Tuesday, October 30, 2012
RED RUM, anyone? Halloween’s the perfect time to drink a toast to scary movies. Of course, scary is in the eye of the beholder.
Personally, I like a good scare as much as the next gal. I’m not, though, a big fan of gross-out horror. I much prefer psychological horror films, the kind that fill you with doubt about the workings of the human psyche.
The film that still preys on me, after all these years, is a little black-and-white British thriller called The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James’ classic ghost story, The Turn of the Screw. It was directed by Jack Clayton, with Deborah Kerr in the central role of a Victorian governess whose young charges may or may not be possessed by the fiendish spirits of two departed servants. (Even back then, it was awfully hard to keep good household help.)
I saw The Innocents in broad daylight, in a neighborhood movie house called the El Rey. (Today it’s a trendy live-concert venue geared to people who hardly represent my demographic.) The theatre, as I recall, was half-empty. My junior-high-school classmate and I had no idea what to expect. When the film came on -- with the haunting voice of a little girl singing an eerie ballad while the screen slowly filled with the image of a pair of hands clasping and unclasping -- we knew we were in for a wild ride. There was no gore, no obvious gotcha moment designed to make you jump out of your seat. By the midpoint, though, tension was so thick that Sabina and I were clutching one another for dear life.
I don’t recall many details about The Innocents, because I haven’t seen it since. Some years ago a fellow film buff kindly made me a VHS copy. But it sits in my cabinet unwatched, not because I’m too frightened to see it again but rather because I’m worried it will seem a lesser film than the one I remember. I suspect Sabina and I watched it at exactly the right time in our lives, as we trembled on the brink of maturity, wondering what lay ahead.
Henry James’ ghost story has long been viewed as an exploration of the governess’s repressed sexuality. That element of The Turn of the Screw was skillfully captured by Jack Clayton, though in a way that was hardly blatant. (It was, however, suggestive enough that the film was initially barred in Britain to children under 16.) Later in the Sixties, psychological horror – with an emphasis on the dark side of human nature -- would become increasingly graphic. Many friends have recommended to me Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), a classic spooky-house thriller. It’s full of things that go bump in the night, but I’ve always found it less than scary. Far more disturbing is Roman Polanski’s Repulsion (1965), in which Catherine Deneuve is a beautiful but frigid manicurist who acts out her fear of men in shocking ways. All three of these films were made in England, where they seem to know a thing or two about terror.
Of course Alfred Hitchcock was born and raised on English soil, even though he went Hollywood and shot Psycho -- perhaps his creepiest psychological film -- in Southern California. I was too young to see it in 1960, and by the time I caught up with it, the ghastly secrets had been spilled. Still it was plenty scary, and remains so. But this year, with the onslaught of Frankenstorm, perhaps no one needs any more terror –- or another shower scene.
Friday, October 26, 2012
I never met either Russell Means or Sylvia Kristel. And that’s probably a good thing. Russell Means might have scared me. In the presence of the ravishingly sexy Sylvia Kristel I would doubtless have felt intimidated. But when the two of them died recently, just four days apart, I found myself musing about some of the more unlikely films that came under the Roger Corman umbrella.
As an actor, Russell Means was best known for his first role, the title character (opposite Daniel Day-Lewis) in 1992’s The Last of the Mohicans. He next played a mysterious Navajo who comes to a bad end in Oliver Stone’s brutal Natural Born Killers, then showed a softer side as the voice of Chief Powhatan in the Disney version of Pocahontas. It made perfect sense to cast Russell Means as a Native American power-figure. Because that’s exactly what he was.
Long before he went Hollywood, Means was a national leader of the American Indian Movement. In 1973, he gained international prominence for his role in AIM’s 71-day armed occupation of Wounded Knee in South Dakota, and his fiery commitment to his cause never wavered. After he was indicted, along with AIM’s Dennis Banks, for his part in the Wounded Knee uprising, the Los Angeles Times called the pair “the two most famous Indians since Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse wiped out Custer nearly a century earlier.”
This quote reminds me of the days when Roger Corman, on the strength of the 1990 box-office triumph of Dances With Wolves, decided he wanted to bring to the screen the story of Crazy Horse. None of us knew anything much about Indians, and historical epics with a cast of thousands were not exactly Roger’s specialty. His concept was to film the re-enactment of the Battle of Little Big Horn that takes place annually in Montana, and then shoot the rest in Peru, where he had connections. (This led me to refer to our film as Dances With Llamas.) Fortunately, after we struggled with a lackluster script, the whole idea got scrapped. Russell Means may have breathed a sigh of relief.
