Monday, December 31, 2012

Through the Years

"We have a whole new year ahead of us, and wouldn't it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, and a little more loving, have a little more empathy - and maybe next year at this time, we'd like each other a little bit more..."

Oh, I know.  Someone wrote it for her, and she read the words, turning the really rather ordinary sentiment into something more than that only through the indomitable force of her own personality - but as we see the old year out, it's far from the worst that one could hope for this new and unknown thing, 2013.

It's only this year struck me that I'm older, now, than Judy Garland ever got to be.  Through the years turned out to be not so very long for her, although of course for us as listeners, fans, appreciators, she has more than kept her word. 

As I look forward at my own second half-century, through the years is no longer the infinite parade of possibilities it once seemed, while all the years behind stretch further and further away.  Still, as we teeter on this annual threshold between past and future, through this state of what anthropologists call liminality, I know there's so much more to rejoice for than to pine about, and at midnight tonight, we'll raise a glass to what possibilities remain and toast the year that's been.  If nothing else, it's brought us safe this far. 

New Year's Eve is a reminder that we're all, in the end, in the same boat, striking out from familiar waters into something new and strange.  Here's to us, through the years, with high hopes for the year to come.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

'Round Midnight

Trust dear Miss Ann Miller to be the one to lead us on our way out of this old year - if there were anyone from Olde Hollywood with whom I think it would be a kick to spend New Year's Eve, I suspect it would be she.  Katharine Hepburn would want to do something improving - recite Longfellow, perhaps; with Bette Davis, the evening would surely end with recrimination and the furious tossing of barbed insults; Joan Crawford would make us go upstairs and ooh and ah over those damned twins; and, of course, Miss Garbo would really rather that we weren't there at all.  Ann, though, would meet us at the door with a nice cold glass of champers and the latest dirty joke, and isn't that how any New Year's Eve party should start?  Also, by 1:00 a.m., I don't believe it would take much to persuade her to put some Cole Porter on the hifi and recreate her big number from Kiss Me, Kate, which would certainly be a hoot.

Which brings us to an anniversary, for it was just 64 years ago today that Kate bowed on Broadway, starting on the journey that took it through a run of more than 1,000 performances there, a national tour that may still be rattling around somewhere, the splashy 3D MGM spectacular in which Ann stole every scene she could, a 1968 TV version starring the singularly unappealing combination of Carol Lawrence and Robert Goulet (they were married, but I can't imagine it helped any), and regular revivals from here to Tashkent.

As for New Year's Eve, we're running up the coast a principality or two and spending the big night with our pals The Teacher and his very fetching partner - if nothing else, it should be more festive than last year, when Mr. Muscato and I sat, each with a terrier on our lap, waiting for midnight so that we could for God's sake go to sleep.  I feared then that terminal middle-age had set in, but perhaps there's life in the old girl yet.  We shall see.

How about you?  To steal a line from dear Miss Whiting - what are you doing New Year's Eve?

Saturday, December 29, 2012

And Now, a Word from our Sponsor...

Well, it looks like our holiday plans are all sorted out for us.  I just can't get enough of Lefty Leffler and the boys!

Friday, December 28, 2012

When Worlds Collide

Yesterday's birthday girl, Miss Marlene Dietrich, gives what is apparently the bemused glance of death to a really rather touchingly terrified young Miss Barbra Streisand, who has clearly only this very moment realized that being Kicky at a Chanel runway show might be classified by some - Miss Dietrich among them - as Trying Too Hard.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Birthday Girl: A Glorious Voice

An embarrassment of birthday riches today, taking in everyone from Louis Pasteur to Oscar Levant, and from Marlene Dietrich to Cokie Roberts.  Here, however, we have a great lady who can hold her own with them and more, that inimitable practitioner of the gentle (and very nearly lost) art of musical satire, Miss Anna Russell.

If you know Miss Russell, there is is really no need to indulge in further superlatives; if not, it may at this rather distant remove from her heyday be difficult exactly to convey the impact she had on the occasionally rather solemn world of music when she burst upon the scene, as improbable a figure in her thirties as she remained for the rest of her long life.  Suffice it to say that rarely has anyone so deftly, thoroughly, and hilariously eviscerated the pretensions of High Art as she, wielding a combination of genuine authority on the subjects on which she discoursed and a mastery of broad comedy rarely equaled  - as a mistress of the double-take she is a peer of such immortals as Marie Dressler and Beatrice Lillie.

The summit of her art is unquestionably her dissection of Wagner's Ring Cycle, although her comprehensive guide to the writing of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta certainly has its partisans as well.  Personally, I feel lucky to have been introduced to her work at a dangerously early age, and I'm happy to confess that at various times in my life, back in the days when I was making an exiguous living on the fringes of the music business in New York and elsewhere, I have relied on what I gleaned from her recordings to seem a great deal more learned than ever I actually was. 

Here she introduces us to the basic necessities required for undertaking a career as a singer, and as a veteran of more than one encounter with that most fearsome of creatures, the Metropolitan Opera Soprano, I can attest that the description that closes this clip is as accurate a one as you ever will find.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Back on the Chain Gang

Ah, the sad return to reality; never pleasant, it's somehow extra dispiriting to have to go back to work on the day after Christmas, even though it's not exactly the most productive day of the year.  Over at Golden Handcuffs Consulting Amalgamated International, you could have shot cannons through some departments today, but I'm being a good soldier and "holding the fort" as someone inevitably puts it.  For reasons that will become apparent in good order, I'm not complaining.

We had a lovely Christmas, and I hope you did, too.  Mr. Muscato's legendary turkey recipe did its magic once again, and I must say that overall our Christmas lunch was something of a success, with guests sprawled around the living room well into the evening and the dogs beyond replete.  At least we only have more day until the local weekend, which we will probably spend doing a very great deal of not much at all, quite happily.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

They're Heee-eeere!

"I can't believe she did it again this year!"'

"What - came two hours early or brought along Sheila from Accounts Receivable?"


"Well, what do you want me to do about it?  She's your Aunt Claudia - go and get them a glass of Cold Duck or there'll be hell to pay.  I've got to finish getting dressed."

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Familiar Footprints

Christmas Eve already; how this year has raced by.  We're not, despite the insipration of Miss Kate Smith  here (and I am mad for her seasonally festive gown - she's like a vast present trundling down toward the adoring crowd), spending it in our home towns, of course. If nothing else, that would mean Mr. Muscato and I being thousands of miles apart, which is hardly ideal and would upset the dogs no end.

It's an appealing notion, though, isn't it?  Going back in time, going back home - carols in the square, laughter everywhere - but far from practical.  Back in my hometown, the square (we actually had one, smack in the center of downtown where your town square should be) is practically abandoned; it's been thirty years since there was a department store downtown, and even the imposing old Carnegie-built town library has closed, replaced by a cheerless brick box miles away.  They may have carols in the strip mall at the edge of town where all the big-box stores have been closing these past four years, but that hardly seems the same thing and not the stuff of which socko Hollywood Palace numbers are made.

No, we are resisting nostalgia and having Christmas right here in the Sandlands.  It always seems very "White Christmas"-sy - the orange and palm trees do indeed sway, although we are very far away from Beverly Hills, L.A. - but over the years we've gotten used to balmy Christmas Eves and soldier on with all the heavy traditional favorites, leavened with mangoes and Egyptian delicacies and other innovations that certainly would have puzzled the old folks at home.  This year, friends from our days in the Sultanate have flown in from the neighboring Sandland they've wound up in, and we're being quite merry.

