I don’t have any stories about meeting Betty White, who passed away last week at the age of 99, about three weeks short of her 100th birthday. A lot of articles, though, talked about her great marriage to TV gameshow host Allen Ludden – and I do have a story about him, so that’s the best I can do.
When I was a graduate student at UCLA, I lived in the graduate dorm Mira Hershey Hall. At one point, we decided to hold a College Bowl tournament like the old TV show. People organized their teams, and a committee of medical students, law students, chemistry PhD candidates and so on wrote the questions, and one of the dorm residents played host.
That is, until the finals. We had the idea that wouldn’t it be a great idea if we contacted Allen Ludden, who had been the host of College Bowl on TV many years earlier and find out if he’d be willing to host our finals. (I’m sure we offered to pay him, I just don’t know those details.)
And to everyone’s shock, he said, yes.
Now, it helps to keep something in perspective. Though Allen Ludden had a place in people's hearts there from his years hosting College Bowl, he also had a sort of goofy persona to people because...well, he was a game show host. And had been for decades. Just standing there asking questions. In fact, on Password, he really didn't even ask questions. He'd pretty much just say, "Here's your first word," and tell each team when it was their turn. It was an off-screen announcer who would actually give the password. But still, goofy persona or not, he'd been the host of College Bowl, was a real-life celebrity, married to Betty White, and an expert at this sort of thing.
The finals were a big deal because the contest had been going on for many weeks. And an even bigger deal because Allen Ludden would be hosting. The lounge was jam-packed.
When Ludden showed up, the first thing he said was, “In all my years hosting College Bowl, these are the hardest questions I’ve ever seen.” (It got a big, knowing laugh…)
What that should have made clear to everyone is that it meant Allen Ludden had read the questions beforehand. So, he wasn’t going to slum this. Take the money and run. It meant he at least made an effort to prepare, even for a small graduate dorm at UCLA with no camera, no publicity, no national audience. Only a lounge-full of about 100 grad students. But as it turned out, he didn’t just make an effort to prepare – he prepared. He knew the questions inside and out, had read the answered and I’m sure had also practiced asking them since he hadn’t done this in ages. While it hadn’t been all that long since he hosted Password, that was a totally different show, almost laconic in comparison. College Bowl was another animal entirely. It was a battle. Between two college teams out to prove on national TV that we are smarter and better than the other.
And so, when the game began in that lounge, and he snapped out, “Okay, first question, toss-up,” there was almost an electric reaction in the room, because we were used by then to student hosts – and here was someone who in just those three words riveted our attention, and you could everyone there sitting up, taking notice.
I can’t do it justice. It will just be words here. No sense of the authority he brought to it, the energy, the pace, the almost snap to attention.
“Toss-up, Blue Team. Correct, 10 points. Bonus question. Yes, five points. Next question, toss-up. Red Team. Sorry, that’s wrong. The question goes to the Blue Team to steal. Correct, 10 points. Bonus question. No, that’s not correction. Next toss-up, this for 10 points….”
On and on like that, unrelenting, totally in command, fully in charge. You were almost out of breath just listing. And the game went on for about 20-30 minutes. It was riveting.
He took it totally seriously. Mostly because clearly that’s who he was, but I’m sure too because he recognized that the questions took it seriously, and he respected that. But it was clear, too, that he had the full awareness that this was ultimately fun, it wasn’t College Bowl on TV. He had the right sense of place and occasion. After all, he was surrounded by grad students in a crammed dorm lounge, it was hard to miss that.
And he didn’t miss a beat. He balanced professionalism, seriousness and fun. Which is a tough trick when, at heart, you’re standing in a small lounge surrounded by college kids.
He was wonderful, and I only wish it was in the days of cell phones so that someone would have recorded it. Because I didn’t come close to doing it justice.
But whenever I read about what a great marriage Betty White and Allen Ludden had, and we all had a sense of her personality, I always thought back to that graduate dorm version of College Bowl that Allen Ludden agreed to do and had my own sense why their marriage was so great.
But I should still get back to Betty White. And on Saturday, NBC reran the 2010 episode of Saturday Night Live which she hosted at age 88. She was wonderful, and the opening monologue stood out. Here it is --
This is a bit of personal folderol, but so offbeat, unexpected and weird, and ultimately funny, that it’s worth retelling.
