Category Archives: comedy

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/ ]

 

Exploring the Universe with Two Young Muggles

Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.

The universe?  Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.

The young Muggles?  My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them.  Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies.  Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.)  According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family.  I.e., people like us.

For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home:  dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene.  We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.

Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums.  Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A.  But we were.

On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard.  Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday?  Not entirely.  Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.

We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market.  Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun.  We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.

The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles.  We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet.  The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.

We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first.  As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course).  As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.

Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous.  It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum.  As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted.  Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.

I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people.  I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear.  Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together.  Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.

After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders.  Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.”  (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)

Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends.  But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP.  Our first priority was the Studio Tour.  We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day.  We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without.  One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea.  But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.

After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film.  Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong.  Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos.  For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.

The Simpsons ride was terrific, too.  Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it.  Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.

Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek.  Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.

When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off.  Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica.  This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie.  I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.

On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago.  Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.

The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture.  We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA.  A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.

By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success:  “1. Rise early.  2. Work hard.  3. Strike oil.”  It certainly worked for him!

 

Random Thoughts

On truthfulness

Does it bother you when someone lies to you?  It bothers me.  And I just learned astonishing new information about people who repeatedly tell lies.

According to British neuroscientists, brain scans of the amygdala—the area in the brain that responds to unpleasant emotional experiences—show that the brain becomes desensitized with each successive lie.

In other words, the more someone lies, the less that person’s brain reacts to it.  And the easier it is for him or her to lie the next time.

These researchers concluded that “little white lies,” usually considered harmless, really aren’t harmless at all because they can lead to big fat falsehoods.  “What begins as small acts of dishonesty can escalate into larger transgressions.”

This study seems terribly relevant right now.  Our political leaders (one in particular, along with some of his cohorts) have often been caught telling lies.   When these leaders set out on a course of telling lies, watch out.  They’re likely to keep doing it.  And it doesn’t bother them a bit.

Let’s hope our free press remains truly free, ferrets out the lies that impact our lives, and points them out to the rest of us whenever they can.

[This study was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience and noted in the January-February 2017 issue of the AARP Bulletin.]

 

On language

When did “waiting for” become “waiting on”?

Am I the only English-speaking person who still says “waiting for”?

I’ve been speaking English my entire life, and the phrase “waiting on” has always meant what waiters or waitresses did.  Likewise, salesclerks in a store.  They “waited on” you.

“Waiting for” was an entirely different act.   In a restaurant, you—the patron—decide to order something from the menu.  Then you begin “waiting for” it to arrive.

Similarly:  Even though you’re ready to go somewhere, don’t you sometimes have to “wait for” someone before you can leave?

Here are three titles you may have come across.  First, did you ever hear of the 1935 Clifford Odets play “Waiting for Lefty”?  (Although it isn’t performed a lot these days, it recently appeared on stage in the Bay Area.)  In Odets’s play, a group of cabdrivers “wait for” someone named Lefty to arrive.  While they wait for him, they debate whether they should go on strike.

Even better known, Samuel Beckett’s play, “Waiting for Godot,” is still alive and well and being performed almost everywhere.  [You can read a little bit about this play—and the two pronunciations of “Godot”—in my blog post, “Crawling through Literature in the Pubs of Dublin, Ireland,” published in April 2016.]  The lead characters in the play are forever waiting for “Godot,” usually acknowledged as a substitute for “God,” who never shows up.

A more recent example is the 1997 film, “Waiting for Guffman.”  The cast of a small-town theater group anxiously waits for a Broadway producer named Guffman to appear, hoping that he’ll like their show.  Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy, who co-wrote and starred in the film, were pretty clearly referring to “Waiting for Godot” when they wrote it.

Can anyone imagine replacing Waiting for” in these titles with “Waiting on”?

C’mon!

Yet everywhere I go, I constantly hear people say that they’re “waiting on” a friend to show up or “waiting on” something to happen.

This usage has even pervaded Harvard Magazine.  In a recent issue, an article penned by an undergraduate included this language:  “[T]hey aren’t waiting on the dean…to make the changes they want to see.”

