Nice Guys Finish First: The Love Boat’s Gavin MacLeod And The Redemptive Power Of Nostalgia


Cast of The Love Boat. Gavin MacLeod (centre).

Cast of The Love Boat. Gavin MacLeod (centre).

Who wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to meet one of their heroes? Over the course of a career careening towards its fourth decade, I’ve had quite a few chances although experience has taught me to be wary. Singers, musicians, writers, actors, you may love their work but that doesn’t necessarily mean meeting them will be enjoyable or that they’ll enjoy meeting you. The celebrity ego, deeply-ingrained sense of entitlement, the after-effects of substance abuse, age, world-weariness, there are so many factors working against the average Joe being in the company of greatness, self-perceived or otherwise.

While I love their work, for example, I know enough about Jerry Lee Lewis and Hunter S. Thompson to acknowledge I’d never want to spend any time with them (not that I’ll have much of a chance with Hunter this side of the vale of tears).

There’s also the matter of timing. Your heroes are only human after all. Everybody has good and bad days. You just might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, and I’m inclined to bold, underline and italicize however, there are those glorious moments when celestial bodies align and the people you’re most looking forward to meeting are everything you’re hoping for. And more.

As it was recently, aboard the cruise ship Sun Princess, on a voyage from Sydney to Auckland. I’d been commissioned to interview actor Gavin MacLeod, better known as Captain Merrill Stubing of The Love Boat; the editor knew I’d get a kick out of it and she was right. I’m a huge fan of 1970s television shows and The Love Boat is at the very top of the list.

It just so happened I had a copy of Gavin’s recently-released memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking, and one of the local Sydney television channels had run the complete series of Love Boat episodes in chronological order, most of which I’d watched.

For those too young to remember or not of this galaxy, it’s difficult to describe just how popular a show it was. It ran from 1977 to 1987, ten seasons in all. At its peak, it screened in more than 90 countries. It probably still is.

The Love Boat revolved around the adventures of a cruise ship crew – the ship’s chief medical officer, Dr Adam Bricker, generally known as Doc, purser “Gopher” Smith, bartender Isaac Washington, and cruise director Julie McCoy, overseen by a kind yet firm father-figure, Captain Merrill Stubing. A year into the run, producer Aaron Spelling decided it needed younger blood and introduced Stubing’s teenage daughter, Vicki, to the group.

Gavin MacLeod March 2014

Gavin MacLeod March 2014

For a one-hour show, it had something of a radical narrative in that each episode consisted of three stories. One emphasised the crew, another the passengers, and the third veered between the two. The guest stars provided a large measure of interest, anybody and virtually everybody who was reasonably ambulatory and within travelling distance of Los Angeles in those days appeared on the Love Boat; casting favoured well-known, if slightly overlooked, movie stars, some going as far back as the silent movie days.

So, you are asking, how did Captain Stubing come to be on this cruise ship more than a quarter of a century later? Soon after production wrapped in 1987, Gavin MacLeod was signed as an ambassador by Princess Cruises, which had provided the ships used in The Love Boat. The Love Boat itself was, as you’ll find in the opening credits, the Pacific Princess, although others in the Princess fleet stood in from time to time although only for exteriors or location shoots. The cast spent most of their time (at least for the first five seasons) on sets at 20th Century Fox in Century City, Los Angeles.

That Gavin has been an ambassador for Princess Cruises for far longer than he was captain of the Love Boat is remarkable. Founded in 1965, the company was acquired in 1974 by P&O, then taken over by Carnival in 2002. In the meantime, it’s gone from strength to strength; the 18th ship in the Princess fleet, the 3,560-passenger Regal Princess debuted early in 2014. Despite the vagaries of the tourism industry, Gavin has been retained as ambassador and today continues a busy schedule of promotions and appearances. In 2011, he celebrated his 80th birthday aboard the Golden Princess.

Gavin was born Allan George See in 1931 and grew up in an upstate New York town with the unlikely name of Pleasantville. At the age of four, he appeared in a Mother’s Day play at his local school and there experienced an epiphany. His young heart responded to the siren call of applause. He loved it, craved it, wanted more of it. As small as he was, at an age when most of us are still giddy with the novelty of walking or stringing half-intelligent sentences together, he knew he wanted to do whatever it took to hear that applause over and over again.

He was determined to be an actor.

It came to be so. Once out of high school, he moved to New York City where he worked as an elevator operator at Radio City Music Hall while he studied acting. He was young and inexperienced, on the very bottom rung of a career ladder he was anxious to climb but he had one more drawback than most of his contemporaries. He lost his hair at an early age and, as agents and casting people were quick to point out, that didn’t exactly make him the next big thing.

His confidence improved remarkably upon obtaining a second-hand hairpiece. Gavin (by this time, he’d taken another step upwards by changing his name to a more marketable one) readily admits it turned his life around; he even started dating a Radio City Rockette.

In short order, his future looked rosier. His performance in his first Broadway play garnered interest although another cast member, who went by the name of Steve McQueen, ended up on a far faster track. He made friends, including an actor by the name of Marion Ross, of which more later, and director Blake Edwards, and followed the trail of many actors heading west to Hollywood.

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If the 1950s was the East Coast, by the end of that decade he was well established on the West Coast. He took on some movie roles, playing opposite Susan Hayward in I Want To Live (1958), Orson Welles in Compulsion (1959), and Cary Grant in Operation Petticoat (1959), and through the 60s seemed to pop up on every television show of note. Perry Mason, The Untouchables, Dr Kildare, The Munsters, Rawhide, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle USMC, and The Flying Nun, the list goes on. He spent two years on McHale’s Navy with Ernest Borgnine but, as an ambitious actor, he felt under-utilised and under-appreciated.

Then, as the 1970s dawned, things got a whole lot better. He was offered the role of Archie Bunker in a new sit-com called All In The Family. It was edgy and subversive, far ahead of its time, and now regarded as ground-breaking for shattering the staid orthodoxy of American television. Bunker was a blue-collar American, rigidly conservative, bigoted, sexist and misogynistic. To creator Norman Lear, it was a satire although many viewers considered it more a documentary.

Gavin was uncomfortable with the material and immediately knew he wouldn’t be able to portray such a character, even in a comedy. He turned it down. Carroll O’Connor took it on and it became a hit. It ran for nine seasons and netted a trove of Emmy Awards (including four for O’Connor). There were no hard feelings. All In The Family wasn’t the door of opportunity he’d failed to knock on but it led directly to his first great television success.

Almost immediately after turning down All In The Family, Gavin auditioned for the role of Lou Grant, boss of a fictional television news team that would be at the centre of a new comedy called The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Again, he sensed that a hard-nosed yet soft-hearted martinet wasn’t quite his speed and he asked for and won the role of Murray, a sort of Everyman.

Murray was much more a Gavin creation and it resonated with audiences. The show was an ensemble project with even the titular star barely bigger than her supporting cast. Many of the friends he made on set, such as Betty White, continue to the present day. The Mary Tyler Moore Show was a huge success, running for seven seasons and picking up an unprecedented 29 Emmy Awards (a record not broken until Frasier in 2002).

When it ended in 1977, Gavin wondered whether he’d come close to having the same experience, the same enjoyment in turning up each day to work with a close bunch of friends, ever again.

The answer came soon enough. Gavin was offered two pilots. One was a Western with Jeff Bridges in the lead. The other was actually the third pilot to be filmed for an idea that producer Aaron Spelling couldn’t and wouldn’t let go. The first two efforts hadn’t quite gelled and were turned down; some of the previous cast were held over for a third try.

