Monday, June 29, 2015

It's Joan's Birthday -- Isn't It?

Wishing a very happy birthday to the late, great comedienne Joan Davis, born on this date in 1907. Or was it 1912? 

This is one time you'd do well not to rely on the Internet for a correct answer (excepting this blog, of course!) Both dates have been reported by multiple sources, so in researching Joan Davis: America's Queen of Film, Radio and Television Comedy, I was determined to give the definitive answer.

Thanks to the considerable help of my genealogist friend PD (who doesn't like her name bandied about online), I was able to obtain a copy of Joan's birth certificate. It provided a few surprises, including a given name that wasn't quite what I expected, a notation as to when and how it was legally amended, years after it was filed -- and a date ...

Well, for that part, please check out my fifth book, published in 2014. Too little is known about this gifted funny lady, who died much too young in 1961, and the book represents my best effort at filling that need. I hope you'll give it a look.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

When 86 Isn't Enough

The sad news of Dick Van Patten's death earlier this week, at the age of 86, was for me accompanied by a pleasant memory of making his acquaintance some years ago. When I was working on my biography of Shirley Booth, I was lucky enough to get an interview with actress Joyce Van Patten, who supported Miss Booth in two Broadway shows. After we had chatted for a little while, Miss Van Patten abruptly said, "You should talk to my brother Dickie." She promptly rattled off his phone number, and with some hesitation I called it later that day. That was how I met Dick Van Patten, who in our conversation seemed to me as nice as the dad he played on TV's Eight is Enough. Both Van Pattens willingly gave me terrific anecdotes about working with Shirley Booth, dating back to their years as child actors, substantially enriching my book.

One thing I remember clearly about Mr. Van Patten is the greeting on his answering machine. If you didn't succeed in reaching him immediately, you could at least listen to a joke he had recorded for his callers' entertainment. I wouldn't be surprised if people called him back from time to time just to hear the latest one, as recounted by a talented actor whose flair for comedy won him multiple roles with Mel Brooks.

By all indications, Dick Van Patten lived a rich, full life, both personally and professionally. I'm just one of many people who will remember him with respect and affection.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Up the Creek with Eve and Gale

Eve Arden (left) and Gale Storm, with Chick Chandler caught in the middle.
Okay, it's not the best movie you'll ever see. It's probably not even in the top ten. But how far wrong can you go with a movie that stars two of my favorite leading ladies, Eve Arden and Gale Storm?

The film in question would be Curtain Call at Cactus Creek, an amiable 1950 Western comedy that also stars Donald O'Connor, Vincent Price, and Walter Brennan. While Gale plays love interest to O'Connor, Eve is cast as a lady Price's character calls "a second-rate music hall performer who never had any talent." Her response? "With what I had a few years ago, I didn't need any talent!"

Like too many other movies from the golden age of Hollywood, this one hasn't yet had a full-fledged DVD release. However, if it doesn't turn up on one of the old movie channels, you can always find a copy here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Remembering Faith Domergue

If you've never seen Faith Domergue recoiling in horror from the advances of a bug-eyed monster or creepy interplanetary visitor, you just didn't watch enough 1950s sci-fi movies.
Always popular with the fellas: Faith Domergue in This Island Earth.
Born on this date in 1924, the beautiful actress was originally slated for bigger things in movies. Billionaire Howard Hughes met her in the 1940s, when she was a fresh new discovery at Warner Brothers, and bought out her contract at considerable expense. Much time and money went into the film that was supposed to establish her as a leading lady, but Vendetta (1950) was not a success. By the mid-1950s, Domergue still had enough name value to top the cast list of lower-budgeted films, and 1955 audiences saw the triptych that made her forever a scream queen: This Island Earth, It Came from Beneath the Sea, and Cult of the Cobra (the latter offering her a chance to do the menacing, for a change). Her career solid but unspectacular, she continued to act into the 1970s, and passed away in Santa Barbara on April 4, 1999.

For an interesting, in-depth interview with this intriguing actress, check out Tom Weaver's book I Was a Monster Movie Maker: Conversations with 22 SF and Horror Filmmakers

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ready to Match the Stars -- Again

"Matching" Brett Somers, Gene Rayburn, Charles Nelson Reilly
With major networks all but lost to reality TV, which has never held much interest for me, it's a happy circumstance that several digital channels have sprung up to serve viewers who still appreciate shows of the good old days. MeTV, Antenna TV, and others offer new chances to see shows that get little, if any, rerun play on local stations today -- Mayberry R.F.D, Perry Mason, Here's Lucy, and a good many more. This month, a new digital channel debuted for those of who still enjoy vintage game shows.

Buzzr fills its daily schedule with episodes of Match Game, Super Password, Family Feud, and even the original Let's Make a Deal, with "TV's big dealer, Monty Hall!" Of these, Match Game is my favorite, and Buzzr came along just as I was despairing of finding any more episodes on YouTube. I enjoy the amiable bickering of Brett Somers and Charles Nelson Reilly, and it's always a good day for me when Betty White, Fannie Flagg, or Patty Duke Astin (as she was then known) is gracing the panel.

It does bother me a tiny bit when I see the type of advertisers that are, thus far, spending money to buy time on Buzzr. In just a few days, I've seen an awful lot of commercials for step-in bathtubs, medic alert bracelets, Medicare supplements, and burial insurance. Is someone, somewhere, trying to tell me something?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Joan's Birthday Cake

Born on this date in 1933, Joan Rivers managed the considerable feat of keeping her career going for more than 50 years. In the 1960s, she was a frequent guest on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, and even briefly had her own talk show. At the time of her death in 2014, she was as busy as ever, doing her level best to stay on the cutting edge of comedy -- or perhaps step a bit over that edge.

Naturally, her humor evolved over the years, as did audience standards. In 1969, Joan was asked to provide a few of her "favorite jokes" for a syndicated newspaper article. Here's a sample:

"I had no luck baking my husband Edgar a birthday cake. While it was in the oven, the candles melted."

"I was so fat as a child that whenever I played Post Office, they sent me bulk rate."

"I never realized how bad a cook I was until Betty Crocker heaved a rock through my kitchen window."

Pretty tame stuff, next to her 21st century jokes. But whether you prefer that kindler, gentler Joan, or the later one who dropped knife-edged gags about Anne Frank and various modern-day celebrities, there's no doubt that the former Joan Molinsky fought hard for her place in the show business sun. It's not likely we'll forget her soon.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Why We Remember

The recent passing of two veteran performers made me think about the generational divide between people my age (late-era Baby Boomers) and those who are younger. If you asked me to name three reasons to know Anne Meara (1929-2015), I might say, "Half of the Stiller and Meara comedy team ... Veronica on Archie Bunker's Place," and then what? Valerie Harper's pal on Rhoda? Star of Kate McShane? Panelist on Match Game? Give me a few more tries, and maybe I'd add, "Ben Stiller's mother." But it wouldn't be her claim to fame in my book, as it was seemingly was for many obituary writers in recent days. 

On the other hand, I will admit that, yes, mention the name of Betsy Palmer (1926-2015), who died last Friday, and I do get an image of her as Mrs. Voorhees in Friday the 13th (1980). But I also know her for a supporting role in Joan Crawford's Queen Bee (1955), as a panelist on game shows (notably I've Got a Secret), and for her role on the prime-time soap Knots Landing.

Maybe there's something to be said for actresses so versatile that no one of their roles stands out when their careers are assessed. And for surviving so long in a tough industry that you have multiple opportunities to redefine yourself as time passes. RIP, ladies.