Farrago for March 29–April 4

Ka-booms, whipped cream, and a double serving of Sondheim.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


MARCH 29

1918: Pearl Mae Bailey is born in Newport News, Virginia. One of the greatest singers and entertainers of the twentieth century, she conquered vaudeville, Broadway, and television. Her film performances, sadly, were too few and far between, but younger generations will always recognize her as the voice of the owl Big Mama in Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. Her Dolly Levi remains, however, the stuff of legend, partially immortalized on a surviving broadcast of The Ed Sullivan Show, including the famous monologue preceding “Before the Parade Passes By.”

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“Where’s the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!”

1958: Hare-Way to the Stars debuts. The first Marvin the Martian short in five years after Duck Dodgers in the 24½th Century, Hare-Way marked Bugs Bunny’s third run-in with the immortal “character wearing the spittoon.” This is by far the most visually stunning of the MtM shorts under director Chuck Jones, thanks to Maurice Noble’s stellar production design of futuristic terraces and elevators sprawling out amid some breathable pocket of space. One of the highlights is Bugs’s lazzi with the buzzardly “Instant Martians” on the rocket scooters.

MARCH 30

1746: Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes is born in Fuendetodos, Spain. Whether mammoth canvas or macabre etching, Goya fused the masterly traditions of Europe’s artistic past with an ironic modernity reflecting his own present.

“Escena de Inquisición,” (1808-1812). Oil on panel. Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando.

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1913: Animator and Disney Legend Marc Davis is born in Bakersfield, California. One of the famous Nine Old Men of Disney Animation, Davis worked on most of the studio’s classic features until the 1960s, when he turned his hand to the design and development of the company’s amusement park attractions. Davis was tasked with animating many of the great female characters in the studio’s canon, none greater than Sleeping Beauty‘s Maleficent (voiced by Eleanor Audley) and Cruella De Vil from One Hundred and One Dalmatians (voiced by Betty Lou Gerson). The all-to-rare Disney Family Album series did a great episode on Davis with extended interview clips.

MARCH 31

“All that is real and can be sensed is in constant contact with magic and mystery; one loses the consciousness of reality.”

1872: That prince of impresarios, that scion of sybarites, Sergei Pavlovich Diaghilev is born in Selishchi.

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Serov’s 1904 portrait of Diaghilev.

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1913: A mostly unsuspecting audience gathered in the Golden Hall of Vienna’s Musikverein for a performance by the Wiener Konzertverein conducted by Arnold Schoenberg. Turmoil eventually broke out and the concert never finished.

On the Programme:
Anton Webern: Six Pieces for Orchestra, op. 6
Alexander von Zemlinsky: Four Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck (eventually Nos. 1, 2, 3, and 5 in op. 13)
Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1, op. 9
Alban Berg: Orchesterlieder, nach Ansichtkarten-Texten von Peter Altenberg, op. 4, nos. 2 and 3
Gustav Mahler: Kindertotenlieder

The performance disbanded before the Mahler, which meant that only 13 pieces were performed, always a fun number for the triskaidekaphobic Schoenberg.

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1935: Herb Alpert is born in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles. Whipped cream for all.

APRIL 1

1919: The traditional anniversary of the founding of the Staatliches Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, under the direction of Walter Gropius, here (center) with other instructors from the later school in Dessau. His manifesto for the group from that year reads thus: “So let us therefore create a new guild of craftsmen, free of the divisive class pretensions that endeavored to raise a prideful barrier between craftsmen and artists! Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.”

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1932: Debbie Reynolds is born in El Paso, Texas. The last of the great broads of entertainment, Reynolds kept up a remarkable career until her final years.

APRIL 2

1891: Artist Max Ernst is born in Brühl, Germany.

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1939: Marvin Gaye is born in Washington, D. C.

APRIL 3

Edward Carson: “The majority of persons would come under your definition of Philistines and illiterates?”
Oscar Wilde: “I have found wonderful exceptions.”

