Friday, January 25, 2008

The "Deceased Artiste" tributes for January 2008

I love paying tribute to the dearly departed on the Funhouse, and have taken particular pleasure in focusing on the more obscure entertainers who merit a few ’graphs for their obituary in the daily paper, a stray minute or two on Entertainment Tonight and the like, and then never be talked about again… except by the true fans. Regular viewers have asked if I planned to do any more tributes to the “smaller folk,” since recently I’ve been caught up in the careers of the bigger names that kicked off in 2007 (Bergman, Mailer, and still to come, Antonioni). And so I offer a montage tribute to the following folks who shuffled off this mortal coil in the first month of this new year.

Maila Nurmi, aka “Vampira.” Most likely the majority of folks reading this blog have seen the seminal Plan 9 From Outer Space, so I thought I’d just show a bit of Ms. Nurmi when she was older speaking about her friend James Dean, in what is in my opinion the best of all the Dean documentaries (and yes, I have seen too many of them), James Dean: The First American Teenager(1975). Funhouse cameraman Bob Schaffer (aka 3D Gorilla Bob) has posted a great vintage pic of Maila out of her Vampira outfit and in a far freakier look (that is truly a precursor to both punk and goth) on his Flickr page.

Allan Melvin is a thoroughly familiar face to those of us who grew up with sitcoms. He was a semi-regular on both the cursed Brady Bunch (as Sam the Butcher) and All in the Family and its shambling-wreck sequel Archie Bunker’s Place. He also did a large amount of voice-talent work on cartoons, but I decided to remember him for his role as Cpl. Henshaw (aka “stooge no. 2”) on The Phil Silvers Show, better known to classic-TV fans as Sgt. Bilko. The show truly should be airing on a rerun network somewhere, but since only three ’50s b&w shows are seemingly allowed to run forever in syndication (recite it with me now: Lucy, Honeymooners, Twilight Zone….), we shall have to content ourself with the one and only DVD box that has been put out. From it comes this skit from a Silvers variety special shot at the Ed Sullivan Theater in 1959. Here Melvin actually gets something to say besides “why’s that, Sarge?” and “right away!”

Suzanne Pleshette was a comely young thing when her career began, thus we see her as a demure ingénue in this scene from her film debut, the Jerry Lewis vehicle The Geisha Boy(1958), directed by the inimitable Frank Tashlin (he made Jerry loveable — I know you won’t believe it, but believe it!). Her career last almost five decades, through numerous movies, TV-movies, sitcoms, and the like, but her best beloved role to folks of my age is, of course, Emily Hartley, the supportive and wisecrackin’ wife on The Bob Newhart Show. My friend M. Faust has pointed out how one of the most interesting things about the dynamic between Bob and Emily on that show was the fact that they related honestly, and the producers never felt the need to “jump the shark” and give them children (which would’ve surely ruined the mix entirely). Interesting to think that it's a "radical" and exceptional thought in the sitcom world that a couple could love each other and never have kids! Her final “act” in show biz included marrying the great Tom Poston (one Newhart costar married another Newhart costar, from a different series — yes, the dream life of TV is a vital living organism!), who passed away last year. My tribute to him is located here.

And it’s always best to close off with a song, so the final Deceased Artiste is John Stewart, best known to anyone with an ear for ’70s pop for his hit “Gold.” (“There’s people out there/turnin’ music into gold, into gold…) Stewart began as a member of the Kingston Trio. He replaced the leader after they had had their biggest hit “Tom Dooley” but continued with the band until the late ’60s. Here he is seen on Playboy After Dark with a sheerly insane upswept hairdo, as he chats with Hef and Barbie and sings one of his first solo tunes. It’s a nice piece of pop, but sounds like a lot of other gents around at that time (you can hear the Bob Lind in there somewhere…). He needed a few more years before he could turn his music into gold.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Russ Meyer on Tom Wolfe and how he *didn't* write "Cherry, Harry & Raquel!"

I am currently "burning" to DVD-r some of my older interviews for the show, so I will be posting clips from them in the next few weeks. Here's a bit from my interview with the great Russ denying that Tom Wolfe had anything to do with the great 1970 pic Cherry, Harry & Raquel!. What was the truth of the situation, and why is the name "Tom Wolfe" part of the film's credits? Russ's friend Thomas McGowan co-scripted the film, and apparently wanted to hide under a pseudonym (his work on Disney productions might explain this), so he took the nom du cinema "Tom Wolfe," which of course led everyone to believe the Kandy-Kolored Tangarine-Flake Streamline guy collaborated on the film. Mr. McGowan, by the way, deserves our devoted worship for having directed one of the most memorable bad movies of all time, Night Train to Terror, which I wrote about here.

