Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Happy Birthday Lauren Lane

Fond as I am of Fran Drescher - which is pretty fond - I'd be lying if I said that the star is ever the most interesting character in a sitcom, and as interesting as Fran Drescher is - which is pretty interesting - that's true even of The Nanny; by design it's the secondary characters who get the best lines, provide the most humour, in fact keep the whole enterprise going by giving the star someone to react against. Many otherwise promising star vehicles have failed for precisely this reason...

PhotobucketFor six hilarious seasons, Lauren Lane fulfilled just such a role on The Nanny, which helped keep the show's hilarity ensuing at a consistently antic pace; as C. C. Babcock, Lane was the blonde WASP-y foil to the extremely ethnic brunette Fran Fine - plus Daniel Davis' Niles, Charles Shaughnessy's Maxwell Sheffield and Renee Taylor's Sylvia Fine besides. In fact, in some episodes it seemed like her mellifluous 'Hello, hello' was the only thing capable of cutting through the chainsaw-like drone of that laugh. In the process Lane had ample opportunity to shine in both the high comedy of banter and the low comedy of pratfalls, proving herself as versatile a performer as could be found in that truly talented company.

Even if her entire career hinged on those 146 episodes alone, Lane's would be one of the most esteemed in all of American television, but she's has also appeared on such shows as Hunter and she had an extended guest run on the 1991-2 season of L.A. Law, as well as in movies.

Since The Nanny went off the air, Lane has been teaching in the theatre department at Texas State University in San Marcos, hopefully instilling in a new generation some of the skill and magic for which she herself has been responsible...

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The Death of Sid Vicious

PhotobucketWhen, in October 1978, Sid Vicious awoke from a heroin-induced stupor to find his girlfriend Nancy Spungen dead on the floor of the bathroom in room 100 of New York's notorious Hotel Chelsea, he claims to have had no memory of what might have happened the night before... Nevertheless, he was arrested for her murder, and escorted forthwith to Rikers Island.

Eventually his mother, Anne Beverley, was able to raise the $50,000 needed for bail from Virgin (his record label) and he was released from jail on the first day of February. At a celebratory party at the home of his girlfriend Michelle Robinson his mother (herself a registered addict) had also managed to score some heroin.

Remarkably - miraculously even, all things considered - Vicious had been able to get clean while in jail; on the outside he lasted less than a day. Although he'd been off the stuff for some months, and knew that what he was getting was incredibly pure, the small amount he took was enough to kill him.

Despite attempts to revive him, Vicious succumbed to an overdose at just after 3 AM on this day in 1979.
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"The Ladies Who Lunch" by Elaine Stritch

Here we see the lady doing what she does best, namely belting Sondheim...

From his musical Company (1970), it's The Ladies Who Lunch, a paean to those poor neurasthenic women who have nothing to do all day but shop and look pretty, being sung here by the one who sung it first, birthday gal Elaine Stritch.
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Happy Birthday Elaine Stritch

Hers is the incongruously gravelly voice that wouldn't seem to lend itself to a career on the Broadway stage; backstage, maybe, working as a Teamster... Yet Elaine Stritch is a living legend in the Broadway community, a singer-dancer-actress whose appeal is immediately evident, and whose ballsy offstage demeanour has endeared her to three generations' worth of stage door Johnnies.

PhotobucketBorn on this day in 1926, she made her Broadway debut at the age of twenty, in a revue entitled Angel in the Wings; her first big exposure came when she understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. Those were some mighty big lungs to fill, which Stritch ably did for months when the show went on its national tour. Her acclaim built with appearances in a 1952 revival of Pal Joey and a 1954 revival of On Your Toes. Emboldened, she took a non-singing role in the 1956 production of William Inge's Bus Stop.

Stage-wise, though, her greatest triumph came from Stephen Sondheim's grand Company, which allowed her the showstopper The Ladies Who Lunch.

Offstage, too, she's distinguished herself; on the small screen she originated the role of Trixie in The Honeymooners when it was still a sketch on Jackie Gleason's variety program Cavalcade of Stars*. From 1975-9 she appeared in the legendary British sitcom Two's Company opposite Sir Donald Sinden, playing a novelist with a personality not unlike her own. On the big screen she's appeared in dozens of films, including Woody Allen's sodden September (1987) as well as his more spritely Small Time Crooks (2000). She even made her presence felt on radio, when she was a panelist on the BBC comedy show Just a Minute with Kenneth Williams, Clement Freud and Barry Cryer.

Her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty ran to great fan response in 2002, and in 2007 she was awarded an Emmy for her portrayal of Colleen, the dragon-lady mother of Alec Baldwin's character Jack Donaghy in the hilarious 30 Rock. Proving, I guess, that even for a living legend life begins at eighty!

