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Touched by Tokyo: Hairstylist to the Stars Tokyo Stylez

August 27, 2016 1 comment

Born William Jackson, this Omaha native is known to the world today as Tokyo Stylez. His “Touched by Tokyo” tagline follows this hair stylist to the stars wherever he goes. His ability to make clients look fabulous and feel glamorous for photo shoots and red carpet events, combined with his own singular, striking appearance, has him on the fast track to fame and fortune. Tokyo’s mother, Nebraska girls basketball legend Jessica Haynes-Jackson, is a friend of mine whose life story I am due to tell in a book. Beauty and hoops run in this family. So does a history of deaths by gun violence. This story doesn’t get into all that, but the book I’m doing with Jessica will. Despite hardship and tragedy, its a family of great resilience. Their collective and individual stories offer inspiration. Tokyo is their shining star and Mom and Co. couldn’t be any prouder. This is my profile of Tokyo in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Tokyo4

Touched by Tokyo

Hairstylist to the Stars Tokyo Stylez

August 26, 2016
©Photography by Alain Nana Kwango
Illustration by Kristen Hoffman
Appearing in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

If you don’t consider Omaha a beauty-style launching pad, think again. Homegrown talents Jaime King and Gabrielle Union tear it up on screen, in photo spreads, and for the red carpet. Designer Kate Walz has a Paris collection to her credit. But no one’s trending hotter than hairstylist-to-the-stars William Jackson, aka Tokyo Stylez.

This lithe young man with striking African-American and Native American features is courted for his dope skills with tresses.

“Hair is the new accessory now,” he says.

It all began in Omaha doing his family’s hair. It morphed into an enterprising hustle that became his calling and career. Based in Washington D.C., he’s a bicoastal creative with a celebrity client list: Lil’ Kim, Toni Braxton, Fantasia, Naomi Campbell, Rihanna, Gabrielle Union, and Kendall and Kylie Jenner.

“It’s all about building relationships and a trust that you can create their image—their look—and bring it to life for them,” he says.

Tokyo2He’s signed to make over a TV-publishing icon. He’s close to realizing a dream of doing hair for divas Beyonce, Madonna, and Cher. He appears on TLC’s Global Beauty Masters. He tours, giving tutorials. His “Touched by Tokyo” brand features a hair fragrance mist and custom wigs.

It’s all happening so fast. But he’s ready for it.

“Right now is my time, and I just have to capture it and take things to the next level,” he says in his sweet, soft voice.

He feels his versatile chops set him apart.

“I’m like a big creative ball wrapped in one. I have a little bit of everything. You want to take it to the street, I can take you there. If you want soft, chic, and classy, I can do that. If you want a little high fashion. I do that, too. I’m just out of this world. Anything you want, I’ll do. I plan to be the next Paul Mitchell,” he says without brag.

His dreams got fired at 9 when his mother, Jessica Haynes-Jackson, was incarcerated. Some bad choices led to being caught up in a drug ring. She got busted and served several months in prison. While confined, Tokyo and his siblings lived with their father. Before going in, she says, “I asked Tokyo to take care of sissy’s hair while mommy was away. He was delighted and gracefully accepted the challenge. I knew he could do at least one ponytail, and that was all I expected.”

Except he proved a prodigy, replicating what he saw his hairdresser grandma and his mom create—braids, twists, French rolls.

He says, “I picked it up really quick. That’s kind of where I got an idea I knew what I was doing.”

When his mother was released, he couldn’t wait to show her his handiwork.

Tokyo1“She had never seen it. She’d only heard my grandmother telling her, ‘He’s killing it.’ So to show her and to see the look on her face was a great feeling.”

“This was how we discovered his amazing talent that now the whole world enjoys,” Haynes-Jackson says.

By 15, he made a name for himself doing hair. Meanwhile, his mother earned two degrees, became a mental health counselor, and coached. She is his biggest fan and inspiration.

“She’s always supported me and loved everything I’ve done. She’s an awesome lady. She is very independent. She’s never really asked anyone for anything. She’s always found a way to make things happen. I definitely would say I’ve inherited my drive from her.”

“I think what I love most about Tokyo is his warm, gentle spirit,” his mom says. “He is the same person despite his celebrity status. I think what touched my heart the most is when he traveled with his ‘Glam Squad’ to give a teenage girl battling a rare cancer a surprise makeover for her prom. I am a very proud mom.”

Tokyo’s travels have gone international. Life in the fast lane means dropping everything to do high profile gigs with tight deadlines.

He got an early taste of being a coveted stylist in school.

“Everyone came to me to get their hair done—girls and boys. My mom’s friends and clients. Their daughters. I was in such high demand it was crazy. People would be passing me notes, ‘Hey, can you do my hair after school?’ It was always something. But I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

Tokyo3With “a very steady clientele, the money was coming in,” he says. An attempt at a dancing career led to taking Tokyo as his stage name.  Seeking a bigger market as a stylist, he moved to Atlanta where he rebranded as Tokyo Stylez and blew up on social media. Celeb clients followed. In D.C. he’s minutes from New York fashion central and a nonstop flight from L.A.’s entertainment capital.

He plans to have a business presence in Omaha.

“I definitely want something back at home where it came from. It would only be right to do so.”

Meanwhile, he changes perceptions of Omaha wherever he goes.

“People are like, ‘You have black people there?’ I get that every time.”

Visit touchedbytokyo.com for more information.

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An Od to Ali: Forever the Greatest


An Od to Ali: Forever the Greatest

©by Leo Adam Biga

When Muhammad Ali burst onto the scene as a provocateur and poet among athletes, he was a revelation. He freely drew from bigger than life sports personas who preceded him to create an image that was one part schtick and one part deeply held personal conviction. Because of his boxing brilliance, his charming demeanor, his bold attitudes, his outspokenness and his genius for using the mass media times he intersected with, he gained an unprecedented platform and emerged as an original among citizen-athletes. Before his arrival there were athletic figures who transcended their sports, such as Jim Thorpe, Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones, Jesse Owens, Bill Tilden, Joe Louis, Babe Didrikson and Jackie Robinson, but none even came close to the impact Ali eventually made. That’s because he was a black man who openly defied the system in support of his own beliefs. His braggadocio and conversion to Islam did not endear him to many at the time. Indeed, his words and actions were viewed as a threat by most outside the black community. His refusal to enter the Army during wartime on conscientious objector grounds earned him support and respect in some quarters but made him a pariah most everywhere else. At the height of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements he became a powerful symbol of defiance and a powerful advocate for social justice. For many African-Americans, he embodied what it meant to be a strong, self-determined black person. He represented Black Pride and he unabashedly pronounced that Black is Beautiful. His message affirmed self-love as well as love of one’s heritage and people. At the very peak of his boxing greatness, he was stripped of his world heavyweight title and denied the opportunity to make his livelihood in the ring. Instead of wallowing in bitterness, he fought for his rights and he celebrated his blackness at the very moment when the struggle for equality and true emancipation reached its zenith.  Having risen to the top and taken a fall, he then came back bigger than before to reclaim his former title and glory. That’s when he transformed from star to living legend and icon. Then, when Parkinson’s ravaged his body, he didn’t let that setback define him as some tragic figure who retreated into the shadows, rather he used his fame as a tool for humanitarianism. Has there ever been anyone who once antagonized and alienated so many and then went on to become such a universally beloved figure? No athlete since him has come close to being the worldwide icone he became, not even Michael Jordan. Indeed, no popular enterrtainer or public figure of any kind has come close to his impact. Ali did nothing less than inspire billions of people by appealing to our shared humanity and challenging us to live up to our better ideals and to realize our potential. His legacy is all about breaking down barriers and building bridges. It’s all about dreaming and walking into Greatness. When he boasted that he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” he was really instructiing us to follow his example and to move through life and through whatever it is that we do with grace and purpose. He touched our hearts and expanded our minds by speaking the truth and having the courage of his convictions. Rest in Peace. Forever the Greatest.

