Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Quote of the Day (Stephen King, on Horror Tales and Morality)

“Within the framework of most horror tales we find a moral code so strong it would make a Puritan smile.” —Novelist Stephen King, Danse Macabre (1981)

Monday, October 18, 2021

Tweet of the Day (Laura Benanti, on Fantasy Football)

“If I ever say the words ‘my fantasy football team,’ just know it is code for ‘I've been kidnapped please help me.’"—American singer-actress Laura Benanti, tweet of Aug. 29, 2013

The image accompanying this post shows Ms. Benanti during the curtain call for the Radio City Music Hall New York Spring Spectacular. It was taken Mar. 22, 2015, by slgckgc.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Spiritual Quote of the Day (Freeman Dyson, on Science, Religion and Unsolved Mysteries)

“Science is exciting because it is full of unsolved mysteries, and religion is exciting for the same reason. The greatest unsolved mysteries are the mysteries of our existence as conscious beings in a small corner of a vast universe. Why are we here? Does the universe have a purpose? Whence comes our knowledge of good and evil? These mysteries, and a hundred others like them, are beyond the reach of science. They lie on the other side of the border, within the jurisdiction of religion.”—Physicist, tech visionary, and author Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), acceptance speech for the 2000Templeton Prize for Progress in ReligionMay 16, 2000

Saturday, October 16, 2021

Quote of the Day (Zach Helfand, on the Umpire’s Strike Zone)

"For many years, an umpire’s strike zone was like an extension of his personality. Some umpires were literalists, uncompromising. Some preferred expediency; their boundaries were enormous. No matter who was working, when it rained suddenly everything was a strike. [Joe] West, the record-holding umpire, is a burly man with a Carolina drawl who moonlights as a country singer and used to pal around with Merle Haggard. He told me one umpire described the old standard for learning the strike zone as ‘You call them strikes until someone goes, “Hey!”’ Another of his friends liked to say, ‘The strike zone is like a television set, and every now and then you need [Hall of Fame Baltimore Orioles manager] Earl Weaver or Billy Martin’—the Yankees’ volatile manager in the seventies and eighties—'to come out and adjust the knob.’ Martin once sent an umpire a Christmas card that read ‘I hope you and your family have a wonderful holiday season.’ On the inside, he wrote, ‘Because you sure had a horseshit summer.’ Video evaluation has reined in some quirks, but the strike zone still changes measurably depending on the score, the team batting, and the pitcher’s race.”— Zach Helfand, “Invasion of the Robot Umpires,” The New Yorker, Aug. 30, 2021

You can be forgiven for thinking that in this offseason, San Francisco Giant manager Gabe Kapler might be sorely tempted to pull a Billy Martin and send Gabe Morales an unpleasant holiday greeting.

The first-base umpire did little to slow down—and, I’d wager, much to accelerate—the movement towards the video-evaluated decisions chronicled by Helfand in his New Yorker piece. In Thursday night’s deciding game of the Giants-L.A. Dodgers NLDS playoff series, Morales sent Wilmer Flores and the rest of the Giants to an aggravated, sorrowing postseason by calling a third, game- and series-ending strike on the first baseman.

Most of the rest of the civilized world believes that Flores checked his swing. That sentiment was not undercut in the slightest by Morales' feeble post-game explanation of his decision. ("I don’t have the benefit of multiple camera angles when I’m watching it live. When it happened live, I thought he went, so that’s why I called it a swing.")

The call certainly short-circuited any chance that Flores could have kept the rally alive long enough to tie the score, or maybe win the game. No amount of talk about how it was a game for the ages will salve the wounds of Giant fans.

Forget about masks, chest protectors, and leg guards: During a game, an umpire’s best equipment are ear plugs, so he won’t tune out insulting references by managers and fans to his ancestry. After a game, he is well advised to avoid any electronic medium that talks endlessly about the contest and his role in it.

Some years ago, an acquaintance of mine yelled out on behalf of her beloved Mets, “Hey ump, I’m blind, and even I can tell that was a ball!” Her taunt provoked much appreciative laughter and cheers at Shea Stadium back then. I suspect that from now on, more than a few Giant fans would echo her.