Hey, undergrad, I’m not breathlessly waiting for your next piece of writing!  Why?  Because you should have said “waiting for”!

Like many of the changes in English usage I’ve witnessed in recent years, this one sounds very wrong to me.

 

Have you heard this one?

Thanks to scholars at the U. of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and Harvard Business School, I’ve just learned that workers who tell jokes—even bad ones—can boost their chances of being viewed by their co-workers as more confident and more competent.

Joking is a form of humor, and humor is often seen as a sign of intelligence and a good way to get ideas across to others.  But delivering a joke well also demands sensitivity and some regard for the listeners’ emotions.

The researchers, who ran experiments involving 2,300 participants, were trying to gauge responses to joke-tellers. They specifically wanted to assess the impact of joking on an individual’s status at work.

In one example, participants had to rate individuals who explained a service that removed pet waste from customers’ yards.  This example seems ripe for joke-telling, and sure enough, someone made a joke about it.

Result?  The person who told the joke was rated as more competent and higher in status than those who didn’t.

In another example, job-seekers were asked to suggest a creative use for an old tire.  One of them joked, “Someone doing CrossFit could use it for 30 minutes, then tell you about it forever.”  This participant was rated higher in status than two others, who either made an inappropriate joke about a condom or made a serious suggestion (“Make a tire swing out of it.”).

So jokes work—but only if they’re appropriate.

Even jokes that fell flat led participants to rate a joke-teller as highly confident.  But inappropriate or insensitive jokes don’t do a joke-teller any favors because they can have a negative impact.

Common sense tells me that the results of this study also apply in a social setting.  Telling jokes to your friends is almost always a good way to enhance your relationship—as long as you avoid offensive and insensitive jokes.

The take-away:  If you can tell an appropriate joke to your colleagues and friends, they’re likely to see you as confident and competent.

So next time you need to explain something to others, in your workplace or in any another setting, try getting out one of those dusty old joke books and start searching for just the right joke.

[This study, reported in The Wall Street Journal on January 18, 2017, and revisited in the same publication a week later, appeared in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.]

Punting on the Cam

The keys to my front door reside on a key ring I bought in Cambridge, England, on a magical day in September 1986.  It’s one of the souvenir key rings you used to find in Britain (and maybe still can, though I didn’t see any during a visit in 2012).  They were fashioned in leather and emblazoned in gold leaf with the name and design of a notable site.

During trips to London and elsewhere in Britain during the 1980s and ‘90s, I acquired a host of these key rings. One of my favorites was a bright red one purchased at Cardiff Castle in Wales in 1995.  I would carry one of them in my purse until the gold design wore off and the leather became so worn that it began to fall apart.

Until recently, I thought I had used every one of these leather key rings.  But recently, in a bag filled with souvenir key rings, I came across the one I bought in Cambridge in 1986.  There it was, in all of its splendor:  Black leather emblazoned with the gold-leaf crest of King’s College, Cambridge.

I began using it right away, and the gold design is already fading.  But my memories of that day in Cambridge will never fade.

My husband Herb had gone off to Germany to attend a math conference while I remained at home with our two young daughters.  But we excitedly planned to rendezvous in London, one of our favorite cities, when his conference was over.

Happily for us, Grandma agreed to stay with our daughters while I traveled to meet Herb, and on a rainy September morning I arrived in London and checked into our Bloomsbury hotel.  Soon I set off in the rain to find theater tickets for that evening, and in Leicester Square I bought half-price tickets for a comedy I knew nothing about, “Lend Me a Tenor.”  Stopping afterwards for tea at Fortnum and Mason’s eased the pain of trekking through the rain.

When Herb and I finally met up, we dined at an Italian restaurant and headed for the theater. “Lend Me a Tenor” was hilarious and set the tone for a wonderful week together.

We covered a lot of ground in London that week, including a visit to Carlyle’s house in Chelsea, a sunny boat trip to Greenwich, viewing notable Brits on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery, tramping around Bloomsbury and Hampstead, and lunching with a British lawyer (a law-school friend) at The Temple, an Inn of Court made famous by our favorite TV barrister, Rumpole (of the Bailey), whose chambers were allegedly in The Temple.