It begins by helping to know who Clint Watts is. I suspect that most people who watch MSNBC do know, since he’s on often as a former FBI agent who’s testified before Congress and serves as the network’s analyst. He’s straight-forward, objective and no nonsense. Here’s some video footage in case you need a reminder or introduction.
On Tuesday, Mr. Watts was again on MSNBC, talking from home about something critical – I believe it was the January 6th insurrection – and he did it in his as-always serious manner. Except there was one minor thing very different which leaped out, and was so surprisingly funny that I thought it deserved to be mentioned, and so I sent out a tweet about it. I wrote –
“I just love that the always serious, profoundly objective, deeply staid former FBI agent Clint Watts is now on MSNBC with a ‘GO ARMY, BEAT NAVY’ whiteboard behind him.”
It was hard to miss. As he spoke in his low-key, but blunt and forceful way about the critical topic, he’d put up a large whiteboard behind him and handwrote his message about this weekend’s big Army-Navy football game in very big letters.
To make it even more surprising, a few minutes after I posted my note, I saw that it had gotten “Liked” by – Clint Watts. And then it was immediately followed by another public tweet from him to me that simply read, “#Go Army #BEAT navy.”
Not what I expected from Clint Watts.
Nor did I expect the adventure that was to follow from my benign, complimentary tweet.
What happened was that shortly after, there was a responding tweet to me and Clint Watts from somebody chiding me, saying that the last thing they would ever describe Clint Watts as was “dull.”
Okay, yes, it missed the point of my good-natured observation, but – c’mon, I didn’t call Clint Watts dull. I said he was always serious and profoundly objective. In these days of recommending to drink bleach and believing JFK is coming back from the dead, that's almost as high praise as I can give someone. Yes, I also said he was “deeply staid,” but the very definition of...
Well, as I was pondering this, another similar note came in reply to me and Clint Watts, taking me to task for my description of him. And then, even Clint Watts jumped in, saying to my burgeoning dismay something like how that was his thought, too. Which struck me as a bit odd since he’d “Liked” my initial tweet.
No one seemed actually upset, it was still at the kidding-around level, but kidding about something I not only hadn't said, but wouldn't dream of saying and opposite of the point I had made. I felt I had to do something, not wanting a single misunderstood word to insult someone whose career protecting the United States was truly estimable I was praising, so I responded individually to everyone who’d replied by writing
“To clarify, ‘dull’ is only the *second* definition in my dictionary of ‘staid’ But the FIRST definition is – ‘Characterized by dignity and propriety.’ That's what I was going for -- the FIRST definition.”
I thought that would resolve things at last. But the way Twitter works, people can see the first tweet alone, and not necessarily your replies and clarification that scroll by later. And a few more did come in. And the other previous respondents kept commenting on it to themselves.
At last, I felt that I had to make another effort to stop the bleeding. (Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but my initial benign little note was getting out of hand, especially towards someone I admired. So, I wrote directly to Clint Watts --
And I also decided to take preventative action so that this all didn’t spread further out of control. So, I deleted my initial tweet and instead wrote a new note that said “Since one adjective in an earlier tweet has been misinterpreted by some, I replaced it” – and then reposted what I'd originally written...but instead of the word “staid,” I used “dignified.”
And that seemed to do the trick to end the barrage, though not for the "Ohhh, okay, I get it" reason I thought. Rather, and most importantly, these other folks seemed to realize my moderate distress and so, it also brought about explanations about what had been going on.
It turned out that all these people I thought had been chastising me were, in fact, longtime friends of Clint Watts, and they were really ridiculing him.
As one of the correspondents wrote --
Well, that was certainly a relief. I had not insulted someone, even mildly, who was pretty heroic. I wrote back, "Thanks much, I appreciate it. And I completely understand private jokes with good friends. (And I'm glad to have been able to start it off, even if unknowingly...) I'm sure you can understand why, as an unawares recipient, I wanted to clarify I was trying to be complimentary."
Which got a "Like" in return from him. And pretty much the same in exchanges with others.
But the best came from the Mothership himself, since he had been following along with all the others.
