Memorial Day, Ernie Pyle and Saying Good-bye

•May 27, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Some have heard of Ernie Pyle because of his Pulitzer Prize for dispatches from the front lines of WWII, written at a time when being an “imbedded” journalist was the exception rather than the rule. Others may have seen him portrayed by Burgess Meredith in the 1945 biopic “Story of G.I. Joe.” I’ve stood beside his grave at Punchbowl–the dramatic National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu–where he was re-interred following his death, in action, on an island north of Okinawa on April 18, 1945.

Several years ago, I came across one of his most famous columns, a brief but moving piece on the death of Captain Henry T. Waskow, a column which inspired a memorable scene in “G. I. Joe.” It has always stuck with me because it captures perfectly the emotionally charged, yet all-to-frequent post-battle experience of strong and stoic men having to say a final good-bye. Sadly, the scene was repeated a year later when soldiers of the 305th Infantry Regiment said good-bye to their beloved “Ernie” following his death at the hands of an enemy sniper.

Early Self-Help: Douglas Fairbanks’ “Laugh and Live”

•June 27, 2012 • 1 Comment

We’ve long sought to improve our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual selves, and advisers have always arrived on the scene to show us the way. When the student is ready, the teacher appears, right? But we don’t need to read very far in the one of the oldest books around to discover that all advice is not created equal.

Early in Genesis, the serpent sold Adam & Eve on his 1-Step Process to Self-Improvement, and we know how that turned out.

In the centuries since, a wide variety of experts — doctors, theologians, teachers, philosophers, psychologists — have continued to weigh in. In the early twentieth century, our quest for self-improvement began to intersect with the growing cult of personality, and a new sort of expert came on the scene…the celebrity life coach.

ImageIn 1917, motion pictures were the entertainment medium of choice, Hollywood was the center of the motion picture universe, and Douglas Fairbanks was King of Hollywood. Known for his confident, dashing swagger and energetic personality on and off camera, and admired by men and women alike, Fairbanks was a natural “celebrity life coach.”

Laugh and Live was published in April of that year, and quickly went into multiple printings.

In chapters titled “Taking Stock of Ourselves,” “Building Up a Personality,” “Honesty, the Character Builder” and others, Fairbanks offers advice which is equal parts positive thinking, common sense and self-determination, and emphatic italics abound throughout.

In all fairness, before we dismiss Laugh and Live as cliched and derivative, it must be noted that it was published nearly twenty years before Dale Carnegie’s wildly influential How to Win Friends and Influence People, and at least some of his concepts may have been fresh to his contemporary readers.

Fairbanks establishes his heavily italicized and hyphenated philosophy from the top of chapter one, “Whistle and Hoe — Sing As We Go”:

“There is one thing in this good old world that is positively sure — happiness is for all who strive to be happy — and those who laugh are happy. Everybody is eligible — you — me — the other fellow. Happiness is fundamentally a state of mind — not a state of body. And mind controls.”

In a chapter on the “Cleanliness of Body and Mind,” he addresses the topic of success, using repetition and italics to drive home his point:

“‘Nothing succeeds like success,’ said some very wise man and if there ever was a phrase that rang with truth this does. It means that the thought of success, the courage that comes with success, leads to more and more success.”

Image

In one book illustration, Fairbanks demonstrates his take on the well-dressed, active life

Here are a few other examples of his Laugh and Live philosophy:

“One of the distinctive elements in the honest man’s makeup is that of laughter. The ones who live up to their ideals, do not feel that life is such a dark place after all. It may mean hard work, little play and often delayed rewards but the fact that there is a world, and that it is filled with other honest souls is reward enough to give us courage to laugh as we go along. We can always afford to laugh — when we’re honest.

“…the successful man, the man who wishes to rise in life, should not spend his days in the company of illiterate companions who do not posses ambition of heart or the will to do the work of the world.”

“We must make our own opportunities otherwise we are children of circumstance. What becomes of us is a matter of guesswork. We have no hand in compelling our own future. Diffidence is a species of cowardice. It causes a man’s courage to ooze out at his toes faster than it comes into his heart. Such men often have big ideas, but having no confidence in themselves they lack the power to compel confidence in others.”

Fairbanks concludes on a personal note, ensuring his readers that he lives up “to my own prescription.”

“I do — and it’s easy!

“I have kept myself happy and well through keeping my physical department in first class order…Fresh air is my intoxicant — and it keeps me in high spirits. My system doesn’t crave artificial stimulation because my daily exercise quickens the blood sufficiently. Then, too, I manage to keep busy. That’s the real elixir – activity! Not always physical activity either, for I must read good books in order to exercise my mind in other channels than just my daily routine — and add to my store of knowledge as well.

“Then there is my inner-self which must have attention now and then. For this a little solitude is helpful. We have only to sense the phenomena surrounding us to know that we must have a working faith — something practical to live by, which automatically keeps us on our course. The mystery of life somehow loses its density if we retain our spark of hope.”

Before the book switches over to a short biography of the author (a reprint of an Everybody’s Magazine profile by George Creel), Fairbanks concludes with the “wonderful words of admonition from Polonius in his farewell speech to his son Laertes” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which in turn end with “This above all–to thine ownself be true; And it must follow, as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

It’s a philosophy Fairbanks clearly adopted, and embraced to the end of his life.

Fairbanks wrote Laugh and Live shortly after he began an affair with Mary Pickford, an all too public relationship which led to his divorce in 1919 (he’d married Anna Beth Sully, the mother of Douglas Jr., in 1907). He and Pickford married in 1920, and they reigned as Hollywood royalty from their elaborate Pickfair estate into the early 1930s. The couple divorced in 1936, and Fairbanks died of a heart attack in his sleep in 1939 at age 56.

Laugh and Live lives on as a complete Google book, and at least one enterprising marketeer (no doubt encouraged by the book’s “public domain” status) continues to offer the “amazing material” as a way to “gain immediate success tomorrow” for a mere $19.97!

Perhaps Douglas Fairbanks’ days as a celebrity life coach aren’t over after all.

