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Thursday, May 31, 2012

In the Bath

Keeping it Clean Dept.: Here's a bit of fun. Tom Savoy and Malcolm Kogut and I delivered this ditty at a private party in 2009. It's by Michael Flanders and Donald Swann. As I like to point out, it's the cleanest song we know.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A Boy in the Sun

Attic Treasures Dept.: Can't sleep. Figured I'd indulge in a favorite relaxation exercise. Crept up into the attic to escape possible scrutiny. And found a little booklet wedged in the lathe. Did some poor child in this old house of mine suffer a forced reading of W. E. Geil's blistering screed? Have my own sinful habits caught up with me? I warn you: what follows is very long, and it's puffed up with 1894-vintage passion. And it's (scarily) for real. At least as far as W. E. Geil is concerned.


Copyrighted 1894, by W. E. Geil

A Private Talk to Boys

With hints to parents, teachers, and all
persons having to do with the boys
and young men in America.


“Warn them, that they trespass not.”

Price, 5 cents. Six copies for 25 cents.



This is for the B. P. & T.

B stands for Boys – busy boys, bee-like boys.

P stands for Parents, preventative and purpose.

T stands for Teachers, tasks and triumphs.

“Teeth pulled while you wait” is on a dentist’s sign in Scotland. Boys sometimes think it nearly as unpleasant a thing to read a book as to have teeth pulled. I’ve tried to make this little book as enjoyable as a custard pie to a hungry boy.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Fat Man's Diet

Lost Masterpieces Dept.: Many years ago, I wrote a few sample chapters of a tome titled The Fat Man's Diet, which would comprise essays on the joys of being fat, a number of incredibly rich recipes, and mini-biographies of the fat and famous. I sent it to publishers and agents, most of whom ignored it, although I was told by a couple that the book was too confusing. Is it a cookbook? A humor book? What? These are the concerns of the excessively skinny, of course. When the manuscript had sat for several months at the offices of Workman Press, I took the small hope all writers clutch at at such moments. After it had been there a year, I had an anniversary cake delivered to their office (it, too, got no response). After seven years, the proposal finally was returned, rejected, by which time I'd moved on to other manuscripts. Here's the opening section.


The Fat Man eases himself into the leather mitt of a wide armchair.  It's not a recliner: it doesn't have to be.  Years of contact with the Fat Man's body have refigured the springs and struts and upholstery to conform to his favorite position. This is where he relaxes, meditates. It's also a favorite place for snacking. The crumbs that hide among the coins beneath the cushion are a testimony to years of gastronomic experimentation conducted in the extremest leisure . . .
Sydney Greenstreet in
The Maltese Falcon
It's the most comfortable chair in the house. Because the Fat Man settles for nothing less than total comfort. His nail-thin wife may perch nervously upon the Shaker torture device she laughingly calls a chair and claim to be comfortable, but the Fat Man knows better. Skinny people fear real comfort. From his sleep-inducing throne, the Fat Man pities them as his eyes droop shut for a salubrious nap.

A rhythmic hammering sounds from the sidewalk. The Fat Man cracks an eyelid to see what's happening. As he suspected: a squadron of joggers, their faces wrought with the misery of physical torture. Look at them. Eyes glazed, these are the nuts who ape those videotapes of emaciated exercise fanatics.

And then skip lunch.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Goldbergs

I'M TAKING A DAY off today, but that doesn't mean you have to. However, I offer some exciting entertainment -- what Duke Ellington (see yesterday's post) would refer to as "the latest thing."

It's a crowd-funded, open-source recording and score that you may mull over and pass around as you desire, and I can think of few pieces more deserving.

Bach's "Goldberg Variations" was published in 1741. It consists of a theme and 30 variations, and the story that erupted around it decades later suggested that the composer was given the theme by a keyboard prodigy named Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, who also may have given the work's premiere.

Modern scholars dispute this because, of course, that's their job.

Pianist Kimiko Ishizaka performs this new recording, which is available at the Open Goldberg Variations site. You can download the recording here, and the score, created by Werner Schweer, has been (and still is) subjected to much peer review. Which seems to amount to fine-tooth combing that which has been endlessly scrutinized, itself a fascinating idea, even if it suggests woodland beasts re-marking their territory.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Piano Reflections

YESTERDAY WAS A BUSY yard-work day, so to relax at night I put on a Duke Ellington disc. Because I want nobody in my house to suffer from music deficiency, there are loudpeakers throughout. My daughter, who is fifteen, was doing schoolwork in the next room. I was startled to hear her humming along with the disc’s opening number, “Who Knows.”

