Thursday, March 23, 2017

(Even More) "Saddle Up!"

Veteran performers talk about their classic roles in old-time westerns.                                                            

                                                          THE STOREKEEPER

“I never wore a gun.  And yet – and I never understood this – outlaws came in, picked up their provisions, and they always paid me.  They didn’t have to.  They could have taken what they wanted.  And if I’d said ‘Wait!’, they could have taken out their guns and filled me full of holes.  But they never did that.  It’s like there’s some unwritten Outlaw Rule: ‘It’s okay to rob, kill, cheat at cards.  But you always pay the storekeeper.’  I never read that anywhere, but it seemed to apply.”
“You know who never paid me?  Everyone else.  Ranchers, sodbusters.  They’d load their wagons with seed grain, bolts of cloth, penny candy for the young ‘uns, and it was always, ‘Put it on my account.’  Honest people, never paid a dime.  If it wasn’t for the outlaws, I’d have been completely out of business.”

“Once, I ran out with an ancient rifle to stop some fleeing bank robbers.  Then, they shot me.  But that was different.  I was intervening with their business.  I know I sound like I’m taking their side, but what can I tell you?  They were very nice to me.” 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

"(More) Saddle Up!"

Veteran performers talk about their classic roles in old-time westerns. 

                                          THE PIANO PLAYER IN THE SALOON

“I never played a note.  I pretended to play, and they put the music in later.  Why did they hire me if I couldn’t play?  Because they thought I looked like a piano player in a saloon.  I felt a little bad about that.  I beat out actual piano players.” 
‘I practiced real hard, pretending to play the piano.  I’d sit there for hours, banging away, but without actually hitting the keys.  Just tickled the tops, you know?  It’s sort of crazy.  With all those hours I put in, I could probably have learned to play the piano.”
“My specialties were looking like I was playing ‘Oh, Susannah’ and looking like I was playing ‘Camptown Races.’  I could fake looking like I was playing ‘Beautiful Dreamer’, but if you watch my fingers, what I’m playing is ‘Camptown Races’ real slow.”
“Once I got fired for playing too loud.  I said, ‘I’m not playing at all!”  They said, ‘You look like you’re playing too loud.’”
 “A man who knew me from movies asked me to make a record.  I told them, ‘I don’t play the piano.’  He said,, “We’ll get somebody else to play.  We just want your face on the album cover.”   Is that the craziest thing you’ve ever heard?  You know something  even crazier?  I did it!”
“I never liked playing during brawls.  Things came flying at me.  Whisky bottles, tables.  They weren’t real, but they still hurt.  And when you’re playing – or even pretending to – you don’t see them coming.”

  Comes with the territory, I guess.  An ‘extra’ landed on my head.  I just kept playing.”

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

"Saddle Up! (A Sample Selection)"

Veteran performers talk about playing classic roles in old-time westerns.


“I don’t want to talk about it.  ‘Sidekick.’  Thirty years later.  It still turns my stomach!”

“Thirty years, wearing that scraggly beard, that moth-eaten wardrobe, and every second word out of my mouth was, “Yer dern tootin’!” 

“That was my ‘catch-phrase.’  ‘Yer dern tootin’’ – I couldn’t get away from it!  Once, I was perusing the wine list at an upscale restaurant.  I say to the waiter, ‘Do you have a vintage Bordeaux’?  He says, ‘Yer dern tootin’!’  I could have killed the man.  I was there with a date!”

“I’m a New York-trained actor, for heavens sakes!  I played the classics – Shakespeare, Shaw, Pirandello – who is hardly in their class, but still.  I come out to Hollywood, they say, ‘Can you play a western sidekick?’  I’m an actor; I can play anything.  Unfortunately, I played ‘The Sidekick’ so convincingly no one would cast me as anything else.  Can you blame them?  Who’d make me the ‘Romantic Lead’ after watching me land face-first in a cow pie?”

“How would I define a ‘sidekick’?  Strip away every shred of human dignity and what’s left is the sidekick.  It’s total humiliation.  You burn your britches sitting on a hot stove.  You hit your head with a frying pan and walk straight into a wall.  You fall asleep in a rocking chair and ‘accidentally’ flip over backwards.  I had terrible fights with the producers.  I said, ‘You’re taking the low road.  The hero’s buffoonish underling can have charming humanity and earthy wisdom.  Remember Sancho Panza.’  They said, ‘Who?’ 


“‘The lowest point of them all?’  Once I’m coming out of a soundstage, costumed as ‘Soapy’ or ‘Succotash’, or some similar nonsense.  And wouldn’t you know it?  I bump right into Jack Barrymore.  And he’s dressed to play Hamlet!  I tell you, I have never been so humiliated in my life.  The man saw me in The Cherry Orchard on Broadway!” 