The role of Captain was begging (the first pilot in 1976 had Australian actor Ted Hamilton – known to local audiences from Division 4 – as the Captain; the second Quinn Redeker, an actor best remembered for Days Of Our Lives but who notably received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay of The Deer Hunter).

 

Gavin signing copies of his memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking.

Gavin signing copies of his memoirs, This Is Your Captain Speaking.

 

Just a few months after the second pilot had been turned down, Gavin and the cast were shooting exteriors aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach. In an echo of his Lou Grant experience, the initial Love Boat script called for the Captain to be quite strict, a disciplinarian. Gavin suggested softening the character, making him more of a father figure. Spelling agreed, the pilot was completed. And the top-rating US ABC network, which was already airing smash-hit Spelling productions of Starsky & Hutch, Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island, jumped aboard.

And this, as they say in the classics, is where I came in. At the appointed time to meet Gavin MacLeod, I was ushered to his suite, armed with notepad, pen, copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking (and an Extra Fine Point Sharpie in black, for the all-important autograph), camera and digital voice recorder.

Oh, and eight pages of notes. Did I mention I was a huge fan? Of The Love Boat, 70s televisions and Hollywood in general? Just saying. So, anyway, eight pages of notes didn’t seem excessive for a one-hour interview, although the 42 points I’d bullet-marked for discussion may have tipped the scales slightly into the overly optimistic category.

In an interview situation, I’m happy to take a passive role. Turn the recorder on, chat a little while assessing the interviewee, point them towards the desired subject and do the occasional sheep-dogging but, if they want to digress and it seems relevant or interesting, let them.

An interview will rarely progress the way you envisage. It can be one of those brightly-wrapped parcels under the Christmas tree that reveals a lump of coal. Or it can hold the most magical, enthralling of treats. You just never know what you’re going to get. Some of my best interviews have come from the most unlikely of sources, often because I allowed them to talk about what interested them, without too much in the way of interruption or continually dragging them back to the designated subjects.

Gavin MacLeod greeted me warmly, his handshake firm, his smile genuine. It was soon obvious that this was going to be one of those magical times, when all I needed to do was to switch on the recorder.

Stories, anecdotes, recollections, they all came thick and fast, a lifetime of funny, heart-warming recollections, delivered in a style that recalled Milton Berle and a million other Borscht Belt comedians that Gavin would have associated with in the old days. Gavin was raised a Catholic and remains a committed Christian but there’s a certain rhythm to the delivery, a way showbiz veterans tell a story that borrows much from Jewish traditions; comedic, self-effacing, annotated with a little gentle kvetching.

Aside from the acting roles he did land, an interesting aside were those that were almost his. It was his long friendship with director Blake Edwards that provided the best instances. Edwards put him into the comedy classic, The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers and allowed him to improvise a quick, wonderful scene with a hairpiece. Such was the high regard that Gavin was held by Edwards, that he was considered for numerous other parts. Gavin almost took the Peter Falk role in The Great Race (1965) and the part of Mr Yunioshi in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (1961) that was eventually played by Mickey Rooney. It was on the set of Breakfast that Gavin first met Audrey Hepburn.

Gavin entertains a capacity audience with tales of his acting career.

Gavin entertains a capacity audience with tales of his acting career.

Yet I’m more eager to learn more about The Love Boat and Gavin is happy to accommodate me. He revealed that one of the pleasures of playing Captain Merrill Stubbing was in meeting so many of Hollywood’s most revered actors. Having three plots running in each episode allowed any number of actors the chance to shine and it’d be easier to list those in Hollywood who didn’t appear on the show.

In terms of oldest to youngest, Love Boat guest stars ranged from silent movie stars Lillian Gish, Janet Gaynor (in 1929, she won the first Academy Award for Best Actress) and Luise Rainer (still living in London at the age of 104, she has the distinction of being the first actor to win two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress, for The Great Ziegfeld in 1936 and The Good Earth in 1937), to such 70s pop cultural staples as Andy Warhol and designers Halston and Bob Mackie.

Gavin was often awestruck when meeting so many he’d idolised over the years, yet their own reactions could be even more surprising.

“Can you imagine going to work, and there would be people like Helen Hayes, the first lady of American theatre, and Mildred Natwick. I’ve been on the stage since I was four years old and I wanted to be like all these people, and here they are on my set and they’re saying how nervous they are. Helen Hayes said to me that she did one appearance on The Love Boat and was seen by more people than had seen her in her entire career on stage.”

It was such a great honour working with so many fine actors, Gavin says. “They all knew their lines, they were all prepared.” The difference between traditional and modern actors was readily apparent, though. “If they were from the theatre, it’d be one, maybe two takes. If they were from television, it may be eight or nine takes.”

Gavin gleefully recounts those actors who appeared the most. He mentions Charo, an exuberant Spanish-American entertainer who shtick revolved around her generous figure and penchant for mangled English (a 70s version of Sofia Vergara), who racked up eight appearances. “She was so much fun,” he offered. And close friend Florence Henderson (Mrs Brady from The Brady Bunch), the record holder with 14 times.

Gavin’s wife, Patti, who he married in 1974, divorced in the early 80s, and remarried in 1985, played five different roles on seven episodes.

There were also the cross-over episodes with other Aaron Spelling shows, where the Love Boat cast interacted with characters from Charlie’s Angels and Fantasy Island.

Gavin's inscription on my copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking.

Gavin’s inscription on my copy of This Is Your Captain Speaking.

Among Gavin’s favourite episodes, he keeps returning to a two-part episode in Season 5 called The Love Boat Follies. It had an amazing cast including Ethel Merman, Carol Channing, Ann Miller, Della Reese, Van Johnson and Cab Calloway in a tribute to old-time Hollywood musicals. Incorporating several dream sequence song-and-dance numbers, it allowed Gavin, resplendent in a sequined captain’s uniform, to effortlessly show off a different range of skills.

Gavin recalls that Merman and Channing got on each other’s nerves due to a long-running dispute about who would be collected first each morning by the studio’s limo service. “That episode was one of the highlights of my career,” he says. It didn’t win favour with the critics but that’s no surprise; those who felt obliged to determine the public’s taste rarely cut The Love Boat any slack, a situation that, all these years later, still makes him laugh. “It’s great to be part of something the critics hated but was so successful.”

Another favourite was also a two-parter from Season Five in 1981, which was filmed in Sydney although the visit wasn’t quite everything Gavin could have anticipated. The plot line revolved around the Love Boat crew gathering for the wedding of cruise director Julie McCoy.

Filming had progressed well and included the usual scenes of petting kangaroos and other wildlife. The wedding was scheduled for the day before they were to return to the United States and the penultimate scene was where Captain Stubing would give Julie away to her fiancé, played by Anthony Andrews.

The church was St Mark’s in Darling Point, which would gain a further soupcon of notoriety just a few years later as the place where Elton John married Renate Blauel. On this day, however, rehearsals went well but, when filming commenced and Gavin had to chase Julie as she fled the church in tears, he fell on the uneven flagstones and broke his ankle. For the last few scenes remaining, he was strapped to a trolley and photographed from the waist up.

He has since returned to Sydney a few times. “I just love the people,” he enthuses.

A good friend of Gavin’s who made multiple appearances on The Love Boat is Betty White, who was also part of the ensemble on The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “She’s a National Treasure,” he says. Gavin joined her in filming a recent Air New Zealand air safety video and became the target of tabloid newspapers, reporting they’d had an on-set affair. He laughs it off. “Betty is 93, I’m 83; we’re just happy we can walk.”