 

Muhammad Ali: Power, Magnetism and Personality by Wishum Gregory

Being Dick Cavett

December 4, 2010 2 comments

Dick Cavett & Alfred Hitchcock

Image by Stewf via Flickr

The recent publication of Dick Cavett‘s new book, Talk Show: Confrontations, Pointed Commentary, and Off-Screen Secrets, is as good enough a reason as any for me to repost some of the Cavett stories I’ve written in the last few years. I’m also using the book’s release as an excuse to post some Cavett material I wrote that hasn’t appeared before on this blog.  I’ve always admired this most adroit entertainer and I feel privileged that he’s granted me several interviews. With his new book out, I plan to interview him again. For me and a lot of Cavett admirers he’s never quite gotten the credit he deserves for raising the bar for talk shows, perhaps because almost no one followed his lead in making this television genre a forum for both serious and silly conversation.  Cavett never quite caught on with the masses the way his talk-jock contemporaries did, and I’ve always thought it had something to do with his built-in contradiction of being both an egg-head and a stand-up comedian at the same time.  The following story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) was based on a face-to-face interview I did with him in Lincoln, Neb. in 2009.

 

 

 

 

Being Dick Cavett

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in a 2009 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

While Johnny Carson’s ghost didn’t appear, visages of the Late Night King abounded in the lobby of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Temple Building.

Carson’s spirit was invoked during an Aug. 1 morning interview there with fellow Nebraska entertainer, Dick Cavett. That night Cavett did a program in its Howell Theatre recalling his own talk show days. Prompted by friend Ron Hull and excerpts from Cavett television interviews with show biz icons, the program found the urbane one doing what he does best — sharing witty observations.

The Manhattanphile’s appearance raised funds for the Nebraska Repertory Theatre housed in the Temple Building. The circa-1907 structure is purportedly haunted by a former dean. Who’s to say Carson, a UNL grad who cut his early chops there, doesn’t clatter around doing paranormal sketch comedy? His devotion to Nebraska was legendary. Only months before his 2005 passing he donated $5.4 million for renovations to the facility, whose primary academic program bears his name.

The salon-like lobby of the Johnny Carson School of Theatre & Film is filled with Carsonia. A wall displays framed magazines — TimeLifeLook — on whose covers the portrait of J.C., Carson, not Christ, graced. Reminders of his immense fame.

A kiosk features large prints of Carson hosting the Oscars and presiding over The Tonight Show, mugging it up with David Letterman. In one of these blow-ups Carson interviews Cavett, just a pair of Nebraska-boys-made-good-on-network-TV enjoying a moment of comedy nirvana together.

It’s only apt Cavett should do a program at a place that meant so much to Carson. They were friends. Johnny, his senior by some years, made it big first. He hired Cavett as a writer. They remained close even when Cavett turned competitor, though posing no real threat. Cavett was arguably the better interviewer. Carson, the better comic.

 

 

 

They shared a deep affection for Nebraska. Carson starred in an NBC special filmed in his hometown of Norfolk. He donated generously to Norfolk causes. Cavett’s road trips to the Sand Hills remain a favorite pastime. Though not an alum, he’s lent his voice to UNL, and he’s given his time and talent to other in-state institutions.

Looking dapper and fit, Panama hat titled jauntily, Tom Wolfe-style, the always erudite Cavett spoke with The Reader about Carson, his own talk show career, his work as a New York Times columnist/blogger, but mostly comedy. In two-plus hours he did dead-on impressions of Johnny, Fred Allen, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Charles Laughton. His grave voice and withering satire, intact. He dropped more names and recounted more anecdotes than Rex Reed has had facelifts. Walking from the UNL campus to his hotel he recreated a W.C. Fields bit.

He’s so ingrained as a talking head Cavett’s comedy resume gets lost: writing for Jack Paar, Carson, Merv Griffin; doing standup at Greenwich Village clubs with Lenny Bruce; befriending Groucho Marx. He hosted more talk shows than Carson had wives. He’s had more material published than any comic of his generation.

On the native smarts comedy requires, Cavett said, “comedy is complete intelligence.” He said the best comics “may not be able to quote Proust (you can bet the Yale-educated Cavett can), but there’s an order of genius there that sets them apart. There aren’t very many stupid, inept, dumb comics. There are ones that aren’t very talented and there are the greatly talented, but the comic gift is a real rare order. It doesn’t qualify you to do anything else but that.”

Good material and talent go a long way, but he concedes intangibles like charisma count, too. He said, “Thousands of comics have wondered why Bob Hope was better than they are. What’s he got? I’ve got gags, too.”

For Cavett, “Lack of any humor is the most mysterious human trait. You wonder what life must be like.” He appreciates the arrogance/courage required to take a bare stage alone with the expectation of making people laugh.

“Oh, the presumption. It’s not so bad if the house isn’t bare but that has happened to me too at a club called the Upstairs at the Duplex in the Village, where many of us so to speak worked for free on Grove Street. A great motherly woman named Jan Wallman ran this upstairs-one-flight little club with about seven tables. Joan Rivers worked there. Rodney Dangerfield, Bob Klein, Linda Lavin. Woody (Allen) worked out some material there early on.”

He knows, too, the agony of bombing and that moment when you realize, “I have walked into the brightest lit part of the room and presumed to entertain and make people laugh and I’m doing apparently the opposite.” A comic in those straits is bound to ask, “What made me do this?” The key is not taking yourself too seriously.

“If you can get amused by it that will save you, and I finally got to that point at The Hungry Eye,” he said. “I knew something was wrong because I’d played there for two weeks and been doing alright and then one night, nothing, zero. The same sound there would be if there was no one seated in the place. Line after line. It was just awful. You could see people at the nearest tables gaping up at you like carp in a pool, not comprehending, not laughing, not moving. And I finally just said, ‘Why don’t you all just get the hell out of here?’ It gave me a wonderful feeling.

“Two, what Lenny Bruce used to call diesel dikes sitting in the front row with their boots up on the stage, one of whose boots I kicked off the stage, taking my life in my hands, got up to leave. And as they got to the door I said, ‘There are no refunds,’ and one of them said, ‘We’ll take a chance.’ And she got a laugh. So they (the audience) were capable of laughing.”

He finished his set sans applause, the only noise the patter of his patent leathers retreating. Inexplicably, he said, “the next show went fine. Same stuff.” For Cavett it’s proof “there is such a thing as a bad audience or a bad something — a gestalt, that makes a room full of unfunnyness, and I don’t think it’s you. It might be something in you. Whatever it is, you’re unaware of its source, not its presence.”

Anxiety is the performer’s companion. It heightens senses. It gets a manic edge on.

“Whether you want it, you’re going to get some,” he said. “I can go into a club and perform without any nerves of any kind now. But if it isn’t there you want a little something, and there are ways you can get it. Like be a little late. Or I found with low grade depression, before diagnosed, not knowing what it was, I would do things like go back and rebrush my hair or put another shirt on. ‘This is dangerous, they’re going to be mad,’ I’d think. ‘But that’s alright somehow.’ I didn’t realize the somehow meant it’s giving me adrenalin that lifted the depressed seratonin level. It raises you a little bit above the level of a normal person standing talking to other normal people. It’s a recent realization. I’ve never told that before.”

Cavett was always struck by how Carson, the consummate showman, was so uptight outside that arena. “I’ve said it before, but he was maybe the most socially uncomfortable man I’ve ever known. At such odds with his skills. There are actors who can play geniuses that aren’t very smart seemingly when you talk to them, but whatever it is is in there and it comes out when they work. I have a sad feeling Johnny was happiest when on stage, out in front of an audience. I don’t know that it’s so sad. Most people are sad a lot of the time, but some don’t ever get the thrill of having an ovation every time they appear.”

“It’s funny for me to think there are people on this earth who have never stood in front of an audience or been in a play or gotten a laugh,” he said.

People who say they nearly die of nerves speaking in public reminds him he once did, too. “I had the added problem of every time I spoke everybody turned and looked at me because of my voice. It was always low. If I heard one more time ‘the little fellow with the big voice’ I thought I’d kick someone in the crotch.”

He said performers most at home on stage dread “having to go back to life. For many of them that means the gin bottle on the dresser in a hotel in Detroit. On stage, god-like. Off-stage, miserable.”

In Cavett’s eyes, Carson was a master craftsman.

“He could do no wrong on stage. I mean in monologue. He perfected that to the point where failure succeeded. If a joke died he made it funnier by doing what’s known in the trade as bomb takes — stepping backwards a foot, loosening his tie…’” Not that Carson didn’t stumble. “He had awkward moments while he was out there. Many of them in the beginning. My God, the talk in the business was this guy isn’t making it, he’s not going to last. It’s hard to think of that now. Merv Griffin began in the daytime the same day as Johnny on The Tonight Show. Merv got all the good reviews. He was the guy they said should have Tonight, and Merv really died when he didn’t get it.”

