Friday, January 31, 2014

Empire State and Seven Wonders by Adam Christopher

The cover, sadly, is the best thing about Empire State

We should make it clear from the outset that we here at The Jade Sphinx read a great many trashy novels.  However, as with all things, there are degrees of trash … and I will happily champion the work of writers as diverse as Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950), Zane Grey (1872-1939) and Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961).  However, most genre fiction is barely readable, and much of it downright embarrassing.

This is particularly true in two new subgenres that seem to have taken the science fiction world by storm: steampunk and superhero novels.  Superheroes, of course, are familiar to anyone who has been awake and attentive to pop culture for the past 25 years; steampunk, however, may take some explaining.  Steampunk is science fiction set in the past (usually the Victorian era), but featuring retro-futuristic gadgetry or inverted social structures.  One would think that the possibilities are limitless, but, actually, nearly all steampunk is gimcrack stuff.  The overarching problem with the steampunk genre is that its practitioners really do not understand the past, or, worse yet, that everything they know about the past was gleaned from comic books and old television shows.

These thoughts – and others – drifted through my mind while reading two novels by Adam Christopher (born 1978), an emerging voice in the science fiction arena.  His first book, Empire State (2012), is about an alternate 1920s-1930s: a pocket universe of supervillains, lesser gangsters, hard-bitten PIs, airships and superscience.  In summary, it sounds like something right up my alley – I love that era and the pulp fiction written during it, and the book sounded like goofy fun.  I pulled this, and his second novel, The Seven Wonders (also 2012) from the shelf.  The Seven Wonders, if anything, looked like even more fun: a West Coast city full of superheroes, an ordinary man suddenly gifted (or burdened) with superpowers, and a threat from outer space.

Well… both books are major disappointments to even the most cursory readers of the genre.  Empire State is a thudding bore, and your correspondent found it a slough to get through it.  The book is innocent of a single fresh idea, and the situations and characterizations are third-and-fourth-hand: everything is a reflection of some earlier trope, or, worse still, a reflection of a reflection.  Readers looking for an Art Deco romp should go elsewhere.

More egregious was The Seven Wonders.  The book deals with a team of superheroes and how they react when a new, superpowered entity emerges.  It also has a supervillain who changes alliances, a duplicitous sidekick, a moon base and various global threats.  In it is nothing even remotely resembling a human being: the characters are all riffs on existing comic characters, and the story a pastiche (not a meditation, mind, but a pastiche) of comic book conventions.  Complete with four (or five – I lost count) finales, it seemed to this reader like a novel that wouldn’t end. 

The Seven Wonders also has to be the first book in recent memory that uses the word f-ck as a noun, verb, adjective, adverb, expletive and gerund.  Such linguistic flexibility may satisfy undemanding readers, but adults may be looking for a little bit more.

Both novels were written by someone who knows a great deal about science fiction and comic books, but nothing whatsoever about life.  

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Celebrate the 90th Anniversary of Rhapsody in Blue With Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks

America’s true musical tradition is the Great American Songbook; the great body of music written by brilliant tunesmiths from the Great War through the advent of rock-n-roll (or, if you will, bookended between two global catastrophes).

In an era when artists sought legitimacy, rather than rejecting the very notion, it was not uncommon for Jazz Age songwriters to write ‘serious’ compositions that bridge the worlds of pop and classical music.  Perhaps the most ambitious of the Jazz Age songwriters was George Gershwin (1898-1937).  His great, serious opus of the Jazz Age, Rhapsody in Blue, premiered at the Aeolian Hall on February 12, 1924.  Gershwin was on hand to play the piano, and the concert was conducted by pop music legend Paul Whiteman (1890-1967), who commissioned the piece.

How did Gershwin come to compose his signature piece?  He related to his first biographer: It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattle-ty bang, that is so often so stimulating to a composer – I frequently hear music in the very heart of the noise.... And there I suddenly heard, and even saw on paper – the complete construction of the Rhapsody, from beginning to end. No new themes came to me, but I worked on the thematic material already in my mind and tried to conceive the composition as a whole. I heard it as a sort of musical kaleidoscope of America, of our vast melting pot, of our unduplicated national pep, of our metropolitan madness. By the time I reached Boston I had a definite plot of the piece, as distinguished from its actual substance.

The 90th Anniversary of this seminal event is a scant two weeks away.  And to mark this milestone, Bandleader Extraordinaire Vince Giordano will recreate the concert on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 at 8:00 PM at the Town Hall, Manhattan, on the same day and same block as the original concert 90 years ago.  Giordano has gathered solo pianists Ted Rosenthal and Jeb Patton to play along with his 22-piece Nighthawks Orchestra.  The evening will be conducted by Maurice Peress, and Gershwin’s Rhapsody will be accompanied by music by Irving Berlin (1888-1989), Victor Herbert (1859-1924), Jerome Kern (1885-1945) and Zez Confrey (1895-1971).

This is it, this is where American music really found its distinctive voice, Giordano told your correspondent recently.  It’s rare that anyone can put their finger on exactly the moment that a new era starts, but this is pretty close.  There was a sense that America was a new country, and needed a new music to give it voice.  Gershwin rose to that challenge and made musical history.  By doing the concert on the same day, on the same block, just feet away from the original 90 years ago, we are trying to recapture lightning in a bottle.

