As we keep moving along through Hanukkah during these early days of our Holiday Music Fest, it's appropriate to have this very nice (and fairly lesser-known) song from Peter, Paul and Mary, written by Peter Yarrow. There are two versions of this from their PBS concerts, the first coming on their 25th anniversary concert. But I like this one that they did on their holiday special. Sometimes on the holidays, schmaltzy works...
Following up on the 60 Minutes piece on Stephen Sondheim I posted over the weekend in honor of him passing at age 91, we have a very fun and somewhat unexpected bonus of us.
Unexpected, because it is not a venue in which you expect to see Stephen Sondheim. “Somewhat” though because Sondheim famously loved puzzles and games. And so, here he is from 1966 as a guest on the game show, Password.
This is from a primetime incarnation of the show, and it wasn't only the main players who were celebrities, but also the guest contestants. The main stars here are Lee Remick and Peter Lawford. From scrolling through the full show, I get the sense that the main stars got to pick friends who they wanted to play with. (Lawford was a brother-in-law of President Kennedy, and one of his partners was former JFK press secretary Pierre Salinger. Lee Remick had her mother as one of her partners.)
It's noteworthy that Remick asked Sondheim. She had starred in the second show for which he wrote both the music and lyrics, Anyone Can Whistle, that also starred Angela Lansbury. The musical was a huge flop -- only nine performances -- yet its score was so well-regarded that a cast album was nonetheless made and prized.
But also, you may have noticed in that 60 Minutes segment the other day that it included a brief clip of the song "Could I Leave You" from a one-night only 1985 concert production of Follies. The singer in that clip was...Lee Remick.
One additional note related to this. In his game show appearance, host Allen Ludden asks Sondheim what musical he's working on next, and he answers that it's called The Girls Upstairs. That's the original tile for -- Follies. (Though the title was changed, Sondheim still used the name for one of the songs, "Waiting for the Girls Upstairs.") The show finally opened in 1971.
The password is -- Sondheim.
Since we're now into Hanukkah, we're going to continue with yet another Hanukkah song to keep the Festival of Lights going right. There aren't all that many Hanukkah songs around, but we have a few that I'll be posting.
At this point, this may be one of the best known of recent years, "Hanukkah in Santa Monica," written by the great Tom Lehrer. What most people don't know is that he wrote the song for an appearance on A Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor. I remember the first time I heard it while actually in Santa Monica. It was an odd, wonderful and somewhat ethereal experience
Here he is with his own song -- though with a slight difference. Usually Tom Lehrer accompanies himself with a solo piano. But for the APHC appearance, the show's music director Rich Dworsky did an arrangement that has a Klezmer-like feel which makes the song all the more fun.
And we have a couple of bonuses.
Because the song has slowly gained in awareness over the years, there have been a few wonderful other renditions of it. And this by the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles is one of the more fun for reasons which will soon become clear as they throw themselves into it full-bore. And though the group isn't based specifically in Santa Monica, it's all Los Angeles County and just a few miles away. So, they get a few bonus points to add to the charm.
And one final bonus. This is the song performed about as appropriately as one could wish -- not just with a Klezmer-like feel, but by an actual Klezmer band, this group being Art of Time. My only quibble with the otherwise great performance is that the lead singer gets a couple words wrong, which isn't a huge deal in such an otherwise vibrant performance, except that they're rhymes. Other than that -- mazel tov!
With thanks to Nell Minow for the heads-up, today is the 73rd anniversary of when the wonderful Kukla, Fran & Ollie went on the air. November 28, 1948.
The show, created by Burr Tillstrom, actually has three “first” dates.
It began on October 13, 1947, as an hour-long show in Chicago called Junior Jamboree, and ran on WBKB, which was with ABC. Then, the show changed its name officially to Kukla, Fran & Ollie and – 73 years ago today – moved to what would be its long-time home, WNBQ (later re-named WMAQ), which was an NBC owned-and-operated station. It still was just a local show in Chicago. But only a couple of months later, on January 12, 1949, Kukla, Fran & Ollie went national and aired at 6 PM Central time for a half-hour.
Nell comes by her love of the show almost by hereditary. Her father Newton Minow (later the FCC Commissioner for President Kennedy) was Burr Tillstrom’s lawyer. I’ll have more about this and the show on Saturday. That’s when it’s another anniversary of a very funny and odd episode of the show later that year (December 5, 1949) that salutes television and the stations joining the network and is a great historical document about the early days of TV. I have the video of the full show – again, thanks to Nell – and will post it then.
For now, though, we’ll celebrate the anniversary of the first official Kukla, Fran & Ollie show with this short clip of Kukla, Ollie and Fran Allison singing the show’s memorable theme song – followed by them singing the other offbeat Kukla, Fran and Ollie rhumba.
