Category Archives: 1950s televsion

HOORAY FOR HOLLYWOOD Part III:  “Some Like It Hot”

We’re currently in the middle of a great many “hot” news stories.

But let’s step back, take a break from the news, and think about something else.

Something funny.

How about a film that’s been called “the greatest film comedy ever”?  It’s even been judged “the #1 comedy film of all time” by the American Film Institute.  And it’s one of my all-time favorites.

Countless words have been written about “Some Like It Hot” during the past six decades.  But in case you’re one of those unfortunates who’ve never seen it or haven’t seen it in a long time, I’ll highlight some of my favorite things about it.

Then I’ll tell you my own personal connection to it.

 

HIGHLIGHTS

The writing

Astoundingly clever, can’t-miss dialogue by Billy Wilder and his partner, I.A.L. Diamond, has garnered plaudits from moviegoers for the past 60 years.

The direction

Director Billy Wilder, also heralded for films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “The Apartment,” made his American directorial debut with the comedy “The Major and the Minor” (another film I have a personal connection to; I’ll save that for another day).

Wilder keeps the storyline in “Hot” moving along at an astonishingly rapid pace.  The audience has to stay on its toes to keep up with it.

The casting and plot

Perfection on both counts.

The two male leads are perfect.  Tony Curtis (playing Joe), already established as a young leading man, was cast first.  Once Wilder signed Marilyn Monroe as his female lead, he added Jack Lemmon (as Jerry).   Jack was known for his many appearances on TV, and he’d already starred in “It Should Happen to You” (1954) and “Mr. Roberts” (1955).

Wilder actually had Frank Sinatra in mind for this role, but Frank never showed up for a meeting with him, so he chose Jack Lemmon instead.  Jack turned out to be a brilliant addition to the cast, much better at outrageous comedy than Tony Curtis.

The duo zooms through the film at a breakneck pace, beginning with their desperate search for work as musicians in 1929 Chicago.  When no gigs (for male musicians) turn up, and they happen to witness the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre by mobsters in a Clark Street garage, they move fast.  They borrow some women’s clothes and makeup and add a couple of wigs, hoping to pass as women so they can join an all-girl band that’s about to depart for Florida.  They know the mob is searching for them (“Every hood in Chicago will be after us”) and fervently hope their disguises will keep them from being bumped off.

Marilyn Monroe (M for short) already had enough star power to get top billing over the two men.  By 1959, she had impressed moviegoers in a number of acting roles.  She had also earned her singing stripes in the film “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1953), featuring her dynamic performance of “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.”  She proved she could excel at comedy as well when Wilder directed her in “The Seven Year Itch” (1955).  (I keep wanting to insert a hyphen between “Seven” and “Year,” but darn it, the film’s title doesn’t have one.)

In “Hot,” she confirmed that she’d mastered both singing and comedy as well as straight acting.  (Too bad she didn’t believe that herself.  She reportedly felt terribly insecure throughout her career.)

Her entrance in this film is simply spectacular.  As Jerry and Joe (J and J for short) approach the train leaving for Florida, M whizzes by, stunning both of them. Dressed in chic black, she’s startled by a puff of steam that highlights her provocative derriere.  Jerry notes her enticing walk, famously blurting out “Look how she moves!  It’s like Jell-O on springs!” adding that “she must have some sort of built-in motor!”  Once on the train, M launches into her first song, a terrific rendition of “Running Wild.”

As Sugar Kane (born Sugar Kowalczak), M latches on to J and J, accepting them as sympathetic new girlfriends.  She confides that she’s always had problems singing with male bands, especially with unfaithful saxophone players, adding that “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollipop.”  (A great line.  She later repeats it when she’s alone with Joe in the train’s bathroom, where he learns of her hopes to marry a millionaire, and he wishes her “the sweet end of the lollipop.”)

Both of the men fall for her, but once they’re in Florida, it’s Joe who devises a complicated plot that leads M to meet with him, posing as a millionaire with a Cary Grant accent, on a borrowed yacht.  There he tells her that “girls leave me cold.”  M is so anxious to land a millionaire that she does everything she can to seduce him.  The lengthy seduction scene is my least favorite part of the film for a couple of reasons.  First, because M (who otherwise comes across as somewhat ditsy but not stupid) is depicted as too easily taken in by Joe’s charade, and second, because it goes on much too long.

Meanwhile, Jerry, who’s dubbed himself Daphne, has met Osgood, an eccentric (and real) millionaire.  We first see Osgood, who’s played for laughs by old-time actor Joe E. Brown, sitting on the hotel porch in a line-up of old geezers ogling the band members when they arrive in Florida.  He soon focuses on Daphne, and while Joe is on Osgood’s yacht romancing Sugar, Daphne is at a nightclub, hilariously dancing the tango until dawn with Osgood.

