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Happy Birthday, Quentin Tarantino!!

Today is Quentin Tarantino’s 52nd birthday! Dale Sherman, author of Quentin Tarantino FAQ, has contributed a blog in honor of the famous director’s birthday!

A Generation on the QT

by Dale Sherman

00122479So, here we are – Quentin Tarantino, the iconic movie director, is turning 52. I can’t say anything about getting older – certainly not any slams about being able to get into movie at half-price now – I’ll be turning 51 myself within the next month. We’re all getting older, and while I’m fine with that, I’m not exactly jumping up and down about it.

Speaking of which, when writing my book about the director, Quentin Tarantino FAQ, I do admit to some kinship to Tarantino for the close approximation of our ages. Perhaps that misguided; after all, I’m not a movie director, an Academy Award winner, and I’ve never written a script that has been made into a film. But I felt that closeness none the less. And in a way that I think is one of the reasons his films are popular with a certain audience that I am apart.

No, I’m not talking about being a geek here. Sure, Tarantino has been obvious, even stubbornly proud of his background as a movie and comic book fan. As discussed in the book, he even at one time considered attempting to turn the Marvel superhero character Power-Man into a film, and most fans (if not general readers) know of his love for old martial art films and bloody, whacked-out action films. But that isn’t quite what I mean here.

You see, Tarantino and I – and many others around the same age – came to our understanding of the world, and in particular the world of entertainment, at the same time. The 1970s. Like it or hate it; having lived through it or only heard about it; it was an incredible period for kids to grow up. There was this in retrospect an inexplicable freedom in what we got to see and do, just in the movies alone. Tarantino has the drop on me by a year, but I too was a kid that looked at those newspaper ads in the paper and saw all types of twisted films playing at the drive-ins that filled my imagination with plots far more frightening than what I eventually saw on the screen when seeing the films later on video. Television ads in local programming would be pretty loose as well, and it was not unusual to see an ad for horror films like It’s Alive! or Ghetto Freaks while watching Gilligan’s Island in the afternoon.

Plus television itself was much freer, with PBS showing no objection to profanity or nudity (who didn’t remember seeing Valerie Perrine in the all-together in their 1973 production of Steambath, or in the later run of I, Claudius?) and even controversial language would pop up once in a while on network programming as well. Things were discussed that were never brought up on television or in the movies before, and there was even an attempt in society to legitimize pornography as something people could see in good health (that didn’t last very long, but it was there). All type of oddball things were being recognized in the media and we as young teenagers were the first to see it all.

And, bizarrely, we saw it all in the most innocent way possible. Most things seemed to have a gloss of “brand new” products, spiffy triplefeatureand weirdly wholesome in a way that disappeared as the 1980s moved in and we started seeing the ugly side of things that looked so good the decade before. Suddenly, drugs killed. Porn stars died in suicide or OD, Words hurt and could not be examined, but buried. Freedom was dangerous and needed to be restricted to upper-class white people at best. Even mixing music genres – a staple of early 1970s radio stations – became strictly regulated through the corporate take-over of the airwaves in the 1970s. Innocent was not so much gone, but bought out because it allowed people to do things for fun instead of for a price.

And we lost that. The kids that came later didn’t have anything to lose, because they never got to experience the power of freedom that was the 1970s. But those of us a few years older still remembered those moments. Which is why I feel a kinship with Tarantino. We may not have gone down the same paths, but the emotional elements of his body of work speaks to those kids from the 1970s. When we see Travolta as a dancing hitman in Pulp Fiction, we’re reminded of his work in Saturday Night Fever; a zoom on Uma Thurman while the theme from Ironside plays reminds us of the kung-fu movies we grew up watching in theaters and on television; stars of our past returning to leading roles in his films, like Pam Grier in Foxy Brown, merely remind us of how cool they were and still are. Words are used that were okay to dissect, even laugh at, in the 1970s that we’re supposed to feel shame in even discussing today.

You can see it in those films of the 1970s – things appear there from major studios that say to us today, “they’d never get away with it now.” We lost that, but we can still see it through the prism of Tarantino’s films – that reflection, that memory of what made the 1970s so cool.

As I said, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m trying to see a bit of myself in Tarantino due to having dug so deep into his history when writing Quentin Tarantino FAQ. But I can’t help thinking that I’m as close to the truth as I am in age to Mr. Tarantino. He’s of my generation, and I think that is one reason why his films reach so many like me today.

I can only hope he still has some more stories to tell us before he hangs it up.

Happy Birthday, Moe Howard!

