Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Concert Promoter Sid Bernstein R.I.P.

Sid Bernstein, the man who brought The Beatles to Carnegie Hall and organised many other rock concerts, died at the age of 95 on 21 August 2013.

Sid Bernstein was born in Manhattan, New York City on 1 August 1918. He developed an interest in entertainment while still young, frequently going to movies and vaudeville shows. In 1943 he enlisted in the United States Army.  He served with the 602nd Anti-Aircraft Artillery Gun Battalion. While he was in the Army he had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time in England, which led to his love of British culture. He went onto fight in the Battle of Bulge. While he was stationed in France he published his own newspaper for American soldiers, The Comeback Diary. He later started a nightclub for GIs.

After World War II Sid Bernstein returned to New York City he organised shows at such venues as the Apollo, the Palace, the Paramount, and others. He also helped organise the Newport Jazz Festival and promote a tour for singer and actress Judy Garland. Eventually he went to work for the talent agency General Artists Corporation (G.A.C.). He served as Tony Bennett's agent, even getting the singer a gig performing at Carnegie Hall.

Interested in British culture ever since he had served in the United States Army, Sid Bernstein continued to read British newspapers after World War II had ended. It was in 1962 that he noticed several new stories about a phenomenally popular new band in the United Kingdom called The Beatles. While he had never heard any of The Beatles' songs, the British press had him convinced that they could be a success in the United States.

Eventually he called Brian Epstein, The Beatles' manager, with the intent of bringing The Beatles to the States. At this point only a few of The Beatles' songs had been released in the United States and all of them had done poorly, so Mr. Epstein had his doubts. Mr. Bernstein won Mr. Epstein over only by telling him that he would get The Beatles booked into Carnegie. Hall. Sid Bernstein got The Beatles into Carnegie Hall by a bit of subterfuge. He knew the woman who did the bookings for Carnegie Hall, and he told her that she should book this new phenomenon from England called The Beatles. The woman assumed they were a string quartet and Mr. Bernstein never let her know anything different. It would be the first time ever that a rock band played Carnegie Hall. The Beatles' performance at Carnegie Hall would only be their third performance in the United States, after their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and a gig at Washington Coliseum in Washington D.C.

Of course, with their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and their concert at Carnegie Hall, The Beatles became a phenomenon in the United States. With such success Sid Bernstein naturally wanted to bring them back to the United States, except to a much larger venue. He considered Madison Square Garden, but dismissed it as it only had a seating capacity of 17,000. He then decided on Shea Stadium, home to the New York Mets. The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein worried that at 55,000 seats Shea Stadium might be too large. He told Sid Bernstein, "I don’t want any empty seats." Mr. Bernstein then offered Brian Epstein $10 for every empty seat. As it was, Brian Epstein need not have worried. The Beatles concert at Shea Stadium set both an attendance record and the record for gross profit for a concert that would remain unbroken for years. It was the first major concert held at a stadium.

Sid Bernstein's achievements went well beyond bringing The Beatles to Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium. He also brought The Rolling Stones to Carnegie Hall (after which Mr. Bernstein has said, "...They asked me never to come back." He would go onto organise concerts for other British bands, including The Dave Clark Five, The Animals, The Kinks, The Moody Blues, Herman’s Hermits, and others. If he became known as "the Father of the British Invasion", it was with good reason.

Over the years he would also organise concerts for Frank Sinatra, Jimi Hendrix, Sly & The Family Stone, The Bay City Rollers, Lenny Kravitz, and many others. Mr. Bernstein also booked acts for the Sixties TV rock music show Hullabaloo. He discovered and managed The Young Rascals. In 1970 he produced the Winter Festival for Peace at Madison Square Garden and the Sumner Festival for Peace at Shea Stadium.

