John Krasinski is now 5 for 5 with his latest "Some Good News" broadcast. We're now officially caught up, and so here's the latest.
Though I posted one just a few days ago, I've decided to post another "Some Good News" report from John Krasinski so that I can catch up. He's now done four episodes, and at last so have we. This one takes a slight turn, and not surprisingly it's a joyous one.
There's also a very funny buried in here with one of his guests, but subtle joke that I don't want to give away, but I'll just say that it's related to some of his previous work.
This is the annual reprint of a column originally written on The Huffington Post in 2009. And this year is the 16h anniversary of the actual event itself, Some stories simply demand repeating. Or better put, demand not being forgotten. This is one of them. And so, once again, here 'tis.
One additional word. happily Maurice Cheeks is still in the NBA. He's currently the assistant coach for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who made the playoffs this season (though alas were knocked out this week). He also had a strong career as a solid player, and is 13th on the all-time list of assists with 7.392. But though this doesn't count on that list, it may be his best assist of all...
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April 25, 2009
Oh, Say Can You Sing? A National Anthem to Remember
As I prepared to write about an act of uncommon decency by a professional athlete, I realized that calling it that was unfair, that it diminishes what happened, because this was simply an act of uncommon decency, period. That it happened on such a high level and under such a bright microscope might likely stir the heart more, but it's the act itself that is ultimately what stirs us to begin with. Who it was and when it took place simply moves it up the pedestal.
Today is the sixth anniversary of Maurice Cheek's moment on the pedestal.
There is in the American consciousness for notable performances of the National Anthem at sporting events. Jose Feliciano's evocative singing at the 1968 World Series in Detroit was the first to interpret the "Star Spangled Banner" before a national audience. Because 1968 was one of the most tumultuous years in U.S. history, many at the time were so outraged that it took his career years to recover. Today, the rendition not only seems tame, but one of the most tender and beautiful. (And among the least known. If you've never heard it, do yourself a favor and click here to listen.)
Whitney Houston gets mentioned often for her rousing rendition at the 1991 Super Bowl, during the Gulf War. For many, Marvin Gaye's deeply soulful performance at the 1983 NBA All Star is the most memorable.
But for sheer emotional joy, it's hard to top what happened on April 27, 2003, before Game 4 of the NBA playoffs between the Portland Trailblazers and Dallas Mavericks.
Context only adds to the story. So, once again:
This was the playoffs. This is what all professional athletes live for, what their year is about. The regular season is a prelude, an effort to get into the post-season and be in place to win the league championship, to become a part of your sport's history. Everything centers on this. As the start of each playoff game nears, as the roaring crowd is at its highest pitch, as players put on their proverbial "game faces" and the battle is moments from beginning, all external thoughts get filtered out, and focus is completely, solely on their task ahead.
The National Anthem, for most athletes, must be one of those external influences. More than most of us, who hear the "Star Spangled Banner" largely on special occasions, professional athletes have heard the National Anthem played before every single competitive game they've played. Game after game repeatedly each season, and season after season, for decades. Relentlessly. As meaningful as the song is, it is also just part of the ritual for a professional athlete, focused on the game, geared up for the game, anxious to start the game. Silent, not singing, maybe not even hearing the music. Waiting for the National Anthem to be played, and finished, so that they can finally start what they're there for. It's likely as much background noise as it is patriotic uplift.
And so it must have been as the Trailblazers and Mavericks prepared for their playoff game to start.
Stepping out onto the court was Natalie Gilbert, a 13-year-old girl. Just another National Anthem, just another youngster who won a contest, just another two minutes the crowd wanted to get past for the game they were there to see, to start. And she started fine. A little hesitant, since it's a frightening occasion for a child, with a national audience, flashing lights and a military guard. But in her wavering voice, she was prepared.
Except that a few lines in, the high pageantry of the moment got her, and something went very wrong. She totally, thoroughly forgot the words. A young 13-year-old child, standing in front of over 10,000 people, lost. Alone.
And that's when Maurice Cheeks showed the kind of person he was.