Disney: “E” Tickets Enjoyed a Great Ride

•May 23, 2012 • 2 Comments

A clear message on the cover of the June 10, 1982 “Disneyland Line”

As Disneyland Resort gears up to celebrate the June 15th Grand Reopening of Disney California Adventure Park (featuring the highly anticipated Cars Land), let’s pause to honor an important part of the Resort’s history with ties to the same date. This item owed its existence to an earlier Park remodel, enjoyed a twenty-three year lifespan and spawned a phrase still in some use today.

It was once so vital that you truly couldn’t enjoy Disneyland Park without it.

I’m talking about the “E” ticket, which ended its amazing ride as the official ticket media of Disneyland nearly 30 years ago, on June 15th, 1982.

Ticket books (or “coupon” books, as they were officially known) were first issued a few months after Disneyland opened in July 1955 in denominations “A,” “B” and “C,” with the “D” ticket joining the booklet a year later.

Walt promised that Disneyland would never be completed as long as there was “imagination left in the world,” and in 1959, he and his Imagineers outdid themselves by “plussing-out” the Park with Matterhorn Mountain and a new Tomorrowland.

To acknowledge the new and improved shows and attractions for Guests to enjoy, an “E” ticket was added to the coupon book for the summer season.

An early Disneyland “E” ticket

Those first “E” tickets provided admission to the existing SF & D Trains, the Jungle Cruise, the Mine Train and Pack Mules thru Nature’s Wonderland as well as the brand new Matterhorn Bobsleds, Disney-Alweg Monorail, and the Submarine Voyage (long before Finding Nemo was a glimmer in Pixar’s eye).

As attractions were added throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the “E” ticket was revised to provide access to the newest and most popular. These included the Pirates of the Caribbean in 1967, the Haunted Mansion in 1969, and Space Mountain in 1977.

In 1971, the same A-E attraction designations were used when Walt Disney World opened.

The Central Fantasyland Ticket booth, circa 1974.

For nearly two decades, coupon books containing either eleven or fifteen tickets (both came with an admissions coupon as well) helped dictate which attractions Guests enjoyed throughout the day. And, when the initial coupon book allotment of “E” tickets was gone, Guests bartered with friends and family members, or headed to a nearby ticket booth to purchase more.

But no matter how Guests went about acquiring additional “E” tickets, one thing was certain. They were essential to the Disneyland experience.

Two MKC Disneyland Passports from 1977

In 1977, “Unlimited Passports” were first offered as a Magic Kingdom Club members-only perk, and quickly became the most popular ticket media provided by the club. They originally hung visibly from a string, which Guests could easily wind around a shirt or blouse button to keep it in sight for the Ride Operators to see at the turnstiles.

After five years of peaceful coexistence (Walt Disney World had converted to Passports in 1981 for its 10th anniversary), the ticket books were slowly phased out. And, since Guests no longer needed to display their passports, the string was removed from the passport design as well.

The final Disneyland ticket books were sold on June 15, 1982, and the following day a redemption plan was put in place for Guests to redeem the old coupons for a discount on the new “one ticket that gets it all.” According to the June 10, 1982 issue of the Disneyland Line (a Cast Member newsletter) the actual value of the credit received was “based on a ‘point’ system according to the letter value of the tickets received.”

But although the “E” ticket was no longer available, it would live on in spirit.

In a June 18, 1983 interview with ABC News, a year after the ticket’s official retirement, astronaut Sally Ride added to its standing in popular culture. When asked to describe the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, she responded: “Ever been to Disneyland? …That was definitely an E ticket!”

The passing of the coupon book era also brought an end to the many ticket booths located throughout the Park, and had at least one other, unintended consequence.

I worked as a Disneyland Casual-Seasonal Cast Member on Main Street in the spring of 1982, and remember the drop in attendance at the Main Street Cinema (which, at the time, screened Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton films, not Mickey Mouse cartoons) when the coupon books went away. The reason? Guests no longer had unused “A” tickets burning a hole in their pockets at the end of the day.

That was never the case with “E” tickets, which rarely lasted until the end of the day. They were then — as now — the ones we wanted most.

Both ticket images are from the Vintage Disneyland Tickets website. The photo of the Fantasyland Central Ticket Booth is from the Yesterland website. The Disneyland Line image is from my personal collection.

- craig hodgkins

The Seekers, and Other Guilt-less Pleasures

•May 22, 2012 • 1 Comment

Driving home the other day, I got to thinking of specific songs that make me smile, no matter whom I’m with, where I am, or what I’m doing. In other words, there are songs (and books, TV shows and movies) I’m not ashamed to enjoy, no matter how completely dorky, un-hip and/or anachronistic they reveal me to be.

Life’s too short to worry about what other people may or may not think.

I was listening to a CD of The Seekers (the fab 1960s Australian group) and on came “Georgy Girl,” their biggest US hit (1967) and title song of the James Mason/Lynn Redgrave movie. I couldn’t help but smile, something which happens EVERY TIME I hear “Georgy Girl.” Seriously, EVERY TIME.

Sorry if I’m shouting.

The Seekers Cavorting

The Seekers cavorting, mid ’60s style. Left to right: Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley, Judith Dunham and Keith Potger. Why shouldn’t we smile? Looks as if Keith is about to take a header.

Anyway, it was a long drive, so I had time to consider why that happens…that smiling EVERY TIME thing. Part of it is the song itself: catchy, bouncy, hopelessly upbeat. But there are other reasons, dating back to when I was nine years old.

My younger sister took dance lessons, and in that wonderful year of Apollo 11, she danced in a recital which I was obligated to attend. All I could say afterwards was “thank you, Mom,” for that afternoon I fell in love with Tami Dalen, a nine-year old blonde who tap danced her way into my heart to the melodic strains of — you guessed it — “Georgy Girl.”

Move over, Neil Armstrong, that’s my moon you’re walking on.