“You gave me a copy of this a long time ago,” she explained. “I have it for bedtime listening. I also have it on my computer and my phone.” Incredibly to me, ever-fearing my tastes are freakish, she says it’s a favorite. Perhaps my own adoration for this record really did work it into my DNA.

The album is “Piano Reflections,” which Ellington recorded for Capitol Records in 1953, during his brief association with that label. I was about my daughter’s age when I was introduced to it, thanks to my friend Harry Minot, with whom I repeatedly listened to the odd, affecting array of Ellington tunes, many of them composed for the recording.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Dreamings

Novel Ideas Dept.: Here's the start of something I wrote fifteen years ago, a novel titled The Dreamings that was inspired by a show at NYC's Asia Society of Australian Aboriginal art. In my book, one of the protagonists, Sidney, is a frustrated middle-class American who discovers a renewed sense of artistic identity when he oversees the installation of a traveling exhibition of such paintings, which occupy a world (and religion, and cartography, and so much more) of their own. Of the many, many rejections this book received from agents and publishers, my favorite was the horrified reaction of one agent who was terribly offended that the opening chapter had to do with peeing. (Later in the book, we learn that there's an Aboriginal myth that tells the story of a man who sees his mother-in-law so engaged and feels compelled to have sex with her, with disastrous results. This becomes a plot point.) Enjoy the first chapter.


THE SWEETEST SENSE OF privacy emerges after midnight, when traffic noise is stilled enough to reveal the plangent hum of distant streetlamps. The telephone is silent, the TV is dark: the living room is pleasant. But even finer and quieter, for Sidney’s purpose, is the bathroom, where he can ease through several chapters of a book while tending to his body’s equilibrium. He and his wife, Lynette, established a casual bathroom intimacy early in their relationship, an intimacy he later understood was a mistake. Not that the bodily functions were reason for shame or embarrassment — Sidney had no problem peeing at public-restroom urinals even when flanked by micturating men. He simply craved the few minutes of solitude a bathroom break provides, and now was forced to grab them at night.

A once-promising painter who let himself slide into complacency, thirty-five-year-old Sidney Marsh grew up in a comfortably middle-class environment that wrapped him in a cocoon of artistic splendor. His passion for art, beginning with the likenesses drawn by caricature artists in Mad magazine and evolving into a sophisticated appreciation of work both modern and classic, was fueled by easy access to Manhattan’s museums and a few notable artists. Sidney studied at a succession of schools and studios in the city. His Connecticut home was a short commuter trip away.

With so much art around him, Sidney assumed that his passion was universal. Who, after all, could fail to respond to late Turner with anything but awe? Who wouldn't find the enigma of the human condition glowing in the mock-peaceful faces of a Cassatt? From the acknowledged masters Sidney learned his footing; he also was lucky enough to grow up in a town that boasted a good museum of modern art, and he welcomed each new exhibition with the certainty that one day he, too, would hang in those halls.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Gobbledegook Songs

Yesterday I confessed to owning an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” record as a child. I had no choice in the matter; like so many kids’-world acquisitons, it was foisted upon me by a well-meaning relative. Probably not my mother, because I suspect she would have had little tolerance for the strident sound of speeded-up voices. But she did lay upon me a record that would prove a favorite, something that arrived in the mail one day and to which I clung like Croesus clutching gold. I’ll come back to this topic, but first let me reprint the following book review, which ran about five years ago.


THE FINEST OF ALL children's records was one I grew up on, which shouldn't be surprising: Kids cultivate prejudices devoid of discrimination. But I lucked out, insofar as the record I most enjoyed was a '50s LP of Stanley Holloway singing “Gobbledegook Songs.”

I played that record to death, but replaced it a decade ago with another scratchy copy (it has yet to hit CD, and better copies of the LP sell for $60 to $80). I’ve have inflicted it not only on my own daughter but also the kids of others, and always with enthusiastic results. The genius behind the recording was Hecky Krasnow, whose life is recounted in Rudolph, Frosty, and Captain Kangaroo: The Musical Life of Hecky Krasnow (Santa Monica Press; 408 pages; $24.95), the new biography by Judy Gail Krasnow, his daughter.

Krasnow was a violinist whose book about children's music caught the eye of legendary Columbia Records producer Goddard Lieberson, who hired him in 1949 to revitalize that label’s kid-disk department. Krasnow’s first act was to select a song from the slush pile and convince a reluctant Lieberson not only to authorize its recording but also to approve the unlikely choice of balladeer Gene Autry to sing it – and thus was born Columbia’s first platinum hit, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Brush Up Your Dickens

Baiting the Bard Dept.: Damned if I can find the clipping, but it was a Schenectady Gazette piece from many years ago in which the reporter credited A Tale of Two Cities to Shakespeare. I wrote the following for my own amusement. I would like to say that I learned the melody from a "Kiss Me, Kate" recording, but the truth is that I first encountered it on an Alvin and the Chipmunks LP, and I feel better for this confession. Apologies to Cole Porter, of course.


