Saturday, January 01, 2005
"The late greats"
"This year saw the passing of a number of notables in arts and entertainment."

Do you ever read the year end lists? Today's LA Times listed the departure of 151 notables in arts and entertainment. I hope I counted right so as not to seem to have excluded anyone mentioned there. It seemed a very long roster, especially for someone like me who usually avoids such things. Passings. It's a little sad to think about the dimming of such lights. And the whole experience can be downright sobering. What a strange way to mark the end of one year while presumably getting ready to look forward the next.

This year's no different. Mixed in with the many other famous names I recognized were several people I'd actually met and got to know bit. They are in their rightful place as the stars, and I recognize I was the bit player or the crowd scene extra who appeared in any of their lives. They all left strong impressions in the shifting sands of time, as well as on people who came in contact with them. One of the guys on the list I remembered only for being quite rude to me, and that was over ten years ago, but I shouldn't mention him here because he had nothing to do with music. But what a way to be remembered even by an anonymous person like me. In the old days, I would say "let that be a lesson for you -- be polite to that bus driver (store clerk, waitress, etc.) but nowadays why even bother to instill such refinements as manners or courtesy or even simple consideration.

Met Jan Berry and maybe I'll tell you about that sometime. Gypsy Boots was a health food advocate down Hollywood way. Steve Allen played the piano when Gypsy appeared on his show to announce his candidacy for President. The slogan Allen made up for him: "Nuts and fruits for Gypsy Boots". Gypsy has since been credited with originating the phrase, "Don't panic. Go organic." His is a name certain generational cohorts would recall.

Didn't meet Marlon Brando. Didn't meet Ray Charles, but I gave his album as a Christmas present to a friend whose dad taught choir and classical music at a nearby college. The starchy dad ended up listening to Ray Charles Greatest and made the first and only conversational remark to me when he admitted when I asked him what he thought of it. He'd liked it.

Well, come to think of it -- in fact, there are many more people on that list who I've never met, talked to, or sat across a restaurant from than the handful I did.

You’ll say, huh -- so what, my coffee’s getting cold. This is getting at the point. Their passings usually and immediately remind me of other people I've known who are now departed. Their passings remind me of in some way of them, the people I've known that were in some oblique way involved these celebrities. And I probably knew those people, a lot better (or a little better, depending) than anyone who will ever make an LA Times End of Year Passings List. But the list reminds me of times gone by.

Spalding Gray I'd met, but I won't go into that here.

Here's the big anecdote. Ray Stark. I could start this off by saying I could tell you a lot of stories about him. But I can't. I know of only one.

I knew a person because I kept running into and otherwise bumping into him in Westwood tea shops or on shopping trips for shoes or visiting trips with my folks when I was a few years younger. It turned out he was interested in attending college in the same town I lived in and he would have to show up once in awhile for all the various stages of the “campus tour,” tea at the dean’s, and other parts of the do-I-want-to-go-to-this-college process.

I guess he did. He eventually managed to break through the admission process despite his association with “Hollywood,” and started going to school there long about fall of 1962 or 63. He caught my attention more because he was the original “block buster.” Be patient and I'll explain that in a minute. I would help out with the “little theatre” productions on campus and run into him there, too. His Dad would always find time to show up for those performances and sat in the audience wearing his black beret. You might have heard of his Dad, Ray Stark. He was pretty famous as a producer of those “Hollywood” movies. I knew his son, Peter.

To let you know some part of the social milieu, the colleges were private, exclusive, and expensive. None the less, they were highly respected and had genuinely attracted great teachers. There is always some form of one-upsmanship in academia which sometimes takes its lower expression as a put down, so the graduates of certain Eastern schools would be dismissive of our little village’s schools. They tended to say that the kids who attended these colleges were simply rich kids who bought their way in and weren’t of “suitable caliber for any of the Seven Sisters,” and dismissed the place out of hand as “the poor man’s Ivy League.” The strong implication being that the students and their parents, by not being born into a family with a prestigious name and inherited wealth, were simply inferior by nature of birth. The local colleges in their attempt to develop a legitimate reputation by emulating some of their competitors occasionally lost sight of
things and tended once in awhile to imitate the worst aspects. The local colleges were accused even by recent graduates of being “snob factories” themselves.

For instance, the colleges sought to recruit students from what I can only comparatively call “the nouveau riche.” This would be the intellectual fodder drawn from the groups who were recently making their way up the social ladder, the children of industrial magnates and so on. During the admissions process, the colleges at that time discriminated against certain “types” of even that society, and in fact had refused entrance to a qualified student who wanted to attend. The refusal was couched in vague, high-flown, and bureaucratic language. Van Heflin’s son had applied to go to school and was turned down. The scuttlebutt around town that could be quoted after hearing it first or second hand, was that some elements on the admissions board thought and said “the son of a Hollywood actor has no business here.” Because it seemed that some of the powers-that-were at the schools were saying people who happened to be born into certain families should simply go on down the track and attend schools that the colleges themselves regarded as inferior to themselves, watch out. This was a serious matter. And more especially so because the discrimination seemed based on parental occupation in “Hollywood.” These schools were known as “liberal arts” colleges. And we would say, “liberal” arts? How can they call themselves that unless they’re deluding themselves. And even if they’re not and know they’re not really “liberal” arts, what’s with the discrimination. I mean, Van Heflin is a German name, he'd likely fit right in ... what gives?

