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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