*Regular readers of this blog and pop culture vultures alike will know Stritch was later replaced in the role by Joyce Randolph, as Pert Kelton would be relieved of playing Alice Kramden by Audrey Meadows.
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World City-Zen: Buenos Aires


While it was Juan Díaz de Solís who first navigated the Río de la Plata in 1516 - and thus first saw the virgin land which Buenos Aires would one day cover - he was killed by Charrúa warriors up-river in what would become Uruguay before he could return to found any future megacities. It would take another twenty years for Pedro de Mendoza to establish Ciudad de Nuestra Señora Santa María del Buen Ayre - on this day in 1536, in fact. The settlement Mendoza founded is now the city's San Telmo barrio; following an escalating series of attacks by the indigenous Querandís of the area the settlement was abandoned in 1541, at which point the few surviving settlers moved to Asunción.

Clearly it would take more than harassment by the locals to put the idea of Buenos Aires down; in fact, the city was refounded in 1580* by Juan de Garay, who dubbed it Santisima Trinidad and its port Puerto de Santa Maria de los Buenos Aires. It's apt, then that the city of today derives its name from the port rather than the town, since for most of the next two hundred and fifty years the good porteños of the city set about living their lives by trading goods from upriver - from Asunción, Montevideo, and even as far away as Lima.

Spanish colonial rule was so callous, so arbitrary, so utterly colonial that it's amazing the New World's independence movements took as long as they did to develop... Even more amazing - that the Spanish had the utter temerity to act surprised when, after centuries of treating colonists like so much raw material that they began to chafe under the treatment. Ultimately it was the British invasions of the Río de la Plata in 1806 and 1807 - as much as the Peninsular War of 1810 - that led to the birth of an independent Argentina during the May Revolution. By 1816 the country was its own boss...

Of course, democracy would take a little longer - as would the status of Buenos Aires as the country's first city. It wasn't until 1880 that the city was federalized and the seat of government installed at the Casa Rosada that B. A. began to take on the aspect of a capital.

Of course, prior to beginning my research for this piece, what little I knew of Buenos Aires came from three sources: an incessant barrage of media stories in North America about corrupt dictatorships, crime, and economic mismanagement that all made me feel a little smug about Canadian politics, propaganda from the Falklands War era, and Evita**. Still, I feel like some day I'd like to get to know this city of 12 million they call the 'Paris of South America'. Just as soon as President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner does something about the villas miserias and all the kidnappings...

*July 11th, to be precise.
**Plus, I own one porno that has a non-sex scene which takes place in
La Recoleta Cemetery.

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The Late, Great Gene Kelly Doing What He Did Best

To the instrumental accompaniment of You Wonderful You, Gene Kelly does what looks like an improvised dance in an old barn, using nothing more than his own whistle, a creaking floorboard, and a discarded page from an old newspaper. Oh yeah, and his own genius...

Of course, the genius of the man is that the hours of preparation and rehearsal that went into this simply do not show; nor do the charley horses, shin splints, or calluses - only the joy at having done it.

From MGM's undeservingly obscure Summer Stock (1950), here's the man himself...
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Best Of The Best: Gene Kelly

For Me and My Gal (1942) - In true passive-aggressive style, Hollywood couldn't just up and call for America's entry into World War II; instead, in the months leading up to the December 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor it released movies like this one - set during World War I when America, faced with a German menace, sang and danced for freedom. Subtle. Looking luminous in black and white (as photographed by William H. Daniels) and under the still-steady hand of director Busby Berkeley, Kelly and costar Judy Garland suit each other to a T.

PhotobucketCover Girl (1944) - As good as he looked in black and white, Gene Kelly fairly glowed in colour; not that you'd know it from watching this filmic outing, seeing as whenever he's on camera he's standing too close to the supernova that is Rita Hayworth to be seen. Given almost complete creative control over the film, Kelly gave himself an opportunity to dance with his own reflection. With Phil Silvers and Eve Arden - on hand as much for comic relief as to cleanse the palate - Cover Girl is moodier and more atmospheric than the average musical, which makes it ideal for people who crave eye-candy but are uncomfortable with movie characters suddenly breaking into song. Directed by Charles Vidor, the film features songs by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin, including the classic Long Ago (and Far Away).

