Do me a favor. I appreciate that you like my Mel Tormé story and want to share it with others but please do not cut and paste it onto your sites or Facebook pages or wherever. Tell people about it and link to it here. For one thing, you always change the spacing of paragraphs and almost always cut off the ending. Thanks.
Fourteen years ago, at a time when most folks (including me) had never heard the term "blogging," I began blogging. I thought it would be a post or three a week but once I got going, I discovered I liked the forum and the feedback too much to not do more. In case anyone's interested, there are now 20,922 posts on this site, counting this one. I've made some great friends and a few enemies and, yes, I still enjoy doing it.
In order to celebrate, I'm going to spend the rest of this year re-posting some of the most popular postings of years past, starting with the most-read piece I've ever put up here. It also holds the record for the post that has most often been stolen by other people who put it up on their blogs, often making it sound like what happened to me had actually happened to them. This was a column I wrote for the Comics Buyers Guide in 1999 — the story of my holiday encounter with Mel Tormé —
I want to tell you a story…
The scene is Farmers Market — the famed tourist mecca of Los Angeles. It's located but yards from the facility they call, "CBS Television City in Hollywood"…which, of course, is not in Hollywood but at least is very close.
Farmers Market is a quaint collection of bungalow stores, produce stalls and little stands where one can buy darn near anything edible one wishes to devour. You buy your pizza slice or sandwich or Chinese food or whatever at one of umpteen counters, then carry it on a tray to an open-air table for consumption.
During the Summer or on weekends, the place is full of families and tourists and Japanese tour groups. But this was a winter weekday, not long before Christmas, and the crowd was mostly older folks, dawdling over coffee and danish. For most of them, it's a good place to get a donut or a taco, to sit and read the paper.
For me, it's a good place to get out of the house and grab something to eat. I arrived, headed for my favorite barbecue stand and, en route, noticed that Mel Tormé was seated at one of the tables.
Mel Tormé. My favorite singer. Just sitting there, sipping a cup of coffee, munching on an English Muffin, reading The New York Times. Mel Tormé.
I had never met Mel Tormé. Alas, I still haven't and now I never will. He looked like he was engrossed in the paper that day so I didn't stop and say, "Excuse me, I just wanted to tell you how much I've enjoyed all your records." I wish I had.
Instead, I continued over to the BBQ place, got myself a chicken sandwich and settled down at a table to consume it. I was about halfway through when four Christmas carolers strolled by, singing "Let It Snow," a cappella.
They were young adults with strong, fine voices and they were all clad in splendid Victorian garb. The Market had hired them (I assume) to stroll about and sing for the diners — a little touch of the holidays.
"Let It Snow" concluded not far from me to polite applause from all within earshot. I waved the leader of the chorale over and directed his attention to Mr. Tormé, seated about twenty yards from me.
"That's Mel Tormé down there. Do you know who he is?"
The singer was about 25 so it didn't horrify me that he said, "No."
I asked, "Do you know 'The Christmas Song?'"
Again, a "No."
I said, "That's the one that starts, 'Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…'"
"Oh, yes," the caroler chirped. "Is that what it's called? 'The Christmas Song?'"
"That's the name," I explained. "And that man wrote it." The singer thanked me, returned to his group for a brief huddle…and then they strolled down towards Mel Tormé. I ditched the rest of my sandwich and followed, a few steps behind. As they reached their quarry, they began singing, "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…" directly to him.
A big smile formed on Mel Tormé's face — and it wasn't the only one around. Most of those sitting at nearby tables knew who he was and many seemed aware of the significance of singing that song to him. For those who didn't, there was a sudden flurry of whispers: "That's Mel Tormé…he wrote that…"
As the choir reached the last chorus or two of the song, Mel got to his feet and made a little gesture that meant, "Let me sing one chorus solo." The carolers — all still apparently unaware they were in the presence of one of the world's great singers — looked a bit uncomfortable. I'd bet at least a couple were thinking, "Oh, no…the little fat guy wants to sing."
But they stopped and the little fat guy started to sing…and, of course, out came this beautiful, melodic, perfectly-on-pitch voice. The look on the face of the singer I'd briefed was amazed at first…then properly impressed.
On Mr. Tormé's signal, they all joined in on the final lines: "Although it's been said, many times, many ways…Merry Christmas to you…" Big smiles all around.