If Sid Bernstein had only booked The Beatles into Carnegie Hall he would have had an enormous impact on rock history. If he had only booked The Beatles into Carnegie Hall and Shea Stadium he would have had an enormous impact on rock history. As it was he did much more. There can be little doubt that his promotion for concerts by British bands in the United States helped fuel the British Invasion. He would also be pivotal with regards to music beyond the British Invasion, playing a role in the careers of artists as diverse as Tony Bennett, Judy Garland,  Jimi Hendrix, and many others.

It would be easy to say that Sid Bernstein had a bit of luck in booking The Beatles to Carnegie Hall. After all, the timing was just right. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had hit number one on the Billboard Hot 100 at the start of the month. The Beatles had appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show only days before the Carnegie Hall concert. The fact remains that Mr. Bernstein had made his decision to book The Beatles based on what he had read in the British press and correctly surmised that such success could be duplicated over here. It was this acumen for what might prove successful that made Sid Bernstein effective as both an agent and a promoter. With that in mind, it is little wonder he had the impact on the history of pop and rock music that the did.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Godspeed Julie Harris

Julie Harris, a prolific actress who appeared on television, on stage, and on scree, died 24 August 2013 at the age of 87 from congestive heart failure.

Julie Harris was born in Grosse Pointe, Michigan on 2 December 1925. She became interested in acting while very young. She studied drama while still in school and attended an acting camp in Steamboat Springs, Colorado during the summers. After graduating high school Miss Harris attended Yale. It was while she was at Yale that she made her Broadway debut in It's a Gift in 1945. She left Yale to pursue an acting career and, in the late Forties, appeared on Broadway in the productions King Henry IV, Part II; Oedipus Rex; The Playboy of the Western World; Alice in Wonderland; Macbeth; Sundown Beach; The Young and Fair; Magnolia Alley; and Montserrat. She also made her television debut in the late Forties, appearing in episodes of Actor's Studio.

Julie Harris made her film debut in The Member of the Wedding in 1952. During the Fifties she appeared in such films as East of Eden (1955), I Am a Camera (1955), The Truth About Women (1957), and  The Poacher's Daughter (1958). On television she appeared in multiple presentations of Hallmark Hall of Fame. She also appeared on Starlight Theatre, Goodyear Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, and Sunday Showcase. On Broadway she appeared in such productions as The Member of the Wedding; I Am a Camera; Mademoiselle Colombe; The Lark; The Country Wife; The Warm Peninsula; and Little Moon of Alban.

In the Sixties Julie Harris appeared on television in such shows as Play of the Week, The DuPont Show of the Month, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Kraft Suspense Theatre, Rawhide, Laredo, Garrison's Gorillas, Run for Your Life, Tarzan, Daniel Boone, Bonanza, Journey into the Unknown, The Big Valley, and The Name of the Game. She appeared in the films Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962), The Haunting (1963), Hamlet (1964), Harper (1966), You're a Big Boy Now (1966), Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), The Split (1968), and The People Next Door (1970). On Broadway she appeared in such productions as A Shot in the Dark, Marathon '33, Ready When You Are, C.B.!, Skyscraper, and Forty Carats.

In the Seventies Miss Harris was a regular on the TV shows Thicker Than Water and The Family Holvak. She guest starred on such shows as The Virginian, Medical Centre, Columbo, Hawkins, The Evil Touch, and  Tales of the Unexpected. She appeared in the films The Hiding Place (1975), Voyage of the Damned (1976), and The Bell Jar (1979). On Broadway she appeared in such productions as And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little, Voices, The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, The au Pair Man, In Praise of Love, The Belle of Amherst, and Break a Leg.

In the Eighties she was a regular on Knot's Landing. She guest starred on the shows Family Ties and Love Boat. She also appeared in the mini-series The Civil War. She appeared in the films Brontë (1983) and Gorillas in the Mist (1988). On Broadway she appeared in the production Mixed Couples. From the Nineties into the Naughts she appeared in the films HouseSitter (1992), The Dark Half (1993), Carried Away (1996), Bad Manners (1997), Passage to Paradise (1998), The First of May (1999), The Way Back Home (2006), The Golden Boys (2008), and The Lightkeepers (2009). On television she guest starred on The Outer Limits and appeared in the mini-series Scarlett. On Broadway she appeared in the productions Lucifer's Child, The Glass Menagerie, and The Gin Game.

