Discover more from Frank Beacham's Journal
Mel Brooks, master of comedy, is 97 years old today
Mel Brooks during the filming of High Anxiety, San Francisco, May 5, 1977. Brooks is the director, producer, co-writer and actor in the film
Photo by Associated Press
Mel Brooks is 97 years old today.
A film director, screenwriter, composer, lyricist, comedian, actor and producer, Brooks is best known for his broad film farces and comic parodies.
He began his career as a stand-up comic and as a writer for the early TV variety show, Your Show of Shows. He became well known as part of the comedy duo with Carl Reiner, The 2000 Year Old Man.
In middle age, he became one of the most successful film directors of the 1970s. His best known films include The Producers, Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, History of the World, Part I and Spaceballs. More recently, he has had a smash hit on Broadway with the musical adaptation of his first film, The Producers.
He was married to the actress Anne Bancroft from 1964 until her death in 2005.
Brooks is a member of the short list of entertainers with the distinction of having won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award. Three of his films ranked in the American Film Institute's list of the Top 100 comedy films of all-time: Blazing Saddles at #6, The Producers at #11 and Young Frankenstein at #13.
Here, Brooks performs in “Hitler Rap,” a video he did in 1983 as part of the soundtrack of the motion picture, To Be or Not to Be.
The first Corvette off the assembly line in 1953
On this day in 1953 — 70 years ago — workers at a Chevrolet plant in Flint, Michigan, assembled the first Corvette, a two-seater sports car that would become an American icon.
The first completed production car rolled off the assembly line two days later, one of just 300 Corvettes made that year.
The idea for the Corvette originated with General Motors’ pioneering designer, Harley J. Earl, who in 1951 began developing plans for a low-cost American sports car that could compete with Europe’s MGs, Jaguars and Ferraris. The project was eventually code-named “Opel.”
In January, 1953, GM debuted the Corvette concept car at its Motorama auto show at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. It featured a fiberglass body and a six-cylinder engine and according to GM, was named for the “trim, fleet naval vessel that performed heroic escort and patrol duties during World War II.”
The Corvette was a big hit with the public at Motorama and GM soon put the roadster into production.
On June 30, 1953, the first Corvette came off the production line in Flint. It was hand-assembled and featured a Polo White exterior and red interior, two-speed Powerglide automatic transmission, a wraparound windshield, whitewall tires and detachable plastic curtains instead of side windows.
The earliest Corvettes were designed to be opened from the inside and lacked exterior door handles. Other components included a clock, cigarette lighter and red warning light that activated when the parking brake was applied— a new feature at the time.
The car carried an initial price tag of $3,490 and could go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 11 or 12 seconds, then considered a fairly average speed.
Sales were lackluster in the beginning and GM considered discontinuing the line. However, a rival company, Ford, had introduced the two-seater Thunderbird around the same time and GM did not want to be seen bowing to the competition.
Another critical development in the Corvette’s survival came in 1955, when it was equipped with the more powerful V-8 engine. Its performance and appeal steadily improved after that and it went on to earn the nickname “America’s sports car” and become ingrained in pop culture through multiple references in movies, television and music.
David “Honeyboy” Edwards, B.B. Kings Club, New York City, 2005
Photo by Frank Beacham
David "Honeyboy" Edwards was born 108 years ago today.
Born in Shaw, Mississippi, Edwards was a Delta blues guitarist and singer. At the age of 14, he left home to travel with the bluesman, Big Joe Williams, beginning life as an itinerant musician.
He maintained that life throughout the 1930s and 1940s, performing with the famed blues musician, Robert Johnson, with whom he developed a close friendship.
Edwards was present on the night Johnson drank the poisoned whiskey that killed him, and his story has become the definitive version of Johnson's demise. Edwards also knew and played with other leading bluesmen in the Mississippi Delta, including Charley Patton, Tommy Johnson and Johnny Shines.
He described the itinerant bluesman's life: “On Saturday, somebody like me or Robert Johnson would go into one of these little towns, play for nickels and dimes. And sometimes, you know, you could be playin' and have such a big crowd that it would block the whole street. Then the police would come around, and then I'd go to another town and where I could play at. But most of the time, they would let you play.
