Tuesday, April 27, 2010

#53 Nashville/Music City Footnote III

For any good shaggy dog story, or furry footnote, the teller must dilatate and attenuate the plot(less)line sufficiently to result in complete anti-climax. So far. so good. The bathetic conclusion is nearby, however.

But first, that other side of town. To the east past Music Row (the record companies), on to downtown and now all the way over the river to the Disneyish Opryland complex--here is represented the Nashville most associated in the national consciousness. Spamalot let's call it, to distinguish it from the highbrow western end with its Athenian pretensions.

More specifically, from the (now-restored) old cathedral of country music, Ryman Auditorium, and down a few blocks to the Cumberland River you've got the revitalized, just-like-the-old-days Lower Broadway. This was/is Nashville's Bourbon St., or Beale St. in Memphis--its blues with "twang" if you will--where you can walk and sample for free the "Sound" coming from little open-door bars lining both sides of the street. No cover but a beer to get into these living definitions of a "honky-tonk," because most nights are amateur ones. And they're all only a few doors down from the next, punctuated by arcades, fast-food places, and "museums"/fan-shops dedicated to one country-music star or another, or all of them. Apocalyptically tawdry ... and great fun.

And, de gustibus, good music. The wannabe Porter Wagoners and Dolly Partons who flock to Lower Broadway most often bring some talent with them. Tootsie's Orchid Lounge has always been the ultimate mecca for those pilgrims. The real-life proprietor Louise "Tootsie" Bess could be seen hovering around the bar in my day, and several years later be seen doing the same thing, cameo-wise, in Robert Altman's Nashville (1975). She was to aspiring country-singers what Johnny Carson was to would-be stand-up comics. As in Altman's movie--and in the under-appreciated W.W. and the Dixie Dance Kings that same year, with Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed, including a cameo by guess-whom--if you got a gig at Tootsie's, you got it made in Music City.

So it was for Ms. Parton, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings, among others. Roger Miller reportedly penned "King of the Road" at Tootsie's. Porter Wagoner, on the other hand, was already a recording and television star when he hit Nashville in the late 50s. He had been featured on TV's Ozark Jubilee in his native Missouri for some years, had several hit records to his credit, and had earned the moniker, Mr. Grand Ole Opry, before Dolly even signed on with him.

He was almost a literal "hit" with me, too. Or call it a near-physical "brush" with celebrity. Enough. Here's the story. I'd been commuting to Vanderbilt from our place across the river for a couple of weeks before the fall semester had started, and could easily find parking on campus. But this was the first day of classes on that morning in 1968. Parking lots full. So back around to just off big 21st Ave., across from what was then the Divinity School, where I found a spot. Also across from campus on 21st was a pancake house--could have been an IHOP, but it shortly became a Lum's beer and hot-dog joint anyway--whose parking-lot driveway debouched into the side-street upon which I had parked, and upon whose sidewalk I was soon walking, carrying my briefcase, thinking intently upon the very new day ahead.

Gap in sidewalk ... proceed across driveway a step or two ... catch glimpse of bright yellow object in corner of right eye ... closing fast ... jump back ... see Cadillac convertible inches away sliding by and galumphing to a halt halfway into the side-street and already well into a right turn. Car rocks back and forth a moment ... driver with long, houn'-dog face, topped with flamboyant cowboy-hat, looks over shoulder of garishly embroidered jacket ... says in distinctive baritone:

Sorry about that, Pardner.
And drives off.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

#52 Nashville/Music City Footnote II

Nashville ... 'tis a silly place. It's Camelot and, pace Monty Python, Spamalot both at the same time. Two separate but equal kingdoms. Wonderfully schizoid. On the one hand there's the city as the "Athens of the South," with an actual full-size replica of the PARTHENON in Centennial Park to prove it. (Another Greekism, hubris, might also come to mind here.) There it is, right across West End Ave. from Vanderbilt University. But the latter is only one of literally dozens--think Boston or the NC "Triangle" hereabouts--of higher-learning institutions dotting the landscape.

