I figured that amid all the party frivolities tonight we'd end the year with a Piano Puzzler, and this week's contestant is Matthew Rhea from Fishers, Indiana. And the song should be easily guessed. The hidden composer likely will fall between a couple of possibilities. And happily I got it. (For basically the same reasons that the contestant says that made him of the correct composer, as well.) A good way to head into the year.
I've mentioned often in the past how my good friend, writer-director Mick Garris is the son-in-law of Louis Zamperini, the subject of the book and now-movie, Unbroken. His wife, my friend Cynthia, is Louie's daughter, and she and her brother and have been involved with helping promote the film, participating in Q&A's for the film, carrying on for their father who was expecting to do the events, but passed away this past summer,
I was trading emails yesterday with Cynthia, about how incredibly well the movie did in its opening four days, making a huge $46 million. She offhandedly mentioned in return something about the Rose Parade
This surprised me a bit, and I asked if that means she’s participating in some way with the Rose Parade. I thought maybe, possibly she would reply that she was going to be on a float. But even that seemed a stretch. Perhaps she just meant being involved with some events tied in with the parade. Or maybe she was referring to the traffic, which gets really heavy with tourists and locals want to the parade.
Involved in “some way” I had wondered?? Ha! Little did I know.
Cynthia wrote back and mentioned that what she was referring to is she and her brother are going to be…are you ready…the Grand Marshals!!!!
It turns out, you see, that her father was supposed to be the Grand Marshal, but the Rose Parade officials still wanted to honor Louie, and so they asked his kids to be it instead. So, now, of course, I absolutely have to watch. Or at least record it. Thank goodness for the DVR.
I had no idea. But how cool – she’s going to be Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade!
So, if you were planning to watch the Rose Parade on New Year's Day, keep an eye out for the Grand Marshall's. I'm sure that she has been practicing her wave to the crowd.
This is who you should be looking out for. Her brother will be the other one.
I figure that this is a good way to go out the year on.
I love Jack Benny. He may be my favorite comedian -- he most definitely is high on the list. (And he was my grandmother's favorite comedian. Even as a little kid, I used to get almost as much pleasure watching her enjoy him as I enjoyed him myself.)
I realized that I haven't posted enough Jack Benny material here. Like none. So, it was time that I rectify this massive oversight.
This is a classic Benny sketch from his TV show -- all the more fun because there's almost no dialogue in it, just a master of knowing where the humor is and giving the slightest expression. It's the "Violin Duet" he did with Gisele MacKenzie.
Gisele MacKenzie was a reasonably popular singer of that era, probably best known for appearing on the show, Your Hit Parade. It turns out, she was a pretty fair violinist. And it turns out, as well, that she has fine comic timing, too. Not bad when you're opposite the master...
So, here it is. Just two people doing nothing more than playing a simple tune on the violin. But what a warm pleasure.
NOTE: after posting this, and clicking on it to check, it turns out that -- although the video is still available -- you have to go directly to YouTube to watch it. You can get to it by clicking here.
For all the holidays songs that were played here and elsewhere during the season, it worth noting too that we're nine days into winter officially, and that brings to mind one of my favorite recordings.
I've written a lot here about Steve Goodman, whose work I love. But wonderful as his songs and recordings are, they still don't give a great sense of how tremendous he was in concert with an audience. I've told the story about being at the concert where he won over the 3,000 maniacal fans of Steve Martin at the Universal Amphitheatre. He just was a joy -- a cherubic, short, enthusiastic bundle of energy and personality.
What I love about this recording is that comes as close to giving a sense of Steve Goodman in concert as any, even though it's just audio. It's recorded living during a concert -- I believe from when he appeared on Austin City Limits, though it was cut from the TV broadcast (though I can't swear it's from that). What happens is that someone in the audience calls out for him to sing, of all things, "Winter Wonderland," a song that has never been part of the Steve Goodman repertoire. But being game for pleasing the audience, he dives in...even though he doesn't know how it goes.
And what he ends up with is not just one of my favorite Steve Goodman recordings, but perhaps my favorite rendition of "Winter Wonderland."
