Vanity in a Tin Can

Lately, I’ve been divulging incidents that occurred when I was young and stupid. Like, when I hurled rotten apples at moving vehicles, or harassed the night watchman at boarding school.

Here’s another slice of my biography that a few might find interesting or unusual. If no one finds it interesting or unusual – which is entirely possible – I give permission for this essay to be burned on the bonfire of my vanities.

***

After college, I worked for a couple years at an AM radio station called WNOP, in Cincinnati, Ohio.

If you’re an older American, you may remember the 1970s situation comedy “WKRP in Cincinnati.” Although I have no proof, I’m convinced WNOP was the model for WKRP.

Like its television counterpart, WNOP was no ordinary radio station. The walls were curved. There was no bathroom. To reach our “office,” we had to tread across a long wooden pier. Also, we never saw the station owner, we only heard about him. He was like the Easter Bunny.

And every time a barge passed by, we bobbed up, down, and sideways.

Take a soup can, peel off the label, then place it in bathtub water so it rests vertically. That was our place of work. It was a gigantic steel cylinder that floated on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, just across from downtown Cincinnati. I’m guessing the location choice was related to airwave reception or something. Let me explain:

WNOP was owned by a wealthy local beer distributor, who loved jazz music. He seemed to run the station more as a hobby than a business. I worked there in 1984-85, when arena rock and new wave music were all over the radio. Therefore, because we played jazz – America’s homegrown music – nobody listened to us. So, we didn’t make enough money to afford a proper radio tower. So, the waters of the Ohio River carried our signal.

I was hired as a broadcasting intern by the station manager, a well-known former rock deejay named Geoff. He was a fat guy with glasses who had an excellent radio presence, and he was really nice. I had no radio experience, but I liked jazz music, and was eager to learn, and I’m guessing that’s why he hired me. Also – because I was an intern – he didn’t have to pay me.

Directly under Geoff was Programming Director Chris. Unlike the owner, Chris treated the station as a business instead of a hobby, and he wanted WNOP to be real successful. And whereas Geoff liked me, I don’t think Chris did. You’ll find out why a little later.

Despite being an AM station at the left end of the dial that played jazz, we had a lot of talent at “The Jazz Ark.” The morning host was Kristi. Kristi was a very attractive and outgoing blonde who (surprise, surprise) did a lot of public relations for the station. The two daytime hosts were Ray and Val. Ray was semi-retired, and a radio veteran. Warm radio voice, knowledgeable, and he personally knew many of the famous jazz musicians that occasionally swung through town.

Donald Fagen (Steely Dan) as “Lester the Nightfly,” from his solo album, “The Nightfly”

Val had a great voice, too. He was about 35 and had worked all over the country. Val was black, but he sounded white. Maybe that’s why, at one time in his career, he was a country-and-western disc jockey. This factoid always fascinated me. But I guess if you’re a good enough jock, you can do any type of music. Val was the epitome of cool, and most of us younger guys tried to model ourselves after him.

The younger crew consisted of me, Glenn, Brendan, John, Rod, Chuka, and a few others I can’t recall. Like me, Glenn also appreciated jazz, but unlike me, he was very smooth in front of a microphone. Brendan was a real affable, slightly conservative guy-next-door. John was a short fellow whose dad owned a chain of shoe stores in town. John idolized Val. If you talked with John for any length of time, eventually he’d bring up Val. And Chuka was from Africa and broadcast news only.

I was closest to Rod “Downtown” Lowndes, who previously worked as a riverboat bartender. We were both into dirty rock ‘n’ roll and blues. We also occasionally “indulged” in things.

I remember my trepidation the first time I stepped in front of the microphone. I had a fear of public speaking that dated to a bad incident in childhood, so I had a legitimate concern about hyperventilating while on the air. But the guy who mentored me that first night seemed to think I’d be ok.

“Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. Nobody’s listening anyway.”

That calmed me a little, but I still felt like Barney Fife appearing before the Mayberry Municipal Court. As time went on, it got easier. I discovered that talking with the music at a low volume was very helpful.

Symphony Sid Tolan, the dean of jazz disc jockeys

My best memories of WNOP were the early days. Many deejays adopt catchy on-air pseudonyms or nicknames, and I thought about doing the same, similar to real-life Symphony Sid Tolan, or fictional “Lester the Nightfly.” I asked Geoff if maybe I should become Pete ‘Midnight’ White, or something equally ridiculous.

“No, I think you have a good name already. It’s very German-sounding, which will appeal to all the German listeners in Cincinnati. What do you think, Chris?”

“Sure, keep your name,” mumbled Chris. So I kept my name.

And speaking of vanity, it was also fun to drop, in conversation, that I was a deejay. I got a lot of “Really?!” responses. Also, this was before I met my wife, so mentioning I was a disc jockey was a great icebreaker with women. Their eyes always got a little bigger. Previously, it was a struggle for me to even get a second look from an attractive female. But once they learned that I worked in front of a microphone, they seemed to push their breasts a little closer.

I was very careful not to spill that I was merely an unpaid, untalented intern working the graveyard shift at a cable station that nobody listened to.

(Please check back soon for the conclusion of “Vanity in a Tin Can”)

(Illustration of WNOP by Robert Freeson and “Cincinnati Magazine”)

Let Me Introduce to You: The SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND Trivia Contest!

50 years

Sgt__Pepper's

June 1, 1977. Forty years ago today, Mr. Turley cut me a break in calculus, and my high school released me.

Almost as important: ten years to the day before that, the Beatles released (in the U.S.) their spectacular album SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!!!

I love lists, even those controversial and ubiquitous “Rolling Stone” magazine lists, and I can’t recall one rock critics’ list that hasn’t placed this album solidly in the No. 1 position. It’s considered by many the CITIZEN KANE of pop music, the ultimate radical experiment in an era of radical experimentation, yet not so experimental that it alienated the masses. This record’s historical standing isn’t exactly hurt by its association with the greatest musical ensemble in the history of the Milky Way (or, at least, the planet Earth).

Please don’t stand up and throw tomatoes at me when I say this: it’s not number one on my list (duck, Pete!). And since the Beatles excluded their single “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” from the LP, I don’t even consider it the Beatles’ best record. Sonically, it’s very cohesive, maybe their most cohesive album as far as sound and mood. But many of the songs here fall short when stacked against the best work of their other LPs, even the earliest.  I’d pick “Please Please Me” and “This Boy” any day over marshmallow pies and Henry the Horse’s waltzing.

There’s a lot of Paul here, which is good, but John got a trifle lazy, which is not good. I think the adventurous instrumentation and packaging, and the timing of its release have had much to do with its current reputation. SGT. PEPPER kicked off the acid-soaked Summer of Love, which so many social historians and millennials love to associate with the entire 1960s. Also, the public was hungry for a new Beatles LP. The boys had quit touring, and it had been ten months since REVOLVER (today, it takes ten months for a band to decide whose song to sample).