Check out Russ:

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"A giant death orgy with lotsa maniacs": More Mailer!

I have got to share two pieces of info I found in the all-Norman, all-the-time journal The Mailer Review, which has a web presence here. The two bits of trivia that just rocked my little mind are below. Thanks to Funhouse foundin' guy Patrick Fusco for helping me uncover this trove of Norman lore.

His literary executor/assistant fellow elaborates the many, many, many things to be found in the Mailer Archive which was deposited at the University of Texas. He goes on to include this gem: "At different moments in his life he has done impersonations of Brendan Behan, Marlon Brando, Broderick Crawford, Lord Beaverbrook, Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, LBJ, and Tony Soprano." Tapes, Mr. Lennon, do we have any audio on this??? Please!

And at two points in the magazine it is pointed out that Norman did reconcile with his former "nemesis" Gore Vidal. Lennon notes in the Review that the genius ex-"sparring partners" appeared in a staging of Don Juan in Hell, along with Susan Sontag and Kurt Vonnegut. Again, we'd love to see some video of this. If the discussion of Mailer's obsession to catalogue every single thing he ever did is any indication, he must've had a video copy of that play.

Since I can only offer what I've got on hand (although the Funhouse itself does sorta resemble the Mailer Archive, except I can't get the U of T to buy up my collection and free up some space in the apartment), I offer up this gem that I showed on the Funhouse last week. It's Mailer's own trailer for his amazing fusion of '50s melodrama, film noir, Tennessee Williams "hothouse" fables, and Norman's own wildly over-the-top sensibility, Tough Guys Don't Dance:

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Friday, January 11, 2008

The best storyteller you've never heard of

It’s not every day that a new obsession comes along in the Funhouse, but when one does my first order of business is to share it with yez all. In this case, I direct your attention to an absolutely brilliant Podcast — or, as I’d rather call it, an Internet radio show — called Atoms, Motion and the Void.

The show presents the collected adventures and memories of one Sherwin Sleeves, an aged New England man with a distinctly Anglo accent who initially hauls us in with charming tales of his younger years, and then slowly travels into different realms of imagination and emotion. This is a pure radio experience — even though Sleeves’ exploits are highly literate, extremely well written, and at points blissfully cinematic, it’s Sleeves’ smoky, craggy voice that will drag you in. The man himself has described his tones as audio Ambien, but he’s wrong (although there is a weird relaxation that accompanies the listening experience): this is the kind of “theater of the mind” that was embodied by all the best programs in the Golden Age of radio, except that Sleeves’ stories offer a curious mixture of Jean Shepherd’s small-town American roguishness (and longing for the simplicities of the past) crossed with the trippiness of the best fiction of the 1960s.

There is indeed a literary side to what’s going on with Atoms, Motion…. Sleeves’ delivery may make the strangest things seem perfectly natural, but for me the show synchs up beautifully with a lot of the finest way-out storytelling of the second half of the 20th century. There’s surely some of Borges’ labyrinthine weirdness (how that’s overlaid over the Stephen Leacock-like homespun old-wordliness is the neatest trick of all), Pynchon’s secret societies with odd agendas, the identity slip-and-slides common in Philip K. Dick’s work, and most importantly for me, a connection to the extremely psychedelic and mind-expanding work of genius comics writer Alan Moore.

Sleeves’ stories are cut from the same cloth as Moore’s wild journey through religion, the occult, and the imagination in Promethea. The 18th episode of Atoms, wherein our hero truly transcends it all, is an amazing adventure that is akin to the final issue of Moore's comic. (The 32nd issue which folded out so that the character’s final odyssey formed a whole that looked like a psychedelic wall poster).

Sounds too way out for ya, is that what’s troublin’ you bunky? Well, the show isn’t some oddball artistic construct, it’s damned entertaining, and in a few episodes it’s also profoundly touching (and I’m one who immediately clicks off at any inkling of Spielberg hearttugs). I guess the most laudable thing about the whole enterprise is that the show is the product of a gent in New Hampshire named Sean Hurley who has had no fiction published to date, has appeared only on local radio in very short snatches (and that since Atoms, Motion has attracted attention), and is giving the show away as a Podcast to get his stories out to the greater public. Given that I’m now in the 15th year of giving my own labor of love away to the public (and trying to spread the material further through this blog), I have to salute brother traveler “Sleeves” for his talent and dedication.