 

 

 

When the mercurial Paar walked off Tonight in ’62 NBC scrambled for a replacement. Griffin “was actually seemingly in line” but the network anointed Carson, then best known as a game show host. In what proved a shrewd move Carson didn’t start right away. Instead, guest hosts filled in during what Cavett refers to as “the summer stock period between Paar and Johnny. People don’t remember that. Everybody and his dog who thought he could host a talk show came out and most of them found out they couldn’t.” Donald O’Connor, Dick Van Dyke, Jackie Leonard, Bob Cummings, Eva Gabor, Groucho. Some were serviceable, others a disaster.

Carson debuted months later to great anticipation and pressure. “At the beginning he was really uncomfortable, drinking a bit I think to ease the pain, and as one of my writer friends said, ‘with a wife on the ledge.’ It was a very, very hard time in his life to have all this happen” said Cavett, “and then he just developed and all this charm came out.”

Off-air is where Carson’s real problems lay. “Many a time I rescued him in the hall from tourists who accidentally cornered him on his way back to the dressing room after the show. They’d made the wrong turn to the elevators and decided to chat up Johnny, and he was just in agony.” The same scene played out at cocktail parties, where Carson hated the banter. It’s one of the ways the two were different. Said Cavett, “I don’t seek it but I don’t mind it. He couldn’t do it and he knew he couldn’t do it and it pained him.”

That vulnerability endeared Carson to Cavett. “I liked him so much. We had such a good thing going, Johnny and I. It dawned on me gradually how much he liked me. I mean, it was fine working for him and we got along well, and when I was doing an act at night he’d ask me how it went, and we’d laugh if a joke bombed. He’d say, ‘Why don’t you change it to this?’ He’d give me a better wording for it. I feel guilty for not seeing him the last 8 or 10 years of his life, though we spent evenings together. The staff couldn’t believe I ate at his house. ‘You were in the house?’ On the phone he was, ‘Richard’ — he always called me Richard, sort of nice  — ‘you want to go to the Magic Castle?’ I’d say, ‘Who is this?’ ‘Johnny.’ And I would think somebody imitating him, even though I’d been around him a million times.”

Something Brando once told Cavett — “Because of Nebraska I feel a foolish kinship with you” — applied to Cavett and Carson.

Cavett realized a dream of hosting his own show in ’68 (ABC). In ’69 he went from prime time to late night. A writer supplied a favorite line: “‘Hi, I’m Dick Cavett, I have my own television show, and so all the girls that wouldn’t go out with me in high school — neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah, neyeah.’ It got one of the biggest laughs. Johnny liked it.”

Getting more than the usual canned ham from guests was a Cavett gift. Solid research helped.

“I often did too much. I’d worry, ‘Oh, God, I’m not going to get to the first, let alone the 12 things I wrote down. Or. ‘I’ve lost the thread again.’ Only to find often the best shows I did had nothing I’d prepared in it. The best advice I ever got, which Jack Paar gave me, was, ‘Kid, don’t ever do an interview, make conversation.’ That’s what Jack did.” A quick wit helps.

At its best TV Talk is a free-flowing seduction. For viewers it’s like peeking in on a private conversation. “Very much so,” he said. “You’d think that can’t be possible because there are lights and bystanders and an audience, and it’s being recorded, and yet I remember often a feeling of breakthrough, almost like clouds clearing. ‘We’re really talking here. I can say anything I want .’”

With superstar celebs like Hepburn, Bette Davis, Robert Mitchum, Orson Welles and his “favorite,” Groucho, Cavett revealed his fandom but grounded it with keen instincts and insights. “That did help. I could see on their faces sometimes, Oh, you knew that about me? I guess I have to confess to a knack of some sort that many people commented about: ‘How did you get me to say those things?’”

He said viewing the boxed-set DVDs of his conversations with Hollywood Greats and Rock Greats reveals “there was a time when nobody plugged anything” on TV. Then everyone became a pimp. “When first it happened it was rare. Then it was joked about,” he said, “and then it got so it was universal — that’s the reason you go on.”

Today’s new social media landscape has him “a bit baffled and bewildered.”

“I have wondered at times what all has changed, what’s so different. It did occur to me the other day looking at the Hollywood Greats DVD — who would be the 15 counterparts today of these people. I might be able to think of three. And that’s not just every generation thinks everything is better in the past than it is now. I know one thing you could start with is the single act that propelled me here — the  fact I was able to enter the RCA Building via the 6th Ave. escalators, which were unguarded, and walk up knowing where Paar’s office was, and go to it.”

He not only found Paar but handed him jokes the star used that night on air, netting Cavett a staff writing job. “No career will start that way today,” he said. Then again, some creatives are being discovered via Facebook and YouTube.

In terms of the talk genre, he said, “it doesn’t mean as much to get a big name guest anymore. They’re cheap currency now,” whereas getting Hepburn and Brando “was unthinkable.” He’s dismayed by “how much crap” is on virtually every channel.” He disdains “wretched reality shows” and wonders “what it’s done to the mind or the image people have of themselves that allows them to think they’re still private in ways they’re not anymore.”

Comedy Central is a mixed bag in his opinion. “I like very little of the standup. I don’t see much good stuff. They all are interchangeable to me. They all hold the mike the same and they all say motherfucker the same. You just feel like I may have seen them before or I may not have. And I don’t believe in the old farts of comedy saying ‘we didn’t need to resort to filthy language’ and ‘they don’t even dress well.’ That’s boring, too.”

Cavett’s done “a kind of AARP comedy tour” with Bill Dana, Mort Sahl, Shelley Berman and Dick Gregory. “It was pretty good.” But he’s about more than comedy nostalgia. He enjoys contemporary topical comics Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher, about whom he said, “he gives as good as he gets and gets as good as he gives.” He’s fine not having a TV forum anymore: “I’ve lived without it and I got what I wanted mostly I guess in so many ways.” Besides, who needs it when you’re a featured Times’ blogger?

“Yeah, I like that, although it can be penal servitude to meet a deadline.”

His commentaries range from reminiscences to takes on current events/figures. His writing’s smart, acerbic, whimsical, anecdotal. He enjoys the feedback his work elicits. “My God, they’re falling in love with Richard Burton,” he said of reader/viewer reactions to a ditty on the Mad Welshman’s charms. He covers Cheever-Updike to Sarah Palin. “My Palin piece broke the New York Times’ records for distributions, responses, forwarding. The two from that column most quoted about her: ‘She seems to have no first language’ and ‘I felt sorry for John McCain because he aimed low and missed.’ Many, many people extracted those two.”

He said Times Books wants to do a book of the columns.

When his handler came to say our allotted 90 minutes were up, he quipped, “Oh, God, it went by as if it were only 85.” And then, “I’ve got a show tonight but I said everything. Biga has had my best.” Before leaving he asked his picture be taken beside the Cavett-Carson repro. Two Kings of Comedy together again.

Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event

October 31, 2010 1 comment

Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Conno...

Image via Wikipedia

I have always loved the great MGM musicals. Singin’ in the Rain is perhaps the best known and loved of those films, and while I admire the picture, I actually prefer some others to it, especially The Band Wagon and On the Town.  But there’s no getting around the fact that Singin’ is a high achievement and an always entertaining watch.  Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor carry the film but there is no denying that Debbie Reynolds holds her own in what was her breakout role in Hollywood.  I have seen very few of her films but what I have seen I have been impressed by.  She has one of those indomitable spirits that I suppose made her a natural choice for portraying The Unsinkable Molly Brown when Hollywood got around to adapting that Broadway smash to the screen. I’ve only seen a couple minutes of the film, and one of these times when it’s showing on TCM I’ll have to make the effort to sit down and watch the whole thing.  The following story for the New Horizons was written in advance of Reynolds making an appearance in Omaha, Neb., where I live, for a screening of Singin. I interviewed her by phone for the piece and I found her gracious and forthcoming in answering questions she’s likely been asked hundreds or thousands of times.   I found revealing a particular anecdote she shared about Fred Astaire — it’s in the story.  Singin‘ was a grueling experience for Debbie and when she was at her lowest Astaire befriended her by helping her learn what it means to be a professional. That same perseverance has helped see her through many difficult times since them.   I look forward to seeing this consummate trouper in person.