“Then sometimes the man who owned a country store would give us something like a couple of dollars to play on a Saturday afternoon. We could hitchhike, transfer from truck to truck, or if we couldn't catch one of them, we'd go to the train yard, 'cause the railroad was all through that part of the country then...we might hop a freight, go to St. Louis or Chicago.
“Or we might hear about where a job was paying off – a highway crew, a railroad job, a levee camp there along the river, or some place in the country where a lot of people were workin' on a farm. You could go there and play and everybody would hand you some money. I didn't have a special place then. Anywhere was home. Where I do good, I stay. When it gets bad and dull, I'm gone.”
The folklorist, Alan Lomax, recorded Edwards in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1942 for the Library of Congress. Edwards recorded 15 album sides of music, including his songs "Wind Howlin' Blues" and "The Army Blues.” He did not record commercially until 1951, when he recorded "Who May Be Your Regular Be" for Arc under the name of Mr. Honey.
Edwards claimed to have written several well-known blues songs, including "Long Tall Woman Blues" and "Just Like Jesse James." His discography for the 1950s and 1960s amounts to nine songs from seven sessions.
From 1974 to 1977, he recorded tracks for his first full-length LP — I've Been Around — released in 1978 by the independent Trix Records and produced by the ethnomusicologist, Peter B. Lowry.
Kansas City Red played for Edwards for a brief period, and Earwig recorded them in 1981, along with Sunnyland Slim and Floyd Jones, for the album, Old Friends Together for the First Time.
His autobiography, The World Don't Owe Me Nothing: The Life and Times of Delta Bluesman Honeyboy Edwards, was published in 1997 by the Chicago Review Press. It recounts his life from childhood, his travels through the American South and his arrival in Chicago in the early 1950s.
A companion CD with the same title was released by Earwig Music. His long association with the Earwig label and with his manager manager, Michael Frank, led to several late-career albums on various independent labels from the 1980s on.
He also recorded at a church turned recording studio in Salina, Kansas and released albums on the APO label. Edwards continued the rambling life he described in his autobiography, touring well into his 90s.
On July 17, 2011, his manager, Michael Frank, announced that Edwards would be retiring because of ill health. Edwards died of congestive heart failure at his home on August 29, 2011, at about 3 a.m. He had been scheduled to perform at noon that day, at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago's Millennium Park.
Just after 3 a.m. — 54 years ago today — a police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay club located on New York City's Christopher Street, turned violent as patrons and local sympathizers begin rioting against the police.
New York City’s gay community had grown weary of the police department targeting gay clubs, a majority of which had already been closed. The crowd on the street watched quietly as Stonewall's employees were arrested, but when three drag queens and a lesbian were forced into the paddy wagon, the crowd began throwing bottles at the police.
The police were forced to take shelter inside the establishment, and two policemen were slightly injured before reinforcements arrived for an attempt to disperse the mob. The protest, however, spilled over into the neighboring streets. Quiet came only after New York’s riot police arrived.
The Stonewall Riot was followed by several days of demonstrations in New York and was the impetus for the formation of the Gay Liberation Front as well as other gay, lesbian and bisexual civil rights organizations. It is also regarded by many as history's first major protest on behalf of equal rights for homosexuals.
Now, gay marriage is the law of the land. A year ago, the Stonewall Inn received official landmark status from the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for its role as the catalyst of the LGBT movement.
Last year, then President Obama formally recognized that history, declaring the Greenwich Village bar and its surrounding area the Stonewall National Monument, and creating the first National Park Service unit dedicated to the gay rights movement.
The White House said the monument designation will consist of 7.7 acres, protecting the tavern, Christopher Park across the street and several other streets and sidewalks where spontaneous protests were held for equal rights in 1969.
“The Stonewall Uprising is considered by many to be the catalyst that launched the modern L.G.B.T. civil rights movement,” the president wrote in a proclamation announcing the monument’s establishment.
“From this place and time, building on the work of many before, the nation started the march — not yet finished — toward securing equality and respect for L.G.B.T. people.”
On this day in 1916 — 107 years ago — Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company merged with the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, forming the Famous Players-Lasky Company. The company would later become Paramount Pictures, one of the first and most successful Hollywood motion picture studios.
