Big Fish in a Big Pond
I often talk about and post articles by my friend Nell Minow, the combination corporate governance world expert and Movie Mom film critic. But sometimes it's good to know from whence they came.
This is a terrific article here from the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin about Nell's father, Newton Minow. Newton Minow has the rare distinction of being probably the only FCC Chairman in the history of the department who anyone can name -- this includes the current head -- and what makes it all the more impressive is that he was FCC Chairman over a half a century ago, 54 years, That's because of his famous speech, still remembered today, calling television a "vast wasteland." Oddly, as the article points out, Minow had never thought of his speech that way when he was preparing it, but rather as his "public interest" speech, the topic he felt was of most critical concern.
(I particularly loved reading that. Some of you may recall that just last week I wrote a piece here about the sports radio host who went on a ranting sexist smear, and I noted specifically -- because it's always struck me as critical -- that radio stations are licensed to do only three things -- broadcast in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.”)
Left out of the article (understandably, I guess, for a law journal...) is that TV producer Sherwood Schwartz was so bothered by the FCC Chairman daring to call his industry a "vast wasteland" that when Schwartz needed a name for a boat on his new show, he called it, 'the S.S. Minnow.' And so it was that the Captain and his little buddy Gilligan took their passengers on the ill-fated three hour cruise.
Beyond being immortalized on Gilligan's Island, Newton Minow has had an actually-illustrious career, dating back to working with Adlai Stevenson in his runs for the presidency, and then JFK, to being a senior partner and early political adviser to Barack Obama, and being one of the leading organizers of all presidential debates, including the first one with Kennedy and Nixon. And much else politically in between.
That and, of course, being poker-playing buddy with my dad. Actually, one of my dad's favorite stories concerns when Minow had left Glencoe and gone to Washington and the FCC. He had to go on a trip overseas, and so called my father (who had been his doctor) to find out about what shots he needed. "Newt," my dad said with a bit of surprise, "you do know you have the Surgeon General of the United States just down the hall, and the Bethesda Medical Center to check with." But Newt wanted to stick with what he knew and felt comfortable with. My dad liked that.
(And it's from Newton Minow that I was given -- and still have -- two prize possessions. Old 45 RPM singles of campaign songs for Adlai Stevenson running for the White House in 1956 and for John F. Kennedy four years later.)
Anyway, take a look at the article here about a interesting man, who continues to practice law at the age of 88.
For the Sake of Accuracy
Yesterday, in writing about seeing the Italian opera tenor Carlo Bergonzi at the Verona opera when I was a kid, I mentioned that it took place in an outdoor soccer stadium where there where maybe 40,000 in attendance -- since after all, in Italy opera is a contact sport. I mentioned this to someone who was there at the same time, my father. He corrected my description -- it was not a soccer stadium, it was the Arena di Verona which is a Roman amphitheater. And he corrected my memory of there possibly being as many as 40,000, though said he thought I wasn't all that far off -- in checking, I found that in ancient times it held 30,000, though that capacity was reduced in the modern era to 22,000. (Recently, safety efforts were added, and the capacity today is 15,000.) I've corrected the original story.
But just to let you see I wasn't a-lying, and why a 16-year old sitting on the field in the middle of it all might think the spectacle was slightly more, here it is.
Okay, how many of you had Allison Wiliams in the office pool?
As you probably know, NBC is doing a live production of Peter Pan this Christmas. People have been putting together wish lists of which Really Big Name Star they would hire. And today, NBC announced their decision. They are going with…Allison Williams.
I swear I had to go online to search who she was. You may know better than me. Or may not. I don't get HBO, though. And it turns out she’s one of the cast members of HBO’s show, Girls.)
I'm not remotely saying it’s a bad choice – in fact, I suspect she probably had a spectacular audition and is great, otherwise they’d never ever never have hired her. I just find it a monumentally surprising decision. After all, last year for The Sound of Music, NBC showed how essential they felt having a Really Big Name Star was when they hired one of today's biggest country music stars despite the fact that she had never acted before. The name was what mattered. Having a Really Big Name who so many in the audience will anxiously wait to see and tune in.
So, in that context, hiring Allison Williams to star as ‘Peter Pan’ is stunning. I’m guessing that if you went around America and asked everyone to turn in their Top 50 wish list, none of them had Allison Williams on it. (Other than people in the Allison Williams fan club.)
I know that Girls is very popular, but it’s HBO popular. Not Big Hollywood Star popular, or Big TV Star popular, or even Big Music Industry popular. And further, she’s not even The Star, but part of an ensemble cast. In fact, if anyone is the star of Girls, it's probably Lena Dunham.
But the thing is, I also find the choice refreshing. I love that a major TV network is hiring someone for her talent, not just that she’s a really big name. Which is why I’m looking forward to seeing if she’s as terrific as I presume.
Of course, what this also means is that, as my friend Barry noted, NBC probably got turned down by Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johanssen. And likely everyone else on their "if we could have anyone we really, really wanted" wish list. I don't know all the reasons they turned it down, though going up against the live TV legend of Mary Martin might have been on the list.
But still, there were a lot of "normal star" names who they likely could have gone with, and they went with an "under the wire" actress who seemingly has huge talent.
(Ultimately, it seems a very smart decision by Allison Williams to not be bothered by being compared to The Legend. She has little to lose, and afterward could find her career rising bigtime.)
