didn't – see below) featuring Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, a recreation of Willner's album Woops, I'm an Indian, a jam performance led by Terry Adams (NRBQ), and two performances of Lou Reed's The Raven, an album I am not fond of, with an all-star cast including Laurie Anderson, Kim Cattrall, and Jenni Muldaur.

The final two performances were indeed the icing on the cake. The first was a heartfelt affair, with the non-singer/non-actor/non-performer Willner reading the poems of his friend Allen Ginsberg with a style and elan that was surprising (especially since I had only seen him give humorous readings and performances before this).

Accompanying him was Philip Glass – whose presence meant this was one of the few Stone shows that was standing room only. And for a storefront club (the place appears to be a former deli turned into a performance space) that seats about 50 people, it's pretty unique to have people standing in the aisles.

On a related note, the *only* negative item about any of the shows was the point during the Oboler performance when the AC was turned off to let us better hear the performers – who were projecting quite well as it was. Caution to the "Stone runners": that AC must be on at all times during the summer months, as both the performers and the audience were visibly wilting until the air was turned back on.

Back to the Sunday night "double feature": the two-man Ginsberg tribute was indeed a joy, with Willner's readings beautifully emphasizing Allan's turns of phrase and flights of Blake-like fancy. For his part, Glass was not intrusive, simply lending the poems a subtle background that rose and fell occasionally. Among the poems read were “The Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa,” “Footnote to Howl,” “Kral Majales (King of May),” and part of “Witchita Vortex Sutra” (which Glass had performed with Ginsberg himself):

The poem that had a classic Philip Glass musical accompaniment (read: repetitive, hypnotic, compelling) was “Kaddish,” part one. Here is the whole poem as read by Allen:

The final show qualified as a must-see event, not only because I am a devout fan of novelty records, but because it was a classically overstuffed Willner presentation – like the wonderful tribute to Tuli Kupferberg he staged at St. Ann's and a Neil Young “songbook” show at Prospect Park (which ended some three-hours-plus in, after some authority figure drew a finger across her neck to the people on stage as if to say “cut this off!”). This show was not only the promised Allan Sherman tribute (which suddenly was a “part two,” as the earlier show had happened five days before), but we were treated to a leftover item from the Friday Arch Oboler show.
Brown, Torn, Friedman (photo by C. Groome)
That leftover was quite something – one of Oboler's “greatest hits,” the radio play called “The Dark.” (originally aired 12/29/37) The storyline here is another extreme exercise in creepy horror (the kind that no doubt inspired the E.C. horror comics of the Fifties) concerning policemen discovering a fog that turns people's inside out. Josh Alan and Tony Torn were the police, and Lee Ann Brown played the wailing woman, who has gone insane witnessing the effects of the fog.
This time Joe Franklin was on the premises, serving as narrator and reading us trivia about Arch Oboler. All the while giving us a full dose of the Franklin-esque charm (I think, but can't swear, that he did refer to the crowd as “my friends...”).

Onto the Sherman love-fest: this was a full-fledged Willner “songbook” show that found some singers delivering the tunes like Allan did and others giving their own special twist to the material (especially the female singers). Watching the show I was struck by how evident it was that everyone in the room loved Allan's music – I haven't yet read the recent AS biography, but know that in his last years he was an unhappy person (about his career, his weight, his image).

Allan Sherman
I don't know if the idea that, 41 years after his death (at the very tender age of 49), a room full of people would be utterly delighted to hear his music with new arrangements would've made him any happier, but it's true that, while wildly different from the preceding Ginsberg show (“from Allen to Allan”), this was also a very heartfelt affair. (To quote a Sherman song that was not performed that evening, “Hail to Thee, Fat Person – you kept us out of war!”)

So, what we heard that evening were versions of Sherman classics and some “deep tracks” from his comedy-song LPs (including two items from his My Fair Lady rewrite, which was taken out of circulation after Alan Jay Lerner forbade it). His songs were done as discordant jazz, torch songs, spoken-word pieces, and “fast folk” rave-ups.

As is always the case with Willner's shows, the talent on display was superb – most particularly (as, again, is always the case) the people that are not household names but are local artists brimming with talent and ready to take on a new challenge. Like, say, adapting the songs of “My Son, the Folk Singer.”