Maurice Cheeks had had a very good NBA career as a player. He played for 15 years and was selected to four All Star games. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in steals and fifth in assists. He averaged over 11 points a game. And then he later became a coach, the position he was currently in for the Portland Trailblazers. It was Cheeks who was responsible for his team, responsible for keeping them focused on the game, responsible for guiding them. But he saw a 13-year-old girl in trouble.
And that's when Maurice Cheeks showed the kind of person he was. Immediately.
Cheeks always had a reputation in the NBA as a good guy. But he was about to prove it on a national stage. And what happened next - not just with Maurice Cheeks, but eventually with all the jaded players whose minds had been previously-focused on their game, an entire stadium of basketball fans there to see basketball, even the opposing white-haired coach Don Nelson - is just enthralling.
The moment is wonderful, but how it builds and surprises is even better.
And at the end, this tiny girl looking up at the giant of a man - who stayed around, refusing to leave her side and return to his team - with her face awash with relief, a huge hug, and the clear words mouthed, "Thank you," is all you need to see to why it's hard to top what happened on April 25, 2003, before Game 4 of the NBA playoffs for sheer emotional joy. Six years ago today.
As I've noted in the past, I enjoy a talk show on BBC America, The Graham Norton Show. For the past few weeks, like most talk shows, they’ve been doing an at-home version, and one of their guests last Friday was Michael Sheen. The whole interview is fun, but one segment of it leaps out.
He’s finished a movie based on a true event, not known here but a big deal in England, when there was a cheating scandal on their version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Sheen (who's made a career playing real-life people from Tony Blair to David Frost, British actor Kenneth Williams and soccer coach Brian Clough) plays another real-life personality here, the very popular, long-running host of the show Chris Tarrant, (who was not part of the scandal), and he “recreates” the role for the talk show and he and Norton play a brief, funny version of it. He’s a hoot, but what you’ll love is when the host decides he has to phone a friend. And who the friend is, and their conversation.
By the way, I’ve tracked down a bunch of video of Chris Tarrant, who Sheen plays in the movie, and it will not shock you to learn his performance is spot-on brilliant (which you can tell when host Norton breaks into laughter upon hearing it).
But in case you want to check it out for yourself, here's a montage of the real Chris Tarrant introducing himself to the friends who the contestants have had him phone for assistance.
The actor who plays the cheater with his wife is played by Matthew Macfadyen, who I love. And the good news is that it was co-produced by AMC, so it will air here in the U.S. on May 25. It’s called Quiz.
If you want to jump to them playing the game, it starts around 2:30, though the whole thing is fun. And it gets especially fun when Graham Norton phones a friend...
Yes, the baseball season has been postponed, but happily we still have John Krasinski and his Some Good News reports, back now for the third week.
The guest contestant on the ‘Not My Job’ segment of the NPR quiz show Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me! is former guest-host Tom Hanks, who has done other things, as well. Note: despite the sound of applause when he’s introduced, this is in fact another Stay-at-Home edition of the program. He and host Peter Sagal talk about his experience having the coronavirus, trying to give his now-immune blood to help find the “Hankccine,” what he’s doing during this stay-at-home period, and quipping with a panelist about whether he will join the long-running movie franchise of “COVID” films and star in the next one, COVID-20. As you might imagine, it’s quite fun. Especially when he tells a great joke about a parrot during the game part of the show.
So, there I was, minding my own business, watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo's press briefing...when he starts to talk about looking at the positive things that can come for such a bad situation, like gathering your family together, for instance in his has having his three daughters at home -- and all of a sudden he took a detour and starts to he talks about one of them bringing her boyfriend home, and...well, it goes from there. It's hilarious and classic..
I was going to write about suggesting that everyone track it down and then fast-forward to where he starts in. But happily, I don’t have to because it was SO funny that C-SPAN actually posted that entire three-minute segment alone, on their website! (And yes, it went on for three minutes – during his pandemic briefing.)
Either his daughters are laughing hysterically, or when he gets home, the first words he’ll hear after he opens the door will be – “DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAD!!!!!!!!!”
Unfortunately, I can't embed the video, but you can watch it here.
By the way, after you've watched it, come back here for this excerpt of the song, "Never Say No," from the movie version of the musical, The Fantasticks. It's sung by two fathers (played by Joel Grey and Brad Sullivan) trying to get their son and daughter to fall for one another. This is only an edited version with a couple verses, but happily it's the most appropriate ones.