When J and J meet up later in their hotel room, Jerry, as Daphne, announces, “I’m engaged!”  But when Joe asks “Who’s the lucky girl?” Jerry’s answer is “I am!”

A smaller role, that of hard-boiled band leader Sweet Sue, is played admirably by Joan Shawlee.  When she tells J and J that she won’t put up with her girls getting involved with two things during working hours, liquor and men, Jerry (as Daphne) immediately responds:  “Men? We wouldn’t be caught dead with men!  Rough, hairy beasts with eight hands!”  The audience is clearly in on the joke.

Marilyn’s singing

M does a sensational job performing three 1920s-era songs: “Running Wild,” dating from 1922; “I Want to Be Loved by You,” first performed by Helen Kane in 1928 (who became known as the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl” and seems to have inspired M’s performance here); and “I’m Through with Love,” which actually dates from 1931.  M performs this one, a much sadder song than the others, dressed in black and appearing far more somber, as befits the song and her feelings at this point in the movie.

Costuming

First, the men’s clothes: As women, both men wear authentically designed dresses that women in the 1920s would have worn.  Demure high-necked dresses, for the most part.  These were designed for them by the renowned fashion designer, Orry-Kelly, who’s much better known for the gowns he designed for M.  In some scenes, J and J don women’s hats typical of the 1920s.  And for their appearances on the bandstand, they wear more ornate black garb, appropriate for musicians performing for an audience.

M never fails to look deliciously provocative, even in a bathrobe.  But the dazzling gowns Orry-Kelly designed for her two appearances with the band (one of which she also wears in the scene on the yacht) are jaw-dropping examples of gowns that simply shout “sex.” Even though M is almost completely covered by fabric, the fabric chosen is essentially see-through, so that much of her body appears to be nude.  The designer strategically added beads and sequins in especially revealing places, but the gowns have nevertheless left moviegoers agog.  M wears a fluffy white stole that covers the gowns whenever she’s outdoors, and that stole keeps them from being totally indecent by 1959 standards.

The light-colored dress worn on the bandstand for “I Want to be Loved by You” and on the yacht was designed for the 1959 film, but it has always reminded me of the dress M famously wore three years later.  In May 1962, M appeared at a birthday celebration held at Madison Square Garden for then-President John F. Kennedy.  There were longstanding rumors that she and JFK had been intimate, but these rumors were never proved to be true.

At the 1962 fundraising event, M wore a similarly jaw-dropping sheer-fabric bead- and rhinestone-covered dress while she breathlessly sang “Happy Birthday, Mr. President.”  She reportedly wore nothing under the form-fitting dress, which she paid for herself, and had to be sewn into it.

Sadly, with her personal life in a steep decline, M was found dead in her home, a probable suicide, a few months later.

 

Other notable things about the film:

  • The comic depiction of the Chicago mobsters is classic. Led by bootlegger-in-chief “Spats,” played by longtime movie star George Raft, the film mocks the mobsters’ somewhat idiotic personas.  When we first see Spats in Chicago, he protests being apprehended by veteran actor Pat O’Brien, Irish cop par excellence.  O’Brien tells him, “Call your lawyer if you wanna,” and Raft responds, “These are my lawyers.”  When a few goofy guys stand up, Spats adds, “All Harvard men.”  (This line strikes me as particularly funny.)

When the mobsters later show up for a convention of “opera lovers” at the same Florida hotel where J and J are hiding out, J and J immediately pack their things to leave, but their departure is stymied by some hilarious happenings, leading to a terrific chase scene.

  • The last line has become famous. In Osgood’s motorboat, Daphne tells Osgood that s/he can’t marry him, naming one reason after another.  Osgood is OK with all of them.  Finally, Jerry (as Daphne) is so frustrated that he pulls off his wig and yells, “I’m a man!”  Osgood’s reply:  “Well, nobody’s perfect.”

It’s always hard to come up with a great finish, and the writers debated what to use as the last line.  But after some debate, this one became the last line, and it’s now a cherished part of Hollywood history.

  • The film’s original preview, held at a theater in Pacific Palisades, was something of a flop. The audience wasn’t expecting a comedy, and everyone left thinking it was a failed melodrama.  For the second preview, held at the Westwood Village Theatre, the studio wisely signaled in advance that it was a comedy.  The audience laughed from the very beginning.  (The Westwood Village Theatre is close to my heart.  Another story for another day.)

 

  • The “Florida” hotel, called the Seminole-Ritz in the film, is actually the Hotel del Coronado, a luxurious and historic beachfront hotel located across the bay from San Diego. The scenes shot there were shot first, and all went well.  Later scenes, shot at the studio, proved to be more difficult, especially for M, who sometimes needed 50-plus takes.

The Coronado is still a beautiful hotel, well worth a visit.  I was a guest at a rehearsal dinner held there in 2007, and that event was even more memorable than the wedding itself, held at a location in San Diego.

