Saturday, September 19, 2009

Mary Travers of Peter, Paul, and Mary, In Memoriam

Mary Travers of the folk group Peter, Paul, and Mary passed Wednesday at the age of 72. The cause was complications from chemotherapy, She had a bone marrow transplant to treat leukaemia.

Mary Travers was born on November 9, 1936 in Louisville, Kentucky. She was only two years old when her parents moved to New York City. She grew up in Greenwich Village, long known for its collection of poets, artists, and folk musicians. She attended Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York City. While in high school she sang with The Song Swappers. The Song Swappers recorded four albums singing backup for Pete Seeger. She was part of the cast of the Broadway musical The Next President.

All this time, Mary Travers had no real intention of making singing her career, even though she had no real thoughts on what to do with her life. It was as the Sixties began that Albert Grossman, who managed an unsuccessful folk musician named Peter Yarrow, decided that an updated version of The Weavers would be a good idea. His idea was that the group should consist of two men and women, and should appeal to the popular audience in much the way The Kingston Trio did. It was while Peter Yarrow and Albert Grossman were talking in the Folklore Centre in Greenwich Village that Yarrow noticed Travers' picture on the wall. He asked Grossman who she was and Grossman told him that it was Mary Travers. He also said that she would be good if he could get her to work.

Peter Yarrow then met with Mary Travers. After singing “Miner’s Lifeguard" together, they decided they harmonised well. Mary Travers suggested her friend Noel Stookey, then doing stand up comedy at the Gaslight, as the third member of the group. Noel Stookey decided to use his middle name "Paul," so that the group could be called "Peter, Paul, and Mary." Their self titled, debut album was released a year later in 1961 and became an immediate hit. The album spent seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard chart. Their rendition of Pete Seeger's "If I Had a Hammer" went to #10 on the Billboard Hot 100.

They would have continued success with further albums. Their second album, Moving, went to #2 on the Billboard chart in 1963. Their third album, In the Wind, released in October of that year, went to #1. It was that same year that they had what may have been their biggest hit, "Puff the Magic Dragon." The song went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Easy Listening chart. In 1963 they also had hits with Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind" and "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right."

So successful were Peter, Paul, and Mary that they were one of the few folk groups to survive the British Invasion. Released in 1964, their live album In Concert went to #2 on the Billboard chart. Every one of their albums through the end of the Sixties made it into the Top 25 of the Billboard chart. They also continued to have hit singles, including "Cruel War," "I Dig Rock and Roll Music," and "Leaving on a Jet Plane (possibly their biggest hit besides "Puff the Magic Dragon")."

Peter, Paul, and Mary disbanded in 1970 and each member pursued their own solo careers, but with little success. Mary Travers would release four solo albums in the Seventies. Peter, Paul, and Mary would reunite several times over the year, the first time being in 1978 for a concert to protest nuclear energy. Afterwards they recorded several albums. Many compilations of their work have been released as well.

I grew up hearing Peter, Paul, and Mary and developed an appreciation for their music over the years. The group had fantastic harmony together and could be mesmerising when performing. Mary Travers' strong, earnest vocals played a large role in both the group's style and their success. The group was also extremely earnest in their songs, whether singing political anthems such as "If I Had a Hammer" or "Where Have All the Flowers Gone" or more pop oriented songs such as "Puff the Magic Dragon" and "Leaving on a Jet Plane." In many respects they represented the midway point between folk singers like Pete Seeger, who sang almost only politically oriented songs, and The Kingston Trio, who eschewed politics altogether. Regardless, Peter, Paul, and Mary were one of the greatest folk groups of all time. Mary Travers was much of the reason for that.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Late Great Henry Gibson

Henry Gibson, one of the original cast members of Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, passed on Monday at the age of 73. The cause was cancer.

Henry Gibson was born James Bateman September 21, 1935 in Germantown, Pennsylvania. He attended Saint Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia. He the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. After graduating from college, Bateman served in the United States Air Force from 1957-60 as an intelligence officer. He then studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.

It was when he returned to New York City that he developed the character of "Henry Gibson," a humble, innocent poet from Fairhope, Alabama. He made his television debut on Tonight Starring Jack Paar in 1961. He went onto appear three times on The Joey Bishop Show as the character of "Henry Schultz." It was that same year that he made his film debut in The Nutty Professor, as "Gibson," a college student. Henry Gibson went onto appear in the TV shows 77 Sunset Strip, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Mike Douglas Show, My Favorite Martian, Laredo, The Dick Van Dyke Show, F Troop, and Bewitched. He also appeared in the films Kiss Me Stupid and The Outlaws is Coming. In 1963 he appeared on Broadway in My Mother, My Father and Me.

