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."
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...