It's a bad Daily Double for Oprah Winfrey's two doctors. This is not on her -- she began work with them 15-20 years ago. Life was very different. Their work in their specific fields had a level of expertise that could be beneficial to people. After two decades, times change, people change. Moreover, she certainly didn't anticipate them attempted to address a worldwide pandemic No, this is on them entirely. Still, she must be pounding her head into the wall these days.
Dr. Mehmet Oz had his screw-up and horrible attempt at an apology yesterday. Now its psychologist Phil McGraw's turn. His comments Friday on Laura Ingraham's show (which, being on, may have been the first giveaway to buckle your seat belts) were bad enough.
“And they’re doing that because people are dying from the coronavirus. I get that. But look, the fact of the matter is we have people dying, 45,000 people a year die from automobile accidents, 480,000 from cigarettes, 360,000 a year from swimming pools, but we don’t shut the country down for that. But yet we are doing it for this and the fallout is going to last for years because people’s lives are being destroyed.”
Phil McGraw has now attempted a follow-up, something that I suspect he considered people to view as an "apology." I suspect this because it uses the word "apologize" in it. Otherwise, it would be less clear. And so, his comments yesterday are now yet another case study for Nell Minow and my Apology Institute of America.
Phil McGraw begins --
“If you didn’t like my choice of words, I apologize for that."
That's enough right there. You can stop and know this is an F, because with that as the starting "thought process," it means what comes next is not going to get better enough to raise the grade to anything in the D-level. But remarkably the whole thing may be worse. In full, he said --
"If you don’t like my choice of words, hit the eject button on those, but don’t ever think I’m not concerned about you. And I know that the longer we stay in quarantine, the more psychological issues we’ll have.”
To be clear, this is not about "us." It's about what Phil McGraw said. Not his "choice" of words" -- everything we say is a choice of words --, but his ignorant meaning of them. His. Don't blame others, take responsibility for that. This is the first rule of an actual apology. If it was just about what others felt or liked or foolishly misunderstood, you'd have nothing to apologize for. You only apologize if you screwed up and did something wrong.
Further, and more to the point about the meaning of what he said, rather than just the "choice of words," is that cars aren't infectious. Drowning isn't infectious. Even cigarettes aren't infectious. They are each a one-time occurrence. They may happen tens of thousands of times a year, but each one is individual and doesn't bring about another. There is no cause and effect. A pandemic, however, can kill many millions of people in one pass, as each person infects another. And another. And another. Repeat this a few million times..
And yes, it's true, a quarantine can cause psychological damage. But then, that's why we have qualified psychologists to help them through. Not to give lamebrain advice out of their area of expertise for people to go to work and spread infectious death. Something which, by the way, causes even worse damage -- psychological & otherwise.
This is how the apology should go --
"The other day, I said something very wrong. I compared deaths that are a normal part of life and each of them a one-time event to an infectious pandemic. That was wrong of me and foolish. I apologize. It seemed callous, and I apologize for that, as well. I don't believe that, and I won't repeat it. My point, that was horribly phrased, is that when any death occurs, it takes a great psychological toll. And quarantining, which is not a natural state for people, takes a psychological toll, as well. And when looking what is best for society, we have to look at not just the physical health of people and economic health of people, but also the psychological health of people, all together. It is all connected. I didn't say that. I was wrong. I apologize. I know this is a horrific situation. People are hurting in every way imaginable, and I hope everyone -- medical doctors, politicians, scientists, businessmen, psychologists, EMT workers, people still going to work every day in the essential jobs to society, people staying at home for protection of society, everyone -- everyone can work together and find the best way to get us all through this crisis. Which I know we will."
That's one way to apologize. I think it's a good start.
Bear with me. Trust me on this.
Yesterday, in writing about Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie, I mentioned that later in his career, he did a couple of remarkable productions on stage. One of them was when his puppetry of the character Madame Oglepuss was invited to join a serious production in Chicago of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and play the part of the Grandmother. Not only did Tillstrom take the challenge, but 'Madam Ophelia Oglepuss' won the Jefferson Award (Chicago's version of the Tony) for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. The other was when Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie all appeared on Broadway in 1978 at the Morosco Theatre as part of the replacement cast in the Broadway run of the revue Side by Side By Sondheim. (I wrote that I wasn't sure which came first, but from what little research I can find, appears as if the Broadway production came first.)