Eighteen years later, in the privacy of our own home, I cajoled my new bride (no, not Tami) into singing “Georgy Girl” as a duet — accompanied by my trusty guitar — with the cassette player (remember those?) on record, something that hadn’t happened before or since. That tape is now a personal treasure…fun yet conclusive evidence that a) her voice is better than she thinks, and b) mine isn’t.

A few years ago, my two daughters frequently selected The Seekers’ Capitol Collectors Series CD for our morning sing-a-long soundtrack on the way to elementary school. So instead of singing duets with my wife, I was able to partner with my oldest daughter, who sounds much like Judith Durham, which is a good thing. Of course, I was left to drift among the three guy parts (that’s “guy” as in male, not as in “Athol Guy,” the bespetacled bass player), often skipping around like an excited puppy.

So, in parts of four short decades, I’ve gone from blissful ignorance to hormonal happiness, marital joy to fatherly pride…all to the glorious and harmonious soundtrack of The Seekers’ “Georgy Girl.”

That’s a lot of life for one song.

I hope you have a song like that.

If you’re one of the unfortunate uninitiated, here’s a YouTube video of a live performance of “Georgy Girl,” recorded (not lip-synched) in 1967 with a full orchestra and chorus at the Sidney Meyer Bowl in Melbourne. An intimate crowd of 200,000 were on hand that day to welcome them back home after their triumphant world tour. The Guinness Book of World Records STILL lists it as the largest concert crowd ever in the Southern hemisphere.

Check out all of those screaming fans, and ask yourself if I really am a dork to like them so much.

And if I am, so what?

- craig hodgkins

PS: Remind me to tell you sometime about “My Cup Runneth Over” by Ed Ames, “Do Wacka Do” by Roger Miller, “Jordan’s River” by the Modern Folk Quartet and “Roll to Me” by Del Amitri.

The Seekers

Clockwise from the top, The Seekers: Bruce Woodley, Athol Guy, Judith Dunham, Keith Potger

*Adapted from a previous Get it. Got it. Good post.

Happy Birthday, Phil Silvers: From Burlesque and Blinky to Bilko and Beyond

•May 11, 2012 • 2 Comments

Phil Silvers as Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko

I always looked forward to the dances that followed our high school football and basketball games (we didn’t dance after baseball). Win or lose, we’d shower and suit up in our best late 70s party attire (mostly because it was the late 70s), then make our way back to the gym to check out our potential partners.

But the dances weren’t my favorite thing to do late at night.

Like many in attendance, I always had big plans for AFTER the dance. But where some might have schemed to sneak away for some light drinking or heavy petting, my reason was always the same, Monday through Friday.

I had to get home to watch Bilko.

In those pre-DVR (or even VCR) days, there was no other way to scratch a Phil Silvers itch. I had to be in front of the family set by 11:00 pm, tuned to Oakland’s KTVU. Thanks in part to San Francisco’s Mayor George Moscone — a more influential fan who once campaigned to keep The Phil Silvers Show reruns spooling on Channel 2′s late night line-up — I could experience the crazy hijinks of Fort Baxter’s motor pool platoon five nights a week.

I can’t fully explain why I loved a show that even then was more than twenty years old, but Phil Silvers’ crafty and conniving Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko, and the show built around him, was my first pop culture obsession.

I memorized scenes and compiled cast lists instead of doing my math homework. I cut the brief episode descriptions out of TV Guide and taped them in a scrapbook. I researched other shows the cast had appeared in, and tried to catch them when they aired on TV. I mimicked Bilko’s “Platoon patter,” and could “Ooo, ooo, ooo” like Joe E.Ross.

Thanks in part to Phil Silvers, I dropped out of Algebra II.

Today, May 11th, 2012, would have been his 101st Birthday.

In all honesty, I “remembered” Phil Silvers had been born in 1912, but that faulty intel dates back to the pre-Wikipedia days before you could look everything up, even the weather outside your own window, and the year just stuck in my head. Or maybe it was that “math” thing again.

Leave it to a slick character like Silvers to sneak in an extra year when I wasn’t looking, so from now on, 1911 it is.

Like many entertainers of his generation, Phil Silvers began his career in short pants, belting out kid soprano renditions of the day’s hits anytime a crowd was assembled on a stage or on the streets of his Brooklyn neighborhood. By age twelve, he’d joined Gus Edwards’ legitimate traveling troupe, and played many of the the best stages in the East. When his voice dropped to a lower register, he switched to comedy sketches with the popular Vaudeville team Morris & Campbell. By age thirteen, he had played the Palace more than once.

Phil Silvers (left) with two of his fellow Catskills comedians

By the early 1930s, his legs having outgrown his short pants, he made the difficult transition to adult roles, eventually heading up to the Catskills, where so many comedians received their training, one hard knock gig at a time. From there, the jump to Burlesque was natural. He found work with Minsky’s in 1932, and spent the next few years honing his craft.

His first foray onto Broadway came in 1939 via Lew Brown’s Yokel Boy alongside Buddy Ebsen and Judy Canova. Silvers, who had been cast in a minor role in the show, replaced Jack Pearl (a Dutch dialect comedian who’d been an early 1930s smash on radio) during out of town tryouts. The writers struck gold when they switched the character of Punko Parks to a fast-talking Hollywood press agent who spoke New Yorkese. In This Laugh Is On Me, his 1973 memoir, Silvers admitted:

“That’s how the role I played for years–the aggressive, smiling, call-a-tall-man-Shorty manipulator was born.”

His increased visibility led to an ill-fated screen test for MGM. Silvers was asked to play a scene as English Vicar William Collins from Pride & Prejudice in complete period regalia, but his Brooklyn accent kept leaking out. Later, he referred to the test as “perhaps the funniest (three minutes) I’ve ever done.”

Despite the set back, the movies eventually beckoned, and Silvers began a period he described as “My years with Blinky.”

“For nine years I played the same character: Blinky, the good-humored, bespectacled confidant of Betty Grable or John Payne…ten minutes before the end of the last reel, I told Betty she wasn’t really in love with Cesar Romero; it was George she truly wanted. Or vice versa. You could be damn sure of one thing: it was never Phil Silvers.”

