Sunday, November 26, 2006

Three More Deaths

As if recently losing both Jack Palance and Robert Altman were not enough, there have been three more deaths of people were at least somewhat famous. Their names may not have been recognised by the general public, but these were individuals who had an impact on my life nonetheless.

The most famous of the three is probably Broadway lyrics and Hollywood screenwriter Betty Comden. She died 23 at the age of 89 from heart failure. Comden was part of a team with Adolph Green. Together they wrote the lyrics and often the books many Broadway shows. They were perhaps most famous for writing the screenplays to the classic movie musicals On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and It's Always Fair Weather.

Betty Comden was born in New York City on May 13, 1917. She was studying drama at New York City University when she met Adolph Green, who was struggling to become an actor. The two formed their own troupe, called the Revuers. Comden and Green were not the only members of the group who would one day be famous. There was a young musician who accompanied them on piano named Leonard Bernstein who was part of the troupe, as well as a comedian who would one day become well known as Judy Holiday. The Revuers met with enough success to receive movie offers and made their movie debut in a very small part of Greenwich Village from 1944.

Their first real success would not be in the movies, however, but on Broadway. With Bernstein they collaborated on the musical On the Town, which centred on three sailors on leave in New York City. It ran from December 1944 to February 1946. Comden and Green's next few Broadway shows were not very successful, although by this time they had also met with success in Hollywood. They had written the screenplays for Good News and The Barkleys of Broadway. What cemented their success in Hollywood, however, was an adaptation of the show that brought them their first success on Broadway. They wrote the screenplay for the classic movie musical On the Town, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as two of the sailors on leave in the Big Apple.

It would be the movies that would see Comden and Green reach the pinnacle of their artistic success. Singin' in the Rain starred Gene Kelly as silent star Donald Lockwood and Donald O'Connor as his sidekick in the last days of Hollywood's Silent Era. It is considered by many to be the greatest movie musical of all time, and it is definitely one of the most iconic. Even people who have never seen the film can recognise Kelly's dance with the umbrella to the title song.

Comden and Green followed up their success with Singin' in the Rain with screenplays for The Band Wagon and It's Always Fair Weather. Sadly, even after the success of Singin' in the Rain, Hollywood musicals were in decline. The bulk of Comden and Green's work would then be on the stage. Among their successes were Bells are Ringing, the revue A Party with Betty Comden and Adolph Green, Applause, and Wonderful Town.

The collaboration between Comden and Green produced some of the greatest theatrical musicals and movie musicals ever made. In fact, the success of their partnership led many to believe they were married. In response Comden and Green would always say they were...just not to each other. While they were never romantically involved, they shared a comic flair and a gift for dialogue unequalled on either Broadway or in Hollywood. I must admit, On the Town, Singin' in the Rain, and The Band Wagon number among my favourite movies.

Although not nearly as famous as Comden and Green, the creations of TV writer and producer Chris Hayward loom large in American pop culture. Hayward died November 20 at the age of 81 after a long illness. Hayward is perhaps most famous as the creator of Dudley Do-Right and one of the writers for Jay Ward's classic Rocky and Friends (later and better known as The Bullwinkle Show).

Hayward was born in Bayonne, New Jersey on June 19, 1925. His first work in television was on Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit, the first cartoon created exclusively for television. He would come onto his own as a writer working on Ward's Rocky and Friends, for which he created the Dudley Do-Right segment. As a writer he would also write for such series as My Mother the Car, Get Smart, He and She, and Alice. He was a producer on Get Smart and Barney Miler. With Alan Burns he developed The Munsters and created the series My Mother the Car. He was nominated for Emmys for Outstanding Comedy Series (for Barney Miller) and Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series (for the episode "The Hero," co-written with Danny Arnold) in 1976. He won the Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the episode "The Coming Out Party" of He and She, co-written with Alan Burns.

In addition to writing for television, Hayward was also a singer and songwriter. He had actually arranged music for dance orchestras and even sung on both the radio and on records.

Hayward was arguably one of the best television writers of the Sixties and Seventies. He possessed a dry wit and a gift for satire that would not be seen again until the debut of The Simpsons. He wrote some of the best episodes of the best shows of their time (Get Smart, He and She, and Barney Miller). And while there are many who believe that My Mother the Car is the worst show of all time, don't believe it for a minute. I have seen a few episodes of the notorious series, and at least two of them possessed the wry humour for which the team of Chris Hayward and Alan Burns were known.

The third important person who died was not nearly as famous as either Betty Comden or Chris Hayward, nor was he a creator of pop culture artefacts as they were. Instead, Dr. Jerry Bails was a student of pop cutlure--one of the first to take seriously the study of the medium of comic books. Jerry Bails died the night of November 23 at the age of 73 from a heart attack.

Jerry Bails was born on June 26, 1933. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he fell in love with comic books while still young. In particular, he became a devoted fan of the Justice Society of America (the JSA, for short), the first team of superheroes ever created. As a child he bought nearly every issue of All Star Comics, the magazine which featured the Justice Society. Even as he studied for his Bachelors degree in Physics at the University of Kansas City, even as he studied for a Masters degree in Math, he never forgot the Justice Society of America. When DC Comics revived their superhero line in 1956 with the creation of a new Flash (the original had been a member of JSA), Bails actively campaigned for the return of the original Justice Society of America to the pages of comic books, along with fellow Missourian and future comic book writer Roy Thomas.

It was in 1961 that Jerry Bails published the first issue of the fanzine Alter-Ego. Alter-Ego was pivotal in the history of comic book fandom in two ways. First, it focused not only on current comic book heroes, but the superheroes of the Golden Age. This would generate more interest in the Golden Age heroes and would eventually pave the way for their return. If the JSA has their own series now, it is largely because of Jerry Bails. Second, Alter Ego allowed comic book fans to network with each other. As a result, comic book fandom started to organise.

Bails was the author of The Who's Who of American Comic Books, The Collector's Guide to the First Heroic Age of Comics, and Technology and Human Values. With Howard Keltner he co-wrote The Authoritative Index to DC Comics.

Dr. Bails was a central figure in the history of comic book fandom. He was a powerful force in organising fandom. He was also pivotal in the revival of DC Comics' Golden Age characters in the Sixties. And I have little doubt that it was largely because of Dr. Bails' efforts that the serious study of comic books as a medium is now accepted today. While he may not have created pop culture artefacts himself, he was certainly important in recording their history and insuring their study.

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