It was in 1967 that he appeared in the comedy special Laugh In on NBC. The special proved so successful that it became the series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In in January 1968. Henry Gibson was part of the original cast, and stayed with the show until 1971. A running gag was Gibson's poetry, which he recited with a gigantic flower in his hand. Gibson eventually released two record albums' worth of the poetry, The Alligator and The Grass Menagerie and a book of the poetry, A Flower Child's Garden of Verses. Another character he played regularly on Rowan & Martin's Laugh In was The Parson, who made one liners in a sombre tone.

It was in 1968 that Henry Gibson also became a frequent guest on Hollywood Squares, appearing somewhat regularly until 1970. He also made several guest appearances on Love, American Style. In 1972 he appeared as Clifford Stool in the movie Evil Roy Slade. He provided the voice of Wilbur in the 1973 animated version of Charlotte's Web. Gibson took a more serious turn in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye, playing the evil Dr. Verringer. He would also appear in Altman's 1975 film Nashville. Over the next several years he guest starred in the shows McCloud, Barbary Coast, Police Woman, and Wonder Woman. He also provided the singing voice for Max the dog in the animated special Halloween Is Grinch Night and appeared in the TV movies Escape from Bogen County and Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill. He also appeared in the movies The Last Remake of Beau Geste and The Perfect Couple.

It was in 1980 that Henry Gibson appeared in one of his most memorable roles in the film The Blues Brothers, as the Head Nazi. The same year he appeared in the movie HealtH. Throughout much of the Eighties Gibson primarily appeared on television, in such shows as Trapper John M.D., Magnum P.I., Simon and Simon, Quincy, The Fall Guy, and the Eighties revival of The Twilight Zone. He was the voice of Aimee's Locker and Doyle's Locker on the animated series Galaxy High School. He also appeared in the movies The Incredible Shrinking Woman, Tulips, Monster in the Closet, Inner Space, Switching Channels, and Brenda Starr.

In the Nineties into the Naughts, Henry Gibson guest starred on Newhart, Evening Shade, Eerie, Indiana, Murder, She Wrote, Tales from the Crypt, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Becker, Malcolm in the Middle, and as voice on Grim and Evil. He provided the voice for television announcer Bob Jenkins on King of the Hill and appeared as Judge Clark Brown on Boston Legal (his last work). He also appeared in the movies Tune In Tomorrow, The 'Burbs, Cyber Bandits, Bio-Dome, Asylum, Stranger in the Kingdom, Never Die Alone, and Wedding Crashers. In 2001 he appeared on Broadway again in Rogers and Hart's version of A Connecticut Yankee.

I remember Henry Gibson not simply from Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, but from his many guest appearances on shows ranging from The Beverly Hillbillies to Bewitched. When I was older I was able to appreciate his talent in movies such as The Blues Brothers. To me he was one of the funniest actors around, whether he was playing wide eyed poet Henry Gibson or a Nazi leader. Although he had a gift for comedy, Henry Gibson also did well in dramatic roles, whether as Dr. Verringer in The Long Goodbye or as sycophantic country singer Haven Hamilton in Nashville. He was a man of no small talent, and I must say that it is very sad to know that he is gone.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Patrick Swayze R.I.P.

Actor and cancer Patrick Swayze passed yesterday at the age of 57, following a long battle with pancreatic cancer.

Patrick Swayze was born on August 18, 1952 in Houston. His mother was choreographer and dance instructor Patsy Swayze and his father was rodeo cowboy and engineer Jesse Wayne Swayze. He started dancing as a child. He also learned ice skating and was a student athlete, playing football. Swayze attended San Jacinto College in Houston. He then moved to New York City to study dance and joined the Eliot Feld Ballet. He made his debut on Broadway in the musical Goodtime Charley. He was also a replacement for the part of Danny Zuko in the long running musical Grease.

Patrick Swayze made his movie debut in the movie Skatetown, U.S.A. in 1979. He made a guest appearance on M*A*S**H in 1981. He went onto appear in the movies The Outsiders, Uncommon Valour, Grandview U.S.A., and Red Dawn. He appeared in both the miniseries North and South and North and South Book II. It was in 1987 that Swayze entered the height of his career. That year he starred in the hugely successful film Dirty Dancing, as well as the much less successful sci-fi film Steel Dawn.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, Patrick Swayze became one of the top stars of the day. He had some success with action films such as Road House and Next of Kin, but his next big success would be the screwball comedy Ghost. The following years he appeared in such films as Point Break, City of Joy, Tall Tale, and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar. His career declined a bit in the late Nineties, although he would appear in the cult film Donnie Darko and once more on Broadway in 2003 and 2004 as a replacement for the role of Billy Flynn in the musical Chicago. His last role was in the TV show The Beast, which aired this year, after Swayze had been diagnosed with cancer.