About six weeks ago, I wrote that the Chicago Bears were so dismal this year and were being so massively embarrassed on national television against their rivals the Green Bay Packers that I had sent an email to a friend at halftime that the team should fire the coach before they left the locker room. And I am not someone who tends to call for the head of the coach when a team is doing poorly. (I follow the Cubs and Northwestern sports. Doing poorly comes with the territory.) But the Bears looked clueless even in the pre-season exhibition games.
It only took six additional weeks, but yesterday the team not only fired their coach, but also the General Manager. The Bears historically don't do this, but keep their coaches through the run of their contracts, if not beyond. And I never recall them firing both the coach and GM at the same time.
There was a moment at the press conference yesterday that got a lot of national attention. It was when team president George McCaskey (grandson of former team owner/coach/and player, the legendary George Halas), said with great emphasis how "pissed off" his 91-year-old mother, Virginia McCasky, daughter of Halas, and still the team's principal owner, was.
My favorite exchange was with a friend who's a big Bears fan, though who I refer to as Mr. Sunshine. He sent me a note after the firing that basically said -- and I'm not exaggerating -- that although he Bears just made a significant change that needed to be made, and which he'd been pushing to be made, “We’re doomed.” And if the Bears hadn’t made the change, he absolutely who have moaned, “We’re doomed.” And when running through the list of experienced coaches the Bears could hire, wrote, “We’re doomed.” And if it turned out that they hire an up-and-coming inexperienced coach, for certain, "We're doomed.
By the way, he almost hates the team's quarterback Jay Cutler and wants him gone...
I wrote back: "Methinks your hatred of Jay Cutler has been put in the proper Mr. Sunshine context."
To his credit, he wrote back.
"And we're doomed."
Note: people take their sports seriously in Chicago...
Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) is the third top-ranking official in the U.S. House Republican Party, serving as the Majority Whip. He's now in the midst of a controversy about speaking 12 years ago at a conference for an organization headed by former KKK leader David Duke.
I have no idea what Mr. Scalise said at the event, and neither does Mr. Scalise, he says, explaining that he has no records from back then. There's also no video or recording of the speech that's yet surfaced. And he says that he was poorly-staffed at the time, when a state representative, and therefore didn't do much vetting for his speeches, but was willing to speak to pretty much anyone as he tried to build his public profile.
To be fair, that's very possible. To be equally fair, it might be malarkey. And I'm not being facetious when I say I don't know which is true.
Mr. Scalise acknowledges speaking at the conference and knowing who David Duke is -- being a Louisiana politician at the time (or a Louisiana breathing entity), it would have been near-impossible not to know -- just not knowing apparently that the white supremacist organization he was invited to was David Duke's. And that's absolutely possible, too.
Possible and likely, of course, are two different fish. I have a hard time believing that a Louisiana state politician didn't know about an organization led by David Duke. Duke was incredibly high profile at the time, everywhere, but especially in Louisiana. A decade earlier he had been the state's Republican nominee for governor and then had run for the U.S. Senate -- both times getting huge local and even national attention for his Klan involvement. It's certainly possible that Steve Scalise didn't know that the conference was Duke's. Though the Chicago Cubs' minor league baseball affiliate did. Really.
(The Iowa Cubs, a Triple-A team, was in New Orleans at the time and found out that the hotel they were scheduled to stay in was the same one where the Duke organization's conference was being held. The team voted unanimously to move and stay elsewhere. Go, Cubs!! So, minor league baseball players coming from Iowa knew, just not Steve Scalise, a Louisiana politician.)
But even if it's all innocent, and Steve Scalise just gave a campaign speech to what he thought was some random group, there are still problems. He's on record just three years earlier talking to Roll Call, when both he and David Duke were considering running for the same House seat, and Mr. Scalise told the publication that he "embraces many of the same 'conservative' views as Duke, but is far more viable." as a candidate.