The crown-jewel, my doctoral alma mater, was founded by steamship-mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt, the "Commodore"--a strictly honorary title like chicken-mogul Harlan Sanders' Kentucky "Colonel"--in 1873. Might as well have been called "Vanity" U, because once he had bought up the little Methodist college on the west side of town; had donated his money and his name; he and his family had little to do with it after that. Unlike those other trickle-down tycoon-clans like the Carnegies and Rockefellers, the Vanderbilts have never been great philanthropists, even unto "poor-little-rich-girl" Gloria. For example-- sort of a "NEWS FLASH!"--the Obamas just visited the spectacular Biltmore House this weekend on their romantic getaway to Asheville. They were doubtless the only ones who got in without paying the pricey entrance fees. That monument to gilded-age excess nearly bankrupted that line of the Commodore's progeny, which has been trying to catch up ever since Biltmore was almost but never quite "built" to this day. They were always good at spending, not giving.

The University is most noted today for its top-ranked MEDICAL SCHOOL/med-center--two Nobel laureates (seven total, incl. other departments)--and its #1 ranking (last week's USNews) in grad-school EDUCATION, due in large part to the purchase and full incorporation a couple of decades ago of the venerable Peabody College for Teachers next-door. A long-time partner. Tipper Gore got her M.A. there; Al was Vandy Law. But in my day it was ENGLISH. It was the home of the still-influential New Critical School for the study of literature (Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren), and the "Fugitive Movement" in poetry, producing three U.S. Poet laureates: Alan Tate, Randall Jarrell, and Robert Penn Warren again. "Red" Warren is the only author, in addition, to win the Pulitzer for both poetry (twice) AND fiction: the novel, All the King's Men (1947). My "convention-buddy" James Dickey, Pulitzer-prized poet and movie-star-manque in his novel-to-movie, Deliverance, hailed from those heady environs too.

Let me pause over the former. He was no crowd-rouser like John Forsythe, but Robert Penn "Call-Me-Red" Warren was a hit nonetheless when we were able to bring my fellow Vandy alum to our little college in the late 70s. Still active, he was then working on a libretto ( !) for a collaborative operatic version of his famous novel (truly a man for all genres). Called Willy Stark, it was presented on PBS a few years later, and is now on DVD. During his visit to campus, we were able to screen the original, Academy-Award-winning movie-adaptation of All the King's Men (1949) with Broderick Crawford (Best Actor winner) et al., as yet unsullied by the disastrous re-make of several years ago, with Sean Penn (relation?) in the Willy Stark/Huey Long role.

As for my association with wild-man James Dickey, it'll have to wait for a later post. As for the luminaries on the other side of town--Nashville's Spamalot, if you will--I need to get back to the great clash/crash of cultures that occurred on that fall morning in 1968 where driveway + sidewalk + street met in near-deadly triangulation for the two people involved. And so I shall, right now. (more).

Thursday, April 22, 2010

#51 Nashville/Music City Footnote

Make that a quarter-note; I'm still semi-quavering from the incident. A truly comic, Minnie-Pearl moment. Never thought, just because I wasn't particularly fond of Country Music--even though I will lay claim to deep Southern roots--that I'd be RUN OVER for it! Well, almost--if my reflexes hadn't been awake enough that morning in the fall of 1968, my very first day of class in Vanderbilt's Ph.D program. Grand Ole Opry stalwart Porter Wagoner was only a hair's-breadth innocent of vehicular manslaughter. At the least: mayhem and manglement. His speed wasn't Toyota-lethal.

Look at those "-dos"! His pompadour challenges the heights of Dolly's B-52. And look at his long, houn' dog face (and voice to match). The archetypal country singer--famous already for classics like "Green, Green Grass of Home" and others, but today more so for his early partnership with Dolly Parton ... both of her. She was a recent "replacement" (who knew then?) for Wagoner's former female sidekick/duetist on his long-time popular TV show. But before Dolly broke away some six years later to her own spectacular fame, they were the most adored couple on Nashville's famed WSM, the Opry's eyes and ears, which beamed country music around the planet.