Giordano has earned great acclaim for his musicianship and for his curatorship of America’s musical heritage.  He has appeared in many major motion pictures (The Aviator and Cotton Club, for example), and was the musical voice for the award-winning television show Boardwalk Empire.  He has long been a favorite with New York sophisticates looking for great music and a smart evening out – he currently plays at the Iguana NYC every Monday and Tuesday evenings in the Times Square area.

Initial response to this planned recreation has been dynamic, and Jade Sphinx readers are encouraged to order tickets as soon as possible.  We will be there, as this promises to be the Must-See musical event of the season.  Tickets are $25, $30, $35 and $40, and are available at the Town Hall box office, or by calling Ticket Master at 800.982.2787.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Junkyard, by Mike Austin

It’s always a delight when a children’s book takes you by surprise, and that is exactly what happened with Junkyard, by Mike Austin (born 1963).  I have been woefully unfamiliar with Austin’s work, but was so tickled by Junkyard that I will now be on the lookout for his other books.

Junkyard is the story of two robots – square, boxy creations with gears rotating in their chest – who clean out a Junkyard by eating the trash.  Once done, they plant trees and fruits and vegetables, build an idyllic playground, invite their friends over and… make it a paradise of what was once a wasteland.

Though Austin certainly never hammers his theme too heavily, the environmental mission of the book is clear.  This come through particularly in Austin’s digital illustrations, which are cluttered and ‘messy’ in the earlier pages of the book, and clean, streamlined and invited in the latter half.
Austin’s first introduction to drawing came from his mother during his boyhood.  He remembers, she showed me how to hold a pencil and draw faces.  I loved everything about drawing; the waxy texture of crayons, sharpening a pencil, an empty sheet of paper just waiting to be scribbled on.  For many people, the smell of Play-Doh brings them back to their childhood, for me it’s the smell of a freshly kneaded eraser.  I loved redrawing the Sunday comics, mostly the Peanuts gang and the Wizard of Id.  My favorite Christmas present of all time was the Peanuts Treasury, the greatest collection of comics the world had ever seen!  I still have the book….

As with most authors of children’s literature, the gestation can take decades, the seed often in a childhood experience.  Talking about Junkyard, Austin remembered: When I was twelve years old, my best friend had the brilliant idea of sneaking into the local junkyard to find better go-cart wheels and more wood for our tree fort.  I had never been to the junkyard before; it was off-limits.  If we got caught, I would be grounded forever.

We rode our bikes down the dirt road to the back of the junkyard, ditched them behind a bush and proceeded to get sneaky.  We crawled under the fence and stood in awe of teetering stacks of rusted cars, tangled rolls of oxidized copper wire, and mound upon mound of mufflers.  It was both fascinating and terrifying.  In the middle of all that junk was a big crane that I swore looked just like a giant alien robot, arm outstretched, clenching a fistful of bent metal.  I was already starting to freak out when my friend opened the trunk of an old car.  A giant opossum jumped out, landing at his feet.  It screeched and we screamed, dove under the fence, and pedaled home as fast as we could.  I never did find any go-cart wheels that summer, but I did end up with a huge stack of cartons featuring a giant alien robot, a killer opossum, and my friend peeing his pants.

Junkyard has a distinctly millennial American feel – while cluttered and messy and perhaps past its prime, still scrappy, filled with ingenuity, and hopeful of a better tomorrow.  Junkyard is quite terrific.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

New Season of Salon Thursdays at the Dahesh

Artist Jacob Collins

Once again, the Dahesh collection sponsors a captivating roster of speakers and topics for their popular Salon Thursdays events.  These wonderful events are completely free to the public, and start at 6:30 PM.  They are conducted in the lovely gift shop itself, located at 145 Sixth Avenue, on the corner of Dominick Street, one block south of Spring Street.  The events are wheelchair accessible.

Since opening its richly appointed gift shop in 2012, the Dahesh has used the new location as a home for Salon Thursdays lectures, featuring both history and insight from leading arts scholars.   Attendees can also look through the new store, which includes beautiful things for the home, reproduction prints and posters, and an impressive collection of scholarly books on the Classical tradition.

The 2014 Winter/Spring Salon Thursdays is extremely ambitious this year.  Next on the calendar are:

Thursday, February 6: The Artist’s Model in Nineteenth-Century Russia: Images and Reality -- Artists’ models are an essential part of academic studio practice, but their work is often overshadowed by the creative accomplishments of the painters and sculptors who employ them. In this presentation, Margaret Samu opens up the artist’s studio in 19th-century Russia to examine the work of models both inside and outside the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Margaret Samu teaches in the Art History Department of Stern College for Women at Yeshiva University, and also lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She holds a Ph.D. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, where she studied 18th- and 19th-century art with an emphasis on Russia and France. In 2007 she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship and spent a year at the St Petersburg Academy of Arts. Dr. Samu is currently working on a book-length project titled Russian Venus.

Thursday, March 6: Orientalist Architecture in New York -- Architectural historian Joy Kestenbaum traces the Orientalist influence on New York City architecture from the mid-19th century through the 1920s, covering buildings and interior spaces that still survive as well as others no longer standing, including the diverse styles, sources and historic context of the City’s temples and synagogues, theaters, park structures, commercial and residential buildings.

