Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Memoriam: Sophie Tucker

Rather than being stung by the criticism of theatre owners and vaudeville bookers, who frequently told her she was 'too fat and ugly' to appear onstage (exactly the kind of charming sentiment which is the downfall, rather than the uplift, of showbiz) Sophie Tucker persisted anyway, and soon enough won hearts and minds with a style of ribald self-deprecation which never lapsed into self-pity - probably because it was born of defiance!

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1884, Tucker was renowned for her ability to sing the blues in the style of such black divas as Bessie Smith, Gertrude 'Ma' Rainey, and Ethel Waters; although in her early career she was compelled to wear blackface, she found the practice distasteful and when she fought to wipe her face clean, she was one of the first to do so. After the theft of her makeup case prior to a 1909 performance, she was so hailed by audiences that she was never asked to wear it again, blazing a trail that would eventually see the disgraceful practice of minstrelsy abolished altogether.

Not content to merely mimic black performers - as was Kate Smith, for instance - Tucker took training from them, and was rewarded with their respect for having done so. Rising above her status as a so-called 'coon shouter' - which is such a lovely term* - Tucker also mined her Jewish heritage for material; one of her most famous songs was called My Yiddish Momme, a sentimental tribute to motherhood which routinely got everyone in the audience right in the heart.

Despite being 'fat and ugly' Tucker was known as 'The Last of the Red Hot Mamas', and not just because her jokes could scorch wallpaper at a dozen paces. One of her racier burlesque songs was called Bounce Your Boobies; given the copious and earthy sexuality on display in her act, I have no doubt that she bounced her boobies offstage as much or more than she did on.

Tucker's experiences in the early days of show business galvanized her politically in more ways than one; she was instrumental in the creation of unions to protect performers and was even elected President of the American Federation of Actors in 1938.

Sophie Tucker died in 1966, just in time for a certain frizzy-haired upstart from Hawai'i - herself a study in contradictions - to take up Tucker's considerable mantle...


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Happy Birthday Richard Moll

During an amazing nine-year run on NBC's Night Court - from 1984 to 1992 - Richard Moll's considerable presence could be counted on to liven up what was already a pretty lively proceeding; as bailiff Bull Shannon he used all of his six feet eight-and-a-half inches to intimidate suspects, but fortunately the show's writers decided to dispense with stereotypes when imbuing his character with hidden depths and gentle wisdom...

PhotobucketBorn in Pasadena on this day in 1943, Moll's first film role was the 1981 film Hard Country, which starred Jan-Michael Vincent and Kim Basinger; the same year he voiced a beat poet in Ralph Bakshi's rotoscoped cult classic American Pop. For sheer camp appeal, though, neither of them had anything on his 1983 appearance in Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn.

It was his role in Night Court, however, that made Richard Moll a household name; for sheer visual amusement, nothing could beat his sparring with gravelly-voiced co-star Selma Diamond, who was seemingly as short as he is tall. Moll later relied on a similar effect when he co-hosted Friday Night Videos opposite ALF, making for one of the more indelible viewing experiences of my teenage years.

After Night Court went off the air, Moll returned to the life of the itinerant actor he had known before it, albeit now with an, er, even higher profile* and the sweet, sweet residuals that make the life of the working actor all the more bearable. Among his notable recent film roles was in the 1999 film But I'm a Cheerleader, in which he played against type as a gay man who, with Wesley Mann (as his partner) helps kids escape from an anti-gay re-education camp. Moll also works extensively as voice-over talent in the burgeoning field of animation.

*Higher than 6'8.5"?

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"Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash

It's not that Johnny Cash recording an album - even a live album - was such an achievement; Cash was - and still is - one of the most prolific recording artists in American history...

The fact that he not only recorded an album entitled At Folsom Prison - which he actually recorded live at the actual Folsom Prison, and for an audience of actual convicts, no less! - was something that the music press and the general public at the time had some trouble getting their heads around. Yet Cash had been sensitive to the plight of the incarcerated ever since seeing the film Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison (1951) while in the service, and it obviously made an impression on him; shortly thereafter he wrote this song, Folsom Prison Blues, which became a staple of his set list.

His appearance at Folsom Prison on this day in 1968 was not Cash's first prison concert nor would it be his last; in fact, At Folsom Prison was so popular the following year he recorded Johnny Cash at San Quentin*. Nor were his sympathies only with American prisoners; in 1972 Cash recorded På Österåker at Sweden's Österåker Prison - which was released the following year - and on which he can be heard speaking Swedish!

The secret to success in any field is consistency, and consistency is the hallmark of Johnny Cash's life and works; in his private life Cash advocated for prison reform, going so far as to use his fame to gain access to President Richard Nixon to discuss the cause in 1972.