 

Debbie Reynolds

ANDY KROPA/GETTY IMAGES

 

 

 

 

Hollywood Legend Debbie Reynolds and Classic Film ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ to Be Saluted at Nov. 5 Event

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

As Old Hollywood royalty goes, Debbie Reynolds is still a princess more than 60 years since inking her first studio contract and 58 years since her star-making turn in the classic MGM musical Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Reynolds, 78, is one of the last remaining stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age and the only survivor from this iconic musical’s principal cast. Even though she’s made scores of movies and still appears on the big screen and makes guest spots on television, she’s perhaps most closely identified with Singin’ in the Rain.

Consistently rated one of the all-time greatest movies in American Film Institute polls, the musical spoofs Hollywood’s messy transition from silent to sound pictures. Gene Kelly stars as matinee idol Don Lockwood and Donald O’Connor as writer Cosmo Brown, with Reynolds as the plucky ingenue Kathy Selden, the girl who breaks into pictures and steals Don’s heart.

Singin’ rarely gets a theater screening now, so when Omaha film impresario Bruce Crawford asked Reynolds to be the special guest at a November 5 charity showing, the actress and nightclub entertainer said yes. Join Reynolds for the 7 p.m. revival at Joslyn Art Museum’s Witherspoon Concert Hall. Tickets are $25 and available at Omaha Hy-Vee store. Proceeds benefit the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

The artist will be the latest in a long line of Old Hollywood figures Crawford’s brought to Omaha. Two past guests were Patricia Neal and Kevin McCarthy, While those recently departed stars came to Hollywood as theater and Actors Studio veterans, Reynolds was a neophyte with zero acting experience when discovered.

At age 16 the then-Mary Frances Reynolds won the Lockheed Aircraft-sponsored Miss Burbank beauty pageant in 1948. Her lip-synching to a record of a Betty Hutton song caught the attention of two pageant judges who just happened to be talent scouts, one for Warner Brothers and the other for Metro-Goldywn-Mayer.

Soon, Mary Frances, who was born in El Paso, Texas and lived a hardscrabble life with her family during the Great Depression, found herself making a screen test for Warners. The charmed execs signed her to a $65 a week contract. Jack Warner changed her name to Debbie, but she refused attempts to alter her surname. The precocious young woman had just moved to Burbank eight years earlier. Her family had fled the Dust Bowl as part of the great migration West in search for a better life.

Attending public school, “Frannie” excelled in sports, baton twirling and music. She was a Girl Scout. She came from a evangelical Christian household yet her mother indulged her daughter’s expressive talents and love for the movies and radio. A favorite pastime was mimicking cinema stars and radio personalities.

The newly dubbed Debbie Reynolds made her motion picture debut as an extra in 1948’s June Bride. Her first speaking part came in The Daughter of Rosie O’Grady. When those appearances failed to ignite with audiences or critics, Warners elected not to renew their option. That’s when MGM, whose talent scout had noted her charisma, cast her in a small part in Three Little Words with Fred Astaire and Red Skeltonl. She made enough of an impression that that most prestigious of studios put her on a standard seven-year contract at $300 a week.

In a phone interview from Biloxi, Miss., where she was performing her cabaret act, Reynolds recalled the serendipity of it all.

“Well, first of all I was very lucky to be there during that stage,” she said. “MGM was the largest studio that made the greatest musicals of all and that had the largest of roster of stars. I came in in 1949, near the very end of this wonderful era of musicals, and I was fortunate enough to be taught under all those great stars. I was a very fortunate young lady and it paid off all these years because I’m still around.”

She said she couldn’t help but blossom in the training ground that MGM presented.

“When you have great teachers and you learn under the really marvelous tutelage of all those wonderful talents and all the stories they have to say and all the teachings they have to pass onto you, why those are things that never really leave you. It’s like going to the finest of universities let’s say.”

A few more forgettable pictures followed. One, Susan Slept Here, she did on a loan out to RKO. In another, Two Weeks with Love, she created a buzz with her rendition of the “Abba Dabba Dabba” song. Then the biggest break of her fledgling career happened when cast in her first starring role, opposite Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, in Singin’. MGM mogul Louie B. Mayer ignored the wishes of producer Arthur Freed and co-directors Kelly and Stanley Donen, who preferred someone with polished acting-singing-dancing skills, by giving the part to the inexperienced Reynolds.

Freed, a former song plugger and lyricist, oversaw the fabled Freed Unit that churned out the classic MGM musicals with their sumptuous production details. He packaged the creative talents behind Singin’ and such other gems as An American in Paris and Gigi. For Singin’, he brought together Kelly, Donen, screenwriters Betty Comden and Adolph Green, composer Roger Edens and character actors Millard Mitchell and Jean Hagen.

 

 

Singin' in the Rain

 

 

Debbie Reynolds (left), recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, and her daughter, actress Carrie Fisher, pose in the press room during the 21st Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on January 25, 2015.

Getting third billing in a Freed musical starring Kelly was a coup for Reynolds but it brought tremendous pressure. Her role required her to act, sing and dance. The vocals posed no major problem, but the dance numbers did for the unschooled Reynolds. She had to match, step for step, the moves of two world class hoofers after only a few weeks rehearsal. It was a trying time for the starlet. She felt overwhelmed by it all.

“I was just a young little girl who’d done just a few pictures. I had done nothing of any noteworthy dimension,” she said.

After one rehearsal she waited till everyone left the sound stage before crumpling to the floor in tears, hiding under a piano to conceal her distress. That’s when she said Omaha’s own Fred Astaire came to her rescue, not so much by consoling her as by giving her a tough love message about what it means to be a professional.

“Yes it’s a true story,” she said. “I was crying under a big grand piano. It was lunchtime and I was alone, so I could just sob away. I was only 17 and I was untrained and I felt very lost and, you know quite, miserable as a young girl out of my element totally.

“Mr Astaire was walking by because he was rehearsing right next door ,and I guess he heard me, and so he reached down and he said, ‘Who is that?’ I said my name and he said, ‘Give me your hand,’ and he pulled me out and he said, ‘Now, Debby, I’m going to let you watch me rehearse,’ which he never allowed. He always had a guard at the door and the only ones allowed were his drummer and the guard and Hermes Pan, who was his dance assistant.

“So I watched for awhile, until his face turned red and sweat was profusely coming down his face, and he turned to me to say, ‘Now you’ve seen how tough it is, how hard it is. This is the way you have to learn to be really the best. You have to work this hard. No pain, no gain. You have to go back, stop crying, and get to work.’ So I did, and I have continued to do that all these years. Don’t complain, just get better, just work harder.”

She needed to develop a thick skin and a more demanding discipline because Gene Kelly, “the creative mastermind of it all,” drove her and everybody else so hard.

“He was a taskmaster on himself more than anybody,” she said. “It was equal. This was, after all, his pride and joy, and he treated every project that way. I don’t think Gene ever did anything half way. Gene was a perfectionist. He was a creative artist, he was a great dancer, as was Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. They all worked the same. I don’t know any dancer that ever worked easy. There is no easy way to dance.”

Kelly had earlier put a non-dancer through his paces when he worked with crooner Frank Sinatra on Anchors Aweigh and On the Town. The dancer didn’t cut Old Blue Eyes any slack and he sure didn’t for Reynolds.

Someone who did offer solace from the daily grind was co-star Donald O’Connor.

Said Reynolds, “Well, we were closer because we were nearer the same age. Donald was 27. Being younger, he was a bit more friendly and he had more time to visit with me. He worked with me on the dancing. He taught me how to do back flips and front flips and tumbling. He was very sweet. We had a lot of fun doing ridiculous things together and being young together and laughing together, so he was kind of my release. With him, I was allowed to be young and laugh and not be so dedicated every minute.

“And we remained dear friends. We did an act together many years later on the road called Together Again. It was very successful and we had a wonderful time.”

Perhaps an unlikely confidante was the head man himself, Louie B. Mayer, who was known to be alternately tyrannical and tender. His studio’s rather idealized portraits of Americana and the family reflected his own sentimental leanings.

“Any problem I had I just called him on the phone and said, ‘Mr. Mayer, do you know whats happening?’ He’d say, ‘You come up here and see me,’ and I was just like a little kid and he treated me like a little kid. He took care of any problem I had. He’d always sit me down and say, ‘What’s the problem?’ He always had time for me. I’m not saying he wasn’t a tough man with a lot of other people, but with me he was really very sweet. I found him to be very fatherly.”

TheMicFB

Not even L.B. Mayer could protect her from the fallout of her failed marriage to pop singing star Eddie Fisher, who infamously left her for her friend, Elizabeth Taylor. The scandal made headlines. Reynolds’ later marriages also ended badly when her business magnate husbands’ financial problems forced her to declare bankruptcy. Financial woes also dogged her dream of establishing a motion picture museum displaying her vast collection of vintage Hollywood costumes.