Zukor, a Hungarian immigrant who became a successful Chicago furrier, entered the film business in the early 1900s, financing penny arcades. He soon partnered with Marcus Loew to develop a chain of theaters.
Zukor parted ways with Loew in 1912 and purchased the American rights to the French-British film, Queen Elizabeth, starring the legendary actress, Sarah Bernhardt, in the title role. The film was a hit stateside, and Zukor invested the proceeds from its exclusive distribution into his own production company, Famous Players Film Company.
The original idea was to make films featuring famous stage actors starring in current Broadway hits.
Lasky, a former vaudeville performer and theatrical producer, teamed up with his brother-in-law, Sam Goldfish (later Goldwyn), and the director, Cecil B. DeMille, to found the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company in 1913.
The company’s first film, a Western made in 1914, was called The Squaw Man. It became a critical and financial success and was one of the first feature length films produced in Hollywood.
After Lasky and Famous Players merged, they absorbed a dozen other production companies and acquired the film financing and distribution company, Paramount Pictures, established by W.W. Hodkinson in 1914.
During the next 10 years, the company acquired hundreds of theaters throughout the United States. In 1927, the company changed its name to Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., then to Paramount Publix Corp. in 1930.
Paramount soon became one of Hollywood’s most powerful studios, featuring the work of such stars as Mary Pickford, Fatty Arbuckle, Gloria Swanson, Clara Bow and Rudolph Valentino and releasing blockbusters like The Ten Commandments in 1923.
After surviving a brush with bankruptcy and reorganization in 1933, the company — now known as Paramount Pictures — continued to attract top stars through the 1930s and ‘40s, including Carole Lombard, Claudette Colbert, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Bing Crosby.
In 1949, after a long and complicated antitrust case, the U.S. Supreme Court forced the studio to sell its theater chain as part of the court’s effort to end studio monopoly of the film industry.
Despite the setbacks, Paramount continued to release hits, including Sabrina in 1954 and Psycho in 1960.
In 1966, Gulf and Western purchased the studio, which continued to produce such hits as the three Godfather films, Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and its sequels, and the Indiana Jones franchise, beginning with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
Gulf and Western changed its name to Paramount Communications in 1989.
In 1994, the communications and media giant Viacom Inc. acquired Paramount Communications, including Paramount Pictures Corporation.
Richard Rodgers was born 121 years ago today.
The composer of music for more than 900 songs and for 43 Broadway musicals, Rogers also composed music for films and television.
Rodgers is best known for his songwriting partnerships with the lyricists, Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein II. His compositions have had a significant and continuing impact on popular music.
Rodgers was the first person to win what are considered the top show business awards in television, recording, movies and Broadway — an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony — now known collectively as an EGOT. He has also won a Pulitzer Prize, making him one of two people (Marvin Hamlisch is the other) to receive each award.
Born into a prosperous ethnic Russian Jewish family in Arverne, Queens, Rodgers was the son of Mamie (Levy) and Dr. William Abrahams Rodgers, a prominent physician who had changed the family name from Abrahams. Rogers began playing the piano at age six. He attended P.S. 10, Townsend Harris Hall and DeWitt Clinton High School.
He spent his early teenage summers in Camp Wigwam (Waterford, Maine) where he composed some of his first songs. Rodgers, Lorenz Hart and later collaborator, Oscar Hammerstein II, all attended Columbia University. At Columbia, Rodgers joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity.
In 1919, Richard met Lorenz Hart, thanks to Phillip Leavitt, a friend of Richard's older brother.
In 1921, Rodgers shifted his studies to the Institute of Musical Art (now Juilliard). Rodgers was influenced by composers such as Victor Herbert and Jerome Kern, as well as by the operettas his parents took him to see on Broadway when he was a child.
Rodgers and Hart struggled for years in the field of musical comedy, writing a number of amateur shows. They made their professional debut with the song "Any Old Place With You," featured in the 1919 Broadway musical comedy, A Lonely Romeo. Their first professional production was Poor Little Ritz Girl in 1920. Their next professional show, The Melody Man, did not premiere until 1924.
When he was just out of college, Rodgers worked as musical director for Lew Fields. Among the stars he accompanied were Nora Bayes and Fred Allen. Rodgers was considering quitting show business altogether to sell children's underwear, when he and Hart finally broke through in 1925.