Joy Kestenbaum is an art and architectural historian and librarian who served as chair of the New York Metropolitan Chapter of the Art Libraries Society of North America. She has been on the teaching and library faculty of Queens College (CUNY), Pratt Institute, New York Institute of Technology, and Purchase College (SUNY), and was also Director of the Gimbel Art and Design Library at The New School. A consulting historian for numerous award-winning preservation projects, she has also lectured widely on Jewish architects and synagogue architecture.

Thursday, April 3: Designing a Thoroughly Modern Atelier -- Join Jacob Collins, New York City artist, teacher, and founder of the Grand Central Academy, for a provocative, free-wheeling exploration of what led him to found a modern art school patterned after the 19th – century atelier; the challenges of such an endeavor, and the future of classical training for young artists.

Jacob Collins is the founder and director of the Grand Central Academy in Manhattan and is a respected artist, teacher, and role model in the field of contemporary realism. Combining a technique reminiscent of the nineteenth-century American realists with a freshness of vision scarcely encountered among today’s traditional painters, Collins’ works form that rarest of unions where classic beauty and striking originality meet as harmonious equals. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Columbia College and attended the New York Academy of Art, École Albert Defois. Collins’ work has been widely exhibited in North America and Europe and his work is included in several American museums.

Thursday, May 1: Have Caryatids, Will Travel: Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s Architecture in Motion -- When an unknown ancient craftsman first decided to substitute a sculpted female body for a load-bearing column, a curiously contradictory element entered the architectural vocabulary: a “caryatid” is a fixed, structural member who, by virtue of her human form and gesture, suggests a capacity for movement. Such figures appeared only rarely during antiquity, yet the nineteenth century witnessed a surge in the caryatid’s popularity, with female architectural supports popping-up across European cities from London to Berlin. By following a sequence of these ‘modern’ caryatids – copied, modified, multiplied and re-deployed in the projects of Karl Friedrich Schinkel – Steven Lauritano considers how and why this particular motif contributed to the Prussian architect’s conception of historicist design.

Steven Lauritano is a PhD candidate at Yale University in the Department of the History of Art. Currently, he serves as a fellow in the Berlin Program for Advanced German and European Studies at the Freie Universität Berlin, where he is completing his dissertation research on the architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel and the re-conception of spolia in 19th-century design.

Thursday, June 5: Nineteenth-Century Exoticism and the “Oriental African” -- At once compelling and repulsive, the figure of the black “Oriental” represented the ultimate exotic “other,” the inverse of the European, and helped to define the complex topography of nineteenth-century Orientalism in a variety of ways. Black figures embodied sexuality, aggression, servitude, barbarism, and ethnographic degeneration, defining themselves and by association, the Orient. Art historian Adrienne L. Childs addresses the dynamics of race and the exotic in the cultural consciousness of the 19th century.

Adrienne L. Childs is an independent scholar, art historian and curator. She specializes in race and representation in European and American art from the eighteenth century through the twentieth century, with a particular interest in exoticism and the decorative arts.

Your correspondent is a great believer in the Dahesh and its mission.  It is the only institution in the United States devoted to academic art of the 19th and early 20th centuries.  The genesis of the collection was assembled by Salim Moussa Achi (1909-1948), who envisioned a museum of academic European art.  Perhaps one day the dream will become a reality once again.  For the past several years the Dahesh has been a museum without walls, as significant portions of this important collection have traveled the world in various shows and exhibitions.  For further details about Salon Thursdays and the gift shop, call the Dahesh at 212.759.0606.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Alan Young Interview, Part IV

We conclude our interview with Alan Young (born 1918) as he reminisces about his dealing with Disney, and the creation of Scrooge McDuck.

Let's go to Disney for a moment and your voice work for Scrooge McDuck, for Mickey's Christmas Carol.

I wrote Mickey's Christmas Carol in the 1970s as a recording for children. I did it for Disney. I played Mickey, and Goofy, and, of course, Scrooge, because that was my old accent. Then it became a movie, and then it became Duck Tales. So I stayed with it.

Are you happy with the association?

I'd rather let that pass. I had a lawsuit with them, because they weren't supposed to make a movie without my permission, and I didn't realize that in my contract. And my partner, on his deathbed, said to his girlfriend, "Tell Alan that Disney should not have made that movie without his permission!" So I got a lawyer and we sued, but the statute of limitations had just run out, it was just seven years!

I'm so sorry!

I talked to Peggy Lee, and she said: "Al, it's not worth it. They fight you to the bitter end. I ended up getting $2 million, and the lawyers got all of it." I was very happy to settle out of court.

You were also the voice of Faversham, the toy maker, in The Great Mouse Detective. Any memories of working with Vincent Price?

Why, I didn't work with him! As a matter of fact, here we go again with an operation that's kind of confusing. I went in to audition for it, and I did all the lines, and left thinking it was a nice audition -- I'd never had a longer audition in my life. It went on and on! And they used that for the part in the picture! I wish I had known, I would've done it a little louder.  (Laugh.) It was quite amazing! So I never met anyone, it was just myself, working alone.

So, it was just an audition! Did they use any of your performance or body language when drawing the character?

