Wednesday, June 7, 2017

I found it at the movies

The other night I discovered The Secret to a Long Life.

And I discovered it, of all places, at the movies.

I was attending the local cinephile society’s presentation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Saboteur” when we came to the big scene at the end — the scene for which the film is probably best known.

The scene in which the title bad guy plunges to his death from the Statue of Liberty.

And it occurred to me that this villain was played by Norman Lloyd.

Who, as of this writing, is 102 years old and still active. I saw him just last year in “Trainwreck,” the Amy Schumer movie.

I suspect that Mr. Lloyd is the only surviving member of the cast of “Saboteur.” Priscilla Lane has been gone for 22 years, and Robert Cummings went to that great health food store in the sky in 1990.

(Margaret Ann McLaughlin, who played the fascist mastermind’s little granddaughter in what apparently was both her debut and swan song, has flown so far below the internet’s radar that I’ve been unable to trace her. If I ever do find her, I’ll ask her how she is able to keep her profile that low without getting the bends.)

A few days after I watched “Saboteur,” it occurred to me that there’s another actor who seems to have duplicated Mr. Lloyd’s feat — and in another Hitchcock movie.

I’m thinking of Martin Landau, who fell to his death from Mount Rushmore after being shot during the climax of “North by Northwest.”

As of this writing, Mr. Landau, a mere stripling of 88, is also still with us and still active. And I suppose I should also mention that one of the stars of “North by Northwest,” the great Eva Marie Saint, has managed to make it into her 90s without having to fall off anything.

Perhaps Ms. Saint is blessed with generous genes. If you’re not that lucky but still want to live a long and productive life, the message is clear: Get thee to the top of a national monument and leave your parachute at home. (And if you have to take an elevator to reach the top, why not warm up with a few “Geronimo!” yells on the way?)

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Queen of the Palace

Late on a Saturday afternoon some years ago, I settle into a pew at a local church where a vigil Mass is to begin in a few minutes.

In the pew in front of me, a woman sits by herself.

It’s Frances from the Palace.

That’s not her real name, of course. It’s not what it says on her Social Security and Medicare cards, or on the property tax bills that she gets for a fairly sizable chunk of land that (I’ve been told) she owns in the Eastwood business district.

But to me, my family and perhaps countless others, she is, has been and probably always will be Frances from the Palace.

The Palace is the movie theater that she owns – part of that fairly sizable chunk of land.

The theater was founded by her father in the 1920s, and when he died, she took it over.

You might say that my family and the Palace have a sort of history.

According to family legend, many years ago Frances from the Palace’s father threw my uncle out of the theater for laughing too loudly.

At a comedy.

As absurd as this seems, I’m willing to believe it. My uncle, who grew up to be a Catholic priest, a librarian and a published poet who was acquainted with people like Marshall McLuhan, was a sucker for comedy, both high and low – more often low. As an adult he would often visit my family when I was a kid, and if his booming laugh didn’t cause an unthinkable amount of damage throughout the city, I suspect it was because the elephants at the local zoo were probably too old to even think about stampeding.

I can still remember lying in my bed upstairs at night and hearing him shamelessly roaring downstairs, probably at something Ernie Kovacs or Victor Borge had just said or done. It’s a wonder that my bedroom floor, and me and my brother’s bunk beds with it, never came crashing down into the living room.

The other Palace legend involving my uncle was recounted every so often over the years by his victim – his sister, otherwise known as my mother. They were kids and had just been to a nighttime showing of “The Mystery of the Wax Museum.” Afterward they walked home, my uncle tormenting her in the dark every step of the way. The family house was probably less than a mile from the Palace, but from the way my mother told the story, it might as well have been in Australia.

Frances from the Palace’s father was gone by the time we six Murphy kids discovered the movies. By then the Palace was well established as something that is rare these days: the neighborhood theater. On special occasions – a new Disney release or re-release, for example – we might go downtown to Loew’s, RKO Keith, the Eckel, the Paramount or the Strand (where I saw my first film, “Tom Thumb” with Russ Tamblyn), but otherwise “Let’s wait till it comes to the Palace!” was a familiar phrase in my non-affluent family, perhaps running a distant second to “Children are starving in China!”