The ship on which we were conducting this interview, the Sun Princess, has its own Love Boat connection. In 1998, it was the setting for The Love Boat: The Next Wave, a short-lived continuation produced by Aaron Spelling and starring Robert Ulrich as the Captain. It lasted just two seasons but one episode brought together the original Love Boat crew for a reunion.

Casts of The Love Boat and The Love Boat: The Next Wave

Casts of The Love Boat and The Love Boat: The Next Wave

While Captain Stubing by this time has been elevated to Commodore, the most disturbing aspect has yet to be verified. The series hasn’t been released on video or DVD and only the sketchiest of synopsis is available on the Net yet such that is available suggests that Julie McCoy and the lovable yet romantically-indiscriminate Doc express their long-submerged passions for each other.

Gavin has no memory of this storyline and is rather horrified at the prospect. “That’s so unrealistic, it couldn’t happen,” he says finally. “I would see her more with Isaac. They were very close friends.”

For those who are wondering, the original Love Boat hasn’t fared so well. The Pacific Princess, launched in 1971, had a long and illustrious career, serving under the Princess Cruises banner until 2002. In 2013, it was broken up for scrap metal in a Turkish salvage yard; in a bizarre coda, two workers dismantling the ship died when overcome by toxic gases.

Gavin could have carried on this conversation for far longer and I would have been more than happy to listen. Over the next few days in his company, I watched him interact with the passengers; he was always gracious and patient, happy to answer their questions, scribble an autograph or pose for photographs. At the Princess Theatre, he hosted a chat about his career in front of a capacity crowd, and charmed them all.

For someone of his age and experience, it would be excusable if he wished some peace from his ever-adoring public but he never disappointed. He had a genuine commitment to giving his fans his best, to returning the complement they’d shown him over the years by keeping his shows at the top of the ratings and paying to see his movies.

Unlike many celebrities, there’s no sense that he feels more privileged than anyone else. He’s just like you and I, only his gifts have led him along a different path. He’s had a good life, his hard work and talent has paid off, and he seems genuinely delighted that he is still attracting the love and respect of people he’s never met.

Gavin MacLeod is a fine ambassador for Princess Cruises and doubtless a marketing asset. But he also reminds us that nostalgia isn’t such a shallow pursuit, that in recalling the good times, whether twenty-five months or twenty-five years ago, is a way of commemorating our lives, loves and experiences and those special to us. Of putting aside our differences, the mis-steps and tribulations, of slipping into that deep timeless reservoir of remembrance and bathing in its warm waters.

For me, all it took was meeting one regular guy who has lived a most extraordinary life.

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Gavin MacLeod aboard the Sun Princess. With a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guest appearance from yours truly:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VzN_fgF159w

Gavin MacLeod co-stars with Betty White in this entertaining Air New Zealand in-flight safety video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O-5gjkh4r3g
Words © David Latta

 

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To Die For: Nicole Kidman, Too Many Cocktails and The Greatest Exit Line In The World.


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Note: For those who have been paying attention, this article will seem familiar as it originally ran in May 2011, not long after I started this blog. Over time, it’s slipped so far down the listings that it’s virtually inaccessible but I thought it worth resurrecting as a good example of how a sense of place can be evoked just as much by a person as anything else.

Of the twenty to thirty times I’ve visited New York (I’ve lost track of exactly how many), it’s this incident that I most associate with the city. It brings back so many ancillary memories. While I’d never want to live there, New York remains in my Top Five favourite places.

It was in the late 1990s and I was in New York researching an article on the newest and trendiest martini bars. In reality, this turned into something of a continuing quest and, several visits later, I was still hard at work. It was a tough job but somebody had to do it. I owed it to my readers to be as thorough as possible and damn the consequences to my liver and other vital organs.

On this particular trip, I planned to cover four martini bars a night for the duration of my stay. That evening, I’d started out at the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South, went on to the historic Algonquin Hotel, then to Pravda, a very fashionable bar just south of Houston Street, virtually next door to the building where Grace Adler works with Karen Walker in television’s Will & Grace.

Pravda was below street level with vaulted ceilings and a run-down quality that lent it, at least to New York bar-hoppers, an authentic Russian appearance. By this time, dangerously, I was on my third martini and feeling no pain. To those whose sole experience with cocktails is with the stunted Australian variety, carefully measured out with laborious precision, it’s worth pointing out that an American cocktail is much, much bigger. Alcohol is cheaper and the size of the drink is often governed by the tip you left for the last one.

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At Pravda, I had my fourth martini of the evening in a plush private booth, washing down caviar and blinis. Just as I was considering calling for the bill, the hostess rushed up explain that a VIP group was imminent and would I mind terribly vacating the booth? If I’d be happy to move to a table in the middle of the room (in reality, about 20 feet away), she’d send a round of drinks on the house.

Who was I to turn down such a kind invitation?

Within minutes, in walked Nicole Kidman, the Academy Award-winning actress of The Hours (2002), The Others (2001), To Die For (1995) and, one of my all-time favourite movies, Moulin Rouge! (2001). She was accompanied by her sister, Antonia, and another woman I took for a minder. I was aware that Nicole and husband Tom Cruise were then filming Eyes Wide Shut with Stanley Kubrick in London; it appeared she was in New York briefly for an awards ceremony.

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Our Nicole, as she is known in Australia (born in Hawaii of Australian parents, there’s long been a national pride in her achievements and we even went so far as to consider Tom Cruise, during their marriage, as a sort of Australian-in-law) looked radiant that evening, every inch the movie star, in a body-skimming strapless black evening dress that highlighted her pale flawless skin. She was the embodiment of a movie star. Although not generally the type to intrude on celebrities, I’d certainly consumed enough rocket fuel to think Nicole would be happy, even eager, to greet a fellow Australian.

I held back for a while, aware that the true measure of a celebrity encounter is in the exit line, something witty and sophisticated and memorable. After a suitable period of reflection, it came upon me in a hot rush of originality and creativity. I knew without a doubt that she would be impressed; one Aussie chatting without artifice to another. The skillfully-rendered exit line would be the perfect way to sign off. My sharp but self-deprecating humour, delivered with typical Australian panache, would, I felt sure, be well appreciated after the endless parade of phoneys and sycophants she endured in her professional life.

In hindsight, I recognize that the tingle I felt was not really anticipation but more likely a premonition of rapidly approaching disaster, a train wreck of truly momentous proportions. The engine was tearing down the track, the throttle on full. The bridge was down and the river high. I was in the driver’s seat, Casey Jones cap at a jaunty angle, martini glass in hand, and a maniacal cackle issuing from my frothy lips. The inevitable was rapidly approaching and there was nothing I could do about it, even if I wanted to.

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Standing a little too unsteadily, I pointed myself towards Nicole’s table. Three anxious faces turned at my approach but, once Nicole heard my accent, she seemed to relax. As far as I can remember, she was enchanting and attentive but I have no memory whatsoever of the conversation.

Suddenly, the time seemed right. I deftly maneuvered the conversation towards the exit line and then, just as I was about to permanently impress the Greatest Living Actress of Our Generation………my mind went blank. I stood there uncertainly, my mouth moving but nothing coming out, a sense of helplessness and growing hysteria compounding by the second. If Travis Bickle had suddenly pressed a handgun to my forehead, I still wouldn’t have been able to remember the line.

