Two Sharp Knives

Movie night!

Tonight’s opus gruesome is TWO SHARP KNIVES.

This is a 1950’s made-for-TV dramatization of a story by Dashiell Hammett.

Aha!

That’s why I watched it. How bad could something written by the author of THE THIN MAN and THE MALTESE FALCON be?

Well…

It was part of the Westinghouse Studio series. Westinghouse’s slogan at the time was; “You can be sure if it’s Westinghouse”.

Sure of what?

You certainly couldn’t be sure of a quality piece of entertainment.

No.

No sir.

However there were points of interest;

  • A very young Abe Vigoda plays a very young cop. I’m stunned that such a thing was possible as a very young Abe Vigoda.
  • The commercials for Westinghouse washers and dryers feature a Westinghouse store owner inviting you to bring your dirty clothes to his store for a free demonstration. Now there’s a gig.

I came away thinking (to paraphrase George Kaufman); Westinghouse should close the studio and keep the store open late at night.

I watched this…so you don’t have to…you can owe me.

Dinner With Nick and Nora

Movie Night!

Didja ever play the mental game of planning the guest list for an ideal imaginary dinner party? I do it all the time. Most of the time I include Nick and Nora Charles from THE THIN MAN.

If Nick and Nora are among your guests, you’ll feel secure in the success of your dinner party as long as the bar is amply provisioned and a stylish cocktail shaker is at hand. You know there’ll be no awkward gaps in the table chatter and there could quite possibly be some fascinating party crashers named “Rainbow” Benny, “Face” Morgan, or “Spider” Webb.

Warning: there could also be gunplay.

Throw in some weepy drunks, a befuddled police detective or two, a crooked bookkeeper, a murderous jockey, an inscrutable Asian, a socialite grande dame with sleepy siblings, a bitter rejected lover, a gardener with or without his mustache, and you’ve got a shindig that Anita Madden would covet.

I would even let them bring their dog. Our Chloe would totally ramble through the house with their Asta. The pups could swap tips on expanding their respective household dominance which is already near total.

I could pretty well watch “Thin Man” movies forever.

Another Hamilton?

Neil Hamilton…Whatta Career!

Let me pose a question for all my geezer theatre friends. If I offered you an acting career that included roles;

  • As Beau Gest’s brother
  • As Nick Caraway in THE GREAT GATSBY
  • In two Fu Manchu films
  • And two Tarzan films
  • TV appearances in MAVERICK
  • ZORRO
  • 77 SUNSET STRIP
  • THE REAL MCCOYS
  • THE OUTER LIMITS
  • PERRY MASON
  • THE MUNSTERS
  • And MISTER ED
  • Oh wait…and then you get to play Commissioner Gordon in the TV show BATMAN.

Would’ja take it?

Well, that was Neil Hamilton’s career and he’s starring in tonight’s 1941 cinematic delicacy; DANGEROUS LADY. It’s a “Thin Man” knock-off and not great, but Hamilton’s not bad and it ends with a frozen-in-place “THE END” kiss – well worth the price of admission (in this case; free).

Did I mention an appearance in MISTER ED? Whoa!

Livin’ on the Edge With Joe

My stage director/mentor/friend Joe Ferrell had a birthday this week.

Who cares?

I gather he’s getting old.

Who cares?

Well…

I kinda do.

I’ve read a bunch of tributes this week from various actors and students and friends. I am humbled by their reminiscences and the life-changing echoes of those reminiscences.

I have some of my own, of course…some might get us arrested…

May I share a silly one?

The year was 1984.

For some inexplicable reason (at least to me) Lily Tomlin came to the Guignol Theatre at the University of Kentucky one evening and practiced a reading of the beginnings of a new one-person play. She was the “one-person”…go figure. It was free and the house was packed…go figure. I was on the front row. Thus, Lily Tomlin spit on me. I didn’t shower for two weeks. My social life dove from pitiful to non-existent…go figure.