“Any ‘happier moments?’  A damn few.  We were out promoting our latest epic on a cross-country publicity tour once, just me and ‘The Good Guy’ – Tom or Tim, or somebody.  Funny thing is, wherever we stopped, the people seemed to gravitate towards me.  I got more attention, louder applause, signed more autographs. 

Did that upset ‘The Good Guy’?”

“Yer dern tootin’!”

Monday, March 20, 2017

"Vacation Showcase"

Two days ago, we departed for a week at that fitness place we go to in Mexico whose name I prefer not to promote in case the place piques your enthusiasm making it harder for me to procure future reservations. 

And there you have it – a selfish blogger.   Although “part marks” for “Honesty”, don’t you agree?  Thank you.

As is my traditional habit, I am leaving you with writing to look at while I’m away.  This time, however, I am affording myself the opportunity to showcase samples from my “Cowboy Book”, which has been entitled many things over the years in my effort to sell it, which I haven’t, but which is now called Saddle Up!

Who knows?  Maybe some big-time publisher will accidentally stumble across these promotional efforts and think,

“This is exactly what we need to offset our too popular ‘Best Sellers’, thereby mitigating our future tax liability with an unquestionable ‘Loss’.”

What is Saddle Up! about?  (To illuminate relative newcomers and readers who may have missed the occasional excerpts sprinkled throughout these chicken scratchings?  And also to bore people who already know?) 

The template for Saddle Up! was inspired by a biography of Saturday Night Live – I am too lazy to look up the title –  a compilation involving SNL participants of various durations reminiscing about their experiences working on the decades-long series.  More recently, The Daily Show – The Book followed a similar template, so I know the structural format remains fashionable.

Saddle Up! is my fictionalized version – although based on such assiduous research it feels surprisingly real – chronicling the performers’ personal recollections participating in old-time western movies and TV shows.  (Before we realized there was arguably genocide involved.) 

In Saddle Up! the performers speak in their own voices about their extended tenures in westerns, portraying the numerous identifiable – to aficionados of the genre – “stock characters” in westerns.  And not just “human being” performers.  I also include critters (“The Vanishing Buffalo”), vegetation (“Tumbleweeds”) and Forces of Nature (“The Wind”).    

As you are by now probably aware, I have always adored – which is hardly a masculine descriptive but still – old-time westerns.  Why?  I have deconstructed my hypothesis to three significant explanations of certifiable validity.

(“Why does this feel like a PhD dissertation?”

“The writer wishes to appear smart.”

“He sounds smart.”

“But not ‘PhD’ smart.”)

I don’t know what just happened.  But allow me to continue.

Three Reasons I Appreciate Westerns:

“The Adventure.” 

(To quote the lyrics from The Adventures of Jim Bowie as supportive evidence:)

“He rode the wilderness unafraid
From Natchez to Rio Grande
With all the might of his gleaming blade
He fought for the Rights of Man.”

It gets your blood going, doesn’t it?  I’m ready to hit the trail!

Reason Two I Like Westerns:

“The Clarity.”

In every western of the day, “Right” inevitably triumphed.  (Owing to the meticulous exclusion of the parts when it historically didn’t.  Mirroring my “Theory of Great Photography”:  You throw out the bad pictures and what is left looks magnificent.)

Reason Three I Enjoy Westerns:

“The Security.”

There was undeniably violence in westerns – although during the “Production Code” era the bloodshed was limited to shooting people in the hand, eliminating spurting arteries or pulsating entrails.  However, since that violence, such as it was, depicted events occurring more than a century or so earlier, as a moviegoer I felt comfortably insulated from imminent danger, unlikely in the 1950’s or 60’s to have to endure Indian attacks or murderous evildoers hungering for my land.  (By contrast, today’s movies, reflecting today’s realities in which no one is a “civilian”, make it feel like an innocent bystander like you – or, more importantly, me – could get blown to bits buying a carton of yogurt.)

Summing up…

Beginning tomorrow:  Four selected excerpts from Saddle Up!   And now, a hopefully tantalizing “Sneak Preview” from Saddle Up! (Repeating the name so it will stick in publishers’ minds.)

Saddle up, Buckaroos!  And let’s ride like the wind!

                                                         “The Good Guy”

“I rode in, I cleaned up the town, I rode out.  Sometimes I sang.”

Okay, one more, ‘cause the last one was short.

                                                     “The Chinese Laundryman”

“In those days, you could play a Chinese Laundryman or you could be a Chinese laundryman.  I selected the former.”

Got time for one more?

                                                      “The Rebel Soldier”

“Thousands of people came the audition.  It helped if you had one arm.”

Okay, one last one.

“Dude, they won’t buy the book!”

“Dude, they’re not selling it anywhere.”