I won't run through the entire 20-song presentation, but the most entertaining aspect of the show was the top-notch talent and the fact that it did bounce from one musical genre to another, all the while emphasizing Sherman's deft way with words. (Funhouse favorite Steve Allen, one of the folks who was instrumental in getting him to record his songs, was daunted by his masterfully goofy line in the “The Ballad of Harry Lewis” about our hero, “he was trampling through the warehouse/where the drapes of Roth are stored...”)

The males performed the tunes as blatant comedy. Willner, Josh Alan, Tony Torn, and two of the musicians playing that night (Steve Weisberg and Lew Soloff) did great readings of the lyrics, incarnating the “exhausted” side of Allan's singing persona. (“Your Mother's Here to Stay,” “Pop Hates the Beatles,” “Westchester Hadassah”).

The ladies, on the other hand, sang their hearts out, giving Sherman's sometimes perceptive (especially when tackling the topic of suburbia) but always lyrically dense songs some vastly different twists. Janine Nichols definitely scored as “MVP” for this show, as she did duets with Willner (Sherman's “laundry list” tune “Al and Yetta”) as well as solo numbers that contained some heavy-duty tongue-twisters (no matter how many times I've heard “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max” off the first Sherman LP, I've been unable to remember the dozens of names that get spat out – Janine carried this off with impressive aplomb).

Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
Angela McClusky (right) did a lounge-friendly version of Allan's “Green Stamps” ("Green Eyes"). Her terrific vocal turn followed a wonderful Broadway-belter rendition by
Mary Lee Corvette (that's the name that was given, I'm assuming the lady was Mary Lee Kortes from the band Mary Lee's Corvette) of another Sherman "green" song, "Sir Greenbaum's Madrigal." Jennifer Charles did the impossible by performing a sexy, torchy version of one Sherman's clever wordplay tunes, “One Hippopotami.”

Sherman's singing voice was a kind of tuneful bellow -- of the sort that Josh Alan and Tony T. affected in their numbers. Thus, hearing his songs sung by women with terrific vocal ranges was at first quite odd for this Sherman fanboy, but it showed how flexible his "novelty tunes" really were.

Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
This was evident when the hyper-energetic Jill Sobule tackled two Sherman favorites, “My Zelda” and “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” requesting – nay, demanding! – audience participation. She accompanied herself on acoustic guitar and did get the audience singing along to two of the great Sherman tunes from his hit first LP, My Son, the Folk Singer. Her renditions furthered the notion that this audience member had early on that the male performers were tackling the songs as comedy first and foremost, while the female singers – with the possible exception of Lee Ann Brown, who sang "Grow, Mrs. Goldfarb" (Allan's take on "Glow Worm") with comic charm – performed the Sherman ditties as songs first, then comedy.

So again another event produced by Willner blew away your humble narrator. It should be noted that Steve Weisberg and his band held the show together by playing superbly in different genres for the many performers.

As a lovely goodbye, Hal thanked the audience for attending the twelve shows he had produced at the Stone and noted that the reason he was happy to be doing the Sherman tribute as the late show on Sunday night, because in years past he would've been planted in front of the TV set with friends consuming “chemicals” and watching the Jerry Lewis telethon (he mentioned that at the time the show concluded – around 11:40 – “we'd be peaking by now”).
Photo by Sherril Schlesinger
To keep that Jerry vibe alive, singer Joseph Keckler, who has an amazing operatic range, tackled Sherman's “When You Walk Through the Bronx.” Another Willner show – more surprises and a lot of great music.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Joan Rivers’ late Sixties “girl talk” daytime show -- and meetings with Jerry Lewis that he claims never took place

Rarely can I spontaneously connect my last two blog entries, but I will do it here, to discuss the “feud” that went on between Jerry Lewis and Joan Rivers a few months ago. In this instance, the juxtaposition of items found on the Internet proves that at least one thing Jerry Lewis said in his initial “salvo” was an outright lie on Jerry’s part (or a big-time memory lapse).

