Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class Acts

Hard to believe they all passed on in 2010, along with some of the powers behind the scenes. Films won’t look the same without cameraman William Fraker, whose images go unchallenged in 45 movies, including Rosemary’s Baby and Bullitt. In an industry dominated by cutthroats, gone are the rare gentlemen producers David Brown and Robert Radnitz (Sounder); flamboyant Dino De Laurentiis; and directors Claude Chabrol (labeled “the French Hitchcock”), Clive Donner (when London stopped swinging, so did he), Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), George Hickenlooper (Casino Jack), Mario Monicelli (Big Deal on Madonna Street), Irvin Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back), Blake Edwards (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and Ronald Neame, who, despite distinguished films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Tunes of Glory, is best known for his least favorite, The Poseidon Adventure. We must also add boring Eric Rohmer. A favorite of many American critics, this overrated French yawn was aptly eulogized in Arthur Penn’s thriller Night Moves. Gene Hackman is asked by his wife to go to a Rohmer screening at an L.A. art house. “I don’t think so,” he replies. “I saw a Rohmer film once. It was kind of like watching paint dry.” Truer words were never spoken. 

The quality of today’s scripts will never be the same after the loss of Irving Ravetch (who, with wife Harriet Frank Jr., turned out Hud, Norma Rae and The Sound and the Fury) and Tom Mankiewicz (who wrote several of the James Bond films). I will also miss reading James Bacon, the veteran syndicated columnist who covered Hollywood royalty for six decades. Joan Crawford could outdrink him; Marilyn Monroe told him first about her love affair with J.F.K.; and when Clark Gable was whisked in secrecy to the hospital following his heart attack, Bacon was waiting. Aghast, Gable grinned and said, “How’s the food in this joint?” Those were the days.

Literature will be less readable without my favorite author, J.D. Salinger. One seriously weird dude, he drank his own urine and spoke in tongues, but he also raised the bar for aspiring writers throughout the world. Other men of letters who locked their typewriters and computers and threw away the keys were Erich Segal (they slammed Love Story, but it sold 22 million copies, proving “Success means never having to say you’re sorry”); Alan Sillitoe, the British novelist whose Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner were adapted into highly praised movies; Dick Francis, champion steeplechase jockey turned best-selling mystery novelist; Robert B. Parker, who created the popular detective Spenser in more than 60 best sellers; and Robert Katz, who penned Death in Rome and The Cassandra Crossing. Broadway dimmed the marquees for veteran librettist Joseph Stein, who wrote the book for Fiddler on the Roof. He was followed, a few days later, by the great composer Jerry Bock, who wrote music to fit his partner Sheldon Harnick’s lyrics for such legendary musicals as Fiddler, She Loves Me and Fiorello!

Music will sound sour without swinging pianist Hank Jones; Oscar Peterson’s guitarist Herb Ellis; jazz singer and political activist Abbey Lincoln; harmonica virtuoso Jerry Adler; Duke Ellington vocalist Joya Sherrill; revered West Coast singer-pianist Joyce Collins; jazz drummer Ed Thigpen (called “Mr. Taste” for his sensitive accompaniment of Ella Fitzgerald); soul singer Teddy Pendergrass; John Dankworth, arranger-composer-saxophone wizard and husband of Cleo Laine; Claiborne Cary, zany but dependable cabaret singer-disciple; Art Van Damme, father of the jazz accordion; bebop Benny Goodman piano player John Bunch; Cherie De Castro, last surviving member of the singing De Castro Sisters; ace trombonist and big-band orchestra leader Buddy Morrow; versatile jazz drummer Jake Hanna; Billy Taylor, musician, composer, historian, educator and eloquent voice of NPR; and Canada’s Rob McConnell, the last of the great jazz orchestra leaders who wrote and conducted arrangements for Mel Torme’s Velvet and Brass album (for which I wrote the liner notes). What a shame we won’t be reading about them in the carefully worded erudition of Gene Lees, whose English lyrics for Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Quiet Nights” made history and whose monthly Jazzletter was a blog before the word was invented. No more arias by Blanche Thebom, the mezzo-soprano who sang more than 350 performances at the Metropolitan Opera before appearing in MGM’s The Great Caruso, or Met sopranos Shirley Verrett (called “the black Callas”) and Dolores Wilson, who moved to Broadway to co-star with David Wayne in the ill-fated musical The Yearling. It was curtains for Cesare Siepi, who, like Ezio Pinza, also appeared on Broadway, and for Joan Sutherland, the diva who, after her 1961 Metropolitan Opera debut was followed by a 12-minute standing ovation, was labeled “La Stupenda.” 

Politics won’t seem as pithy without Theodore Sorensen, J.F.K.’s main man, or Liz Carpenter, Washington powerhouse during the Lyndon Johnson administration. I ate my last meal at Elaine’s, but I’ll miss eternally agitated proprietress and genuine New York character Elaine Kaufman, who served inedible food to the rich and famous, threw garbage-can lids at the paparazzi and leaned on the tables of unwanted customers, snarling, “You’re gonna hate it here!” It was a year of horrible losses, from Glen Bell, who invented Taco Bell, to Agethe von Trapp, the last of the singing Sound of Music family. She was Liesl in the movie who sang “16 Going on 17,” but she died at 97. Time flies when you’re humming.

For pure spirit and spunk, I’ve reserved a special place for Doris Travis, the last living Ziegfeld girl, who lived to 106. Two weeks before she died, she appeared one last time on a New York stage. She did a few kicks, then apologized that she no longer performed cartwheels. It brought down the house. I miss her already–and the others, too. When Boris Karloff died, he said, “I’ll be back.” In my dreams, so will they all.

rreed@observer.com      

 

 

Goodbye to All That: Bidding Adieu to Some Real Class Acts