They wrote the songs for a benefit show presented by the prestigious Theatre Guild, called The Garrick Gaieties, and the critics found the show fresh and delightful. Only meant to run one day, the Guild knew they had a success and allowed it to re-open later.
The show's biggest hit — the song that Rodgers believed "made" Rodgers and Hart — was "Manhattan." The two were now a Broadway songwriting force. The pair wrote an almost unbroken string of hit shows that ended only with Hart's death in 1943.
Rodgers began working with Oscar Hammerstein II, with whom he had previously written a number of songs (before ever working with Lorenz Hart). Their first musical, the groundbreaking hit, Oklahoma! (1943), marked the beginning of the most successful partnership in American musical theatre history.
Their work revolutionized the form. What was once a collection of songs, dances and comic turns held together by a tenuous plot became an integrated masterpiece. The team went on to create four more hits that are among the most popular of all musicals and were each made into successful films.
They were Carousel (1945), South Pacific (1949, winner of the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for Drama), The King and I (1951) and The Sound of Music (1959). Other shows include the minor hit, Flower Drum Song (1958), as well as relative failures, Allegro (1947), Me and Juliet (1953) and Pipe Dream (1955).
They also wrote the score to the film, State Fair (1945), which was remade in 1962 with Pat Boone, and a special TV musical, Cinderella (1957).
After Hammerstein's death in 1960, Rodgers wrote both words and music for his first new Broadway project, No Strings, in 1962. It earned two Tony Awards and was a minor hit. It also featured perhaps his last great song, "The Sweetest Sounds."
Rodgers died in 1979 at age 77 after surviving cancer of the jaw, a heart attack and a laryngectomy. In 1990, the 46th Street Theatre was renamed "The Richard Rodgers Theatre" in his memory.
Here, Rodgers discussed his work with Hart and Hammerstein
Gilda Radner was born 77 years ago today.
A comedienne and actress, Radner was best known as one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live.
Born in Detroit, Radner was the daughter of Jewish parents Henrietta, a legal secretary, and Herman Radner, a businessman. She grew up with a nanny, Elizabeth Clementine Gillies, whom she called "Dibby" (and on whom she based her famous character, Emily Litella), and an older brother, Michael. She attended the University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe.
Radner wrote in her autobiography — It's Always Something — that toward the end of her life that she "coped with stress by having every possible eating disorder from the time I was nine years old.
“I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93. When I was a kid, I overate constantly. My weight distressed my mother and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old."
Radner was close to her father, who operated Detroit's Seville Hotel, where many nightclub performers and actors stayed while performing in the city. He took her on trips to New York to see Broadway shows.
Radner wrote that when she was twelve her father developed a brain tumor, and the symptoms began so suddenly that he told people his eyeglasses were too tight. Within days, he was bedridden and unable to communicate and he remained in that condition until his death two years later.
Radner enrolled at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where she made a lifelong platonic friend of fellow student, David Saltman, who wrote a biography of her after her death.
Radner joined Saltman and his girlfriend on a trip to Paris in the summer of 1966. Saltman wrote that he was so affectionate with his girlfriend that they left Radner to fend for herself during much of their sightseeing.
Twenty years later, when many details of Radner's eating disorder were reported in a bestselling book about Saturday Night Live by Doug Hill and Jeff Weingrad, Saltman realized she had been in a quandary over the French cuisine, but had no one with whom she could discuss her situation.
In Ann Arbor, Radner began her broadcasting career as the weather girl for college radio station, WCBN. However, she dropped out in her senior year to follow her then-boyfriend to Toronto. He was Jeffrey Rubinoff, a Canadian sculptor.
In Toronto, she made her professional acting debut in the 1972 production of Godspell with future stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber and Martin Short. Afterward, Radner joined the Toronto Second City comedy troupe.
Radner was a featured player on the National Lampoon Radio Hour, a comedy program syndicated to some 600 U.S. radio stations from 1974 to 1975. Fellow cast members included John Belushi, Richard Belzer, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Brian Doyle-Murray and Rhonda Coullet.
