JOY: THE LEGACY OF JERRY HERMAN

There’s just no tune,

As Exciting

As a show tune,

In 2/4.

Jerry Herman was born on June 10th, 1931.  At an early age, he fell in love with the musical theater.  Living near the NYC theater district his parents were frequent theater goers and when they came home they were filled with the music of the show they had seen.  Jerry’s parents were also amateur musicians and their home was filled with music of the theater.

When Jerry was old enough his parents brought him along on their theater excursions and much to their surprise on arriving home Jerry was able to play much of the score he had heard that night.  Jerry was born with Broadway in his blood.

The lyrics quoted above are a line from one of Jerry’s earliest songs.  In a way, it is the philosophy behind every song Jerry ever wrote.  To him, every song was about the character singing it.  And into each song, he infused joy and enthusiasm for life.  Even in his most grumpy characters such as Horace Vandergelder in Hello Dolly, you can’t help feeling that deep down he’s a cuddly bear when he sings “It Takes a Woman.

Jerry Herman began writing for Broadway at a time when Broadway was at its zenith.  The 50s and 60s brought show after show and each was memorable.  Many are still being revived on Broadway or are perennially used in community and regional theater.

This was the world of Rodger’s and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Meredith Wilson, Kander and Ebb.  A young Stephen Sondheim was just getting started and Ethel Merman and Mary Martin were both queens of Broadway.  This was the Broadway Jerry Herman entered.  Broadway would never be the same.

I came across Jerry Herman in an off-beat kind of way.  My mother loved musicals and would play records and sing at the top of her lungs every Saturday while cleaning.  These records were always musicals.  The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof, Camelot, Funny Girl, and The Music Man were played almost every week but no Jerry Herman.  I was not fond of musicals at the time.  I was listening to The Archies and The Partridge Family.  The theater bug bit me in the 8th grade when I was cast as Harry Macafee in our school’s production of Bye Bye Birdie.  I heard applause for the first time, just for me, and it changed something deep inside me.

From then on my record money went to original cast recordings and Hollywood soundtracks.  Always looking for a bargain, I was a teenager on an allowance, I would delve into the bargain record bins at Jerry’s Records, a store in the Bazaar of All Nation in Clifton Heights PA.  One day I found a copy of the movie soundtrack for Mame in the bin.  I had never heard of it but it starred my favorite actress Lucille Ball and it was $1.99.  I bought it and ran home.  I played that record over and over.  Everyone was telling me that Lucy can’t sing but I only heard gold and though I knew nothing of the story I fell in love with the music and lyrics of Jerry Herman.

Mame was amazing.  I soon found a script for the Broadway show in our local library so I understood where the songs fit and knew the story.  Eventually, I was able to order the book the musical was based on Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis.  I had to special order it at Walden Books and I got it but nothing compared to the music and lyrics of Mame.

Mame is probably the most uplifting and life-affirming musical ever written.  Jerry had already had two successful shows on Broadway before Mame.  The first was Milk and Honey the musical, as I understand it was about a group of older American Jewish women looking for husbands in The Holy Land or Israel.  Two wonderful songs came out of that production, the title song Milk and Honey and a lovely ballad called Shalom.  All the songs can be listened to by following the Youtube links.

Shalom Shalom,

You’ll find Shalom,

The nicest greeting you know.

It means bonjour, salute and skoal,

And twice as much as hello.

It means a million lovely things,

Like peace be yours welcome home,

And even when you say goodbye,

You say goodbye with shalom.

After that Jerry was asked to turn  Thorton Wilder’s play The Matchmaker into a musical.  That musical graced the stage and won the Tony Award for best musical in 1964.  The show was Hello Dolly but more on that later.  Back to Mame.

Mame came to Broadway in 1966 and also won the Tony for best musical.  Mame was played by Angela Lansbury and is the story of Patrick Dennis an orphan who goes to live with his only living relative Mame Dennis in New York City.  The opening of Mame takes place in the streets of New York where Agnes Gooch, Patrick’s nanny, and Patrick are looking for Mame’s Beekman Place apartment.  They sing a prayer to St Bridget and arrive at Mame’s as she is throwing a lavish party.  Mame appears at the top of the stairs blows a bugle and sings It’s Today

Light the candles.