The combination of my apparent consternation, my mouth motioning silently like a goldfish and my swaying from side to side may have led them to believe I was about to be ill. They shrank back in the booth. I was desperate to flee so, after what seemed an eternity, I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head.

“You’ve come a long way since BMX Bandits.” I then turned for the door and stumbled inelegantly into the night.

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Not long after, Nicole and Tom split up. Was it one of those wild coincidences, I wondered, or had our encounter coloured her decision? Had Our Nicole realised that what was missing from her life was the meat and three veg of a down-to-earth Aussie guy just like she’d met that fateful evening in New York, like the ones she’d left behind when stardom, and Tom Cruise, came calling?

Later, of course, she married Keith Urban, the singing country superstar from Caboolture, Queensland, and her fairytale was complete. Coincidentally, I’d met Keith a few times in the early 1990s when I was working on a book on Australian country music and always found him delightful and entirely uncomplicated. I’m sure he’s still so.

That niggling sense of guilt continues to this day. I can’t help but think that, in some miniscule way, I was responsible for Nicole and Tom’s divorce. Had a nameless Aussie guy with an easy repartee and far too much vodka brought a Hollywood marriage undone? Only Tom’s eventual autobiography will tell.

Words © David Latta

Stills from the wonderful Moulin Rouge (2001) courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Baz Luhrman.

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Thar She Blows: Baked Ham and Veiled Violence in Paul W.S. Anderson’s Pompeii


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A friend called, inviting me along to a preview screening of the new movie, Pompeii. I was bemused and more than a little curious. The trailer was interesting and I was quite looking forward to seeing it. But I also knew my friend and his taste in movies, which ran to what were once referred to as art-house.

He has a well-honed disdain for anything resembling commercial Hollywood cinema (a few days before, we’d seen Nebraska together. I’d sat through so many like it in the 1970s when the kite that was the New Hollywood was as high as many of its participants and there were no reasons I could see to revisit those days. True, Bruce Dern, who was never the most engaging of character actors, rating slightly below Warren Oates for his capacity to engender excitement, was excellent even if I was too often reminded of Jack Nicholson the morning after an Oscars after-party. That director Alexander Payne was constantly signalling the movie’s “importance” by a) filming in black-and-white and b) unfolding the narrative at a pace that made the downhill progress of treacle on a winter’s day seem like NASCAR sailed a little too close to emotional manipulation in my book.).

I wondered, then, if my friend hadn’t mixed up his directors.

Pompeii is directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, whose career has a joyfully unashamed popcorn aesthetic. His Resident Evil series, starring his wife, Milla Jovovich, was based on a computer game as was his Mortal Combat (1995), while his other films, as director and, generally, producer and scriptwriter, includes Death Race (2008), AVP: Alien Vs Predator (2004) and an ever-so-slightly steampunk version of The Three Musketeers (2011).

Kit Harington as Milo.

Kit Harington as Milo.

The W.S. (which stands for William Scott) delineates him from another Paul Anderson, that of Paul Thomas Anderson, another hyphenate, with an output definitely more attuned to the mature demographic. This Paul Anderson attracts acclaim like shit to a Shih Tzu, having been responsible for Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999), There Will Be Blood (2007), and The Master (2012), all of which were garlanded with Academy Award nominations (eight in the case of There Will Be Blood).

I didn’t want to miss this preview or the reaction of my friend. As it turned out, the difference in directors hadn’t occurred to him. Like me, he’d seen the trailer and thought it had potential. I was still along for the ride, though; Pompeii was never going to be anything more than the sum of its parts (and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. To me, movies are enjoyable flights of fancy, narrative wonders that temporarily eclipse the disappointments of everyday life. These days, a frozen Coke and a Choc Top far outweighs the appeal of Mahler and the emotional root canal of Death In Venice).

 I try not to count the anomalies in popcorn movies (continuity errors are another matter). Too distracting. But there was something I couldn’t ignore. The hero, who goes by the name of Milo (don’t ask), as a small child with more than a passing resemblance to Emil Minty, is the sole survivor of a massacre of his Celtic village by Roman centurions. He is sold into slavery and becomes a gladiator.

Much is made in the production notes of Paul W.S. Anderson’s extensive research into his subject material. Which leads us to Milo’s casting; the character’s people are Celtic warriors, the most feared of the barbarian hordes who rampaged across Europe, ruffling the togas of the ancient Greeks and, later, Romans, in the process.

Emily Browning as Cassia.

Emily Browning as Cassia.

Celts were renowned warriors, generally characterised as tall and muscular, towering over their Mediterranean foes. So in casting the lead role, it appeared Anderson had a certain inclination towards Orlando Bloom (who he’d worked with on The Three Musketeers). Bloom, being otherwise occupied, the casting call went out, which must have attracted every barista, indie musician and underwear model in North America. Kit Harington, who knew his way around a sword from playing Jon Snow on Game Of Thrones, eventually got the gig. That Harington was even smaller than Orlando Bloom didn’t seem to bother anybody.

Anderson’s female lead of choice, Milla was also busy but, in the spirit of feisty waifs, Emily Browning was signed as the love interest, Cassia, the daughter of a Roman nobleman. Already well-known to fanboys for the saucy bits in Sleeping Beauty (2011) and Sucker Punch (2011), Pompeii was well on the way to satisfying its target demographic. At least on paper.

In surveying the result, it’s worth reflecting on why so many actors in swords-and-sandals epics are required to emulate mid-century BBC radio announcers. Kiefer Sutherland, as the arch baddie, Corvus, a Roman senator with more than a touch of the Jack Bauers, except crueller, crash-tackles the accent conundrum with characteristic flair. Variety, in its review of the movie, suggested Sutherland was impersonating Boris Karloff. That’s fair although I also detected Charles Laughton and Sydney Greenstreet, all of them delivering their lines while wearing ill-fitting dentures.

If another of the Roman baddies, played by Joe Pingue, is anything to go by (doing a wicked version of Frank Thring in his Biblical epic days) is anything to go by, there may well have been a competition on set to impart the fruitiest menace.

Kiefer Sutherland as Curvus.

Kiefer Sutherland as Curvus.

Competitive acting aside, Pompeii is an enjoyable hyphenate – action-adventure-disaster-movie-romance. The characters and situations may be well-worn but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. The art direction and digital effects are good, and the 3D (filmed, not post-production) immersive if a little muddy.

The forbidden love between the Roman noblewoman and barbarian gladiator is contrasted with the volcano as it glowers over the city, bubbling, threatening to break its confines, in cutaways that will have even the most naive of teenage boys simmering along. The explosion of molten heat grows closer by the minute and so too does Mt Vesuvius.

Kit Harington is buff and affects a take-charge demeanour but doesn’t totally convince. Emily Browning is effulgent as ever. Their pairing is not the most electric but there’s an undeniable drama in their quest to escape the city and the engulfing firestorm, which threatens to transform them into ashen Lladro.

Sutherland is the true delight; he chews the scenery in big meaty hunks, spits it out and whips it up into a double-baked cinematic soufflé.

(From Left) Jarrod Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Browning, and Carrie-Anne Moss.

(From Left) Jarrod Harris, Kiefer Sutherland, Emily Browning, and Carrie-Anne Moss.

A notable quibble is Pompeii’s curiously muted approach to the violence and eroticism that should be expected from such a storyline; bodily fluids flowed more prominently in the cable Spartacus. Overall, though, Pompeii is enjoyable and, in the right circumstances, worth the price of admission.