“I wanted to do that in my lifetime, but it doesn’t look like I’m going to get it done. It’s very sad for me to say that. That was my dream. Sometimes dreams don’t always come true, even though they have written many songs that they do.”

Her collection, worth many millions of dollars, is due to be auctioned off in 2011.

But like Molly Brown, the indefatigable Reynolds keeps plugging away, just like she learned to do from Astaire many years ago. Even though Singin’ “was a very difficult picture to do,” she said it turned out to be the boost that put her over the top.

“Oh, it made it,” she said of the film’s impact on her career. She went on to star alongside such greats as Bette Davis, Ernest Borgnine, Dick Powell, Frank Sinatra, Glenn Ford, Tony Curtis, Gregory Peck and James Garner. She earned a Best Actreee Oscar nomination for The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964). Years later she and Molly co-star Harve Presnell recreated their roles for a national stage tour. She starred on Broadway in Irene, Woman of the Year and her own one-woman revue, Debbie. She starred in her own network TV specials and in a short-lived series.

More recently, she won good reviews for her work in the Albert Brooks film Mother and her recurring role in TV’s Will & Grace. She mended fences with Liz Taylor on the TV movie These Old Broads, written by Reynolds’ daughter, actress-author Carrie Fisher. After finding stardom as Princess Leia in Star Wars, Fisher struggled. Her best-selling book Postcards from the Edge became a movie starring Shirley MacLain and Meryl Streep as a mother-daughter patterned after Reynolds-Fisher.

Reynolds is no stranger to Omaha, where she’s performed with the symphony and dined with Warren Buffett, whom she calls “the financial Jimmy Stewart.”

For more information, visit wwwomahafilmevent.com or call 320-1944.

Bill Maher Gets Real

October 20, 2010 Leave a comment

Bill Maher at the PETA screening of I Am An An...

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If you are like me and you like your issues-oriented television with a bit of an edge to it, then we likely agree see eye-to-eye that Bill Maher is a healthy antidote to the talking head drivel that passes for analysis and to the rants that pass for discussion on much of TV these days.  Not that I agree with everything Maher or his guests say.  Far from it.  Not that I think his entertainment show is a substitute for substantive news and public affairs programs.  It isn’t.  It’s just that I like that he isn’t afraid to go after sacred cows and to challenge many of the conventions and systems that we are weaned to believe have our best interests at heart when reality should tell us different. That is a long way of saying I admire Maher and so when I heard he was coming to do his stand-up act here I went after getting an assignment to interview him in advance of his show.  It was a fairly brief phone conversation, but he was just as smart and engaging as I expected.  In fact, even though we were speaking by phone, it sort of felt like I was a panelist on his show and my questions were all the cues or prompts he needed to go off on one of his spirited riffs about this or that.  My story previews his October 24 appearance here and can be found in The Reader (www.thereader.com).  I will not be able to attend his live show, and now that I don’t have HBO anymore I miss out on his TV show, but when I do catch glimpses of him as a guest on Larry King Live and so forth I at least have a feel now for what it’s like to go one on one with him.  It’s actually pretty easy and fun because he’s a pro and he’s being real.

Bill Maher Gets Real

©by Leo Adam Biga

Published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Acerbic television host and political comic Bill Maher views the 60 to 70 stand-up gigs he does each year as opportunities to connect with the American gestalt. His October 24, 8 p.m. Omaha Music Hall show will be more fodder for his gauging the nation’s Zeitgeist.

“When I go out into America I can really get a feel for what this country is all about. I especially love going to places I’ve never been before, and I don’t think I’ve ever played Omaha,” he said by phone from his CBS Television City studio office in L.A..

“Then when I go back to Hollywood and do my show here I feel like, Yeah, I’m not just sitting in a place that’s not really America. I do the work, I go out there and I see America, and I enjoy it more than anything,”

His topical late night HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” is in its eighth season. It’s among the few programs that neither talks down to its audience nor apologizes for its signature unabashed sarcasm. Before this show he enjoyed a decade-long run with “Politically Incorrect,” which began on Comedy Central and ended on ABC. Executives at ABC cancelled it after Maher and a guest made controversial remarks in the wake of 9/11. Unlike the network wonks who freaked, he says HBO’s suits take his incendiary humor and viewer reaction to it in stride.

“They’re like a Jewish mother. They will let me know after the fact if I’ve caused them some consternation or pain. They’ll be like, Aw, don’t worry about us, we had to handle 50,000 emails yesterday, it’s OK, we’ll be alright. Yeah, that sometimes happens, but to their great credit they don’t ever stop me.”

Considering his barbed comments on sensitive subjects. just staying on the air may be the greatest accomplishment of this self-described Libertarian and apatheist who considers organized religion a neurological disorder.

“I’m proudest that I’ve somehow managed to remain on television for 18 years,” he says. “I mean, from the end of ‘Politically Incorrect’ to the start of this show there was only a six month break. You would think someone who espouses as many unpopular opinions as I do, I mean just religion alone, would have been shown the door a long time ago instead of getting a star on the (Hollywood) Walk of Fame.

“So it’s pretty amazing to me, but that shows something good about America. When I started on ‘Politically Incorrect’ in 1993 all the critics said this show is never going to last because you can’t have a host who tells an opinion. Hosts were all playing out of the old Johnny Carson or Bob Hope playbook, where you just never let the audience really know your politics  You didn’t know if Johnny Carson voted for Nixon or Humphrey. You still don’t know who Jay Leno or David Letterman votes for.”Maher, who regards America as a declining empire with a dumb body politic, has faith enough folks embrace his funny, smart, self-righteous brand of social criticism that he lets viewers know exactly where he and his guests stand.

“People, even if they don’t agree with you, as long as you entertain them and you’re honest about it and you’re not down-the-line doctrinaire, they respect that,” he says. “They can take it if they don’t agree with you.”

The edge “Real Time” maintains, he says, is the unfiltered, unapologetic way things get said.

“I think people feel like it’s more honest than anything else on TV. That we will give a very raw and different point of view. Admittedly, it’s my opinion and they may not agree with it, but I think they respect the fact it’s real.”

“Real Time” also fills an information niche, albeit a highly interpretive one.

Maher says, “Part of it is we’re a live, news wrap-up show on Friday night. I think the purpose we serve for a lot of people is they have busy lives, they don’t have a chance to be newshounds all week like we do. What I try to do is to make sure that anyone who hasn’t really gotten a chance to look at the paper that week will be caught up on most of the important things that happened if they watch the show. We will touch upon them in one way or the other, either in the monologue, in an interview, in the panel, in New Rules, or in the editorial at the end.”

At the end of the day then, what is Maher — a comic, a humorist, a critic, a commentator, a pundit, or a talking head?

“Well, I guess we live in an age of hybrids, so there are times when I am any one of those things, but I always think of myself first as a comedian. That’s why I still go on the road, because that’s what I love, that’s what I know best, and that’s what I do best.”

For tickets to An Evening with Bill Maher, call 800-745-3000 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine

September 20, 2010 1 comment

Cropped screenshot of Marilyn Monroe from the ...

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Marilyn Monroe has been the subject of countless articles, books, and films, and filmmaker Gail Levin, like so many other artists, has long been fascinated by the pop culture icon’s hold on us all these years. Levin made a documentary a few years ago about the Monroe mystique, examining still images of the actress as a way of taking stock of  how the starlet and a handful of photographers she posed for over and over again were complicit in creating the intoxicating sex symbol she epitomized then and continues to represent today.  I must say that even as a young boy I was completely taken by the Monroe package — her looks, her voice, her manner, her everything. For better or worse, I am still enthralled today. In fact, as I write these words a Marilyn poster hanging on my office wall fetchingly looms over me, her abundant bosom straining against the decolletage of a slinky evening dress, one strap having fallen down, and she lost in the reverie of anointing her porcelain skin with perfume.  Marilyn, sweet Marilyn, the embodiment of innocence and carnality that has universal appeal.  My story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) about Levin’s film is unavoidably also about Marilyn, a subject I don’t mind revisiting again, although I do tire of all the prurient conspiracy theories swirling about her untimely death.  I think the truth is she died just as she lived – messily.

Forever Marilyn: Gail Levin’s New Film Frames the Monroe Doctrine

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Filmmaker Gail Levin is at it again. Only a year after the Emmy Award-winning Omaha native’s documentary on James Dean premiered on PBS as part of the American Masters series, she has a new Masters film set to debut on July 19 that tackles another, larger screen legend — Marilyn Monroe.