Phil Silvers early in his film career

Although the parts remained the same into the mid-1940s, the pictures got bigger. These included A Lady Takes a Chance, Four Jills and a Jeep, and Cover Girl, for which Silvers (as “Genius,” another “Blinky” role) had to dance alongside Gene Kelly and Rite Haworth for more than eight minutes of screen time in the now-classic “Make Way For Tomorrow” number.

In 1947, Broadway came calling again, casting him in High Button Shoes as an Atlantic City con man named Harrison Floy. The show ran for 727 performances, and co-starred Nanette Fabray. Silvers continued to shuttle among radio, Broadway, night club and film jobs, finding growing success in each. A favorite at Hollywood and Manhattan social gatherings with his wit, songs and impersonations, Silvers cultivated friendships with the top stars of the day on both coasts, including Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra.

A multifaceted artist, he wrote the lyrics for “Nancy With the Laughing Face,” which became a big hit for his pal from Hoboken.

In 1948, Silvers’ old Burlesque buddy Milton Berle took television by storm via his personal vehicle, the Texaco Star Theater. Within months, Berle had been crowned King of the nascent medium, which made him more than ripe for parody. Enter Hy Craft, Johnny Mercer and their show Top Banana, featuring Silvers as Jerry Biffle, the star of the Blendo Soap program. It was a smash hit during the 1950 Broadway season.

Although Silvers was excited for the show, he remembered worrying how Berle would take the send-up:

“In creating the role of Jerry Biffle, I used Berle’s mannerisms and props. In rehearsals of his show, he would inject himself into everybody’s act. For our rehearsal scenes, my costume was basic Berle: a heavy bathrobe, with towel around the neck — Berle could feel a draft in the middle of the Sahara desert — a whistle to stop the action and, to top it off, for no reason at all, a yachting cap.”

“Shortly before we went into rehearsal for Top Banana, I had a golfing date with Milton. I knew he would inquire about the show, and I would have to explain — before an unfeeling friend revealed I was satirizing him:

(As we walk to the first hole)

Berle: “Say, what is this Top Banana you’re doing?”

Me: (taking a deep breath): “Milton, it’s about a guy who’s been ‘on’ all his life. His only goal is the laugh. It’s got to come, no matter if it’s at the expense of his mother, the President or himself. Everything to him is a comedy bit…He never listens to anyone’s conversation–he’s just thinking of what he’ll say next. The poor guy never had a chance to develop in any other areas. He’s been on stage since he was five years old. His dedication–the laugh must come! So what chance does he have to develop a knowledge of politics or art? Or how to be generous? Getting the laugh is his whole life!”

(A pause)

Berle: “I’ll be a sonovabitch. I know guys just like that!” (Laugh, Page 178)

“Top Banana” cast recording, featuring Phil Silvers as Jerry Biffle

The show (which soon included Milton Berle as a financial backer) featured cast members Rose Marie and Jack Albertson, and ran for more than a year on Broadway. It also  garnered Silvers the 1952 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role in a Musical. Toward the end of its run, the show was filmed quickly and cheaply (often using the Broadway sets), and it was released as a feature film in 1954.

After satirizing television and Berle in Top Banana, Silvers took them both head on with a show of his own in 1955.

Silvers partnered with writer Nat Hiken, who had spent seven years writing for The Fred Allen Show on radio, and the new show slowly began to take shape. Capitalizing on the knowledge that most adult males of the era had served at one time or another in the armed forces, the two morphed Punko Parks, Harrison Floy and Jerry Biffle into one man, put him the uniform of the United States Army, and plunked him down in peace time middle America on the mythical post of Fort Baxter in Roseville, Kansas.

On September 20, 1955, Master Sergeant Ernest G. Bilko entered the pop culture lexicon.

Bilko up to his old tricks for LIFE magazine

The show was rehearsed and shot with a three camera set up before a live audience in New York City (in 1958, production switched to a film style shoot with no audience), and the cast included Paul Ford (Teahouse of the August Moon, Hello Dolly) as Colonel Hall, Harvey Lembeck (Eric Von Zipper of the Frankie and Annette beach flicks) as Corporal Rocco Barbello, and Allen Melvin (Sam the Butcher on The Brady Bunch) as Corporal Henshaw.

Elizabeth Fraser (One Happy Family) played Bilko’s on again, off again love interest, Sgt. Joan Hogan. Her character was introduced in an early episode (“The WAC”) which proved she could hold her own against Bilko’s schemes. Hope Sansberry played the always sympathetic Mrs. Hall.

Bilko’s poker patsies were played by Jimmy Little as Sgt. Grover, Nat Pendleton as Sgt. Pendleton and Harry Clark as Mess Sgt. Stanley Sowici. When Clark died during the initial season (his final appearance came on March 6th, a week after he passed away, in perhaps the most popular Bilko episode of all time, “The Court Martial”), he was replaced by Joe E. Ross as Sgt. Rupert Ritzik. Ross would go on to greater fame in Nat Hiken’s other television hit, Car 54, Where Are You?

Cast as regular members of the platoon were Herbie Faye (Silvers’ mentor and friend from 1930s vaudeville and a stalwart of many 1960s television programs) as Corporal Sam Fender, Tige Andrews (Mod Squad), Billy Sands (McHale’s Navy), Terry Carter (McCloud), Bernie Fein, Maurice Brenner, Mickey Freeman, Karl Lucas, and P. Jay Sands. An inveterate gambler and sports fan, Silvers also cast former middleweight boxer Walter Cartier and Jack Healy, who had been Rocky Graziano’s manager.

Rounding out the platoon, quite literally, was Maurice Gosfield (Top Cat) as Private Duane Doberman, perhaps the most memorable face in the crowd. And although Silvers had little professional respect for the slovenly performer (who, according to Silvers, “thought of himself as Cary Grant playing a short, plump man”) several episodes revolved around “Dobie” and the trouble he inevitably found for himself, and “Sarge” never let his personal feelings leak out onto the small screen.