And now I need to mention that there was a time in my life – please understand that I was very young, though that’s hardly an excuse – when I would go to the Palace with my older brother on Saturday afternoons for the express purpose of seeing movies that featured Jerry Lewis. Perhaps I should send some of my spit to Ancestry.com for one of those tests they’ve been advertising; perhaps my DNA would reveal that I have a wee bit of French blood, and perhaps this would explain why I was eager to see “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “The Errand Boy” and “Who’s Minding the Store?”

But there was something special about these matinees – something I don’t think Mr. Muscular Dystrophy Telethon would appreciate. For at every matinee he was upstaged by Frances from the Palace, who would patrol the aisles with a flashlight, looking for kids playing cards or – the big mortal sin – putting their feet up on the seat in front of them. And when she caught one of these kids in the act of defiling her family trust, she was, shall we say, not exactly quiet about it.

I especially remember the time she swept the stage – while the movie was playing. I can’t say for sure whether this was during a Jerry Lewis opus – surely he would have noticed her mid-scene and yelled “HEY LAAAAAAAAAADY!”

Years later, I underwent a traditional rite of passage at the Palace: going to my first movie that was rated “M, for Mature Audiences” – “In the Heat of the Night.” I would like to be able to report that my girlfriend and I really got into the spirit of the thing in the balcony, but I didn’t have a girlfriend, I was with my older sister and my aunt (my uncle’s other sister, a Catholic nun), and as long as Frances from the Palace ran the place, she never let anyone into the balcony.

After I moved to an apartment in Eastwood, I went to the Palace more often. Frances from the Palace was still there; she no longer gave out tickets, but just took your cash when you came in the door. She especially liked it if you paid her in dollar bills.

A colleague of mine once told me that she had been to the Palace with a male friend of hers. After they came in the door, the friend had the audacity to ask Frances from the Palace if she took credit cards. He might as well have shown up at Kitty Hawk and asked the Wright Brothers if he could have a window seat with extra legroom. And to this day he probably doesn’t know how lucky he is that Frances from the Palace didn’t arrange for him to have special seating in the parking lot, under the cement.

Frances from the Palace died almost 13 years ago. A nephew took it over and did a great job of refurbishing it before selling it last year. It no longer regularly shows movies but is available for special events. I even attended a party once in the balcony area, which looked great.

And I still sometimes think back to that Saturday afternoon in church.

I remember Frances from the Palace as she turns and sees me in the pew behind her. I respond by giving her my best polite smile. Surely she must recognize me. I’ve been coming to her theater off and on for decades. And I always remember to bring dollar bills.

Frances from the Palace doesn’t return my smile.

Instead she turns around.

And picks up her purse.

And places it in the pew in front of her.

I boycott the Palace for at least the next six months.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

If Stanley Kubrick had been a game show director....

BUD COLLYER: Welcome back to “To Tell the Truth”! As you’ll recall, our panelists – Tom Poston, Peggy Cass, Orson Bean and Kitty Carlisle – cast their ballots before the commercial, so now it’s time to turn to our team of contestants and ask: “Will the real Roman slave please stand up?”

CUT TO CONTESTANTS: Three men, all wearing togas.

The three look at one another. Then NUMBER 2 stands up.

NUMBER 2: I am Spartacus!

Applause.

Then NUMBER 1 stands.

NUMBER 1: I am Spartacus!

Then NUMBER 3 stands.

NUMBER 3: I am Spartacus!

CUT TO A LONG SHOT OF THE PANEL.

After a pause, KITTY stands.

KITTY: I am Spartacus!

A moment later, TOM gets up.

TOM: I am Spartacus!

Then PEGGY stands.

PEGGY: I am Spartacus!

ORSON, still seated, looks around at the other panelists.

Then he shrugs and gets up.

ORSON: What the hell – I guess I am Spartacus, too!

CUT TO BUD as he holds his head in his hands.

BUD: Oh shit….

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

This looks like a post for Superman

Although I seem to be plodding relentlessly toward codgerhood, one sentence that you will never hear pass my lips (I hope) is “Hey, you kids, get off my lawn!”

There are two reasons for this. The first is that my house (where I also grew up) doesn’t have much of a lawn anyway, and I well remember how my siblings and I often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on what little grassland we had – and there wasn’t really any grass on that land precisely because we often parked our bikes, trikes, wagons and what-have-yous on every available inch of it.

Eventually, as we edged closer to adolescence, our parents finally decided to plant some grass on this not-so-vast wasteland of dirt. This was the closest they ever came to landscaping.