Another Monroe treatise? That cynical reaction is precisely what the New York-based Levin, a Central High School graduate, hopes to overturn with her new documentary Marilyn Monroe: Still Life, premiering next Wednesday at 8 p.m on Nebraska Educational Television.

Instead of yet another biopic approach to this much revisited subject, Levin’s “gentle film” examines the persistence of Marilyn’s image in pop culture as filtered through the canon of still photographs taken of her, photos that largely account for the potency of her sex goddess status 44 years after her death.

Long intrigued by how MM and the photogs who shot her crafted an image with such currency as to cast a spell decades later, Levin committed to the film after hearing Marilyn would have turned 80 this year; reason enough to delve into the ageless Marilyn forever fixed in our collective consciousness. The filmmaker dealt once before with MM — for her 2003 doc Making the Misfits, which looks at the intrigue behind the 1961 Monroe feature vehicle The Misfits, penned by her then-husband playwright Arthur Miller.

On a recent Omaha visit to see family and friends, Levin spoke to the Jewish Press about her new project and the Monroe mystique that still beguiles us. She said MM is a much-referenced figure all these years later “not because of the movies” but “because of all the photographs” — photos the image makers and the icon used to their own ends.

“She made herself quite available to photographers and the list is just endless. We sort of picked a path through this huge archive of photographs,” said Levin. In addition to being “perhaps the most photographed woman of the 20th century,” there are MM-inspired books, articles, songs, videos, “and I was interested in what motivates all of that,” Levin said. “The masters part of this American Masters is as much these great photographers as it is her. It’s kind of book-ended by the great Eve Arnold and the great Arnold Newman. These are two giants of 20th century photography.”

Not just noted photographers contributed to her image. The film includes pics by Ben Ross, “whom none of us had ever heard of before,” Levin said. “He was one of these itinerant photographers from the 1950s and his photographs of her are stunning.” At least one of the artists whose images of MM are featured, Andre De Dienes, was also her lover. “He really knew her from the time she was probably about 20 to the time she died, and shot her all that time, and had a big romance with her,” Levin said. “There’s some very beautiful young stuff with her.”

There’s the ubiquitous Andy Warhol take on Marilyn in the film. Some images are quite familiar but others are new, at least to a general viewing audience and, Levin predicts, some images will even be new to Marilyn and photography aficionados.

Besides interviews with top photographers who helped shape MM’s image, Levin’s film features comments from Norman Mailer, Gloria Steinem and Hugh Hefner. There are even audio excerpts from the last interview Marilyn gave.

Levin said former Redbook editor Robert Stein provided a key insight into MM when he told her “she was an odd combination of innocence and guile.” As Levin has come to find, “I think a transcendent aspect with her is this real genuineness. I think she was completely approachable and accessible…You could be no one and talk to her and you could get into her bed. I think there’s something about her that is completely open, completely accepting. Burt Stern’s assistant was 22-years-old when Stern took photos of her and he said, ‘I was at the bottom of the totem pole and yet she was so kind to me and so sweet to me.’ And people say that across the board about her. Marilyn Monroe was not an imperious bitch. She was not a diva. That’s not who she was. She was a very real person. She was an Everywoman. She really was.”

 

 

 

 

The invention of her image did not happen by chance. Nor did she play a passive role in its creation. She owned her image and, if not the negatives, then what they conveyed. “This was very deliberate. This wasn’t an accident,” Levin said. “She got it and she had it and she made it and she knew it. She was not guileless because she was not stupid. She manufactured this image brilliantly. It was a calculated image, but with good heart, with good intent, with good will.”

Levin feels it’s wrong to apply a feminist prism in viewing Marilyn as a victim of misogyny or unenlightened ambition. “This was a guy’s woman. She liked guys. It was not against her will,” Levin said. “I don’t think she felt victimized at all. I think she exploited it in every way.”

The story of the famous calendar nudes she posed for as an unknown, later published in Playboy at the height of her stardom, reveal an MM in charge of her own image. “Hefner makes the remark that nude photos in those days could take you down. But when they came out she stood right up to it,” Levin said. “Her whole attitude toward it was, This is life. She wasn’t ashamed of any aspect of her body or her being.”

Ironically, Levin was forced to pixilate the nipples and other body parts in the wake of the Janet Jackson breast flash, even though, as Levin argues, the MM nudes are “not pornographic, they’re not slutty, they’re absolutely beautiful. They’ve been made ugly by other people.”

What transpired with the nudes, which made others rich while MM never got a residual dime over the $50 modeling fee, mirrored her life in the spotlight, Levin said. “I think people were rather cruel to her and I think she was hurt. But I also think she was defiant in the face of it. She was courageous. I think the soul of her was terribly resilient.”

Much of the film refers to the sessions that produced the images that still transfix us today, including The Seven Year Itch shoot. In these settings MM willingly gave herself over to the camera. She projected a playful woman-child persona, both real and acted, as she also asserted influence over what final images would see the light of day. Perhaps nothing else gave her such a sense of self-determination.

 

 

 

 

“You see that she loved it. It was her best relationship, really. It was really the place where she was most comfortable and had the most control,” Levin said. “She very much had control of her contact sheets. She would edit them. She was notorious for Xing out photos in red lipstick or marker. Eve Arnold says in the very beginning of the film, ‘This was her way of working and even though I was free to do what I wanted, she really controlled the image.’”

As Marilyn evolved from aspiring actress to star “she understood what it was she wanted” and she pursued specific photographers she knew “could do her justice,” Levin said, “and got herself in front of those people and, of course, those people wanted to photograph her. They considered her a great subject. It was the perfect metier” for a photographer-subject to play in.

A model must make love to the camera for the images to last. MM invested her photos with rarely seen rapture. “Eve Arnold comments there were a lot of four-letter words used to describe the way she seduced a camera. She loved to do it and she did it great,” Levin said. “Marilyn’s take, which I think is the critical take, is she just thought it was great to be thought of as sexual and beautiful. And why not? I think any woman would want to look like that for five minutes of her life.”

For Levin, one particular image encapsulates Monroe in all her complexity.

“We open the film with a dark room sequence in which we print a photograph of her,” Levin said. “It was taken by Roy Schatt during the time she was in the Actors Studio in New York. Her face is completely open. No makeup. You see that sort of Norma Jeane plainness, really. There’s some pictures of her, like this one, that when you look at them you think, Whatever gave her the idea she could pull this off? She’s OK. She has a cute, sweet face, but hers was not a remarkable face. At the same time you see right through that to the whole iconography of Marilyn Monroe. I chose this picture because I thought it emblematic of the whole of her being.”

Like any fine actress, and Levin ranks MM “a great comedienne,” she could summon her public persona on demand. As Levin tells it, “There’s a known story of her walking down a New York street incognito and saying to her friend, ‘Do you want to see her?’” Meaning Marilyn Monroe, superstar sex symbol. The shape shift only took a subtle change — to a more free, less uptight bearing. The power of it bemused and bothered her. “I think she lived in that schism.”

Taking on as familiar a figure as Monroe and all that “we bring to her” scared Levin. “It’s the hardest film I’ve ever made. This material has been so manipulated in so many ways. The challenge and the task is how do I take this and make this something you feel is completely fresh?” In the end, she feels she’s captured the essential Monroe. “We started out liking her and we ended up loving her. We tried not to take anything from her. She looks so beautiful in this film.”

Levin’s Marilyn will have multiple showings, along with her James Dean, the last two weeks of July. Check local NET1 and NET2 listings for dates/times.

With two movie icon subjects behind her, one might expect Levin to tackle another, but her next film may key off a documentary she worked on last fall. From Shtetl to Swing deals with the great migration of Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe to America and their development, with African-Americans, of the music style known as swing. Slated for Great Performances, the film was delivered in less than airable condition, causing series officials to call in Levin to do some “doctoring.” Her work helped the film get “the highest ratings in New York in years for a Great Performances. One of the things I’m planning on next is something similar to that, but on Latin music and how it’s transmorgified into the culture.”

American Masters is produced for PBS by Thirteen/WNET New York. Susan Lacy is executive producer of the acclaimed series.

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

August 2, 2010 1 comment

National Register of Historic Places listings ...