*Which is where this clip comes from...
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Gratuitous Brunette: Orlando Bloom

Orlando_BloomIt was several years ago now that Kingdom of Heaven, Sir Ridley Scott's epic film about the Crusades, found its way into the collection of the Pop Culture Institute; when the film was released in 2005, certain critics were heard to bemoan the sad state of the action film when someone like Orlando Bloom could be one of the genre's biggest stars.

It's too bad, really, that an addiction to bitch pills seems to be a prerequisite for becoming a movie critic...

The notion of a Stallone or a Schwarzeneggar portraying Legolas (for instance) is worse than laughable, it's nausea-inducing; alas, such is collective 'mind' of the criticocracy that progress and innovation are anathema to them, except in retrospect.

On this, his 34th birthday, just let me say that if there were more action films starring actors like Orlando Bloom - who can at least act - I might watch more of them myself. That way, even if the script is bad - a pretty good bet with most action films - at least there's someone to look at onscreen whose neck isn't wider than his head, and whose head is filled with more than sets and reps...
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POPnews - January 13th

[Johnny Cash first recorded Folsom Prison Blues in 1955, which is when his zeal for prison reform was born; he had to wait a dozen years, however, to see his dream of performing live for prisoners made a reality... That's when Columbia Records executive Bob Johnston finally let him do it, even going so far as to produce the groundbreaking album himself. Cash's empathy for that segment of the population least likely to receive it was a hallmark of his unique brand of humanism, and accounts for much of his popularity still.]

1435 - The papal bull Sicut Dudum was promulgated by Pope Eugene IV, banning the enslavement of baptized black natives in the Canary Islands by raiders from rivals Portugal and the Kingdom of Castile, who both laid claim to the mid-Atlantic island chain; it was intended to strengthen a previous encyclical, Creator Omnium, which he'd published in December 1434. Like most such documents it was largely ignored, even upon fear of excommunication, although it was later clarified in Pope Nicholas V's Romanus Pontifex of January 1455 that the enslavement of unbaptized blacks was still perfectly alright, since they were 'the enemies of Christ'... And because, y'know, that's what Jesus would do.

1547 - Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey was sentenced to death; the little-known life story of this 'flamboyant and controversial' courtier is told in the book Henry VIII's Last Victim: The Life and Times of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey by Jessie Childs.

1766 - Denmark's King Frederick V died; he was succeeded by his son, who reigned as Christian VII.

1822 - The design of the Greek flag was adopted by the First National Assembly at Epidaurus.

1840 - The steamship Lexington caught fire four miles off the coast of Long Island, sinking early the next morning with the loss of 139 lives; there were just four survivors.

1842 - Dr. William Brydon, a surgeon in the British Army during the First Anglo-Afghan War, became famous for being the sole survivor of an army of 16,500 when he reached the safety of a garrison in Jalalabad.

1847 - The Treaty of Cahuenga ended the Mexican-American War in California.

1898 - Emile Zola's open letter to the people of France entitled J'accuse exposed the Dreyfus Affair.

1908 - Pennsylvania's Rhoads Opera House in Boyertown caught fire, killing 171 people.

1913 - Delta Sigma Theta Sorority was founded on the campus of Howard University as the second black Greek letter organization for women; its mission from the beginning was to engage in social activism.

1915 - An earthquake in Avezzano, Italy, killed 29,800.

1939 - Australia's Black Friday bush fires burnt 20,000 square kilometres near Melbourne claiming the lives of 71 people.

1964 - Sectarian rioting erupted in the Indian city of Kolkata - resulting in the deaths of more than 100 people.

1968 - Johnny Cash recorded his landmark album At Folsom Prison live at California's Folsom State Prison backed by June Carter, Carl Perkins, and Cash's band, the Tennessee Three. Cash actually recorded two shows there that day, with 13 songs from the first show and two from the second eventually making it onto the album.

1972 - Prime Minister Kofi Busia and President Edward Akufo-Addo of Ghana were ousted in a bloodless military coup by Col. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong.

1974 - Seraphim was elected Archbishop of Athens and All Greece.

1982 - Shortly after takeoff Air Florida Flight 90 crashed into Washington DC's 14th Street Bridge and fell into the Potomac River, killing 78 (including four motorists); the crash also caused a commuter train to derail, killing 3 more.

2001 - An earthquake struck El Salvador, killing more than 800.

2004 - Serial killer Harold Shipman - a medical doctor believed to be responsible for the deaths of between 218 and 450 of his patients during the Shipman Inquiry - was found hanging in his cell at Wakefield Prison - which action thrilled the tabloid press and Home Secretary David Blunkett but which dismayed the families of his many victims and potential victims.
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