Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Her Conviction.

Source: Goodreads

Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.

If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.

It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.

And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,

I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.

That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.

Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.

Hail and farewell Charlotte Rae.

Answering The Call.

Source: NPR

The clock radio in our bedroom wakes up my wife and I. It’s set to NPR and for years most weekday mornings we’d be stirred out of sleep by the gentle baritone of Carl Kasell reading the morning headlines. There was something comforting about his voice, even when it was bad news, and he was as much a part of my morning routine as taking a shower, brewing coffee, taking the dogs out, and flossing my toes. Then he went away and while his successors were fine it was never quite the same. Then an odd little comedy news quiz called Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! started up, hosted by the guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Peter Sagal. Every fool has to have his straight man and it was Carl Kasell who stepped in. He was as somber and professional as the show’s scorekeeper as he was when reading the headlines, although every once in a while it I’d hear a strange, low rumbling. It took a while before I could get used to the sound of Kasell laughing. Now he didn’t wake us up in the mornings but he accompanied us on errands around town and on road trips, for an hour, anyway, or until we drove out of broadcasting range.
Kasell was always honest that in its early days Wait! Wait! just wasn’t that good but, to their credit, the powers that be at NPR allowed some tweaks to the show, including the addition of a live audience, that made it great. They recognized that it had potential, or maybe they just liked the prize: lucky listeners would get Carl Kasell to record the outgoing message on their home answering machine.
Several years ago when Wait! Wait! came to Nashville and was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center my wife surprised me with tickets and we got to go. It was fun seeing the panel banter back and forth with Peter and talk to the “Not My Job” guest Vince Gill, but what made it really special was that, off to one side of the stage at his own podium, was Carl Kasell. No offense to his successor who does a fine job, but I was so glad to finally get a good look at the man who joined us in our car and came into our bedroom every morning for so many years.
Hail and farewell Carl Kasell.

 

Hat Trick.

Source: NBC.com

In one episode of the TV show Night Court Judge Harry Stone meets a younger version of himself: a kid in a three-piece suit and a fedora who does magic tricks. Faced with this window into his past the judge moans, “Oh God, I was a geek!” And I said, what? No! Judge Harry Stone is cool!

For some of us who grew up with Night Court’s original run from early 1984 to May of 1993—because it was strategically placed right after Cheers I watched it from the very beginning—the show is part of, and even represents, a cultural change that happened during that time. The 1970’s preached non-conformity but it was really the ‘80’s that embraced it. Night Court started off more or less grounded in reality but its throwaway lines and then whole plots became increasingly surreal. Night Court made it hip to be square, or polygonal, and at its heart its stabilizing influence was the barely stable Judge Harry Stone, prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan, played by the prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan Harry Anderson.

While his Judge Stone character was squeaky clean it tickled me when Anderson showed up occasionally on Cheers as the grifter Harry The Hat, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live and stuffed a guinea pig in his mouth and shot magician Doug Henning in the back. I liked it that he had a dark side, and that it was just as weird as his light side.

I know he did more TV after Night Court finished, but it wasn’t until I heard about his untimely passing that I thought about how much Night Court and Harry Anderson warped my adolescent mind. In 2006 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I have cousins there who take pride in that city being known for its weirdness and openness and being labelled a “cesspool of sin”. It seems fitting that Harry Anderson, who helped some of us embrace our own weirdness, would live in a place that embraced it right back.

Hail and farewell Harry Anderson.

 

 

Looking Outward.

Source: Wikipedia

In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.

I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.

I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year, but that’s another story. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, “Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go.” And the other one says, “He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties.”

If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, “What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work.” I have to include “show your work” because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion I would like to know how he arrived at it. I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.

The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.

Hail and farewell Stephen Hawking.

Magic Man.

Source: Chicago Tribune

Any time I get hooked on a show it’s because of the characters. I’m not naïve enough to think they’re real people or even that the actors are anything like the characters they play, although I do always kind of hope they are because the reason I’m devoting half an hour to a sitcom is because I think, if these people were real I’d enjoy hanging out with them. Take, for instance, Frasier. Yes, I could definitely see myself attending the theater or an art gallery with Frasier and Niles, but I also thought I’d be just as happy having a beer at Duke’s with Martin. Again I know they’re not real people but Martin was wonderfully brought to life by John Mahoney. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from the whole series, from the season 3 episode Chess Pains:

Frasier: Oh, hi, Dad. Did you see my new chess set?
Martin: Oh yeah, it’s nice.
Frasier: “Nice?” Well, the inlay was made from the same Travertine marble they used at the Emperor Hadrian’s palace outside Tivoli!
Martin: Really? Well, I’m gonna celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies!
Frasier: Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game?
Martin: Nah, I don’t think so.
Frasier: Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don’t you?
Martin: Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed.
Frasier: Oh, come on, checkers is a kid’s game. Come on, Dad! I just got it! Please? Nobody will play with me!
Martin: All right, I’ll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great-eating baloney sandwiches, smoking cigars, sometimes a fist-fight even breaks out!
Frasier: Well, let’s just start with name-calling and see where it goes, all right?