Dickens, not Shakespeare

If winning women will be your strength
Give them books they can read at length,
For a lengthy novel will clearly show
You're a sensitive man to know!
So give her Tolstoy and Henry James,
Thackeray and those Bronte dames;
Unless you have Melville and Wolfe and Stowe
You won't seem like a regular Joe,
But the bard whose books get shared
Though this tribute would have galled him:
Is the one who never cared
Just what the Dickens they called him!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Just Who Is J. D. Salinger?

Guest Blogger: H. Allen Smith. I've got this great Thomas Pynchon story to tell but, dammit, it has some identifying details the revelation of which would be disrespectful. After all, this is the man who hired Irwin Corey to accept the National Book Award on his behalf. Instead, I offer this rare piece by the unjustly neglected humorist H. Allen Smith. I already chronicled my search for his house in Alpine, Texas. Here's a piece he wrote in 1966 that seems to have been otherwise un-republished.


H. Allen Smith (or whomever)
A MAN NAMED VISCO, resident of Montclair, New Jersey, has written a letter to me advising me that recently he went into a New York City bookstore and bought a volume titled How to Write without Knowing Nothing. The book bore my name as author.

When Mr. Visco got home to Montclair and took the wrapping off his package and opened the book, he found that its contents did not correspond with the description on the jacket and on the hard binding. In fact, the inside part of the book had nothing whatever to do with writing, but was something titled Franny and Zooey and the author was identified on the title page as "J. D. Salinger." Mr. Visco said he was confused.

It came as no great surprise to me. Other copies of that book got into the stores—books described as H. Allen Smith's work on the outside and containing on the inside work by this J. D. Salinger. It happened once before to me, when my publisher sent me a copy of another book of mine, The Pig in the Barber Shop, and on opening it I found that it contained a novel called The Good Shepherd by C. S. Forester. I am in an idiot sort of business.

Monday, May 21, 2012


For many months back in 1995, I wrote the “Don’t Try This at Home” column for Computer Life magazine, one of several Ziff-Davis titles to which I contributed. Here’s an example of what the column covered, finding novel ways to connect computers to other tasks. At this point, the idea of controlling a home-use telescope with a computer was still fairly new, if expensive, but you can still get a Meade LX-200 for about $2,500, and the versions of TheSky software have changed, but the entry-level telescope-controlling package is now less expensive than the one I reviewed. Much else also has changed in the interim – who deals with serial ports any more? – but the night sky remains a source of wonder and mystery.


Meade LX-200
IF YOU LISTEN TO the songwriters, the stars are big and bright in Texas when they're not falling on Alabama, no doubt wrenched from Vermont where there's only moonlight reported. But if you stand outside on a clear night and look up, a sparkling canopy of mystery awaits your study. Thanks to the ancients who had no streetlights and lots of time on their hands, we have fancifully-imagined constellations to consider, not to mention solar system objects and the more recently-catalogued phenomena like star clusters and distant galaxies.

These days, each time bright Venus rises, the number of UFO reports generally goes up. No professional astronomer makes that mistake, and, thanks to a happy combination of telescope and computer, neither will you.

Many fine astronomy programs are now on the market, giving planetarium-like tours of the heavens. And there are computer-telescope combinations in addition to what I describe below. But where the others combinations merely help you to aim that telescope barrel, Software Bisque's TheSky actually feeds the Meade LX-200 telescope the information it needs to position itself, telling it to center its focus on the object of your choice.

It's the kind of thing that makes old-line astronomers grumpy. You haven't earned the view of that object by skewing the scope by hand, hour after hour, to learn every square inch of what's up there. But isn't this exactly the kind of drudgery computers are supposed to spare us?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Hardware Nimroddery

THE WEEKEND. The weather is nice. The house and grounds need upkeep. I need to buy supplies. The small, independent hardware stores have long since been ground into oblivion under the heel of the Brobdingnagian chains. The days of describing a project to a salesclerk and learning a few tips from an experienced hand are over.

What remains are the foot soldiers of the Moron Brigade. The folks to whom a job is a job and the paycheck rewards your endurance for showing up on time and putting in your hours. The stores themselves offer little training, and the employees have no incentive to learn.

And the customers – the sad, sorry, sonsabitches like me – are the liability. Because they have to interact with us, and we can be so damned annoying.