  • High heels play a role in this film. When J and J arrive at the Chicago train station, they’re both struggling with wearing high heels.  Jerry exclaims, “How do they walk in these things?”  Both actors, trained by a famous female impersonator, eventually mastered wearing heels.  But the appearance of heels on Jerry, near the end of the film, is a tip-off to the mobsters that the newly-disguised men are the witnesses the mob has been pursuing.  (A similar giveaway appears in the 1938 Hitchcock film “The Lady Vanishes,” when a fake nun is spotted wearing high heels.)

By the way, I’ve long disparaged the wearing of high heels.  [Please see the most recent blog post where I’ve argued against them:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/28/declare-your-independence-those-high-heels-are-killers/ ]

 

MY PERSONAL CONNECTION

Whenever I see this film (and there have been countless times), I can never forget the very first time I did.

When my high-school senior prom loomed, my most pressing concern was who would be my date.  My current crush, a friend since first grade who’d metamorphosed into the man of my dreams?  (I hoped so.)  Last year’s junior prom date?  (I hoped not.)  Who would it be?

As luck would have it, an amiable and very bright classmate named Allen T. stepped forward and asked me to be his prom date.  I could finally relax on that score.

Allen and I went on a few casual dates before the prom.  On one notable date, we saw “Some Like It Hot” at a filled-to-capacity downtown Chicago movie theater, one of those huge ornate palaces on Randolph Street, where we sat in the last row of the balcony.

The film was brand-new and terrifically funny, and both Allen and I loved it.  But Allen’s delight was unfortunately cut short.  When he heard the now-famous last line, he laughed uproariously, threw his head back, and hit it–hard–on the wall behind our seats.

I felt sorry for him—that must have hurt—but I still found it pretty hard to stifle a laugh.  Luckily, Allen recovered right away.  And I don’t think it hurt his brainpower.  As I recall, he went on to enroll at MIT.

Although the bloom was off the rose by the time the prom came along, Allen and I went off happily together to dance on the ballroom floor of the downtown Knickerbocker Hotel.

But what I remember even more vividly than the prom itself is the time Allen and I shared our first viewing of “Some Like It Hot.”

 

[You can see what I wrote about my senior prom, and proms in general, in my blog post, “Proms and ‘The Twelfth of Never’”  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2017/06/17/proms-and-the-twelfth-of-never/ ]

 

Is It Time to Resurrect the “Housedress”?

The HBO miniseries, “The Plot Against America,” which appeared earlier this year, focused on life in America in the early 1940s.  Adapted from the 2005 novel by Philip Roth, the storyline was terrifying, highlighting the possibility that a fascist anti-Semitic regime could assume control over politics in our country.

New York Times critic A.O. Scott, describing HBO’s adaptation as “mostly faithful” to the novel, observed that the world it portrayed looked familiar, yet different, to us today.  He noted in particular “the clothes” worn by the people inhabiting that world, as well as the cars, the cigarettes, and what he called “the household arrangements,” evoking a period “encrusted with…nostalgia.”

The series was, in my view, a stunning depiction of that era, along with a chilling prediction of what might have happened.  Thankfully, Roth’s fictional prediction never came true, and I hope it never will.

One thing I took away from the series was how authentically it created the images from that time.  I was born years later than both Philip Roth and his character, the 8-year-old Philip.  But I can recall images from the 1950s, and I’ve seen countless films dating from the 1940s and 1950s, as well as TV shows like “I Love Lucy.”

A couple of things in the series stand out.  First, people got their news from newspapers and the radio.  The leading characters appear in a number of scenes reading the daily newspapers that influenced their view of the world.  They also listened attentively to the radio for news and other information.  The radio broadcaster Walter Winchell even plays an important part in the story.

The other thing that stands out is the clothing worn by the characters in “Plot.”  Especially the women characters.  These women tended to have two types of wardrobes.  One represented the clothing they wore at home, where they generally focused on housecleaning, cooking, and tending to their children.  The other represented what they would wear when they left home, entering the outside world for a variety of reasons.

The wardrobe worn at home looked extremely familiar.  My mother clung to that wardrobe for decades.  She, like the women in “Plot,” wore housedresses at home.  These were cotton dresses, usually in a floral or other subdued print, that were either buttoned or wrapped around the body in some fashion.  In an era before pants became acceptable for women (Katharine Hepburn being a notable exception), women wore dresses or skirts, even to do housework at home.

Only when they left home, to go to somewhere like an office or a bank, did they garb themselves in other clothes.  In this wardrobe, they tended to wear stylish dresses made with non-cotton fabrics, or skirt suits with blouses, along with hats and white gloves. Working women employed in office-type settings (there were a few, like the character brilliantly played by Winona Ryder in “Plot”) wore these clothes to work every day. (Women employed in other settings of course wore clothes appropriate to their workplaces.)