What I suspect is that, in the end, NBC figured that the musical Peter Pan itself is the star. Even more than The Sound of Music, as worldwide gargantuan popular as that is, Peter Pan has a different kind of popularity, an iconic place in people's hearts. And not just Peter Pan, but Peter Pan live on TV. If NBC can't sell that, they may have figured -- "Peter Pan Returns to Live Television on NBC After 59 Years!!!" -- they should probably get out of the TV business.
The star of Peter Pan?? It's the second star to the right. Straight on to morning.
So...all you people who had Allison Williams in that office pool -- man, did you ever clean up!
Made it in to Chicago. A crowded flight, but we got in on time (despite taking off a half-hour late), so all's well. I checked in with the elves back in Los Angeles, and they're fine, too. If they act up around here, let me know...
Taking a cab from O'Hare to Glenview, we got off the toll road at Willow Road. Tooling along the side street, I noticed that the cab driver started texting. Being confrontational with a cabbie is not ever high on my list, but this isn't a matter of being the Etiquette Police -- texting while driving really dangerous...besides being illegal. Still, though, I kept silent, hoping he'd end soon and put his phone down. But he kept texting. So I did something I hadn't done before. As politely as possible, I asked him to stop texting while I was in the cab.
Happily, he didn't take an attitude, and obviously knew he was very much in the wrong. In fact, later, when his phone rang, it let it keep ringing. (I would have been okay with him answering and telling his caller he'd call back. But clearly he was taking no chances with that guy in the back seat.) Actually, because of all that, I decided to give him a nice tip. I didn't want him to think I was just complaining because I was a grumpy jerk, and so he could ignore it. But with a nice tip, my complaint could be seen as because...what he was doing was Really Dangerous, and even more stupid to do. Stupid at any time, whether or not I'm in the back seat. But especially stupid when you're on the job as a cab driver and can lose your hack license.
Anyway, we arrived safely, and all's well...
I read that renowned opera tenor Carlo Bergonzi died yesterday at the age of 90. I don't know all that much about opera. I'm not a huge fan, though I do listen on occasion, and have been to a few. (My favorite is Turandot by Giuseppe Verdi.) And in its write-up about Bergonzi, the A.P. wrote that Italian tenor Carlo Bergonzi was "considered one of the most authoritative interpreters of Verdi's operas."
I mention all this because, among those few operas I've attended, one was Il Trovatore by Verdi, that starred...Carlo Bergonzi. I was just a kid at the time, probably around 16 -- hardly the time to appreciate opera -- but this was absolutely memorable.
We were on a family trip to Europe, and when in Italy my folks got tickets to the Verona Opera. But this wasn't like any mere opera, this was Italy where opera is like a contact sport, opera crossed with World Cup soccer. I'm not exaggerating much. It wasn't done in a stuffy theater with everyone in the audience dressed in their evening finery. It was performed outdoors, in the Arena di Verona, an ancient Roman amphitheater filled with crowds (you wouldn't dream of haughtily calling them "opera patrons") that not only occupied the grandstands and upperdecks, but also covered the grounds in the middle -- where we sat. If I had to guess from this distance of time, there were probably over 20,000 people there. Sorry, fans. That's "fans" in the purest sense, as in "fanatics."
This really was like a sporting event to Italian opera lovers, a thorough spectacle experience. Cheering, booing in complaint, yelling back at the performers, crying out, hissing, stomping their feet, even occasional people standing up and singing along when the spirit moved them. (To this day, my father still loves to do his impersonation of the "Bravo, Bergonzi!!!" roars that emanated from the arena. My own favorite memory was when the tenor -- who I assume must have been Carlo Bergonzi -- sang a magnificent aria, and so was compelled by the crowd to perform an encore. He dove back in, but the strain caused his voice to crack -- the understanding crowd gave him a cheer all the louder.
(Nice, too, was reading this passage from the A.P. story. It doesn't saying anything noteworthy --- except in the context of this piece here and saying, "See!" -- in giving Bergzoni's credits, they wrote, "He also sang nine seasons at La Scala in Milan and 21 seasons at the Arena open-air summer theater in Verona." See!).
What I also remember about that event -- and it was quite an event -- is that both the tenor (who, again, I have to assume was Bergonzi) and soprano were staying in our hotel. In fact, on the same floor. I discovered this while wandering around the hallways, and hearing singing coming from within the two rooms, with phonograph music accompanying them in the background. I quickly ran back to our room to get my trusty tape recorder -- I was recording sounds from Europe -- and raced back to outside those opera rooms and recorded the singing. I still have the tape. (The most fun was the soprano. At one point she trilled to a crescendo, but missed the note and screeched. What you hear on the tape is the music stopping, the phonograph needle being replaced to the starting point, and the soprano trying again...and getting it right this time, nailing the crescendo spot on.)
So, it was with a warm memory that I read about Carlo Bergonzi's passing today. It may not be my field of expertise, but it was a great experience to have.
In offering a tribute to Bergonzi, the Metropolitan Opera (where he performed over the course of 32 years and 22 roles) wrote that he was "particularly praised for the beauty and warmth of his singing and for his elegant attention to style and phrasing."
Here's a sampling of that elegance, warmth and beauty, in 15 minutes of excerpts from a career that continued until 1995, when he retired to teach. Even if you don't care much for opera, try to watch a minute or so. As the expression goes...this guy is really good.
From the Management
I'll be heading out to Chicago this morning for a bit, so I won't be posting anything here until I get in later this afternoon. Though "later this afternoon" is still mid-afternoon on the West Coast.
In the meantime, the elves will remain here to answer any questions, make sure the refrigerator is well-stocked with cheese dip, and keep the hallways as reasonably tidy as they can.
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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