I had this conversation today:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Friday, May 18, 2012

Performing Flea

This tribute to the work of P. G. Wodehouse appeared five years ago in the Albany Times-Union, where a semi-literate sub-editor took umbrage at my knock at contemporary so-called humorists. This is the unfortunate consequence of knowing nothing of culture and society before your own birthdate. You, however, are far more hip, and will enjoy seeing this piece in its entirety. And Overlook Press's reissue series, described below, soldiers on.


Photo by B. A. Nilsson,
created for a different article,
but it makes the point.
TO SAY THAT P. G. Wodehouse's books are the funniest in the English language is only to reinforce an opinion offered repeatedly during the past several decades. George Orwell and Evelyn Waugh were among the cheering section; Sebastian Faulks and Douglas Adams added more recent voices to the choir.

Overlook Press is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to restore Wodehouse’s 95-some titles to hardcover (how you count his books depends on how you count titles that were slightly revised and renamed by the author), and four recent issues offer a fascinating look at the contrasts of the writer’s career.

The Little Nugget (1913) and The Coming of Bill (1920) bookend the period of Wodehouse’s greatest creative development. He entered the ’teens as a writer who had shifted from juvenile pieces to novels very much of their time (strong, silent heroes rescuing ditzy ingenues); by the end of the decade he had turned such conventions on their ears and, not incidentally, created his most enduring character: Jeeves the butler.

Very Good, Jeeves! was published in 1930, but collected eleven of the all-time best of the Jeeves short stories that appeared the decade before in magazines like The Saturday Evening Post. And Do Butlers Burgle Banks?, which appeared in 1968, is definitely a twilight effort (Wodehouse died in 1975), but PGW in his dotage still wrote more compelling prose than those around him.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

To Think of Tea!

It’s iced-tea season again. We have a flock of mint growing crazily in a corner of the garden, which mixes nicely with a good black tea and a squeeze of lemon. Which black tea? I turn you over to Divinitea’s Linda Smith, in an article that first appeared last year around this time.


Divinitea's Linda Smith
Photo by B. A. Nilsson
TEA SERVICE REMAINS the biggest let-down in the fine-dining arena. Too often it amounts to a cup of hot (and rapidly cooling) water with a tea bag beside it. Yet the glories of the beverage only are truly revealed when water of the correct temperature is allowed to circulate among large, well-chosen and -blended leaves for a specific amount of time. It’s no more fussy a requirement than good coffee demands, yet we’ve long since graduated from instant coffee but have yet to leave tea bags behind.

Which is why Linda Smith, founder of Schenectady-based Divinitea, tirelessly offers hands-on tastings with both the public and, especially, restaurateurs, demonstrating the benefits of brewing it loose.

This harkens back to her own experience working in restaurant kitchens, typically white-linen establishments. One such place sported silver tea service, “but they’d give you a Lipton tea bag. So one day I cut one of them open in front of the chef and asked, ‘Why are you serving dirt?’ It was very hard to convince people.”

Tea bags became popular in the early 1900s, offering an obvious convenience factor; a half-century later, Thomas Lipton patented the flo-thru bag, offering more room for water circulation in the brew. But all of this was (and continues to be) hampered by the need for smaller tea leaves to make the bag-brew work.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Protean Bernstein

Several years ago, I wrote liner notes for the sadly defunct CD label Dorian Recordings. Here's a sample from their 2000 release Bernstein Tribute, featuring the high-powered brass-and-percussion ensemble Proteus 7.


THE SYNCOPATED CRACKLE of a trumpet is a defining characteristic of jazz, which makes it a defining characteristic of American music. It’s the sound of Louis Armstrong; it’s also in Leonard Bernstein’s music. You hear it in the first few bars of “West Side Story”; it’s in the symphonies, the Mass – it’s a signature, and it typifies the extraordinary musical voice Bernstein achieved by assaulting the European classical-music tradition with his synthesis of American jazz.

His music, whether on the concert or Broadway stage (or in that halfway place he placed his Mass) is lyrical, punchy–and difficult to play. That’s why the combination of Bernstein’s music and Proteus 7 is so electric. Put together a group of the country’s best brass players (and one dynamic percussionist) and you have an ensemble that can tackle anything, as previous Proteus 7 recordings demonstrate. They took on the James Bond world with “For Your Ears Only” and paid a salute to the Pérez Prado tradition in “Cha Cha Lounge.” Coming up in time for Hallowe’en is “Dracula,” a salute to the more creepy classics.