Even here, I have a few reminders of Christmases past - ornaments we put on our little tree, some dishes and silver and even a pot or pan or two that figured in those vast Christmas dinners that rolled titanically out of the kitchen under the watchful eye of the grandmothers and aunts.  I will likely at some point tomorrow spend a moment or two by myself, with the memories that I'm the only one on this side of the world to have, watch the ghosts come and go in my mind.  But just for a moment or two.  I know how lucky I am - lucky to have the sentimental memories (the dreams and just pretending), but luckier still to have the now from which to reminisce.  After all these years, at Christmas Eve, I've learned, my hometown is wherever I am spending it, wherever that may be.

Santa Bolly

It seems that dear Mr. John Abraham recently took time out of his busy schedule to preside as a visiting secret Santa at a Bollywood charity party.  Hurry down the chimney, indeed...

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Pet Peevey

"The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful..."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"

In which case, this is the greatest few minutes in television history.  And just try to get it out of your head.

You're welcome.

Apparently, even though I've only just run across this little gem, it's actually a fairly popular seasonal novelty song; I can only be grateful, I suppose, that I've been spared this long.  As for little Miss Gayla Peevey, this appearance would seem to be the highlight of her career.  She certainly gives it her all, and if the passing years have either revealed or imposed a distinctly unnerving subtext (I mean, really - "give him his massage"?), that's not her fault.  You have to admit, if nothing else - she plays jacks beautifully.

Friday, December 21, 2012


The dreaded screen of doom.

I never cease to be amazed, amused, and annoyed (in turn) by the censorship that is rife in the Sandlands.  Print censorship is annoying enough - if a book or magazine is simply unavailable, that's frustrating, but unless you're the author or engaged in a very specific research project and not able to travel, it's not something that you're constantly aware of.  One rung up that ladder is the occasional censoring still seen, mostly in magazines, but occasionally on consumer-product labels and elsewhere; that usually takes the form of Sharpie-swipes creating impromptu fichus, sleeves, and/or skirts for inadequately covered female models.  More rarely yet, you'll get this month's copy of some glossy monthly, only to note a suspicious lacuna, in which, say, page 64 is mysteriously facing page 73, and flipping back to the table of contents you realize you won't be reading the latest seriocomic diatribe about the bizarerie of Dubai or exposé of the more colorful doings of some member of the royal nomenklatura.

Online censorship, though, takes things to a whole different level.  You notice it so much more frequently, for one thing, and it's so widespread and, at least in part, so seemingly arbitrary.  The various filters in use are clearly meant to protect delicate local sensibilities, and so the Wonderful World of Pornography is put beyond the pale, up to a point.  Religion is sensitive, so don't try to find sites that ridicule (some of) it.  And of course we can only say good things about the glorious state of this glorious nation, and why on earth would any good citizen (or resident, since we're all under the same watchful eye) want to read anything different?

But today, these attempts to keep us good and pure (and docile) are increasingly irrelevant and quaint.  Annoying still, but quaint.  Anyone with the slightest techno-savvy can with relative ease set themselves up a proxy and surf away at even the vilest filth or wildest calumny against Sheikhs X, Y, or Z.  Beyond that, the censorship itself doesn't really work - there's plenty of naughtiness that slips around, past, and through, of all kinds.  Meanwhile, though, the breadth and indiscriminate nature of the blocks interfere with all sorts of perfectly respectable and practical online activity - doing research on breast cancer is perhaps the classic example of this, almost impossible since the operative word is frequently, as it were, on the no-fly list.

After so many years out here, one mostly gets used to it, putting up with the slight reduction in speed that comes with surfing via VPN (virtual private network, for those who live in freer climes).  Still, even so, sometimes something will still surprise.

This week, for example, home with my cold, I've been, as previously noted, Youtubing a lot.  So there I am, working through snippets of What's My Line? and enjoying the ever-changing array of obscure movies that come and go.  All wrapped up, a terrier on each side and, within the limits of feeling lousy, having a marvelous time.  So far, so good.  Then I say to myself, "Self," I say, "let's find another bizarro Christmas video to post.  Dear Thombeau has already beat me to one holiday favorite [Andrea Martin as Ethel Merman singing "Silent Night" way back on SCTV's Liberace Christmas Special], but let's think... I know!  I bet Shirley Bassey has some really cringeworthy yuletide goodies out there!"

And so I duly type her name.  And then:  the dreaded screen of doom.  Blocked.  Shirley Bassey?  For God's sake, in the last year or so we've had Amy Winehouse (pre-mortem, not that many in the audience could tell), Madonna, and JLo play live in this country, not to mention the Scissor Sisters - but Shirley Bassey is too risqué for online viewing?  I tried it again.  Same thing.  I tried a different browser.  Same thing.

I tweeted out my puzzlement (as one does - and by the bye, are you following me on Twitter?  You really ought to, you know.  Go do that, but then come right back.).  One kind soul tweeted back: "Because believing that diamonds are forever is blasphemous?"  It's as good an explanation as any, I suppose.

Actually, it turns out, it's still puzzling, but not really anything to do with the tigress of Tiger Bay.  Having done a little more fiddling around, I quickly established that one could watch the full range of Dame Shirley offerings, as long as one didn't search by name.  I tried her first name: no problem.  I tried her last name: blocked.  I tried lots of variations on it: mostly blocked.  For a while, I thought that perhaps there was some local cultural taboo of which I was unaware against things like bassists, bassos, and bassett hounds, when finally lightning struck.  Of course; I had been blind.  It wasn't B-A-S-S-E-Y or any other variety of it that was the problem - it was, in fact, just three of it its component letters:  A-S-S.  That's what the delicate flowers that live in these parts aren't supposed to see on YouTube.  Ass.  Fine, fine ass.

If it's any consolation, this particular oddity is limited to YouTube.  I've discovered that one can quite easily head over to Google, search on "ass" and "", and lose as many hours as you like viewing bootie in all its many forms (I think Mr. Peenee might particularly like this intriguing playlist, elegantly and concisely titled "hot men ass", for example).

Sigh.  It's this inconsistency that makes the censorship, ultimately, so pointless.  Since it can't really work, all it does is make the self-righteous feel more so, while causing those bound and determined to check out the forbidden fruit all the more eager to do so (and clever at doing it) and simultaneously inconveniencing those who just want to watch some bassett-hound puppy videos (very cute indeed, but not I'll wager where we'll find Peenee for very long).  I don't really see the point, and trying to see the point of the people who think it's a good idea just makes me tired.  Just another reason, as this old year wend its way to the finish-line, that the Sandlands and I may need to find a way to part ways in the new year.

And you know what's worst?  Dame Shirley, it turns out, is one of the few Entertainers With A Capital E who appears not to have ventured too frequently out into the dangerous realm of Christmas specials.  Don't worry, though - plenty of others have, and we still have four days to go...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Cover Girl

While the President is in the spotlight for nabbing the cover of Time this week, 69 years ago today that honor went to Miss Greer Garson, MGM's post-Shearer doyenne of prestige pictures and Great Lady parts.

It's funny, for I was thinking of her earlier today; I'm home sick with a very boring cold, and I've been amusing myself on YouTube watching bits and pieces and a couple of whole episodes of What's My Line?, which I really can't recommend highly enough to anyone with even a passing interest in the popular culture of the middle of the last century (a group I trust includes virtually all of the Café's Gentle Readers, no?).