The second reason I don’t disrespect my juniors is that I don’t mind being around young people. I worked with a lot of them during my 30 years at a newspaper and three years at an ad agency. I appreciated their talents and, dare I say it, sometimes I even learned from them.

One thing I especially admire about them is their ability to do something that I will never be able to do:

Talk on a cell phone in the middle of a lot of noise.

I don’t know how they manage it – maybe it’s a part of evolution that Darwin didn’t envision – but you could put any one of them and their phones in the middle of a boiler works at peak production time, surround them with bands simultaneously playing “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and “St. Louis Blues” at competing decibels, and they wouldn’t miss a single syllable uttered from any end of the earth.

I was thinking about this for the umpteenth time while I was downtown today and needed to make a couple of calls.

I needed a quiet place – as quiet as possible. So I went into one of downtown’s oldest buildings, figuring that its marble lobby would provide the most amenable acoustics – or, better yet, no acoustics at all.

I figured wrong.

Because a big radiator near one of the two main staircases had decided to sound off. Not a very loud sound, mind you, but loud enough.

So I ducked behind one of the staircases and found something that I hadn’t realized still existed.

A line of old phone booths.

I have no idea what they were doing there – there were no phones inside them – but you could still sit inside one of them, pull the door shut and quietly go about your business.

I can’t possibly describe the looks on the faces of the people who walked by as I was using my cell phone, mainly because no people happened to walk by as I was doing this. But I must have presented quite a minor spectacle – anachronism as performance art.

I suppose I’m grateful there were no witnesses – perhaps one of them would have taken a picture of me with their phone, and presto! Instant clickbait.

Maybe I would even have made the evening news shows, which are always looking for anything to put on instead of, God forbid, actual news.

And of course there then would have been enormous public pressure on me to top myself, maybe by perusing my iPad while perched in a Tin Lizzie. Or piloting a drone in the Sistine Chapel, and thereby stirring up a theological hornet’s nest. (Is a flyby a mortal sin or is it just venial?)

And my heart stops and my blood pressure surges to new heights as I come to realize how close I might have come to becoming – gasp! – a cultural icon.

Then again, these days it seems that every man Jack, every woman Jill, every dog Fido and pretty much every existing being, animal, vegetable or mineral – yes, even including you and me – is either an icon or is on its way to becoming one. Just stay on the line, and we’ll get to you shortly.

And as always, your call is important to us.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Hey, New Yorker fans: Check this out

“You make sure that the names and dates are right, but then if it is a John McPhee piece, you make sure that the USGS report that he read, he read correctly; or if it is a John le CarrĂ© piece, when he says his con man father ran for Parliament in 1950, you make sure that it wasn’t 1949 or 1951.”

-- From a lecture by Peter Canby, New Yorker fact-checking director, Feb. 28, 2002

As I was growing up and aspiring to be a writer, I read the classics, which for me included Robert Benchley, S.J. Perelman, James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and E.B. White.

All of whom wrote for The New Yorker.

Eventually I read Thurber’s “The Years With Ross,” about Thurber’s days at the magazine and his dealings with its founding editor, Harold Ross.

I liked this book so much that over the years I reread parts of it. The world he described seemed like so much fun. It was only years later that I read that E.B. White and others weren’t too pleased with what Thurber had written.

In 1975, Brendan Gill published “Here at The New Yorker,” which I didn’t like as much as the Thurber book. To some extent, Gill’s book seemed like a rebuttal of “The Years With Ross,” and he took the opportunity to take a few shots at Thurber. The shots were well-aimed, but I thought Gill himself came off as a jerk.

But over the years, during visits to the library, I sometimes reread parts of Gill’s book, too, because I was still in the thrall of the New Yorker mystique.

In later years, I’ve enjoyed reading – and rereading – “About Town,” a history of the magazine, written by Ben Yagoda. It’s a great book, written by a very nice guy whom I've been lucky enough to meet.

Anyway, if you’re steeped in New Yorker lore – even if you’re in it only up to your knees – chances are that you know about the magazine’s fabled fact-checking department, to which no nit was too small.

I say “was” because something I saw in the magazine recently made me wonder whether that department has been downsized.

I’m referring to “The Film J.D. Salinger Nearly Made,” by Jill Lepore, in the Nov. 21 issue.

The article tells how the reclusive author gave a TV producer permission to make a movie out of one of Salinger’s stories, “For Esme – With Love and Squalor.”