Sylvia Kristel was a gorgeous Dutch actress who, beginning in 1974, starred in a series of French films as Emmanuelle, a sexually adventurous young wife living in exotic lands. IMDB reader James Hitchcock points out that one reason the Emmanuelle films seem so dated today is that they try to give intellectual underpinnings to what is essentially soft-corn porn. The result is what he memorably calls “existentialism-lite,” or “Sartre meets Hugh Hefner.” I never saw an Emmanuelle film, but the fifth in the series somehow became a Roger Corman co-production, complete with many new scenes shot by Steve Barnett of the Corman staff and lots of Corman stock footage added to flesh out (so to speak) the skimpy story. Barnett’s version was released in 1987, but two years earlier Steve had been asked by Roger to enhance another soft-core French film, The Click.
I’m open-minded about movies, but The Click fits my definition of pornography. It’s about an inventor whose small handheld device can make beautiful women writhe in the throes of passion. Eventually one of his victims falls genuinely in love with him. Yuck! The other thing I remember about The Click (not to be confused with Adam Sandler‘s 2006 comedy) is that we had an original French poster hanging in the Concorde offices. The huge poster featured an arty sketch of an undraped young woman in dreamy tropical surroundings. I always thought its caption should read, “I was a sex slave in Disneyland.”
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
So we’ll soon be saying farewell to Newsweek as an actual magazine. Which makes me nostalgic for those long-ago days when my contemporaries and I were getting to know the world around us. In that era, the choice between a subscription to Time and Newsweek was serious business. I went with Time, mostly because Time seemed to have far more imaginative cover art. (That old saw to the contrary, you can tell a magazine by its cover.) Recently, Time issues have gotten much skinnier, and I notice I’m frequently being reminded that if I want complete arts coverage, I need to check Time’s website. As Newsweek does its disappearing act, I suspect Time too is running out.
In the Sixties, though, we movie buffs looked forward each week to reading what our favorite critics had to say. If a hip critic smiled on a newly-released film, we’d all plan to see it. If it was labeled “uncool,” we’d stay away in droves. That’s why it took me years to experience Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a socially important movie deliberately designed to make Middle America feel good. And why I felt a serious obligation to check out Antonioni and the French New Wave.
But the movie above all others that was saved from oblivion by young critics was 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde. As a small, brutal film that was loathed by the studio (Warner Bros.) that financed it, Bonnie and Clyde was supposed to be buried after a few token weeks in the Deep South. But it also played, to rapt audiences, as the first-night attraction at the Montreal Film Festival, and soon afterwards opened in New York City. An early reviewer was the venerable Bosley Crowther of the New York Times, who had already penned several rants about the violence in such 1967 hits as The Dirty Dozen. He griped that “Bonnie and Clyde is a cheap piece of bald-faced slapstick comedy that treats the hideous depredations of that sleazy, moronic pair as though they were as full of fun and frolic as the jazz-age cut-ups in Thoroughly Modern Millie.”
Soon afterward, the anonymous reviewer at Time accused Bonnie and Clyde of “sheer tasteless aimlessness,” and Joseph Morgenstern of Newsweek dismissed the film as “stomach-turning.” A week later, though, Morgenstern did something unheard of: he reversed course, publicly berated himself for his misguided earlier opinion, and gave Bonnie and Clyde an unqualified rave for daring to confront violence in a meaningful way.
The most influential voice speaking out on the film’s behalf belonged to Pauline Kael, whose 9000-word essay in praise of Bonnie and Clyde won her a regular reviewing gig at The New Yorker, a sinecure from which she stormed the mostly male bastions of film criticism with eloquence and wit. Beginning with a blunt question -— “How do you make a good movie in this country without being jumped on?” —- Kael explored the film from many angles, emphasizing its cinematic antecedents and its visceral power. The attention paid by Kael to the cultural resonance of Bonnie and Clyde helped transform modern film criticism, and made Bosley Crowther’s crotchety complaints seem all the more out-of-touch. By year’s-end, he had been eased out of his influential post at the Times. His replacement, Renata Adler, lacked reviewing experience. But she was under thirty, and was doubtless being positioned as someone Baby Boomers could trust.
What fun we used to have, reading all the critics and enjoying their intellectual tug-of-war. Those were the days when we looked forward to the contents of our mailboxes. How very quaint that now seems.