The next day, Ms. Tomlin held a q&a in the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs) for the Theatre Department students. I took the day off from work and lurked in the back of the house (sans shower remember). Joe Ferrell was the moderator of the session.

Commenting on the barrenness of the stage – nuthin’ – no chairs, no stools, — nuthin’, Joe introduced Ms. Tomlin and suggested that they simply sit on the edge of the stage. Ms. Tomlin’s eyes twinkled a challenge echoed by her voice; “I’ll sit on the edge if you will.”

I knew Joe and I knew the answer to that challenge from anyone, anywhere, anytime, in any theatre.

They sat on the edge.

That’s my Joe, and I’m standin’ by it……on the edge.

Broken Things

I’m old enough now to have been several things. Over the last six decades, I’ve been a library clerk, a husband, a retail store manager, a stepfather, a student, an advertising manager, a wine consultant, a friend, a singer in musical theatre, a husband again, a Frisbee artiste, a party planner, a government relations director, a voracious reader, the president of a chain of liquor stores, a book collector, a singer in a rock-n-roll band (the whitest soul-singer you’ve ever seen), and……an actor/storyteller.

I’ve been pretty good at some of these things. Others? Well…I still throw a decent Frisbee.

During the “ugly hour” (thank you, David Bromberg for that troubling concept) of looking in the morning mirror, the person I most often see is that last listed; actor/storyteller. It feels like I have consumed a huge chunk of my life by instantly pondering in every situation; “How am I gonna tell other people about this?”

Storytelling and acting…it’s my comfortable place.

So…

It is my comfortable pleasure to mention that I am rehearsing a play.

christians

Athens West Theatre’s production of The Christians by Lucas Hnath will open on Friday the Thirteenth (QUEL HORREURS!) in April at the Pam Miller Downtown Arts Center. I invite you to come.

I am currently spending my evenings rehearsing a gripping and relevant script with a literate and incisive director and a cast whose passion humbles me.

It’s a real good time.

What enhances the rehearsal process are the spaces in which we are rehearsing.

We rehearse in various rooms at a private school in Lexington. One night we may be in the school’s cafeteria, the next in the school’s music room, the next in the school’s theatre office. The spaces are warm and clean and neat. Everything works. Everything points to civility and creativity. Their hygienic competency inspires us to leave the spaces as pristine as we find them. That’s their message to us; “Work. Create. Dream. Respect those that follow.”

I have worked in rehearsal spaces (and theatres themselves) where we tried to create an Antarctic setting in the basement of a downtown building that was thermostat-challenged in January (I assure you imagining the cold was no problem at all), where we rehearsed Sam Shepard and Sherlock Holmes in a building that shook with every passing car and the dust hovered in the air looking for a parking spot in our lungs, where water fountains spewed burnt-siena-tinged fluids, where traffic saluted our presence with their horns, where rain and heat and barking dogs (sometimes simultaneously) ruled.

I’m here to tell you our storytelling efforts were not improved in these environments.

It reminds me of a Christmas I witnessed where a six-year-old boy received a bonanza of presents. Every complicated gizmo advertised on TV that holiday season was unwrapped Christmas morning. He was thrilled and overwhelmed…for a day. By the next day, every toy and gizmo’s charms had faded. The six-year-old with six-year-old motor skills had compromised every item in some way. He sat in his play space pitifully surrounded by things that did not work. They were all broken…in some way……by him.

Surrounded by broken things.

What good can possibly come from that?

I’m thrilled and made envious by the bubble created by the private school. I wanted to play with all the guitars and drums. I wanted to share their meals and thrill to their daily discoveries. The message to these students is clear; “We don’t expect you to merely survive. We expect you to thrive. We expect you to make things better.”

But outside the bubble…?

What about the broken things elsewhere?

Bridges, water slides, county water systems, sinking cities, neighbors sinking into substance abuse…

We are surrounded by broken things.

We are not improved by the messages those broken things impart.