Radner gained name recognition as one of the original "Not Ready for Prime Time Players," a member of the freshman group on the first season of Saturday Night Live. She was the first performer cast for the show.
Between 1975 and 1980, she created such characters as obnoxious personal advice expert, Roseanne Roseannadanna, "Baba Wawa," a parody of Barbara Walters, and Emily Litella, an elderly hearing-impaired woman who gave angry and misinformed editorial replies on "Weekend Update."
Radner also parodied such celebrities as Lucille Ball, Patti Smith and Olga Korbut in SNL sketches. She won an Emmy Award in 1978 for her work on SNL.
Radner battled bulimia during her time on the show. She once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center.
She had a relationship with SNL castmate, Bill Murray, with whom she had also worked at the National Lampoon. It ended badly. Few details of their relationship or its end were made public at the time.
When Radner wrote, It's Always Something, this is the only reference she made to Murray in the entire book:
"All the guys [in the National Lampoon group of writers and performers] liked to have me around because I would laugh at them till I peed in my pants and tears rolled out of my eyes. We worked together for a couple of years creating The National Lampoon Show, writing The National Lampoon Radio Hour, and even working on stuff for the magazine. Bill Murray joined the show and Richard Belzer ..."
In 1979, incoming NBC President Fred Silverman offered Radner her own prime time variety show, which she ultimately turned down. That year, she was one of the hosts of the Music for UNICEF Concert at the United Nations General Assembly.
Alan Zweibel, who co-created the Roseanne Roseannadanna character and co-wrote all of Roseanne's dialogue, recalled that Radner, one of three original SNL cast members who stayed away from cocaine, chastised him for using it.
Radner had mixed emotions about the fans and strangers who recognized her in public. She sometimes became "angry when she was approached, but upset when she wasn't."
In 1979, Radner appeared on Broadway in a successful one-woman show entitled Gilda Radner — Live From New York. The show featured material that was racier than what NBC censors allowed Saturday Night Live to put on the television airwaves, such as the song, Let's Talk Dirty to the Animals.
In 1979, shortly before Radner began her final season on Saturday Night Live, her Broadway show was filmed by Mike Nichols under the title Gilda Live!, co-starring Paul Shaffer and Don Novello. It was released to theaters nationwide in 1980 with poor results.
A soundtrack album was also unsuccessful. During the production, she met her first husband, G. E. Smith, a musician who also worked on the show. They were married in a civil ceremony in 1980.
Radner met actor Gene Wilder on the set of the Sidney Poitier film, Hanky Panky, when the two appeared together. She described their first meeting as "love at first sight." She was unable to resist her attraction to Wilder as her marriage to guitarist G. E. Smith deteriorated. The two were married on September 18, 1984, in St. Tropez.
After experiencing severe fatigue and suffering from pain in her upper legs on the set of Haunted Honeymoon in the United Kingdom in 1985, Radner sought medical treatment. After 10 months of false diagnoses, she learned that she had ovarian cancer on October 21, 1986. She suffered extreme physical and emotional pain during chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment.
In the fall of 1988, after biopsies and a saline wash of her abdomen showed no signs of cancer, Radner was put on a maintenance chemotherapy treatment to prolong her remission. But later that same year, she learned that her cancer had returned after a routine blood test showed her levels of the tumor marker CA-125 had increased.
She was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles on May 17, 1989 for a CAT scan. Despite being fearful that she would never wake up, she was given a sedative but passed into a coma during the scan. She did not regain consciousness and died three days later from ovarian cancer at 6:20 am on May 20, 1989. Wilder was at her side.
By coincidence, the news of Radner’s death broke on early Saturday afternoon (Eastern Daylight Time), while Steve Martin was rehearsing as the guest host for that night's season finale of Saturday Night Live.
Saturday Night Live personnel — including Lorne Michaels, Phil Hartman and Mike Myers (who had, in his own words, "fallen in love" with Radner after playing her son in a BC Hydro commercial on Canadian television and considered her the reason he wanted to be on SNL) — had not known she was so close to death.
They scrapped Martin's planned opening monologue and instead, Martin, in tears, introduced a video clip of a 1978 sketch in which he and Radner parodied Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in a well-known dance routine from The Band Wagon.
Here, Radner on smoking
Matisse and his cat