Cue the Credits: In a Year of Few Memorable Contributions, Many Unforgettable Acts Bowed Out

'I will always love you'

Music hits so many sour notes that it is doubtful we will ever find the lost chord, now that we’ve been robbed of the beauty and talent of pop superstar Whitney Houston. Burt Bacharach’s longtime writing partner Hal David penned his last catchy lyric, and we’ll have no more silly, popular and ultimately forgettable songs for children’s musicals by Robert Sherman (Mary Poppins). I will especially regret the passing of my friend Dory Previn, who turned her mental problems and tortured personal life into a series of frank, dark, confessional pop-jazz songs that earned her three Oscar nominations and a solid cult following. Broadway musicals will be gruesomely routine without composer Richard Adler, who made history with his two rousingly original Tony-winning hit shows Damn Yankees and The Pajama Game. After the premature passing of his writing partner Jerry Ross in 1955, he never repeated his early runaway success, but he later gained attention producing and staging John F. Kennedy’s 45th birthday gala at Madison Square Garden, which featured a breathless Marilyn Monroe singing “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” Catch it on YouTube.

It was eight bars and out for legendary crooner Tony Martin, who checked out two years short of his 100th birthday. He was so debonair that a tuxedo was named after him, and his marriages to movie musical superstars Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse didn’t damage his image as a glamorous troubadour, either. They didn’t call him “the butterscotch baritone” for nothing. In the same musical groove, I’m still in shock over easy-listening “Moon River” singer Andy Williams, the most laid-back male thrush since Perry Como. The son of a railroad mail clerk in Iowa, he started his career harmonizing with his three brothers—Bob, Don and Dick—before joining the fabulous Kay Thompson in her historic nightclub act. He was with Sen. Robert Kennedy the night he won the California presidential primary and was assassinated on his way to celebrate. By request, Andy sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” at Bobby’s funeral. With his easy, unchallenging vocals and his cardigan sweaters, he was the Mister Rogers of song.

Nobody appreciated him more than Donald Smith, cabaret promoter and founder of the Mabel Mercer Foundation, an organization named after his favorite after-midnight song stylist, which was dedicated to keeping the Great American Songbook alive and flourishing. Booking the talent for the Algonquin’s Oak Room and producing the annual New York Cabaret Convention, he nurtured the careers of Harry Connick Jr., KT Sullivan, Steve Ross, Michael Feinstein, Portia Nelson, Sylvia Syms and others. New York night life is not half as much fun without Mr. Smith, but the beat goes on.

Other losses that took a bite out of the music world: the swinging jazz piano of the incomparable Dave Brubeck, the lush arrangements of classical and jazz composer Richard Rodney Bennett, and Judy Garland’s musical director Mort Lindsey, who arranged her celebrated comeback at Carnegie Hall in 1961. And there was nobody more brilliantly talented than Mr. Clare Fischer, one of the finest composer-arranger-conductors in jazz for 60 years. He was the sound behind the Hi-Los, the sensational vocal quartet that revolutionized jazz singing in the 1950s, but he also enhanced the work of Dizzy Gillespie, Bill Evans and Cal Tjader.

We also heard the last encore from electrifying New York City Opera star Patricia Neway, 92, who sent critics to their feet screaming for more when she starred in Gian Carlo Menotti’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opera The Consul in 1950 and won a Tony Award 10 years later for her crossover role as the original Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music. Other musical notables who hit their final quarter notes in 2012 include Marvin Hamlisch, disco diva Donna Summer, blues belter Etta James, beautiful Maria Cole (Natalie Cole’s mother, Nat King Cole’s widow and a golden-voiced Duke Ellington jazz singer whose only LP on the Capitol label is a collector’s item), bluegrass banjo player Earl Scruggs, jazz singer Carrie Smith, Your Hit Parade vocalist Russell Arms (who invaded American living rooms every Saturday night with co-stars Dorothy Collins, Gisele MacKenzie and Snooky Lanson in what started out as a novel idea, until America got so tired of listening over and over, week after week, to the same old songs on the Top Ten chart and drove the show off the air), revered big-band crooner David Allyn, lead singer Robin Gibb of the British boy band the Bee Gees, gospel singer Fontella Bass, Miles Davis guitarist Pete Cosey, Doobie Brothers drummer Michael Hossack, idolized German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who specialized in lieder, blind folk-music icon Doc Watson, R&B star Johnny Otis, Mexican-American singer and reality TV star Jenni Rivera, king of the Indian sitar Ravi Shankar and hillbilly princess Kitty Wells, who held her position as the country music industry’s top female warbler for 14 straight years. I would be remiss to ignore Hal Schaefer, jazz pianist and Hollywood vocal coach for glamour girls Mitzi Gaynor, Susan Hayward and Rita Hayworth. He wrote the arrangement of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” for Marilyn Monroe that raised the bar for movie production numbers, then made headlines in 1954 when Joe DiMaggio and Frank Sinatra broke down the door of an apartment where Marilyn and Mr. Schaefer were reportedly between the sheets together. The boys got the wrong apartment, and Marilyn and her piano player escaped through the rear exit of the love nest next door. The story hit the tabloids as “The Wrong Door Raid.” It put Mr. Schaefer on the map. Talk about 15 minutes of fame!