1895: Thanks to a badly-spelled calling card inscription from the Marquess of Queensbury and an aesthete’s hubris, the libel trial of Wilde v. Queensbury began on this date in 1895 at the Old Bailey. The Marquess was eventually acquitted and Wilde was left bankrupt with two further trials, incarceration, disgrace, and ruin ahead of him. Wilde’s predilections for the young poor force a difficult reckoning in our own era, where he is held up as an author as well as a martyr for gay rights. If tried today, he likely would be labeled as a sex offender.

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Cartoon from the Police News, May 4, 1895.

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1968: Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey goes into general release. It is still one of the guiding pillars of cinematic science fiction, with a tactility, believability, and mystery which has yet to be surpassed, along with the benefit of one of cinema’s most insidious villains (“Dave, my mind is going.”). It is also a musical smorgasbord, with (not uncontroversial) slices of Henry Dacre (“Daisy Bell”), more Ligeti than you’ll ever hear in most concert halls, Johann Strauss II, and, of course, Richard Strauss. I suppose there’s something to be read into Kubrick’s choice of Karajan’s recording of Also sprach Zarathustra from Decca, which the company’s management considered a sales liability and initially suppressed the connection. Much like Strauss’s tone poem, the philosophical currents of the film are, properly speaking, “freely after” Nietzsche (and a number of others). Though the notion of the “eternal recurrence” remains perhaps its deepest connection with the motif of the monolith, there’s a certain wicked resonance with the emphasis on weightlessness, the final tableau of the Star Child in orbit, and Nietzsche’s exhortation to kill the spirit of gravity.

APRIL 4

1906: Bea Benaderet is born in New York City. A presence on countless radio and television shows, she is probably known as the original voice of Betty Rubble for Hanna-Barbera, as well as countless other characters in the Warner Bros. animated shorts of the 40s and 50s. Along with the annoying bobbysoxer Red Riding Hood (“HEY, uh, GRANDMA! That’s an awfully big nose for you… TO HAVE.”), this moment may be her finest: “Goodness! Can’t a body get her shawl tied? Heavens to Betsy!”

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“Crazy business this, this life we live in.”

1964: Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle opens at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway. An absurdist outing with Arthur Laurents, it only lasted for 9 performances before closing. Whatever the reservations about the book, it is a genius score, with more pearls than most could hope for in a lifetime. The original cast album, recorded after the show closed, is a marvelous artifact of Angela Lansbury’s first musical and, hey, Lee Remick should’ve done a few more.

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“Nature never fashioned a flower so fair.”

1971: Sondheim and James Goldman’s Follies opens at the Winter Garden Theatre. A gorgeous and bittersweet love letter to so much that’s temporal, it is one of the few musical works that remains genuinely haunting, like a vision in vapors. Probably best they didn’t stick with the plan to have it be a murder mystery.

Until next week!

Farrago for March 22–28

Highlights for the coming week.

farrago, n. — A confused group; a medley, mixture, hotchpotch.


MARCH 22

1912: soprano/mezzo-soprano Göttin Martha Mödl is born in Nürnberg. After making her debut in Remscheid at age 30, she later became a superstar of the Hamburg and Berlin ensembles before emerging as one of the postwar period’s greatest singing actors at the Bayreuth Festivals. An Isolde, Brünnhilde, and Kundry of great ferocity, she later shifted to mezzo roles which showed her talents in arguably equal, if not greater, depth. Like Astrid Varnay, Mödl was a rare appearance on studio recordings, but the world is all the better for the long roster of live performances she left behind. Two selections: first, her historic and effortless “Verklärung” (yes, you read that correctly) from the end of Tristan und Isolde from Bayreuth in 1952 under Karajan; and a later performance of great interest to me, Waltraute in Götterdämmerung from Bayreuth in 1967 under Böhm. Waltraute to some might seem to make act 1 of this work interminable, but in fact, she may be among the most crucial characters in the entire drama for relaying to Brünnhilde the penultimate steps in the twilight of the gods. Say what you want about her voice here, this is casting for the gods and Mödl acts the shit out of it.

Mödl not being Kundry, despite the image.
Queens we were never good enough for.

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“It’s the fragment, not the day.
It’s the pebble, not the stream.
It’s the ripple, not the sea
That is happening.”