Most famous for its Mystery Challenger segment, the program was really less a game show (in the Wheel of Fortune or the Supermarket Sweep sense) than a conversation, by a group of exceedingly smart and funny people, in the form of a game.  Garson was a lively Mystery guest, not least because she appears in the costume and more or less in the persona of Auntie Mame, whom she was playing on Broadway in 1958 (and she stumped the panel, which not many managed to do).  Her appearance is among other things an excellent lesson in the wielding of a cigarette holder, which is I suppose these days nearly as much of a lost art as buggy-whip making.  Most of all, she is amazingly likable, which, given her reputation in some circles as both chilly and smug, might come as a surprise.

Actually, I like Greer Garson a lot.  She was a created star (plucked out of a middling stage career in London by Louis B. Mayer to be his next Queen of the Lot) who actually took root - Anna Sten as Academy Award winner, if you will.  Changing fashions in movies meant that her career was fairly short, but in an oeuvre of only two dozen or so pictures, there are an awful lot of keepers:  her debut, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, set the template for the Garson character - loyal, plucky, smart, and lovely, and is still a guaranteed good cry.  Pride and Prejudice infuriates Austenites but is undeniably good fun, with Garson a mature Elizabeth Bennett (she hadn't arrived at MGM until she was 34, after all) who holds her own against champion scene stealers including Laurence Olivier and the redoubtable Edna May Oliver.

Within a couple of years of her debut, she really hit her stride, appearing, for example, in something rather rare at Metro, a two-star-lady feature, When Ladies Meet, against Joan Crawford and then achieving her apotheosis as what might be the screen's first Glamour Matron in Mrs. Miniver (another guarantor of waterworks).  Madame Curie, Adventure ("Gable's back and Garson's got him! - a tag line that proved more memorable, actually than the film, but still - Gable), then, later Sunrise at Campobello (improbably elegant as Mrs. Roosevelt - who, come to think of it, was another Mystery Guest) and The Singing Nun - she had a broader range than she is given credit for and was a bigger popular favorite than might seem the case today.  She's not Rosalind Russell (who among us is, really?), but based on What's My Line?, her Mame looks like it was a kick.

Time does funny things; these days, Garson is a bit of a punchline, remembered for her incautiously long Oscar speech (she got it for Miniver, and was nominated four more times, although, perhaps fearing an encore, Academy voters never gave her another nod) and for a stuffy solemnity that seems to have been far from the case (although Madame Curie is rather a chore, both hagiographic and laughably inaccurate).  She had the gift of playing nice characters (and who is nicer, in the end, than Elizabeth Bennett or Kay Miniver - let alone Eleanor Roosevelt?) memorably, which is a great deal harder than it looks and not generally the path to top roles (if it were, Ann Harding would have been the biggest star in Hollywood history).

She had a good run, and when she'd had enough, she married well (a Texas millionaire) and lived out what seems to have been a very pleasant life.  If that's not worth the cover of Time, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Are There No Workhouses?

Christmas or no Christmas, Lady Shufflehampton has had it up to here with that dawdling, shillyshalling saleswoman.  Fifteen more seconds and she's going to kick her in the shin and remind her that Altman's isn't the only store in town with a Better Coats Department.  If that beezle doesn't finish writing up that new fox jacket this instant, there'll be no making her 3:15 at Elizabeth Arden...

Season's Gretchen

Much as I loathe the woman (and that's a lot), I have to give it up:  Loretta Young can really rock a slutty Santa outfit.

I wonder how she felt about her days in the stills gallery a decade or two on, when she was a Great Lady And Don't You Forget It?

Monday, December 17, 2012

Neither Heroes Nor Clowns

As you might have guessed, I find myself, this holiday season, rather morose - so many problems in the world (something one is even more aware of out here in the Sandlands, in close proximity as one is to political upheaval, not to mention social injustice on a scale and a class system as vile as one is likely to find anywhere in the world) and so few answers.

I suppose you won't be surprised that I've found, if not answers, then at least a little consolation, by watchng as many tacky holiday numbers as possible.  And, here, even finding as good a stab at an answer as I've come across yet. 

Leave it to the woman who kept up the spirits of a nation by keeping her eyes firmly fixed on "Tomorrow, when the world is free," to remind us that, as another British sensation once sang, love is all you need.  Ladies and gentlemen... Dame Vera Lynn.  It may be syrupy '70s pop, but she really socks it over.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The World This Christmas: a Meditation

Tonight, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

Rightly or wrongly, I was raised to believe that she was the closest thing to perfectly good that a person could be, and tonight I feel the need of goodness.  It seems in short supply in this low world.  I need to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

When something evil happens, we dwell upon it.  We usually get it wrong, focus on the wrong thing, obsess; everything around us encourages us to that bad end.  We blame the media, we blame the vultures who descend on tragedy; we get sidetracked, we nitpick at little details and the little minds who blow them out of all proportion.  I have to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

I will admit it:  I have no special love for children, and I despise the aspects of our culture that are infantilizing, that promote the cult of children at a level of the saccharine that our Victorian forebears, no slouches they at the sentimental, might find embarrassing.  I am at times perplexed by those who choose to teach small children.  Tonight, I must look at the face of Lillian Gish.

What does it take, to look death in the eye and lie: there are no children here?  In Night of the Hunter, her greatest film, Lillian Gish says:  "I'm a strong tree with branches for many birds.  I'm good for something in this old world, and I know it, too."  She also says:  "You know, when you're little, you have more edurance than God is ever to grant you again.  Children are man at his strongest.  They abide." I hope that's true.  I hope that strong trees know their goodness, in the moment when they need to know it, and that children do abide.  I look at the face of Lillian Gish.

What is wrong with us?  I don't just mean the guns, the violence; I don't mean the systems that fail the dangerously sick, the disenfranchised; I don't mean the schools that have no idea of what to do with the odd boy out, or the neighbors, families, strangers on the street who miss the sign, the dangerous moment, the instant or two of no-turning-back.  I mean us.  Lillian Gish paraphrases from the Gospels:  "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit. Neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit. Wherefore by their fruits, ye shall know them."

I don't believe in God, anymore, and as a result I struggle to express how I define the abstracts, good and evil.  I do believe in them, however, and I've raised fruit trees, too; the Gospel parable, in this case, is on the mark.  I wonder what is we're bringing forth.  It goes beyond a single horror, one more blaring headline at the top of the hour.  I don't want to think too much about that corrupt tree, at what we are and have become and have and may bring forth.  I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.  

In the final moments of her greatest role, having vanquished evil, singlehandedly (with the most effective line, perhaps, she ever delivered: "Get your state troopers out here.  I got something trapped in my barn."), Lillian Gish prepares her Christmas dinner.  She says: "Lord save little children. You'd think the world would be ashamed to name such a day as Christmas for one of them and then go on in the same old way."

We have to find a way to stop having reason to be ashamed.  I don't what that way might be, and at the moment I feel very far from ever knowing.  But we have to find a way.  She ends the film: "The wind blows and the rain's a-cold. Yet they abide...They abide and they endure."  I hope it's so. 

Tonight, as Christmas comes, I want to look at the face of Lillian Gish.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Yuletide Che(e)r

Perhaps the least Dickensian person ever to have lived, Cher nonetheless gives the look (courtesy, of course, of Mr. Mackie) a whirl in this prime example of high-seventies medleymania, holiday division.  She's joined by TV staple William Conrad, who waxes unexpectedly RobertGouletische in his solo bit,* and ever so briefly by the soon-to-be ex-Mr. Cher, as well as, in passing during the grand finale, by the ever-pleasing Miss Teri Garr (the spotting of whom seems to be turning into a minor Café hobby).

The highlight, I think you'll agree, is the star's do-or-die assault on "O Holy Night."  Hers may not be the most orthodox rendition ever, but she certainly gives it her all, reminding us that in her heyday she had a helluva set of pipes and wasn't afraid to use it.