Fashion is already a dinosaur of a word, but costume designer Nolan Miller’s over-the-top haute couture for Joan Collins and Linda Evans on Dynasty spared no expense and kept it alive through the 1980s. “They’re rich and everybody knows it,” he said, “so I never want to see them wear anything twice.” And they never did. Social media has made the art of conversation sadly obsolete, but if elegant parties ever return, how will we know which fork to use without etiquette queen Letitia Baldrige, who turned Jackie Kennedy’s White House into a Camelot of taste, culture and perfect state dinners? When she died, good manners went with her. Speaking of dying traditions, it was a four-star final for Arthur Ochs “Punch” Sulzberger, the man who ran The New York Times for 34 years and brought it into the digital world. Some say it was better off before.

Critics are like dentists. Few people are sorry to see them go. But with the passing of Andrew Sarris and Judith Crist, 2012 left gaps in a noble profession that cannot be filled. Mr. Sarris, 83, was my colleague at The New York Observer for a decade, and nothing has been the same without him. We shared the duties of reviewing movies, often running opposing views on opposite sides of the same page. He favored esoteric foreign films with limited possibilities for box office success, and I tackled the mainstream flash and trash. He had a reputation for being ascerbic (Imagine! A grouchy critic!) and less than generous toward younger critics, but I found him to be the exact opposite. A gentleman and a scholar of the still-confusing “auteur theory,” which holds that a director’s voice is central to great filmmaking, he was a weekly influence and an honor to read. After he left the paper, he told me, “I still read you, so I know what I’m missing.” Ms. Crist, 90,was one of America’s most widely seen film critics for more than three decades on the Today show, in the pages of TV Guide and in my favorite New York newspaper, the Herald-Tribune. I wrote her there from college asking her what to do to become a movie critic.  Her answer: “Forget it.” She kept that letter in a file and showed it to me years later, after I had been writing about movies for two decades. “I’m glad you ignored my advice completely,” she said. At the height of her influence, her reviews were so harsh that overrated director Otto Preminger labeled her “Judas Crist,” which is as good an endorsement as a film critic can get. A chain smoker for 70 years, she never stopped ranting against the surgeon general, stubbornly defending her right to destroy her health as she saw fit, but finally lost her battle against the “tobacco police.” She threw a popular yearly “survivor’s party” and smoked furiously, no matter who complained. Other critics who have filed their last reviews: Howard Kissel (theater), Donal Henahan (music), Robert Hughes (art) and Hilton Kramer (art).

The world of letters moved several steps closer to illiteracy with the loss of both prolific Henry Denker, author of 30 novels and plays about Freud, Louis Nizer and Korean War crimes, and Ray Bradbury, 91, the great Pulitzer Prize-winning master of science fiction whose novels (Fahrenheit 451), screenplays (Moby Dick) and short-story collections (The Martian Chronicles) turned nightmares, fears and fantasies into lasting literature. Despite the futuristic themes in his writing, he had a deep attachment to the past. He refused to drive a car or fly, and he got around on bicycles and roller skates. His father was a descendant of Mary Bradbury, who was tried for witchcraft in Salem, Mass. His mother read him The Wizard of Oz. His aunt fueled his love of Edgar Allan Poe and Halloween. He wrote Fahrenheit 451 on typewriters at the UCLA library that cost 10 cents for half an hour, and carried around a sack full of dimes, completing the book in nine days at a cost of $9.80. He despised computers and Kindles, and, even at age 90, gave lectures urging people to stick to real books printed the old-fashioned way. He was an original in a literary landscape of bland imitations.

Cue the Credits: In a Year of Few Memorable Contributions, Many Unforgettable Acts Bowed Out