Perhaps, as Anderson did with The Three Musketeers, the movie could have benefitted from a bit of steampunk. Or even, as in Resident Evil, zombies. Nothing wrong with injecting a little originality into a bog-standard plot.

As I consoled my friend, who had been hoping more for Bergman or Bertolucci, I noted that while W.S. definitely wasn’t Thomas, there were far worse things he could be. For example, he’s certainly not Uwe Bole, a director with a similar aesthetic who has fashioned something resembling a career from movies based on video games. While W.S. in most cases pleases the fans, even ultra-finicky fanboys, there’s a general consensus that Bole has come closer than anybody in history to achieve alchemy in that he consistently manages to transform celluloid into stinking piles of dog turd.

Pompeii mightn’t be Paul W.S. Anderson’s best movie but, on many levels, it does what it sets out to do. It’s an enjoyable companion for an empty couple of hours, a fizzy drink and some snack food. Sometimes, that’s all someone needs.

Words © David Latta

Photos courtesy Icon Film Distribution

 

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The Collector’s Life: The Mexican Spitfire – Lupe Velez and Hollywood’s Ultimate Indignity


Lupe in East Is West (1930)

Lupe in East Is West (1930)

 

Amidst the sunshine and palm trees of Beverly Hills are deep shadows, some of which have lingered for a very long time. Where North Rodeo Drive intersects with Sunset Boulevard is the garish confection known as the Beverly Hills Hotel. Opened in 1912, it has hosted just about every Hollywood celebrity since the silent film era; the only reason more scandals and tragedies associated with the Pink Palace aren’t better known is the cone of silence maintained by management, an institutionalised gossip vacuum which has snapped a lid tighter than Tupperware down on its influential and highly-valued guests.

Guided tours of the immediate area point out the public park just across the road where pop star George Michael indiscreetly answered a very different call of nature in 1998 into the arms of a waiting policeman; the house of Linden Drive where, in 1947, gangster Bugsy Siegel was gunned down in the lounge room of his girlfriend’s home; the cosy suburban cottage where another hard man, mob enforcer Johnny Stompanato (who, coincidentally, worked for Mickey Cohen, the man who took over Siegel’s operations) was stabbed to death by fourteen-year-old Cheryl Crane, daughter of actress Lana Turner in 1958.

And within walking distance from all of these is a location on North Rodeo, now much changed, where, on a chilly evening a few weeks before Christmas 1944, a beautiful and talented thirty-six-year-old actress decided she’d had enough. Dressed in blue silk pajamas, she retired to bed with a nightcap of 80 Seconals and a glass of brandy, and was ushered into that strange, dark and enduring kind of immortality that only Hollywood can generate.

I came to know Lupe Velez not through her movies, many of which I’ve since had the privilege to discover, but from a collection of vintage publicity photos. I’ve been collecting such items since the mid-1970s but it’s not been until on-line auction sites like eBay opened up the market that the truly choice stuff has become readily available, especially to someone as far removed as Australia.

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

Lupe in an MGM publicity shot circa 1931

On visits to Los Angeles, my first stop would generally be my favourite showbiz bookstore, Larry Edmunds (founded by Larry himself in 1938; in true Hollywood underbelly fashion, he exited life with his head in a gas oven just three years later. The store, however, continued under his name). On Hollywood Boulevard, a few blocks from the corner of Vine, it holds somewhere around 500,000 photos, 6,000 movie posters and 20,000 movie and theatre books.

It’s in a part of Hollywood that’s ground zero for any serious movie fan, with a heritage that stretches back to the very earliest days of orange groves and nitrate stock. Within a few minutes’ walk is the restored 1923 Egyptian Theatre, now operated by the American Cinematheque as one of its LA revival houses (the other being the Aero in Santa Monica); the Musso & Frank Grill, opened in 1919, where such writers as Raymond Chandler and F. Scott Fitzgerald were regulars and where I dined on one visit with cult 70s director, Monte Hellman; Boardner’s, a classic 1940 cocktail bar that has changed little since Robert Mitchum and Ed Wood (possibly wearing a fetching angora sweater and pearls; no jaunty scarf) would knock back shots (it’s so unashamedly dowdy and original, it was used in LA Confidential without very little set dressing needed); and Micelli’s, dating back to 1949 with the best spaghetti and meatballs around.

Larry Edmunds was always good for movie stills, even if they were modern restrikes. Later, on eBay, I would uncover a couple of reputable sellers of wonderful vintage photos at ridiculously good prices (see my earlier blog –  http://davidlatta.org/2013/09/19/the-collectors-life-lester-glassner-and-the-nobility-of-the-continuum/ ).

Hence, like Pete Seeger, we turn, turn, return to Lupe Velez. As I mentioned, I didn’t know a lot about her when I bought these photos but they were so beautiful and the prices so very right I couldn’t resist.

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

With E. Alyn Warren in East Is West (1930)

What I did know was from recent rescreenings of her Mexican Spitfire series on late-night television. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

María Guadalupe Villalobos Vélez was born in San Luis Potosi, in north-central Mexico, in 1908. She was dancer who came to the United States to further a show business career. She was young, beautiful and extremely exotic, qualities that worked in her favour when she was asked to do a screen test for MGM.

Although that didn’t pan out, she was hired by Hal Roach for a Laurel & Hardy comedy, Sailor Beware (1927). With a vivacious and comedically combative nature, Lupe’s star rose quickly and by the time silent film was being supplanted by sound, she was a leading lady. In the pre-Code years, she became even more popular. This was despite Hollywood producers not displaying an overly evolved vision of her possibilities; her Latin heritage and accent had her playing largely ethnic roles although on occasion they veered towards the ridiculous (Russian, American Indian, even Asian; in East Is West (1930), she played Chinese as did that other well-known ethnic actor, Edward G. Robertson).

While she handled drama well, and she could sing and dance with the best of them, she really shone in comedy, gleefully overplaying her Mexican heritage into something of a caricature. Fiery and argumentative with a motor mouth capable of paralysingly-funny malapropisms (“You’ve been trifling with my afflictions,” she angrily informs one unsuitable suitor), the peak of her comedy was undoubtedly the Mexican Spitfire series produced by RKO in the 1940s.

East Is West (1930)

East Is West (1930)

From the early efforts, The Girl From Mexico (1939) and its sequel, The Mexican Spitfire (1940), the series encompassed eight movies and, although largely featuring the same plots, are great fun. It’s interesting to compare Lupe with Sofia Vergara of television’s Modern Family and trace the lineage of kooky, Spanglish-challenged south-of-the-border media portrayals through the decades, from Lupe via Carmen Miranda and Charro to the present day. Some things, it seems, never change.

It’s difficult to know just how close Lupe’s on-screen character was to her own but some clues lie in her often stormy relationships. She was romantically linked with many men including silent movie star John Gilbert. She married Johnny Weissmuller, the Olympic gold medal swimming champion and on-screen Tarzan (who, legend has it, a Hollywood executive discovered by the swimming pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel) in 1933. Lupe and Johnny were a volatile combination. They divorced in 1939.

However, Lupe’s great love was Gary Cooper, who she met on the set of the 1929 silent movie, The Wolf Song. Again, it was a relationship that proved rocky, prone to violent arguments and physical confrontations; when Cooper had an affair with Marlene Dietrich on the set of Morocco (1930), Lupe famously threatened murder and most probably would have if the mood had seriously taken her.