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Most cities of any size that have at least some semblance of sensitivity for historic preservation still have an Orpheum Theater. My hometown of Omaha, Neb. is one such city, although the Orpheum here came perilously close to being razed at one point. Omaha’s track record for historic preservation is rather spotty, although it’s gotten somewhat better over time. I wrote the following article shortly after the local Orpheum was renovated for the second or third time and had come under new management.  I will soon post a second piece I did around this same time, for another publication, that takes a different angle at the Orpheum and its opulent place among the city’s entertainment venues.  For the first half of my life I only knew the Orpheum by catching occasional glimpses of its exterior during downtown shopping excursions with my mom or dad. Mainly though I heard about it through reminiscences by my mother and aunts, who frequented the theater as girls and young women, when it was still a movie palace.  They made it sound so grand and special that I was always enthralled by their descriptions. I was actually well into my 20s before I first stepped foot inside.  Right out of college my first job, albeit it a part-time gig, was as a gofer for a now defunct arts presentation group, whose programs were held at the Orpheum.  I was supposed to be doing PR work but all I ever seemed to do, much to my frustration, was to fetch coffee for the haute woman in charge, or pick up poster orders or transport visiting artists, et cetera.  But there were perks, particularly getting to see a string of world class performances, including Marcel Marceau, Twyla Tharpe, and the Guthrie Theatre.  I’ve gone on to catch dozens of programs there — touring Broadway shows, operas, ballets, movies, you name it. I try to convey some of that wide-eyed excitement in my story, which originally appeared in the New Horizons.

Omaha’s Grand Old Lady, The Orpheum Theater

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

More stars than there are in the heavens.

That’s how the great lion of Hollywood movie studios, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, described the galaxy of stars under contact to MGM during cinema’s Golden Age. Omaha may be far removed from the bright lights of Tinseltown but for 75 years now one enchanted place — the Orpheum Theater — has been a magnet for some of the brightest stars of the big screen, Broadway, the concert circuit and the recording industry.

This grand old lady, fresh from a $10 million facelift applied last summer, opened in 1927 to a varied program featuring comedian Phil Silvers, violinist Babe Egan and her Hollywood Redheads and the silent film, The Fighting Eagle, starring matinee idol Rod La Rocque. From the start, the opulent Orpheum has seduced us with its eclectic attractions and extravagant motifs. The French Renaissance Revival style theater is a monument to Old World craftsmanship in such decorative flourishes as gold leaf glazings, marble finishes, velvet coverings, framed mirrors, crystal chandeliers and ornate Venetian brocatelle and damask-adorned chairs. The grand foyer is dominated by a circular French Travertine marble stairway that winds its way to the mezzanine and balcony levels.

 

The City of Omaha-owned theater, saved from an uncertain future in the early 1970s before undergoing a major overhaul, is now under the purview of the Omaha Performing Arts Society, a non-profit headed by Omaha World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk. The society, which will also manage the Omaha Performing Arts Center to be built across from the Gene Leahy Mall, has signed a 50-year lease with the city for the Orpheum’s use and will share, with the city, in any operating losses the next 10 years. Money for this most recent renovation came from private donations culled together by Heritage Services, a fundraising organization headed by Walter Scott, Jr. and other corporate heavyweights. These new developments are the latest efforts to reinvent the Orpheum over the past 107 years.

The present theater is actually forged from the facade and foundation of an earlier building on the very same spot. What began as the Creighton Theater in 1895 became the Creighton Orpheum Theater when it joined the famed Orpheum Theater Circuit in 1898. The original Orpheum operated until 1925. Then, when Orpheum officials decided a grander edifice was needed to support a growing Omaha, $2 million was spent extensively enlarging, altering and gentrifying the site.

Matching the Orpheum’s lavish decor, is a rich lineage of legendary performers who have appeared there, including many identifiable by only one name. From Crosby to Sinatra, crooners have made fans swoon and sway there. From Ella to Leontyne, divas have held court there. From Channing to Goulet, luminaries from the Great White Way have made grand entrances there. From Lucy and Dezi to Hope and Benny to Cosby and Carlin, comedians have made audiences titter with laughter. Magicians, from Blackstone to Henning to Copperfield, have bedazzled patrons with their wizardry. Classical musicians, from Stern to Pehrlman, have moved crowds with their sublime playing. Big band leaders, from Kaye and Kayser to Dorsey and James, have got the place jumping.

The Orpheum has been the home to the symphony, opera and ballet, the place where Broadway touring productions play and the eclectic venue-of-choice for everything from school graduations to Berkshire Hathaway stockholder meetings to movie premieres to appearances by top orchestras, renowned repertory theater companies and elite dance troupes.

The plush theater has been adaptable to changing tastes, beginning as a vaudeville house, evolving into a movie palace and lately functioning as a performing arts hall. During the Depression and war years theaters like the Orpheum were great escapes for people just wanting a break from the real world or just to find relief from extreme weather. In the vaudeville era several shows played daily, from noon to midnight.

When movies lit up the marquee, a typical program included a line of girls, a pit band, a newsreel and a first-run feature film. The theater’s Wurlitzer organ was a staple for sing-a-longs and silent movie accompaniment. When the big band craze hit, live music moved from the pit to the stage. If a hot band packed the house, it became the main attraction. If a big movie drew long lines at the box office, it took center stage. Trying a little something of everything, the Orpheum even ran closed circuit TV broadcasts of championship fights.

In its heyday its flamboyant manager, Bill Miskell, was known as “a show doctor” and “master of ballyhoo” whose advice could help a sick act get well and turn a sow’s ear into silk. Under Miskell, the Orpheum ran grandiose promotions — like the time the lobby was dressed as a railroad station for the 1939 world premiere of Cecil B. De Mille’s epic Union Pacific. In 1953, it became the first Midwest theater to project a Cinemascope picture — the religious extravaganza The Robe. From the 1950s through the ‘60s, the theater operated almost solely as a movie house.

Ruth Fox, a veteran usher and backstage volunteer, said the theater has a one-of-a-kind appeal. “It’s elegant. It commands dressing up. It makes you feel like putting on a long gown. What could be more regal?” Patron Mark Brown said, “I’m amazed by the splendor of the grand architecture and the acoustics. I don’t think it can be matched today.” Al Brown, a former on-site Orpheum manager, calls it “the crown jewel of the Midwest. It’s majestic.”

Former Omaha Public Events Manager Terry Forsberg, goes even further by describing it as “the cathedral of the performing arts as far as Omaha is concerned.” Indeed, the sheer grandeur of the place sets it apart.

Impresario Dick Walter, presenter of hundreds of shows there over the years, said, “Visually and mentally, you have to be moved when you see the size of the lobby and the theater. It takes your breath away a little. It’s like going into any of those grand palaces in London or Vienna or Berlin. And there’s an aura when you walk in the same space that so many scores of great performers of the past performed in. It’s the implicit tradition and the magic of the theater with its history. I don’t want to sound religious, but it’s semi-sacred.”

The Orpheum evokes many memories. Omaha musician Preston Love recalls getting his groove on there to the swinging sounds of jazz greats Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway, all idols for the then-aspiring sideman. “All the big names who toured theaters played the Orpheum,” he said. “Suffice to say…the Orpheum was top stuff, man. It was unbelievable.” He saw Count Basie there in ‘43, and three weeks later he auditioned for and won a seat in the band and ended up playing the Orpheum with Basie in ‘45 and ‘46, as family and friends cheered this favorite son’s every lick on the saxophone. He noted that a rolling stage utilized then carried featured acts to the lip of the stage. If it was a band, like Basie’s, those jamming cats really cut loose when they made it out front. “Boy, you started rolling down in front and that band would just be on fire,” Love said.

 

Duke Ellington In Minsk : News Photo

Duke Ellington

 

 

Dick Walter has a long relationship with the theater, first as a child lapping-up the antics of vintage comedy teams like Olsen and Johnson, than as a young man spellbound by big name entertainers and later as a presenter of performing arts programs, including everything from Camelot to The National Chinese Opera Theater. “When I was going to Omaha University I enjoyed cutting the Friday afternoon class to go down and see the first show of that week’s vaudeville show,” Walter said. Among the performers he caught then was the magician The Great Blackstone.