(The image accompanying this post, if you haven’t guessed, comes from Bull Durham, with Kevin Costner’s catcher Crash Davis being tossed from the game for arguing a call by an ump.)

Friday, October 15, 2021

Quote of the Day (P. G. Wodehouse, on a Valet’s Unusual Literary Taste)


“‘The sky is the limit. State your desire.’

‘Well, sir, there has recently been published a new and authoritatively annotated edition of the works of the philosopher Spinoza. Since you are so generous, I would appreciate that very much.’

‘You shall have it. It shall be delivered at your door in a plain van without delay. You’re sure you’ve got the name right? Spinoza?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘It doesn’t sound probable, but no doubt you know best. Spinoza, eh? Is he the Book Society’s Choice of the Month?’

‘I believe not, sir.’” — English humorist P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), Joy in the Morning (1947)

The valet (and Spinoza aficionado) in the above quote is Jeeves, the indispensable wingman to his utterly clueless employer, Bertie Wooster. They were embodied for a transatlantic TV audience in the 1990s series Jeeves and Wooster, starring (from left to right in the accompanying photo) Stephen Fry as Jeeves and Hugh Jackman as Wooster.

I’m not sure I would want to live in a world where, in one country or another, the creator of this duo, P.G. Wodehouse, would not be a book society or book club’s Choice of the Month.  

Born on this day in 1881 in Guildford, England, he had, by the time of his death 93 years later, published 90 books, 40 plays, and 200 short stories and other writings. He is also, at one and the same time, one of the most polished stylists and funniest writers in the English language.

As good as it is to discover Wodehouse on one’s own, it is even better to hear his work read by a fellow master craftsman. Such was the case in February 2018, during the one-man show John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. One of the two tales conjured up by the versatile actor at that marvelous matinee performance was Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By.”

For a fine introduction to Wodehouse for newbies, see this fine appreciation of the comic novelist by blogger Robert Pimm.

Joke of the Day (Rhea Butcher, on an Unusual Breed of Witches)

“What do you call a group of really tidy witches? A self-cleaning coven.”— American stand-up comedian, actor, writer, producer, and podcast host Rhea Butcher, quoted in “Laugh Lines: Scared Silly,” Reader’s Digest, October 2018

The image accompanying this post is, of course, Elizabeth Montgomery as witched-turned-perfect-suburban-housewife Samantha Stevens on the Sixties sitcom Bewitched.

This is how much she wants to fit in: to clean her house, she uses a vacuum cleaner rather than her usual way to get what she wants—wiggling her nose!

Thursday, October 14, 2021

This Day in Musical History (Loesser’s Saucy ‘How To Succeed In Business’ Takes Broadway)

Oct. 14, 1961—Capping a postwar era in which the executive suite became a cultural preoccupation, the satiric How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying opened on Broadway at the 46th Street Theatre and promptly became a smash. An adaptation of a 1952 bestseller by Madison Avenue maven Shepherd Mead, the musical went on to post 1,417 performances and win the Pulitzer Prize.

But before achieving critical and popular success, the production (hailed as a “sassy, gay, and exhilarating evening” by the Herald Tribune’s Walter Kerr) had to overcome almost as many obstacles as its main character, the relentlessly ambitious window-washer J. Pierrepont (Ponty) Finch.

The irreverent show represented the last Broadway triumph of composer-lyricist Frank Loesser, who had scored his big hit over a decade before with Guys and Dolls, and the first for actor Robert Morse, playing the go-getting protagonist.

The Eisenhower era burst of American prosperity led the entertainment industry to question the notion of success, on film (Executive Suite, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Apartment) and TV (Rod Serling’s Patterns). But seldom has the subject been dealt with in such a cheeky manner as How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.

Ponty’s aim: Reach the top of at the World Wide Wicket Company. His method: Gain the trust of president J.B. Biggley. His obstacles: Biggley’s idiot nephew, Bud Frump (played on Broadway by Charles Nelson Reilly) and Hedy LaRue, whose employment depends less on her typing and shorthand skills than on her obvious anatomical charms.