Despite her best intentions, it seemed Lupe’s temper as much as her temperament drove any chance of love and happiness from her. She made another bad choice with married Austrian actor, Harald Maresch. In 1944, she found herself pregnant and alone and in December took the fatal overdose that also claimed the life of her unborn child.

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

With tiger cubs, promoting Kongo (1932)

It’s barely worth mentioning Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and his treatment of this sad episode but it’s there if anyone cares to look.

Whether she meant to end it all, had had enough and wanted the pain to stop or if it was a cry for help that went unanswered, we’ll never know. There are some who suggest that, today, Lupe would be diagnosed bipolar.

What is possible is that Lupe Velez, in modern times largely forgotten (aside from Kenneth Anger’s sordid Grand Guignol spin on her passing), is well on the way to being rediscovered. Australian author Michelle Vogel’s Lupe Velez: The Life and Films of Hollywood’s “Mexican Spitfire” was published in 2012. The film rights have been optioned and a biopic is planned, produced by and starring Ana de la Reguera (Cowboys and Aliens).

In the meantime, enjoy these wonderful old photos of Lupe and seek out her films. I’m sure you’ll agree she was remarkable and certainly didn’t deserve what happened to her – during her life and after.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s own collection

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The Collector’s Life: Lester Glassner And The Nobility Of The Continuum


Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)

Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)

It’s the realisation that chills many of us, haunting those early morning hours before dawn, when our subconscious is at its most vindictive.

You live, you collect, you die. And a new generation of collectors are waiting and eager to pick through the pieces and the cycle starts all over again.

I’m not even sure when I started collecting, or even why, but it would have been sometime around the mid-1970s and I was drawn to Hollywood movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Collecting was in its infancy and there were few places, especially in Australia, to acquire such pieces. Prices were ridiculously low. An avid movie-goer, it was a way of extending my interest in film, of acquiring things that other people didn’t have.

In those pre-Internet days, collecting was a solitary occupation. I had no idea how many others, with interests like mine, were out there. Eventually, with eBay and other on-line marketplaces, the market exploded and I discovered many, many others like me. The walls came down and we were able to obtain choice items, often from the other side of the world.

No matter how obscure our interests, whether it was vintage Hollywood memorabilia (like me) or barbed wire, airline sick bags, fossils, shellac 78rpm records, 19th century cookbooks, farm machinery, or anything else people collect (and it’s likely that there’s nothing out there that doesn’t attract a hardened core of collectors like birds of prey on roadside carrion), the Internet brings us all together to discuss, critique, evaluate, acquire, disperse and/or regift.

The Net giveth and the Net taketh away. Collectors like to think they’re in control. They buy what they want, decide on the extent on their holdings, and sell their duplicates or weaker pieces to acquire better ones.

Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)

Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)

The elephant in the room is the one thing they can’t control – their own mortality. They can spend their entire lives amassing the most fantastic collection, ticking every box they’ve ever envisaged. But time is running out. Eventually, the fruits of their labour will outlive them. And, in most cases, it will be dispersed. At fate’s most humiliating, it will be simply dumped or destroyed by relatives who have no idea what they’re dealing with. Or it will go to auction houses or eBay, parted out, item by item, to people with the same interests, merging into other collections.

As Sammy Davis Jr. was wont to observe: the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.

Take Lester Glassner, for example. Ring any bells? No, thought not. No reason why it should. I have no idea whether Lester was a Catholic but, for collectors, he must rank as a patron saint. To be a collector, it’s necessary to have something of an obsessive nature. Lester turned obsession into an art form, in the nicest possible way.

It all started, innocently enough, for Lester in the early 1960s when he purchased a Mickey Mouse lamp from a junk shop in Buffalo in upstate New York. It was the mere hint of a breeze, an almost imperceptible dropping of barometric pressure that quickly built into a cyclonic frenzy of collecting which never abated.

He gained such recognition as a collector of what became legitimised as pop culture that, on his death in 2009, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries.

He concentrated not just in one area but across an almost unlimited range and scope, with so many different collections that he was probably uncertain of what he had. His holdings of vintage movie stills, for example, eventually totalled more than 250,000 pieces and he made a considerable income from licensing these for newspaper, magazine and book reproductions.

His four-storey townhouse on East 7th Street in New York City became crammed with his holdings.

Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

As the New York Times observed: “Dolls and wind-up toys, plastic fruit sculptures and costume jewelry, sunglasses and makeup kits, greeting cards and matchbooks, salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments, not to mention movie stills, posters, cardboard cut-outs, books, magazines, records and 8- and 16-millimeter films: they made up a museum-sized collection. And they turned his long-time home, a brownstone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into, literally, a private museum, one that Mr Glassner would gladly show to friends, and friends of friends.”

His personality had much to do with affection and respect he generated. Again from the New York Times: “Soft-spoken, with a gentle manner, Mr Glassner was by most accounts an eccentric man but not an antisocial (or even unsociable) one, as consumed hobbyists have been stereotyped. He was apparently gifted (or cursed) with the contradictory attributes of an avid collector. He could be terrifically discerning but he could also be omnivorous. He was a relentless browser of antique stores, Internet marketplaces like eBay and collectors’ catalogues.”

He published a book about the influences on his collecting in Dime Store Days (Viking Press, 1981). It had a foreword by Quentin Crisp and introduction by Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; when Loos died in 1981, she left Glassner her hat collection.

Some of his collections remain intact. In 2001, he donated almost 500 vintage movie posters to the Library of Congress. The earliest was a 1921 poster of The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln, while others included Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (two of his favourite films), Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, and Rebecca.

A collection devoted to vintage African-American memorabilia including some 2,500 rare children’s, theatre and film books, was donated to Buffalo State College.

Many other items were dispersed through auction houses and eventually made their way onto eBay. While most movie stills available on eBay are modern reprints, and to the practised eye readily distinguishable as such, it’s still possible to find original vintage stills at remarkably reasonable prices.

An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)

An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)

An original movie publicity still is a remarkable item. The weight, wear and look (a sepia-like tint of age), with a back marked by photographer or studio stamps, archive notations (from such as Lester Glassner’s collection) or press releases. Some in my meagre collection (at least compared with Lester’s) are 80 years old and it’s not entirely necessary to be a romantic to feel the hands they’ve travelled through in that time – from studios to newspapers or magazines, buried for years in filing cabinets then liberated to collectors and archivists such as Lester and, finally, to me.

I’ll let them go one day, these treasured pieces of Hollywood’s lost art, carefully arranged, hair and make-up exactingly so, costumes draped and stylised, poses held stock still, breath in, backs straight, while bulky plate cameras drew agonisingly long exposures under the florid heat of arc lamps on airless soundstages for movies that no-one now remembers and indeed may no longer exist.

I may let them go voluntarily or not. But it’s a cosy realisation that I’m part of a continuum, a guardian of sorts for something special. That I’m in rarified company with people like Lester and, although I’ll never be in his league, I recognise some of his qualities as my own. And, hopefully, what I will pass on will continue to be treasured as others who preceded me did.

It’s all a collector can truly hope for.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s collection

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Smoke On The Water: New Year’s Eve 2012 On Sydney Harbour


NYE2012x1629LO

For once, I’ll be relatively succinct. I’ve spent a couple of New Year’s Eves shoulder-to-shoulder with the hordes cramming the shores of Sydney Harbour and vowed never to do it again. In 2012, it was a case of “never say never”.