Now, with most of us staying home for the most part, I wonder:  Is it time to resurrect the housedress?

Here are some reasons why it might be:

  1. Warmer weather is approaching, or may have already arrived, depending on where you live.
  2. Relying on heavy clothing like sweatshirts and sweatpants, which many of us have been relying on during our self-isolation at home, will become impractical because that clothing will be uncomfortably hot.
  3. Pajamas and nightgowns aren’t a good idea for all-day wear.  We should save them for bedtime, when we need to separate our daytime experience from the need to get some sleep.
  4. The housedress offers an inviting choice for women who want to stay comfortably at home, wearing cool cotton (or cotton-blend) dresses that allow them to move as comfortably as they do in sweat clothes, all day long.

I concede that comfortable shorts and t-shirts might fit the bill, for men as well as women.  But I suggest that women consider an alternative.  They may want to give housedresses a try.

Ideally, a woman will be able to choose from a wide range of cheerful fabric designs and colors.  If she can track down one that appeals to her, she just might be convinced by its comfort and then tempted to wear more of them.

I’ve already adopted my own version of the housedress.  I rummaged through one of my closets and found a few items I haven’t worn in years.  I’ve always called them “robes,” although they’ve also been called housecoats or other names.  My mother for some reason liked to call them “dusters.”  My husband’s aunt liked to wear what she called “snap coats.”

But in the big picture, we’re really talking about the same thing.  Cotton robes/dresses in a variety of designs and prints. Today they’re usually fastened with snaps.  Easy in, easy out.

And most of them have pockets!  (As I’ve written before, all women’s clothes should have pockets.)  [Please see my blog post “Pockets!” https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2018/01/ ]

I plucked a couple of these out of my closet, some with the brand name Models Coats.  I had never even worn one of them.  (A tag was still attached, featuring the silly slogan, “If it’s not Models Coat…it’s not!”)  But I’ll wear it now.

By the way, I’ve checked “Models Coats” on the internet, and an amazing variety of “housedresses,” or whatever you choose to call them—Models Coats and other brands–is offered online.  So it appears that some women have been purchasing them all along.

Now here’s a bit of cultural history:  My mother kept her 1950s-style housedresses well into the 1990s.  I know that because I discovered them in her closet when we visited her Chicago apartment one cold winter day in the ‘90s.  Mom lived in a 1920s-era apartment building, filled with radiators that ensured overheated air in her apartment.  [Please see my blog post “Coal:  A Personal History,” discussing the overheated air that coal-based radiators chugged out:  https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/coal-a-personal-history/ ]

My daughters and I had worn clothing appropriate for a cold winter day in Chicago.  But as we sat in Mom’s overheated living room, we began to peel off our sweaters and other warm duds.  (My husband didn’t do any peeling.  He was too smart to have dressed as warmly as we had.)

It finally occurred to me that Mom might have saved her housedresses from long ago.  Maybe she even continued to wear them.  So I searched her closet and found three of them.  My daughters and I promptly changed, and we immediately felt much better.  But when we caught sight of ourselves, we laughed ourselves silly.  We looked a lot like the model in a Wendy’s TV commercial we called “Russian fashion show.”

In our favorite Wendy’s commercial, dating from 1990, Russian music plays in the background while a hefty woman dressed in a military uniform announces the fashion show in a heavy Russian accent.  The “model” comes down the runway wearing “day wear,” “evening wear,” and “beachwear.”  What’s hilariously funny is that she wears the same drab dress, along with a matching babushka, in each setting.  For “evening wear,” the only change is that she waves a flashlight around.  And for “beachwear,” she’s clutching a beach ball.

Wendy’s used clever commercials like this one to promote their slogan:  “Having no choice is no fun,” clearly implying that Wendy’s offered choices its fast-food competitors didn’t.  I don’t know whether these commercials helped Wendy’s bottom line, but they certainly afforded our family many, many laughs.

[If you need some laughs right now, you can find these commercials on YouTube.  Just enter words like “Wendy’s TV commercials” and “Russian fashion show.”]

Mom’s housedresses weren’t as drab as the dress worn by the model in our favorite commercial.   They tended to feature brightly colored prints.  Admittedly, they weren’t examples of trend-setting fashion.  But they certainly were cool and comfortable

In our current crisis, we need to be creative and come up with new solutions to new problems.  For those women seeking something comfortable to wear, something different from what they’ve been wearing, colorful housedresses just might be the right choice.

“Who was that masked man?”

If you ever watched “The Lone Ranger,” a TV series that appeared from 1949 to 1957, you probably remember the question that ended every episode:  “Who was that masked man?”  The Lone Ranger, a Texas Ranger turned vigilante who became a pop-culture hero fighting for truth and justice, wore a mask to obscure his identity.