There can be no doubt that Julie Harris was one of the most gifted actresses of our time. Over the years she played such varied roles as Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, Ophelia in Hamlet, Mary Todd Lincoln in the Broadway play  The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, Charlotte Brontë in the movie Brontë, and many others. Indeed, while most actors only see success in one medium, Julie Harris had substantial credits on stage, on film, and on television. Indeed, while it was her appearances on Broadway that started her career, I rather suspect that the average person probably recognises her from her many appearances on television over the years more than from any place else. Aside from her considerable talent, much of the reason that she was so prolific in multiple media is the simple fact that she was a consummate professional. She appeared in both lead and supporting roles, in great works and works that were not so great, and yet she always strove to give the best performance possible. In the end Julie Harris was a rarity in film, television, and even the stage, a true artist.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The 100th Birthday of Walt Kelly

If one were to compile a list of the ten greatest cartoonists of all time, Walt Kelly's name would be near the top. Walt Kelly was the creator of the legendary comic strip Pogo, centred on the eponymous possum of the same name and his fellow inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. Although in its original incarnation Pogo would run for only 26 years, it would have a lasting impact on American comic strips and American pop culture in general. It was quite simply, one of the most intelligent, most literate, and funniest comic strips ever created. Walt Kelly was born 100 years ago today.

Walt Kelly was born on 25 August 1913 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His family moved to  Bridgeport, Connecticut when he was only two years old.  It was while he was still attending Warren Harding High School in Bridgeport that he began cartooning, with cartoons published in both his high school's magazine and the local newspaper, the Bridgeport Post. After he graduated high school Mr. Kelly went to work for the Bridgeport Post, working as both a cartoonist and a reporter, as well as in the art and editorial departments. It was in 1935 that Walt Kelly's work first appeared in comic books, contributing to the first issue of New Comics (which had a publication date of December 1935), the second comic book ever published by National Allied Publications (one of the companies that would become DC Comics).

Walt Kelly eventually relocated to California, where he was hired by Walt Disney Productions. While there he became an assistant to legendary animator Fred More and developed a life long friendship with legendary animator Ward Kimball. While at Disney Walt Kelly worked on various Disney shorts, as well as the features Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940), The Reluctant Dragon (1941), and Dumbo (1941). Mr. Kelly remained with Walt Disney Productions until 1941. Not particularly wishing to take sides in the animator's strike that took place that year, Mr. Kelly took the opportunity to leave the studio and return to the East. There was apparently never any hard feelings on the part of Walt Disney or Walt Kelly. Mr. Disney still held Mr. Kelly in high regard and Mr. Kelly felt gratitude to Mr. Disney for the opportunities he had given him.

Having returned to the East Cost, Walt Kelly went to work for Dell Comics. Perhaps on the recommendation of Walt Disney himself, Mr. Kelly adapted both  Pinocchio and The Three Caballeros for Dell Comics, as well as providing covers for Walt Disney's Comics and Stories. He also worked on Dell Comics' comic books based on the Our Gang comedies, Fairy Tale Parade, Raggedy Ann and Andy,  and Uncle Wiggily. He also illustrated a series of promotional comic books for Peter Wheat Bread featuring a character named "Peter Wheat". What would be his greatest contribution to both comic books and comic strips would come in the pages of Dell's Animal Comics.

It was in Animal Comics #1, 1942, that Pogo Possum and his sidekick Albert Alligator made their first appearance. The two were not the primary characters in their first story, being secondary to a character named "Bumbazine". Bumbazine quickly disappeared from view, so that Pogo became both the star and the straight man of his own feature in Animal Comics. Pogo centred on the eponymous possum and his comic foil Albert Alligator and many other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. He proved enormously successful in comic books, graduating to his own title (Albert the Alligator and Pogo Possum) in 1945. It was followed by the title Pogo Possum in 1949 and Pogo Parade (a compilation of previously published Pogo stories) in 1953. Pogo would not remain solely in comic books for long, however, as he would be one of the few characters to transition to a newspaper strip.