It must be said there are many better uses for $5 million than sending it high into the air where it explodes noisily in bright colours. But nobody asks me. So each year, NYE dutifully rolls around and more than one million Sydneysiders and visitors stake out their places around the edges of the Harbour at first light and wait through the day for darkness to fall and the bread and circuses to begin.

There are two rounds of fireworks – at 9pm, ostensibly for families, and midnight. Seven fireworks barges are anchored along the harbor with other pyrotechnic units on the Sydney Harbour Bridge and several office buildings at Circular Quay.

Sydney Harbour Bridge and crwods at East Circular Quay

Sydney Harbour Bridge and crowds at East Circular Quay

For the more sensible, the television coverage, beamed around the world, offers a distinctly better vantage point. What it lacks is the sweaty, crowded, intoxicating bonhomie of sharing the moment with countless others, oohing and aahing as the explosions rattle the bones and the night sky is stitched with light. They probably said the same thing about the Western Front.

The A-listers party at the Sydney Opera House, amongst celebrities, politicians and the beautiful and connected. At Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and the Botanic Gardens, a canapés’ throw away, ordinary folk do exactly the same thing but without the French champagne or, in fact, any alcohol of any kind.

The police had closed off Circular Quay and The Rocks by early afternoon, when it was deemed to have reached capacity, and BYO alcohol was not allowed in although hotels, restaurants and numerous food stalls were operating.

Cheek-to-cheek revellers

Cheek-to-cheek revellers

While Northern Hemisphere celebrations can be distinctly frosty, in Australia – if the weather is right – it’s balmy and still. NYE 2012 was just such a night. It had been a hot sunny day, a showpiece of summer, and by 9pm it was still about 21 degrees Celcius.

I would never have entertained the thought of doing it again except for a friend’s kind invitation to spend it on the 15th floor of her mother’s East Circular Quay apartment, which as can be seen from the accompanying photographs had spectacular views from the CBD and Circular Quay to the Bridge and up the Harbour as far as South Head.

Traversing the police road closures was quick and highly efficient and an official pass allowed a picnic basket crammed with champagne to proceed unmolested. Travel into the city was easy by train; and out again just as painless. It was the perfect demonstration of crowd control, how to disperse countless thousands of people quickly and without drama. Police, check-point security, public transport workers, everybody that could have been pissed off that they had to work such a major public holiday weren’t and those who could be expected to have attitude didn’t. At least as far as I could see, NYE in the Sydney CBD was one big love-in, brimming over with good humour and respect.

Blue-lit AMP Building with crwods along Cahill Expressway

Blue-lit AMP Building with crowds along Cahill Expressway

Sometimes, human nature can be a surprising thing. Consider the magnitude and you have the makings of a very special event.

Enjoy the photos. Oh, and Happy New Year.

Sydney Harbour Bridge get its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge gets its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge get its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge gets its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge get its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge gets its own pyrotechnic display

Sydney Harbour Bridge In Blue

Sydney Harbour Bridge In Blue

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

The Sydney Opera House and Farm Cove

Words and photos © David Latta

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Diamonds and Dog Droppings: Getting Down and Dirty On The Trail Of Weird Christmas Music


Amongst my many interests, I’m a collector of what I’ve come to call weird Christmas music. Each December, I put together a CD compilation for my friends of the treasures I’ve found, the strangest of the strange plus some favourites that the season wouldn’t quite be the same without. I started in 2002 and I still keep coming across notable tracks although I have to dredge through a lot of crap to uncover the truly sparkling gems.

Back in 2004, the Sydney Morning Herald ran my article about weird Christmas music. It was cut quite dramatically and PC’ed. Here is the full version, edited and updated. Enjoy.

Santa’s Dirty Secret: The Strange Tale of Weird Xmas Music

It’s fair to say that there’s never been much for Australians in Christmas music. Most of us wouldn’t know what a chestnut looked like, let alone seen one roasting on an open fire. And when was the last time we went dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh?

Which is why our rebel hearts cry out for a suitable soundtrack for the times. Christmas music that tells it like it is. More National Lampoon Christmas Vacation than It’s A Wonderful Life. There’s ain’t no angels at Christmas, George Bailey, and if you jump off that bridge, there’ll be no second helpings of pudding, either.

Flip through the racks of Christmas CDs, or endure shopping centre musak and it’s all Michael Bolton, Mariah Carey and Kenny G. Yet there’s a whole nether world of Christmas music out there, charting a darker place, sardonic and questioning, playful yet with the traitorous kiss of a razor blade. A true post-9/11 take on the world and the way we look at it.

Ditch Sarah Brightman and Barbara Streisand and listen instead to Tom Waits, Spinal Tap, AC/DC, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Booker T and The MGs, Spike Jones and His City Slickers, Otis Redding, Bob Dylan, Tiny Tim, The Partridge Family and The Ronettes. There’s something for everybody. Biting satire and loving homage. Jazz, swing, country, R&B, punk, comedy, novelty, pop and blues. There’s gay Christmas songs, Jewish Christmas songs (OK, Hannukah, then) even songs for people who really want this Christmas to be their last.

Uncovering a great weird Christmas song is like finding a redback nestling in Nanna’s fruit cake. It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.

When Tommy Dorsey recorded “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” in 1934, the snowy sluice-gates of popular, commercially-driven Xmas music opened wide. In 1947 the Singing Cowboy and star of radio and silver screen, Gene Autry, wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus”, inspired by the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade. It was a hit but not as big as the one he had just two years later.

“Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” has been spinning around record players so long he’s generally assumed to be a traditional member of the North Pole community. Yet Rudolph was invented by a Chicago copywriter, Robert May, for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.

It started as a Christmas story given out to the store’s customers in 1939 until May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks (who would later pen “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, an enormous hit for Brenda Lee, and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”), immortalised the rosy appendage in song.

Gene Autry’s 1949 version sold 2.5 million copies before the year was out and total sales now hover around the 30 million-mark.

In 1948, Spike Jones and His City Slickers weighed in with “All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth”. Jones’ trademark was to cleverly deconstruct the wildly popular Big Band craze, hacking away its sophisticated allure and subverting it with complete chaos. There weren’t many sound effects, including gunshots and blood-curdling screams, that couldn’t be incorporated into a Spike Jones song. Think the Goons crossed with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre meet Glenn Miller.

By the 1940s, the greatest of all Christmas songs (and even weird Christmas music fans will admit to it) was well and truly established. In May 1942, cardiganed crooner Bing Crosby recorded a number of new songs written by Irving Berlin for the movie Holiday Inn. One of these was “White Christmas”. It became an instant classic. So much so, that the record’s original master was worn out by 1947 and had to be re-recorded. It is this, the second version, that people know today.

The curious Xmas completist should check out the two-CD Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas – The Complete Decca Christmas Songbook (MCA 1998), which has four versions of “White Christmas” – the 1942 “A” take discarded due to a slight fluff Crosby made near the end of the recording, the released second 1942 “B” take, the 1947 re-recording, and a 1954 version with Peggy Lee and Danny Kaye.

Bing Crosby, strange as it may seem, is the patron saint of weird Christmas music. This has as much to do with “White Christmas” as it does with his duet on “Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie in 1977. So if “White Christmas” in all its schmaltzy glory is hip, what’s the cut-off point?

A sense of fun is the deciding factor. And irony. It’s safe to assume that Dean Martin is cool but Neil Diamond is not. Dean’s irony may be martini-enhanced but it’s fair to say that Neil Diamond considers irony to be something that happens to his satin shirts. The Carpenters and Nat King Cole, although skating dangerously close to an ice-thin saccharine crust, are nonetheless cool and thus reside on that outer edge of the weird music spectrum.