SGT. PEPPER’S swirly, psychedelic motif hasn’t aged well, either, particularly on John’s song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Producer George Martin truly came to the fore as the “fifth Beatle” on this record, so the music is as much him as the four lads.pepper

But… “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” more or less created the mold for poetry and musicality in a four-minute pop song. In fact, classical giant Leonard Bernstein called “She’s Leaving Home” one of the three great songs of the century (does anyone know the other two?). A personal favorite of mine is Paul’s construction project, “Fixing a Hole,” where he allowed his mind to wander, and it’s very reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s beautiful, self-analytical song from the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

Since it’s summer and I’m too lazy to do a “Rolling Stone”-styled pontification on the cultural and musical significance of this record (the best recent article I’ve read about SGT. PEPPER, minus an annoying plug for the obligatory anniversary re-release, is here, if you’re interested), I thought I’d have some fun and offer a trivia contest. Like Mr. Turley’s exams, it’s open book. But the true Beatles fan shouldn’t need a book. Be careful, though! I have at least one trick question in case of a tie.

Hopefully, I’ll get more response than I did with my Gettysburg sesquicentennial quiz.

OK… Mr. K will now challenge the world!

  1. Name two clues, in the music or sleeve art, that Paul is dead.
  2. Give the names of at least five members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band (not including the Beatles themselves).
  3. What are the names of the three children in the song “When I’m 64”?
  4. What was the inspiration for John’s song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”?
  5. Name the band and album that Paul claims inspired him in the making of this album.
  6. Who sings “With a Little Help from My Friends”?
  7. What is the name of George’s token song, and what stringed instrument is prevalent on it?
  8. Which song was covered two years later at the “Woodstock” concert (and was one of the highlights of the subsequent movie)?
  9. Name the band and album that spoofed this album almost a year later.
  10. Why is this the greatest album ever made? If you don’t think it is the greatest, which album would you choose?

Thanks for participating! Just pop your answers into the longitudes comments section. I’ll list the answers and the winner(s) in a couple weeks. Till then, give this classic a spin, and I hope you all enjoyed this show!

P.S. Very belatedly: “Thank you, Mr. Turley.”

b&w photo

Fascism for Beginners, Part 4: American Ambivalence

The receptive powers of the masses are very restricted, and their understanding is feeble…Such being the case, all effective propaganda must be confined to a few bare essentials and those must be expressed as far as possible in stereotyped formulas. These slogans should be persistently repeated until the very last individual has come to grasp the idea that has been put forward. – Adolf Hitler, from “Mein Kampf” (1925)

This is the last post in my series on fascism, specifically the German “Third Reich.” If you dropped in for the first time, you might want to start with the first post. What I’m trying to do here is understand how and why people expressed enthusiasm for Nazism, or were lulled into indifference, both inside and outside of Germany. A few of the reasons I’ve uncovered include post-World War I fatigue, the Great Depression, German Sonderweg, pre-existing anti-Semitism, and Adolf Hitler’s uncanny ability to practically hypnotize people with oratory and lies. The countries I’ve discussed (very briefly) include Germany, Russia, France, and England.

I’d now like to discuss my home country, America.

It’s true that America joined England, France, and, reluctantly, the Soviets in defeating the Nazis and liberating the concentration camps. And we did so, amazingly, while simultaneously waging a war with Japan. My beautiful mother-in-law likes to say (over and over), “If it wasn’t for our boys in that war, we’d all be speaking German.”

(Danke, mutti).

But as satisfying as it is to wave the flag, especially when we’ve emerged as victors, the buildup to war with Germany was more complicated.

***

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in April 1945, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said “In FDR there died the greatest American friend we have ever known.”

The “Big Three” (Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill) at Tehran Conference in 1943. In addition to being allies, Roosevelt and Churchill were also good friends. Stalin… not so much.

Unlike his boss Woodrow Wilson during the First World War, Roosevelt was committed to assisting England from the moment it was attacked by Germany in 1940 (and even before). In 1937, he proposed quarantining warmongering countries like Germany and Italy. After Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, he extended military aid to Britain and France. And prior to the war’s end, he demanded unconditional surrender from Germany rather than armistice.

Until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which changed everything, Roosevelt’s great hurdle in assisting the Allies and bringing down Hitler was an isolationist sentiment that pervaded America. American citizens feared the bloodshed that they’d witnessed in the First World War. Additionally, wealthy capitalists feared communism, and viewed Hitler as a check against its spread. And, just as in Germany, there was an incessant paranoia (and, undoubtedly, envy) about consolidation of power by successful Jews.

The list that follows is just a smattering of groups and individuals that either unwittingly or actively tried to prevent America from assisting the European democracies in putting an end to Hitler and the Third Reich:

Henry Ford: From 1920-22, automobile entrepreneur Ford, one of the most powerful men in America, published an anti-Semitic set of booklets and pamphlets entitled “The International Jew,” warning of an increasing “Jewish menace.” His work caught the notice of a young Hitler.

Ford earned the dubious distinction of being the only American mentioned in Hitler’s 1925 blueprint for Nazism, “Mein Kampf.” And much later, SS chief Heinrich Himmler cited Ford as being “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters.”

Henry Ford, dressed to the nines, accepting his Order of the German Eagle award, on his 75th birthday in 1936, the height of Nazism.

U.S. Congress: Even after Germany’s repeated violations of the Treaty of Versailles, politicians from both parties adhered to a policy of non-intervention. Congress passed three Neutrality Acts, from 1935 to 1937, to maintain American isolationism. This was all in the face of Mussolini invading northern Africa, General Francisco Franco and the Falangists (similar to Italy’s Fascisti) revolting against the republican Spanish government, and Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland.

Charles Lindbergh: Americans adored the aviation hero. He flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in the “Spirit of St. Louis,” and Americans suffered with him after his young son was murdered.

But Lindbergh possibly exceeded even Ford in both anti-Jewish and pro-Nazi activities. As a member of the isolationist America First Committee, he lobbied against U.S. intervention in Europe and openly defended Hitler’s military aggressions. In one infamous America First speech (60 years to the day before the Twin Towers fell), Lindbergh lectured Jewish groups in America, advising them that U.S. military intervention against Hitler would only hurt European Jews.

Some choice Lindbergh quotes:

(The) greatest danger to this country lies in (Jewish) large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.

(Three groups are) pressing this country toward war: the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.

We can have peace and security only so long as we band together to preserve that most priceless possession, our inheritance of European blood.

Hitler’s destruction would lay Europe open to the rape, loot, and barbarism of Soviet Russia’s forces, causing possibly the fatal wounding of western civilization.

Charles Lindbergh, pushing for non-intervention at an America First Committee rally. Roosevelt was quoted as saying “I am convinced Lindbergh is a Nazi.” After he tagged Lindbergh as being a “defeatist and appeaser,” Lindbergh resigned from the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Lindbergh was a staunch believer in eugenics, and after the war, he fathered seven children by several mistresses to prove it. He was awarded the Order of the German Eagle by the Nazi government (Ford also received this award). He accepted it from Hermann Goering at a dinner in October 1938. Several weeks later occurred Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), the first anti-Jewish pogrom, carried out by Nazi SA troops and German citizens. Even after this, Lindbergh declined to return his award.