Last night, CBS aired it's One Last Time special with Tony Bennett -- who has Alzheimer's -- giving his final concert at Radio City Music Hall with Lady Gaga. The show was impressive and movie.
I actually crossed paths with him once. It wasn’t much, but memorable. And I think this is a good occasion to repeat the story. To be clear, it's about more than just Tony Bennett, but without telling the full thing for it's proper perspective, the moment would just be a glass a half-full. Actually, more like a quarter.
At the time, I was in my "dark period" doing P.R. and working for Universal Pictures. We were doing a very special, “top secret” promotion at the Hollywood Bowl that I was put in charge of coordinating the on-site logistics. This was right after the movie E.T came out and was a massive national phenomenon. The film’s composer John Williams was conducting an evening of his music, which was going to end with a suite from E.T. -- and it would finish with a surprise fireworks display, lighting up the Hollywood Bowl’s dome, sort of like it was a rocket ship. But the real surprise – after the audience had gotten all excited by the fireworks, thinking that was the surprise -- was that the “real E.T” was going to waddle out on stage, in person, shake John William’s hand, turn and bow to the audience and then waddle off.
Putting it all together was a total secret from everyone – even Tony Bennett who was the opening act that night. Not a word was leaked. But right before The Moment, we were backstage setting things up and that’s when we finally let everybody know. When we and E.T. got upstairs and waiting in the wings, I got my own surprise, seeing that Tony Bennett had come up and joined us, excited for the big moment which he wanted to see. I always thought that was great and showed a real warm personality – it wasn’t a case of “Okay, I’m done, I did my concert, I’m out of here.” He wanted to see the cool moment, and seemed almost giddy waiting with us.
And it was great. The audience loved the concert, both halves. And when the E.T. suite began, the recognizable themes of this phenomenon ratcheted up the audience's reaction higher. But then when the first few fireworks started, timed to the music building to a crescendo, they were shocked and began cheering. And then the bowl itself lit up entirely with fireworks exploding into the sky, and the audience began going wild – because they thought they’d seen it all. But backstage off in the wings, we were so excited because we knew that they hadn’t even seen the surprise yet!
And then…at the right moment, as the cheering built to a peak, we said – “Go.” And E.T. waddled out on stage – keep in mind that, as I said, this was at the very height of the movie’s phenomenon, and also no one had ever seen E.T. in public before – and to our surprise, the reaction was not at all what we expected. At first, there was an explosive roar, but it last only about two seconds, and then the entire Hollywood Bowl, over 16,000 people, became instantly silent. Everyone was riveted and watching and wanted to see if E.T. was going to say anything (he didn’t) and didn’t want to miss a second of what was happening. Only when he turned to leave and was almost off the stage did the place start cheering again.
This is a photo I had someone take backstage, literally seconds before we left to go upstairs to the stage. It’s a little out of focus because we were all literally rushing to time it to the very last moment before the music ended, still so as not to give anything away -- and I stopped everyone to get the picture. (I didn’t care, I was going to get the picture!!) But I knew we couldn’t wait for the guy to get everything in focus, if it wasn’t already.
As a tangential bonus, just to let you know I didn't let the entire evening go without having a proper photo -- before we had to rush up and there was still a little time, I took my own picture of E.T. and made sure beforehand that I got it in focus, even if I knew that the person I'd be quickly handing the camera to for the "rushed photo" of the two of us might not.
Well, it's that time of year. Our Holiday Music Fest, when we post song and videos that might not be as well known as some of the more popular ones -- or lesser-known versions.
We're starting a few days early this year because Hanukkah starts a bit early this year -- tonight, in fact.
Today's little known holiday song -- this time, for Hanukkah on the first night -- comes from what I believe was the first season of the animated series South Park. It was their initial Christmas special, centered around the adventures of Mr. Hanky the Christmas Poo, which brought the show even more attention. But beyond just posting one of the songs in that show, "It's Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas," I have a tangential story connected to it.
As I've mentioned, back in my dark days of P.R. I was the unit publicist on the movie BASEketball, which was directed and co-written by David Zucker (of the Airplane! and The Naked Gun series, which was why he brought me along) and starred Trey Parker and Matt Stone, who did -- and still do -- South Park. During the movie's production, which overlapped with them being in production on South Park (so, in essence, they were doing two jobs at the same time), Matt and Trey mentioned that the only reason they signed to do the movie is because they were sure the TV series would be canceled after 10 episodes, and they'd have plenty of time to make the movie. Ha. So much for the best laid plans. It was during the movie's production that the TV series started peaking -- for instance they made the cover of both Time and Newsweek during the film. They said that if they had any idea that the TV show would still be going on, they never would have agreed to be in the movie. It was a crushing schedule -- including having an editing trailer for them on the set every day, and going back to their production offices after the day's filming -- but they handled it seriously impressively.