The majority of the “You’ll Never Get Rich” cast: (front) Walter Cartier, Midge Ware, Allen Melvin, Harvey Lembeck, Herbie Faye. (rear) Paul Ford, Bernie Fein, Maurice Brenner, P. Jay Sidney, Jack Healy, Karl Lucas, Phil Silvers, Billy Sands, Nat Hiken, Jim Perry (?), Mickey Freeman (whose signature and character name, Pvt. Zimmerman, grace this photo), Tige Andrews, Maurice Gosfield.

The pilot was shot and shopped, and Camel cigarettes agreed to sponsor it. CBS then scheduled the show on Tuesday nights…directly opposite Milton Berle, who had dominated all comers in the television ratings for the previous six years.

(from left) Actors Harvey Lembeck, Karl Lucas, Maurice Brenner (hidden), Maurice Gosfield, Billy Sands, Walter Cartier and Mickey Freeman join Silvers in a good motor pool laugh.

Suddenly, the outlook was bleak. Berle even called Silvers to apologize in advance.

But by the end of November (in 1955, TV series ran 39 original episodes per season), Bilko and his band of cronies had passed Uncle Miltie in the ratings on their way to a four season total of nine Emmy Awards, including one win each for Silvers and Hiken as Lead Actor and Director, respectively.

The entire camp moved from Ft. Baxter to Camp Fremont in Grove City, California for the final season (1958-59). In that season’s first episode, Bilko finds a map to a gold mine located near an abandoned army camp, and then tricks Colonel Hall into getting the base reactivated.

When the show ceased production after four seasons and 142 episodes, it was primarily because of expenses. By the fourth season, twenty-two cast members were on salary.

Along the way, the show gave early exposure to young guest stars Dick Van Dyke, Fred Gwynne, Alan Alda, Paul Lynde, Peggy Cass, Julie Newmar, Godfrey Cambridge, Dick Cavett and Eric Fleming, and also gave Oscar winner George Kennedy his start. Kennedy–at the time a major assigned by the Army Information Office to be a military adviser on the show–eventually showed up as a military policeman with a line or two in a few episodes, and soon earned his SAG card.

Silvers in the Broadway hit “Do Re Mi”

Silvers followed up his Bilko success by heading back to Broadway in 1960 for Do Re Mi, co-starring Nancy Walker. As Hubie Cram, Silvers mined the bittersweet side of his usual hustling and scheming character, and his performance earned him another Tony nomination. The musical ran for 400 performances and gave the world the now-perennial standard, “Make Someone Happy.”

The early 1960s brought more film roles, including the crazy caper It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and 40 Pounds of Trouble alongside Tony Curtis and Suzanne Pleshette. In 1963, CBS added him to their fall schedule for The New Phil Silvers Show, playing factory foreman Harry Grafton (yet another version of his Bilko character), but it was not as successful as it’s predecessor.

Silvers believed he knew the reason.

“Harry Grafton had a fatal flaw: The audience was not rooting for him. Bilko was an underdog–Grafton was not. In a small factory, the real underdog is the owner. He’s the  one who has to cope with union rules and strikes, laziness, absenteeism, defective workmanship, theft, rising taxes and falling sales. This never occurred to us. We received resentful letters from workingmen: ‘Why the hell is Grafton horsing around? He’s got a good job.’ ‘If he doesn’t shape up, all the guys will be out of work.’”

Despite some heavy tinkering with the cast, the show was cancelled after one season.

Silvers began to experience various health problems. In 1962, his poor eyesight led him to turn down the lead role of Pseudolus the Roman slave in Broadway’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Although he accepted the role of Marcus Lychus for the 1966 movie version, filming was made even more excruciating when he developed a cataract in his left eye, ruining his depth perception.

Buddy Ebsen and Phil Silvers in an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies”

Other films followed, including Buona Sera, Mrs. Campbell alongside Gina Lollobrigida, and Disney’s The Boatniks with Robert Morse, but even more memorable were his television guest shots on The Lucy Show and The Beverly Hillbillies. In the former he played bank efficiency expert Oliver Kasten who had his hands full with Lucy. In the latter, he reunited with former Yokel Boy co-star Buddy Ebsen. In a two-part episode from the 1969-70 season, his character Shifty Shafer memorably sold Central Park to Jed Clampett. The popular episodes led to four more appearances on the show for Silvers as Shafer.

Following successful eye surgery, Silvers was not only able to join the 1971 revival cast of Forum, he did so as Pseudolus. More than a decade after he first turned down the role, it brought him his second Tony Award for Best Actor at the 1972 ceremonies. It was the first time an actor in a revival had won a Tony.

Unfortunately, a stroke that August left his speech slurred, and the show closed shortly afterward. Following a lengthy recovery, he continued to work sporadically in forgettable films (Chicken Chronicles, The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood) and television shows which frequently featured well-known guest stars (such as Love Boat and Fantasy Island), but his speech never fully recovered. He worked charity benefits for and with his many friends, and spent many of his days at the Friar’s Club.

Like many performers strongly identified with a single role, Silvers had a love/hate relationship with Bilko, but he acknowledged that it was much more love than hate. The program, which was broadcast on BBC on a two year delay, made him a huge star in Great Britain as well. Even today, some of Bilko’s most stalwart supporters call England home.

Phil Silvers passed away from natural causes on November 1, 1985, the same week I wrote to his agent requesting an autographed photo, and is buried at Mt. Sinai Memorial Park in Glendale, California. He was survived by his five daughters: Candace, Cathy, Laurie, Nancey, and Tracey Edythe, all born to Silvers and his second wife, Evelyn Patrick, to whom he was married from 1956 to 1966. From 1945 to 1950, he was married to Jo Carroll Dennison, the 1942 Miss America.