It’s when Christmas music enters the Twilight Zone that things really get interesting. It becomes the perfect antidote for those who consider Christmas music to be aural wallpaper, agreeable background static to the frantic Yuletide season.

Many of the best are novelty songs such as the 1953 hit for 10-year-old Gayla Peevey, “I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas”. A child star in her native Oklahoma City, Peevey’s song inadvertently became a case of life imitating art. After blitzing the nation, a publicity coup saw Peevey presented with her very own baby hippopotamus, which she promptly donated to the Oklahoma City Zoo.  Named Matilda, the mammoth mammal led her own famed existence until 1998 when she was due to be transferred to Disney World in Florida. In a sad twist to the Xmas tale, the Matilda died en route.

By the 1950s, Christmas turntables were swinging with such classics as Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”, Bobby Helms’ “Jingle Bell Rock”, and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” from pint-sized package Brenda Lee.

Over the years, there’s been some great novelty Christmas songs. Comedian Martin Mull lent the Big Red Guy some street cred with “Santafly”, a take on 70s blaxploitation movies, while Weird Al Yankovich tells what happens when the pressure gets too much in “The Night Santa Went Crazy”.

In 1999, The Little Stinkers, fronted by seven-year-old Mary Beltrami, fanned the winds of Xmas with “I Farted On Santa’s Lap”. Fashion tips also get a look-in with Canadian satirist Nancy White telling us “It’s So Chic To Be Pregnant At Christmas”.

The king of novelty Christmas songs must be Bob Rivers, a Seattle radio DJ with a series of parody CDs. In deconstructing popular songs, he comes up with such Pythoneseque tracks as “Chipmunks Roasting On An Open Fire”, “Wreck The Malls”, “I Came Upon A Roadkill Deer”, and “It’s The Most Fattening Time Of The Year”. Rivers also contributed a parody AC/DC Christmas song, “Hell’s Bells”.

But who needs a parody when you have the real thing? AC/DC released their own, “Mistress For Christmas”, in 1990. The roll call of rock’s tinsel-tonsiled hard men include The Damned, The Ramones (with the festive “Merry Christmas – I Don’t Want To Fight”), Blink 182, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, Slade, and even Spinal Tap. Most are individual tracks available only on compilations although an exception is the entertaining A Twisted Christmas from heavy metal cross-dressers, Twisted Sister.

Lou Reed’s “Xmas In February” gets a mention not only for almost being a Christmas song but as one of the very few that deal with Vietnam (along with Johnny & Jon’s 1966 curiosity “Christmas In Viet Nam”, and “There Won’t Be Any Snow (Christmas In The Jungle)” by Derrick Roberts).

Tom Waits’ “Christmas Card From A Hooker In Minneapolis” is a Xmas song in title only but is worthy of inclusion nonetheless. Waits, however, waited for a truly Gothic moment to enter the Xmas annuls with the darkly roiling, thumping excesses of “Christmas Sucks”.

And for those who think “‘Twas The Night Before Christmas” can’t be weird, try Henry Rollins and his muscular steamroller of a version.

Television shows and celebrities are well represented with Xmas selections from The Waltons, Ren & Stimpy, South Park, Jerry Springer and a truly great album from The Partridge Family.

Mae West’s Mae in December (1980) is so obscure it appears in very few of the film star’s discographies but it’s a great album with such choice cuts as “Put The Loot In The Boot, Santa”.

Another swag of weird but worthy Christmas outings include “Homo Christmas” by 1990s gay San Francisco punk band, Pansy Division, drag queen RuPaul’s Ho Ho Ho album and Merry MeX-Mas from El Vez, the renowned Mexican Elvis Presley impersonator.

Tiny Tim’s Christmas Album, an important inclusion in any collection, was recorded in Sydney in 1993 under the guidance of Martin Sharp. Australian band Girl Monster (fronted by Campbelltown-born and now US-based alt country songstress, Anne McCue) recorded “Dead By Christmas”, one of the very few seasonal songs that stress the ultimate in self-determination.

Dread Zeppelin, a reggae band fronted by a 130-kilogram Elvis impersonator and best known for its individualistic interpretation of Led Zeppelin songs, released The First No-Elvis in 1994.

Big-band, swing and lounge music provide some brassy Xmas distractions with special mention going to the Brian Setzer Orchestra, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Royal Crown Revue, 60s space-age bachelor pad purveyor Esquivel, and Canadian crooner Jaymz Bee & The Royal Jelly Orchestra.

There’s so much great R&B and soul that it’s almost impossible to catalogue. My faves include the evocatively-titled “Back Door Santa” from Clarence Carter, and The Harmony Grits, comprising members of the original Drifters, who in 1959 recorded a bouncy interpretation of “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town”. And 14-year-old Frankie Lymon, reaching way beyond the top shelf where the presents are hidden for the high notes on “It’s Christmas Time Again”, which dates from around 1957.

The grand-daddy of all R&B festivities is Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (1963) with The Ronettes, The Crystals, and Darlene Love battling to be heard above Spector’s trademark Wall of Sound. The album has been reissued so many times and in so many forms, it’s one of the easiest to find (the 1988 CD release inexplicably includes a couple of turgid Elvis Presley tracks).

The Big Red Guy’s transportation dilemmas was an underlying theme of many country songs including Alan Jackson’s duet with Alvin and The Chipmunks on “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Pickup Truck”, The Tractors’ “Santa Claus Is Comin’ (In A Boogie Woogie Choo Choo Train)”, Toby Keith’s “Hot Rod Sleigh” and Buck Owens’ “Santa’s Gonna Come In A Stagecoach”. Joe Diffie, however, preferred a country-fried reinvention of another legend with “Leroy, The Redneck Reindeer”.

The Twilight Zone Award for weird Xmas music goes to songwriter Red Sovine. His 1978 mistletoe missive, “Faith In Santa”, otherwise known as “Billy’s Christmas Wish”, tells of a street Santa who meets a sad and sickly little boy with a story that distends even country music’s already flexible definition of tragedy. Just as listeners think the song can’t get any more heart-rending, the final twist is beyond description and extremely creepy. Keep the Kleenex handy and a bucket even closer.

Like much of the Xmas season, disappointments abound. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ Christmas album from 1962 has only two cuts that even come close to the group’s successful formula of soaring falsettos high enough to make dogs’ ears bleed. The Three Stooges recorded a number of seasonal songs very late in their careers and it tells, the boys sounding so tired they seem to nap between choruses

Albums by Fats Domino, Liberace, Elvis Presley, The Monkees, Cyndi Lauper, Melanie, and Jackie Wilson sadly gather in the why-bother category. More often than not, Christmas albums by some of the 60s biggest rhythm and blues acts, including Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, fall into this trap and the label most guilty of such infringements is Motown, whose releases are generally so earnestly devout, so busy over-stuffing the Christ into Christmas they bleed the joy from joyous. One happy exception is The Jackson 5 Christmas Album from 1970, an infectiously boppy celebration of the season.

My own Christmas wish? Certainly not a new release from the Jingle Cats, whose 1994 album Here Comes Santa Claws was enough to threaten goodwill to all our four-legged friends. No, each year I beg Santa for a Leonard Cohen Christmas album.

Like so many people on Christmas morning, I know I’ll end up disappointed. But conjure the possibilities, if you will. Pass the razor, please. I’ll have an egg nog and a hot bath.

Words  © David Latta

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