“We enjoyed making those discs,” says trombonist Hans Bohn, “but we’re all classically trained, so we wanted to find something that would bring those worlds together. And music by Bernstein fit the bill.”

Selections range from Broadway to the concert hall, with characteristic Bernstein wit informing everything here. Even the one original piece, Anthony DiLorenzo’s “Mostly Influential,” is forthright in acknowledging a debt. “Bernstein is one of the few composers who gives the brass a chance to let loose,” says DiLorenzo. “I wanted to write something to pay tribute to that.”

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Back to the Lake in the Sky

Thanks to the vagaries of my performing career, I’ve appeared at Mohonk Mountain House in New Paltz several times and always enjoy the opportunity to spend a couple of days hiking the trails and, especially, enjoying the food. I’m writing this from my room there on an overcast day that nevertheless didn’t dissuade me from hiking to Skytop, fog-shrouded lack of a vista making the climb no less enjoyable. To celebrate, here’s a reprint of a review I wrote a couple of years ago about the buffet meal I enjoyed – with some updated photos.


“MY FAMILY HAS BEEN coming here every year for 43 years,” a woman told me. “Back when we started, Mohonk didn’t advertise. But they asked the people who stayed here to recommend others who might like the place. Two friends of my father were stuck in New Paltz one night, and couldn’t find a hotel room in town. Someone suggested they check with Mohonk. A room was available, so they made the trip up the mountain – back then you did the last section in a horse-drawn carriage – and stayed the night. And the next day, when they were asked for those recommendations, they gave my father’s name and address. We’ve been coming here ever since.”

I’ve heard variations on this story several times over, having stayed a few times myself at this venerable property. The 265-room main building is an astonishing feature, as is the mountaintop lake it overlooks. The state-of-the-art spa that recently was installed is so thorough that there’s even underwater music for enhanced pool enjoyment. Hundreds of miles of trails crisscross the thousands of surrounding acres of the Shawangunk Mountains, much of it part of the Mohonk Preserve, even more of it a State Park.

But even more spectacular, to my point of view, is the food. Dinner at Mohonk comes in two varieties: table d’hôte and buffet. Except for Sunday brunch, the buffet is served from June 29 to Sept. 2, as well as on major holidays and during late-in-the-year weekends. I visited the day after Christmas, when the buffet was in full swing, but I’ve been there during other times of the year and ordered off the menu. Either way, you don’t emerge hungry.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The (Polish) Joke's on Me

Hard to imagine that in our mild-mannered environment a classical-music review should draw considerable ire, yet that’s what I managed to provoke in 1986 when composer-conductor Krzystof Penderecki appeared at Proctors with Yo-Yo Ma and the Cracow Philharmonic. But it wasn’t my musical opinions that set people off. It was the sentence, “Krzystof Penderecki writes music that can sound as impenetrable (to an American) as his name.” Schenectady’s Polish-American community took terrible umbrage at what they took to be a swipe. As I explained to a group spokesman, I was merely observing that Americans have a tough time grappling with the spelling and pronunciation of foreign names where the consonants and vowels behave differently, and who among his association hasn’t suffered consequent spelling errors? The music, of course, was a non-issue to my critics, none of whom attended the concert. I should note that I’ve become a much bigger fan of Penderecki’s work in the intervening years.


Krzystof Penderecki
HOW DO YOU KEEP a concert of classical music contemporary while respecting centuries-old traditions?

The Cracow Philharmonic had the nice idea of touring with a distinguished composer at the helm, bringing in a renowned soloist and offering a mixture of 20th-century works for its performance at Proctor’s Sunday evening. The idea was nice; the result was disappointing.

Krzystof Penderecki writes music that can sound as impenetrable (to an American) as his name. His experiments with orchestration – particularly in the use of semitones and tone clusters – have challenged tradition and earned him great respect in the avant-garde music world. But his most significant exposure to a mass audience probably was in Stanley Kubrick’s use of his music for some of the eerier sequences in the movie “The Shining.”

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Speaking of Laurel and Hardy . . .

... as we were over the past few days, they were at their best with the right comic foils. Jimmy Finlayson, Edgar Kennedy, Billy Gilbert, and Charlie Hall were among the best of the men they worked with. Among the women were Anita Garvin, Thelma Todd, and Mae Busch.

Busch was an Australian-born singer and actress who worked in American vaudeville before appearing in silent films with Erich von Stroheim and Lon Chaney, but her mercurial nature led her to the Hal Roach studios as the talkies came in.

This is a scene from Laurel and Hardy's first sound film: "Unaccustomed as We Are," from 1929. Overlapping dialogue and a wonderful musical gag (no overdubbing!) are among the innovations Stan Laurel helped craft for the screen.