Happy birthday to Moe Howard! This incredibe Stooge  remains forever a legend of the big screen and of the vaudeville scene. The extraordinary professionalism of the Three Stooges came from the boys’ long experience as song pluggers, backstage helpers, and comic performers in vaudeville, on Broadway, and in early sound cinema. The following excerpt from Three Stooges FAQ delves into the grinding nature of showbiz during the era of the Three Stooges, and the business mentalities the performers had to adapt in order to achieve their timeless successes.

00314839Vaudeville theaters (many of which doubled as movie theaters) ran live acts much of the day and into the night. Top acts would headline, with lesser acts filling out the bill. Because of the theater’s long hours of operation, the venues were hungry for talent. Opportunity existed for the able, but most vaudevillians remained relatively obscure. Some topped the bills of came near to the top. A few made the transition to Broadway and to radio. And a very few stepped up to movies, gaining vast audiences. But even for featured acts, fame was relatively brief: who today recalls “International Juggling Humorist” Billy Rayes or the “Cantonese Capers” of Larry and Trudy Leung? Vaudeville performers who remain popular and fondly recalled today – such giants as Milton Berle, Abbott and Costello, Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, and the Three Stooges – are special and rare.

Doggedness was vital to survival and success on the vaudeville circuit. Depending on one’s budget, train travel could be pleasant, or cramped and uncomfortable. Just to get from here to there ate up a lot of time. Backstage, many theaters were dumps with dirty, primitive dressing rooms and awful accommodations. (A notable exception recalled by Moe in the still-gorgeous Palace Theater in Cleveland, which was a grand backstage as it was out front.)

While on the road, stars lived in hotels. Lesser lights made do with lesser hotels, or boardinghouses. It was showbiz, but it wasn’t glamorous. For all, it was a job, and for some, it was a grind.

Most vaudevillians gulped greasy, inexpensive food, and had to contend with demanding theater managers, horny showgirls, abusive patrons, and acts that waited for moments to upstage rivals. The performers who prospered were the ones who loved their art. They didn’t love many aspects of “the life,” but they loved what they did on stage.

Moe, Larry, Shemp, Curly, and Joe loved it, and developed district personas that jibed in intriguing ways with their real selves.

Moe: an inherently serious performer with a sharp interest in the numbers side of the business, the group’s de facto leader, and the one who was prudent enough to end up with a gorgeous estate above Sunset Boulevard. On stage, he seemed comically boyish with his sugar-bowl haircut, yet he was startlingly pugnacious and impatient, quick to poke and slap those he considered rivals or inferiors.

Larry: a habitué of racetracks who loved fine clothes as much as he loved the ponies. He and his wife were for many years residents of Hollywood’s highly regarded Hotel Knickerbocker. In performance, Larry was faintly absurd with his frizzed-out curls and blandly smiling face, but he was one of the most brilliantly “reactive” comics of the 20th century. He never purposely stole a scene, but he was always up to something amusing, even when physically situated in the background.

Shemp: a famously funny Hollywood raconteur. Mickey Rooney told the fine historian Ted Okuda that whenever he spotted Shemp holding court in a restaurant, Rooney and his group invariably requested a table nearby, so they could listen in, and laugh. Although Shemp dealt professionally in a fast-talking worldliness, his real-life persona was kind and approachable. He was probably the most purely brilliant of all the Stooges, with a remarkable facility to think on his feet and ad-lib.

Curly: the “baby” of the Howard brothers, an antic lover of life often described (rather too glibly) as a “man-child.” He was connected to family, and found his greatest pleasures in women, dogs, and automobiles. A fine dancer and a comic with astoundingly inventive physical skills, he influenced generations of comics that came later, from the great Lou Costello to Jim Carrey. Curly’s stage persona was apparently a reflection of his true personality, with hyper energy, boundless enthusiasm, and a lovable quality that friends, family, and his public found hugely endearing.

Joe: like Shemp, he was impressively successful for years as a solo before he became a Stooge, working as a headliner in vaudeville and on Broadway. Stout and balding, he exploited his cherub’s face and body with cheerful cleverness. His carefully developed “sissy kid” persona slayed live audiences, and made him a refreshing addition to a latter-day incarnation of the Stooges.

 

Happy Birthday, Arthur Conan Doyle!