To be fair, only a few years later Steve Scalise was highly critical of David Duke -- who by then was in federal prison on a a tax conviction -- and told a New Orleans paper, the CityBusiness, "David Duke is an embarrassment to our district and his message of hate only serves to divide us." To be equally fair, there were reports that Mr. Duke was considering running for Congress in that very same district Steve Scalise was interested in.
But again, I really don't know what happened at that white supremacist conference. I honestly mean it when I say it could have been an innocent confluence. Such things do happen. I suspect that it wasn't innocent, but that's just a guess. I have no idea.
However, it's a pickle for the GOP. Republicans in the House of Representative has to vote soon on who they want their party leaders to be there. And even if Steve Scalise was so utterly naive to not know that he was invited to speak at a racist organization headed by the former GOP candidate for governor and KKK leader who he had been interested in running against for office just three years before -- the congressman is still on record as saying that he shares many of the conservative views of the former Ku Klux Klan leader.
The GOP will do what it wants. Me, I think it's a poor idea having such questions swirling around your party's highest standard bearers. But given the Republican Party's history is riling up their base against the black president, who knows?, they may consider Steve Scalise's credentials a good thing and mark in his favor...
This week's contestant is Sean Hampton from Round Rock, Texas. This sounds like a repeat from their archives, not just because the bantering about Round Rock, but there's a passage in the arrangement that sounded familiar. Whether I got the hidden song from that -- or because I did recognize it, I don't know. It's well-hidden, but identifiable, I thought, Though the contestant had trouble. I also guessed the composer, and that had nothng to do with remembering it from before.
Recently, I posted an article here on how several songs from Les Miserables seem pretty clearly adapted from classical music pieces. That brought about a comment from the oft-mentioned and inveterate Chris Dunn, who said how one of his favorite lifts is Bill Conti's use of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto for the Main Theme of the movie, The Right Stuff. I completely agree, and have been pointing that out for years. It's a far more egregious example for me -- the Les Miserables songs are adaptations of passages and seem basically fine to me. The Right Stuff theme is Tchaikovsky.
But the most egregious is something I've offhandedly mentioned here in the past. How the Main Title song from Mel Brooks' film, The 12 Chairs, is almost note-for-note Brahms' Hungarian Dance #4. Even down to the song's bridge. Yet the screen credit reads "Theme Song by Mel Brooks." I suspect that that phrasing was used so that he wouldn't have to say, not only "Words," but also "Music by Mel Brooks," when it's clearly not.
(The whimsy of this is that much of Brahms' Hungarian Dances are not by Brahms but rather his adaptation of old peasant folk songs.)
Anyway to refresh your memory, here's "Hope for the Best,, Expect the Worst." It starts a bit abruptly because there's a short prologue scene that comes before and was cut off. There are also subtitles added, so you can sing along. It's a wonderful song with very clever and funny words by Mel Brooks, and lively music by...well, you know.
And here below is Brahms' Hungarian Dance #4.
Often, it can be a little tricky determining for absolute certain whether a song was really, truly "based on" another. But I challenge anyone to say that "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst" not only wasn't based on Brahms' Hungarian Dance #4, but isn't almost entirely (with maybe a tweak or two) this exact piece of music below, including the bridge.
To be clear, I absolutely love the song, "Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst." It just isn't "Theme Song by Mel Brooks." Only partly.
Our long national nightmare is over. The Chicago Bears's dismal season is over. Losing the final 13-9 to the Minnesota Viking, the Bears finished the season 5-11. But it was worse than that, in that the team was often out of some games by the end of first quarter. I sent an email to a friend at the halftime of the Bears-Packers game saying that I wouldn't be surprised if coach Marc Tressman was fired before the third quarter started. I was only being semi-facetious. It was that much an embarrassment.
There were a few shining spots, most notably Matt Forte. Yet even there, some teeth-gnashing is involved.
Matt Forte set an NFL record with 102 receptions, the most-ever by a running back in a single season. And he became only the second player in the history of the NFL to have over 1,000 yards rushing and 100 catches.
And...he wasn't selected to the Pro Bowl...!!!