And not just from them. I looked and at all the tables surrounding the impromptu performance, I saw huge grins of delight…which segued, as the song ended, into a huge burst of applause. The whole tune only lasted about two minutes but I doubt anyone who was there will ever forget it.
I have witnessed a number of thrilling "show business" moments — those incidents, far and few between, where all the little hairs on your epidermis snap to attention and tingle with joy. Usually, these occur on a screen or stage. I hadn't expected to experience one next to a falafel stand — but I did.
Tormé thanked the harmonizers for the serenade and one of the women said, "You really wrote that?"
He nodded. "A wonderful songwriter named Bob Wells and I wrote that…and, get this — we did it on the hottest day of the year in July. It was a way to cool down."
Then the gent I'd briefed said, "You know, you're not a bad singer." He actually said that to Mel Tormé.
Mel chuckled. He realized that these four young folks hadn't the velvet-foggiest notion who he was, above and beyond the fact that he'd worked on that classic carol. "Well," he said. "I've actually made a few records in my day…"
"Really?" the other man asked. "How many?"
Tormé smiled and said, "Ninety."
I probably own about half of them on vinyl and/or CD. For some reason, they sound better on vinyl. (My favorite was the album he made with Buddy Rich. Go ahead. Find me a better parlay of singer and drummer. I'll wait.)
Today, as I'm reading obits, I'm reminded of that moment. And I'm impressed to remember that Mel Tormé was also an accomplished author and actor. Mostly though, I'm recalling that pre-Christmas afternoon.
I love people who do something so well that you can't conceive of it being done better. Doesn't even have to be something important: Singing, dancing, plate-spinning, mooning your neighbor's cat, whatever. There is a certain beauty to doing almost anything to perfection.
No recording exists of that chorus that Mel Tormé sang for the other diners at Farmers Market but if you never believe another word I write, trust me on this. It was perfect. Absolutely perfect.
Scott Edelman turned me on to this — a video of novelty singer Candy Candido, performing a song that was recorded by dozens of different artists in the forties. Mr. Candido was a musician and singer with, as you'll hear, a trick voice. He made a number of records and was tapped occasionally for animation voice work, mainly by Disney. You heard him in Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, Robin Hood and The Rescuers, along with many others. In the early sixties, after Lou Costello died, Bud Abbott took him on as a partner and they toured — with almost no success — as Abbott and Candido. Here he is in better times singing a very sad song…
Into the Woods is a major motion picture but it's still an oft-performed stage musical. Not long ago, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival mounted an acclaimed but slightly-unconventional production and it's been imported into Beverly Hills for a few weeks at the new Wallis theater complex. I went last night and enjoyed it quite a bit even though Into the Woods is not my favorite Sondheim show. My two main problems with it are that…
- I think the first act is much better than the second. It also feels to me quite complete in itself. (Supposedly, people have been known to leave the theater at intermission because they don't realize the play's not over. I don't know if that was the reason but the people seated right in front of us last night did not come back for Act 2.) To me, Act 1 feels like a real good musical and Act 2 feels like the guys who did Act 1 were pressured into producing a sequel.
- Much of the show's exposition is in its lyrics and the way Mr. Sondheim writes, it's crammed in with great density and there's a limit to how slow the actors can sing a tune without it sounding wrong musically. Every time I see it, I wish they were subtitled and it's not the actors' fault. It's like listening to Patti LuPone. You practically have to know the songs to hear them.
The O.S.E. production was full of great performances, a few daring athletic feats, a couple of genuine magic tricks, superb costumes (designed by Linda Roethke), some audience participation, fine orchestrations and very clever staging (by Amanda Dehnert). I could list all the actors for fine work but I'll just mention three: Jennie Greenberry as Cinderella, Miriam A. Laube as The Witch and John Vickery as the Narrator. But I thought everyone was really good. This production is scheduled to be there until December 21.
"There" is the new Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, which opened a year ago and which houses two theaters. Into the Woods was in the Bram Goldsmith Theater, which I guess means that Mr. Goldsmith (the CEO of City National Bank) gave them a lot of money. Whatever the price was, it was well spent. It's a beautiful, functional theater that seats 500 — a size theater we don't have nearly enough of in Los Angeles. The sound was great and I liked that the seats weren't chosen on the assumption that all theatergoers are anorexic. I may go there even if I don't like what's playing just to sit. Parking was also quite comfy.