Decades later, in a “remarkable” bit of fate, Walter found himself presenting the famed illusionist’s son, Harry Blackstone, Jr., a great illusionist in his own right, in performance at the Orpheum. From the 1970s through the ‘90s, this local showman brought a diverse array of acts to the Orpheum, including scores of Broadway road shows. “Although I made a lot of money and I had great pleasure in presenting big-time musicals with big-time stars, I also enjoyed bringing the off-beat. I had some successes I certainly didn’t deserve and I had some failures I certainly didn’t deserve. Fortunately, I guessed right most of the time.” Although officially retired, he still dabbles in show business by presenting his long-running travel film series at Joslyn Art Museum and bringing occasional shows, such as “A Celebration of World Dance” and the Russian State Chorus, to Joslyn this fall.

As Walter can attest, show business is a series of highs and lows. For all the standing ovations and packed houses, he can’t forget the times when things went a cropper. “The biggest glitch ever was when I was presenting Hello Dolly with Carol Channing,” he said. “We had played a week when about a half-hour before the Saturday matinee show the entire electrical system went out. The emergency system came on, but it was too dim to do a show. It was a sold-out house, all of which had to be refunded. Miss Channing was really upset because she had never missed a performance. I said, ‘What are you worried about? This performance is missing you — you’re not missing it.’”

 

 

Carol Channing In Stage Musical 'hello Dolly!'. Stock Photo

Carol Channing

 

 

With Channing mollified and the power restored, the second show went on without a hitch. In his many dealings with stars, Walter has found most to be generous. However, as “they’re pestered a lot,” he said, “all of the big people build a wall around them. They have no private life. Now, when you brought some of them in a few times, the wall broke down and the next thing you knew you were out eating dinner together after the show. A lot of them were wonderful with people coming up to them for autographs…and they should be — that’s part of their job. On the other hand, if people were a little pushy, they didn’t like that.” Among his favorites, he said, were comic musician Victor Borge, conductor Arthur Fielder, band leader Fred Waring and actor Hans Conried. “These people were special.”

Regarding Waring, Walter recalls, “The last time I had him was his ‘Eighth Annual Farewell Tour.’ I used to kid him about that. He just kept going on as long as he could. That last time we had him he gave a wonderful show and, when he came off, he was literally so exhausted he just fell into my wife’s arms backstage, catching his breath. But seconds later he was back on stage thanking everyone. That’s show business. That makes a performer.” When it came to Conried, who headlined a straight dramatic play for Walter, the actor so enjoyed a repast at the Bohemian Cafe that whenever he hit the road again “he’d drive up, give me a ring and say, ‘Let’s go to the Bohemian.’ He thought this was heaven.”

Ruth Fox recalls going as a little girl with her mother to the Orpheum and being awe-struck by the great hall. “I was so impressed with the mirrors and the chandeliers.” she said. “Oh, that was something to behold.” A lifelong theater-lover, Fox began ushering and working backstage at the Orpheum in the 1970s. “I started to usher for the symphony, the opera, Broadway touring productions and whatever else came.” It’s something she continues today. She enjoys being around theater people and the hubbub surrounding them.

“I find it thrilling.” As an opera guild member, she joins other ladies running a backstage concession for cast and crew. “We fix homemade food. Matzo balls, deviled eggs. You name it, we have it. We have a real thing going. We spend time with the performers. We take care of their needs…and they’re so nice to us. Once in a while you get a stinker, but most are wonderful.” She takes great pride in her role as an usher, too. “We, who usher, really are ambassadors to the city. There are so many people who come from out of town who have never been to the Orpheum before. It’s their introduction, you might say, to Omaha…and we have to make a good impression.”

Despite the theater’s prominence, its future was once uncertain. By the end of the ‘60’s it languished amidst a dying downtown. Ownership changed hands — from the Orpheum Circuit to several movie theater chains. As business declined, the theater fell into disrepair and, following an April 29, 1971 screening of Disney’s The Barefoot Executive that played to a nearly empty house, the place closed. At first, there was no guarantee the theater would not follow the fate of another prominent building in Omaha, the old post office, and be razed. Its prospects improved when the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben bought the theater and donated it to the city, which agreed to steward it.

The city formed the Omaha Performing Arts Society Corp. (no relation to the current management group) for raising revenue bonds to underwrite a renovation. Local barons of commerce contributed more dollars. Everything was on the fast-track to preservation until the city learned it had inherited a $1,000 a month lease for use of the lobby from the City National Bank Building, which the Orpheum abuts. With the rental issue gumming-up the works, the theater — then lacking any protective historic status — became a white elephant and, some say, a likely candidate for the wrecking ball. It was saved when the Omaha Symphony bought out the lease and deeded the lobby to the city.

A multi-million dollar renovation ensued — removing years of grime, repairing damage caused by a leaky roof and restoring deteriorated plaster and paint — before the Orpheum reopened as Omaha’s performing arts center in 1975, with Red Skelton headlining a glitzy gala. Later, it was designated an Omaha landmark and a National Register of Historic Places site. Over the next 27 years, the theater thrived but not without complaints about acoustics, amenities and overbookings. The theater also operated at a loss for many years.

Two men who know every inch of the theater and have spent more time there than perhaps anyone else are Al and Jeff Brown, a father and son who have made managing the Orpheum a family enterprise. Al, a tattooed Korean war vet, was on-site manager there from 1974 to 1996, during which time he saw the theater enjoy a renaissance.  When Al retired, his son Jeff, who worked at the Orpheum as a stagehand like his dad before him, followed in his footsteps to assume responsibility for the day-to-day operation and maintenance of this heavily-used old building in need of faithful attention.

The hours on the job can be so long that Jeff, like Al did, sometimes sleeps overnight on a cot in the office. Jeff feels the work done to the theater this past summer, which tackled some longstanding problems, will be appreciated by performers and patrons alike. “The big thing is to keep both of them happy,” he said. “I feel with this renovation we’re going to better realize that goal because of the areas we’ve addressed…improved seating, enlarged and added dressing rooms, added women’s restrooms, a new heating-air conditioning system. Before, we did the best we could with what we had, but now it’s going to be much more user-friendly.” Keeping show people happy, whether local arts matrons or visiting world-class artists, means making sure everything behind-the-scenes “has to be the way they want it,” Al said. “Touring performers come into town and they’re tired. It’s a drag. Anything you can do to alleviate some of that, they appreciate it.”

He said temperamental stars become pussycats if a manager and crew are prepared and have gone the extra mile. Echoing his father, Jeff added. “If you do your homework before the show and you make sure that everything is clean and you have everything they ask for, they’re very pleasant to work with.” Something Jeff learned from his old man is “treating every show the same — it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school graduation or a dance recital or a big Broadway show. We do whatever we can to make sure they have the best show they can have.”

Jeff said the theater’s new management structure bodes well for the facility. “I feel it’s better because our budget isn’t affected by what happens at Rosenblatt or at the Auditorium. We’re our own separate entity now. We’re on our own and we know we have to make it on our own. It will be a challenge, but I think it will be good.”

The Orpheum, saddled with recent annual operating losses in the half-million dollar range, will more aggressively seek and promote high stature events and market the theater as a destination place. An Orpheum web site is in the works. It also means Orpheum performance seasons — complete with public subscriptions — may be in the offing. It’s all been tried before. But the performing arts society may be in a better position to pull it off than financially-strapped city government.

Terry Forsberg said, “Now that you have a private group and the financial backing of the business community, it can be done. The question will be how much of a profit they will have to show in order to keep it operating.” According to John Gottschalk, “The Orpheum will have an endowment, but we’re certainly in no position to absorb half-million dollar losses every year. So, we’ll need to operate effectively and efficiently. The best way to end the…losses is to have a diversity of performances and to have bigger houses more frequently…and we will be heavily employed to make sure this place is full and active.”

Everyone, it seems, holds the Orpheum in high esteem. For Gottschalk, its rich legacy makes it a vital touchstone. “In the first place, it’s an incredibly old symbol,” he said. “There’s been an Orpheum Theater here since the turn of the century. Its longevity is what makes it such an integral part of the fabric of the community.”

Showman Walter said “it’s great to be part of this theater and it’s wonderful heritage.” Omaha Performing Arts Society president Joan Squires calls it a real treasure for the city.” Theatergoer Marjorie Schuck describes it as “a very big asset for Omaha culturally,” adding, “It’s a highlight coming to the Orpheum…it’s been here a long time, it’s still here, it’s still going, and we expect it to continue.”

Perhaps thinking of the effect the planned downtown performing arts center may have on the Orpheum, volunteer Ruth Fox said, “I just pray they will not tear it down or change it.”

Pray not, indeed, for that would be too much to bear. As a program for the Orpheum’s 1927 opening noted, the theater “is a continuation not only of a place of amusement, but also a veritable civic institution.”

 
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