So ... not surprising that theirs was one of the very first shows we happened to tune into on the motel TV-set during idle moments late in the summer of '68, before our arrival that fall. (We were in the process of scouting locations to accommodate our home at the time--a "mobile" one, the "grad-school caravan"--that we would be having towed from the environs of U. of Toledo to "The Athens of the South" in just a few weeks)

We couldn't have missed it. Their weekly, live-0n-tape show from the venerable Ryman Auditorium was repeated and syndicated every day and all over the dial, so popular was it. "Oh, no," we thought, "better find something palatable about country music. Were gonna get a steady diet of it." What the hell, we'd be halfway there--livin' in a trailer-park an' all (though an "upscale" one, complete with pool).

It wasn't hard to become a fan. Particularly of the two pictured above. I firmly believe that the two of them, especially Parton's later celebrity, contributed to getting the Nashville Sound well into the mainstream. If it wasn't Robert Altman. Trivia-alert: If you'll recall, in that director's acclaimed movie, Nashville (1975), Henry Gibson (of TV's Laugh-In fame) was cast as "Haven Hamilton," a pompadoured country-singer, garishly clad in rhinestone vestmentage. Altman patterned him after none other than Mr. Wagoner, then added political ambitions to his character for plot-purposes. Trivium #2 (can't resist), same movie: Lily Tomlin was cast in a major role as an aspiring country-singer/song-writer; she's a divorced, working mother, waitressing till she gets her big break. (The actress actually wrote and performed her own song for the film.) Flash-forward to the great comic film 9 to 5 (1980), inspired by Dolly Parton's top-40 hit. Lily Tomlin, again playing a struggling divorced Mom, co-stars with Parton, who now has Tomlin's Nashville role as an aspiring country-songstress working office-jobs till she gets her big break. Cosmic.

Anyway, six years before her Hollywood breakthrough (Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 1982, came soon after her success in 9 to 5--not to mention the very-close-to-home Rhinestone, 1984, the bomb which may have killed it for her) ... here she is with Porter Wagoner just before the break-up, clearly demonstrating why they were so popular. Take a look. Notice the good-natured banter, the blend of voices--very nice is the alternating of harmonics: she will descant soprano when he's baritone melody; he will provide lower-register "continuo" when she takes the melodic line.

Take a good look. Another six years prior to that show, he's the same guy who almost ran me down with his bright-yellow Cadillac convertible. (more)

Monday, April 19, 2010

#50 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down" III

Where and when could you purchase any and all items on the Kentucky Fried Chicken menu at HALF PRICE? Nashville, c. 1969-70. I was there. It was an offer we couldn't refuse, even though Minnie Pearl's Chicken offered an identical product for the most part, and just as good. And better coleslaw. For the year before, when our little family came down to Music City for the start of my doctoral studies at Vanderbilt, the countrified (/fried) comedienne had started up her own hometown-based, franchise-chain of fried chicken stores. She wanted to retire on it. Sadly--though not for her fans--she was back onstage at the Ryman Auditorium within three years. Broke. The Colonel's boys up in Louisville had gone for the jugular, right in her backyard.

I bring this up in connection with the Double-Down for several reasons. First of all, it's very hard NOT to make good southern fried chicken. It's no less than a divine delectation configured by Mother Nature herself. And the various fast-food incarnations testify to that fact. At home, cast-iron and Crisco are all you need. My Grandma Miz Lilla could make the delicacy in her sleep, sometimes literally, on our Georgia family farm--much helped by fresh ingredients, of course. This meant a full-feathered, fresh-"wrung" carcass from the chicken yard (no axe needed, just my Granddaddy's vise-like grip--all quite a sight for a young boy, especially the headless aftermath) ... and lots of McCormick pepper. She made the original Popeye's.

The Colonel's great innovation was to PRESSURE COOK them. Initially, this was to speed-up order-delivery time as business boomed at his original location. But the by-product--sealing in the fowl's natural juices--was what graduated an already magna dish to summa cum laude. Can't really replicate this at home, unless you're ready to risk life and limb with a volatile stove-top pressure-cooker (if even manufactured anymore), and high-G grease approaching the temperature of the sun's surface.