Today, you can enjoy the small screen magic of Phil Silvers without having to rush home from any dances. Two DVD packages of You’ll Never Get Rich (the original title of the show, later syndicated as The Phil Silvers Show or Sgt. Bilko) have been released to date, including the complete first season and a 50th Anniversary set featuring 18 episodes (10 are from Season 1, but there are a few unique extras, including audio commentaries and some Nick at Nite content related to the 1996 Sgt. Bilko feature film starring Steve Martin, Dan Aykroyd and Phil Hartman).

Either way, once you see Bilko on the screen, you may be tempted to say “Gladaseeya.”

For more information about all things Bilko, check out The Phil Silvers Show website, one of the best on the web.

I wasn’t joking about his huge following in Great Britain. Check out the site for the Phil Silvers Appreciation Society.

You can also find a copy of Silvers’ fun memoir This Laugh Is On Me on Book Finder.

-craig

100 Years of Louis Prima: An Appreciation

•December 7, 2010 • 2 Comments

Louis Prima in the 1930s

To one generation of fans, he was the “Wildest” show in Vegas and Tahoe.

To another, he was the voice of “King Louis the Most.”

To Sam Butera and the Witnesses, he was known simply as “The Chief.”

Louis Prima was born one hundred years ago today—December 7, 1910—in the Little Palermo section of New Orleans’ French Quarter. It’s fitting that he came into the world surrounded by a tossed salad of nationalities (his neighborhood was home to Italians, Jews, Middle Easterners and African-Americans), because the music he made throughout his remarkable career was embraced by fans the world over.

For more than five decades, Louis Prima played it pretty for the people, and the people loved him for it.

Originally a violinist, Prima switched instruments following the early success of his older brother Leon, who played trumpet with Jack Teagarden’s orchestra and several others.

The switch to brass made sense for a cool cat with more than nine lives. While Prima may have found his greatest success in the late 1950s and early 1960s fronting Sam Butera and the Witnesses along with wife Keely Smith—creating arguably the most popular Las Vegas lounge act of all time—he had already hit it “big” at least two other times in his mercurial career.

Musical trends (and audiences) have always been fickle. Today’s “Toast of the Town” can just as easily be “toast” by the weekend, something the young Prima grasped early on. He was talented, driven and resilient, and his career was marked by constant re-invention. Beginning with his training in the musical hotbed of New Orleans’ local clubs, he navigated a meandering musical course, leading a small 1930s jazz combo and a 1940s big band before putting Las Vegas (some would suggest “single-handedly”) on the entertainment map in the late 1950s. Along the way, he recorded hundreds of 78s, 45s and LPs, appeared on film, radio and television, and headlined popular nightclubs on both coasts.

For those who remember  his crazy Vegas duets with Smith and Butera, or  the animated antics of King Louis in Disney’s 1967 hit, The Jungle Book (his final career re-invention), check out Swing Cats Jamboree, a Vitaphone short from 1938 featuring Prima and Frank Frederico on guitar. The shuffle rhythms, scat lyrics and crazy antics which made Prima’s music and voice famous decades later are both clearly in evidence during the band’s renditions of “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and “Loch Lomand” which bookend this fun film.

As a special treat, we even get to see Louis—who later sported a series of toupees onstage—perform wearing his own hair.

If that isn’t enough evidence of his jazz chops, then take a look at this short segment from Louis Prima: The Wildest, the fine 1999 documentary of his life and career still available on DVD. This particular clip features Prima’s “call and response” duet method, something he perfected with sax great Sam Butera two decades later. Here he works out some musical mayhem with clarinet legend Pee Wee Russell in a scene from Rose of Washington Square.*

When jazz combos faded in favor of big dance bands, Prima cast himself in a new light. Building on his strength as a composer (he had penned Benny Goodman’s huge 1938 hit Sing, Sing, Sing), he mounted a big band of his own by the advent of WWII, releasing several original novelty tunes trading on his Italian heritage and language, including Angelina, Felicia No Capicia, Please No Squeeza Da Banana, Eleanor, Baccigalupe (Make Love on the Stoop) and others. In addition, he recorded many popular numbers (including his theme song, Robin Hood and Oh, Marie) which kept his name on the charts.

By the early 1950s, however, musical tastes had evolved again. Even though he had hired a talented 17 year-old Keely Smith as his vocalist in late 1947 (she became his fourth wife in 1953), gigs for the “big” band were few and far between. Within a few years, Prima and Smith found themselves working a diminishing number of dates backed by house bands.

That all began to change when brother Leon reminded his younger sibling of an even younger sax man in their hometown of New Orleans: Sam Butera.

Butera was a local prodigy who’d been named the “Best High School Saxophonist” in 1946 by Look magazine. Prima had recently wrangled a three-year deal to play the lounge at the Sahara Hotel & Casino in nascent Las Vegas, and he needed a band. He put in a call to Sam and his group. Prima re-named them “The Witnesses,” and they joined Louis and Keely on December 26, 1954.

Honed in the harsh and unforgiving environment of the Las Vegas lounge scene, Prima and his new band soon developed a large following, leading one gaming official to complain that while Louis, Keely and the Witnesses were holding court in the Sahara’s lounge and other local spots, “No one gambled.” But what the casino bosses may have lost in gaming revenue, they made up for in beverage sales from the overflow crowds. After blowing away (literally and figuratively) standing room only Vegas audiences for two years, Prima signed the whole gang with Capitol Records. In 1957, the rest of the world was introduced to what the Vegas crowd already knew…that Louis Prima was “The Wildest Act in Show Business.”

And what an act it was.

With Sam and the boys driving the shuffle rhythm, and Keely providing a stoic counterpoint alongside Prima’s exuberant glee (a bit which dated back to Prima’s shtick with his big band vocalist Lily Ann Carol), audiences couldn’t get enough of it. The group mixed re-arranged popular standards, up-tempo medleys and novelty numbers with solos by Keely and Sam and non-stop hi-jinks. It was musical vaudeville, with enough energy to power the lights up and down the rapidly growing Vegas strip.