The article identifies one of the actors cast for the film as “Ted Bessel.” He’s referred to by name four times, each time as “Bessel.”

I immediately knew this was wrong. And if you grew up in the 1960s, there’s a good chance that you know it’s wrong, too.

The guy’s name was really “Bessell.” And it’s not as if he was some really obscure actor – for a number of years he played the boyfriend of Marlo Thomas in the hit show “That Girl.” Granted, after that he didn’t do very much, and his starring role in a short-lived series, “Me and the Chimp,” didn’t help. (And no, he didn’t play the chimp.)

I realize that a New Yorker fact checker’s job must be a tough one. I wouldn’t want it, even though my longtime job as a newspaper copy editor often involved fact checking.

Thing is, names are very easy to verify, especially these days. Checking whether it’s “Bessel” or “Bessell” is nowhere near as hard as checking whether, say, the Orinoco River has any fish and if so, what kind, and how many there are of each.

And checking a performer’s name is painless and easy; I won’t say the Internet Movie Database is 100 percent reliable, but for my purposes it’s almost always close enough.

The Salinger article is still on the magazine’s website.

And it still says “Bessel.”

Mr. Bessell, unfortunately, can’t stick up for himself – he’s been dead for 20 years – but I’m surprised that apparently no one has brought this to the editors’ attention.

(By the way, if you happen to be fact-checking this article, you might discover that, strictly speaking, I have spelled “Esme” wrong – the poor girl needs an accent over that last “e,” but I don’t know how to put one there. Perhaps one day I’ll get better at this word-processing stuff and I’ll throw her a bone – or maybe a tilde, or even an umlaut or two.)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Yep, the rich sure are different

I don’t watch a lot of TV, and when I do watch, I religiously avoid so-called reality shows.

I don’t care who gets voted off the island or thrown out of the house, and I’m hard put to muster much sympathy for would-be chefs who weep in their tureens as they and their deflated soufflĂ©s are sent packing.

But my limited viewing schedule does allow for one exception: “Shark Tank.”

It’s not that I particularly enjoy watching five entrepreneurs rip apart wannabe tycoons – and one another. After a while the arguments and insults seem like just so much shtick.

But I like “Shark Tank” because, all bantering aside, it’s educational. I like watching the entrepreneurs’ business minds work and seeing how they analyze proposals, even if at least some of what they say goes a wee bit over my pointy little head. And I like to think that other viewers can learn from the show too; I fear that our current educational systems fall short when it comes to teaching how things work in the real world.

However, there is one thing “Shark Tank” cannot teach me – something I have already known for years:

Rich people love to get free stuff.

If you’ve seen “Shark Tank,” you probably know what I mean. Whenever a would-be entrepreneur’s product is food or hats or whatever – but especially food – the Sharks respond with an enthusiasm that would put Pavlov’s dog to shame.

Especially Robert. Offer him free food and he’ll jump at the chance to eat it but not invest in it. (“These are the best oatmeal cookies/cupcakes/spare ribs/porterhouse steaks in the universe! Unfortunately, I’m out!”) Call him a sharp entrepreneur, call him a shrewd investor, maybe even call him a freeloader, but don’t call him late for snack time.

Yes, rich people love to get free stuff.

But I would like to add what I modestly call Murphy’s Corollary:

Rich people love to get people to do things for them for nothing. That’s one reason why they’re rich people.

I learned this lesson from a distant cousin of mine. I’ll call him Edward.

Many years ago, Edward wrote a letter to my Aunt Helen, who, like me, had never met him. Edward told Aunt Helen that he was researching his family genealogy and mentioned that the two of them were related. Aunt Helen, who at that time was the closest thing my family had to a senior matriarch – if a Roman Catholic nun can be called a matriarch – knew enough about the family to know that Edward wasn’t a fraud.

So she wrote back.

Eventually Edward, a lawyer, invited her to his family’s home in the Washington, D.C., area. Apparently, judging from what I heard about his home and its surroundings, the law business had been very very good to Edward. He also knew some well-known people, including Ethel Kennedy and Andy “Moon River” Williams.

Although I can’t say with certainty that Edward lived high on the hog, I’m sure he had at least one foot in the stirrups.

Edward also became acquainted with my younger aunt, Aunt Dorothy, who was also a nun and who also visited his home and kept in touch with him.