Peter was sure to run into problems in moving through academic society there, in that precious village, especially when mixed in with all the problems of growing up as he did in Beverly Hills society, so we did our best to make his stay in town passable for him. His grandma'd worked in vaudeville, my grandma worked in vaudeville, and there was blindness in each of our families, those were about the only things we had at all in common.

Peter was a young man just trying to strike out on his own in life and he was facing his own sorts of challenges. So we’d talk to each other a rare now and again at the college get-togethers -- he’d come over to my house a few times to listen to music, we’d talk about comedy, we’d talk about books that had made it to the screen, mostly comedy -- books like The Egg and I, or Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Whether these films were successful adaptations, or if that really mattered if it were a comedy, and how the funny bunny books weren't being written like they used to back when people read for entertainment. And this and that. Not a lot, we didn't talk about these things a lot as we did not have a great deal to do with one another. He had ideas about movies from a point of view that until then was far removed from me. He also didn’t have a lot of people to relate to at college, was forced by rules to live in the dorms, and he would go home nearly every weekend, sometimes beginning with Tuesday night.

He enjoyed humor a lot, but the people he was around on campus didn’t understand his form of “goofing.” Or just misunderstood him entirely, it seemed. Some college official suggested he try out for the rugby team. Some of the guys in the dorm would bait him, and instead of getting into a slugfest, he’d just respond by ratting his hair or something to freak them. So I think he was pretty lonely there. I remember him joking about keeping a bottle of gin and martini shaker handy at all times in his glove compartment in case he got stuck in a traffic jam when driving through the village. (You easily catch that joke: there were no traffic jams at that time in that small precious village).

Also, Peter was Jewish so maybe the colleges were beginning to change some of their other attitudes by admitting the son of a person rich from Hollywood.

At this time, this was a village of less than 1,200 year-round residents (the college students weren’t even computed into the census figures) and had one traffic light at a downtown intersection. At that time we had all of three (maybe six, maybe twelve, hard to tell, really) Jewish families settled there within the boundaries of the town. The Jewish folks there at that time seemed to keep their heads down and did their best not to be noticed too much in order to “blend.” There were no black families in residence anywhere within the “city” limits until the recently widowed Mrs. Medgar Evers was invited to move in to a little rental house up on 10th street, which she did do, but that was a few years after the time I am speaking of, a little later in time. And I’ll be damned if the neighbor next door didn’t run a Dixie Flag up the flagpole. Can you imagine anyone, anyone rotten enough to do that even living in the same town as you?

Anyway, Ray Stark died this year. He was likely the most influential of all the people I've mentioned so far, the ones I'd encountered a bit that is. But his death this year (together with Spalding Gray's) actually made me think more about Peter's. The domino effect.

As it ended up for him, in 1971, Peter committed suicide by throwing himself through the window of his NY apartment. The next thing I heard about was a crass talk-show remark from an actor who'd appeared in many of Ray Stark's films and who'd come to rely on the producer and the beneficence of Hollywood. This could be seen as a strange remark indeed. Off-the-wall or off-the-cuff, or just reaching for a convenient example, but one that happened to throb with sensitivity. Something like, "I've been disappointed in my career, too. But you don't see me jumping out a window because of it." And there likely was a blow-up of some kind and the actor was soon persona non grata.

And me, one day all these people came crowding into my mind, for reasons unclear and so unknown to me now (but that's what they mean by having a lasting influence, I guess), I made up a small song one day to the tune of a famous Elton John song (Can you guess which one?)

“So Goodbye, Elliot Gould
It’s your old society now
You can’t trash the guy in the penthouse
He’s just not listening now

Up to the bottom and down to the top
You’ve been sowing the corny-fed rows
Oh I’ve decided your future lies
Will express the past like this.”

I didn't, of course, know the actor in question. The important thing to me is that Peter had been working on a movie script in college, a comedy, and one I'd got to hear a bit about from him as the idea began formulating. After Peter's death, Ray found the raw script, writers polished it up as happens, and the movie premiered in 1975, which was the year I caught it playing in a multiplex in a ridiculous hick beach town called Hollywood-by-the-Sea. Believe it or not, the whole thing revolved around a real dream my sister once had, which in hearing about from me, totally cracked Peter up. I think that was the first time I had ever seen him actually laugh. He thought that was the funniest thing he had heard that day. In that dream of hers, my sister was in a car crash and carried to a hospital unconscious, where she remained in a coma, had reconstructive facial surgery and orthodontic enhancements, lost weight due to the lengthy duration of drip-feeding, and emerged from the coma a changed person -- beautiful, and so she was instantly popular. As seemingly effortless and unconscious glide to social acceptability as we each in our own way had witnessed others around us make. Peter expanded on that premise to have her unrecognized, disguised by a new mask, wreak revenge on some of the people who had previously made her life miserable. What can I say in this case except hooray for Hollywood. So there, you see, you can say you know that Hollywood can be a place built on dreams.

You might think I'm breaking my own rule here, going on so long about a movie and not mentioning music, but Peter was also the grandson of Mr. Stark, the man who developed the sheet music business in New York in the 1900’s. And Peter's grandma was Fannie Brice, and you’ve probably heard of Barbra Steisand who made a movie about Fannie Brice and so on.

The end. Know what I mean?

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