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By the way, do check out an interview I did for BZFilm, a site for fans of low-budget movies that’s based in (would you believe?) Azerbaijan. Thanks, Tim, for the great questions! Film really is a universal language, but I’m awfully glad you and I could communicate in English!
Friday, October 19, 2012
The other day I had occasion to drive past my old high school, Alexander Hamilton High. Like many places in Southern California, Hami High has its own Hollywood connection. Years ago, it was used as the location for a popular TV series, Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus as an idealistic English teacher who butts heads with the educational establishment. Needless to say, we actual students didn’t much like our campus being invaded by TV folk, especially those actors our own age who had been cast as “typical” students. Seeing TV make a mockery of us encouraged us to feel just a trifle rebellious. But we were more than a decade too early for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
I mention Rock ‘n’ Roll High School -- that classic youth rebellion musical from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures –- because the writer who dreamed up the original screenplay has a new book out. Ironically, Joseph McBride is now a member of the faculty, not of Vince Lombardi High School but of San Francisco State University, where he teaches screenwriting and film history. He’s written such respected biographies as Searching for John Ford and Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, as well as a collection of interviews with Howard Hawks. His latest, though, is for the would-be screenwriters among us. It’s called Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, and it’s the most out-of-the-ordinary screenwriting book I’ve ever encountered.
Sometimes it seems there are as many guides to screenwriting as there are aspiring screenwriters. Most of these books methodically plod through the various aspects of the screenplay, devoting chapters to such well-worn topics as characterization and structure. (Screenwriting guru Syd Field famously decreed precisely where the first and second act-breaks should fall, and generations of screenwriters have been lining up their stories to his specifications ever since.) Today’s typical screenwriting book (like Blake Snyder’s exasperating Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need) is written in snappy contemporary prose, cites lots of current box-office hits, and provides a slew of exercises to keep the writing student busy on his (or her) way to making it big in Hollywood.
McBride’s book is all the better for being less a primer and more a meditation on film as a medium. He includes delicious quotes from such cinema masters as Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, and Larry McMurtry. His examples are often drawn from classic films like Grand Illusion and On the Waterfront, at the same time that he’s smart about how (for instance) Diablo Cody’s dialogue in Juno shows teenagers cracking wise as a way to avoid expressing genuine emotion. Before he ever gets to dialogue, though, he emphasizes the special power on screen of small non-verbal moments. His respect for what actors bring to scripts shines through on every page.
McBride’s approach is also unique in arguing that a great way to learn screenwriting is by going through the process of adapting a short story into a screenplay. Using his own adaptation of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” by way of illustration, he moves the reader through a story outline, a treatment, a step outline, and finally a completed draft of a filmable script.
It’s an unusual approach, but a valuable one. And you’ve got to love someone who quotes the great Dorothy Parker: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of [Strunk and White’s]The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”
Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Today’s a big day for the city of El Monte, California. Those renegade lifeguards who were fired so ignominiously in September will apparently find out if they’re going to get their jobs back. They got into trouble for making a music video . . . but more on that later.
When I was young, El Monte was something of a watchword among teenagers. Not that this was a place where you’d want to put down roots. It was a drab working-class town in the San Gabriel Valley, many of whose citizens descended from migrant workers fleeing the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. But in the Fifties and Sixties, El Monte became famous for the El Monte Legion Stadium, where rock ‘n’ roll was king. I can still hear disc jockey Art Laboe on KRLA, L.A.’s most kid-friendly radio station, inviting us all to come on down to the El Monte Legion Stadium for a Friday night dance party. Headliners at the stadium included Ritchie Valens, Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, and (later) The Grateful Dead. Frank Zappa even wrote a song called “Memories of El Monte” to commemorate the era.
I didn’t know it at the time, but El Monte also spawned some famous show biz types. Like Cheech Marin. And Joe McDonald of Country Joe and the Fish, who gained fame in the Vietnam era with their bitter “Fixin’-to-Die Rag." (For what it’s worth, they also appeared in one of Roger Corman’s most Sixties films, Gas-s-s-s.) Other unlikely celebrities born in El Monte include the Palomino who starred in TV’s Mr. Ed.