Into the Woods when performed in full (as they're doing) is a bit long and last night, it got a few bits longer. About seven minutes from the end — at a peak dramatic moment — it was suddenly necessary to stop. The house lights came up and a voice on the P.A. system commanded the proceedings to halt due to a medical emergency in the audience. The actors stepped off stage while the on-stage orchestra just sat quietly.
The Beverly Hills Fire Department came in to treat an audience member, then take him out on a stretcher. The house lights then were lowered, the actors returned to their positions and restarted, repeating about the last 90 seconds before the interruption and continuing on through to the end. I was impressed with how smoothly and professionally it was done…and with surprisingly little harm to the presentation. Those folks at the Wallis really have their act together. I want to see more shows there.
- Hackers have killed the release of the Sony film, "The Interview." Could they please do something about the next 3 Will Ferrell movies?
Diane McBain was once a great sex symbol of film and TV. I remember her from the period when she turned up on every show that Warner Brothers Television produced: Maverick, 77 Sunset Strip, Hawaiian Eye, Sugarfoot and a series she co-starred in, Surfside 6. She also appeared in a lot of movies…and then at some point, her career started to cool down and something else happened, something that changed her life forever. She'll be talking about it today on Stu's Show, and about her new book, Famous Enough. This is a fascinating lady and it ought to make for a fascinating program.
Stu's Show can be heard live (almost) every Wednesday at the Stu's Show website and you can listen for free there. Webcasts start at 4 PM Pacific Time, 7 PM Eastern and other times in other climes. They run a minimum of two hours and sometimes go way longer. Shortly after a show's over, it's available for downloading from the Archives on that site. Downloads are a measly 99 cents each and you can get four shows for the price of three. If you miss today's show, you'll want to make it one of your downloads.
Michael Kinsley writes of why Ronald Reagan should be viewed as a pretty large failure as a president. He's writing about the real guy, not the mythical Prince Charming that many have made of him. I never had a nastier argument than I did one time with a right-wing friend when I tried to convince him Reagan had not made the government smaller to the point where it would almost fit in Grover Norquist's bathtub. (My friend and I are still friends but we no longer mention Ronnie…)
Mr. Kinsley has his own interesting history with Reagan. Read here how he discovered he'd attended a White House briefing with the man that never actually occurred.
Here's my buddy Bill Kirchenbauer on The Tonight Show Starrring Johnny Carson. Once upon a time — before Comedy Central, a glut of talk shows, Showtime, HBO and a dozen other places where young stand-ups could get on TV — Johnny's show was the place to perform. If you made Johnny laugh — as you'll notice Bill doing here — you were flooded with job offers the next day.
The power of The Tonight Show declined a lot during Johnny's last years. There were just too many other routes to stardom. Nowadays, the value of doing the show — or any of the late night shows — is merely to be able to say "As seen on." A top comedians' manager told me a few years ago, it doesn't matter how you do on Dave's show. You do it just so clubs can advertise you as "From Late Show with David Letterman. Being on the show doesn't get you club or pilot offers like it did in Johnny's day. Your manager still has to go out and sell you.
As I recall, Bill got a lot of offers every time he was on with Johnny…especially because Johnny always gave him some sign of approval after his spot. As you'll see happen here…
Joe Scarborough has been arguing that the media should not be reporting the accusations against Bill Cosby because no law enforcement agency has taken up the charges…which, of course, they can't because the Statute of Limitations has run on them. One might note that Mr. Scarborough is doing much to publicize the charges by insisting they should not be publicized.
Says he, "Any woman can come forward right now and say 'Billy Cosby did this to me 40 years ago' and be on the cover of US Weekly. With no vetting. They will print your story, and maybe it happened. If it did, it's tragic. But if it didn't happen, you get your 15 minutes of fame." There are so many things wrong with that viewpoint…
- First off, Mr. Scarborough works for a network that presents all sorts of scandalous accusations about people without vetting; which treats the accusation itself as news. All news sources do that these days.
- Secondly, the reason most of these women didn't come forward when the alleged incidents occurred was that they had good reason to believe that their stories, taken as individual accusations, would not be believed. Several did report them and found that even the police wouldn't go there. It's like with the Al Capp matter. Many women were raped. Nothing got reported in the press even when the victims did get law enforcement to take some minor actions. It was only after Jack Anderson's newspaper column reported on one assault that other victims came forward, a pattern was established and one District Attorney said, "Hmm…maybe we ought to press charges on this matter instead of ignoring it."