                                                   “The Good Guy’s ‘Stunt Double’”

“When I stepped in – to shoot a fight or a fall – and the ‘Good Guys’d say, ‘I could do this myself but the studio won’t let me’, I’d look them straight in the eye and I’d tell ‘em the same thing:

‘I know, Big Guy.’

“And they say I can’t act.”

Okay, that’s enough “getting the milk for free.”  For today.  There are four additional “free ones” coming up.

Enjoy the excitement.

And I will see you when I get back.

Friday, March 17, 2017

"A Revival Production Of 'Zoot Suit'"

Trust me on this.

It is an ineffably deflating moment in the theater when you drop into your seat, you open your program and you find, inserted inside it, a narrow slip of paper announcing that at the performance you are about to witness – and have paid full price to attend – there will be five understudies. 




The slip of paper goes, “This is unprecedented.  The previous record for understudies was two.  We slips of paper keep track of these things.  And by the way, have an enjoyable evening in the theater.”

I hate snarky slips of paper, don’t you?

Did I enjoy the production of Zoot Suit regardless?  (Generating a truly inspiring blog post.)  Not as much as I’d hoped to.  (Generating this blog post instead.  And a wish that I had seen the groundbreaking Zoot Suit debut in 1978.)

The explanation for my less than enthusiastic reaction could, at least to some degree, have been the result of the five understudies.  But there was, I believe, significantly more to it than that.

So what was it?

Well, for one reason… You know, my daughter Anna sometimes tells stories I have told her about me, and as gifted a storyteller as she is, it is not the same as when I tell those stories or when she tells stories about herself, second-hand stories lacking
the brightening spark of “I was there” authenticity. 

The Zoot Suit I saw felt, to me, like a worshipful Zoot Suit “Tribute Band”, missing the experiential immediacy of the original participants, who may themselves not have experienced the original “Zoot Suit” phenomenon, at least not as adults, but they were considerably closer to the era.

These guys may have heard the story.  But none of them lived it.

I understand “speaking-to-the-political-moment” reason for reviving Zoot Suit in 2017.   As the “Defense Attorney” laments in his closing summation at a trial which the press sensationalized and the politicians exploited for personal advancement:

“I have tried my best to defend what is most precious in our American Society – a society now at war against the forces of racial intolerance and totalitarian injustice.”

It rings kind of a contemporary bell, doesn’t it?

Zoot Suit (written by Luis Valdez, who directed this production) is reminiscent – and possibly inspired by –the Bertolt Brecht-style of plays I once studied and performed in at the UCLA Summer Theater Workshop when I was 21.  The production deliberately reminds us that we are watching a play, intended to create less an emotional bond with the characters than to make the audience think.  (And hopefully consequently take meaningful action.)

This “representational” intention is immediately conveyed by the show’s narrator (and sometimes participant) “El Pachuco”, who introduces the performance by announcing:

“Ladies and gentlemen, the play you are about to see is a construct of fact and fantasy.”

Meaning, “Don’t take the specifics literally.  You are entering the ‘Theater of Ideas.’”

That same message is reprised at the end of the evening when “El Pachuco” offers an array of contrasting scenarios of how the “Lead Character” wound up, ranging from “He died a drug addict” to “He died a war hero, winning the Congressional Medal of Honor.”

Again encouraging us to ignore the “individual” identifying directly with the humanitarian outrage.

Zoot Suit undeniably caused me to think.  Although perhaps not about what the playwright might have primary wanted me to.

Instead, my mind turned to a lesser character in the production, the trial’s presiding judge who – in the play at least, and possibly in reality as well although perhaps not as dramatically blatantly – rigged the trial, via his unbalanced rulings against the innocent defendants.

I wondered how a person – and a judge no less, sworn to uphold the law – could ever behave in that manner? 

It occurred to me as I was thinking that people doing arguably terrible things believe they have justifiable reasons for doing so.  To wit, (imagining the judge’s thinking process):

“These ‘Zoot Suiters’ may actually be innocent.  But we have to send a message to their compatriots who aren’t, thereby saving our imperiled and teetering society.  There are always ‘Casualties of War.’  But we must remember that it is a war and, acknowledging the possible abandonment of some legal ‘niceties’, the overriding objective is to win!’”

(See Also:  Donald Trump and the “Central Park Jogger” defendants.)

That’s what I was thinking about – the rationalization of inexcusable behavior.  I mean, on its surface, it is a reasonable rationalization:  Who’s against saving an imperiled and teetering society?  Armed with this bolstering justification these perpetrators of evil can sleep comfortably in his beds.  While our Constitutional’s framers roll over in their separate but equally incredulous under-homes.

Anyway, this revival of Zoot Suit, though not entirely successful as a dramatic production did succeed in getting me to think.

Which is more than I can say about any recent movies I have seen.

I mean, it’s not like those movies didn’t get me thinking.  The thought foremost in my mind:

“When is this going to be over?”