Breckinridge Long: Long was assistant secretary of state under Roosevelt. He directed anti-immigrant efforts that effectively barred Jews and others from attaining asylum in the states following their well-publicized persecution in Germany. As late as 1943, when the U.S. government had documented evidence of German atrocities against the Jews, Long gave secret testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee that attempted to stifle revisions to harsh immigration policies.

(Maybe the most infamous example of indifference to the Jewish plight occurred in 1938, when the passenger ship St. Louis, loaded with over 900 Jews fleeing Europe, was refused entry at every American port. The ship eventually returned to Europe and unloaded these unfortunate exiles at Antwerp, Belgium… which shortly thereafter was enveloped in a swarm of cockroaches wearing jackboots and swastikas).

Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.: The patriarch of the Kennedy family, Joe Sr. amassed a fortune importing Scotch whisky, transacting real estate, merging film studios, and through insider trading on Wall Street. During his Hollywood tenure, he had a three-year affair with silent film star Gloria Swanson.

In 1938, he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Britain by President Roosevelt, an old friend. He must have made Roosevelt chew off his cigarette holder, because his sails definitely lacked the tack of Jack. He was right there with Neville Chamberlain during the Munich appeasement (see previous post). Then he tried to arrange a clandestine meeting with Hitler, about the same time as Kristallnacht. He argued against military aid to England, famously saying that “democracy is finished” there. He also bragged that he knew “more about the European situation than anyone else.”

Kennedy’s biographers cite numerous examples of his anti-Semitism, some of it confirmed in letters between Kennedy and his friend, Charles Lindbergh. After Roosevelt secured the Catholic vote and was re-elected in 1940, he fired Kennedy. Joe Sr. spent the rest of his life directing his energies toward his sons.

Arch-appeaser and British Ambassador, Joseph P. Kennedy Sr.

American Capitalists: As I hinted above, certain American heads of industries were more concerned about Communists than about Germans in the 1930s and early ‘40s. They ran powerful businesses, and weren’t about to see their successes jeopardized by a “Red Menace,” which they felt a far right fascist like Hitler could help suppress.

But there was an even darker side. Many of these corporations did significant business in Hitler’s Germany. Ford Motor Company’s German branch, Ford-Werke, used French POWs as slave labor prior to the U.S. entering the war. Here are some others who nurtured a close relationship with the National Socialists:

James D. Mooney (President of General Motors Overseas): in 1938, Mooney received the Order of the German Eagle. In 1939 he met Nazi officials to discuss GM’s Adam-Opel facility in Germany. He arranged for a meeting between a Goering employee, one Helmut Wohlthat, and Joseph Kennedy, regarding exchanging loans for more open trading possibilities. Mooney resigned from GM after several leading American publications accused him of Nazi sympathies.

Thomas J. Watson Sr. (Chairman and CEO of IBM): in a book called “IBM and the Holocaust,” author Edwin Black argues that Watson willfully ignored Nazi persecution of Jews in a quest for profit. IBM manufactured a punch-card machine that was used by Nazis to tabulate and track Jews in Germany, and later to track inmates within the concentration camps. Watson’s IBM began its business relationship with the Nazis in 1933, the year the party consolidated its power (and established the first concentration camp, at Dachau). Nazi Germany soon became IBM’s biggest customer, right behind the U.S. In 1937, Watson attended an International Chamber of Commerce meeting in Berlin, where he accepted the Order of the German Eagle.

IBM founder, Thomas J. Watson Sr.

Torkild Rieber (Chairman of Texaco): Rieber illegally lent Texaco oil to Francisco Franco after Franco’s fascist uprising in Spain. He also traded oil with Nazi Germany for tankers. In June 1937, President Roosevelt met with him and threatened him with an oil embargo, but Rieber continued to do business with Germany in secret. After the start of the war, and despite a British embargo, Rieber arranged for Columbian oil to be shipped to the Nazis.

The day after France surrendered to Germany, on June 26, 1940, senior executives from Ford, GM, ITT, Texaco, and typewriter pioneer Underwood – including Rieber and Mooney – met with a German businessman and agent named Westrick at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City for a celebratory dinner.

 ***

Question: Before accepting their precious Order of the German Vulture awards, didn’t these obsessive capitalists bother to read “Mein Kampf,” written in 1925, which practically laid out everything Hitler and the National Socialists would do in the next 20 years, including extermination by poison gas? And if so, did they conveniently forget it while shaking hands with Hermann Goering?

Conclusion:

Trying to end this horror story appropriately is a bit of a struggle. It needs a moral, but it begs for someone better equipped than me to offer it. Just a few thoughts before I jump to a sunnier latitude on longitudes:

My friend Tad suggested that the title “Fascism for Dummies” sounds trite and mean-spirited, and I’m inclined to agree. For posterity (blog posts get lots of “hits” long after they’re published) I’m thinking of shortening it to just “Fascism.” But if anyone has a better suggestion, please let me know.

Also, I received a personal email from someone that cynically predicted I would eventually be making Trump comparisons. I guess this person read between the lines. Because I’m one of those who still strives for truth, I’ll be truthful: when I started writing, I was considering doing just that. But I changed my mind. However, it’s not because I want to spare Trump or anyone who supports the current right-wing cabal in Washington. I still think our current president is a despicable person and a terrible choice for a leader, and that America has made a big mistake.

The reason I won’t draw specific comparisons is that I’m afraid if I do, I’ll be exploiting something that should remain unexploited. What happened in Europe from 1933 to 1945 was a horror unimaginable, and the millions who suffered and died deserve more than being a touchstone for today’s petty politics. What happened there and then transcends politics. While it should never be forgotten, it shouldn’t be exploited, either. I’ll just offer this:

Whatever society, or whatever political persuasion, it’s important we keep our eyes and ears open and elect good leaders who will nourish our humanity, rather than diminish it. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote a book called “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The theme is that every human has the capacity within himself for both good and evil. Whether we submerge Hyde, or allow him to poke his head out occasionally… or strut around in broad daylight in full regalia… is up to us.

Sources:

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich” by William L. Shirer

“American History: A Survey” by Alan Brinkley

“The Kennedy’s at War: 1937-1945” by Edward J. Renehan Jr.

http://www.wikipedia.com

Fascism for Beginners, Part 3: Torpor

Our local public television station has been airing two excellent films lately, both related to fascist politics. One of them is the 1962 version of THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE, about American P.O.W.s hypnotized by Reds during the Korean War. There’s much more to this brilliant movie, but if you haven’t already seen it, I won’t divulge the plot.

The other movie is JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. It’s loosely based on fact, and it concerns the post-WWII trial of four German judges who, under the tent of Nazism, helped carry out a sterilization program and sentenced innocent people to death.

One of the judges is a rabid Nazi who shows no remorse. Two of the judges are weak and confused. But the fourth judge, “Ernst Janning,” is a tragic figure.

Highly intelligent, respected both inside and outside of Germany for his judicial knowledge, Janning is a man of great ideals who holds himself above his less enlightened peers. But during the Hitler years, he slowly and inexorably became corrupted. He despises what the Nazis did, but he also despises himself. He is tormented by the knowledge that, because of his actions, he’s turned his entire life into “excrement.”