My own encounter with Sean’s highly addictive creation came through the Ron and Fez show, a radio show (not heard in NYC anymore on free radio, satellite only) that gets lumped in with the “shock jock” phenomenon, but has had some great moments where one of our fave commodities, nostalgia, has reared its misshapen head (when host Ron Bennington did a Ted Lewis “Is everybody happy?" one day, I knew the show had a lot more going for it than was immediately apparent). Sean first appeared on that program submitting novelty tunes as Sleeves, the most memorable of which is a pulse-poundingly weird ditty about graffiti, "Mighty Horse,” that did have me wondering, who the hell is this fucking guy?

Sean’s Sleeves voice is fascinating — in pictures he resembles a dandified Mick Fleetwood, but he sounds like a cross between Long John Baldry and the aforementioned Mr. Moore. (when he ain’t writin’ comics, Alan does occasional spoken-word performances that incorporate music, are quite poetic, and completely tripped out). When doing his own, more serious tunes, Sean has the sound of the great barfly/absurdist heartbreaker, Tom Waits.

I do hope that Sherwin/Sean reaches a larger audience very soon, as his work deserves it. In the meantime, folks on the Ron and Fez msg board that discusses his work have suggested that he try to get the Sleeves narratives published (he offers what looks to be an independently published version of the play on the AMV site; also sampler CDs). I’m sure the stories would indeed work on paper, but the true way to experience them is to hear them “told” to you by the 79-year-old inhabitant of some place called “Marked Mountain” (pronounced “mar-ked”).

Sean intersperses a wide range of music in the episodes from the Ink Spots to Rammstein, Danny Kaye to Harold Budd and Brian Eno, and Beethoven to Sigur Ros (one of my fave what-the-fuck juxtapositions being a show that includes tunes by both the Velvet Underground and Eddie Cantor). The latest development in the Atoms, Motion… saga was a one-man play that Sean performed in N.H. over the Xmas/New Year’s holidays. I couldn’t get around to doing a road trip up there, but the reviews made it sound like the most appropriate visualization of his imminently imaginative flights of fancy: just “Sleeves” there at a keyboard, telling his curious tales straight to his audience.

The fact that there are well over two dozen episodes may seem daunting to newcomers, but I suggest these shows: episode 2 as an amusing intro to the character and his ramblings, episodes 4 or 6 as door-openers to the larger tapestry that Sleeves winds up telling; 5 or 7 for uniquely touching tales (and I am not into the sloppy sentiment that ordinarily surrounds the telling of stories involving kids), and episode 18 if you just want to jump the gun, and experience Hurley’s mindwarpingly good writing.

Go ahead. Listen to Atoms, Motion and the Void

Norman Mailer on the triumph of the mediocre

As a supplement to this week’s episode-length tribute to Deceased Artiste Norman Mailer, I offer this clip from a French TV documentary that I couldn’t fit into the show. It’s a classic bit of Mailer philosophy: on the surface it sounds a bit crackpotty, as if he’s fixated on something that is rather obvious. Underneath most of Mailer’s stranger or more extreme comments, though — as when he ran for Mayor of NYC, and among his platforms was a pitch to rid the city of bad architecture and “tissue-box buildings” — was an attention to conceptual thinking. This sort of thing is passé in this day and age, and is fact thought of as too intellectual and haughty for our really dumb-ass culture, but Norman was a feisty and cantankerous individual (even when young), so his tying in the numbing of the American society through plastic products with our immense thirst for violence is the kind of “colorful” conceptual connection that did allow him to be a guest on both the “smart” television programs (from Dick Cavett, Susskind, and William Buckley to the more dimwitted and ponderous Charlie Rose) and the pop-entertainment set (Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv, the fledgling Oprah). This kind of writer still exists, but just you try and catch them on the tube outside of CSPAN’s “Book Talk” or a fun but “guided” segment on The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

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The words of the poets are written on the subway walls

The act of riding the subway in NYC is a de-personalizing, de-humanizing, alienating, fucking drag. However, there is one small thing I’ve taken solace in over the past 15 years, and that is the “Poetry in Motion” entries which reside in amongst crappy ads for local dermatologists, awful pitches to Estudiar Ingles, and various and sundry other patent rip-offs. For those who don’t live around these parts, I should explain that the “Poetry in Motion” program selects verses from classic and not-so-familiar poems, and puts them up in amongst the horrible ads, making for some little glimmer of aesthetic trekking as we all go to and from work during rush hour.

