Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Singer and the Silents

I suppose Al Martino isn't the best remembered of all the last century's crooners, but back in the day it only took a note or two of "Spanish Eyes" to reduce Mother Muscato to sighs and faraway looks.  He would have been 87 today.

We catch him here at an oddly semi-August moment - Germany's second day of color TV transmission in 1967.  One wonders if some of those more insistently hued cocktail frocks worn by the gemütliche hausfrauen were chosen to mark the occasion.  Some of them do seem to share Mother M.'s secret passion for the Italian hearthrob.  Their husbands? Not so much.

Second-tier careers like Martino's are interesting.  He had a few hits - real, genuine solid hits - but only a few, and as a result YouTube tells the tale of endless repetition, the ever-older songster trotting out his "Spanish Eyes" and "Speak Softly, Love" (Love Theme from his greatest triumph, The Godfather, in which he sang and acted) decade after decade, his last big single (a disco version of "Volare," very popular in Germany - they must have remembered '67) added to the mix and carrying him into the '80s, '90s, and finally into the new century.

He died in '09 - outlasting his biggest fan, my Mother, by a few years - and now I don't suppose you could find a person under 30 who has any idea who he is, unless they happen to be Godfather fans (and even then).

But just what do the younger set know?  That's been on my mind this week, as I agreed to give a lecture to a group of new hires at Golden Handcuffs Consulting Amalgamated International on Monday.  I was trying to illustrate a point about how the ability to reach mass audiences grew over the past century or so, and I noted that around the time of the First World War (most seemed to more or less have heard of it), there was one factor in emerging mass media that made it easier than ever before to reach audiences worldwide.

What, I asked the group, all 20 or so, might that have been?

Silence.  I fell back on my usual shtick and looked around the room, murmuring "Anybody? Bueller?" which generally gets a chuckle and did here.

Finally, a tentative hand:  "Television?"

"Oh, well - off by 30 years or so, but warmish...."


"Well, that's closer in time, but really a little further away from what I was thinking."

"Yellow journalism?"

No more hands.

I kept at it for one more round, but soon enough it became clear: in a group of 20 young persons (meaning between 25 and 40), and ones with college degrees and at least some interest in communications at that, only three - three! - had any idea that once upon a time, many moons ago, movies were silent.

"Is that like...you know...Charlie Chaplin?" (God help me, but some day I'm just going to cuff one of these toddlers who use that horrifying California end-of-sentence lilt and what I've learned is called "vocal fry".)

"Very good!" (Inner despair, as I dumped the next few minutes in which I had hoped to talk about how DeMille and Pickford and Griffith and Gish had made war-effort pictures that were international sensations, how Swanson was as big a star in Shanghai as she was in Philadelphia, etc., etc.)

The rest of the hour went well enough, but I couldn't help feeling that we weren't quite, as it were, on the same page and all of us very aware of that.  I felt, frankly, as if I should have had a walker - or perhaps one of those convenient electric scooters - waiting just outside the room for me.

So happy birthday, Al, and if you're not exactly a fave-rave among the gilded youth, well, clearly you're in good company.

I'm just glad I didn't try a Mary Miles Minter joke on them...


  1. I like Al, in particular I've always had a soft spot for his version of Here in My Heart it's so big and florid, but he's very much of his time. His is an emotionalist take on songs and once rock & roll and then the navel gazing vogue of singing rose up and replaced a style where singers actually related to the songs they sang he was obsolete. Nowadays an ability to carry a tune doesn't even seem to be a prerequisite for a singing career which is so sad. He had a nice set of pipes but was missing that special spark that set Sinatra, Dino and Nat King Cole apart from the pack.

    What the hell are they teaching in college if communication students don't even realize that films use to be silent!! It's not like there aren't many famous ones, the first best picture was a silent for Christ's sake! That's just appalling.

  2. It is an eternal irritation to me, the "ignorance" of today's "youth". But, to put it into context I always remind myself that when I was born, World War One was fewer years ago than Beatlemania is to children born today, and that even today's 40-year olds were born in the year Abba won the Eurovision Song Contest. Of course, whenever I am met with that hoary old cliché "It was before I was born!", I always counter with "So was Shakespeare. So was Dickens. No excuse for ignorance!"


    PS As for "Spanish Eyes" and Mr Martino, I doubt if I would be quite so familiar with him had this eternal sing-along choon not been re-released in 1973 in the UK, when it was a huge hit all over again...

  3. It's not even so much that it's ignorance - it's a kind of blankness. I asked one student afterward about his interest in movies - he'd mentioned he had one - and he said it came from a film class he took. Wondering, then, how he couldn't have known anything at all about movies, I asked him what it had been, and it turns out it was a semester-long examination of '80s action pictures - "you know, the classic old guys, like Stallone and Schwarzenegger."

    In the face of that, what can you do?

    1. Oh, for the love of God ...

  4. Welcome to an all-too-often day on my walking tour. While much of my customer base are (God love them) baby - boomers, I do get my fair share of the under 40 hipster set who are excited to take an historical Hollywood walking tour with me because they 'love Al Pacino in Casino' or they have a framed print of James Dean or Marilyn Monroe in their flat.

    It's always fun for me to watch the color drain from their faces as I start getting into the actual history of the entertainment industry here in Hollywood. (my content is apparently legit enough and deep enough that I now have 3 colleges that bring students on my tour every year) But since I have them captive for 90 minutes, I'm usually able to bring them around and they are quite enthralled by the end.

    As for dear Mr. Martino, his vocal stylings have always been a soothing and welcome sound and I count his daughter, Alison, amongst my good pals. She is a tireless advocate of show biz history and runs the Vintage Los Angeles facebook page.

  5. Well, now you've done it. I hadn't thought of Mr. Martino in years, but of course Spanish Eyes was one of the songs of my childhood -- Mother loved hearing it and him on the radio. And Mary Miles Minter provided a plot point in my last book, so you've scored an effortless double at my house today. You clearly have much more patience than I. Congratulations on all counts.

  6. Young people. If you can't fuck 'em, what good are they?

    1. And I've never even really been into them for that...even in my 20s, my crushes tended toward the silverfoxische...

  7. Thank you for such a warm memory. I remember my parents dancing romantically to Al Martino’s “Spanish Eyes,” even when their marriage was not in the greatest state. That song gave them a little moment in time to which they could hang on. Sigh.

    Several years back, when video stores were still around, a father was trying to expose his son to old classic films and was quizzing his knowledge. “What was the first full-length talkie?” The son was at a complete loss. The father called over a store employee and asked the same question. The guy was like, “Dude …” I finally couldn’t hold it in. “Oh for heaven’s sake. It was “The Jazz Singer!”


    “Al Jolson, of course!”

    I left the store certain that our nation’s future was doomed.