The first shot fired over the bow was the introduction of Rivers’ name when Jerry was being interviewed by Maria Menounos earlier this year on the occasion of an event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the The Nutty Professor and the requisite DVD re-release of the film. Jerry brings up Rivers as the one person he hates, and he also notes he threatened in a letter to have her beaten up (rather odd thing to admit in public). Note that Jerry claims he never, ever met Joan Rivers in person:

Jerry’s furious remarks (which did come apropos of nothing) were responded to by Joan on Ron Bennington’s “Unmasked” show on Sirius satellite radio. She maintains that the trouble began when she did a guest shot on the telethon (and btw, when I first discovered this clip on Sept. 4, it was titled: "Joan Rivers: Jerry Lewis is a unfunny, stupid asshole"):

You can pick sides in that battle of words from angry old Jewish comedians, but there’s one thing for sure: not only did Joan do the telethon (by her own account), but Jerry met her when he guested on a daytime talk show she hosted at the end of the Sixties, produced by her husband Edgar, called That Show with Joan Rivers. The episode in question is available for free viewing on Hulu at the moment.

That Show (1968-69) was a Virginia Graham-style “girl talk” daytime talk program, in which Rivers had a topic of “interest to women” and a single celebrity guest who would comment on the topic. Jerry appeared on the episode about disciplining children (at that time his NBC variety show had been renewed for a second season).

At the 8:00 mark before the end of the program Jerry tells the audience about the time he spanked his son Gary (who he notes is in Vietnam at that moment). Jerry boasts that he used a western-style belt and “put a couple of welts on him.”

He then goes on to affirm what his youngest (disowned) son revealed in his controversial National Enquirer expose article — that Jerry had intercoms installed in every room of his house so he could hear what family members were saying about him. He notes that he turned on the one in Gary’s bedroom, that he “wanted to hear him cry, wanted him to get it out.” Instead, he heard his wife Patti comfort the boy and Gary told her “Daddy’s the only human being in the world who loves me.”

He further notes, to contradict the children’s behavior expert who is the other guest on the show, that when it comes to spanking and physically disciplining children “You have to start this at 4.” He also notes that he loathes Reform Judaism (this comes up out of the blue, but is in reference to a metaphor about how young people like things “easier”).

Single best Jerry sentence: “My whole emotional fabric was enveloping his whole existence.”

So Jerry met Joan Rivers twice, with the longer example currently available for viewing on the Net. There are 65 episodes of That Show with Joan Rivers sitting on Hulu right now, and the guest roster is what could be expected of a daytime show shot in NYC in the late Sixties: Johnny Carson, Ed Sullivan, James Earl Jones, Marty Allen, Tony Randall, Joan Fontaine, Barbara Walters, Robert Merrill, Mary Travers, Nancy Walker, Phyllis Newman, Earl Wilson, Selma Diamond, Nipsey Russell, Corbett Monica, Morty Gunty, and Funhouse favorite Soupy Sales (often!).

A few of sample topics include [these descriptions were taken off of the Hulu site, I’m not correcting the grammar and spelling]:
—Joan and guests discuss women's hats with celebrity guest, Soupy Sales. 
Joan and guests discuss catering with celebrity guest, Kitty Carlisle.
—This episode's subject is Men's Shirts with expert guest, Robt. Green. It also has Donald Pleasence on as a celebrity guest.
—This episode's subject is Boating Safety with expert guest, Admi. Joseph McClelland. It also has Barbara Walters on as a celebrity guest.
—This episode's subject is Manners with expert guest, Elizabeth Post. It also has Rocky Graziano on as a celebrity guest.
—Joan and guests discuss men's furs with celebrity guest, Shecky Green.

Three of the more intriguing shows feature Dick Cavett (about plastic surgery!), Shelley Berman (in a drearily-programmed show on gardening!), and this fascinating show with Lily Tomlin, in which two critics are asked to talk about "the stars of tomorrow." 

This episode has Joan talking about what she knew best, show business, and mentioning how few "lady comics" there are. Also, she tells an interesting anecdote about how Woody Allen kept doing the same act word for word, until a critic called him out on it. Lily closes out the episode by doing one of her characters, a freakish cosmetics expert.

One show I had to watch immediately is an episode about perfume featuring Gena Rowlands (whom Joan refers to as “Geena” throughout). For a Cassavetes cultist like myself, hearing Faces referred to on a daytime woman’s chat show is surreal; even more surreal is the fact that Joan had the guest *only* discuss the topic at hand. Rivers wishes Gena good luck at the Oscars, the show having been shot while Rowlands was nominated for Best Actress for Shadows.

Thanks to Steve K. for passing on this discovery. Praise his “whole emotional fabric”!