It was indeed a "Phew!" moment. All the more so when he also noted, "No worries. I love being staid!” In fairness, I knew I hadn't written anything incorrect or remotely insulting -- but I also knew that it had been misinterpreted by others just a bit, including by the subject of it all himself who (even though he had "Liked" the comment) deserved a great deal of respect. Most especially because I'm sure he has been vilified relentlessly over the past few years for his harsh, public criticism of the lawlessness by the Trump administration -- not to mention what he's dealt without throughout his career.
And so, I wrote back that, "As you can imagine, I'm pleased no faux pas was committed, & that I was able to be the catalyst of the exchange between good friends...even if I had no idea what on earth I was doing. I suspect these days, any public figure being called a "wonderful" adjective is a rare relief."
Which, happily, he "Liked."
Which I liked.
And yes, as I said, the whole thing was so offbeat, unexpected and weird. And ultimately funny.
And Shakespearean -- since all's well that ends well.
We interrupt the Holiday Music Fest currently in progress so that we my bring you this special posting. The Holiday Music Fest will return later tonight. For now, we honor the State of Illinois on the 203rd anniversary of it being admitted to the Union. Huzzah!
In honor of it as the true birthplace of America, or at least of me, we do have music, so those of you who prefer hearing latest installment of holiday songs and can't wait at least have something to hold on to. It's the state song, "Illinois," quite an aptly-named title, I must say. It's also often know as "By Thy Rivers Gently Flowing," the song's first line, which adds a bit of grace to to a title otherwise more perfunctory. What it also tends to do is get people to sing the song (on those rare occasions when they do sing it) as if it was a religious hymn. Or, often, a dirge. For all I know, that's what the songwriters intended, rather than something to rouse the spirits -- or not. Hymn-like does make it lovely, albeit interminable. I have a feeling that it's all because of the word "Thy." When you put "Thy" in a song, people are going to sing it like a hymn. And if you give people a hymn and make it long-enough, there's a reasonable chance they'll turn it into a dirge.
(Not to worry, if you stick around, we'll rectify that in a moment...)
For now, though, here is that state song, with words by C.H. Chamberlain and music by Archibald Johnston, written sometime in the 1880s and adopted officially in 1925. (While one source says it was written in the 1890s, that seems unlikely since the composer died in 1887.) Although this version below is long and slow, it actually is a particularly-beautiful arrangement and lovingly sung. For reasons unknown, though, they acknowledge changing the order of the verses. Long and slow and out-of-order (and admittedly lovely) as it is, I'm including this video here for one reason only: because they put together an especially-good montage of images of the State of Illinois to run with it. (Although at the 5:08 mark there's an image that has nothing to do with the history of the state, other than it does exist there. I have a feeling that the person who put together the video is a Republican, since there are six politicians included and every one is a Republican. So, that's correct, no President Barack Obama.)
Why on earth this video says, "Illinois, Worth Fighting For," I have zero idea. I wasn't aware it was under attack. Not when the song was written, not in the intervening years and not now. (Unless you count by people from Wisconsin driving down on tractors wearing their cheeseheads. But that usually isn't legally considered an act of war.) But for those of you who want to sing along, I posted the lyrics below -- which I've matched to fit this group's inexplicably-changed order. And remember, after this at the end, I have another video that's worth sticking around for, notably because it's very short.
By thy rivers gently flowing, Illinois, Illinois,
O’er the prairies verdant growing, Illinois, Illinois,
Comes an echo o’er the breeze.
Rustling through the leafy trees,
And its mellow tones are these, Illinois, Illinois,
And its mellow tones are these, Illinois.
Not without thy wondrous story, Illinois, Illinois,
Can be writ the nation’s glory, Illinois, Illinois,
On the record of thy years, Abraham Lincoln’s name appears,
Grant and Logan, and our tears, Illinois, Illinois,
Grant and Logan, and our tears, Illinois.
Eighteen-eighteen saw your founding, Illinois, Illinois,
And your progress is unbounding, Illinois, Illinois,
Pioneers once cleared the lands,
Where great industries now stand.
World renown you do command, Illinois, Illinois,
World renown you do command, Illinois.
Let us pledge in final chorus, Illinois, Illinois
That in struggles still before us, Illinois, Illinois
To our heroes we’ll be true,
As their vision we pursue.
In abiding love for you, Illinois, Illinois.
In abiding love for you, Illinois.
And now the good news! After all the long, slow and hymn-and-dirge like versions of the song, here is a significantly shorter, 1-minute orchestral, rousing version played like a state's anthem should be played!