1930: Stephen Sondheim is born in New York City. I can’t add anything more, and I’m not being obsequious. The work says it all. Below, an essential excerpt from the CBS Camera Three documentary “Anatomy of a Song” wherein Sondheim breaks down one of his masterwork moments “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures. Music is at its best when in transcends time in all its facets and that’s what this song does more than any other.

MARCH 23

1910: Akira Kurosawa is born in Tokyo. All roads in the history of cinema connect with him, arguably the greatest of film auteurs. Image, character, and sound are epically connected in his work, which is based above all, on story and writing.

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1953: Everywoman Chaka Khan is born in Chicago.

MARCH 24

“My lord I am tied with a chain of iron about my neck… I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”

1603: After forty-four years of rule, Elizabeth I—Gloriana—departed this life.
Out Bess, in James. Out rose, in thistle.

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The Corsham Court allegorical portrait of Elizabeth, with putti, Father Time, and Death.

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1939: Fashion and costume legend Bob Mackie is born in Monterey Park, California. You know a Mackie rag when you see it and that is the mark of a true artist. Below, talking about his work on The Carol Burnett Show, where fashion met story and comedy brilliantly.

MARCH 25

1881: Composer, pianist, pedagogue, and ethnomusiologist Béla Bartók is born in Sânnicolau Mare, Romania, then Nagyszentmiklós in the Kingdom of Hungary. That order of occupations is by no means fixed for, indeed, Bartók moved between so many musical endeavors it is hard to close him off in one particular cell of activity. In all of Bartók, one finds a universe of thematic, structural, and dramatic ideas whose complexity often seems at odds with the photographs of the very timid, slender man. Or, perhaps, the photographs complement the elegance of his depths, for there is hardly anything gratuitous in Bartók. Every effect evolves with the most natural construction, finely wrought over time as the sketches show. I am always struck and stopped by the notion of Nachtmusik (night music) in Bartók, those mysterious creations of shadow where time is transmuted into something that is deadly and inviting. Like Schubert, however, there are moments of terrific jollity, something either lacking or otherwise absent in the music of his contemporaries. His music has helped me through so many rough periods professionally and personally. I don’t think there will ever be an act of musical release stronger than the Fifth Door in Bluebeard’s Castle, but few collections are more meditative and conducive to thinking than the piano and chamber works, particularly the quartets.

Jessye and Pierre bursting open the universe.

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1942: The Queen forever, Aretha Franklin is born in Memphis, Tennessee. Nuff said.

MARCH 26

“I was once asked why I travel so much, and I said, ‘Because it’s harder to hit a moving target!'”

1911: Thomas Lanier Williams, known to eternity as Tennessee Williams, is born in Columbus, Mississippi.

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1919: Strother Martin is born in Kokomo, Indiana. Among my favorite character actors, Martin was always at his best as the superciliously bitchy, though his Captain in Cool Hand Luke showed how venomously effective he could be. Here sparring with Kim Darby in the original True Grit: “I wouldn’t pay that for winged Pegasus!”

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1949: Vicki Lawrence is born in Inglewood, California. Whether serving us Mama or turning out the lights in Georgia, Lawrence is the consummate entertainer. Above all, she knows that even more than timing, a good comedian needs to know how to wait:

Momma speaks out.

MARCH 27

1924: Jazz phenomenon Sarah Vaughan is born in Newark, New Jersey. Superlatives will forever fail to do her justice.

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1934: Dance legend Arthur Mitchell is born in Harlem. The first African-American principal for Balanchine’s New York City Ballet, Mitchell later founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969 in association with Karel Shook. Below, the famous pas de deux with Diana Adams in Stravinsky’s Agon.

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1950: Maria Ewing is born in Detroit, Michigan. Opera was never the same again.

MARCH 28

Dutch Reporter: “You were the ‘box office poison’, it was called?”
Dirk Bogarde: “No, I never was that.”
DR: “I read it in the newspaper.”
DB: “You mustn’t read papers. They’re all rubbish.”

1921: The ever-eloquent and urbane Sir Dirk Bogarde is born in West Hampstead, London.

Dirk Bogarde, British actor, in a signed publicity photograph

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1999: Philip J. Fry freezes 1000 years into the future on Fox and Futurama is born. Animation rarely had such wit, whimsy, and heart in one series.

Until next week!

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