They may have. There were a lot of artists there, and they may have been making sketches, which is the right way to do it. But I knew Vincent from other things we had worked on together.   In the late 50s, when we were all out of work, just playing guests spots wherever we could, Peter Lorre, Vincent Price, and myself were supporting a Western star, who will remain nameless, who was doing a real classic. He was very hot at the time, but he couldn't act! And we were all sitting there, watching him, and talking about what it was like to support somebody who was telling you what to do, but doesn't know what he's doing himself! But I figured I was in good company with Peter Lorre and Vincent Price. If they have to play second fiddle, I figured it was fine to play third fiddle with that company. Peter Lorre gave me lessons in eye contact -- he was so marvelous, such a great performer. So, there I was, taking lessons from Peter Lorre and having marvelous conversations with Vincent Price... we had a great time.

I find it impossible to picture you, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre in the Old West.

Oh, it wasn't a Western! It was King Arthur's Court! It was a very funny court, with Vincent playing so grand, and me playing a sort of cockney villain. So, it was quite a mixture. Didn't go over too well, as I recall.

Are you happy doing the voice-over work now?

I love it. Love it. It's like going back to radio.

Do you miss radio?

No, I still do radio. I do two or three shows a month. It's called Focus on the Family. I do it for the fun of it, keeps your muscles working. It's like Carleton Morse's One Man's Family. It's a nice family program.

What are your future plans?

To keep on working! We're working on an Irish musical now, and it's going to take some time to get it in shape.

Any final thoughts for our readers?

No, just that people all the time ask me if I'm tired talking about Mr. Ed. I'm not. He was the greatest actor I ever supported in my life! He was also the only actor I ever rode, so I'm very grateful to him.  I learned to ride on Ed, and I learned to listen to him, and met some lovely Western people, basic American people, and it was great. Those memories will never leave.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Alan Young Interview, Part III

We continue with out interview with Alan Young, first conducted in 1995.

You're loved by millions of Baby Boomers for Mr. Ed. How did that come about?

Well, I had a variety show on the air in the 50s, and I wanted to go on film the way Jack Benny and George Burns and all the others were. And here I was, beating my brains out, doing it live. Unfortunately, they had me under contract to do it live, that's much cheaper, and the network just held me to that. Finally, I couldn't take it any more, and I wanted to go on film. So I approached director Arthur Lubin and he said, do my show! I asked him what it was about, and he said: "A talking horse!"

I was doing standup comedy then, and was a little flip, and said: "Well, I don't work with anybody who doesn't clean up after himself!" Thanks very much, and that was that.

Well, Westerns became very popular and quiz shows, and suddenly I was out of work for awhile, even though I worked for Howard Hughes and other things. I did Tom Thumb, it was cheap, but it was a job. When I got back from England, I met somebody at the airport who said Arthur Lubin was looking for me. At that point, I was ready to talk to a dog, a horse, a mongoose, anything! And that's how I got Mr. Ed.

They had done a pilot, George Burns produced a pilot of it, and it didn't sell. Some dear fan is going to send me a copy of it; I've only seen it once. So they ran the film for me, and though I saw the mistakes they made (they all knew what the problems were), I knew the fun I could have with it. They cut the film down to 15 minutes, and I went out with it to sell it with the agency to a Studebaker car dealership, to go into syndication. The networks wouldn't touch it, they had already seen it and turned it down, so it was going directly into syndication. George Burns staged the first three months of the show -- he wanted to get his money back so he made sure it was funny.

Who played your part in the pilot?

I've forgotten. I wouldn't want to say if I did know, he may be nurturing hurt feelings or something. (Laughs.) I don't think I had seen him before. In the pilot, they didn't concentrate on the horse, they focused on a bunch of silly people, doing funny things. It was like comedy shows today: jokes, jokes, jokes, and it just left the horse in limbo.

Arthur Lubin also did the Frances the Talking Mule films.

He did. Actually, Mr. Ed preceded that in Liberty Magazine stories. Walter Brooks wrote them. Arthur had them and he held them back for television, after he had sold the Frances series to Universal.

I had wondered why he just didn't adapt Frances for television.

That belonged to Universal.

Any anecdotes of Arthur Lubin, who recently passed away?

Yes, he did. (Sighs.) He was a character, that's all I can say about him. He was a very lovable character, but he was a character. He wanted to rush through and get things done quickly, and he didn't want to stay around the studio too long. I'll never forget one line he used. He didn't like people fooling around on the set, cracking jokes. He really didn't have a great sense of humor for a man who did so many comedies! I'll never forget when he said: "Stop that! Stop all this laughing! This is comedy, there's no time for laughter!"

Well, we just all broke up. He didn't realize what he said, he didn't care. The memories I have of him are very sweet memories.

He was well into his nineties when he passed away. Did you stay in touch?

We saw each other quite often. They wanted to revive Mr. Ed many times, like they did with other shows. But he and the producer, Al Simon, had money they hadn't folded yet, so they weren't interested in doing it and doing it wrong. 

They all owned a piece of the show, so do I, and I wasn't interested in seeing it screwed up in any way. We were looking for a good script; I think we found a few, but they weren't interested, so I just let it go.

I think Disney has taken an option on doing it, I don't know.

Mr. Ed has been a staple on syndication everywhere.

Oh yes!

Did you think the series would have this tremendous longevity?

Well, we didn't know then about reruns, and Nick At Night, and all those kinds of things. We just thought it would run for awhile. But then, when it began to play down a wee bit, along came Nick At Night and boom!, it's all over the world. It's not on in America any more, but they said it was the cutting edge for Nick At Night in the beginning.