I understand that the Bears as a team stank. But that's all the more reason to be impressed by Forte's achievements. And there were other running backs who had good years. Though not all those selected appear to have. And again -- he set the record for most catches ever by a running back in NFL history and was just the second player ever in the league's history to have 100 catches and 1,000 yards.
And he wasn't picked for the Pro Bowl???
And it's not like Matt Forte is an unknown entity, who slipped through the cracks of voters unnoticed. He's been voted onto the Pro Bowl twice before, including last year.
What more did voters want of him, especially on a terrible team -- to sell food concessions in the stands during the game, too?!
The other week, I saw the final Hobbit film, which I enjoyed. It's much too long -- like all the Hobbit films -- and is largely one long battle scene. But the fight focuses on personalities which I think gives it substance, and the filmmaking craft it so otherworldly stunning that on that level alone, I was enthralled. It's not a movie everyone will like -- and I didn't remotely love it -- but there was much more than enough for me to marvel at.
I mention all this though for another reason entirely. It's the reason I've loved the six Lord of the Rings/ Hobbit movies. It's a tiny reason, and an odd one. But -- I love them for this.
And that's the inclusion of Ian Holm, as Bilbo Baggins.
The 83-year-old British actor has had a distinguished career. Prior to the LOTR films, he was probably most recognized for playing the ostracized track coach, Sam Mussabini, in the Oscar-winning Best Picture, Chariots of Fire. But he also won the Tony Award as Best Featured Actor in 1967 in Harold Pinter's play, The Homecoming. And won the Olivier Award as Best Actor in 1998 for King Lear. He got an Oscar nomination as supporting actor in Chariots of Fire.
But it's for another far-lesser-known role that I bring all this up. But first a bit of history.
Back in 1981, the BBC broadcast a 26-part radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, 13 hours long, broken into half-hour segments. Now, this might sound problematic and mind-numbing to some, but they aired it on National Public Radio in the U.S, and all I can tell you is that it was spectacular. I was riveted to the whole thing, waiting for each new episode. (My recollection is here in the U.S. they put two half-hours together each week.) The acting, writing, sound production, everything was just grippingly done. (You can read about it here.)
How great was it? A couple years later, NPR re-aired it. I had no interest in listening to it again -- once was plenty, and I'd read the trilogy twice -- but I thought I'd tune in to the first episode for all time's sake, in appreciation and just to remind me how well it was done. Within minutes, I was hooked again...and I listened to the entire 13-hour series all over again.
And starring as Frodo Baggins was...Ian Holm!
He was brilliant. Just freaking wonderful. It was a glorious performance. And when two decades later I read that a movie series would be made of the LOTR trilogy, all I could think of was Ian Holm and his great portrayal as Frodo on the radio. I knew there was no way on earth (or Middle Earth) that he could play Frodo in the films -- that was only thanks to the magic of radio -- but I was still sorry for his performance being overshadowed.
And then I read that he had been cast as Bilbo.
There was no question in mind that this was due, in part, of course, because he's such a great actor, but also as an homage to the BBC radio series. Peter Jackson is far too detailed to not know. The amount of research that he and his fellow filmmakers delved into for the world of Tolkien is highly documented and shows on the screen. It's just not conceivable to me that he wasn't aware of this 26-part radio adaptation by the BBC. And that he not only included Ian Holm in the films, but in the far-too appropriate role of Bilbo Baggins has especially endeared Peter Jackson to me.
And that Ian Holm is one of the few actors to also be in The Hobbit series, as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is just icing on the cake. And that he gets an homage in this final film -- how and when, I will not say, you'll have to see for yourself -- is all the better.
And I'm serious about this, how thrilled I am for his notable inclusion. The BBC radio adaptation was that good, as was Ian Holm. If you're interested, you can check it out here on Amazon.
Robert J. Elisberg is a two-time recipient of the Lucille Ball Award for comedy screenwriting. He's written for film, TV, the stage, and two best-selling novels, and is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post and the Writers Guild of America. Among his other writing, he has a long-time column on technology (which he sometimes understands), and co-wrote a book on world travel. As a lyricist, he is a member of ASCAP, and has contributed to numerous publications.