Get the ice out,

Roll the rug up,

It’s Today.

Though it may not be anyone’s birthday,

And though it’s far from the first of the year,

I know that this very minute,

Has history in it,

We’re here!

This song set the whole tone of the show and gives Mame’s philosophy of life.  In this song, she sings the spoken line that is in all of Mame’s stage and movie adaptations. “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”  Mame raises Patrick for as long as she can using this state of mind.  It becomes more clear in the song Open a New Window.  This song is a joyous anthem about taking chances and never saying no to whatever life offers you.  It feels good, it’s upbeat, and when you listen you want to go with Mame to wherever she leads.

If you follow your Auntie Mame,

I’ll make this vow, my little love,

That on the last day of your life,

You’ll be smiling the same young smile,

You’re smiling now my little love,

If you wake up every morning,

And you pull aside the shutter,

Ans promise me that these will be,

The first words that you utter.

Open a new window,

Open a new door,

Travel a new highway,

That’s never been tried before.

I could go on all day about the wonderful songs in Mame.  My Best Girl, Bosom Buddies, We Need a Little Christmas, If He Walked into My Life and of course the title song Mame.  But this whole blog would end up being only about that one show.  This was my first introduction to Jerry’s music and what I didn’t know was there was more.

There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Lucille Ball’s portrayal of Mame.  Some felt her voice and her age worked against her playing the role.  I’m not sure that’s all true.  My biggest problem with the film is the stuff they cut out and the script.  After finally seeing the stage production and hearing the original Broadway cast album a lot of the story was left out and or changed and this was not necessary.  The song That’s How Young I Feel was cut and it was key to describing Mame’s feelings as an older woman as she sings it when Parick has grown up.  The script just didn’t work for me in parts.  One change that I did enjoy was Lucille doing her best to get out of a store where Mame has been fired from wearing one roller skate.  It was hilarious and true Lucy antics.

For a long time, Lucille’s portrayal as Mame was all I knew and I loved it.  When VHS tapes came out and you could buy movies to own them for the very first time.  My first purchase was Mame.  The movie will always be dear to my heart.

I have to admit I keep hoping every year that NBC will decide to do Mame Live as they have done with The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, Grease, The Wiz, Hairspray, and most recently Annie.  NBC usually airs these television events at Christmas and Mame would be perfect, especially with a Christmas song embedded in the show.  That is also my hope for the next Jerry Herman show we’ll discuss Hello Dolly.

Hello Dolly opened in 1964.  It is the story of Dolly Levi a widow who has decided to “rejoin the human race.”  She decides to accomplish this goal by marrying Horace Vandergelder the leading citizen of Yonkers New York.  The musical takes place in 24 hour time period it has a prelude in NYC continues in Yonkers, goes back to NYC, and ends in Yonkers.  Not bad for a day.

It took me a while to catch on to Hello Dolly.  I wasn’t interested at all at first.  All I knew of the show was the title song sung by Louis Armstrong and recorded in 1964.  I was three years old and didn’t care much for it.  My grandmother would be playing it while we visited her and it wasn’t a kid’s song.  It took me a long time to find out where that song came from.

For a moment I want to take some time and talk about Jerry Herman the human being.  Jerry’s songs were always joyful and filled with life.  He came from a family that gave him that but he didn’t change when it came to being successful.  Some folks when they make it big in their chosen professions don’t have time for others but Jerry was not like that as illustrated here by my good friend Richard Tyley Jordan.  Richard has written the definitive book on the Character of Mame Dennis and it was over this book that Richard and I met.  He is also the author of The Polly Pepper Mysteries which are great fun and have been called a cross between The Carol Burnett Show and Murder, She Wrote.  Here is Richard’s story of his first meeting with Jerry Herman.