The question seems more appropriate today than ever before.  With most of us donning masks—or another sort of face-covering—it’s impossible to see the entire face of anyone you encounter in the outside world.  We simply have to trust that we won’t run into any evildoers lurking near us wherever we go.  So far I haven’t felt that I needed someone like the L.R. to come to my rescue.

There’s another concern, however.  When I take my daily neighborhood stroll, I find it troubling that, although most of us are now required to wear masks in public, many people I encounter are walking or jogging sans mask.  The most annoying are the joggers, who don’t seem to care that they are exhaling a whole load of droplets every time they breathe, and heck, their droplets just might be contaminated with Covid-19.

In addition to wearing a mask, walkers need to keep at least 6 feet away from each other, and according to an expert quoted in The Washington Post a few days ago, joggers need to run at least 10 feet away from everyone else.  Although some of the people I encounter try to observe those distances, many don’t.

As I walk, I often mutter into my mask (usually a colorful scarf covering my nose and mouth), trying to restrain my irritation with those violating the current guidelines. [Please see my blog post, “Join the ranks of the scarf-wearers,” at https://susanjustwrites.wordpress.com/2020/04/06/join-the-ranks-of-the-scarf-wearers/.%5D

My mask has actually turned out to be a great way to muffle what I’m not merely thinking but actually saying.  (Sotto voce, of course.)  A favorite:  “Jerk.”  Or worse.  And lately I’ve been borrowing the title of a hilarious children’s book, “The Stupids Die.”

When we were raising our two daughters in the 1980s, we enthusiastically read countless books to them.  Among our favorites were those written and illustrated by James Marshall.  Marshall is probably best known for his delightful series featuring two anthropomorphized hippos called George and Martha.  The series includes five books published between 1972 and 1988.

George and Martha were “best friends,” and one of the things we loved about them was that they were non-gender-specific friends.  So although Martha would sometimes be drawn wearing a hair bow or a colorful skirt, and George sometimes sported a casual fedora, both Martha and George liked to do the same things and go to the same places.  And no matter what transpired, they were always “best friends.”

But James Marshall didn’t confine his talents to the George and Martha series.  As an illustrator, he collaborated with the writer Harry Allard, who wrote a series of four books featuring a family called The Stupids.  Marshall’s colorful illustrations for these books, published between 1977 and 1989, are knee-slappingly hilarious.

The Stupids are colossally stupid, so much so that in “The Stupids Die,” the Stupids leap to the conclusion that they’re dead when a power outage makes their lights go out, turning their home totally dark.  The truth is revealed at the end, and the reader is left laughing at how astoundingly foolish The Stupids are.

The series had its critics, who griped that the stories promoted low self-esteem and negative behavior.  But most kids loved the stories, and copies are still selling to grown-up fans on Amazon.com.

As I witness the choice made by some walkers and joggers on my route–the choice not to keep the prescribed distance or to wear a mask to protect themselves and others from the potentially virus-saturated droplets in their exhalations– “The Stupids Die” keeps reverberating in my head.

Wearing my own mask has the unexpected benefit of allowing me to say whatever I want as I pass these non-mask-wearing and non-distance-keeping people, who are endangering their own lives as well as mine. So in addition to muttering “Jerk” and other expletives, I frequently mutter “The Stupids Die.”

If anyone should hear me, I can promptly explain that I’m simply recalling the title of a favorite children’s book.  And if they want to interpret those words as words that apply to them, I hope they will do just that.

I’m well aware that most victims of Covid-19 are very smart people who contracted the disease through no fault of their own.  I do NOT include them among “the Stupids.”  And I strongly condemn the violent assaults that have recently erupted, where mask-wearers have attacked those who weren’t wearing masks.

But I do judge harshly those in my own surroundings who don’t appear to care about others, and I declare the following:

To everyone walking and jogging, enjoying the fresh air and sunshine that surround us this May, please remember to wear a mask.  Please remember to stay the correct distance away from me.

And for your own sake, please remember that “The Stupids Die.”

 

 

 

 

Waiting for a Vaccine

 

While the world, in the midst of a deadly pandemic, turns to science and medicine to find a vaccine that would make us all safe, I can’t help remembering a long-ago time in my life when the world faced another deadly disease.

And I vividly remember how a vaccine, the result of years of dedicated research, led to the triumphant defeat of that disease.

Covid-19 poses a special threat.  The U.S. has just surpassed one million cases, according to The Washington Post.  It’s a new and unknown virus that has baffled medical researchers, and those of us who wake up every day feeling OK are left wondering whether we’re asymptomatic carriers of the virus or just damned lucky.  So far.

Testing of the entire population is essential, as is the development of effective therapies for treating those who are diagnosed as positive.  But our ultimate salvation will come with the development of a vaccine.

Overwhelming everything else right now is an oppressive feeling of fear.  Fear that the slightest contact with the virus can cause a horrible assault on one’s body, possibly leading to a gruesome hospitalization and, finally, death.