I cannot say I am a huge fan of Patrick Swayze's movies. In fact, there only a few I like (Ghost, To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar, and Donnie Darkio, but I have to say I always liked Patrick Swayze. He also seemed charming, with a great self deprecating sense of humour. And regardless of what I thought of many of his films, there can be no doubt that he had talent. He was a great dancer. And he was a very good actor. In fact, I sometimes think his true calling was as a comic actor. Indeed, of my three favourite Swayze films, two are comedies (Ghost and To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar), both of which he gave very good, comic performances. And I must say I thought he was one of the best guest hosts ever on Saturday Night Live. While many might remember Swayze for his romantic turn in Dirty Dancing (a film I must confess I don't really care for), I'll always remember him for his work in comedy.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Decline of Civlity

"...I think once you quit hearing 'sir' and 'ma'am,' the rest is soon to follow." (Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, No Country for Old Men)

It was last Wednesday when Representative Joe Wilson from South Carolina shouted "You lie!" during President Barack Obama's speech on health care. Now I am not going to write about why Wilson may have said this, the pros and cons of President Obama's ideas on health care, or anything of the sort. This blog is not devoted to politics and I do not wish to address politics even in this post. Instead I wish to address something of which I think Wilson's outburst is a symptom, something that not only touches upon pop culture, but our culture itself.

Over the past several days I have read various reactions to Mr. Wilson's outburst. I have read comments from some who think Mr. Wilson was in the "right" to make his outburst. I have read comments from many more who think Mr. Wilson's outburst showed an enormous amount of disrespect to the office of the President. While I agree that Mr. Wilson was being very disrespectful to the President, there is something I find equally disturbing that very few in the media seem to have addressed in the past few days. In shouting "You lie!" during President Obama's speech, Mr. Wilson was being just plain rude.

From my point of view, when anyone, I don't care if they are the President of the Untied States of America or a garbageman, is making a formal speech, individuals should not talk (except maybe in hushed whispers) during that speech, let alone heckle him or her or disrupt the speech in any other way. This is simple courtesy, respecting the individual. Sadly such civility seems to have declined in the United States in the past few decades, and it seems to have declined at an even faster rate this decade.

One needs to look no further for examples of this decline in civility than the town hall meetings on health care held last month. People hissed, booed, shouted, and did much worse. In both St. Louis and Tampa the town halls even turned violent. While I can understand that there were people at these town hall meetings who wished to be heard, I do believe that one can make his or her point without raising his or her voice, booing, hissing, or raising his or her fist in anger. Indeed, to me when people shout, boo, hiss, or threaten violence, it tends to make it less likely that their voice will be heard. I know that I am much more willing to listen to someone who is well spoken and polite than someone who is in my face shouting, even if I disagree with them. This is natural. People will listen to others who respect them; they will not listen to those who disrespect them. Shouting, booing, hissing, and threatening violence are all signs of disrespect.

Of course, what really disturbs me about Mr. Wilson's outburst is that he is from South Carolina. While I believe civility has declined across all of the United States, I always thought that its decline had been much slower here in the South. Growing up in an area called "Little Dixie," I was trained by my godmother and my mother's other friends to be a perfect gentleman. I was taught to call people "Sir" and "Ma'am," to never raise my voice, and to generally treat everyone with respect. Even today this has not changed much where I live--I get addressed as "sir" on almost a daily basis. Mr. Wilson's outburst then makes me wonder two things. The first is whether Mr. Wilson's parents simply didn't raise him right. The second is much more frightening to me--that civility has declined in the South so much that even Congressmen have dispensed with it! Maybe pretty soon I won't be hearing "Sir" and "Ma'am" much around Little Dixie.

Of course, politics in the United States have always been volatile, and people have been impolite at political gatherings almost since the founding of the nation. Perhaps one cannot use Mr. Wilson's outburst at President Obama's speech or the shenanigans at the town halls of last month as signs that civility in this nation is on the decline. Sadly, I have noticed it in venues beyond politics, and I am sure most of us have. All of us, at some time or another, have probably been at a store only to witness some boor dressing down a poor clerk, who obviously does not deserve such treatment. And I am sure we have all witnessed similar scenes in restaurants, at filling stations, and other places.

We have even witnessed rudeness on live television. An incident which just occurred last night is an example of this. Reportedly, at the MTV Video Awards, as Taylor Swift was making her acceptance speech for her first ever MTV Video Award, Kayne West grabbed the microphone from her and announced his love for one of Beyonce's videos. Granted, Mr. West did tell Miss Swift that he was happy for her, but that did not mean what his actions were not rude. He not only interrupted Miss Swift, but he did so during a moment that may well have been very important to her. Granted, perhaps we should not expect civility at the MTV Video Awards, but then we should not expect something so rude as someone interrupting another's acceptance speech either!