The smart, former debutante and Belmont College graduate in Theater and Dance, Miss Sarah Ophelia Colley (so different from the Minne Pearl persona), and her partners Mahalia Jackson (true!), and the colorful future governor of Tennessee, John Jay Hooker, ripped off the Colonel's idea--quick and safe away-from-home pressure cooking--and almost made it. The chicken was good, and so were the side-dishes. But the cut-throat tactics of the KFC boys, along with chronic mismanagement and some trouble with the SEC over stock-offerings, brought them down. Besides, they were just a bit ahead of their time by a scant few years. The whole Southern-fried phenomenon was in its infancy. That there was room for competition is proven by the ultimate success of such as the aforementioned Popeye's, plus Bojangle's, Church's. etc. (fill in your favorite). Setting aside the "secret recipe of eleven herbs and spices" ("secret"= monosodium glutamate), KFC and its rivals pressure-fry the chickens all in the same way, no matter the batter. This is why their product always tastes better than you can make at home, and why they all taste about the same; that is to say, very good indeed.

So let's go back to that "toxic zoo" of a sandwich, as Mark Morford's SFGate article would have it. He's well-intentioned, but I think the guy's reason is clouded somewhat by the fallacy of sum-of-parts. After all, the Double-Down comprises but chicken, pork, and processed dairy. Thus separately: nothing less "good eats"--as my fave-cook and fellow Georgia-native Alton Brown would say--by any standard. And, together: healthy enough, if you don't eat the thing every day of the week. (The Food-Police always assume we do.)

Again, I do believe there's a refreshing soupcon of whimsy, a little self-irony, along with (I'm sure) the requisite bean-counting market-research menu behind the debut of the Double-Down sandwich. Morford seems to agree when he says, "It's sort of hilarious. It's sort of perfect." However, in the next sentence: "And then it'll probably make you vomit." Puh-leeze. Scroll down and take another look. We know pretty much the taste-experience we're in for. Far from vomit-inducing. Moreover, Morford surely must know that Southern-style cooking has been identified by prominent Foodies as America's only truly indigenous contribution to the world's great cuisines, standing proudly alongside the Chinese, Italian, French, and your choice of only one or two others. Southern-fried chicken has always been the jewel in the crown.

What, then, is Mark Morford's problem? Here it is: he writes out of San Francisco, right? Well, he's jealous, and starving for good, honest, down-home food. Around 'Frisco, no Crisco. He's got too many culinary possibilities to choose from, in complicated foreign combinations, and all entirely TOO FRESH. I know. When I visited the soon-to-be-famous Chez Panisse in '75, we had the pris-fix dinner (same entree' for everybody and then only $10!) of freshly-caught "free-range" trout, poached, of course (fried forbid). Fresh bread, fresh greens, etc. After the meal, the fresh young chef/proprietor, Alice Waters herself (for-real), came around to the very small number of tables at that time--squeezed into the second floor of a residential home in Berkeley--and offered us fresh-picked fruit from (I'm sure) a freshly-woven basket. Oh, the surfeit of it! Makes you want to vomit.

No, wait. I know Morford's real problem with the Kentucky Fried Double-Down Chicken Sandwich. Yankee-bias. Yep. That's it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

#49 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down" II

Moreover, I like it because, truly ... 'tis a silly thing. A whimsy. Last post's Mark Morford suspects some dark capitalistic conspiracy behind its debut--analogous perhaps to tobacco companies spiking the addictive levels of nicotine in cigarettes to ensure future levels of consumption. In this case the "get-'em-hooked" agent would be FAT, along with the "God knows what's in the 'special sauce'"--as he puts it--KFC's way of slipping us a chemical mickey on the sly. Hate to give Morford this, but several recent studies that would have bolstered his case have found that "... eating foods rich in FAT and SUGAR can cause changes in the brain comparable to those observed in drug dependency"(here). Withdrawal symptoms, even.