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.
I meant to write this about five weeks ago, but for reasons I don’t recall I didn’t. I suspect it fell through the cracks as news stories took prominence. Also, it wasn’t a subject I was anxious to write about, though didn’t have any problem with doing so. But I remembered it last night, so finally I’m getting around to it.
It popped up when Rachel Maddow opened her show with seven minutes of “personal privilege,” talking about having just been diagnosed with skin cancer, having a procedure to get rid of it, how easy it was, and how important and easy it was. Her story was excellent, and if you missed it, here’s the video –
It resonated with me because in recent years I’ve become predisposed to skin cancer, and everything she said was spot-on. It is incredibly easy to be checked – indeed, the dermatologist just looks at you with what’s basically a powerful magnifying glass. That’s it – you’re just looked at. No prodding, no poking, just looking at your skin, all over. That’s about as easy as a check-up gets. And I think most insurance plans cover it.
If the doctor does spot something that concerns her (my dermatologist is a woman, so that’s the pronoun I’m going with here…), then she’ll just freeze it off if it’s pre-cancerous – and honestly, I actually like that, a focused, quick spritz of extremely cold air. With the added knowledge that she just got rid of something I didn’t want – pfft, it’s gone. Only if she’s not sure if the “node” might be something more advanced will she have to do more: you get a shot of pain killer so that a small nodule can be snipped off and biopsied in a lab. But that is A Good Thing, because if there’s a problem, you want it found! Because as much as you don’t want to hear there’s a problem, you want to know about it if there is so that it can be removed. And if you get check-ups regularly, whatever is found will be found early – which is the critical point – because anything found early can be removed pretty easily, and the problem is then gone.
My only quibble with Rachel Maddow’s report isn’t really a quibble, but more of an extension. She recommends people get a check-up once a year. In my case, I have a checkup twice a year. But that’s me – because (as I said) I’m pre-disposed to skin cancer. So, I want to be absolutely sure that if there’s anything there, it’s caught incredibly early and dealt with easily and in comfort – not just physical, but mental. I’ve had to have more invasive procedures, yet while I’m never happy about that, I’ve never been nervous when getting the news because I know it’s been caught early.
This came up because a couple months ago I have more “nodes” found than usual. (Usual, to be clear, is nothing cancerous, but one or two pre-cancerous nodes every other year isn’t uncommon. And occasionally, something more advanced did crop up in those six months since the last check-up.)
There are three levels of skin cancer. Basal cell, squamous and melanoma. You definitely don’t want the last one, but as long as you’re having regular checkups, it shouldn’t (God-willing) occur.
Basal cell is the easiest to get rid of, especially if caught early, sometimes just scrapped off in 20-30 seconds. Squamous can be scraped off, too – though usually it may require what’s known as a MOHS surgical procedure. By the way, though much more elaborate and far-more time-consuming, if caught early it’s pretty basic – indeed, it’s done in the doctor’s office. I’m not going to go into the procedure, but I’ll just that that that’s why I have six-month check-ups – every MOHS procedure I’ve had (three, so far) has gone very smoothly. The bad cells were removed, and all’s well. And again, the point is – without the checkups and without having had the procedure, the problem would be serious. Perhaps critical. With the checkups, it was easy, and it was cleared up completely.
(My most recent MOHS procedure was two months ago, hence Rachel Maddow’s report having such an impact on me.)
So, I just wanted to “second” Rachel Maddow’s story and reiterate that there is NO downside to having an annual checkup for skin cancer. None. There are only two possible outcomes: either they don’t find anything, which is great – or they do find something, and (disappointing as that is) that’s good, too, because they can then get rid of it really easily (sometimes even within seconds). So, both results are good. What you don’t want is to wait several years to find out something has been growing the whole time. And again, supporting the “NO downside” point: the checkup is really easy – you just sit there, and the doctor looks at your skin. That’s it.
I lost a friend to skin cancer a couple years ago. He waited too long before getting checked out. It was caught “early enough” to at least treat and be hopeful, but too late to keep it from metastasizing. And so, he had several years of very tough surgeries, and ultimately there was nothing left to do.
I don’t think everyone has to have two checkups a year (unless your doctor recommends it), though there’s no real downside, other than having to go in for an extra appointment. But I think most insurance plans today even cover it, so there’s close to no cost. Or none at all, I don’t recall.