- There are probably a few women in this world who would relish "15 minutes of fame" on that basis but for most, it's a terrible ordeal. They get attacked in the press and by lawyers. They get investigated and interrogated about their sex lives. They open themselves up to legal action for defamation…in this case, going up against great wealth and power. It's also just plain embarrassing for some to be viewed as a victim and it's very stressful, reliving an incident they might prefer to forget. Most sane humans do not want even fifteen minutes of that kind of fame.
I'll probably think of others after I post this. Oh, yeah. People on the news like Joe Scarbrough like to suggest you're a liar. The thing is that we live in an Internet World and if MSNBC doesn't report the charges, the online press will…and at some point, a story may get enough traction there that the so-called mainstream media has to pick up on it. They usually dip into it by saying something like, "There are widespread reports on the Internet that…" and treat the volume of the accusations as news. But they will eventually cover a story like this. And if it was a powerful politician instead of a powerful comedian, Scarborough's show wouldn't even wait for widespread reports on the web.
I mentioned the other day here that starting tomorrow night, GSN would be running old episodes of I've Got a Secret and What's My Line? I should have mentioned, for the benefit of anyone who's season-passing those vintage game shows, that they're also running a couple of installments of To Tell the Truth. Actually, my TiVo (and probably yours if you have one) has What's My Line? mixed up with a fishing show. They all say…
What Is My Line
Pro bass angler Mike DelVisco looks at the only connection between you and your fish, your line. (CC, R)
…but I assume that's not what GSN is actually running. Oh, and I should mention that Christmas Eve, they're giving us a nice present — a 90 minute What's My Line? 25th anniversary retrospective special that aired but once in 1975.
It was a feature on ABC's Wide World of Entertainment, a late night show in what had been Dick Cavett's time slot. Some genius decided they could do better than Cavett's profitable but not Carson-destroying ratings so they came up with the idea of a "wheel." Instead of Cavett being on every week, he'd be on every fourth week. One of the other three weeks gave us the disappointing (very) return of Jack Paar to that time slot and the other two weeks were a mish-mash of low-budget specials, some of them quite odd. Not only did none of these elements do well, none of them — including Cavett's shows — matched the ratings of Cavett's show before the change.
What's My Line? at 25 was mostly just clips of the Mystery Guest segments from the show. I remember enjoying it…a long time ago. You might want to check it out.
Last Sunday morning, I attended the annual Christmas brunch of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Cartoonists Society. The photo above was taken there of the four guys who make that silly Groo comic book. Left to right, we are Stan Sakai, Tom Luth, Sergio Aragonés and me. It may appear that I was much closer to the camera than the other three guys but actually I am just a giant among men.
The first issue of the new twelve-issue Groo series — one per month for all of 2015 — comes out January 21. It's called Groo: Friends and Foes, and in each installment, Groo will encounter either a past friend (he has a few) or a past foe (he has more of them) and he will probably make their lives less happy or likely to continue. Keep an eye out for this series so you can purchase or avoid as is your wont.
Also present to brunch and talk cartooning at the N.C.S. Brunch were Russ Heath, Dan Piraro, Bill Morrison, June Foray, Stu Shostak and his new bride Jeanine Kasun, Stu's daughter Lisa, Tone Rodriguez, Bobby London, Scott Shaw!, Judith Shaw, Monte Wolverton, David Folkman, Michael Mallory and I shouldn't have started listing names because I'm leaving dozens of folks out. Sorry, dozens of folks. I'll mention you next time.
Jonathan Chait explains how Dick Cheney defends torture. It pretty much comes down to: "I say it's okay so it's okay and I don't give a shit what any law or court or anyone else says."
So…do we think the former Veep will be taking any overseas trips…say, to a country where he might be arrested for War Crimes? I'd like to hear him explain to them why an action is only torture when done to Americans, not by them.
I'm a real fan of these "a cappella" music videos that many folks are posting to the web. I believe some of them are long-distance collaborations by singers who've never met and may not even be on the same continent.
Here's the James Bond theme as rendered by Julien Neel and Nick McCaig. Julien's the red-headed guy and he seems to be in France. I think the other fellow, Nick, is in Tallahassee, Florida. They sure sound good together…