* And he's if nothing else undeniably a cheerier party guest than Peg.  You'll note that this very special moment on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour was taped in the same year as the special that produced Miss Lee's lugubrious turn.  There must have been something in the water.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Such Devoted Sisters

I had a feeling that our latest Mystery Picture wouldn't prove too mysterious to the Café's clever Gentle Readers, but I thought it was such a charming image that it deserved an airing nontheless. 

Dear Norma chimed in first, and quite accurately, to confirm that the two little girls in their Lewis Carroll-esque finery were in fact the glamourous pair seen above sharing a little all-too-rare together time.  Remarkably, both Miss Joan Fontaine and Miss Olivia de Havilland are still with us; perhaps it is the sheer strength of their celebrated enmity that keeps them going.  Their dislike apparently goes all the way back to their earliest childhood, meaning that it's entering its tenth decade - surely something approaching a sororal record.

However they feel about each other, I quite like knowing that such fabulous creatures still share this sordid world with us, and I can't help but think that when they go - they and their few surviving peers and colleagues - we will have lost something rather special.  And I still kind of hope, against all hope, that just maybe we'll get them back together one more time, Melanie and the second Mrs. de Winter...

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Fashion Faux Paw

Don't you just hate it when you go to all the trouble of dressing up and somebody shows up wearing the same outfit?  Too provoking.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Lady Sings the [Christmas] Blues

I had long assumed that when it came to wrenchingly depressing holiday moments, nothing else was a patch on Judy singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in Meet Me in St. Louis.  As you can see, I was wrong. 

I can't help but think that this was not exactly what the producers of Julie Andrews's 1973 Christmas special had in mind when they settled on Miss Peggy Lee as a guest star, and I can only imagine what a befuddled national-television audience made of it.  If you only listen to the audio, it's a lovely thing; watch it, though, and it becomes a kind of psychodrama that's almost unsettling in its intensity.  Enjoy, if that's quite the right word (it's not).  We'll have to poke around for something cheerier for our next holiday music update...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Have You Heard?

Well, it's true!  I'm branching out, having taken up an offer from dear Cookie to rent a chair over at The Hair Hall of Fame.  I look forward to taking on some of their most difficult and discerning customers, who God knows need all the help they can get.

Tell your friends and join the fun - but don't forgot to stop on back here; the Café gets awfully quiet without you, you know...

Monday, December 10, 2012

Birthday Girls: The Stars Next Door

Many happy returns today to two of Hollywood's most fondly remembered ladies; neither was ever the biggest star - one a second-tier leading lady, the other a reliable character trouper - but both delighted audiences for a goodly number of years, and both seem to have been thoroughly good eggs.

First born was Miss Una Merkel, who first saw the light of day in Kentucky in December 1903, while Miss Dorothy Lamour came along 11 years later in New Orleans.  We see them here in the one picture they made together, 1941's Road to Zanzibar, one of the genial programmers in which Dottie played longsuffering sidekick to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.  Playing a con artist, in this one she even gets her own sidekick, Una, and together they fuel as much plot as any Hope-Crosby opus ever needed.

Zanzibar was the second of the seven Road movies (the boys and Lamour went to Singapore first, and then on to Morocco, Utopia, Rio, Bali, and Hong Kong, although alas never again with Merkel).  While best remembered for these trio outings, Lamour had a quite respectable career on her own, frequently playing an exotic temptress (inevitably clad in sarong and a scattering of flowers), especially early on, in titles like Hurricane and Her Jungle Love.  When her career in Hollywood sputtered, she took to the stage with relish, keeping her face familiar in dinner theaters and joining the legion of ladies who barnstormed 'cross country in Hello, Dolly!  She was a terrific all-purpose star, one who could sing well, dance a little, and handle lines both comic and poignant.  She never made art, but audiences liked her, a lot, and even when she turned up at the very end of her career in dreck like Creepshow 2, it didn't do much harm to her image as the glamour girl you wouldn't mind having over for a cup of coffee.

By comparison, Merkel carved out a career as an indispensable supporting player, below the title but recognized with affection by audiences who could appreciate how her Southern sass and common sense could leaven turgid scripts saddled with predictable love-plot shenanigans that more often than not seemed to get in the way of the real fun to be had from backstagers, dance-hall sagas, and hospital dramas in the pre-Code era.  She spent much of the '30s under contract to MGM, which meant she got a better showcase as a character player than most leads got at lesser studios (like Lamour at Paramount, for example).  Never a full-on glamour girl like Dottie, she slowly matured into parts that kept her on-screen for a couple of decades after her brassy heyday; eventually, she even copped a surprise Oscar nomination for her supporting part in a pretty much forgotten Tennessee Williams pictures, 1961's Summer and Smoke.

What set players like Lamour and Merkel apart, not just from the biggest A-list ladies but from many of their counterparts - all the utility leading women and inveterate second-, third-, and fourth-billed actresses - was their own personal warmth, their complete lack of personal pretension, and the way that they were able (in large part because they didn't put on airs) to connect with audiences, first in the Depression years in which pretty much everybody went to the movies at least once a week, but then also for decades after, when many whose names for a while shined much brighter found themselves on Poverty Row, selling real estate, or worse.

One of things that consistently disappoints me about today's movies is how little place there is for performers like Lamour and Merkel.  Today's leading ladies don't need to put over a song (let alone in a sarong) in movies that mostly rely on sex, explosions, or zombies, and as for character parts, they have virtually disappeared.  For example, Mr. Muscato and I finally got around to seeing last spring's Streep picture Hope Springs.  Now, in these parts Meryl can do no wrong, and Tommy Lee Jones was very good indeed, but aside from them and some disappointingly pallid support from Steve Carell, the only other parts were more or less bits.  Today its all stars, and nothing else.  Why didn't Meryl have a real best friend, instead of a tiny scene or two with the wasted Jean Smart in what might have been the Una Merkel role?  What induced Mimi Rogers and Elizabeth Shue to take on nothing throwaway roles - glorified walk-ons, really -  that Metro would have worked up into a delicious running gags for Alice Brady or Norma Varden or Marjorie Main?  Why couldn't there have been a recurring bit - as an innkeeper, perhaps - for Eric Blore or Eugene Pallette?

Ah, well.  At least we can look back, and when we want to see how it was done back when they knew better, we need only set out down that Road.  I hear Zanzibar's very nice, this time of year, not to mention Utopia...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Mystery Girls:Two for the Price of One

I'd almost guarantee you know this pair of pretty Victorian maidens, so demure in their capelets and crinolines.  Does anyone care to guess either or both of their identities?

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Get This [Holiday] Party Started

Well, if we have to have a Christmas, we might as well get it under way right.  This season, I think we'll look at some highlights of pop-cult seasonal celebrations, and of all of them, this, I believe, is the greatest and most demented.  For one brief, shining moment, this was mainstream American television (Saturday morning division).

For any gentle readers eager to relive the whole superb extravaganza (or those who just need a refresher on making potato-stamp Christmas cards), it's available here.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Sorry, John Can't Come to the Phone...

...he's all tied up.

It's been a shockingly long time since we've thought about longtime Café Bollycrush John Abraham, so when I ran across this intriguing snap, I just had to share it.

Apparently it's from a 2011 black comedy called Saat Khoon Maaf (Seven Murders Forgiven), in which our boy plays one of seven husbands bumped off by an unbalanced, serial-killing HindoGabor played by the lovely and talented Priyanka Chopra.

The picture only got middling reviews, but that image - let's just say it's food for thought...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Kind Word, Two Kind Words...