The fellow who did the voice for Ed...?

Rocky Lee.

Was that recorded in advance, or looped over afterward?

No, they did it right then and there, as we did the show. He had a microphone offstage, and when the horse started moving his lips, he did his lines.

So he was there, feeding you your lines! I had no idea!

That's why I felt the horse talked to me. As far as I was concerned, we were two actors doing their jobs.

What actually happened to Ed, the horse?

He passed away quietly, in the trainer's barn, about 1975. I used to go up and ride and visit him every day. I went away for awhile and I came back, and Ed was gone.

One of the more unusual guest stars on the show was Mae West. Any memories of her, and how that all came about?

Well, she was a friend of Arthur Lubin, and she called him up and asked to be on it! She had never done television, and had never done any after that, but she said that I'd like to work with the strongest, most virile leading man in television, and that was Mr. Ed, of course. (Laughs.) That's how it happened.

She was very tiny, wasn't she?

Oh, she was a wee one. I remember that she was wearing this tight fitting dress, I guess it had stays and all of that, but I just know that when she turned, the dress stayed where it was and she moved around inside of it!

I'm sure she was well into her 60s at that point.

Oh, past it, I think.

We conclude our Alan Young Interview tomorrow!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Interview With Alan Young, Part II

We continue today with our interview of comedian, radio, television and film star, Alan Young (born 1919), originally conducted in 1995.

Any recollections of make-up man Bill Tuttle?

I do. (Laughs.) I do on Time Machine. I think I had him on something else before Time Machine, but I've forgotten! But I do have a remembrance of when he made me up to be my own father at the age of 80, or something like that. He put the makeup all over, and did the bald head wig, and all of that sort of thing. And as I was about to leave, he gave me a small bottle of glue. I asked him what it was for, and he said: "George can't afford to have a makeup man on the set, so when the rubber begins to peel off, stick it back on with this glue!"  I said, "Gosh! I'm stealing your work!" He said, "You're welcome to it!"

I think that later on, in the afternoon, we didn't start shooting my scenes until 4:00, and my face was peeling off and I had to stick it all on again. I do remember Mr. Tuttle.

Great story! The Time Machine stands out from the science fiction films of that era because there is an almost melancholy, bittersweet quality to the story. I guess that's best embodied by the relationship between George and Filby. Was that in the script, or did it come about in the playing?

To me it was evident in the script, and to Rod also, and then the chemistry took over. I felt such warmth towards him and compassion, and he felt the same for me. We didn't know each other too well during the picture, and we didn't talk too much because he was so busy, and I was busy looking around for other work. It really wasn't until 30 years later when we made a little documentary on the film that we got know each other, about five-six years ago, and the chemistry between the two of us was still there.

We'll get to the documentary in a moment, which is an interesting work. When you played David Filby and his son Jamie as both a young and an old man, were you drawing on your own father? How did you go about developing the characters?

I'm sure I drew on my own father without really knowing it. He was such a gentle man, very loving and very supportive. And that's what I thought Filby would be, very supportive of his friend. The son, of course, would be, of course, English, raised in England, and would be a very different type of person. The son would be a very, "hail fellow, well met" sort of thing, and he would have a certain empathy for his neighbor. I wanted there to be quite a difference between the two, so I made the son more English.

That essential kindness, though, is I think the core of the character. You're such a dear, dear man in that film.

Well, that's my father. He supported people. He was never much of a leader, but you could count on him for anything. That's what I thought George should be for Filby -- he's a torment for Filby, because that's what he puts him through, but Filby supports him even though he doesn't understand anything he's doing.

Any memories of working with Sebastian Cabot, Tom Helmore, or Whit Bissell?

I had met Whit Bissell years before when I did my radio show. He did the commercial time.

I had no idea he was an announcer!

Oh, yeah. He wasn't an announcer, he was an actor and did the commercials for Bristol Meyers. We worked together quite a few times and I got to know him. Tom Helmore I had never met before, and I had never met Sebastian before, but we got rather friendly. He was a great cricket buff.

How long did you work on The Time Machine?

Not too long! George couldn't afford it, and we shot my scenes in two and a half weeks. He had to work fast and they put him under terrible time and budgetary restraints.

Tell me about the documentary on The Time Machine.

I was doing a musical comedy down in San Diego, and they sent me the script. So I learned it up in the car going back up to Los Angeles. We shot it in about two, two and a half hours. That's why I said that when Rod and I saw each other again, the chemistry was so good, we just picked up again after 30 years.

You both look as if you're having a very good time.

Oh, we enjoyed it! In fact, after that, we began to meet with the producer of the documentary on the possibility of doing a Time Machine sequel.

Wow! For years George Pal was talking of doing a sequel to The Time Machine!

Well, we met here in my house many, many times. We'd draft out ideas and put them on tape and send them out for writers to write, but we never got what the producer wanted. I think there is finally a script that is pretty acceptable. I don't know what he's doing with it. I think Rod lost a little interest in it because nothing has happened with it. But we wanted to keep it just the way we thought George Pal would want to do it.

The tenor of that type of film has changed incredibly in the decades since The Time Machine.

Oh yes!