Just a few of the LPs from my personal Louis Prima collection

Over the years, Prima recorded for a variety of labels, large and small, including Brunswick, Decca, Majestic, Vocalian, RCA Victor, and Columbia, but it was his LPs for Capitol—intentionally recorded to capture the group in a “live” setting”—which really put him on the map. Because Prima was afraid to fly, he and his band didn’t travel far from their home on the range, so successful recordings were a must. Soon, multiple appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show and other nationwide programs helped his star move higher in the pop culture firmament.

Here’s a great clip from one of those televised performances, with Sam Butera (sax), Lou Sino (trombone), Bobby Roberts (guitar), Tony Luizza (bass), Paul Ferrara (drums), Willie MacCumber (piano), and a dead-pan Keely pitching in on vocals:

In addition to their recordings with Prima, Smith and Butera (and the Witnesses) released several solo LPs, with Smith’s being particularly popular. Smith also recorded two vocal duets with Capitol label mate Frank Sinatra (something he rarely did) and appeared in a couple of films, including Thunder Road with Robert Mitchum. Butera played the title track and played a small role in the Tony Curtis/Debbie Reynolds film, The Rat Race. But most of their time was spent alongside The Chief, playing it pretty for the people.

Because of their growing popularity, Prima and the band were asked to star in a feature film. Prima agreed on the condition that they could shoot it in Las Vegas around their performing schedule. The resulting feature, Hey Boy, Hey Girl (1959) co-starred actor James Gregory as a local parish priest. Shot in two weeks (with the thinnest of plot lines), it is sought by Prima collectors for songs not available elsewhere.

Later that same year, Prima leveraged his popularity into a unique deal with Dot records. Prima received the proceeds from his LPs and 45s, and paid Dot a royalty! In 1963, he even launched his own label, Prima Microgroove Records, based out of his sprawling estate on Warm Springs Road in South Las Vegas, a huge parcel of land which also included Prima’s private golf course named “Fairway to the Stars.”

Unfortunately, in 1961, at the height their professional success (much like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), Prima and Smith divorced. Keely went on to a solo career (she signed with Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label), and although Louis continued to perform and record with Sam and the Witnesses (and eventually with his fifth wife, Gia Maione), the combination of the loss of Smith from the act, changes in Vegas entertainment tastes and new musical trends diminished his popularity once again.

Louis Prima in his later years

But Prima soldiered on.

In 1965, he provided the voice for “King Louis the Most” in Walt Disney’s The Jungle Book, a gig which renewed his popularity AGAIN, leading to voice work on some additional spoken word Disney LPs.

Songwriter Richard Sherman, who co-wrote most of the film’s songs with his brother Robert, tells of how he flew to Las Vegas to pitch Prima on the role of King Louis. With Prima, Butera and the band standing beside a rehearsal piano, Dick performed the soon-to-be hit, I Wanna Be Like You. Sherman didn’t know that Louis had decided to play a trick on the Academy Award-winner by remaining stoic throughout the comedy number, and he told his band to do the same.

When Sherman finished the number, he was met with seven expressionless faces, until Prima sternly asked, “Are you trying to make a monkey out of me?” When Sherman offered him a weak, “Yes,” Louis and the boys broke into raucous laughter before Prima finally answered, “Well, you got me!”

Even though his personal star was on the wane, his influence continued to be felt in pop music circles. When Sonny & Cher hit network television in the early 1970s,  their on-stage personnas could be easily traced to Prima and Smith.

By the early 1970s, Prima and Butera had returned to New Orleans to entertain at local hotel lounges. In 1973, he experienced a small heart attack. In 1975, a tumor was discovered surrounding his brain stem. He fell into a coma during surgery to remove the tumor, and he never regained consciousness.

Prima died in his native New Orleans on August 24, 1978.

Today, Prima’s music lives on in many ways, from covers by more recent artists (including Brian Setzer’s version of Jump, Jive & Wail and, perhaps more famously, David Lee Roth’s note for note ripoff of Sam Butera’s arrangement of Just a Gigolo/Ain’t Got Nobody) to TV programs, movies and commercials, which continue to license his songs (Elf, Mr. Saturday Night, Casino, etc.). Setzer even wrote and recorded a song titled Hey, Louis Prima.

At least two of Prima’s children are carrying on the family act, including his son Louis Prima, Jr. and his daughter Lena. Keely Smith also continues to record and perform.

Prima made the news recently, when he received a posthumous star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in July of 2010.

- craig

* Another great film scene (not currently posted on YouTube but available on DVD) features Prima singing and playing Johnny Mercer’s classic “I’m an Old Cowhand” alongside Bing Crosby, Bob Burns, Martha Raye and Frances Farmer in the 1936 film, Rhythm on the Range.

Personal Note: I never saw Louis Prima perform live (my parents caught his act a few times up at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore), but I was fortunate enough to see Sam and Keely perform together in 1992 at Las Vegas’ Desert Inn. A few years later, I spent a couple of weeks in Las Vegas on business. Each night for those two weeks, I made a beeline over to the Desert Inn to catch both sets of Sam Butera and his new band, The Wildest. They were as hot as ever, with Sam taking over Louis’ vocals as if he had sung them all of his life.

After seeing me in the audience at multiple shows, Sam came over to my table to say hello. He introduced me to his band, and let me hang out with them between sets the next couple of nights. What a thrill to hang with Sam and hear his stories about Prima and the early days of Las Vegas.

Sadly, Sam Butera passed away at the age 81 on June 3, 2009.

Books: The WPA and the American Guide Series: Part 1

•November 19, 2010 • 3 Comments

My complete set of the American Guide “state” books line the top 3 shelves. Others (including several of the “city,” regional and topical guides) appear below.

I first came across a reference to the American Guide Series (often referred to today as the “W.P.A. Guides”) in John Steinbeck’s penultimate work, Travels with Charley (1962). I was in high school at the time, and here’s part of what I read:

“If there had been room in Rocinante I would have packed the W.P.A. Guides to the States, all forty-eight of them. I have all of them, and some are very rare…The complete set comprises the most comprehensive account of the United States ever got together, and nothing since it has ever approached it. It was compiled during the depression by the best writers in America, who were, if that is possible, more depressed than any other group while maintaining their inalienable instinct for eating.” (pgs. 121-122)

Like Steinbeck, I was born with an urge to “be someplace else,” and this nascent wanderlust was not slackened by frequent family moves throughout Northern California (For the record, I attended six different elementary schools). Instead, each subsequent relocation only heightened my sense that there was a great deal to see and experience “out there.”