Anyway, going back several months earlier, we had a read-through of the movie script one night, and given that it was the "South Park guys," families and kids were invited. And as it happened, the read-through took place the night after their Christmas special aired.
In the milling-around phase of the evening, I went over to Trey and Matt to introduce myself, and I also wanted to tell them how much I particularly had love this specific song. Given the fame of South Park at that time, they were not surprisingly surrounded by a bunch of young boys gushing about the show. But in particular, they were gushing about another song in the TV special. So, I stood off to the side and waited for their fans to finish.
The other song in the show was sung by the character 'Cartman," and only lasts about 30 seconds, with the words basically being, "Kyle's mom is a big fat b*tch, she's a b*tch, b*tch, b*tch, she's a big fat b*tch," over and over for half a minute. The little boys just loooooved that. And one after another, they enthused to Matt and Tray about it, singing the song themselves to both guys.
After they all departed, I finally walked over. I said hi, we chatted a bit, and then I said how terrific I thought the song, "It's Hard to Be a Jew on Christmas" was. That the lyrics were so funny, yet touching, and the music was wisftul, and it was just really nicely crafted. And what was hilarious and memorable was how their faces suddenly filled with a smile of relief. While they completely understood why the little boys all loved the "Kye's mom is a b*tch" song -- this other was an Actual Song. And one they took great pride in. So, they were SO relieved to have someone praise it, rather than the 30-second one with a single, crass line repeated getting all the attention.
I also had one question for them. About a minute into the song, the character Kyle singing it mentions some Hebrew phrase which I couldn't make out, words from some Hebrew Hanukkah song that Kyle has to sing instead of getting to sing "Silent Night." I asked what the Hebrew song was, since I didn't recognize it, and if they did research to find it or what. Trey broke out with a big laugh, "Oh, that," he said, "we just made the words up. We didn't know any Hebrew, so we just wrote some gibberish that sounded right."
(Note: When I've posted this in the past, it's only been the audio track of the song from the special since the sweet video wasn't available. But I checked once again last year -- and the full scene is at last there, and I found it. So...huzzah. Or rather, chuzzah.
Stephen Sondheim passed away on Friday at the age of 91. A friend called me up and asked if I was surprised to hear it. I said it's terribly hard to be surprised if someone has died at the age of 91, but also the last time I'd seen him was on Steven Colbert's show a month or two ago -- he was seated already when they came back from commercial, rather than walk out onstage at this introduction, so I figured he wasn't doing well. But surprise aside, it's still a shame because he continued to offer much to the world of art. Even if he wasn't getting new work produced, he was still writing it -- and most importantly he was still talking about it and teaching it.
Rather than write an essay on Sondheim, this is an extremely good 15-minute piece on him that 60 Minutes did in 1988.
A couple of tangential comments. The British actor who comes in around the 9-minute mark that Sondheim is rehearsing with for the British production of Follies is Daniel Massey. He starred in the original Broadway production of She Loves Me, and I saw him in London at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Measure for Measure. But also is that he's the song of movie great Raymond Massey.
Also, when they talk about and show Glynnis Johns singing "Send in the Clowns" from the original production of A Little Night Music, I suspect that many people will recognize her, but if she seems familiar and you just can't quite place where, she was the mother in Mary Poppins.
But this is about Sondheim. So --
From the archives. The contestant for this week's Piano Puzzler is Genevieve Wilde from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. I could hear the tune, and almost clearly, but just couldn't get it. It's definitely known, and I got it later when pianist Bruce Adolphe brought the music out more, but it was tough, even though known and clear. The composer style seemed to be from an era that I overlap a lot of people, so I took a guess. I was surprised that I was somewhat close, but didn't get that either.
A few weeks back, I posted the 60 Minutes sequence here about Tony Bennett having Alzheimer's, yet preparing for a final concert at Carnegie Hall with Lady Gaga.
Just a quick note to say that CBS recorded that concert, and they'll be airing it tomorrow (Sunday) at 8 PM in Los Angeles and on the East Coast, and at 7 PM in the Midwest.
On this week’s Al Franken podcast, he has one of his favorite guests, dating back to his show on Air America Radio, Dahlia Lithwick, who (among other things) writes about the Supreme Court as Slate’s expert. As Al writes about the episode, “Lithwick brings her depth and breadth of knowledge, plus her wit.”
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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