No surprise. We're hot-wired genetically, I believe, to crave the agriculture-free Double-Down because of those couple-million years of hunting/gathering. Meat. Fruit. We've had only a blink of evolutionary time in the pastoral and agrarian departments, and are a little behind the Darwinian curve. Grain-gluten is a problem of genetic non-adaptation for vast numbers of people, depending on their DNA history, and the majority of the Orient is lactose-intolerant, unless the milk has been chemically altered. As in the fermented dairy-miracle, cheese. There it is, right in the middle of the Double-Down. As a popular advert says, "So easy, even a cave-man can do it"--eat the KFC thing, that is, without any fear of upsetting his hunter-gatherer tummy.

And that's still you and me, really. Further, this is why, in terms of weight-loss, the high-protein/never-mind-the-fat/low-carb diets seem to suit us best. The old/new Atkins Diet WORKS, and so do its knock-offs like The Caveman Diet, The Paleo, The Stone Age, etc.--much to the chagrin, amazingly, of most of the Medical Establishment, some of whom, not so amazingly, can be caught promoting their own dietary falderal. Decade after decade, in one clinical test after another, the late Dr. Atkin's (heart-attack, no comment) has beaten his rivals every time. For weight-reduction and sustainability.

For, although we've attained sapient homo-hood, when it comes to food we're still Homo Erectus. In fact, it was none other than our expanding, energy-sapping, nutrient-demanding (requires about 25% worth) BRAIN that necessitated such high-protein nourishment, way back in the day. That meant big animals, and lots of running to get them. There's your truly sustainable diet-regimen! And once our efficiently bi-pedal, whiz-kid ancestor finally caught up with the exhausted, out-classed, four-legged auroch or ibis ... he gorged. Next meal could be a long way off, in all senses. But he also made sure to take home a doggy bag for apres-diner gorging by the stay-at-cavers. Before the hyenas showed up.

Today, no need to be the long-distance runner. We modern cavepersons can find our quarry at the neighborhood food-court. The KFC Double-Down "sandwich" is the perfect hunter-gatherer meal--that is to say, unmitigated MEAT--rich in quick-burning animal fat for the chase, and just the right kind of high-octane protein to feed the brain that plans and executes it. However, after you've gorged (that genetic imperative that we haven't yet gotten over), after the finger-lickin' and doggy-baggin'--it would be nice to have a savanna nearby, and a willing antelope handy ... to work it all off. (more)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

#48 In Praise of the KFC "Double-Down"

The ultimate Atkins Diet sandwich. Finally got rid of any deference to unhealthy bread-bunnage altogether--that white, overly- refined, gluten-laden, fattening abomination used traditionally as a mere convenience to stabilize the real food inside. And keep your hands clean. What? Not really necessary, considering that the Colonel made his fortune touting the animal residue left behind on our upper-phalanges. Finger-lickin' Good!

In fact it was kind of an apostasy that Kentucky Fried got into the "chick-fillet" competition a few years ago. A sandwich? At KFC? Shoulda stayed pure; it was enough they "chickened"-out to the food-police and buried "Fried" under innocuous initialism. (It's rampant: BK? DQ?--someone needs to inform me as to the offense borne by any of the words replaced. "Burger"? "Dairy"?--well, maybe "Queen." Taco Bell daren't follow the trend. Or Boston Market.)

With the Double-Down at least KFC is back to tradition: you're hands-on with cooked chicken-carcass again, and gonna get fried-chicken-grease on your fingers, unless you go prissy and use knife and fork. Or a napkin? Yes and no. EVERYBODY KNOWS that if you use a paper napkin directly following a good chomp on an "original-recipe" skin-crusty thigh-bone, say, then those icky-sticky (oh my) patches of napkin-fiber will be permanently epoxied to the tips of your fingers. The result is worse cosmetically than un-etiquette-ly inserting fingers in mouth first. Then the napkinning. Everybody knows that too.