It’s a funny bit but it’s really the way Mahoney and Grammer, especially Mahoney, commit to it and play off each other that makes it. Then after I got hooked on Frasier it was a real treat to go back and rewatch Moonstruck, Say Anything, and The American President, and to watch The Broken Hearts Club just to see the different characters he could be–always charming, always distinctively John Mahoney, and yet so different from role to role.

He started acting at the age of thirty-seven but Mahoney was serious and dedicated to the craft. As brilliant as he was on TV and in movies he preferred the theater, working live before an audience. In a 2014 interview he said, “The audience has a job and the actors have a job and when you both do your job and meet the result is just magical.”

He really brought the magic. Hail and farewell John Mahoney.

A Rose Is A Rose Is A Rose.

There’s a longstanding misconception in standup comedy that women aren’t funny. It still hangs around a few dark corners and I’m not sure why because as long as there have been women there have been funny women, and even in standup’s earliest days, when the prejudice was most prominent, there were a few real women who could be at least as funny as, if not funnier than, their male counterparts. And there was at least one fictional one: Sally Rogers, part of the trio of writers for the fictional Alan Brady Show, which was the backdrop of the real Dick Van Dyke Show. Let me make that a little clearer: at a time when it was popularly believed women weren’t funny a woman played the role of a TV comedy writer. And that woman was, of course, Rose Marie.

It’s probably too much of a stretch but I like to think Rose Marie’s very funny, and also very charming, portrayal of Sally Rogers, helped pave the way for other women, including cast member Mary Tyler Moore who was just as funny and who’d go on to be a fictional TV news show producer at a time when it was still widely believed that was a job a woman couldn’t do. Unfortunately we also lost Moore in 2017.

Of course it was an occasional joke on The Dick Van Dyke Show that Sally’s co-workers didn’t see her as a woman. This is emphasized in a season one episode, “Sally Is A Girl”, in which Rob, Buddy, and Mel get together a poker game. They won’t let Laura play because they all insist they don’t play poker with women, but are happy to have Sally join. After all she bowls, drinks brandy, and smokes cigars just like the guys. At least this was supposed to be a joke. Even as a kid, watching daily reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, I thought Sally was great as she was, and, in an earlier episode, “Sally And The Lab Technician”, while Rob and Laura worry she’s not being feminine enough it was no surprise to me that Sally’s date, Thomas, thinks she’s great. It’s telling that the writers and producers thought this would be a surprise, and reflects just how deeply rooted sexism was at the time. Now we can, or at least should, accept that Sally could be both one of the guys and one of the gals and that all she really had to be was happy with who she was, although there’s still progress to be made.

My real subject, though, is Rose Marie, who brought Sally to life, and who was just as sharp and fearless as the characters she played. This fearlessness went all the way back to when she first sang on stage at the age of three and almost immediately became a star. In her autobiography Hold The Roses she shares stories of other showbiz stars she met, including, early in her career, Al Jolson.

“Oh, Mr. Jolson, you were so great, you made me cry!”

He looked at me and said, “You were great too, ya little runt.”

Nice man! However every time we would appear together at benefits, like the Milk Fund at Madison Square Garden, he would spot me with my father, come over and say, “Hi, ya little runt. You gonna go out and kill the people?”

I would look up at him and say, “I hope so.”

No need to hope, Rose Marie. You killed ’em. You were smart, talented, and, most of all, funny. Hail and farewell.

He Was Grrreat!

Source: Wikipedia

You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch,

You really are a heeeeellll….

If you’ve seen the 1966 animated classic Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! you’re probably hearing that song in your head now, but do you know who sang it? Now, before you went to Google and looked it up did you know who sang it? The narration was done by Boris Karloff, but the song “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by Thurl Ravenscroft whose name was accidentally left out of the credits, which is extraordinary because I can’t imagine a copywriter passing up the chance to type out the name Thurl Ravenscroft. It’s not as though we’re talking about Howard Keel. How could you forget the name Thurl Ravenscroft? There may even be bloggers who write posts about the song just as an excuse to write out the name Thurl Ravenscroft, but that’s another story.

So, aside from the man with a fantastic name and a voice that registers on seismographs who was Thurl Ravenscroft? Born February 6th, 1922, he was a voice actor and singer who lent his voice to several animated productions, many of them Disney films beginning with 1941’s Dumbo. He was also a founding member of a singing quartet called The Mellomen who also recorded under the name Big John and The Buzzards, and sang backup for several singers, including Elvis Presley. A devout Christian he also recorded albums of hymns and wanted to be the voice of an audio version of the entire Bible but James Earl Jones was selected instead. Even though James Earl Jones is an excellent actor with a great voice, though, he doesn’t have a name like Thurl Ravenscroft. Thurl Ravenscroft did, however, provide the voice of Darth Vader for a Donny and Marie Osmond Star Wars sketch, although the less said about that the better.

For more than fifty years Thurl Ravenscroft also provided the voice of Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes mascot Tony The Tiger. In a 2004 interview originally published in Hogan’s Alley: The Magazine Of The Cartoon Arts Ravenscroft mentioned that he’d been doing the voice of Tony for fifty-three years. It would be his last interview before his death in May 2005.

And now that you know you’re unlikely to forget Thurl Ravenscroft.

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