Arthur Conan Doyle is widely regarded as one of the world’s best storytellers. Although the author dabbled in various vocations during his life, such as medicine and sailing, Conan Doyle showed an inclination towards storytelling since his early childhood that was passed down from his mother. “In my early childhood,” Conan Doyle once remarked, “as far as I can remember anything at all, the vivid stories she would tell me stand out so clearly that they obscure the real facts of my life.” This passionate response to fiction grew with Conan Doyle into his teenage years, although the style he developed wasn’t exactly the sophisticated and eloquent one we are most familiar with! This excerpt from Sherlock Holmes FAQ gives some insight into Conan Doyle’s affinity for “Penny Dreadfuls”:

 

00117258It was during his final year at Stoneyhurst [his Catholic school] that Conan Doyle first became aware that his youthful love of storytelling had grown into a teenaged ability to captivate audiences. While editing the school magazine, he also threw himself into the composition of serial stories, lengthy epics of adventure and derring do more appropriate, perhaps, to the pages of a penny dreadful than the august halls of a Jesuit college.

Penny dreadful were the bane of the faculty’s existence, cheap (as their name implies), lurid (ditto) magazines into which the most sensational, shocking, and horrifying fiction imaginable was shoehorned, in bite sized quantities, and every installment ending upon a new note of cliff-hanging calamity, to ensure the reader had no alternative but to return for more in the very next issue.

Fifty years on, radio and movie serials would seize upon a similar notion to keep their audience coming back; today, television offers the same diversion. Different crimes for different climes. In 1870s England, with radio and television still far off in science fiction-land, penny dreadfuls were the public enemy number one. And Conan Doyle discovered that he had a rare talent for writing them.

He read his tales aloud to his audience, seated on a desk while they crouched on a floor around him, spinning out sagas so suspenseful that he would occasionally threaten to end a tale early because he knew his anxious audience would not hesitate to bribe him with apples and cakes, if only he’d read another page.

Still in his teens, Conan Doyle had discovered for himself the secret of great storytelling (if not necessarily great stories). “When I had got as far as… ‘slowly, slowly, the door turned upon its hinges, and with eyes which were dilated with horror the wicked Marquis saw…’ I knew that I had my audience in my power.”

Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith

Both members of The Monkees have their birthdays today! Happy birthday to Davy Jones and Mike Nesmith. Below is an excerpt from Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear, by Rich Podolsky.

With all the publicity he had received, Kirshner was getting quite a requtation, and his ego swelled a little more once he began guiding the musical career of the Monkees.

In 1965, producer Bob Rafelson approached Bert Schneider with an idea. Rafelson was inspired by the Beatles’ first film, A Hard Day’s Night, which not only featured the group’s songs but showed their happy-go-lucky wackiness as well. He wanted to do a TV series with four actors who would play a wacky American foursome. Schneider agreed and the two formed their own company, Raybert Productions, and sold the show to Screen Gems.

Screen Gems put out a wide casting call and finally settled on Americans Micky Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Peter Tork, and Englishman Davy Jones. The company planned a weekly TV show, which would feature the group’s slapstick antics and a song or two.

For the music, the company relied heavily on Kirshner. And he delivered. He selected and executive-produced all of their songs, several of which were written by Jeff Barry and Neil Diamond, two of the decade’s greatest songwriters. For their first single, Kirschner carefully picked “Last Train to Clarksville,” which was written by Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart, who were new in the Kirschner stable.

After “Clarksville” went to No. 1, Kirshner somehow talked Neil Diamond into giving the Monkees “I’m a Believer,” even though he wanted to record it himself. At the time, Diamond was already a successful performer, having struck with “Solitary Man” and “Cherry, Cherry,” the latter reaching No. 6. Talking him into giving up “I’m a Believer” may have been Kirshner’s greatest accomplishment for Screen Gems.

Don Kirshner: The Man with the Golden Ear

In 1958, long before he created and hosted Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, the most dynamic rock-and-roll series in television history, before he developed the Monkees and created the Archies, Don Kirshner was a 23-year-old kid with just a dream in his pocket. Five years later he was the prince of pop music. He did it by building Aldon Music, a song publishing firm, from scratch. This is about how he did it – with teenage discoveries Bobby Darin, Carole King, Neil Sedaka, and more.

By 1960, at the ripe old age of 25, Kirshner had built the most powerful publishing house in the business, leading Time magazine to call him “the Man with the Golden Ear.” In five short years he coaxed and guided his teenage prodigies to write more than 200 hits. And they weren’t just hits, as it turned out, but standards – including “On Broadway,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Up on the Roof,” “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” “I Love How You Love Me,” “Who Put the Bomp,” and “The Locomotion” – songs that have become the soundtrack of a generation. “We weren’t trying to write standards,” said one songwriter. “We were just trying to please Donnie.”