In response to the article, reader Douglass Abramson left a comment, almost in near-prayer that there was footage of that Broadway production. As far as I can tell, thus far there isn't, but I do keep searching. But honestly, what I most would love is to find video footage of the A Little Night Music production. And I can find next to nothing of anything about it even existing. And I wouldn't believe it was even done except for two things -- one, that many years ago I remember clearly reading about it. I know one's memory can play tricks on your, but that brings us to the other thing. Two, when the Chicago Historical Society had a 50th Anniversary tribute exhibit to Kukla, Fran & Ollie -- which was wonderfully done -- they had a lot of great memorabilia including...the actual Jefferson Award trophy. So, I absolutely know it existed. But I can't even find what theater it was at. It may have been the Goodman Theatre from something I came across, but that's just a very uncertain guess.
But at least I do have proof that Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie all really did appear in the Broadway production of Side by Side by Sondheim. Because here is the Playbill for it.
Which brings us back to Mr. Abramson's hopeful plea and my first sentence above to bear with me. Every once in a while, I made a discovery which falls into the "This is a treasure" category. And today, we have one.
Honestly, just having the graphic of this program is almost good enough, if only to shut down anyone who thinks the story is apocryphal. But this goes beyond just a graphic.
And to be fair, I was being a little bit coy when I said that there wasn't footage of the production. In truth, no, there isn't, at least thus far that I can find. But -- and here's the great part -- there is audio!
It's the sound from a live performance of a song between Nancy Dussault (who most people likely recognize as the mother on the sitcom Too Close for Comfort) and Kukla and Ollie. And even better -- and yes, this can get even better -- the song is one that they added to this particular production, but it had been written by Sondheim about a quarter of a center earlier...specifically for the Kukla, Fran & Ollie TV show!!! Yes, really. It's titled "The Two of You." And all the better, it's a wonderful song -- charming, whimsical and full of some very clever Sondheim lyrics, even then, from the mid-1950s. (Though in fairness, Sondheim wrong the lyrics to West Side Story in 1957, so he was in pretty high control of his abilities. This also shows, though, how big a fan Sondheim must have been of Kukla, Fran & Ollie to have written a song for them around the time he was about to work with Leonard Berstein. It also explains why he was fine putting a couple of puppets and their creator in a Broadway revue of his work.)
In fact, here's the song selection page from that Playbill. You can see the listing in Act One for it, with a reference of who it was written for. Also fun is at the title of the page -- it notes that the producers allowed there to be new narration for this production, specifically written by Burr Tillstrom.
I wish it also explained who sang what number, so we could see which songs Kukla and Ollie performed, but I'm thrilled with what we got. If I had to make a guess, one of them is likely "Little Lamb." I say that because years ago, a friend of mine, Adam Bezark, told me about seeing Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie on stage in Chicago, and one of the memorable moments he said was Tillstrom and Kukla sitting downstage, as Kukla sang the song. I always thought that it was for a specific Tillstrom-only show, but wonder now if maybe it was a Chicago company of Side by Side by Sondheim, which I've read he appeared in. In fact, it suggested that the Chicago production came first and was what gave the producers of the long-running Broadway version the idea of bringing "the three" of them to New York.
But enough of that. Here is audio of Kukla, Nancy & Ollie, live in performance on Broadway.
As readers of these pages here know, I am a huge fan of the legendary children's program Kukla, Fran & Ollie, whose creator Burr Tillstrom did the show out of Chicago with his mad cast of other "Kuklapolitans," like Fletcher Rabbit, Beulah Witch, Madame Ophelia Oglepuss and many others, including my fave Cecil Bill, who spoke no known language, but whose "Ta toi toi toi's" were understood by the others there.. I've posted many videos of the program, as well as one of Tillstrom's brilliant "hand ballets" that he did for the TV series, That Was the Week That Was, about the temporary opening of the Berlin Wall for Christmas in 1963 -- which you can see here.