It was in 1948 that Walt Kelly was hired to draw political cartoons for The New York Star. It was then on 4 October 1948 that Pogo first appeared as a newspaper strip, featured daily in The New York Star. The New York Star folded on 28 January 1949, but it would not be the last that newspapers would see of the possum. on 16 May 1949 the  Post-Hall Syndicate picked up Pogo for national syndication. Pogo proved enormously popular, running in around 500 newspapers in 14 countries at its height. It ran until 20 July 1975. Following Walt Kelly's untimely death from complications from diabetes on 18 October 1973, the strip was continued by his wife Selby Kelly and his son Stephen Kelly.

The popularity of Pogo naturally led to its expansion into other media, as well as merchandising. The strips were collected into several books over the years, with collections of Pogo strips still widely available. In 1969 The Pogo Special Birthday Special aired on NBC, directed by Chuck Jones. In 1970 Walt Kelly and his wife Selby began work on the animated short We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us. Unfortunately, Mr. Kelly's declining health and subsequent death would prevent its completion.In 1980 a stop motion feature film, I Go Pogo, was released. There have also been Pogo pinback buttons, colouring books, porcelain figures, Viewmaster reels, a Halloween costumes, and several other bits of merchandise.

While Pogo was popular, it could also be controversial. Because Pogo often dealt with politics, many newspapers moved the strip to the editorial page or dropped it altogether. To assuage any hard feelings on the part of newspapers, Walt Kelly began creating alternate, less offensive strips whenever he was writing a controversial story arc. Mr. Kelly called these strips "bunny strips", as they often featured fluffy bunnies. Newspapers then had the choice of printing what could be a controversial strip or a more innocuous one. A few newspapers actually printed both.

Despite any controversy it might have created during its run, Pogo was one of the most successful and influential comic strips of the 20th Century, and remains so today. Its success is a tribute to Walt Kelly's talent. Indeed, it is difficult to accurately describe Pogo; it is much more than the continuing adventures of Pogo, Albert, and the other inhabitants of the Okefenokee Swamp. In Pogo Walt Kelly combined a number of things to create a wholly singular comic strip. Nonsense poetry played a large role in the comic strip, as well as parody songs. In fact, an LP of nonsense poetry and parody songs was released in 1956, with Walt Kelly himself providing the vocals. Of course, satire also played a large role in Pogo, hence much of the controversy over the comic strip. It was early in the run of Pogo that Walt Kelly introduced a character named Simple J. Malarkey, wildcat who was obviously a parody of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Walt Kelly also satirised presidential campaigns by having Pogo reluctantly run for president in 1952 and 1956 (the slogan "I Go Pogo" has persisted to this day).

Walt Kelly and Pogo would prove very influential over the years, even as it was still in print. The comic strip Coodgy by Irv Spector was obviously inspired by Pogo. It has been acknowledged as an influence on their strips by such cartoonists as Garry Trudeau (Doonesbury),  Jeff MacNelly (Shoe), Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes), and many others. While Berkely Breathed has never listed Walt Kelly among his influences, I've always seen a bit of Pogo in Bloom County. Pogo would even have an influence on other media. René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo have acknowledged Pogo as having an influence on their comic Asterix, while Jim Henson has acknowledged Pogo as an influence on the Muppets (indeed, in the 19th episode of the first season of The Muppet Show,  Walt Kelly's "Don't Sugar Me" was performed). Jeff Smith has also acknowledged Pogo as an influence on his comic book Bone.

In the end Walt Kelly was not simply a cartoonist or even a cartoonist and an animator. He was a multi-talented individual with a gift for poetry, parody, satire, and even song. That Pogo became a phenomenal success should be little wonder. A man of multiple talents who was almost equally great in all of them, Walt Kelly was destined to become of the greatest cartoonists and satirists of the 20th Century.