We must fix the broken things for everyone.

It’s not dramatic…or sexy…or rapid. I’m old and may not see the harvest of such a sowing, but I know it’s the better path and I’ll sleep better and tell a better story if we’re heading in a better direction.

Work.

Create.

Dream.

Respect those that follow.

These are not hard questions.

Just Act the Hell Out of It

In the theatre, I have been blessed to work with inspiring directors. Many of them seemed to enter and re-enter my life at times when they could fulfill dual roles; stage director and off-stage mentor. Just as I could not have become the on-stage kings, fools, lawyers, doctors, and errant knights required, so I could not have become the geezer I am today (for better or worse) without their genuine care and, at times, curious advice.

Perhaps preeminent among them, if for no other reason than my bewildered youth at the time, was Charles Dickens.

That was his real name.

Charles was my advisor at UK. On Tuesday, during the “advising” session required before classes began on Monday, Charles filled out my roster of classes (my input was restricted to an awed and tiny “ok”), and informed me that my part-time job at the public library wouldn’t impede my freshman theatre activities since they didn’t cast freshmen anyway…but that I should attend and participate in the Sunday auditions of the season’s opening show (which he was directing) for the experience.

I responded; “ok”.

Monday morning, at 9:00, I attended my first college class (Physics: 101 – we learned to bend water with a comb) and was cast in my first show (“Playboy of the Western World”). I was slack-jawed at my Physics classmates (“Is that real water?”), and dazzled by my sometimes shabby but always quick cast mates in rehearsal. My path was clear.

That was in the fall of 1969.

In the spring, Charles cast me in his elaborate production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. By then, I was a complete “gym rat” in the theatre. Every day began and ended in the Fine Arts Building; the Guignol Theatre, the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs), the Green Room, the Scene Shop, the Costume Shop…even an occasional classroom. I lurked in every rehearsal I could find.

During “Measure”, Charles was deep into his Peter-Brook-THE-EMPTY-SPACE period. I may have learned half of what I know about the theatre listening to him coach actors in these rehearsals. One night, Bill Hayes, a nice actor and UK alumnus brought in by Charles to play “Angelo”, paused rehearsal to question the meaning of the line; “Let’s write ‘good angel’ on the Devil’s horn, tis not the Devil’s crest.” Charles sprang to the stage and took Bill’s script and they pondered…and pondered… Finally Charles handed the script back to Bill with the profound instruction; “Just act the hell out of it.”

Just act the hell out of it?

I had fallen in love with Shakespeare with “Measure for Measure”.

I knew what that line meant!

I could say that line!!

I could change people’s lives with that line!!!

I swore if I ever got the chance…

Well, of course, having sworn, I did, 23 years later.

In 1993, the uber-smart Ave Lawyer cast me as “Angelo” in her production of “Measure”. This production featured a remarkable cast; Eric Johnson, Sidney Shaw, Holly Hazelwood Brady, Laurie Genet Preston, Jeff Sherr, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Donna Ison, Karen Czarnecki, Spencer Christiansen… WOW!

I had my chance.

I said my line.

I acted the hell out of it.

I got up the next day and went to my day job.

Hoops and High Notes

I have listened to or watched University of Kentucky basketball ever since eventual mayor of Lexington Scotty Baesler was the “sixth man” on an early 60’s Adolph Rupp-coached team. My mom and dad and I would sit around our yellow linoleum-topped kitchen table in North Lexington listening to the radio broadcast. Mom would keep score on the pad of paper we used when people came over to play cards, and dad would cuss and slap the table. I kept score in my head and memorized my dad’s vocabulary for later practice when I was alone in bed.

It was a real good time.

Cotton Nash was a god to me until Dan Issel came along. Mr. Issel was a god to me until Jack Givens came along. Then Kenny Walker. Then the Unforgettables. Then Jamal Mashburn. Then Antoine Walker. Then John Wall. Then Anthony Davis. Then……Wenyen Gabriel?