Worried today, I'm afraid, watching the news out of Cairo.  It's not good, and it's hard to see how it's going to get better. 

In this mood, one needs a good solid dose of Dalida. 

Here the great Parisienne reminds us that she is in fact a daughter of the Nile, a little girl from Shubra (which is kind of like being from the Lower East Side, back when that didn't mean annoying and hipsterish).  The song is "Helwa Ya Baladi," - "My Sweet Land," more or less.  The opening lyric translates as "A kind word, two kind words/For my country/a sweet song, two sweet songs/For my country."  It's the sort of song that makes exiles and expatriates sadly nostalgic, recalling a past that, really, never was.

The politics of it all are complicated, and largely unpleasant.  Religion, in multiple forms, comes into play, and that never simplifies things.  What last year seemed as if it could be a revolution full of possibilities has soured; there are still possibilities, but few of them inviting.  I once imagined a quiet retirement there (well, as quiet as one gets in Cairo; it is after all a combination of Manhattan and Calcutta, on steroids), and now that seems to be one possibility that's fading.

I was talking about this recently when out with a group, about how hard it is to see a place you've loved drifting off, out of your grasp, the way a once-close friend can do sometimes when things go wrong.  One friend looked at me, long and hard, and I remembered he is Persian, his father an ambassador and his mother a great lady in a world that disappeared.  "Get used to it," he said.

And I suppose I will, some day, somehow.  In the meantime - helwa, ya baladi...

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Yes, it's a Good Day...

...or at least it was 79 years ago today, when the good people of Utah (of all places!) cast the deciding vote that ratified the 21st amendment to the U.S. constitution (Ohio and Pennsylvania chimed in the same day, just for good measure).  The 21st repealed the 18th, and our long national nightmare - 13 years without a (legal) drink! - and the foolish experiment that was Prohibition was over.

Naturally, I've had a little anniversary celebration.

I'll never forget how shocked I was as a child, riding in the back seat of my Aunt Edna's massive sedan in some unfamiliar part of town (the East Side was a mystery in our hometown, mostly), when she and my grandmother Muscato looked amused as we passed a faded storefront.  "You wouldn't believe it now, but once upon a time that was the most popular place in town."

"Why?" asked I, looking at the weathered facade and unpromising shop windows.

"In the back," replied Aunt Edna, blithely piloting her royal blue Pontiac Bonneville at her habitual 15 miles per hour, "was the speakeasy!"

"Oh, my," exclaimed Grandmother, throwing her hands up as she did when especially pleased by something, "It was grand!"

And the two old ladies went on to extol the virtues of the place, its tiny tables and Italian proprietor, its potent gin ("most of it was perfectly safe") and excellent band ("Oh, how we danced!  And on Saturday nights, they had a colored singer!").  This, from a pair of respectable sisters-in-law whose idea of Wild Nights was an extra glass of Riunite Lambrusco or a second Old Fashioned.  It was the first time I had ever imagined that anyone I knew could break the law (a state of innocence dented here, but shattered permanently after Uncle Alfred had his Little Accounting Troubles in '72 - the ones that meant we didn't see him until '79).

I'm willing to bet, however, that even at their maddest moment of Roaring Twenties excess, the folks who frequented Batista's - the grandparents Muscato, Aunt Edna and Uncle Russell, and their ilk - would have frowned on orgies.  What can I say?  It was that kind of town...

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

For Felix: Movie-Time Mash Up!

"Fasten your seatbelts - it's going to be a bumpy night!"*

One film still; one film line - but different films.  See the original madness here.  Give it a try!

* typo corrected - thanks, Vera!

Monday, December 3, 2012

My Day... a nutshell.  Don't ask.  Mother of God, please don't ask.  After a day like this, Mama smack.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Birthday Diva (and Friends)

There must be something about the day (or a day about nine months ago), for the little girl born Sophie Cecilia Kalos some 89 years ago today is only one of a bouquet of geniuses who celebrate today.

Joining the diva who became Maria Callas are everyone from M. Georges Seurat (who had such a memorable Sunday in a Park) to the fetching Miss Lucy Liu (a remarkable actress still, I think, in search of a great role, although the Kill Bill pictures came close).  Adding to the festivities are Broadway Divo Adolph Green, jazz thrush Sylvia Syms, stage luminary Julie Harris, and couturier/martyr Gianni Versace.

Of course, every silver lining has its cloud, and with all this richness we must also accept the regrettable Alexander "I'm in control here" Haig, television staple Cathy Lee Crosby (whom I've just learned is not, in fact, Bing's daughter, and who therefore makes even less sense than I'd thought), and onetime poptart, now pop-zombie Miss Britney Spears.

I was going to try and come up with something clever about Miss Callas, and when I thought of her, I thought (as I often do) of dear Mr. Leo Lerman, about whose marvelous journals published as The Grand Surprise I've often waxed rapturous.  The book is downstairs, and I am up; being lazy, I therefore Googled the pair, Callas and Lerman, and was startled to see in today's New York Times the obituary for Lerman's longtime companion, artist and looker (it was practically a second career, as it was for other 20th century luminaries like Ned Rorem) Gray Foy.  It's a lovely thing, this obituary, and I recommend it highly; it may not say much about Miss Callas, but it says a great deal about her world, which has, with Foy's passage to Fabulon, receded just that little bit further from our lesser days.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Working for the Weekend

If there's a slight somnolence in these parts, it's because Mr. Muscato and I have escaped the National Day madness and holed up at our favorite little place in Dubai.  It's not quite what Messrs. Rodgers and Hart had in mind in terms of A Small Hotel, but we enjoy it.  The Villa Muscato pays, once a year, for its enviable location by being in the very heart of this annual celebration, which mostly consists of local youth backfiring their enormous SUVs and tiny, exotic sportscars all night long while covering any unwary foreigners in silly string and foam.  It's terribly pleasant, if you like that sort of thing - which, of course, being sane people (most of the time) we don't.

Meanwhile, today has been memorable in the Sandlands because we've had rain, and not just a drop or two - great sheets of it, for hours at a time.  In a place where there is simply no drainage whatsoever, and people have no (but no) idea of how to drive, this poses some problems.  Let's just say the drive up was fraught.  Fortunately, our Hotel specializes in what local custom forces us to refer to as "free-flowing bubbly grape."  We feel much better.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ev'rything Old is New Again...

Over in his cosy corner of the cyberverse, dear Cookie has been regaling us with tales of real estate and family furniture - perennial hot topics, both, whenever two members of my extended family gather.  The Farm and Why We Lost It looms large, as does We Never Saw That Chiffonier Again After Your Aunt Ginnie Got Her Hands On it, and variations on both can take us well into the night, outlasting both patient spouses and the cocktail supply (the former by a lot, the latter only very slightly).

Quite independently of all that, I've been thinking of furniture now and again, mostly in the form of wondering whatever happened to mine.  Oh, I know, well enough, but after all these years overseas, it all feels rather abstract.  Back in the beginning, when the Great Emperor Clinton ruled the West, I thought I'd take a flyer and see what the expatriate life might be like.  I gave up my (rue the day - rent-stabilized!) Manhattan apartment and, on the instruction of my new employer, put all my things into storage.  "Don't get rid of too much," they told me, "Many people only spend a year or two out and then come back to the Home Office."  Well, we know how that turned out.