Anchors Aweigh (1945) - Generally speaking, Hollywood makes its great war movies beginning about seven years after the pertinent war has ended; usually this is because that's the normal turnaround for the entire process - from the time an idea percolates out of a writer's head, has been hung, drawn, and quartered by a clusterfuck of producers, sent into pre-production, production, post-production and then finally released. Yet World War II saw every sector of the US economy at maximum production, and Hollywood was no different. Co-starring Frank Sinatra, this massive, star-studded spectacle is today best remembered for Kelly's imaginative duet with Jerry Mouse.

On the Town (1949) - One of my favourite movies of all time, On the Town reteams Kelly with his Anchors Aweigh costar Sinatra, in addition to Ann Miller, Betty Garrett, Jules Munshin, and Vera-Ellen, which doesn't merely add to the talent but multiplies it, or possibly does some of that algebra stuff to it. The point is, the whole adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts. The real star of the film, of course, is New York City; many principal scenes were shot on location there - a major innovation for the time - including at the American Museum of Natural History, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Rockefeller Center.

Summer Stock (1950) - Judy Garland's last movie for MGM also proved to be one of her most troubled and, fortunately, one of her best. While her health woes held up production and inflamed tempers, though, Kelly kept his cool while he chose to worry about his friend's health. While the film is not gifted with an especially original plot - hey kids, here's a barn, let's put on a show! - the end result doesn't merely rise above the cliché but soars.

An American in Paris (1951) - With a glittering score by George Gershwin, the full MGM design team on overdrive, and dances choreographed by Gene Kelly, how could this movie be anything but sublime? Fortunately, we'll never have to answer that because a) it's a rhetorical question, and b) it really is sublime. Kelly's love for French culture is evident in every frame, and surely Paris - even at its loveliest - could never have been this lovely.

Singin' in the Rain (1952) - MGM's cheeky look at Hollywood's transition from silents to sound features many of the most popular songs from the late 1920s; while co-starring Donald O'Connor, and Debbie Reynolds, though, it's Jean Hagen who walks away with the film, giving a Judy Holliday-esque performance which, seen once, will inspire laughs from memory for years to come.

Brigadoon (1954) - As musicals go, Vincente Minnelli's Brigadoon doesn't; where musicals are supposed to be bright and frothy and tow the establishment line, Brigadoon is dark and downbeat and subversive. Mean-spirited even. Which must be why the lovers of musicals with a cynical bent have always treasured the story of the Scottish town that only comes to life once every century.

Les Girls (1957) - There's something about this film that makes it special, beyond the direction of George Cukor and the presence of Gene Kelly (both guaranteed to up the special-ness factor on anything); I believe that something is the peculiar chemistry created by equal parts Kay Kendall, Mitzi Gaynor and Taina Elg. As the titular girls (and, at least in Gaynor's case, I do mean tit-ular!) they provide enough variety for any actor to spark off. The film also provides the ideal bookend to both this post and Gene Kelly's career at MGM; 15 years earlier, in 1942, he made his debut at the studio with For Me and My Gal. Whereas what seems like fifteen years ago I wrote its blurb at the top of this post...

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Remembering... Gene Kelly

Gene Kelly was a late-bloomer in show business terms; he didn't make his Broadway debut until he was 26 - an age when many of his younger costars would have already been grizzled veterans; the year was 1938, and he'd been cast to support Mary Martin at the Imperial Theatre on Broadway in Cole Porter's Leave It to Me! during her big number, My Heart Belongs to Daddy.

PhotobucketPerhaps that's why he always seemed so fresh-faced, so innocent in his later film roles; certainly a tendency towards boyishness helped, but I think having been allowed to spend his youth as a youth instead of growing up fast and hard might on the road may have just as easily been the reason...

From the bottom of the bill in 1938 Kelly had a supporting role in William Saroyan's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Time of Your Life in October 1939, then went straight to the top of the bill in his next show - appearing as the lead in Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day 1940. It was there that Kelly wowed audiences and critics alike with an entirely fresh style of dancing, which eschewed technique in favour of mood. In a very real way, Gene Kelly may have been the first person to marry dancing with acting - in a manner that is commonplace nowadays in every genre from rock video to ballet, but which in those days represented nothing short of a revolution.

By this time Hollywood wasn't just beckoning, it was begging, and Kelly went West; his first film was the superlative For Me and My Gal (1942) with Judy Garland. Over the next decade he made a string of musicals, many of which are considered the finest ever made: Du Barry Was a Lady (1943) opposite Lucille Ball, Cover Girl (1944) with Rita Hayworth, and the uber-patriotic Anchors Aweigh (1945) in which he danced with the animated cat-and-mouse Tom and Jerry. The Pirate (1948) was a bit too avant-garde for the bourgeois moviegoers of the 1940s, and was one of the only 'bombs' of Kelly's early career; the movie is now considered not merely a classic but among his finest, and also showcases The Nicholas Brothers at their prime.