One last thing, and this is just me, because my doctor recommended it. Last week, I had what’s known as a PDT treatment on my scalp. (That’s photodynamic therapy.) It’s a totally a preventative process, I didn’t have any problem – this is to hopefully keep nodes from forming over the next year. But the doctor thought it was time to be protective in advance. There are different kinds of preventative treatments, some much simpler than others, but the PDT treatment is the most protective, so I went with it. It’s the most elaborate, using UV blue light and requires a bit of preparation the week before, and also has a bit of discomfort (unlike the other kinds of treatment), but considering the preventative upside of the process, the discomfort isn’t too great and doesn’t last long. The most common side effects are only that some of your skin might become red, but that only lasts two weeks at most. Then, in a year, you do it (or one of the other procedures) again.
The point, to reiterate yet again, is Rachel Maddow was right. It is a really good thing to get an annual skin checkup. The checkup is easy (you sit there and are looked at), totally painless, and very probably covered by your insurance.
I went into a bit of medical detail (more than I know most people care for, so – sorry about that) and got more personal about it that usual, but that’s only because I wanted to make as clear and unrelenting as possible why this is so easy and so good, rather than just saying, “Y’know, it’s something to consider.)
It is something to consider. I hope people will consider it very seriously and realize how truly smart it is to do. Because…well, you know by this point -- it’s so easy and painless.
Probably the most painful thing about the whole process will reading this whole, long article. But if that helps make the decision to get checkups easier, then even that is A Good Thing…
Yes, the title will eventually make sense.
As I’ve written here in the past, I spent many summers at Camp Nebagamon in Lake Nebagamon, Wisconsin, situated in the upper northwester corner of the state about a half-hour drive from Duluth/Superior. I began at the camp as a five-year-old at Family Camp after the season ended, then through years in two-week stints as the son of the camp doctor, then a camper and finally counselor. Nebagamon is entering its impressively 93rd year, having began in 1929 by Muggs and Janet Lorber and has many illustrious alumni in that near-century, among them Broadway legend John Kander, Oscar-winning screenwriter brothers William and James Goldman, former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander (yes, great-nephew of the above) and a great many more, including one I most-recently found out about (and wrote about here), TV host Andy Cohen.
I also wrote here about the intriguing history of the camp’s song, “Thanks for the Pines” written by legendary songwriters Gus and Grace Kahn, who were friends of the camp’s founders Muggs and Janet Lorber, and whose son Donald went to Nebagamon.
By the way, I mean truly legendary, no hyperbole. Gus Kahn wrote the lyrics to some of the most classic songs in American music history, including "It Had to Be You," "Dream a Little Dream of Me," "Carolina in the Morning," "Makin' Whoopee," "Yes Sir! That's My Baby," "Toot Toot Tootsie," "San Francisco" ("Open your Golden Gate..."), "Ain't We Got Fun," "I'll See You in My Dreams," and so many more. They wrote the camp song after going up to visit one summer. In fact, because they were so famous (I mean, again, no hyperbole – in 1951, a Hollywood movie biography was made about their life, “I’ll See You in My Dreams” starring Danny Thomas and Doris Day!) I had reason to luckily meet Grace Kahn late in her life. I tell the story in the article I link to above, but I’ve always loved that when I told her I’d gone to Nebagamon and loved the camp song. She said, “You know, between the two of us, we wrote some of the greatest songs ever written, and I’ve had more people come up to me to tell me about that camp song than any of them.”
(I have a friend who went to another summer camp in Wisconsin and always is going on about great it was, in part because he’s friends with the guy who started the camp, but also sort of in a competitive way with me, knowing that Nebagamon was a “rival” to his camp. I generally bite my tongue rather than regularly respond, “You’re aware, right?, that your friend actually went to Camp Nebagamon and patterned his camp on it.” Generally, I bite my tongue about that. Thought not always.)
This is all background, and not directly to the point here. Though it’s also to explain why I stay in touch with the camp – not to many of the former campers over the years – including its off-season newsletter, “The Arrowhead” and alumni newsletter, “The Keylog.”