Friday, May 11, 2012

They Are Mechanical Blunderbusses!

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Final Day: We’re finishing a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Billy Gilbert
ALTHOUGH NOT NECESSARILY an archetype, he had a quirky everyman quality that netted him well over 200 screen credits over a 33-year career – and those are the roles for which he’s been credited. Billy Gilbert seemed to be everywhere during the 30s and 40s, usually behind a bar or delivering a telegram or in chef’s whites or sneezing. Sneezing was his trademark, and he’s best known, although you probably didn’t know it was he, as the voice of and model for Sneezy in Disney’s “Snow White.”

Gilbert was born – in a dressing room – to a family of opera performers and launched himself into vaudeville before hitting his ’teens. Stan Laurel spotted him in one such show and recommended him to Hal Roach, for whose studio Laurel and Hardy were working. From the start, Gilbert was a triple-threat talent, writing and directing in addition to taking acting roles, crossing paths with Thelma Todd and the Our Gang kids.

He made eleven films with Laurel and Hardy between 1931 and 1938, including the Academy Award-winning short “The Music Box” – the saga of hauling a piano up a forbidding flight of 131 stairs, only to discover that the top-hatted professor (Gilbert) who lives at their destination wants no part of it. “Piano? Piano? I hate and detest pianos!” he thunders. “They are mechanical blunderbusses!” (According to Gilbert, his German accent was intended to distinguish him from frequent Laurel and Hardy antagonists Edgar Kennedy and Jimmy Finlayson.)

Thursday, May 10, 2012

I Want Excitement! I Want to Hot-Cha-Cha-Cha!

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Day Four: We’re spending a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Thelma Todd
WHAT SET HER APART from the platinum blondes of the early ’30s was that she could hold her own with the best of the comedians. Sure, Harlow worked with Gable and Barrymore, but Thelma Todd went up against the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Jimmy Durante, even Wheeler and Woolsey (who pushed censorship limits to the max. Their “So This Is Africa” may be the most enjoyably tasteless film of the pre-code era, with the most unexpected ad-lib).

Thelma Todd started out, as did so many, as a beauty queen, and her earliest films, which were silent, included her for that purpose only. As the talkies took over, she was fortunate enough to be working for Hal Roach, who started her off in the first Laurel and Hardy talking picture, a two-reeler titled “Unaccustomed as We Are.”

She’s the incredibly polite and obliging wife of irascible Edgar Kennedy, which can only mean that she’ll end up in camisole and step-ins in Hardy’s apartment as his own wife, sharp-tempered Mae Busch, is returning.

From there, Roach teamed her with ZaSu Pitts and then Patsy Kelly in a series of shorts films, and she returned for five more Laurel and Hardy pictures, including her final one, “The Bohemian Girl.”

But she may be best remembered as Groucho’s foil in two of Marx Brothers Paramount classics: “Monkey Business” and “Horse Feathers,” neither of which featured Margaret Dumont, his usual object of romance. In “Monkey Business,” she’s a bootlegger’s wife, and Groucho’s courtship begins in her stateroom on board a ship. It hits many surreal notes, as when she declares, “I want excitement! I want to hot-cha-cha-cha!” and Groucho grabs a conveniently located guitar to accompany a madcap dance she performs.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

If the Best Man is the Best Man, Why Does the Bride Marry the Groom?

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Day Three: We’re spending a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Mischa Auer
HE’D ALREADY BEEN in over 80 films by 1936, although some roles must have been fairly unmemorable, like “Firing Squad Victim No. 3 (uncredited)” in Greta Garbo’s “Mata Hari.” The screwball but sort-of socially conscious “My Man Godfrey” changed everything. Mischa Auer was cast as Carlo, a mad Russian genius whom wealthy socialite Alice Brady keeps as an artistic protegé, although his most creative act seems to be the gorilla impression he performs to cheer up spoiled Carole Lombard.

Auer got an Academy Award nomination and never looked back ... at least until the political climate changed. For the next fifteen years, Auer was the crazy but adorable Russian, sporting such character names as Prince Muratov, Baron Rene de Montigny, Dimitri Kyeff, and, memorably, dance master Kolenkhov in “You Can’t Take It With You,” Frank Capra’s film of the Kaufman-Hart Broadway smash (and played on Broadway by George Tobias, another of Hollywood’s character-actor greats).