Happy Birthday, George Clooney!

So, George Clooney is 52 today (we can’t believe it either). Enjoy an excerpt from George Clooney, by Kimberly Potts.

George Clooney had often told reporters he wouldn’t attend the Oscars until he was nominated for one. He didn’t expect, though, that one trip to the Academy Awards was all he’d need to take home one of the little golden guys.

After nearly twenty-five years in Hollywood, more than a dozen failed TV shows, a breakout role in a hit TV series that gave him his firstbig success at age thirty-three, and another decade of critical film hits (Out of Sight) and box-office misses (Batman & Robin), 2006 was the year that his industry cohorts decided Clooney was a genuine triple threat: he had become the first person in the history of the Academy Awards to be nominated for three different Oscars in two different movies. All of a sudden, in 2006 Hollywood had decided that Clooney was one of the best actors, one of the best writers and one of the best directors in the industry.

And all the big-screen triumphs he was at last enjoying had come not because he had motored along the usual path to success in Hollywood. Instead, Clooney had done things his way, shrewdly switching back and forth between projects with big box-office potential and smaller, more independent movies he felt passionately about, working with actors and filmmakers who shared his goals of turning out good work they could be proud of listing on their résumés and, in a reflection of his personal ethics, making it a priority in his professional life to treat people, at every stage and level of the filmmaking process, fairly.

Clooney had become a genuine movie star, one of the biggest in the world, one of the most beloved and most respected—and, judging from the crop of those coming up behind him, one of the last real movie stars in Hollywood. As unlikely as it might have seemed earlier in his career, when he felt lucky to land parts in movies like Return to Horror High and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! and to be playing sixth banana to Mrs. Garrett and the girls on The Facts of Life, Clooney had deftly managed to sustain and expand upon a career in an industry that is notoriously fickle. He’d become a better actor, one capable not only of genuinely terrific performances in movies such as Steven Soderbergh’s slick heist crime dramedy/romance Out of Sight and Joel and Ethan Coen’s comic adventure O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but also of aligning himself with filmmakers who could draw out his best acting efforts and who had likeminded commitments to making movies that mattered, that provoked, that entertained . . . that, above all, did more than just line a leading man’s pockets with an eight-figure payday.

He’s famous for twice being People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive, for his penchant for practical jokes and his vow never to remarry, as well as for his Oscar-winning and Emmy-nominated acting career. But George Clooney’s reputation as a celebrity belies his essential seriousness, as a businessman, a humanitarian, and, of course, in his ascendancy to the Hollywood A-list.

George Clooney: The Last Great Movie Star 

In this updated biography of one of Hollywood’s most colorful leading men, pop culture expert Kimberly Potts traces Clooney’s life from small-town boy to big-screen idol. Clooney slowly and deliberately built a résumé that took him from TV stardom on ER to a winning film career as a serious actor, writer, producer and director. Along the way Potts fills us in on Clooney’s early attempts to break into film (including his Batman flop), his many well-publicized romances, his political and humanitarian efforts, plus a major fight with director David O. Russell on the set of Three Kings.

Potts also recounts how Clooney has gained success and acclaim with his shrewd strategy of alternating blockbuster movie roles, such as the Ocean’s franchise, with less lucrative “passion” projects – such as Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck – that reflect his personal ethics. He won an Academy Award for the former and rave reviews for the latter, and has continued to earn accolades and Oscar nominations for smart dramas such as Michael Clayton and Up in the Air.

Including fresh interviews, essential Clooney photographs, a filmography, a timeline, and a list of his favorite 100 films, this is the book no Clooney fan will want to be without.

Happy Birthday, Danny Kaye

The following is an excerpt from I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas.

Danny Kaye
Geet-Got-Gittle-Oddle-Got-Go-Say

There are a lot of photos of Danny Kaye, and not one does him justice. Oh, he looked like that, all right. But Kaye existed in a frenzied world of scats, squeaks, pops, thrums, oofs, and gargles delivered at rat-tat-tat velocity and with Olympic-class mug- ging no still image could hope to capture. Sharp-featured, with an explosion of red hair and a manner that could be sweet and shy and retiring one minute and wildly bombastic the next, his specialty was high-speed verbal and physical gymnastics performed with almost supernatural energy. Cole Porter, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill were intrigued enough by his special abilities that they wrote musicals to showcase him. Adorable onstage, Kaye had a tendency to temperament and temper offstage, vigorously encouraged by his wife and frequent writer, Sylvia Fine. He was beloved by audiences for decades and was such a tireless fundraiser for UNICEF that the children’s organization chose him to accept its Nobel Peace Prize. Yet in the end his restless running from one form to another left him not only with a spotty record on Broadway (just four musicals and two special concert appearances), but overall a career in film, variety, and television that was great, but not as spectacular as everyone who experienced him live in those early years would have predicted.