I think this sort of fantastic film, like Tom Thumb or The Time Machine, are too good natured in this current atmosphere of depressing, downbeat, hard-edged action pictures or nasty-minded fantasy films.

Well, that's what we thought! We tried to counteract it with ingenuity. We know it had to stay close to George Pal's concept, and H.G. Wells' concept. The Victorian base was a good one because it had a quietness and a gentleness, yet it is a seething generation because it was just ready to burst forth into the Twentieth Century. We kept at that, and then we found adventures that we thought would make up for all the violence and the nastiness, and yet would have a little moral to it. Just a hint of a moral, nothing shoved down anyone's throat. I think we had a pretty good story worked out, and everybody else seemed to think so. I don't know what happened with it. In this business, you learn to just sit and wait.

I wish you luck. I'd love to see a Time Machine sequel, and a return to that kind of thoughtful, responsible, and fun fantasy film.

I would, too!

More Alan Young tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview With Alan Young, Part I

Many years ago, your correspondent did a great deal of writing for various entertainment magazines.  I was lucky enough to do many interviews, not all of which ran as originally planned.  Some of these -- Clayton Moore, James Bernard, Lawrence Block – were published for the first time in The Jade Sphinx.  It’s with pleasure that I add another to that list, comedian Alan Young (born 1919).

This interview was originally conducted some 20 years ago when Young, now 94, was a sprightly 75 year-old.  We hope you enjoy!

For years it has been bandied about that Alan Young is one of the nicest men in Hollywood. One has only to watch him play the gentle characters in such genre classics as Tom Thumb and The Time Machine, his star turn as nice-guy Wilbur Post in television's Mr. Ed, or even listen to the old-softy undercurrents in his vocal characterization of Scrooge McDuck in countless Disney productions, and figure that all the things said about Mr. Young are true.

Figure no more. When we called Mr. Young for an interview in the summer of 1995, he proved as much fun, as generous of nature, as downright sweet as we had heard. And you might say we got it straight from the horse's mouth.
Mr. Young has a way of speaking that instantly puts the listener at ease, and it was with regret that our time together had come to an end.

Throughout the interview, Mr. Young made frequent references to his kindly, easy-going father. Spending time with him, you know that Alan Young is truly his father's son.

Here is what a man who knew Tom Thumb, a time traveler, and a talking horse had to say.

How did you get your start in show business?

Poverty! (Laughs.)  I was about 10 or 11 years old, and heard that the local Scottish society wanted somebody to entertain them. Well, I had been used to doing silly things, imitations of the old Scottish comedians and such, and I got $3 dollars for it.

And you've been working steadily ever since?

I don't know about steadily! It was sporadic. Nobody had much money. When my father came to walk me home after the show, we didn't have a car and it was a little village, and he saw the $3 they gave me. My Dad worked in a shipyard all day for that kind of money, and he said: "Son, keep up with that talking business because lips don't sweat!" That was the original title of my autobiography, which was re-titled Mr. Ed and Me.

While we're on talking, one of the best remembered shows from the Golden Age of  Radio was The Alan Young Show. Any memories of that?

I was never very happy with it. People send me tapes of it every now and then, and I listened to one the other day and I realized what I didn't like about it. It wasn't too funny! I got laughs from facial mugging, I guess, which didn't do much for the people at home, but meant a lot to the studio audience. I decided that when television came in that there was where I'd concentrate my efforts.  But I enjoyed radio because I met such nice people.

You had a terrific supporting cast for that show.

Oh yeah. When I think of the people that worked in New York, I didn't know them then, but people like Art Carney and Mercedes McCambridge, who became a very prominent actress, they were all what we called stooges on the show. That's what we called them, in those days. I was amazed later to find out who it was I was working with! (Laughs.)

One of the films dear to our readers is The Time Machine, which is considered one of the classics of the 60s. Is it the favorite of your films?

Well, that and Androcles and the Lion. I think it's a toss-up. But I think The Time Machine because in that I was allowed to play the character that I wanted to play, an old Scotchman like my father. George Pal was such a delight to work for!

How did your casting come about?

Well, I was in England and George Pal hired me for Tom Thumb. We got along so well, that during shooting he said, "When we get around to doing The Time Machine, I want you to play Filby." I said I'd love to. He didn't pay me much money for Tom Thumb because he didn't have much to spend. But he said he'd make it up to me with The Time Machine. When I got back to Hollywood, he called me up and said that we were going ahead with The Time Machine here instead of England, but I'm afraid you'll make less money now than you did in Tom Thumb! MGM was pretty tight on the money with George, and he had to make it up in talent.

Tom Thumb is also a wonderful little fantasy film.

It's a joy to watch now, because Russ Tamblyn was a great talent -- a terrific dancer. He's the whole picture.

Did you find working in two such heavy special effects films like Tom Thumb and The Time Machine daunting at times?

My character doesn't really have much to do with the special effects. I didn't know what they were going to do, I just did my part. I was so tickled in Tom Thumb just to be working with Jessie Matthews and people like that, who, when I was a little boy, were big stars. And I couldn't wait to see the finished product, because I knew just what a genius George was.

The Time Machine was a joy to work on because Rod Taylor was a real good guy and terrific actor. I really wasn't part of the special effects.

More Alan Young Tomorrow!