So there it all sits, still, my life more or less frozen in amber, some two tons of it (what?  A lot of it's books), as it existed back when Cher was having her seventeenth or twenty-third comeback with "Believe."  Among the great mass of regrettabilia that I can still remember are something on the order of 160 snowglobes (a passing fancy that snowballed, as it were, into a collection only because people kept giving them to me), an acid-washed tour jacket for a production I worked on (which I might still be able to wear, were abbreviated boleros ever to have an unexpected renaissance), and, I think, a fair amount of the product of Catalina Studios, on VHS.  Surpassing all that, however, in terms of sheer bulk, is a remarkable amount of Victoriana, much of it passed on from relatives - three china cupboards of various capacity, a bowfront secretary, several clocks, a great many spindly end tables, and so many impractical things on which to sit that, for a while, some of them hung from the walls and some acquaintances referred to my place as "The Chair Museum."

"Your apartment," a friend once told me, "is very nice.  For an exiled archduchess.  For you... well, I'm not surprised you're single."

Were all of that ever to descend back on me - now us (and so there, Gene Boarderman!*) - I'm not quite sure what we'd do.  Some of the things have sentimental value; some fewer are inherently attractive; and as for the chairs, my grandfather's vast tufted armchair aside, I'm not sure there's a single one on which either Mr. Muscato or I could sit without endangering it and us.  Market wise, the bottom has fallen out of nineteenth century furniture, and none of my various nieces and nephews show any sign of wanting to become the next generation of caretakers.

All of which brings us to the image above, the work of one Darci Goodman, who put this rather beguilingly rethought settee into a "Colorful Ranch House" she designed.  You see, sitting there in some East Coast warehouse, among the tawdry videos and doubtless now unusable rolled-up carpets, is a love seat very like this one, albeit still clad in the dowdy hunter-green shot silk I put on it when Grandmother's lilac velvet finally gave up the ghost in 1989.

Perhaps, when my Long Lost Possessions and I are finally reunited, this is the way I'll go: throw caution to the wind and run a little wild.  Having had the domicile of a Pym heroine in my twenties and thirties, perhaps I'll become the male equivalent of those women who constantly recite that "When I am Old I Shall Wear Purple" poem and decorate wildly.  I'd like that settee in my foyer, wild orange stripes and all; I can only imagine it will go better with what I've picked up on the road - African totems and huge Ottoman brass trays, Egyptian knick-knacks and such - than the shot silk.  Rather nice to think: while I may have no choice but to grow older, at least my taste can grow a little younger as the years roll by, no?

* Name changed to protect the catty and inaccurate.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

We're Soaking in it...

The Muscato beauty regimen (artist's impression)

Oh, dear.  Trying days in the Sandlands, kids.  This is the week before The Beloved Country's national-day celebrations, and the hyperbolic leader-praising that's going on would make pikers like Tito or Ceausescu just a little bit throw-uppy at the overkill.  Sometimes I think the local copywriters have been studying at the Pyongyang Academy of Obsequious Loquacity, so effusive are the encomia and so perfervid the prose ("Grateful Sons of the Union Greet Sheikh's Boundless Generosity with Joy" is a not-atypical kind of headline).  Portraits of the various dear leaders are being tacked up everywhere, and you can tell those houses occupied by local nationals (a minority, even here in the capital), as they are draped (sometimes literally and completely, Christo-style) in flags and banners in the ubiquitous national colors.  It's all rather hard to take with a straight face, which is absolutely necessary.  And it only gets worse for the next week or so.  Oy.

On top of that, things are being even more than usually diffy at what passes for my place of employment.  I mean, wouldn't be nice if sometimes, just for a moment or two, people wouldn't insist on being so stupid?

All of which makes it all the more endearing that this evening when I arrived home (late, hungry, irritable, and all-around All In) I discovered Mr. Muscato lying on a sofa, terrier on lap, face hidden most uncharacteristically* under a mud mask.  "I got you one," he said, pointing carefully without moving his face.  "It says on the package it's relaxing."

It was, and so we've had ourselves a little soir de beauté, and I must say we do feel the better for it.  Any calming beauty secrets you'd like to share?  We're clearly in the mood for more...

* Our pal Miss Rheba once confided to me that when she thinks of Mr. Muscato, she is reminded of those nymphomaniacal women in '40s movies (frequently played by Judy Canova and her ilk) who exclaim "It's a MAAAA-yun!" whenever they see a hot soldier walk by.  He actually used to be a hot soldier, but that's another story.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sister Act

They tried to start a fan club.  Finally, their glamourous Cousin Nancye (who sang alto with her own trio) finally had the sense to pull the ringleader (Jolene, left) aside and tell her in no uncertain terms that they were never going to get anyone to sign up for something called "The McCancers."  She later thought she might have gone too far when she added that they really had to stop Sadie Jo (center) from making their stage costumes.

Not long thereafter, the girls took their own advice and headed for the Lights of Home.  For all I know, they're still there.  Well, except for Liddie (right) who later moved to Fresno to become a key-punch operator.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Accept No Substitutes

So.  I hear people have been talking about her a little this weekend.  That certainly wouldn't surprise her, although the low-rent context might - that was one thing she never was.

And God knows, she was many things.  Star - no, for her it can be said: superstar.  Beauty, at moments nearly unparalled.  Actress, and at times a damn good one.  Bonne vivante, gourmande, and acolyte of excess in almost every conceivable form. Wife (also at times a good one), mother, grandmother, philanthropist, activist, author, entrepreneur (few in Hollywood died richer).  Child, girl, woman, old woman, all in the very middle of the public eye.

All I have to say about this latest assault on her legend is to echo what another Hollywood survivor, Mr. Bugs Bunny, might have said:  da noive.

This impertinent attempt does conjure up one question:  has there ever been a really satisfactory incarnation on film of a film legend?  The only one that springs to my feeble mind is Betty Comden in Garbo Talks, and she was given only the (daunting) task of impersonating the star's back.  I know that Blanchett won an Oscar for her Hepburn, but I found it vaguely embarrassing, a party trick at best (and not, in the end, all that precise an impression).  Downey's Chaplin is close, I suppose, but the movie was all over the place, and after that it's kind of a yawning void - Mr. Barbra Streisand and An Unmarried Woman were hardly a satisfactory Gable and Lombard, and Dunaway as Crawford strays perilously close to Lizanddickland.  In the sixties, there were two attempts at Harlow, both flops (deservedly), and more recently Kirsten Dunst as a pretty blonde called Marion Davies, but nothing like the original in manner or looks.

One thing the last twenty-four hours have taught us:  when it comes to a force of nature like Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire and Chevalière de la Légion d'Honneur (among countless other gongs, two Oscars not the least of them) - the viewing public would have been a lot better off, last night, watching BUtterfield 8.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ten Thoughts on a Low Dive

While we were lolling about in Istanbul, Mr. Muscato and the Egyptian boys decided they wanted to see the real Turkey, to go off the beaten tourist track of Taksim and Sultanahmet.  Through friends of friends, they had heard about a little pub on the wrong side of the tracks, frequented by the right sort of clientele.

That's how we found ourselves, latish one night, rattling along in the tram out past the bright lights of touristland, out along an avenue that grew progressively less cosmopolitan with every stop.  The slight lip-service of at least a little English on signs seen elsewhere in town disappeared, and soon enough we appeared to be the only non-Turks aboard.  I had been the Internet researcher that turned the boys' vague memories of friends' accounts into a name and an address, and so I led us at what seemed to be the right stop out into the darkness.

It turned out I'm a better navigator than you might have thought; we found the place.  It was all that it had been painted, and more.  I'm pretty sure that almost everyone there was a direct descendant of one of the gentleman above.  Hell - I think some of them might have been the gentlemen above.