Summer Stock (1950) is a minor classic well worth the watch if for no other reason than it is Judy Garland's last picture for MGM, and features her in top form (despite the turmoil her psyche was in while making it); Kelly's poise was remarked upon throughout the industry as he managed to keep both the production - and Garland - on track. An American in Paris (1951) is a tad bloated, and thus a delight for movie gourmands. Kelly's masterwork, though, is Singin' in the Rain (1952); it represents nothing less than the glory of glories (and I haven't even mentioned Thousands Cheer (1943), On the Town (1949), or Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949) to name just three).

With nowhere to go but down that's where he went, but his natural class and aplomb made it a gentle ride; he still had a few good performances left, such as in the disturbing, beautiful, and thus disturbingly beautiful, Brigadoon (1954). Yet even as the musical was evolving into a distended parody of itself, Kelly managed to find it in himself to make one more great one; Les Girls (1957) featured moody photography, ambitious subject matter, and all the charm of the man himself.

By the time of his death, on this day in 1996, Gene Kelly was one of the most beloved performers in the world; people whose parents weren't alive when he was creating his legendary dance numbers flocked to his side whenever he appeared in public. The French, whose culture he idolized, reciprocated his affection with ardour, lavishing him with critical praise and awards, including the Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur. A lifelong supporter of progressive causes, it can be truthfully said that all his considerable energy was devoted to the improvement of the things he loved.

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"Diva" by Dana International

Birthday wishes go out to Israeli pop superstar Dana International, whose 1998 hit Diva (written by Tzvika Pick) handily won that year's Eurovision Song Contest; she'd been inspired to enter the competition ever since her idol Ofra Haza represented Israel in 1983.

Dana was discovered by legendary Israeli DJ and producer Offer Nissim, who produced her first album, Danna International, in 1993; it was followed by 1994's Umpatampa, E.P. Tampa in 1995, and 1996's Maganuna.

Conservatives were naturally outraged that she was chosen to represent Israel at Eurovision, clearly without ever having seen it; if ever there was a perfect blending of event and participant it's Eurovision and Dana International*.

*Although Ukraine's Verka Serduchka comes a close second!

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POPnews - February 2nd

[Punxsutawney Phil is not only the world's foremost weather forecaster he is the most famous resident of Gobbler's Knob; he only lives there the part of the year, though, around Groundhog Day believe it or not. He spends the rest of the year in the town's library with his 'wife' Phyllis, supervised by Ben Hughes and John Griffiths.]

962 CE - Pope John XII crowned Otto I, the first Holy Roman Emperor in nearly 40 years.

1536 - Spanish conquistador Pedro de Mendoza founded Buenos Aires.

1542 - Portuguese forces under Christovão da Gama captured a Muslim-occupied hill fort in northern Ethiopia during the Battle of Baçente.

1653 - The colony of New Amsterdam - later to achieve some renown as New York City - was incorporated.

1709 - Alexander Selkirk was rescued by William Dampier having spent four years on the Juan Fernández Islands as a castaway by the same captain; his story would go on to inspire Daniel Defoe to write his famous Robinson Crusoe, which was one of the earliest novels.

1769 - Pope Clement XIII died; he was succeeded by Clement XIV, who was elected on May 19th.

1848 - The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo ended the Mexican-American War; the treaty ceded California, Nevada, Utah in their entirety, along with parts of Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Wyoming to the United States in exchange for $15 million; the rest of Arizona and New Mexico would follow in December 1853, with the Gadsden Purchase.

1876 - The National League of Professional Baseball Clubs of Major League Baseball was formed.

1887 - The first observation of Groundhog Day was held in - where else? - Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

1901 - Queen Victoria was buried at Frogmore Mausoleum in Windsor Great Park, following an elaborate State Funeral.

1922 - James Joyce's scandalous novel Ulysses was published in Paris by Sylvia Beach.

1957 - President Iskander Mirza of Pakistan laid the foundation stone of the Guddu Barrage, which crosses the River Indus near Sukkur.

1971 - Idi Amin seized power from Milton Obote following a coup in Uganda the previous week.

1972 - The British Embassy in Dublin was destroyed in retaliation for Bloody Sunday.

1974 - The F-16 Fighting Falcon made its maiden flight.

1976 - The Groundhog Day gale hit the north-eastern United States and south-eastern Canada.

1982 - Syrian government forces attacked the town of Hama in what became known as the Hama Massacre, killing as many as 20,000 people.

2002 - Crown Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands married Argentinian-born Maxima Zorreguieta.

2007 - Four tornadoes hit Central Florida, killing 21 people.
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