Fifty-plus years of watching the same dribbling, running, screening, and shooting on the same hardwood floors — why?

Why keep watching?

Because of Wenyen Gabriel.

Because, at any moment, a young person could have a transcendent moment in their life and by watching, you could be a vicarious participant in that moment.

Especially now, with daily political news being so unrelentingly grim and disgusting, I feel a renewed resurgence of hope and possibility for fixing things. To see a young person succeed beyond the expectations of today’s alarm clock, to see them rejoice in that unexpected success, to see them exult in simply being young and capable, is enough to keep me progressing, persisting, and resisting.

It’s just a game.

I know that.

The meanings I impose on that game are mine – perhaps the foolish dreams of an unrepentant hippie of the 70’s. I would not want my priorities to intrude on today’s young people, but I will gladly accept the inspirational intrusions of today’s young people on my priorities.

That said…

Tomorrow, Sunday, March 10, at the Singletary Center there will be a gathering of 26 singers from around the world competing for scholarships to be part of the nationally-admired University of Kentucky Opera Program. This will be the next wave of remarkable performers to shape Lexington’s vocal music experience. These will be the singers we will hear throughout Central Kentucky in our churches, and schools, and public concerts, and operas, and musicals, and recitals, and national anthem renditions, during the next few years until they mature and grace the planet with their talent.

It will be a magical day, a day of hope and inspiration, a day every bit as startling as Wenyen Gabriel’s 7-for-7 from 3-point range.

It will be a real good time.

Alaska Daydreaming?

Some ponderings on a snow-threatened evening in Lexington…

I recently passed my two-year anniversary of my time with the Canadian-owned Liquor Barn. It has since returned to being a Kentucky-owned business.

The anniversary prompts me to meditate.

My last two years with the very large group that owned Liquor Barn involved a lot of travel. It probably wasn’t that much travel compared to other hardy folks, but to this fixed-foot Lexingtonian, it was too much travel. Boston, Mobile, Tampa, Montana, Chicago, San Antonio, Phoenix, Washington…and Alaska required visits. These are all places that have interest for me, but for a business trip…meh.

I hated the travel. For those who know me you know I use the word “hated” rarely and deliberately. The air travel that was a delight in the 60-70’s has decayed from delight to ordeal. Hotels are amazing…but not my home. They try to substitute free breakfast, daily clean linens, and tiny plastic bottles of shampoo, for my wife, my critters, and my trusty roster of pizza delivery partners. LOUD BUZZER; thank you for playing.

Given that, I generally enjoyed my times in Alaska. There were things that stirred me to think;

  • Alaska’s young. They just recently celebrated their 100th We have neighborhoods in Lexington twice that age. There are whole periods of architecture not present in Alaska because of that youth. To quote one of my favorite songwriters; “It feels like something’s bein’ born.” There were no buildings in Anchorage that didn’t scream; “We think this is the way to be, but check with us tomorrow, we may change our mind.”
  • Anchorage is often suffused by an “end-of-the-continent Western light.” I’m paraphrasing Jack Kerouac’s description of a late 1940’s San Francisco. When this happened in Anchorage, I felt like I was walking in a nickel postcard from the 1950’s, a fantasy ideal, again quoting Kerouac; “What will happen! Hey!!”
  • Alaska is young but it lives in the shadow of instant destruction every day. Earthquakes and tsunamis…we don’t let those things affect our days in Kentucky.
  • The color pallet of Alaska seems to only include 12-14 shades of green, not the 1,248 we have in Kentucky. That’s a serious problem for me.
  • High humidity lingers for 15 minutes in Anchorage, not the four generations we occasionally live through in the Bluegrass State.
  • The distances that are part of Alaskans’ lives dwarf ours. No, they double dwarf ours. Their state capitol is a 750-mile flight over water away from their home, not a twenty-minute drive from my house. On clear days, Anchorage citizens can see Mt. Denali. That’s the equivalent of me walking out on my front porch and seeing Indianapolis. Damn!
  • Their mountains are towering, jagged, snow-covered, around the corner, and intimidating as hell. Ours are round, green, womb-like, enveloping, and seductively on the horizon.
  • Their nights are sharp and invigorating, challenging us to plunge ahead into the night’s adventures. Ours are soft, narcotic (thank you, Tom Waits), and contemplative, inviting us to go for a stroll.