Following, in no particular order, are the things I learned about a night out at a wholly non-Westernized Turkish nightspot catering to (to steal a phrase from Papa Hemingway) Men without Women:

1.  Nowhere else on earth will you ever feel so completely not-Turkish.

2.  Not to mention not-butch.  In this joint, Charles Bronson would feel like Totie Fields.

3.  When compared to about 80% of the men present, that is.  As one’s eyes adjust to the dim light, one realizes that she was in fact a good deal butcher than about 15% of these boys.

4.  The remaining 5% may in fact be Totie Fields.

5.  Wherever they register, however, they all have moustaches.  If they’re really butch, their moustaches have moustaches.

6.  In general, this is a very good thing indeed.

7.  In the hands of the right house band, Turkish pop combines the energy of its Arab counterpart and the melodramatic darkness of Slavic folksongs.   The result is disconcerting but not unalluring.

8.  Especially when it’s making half of those present dance, and the other half weep.

9.  Whether dancing or weeping, however, everybody’s singing.

10.   When you find yourself dancing, weeping, and singing, it’s time to go home.

In short, we had a Very Good Time. 

A couple of things surprised me about the joint.  For one, even though Turkey remains a country ferociously devoted to smoking as a nearly mandatory social pastime, the place scrupulously observed the no-smoking-in-public rules flouted in cafés and restaurants all across Istanbul.  For another, there was a casual cheerfulness about the place (even with all the minor-key induced weeping - it really was as if every other song were a cross between "Danny Boy" and "Leavin' on a Jet Plane," albeit with a belly-dance beat, from the reaction they were getting) that belied its outside grittiness.  It sort of gave you the impression of a gay Turkish Cheers, if Cheers had been ten times more crowded, and Carla had been a man (actually, one of the barbacks was disctinctly rheaperlmanesque, right down to the perm).

And the regulars really had a very Turkish kind of charm.  They tended either toward the mature:

Just a snap found online, but it conveys, I think, the butch-Totie conundrum...

Or the less so, but still not uninteresting:

Although, just to clarify, everyone that night stayed full dressed.  Pity.

We missed the last tram back to the more-traveled side of town, but all agreed it had been worth the excursion.  Once we stopped weeping and singing, that is...

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: La Lupe!

"Camp is the glorification of 'character'... Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence - a person being one, very intense thing."
- Susan Sontag, "Notes on Camp"
In "Notes on Camp," Sontag includes a brief list of things that were, at the time she wrote the piece (1964) "part of the canon of Camp."  Most of them still ring true today (Tiffany lamps, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Thombeau's beloved Scopitones), although perhaps fewer people are enamored now of Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, and her final entry, "stag movies seen without lust" has gone from Camp to more or less a definition of contemporary popular culture.
Rereading "Notes on Camp," one entry stood out: "The Cuban pop singer La Lupe."  I didn't know her; I had to investigate.
Sontag was right: she is the very definition of "continual indancescence," a sort of half-crazed combination of Celia Cruz (herself no stranger to afficionados of Camp) and Janis Joplin.  We see her here on an early '60s Puerto Rican talk show; those curious to see her on a more mainstream stage might be interested in her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show.  He speaks, retrospectively, of her having a kind of "pleasant menacing quality...a quality that's essential for most drama."  Suffice it to say that he ends the segment half-dressed; she would seem to have had that effect on people.

Meanwhile, in the Dormitory

Oh, that Rose-Mary. There was a reason the headmistress at Miss Crosbie's Academy for Young Ladies never allowed her to spend too much time with the new girls.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Turkey Day

Just a picture nabbed from the 'net, but a rather good idea of how the picnic table in the sunroom looked; Aunt Ruth delivers the flowers, in the processing getting a good first look at the turkey and the salad.  Speaking of which, can you spot the salad?

Thank you. Thank you. Simple words, so frequently tossed out, so little considered (except, inevitably, today). We say it to everyone, from God (if we have one; I seem to have misplaced mine along the way) to the nice man at the grocery store who carries your bags to the car (we're very spoiled in the Sandlands, as I might have mentioned once or twice). Sometimes we even mean it (speaking to either of the above, if the burden is particularly heavy, or indeed anyone else). As Americans, I've learned, we unconsciously judge others by its lack (some cultures don't require it) or its abundance (saying thank you in Egypt can take five minutes - thank you, a thousand thanks, bless you, bless your family, praise to your endless generosity and to the excellence of your forebears...).

It's a nice idea, Thanksgiving, a holiday devoted entirely to thank you, even though, of course, being thoughtless and foolish, we have diluted and benighted it, with sales and supersales, with routines that shade from traditional to onerous, with turkey-shaped candlesticks and the ominous shadow of Christmas just around the corner (Christmas creep has reached the Sandlands, by the bye - a tree towers over the escalator at our local supermarket, and the music switches neck-snappingly from Arab pop to what sounds suspiciously like one of those Firestone anthologies we used to get at the gas station, the records that jammed onto one piece of vinyl Brenda Lee and Mahalia Jackson, Tony Bennett and Julie Andrews. Boxes of stuffing sit on the specialty shelves next to Christmas crackers, for the holidays here are a curious Anglo-American amalgam, half Santa and Hot Wheels and half paper crowns and Christmas puddings).

Remembering Thanksgiving makes me nostalgic, but not sad (that's reserved, I suppose, for Christmas). As with so many aspects of life, Thanksgiving at our house was itself something of a neck-snapper, veering unpredictably between squabbling and unthinking generosity. Arguing about the menu, of course, never grew old, dinner conversations growing tenser as October moved into November: We never put chestnuts in our stuffing. I suppose she'll insist on bringing those creamed onions, won't she? Do we really have to have a ham as well? I'm sorry, there's just no question: that marshmallow-yam casserole is common as mud.

Meanwhile, preparations gathered pace: tablecloths ironed, napkins starched, all the silver (both the used and the just-for-show) relentlessly polished, the best water glasses checked for chips, and your great-great-grandmother's Haviland counted to make sure we didn't need to borrow any of your grandmother's Spode (Mother Muscato's wartime-wedding Lenox being deemed insufficiently grand for state occasions; it was the Tightum of dishes, only slightly less shameful than the aluminum rationware, trays and platters and cakestands, she also got as presents in lieu of sterling, banished to the basement but now I suppose fetching fortunes as Mid-Century Chic). Then the shopping and the pre-cooking (and more wrangling - turkey from the grocer, Mrs. Vetrone the grocer's wife expects us to buy from them, or from the farm, so much fresher and really, Helen, are you sure the Vetrones' place is all that clean?), the en-staling of the stuffing bread and the finding of the turkey platter (perpetually lost, and perpetually discovered at the back of the closet of the little room at the top of the stairs, where the photo albums and boxes of tattered Easter decorations lived).

And then the day.

The one question rarely asked, the one kind of bickering forgone: who should come? The answer, simply, was anyone, beyond just us, who needs to. Miss Brown the librarian, the year her mother at long last died and she was so very much alone; the random traveling salesmen or hapless businessman who turned up the previous night at the Club, not able to make the last flight out; even your Great Aunt Ruth from Youngstown, even though all she'll do is complain at having to come all this way and talk about the goddam Daughters of the American Revolution. One year a family, very quiet, a father and three weedy children, I had never seen even though they lived a block away, something Very Wrong only hinted at (be nice, not everyone's as lucky as you are); another, a whole family of cousins who neglected to let us know they were coming, all the way from Mamaroneck. It snowed, and they had to stay the night (and aren't you glad we have that ham, now?).