★ ★ ★

Kaye was born Daniel David Kaminsky (“Kominsky,” according to some sources) on January 18, 1913, into a family of Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to Brooklyn three years earlier. His father was a tailor, not much different from Motel in Fiddler on the Roof, and like Motel, he made sure his family didn’t starve—but couldn’t do much beyond that.

The family had the immigrant’s near-worship of doctors, and young Daniel harbored a lifelong dream of becoming a surgeon. But there was no hope, financially, of medical school, so he dropped out of Thomas Jefferson High School when he was fourteen and worked at a soda fountain before creating a little singing vaudeville act called Red and Blackie, with his friend Louis Elison. They sang and danced, and Kaye began displaying his facility with physical comedy, silly voices, and funny faces.

But his entry into vaudeville came just as the art form was expiring, partly due to the Great Depression. He toured the United States, adopting the shortened name “Kaye,” and even traveled to East Asia, where he developed his unique style of double-talking gibberish, which, combined with his nonverbal clowning, helped him transcend the language bar- rier. It would become his trademark.

Returning to the United States, and finding little employment in vaudeville, he took his skills to the ’Skills—the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City, where middle-class “campers” with any money at all retreated to leafy resorts to escape the pre-air- conditioning summer heat. His job was to serve as “tummler,” a combination emcee, social director, and street performer, who kept things lively by bringing people together for out- door activities by day and entertaining onstage by night. It was a good training ground for Kaye.

In his quest for employment, Kaye traveled to London to perform in music halls there, beginning a lifelong love affair between Kaye and the British. Back in New York in 1938, he auditioned for Saturday Night Vanities, a small-time revue. There he met a dark-haired pianist and songwriter named Sylvia Fine. She penned parodies of classic songs, along with original material of her own. “I walked in and saw Danny doing a song called ‘Vultures of Culture,’” she later told a magazine interviewer. “He terrified me. I was never naive and before I had left that day, he made offers of a suggestive nature.”

They were married within a year. It was the turning point for both of them. She understood his abilities, and they matched her satirical instincts. For the rest of their lives she was his most reliable writer and he was her most reliable interpreter. She crafted (sometimes with help) many of his signature songs, like “Anatole of Paris,” “Lullabye in Ragtime,” and “Melody in 4-F.” She also served as his business manager, earning a reputation for as- sertiveness (and sometimes brusqueness). Later, she coproduced his films The Five Pennies (earning an Oscar nomination for her songs) and The Inspector General. They also produced a daughter, Dena.

While both Kaye and Fine bristled when one commentator snidely remarked that Kaye “has a Fine head on his shoulders,” the truth remains that the Danny Kaye known to the world was in a great part the creation of Sylvia Fine. He was her masterpiece. But it’s not easy being someone else’s masterpiece. Though they stayed married until death, there was no small amount of friction in their relationship. They even separated for four weeks in 1947. There were rumors of affairs over the years, with Kaye, at various times, being connected with Eve Arden and even the pre-Fosse Gwen Verdon.

The most sensational claim came in Donald Spoto’s 1992 biography of British master actor Laurence Olivier, with whom he alleged Kaye carried on a ten-year homosexual relationship—an assertion backed by Olivier’s wife, Joan Plowright. However, in a 1994 biography of Kaye, Nobody’s Fool, Martin Gottfried rebutted the story, saying, “There is no evidence of, and there are no witnesses to, a Kaye–Olivier sexual relationship.”

Whether the stories are true or not, the Kaye–Fine alliance survived the difficulties and lasted more than forty years.

Danny Kaye in Wonder Man:

I’m the Greatest Star: Broadway’s Top Musical Legends from 1900 to Today by Robert Viagas (Applause Books)

Here is the first major survey of Broadway musical theatre stars, telling the life stories of 40 stage luminaries from Al Jolson, Fanny Brice and Gwen Verdon, to Nathan Lane, Patti Lupone and Audra McDonald. Author Robert Viagas describes each star’s most important stage roles as well as the triumphant, tragic, inspiring, and cautionary tales of how they achieved – and maintained – their status as top Broadway stars. I’m the Greatest Star is available on Amazon, B&N, independent bookstores, and from Applause Books.