I recognize that feeling of fear.  Anyone growing up in America in the late 1940s and the early 1950s will recognize it.

Those of us who were conscious at that time remember the scourge of polio.  Some may have memories of that time that are as vivid as mine.  Others may have suppressed the ugly memories associated with the fear of polio.  And although the fear caused by Covid-19 today is infinitely worse, the fear of polio was in many ways the same.

People were aware of the disease called polio—the common name for poliomyelitis (originally and mistakenly called infantile paralysis; it didn’t affect only the young) — for a long time.  It was noted as early as the 19th century, and in 1908 two scientists identified a virus as its cause.

Before polio vaccines were available,  outbreaks in the U.S. caused more than 15,000 cases of paralysis every year.  In the late 1940s, these outbreaks increased in frequency and size, resulting in an average of 35,000 victims of paralysis each year.  Parents feared letting their children go outside, especially in the summer, when the virus seemed to peak, and some public health official imposed quarantines.

Polio appeared in several different forms.  About 95% of the cases were asymptomatic.  Others were mild, causing ordinary virus-like symptoms, and most people recovered quickly.  But some victims contracted a more serious form of the disease.  They suffered temporary or permanent paralysis and even death.  Many survivors were disabled for life, and they became a visible reminder of the enormous toll polio took on children’s lives.

The polio virus is highly infectious, spreading through contact between people, generally entering the body through the mouth.  A cure for it has never been found, so the ultimate goal has always been prevention via a vaccine.  Thanks to the vaccine first developed in the 1950s by Jonas Salk, polio was eventually eliminated from the Western Hemisphere in 1994.  It continues to circulate in a few countries elsewhere in the world, where vaccination programs aim to eliminate these last pockets because there is always a risk that it can spread within non-vaccinated populations.

[When HIV-AIDS first appeared, it created the same sort of fear.  It was a new disease with an unknown cause, and this led to widespread fear.  There is still no vaccine, although research efforts continue.  Notably, Jonas Salk spent the last years of his life searching for a vaccine against AIDS.  Until there is a vaccine, the development of life-saving drugs has lessened fear of the disease.]

When I was growing up, polio was an omnipresent and very scary disease.  Every year, children and their parents received warnings from public health officials, especially in the summer.  We were warned against going to communal swimming pools and large gatherings where the virus might spread.

We saw images on TV of polio’s unlucky victims.  Even though TV images back then were in black and white, they were clear enough to show kids my age who were suddenly trapped inside a huge piece of machinery called an iron lung, watched over by nurses who attended to their basic needs while they struggled to breathe.  Then there were the images of young people valiantly trying to walk on crutches, as well as those confined to wheelchairs.  They were the lucky ones.  Because we knew that the disease also killed a lot of people.

So every summer, I worried about catching polio, and when colder weather returned each fall, I was grateful that I had survived one more summer without catching it.

I was too young to remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I later learned that he had contracted polio in 1921 at the age of 39.  He had a serious case, causing paralysis, and although he was open about having had polio, he has been criticized for concealing how extensive his disability really was.

Roosevelt founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and it soon became a charity called the March of Dimes.  The catch phrase “march of dimes” was coined by popular actor/comedian/singer Eddie Cantor, who worked vigorously on the campaign to raise funds for research.  Using a name like that of the well-known newsreel The March of Time, Cantor announced on a 1938 radio program that the March of Dimes would begin collecting dimes to support research into polio, as well as to help victims who survived the disease. (Because polio ultimately succumbed to a vaccine, the March of Dimes has evolved into an ongoing charity focused on the health of mothers and babies, specifically on preventing birth defects.)

Yes, polio was defeated by a vaccine.  For years, the March of Dimes funded medical research aimed at a vaccine, and one of the recipients of its funds was a young physician at the University Of Pittsburgh School Of Medicine named Jonas Salk.

Salk became a superhero when he announced on April 12, 1955, that his research had led to the creation of a vaccine that was “safe, effective, and potent.”

Salk had worked toward the goal of a vaccine for years, especially after 1947, when he was recruited to be the director of the school’s Virus Research Laboratory.  There he created a vaccine composed of “killed” polio virus.  He first administered it to volunteers who included himself, his wife, and their children.  All of them developed anti-polio antibodies and experienced no negative reactions to the vaccine. Then, in 1954, a massive field trial tested the vaccine on over one million children between six and nine, allowing Salk to make his astonishing announcement in 1955.

I remember the day I first learned about the Salk vaccine. It was earthshaking.  It changed everything.  It represented a tremendous scientific breakthrough that, over time, relieved the anxiety of millions of American children and their parents.

But it wasn’t immediately available.  It took about two years before enough of the vaccine was produced to make it available to everyone, and the number of polio cases during those two years averaged 45,000.

