Sunday, January 27, 2013

Birthday Boys: Nevertheless

Here to sing in a surprisingly lovely birthday to composer and screenwriter Harry Ruby is none other than that most surprising It Girl of the last couple of years, the apparently indefatigable Miss Betty White.  It's 1954, and her weekly program, full of the charmingly thrown-together feel of early television, allowed her to occasionally put over a song.  Who knew?

Ruby and his partner Bert Kalmar are part of that legion of remarkable musicians who, in the first half of the twentieth century, created a body of work that seemed like utterly disposable pop at the time, but which has proven in many cases to have amazing resonance and durability.  Whether light (and what is lighter, really, than "Hooray for Captain Spaulding"?) or, as here, achingly romantic, the kinds of songs that Ruby and Kalmar and their contemporaries created seem very likely to endure.  Running a close second in my affections to this number (Betty's fab, but I especially love the sadly under-Youtubed Karen Akers as well) is what is probably his best-known song, "I Wanna be Loved by You," made immortal first by Helen Kane and then again by Marilyn Monroe.

Also celebrating a birthday today is one of my favorite authors, someone who I have a feeling is rather something of a Ruby and Kalmar fan himself.  I first encountered Ethan Mordden through his fiction, and especially the through the books that started with I've a Feeling We're not in Kansas Anymore and evolved into the Buddies series, a set of books about a circle of men in Manhattan and what happens to them as the '70s evolve over the decades into a new century, nightclub hedonism turning into plague apocalypse and what comes after.  I love the books dearly and need to reread them; in them, Mordden combines the wry affection for his characters and close attention to the minutiae of daily life of Barbara Pym with a very contemporary (and very gay) wit and physicality.  He created a world in which friends could build what we now call a family of choice (then a revolutionary idea) and move seamlessly among worlds (uptown and downtown, high and low, Metropolitan Opera and bars and bathhouses).  His tales of New York days and nights were the backdrop against which I moved to the big city and one of the measures against which I created the life that late I led there for a decade or so.

Just as wonderful, though, are his nonfiction works, mostly on various aspects of the show business.  His Movie Star has been a huge influence to me in thinking about the Big Ladies and why we (mostly) love them, while his multi-volume history of the Broadway musical - a very personal, idiosyncratic, and anecdote-driven overview - is to my mind the best introduction to this treasurable art form that one could ask for.  Also marvelous are his look at the how the studio structure helped shape the movies of Hollywood's golden age, his take on opera divadom (the aptly titled Demented), and, more recently, The Guest List, on Manhattan's role in shaping American popular culture and, just last fall, a joint biography of that folie à deux, Weill and Lenya.

Maybe I'm right, and maybe I'm wrong... but nevertheless, I'm love with both of them.  But especially Ethan Mordden.  He's one of the few people I really would like not just to meet, but get to know.  Who knows? Maybe he reads obscure blogs that are, in one way or another, by-products of his sensibility   If he's not deeply creeped-out at that prospect, I hope he'll be amused.


  1. What a lovely rendition of that song (which was a favorite since seeing "Three Little Words"). Betty couldn't only sing sweetly, she could also interpret.

    Big Mordden fan; I've practically memorized "The Hollywood Musical" which I bought new about thirty (!) years ago and still refer to today.

  2. I should have known we were both Ethan Mordden lovers. Have you read How Long Has This Been Going on? It's wonderful and as undeservedly under-appreciated as Betty White's singing.