My one encounter with Edward occurred some years ago during the week of Thanksgiving. I had traveled out of town to spend the holiday with relatives, including Aunt Dorothy. Unfortunately, my aunt had taken ill and was in the hospital, but her condition was improving.

When Edward called my relatives to see how Aunt Dorothy was doing, someone told him I was visiting, and he asked to talk to me.

I spent the better part of the next hour (OK, maybe it was only a half-hour, but it sure felt like an hour) answering what I would call a slew of questions about my family – that is, I would call it a slew if calling it a “slew” weren’t such a ridiculous understatement.

What were my brothers’ and sisters’ names? How old were they? Were they married? How old was I? Was I married? And so on. And so on.

The next day I visited Aunt Dorothy in the hospital and told her about my talk with Edward – or, rather, his talk with me. And I told her about the grilling I’d endured.

My aunt was surprised, to put it mildly. She told me that Edward had asked her all those questions some time ago, so why did he put me through the third (or maybe third and a half) degree?

Looking back, I suppose the obvious answer was “because he could,” but I never would have said it out loud because Aunt Dorothy and Edward were on such good terms.

So I would have forgotten about Edward and gone on with my life if it weren’t for one thing.

During the conversation, Edward had also asked me to do him a favor.

When I got back to my hometown, could I try to dig up a couple of things for him?

One of them was a news story about an accident that killed a family member at the state fairgrounds during the 1920s. And Edward also wanted me to try to find this same relative’s immigration certificate.

Edward said nothing about paying me to do this or reimbursing me for any expenses, but I said OK anyway. I was, after all, brought up to be polite.

A few weeks later, I visited my local library’s Local History department and was able to find a story about the fatal accident. That seemed easy enough.

Getting the immigration certificate was more of a chore. It turned out that such records were kept in the basement of the building that was then the county courthouse. I had to go there and find someone to help me look it up. One of the clerks gave me a book that he said contained what I needed, but he nervously warned me to be careful because the paper was old and easy to tear. I got the impression that the slightest rip would cause his supervisor to rip him several new orifices.

I found the certificate – I will say that looking at it did give me a low-grade thrill, considering that it was literally a piece of family history – and I was able to order a copy of it without committing any archival mayhem.

At one point – I can’t remember whether it was before or after I went to the records office – I was walking through the basement when a sheriff’s deputy politely asked me to step aside.

I did so, and then watched as a small parade of prisoners was marched from the jail – there was an underground passageway – to the courthouse. My memory isn’t always reliable, but as I recall they were shackled. I couldn’t tell what they were accused of or how dangerous they were just by looking at them because I simply avoided looking at them. Of course there was always the possibility that one of them would overpower a guard, grab the guard’s gun and hold me hostage.

Yes, I sure hoped Edward would appreciate how I took my life in his hands just so he could graft part of another branch onto the family tree.

Eventually I mailed all this stuff to Edward. As a bonus – and a subtle hint – I enclosed, without comment, a list of professional genealogists from my hometown area. That’s “professional” as in “people usually pay other people good money to have this stuff done, El Cheapo.”

I’ve been racking my brain, but to the best of my knowledge I don’t think Edward ever acknowledged what I did for him, though – my memory again being what it is – maybe he did send a card and I forgot about it. But I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

And I can definitely state that he never sent me any money or other tokens to recompense me for my time and expense.

Not even a “Let me know if I can do something for you sometime.”

Not even an autographed picture of Andy “Moon River” Williams.

So maybe he didn’t think my subtle hint was all that subtle.

But what did I care? Although I didn’t go so far as to check every last follicle each night before I went to bed, I figured that Cousin Edward was now out of my hair, for at least a while.

As it turned out, “at least” was putting it mildly.

A few years later, I was visiting Aunt Dorothy when, just to make conversation, I asked her if she’d heard from Cousin Edward lately.

To my surprise and shock, her face collapsed in tears.

“Cousin Edward died!”

I immediately went into Consolation Mode, mumbling the usual “Gee, too bad, sorry to hear it,” and similar sentiments.

And I must say I’m proud of myself for having enough self-control to not say the first thing that popped into my head when Aunt Dorothy told me Edward had died:

Well, that’s one way to find out about your ancestors….

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

This just in from the (unsubstantiated) literary rumor mill....

Word has it that Harper Lee left yet another unpublished manuscript.

It's based on the life of John Cameron Swayze.

It's called "Go Test a Watch, Man!"