The defense attorney wages an admirable but futile battle to exonerate Janning, who is a hero of his. At one point, American prosecutors show film footage of liberation of the concentration camps (this is actual footage, and it’s not for the squeamish). The defense attorney becomes so desperate, he tries to justify the judges’ actions by blaming other nations and individuals for Germany’s descent into barbarism.

I’d like to briefly discuss these accomplices, who also figure largely in William Shirer’s book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Joseph Stalin

Russia: In April 1945, the first troops to enter bombed-out Berlin were the Russians, hated by both Hitler and the Western democracies (Joseph Stalin was as fascistic as Hitler or Mussolini, just a different political stripe). Had not the Russians repelled German forces at Stalingrad in 1942-43 – maybe the bloodiest confrontation in the history of man – the war would have had a different outcome. But in August 1939, Hitler and Stalin had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. This treaty enabled the two dictatorships to mutually carve up Poland and Eastern Europe.

Stalin was as brutal, cunning, and power-obsessed as Hitler. He just didn’t share Hitler’s pathological theories on race. Stalin’s great mistake was that, like so many others, he trusted Hitler. But Hitler despised Communism almost as much as Judaism, and he ridiculed the Pact from the moment it was signed. Thus, it wasn’t surprising when, against his top generals’ advice, Hitler invaded Russia in June 1941. Stalin’s uncharacteristic coziness with Hitler during the Pact allowed the Germans to build their military and expand their territory for a period of two long years.

The result: hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians, Jews, Bolsheviks, and resistance fighters in the East were ultimately rounded up and exterminated by Nazi Einsatzgruppen.

Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” executing a Ukrainian Jewish mother and her child (whom she’s clutching to her chest). This 1942 photo was never intended for distribution, but was somehow smuggled outside the Nazi sphere.

France: France had an opportunity to stop Hitler early on. On March 7, 1936, German forces illegally broke the 1925 Locarno Treaty and entered the demilitarized zone in the French Rhineland. Author Shirer was present when Hitler made the announcement to the German Reichstag, and recorded in his diary the disgusting scene that follows:

All the militarism in their German blood surges to their heads… Their hands are raised in slavish salute, their faces now contorted with hysteria, their mouths wide open, shouting, shouting, their eyes, burning with fanaticism, glued on the new god, the Messiah.

Had the French stood up to this blatant act of aggression, it would have rendered Hitler weak and unreliable in the eyes of Germans, and possibly shortened the reign of the Third Reich. In 1936, the German army was not the juggernaut it later became. Additionally, army Commander-in-Chief Werner von Blomberg had already decided on retreat in case of French countermeasures. But France had been devastated by the previous war and was “paralyzed by internal strife” and “sinking into defeatism.” Hitler’s military coup in the Rhineland set the stage for similar maneuvers in Austria and Czechoslovakia, and ultimately the invasion of Poland.

Neville Chamberlain

Great Britain: under the terms of the Locarno Treaty, Great Britain was obligated to assist France after Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland. Instead, it incomprehensibly believed Hitler when he assured the European democracies that he only desired peace, and that his actions weren’t hostile. Then, in 1938, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain brokered with Hitler the Munich Agreement, which allowed Germany to annex parts of Czechoslovakia (this after allowing the Nazis to force an Anschluss and annex Austria, creating a “Greater (Nazi) Germany”).

Chamberlain’s continued appeasement of Hitler was greeted with huge approval by British citizens and Parliament, since it prevented outright war (although succeeding Prime Minister Winston Churchill remained highly critical). In reality, it merely delayed the inevitable, for it permitted Germany to strengthen its armed forces and opened the door for Hitler to invade Poland, which officially started World War II. Soon, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France also toppled to the Germans.

Many of those same British who applauded the Munich Agreement would soon be huddling in bomb shelters while the German Luftwaffe roared overhead.

***

There’s one other “accomplice” I’d like to talk about. But I’ll wait until the fourth and final installment of “Fascism for Beginners” to discuss my home country.

(Header image: detail from the “Hell Panel” from “Garden of Earthly Delights” by Hieronymous Bosch)

Fascism for Beginners, Part 2: Feeding the Beast

On February 24, 1926, leading NSDAP (aka National Socialist, or Nazi) officials met in the town of Bamberg in southern Germany. Hitler attended. In the crowd sat a skinny young man with blazing eyes and a crippled leg named Joseph Goebbels.

The Bamberg conference would be a defining moment for Goebbels and the Nazis. Until now, the well-educated but impressionable Goebbels had supported a northern German Nazi leader named Gregor Strasser.

Strasser was a typical Nazi: nationalistic, militaristic, and racist. But he was strongly opposed to Hitler’s 25-point Program (see previous post), and he competed with Hitler for party leadership. At the Bamberg assembly, Hitler delivered a withering two-hour speech. Any opposition to his extremist program was quickly smothered.

After Bamberg, Goebbels, like an adoring schoolgirl – and like so many other Germans – began to fall under Hitler’s spell. He would eventually rise to become Nazi Minister of Propaganda, one of Hitler’s most trusted henchmen, and, next to Hitler, the person most responsible for bamboozling an entire country. Strasser would later be executed by Hitler.

Two days after this meeting, just 213 kilometers west of Bamberg, in the beautiful city of Frankfurt, a Jewish girl named Margot Frank was born. Exactly 19 years later she would die of starvation, exposure, and disease, along with her younger sister, Anne, in a concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen.

***

Historians and writers have been scratching their scalps for over 70 years over how a Western democracy, albeit a fragile one, could elect a dictatorship, then permit a bunch of misfits and sadists to start a global conflict, rape their nation, and commit the greatest act of genocide in history. There’s more than one reason, and they’re all very complex. But William Shirer discusses some of them in his book, THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH. I lack the space to adequately cover them, but I’ll try to graze the surface:

Margot Frank. Like her sister, Margot kept a daily diary while her family was in hiding. It’s never been found.

Sonderweg: “Sonderweg” is a German word meaning “special path.” It’s a theory that German peoples’ values developed differently from other Western nations due to the nature of their leaders, as well as the writings and teachings of certain German philosophers and thinkers. Before WWII, historians looked at Sonderweg in a positive light. But after the war, they viewed it as having hindered development of liberal democracy, and helping give rise to fascism.

Shirer discusses Sonderweg and proposes that Nazism was a logical evolution of a national character that dates to Martin Luther in the 16th century. Luther is famous for his “Ninety-five Theses,” which broke from Roman Catholic dogma and helped initiate the Protestant Reformation. But Luther also openly hated Jews and advocated violence against them. His anti-Semitic writings, needless to say, were circulated widely in Nazi Germany.

Shirer cites a number of Germans after Luther whose beliefs (Shirer claims) contributed to a rising German nationalism and sense of Aryan superiority. Philosophers Friedrich Nietzsche and Georg Hegel, and composer and writer Richard Wagner are the most well-known. While these cultural giants undoubtedly influenced 20th-century German thought and attitude, Nazi propaganda skillfully selected only those ideas of theirs which helped promote its cause, then twisted them for its own purposes. For example, although Nietzsche is famous for his philosophy of the “Übermensch” (a superior human who creates new values in the absence of God), he also spoke out against anti-Semitism, and he didn’t intend his humanistic philosophies to imply Aryan racial or German national superiority.

But did many Germans in the Depression look beneath the surface of the Nazi propaganda?

The THIRD Reich: Hitler and Goebbels sold many incredible fictions to the country during their moment in history’s spotlight. One of them was that Nazi rule represented a third realm, following the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806) and German Empire (1871-1918), and it would last a thousand years. It lasted less than a baker’s dozen, but enough gullible Germans became convinced that Hitler followed a line of great rulers that began with Prussian King Frederick II (Frederick the Great), and continued with Otto von Bismarck.

Both Frederick and Bismarck have mixed legacies. They made Germany strong, but they did so through relentless militarism and imperialism. Additionally, Frederick marginalized Jews and despised the Poles, referring to them as “vile apes.”

Frederick II (Frederick the Great)

Hitler kept a miniature portrait of Frederick up through his final days cowering in his Berlin bunker.

Treaty of Versailles: Germany and Austria-Hungary were the aggressors in World War I. After it was defeated by the Allies in 1918, Germany was required to accept responsibility for starting the war, disarm its military, relinquish large tracts of territory, and pay reparations (the equivalent of $442 billion U.S. dollars today) under Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles. Many, including some in the Allied sphere, considered the penalties too harsh (although not the French, who suffered most during WWI).

Every political party in the Weimar Republic, from the liberal Social Democrats to the Catholic Centre Party to the conservative German National People’s Party, railed against the treaty, but none more so than conservatives, nationalists, and ex-military leaders. Many of them – especially the far-right National Socialists – found a convenient scapegoat in socialists, communists, and especially Jews, who had been successful as business leaders and were thought to have benefited from a weakened Germany.

Hitler was very skilled at gaining traction for his extremist ideas by appealing to Germans’ patriotism and racial heritage and demonizing “the other.” Hitler knew that once you can convince enough people of a shared enemy, and create an impression that this enemy is sub-human and has devious motives… it’s extremely easy to get people behind you. Hitler’s most fanatical adherents were young people who could be easily indoctrinated (“Hitler Youth”), and the lower educated, who could be easily duped. Although the Nazis took the tactics of demonization to unparalleled lengths, such behavior has been exhibited over and over throughout history by people in power seeking political gain. The strong preying upon the weak. It happens in dictatorships, as well as democratic republics… including the U.S.

But I digress.

Once the Jews, Bolsheviks, and intellectuals could be purged from Germany, Hitler argued, “Der Vaterland” would be purified. It could then unify its many independent provinces, regain its lost territories, and expand on them (providing Germany its “Lebensraum,” or “living space”). Then, once again, it could bask in the greatness for which it was preordained.

As jobs became ever scarce and German exports slowed to a trickle in the first years of the Depression (1929-1933), citizens hungered for quick and easy solutions… even if some of the solutions made them a little queasy, or might be temporarily “uncomfortable.”

Hitler and the National Sadists provided these solutions with gusto.

***

(Thanks for sticking with me in this unsavory topic. In the next installment of my “Fascism for Beginners” series, I’ll discuss how German citizens weren’t the only ones who contributed to the rise of fascism in Germany).

 

 

 

Fascism for Beginners

WWII Map

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which – George Orwell

I’m reading a very good book right now. It’s called THE RISE AND FALL OF THE THIRD REICH by William Shirer. I bought it a few years ago in honor of the 50th anniversary of its publication, but until recently it’s been sleeping on my bookshelf. I’m reading it now because, like many people since the November election, I’m pretty deflated, and I’m thinking this book will be a good antidote. Maybe it will put things into perspective. As low as America is right now, it would have to claw a lot more dirt out of the pit to reach the depths of 1930s-40s Germany.

RISE AND FALL is considered the definitive history of the Nazi Party. It’s a 1,150-page book of small print, so reading it is a long haul. I’m just past the rise and starting on the fall. Churchill has replaced Chamberlain in England. Germany’s vaunted army has finally been repulsed, on the icy Eastern front, by Russia. The U.S. has reluctantly been pulled into the war following the sneak Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

I’ve never been much of a WWII buff. As far as historical conflicts go, I’ve always preferred the more antiquated and seemingly altruistic slaughter of the American Civil War. My wife loves the Second World War. Any time one of those black-and-white newsreels about WWII is broadcast on television, she grabs the remote. I can’t watch them. Inevitably, there are clips of that shrieking madman with the greasy hair and Charlie Chaplin mustache. I usually leave the room. The sight of him makes my skin crawl.

So until recently, I was probably like most Americans, in that my knowledge of Nazi Germany was limited to a few names, dates… and one monumental atrocity. But Shirer’s book has made it abundantly clear that Nazi philosophies and practices were aided and abetted many years prior to the war and the Holocaust. The war and the Holocaust were just fascism brought to its logical and horrifying conclusion.

Charlie Chaplin spoofing Adolf Hitler in “The Great Dictator” (1940). Hitler was considered a big joke in the beginning. After the clown makeup came off, the world saw something else.

What’s the definition of fascism? The “Merriam-Webster Dictionary” defines it as follows:

A political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.

That’s a mouthful. But let’s look at the first part: “…exalts nation and often race above the individual.”

The Nazi Party was founded by a man named Anton Drexler and three other far-right Germans in Munich on January 5, 1919. At that time, it was called the German Workers’ Party (Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or DAP). By 1921, a onetime vagabond and former Austrian colonel named Adolf Hitler had, through boundless energy, skillful oratory, and not a little fanaticism, wrested control of the party.

Anton Drexler, founder of the Nazi Party

Hitler added the words “National Socialist” to the name, making it NSDAP, or “Nazzy” (Note: the word “Socialist” here was merely used rhetorically and had little to do with the philosophies of various leftist parties in Germany at the time, which Nazism eventually extinguished). Hitler and other party leaders also delivered a 25-point manifesto. Two of the manifesto points were as follows:

Point Number 4: “Only a member of the race can be a (German) citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently, no Jew can be a member of the race.”

(This ignorant stipulation mistakenly assumes that precious “German blood” equates with race, when Germanic heritage is actually an ethnicity. And note the casual singling out of one particular group for discrimination: Jews. Evidently there were few Arabs in Germany at the time – at least, any that had social or economic significance).

Point Number 8: “Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.”

(August 2, 1914 is the day Germany mobilized for WWI, which it ultimately lost. The 1918 Treaty of Versailles required the country to make reparations for its aggression, including a substantial loss of territory. This left a lingering bitterness throughout the prideful nation. The date of August 2, 1914 was probably significant to the most nationalistic Germans, but totally arbitrary to most immigrants).

Nation and race. Nationalism and eugenics. Always choice ingredients in a recipe for disaster. Remember, this Nazi “Program” was drawn up in 1921: eighteen years before Germany invaded Poland to start the next world war. Although NSDAP was still only a radical fringe group in Germany, the party principles had already taken root. Hitler and his henchmen would adhere to these two points, and all 23 others – and expand on them – until their empire of sadism finally toppled.

My stomach’s starting to churn, so I’ll break off. But please check back for the second part of my “Fascism for Beginners,” where I’ll be examining how citizens allowed a political party and its leader to turn their country into a pigsty.

The Velvet Underground and Nico

50 yearsalbum cover

Hey white boy… you chasin’ all women around? You wanna make love to the scene? Take a drag or two.

 Oh, pardon me, sir, I don’t know just where I’m going. I’m weary. I’m just looking for a dear, dear friend of mine.

 You better watch your step, little boy. ‘Cause everybody knows, when midnight comes around, all the angels scream.

The lines above aren’t from a pulp novel. They’re snippets of lyrics that I borrowed from a slab of vinyl released 50 years ago today.

_____________

New York City, December, 1965. A cold wind slices through the city night.  Anonymous, grey people wrapped in overcoats shuffle along a sidewalk on West 3rd Street.  They move hurriedly, hunched over from the cold wind, oblivious to the  small nightclub with a tacky-looking sign above the door: “Café Bizarre.”

Inside this little matchbox-sized café, glasses clink, voices murmur, and cigarette smoke clouds the room.

On a little stage toward the back, a Mephistophelian looking man with long, greasy black hair and wraparound sunglasses toys with what looks like an electric violin. Another man, taller, casually tunes a guitar. Behind him, protecting a shabby drum kit, sits an innocent looking girl with a Beatle haircut. At the center of the little group stands a collegiate looking kid with bushy hair, tight pants, and biker boots. He’s holding an enormous hollow-bodied electric guitar. He’s chewing gum. He glances at the other guitarist and cracks a mischievous smile. He then steps toward a microphone.

“Black Angel’s Death Song,” he announces to the half-empty room.

It was the last song the Velvet Underground would play at the Café Bizarre. The manager fired them immediately afterward.

Velvet-Underground

Promo photo of Velvet Underground (and Nico). L to R: John Cale, Nico, Lou Reed, Sterling Morrison, Maureen Tucker

The details may be slightly different, but the general picture is accurate. It was the final show by the Velvet Underground before joining Andy Warhol‘s  pop-art multimedia show Exploding Plastic Inevitable, part of his Factory ensemble of experimental artists, junkies, transvestites, and high-society dropouts. He teamed the foursome with an exotic, beautiful European chanteuse named Nico. In 1966, after a whirlwind tour of the states, Warhol financed recording of their first album, and it was released the following year… to little acclaim, and practically non-existent sales.

But in the last 50 years, THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO has come to be regarded as one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll records ever made, and essential to any respectable record collection. The band’s name (lifted from a porno paperback found in a recently vacated apartment) is now regularly associated with adjectives like “daring,” “uncompromising,” “revolutionary,” and “influential.”

Why is this record so important? (Brian Eno famously said that only a few people bought the record when first released, but every one of them formed a band: David Bowie, Patti Smith, Jonathan Richman, Deborah Harry, Jim Carroll, Czech President Vaclav Havel, and a few others). It’s not a stretch to say that the Velvets procreated glam rock, art rock, punk, alternative, industrial noise, and maybe even rap (don’t laugh… listen to the title track of the group’s second album, WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT).

Along with leader Lou Reed’s insightful lyrics – an unholy marriage between Raymond Chandler and T.S. Eliot – the music on this album set the band apart from everyone else in the kaleidoscopic 1960s. It was harsh, discordant, primitive, and punctuated with blasts of distortion, feedback, and effects inspired by Welsh violist John Cale’s avant-garde studies with John Cage and LaMonte Young (best exemplified in the manic eight-minute closer “European Son”).

At the same time, there were moments of folkish tenderness, as in “Sunday Morning,” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” the last two sung by Nico in a voice that sounds like Marlene Dietrich on barbiturates. “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s favorite) mixes alcohol with the downers, but the straightforward lyrics, about a shunned and lonely Cinderella (Reed’s lyrics were gender-neutral) are incredibly sad and touching.

Even before teaming with Warhol, the Velvets were testing their experimental sounds in the subculture of underground art-film New York, and Reed had already composed his most notorious songs dealing with hard drugs: “Heroin” and “I’m Waiting for the Man,” as well as the sado-masochistic “Venus in Furs.” The lyrics and two-chord makeup of “Heroin,” in particular, are as striking today – and maybe even more relevant – as when they were first written:

‘Cause when the smack begins to flow

And I really don’t care anymore

Ah, when that heroin is in my blood

And that blood is in my head

Then thank God that I’m as good as dead

As with all great songs, “Heroin” has a musical structure that expertly punctuates the words and song theme. The song starts slowly, but gradually speeds up. Two simple guitar chords with a pounding bass drum, like a slow heartbeat. A sinister, single-note drone (Cale’s electric viola, strung with guitar strings) enters and becomes increasingly loud (the chemical pulsing through the blood?). The heartbeat grows faster, the guitar and drums become more frenetic… then slow down… then build again.

At the song’s climax, Cale’s viola goes completely berserk, right when Reed (in Dylan-ish talk-sing) begins confessing about “dead bodies piled up in mounds” and “thank your God that I just don’t care.”

Drug addiction is one of the tragedies of modern times. Fortunately, I don’t have experience with hard drugs, nor the harrowing lifestyle around them, so I can’t vouch for how accurate “Heroin” is in its depiction.  But of all the many rock songs devoted to the subject, this song, for me, seems the most frighteningly accurate (and there are many who agree with me).

Even the less celebrated songs on this album are noteworthy, and provide the glue that holds things together. “There She Goes Again” is the closest thing to pop here, and it kicks off with a halting ten-note intro borrowed from the soul shaker “Hitch Hike” by Marvin Gaye. “Run, Run, Run” is a chugging little vignette of New York City street life, a sort of taste test for the group’s later 17-minute juggernaut “Sister Ray” (WHITE LIGHT/WHITE HEAT), and it’s filled with Reed-patented dysfunctionals with names like Teenage Mary, Margarita Passion, Seasick Sarah, and Beardless Harry.

And “Black Angel’s Death Song” – the song that ended the Velvets’ brief nightclub period – is an inscrutable, imagistic poem, probably written while Reed was an English student at Syracuse University. With a classic, typically menacing Reed vocal, Cale’s viola, and a sound effect like an ejaculating air hose, this is a song that’s primarily concerned with mood, and it grows more appealing over repeated listenings.

Andy Warhol, Elvis Presley, and Lou Reed

I asked a question earlier, but I don’t think I adequately answered it. There are a LOT of reasons why this record is so special. But if I had to sum it up in one word, I would use the word “honesty.” You take it or you leave it. There’s no bullshit here, unlike in so much other “popular” music.

Other musical artists – I won’t mention names – have crassly exploited shock effect and darkness for commercial reasons. But they’re poseurs. Unlike Lou Reed, they don’t possess any empathy for the people they sing about, nor a belief in their ultimate redemption. Reed wasn’t singing about caricatures and stick figures. He was empathizing with real people that he actually knew. Or that lived inside him.

If you haven’t yet heard THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO… I envy you, because it will shake your musical world a little. When I first heard this record, it was like discovering Dostoevsky after a diet of Dr. Seuss. It sounds trite, but the Velvets helped liberalize me. It was like crossing a bridge into a new territory of sounds, attitudes, and ideas. With his later songs, like “Jesus,” “Lisa Says,” “New Age,” “Sweet Jane,” and “Pale Blue Eyes,” Reed seemed to be sending personal postcards to his listeners (and I was one of the lucky recipients).

But this album is where it all started.

Hollywood and the Oscar Dilemma (Re-Post)

The Oscars

(The Academy Awards are threatening again.  Every couple years I devote a post to this subject.  But since I rarely watch new movies anymore, and have sworn off most awards ceremonies, I’m recycling this essay from two years ago.  Most of it, I think, is still relevant.)

Last Sunday occurred the 87th Academy Awards, or “The Oscars.” According to television’s Nielsen ratings, it was the 5th lowest rated Oscars telecast since ratings began in 1974. Some people blame the lackluster collection of nominees. Others blame Neil Patrick Harris, whose new career is hosting awards shows. Maybe it was the flat comedy sketches, or the abundance of musical numbers.

The awards ceremony was controversial even before it happened. Film critics and others seemed almost feverish in digging into their pockets for their race and gender cards. I’m not sure why. Seems to me Hollywood is typically ahead of the rest of the country in matters of diversity. And the awards aren’t supposed to be about political correctness, anyway, but rather quality.

But that topic is for a whole ‘nother article, so I’ll fold my cards.

 The (Academy Award) ceremonies are a meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons” – George C. Scott, who declined his Best Actor award for “Patton” in 1971

There are numerous award ceremonies devoted to the art of cinema: industry awards, audience awards, critics’ choices, and festival presentations. They stretch worldwide, popping up in countries as Hollywood liberal as Pakistan, Lebanon, and Iran. They range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Being an unabashed critic of everything, one of my favorite cinema awards presentations is the Golden Raspberry Awards, popularly known as the “Razzies.” These awards are presented the day before the Oscars, and they honor the worst films of the year, as voted by 650 journalists, industry bigwigs, and film nuts. This year’s big Razzie winners were the film “Saving Christmas,” and actors Kirk Cameron (“Saving Christmas”) and Cameron Diaz, a double winner (!) for “The Other Woman” and “Sex Tape.” Congratulations on your bad work, Cameron! And to you, too, Cameron!

The Razzie Award, honoring the worst in Hollywood

And in researching this essay, I learned there’s even an awards ceremony for adult movies: the X-Rated Critics Organization (XRCO) hands out an annual “Heart-On Award.” But, of course, I wouldn’t know about XRCO or their award.

But let’s stick with the granddaddy of them all: the Oscars. Why have they lost so much appeal? I’ll offer three reasons:

1. They’ve become too political. I’m not talking about Left vs. Right here, although there is a hefty amount of PC (see above).  No, I’m referring to campaigning and back scratching.  Today, it’s about who you can schmooze in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS). Studios, producers, directors, and actors start campaigning for nomination even before their films are wrapped. So one not only has to do good work, one also has to market just how good you were. In 2004 the ceremonies were bumped from late March and early April to February. Why? In part, to shorten the film ad campaign and lobbying season! Movie buffs are becoming increasingly hip to the gratuitous politics of Hollywood, and it disgusts them almost as much as Washington D.C.

2. The glamour has waned. There’s still a lot of glitz (the silly red carpet thing is getting as big as the awards themselves). But it’s all prefabricated, and there’s no more “Wow.” I think much of this has to do with the proliferation of leisure technology. Netflix, YouTube, DVDs, I-Pads, smartphones, etc. have given the average film buff easy, unlimited access, anywhere and anytime. This has removed a lot of the mystique and intrigue from our film heroes. We used to have movie “stars.” Actors like Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando, Katherine Hepburn, Judy Garland, Bette Davis, Vanessa Redgrave… they were not only masters of their craft, they were also gods and goddesses. It was because we didn’t see them everywhere. If we wanted to bask in their glow, we attended a theater to watch them on the “silver screen.” Nowadays, ticket prices preclude going to the theater, and the actors are no longer exalted stars. They’re little blotches of marketed pixels that pop up at the click of a computer mouse or the TV remote. It’s no coincidence that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, J.K. Simmons, is best known for an insurance commercial.

red carpet

Red carpet ceremony

3. The quality has deteriorated. I know, you’re probably thinking “There he goes again, living in the past.” Actually, I don’t live there, I’m just able to cast a wider net due to my age, and the range of films I’ve been lucky and able to see. And I really believe that the major motion pictures coming out of Hollywood today (not so much shorts, documentaries, and independent films) rely more and more on quick and easy clichés. It’s all about marketing. Producers know what gimmicks will work to either sell tickets, impress critics, or both. Revealing dialogue has been usurped by the one-liner. Biting satire has been appropriated by the sustained scream. As the late, great film critic Roger Ebert said, “Hollywood is racing headlong toward the kiddie market. Disney recently announced it will make no more traditional films at all, focusing entirely on animation, franchises, and superheroes. I have the sense that younger Hollywood is losing the instinctive feeling for story and quality…”

Sadly, I don’t think much will change as far as my list above. The campaigning to get nominated will continue, leisure technology and stay-at-home entertainment will only increase, and big-budget films will get more gaudy, predictable, and stupid.

I have no regard for that kind of ceremony. I just don’t think they know what they’re doing. When you see who wins those things—or who doesn’t win them—you can see how meaningless this Oscar thing is” – Woody Allen, who won Best Director for “Annie Hall” in 1977

allenBut even if style finally does triumph over substance, it would be nice to have an Oscar ceremony where I don’t have to continually punch the mute button or switch the channel (sorry Oscar, but Neil Patrick Harris making irreverent comments while posing in his tighty whities just isn’t funny).

A couple years ago I wrote about Oscars’ 10 Most Unforgettable Moments. Perhaps we could use a few more of these unforgettable moments, which at least added some color to the pomposity and ridiculousness. Maybe Brad Pitt lecturing us about the military-industrial complex. Or Helen Mirren doing one-armed pushups. Or Jack Nicholson removing his sunglasses.

At the very least, if you really want this spectacle to be a comedy routine, find a host who’s actually witty. Where’s Billy Crystal? Is Bob Hope still available??

 

bogie

Humphrey Bogart. “Your memory stays/It lingers ever/Fade away never”

 

 

Carnival of Familial Souls

 

fair

In my last post, I talked about my grandmother. Sadly – and I don’t fault her for this – she was merely a sheet of newspaper that the wind blew toward me one November day. But since I’m plucking walnuts from the family tree, I might as well keep plucking, and climb out on another limb.

These kinfolk, to my knowledge, never experienced forced incarceration like Grandma. But they may be even more interesting, if only because they managed to circulate amongst “normal” society. It’s no coincidence that three of them share the same bloodline as Grandma.

All are long deceased, I’m not using last names, and there are no living descendants, so I shouldn’t need to worry about a libel suit. If their ghosts visit me some night of the full moon… well, if I can avoid strangulation or suffocation, their specters will provide enthralling material for a future nonsensical longitudes post.

Grandma had an older sister named Blanche. According to my dad (who heard it from his dad), Blanche was even more “peculiar” than Grandma. My aunt claims that Blanche used to cook meals while dancing around in her wedding gown. Since the name Blanche is French for “white,” this makes sense. Maybe it was the only garment she owned, because my mom says that, after she drove her husband to his death by suicide (my aunt’s theory) or a broken heart (my dad’s theory), she was reduced to scrubbing toilets in Penn Station (for you younger readers, I’m not referring to the fast-food chain, but a historic passenger terminal in New York City).

But this was during the Depression, and I’m sure a lot of people felt lucky to be employed scrubbing toilets.

Blanche had two children, Virginia and John. John, like his heartbroken and/or suicidal father, died mysteriously at a young age. John fancied himself a poet. My dad knew him and said he was “a real oddball.” But my dad hated non-pragmatic things like poetry, so maybe that’s why he considered John an oddball.

After John died, his mother (Blanche, the toilet cleaner with the wedding dress) paid for a large copper caricature of him to be embedded in his tombstone, accompanied by the words “The Forgotten Poet.”

(If this is getting too weird for y’all, I won’t be offended if you stop reading).

Virginia (John’s sister) was the most normal one in the family. But even she had her idiosyncrasies. She deliberately married a gay guy named Bown (the silent film buff who was in my last post). Now, I’m all for gay marriage. But I’ve never heard of a gay man and a straight woman exchanging vows. Do people do that? What the heck was he thinking?

Like my piano-playing grandmother and failed-poet cousin, Virginia and Bown were artsy-fartsy. But their domain was theater.

They ran an acting studio in Manhattan in the 1950s. Some of their plays were written by Bown, who seems to have been sort of an Ed Wood of New York theater. One of the plays was a one-character oddity starring a woman who was both deaf and blind. This was a very compassionate and progressive thing for Bown to attempt. I’m assuming the actress wasn’t also dumb. Now that would have been really avant-garde.

Even though this “Professional Actors’ Studio” was off-off-off-off-Broadway, a few big names did pass through. One of the students was television and movie star John Forsythe. So was either Ann Blyth (MILDRED PIERCE) or Anne Baxter (ALL ABOUT EVE)… one of those Annie B’s, anyway. And Kirk Douglas briefly was a guest instructor. Probably very briefly.

My impression is that Bown was the mastermind behind this troupe, and Virginia merely acted. Or, at least, tried to. I Googled their studio once and came across a review by noted theater critic Kenneth Tynan of a production of theirs. Virginia had the lead role in the play. Tynan referred to her as a “rock-like creature.” The play was called “Queen Lear.”

(Folks, I’m not making this stuff up).

This acting studio seemed to exist in a New York City nether world: it aspired to artistic greatness, but was permanently stuck in mediocrity (similar to this blog… hey, at least we aspire). There’s little evidence it even existed, other than one or two small newspaper blurbs. Bown closed it down abruptly one day after he caught several of his actors backstage smoking marijuana. It wasn’t so much that he objected to the drug’s illegality. It was because the incident deeply saddened him: he felt that acting was the highest “high” in life, and one shouldn’t need anything else.

Later on, Bown amassed one of the largest collections of silent films in the country. It’s now preserved at Phillips Exeter Academy in Massachusetts.

carnival-of-souls

Well, there you have it. Bown, Virginia, Blanche, and John the Forgotten Poet. Somewhere I’m sure they’re happily munching popcorn together while watching one of Bown’s favorite silent films.

It may sound like I’m poking fun at these people. But I honestly don’t mean any harm. I’m sure all were very nice (maybe even Blanche). I just find curios like these interesting, and they definitely make for great conversation. Every family seems to have at least one member who’s a little “off:” the free-spirited uncle, the bawdy aunt, the self-destructive sibling, the perverted grandpa. I just happen to have several.

Whether or not I’m a similar curio, or whether or not I’m evolving into one, I’ll leave for others to judge.

the-end

Elegance in a Shuttered Room

john-tupper-family_virginia5

I saw her only once.

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1970. At my aunt’s house in New Jersey. After dinner, Bown showed one of his silent movies. She sat like a tiny sparrow on the sofa. But there was a large elephant in the room. Why was everyone acting so strange?

I didn’t see her the first 12 years of my life, and never again the last 10 years of hers.

When I was very young, I used to ask my parents about her. “Why don’t we ever visit Grandma?” And they always told me that she was “in the hospital.” It wasn’t until my teen years, when I was in my dad’s study and accidentally-on-purpose read an opened letter that she’d written to him, that I finally understood why she was always “in the hospital.”

Ghosts crowd the young child’s fragile, eggshell mind.

My grandmother was born in 1895 in an upscale section of Harlem. Her mother was descended from one of the first families of New York, and her father from early Massachusetts Puritans. She must have begun piano studies at an early age, because she eventually became so talented, she was invited to tour with composer Victor Herbert. But it never happened.

In 1918 she married my grandpa. A more unlikely pairing you couldn’t imagine. He was from central Pennsylvania farm stock and 15 years older. He was a practical New York businessman, she a musical romantic. According to my aunt, he’d had a date with her older sister, Blanche, at Delmonico’s. Afterwards, Blanche invited him to her Harlem brownstone to meet the family. He took one look at the younger sister and was besotted. Poor Blanche.

She gave birth to my dad in 1922, and my aunt two years later. Maybe raising two children was too much for her. She probably had something that she’d inherited. Could it have been from her grandfather, the Civil War naval captain who was court-martialed? No one knows.

In 1930, she entered the hospital for six months, but was released. A year later she entered for good. Permanent vacation. Imposed communal living for the next 50 years. Jeezus. That’s a lot of piano-playing in the day room.

My dad never talked about her. She wasn’t at his wedding. Early in his marriage to Mom, he told her “I never had a mother.” But here’s a quirky upside: her absence brought him very close to his father. “Dad could have left her, and nobody would have faulted him. My dad adopted his dad’s strength of character.

I remember a few things from that Thanksgiving Day. I had a Craig reel-to-reel tape recorder, and I taped conversations in the kitchen while the turkey roasted. Goofing off with my cousin and brothers. Dallas playing Green Bay. George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” all over the radio.

And there are one or two photos of the meal. Bown, married to Aunt Blanche’s daughter, wearing a pin-striped suit, sitting erect with his hands folded on the table, a benign smile on his face. Grandma is at the head of the table, with her hands up to her face, her mouth open, as if surprised, tired, or confused. Her hair is gray and frizzy. She looks small and insignificant. And I remember the other adults, including my noble dad, treating her gently but awkwardly, as if she might break any moment.

Then came the movie. I remember the dark, claustrophobic living room with the thick, Persian rug, and the musty but pleasant smell of old things. A step into antiquity. The movie was “The Thief of Bagdad,” starring dashing Douglas Fairbanks. It was released in 1924, six years before Grandma went into exile.

I remember Bown acting as master of ceremonies and working his bulky black movie projector. He gave a florid introduction, then intermittent narration. Mainly, I remember his politeness to Grandma. “What do you think of the motion picture, Mrs. Kurtz?” he must have asked her three or four times. And Grandma – her eyes blinking in the glow from the movie screen, with God knows what fantastic thoughts and images ricocheting through her broken brain – gave the same response every time:

“Very elegant.”

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