Although Loesser had written the book for his musical-opera hybrid The Most Happy Fella (1956), he turned the job over this time to Guys and Dolls collaborator Abe Burrows. Loesser’s songs now sprang more organically from the material, a seamless web of the kind of romance found in other musical comedies with a wealth of targets from the world of business: nepotism, the junior executive, diet fads, the ad campaign, the secretarial pool, the office break, and sexism.

In the entire wonderful history of American musical comedy, the lyricists who rivaled Loesser in wit can be numbered on only one hand. 

In one number, he could send up the old-boy network that ran corporations, their sentimental collegiate ties, and the objects of their hatred as sports fans (the “chipmunks”) in “Grand Old Ivy.” 

In another, “I Believe in You,” he penned the kind of love song so often found in musicals, except this time the hero was directing the sentiments to himself as he looked in a mirror—the kind of ironic distance between words and action that Stephen Sondheim would demonstrate mastery of a decade later.

But Loesser and Burrows (who also directed) were fortunate indeed in finding a lead with the manic, zany energy to play Ponty, who assiduously applies the lessons of the kind of American self-help manual dating all the way back to Ben Franklin’s The Way to Wealth.

With his elfin build, gap-toothed smile, and irrepressible energy, Morse was a theatrical Huck Finn, somehow making likable a character with more than a few unsavory Sammy Glick aspects—and was rewarded for his efforts with a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical.

Even having the right lead didn’t guarantee success for the show, though. Along the way, according to a 50th anniversary retrospective Playbill article by Mervyn Rothstein, the show had to contend, before its opening, with:

*the replacement of original choreographer Hugh Lambert with Bob Fosse, who, with practically no time left for preproduction work, had to figure out the show’s numbers at night with wife-muse Gwen Verdon;

*a near-disastrous decision by producers Cy Feuer and Ernie Martin, frustrated by an underperforming out-of-town box office, to rename the show—only to be successfully argued out of the idea by press agent Merle Debuskey; and

*Loesser’s short-lived exit from the show over co-star Rudy Vallee’s never-ending rehearsal insistence on improvements—a departure ended only when he got Feuer to agree to punch out the 1920s crooner when the production concluded (which was never acted upon).

How To Succeed has been successfully revived twice since its original production, featuring turns by Matthew Broderick and Daniel Radcliffe as Ponty. 

Morse, Vallee and Michele Lee (who took over as love interest Rosemary later in its run) repeated their roles in the 1967 movie adaptation—which, though it did not enjoy the success as on Broadway, is still regarded as a largely success transfer to the big screen.

The years after the show brought different fates for veteran Loesser and rising star Morse.

Loesser never again reached the heights he’d enjoyed with Guys and Dolls and How to Succeed. His 1965 musical, Pleasures and Palaces, closed out of town. As critic Terry Teachout notes, in a perceptive essay in Commentary Magazine, the songwriter—depressed that rock ‘n’ roll was rendering his brand of music obsolete—had given up his craft entirely before his death in 1969. 

His demise occurred before he could see revived interest in the Great American Songbook tradition in which he had played such a part through his work in theater and on film (including the saucy—and now rather controversial—Christmas song, “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”).

Increasing alcohol abuse in the Seventies and early Eighties led Morse to the hell of the dinner-theater circuit and even unemployment. But a turn towards sobriety resulted in him winning a second Tony for his turn as author Truman Capote in the 1989 drama Tru, and since then he has worked steadily again in film and on TV.

It was through the latter medium that, now-wizened, the former boyish star achieved his most recent burst of fame, as ad agency founder Bertram Cooper in the long-running cable series Mad Men

You can bet that showrunner Matthew Weiner didn’t mind any memories viewers might have had of Morse in his earlier turn sending up the Sixties business world. Weiner even allowed Morse a sendoff unusual even for that series by having him staging his goodbye as a musical number.