You can sense that behind Auer’s wide, mournful eyes and crazy characterizations lurked a deep intelligence, and it’s confirmed by his unusual history. Born Mikhaïl Ounskovsky in St. Petersburg in 1905, he grew up in a well-to-do family whose fortunes changed with the early death of his father and, of course, the Russian revolution. He fled with his mother to Turkey, where she worked as a nurse and died of typhus. The young Mischa was found by his mother’s father, who brought him to America.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

More Clothes for the Horses

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept., Day Two: We’re spending a few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Joan Blondell

SHE STRIKES A PERFECT balance between wisecracking sourpuss Aline MacMahon and cute but acting-deficient Ruby Keeler in “Gold Diggers of 1933.” And she’s as strikingly attractive as you can ever want too see. Which only shows that Joan Blondell was able to move from being the main sidekick – with wisecracks galore – to part of an ensemble and still hold her own. Which is saying something when you’re up against a champ like MacMahon.

And Blondell got one of the her finest moment in that movie, as the lead singer (or declaimer, as it happened) of “Forgotten Man,” one of the Hollywood’s few straight-on looks at the Depression. Ironically, by that point, Blondell was one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars.

(Before we let this movie go, let me share a DVD-release discovery. During the lead-in to the “Shadow Waltz” sequence, at 81 minutes into the movie, there's a general hubbub in which one of the ladies clearly can be heard saying, “Shit! I can't find my shoe!”)

Monday, May 07, 2012

That’s Why They Put Rubber on the End of Pencils

A Week in Byron’s Hollywood Dept.: We’re going to spend the next few days celebrating some of the actors who created the character archetypes of the classic motion pictures.


Allen Jenkins
NOBODY WRENCHED AS MUCH inflection out of the start-of-the-sentence word “Say!” as did Allen Jenkins. The rubber-faced character actor spoke with a drawl colored by the vowels of his native Staten Island, and was the perfect foil for the likes of James Cagney, with whom he appeared in five movies between 1933 and 1935 (“The Mayor of Hell,” “Hard to Handle,”
Jimmy the Gent,” “The St. Louis Kid,” and “The Irish in Us”) and Humphrey Bogart, with a long run of seven pictures between 1932 and 1940, one of the most memorable being 1937's “Dead End,” where Jenkins played gangster Bogart’s sidekick.

(For the record, the other films are “Three on a Match,” “Marked Woman,” “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse,” “Swing Your Lady,” “Racket Busters,” and “Brother Orchid.”)

Jenkins played a character who was worldly-wise, who knew how to hustle a quick buck, who delivered side-of-the-mouth wisecracks with deceptive ease – and was good-looking enough to win the second- or third-billed girl. He was at his best in movies like “Three Men on a Horse,” (1936), based on a hit George Abbott play. It was a film without above-the-title stars, and there’s a sense of merry abandon as Mervyn LeRoy (with whom Jenkins worked often) keeps the cast in some semblance of order.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Barbecue: There's the Rub!

From the Smoker Dept.: Today's nice weather has prompted thoughts of barbecue, so here's a helpful piece from a couple of summers ago. And once you get to cooking this stuff, don't forget to invite me over.


Saratoga Awesome Dogs | Photo by B. A. Nilsson
ALTHOUGH NOTHING BEATS AN impromptu outdoor cookout that litters the picnic table with burgers and dogs, my friends (and I now have many in the neighborhood) are never more pleased than when there’s a threat of barbecue.

The hardware chains have obliged us by offering sturdy, lower-end smokers that do an excellent job for household use. Forget the vertical type: it has little capacity and tends to go out overnight. You need a horizontal grill with an offset fuel chamber. They’re heavy, and awkward to assemble, and I suggest torquing the hell out of the bolts you use to attach the legs. If they’re not provided in the parts bag, look into adding lock washers or double-nut the bolts. (I speak from the experience of one who’s seen his smoker list to one side in a high wind like a drunkard, eventually telescoping into total collapse.)

Saturday, May 05, 2012

A Telephonic Conversation

Guest Blogger Dept.: We welcome Mark Twain with a contribution proving that technology may change, but those who abuse it have remained similar for over a century. The telephone came on the scene in 1876. Three years later, Twain had one. In 1880, the following piece appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, presumably drawn from something Twain used in his public performances.


CONSIDER THAT A CONVERSATION by telephone—when you are simply sitting by and not taking any part in that conversation—is one of the solemnest curiosities of modern life. Yesterday I was writing a deep article on a sublime philosophical subject while such a conversation was going on in the room. I notice that one can always write best when somebody is talking through a telephone close by. Well, the thing began in this way. A member of our household came in and asked me to have our house put into communication with Mr. Bagley’s downtown. I have observed, in many cities, that the sex always shrink from calling up the central office themselves. I don’t know why, but they do. So I touched the bell, and this talk ensued:


I. Is it the Central Office?

C. O. Of course it is. What do you want?

I. Will you switch me on to the Bagleys, please?

C. O. All right. Just keep your ear to the telephone.

Then I heard K-LOOK, K-LOOK, K’LOOK—KLOOK-KLOOK-KLOOK-LOOK-LOOK! then a horrible “gritting” of teeth, and finally a piping female voice: Y-e-s? (RISING INFLECTION.) Did you wish to speak to me.