Friday, January 17, 2014

Tolkien Will Never Be a Hobbit With Me

We here at the Jade Sphinx spent the Christmas holidays reading The Hobbit, written in 1937 by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973).  It was the sole blot on a wonderful season.

I should state here that I have been reading – with great satisfaction and complicity – works of science fiction and fantasy for more than 40 years.  In my high school days (or, perhaps, daze), Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy was pressed into my hands by appreciative classmates, and I was never able to get beyond the mid-point of the second novel.  I have been allergic to hobbits, trolls, orcs and dwarves ever since.

As I reached my middle years, I have become more and more fascinated by the great works of children’s literature, books that I missed entirely during my actual growing up.  I did not read Wind in the Willows (1908) or Peter Pan (1911), or the Pooh or Oz books until well into adulthood.  Friends insisted that The Hobbit was a classic children’s novel, one of the most important of the 20th Century, and that I could not seriously say that I have read deeply in the field until I have digested this book.

My misgivings were exacerbated by the spate of recent truly awful film versions of Tolkien’s books.  I had an uncontrollable fit of the giggles during the first Lord of the Rings film (exploding into loud hilarity when I saw Christopher Lee and Ian McKellen beat up one-another), and the visuals of the films never quite gelled with the fleeting mental pictures I had made while trying to read the books.  I always think of hobbits as sort hominid rabbits, and seeing well-known actors in big-foot shoes and Mr. Spock ears does not quite gibe with my mental image.  We left the first film after the mid-way point, and kept our distance from all others until the recent first-film of The Hobbit series, and saw, with disappointment, that things never got any better.

But, on to the book.  The Hobbit deals with Bilbo Baggins, a member of a race of little people called hobbits, who travels away from his comfortable home in the company of dwarves to kill a dragon called Smaug and retrieve the treasure Smaug stole from the dwarves.  They are accompanied by a wizard, Gandalf, for the first and final halves of the journey – he is unaccountably absent from the hazardous middle-section.

At the end, dragon dead and dwarves reunited with gold, various groups of dwarves and elves and men, now in conflict over the treasure, band together to defeat a marauding band of goblins.  After much death and slaughter, Bilbo returns to his country home, a sadder but wiser hobbit.

In summary, it sounds like an interesting read, but the entire book is rendered a thudding bore by Tolkien’s lugubrious, turgid literary style.  Tolkien struggles to give his work the cadence of fairy tale or baldric epic, but succeeds only in creating faux-King-James-Bible or slightly rancid Kenneth-Grahame-knockoff. 

It is amazing that Tolkien, who made his career as a philologist as well as a professor of English Language and Literature, should have such a tin ear, but there it is.  Listening to The Hobbit read aloud (as I did to my better half during much of the holiday), is to experience a particularly donnish deconstruction of a tale created to excite into something quite bland and uninteresting.

The sections of The Hobbit that I enjoyed the most were those passages in the early part of the book where Bilbo Baggins is at home.  Hobbits, it seems, like good food (and lots of it), pipes and tobacco, a wee dram of something every now and then, warm homes and a life close to nature.  In short, all the best things found in Wind in the Willows and the Pooh books.  I actually love that part of the book … and certainly wish there was more of it.  (I dimly recall the opening birthday party scene of The Lord of the Rings, and hoping the books would get back on track with that – to no avail.)  As soon as the ‘adventure’ starts, my sympathy evaporates.  Tolkien obviously shared my sympathy for a pre-Industrial world, but the quest tale he creates for his ancient world invariably disappoints.

More telling, too, is that Tolkien often writes himself into a corner and then takes the easy way out.  Gandalf seems to have extremely limited powers for a wizard (he seems to be quite good with fireworks, and that’s about it), and the one time Gandalf can actually do some good, Tolkien absents him from the action while he is away on “other business.”  Worse yet, for a coming of age story, Bilbo uses his ring of invisibility much too often to keep himself out of any real danger; indeed, during the climactic battle, he spends most of his time literally invisible on the sidelines, keeping out of trouble.

Tolkien also drapes his cultural prejudices a little too thinly.  Clearly hobbits are the rural English, caught up in outer-world events not to their tastes and beyond their control.  The avaricious dwarves seem uncomfortably Jewish to this reader, and the wood elves a bit too much like gypsies.

Some wag at The New Yorker has called The Hobbit The Wind in the Willows Meets The Ring of the Nibelungen, and I can’t seem to top that. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Frank Langella Is King Lear at BAM

We here at The Jade Sphinx are still reeling from the magnificent performance of Derek Jacobi (born 1938) as Lear at BAM nearly three years ago.  It remains, simply, the greatest Shakespearean turn we have ever witnessed.  Is Frank Langella (born 1938), one of the finest actors of his generation, up to the challenge?

Lear is one of the most provoking and ambiguous of Shakespeare’s plays.  Its place in his cosmology is deeply contentious – is the play one of the most bleak and despairing ever penned, or do the final reconciliations and admissions of frail humanity make it ultimately optimistic?  We have seen Lears howling into windstorms, mumbling quietly to themselves, and – sometimes, as in the case of Jacobi – opening their inner-selves to display the very workings of their souls.

The current production of King Lear is a mixed bag of delights.  As is often the case when a “Great Actor” tackles a major role, many of the supporting parts are stinted, and that is the case here.  Fortunately, the overall value of the production maintains a consistent interest.