As an avid reader and armchair adventurer, a series of books featuring stories about the lesser-known nooks and crannies of the United States seemed like a great read. Unfortunately, while I was certainly better off at that time than the depressed writers to whom Steinbeck referred in Travels, I lacked the funds to spend on non-essential reading material (ie: not assigned for classwork), so a personal collection of W.P.A. Guides would have to wait. Eventually, other important priorities such as work, marriage and family took root, and I forgot about them.

In my early 30s, however, I came across the W.P.A. Guide to Colorado in a used bookstore, and those few Steinbeck paragraphs came flooding back to mind. I remember deciding at the time—being a bit of a Western Americana buff—to collect all of the volumes representing the Western States. A few years later, when I took a job requiring a good deal of domestic travel, it made sense to attempt to complete the collection.

Over the next five years, I assembled a complete set of the state Guides, purchasing them from bookstores in more than 25 different cities. Interestingly, because of the transient nature of travel guides, I found many of them in states other than the ones they represented. I remember that I picked up my final First Edition (North Carolina: A Guide to the Old North State) at a favorite bookstore of mine, The Complete Traveler on Madison Avenue in New York City.

The Federal Writers’ Project, which produced the American Guides, had its beginnings in 1935 under the broad umbrella of the W.P.A. (Works Progress Administration), itself a product of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation. Since the New Deal was ostensibly designed to get Americans back to work, in the case of the F.W.P. this meant unemployed writers, editors and photographers. Because of the great need for the collection and compiling of information in each state, hundreds of “non-writers” were employed as well. These included college students, unemployed teachers and many others. At it’s peak employment period (April of 1936, when much of the state data began to be compiled), the Writers’ Project counted 6,686 men and women on various state and federal staffs.

An early inspiration for the W.P.A. guide concept was the Baedecker travel guides from Europe (A Baedecker guide to the United States had been published in 1893 and revised in 1909), with the exception of focusing an entire volume on even the smallest states. The process for each guide book was to be the same: assignments would be issued to “local” writers by state project directors, who would then assemble a rough first draft. The final editing of each book would then be completed by the editorial staff in New York City, and that is mostly what came to be. And although several critics were openly wary of the Federal government getting involved in supporting the “arts” in such a direct manner, and despite a broad range of internal and external challenges, the resulting series of guides became what architect, city planner and social critic Lewis Mumford (writing in the New Republic) called “the first attempt, on a comprehensive scale, to make the country itself worthily known to Americans.”

Of course, the F.W.P. did much more than simply create books about the “Lower 48.” Between 1935 and 1943, the W.P.A. produced and/or sponsored hundreds of other publications (hardbound and softcover), including several dedicated to larger US cities, with a couple of glaring omissions. Chicago, for example, never received a guide of it’s own, although (according to the September 1941 W.P.A. catalogue) there were twenty-two books and pamphlets produced on various New York City locales and topics alone. In fact, the New York City guide was published in TWO volumes, with New York Panorama (1938), focusing on the history and culture and the New York City Guide (1939) on more up-to-date, detailed information, including a chapter on how to best navigate and enjoy the (then) current World’s Fair located in Flushing Meadows, Queens. Both of these were published by Random House, which didn’t print any of the state guides.

The Alpha & Omega of the American Guide state series: Idaho (1937) and Oklahoma (1942)

But the state guides remain the most recognizable published product of the F.W.P. From January 15, 1937, when Idaho, a Guide in Word and Picture (the “unintentional” first volume*) appeared, through the publication of Oklahoma, a Guide to the Sooner State on January 3, 1942, each of the 48 states was featured, along with U.S. Territories Alaska and Puerto Rico (no Hawaii guide was produced) and the District of Columbia.

To share the wealth (and the risk) the series was divided among nineteen different publishing houses, including giants such as Viking, Oxford Press, Houghton Mifflin, several small state or regional presses and—in one instance—the Federal Government Printing Office (GPO). The GPO published the massive Washington: City & Capital, a nearly 1,200 page behemoth of a book printed on semi-glossy stock paper, it weighed in at a whopping 8 pounds, allegedly causing FDR himself to remark that it should have been distributed along with a suitcase [it is easy to spot on the right side of shelf 3 in the top photo]. A heavily edited version (a mere 528 pages) of City & Capital was released in 1942 under the title of Washington D.C.: A Guide to the Nation’s Capital.

But other than the Idaho and City & Capital volumes, the remaining forty-six guides were similar in appearance and stature, if not always in page count. That is not to say that the remaining guides were created equally. While some–such as the guides to California, Illinois and New York State–had large print runs, the other, less populous state books were printed by small presses in relatively small runs. Of course, it appeared to some that population wasn’t the only reason for this. Steinbeck had a theory about this as well:

“If I remember correctly, North Dakota printed only eight hundred copies and South Dakota about five hundred…But these books were detested by Mr. Roosevelt’s opposition. If W.P.A. workers leaned on their shovels, the writers leaned on their pens. The result is that in some states the plates were broken up after a few copies were printed…” (page 122)

But no matter the reason, the guides to the less-populated states are traditionally more difficult to locate in collectible condition, especially in original dust jackets. Of course, all of these books were designed to be used on trips, and as such, more wear would be expected from being toted in and out of the automobiles and motor courts of the day.

However, the longest journey for many of these guides would be the one from field reporting and writing to editing, fact-checking and publication.

Coming soon in Part 2: Famous names, color maps, and political intrigue

* F.W.P. leadership had intended for the volume on Washington D.C. to be published first, but the Idaho guide writer/editor–novelist and historian Vardis Fisher–had other ideas.

- craig hodgkins

 
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