Indeed, even officers of the law are not immune to people being rude to them. I remember the old woman in Austin, Texas who was tased by a deputy constable back in May. Before she was even tased, she used the sort of language on the constable that would have gotten my mouth washed out with soap as a child. While a great deal was made of the old woman being tased, it rather bothered me that no one commented on the foul language she used on him and the disrespect she showed him. That no one noticed the woman's behaviour makes me think civility has declined so rapidly in this country that we are now taking rudeness for granted.

While it does seem to be rapidly declining in this country, I think the truth is that civility is necessary to our society. The simple fact is that rudeness almost uniformly results in a negative reaction from the victim of that rudeness. At the very least the individual who is the victim of rudeness will tend to stop listening to anything the individual who is being rude has to say. At the very worst the victim of rudeness will simply shout back or even resort to violence. Either of these reactions will seriously hinder any communication between individuals. What is more, rudeness does not simply have an impact on victims of rudeness, but even on innocent bystanders. A recent study discovered that witnessing rudeness reduced the performance of innocent bystanders on both routine tasks and creative tasks. This would seem to be detrimental in any workplace, including the halls of Congress.

Our country was founded not only on the principle that all men were created equal, but that all men are deserving of respect. Sadly, the past several years have seen a decline in such respect being offered to individuals. Not only are the days when across the nation people were routinely addressed as "sir" and "ma'am" gone, but it seems we are moving towards a time when it will be perfectly acceptable for individuals to shout at, swear at, and otherwise abuse others. I fear that when that day comes, it may well be the beginning of the end.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Thunderbirds Voice Actor Ray Barrett Passes On

Ray Barrett, who provided the voice for John Tracy on the TV series Thunderbirds and was one of the stars of the British Sixties series The Troubleshooters, passed on September 8 at the age of 82. The cause was a brain haemorrhage.

Ray Barrett was born on May 2, 1927 in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. From early age he had an interest in radio. At age 12 he even won a eisteddfod, which was broadcast on 4BH radio. After his graduation from Brisbane High School, Barrett received a job hosting a daily radio show. He was only 17 when he became the first actor to ever sign an exclusive contract with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. For much of the Fifties he appeared on various radio shows. He also made his first appearance on television in a guest shot on the Australian series The Adventures of Long John Silver. His first appearance in a feature film was in 1955 in The Desperate Women

In 1958 Ray Barrett decided to pursue his career in the United Kingdom. He guest starred twice on Armchair Theatre in the early Sixties. Small roles in the movies The Sundowners and Touch of Death followed by a recurring role in the soap opera Emergency-Ward 10 in 1961. For the next few years Barrett appeared both on television and in motion pictures. He guest starred on Out of This World, Man of the World, The Avengers, and Z Cars. He appeared in the movies Jigsaw, Mix Me a Person, 80,000 Suspects, and Valley of the Kings.

In 1963 Ray Barrett played the role of Peter Clarke on Ghost Squad, replacing Michael Quinn as Nick Craig. He guest starred on The Saint and Doctor Who before providing the voice of Commander Sam Shore and other characters on the Gerry Anderson, Supermarionation series Stingray. It was in 1965 that Barrett provided the voice of John Tracy on what may be the most famous Supermarionation show of all time, Thunderbirds. He also provided the voice of John Tracy in the feature film based on the show, Thunderbirds are GO. He also guest starred on Gideon's Way and The Spies, as well as the movie The Reptile.

It was in 1967 that Ray Barrett would be cast in what may be his most famous role aside from John Tracy on Thunderbirds. Barrett played Peter Thornton, field agent for the Mogul oil company. Most episodes nearly always placed Thornton in some kind of danger, ranging from industrial espionage to natural disasters. The Troubleshooters ran until 1972. From the Seventies into the Nineties, Barrett made guest appearances on such shows as Public Eye, The Adventures of Black Beauty, Dixon of Dock Green, The Outsiders, Five Mile Creek, Fire, and Medivac. He appeared in such films as Little Laura and Big John, The Hostages, The Earthling, A Dangerous Summer, Conferenceville, Rebel, Frenchman's Farm, As Time Goes By, Blood Oath, Hotel de Love, and In the Winter Dark.

It was in 2000 that Ray Barrett took the role of Len Taylor on the Australian soap opera Something in the Air. He guest starred on the shows Stingers and All Saints, and appeared in the movies Dalkieth and All Saints.

Ray Barrett was a remarkable actor with an impressive voice capable of doing various accents fairly well. He was quite versatile, playing characters from the soft spoken Peter Clarke of Ghost Squad to the more rough and tumble character of Peter Thornton on The Troubleshooters. It is little wonder his career, spent in radio, movies, and television, lasted over sixty years.