One memorable year we sat down, 26 of us, the picnic table brought in and fitted with difficulty into the sunroom, looking oddly tarted up but somehow rakish under its weight of damask and silver, card tables in the living room and the children out in the kitchen. Our ladies - Fanny who was ours and Alice who was one grandmother's and Mrs. Blake who worked for the other (Mr. Blake had worked for grandfather in the old days, and hence her honorific) came and spent the morning, but then were sent duly off by noon for their own celebrations, a pie and a bottle of something warming for each joining the turkey that had been delivered to their houses on the East Side last Monday.  And then we ate.

And ate. And ate. After an hour or so, it wasn't unusual for one or another of the not-us guests, shifting uncomfortably as another helping of mashed potato was delivered on its way past, to observe, timidly, goodness, but you Muscatos certainly do enjoy your dinner, don't you, and Grandfather Muscato would stare them down from under his memorable eyebrows, look around the table (Great Aunt Ruth starting as she was caught shamelessly eating from the cranberry dressing spoon) and growl, we certainly do.

Laughter and arguing - the substance of memory, and of childhood. Something to be grateful for.

Today will be quieter; we're dining with friends at their apartment, ridiculously high up in one of the ridiculous new towers that dot the sandy coastline here. I'm taking Grandmother Muscato's corn pudding and of course a little Champagne. I think we'll have a very nice time, and I know my friends will forgive me if, at times, I'm only half in that glass-walled room on the 62nd floor and half back at another table, in another time.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Freeze Tag

Stop time.  Have her remember why they need to leave.  Decide to fly out that night, back to the capital, fly back to the children.  Think of a reason.

It is San Antonio, Texas, November 21, 1963.  They still have to do Houston and Fort Worth.  In the morning, they go on to Dallas.  She plans to wear her pink; she hasn't worn it for a year or more, since the visit of the Maharajah of Jaipur.  She has no idea.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Tale of Woe

This has been, my dears, a trying day.  It started off on a very wrong foot and hasn't really gone uphill since then.  Which would have been easy, really, since the first thing that happened was someone slamming into the Muscatomobile as I eased out of the gates of the Villa Muscato (houses here are all gated; it's not like it's really all that fancy) and into our quiet lane.

I felt rather badly for the poor little Subcontinental gentleman who so inexpertly piloted his company's aging sedan into my dear little car (my rolling midlife crisis, I call it, for how else to explain a red convertible if you are a portly middle-aged gent?), as he was clearly horrified at having done so, but nonetheless the damage was done.  Sadly that damage was considerable, as he managed to hit the back of the car in just such a way as to maximize the impact by whomping me (forgive the technical term) into the just-opened gate, leaving a very nice series of punctures and gouges all along the side of the vehicle facing away from the accident, on top of the crumpled bumper and worse where he hit me.

I rang the police, as well as the office, and soon enough representatives of both appeared.  Routine road problems have been contracted out here, and the earnest officer-equivalent who came along was pleasant enough, but I was quite glad that I had our trusty public-relations man on my side, too (the PR manager - called a PRO in Sandlandian- is in these parts not someone who handles one's publicity, but rather one's interactions with all things official - if you are a lucky corporate stiff, your PRO does everything from renew your liquor license to, well, show up and wrangle with the contract cop when you have a fender-bender). 

The issue, it turned out, was that I had better insurance than the [company of the] man who hit me, and therefore it seemed only fair to the policeman (equivalent) that it all should be my fault.  Since everything that follows an accident here hinges on the first police certificate issued (without which you can't get a car repaired at all), it's thus rather important that fault be assigned correctly from the start.  It took a great deal of intense (and in Arabic, intense is intense, and all the more so when you throw some Hindi and/or Urdu into the mix) backing-and-forthing to finally wring from him the admission that since one side of the car was covered with all-too-clearly gate-induced gashes, it was unlikely in the extreme that I had deliberately pulled all the way into the street, prevailed on the gentleman to hit me, and then headed back to ensure that I dragged the car along the gate.

At long last, however, all was resolved, and I emerged triumphant with the certificate in my favor in hand.  Now all it will take is several weeks and doubtless endless bureaucracy to restore the poor car to something like its pre-whomping condition.

And the rest of the day?  Suffice it to say that the accident was in fact among the less annoying things that I've suffered.  Nothing fatal, nothing really even serious, but my lord it does seem to be a phase of the moon when everyone around one seems intent on testing the boundaries of that elegant phrase, "my last nerve."

Speaking of elegant phraseology, I include the rippling specimen above as a kind of calmative, both for me for having gotten through the day and you for having had to read at such length about it.  I think he's really rather appropriately automotive and a not at all untoothsome example of what dear Mr. Peenee so tastefully refers to as "muscle pussy."  So at least today has that going for it; here's to a better tomorrow.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cover Her Face

Today, we're used to seeing famous people in disarray - either of their own making (coffee cups in hand, strolling around in torn shorts and sloppy tee-shirts, heedless of the telephoto lens) or of the relentless photographers' (that startled, universal expression that just precedes a more definitive response as some star or starlet leaves a nightclub, clandestine lover's house, or doctor's office).

Once upon a time, though, that wasn't so.  Stars were distant, perfect, glimpsed only at the behest of trusted studio photographers or social-column snappers who might get an idealized glimpse tableside at Ciro's or the Coconut Grove.  Those few who were, as it were caught in the act (often related to arrests, courtroom testimony, or similar indication of personal and professional turmoil) seemed, even more than ordinary mortals would have been, exposed, and somehow diminished (think of Robert Mitchum in jail, or Frances Farmer, dishevelled and struggling as she's dragged into night court).  Some survived this violation of the terms of fame (Mitchum came back); some didn't (Farmer sank into madness and obscurity, in part at least for so blatantly trampling her glittering blonde image).

All of which makes this picture all the more arresting. Joan Crawford was the absolute acme of the star-as-control-freak, the ultimate product of the ultimate studio, MGM.  Whether dining at PickFair at one end of her career or opening a Pepsi bottling plant in Paraguay at the other, she was always perfectly turned out, perfectly composed, perfectly... perfect.  And always, always, portrayed on her own terms.  Even her films - laden as they were with melodramatic excess - rarely, in the course of limning extremes of emotion, required the star to do more than look obdurately into the middle distance, a glycerine tear coursing a careful trail down her meticulously pancaked cheek (in a way, that's what makes her occasional moments of violence - slapping the egregious Veda in Mildred Pierce, for example - all the more bracing).  Oh, there were rumors, even at her height, that presaged her posthumous savaging at her daughter's hands, but they were offstage, distant thunder.

Here, though, she's giving way.  It's 1959, the funeral of her fourth and final husband, Al Steele, and although she remains beautifully dressed (although some might say the matching purse and pumps are just that little bit too much), for once her face betrays her, despite (perhaps because of?) the mask of veil and sunglasses.  Here she's Joan Steele, genuinely distraught, or as genuinely as Joan Crawford can be after, at that point, more than 30 years more frequently indicating than feeling deep emotion. 

Of course, she was spared the indignities that would be heaped on a star in this situation today - the microphones in her face, the mandatory questions ("How does it feel, Joan?" "Are you going to miss him?" "Where's Christina, Joan?") and the obligatory self-disclosure - right there, in the street; on talk shows; on Twitter ("@MrsSteele: Can't express too much my sorrow - we had the Best of Everything (in theatres now)").  Still, it's disconcerting.  You feel for her, for her double distress (at her loss, and at being seen experiencing it); it's an embarrassment, of a kind, and yet you can't look away.  Mine eyes dazzle; he died young, even if she didn't, and even if with her went the expectation that this sort of thing would be the exception rather than the rule of stardom.

 Photo from the invaluable The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia.