Saturday, March 16, 2024

Godspeed Steve Lawrence

Steve Lawrence, the popular crooner, actor, and comedian who was one half of the duo Steve and Eydie with his wife Eydie Gormé, died on March 7 at the age of 88 from Alzheimer’s disease.

Steve Lawrence was born Sidney Liebowitz on July 8 1935 in Brooklyn, New York. His father was a cantor and Steve Lawrence singing in choirs in synagogues. It was when he heard his first Frank Sinatra record as a young teenager that he decided upon music as a career.  He attended Thomas Jefferson High School, but would often skip school to go to the Brill Building in Manhattan where he would make extra money singing on demos. It was at the Brill Building that he first met Eydie Gormé.

It was in the early Fifties that he adopted the stage name "Steve Lawrence," taking name from the first names of two of his nephews. He competed on the radio version of Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, and won the show's first price. He was then signed to King Records. He was only 16 years old. His first single, "Poinciana," was released in 1952 and went to no. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. His self-titled debut album was released in 1953.

Steve Lawrence was only 18 when he was hired by Steve Allen as one of the singers on his  talk television show, The Steve Allen Show presented by Knickerbocker Beer, on WNBC. When the late night show Tonight! (now known as The Tonight Show) debuted on WNBC in 1953, Steve Lawrence made the transition with Steve Allen. It was on Tonight! that he once again met Eydie Gormé. The two would begin singing duets two years later. Steve Lawrence was a regular on Tonight! until 1957 when Steve Allen left the show. He was also a regular on Steve Allen's primetime show, The Steve Allen Show. In the Fifties Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé had their own show, The Steve Lawrence-Eydie Gormé Show, that ran in 1958. He appeared on such variety and talk shows as Your Cheverolet Showroom, The Denny Vaughan Show, The Russ Morgan Show, The Jonathan Winters Show, The Julius LaRosa Show, The Patrice Munsel Show, The Bob Crosby Show, Person to Person, The Patti Page Oldsmobile Show, The Dinah Shore Chevy Show, The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams, The Pat Boone-Chevy Showroom, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Perry Como Show.

In the Sixties Steve Lawrence made his acting television debut in an episode of Saints and Sinners. He appeared as the Ghost of Christmas Past in the TV movie  Carol for Another Christmas. He was a guest on such variety shows, game shows, and talk shows as Here's Hollywood, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show Starring Jack Paar, The Judy Garland Show, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, The Bell Telephone Hour, The Garry Moore Show, On Parade, I've Got a Secret, The Jack Paar Program, Password, Hullabaloo, The Hollywood Palace, The Merv Griffin Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The John Bartholomew Tucker Show, Gypsy, What's My Line?, The Andy Williams Show, The Joan Rivers Show, Personality, The Steve Allen Show, The Bob Hope Show, The Kraft Music Hall, The Carol Burnett Show, This is Tom Jones, and The Tim Conway Show. In 1965 he had his own show, The Steve Lawrence Show.

In the Seventies Steve Lawrence guest starred on the shows Medical Center, The New Dick Van Dyke Show, Night Gallery, Laugh-In, Here's Lucy, Sanford and Son, and Police Story. He appeared on such variety shows, talk shows, and game shows as The Kraft Music Hall, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show, The ABC Comedy Hour, The Julie Andrews Hour, NBC Follies, The Dean Martin Show, Dinah!, Tony Orlando and Dawn, The Sonny and Cher Show, and Sammy and Company.

In the Eighties he guest starred on the shows Hardcastle and McCormick and Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in the mini-series Alice in Wonderland. He appeared on such variety, game shows, and talk shows as The Joe Franklin Show and Tattletales. In the Nineties he guest starred on the shows Bob, Empty Nest, Burke's Law, Frasier, The Nanny, and Diagnosis Murder. In the Naughts he appeared on the shows CSI: Crime Scene Investigation and The Cleaner. In the Teens he appeared on the shows  Hot in Cleveland, Awake, and Two and a Half Men.

Steve Lawrence made his feature film debut in Stand Up and Be Counted in 1972. He appeared in the movies The Blues Brothers (1980), The Lonely Guy (1984), Blues Brothers (1999), The Contract (1999), The Yards (2000), and Phillips (2009).

In addition to film and television, Steve Lawrence also appeared on Broadway. In the Sixties he appeared in the productions What Makes Sammy Run? and Golden Rainbow.

Of course, Steve Lawrence was best known as a singer, and he had a successful recording career. As mentioned above, his first single, "Poinciana" went to no. 21 on the Billboard singles chart. The following year, 1953, his single ""How Many Stars to Shine," peaked at no. 26. The year 1957 saw two of his biggest hits. His cover of "The Banana Boat Song" went to no. 18, while his cover of "Party Doll" went to no. 5, on the Billboard singles chart. In 1959 his single "Pretty Blue Eyes" went to no. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in 1960 "Footsteps" went to no. 7. His biggest hit would be "Go Away Little Girl" which went all the way to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963. It would also be his last major hit. Like many crooners, his success on the record charts was impacted by the British Invasion and the rise of rock music.

He released several albums throughout the years, his first being the aforementioned Steve Lawrence in 1953. Of course, he also released albums with his wife and singing partner Eydie Gormé, the first of which was We Got Us with Eydie Gormé in 1960. In all he released over sixty albums, the last being When You Come Back to Me in 2014. Fittingly, it was dedicated to Eydie Gormé, who died in 2013.

Steve Lawrence was among the best of the latter day crooners. He had a velvety voice that spanned two octaves, and he maintained that voice for the entirety of his performing career. He could deliver songs from the Great American Songbook in a way that few others could.

In addition to being a great singer, he was also simply a great, all-around performer. He had a particular gift for comedy, and even his performances as a singer would see him cracking jokes funnier than most stand-up comics. His gift for comedy came to good use in his 39 guest appearances on The Carol Burnett Show, where he was more often than not as funny as that show's regular's in sketches. He was memorable as the Blues Brothers' agent Maury Sline in both The Blues Brothers and The Blues Brothers 2000. He also delivered a fine performance in the comedy Stand Up and Be Counted. Steve Lawrence could play more than comedy. In the Murder, She Wrote episode "No Laughing Matter" he played Mack Howard, one half of a former comedy duo who is now a popular late-night talk show host, while his former partner (Murray Gruen, played by Buddy Hackett) has fallen on hard times. Steve Lawrence was a major talent, both an incredible singer and a great actor with a gift for comedy.

Friday, March 15, 2024

The 35th Anniversary of the TV Debut of Stand and Deliver (1988)

It was 35 years ago today that Stand and Deliver (1988) made its television debut on American Playhouse on PBS. At the time it may have seemed strange that a feature film that had only been released to theatres a little over a year earlier would be shown on PBS. What some at the time may not have known is that Stand and Deliver (1988) was produced in part by American Playhouse and it was originally meant to only air on television.

Stand and Deliver was based on the true story of math teacher Jaime Escalante, who successfully taught calculus to his students at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. Lou Diamond Phillips played Angel Guzman, a cholo who proved to have a talent for math. Other cast members included Vanessa Marquez, who played the brilliant but shy and soft spoken Ana Delgado; Will Gotay, who played Pancho, a talented mechanic who struggles with calculus; Ingrid Oliu who played Lupe Escocbar, a self-assured and ambitious student; Karla Montana as Claudia Camejo, the fashionable girl with plenty of boyfriends; Mark Elliot as Tito, the rock musician of the class; Patrick Baca as Javier Perales, a brilliant student who is a whiz at math; and Lydia Nicole as Rafaela Fuentes, an immigrant who tends to be quiet.

As to American Playhouse, it was a television anthology series that aired feature length works on PBS from 1982 to 1996. In many ways it was PBS's equivalent of the commercial broadcast networks' many movie anthology series that were so prevalent at the time, such as NBC Monday Night at the Movies. Stand and Deliver was not the first theatrical release to air on American Playhouse by any stretch of the imagination, nor was it the first feature film produced by American Playhouse. Years earlier, American Playhouse had produced Northern Lights (1978), which actually won the Caméra d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979. As to theatrical releases that aired on American Playhouse, these included Heartland (1979), City News (1983), Testament (1983), and My American Cousin (1985), which aired two weeks before Stand and Deliver made its television debut. Of course, here I must point out that not every feature film aired on American Playhouse was produced by American Playhouse, and it showed quite a few that weren't.

The origins of Stand and Deliver go back to 1984 when recent UCLA film school graduate Ramón Menéndez read an article about Garfield High School teacher Jaime Escalante in a newspaper. It occurred to him that Mr. Escalante would make a good subject for a film, and so he turned to his friend Tom Musca to co-write the movie and produce it. It took six months before the two of them could persuade Jaime Escalante to sell them the film rights to a movie based on him. Several production companies turned Messrs. Menéndez and Musca down, as they thought a film about Jaime Escalante would not be commercial enough. At last they received a $12,0000 grant from PBS's anthology series American Playhouse.

Once they completed the script they were able to interest Edward James Olmos, then on the hit series Miami Vice, in playing Jaime Escalante in the movie. His production company, Olmos Productions, would produce Stand and Deliver alongside American Playhouse. Additional financing for Stand and Deliver would come from a variety of sources, including the National Science Foundation and the Atlantic-Richfield Corporation.

Stand and Deliver premiered at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10 1987 under the title Walking On Water. Warner Bros. bought the distribution rights for the film, so that what was originally meant to be a television movie to be aired on PBS was now a feature film to be released to theatres. In the process the film received a new name. Titled Walking on Water, Warner Bros. renamed it Stand and Deliver. It was released to theatres on March 11 1988. It not only received positive reviews from critics and various awards, but it also did fairly well at the box office.  It would be a little over a year later, on March 15 1989, that Stand and Deliver made its television debut on American Playhouse.

While I know that I saw Stand and Deliver on American Playhouse in 1989, I cannot remember if it was on the night of March 15 of that year. It might well have been. I do remember that our local PBS station repeated it on the afternoon of Thanksgiving in 1989 and I know I watched it then. Either way, Stand and Deliver became one of my favourite movies of all time, this coming from someone who has no real fondness for mathematics, let alone calculus. Of course, now watching Stand and Deliver on American Playhouse in 1989 is even more significant for me than it was at the time. It marked this first time that I saw actress Vanessa Marquez anywhere. Vanessa Marquez would later become one of the original members of the TCMParty crowd on Twitter and she live-tweeted Mad Men and Downton Abbey as well. It was that way that we got to know each other and that we became close friends. For many years we were in contact every day, either through social media, phone calls, or text messages. Once one of my favourite movies, Stand and Deliver then became a movie starring one of my dearest friends.

Of course, I am not the only person for whom Stand and Deliver would be a significant movie. There are many people who went into mathematics, teaching, and the sciences because of the film. Over the years Stand and Deliver has proven to be an inspiration for many, particularly Mexican Americans who had rarely seen members of their ethnicity in anything but stereotypical roles prior to the movie. Now considered a classic, there can be no doubt that many first saw Stand and Deliver for the first time on American Playhouse.

Tuesday, March 12, 2024

Godspeed Eric Carmen

Eric Carmen, lead vocalist of The Raspberries and a successful solo artist as well, died yesterday, March 11 2024, at the age of 74.

Eric Carmen was born on August 11 1949 in Cleveland, Ohio. He grew up in Lyndhurst, Ohio. He took to music from an early age. He was only three years old when he was enrolled in the Dalcroze Eurhythmics program at the Cleveland Institute of Music. When he was six years old, his aunt, Muriel Carmen, who was a concert violinist with the Cleveland Orchestra, taught him to play violin. By the time he was 11 years old, he already knew how to play piano and was writing his own songs. In his early teens he was heavily influenced by such British Invasion bands as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. When he was in high school he played with various local bands, such as The Fugitives, The Harlequins, and The Sounds of Silence. He was 15 when he taught himself to play guitar.

It was while he was attending John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio that he joined the band Cyrus Erie. Cyrus Erie released the unsuccessful single "Sparrow" through Epic Records in 1968. In 1969, under the name The Quick, they released another unsuccessful single, "Ain't Nothin' Gonna Stop Me." It was after Cyrus Erie disbanded in the late Sixties that Eric Carmen, former Cyrus Erie guitarist Walter Bryson, drummer Jim Bonfanti (formerly of The Choir), and bassist Dave Smalley (also formerly of The Choir) formed The Raspberries.

The Raspberries were signed to Capitol Records. Their first single, "Don't Want to Say Goodbye," only went to no. 86 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their second single, "Go All the Way," proved to be a hit, peaking at no. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. Their debut album, Raspberries, peaked at no. 51 on the Billboard album chart. The Raspberries would have two other major hits, "I Wanna Be with You," which went to no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 and "Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)", which went to no. 18. Other singles ("Let's Pretend," "Tonight," and "I'm a Rocket") reached the Billboard Hot 100 as well. Their second album, Fresh, reached no. 36 on the Billboard album chart. Sadly, their last two albums, Side 3 and Starting Over, peaked at 128 and 143 on the chart respectively. Eric Carmen wrote or co-wrote the majority of the band's songs, and also sang, played rhythm guitar, and piano.

The Raspberries broke up in April 1975, after which Eric Carmen began a successful solo career. His debut single as a solo artist, "All By Myself," went to no. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. It was followed by the hit "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again," which peaked at no. 11. His self-titled, debut album went to no. 21 on the Billboard album chart. The first single from Boats Against the Current (his second solo album), "She Did It," went to no. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. Another hit emerged from his third solo album (Change of Heart). "Change of Heart" went to no. 19 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Unfortunately, Eric Carmen's career stalled following Change of Heart,. and he would not have another hit until "I Wanna Hear It from Your Lips" went to no. 35 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1985. In 1987 his single "Hungry Eyes" went to no. 4 on the Billboard  Hot 100. In 1988 his single "Make Me Lose Control" went to no. 3 on the chart. Following Eric Carmen (his second self-titled album) in 1984, Mr. Carmen would not release another album until I Was Born to Love You in 2000. His last new track, d "Brand New Year," was released on December 24 2014.

In 2004 Eric Carmen reunited with the other original members of The Raspberries for a successful tour of the United States. A alive album, Live on Sunset Strip, was released in 2007. A recording of their show in Cleveland during the 2004 reunion tour would be released as a live album, Pop Art Live, in 2017.

While Eric Carmen's success on the record charts was intermittent, he would have a lasting influence both as one of The Raspberries and as a solo artist. Along with Badfinger, The Raspberries would be pivotal in the development of power pop in those years between the originators of the genre in the Sixties and the such power pop artists of the late Seventies as Cheap Trick, Dave Edmunds, and The Knack. They would have an influence on artists ranging from The Cars to The Bangles to Matthew Sweet to Teenage Fan Club. As a solo artist, Eric Carmen wrote and performed "All by Myself," which has since become a standard, as well as a number for other memorable songs.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The 2024 Oscars In Memoriam

Yesterday was my birthday, so I did not watch the Academy Awards. Instead, I watched Stand and Deliver (1988) and Twenty Bucks (1993), as it is the only way I can spend my birthday with my dearest Vanessa now. I did watch this year's on-air In Memoriam online today, and I can see why people are not happy with it.

As many of you may recall, I have long had problems with the Academy Awards' on-air In Memoriam, at least since 2013 when they omitted Andy Griffith and others. I am still sore about the 2019 on-air In Memoriam, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences omitted my dearest Vanessa Marquez, despite a campaign to include her, but saw fit to include publicists and agents that no one had ever heard of. Now last night's In Memoriam only included such creatives as actors, directors, cinematographers, and so on, with nary an agent and publicist in sight, but it was still very poorly done.

For those who have not seen last night's In Memoriam from the 96th Academy Awards, it consisted of images and names of some who have died the past year on a screen while father and son tenors Andrea Boccelli and Matteo Boccelli sang "Time to Say Goodbye" and dancers performed an interpretative dance. Now I have no problem with a song being performed during the In Memoriam. After all, the far superior, annual TCM Remembers always has a song. The problem is that, as usual, last night's on-air Oscars In Memoriam seemed rushed. The images and names of the those who have died were on for only a few mere seconds. Making matters worse, sometimes they would have multiple names and images on the screen at once. This was complicated further by camera shots from awkward angles of the screen, not to mention that the dancers sometimes obscured the screens. Quite simply, it was often difficult to read the names of those who have died since last year's Oscars ceremony.