Nebagamon is currently on its fourth set of owners, a couple Adam Kaplan (who spent 18 summers at the camp as a camper, counselor and village administrator, so he’s truly continuing the legacy (or in Nebagamon’s motto, to “Keep the Fires Burning”) and Stephanie Hanson, who has a Masters degree in business from Northwestern. (Yes, I know that’s sort of a non sequitur here, but as you're aware by now I like to mention the beloved Northwestern whenever the opportunity appropriately allows itself.)
Anyway, Adam always writes a commentary for “The Arrowhead,” and they’re often quite nicely done, but I thought this months was especially terrific. Not only very well-written (and amusing and self-effacing), but very insightful. Ostensibly, it about the value of summer camp – and he makes some excellent points about it – but to get there he writes about matters that I think are critical and often overlooked a lot in society in general.
The theme comes from an episode of the HGTV series he admits to watching religiously, House Hunters. And it concerns a family looking for a new house, but one of their conditions is that it can’t have stairs. (See! I told you I'd get to it!) Their reason is out of concern that their new baby Hannah could get hurt on them. Adam writes –
“Now, of course, on the surface, this is not a problem. Of course we should protect those that we love from danger. But, what we sometimes lose sight of is the fact that in our efforts to protect them from these dangers, we also inhibit their growth. Sure, the best way to ensure that Hannah never falls down the stairs is to create a world in which there are no stairs to fall down. But, the reality is, that world doesn’t exist. There ARE stairs in the world, and Hannah is going to have to learn to climb them eventually, and the only way to learn that skill is for her to practice ON STAIRS. It is just completely unrealistic to remove the stairs from her life. Life has stairs.”
He takes this them and build on the metaphor for how it applies throughout life. And that blends into his later point about summer camp. Like how the kids have to solve countless problems – physical and social – without having a parent around to guide them. Again, he writes –
“At home, we never hand a sharp knife to our 9 year old and ask them to whittle a spoon. At home, we never offer a handful of strike-anywhere-matches to our 10 year olds and ask them to build and light a fire. At home, if we happened to take our family canoeing (a rare thing for sure!) most of us would insist that the kids ride in the duff, while we parents ensured everyone’s safety by paddling….And, intentionally flipping the canoe??!? Never…..not a chance…..too dangerous…..never on our watch….no modern parent in their right mind would ever! At camp, our children learn all of these skills. They learn the knife, fire, and canoe skills that, with best intentions, we modern parents would be unlikely to allow them to learn on our watch.”
As long as these excerpts are, they’re only a part of the longer piece. Which as I said, is extremely good. If you want to read the whole thing, you can find it here
We dive back into the Kennedy Center Honors, this from 1990 for the great writer-director Billy Wilder. It's all helped, too, with Jack Lemmon as a terrific host with engaging stories. And Walter Matthau adding some great stories of his own. The film clips of his remarkable range of movies -- from comedies to serious drama and film noirs -- are what stand out.
He's a tough honorees to figure out what to do for the entertainment section. But although it's sort of an uncommon selection, they came up with a very entertaining fit. It's a long scene and song from the Broadway musical City of Angels, which is about movie screenwriters and film noir. (With a book written by Larry Gelbart, I must note.)
I have two minor overlaps with Billy Wilder. The first is that I used to sub-lease a small, cubicle-like office in an old building in Beverly Hills. And one of the tenants there was Billy Wilder. (I'm sure he had a much bigger office.) I never chose to knock on his door and interrupt, though occasionally I would wander by just to look at it.
And the other is that I once attended a tribute evening for him at the Writers Guild theater. And after the movie, he did a long, wonderful Q&A. I remember a few things from the occasion --
He wasn't especially crazy about the idea of turning his movie Sunset Boulevard into a musical. He was reasonably okay with remaking his film Sabrina, but was very bothered by how they were doing it. And his reasoning was really smart. To paraphrase him, he said --
"When I made Sabrina, the two male leads were Humphrey Bogart and William Holden, who were the two top box-office stars of the day. The audience didn't know who Audrey Hepburn would chose, and it kept their curiosity up. In the remake, it stars Harrison Ford and some guy named Greg Kinnear." (It was one of Kinnear's first movies, and his first starring role.) To which Wilder then added, "Who do you think the girl is going to end up with?"
And third thing was a great story he told about being with the U.S. Army in WWII and serving on the repatriation board, that determined if "former Nazis" who had renounced their party membership could return to positions in society. (Wilder was born in Poland, but worked in Berlin as a screenwriter before escaping and making his way to Hollywood.) One of the people coming before the board was a famous German actor who was renowned for playing Jesus Christ in the Passion Play at Oberammergau for many years. He had renounced his membership as a Nazi and wanted to be allowed to against play Jesus in the Passion Play. Wilder said that he looked at the man and said, "Permission granted. As long as they use real nails."
Here's his presentation.
I’m the member of a small social club, along with the inveterate Chris Dunn who is the only other member. It’s the Frank’s Place Appreciation Society. Mind you, I’m sure there are others who highly-appreciate the 1987 series, but they probably have their own groups. The reason there are so few aficionados, though, is because not only was the series on for only one season, but it’s never been released on DVD or streaming, or rerun. So, if you didn’t watch it 34 years ago, you’re out of luck. As for our small fellowship, Chris the president, recording secretary and first member elected into our Hall of Fame. (And for years had a copy of all episodes -- and for all I know he still does. I'll have to ask at our next meeting.) He also is our regular guest speaker. In fairness, most of his speeches are, “Man, wasn’t that series great.” But then, not much more needs to be said. I sit in the back and shout, “Yes, sir!!”
By the way, lest you think our judgement might be skewed in our love of this show, in 2013 TV Guide ranked 60 shows that were “Cancelled Too Soon” – and Frank’s Place was ranked #3. Also, Rolling Stone put together their own list of the best sitcoms of all time, and Frank’s Place was #99. Now, that might not seem terribly high, but you have to remember a) there have probably been thousands of sitcoms, and b) it was only on for one year. Not bad.
Frank’s Place was created by Hugh Wilson, who has a long list of credits, including creating WKRP in Cincinnati, but had his biggest success with the Police Academy series movies – something he joked about in another of his short-lived TV series, The Famous Teddy Z about a Hollywood agent. (As best I can remember it, basically the snarky agent played by the always-edgy Alex Rocco – ‘Mo Green’ in The Godfather – is complaining about one of his clients who only writes really smart, classy material that he can’t sell at all which annoys him to no end, but then adds that the reason he keeps the guy as a client is “Because one day he might surprise you and write something really great like Police Academy.”)
The show starred Tim Reid (who worked with Wilson on WKRP) playing a Boston professor who inherits his father’s restaurant in New Orleans, and against his better judgement keeps it. The supporting cast didn’t have any big names in it, though they were tremendous, and featured Daphne Maxwell Reid (his real-life wife) as a woman he desperately wants to date, and the great Virginia Capers as sort of the matriarch of them all.
On the lower end was Don Yasso, who plays the only white person working at the restaurant. Wilson met him on an airplane and was so taken by his New Orleans personality, he hired him for a small role, despite the fact that he’d never acted before and had an accent so thick that the first few shows hilariously used subtitles for him. (To my shock, I saw his name on a rerun of Murder She Wrote, and checked hid listing on the iMDB – it turns out he decided to stick with acting and has 61 credits, including a recurring role on both My Two Dads and the soap opera Days of Our Lives. I say “has” because he’s still acting – as a recurring character on the current show Queen Sugar on the OWN Network.)
What made Frank’s Place stand out was that it was smart, charming, low-key, deeply affectionate, had jokes that came from the situation and character more than one-liners, didn’t use a laugh track, and – most notably – blended drama with its comedy, and was often very serious. And also, any show whose theme song is Louis Armstrong singing, “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” is going to be high on my list.
(One of my all-time favorite jokes in a TV show was an episode of Frank’s Place where a film crew takes over the restaurant. A shlubby guy keeps trying to get in, but the security guards keep stopping him. At the very end, after getting turned away one more time, Frank – I think it was Frank – asks him who he is. “I’m the writer,” he says.)
So, Frank’s Place doesn’t exist on DVD or streaming, for some reason. Maybe some day. Happily, two episodes have been posted. And this is one of them. It’s not necessarily one of the best (though since only 22 were made, it’s in the top 22…) – but it’s an enjoyable one that gives a fairly good sense of the show. Even if you don’t know the characters and relationships, they should be reasonably clear.
The quality is a little faded, but I’m just grateful it exists. The other episode online has a subplot that has to do with a Yom Kippur seder (not your typical sitcom fare), so I’m going to hold posting that one until the holiday next comes around.