Because we couldn’t get injections of the vaccine for some time, the fear of polio lingered.  Before I could get my own injection, I recall sitting in my school gym one day, looking around at the other students, and wondering whether I might still catch it from one of them.

My reaction was eerily like John Kerry’s demand when he testified before a Senate committee in 1971:  “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”  I remember thinking how terrible it would be to be one of the last kids to catch polio when the vaccine already existed but I hadn’t been able to get it yet.

I eventually got my injection, and life changed irreversibly.  Never again would I live in fear of contracting polio.

In 1962, the Salk vaccine was replaced by Dr. Albert Sabin’s live attenuated vaccine, an orally-administered vaccine that was both easier to give and less expensive, and I soon received that as well.

(By the way, neither Salk nor Sabin patented their discoveries or earned any profits from them, preferring that their vaccines be made widely available at a low price rather than exploited by commercial entities like pharmaceutical companies.)

Today, confronting the Covid-19 virus, no thinking person can avoid the fear of becoming one of its victims.  But as scientists and medical doctors continue to search for a vaccine, I’m reminded of how long those of us who were children in the 1950s waited for that to happen.

Because the whole world is confronting this new and terrible virus, valiant efforts, much like those of Jonas Salk, are aimed at creating a “safe, effective and potent” vaccine.  And there are encouraging signs coming from different directions.  Scientists at Oxford University in the UK were already working on a vaccine to defeat another form of the coronavirus when Covid-19 reared its ugly head, and they have pivoted toward developing a possible vaccine to defeat the new threat.  Clinical trials may take place within the next few months.

Similarly, some Harvard researchers haven’t taken a day off since early January, working hard to develop a vaccine.  Along with the Center for Virology and Vaccine Research at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, this group plans to launch clinical trials in the fall.

While the world waits, let’s hope that a life-saving vaccine will appear much more quickly than the polio vaccine did.  With today’s improved technology, and a by-now long and successful history of creating vaccines to kill deadly viruses, maybe we can reach that goal very soon.  Only then, when we are all able to receive the benefits of an effective vaccine, will our lives truly begin to return to anything resembling “normal.”

For Father’s Day: A Coronation to Remember

The U.K.’s Queen Elizabeth has been front and center lately.  Between an awkward state visit by the U.S. president in early June and the colorful celebration of her 93rd birthday a short time later, she has recently occupied a lot of media attention.

But the Queen has a long history in the minds of the American public.  I first heard about her when I was growing up in Chicago and she ascended the throne after the sudden death of her father, King George VI.

The brilliant Netflix TV series, “The Crown” (which I’ve recently caught up with on DVD), has revived my memories of the early tenure of the Queen.  One particular episode in Season I immediately caught my attention.  At the beginning of this episode, “Smoke and Mirrors,” the young Princess Elizabeth helps her father prepare for his coronation in 1937 (following the abdication of his brother, Edward VIII).

The extreme closeness between father and daughter is demonstrably clear.

The story moves on to the preparation for Elizabeth’s own coronation in 1953.  By this time, her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh (dubbed Prince Philip in 1957), has assumed a significant role in her life.  He insists upon orchestrating the coronation itself, choosing to bring “the modern world” into it.

His efforts to “democratize” the ceremony leads to a shocking innovation: televising it.  He proposes that television cameras capture all of the pomp and circumstance in Westminster Abbey.  This move is unthinkable for many who had long served the royal family.  One of the holdovers from the past calls the prospect of televising the coronation an “unconscionable vulgarization.”

But even despite the opposition of Winston Churchill, the Duke finally gets his wife’s approval, and the new queen’s coronation is broadcast on black-and-white TV for all the world to see.

This splendid episode on “The Crown” has special relevance for me.  As I watched the story unfold, I was brought back to June 1954, when a color version of the coronation was showing as a film in a movie theater in Chicago.  For some reason I can’t recall, my father was in charge of me one day.  He decided that we would go together to see the film at the theater in downtown Chicago.

This was a memorable event for me.  I adored my father, but he usually devoted more attention to my older sister than to me.  I was the little sister who, on road trips, was relegated to sitting in the back seat with my mother while my sister sat in the front seat next to Daddy.

It’s not surprising that my father could communicate more readily with my sister, who was two years ahead of me in school.  Although both of us were voracious readers (stunning our local public-library staff by how quickly we zipped through countless books), my sister was probably reading at a somewhat higher level and understood more about the world than I did at that time.

Following a similar pattern, Elizabeth was the older daughter in her family, and if the opening of “Smoke and Mirrors” accurately portrays her relationship with her father, he paid more attention to her and depended more on her than on his younger daughter, Margaret.

As the younger daughter in my family, every hour I could spend with my father when the two of us spent it alone was more memorable than those we also shared with my sister and mother.