When Joan tried to be Mel – “Rabbit Test”

As could be expected, the death of Joan Rivers has led to many media outlets exploring and praising her five-decade career in standup comedy. Most of her obits are going to avoid discussion of the only film she made, and that's because it's an incredibly unfunny farce. 

Rabbit Test (1978) is a pregnant man comedy (that's the one joke, right there, in those four words) that starred the young Billy Crystal and a host of Rivers' show-biz friends in walk-on roles. The film is an obvious attempt by Rivers to try and duplicate the success of Mel Brooks' gag-filled comedies. Rivers had in fact co-written a well-reviewed TV movie, The Girl Most Likely To... in 1973, the year before Brooks released his two biggest hits, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein.

Joan took a cue from Mel and made her movie a Mad magazine-style comedy with wall-to-wall gags and kooky characters. The problem is that the gags aren't funny and, while nostalgia buffs will delight in the oh-so-Seventies cast of TV actors, most of the performers are present only to dispense with their two or three terrible gags.

The nearly unwatchable film has the look and feel (and most likely the budget) of a TV-movie, and the cast certainly reinforces that notion – one gets the feeling at points that Joan just asked whomever she was appearing with on Hollywood Squares to be in the following scene (this is definitely true of the moment where Peter Marshall is viewed on a TV screen doing joke dialogue on the Squares set).

Thus, we are treated to a movie starring young (wig-wearing) Billy Crystal and Joan Prather (Smile) surrounded by a full roster of TV vets, including Doris Roberts, Alex Rocco, Sheree North, Rosey Grier, Tom Poston, Imogene Coca, Norman Fell, Richard Deacon, George Gobel, Fannie Flagg, Charlotte Rae, and (why the hell not?) Roddy McDowall as an old gypsy lady. Oh, and the two guys in the lobby card seen above.

You can view Joan in her sole cameo as a nurse at 47:30. I'm sure she bounced back from the failure of Rabbit Test, as she did from several other personal and professional difficulties. And although she relied on worn-out jokes and stupid gross-out and un-p.c. humor in the movie, she needn't have bothered – pregnant man comedies just don't work. Jacques Demy's A Slightly Pregnant Man (1973), starring Mastroianni and Deneuve, proved that five years before Rabbit Test.

If you want to avoid the agony of watching the full feature, check out this one clip I uploaded when Alice Ghostley died. It's the only the only laugh-out-loud moment in the film, and it comes courtesy of an encounter between Ghostley and the performer who “borrowed” her delivery and laugh, the inimitable Mr. Paul Lynde.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Arthouse filmmakers reflect on Jerry Lewis

To commemorate Labor Day, I offer up a montage I featured on the episode of the Funhouse TV show that aired this weekend. For the past 21 years I have done a Jerry Lewis episode for Labor Day weekend and, since the end of the telethon, I've been looking for new angles from which to approach Jerry (there are about twenty jokes that could follow that sentence, but I'm not going for any of 'em).

Since I frequently feature “arthouse” cinema on the Funhouse, it was only natural to edit together a montage of scenes in which arthouse auteurs (not all of whom are French, mind you) either talked about Jerry in interviews or evoked him in their films. I came up with seven instances that I think make a very entertaining montage, while also exploring Jerry from pro, con, and “wtf?” aspects.

The contents are (since I don't intend on posting the list on YT; the sequences are already titled in the video):

– Martin Scorsese in Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, 1985
– a scene from Jacques Rivette's “missing” (at least in the U.S.) L'Amour Fou, 1969
– Louis Malle in Bonjour Monsieur Lewis, 1985
– a scene from Luc Moullet's Brigitte et Brigitte, 1966
– Orson Welles on The Dick Cavett Show, 1970
– a scene from Rainer Werner Fassbinder's In a Year with Thirteen Moons, 1978
– Jean-Luc Godard on The Dick Cavett Show, 1980

For those others keeping score, there are a few other filmmakers featured in Bonjour Monsieur Lewis (Bogdanovich, Mel Brooks, Spielberg) whom I didn't include for purposes of time and/or salience of the discussion.

Those who loathe Jerry will particularly enjoy Welles' remarks. Those who love him will dig Malle's unmitigated praise. For those who want an insightful discussion, we always turn to Uncle Jean, who says about le cinema du Jer: “I think it's very funny – even when it's not funny, it's more funny....”

JLG knows the score.