We are first struck by the wonderful set by Robert Innes Hopkins, a blasted heath right out of a horror film.  Lit by torches, capable of suggesting a castle and a barren ruin, it strikes a wonderfully somber note (helped immeasurably by dramatic lighting by Peter Mumford).

Cavorting through this magnificent design is Langella.  Oddly enough this protean actor, so famous for the velvety richness of his voice, changes the timbre and pitch to something more like a growl.  Where Jacobi saw Lear as alternately a spoiled and abused child, Langella visualizes the King as both an old fool and an old bully.  It is an entirely valid approach, but his growling, shouting and raging in the first act strikes a single note, and his performance suffers from a lack of variety.

However, Langella improves exponentially in the second act.  His voice returns to its normal register.  His mad scene with Gloucester is delightfully played, and his reconciliation with Cordelia moving.  At her death, his reading of "Why should a dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all? O thou'lt come no more, Never, never, never, never, never” is among the most moving I have ever seen.  Langella pauses between each “never,” looking into different parts of the theater, his voice softly echoing through the house.  It’s a wonderful moment, and one wishes there were more like it.

Director Angus Jackson creates a wonderfully theatrical experience, with many showy set-pieces.  The raging storm where Lear descends into madness is effective (though the staging nearly overwhelms Langella’s playing), and the suggested battle bits (lights flashing behind looming trees) is impressive.  

Sadly, Jackson falls far short of providing sufficient support for Langella. Denis Conway, as Glouscester, William Reay, as Burgundy, and Steven Pacey, as Kent, are all fine without setting the stage afire.  On the other hand, Catherine McCormack, as Goneril, and Isabella Laughland, as Cordelia, are simply wretched.  (In fact, Laughland is never more convincing than when she plays a corpse.)  As Albany, Chu Omambala delivers the most flat and uninteresting performance I have seen this season.

Lauren O’Neil is terrific as Regan, and Harry Melling quite wonderful as the Fool.  (Why does Shakespeare make this wonderful creation vanish from the latter part of the play?  One of the many mysteries of the play…)  As Cornwall, Tim Treloar is deliciously evil.

Better still are Max Bennett and Sebastian Armesto as half-brothers Edmund and Edgar, respectively, who lend wonderful support.  Armesto makes a particularly appealing Edgar, and straddles the difficult line of rejected son to feigned madman superbly.  Better still is Bennett.  King Lear often becomes Edmund’s play when cast correctly, and the handsome and athletic Bennett makes a meal of his role.  By turns suave, puckish, conniving, and amoral.  It is a star-making turn, and this Lear may signify the debut of a major, North American classical actor.  Mr. Bennett, more, please.

At the end, we were somewhat moved when the final effect should’ve been devastating.  This Lear is highly dramatic, but only intermittently moving.  It could have been so much more.

This production of Lear premiered in October 2013 at Chichester's Minerva Theatre and plays its New York engagement at BAM through Feb. 9 in the Harvey Theater.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Kuok-Wai Lio Makes His People’s Symphony Concert Debut

One of the great clichés in film and theater is the Big Star suddenly becoming incapacitated, and the new-comer making a last-minute hit.

Well, I’m happy to report that this is exactly what happened at a People’s Symphony Concert (PSC) last Sunday (January 12th).  For the first concert of the New Year, celebrated pianist Radu Lupu (born 1945) was scheduled to play.  Lupu has been a great friend of PSC for several years, and has always been met with riotous applause.

Last week, however, Lupu came down with the flu – threatening to turn into pneumonia.  Not only did his illness force a cancellation of his PSC concert, but Lupu also had to miss his final performance with the Montreal Symphony and hasten his return to Europe.  We here at The Jade Sphinx wish him a speedy recovery.

However, never letting an opportunity to let new, significant talents make their mark, PSC managers Frank Salomon and David Himmelheber reached out to up-and-coming pianist Kuok-Wai Lio (born 1989).  Lio – who considers Lupu “a god” and who planned on watching the performance from the audience -- quickly stepped in to perform selections by Leos Janacek (1854-1928), Franz Schubert (1797-1828), and Robert Schumann (1810-1856).  The result was magical.

Lio began playing at age five.  In 1997, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, and in 2006, he entered the Curtis Institute of Music.  His principal teachers included Gabriel Kwok and Gary Graffman.  He has also worked with Andras Schiff at international master classes and festivals in Europe.

Lio has received prizes in international competitions, including Fulbright, Gina Bachauer, Seiler, Steinway, Ettlingen and Chopin (Tokyo).  In 2004, he was awarded a Commendation of Merit from the Chief Executive of Macau. 
Lio played Janacek’s In the Mists (1912) to great effect.  The piece has a sweet and delicate air, and Lio captured that with great sensitivity.  It was a wonderful crystallization of mood, and the performance, transporting.

For Schubert, Lio played Four Impromptus, D. 935 (1827).  These were handled with remarkable élan, including the Impromptu in B-flat Major, which is the most interesting, and musically satisfying, of the group.

After intermission, Lio returned for Schumann’s challenging Davidsbundlertanze, Op. 6.  This includes 18 movements, and mastery of this piece is a mark of true virtuosity.  Lio handled it deftly and with astonishing empathy for a performer so young. 

Kuok-Wai Lio is a remarkable talent and we will be hearing more from him in the years to come.