Without answering, I handed the telephone to the applicant, and sat down. Then followed that queerest of all the queer things in this world—a conversation with only one end of it. You hear questions asked; you don’t hear the answer. You hear invitations given; you hear no thanks in return. You have listening pauses of dead silence, followed by apparently irrelevant and unjustifiable exclamations of glad surprise or sorrow or dismay. You can’t make head or tail of the talk, because you never hear anything that the person at the other end of the wire says. Well, I heard the following remarkable series of observations, all from the one tongue, and all shouted—for you can’t ever persuade the sex to speak gently into a telephone:

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Turned Off TV

We're in the middle of Screen-Free Week – it began April 30 – and I've seen little publicity about it. Then again, I don't watch TV. But even internet news sources have failed to offer much. It's been happening since 1994, formerly called TV Turnoff Week, and the official website is here. My own epiphany came in 1980, as described in the article below. It's long and pretends to scholarly import (with a bibliography, even!), so take a deep breath. And it's followed by an interview piece about Bill McKibben that was published in Metroland Magazine many years ago. Remember: you can help make the world safe for yourself and others with a TV-B-Gone. I never leave home without it.


I’VE NEVER SEEN an episode of “Cheers” or “Seinfeld.” I’ve never even seen “M*A*S*H.”  I have a vague idea of what’s going on with “The Sopranos.” I’m a former television addict who inadvertently took a break from the box and never went back to watching it.

I can confess, along with so many millions of others, that TV was a babysitter and companion throughout my childhood. From Saturday morning cartoons to the Friday night primetime schedule (that’s when a couple of seasons of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” aired), I rushed to see what the living room’s oracle had to offer. In the pre-cable days, these were all commercial offerings, and even now I get an emotional jolt when I come across a vintage ad on an Internet site.

My family dined on TV dinners perched on TV tray stands in front of the TV, silently gumming Salisbury steak as Red Skelton cavorted in front of us (a scene poignantly recreated in Barry Levinson’s movie “Avalon.”) My allegiance began to shift slightly when, late in my high-school years, I discovered vintage movies, which at that time were to be found in a handful of revival houses – and on television, usually late at night. Still interrupted by commercials.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Y'All Come

Across the U.S.A. Dept., Sex Division: Here's what became the most widely read of the two dozen pieces I wrote for the Schenectady Gazette detailing aspects of a cross-country tour my wife and I took in 1989. For this one, she waited in the car while I conducted my research.


IT'S NOT IN THE Chamber of Commerce brochures, and you won't see signs of it on the main streets of the Nevada towns where the multicolored casino lights make three in the morning look like noontime.

If you've got your CB radio on, you might get your first inkling of it from this kind of message on channel 19: “Hey there, all you truckers. This is Dusty from Simone's and if you want to stop in Winnemucca we've got lots of nice hot coffee for you and can help you relax.”

To find Simone's you steer down Lower Baud Street into what looks like a long driveway, at the end of which is a cluster of five well-lighted buildings. My Place, The Villa Joy, Penny's Cozy Corner and The Pussycat complete the collection.

Nobody lounges out of the windows or beckons enticingly. You have to know where you're going and what you plan to do once you get there.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Waiter! There's a . . .

From the Vault Dept.: Here's a piece that never loses currency, originally published twelve years ago, the quotes giving a snapshot of an Albany-area dining scene that has shuffled considerably since.


THE CHEF'S SPECIALTY WAS soufflés – huge, airy concoctions bedecked with lobster or caviar. Three members of a party of six ordered them. They’d been celebrating whatever event brought them here with round after round of vodka  martinis; by the time their entrées arrived, they were boisterous.

Then: “Waiter!” summoned one. I eased to her side. “This thing – ” she gestured to the soufflé in front of her, a yellow pillow now the worse for wear – “this thing has no flavor!”

“I’ll tell the chef.” In the kitchen, the German martinet was busily working the stove as I relayed the complaint.

Arschloch!” he thundered. “What’s her problem?” This tends to be the immediate reaction of any chef I’ve known. I explained my theory that the party had numbed its taste buds with so much booze. “Of course that’s what happened!” he agreed. “It’s their problem.”