Now, back to those lifeguards. They all worked at El Monte Aquatic Center, a rather impressive civic facility where El Monte residents can swim and take swimming lessons year-round. The trouble started when the youthful lifeguards discovered a Youtube sensation, the catchy music video called “Gangnam Style.” In it a South Korean rapper nicknamed Psy (short for Psycho) sings and dances his way through a phantasmagoric Seoul landscape, along with a lot of wacky guys and some leggy Korean beauties. The lifeguards caught the “Gangnam” fever, and decided to make their own version. Showing off the El Monte Aquatic Center’s pools, fountains, and other amenities, they swim, float, mug, bounce, and enthusiastically demonstrate Psy’s signature “invisible horse” dance move. Good clean fun, right?
The obviously humorless El Monte administrators cracked down hard, firing the lifeguards for misusing city property. The result so far has been a wave of bad publicity for the city over a video that could be considered a terrific calling-card: who knew that El Monte has such a cool pool? Or such cute young lifeguards? I wish them well, but I also want to put in a word for South Korea.
I visited Seoul during my collegiate study-year in Tokyo. Back then, there wasn’t much to see. I spent the night in an upper-middle-class home where, instead of a refrigerator, the kitchen was organized around a huge jar of spicy cabbage pickles. (That was how you ate your vegetables in wintertime.) The Japanese, in the midst of their own economic miracle, looked down at the Koreans as backward folk. That wasn’t nice, but it was easy to agree with them. Today I doubt I’d recognize Seoul. I’m told it’s a vibrant place, bursting with high technology and a thriving film scene. The word is that rapper Psy has just signed with Justin Bieber’s management. South Korea -- where pop culture is king -- coming your way soon!
Friday, October 12, 2012
Put another candle on my birthday cake . . .
Yes, my birthday is coming soon, and it practically coincides with news of the death of “Sheriff John” Rovick, at the ripe old age of 93. Any kid who grew up in L.A. in the 1950s remembers Sheriff John. He was the TV guy -- the one with the badge, the khaki uniform, and the big white hat -- who led us in the pledge of allegiance and helped us celebrate our birthdays with a song about being “another year old today.”
Then there was “Engineer Bill” Stulla (who recently died at age 97). He wore overalls and a striped railroad cap, and led us in a milk-drinking game called “Red Light, Green Light.” I also remember Tom Hatten (born in 1927 and still going strong), who wore a sailor cap and bell bottoms, and knew how to draw. Not to mention the rather creepy Chucko the Birthday Clown. (Chucko lived into his 86th year. Something about being a TV kiddie-show host seems to have prepared these guys to live practically forever.) All of them showed cartoons (Hatten had a monopoly on Popeye the Sailor Man), and all were fixtures on local TV stations eager to cater to an audience of young Baby Boomers.
Television was a novelty then, and we kids would have watched anything, including test patterns. (Remember those?) But the stations won over our parents by filling their programming with lots of pro-social messages. Along with cartoons, we got lessons in manners, citizenship, and the work ethic. Those sheriffs and engineers and sailors had us all subliminally convinced that one day we too would be defined by our professions.
Even more than the cartoons, I think what we liked best was the opportunity to participate in the TV experience. Several of the shows welcomed local kids onstage. (I got to walk through Bill Stulla’s “Castle of Dreams.”) And there was nothing quite like hearing your very own birthday announced on the air. I don't know what show was involved, but I distinctly remember the year I was told over the airwaves to look behind the TV cabinet in my living room for a special birthday gift. Lo and behold, I found a recording of Harry Babbitt singing “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” –- would wonders never cease?
Looking back, I realize that these programs combined the miracle of television with an appeal that was local, and thus seemed intimate. Yes, there was national kids’ programming too, but it mostly came later. Mr. Rogers didn’t hang out in his TV neighborhood until the late Sixties, and Sesame Street didn’t begin revolutionizing children’s television until 1969. The big change for my own generation came in 1955, with the arrival of those peppy lily-white youngsters who sang and tapdanced their hearts out on The Mickey Mouse Club. We all loved those kids. Hell, we wanted to BE those kids. But they never announced our birthdays on the air the way Sheriff John did.
Today I’m struck by the fact that, in a world grown ever more impersonal, we’re all desperate for intimacy. Look at the success of Facebook, where your friends (and your Facebook “friends”) are notified of your birthday weeks in advance, and respond by sending you cheery messages. Then there’s radio: I suspect part of what people love about A Prairie Home Companion is its homey feeling. When Garrison Keillor broadcasts the studio audience’s folksy announcements of birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, we’re all part of one big community. In this day and age, isn’t that how we want to feel?