I come to the D-D's defense because all the whiny food-nannies on the planet are against it. Even to the point of attacking the innocent barnyard creatures whose dead flesh (or fermented products therefrom) go into the making of it. Specifically, one Mark Morford who asks us, in his subtitled "One Sandwich To Kill Us All"--

Did you notice? How in in one pseudo-food item, you are consuming not one, not two, but the mutated, chemically injected flesh/by products of fully THREE different distended, liquefied, industrially tortured creatures? Feel the love, pitiable animal kingdom. (SFGate/HuffPost 4-11 here)
Great article, actually. Pretty much a pitch-perfect rhetorical rant, but you can see his sub-textual agenda. Not so much concerned with OUR health as that of industrialized food-fauna. Along the way, he also gets around to the evils of processed food, and, yes, capitalism. These are points to be made perhaps, but his stalking horse--that the D-D is a "fistful of nausea" in your mouth and a "toxic zoo in your colon [love it]"--just doesn't argue well at all. In fact, the guy may be a little muddled with some sort of anal retention/obsession about the whole thing. Listen to this:

For well I know this horrible CRAPBUCKET OF CHYME [wow!] joins a very long list of fast-food nightmares you should never put anywhere near your MOUTH, unless you deeply hate yourself and don't give a damn anymore, and you want to die fat and stupid like that rotting thing you found in your rain gutter.
Now, I must say, not much NOT to like about that. How about the nasty way he's got the whole alimentary canal covered, literally or allusively? He even attacks the digestive hygiene of your house! Problem though with the "chyme" analogy. If you're not familiar, chyme is "the semi-fluid mass into which food is converted by gastric secretion and which passes into the small intestine." You would definitely need a BUN for that. (more)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

#47 John Forsythe: "Grandpa" III

For me and mine, beyond that memorable afternoon at the races, the remainder of John Lincoln Freund's visit (apt birth-surname: "friend") was perforce anti-climactic ... except for simply everybody else on campus and hundreds of miles around. Trustee Del Mann couldn't have picked a better Hollywood guy to enchant an entire community. Natural charm. No effort whatsoever. (His teeth were entirely too big for his mouth, by the way. A curious anatomical fact, up close, but may explain his incredible smile, on- and off-camera.) And of course that VOICE! Notwithstanding these easily ingratiating qualities--he could have just basked in adoration the whole stay--no, like a true professional, he came to work.

First of all, he schlepped his own prints of his two personal-best films across the continent to showcase on the two successive evenings of the official gig. (No money for this, by the way; just good will by way of Tinseltown connectivity.) SRO both nights. After each screening it was simply Q&A between actor and audience, which would have lasted all night if I hadn't capped it at about a half-hour (we knew the autograph-stampede was yet to come). They were mainly Bachelor Father and his later-TV-series fans, and they were rabid, especially the women--he was no "Grandpa" to them. (Some threw panties and motel keys ... okay, wished they could--Bible Belt, you know.) Then autographs, which seemed to last forever. We didn't want any broken hearts.

His hardest work though was in the remaining daytime hours he was with us. For the next two days John Forsythe must have met every important supporter of the college there was--already at one formal dinner, then another, a couple of luncheons, a morning and afternoon tea or two, whatever. He was game for all of it. Never flagged for a moment. Of course he charmed everybody, and they in turn had their brush with celebrity. Also, we needed their money. We were struggling financially at the time (again, my first year), after a difficult transition from women's college to co-ed. But its fortunes began to improve significantly after Forsythe's visit. For all I know, he might have saved the college.

I got the clear impression that he was not at all bothered by the fact that his fame up to that time was primarily due to television. A come-down for the true actor, conventional-wisdom-wise, from stage or film. After all, he started out in the prestigious, hometown (for him) Actor's Studio alongside Brando and other future luminaries. He was even featured in several famous Broadway productions, including Teahouse of the August Moon and Mister Roberts. Then he went "downhill" into the new medium of television? Tsk.

It's also a fact that doing live TV drama is about as demanding on an actor's craft as anything else could be. Consider: it's a one-time shot. No second-plus shows, or takes. Everything rides on those scant and incorrigible 90-120 minutes in front of faceless millions. Forsythe paid those kind of dues in such classic TV franchises in the late 40s (!) and early 50s as Studio One, Kraft/Ford/Chrysler/US Steel/Goodyear "Theaters"--a dozen more--including Philco Television Playhouse where he worked with Delbert Mann. I count upwards of a hundred one-time performances, always in the leading or co-lead role. A hard-worker even then. So what if he was able to redeem those dues later on with the less-demanding but certainly more-fame-and-regular-paycheck-generating Bachelor Father (he was a real, bill-paying one), The John Forsythe Show, and To Rome With Love. And in the next two decades, as a real grandfather, Charlie's Angels and Dynasty?