Other highlights were our evenings at the theater. Thanks to advice from my sister, who’d just been in London, we ordered tickets before leaving home for the new smash musical, “Les Miserables” (which hadn’t yet hit Broadway). It was worth every penny of the $75 we paid per ticket (a pricey sum in 1986) to see Colm Wilkinson portray Jean Valjean on the stage of the Palace Theatre.  We also loved seeing a fresh interpretation of “The Merry Wives of Windsor” at the Barbican and Alan Ayckbourn’s poignant comedy “A Chorus of Disapproval” at the Lyric.  Although “Mutiny!”–a musical based on “Mutiny on the Bounty”–was disappointing, we relished a concert at South Bank’s Royal Festival Hall, where I kept expecting the Queen to enter and unceremoniously plop herself down in one of the hall’s many boxes.

But it was our day trip to Cambridge that was the centerpiece of our week.  On Friday, September 19th, we set out by train from King’s Cross Station and arrived at Cambridge in just over an hour.  We immediately reveled in the array of beautiful sites leaping out at us on the university campus nestled along the Cam River.  Our first stop was Queens’ College and its remarkable Mathematical Bridge.  The college spans both sides of the river (students jokingly refer to the newer half as the “light side” and the older half as the “dark side”), and the world-famous bridge connects the two.  The legend goes that the bridge was designed and built by Cambridge scholar Sir Isaac Newton without the use of nuts or bolts. But in fact it was built with nuts and bolts in 1749, 22 years after Newton died, and rebuilt in 1905.

Our next must-see site was King’s College.  During my college years at Washington University in St. Louis, I learned that Graham Chapel, our strikingly beautiful chapel–built in 1909 and the site of many exhilarating lectures and concerts (in which I often sang)–shared its design with that of King’s College, Cambridge.  So we headed right for it.  (Graham Chapel’s architect never maintained that it was an exact copy but was only partly modeled after King’s College Chapel, which is far larger.)

Entering the huge and impressive Cambridge version, we were suitably awed by its magnificence.  Begun by King Henry VI in 1446, it features the largest “fan vault” in the world and astonishingly beautiful medieval stained glass.  (A fan vault? It’s a Gothic vault in which the ribs are all curved the same and spaced evenly, resembling a fan.)

As we left the chapel, still reeling from all the stunning places we’d just seen, we noticed signs pointing us in the direction of punts available for a ride on the Cam.  The idea of “punting on the Cam”—riding down the river on one of the flat-bottomed boats that have been around since 1902–sounded wonderful.  We didn’t hesitate to pay the fare and immediately seated ourselves in one of the boats.

The river was serene, with only a few other boats floating nearby, and our punter, a charming young man in a straw boater hat, provided intelligent narration as we floated past the campus buildings stretched out along the river.  He propelled the boat by pushing against the river bed with a long pole.  His charm and good looks enhanced our ride enormously.

The boat wasn’t crowded.  An older British couple sat directly across from us, and we chatted amiably about Britain and the United States, finding commonality where we could.

The sun was shining, and the 70-degree temperature was perfect.  Beautiful old trees dotted the riverbanks, providing shade as we floated by, admiring the exquisite college buildings.

What’s punting like?  Ideally, it’s a calm, soothing boat ride on a river like the Cam.  Something like riding in a gondola in Venice, except that gondolas are propelled by oars instead of poles. (I rush to add that the gondola I rode in Venice had a much less attractive and charming oarsman.)

An article in the Wall Street Journal in November described recent problems caused by punting’s growing popularity.  Increased congestion in the Cam has led to safety rules and regulations never needed in the past.  According to the Journal, “punt wars” have divided the city of Cambridge, with traditional boats required to follow the new rules while upstart self-hire boats, which have created most of the problems, are not.

But luckily for Herb and me, problems like those didn’t exist in 1986.  Not at all.  Back then, floating along the river with my adored husband by my side was an idyllic experience that has a special place in my memory.

I don’t recall where I bought my leather key ring.  Perhaps in a small shop somewhere in Cambridge.  But no matter where I bought it, it remains a happy reminder of a truly extraordinary day.

 

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.