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
When I was interviewed by Roger Corman for a job at New World Pictures, he asked me if I was married. (Back then a personal question of that sort was not considered off-limits.) I informed Roger that I was a newlywed, and he seemed mightily disappointed. “All my previous assistants,” he said, “have married directors.”
If marrying a director is the ultimate mark of success, Gale Anne Hurd is a champion. Over the years she has been married to James Cameron (1985-1989) and Brian De Palma (1991-1993). Current spouse Jonathan Hensleigh is a successful screenwriter who’s recently moved into the director’s chair.
But Gale herself takes a back seat to no one. The Terminator was her project as well as Cameron’s (he directed, she produced, and they wrote the script together). She also produced Cameron’s Aliens and The Abyss. As head of her own production company since 1985, she’s launched such major action flicks as Terminator 2, The Ghost and the Darkness, Dante’s Peak, Armageddon, and The Incredible Hulk, while also shepherding a sensitive indie called The Waterdance. Zombie enthusiasts love her AMC series, The Walking Dead. And somehow she finds time to be the queen of social media: her Twitter followers number 22,500 (and counting). No wonder she’s just been awarded her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Like me, Gale was an academic type who was surprised to find herself making genre films as a Corman assistant. After completing a degree in economics and communications at Stanford (Roger’s alma mater), she came to Roger’s attention through one of her professors. As generations of Cormanites can attest, Roger has always preferred hiring females, based on his conviction that women work harder, work cheaper, and are more loyal. And he seems to lean toward candidates with strong basic intelligence, rather than job-specific skills. In the case of Gale, he hit the jackpot.
In her three years at New World, Gale was never treated as a secretary. In short order Roger named her head of advertising. After she proved her mettle as a production assistant (responsible for making coffee and emptying -- ugh! -- the chemical toilets in motor homes), she was promoted to assistant production manager. At the famously decrepit Corman studio, she worked ‘round the clock, supervising the making of sci-fi extravaganzas. As she told me, “I remember that there was an army cot that we had when we were making Battle Beyond the Stars, and you’d just catch whatever sleep you could. And half the time it would be raining and the roof leaked and there’d be four inches of water on the ground and people were using power tools, while standing in the water. Thank God OSHA never came by, and thank God no one died.”
It was amid this chaos that Gale found her future husband and creative partner. Jim Cameron was also working on Battle Beyond the Stars, first as a model builder and then as the film’s art director. (More on this later, I promise.) It wasn’t long before the two of them dreamed up The Terminator, and a franchise was born.
Despite the daunting working conditions at New World, Gale has never felt anything but gratitude to her former boss. He’s famously tight with a buck, but she praises his personal generosity: “He’s the only person I’ve known in the industry who wanted his protégés to succeed and perhaps have even more impressive credentials than his own. I don’t know of anyone else like that. He was genuinely thrilled for everyone who broke out and made a career for themselves.”
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
Last week the Internet was abuzz with the story of Johnny Lewis, a 28-year-old actor, who’s had supporting roles in action flicks like Aliens vs. Predator (Requiem). Until recently Lewis was best known for playing Kip "Half-Sack" Epps in the first two seasons of Sons of Anarchy, an FX series about an outlaw biker gang. After leaving the show, he had multiple run-ins with the law for real. In the past year alone, he was arrested three times, on charges ranging from burglary to assault. Drug abuse and mental illness were apparently at the root of his problems, which reached a sad resolution on September 26 when he fatally bludgeoned his landlady, then jumped or fell to his death.
I can’t help taking these matters somewhat personally. You see, I too have been involved in renting out Southern California apartments. Fortunately, I’ve never run into anyone (in or out of the Industry) as anarchic as Johnny Lewis. But when you’ve got rental units to fill in the L.A. area, there’s a good chance that some of your applicants will have show biz connections. One candidate, I remember, was employed by Wesley Snipes’ production company. He had a responsible position, but I was worried about the long term. With justification, as it turns out —- Snipes is now serving a prison sentence for tax evasion. Then there was the tenant who had just split from her husband, a member of a gold-record-winning rock group. She had plenty of money . . . and a parade of suitors who did not make my life any easier.
I recently met a couple who, in their retirement years, moved into a swanky condo perched just above the beach in Santa Monica. The view is spectacular, and the building attracts high-living Hollywood types. As an investment, the couple purchased a second unit, which they rent out to the occasional celebrity. Sad to say, the Backstreet Boys trashed the place. But a more recent tenant, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, turned out to be a neat freak, much interested in matters of interior décor.