The other day, my pal Nell Minow sent me an article by Char Daston from Chicago magazine that's a terrific, fascinating history of Tillstrom, much of which I didn't know -- like that not only did he do weekly puppet shows at Marshall Fields department store in the city, but that he continued doing them even after his TV career began. The article is titled, "Without This Chicago Puppeteer, There Would be No Sesame Street," and while that's hyperbolic, since the show would likely have been created even without The Muppets, just that it would have been vastly different. But the point about The Muppets is not terribly far off, since Jim Henson was a huge fan of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie. Indeed, at a recent major exhibit on The Muppets at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles, there was a section on Henson's early influences which included video and a reference to Tillstrom not only being an influence, but one of Henson's heroes.
The article is wonderful and detailed. I have only a few quibbles. The piece mostly focuses on Burr Tillstrom through his years with Kukla, Fran & Ollie -- but he did a great deal more after the show went off the air in 1957 than the article suggests (although it does mention that the show returned to public TV in 1970). In fact, Tillstrom kept performing a lot -- not just with Kukla and Ollie TV guest appearances and even as game show contestants, but on stage. For instance, I wish it had mentioned that in 1978, Tillstrom, Kukla and Ollie actually appeared on Broadway in the replacement cast of the musical revue Side by Side by Sondheim. Further, around the same time (I'm not sure which came first), Madame Oglepuss (with Tillstrom performing, of course) remarkably was cast to play the role of the grandmother in an otherwise standard, human Chicago production of Stephen Sondheim's musical A Little Night Music -- and won the Jefferson Award (the city's version of the Tonys) as Best Supporting Actress! Also, while I was glad the article included mention of the Berlin Wall "Hand Ballet," I also wish it had added that Tillstrom, in fact, won an Emmy Award for the performance -- and mentioned that Henson was posthumously inducted into the TV Academy Hall of Fame, soon after he passed away. However, other than those quibbles, it's a wonderful article filled with great, little-known research on such a seminal person in TV history. You can read it here.
By the way, I must note that Ms. Minow comes to her love and appreciation of Burr Tillstrom and Kukla, Fran & Ollie with a high pedigree -- her father Newton Minow (who later would become FCC Commissioner under President Kennedy, though is best known as a poker-playing buddy and patient of my father...) was Burr Tillstrom's attorney. Moreover, when Nell was very little she would often get to visit the set, and one day a newspaper reporter was there to do a piece on Tillstrom and the show. Seeing the little girl,he asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer got in the paper -- "A Kuklapolitan." (The story has a happy ending, because much later in life -- it is my firm belief and absolute insistence -- she got her wish.)
Also fun in the article is mention that "The show’s cultural cache was so great that Kukla and Ollie even appeared on the Ford Motor Company’s two-hour 50th anniversary show in 1953. Jerome Robbins choreographed this live dance number, over which the puppets narrate the history of the bathing suit." (Among his great many credits, Robbins later directed and choreographed Fiddler On the Roof, West Side Story and Gypsy.)
I'm not quite sure what the history of bathing suits had to do with the Ford Motor Company, except that I suppose a theme of the show was about the cultural history of the United States during the 50 years since Ford began. But best of all is that a video of that musical number is embedded into the online version of article. And therefore I have access to it and can embed it here.
There was something else, though, which struck me about the video and bathing suit history ballet. One of the earlier musicals that Jerome Robbins choreographed (though didn't direct) was the surprise hit High Button Shoes that starred Phil Silvers and Nanette Fabray that opened in 1947 and ran for almost two years, 727 performances. And one of the famous things about the show was what became known as the Bathing Beauty Ballet near the end of the show, that was a Keystone Cops-like chase scene at the beach. I have to believe that Robbins' work on that number only six years earlier had to be a major reason he was hired for the TV job and which was an inspiration of his choreography for it.
I can't find any choreography of the High Button Shoes dance.to fully prove the point -- but happily I did find a trailer for the show when the Encores! organization did the show in New York only last year as part of their concert staging series -- complete with the original choreography of the Bathing Beauties Ballet that runs throughout.
But to return to the point that got us all here -- don't forget to check out the article about Burr Tillstrom. Again, you can get to it here.
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, is a regular columnist for the Writers Guild of America and was for the Huffington Post. 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.
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