So he wanted us to know for those two nights that he was a respectable screen actor as well. I'll vouch. Though never to be ranked with the acting greats, he had distinguished himself by that time in about a half-dozen memorable films, four of which helmed by the very best directors. Sad to say, these really represented his cinematic peak, all before his later, strictly TV-movie and sitcom success that kept him busy for the rest of his long and satisfying career.

Aside from the popular Kitten with a Whip ('64) opposite Ann-Margaret and Madame X ('66) with Lana Turner--both of which he preferred, he told me, NOT to be so damn memorable--he had starred in two films with Hitchcock: The Trouble with Harry ('55) and Topaz ('69); and two with Richard Brooks: In Cold Blood ('67) and The Happy Ending ('69). For her work in the latter, Jean Simmons (above)--director Brooks' wife at the time--was Academy-Award nominated for best actress in a leading role. (She just died this January.) We screened this one on the second night. A very brave pick, for John co-starred as Simmons' loveless and philandering husband, woefully dys-named "Fred"--a stretch for the usually nice-guy actor. Do you think the audience forgave him?

Harry and Happy were the actor's favorites. Moreover, he admitted to me that Jean Simmons' powerhouse performance brought out in him what he thought was the best job of acting he had ever done in his life. (more)

Saturday, April 10, 2010

#46 John Forsythe: "Grandpa" II

We picked up "Grandpa" John in Charlotte after his cross-country flight in "our" corporate jet. (The college was founded by Civil War "Major" J.L. Coker who founded the still family-owned Sonoco Products, a Fortune 500 company and major subsidizer of the school.) That was fun already. To add to the fun, it was a homecoming of sorts for the actor. He was familiar with the territory, having spent--surprise-- his only two years of college at UNC-Chapel Hill (right down the road from me lately). Smart guy. Even a bit of a prodigy. Only son of a NYSE broker, he was graduated from his Brooklyn H.S. at 16, and, after two years in the South, returned to his hometown to begin, at a mere 18, his career in show-business. As guess what? ... a VOICE! "Charlie Michelob's" smooth baritone was in demand already--in this case as a public-address announcer for the baseball Dodgers at Ebbets Field.

Conversation was easy with John, and we had a lot of time for it, in between events. It didn't hurt that the Blogman was already a semi-pro, pop-culture media and cinema freak, and had seen most of his work up to that time. Important work, that is. That included his best films, and, though I never watched a minute of his TV sitcoms, I remembered his starring spots on several of Alfred Hitchcock's weekly programs, which I never missed, or forgot. In fact, the actor had a long collaboration with my favorite director, and brought one of them along (of two films) to screen for his soon-to-be-revealed multitude of adoring fans that evening (and the next): 1955's The Trouble with Harry (above).

But first, it turned out that we had a lot of time to kill. His flight connections had got him to our general environs quite early in the day. He would have public exposure enough beginning in a few hours, but indicated that he didn't want to be motel-bound--rather, he wanted to go someplace private to relax, chat some more, and have a beer or two (he had just started his job with Michelob) to wind down before the spectacularities commenced. Since all the appropriate college mucky-mucks were occupied, frantically preparing for the high-toned Hollywood evening to come ... I just took him home. Heineken would have to do.

It was late spring, and my youngest, Andrew, was already back from a half-day at school, while his older brothers were still on full. So the six-year-old got all the Forsythe largess that afternoon. He was a cute and cuddly kid, and they hit it off immediately. As far as Andy was concerned, he became indistinguishable from one of the family. And it obviously was just the tonic, aside from the beerage, that the actor needed.