When I first heard the news about Johnny Lewis, I was immediately bothered by the fact that all the sympathy seemed to be going to him. One early Los Angeles Times article opened with Kurt Sutter, the creator of the Sons of Anarchy series, who had tweeted, “it was a tragic end for an extremely talented guy, who unfortunately had lost his way.” In L.A., it seems, it’s all about the celebrity, never the civilian who stumbles into his path.
It’s taken almost a week for the news media to turn its attention to Lewis’s victim, the unfortunate 81-year-old landlady. What I’ve learned about her is heartbreaking. And shocking to me personally, because I realized I had met her. Catherine Davis was the mother of Margaret Leslie Davis, an award-winning journalist and biographer whom I got to know while hobnobbing with a local biographers’ group. Mother and daughter came together to one of our gatherings, and they made a delightful pair.
What I didn’t know then is that Catherine Davis, who regularly rented out rooms to actors and writers, was considered by those who knew her “a Hollywood legend. A near saint.” Her charming 1927 hillside home in the Los Feliz district was informally known as the “Writer’s Villa,” because of the way Davis collected creative types and gave them TLC in a salon-like atmosphere. Among her former tenants are such luminaries as George Clooney, Parker Posey, Val Kilmer, Paula Poundstone, and Thomas Jane. But now she’s gone. Catherine Davis deserved so much better.
Monday, October 1, 2012
OK, so I didn’t know either Andy Williams or Billy Barnes very well. And I’m as baffled as anyone by the meaning of the phrase “my huckleberry friend” in Williams’ signature tune, “Moon River.” But the almost simultaneous passing last week of two major musical talents led me to remember that I’d spent instructive hours with both of them. I doubt all three of us were after the same rainbow’s end, but both men (like me) loved show biz and the sound of music.
Billy Barnes wasn’t a household name, especially if you grew up far from Los Angeles.
I first heard about him from my parents: he was the originator of several 1950s hit musical revues with titles like Billy Barnes’ L.A. that played for months at small Hollywood theatres, then traveled briefly to the Big Apple. The young and perky performers, most of them Barnes’ former UCLA classmates, included such talents as Ken Berry, Bert Convy, Joyce Jameson (to whom he was briefly married), and Jackie Joseph (soon to make her mark as the original, adorable Audrey in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors). Another Barnes discovery, Jo Anne Worley, helped Billy get involved with Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. He also contributed comic songs to The Danny Kaye Show, and wrote for such TV stars as Goldie Hawn and Cher. Though his specialty was topical satire, his best-known song may be the poignant “Have I Stayed too Long at the Fair,” as recorded by Barbara Streisand.
I visited Billy in his colorful Laurel Canyon home in 1981, for a magazine profile. My editor had warned me that my piece had better be funny. In conversation, though, Billy was not a wit. His charm was low-key: I enjoyed his still-boyish enthusiasm for Old Hollywood, stage musicals (he’d amassed a huge pile of old theatre programs), and tap-dancing. Not to mention his affection for the subject of one of his songs, a now-vanished L.A. emporium called the Akron,where you could buy anything from a can of buffalo chili to a tiki god. (“I MUST have a tiki god!”) It’s hard for me now to think of Billy Barnes fading out with Alzheimer’s prior to his death at age 85.
My Andy Williams memory is quite different. It was 1970, and I was a guide in the U.S. Pavilion at Osaka’s Expo 70, where moon-landing memorabilia and souvenirs of American life were drawing record crowds. Andy back then was the hugely popular star of his own TV variety show. One day in May I was asked to escort him and comic Bill Dana (whose heavily accented “José Jimenez” comedy would never pass muster today) through our exhibit. Making small talk, I asked Andy how Los Angeles was looking these days. “Well,” he said, “Last week they burned down UCLA.” I didn’t believe him, of course, but I quickly realized he wasn’t just trying to be flip. His Expo visit took place shortly after the tragedy of Kent State, where students protesting the Vietnam War were shot dead by members of the Ohio National Guard. In the wake of Kent State, young people went on strike at campuses across the nation. And Andy, a good friend of Senator Robert Kennedy, had been present two years earlier when Kennedy was felled by an assassin’s bullet at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. Some recent reports about Williams’ politics have confused me (it’s said he was a lifelong Republican). But I don’t blame anyone in May 1970 for feeling bitter and confused about his country and its inhabitants.
May Billy and Andy rest in peace.