That’s why seeing the color film of Elizabeth’s coronation with Daddy became one of my most treasured memories.  Going downtown and plunging into a darkened movie theater in the middle of the day with my father, but no other member of the family, was extraordinary.

When Daddy died later that year, I was staggered by losing him.  As I grew older, it became increasingly clear that our afternoon watching Elizabeth crowned in Westminster Abbey was an afternoon I’d never forget.

As we celebrate Father’s Day this year, I recall once again how lucky I was to have that golden time with him and him alone.

 

Caesar Reigned Supreme

When Sid Caesar died a year ago, his death evoked a cavalcade of memories. He, along with his notable co-stars, made every Saturday night during the early 1950s a night filled with laughter for millions of Americans.

I was still a little girl when Caesar’s show, “Your Show of Shows,” debuted in 1950. My family had purchased its first TV set in the fall of 1949, largely because everyone in America seemed to be watching Milton Berle’s Texaco Star Theatre. Berle, a star in vaudeville, had become a sensation on the tiny black-and-white sets that prevailed in my North Side Chicago neighborhood. Before we got our own TV, I would run down two flights in my apartment building and up three flights in the twin building next door to watch Berle’s antics at my best friend Helene’s apartment.

My parents finally relented and purchased a TV at the Mandel Brothers department store in the nearby suburb of Evanston. At last we were able to watch Uncle Milty, introduced by the Men of Texaco, every Tuesday night. All of us kids knew the lyrics to their catchy song: “We are the men of Texaco, we work from Maine to Mexico…”

Berle’s show dominated Tuesday nights, and we didn’t stop watching “Mr. Television” until the show began its decline several years later, but the wonders of Saturday night soon eclipsed the craziness of Milton Berle. From 1950 to 1954, “The Show of Shows,” headlined by Sid Caesar, had families glued to their TV screens every Saturday.

My family never missed a single show. We were addicted to Sid and his cohorts, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. The slapstick humor of Milton Berle looked silly compared to the more sophisticated and clever comedy offered by Sid’s crew.

Among Sid’s multitude of characters, I have a long list of favorites:
• his opera star, spouting make-believe foreign languages in operas like “Pagliacci”;
• his jazz saxophone player, Progress Hornsby (Sid really knew how to play the saxophone, and it was the sax that was his entrée into show business);
• his wacky mittel-European professor in a battered top hat and frumpy frock coat, usually interviewed as an “expert” by Carl Reiner;
• his leader of a rock-and-roll trio called The Haircuts, complete with gigantic wig topped by an enormous pompadour;
• his irritated husband (the perfect foil for Imogene Coca);
• his military hero, wearing a uniform adorned with medals, who turned out to be an apartment-building doorman; and (perhaps best of all)
• his roles as a leading character in movies that were popular at the time. I still remember watching his hilarious portrayal of Montgomery Clift in a rowboat, based on a scene in “A Place in the Sun” (a film I didn’t see until years later), as well as Monty in a scene from “From Here to Eternity” (a film I first saw–but didn’t really understand–when I was 12).

Even my pre-teen persona apparently recognized comic genius because the memories of these characters remain vivid decades later.

Sid’s brilliance must be attributed in part to the cast of writers he recruited. They included other comic geniuses like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart. As Frank Rich once wrote in The New York Times, “If you want to find the ur-texts of ‘The Producers’ and ‘Blazing Saddles,’ of ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Annie Hall,’ of “All in the Family’ and ‘M*A*S*H’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ check out the old kinescopes of Sid Caesar.”

When “The Show of Shows” ended, Sid went on to star in “Caesar’s Hour” for three more years, still lampooning everyday life, movies, and operas. Sid’s talents continued to amaze.

But seven years of an exhausting schedule, six days and nights every week, led Sid to become an alcoholic and dependent on drugs. Years later he admitted that he’d been tormented by guilt because he didn’t think he deserved the acclaim he received. He struggled through the ‘60s and ‘70s, making occasional appearances on Broadway and in movies. But when he finally chose sobriety and a healthier lifestyle in the ‘80s, he began to do great comedic work again.

I had the great good fortune to see Sid in the fall of 1990, when he and Imogene Coca toured in a live show called “Together Again.” The Chicago Tribune’s theater critic noted that the affection displayed by their audiences at the Briar Street Theatre was “palpable.” Sitting with me in the audience one matinee was my 80-year-old mother and my two daughters, who were then 16 and 13. Although we all loved the show, which included some of their classic shtick from “The Show of Shows,” I was ecstatic, reliving the show I’d adored when I was even younger than my daughters.

If you’ve never had a chance to see Sid Caesar at his best, as I have, seek out the 90-minute film, “Ten from Your Show of Shows,” available on DVD. The film, put together in 1973, includes ten comedy sketches from the 1950s’ TV show. You’ll relish the brilliance of its comedy, still fresh in 2015.