This is a charming story out of Texas by way of Philadelphia to Rome.
During the winter freeze this past February in Texas when the power grid failed, 91-year-old Ezell Holley had to move out of his home temporarily. His granddaughter Alex, who cohosts the TV show, Good Day Philadelphia, get him an available room (they were hard to come by, as you can imagine) that the family jokingly called the Waldorf Astoria. She and her grandfather posted a series of sweet video about him taking his stay at the Waldorf all in stride.
And the story came to the attention of a real Waldorf Astoria, the Rome Cavalieri. And they invited him and a guest to be their guest. Conditions improved enough that few weeks ago, Ezell and his granddaughter finally went – as did the whole family, paying the additional way themselves. When they arrived, they all got another surprise – the hotel put them up in the penthouse.
Alex Holley documented it all, and this is the story they showed on Good Day Philadelphia. (My favorite moment may be with the desk clerk when they check out. I don’t want to say why.)
By the way, I'm going to take a bit of a digression here for a moment. But as I was reading the story, I oddly and surprisingly had an extremely tiny but personal connection with the story, all because of one word. When I read that the hotel was the Rome Cavalieri, I flashed back to a hotel with a similar name that my family stayed in on my very first trip to Europe when I was a young kid. It was called the Cavalieri Hilton. (“Cavalieri” is Italian for…well, cavalier, or knight.) But then a thought hit me – wait, was this not just a similar name but, in fact, the very same hotel?? Did Hilton buy the Waldorf Astoria properties and then upgrade this to that luxury level?? I dove in and did some searching. And…and...
…and, yes!! I found one website that refers to the now-Rome Cavalieri Waldorf Astoria as “The former Rome Hilton” and another that says, “Inaugurated in 1963 by Conrad N. Hilton himself, the opening of the Rome Cavalieri coincided with a period of unprecedented economic development and the heyday of the so-called 'Dolce Vita.'” Our trip was 1966, in its very earliest days, just three years after it opening. The hotel was very nice, but…NO, not at the Waldorf Astoria level of "very nice" it is now, and most definitely nothing like the utterly spectacular penthouse.
Further, I actually still have the stylish ashtray that I, er…took from the room, which I thought (even as a kidling) that it looked very nice. And not only do I still have it, but still use in on my desk, about 18 inches from me as I type this. So, it wasn’t merely a souvenir that a little kid took and soon threw away, or something buried in boxes. It’s done its duty for a very long time. I’ve taken out all the paraphernalia usually sitting in it so that you can see the Conrad Hilton “CH” logo.
And as a bonus, this is a photo I took of my older brother John. The hotel (as the news report notes) overlooks the Vatican, which historically has long been protected by the Swiss Guard. So, John put on a little hat and took one of the long pillows from the sofa and did his bit to join the Swiss Guard and help defend the place from high.
Anyway, back to Ezell Holley and Family being treated like royalty and having the time of their – and most notably, his – lives.
A couple weeks ago, I wrote here about the cousin I was named after, I.J. Wagner, who was one of the early ad men doing singing commercials for radio. And I mentioned how his style was to use repetition (almost to annoyance) so that people would remember the name -- and also wrote about how he gave Studs Terkel his start.
There was something I left out though, which was what Studs himself wrote in a couple of his memoirs -- but I couldn't track it down, so I couldn't include it. But I just now came across at least one of the two passages I recall reading.
This was from one of Studs Tekel's memoirs, Touch and Go, where he writes on page 116 about his beginnings in radio in 1944. I've added this into the earlier article, so the tale is now more complete. He says --
"By this time at Meyerhoff [an ad agency in Chicago], I'm working on the Wrigley account, under the wing of I.J. Wagner, the inventor of the singing commercial. He liked me and suggested I do a sports show, The Atlas Prager Sports Reel. Atlas Prager was a local beer, out-fit-controlled. The show was on every night at 6:00. The announcer would say, 'Atlas Prager got it, Atlas Prager get it!' Wagner deliberately made it irritating so you'd remember the name."
Then later in the book, Studs adds, "Eventually, Wagner said, 'I'm moving to a new agency, Oleon and Bronner, and I want you to come with me. What would you like to do?"
So, when I say that Iz liked repetition and that he really did give Studs Terkel his start, it's not just family lore, but he writes it himself.
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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