At one point in the lap-sittage, my son began fiddling with "Grandpa's" wristwatch. It was one of those big elaborate sports-watches (he was an avid tennis-player, and getting started as a breeder of racehorses) with several dials on its face, as I remember. These had really just hit the market, and were rather fascinating, even for grown-ups. "How about a RACE, Andy?"--taking off the watch in preparation. (We were in the backyard.) "We'll TIME it! You start here and run as fast as you can to that tree just before the driveway. Then run back to me and we'll see how you came out on this little dial here. Then we'll see if you can beat it. Okay, ready ... " Or words to that effect. He'd played this game before, no doubt with his same-aged granddaughter.

So it was off-to-the-races at our improvised Forsythe Downs, and the heirloom snapshots were taken. A "good time" was on record for all participants ... until too soon the time on his magic watch ran out. (more)

Thursday, April 8, 2010

#45 John Forsythe: "Grandpa"

His peers in elementary and high-school wouldn't believe it, so my third-son Andrew (named after my paternal Grandpa) had to bring periodically a couple of snapshots to the school-grounds to prove it. Yes, he had really sat on John Forsythe's lap as a tow-headed young boy of six in the spring of 1972. Played "race-against-the-second -hand" with him. Even called him Grandpa, because there was a strong resemblance to my father, and the child got a bit confused. Little kids will do that, and it didn't help that Forsythe, who died last week at 92, was so very grandfatherly. He had practice. His granddaughter, Deborah (from a short first marriage--his second lasted 51 years), was exactly Andy's age at the time.

Additional proof was required as the actor's fame grew back in the late 70s and 8os as the off-screen voice of Charlie on TV's Charlie's Angels (ironically: his very last acting jobs were to reprise that role for the Drew Barrymore movie-versions in 2000 and 2003), AND as Blake Carrington on Dynasty, enormously popular no doubt with many of the parents of my son's classmates as they progressed through school. "I've become a sex-symbol in my sixties," he was quoted as saying.

When he made his 3-day, 2-night appearance that spring at our little college in South Carolina, he was sort of in between careers, in a bit of a slump, really, as far as media-fame goes, which was one reason we were able to fetch him to such an un-commercial venue. The overriding reason, though, was this happy quirk of fate: Our new President was good friends with AA-winning director--for the landmark Marty '55--Delbert Mann. (Also did other notables like Separate Tables, That Touch of Mink, oodles of TV movies.) They were fellow Vanderbilt alums (like me, coincidentally), and Mann was recruited to be on the Coker College Board of Trustees. Hence Forsythe. They had in turn been best friends since TV's "Golden-Age" days when Mann had directed the actor (always with one foot in regular-paycheck television and the other in modest movie success) in several live-broadcast dramas of the day.

Trivia note: not in "Marty" though, which I remember vividly as a 10-yr-old in 1953 watching live on Philco Playhouse with my parents. Mann directed and Rod Steiger starred. Usually I was a captive audience for these high-cultcha TV events; however, this was first "adult" drama that really impressed, but which I didn't quite understand until pubescence had fully set in about two years later, when I saw Mann's movie-version with his fellow Oscar-winner Earnest Borgnine in the lead. Had no idea, then or now, why the great Rod Steiger lost the film-role, or why-in-the-world Borgnine won an Oscar.

But back to Forsythe's visit. Despite his relative downturn at the box-office and in TV fame, there was no lack of rabid fans in Hartsville, SC. Hundreds of middle-aged women flocked to our little campus to see the still-super-handsome star of the long-running Bachelor Father (through 1961, pictured above) and a couple of short-lived series in the 60s like the lately-canceled To Rome with Love. Their husbands too. He was currently narrating the popular the popular nature series, World of Survival, and was just starting his fifteen-year stint (!) as the voice of Michelob Beer--the "Weekends-Are-Made-for-Michelob" era. A lot of voice-over work during this period, culminating a few years later with Charlie.

Anyway, he was almost as big a smash as when the first McDonalds opened in our town that same year. And I was in charge. No fault of my own. New faculty are notoriously elected--as some sort of cruel initiation rite--the chairperson of whatever committee they happen to fall into. Mine was fortuitously that first year the "Special Events Committee." John Forsythe became my very special event. He lived up to his reputation--then, and right up to his death--as one of the nicest guys in Hollywood. (more)