The entries have ranged from Shakespeare to Stephen Crane, Emily Dickinson to Kenneth Koch, and Robert Frost to mine own childhood fave, Ogden Nash. At points the verses are simply pleasant diversions, at others they are downright touching and timely. For examples of the deeply moving, I have to point to a rather sad bit by the otherwise glib-and-brilliant Mr. Nash that certainly woke me up one day when I was returning from some dismal office I inhabited: “People expect old men to die/They do not really mourn old men. Old men are different. People look/at them with eyes that wonder when…/People watch with unshocked eyes;/But the old men know when an old man dies.” For the timely, I have to note that when Kerry was running against the Chimp in Charge in 2004, these words by Yeats never sounded more topical: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” (Let’s hope that won’t be the case this year.)

“Poetry in Motion” is a gorgeous bit of art in the middle of the worst, most dismal rides you can get in the city. The web page for the program (which for some reason hasn’t been updated to include the 2007 choices, and the page does need a proofreader to check the names….) can be found below the image.

Poetry in Motion

Friday, January 4, 2008

DVR/TiVO/VCR/View-it-dammit alert: Skidoo!

I don't know how the deal was struck, but tomorrow night Turner Classic Movies will present the first showing in god-knows-how-many-years of Otto Preminger's mind-blowingly odd Skidoo (1968). An absolute must-see for fans of '60s cult cinema, camp pics, drug movies, and the Batman TV series, Skidoo is just about impossible to summarize without rhapsodizing about its inherent ridiculousness. Suffice it to say, you should watch it, it will alternately hurt and please your mind. It airs at 2:00AM, late Friday night.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Tomfoolery on YouTube: the great Mr. Lehrer

I am always thrilled to discover new rarities on YouTube and, in line with my earlier posts on Allan Sherman and the immaculately hip Lord Buckley, I was delighted to see that some helpful folks (pre-eminently a Swedish Lehrer-head) have put up a bucketload of clips featuring the elusive Tom Lehrer in his prime performing his warped little ditties and timeless political tunes.

Let me first introduce a song that never, ever ages, “National Brotherhood Week” (dig the lyric about Cassius Clay and “Mrs. Wallace”):

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Maybe a little “Send the Marines.” Again, these comments on U.S. foreign policy may date in their particulars, but their message — much like that of Dr. Strangleove and other lampoons of American stupidity and militarism — never, ever age:

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One last political chanson, another item that has remained pungent as we still confront the question of which nations we can invade without impunity, occupy, take over, overthrow the government, etc. The ones with the nuclear arms, those ones we avoid…. Thus, “Who’s Next?”

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Oh yeah, so everybody’s “green” these days. Well, Lehrer put his ideas about pollution into song:

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And, on the non-political side of things, I must acknowledge that one of the foremost advocates of the genius that is Lehrer was and is Funhouse favorite Doctor Demento. When I was able to catch the dear doctor on a regular basis back in the 1970s, he often gave a spin to Lehrer’s wonderful 45 recording of “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park”:

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and its even more romantic flip-side, “The Masochism Tango”:

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Another helpful British gentleman has uploaded his own, homemade documentary on Lehrer music and his career as a math professor. Included are some clips from the Man himself (this segment starts out with a valid comment on the art of satire from the god that was Peter Cook):

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It’s good to know that Lehrer’s inspiration didn’t end with the ‘60s. Here’s a clip that is from the UK talk show Parkinson in 1970, some color footage of Tom singing a song about VD:

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To blow my mind even further, some other helpful soul put up Lehrer in what seems to be the late 1990s performing at some academic gathering a collection of his brainer ditties. Here is the first segment, in which he performs two math songs (the only thing that could draw me to this dreaded subject is the work of the great TL).

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And I would not be the proud ex-Catholic that I am (stress that ex, willya folks?) if I did not close out with this live TV performance of the pristinely perfect “Vatican Rag.” Tom, we will never forget you! (and thanks so much to “6funswede”)

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