To make matters even worse, several individuals were relegated to small print at the end of the In Memoriam, including such stalwarts as Terence Davies, Norman Lear, Lance Reddick,Treat Williams, and others. The In Memoriam went by so fast that I am not sure of any outright omissions (as in the case of Andy Griffith in 2013 and my beloved Vanessa in 2019), but I am sure there were. It seems as if the Academy always leaves out some well-known movie stars each year.

Regardless, it seems to me that , as usual, not a lot of thought went into this year's Oscars In Memoriam. First, the Academy Awards In Memoriam is no place for an interpretative dance. After all, I am assuming the eyes of both those in the theatre and those at home will be on the screen. Second, the names and images of those who have died should be on the screen for more than a few mere seconds. I am not sure how long each person is on screen in TCM Remembers, but it seems considerably longer. It is certainly long enough that one can read their names. Last night's Oscars In Memoriam gave viewers little time to read the names at all. Third, the screen on which the images and names of those who have died should fill the whole screen for those viewing at home. I don't care who is singing during the In Memoriam. I don't care about an interpretative dance being performed during the In Memoriam. I want to see the images and names of those who have died. Fourth, the Academy should insure that far more actors, writers, directors, cinematographers, and other creatives are included in the In Memoriam. In many times, there are no excuses for omissions. There was no reason for them to have excluded Vanessa in 2019, particularly given she was a groundbreaking Latina actress who had starred in a classic film (Stand and Deliver). There was no reason for them to exclude the great Paul Sorvino last year, who starred in everything from Goodfellas (1990) to The Rocketeer (1991).

I have to suspect that the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences perhaps feel pressure to keep the In Memoriam to a certain length and to make it entertaining. I also suspect that this pressure comes from ABC, who have in the past few years tried to get the Academy to make the ceremony shorter. The problem is that each and every year, the on-air In Memoriam is the one thing that outrages viewers the most. We are angered by the fact that we sometimes can't see the screen due to awkward camera angles. We are angered by the fact that the names and images of beloved actors, writers, directors, and others are on for only a few seconds. And, most of all, we are angered by the exclusion of beloved actors, directors, writers, and other creatives. There is no reason the In Memoriam cannot be longer and done better. TCM Remembers generally runs around four and a half to five minutes and includes almost everyone. The images and names are on for longer than a few seconds. What is more, TCM Remembers is always enjoyable, if always very sad, to watch. There is no reason that the Academy can't do the same thing. As to the American Broadcasting Company, they need to stop worrying about what they want and start worrying about what viewers want went it comes to the Academy Awards ceremony.

Anyway, I didn't see that many movies released last year, so I don't have to much to say about the awards themselves. As a long time Godzilla fan, I am glad Godzilla Minus One (2023) won Best Visual Effects. I am a bit puzzled as to how Barbie (2023) lost Best Production Design and Best Costume Design (2023). I am sure Poor Things (2023) has great production design and costumes (I'll know for sure when I watch it later this week), but it's hard for me to see either being better than that of Barbie, which had some of the best production design and costumes I have seen in years. Finally, I would have given Best Song to "I'm Just Ken" from Barbie instead of "What Was I Made For?" from the same movie. I've loved "I'm Just Ken" ever since I first watched Barbie. I don't dislike "What Was I Made For?," but it doesn't particularly impress me either. By the way, I pulled up Ryan Gosling's performance of "I'm Just Ken" from last night's ceremony on YouTube, and it was great. I love the shout outs to musicals of old in the whole sequence.

Anyway, I think last night's Academy Awards ceremony proves once more that the Academy has a long way to go in doing a proper In Memoriam. Every year viewers complain about the In Memoriam, and yet it seems as if nothing every changes. They keep getting it wrong each year. I honestly think the Academy should just stop trying to do their own on air In Memoriam and just show TCM Remembers instead.