All that being said, let me be clear; I enjoyed being in Alaska, not going to Alaska. It was a lo-o-o-ng journey for this geezer.

Casting the Runes

We live in a golden age of things to watch.

There’s the addictive Trump Reality Show broadcast 24/7/365 by CNN, MNBC, and Faux News.

HBO, Netflix, Amazon, etc. are producing their own wonders.

The Oscars might have suffered a decrease in viewers, but THE SHAPE OF WATER deserved every good thing that has come its way. When Sally Hawkins offered that egg to her new amphibian friend I was filled with wonder and trepidation.

That being so, why spend time on 40-50 year-old film adaptations of 100 year-old ghost stories?

Perhaps, because at times they also fill me with wonder and trepidation.

The ghost stories of M. R. James are erudite, they are a luxurious read, and if read thoughtfully, they are scary as hell.

Page-turners? No.

Sleep disturbers? Oh-h-h-h, yeah.

Two of his stories; “O’ Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” and “Casting the Runes” are not only effective as stories but seem particularly useful for film treatment.

The multiple times I’ve watched the 1968 BBC Omnibus production of “O’ Whistle” featuring a remarkable performance by Michael Hordern (mumbling, insular, soaked in intellectual hubris), unseat my ease every time.

Jacques Tourneur directed CURSE OF THE DEMON (1957) based on James’ “Casting the Runes”. I am unabashedly of the legions of film fanatics that revere Tourneur’s work with producer Val Lewton; CAT PEOPLE, THE LEOPARD MAN, and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE.

<<  Let’s take a quick time-out here. I hear the snickering over I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE. You could not be more wrong. It’s a voodoo rendering of JANE EYRE and totally mesmerizing to watch…though, admittedly the appearance of Sir Lancelot, a calypso troubadour is a head-scratcher.  >>

Tourneur’s treatment of James’ story is not faithful, but who cares? Dana Andrews captures our interest and sympathy. We tag along breathlessly as he un-puzzles the situation. Niall MacGinnis is charmingly and gleefully evil. I would considered it a life well-lived if I never met the man. Séances, mysterious storms, hypnotism, curses on parchment, trains, planes, and automobiles in Britain – what’s not to like?

Thanks to my receiving another box of delights today from my friends at Sinister Cinema, tonight I watched a 1979 British TV production of “Casting the Runes” featuring Iain Cuthbertson and Jan Francis. Once again the adaptation is loose, but once again, who cares? The premise is plausible, the threat is real, the mechanisms are eminently difficult but doable…and the outcome is troubling. I’d call that; “mission accomplished”.

As loose as these adaptations are and as gifted as the adapters are, I can’t help thinking if the original story had not been so very fine…

Perhaps one more mosey through the M. R. James canon might be in order.

All the President’s Men

Notes on a re-screening (#9, I believe) of ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

Rotary phones, paper slips at the Library of Congress, typewriters, walkies-talkies, real taxis with lights on the roof, phone booths and phone books, Rolodexes, legal pads, smoking in an elevator…these give such texture to a story untamed by 21st century whitewashing filters.

I enjoyed THE POST, but it’s not ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN.

The journalism depicted in ATPM is sharper, harder earned, elbows are pointier, and the stakes are higher. That resonates with me these days.

Jane Alexander’s anguish is palpable. It also resonates with me these days.

There is hope expressed;

“The truth is these are not very bright guys and things got out of hand.” –Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat.

After a day of Sam Nunberg, this is what hope sounds like.