When I began writing my nonfiction book But Darling, I’m Your Auntie Mame!, I sent a letter to Jerry Herman requesting an interview. I didn’t actually expect a response. Why would the legendary composer of Hello, Dolly!, Mame, Mack and Mable, and La Cage Aux Folles, among other Broadway hits, deign to offer an audience to me, an unaccomplished kid (I was actually in my 30s, but I felt completely inferior compared to the great man)? I was equally terrified that he’d grant my request and find that I was an interloper in his rarefied world. I just happened to be in New York doing research for my book when I got the call. Yes! Jerry Herman would see me on Friday afternoon at 2:00! My world was spinning! 

When I arrived at Jerry Herman’s brownstone, I was greeted by his amiable assistant, who guided me to the left and down two steps, and into Jerry’s wood-paneled office. A set decorator couldn’t have designed a more perfect room for showcasing career memorabilia of Tony Awards, Grammy Awards, framed gold records, and posters from Mr. Herman’s many Broadway triumphs. The assistant asked if I’d like a tea or coffee (“No, thank you.” I was too edgy as it was.) and said, “Mr. Herman will be with you shortly.” And then the moment arrived! Jerry Herman … in-person … appeared in the doorway, brandishing a friendly smile and a warm handshake. I was immediately instructed to drop the “Mr. Herman” formality and call him “Jerry.”

Jerry sat behind his desk (with a portrait painting of Carol Channing as Dolly Levi looking down from the wall behind him), and I sat nervously in a brown leather wingback chair. Neurotic me was trying very hard to appear intelligent and sophisticated so that he wouldn’t realize I was just a fan on a mission to chronicle the success of author Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame character. What I remember most about that afternoon is how gracious he was to me. For those two hours, we talked about how much he loved Mame and composing the songs for that show and how it was actually one of the easiest shows he’d ever worked on. But we also talked about how deeply and personally disappointed he was with Lucille Ball’s film version of his hit musical.

I guess I did something right that afternoon because when we concluded the interview, it was Jerry himself who offered to write the introduction to my book! This amazing man, whose songs I had admired my entire life, offered to personally contribute to my labor-of-love project! I’m still overwhelmed by his generosity. That’s the kind of man that Jerry Herman was. I’ve rarely known anyone more magnanimous. I will always be grateful to Jerry Herman, not only because he believed in my book and penned the introduction to it, but also because he gave me the soundtrack of my life:

I Am What I Am

If He Walked into My Life

It Only Takes a Moment

It’s Today

I Won’t Send Roses

Put On Your Sunday Clothes

Time Heals Everything

Although my book is long out of print (maybe I should release an e-book version), I am forever and deeply indebted to Jerry Herman, one of the finest men and talents I’ve ever known.

I don’t think much more can be said of the man.  He was not only talented but he had a spirit of generosity to both see and nurture talent in others.This can also be seen in Angela Lansbury’s autobiography where she tells of Jerry so wanting her to get the role of Mame in the original Broadway cast that he coached her on how to sing the songs he wrote before she auditioned.  This is the kind of man he was.  Because of this generous, beautiful spirit music poured out of him.

Hello Dolly is a show about second chances.  It’s a show about coming out of the fog and realizing you’re alive and life is worth living.  It’s a show that tells you in no uncertain terms that you can begin again at any time of life.  I of course saw Dolly first as a film starring Barbra Streisand.  It may not have been my best introduction to the show but it was fun nonetheless and had a deep impact on my life.  The music and lyrics are just as amazing as what Jerry would soon write for Mame but the theme was different.  Mame is about knowing life is wonderful and teaching that lesson to the upcoming generation.  Hello Dolly is about forgetting that life is wonderful and having to relearn the lesson.  This didn’t mean much to me as a young man but it means a whole lot now.

In 2018 I had the privilege of seeing Bernadette Peters in a revival of Hello Dolly in NYC at The Schubert Theater.  Watching Miss Peters was a revelation of what this show means.  It’s for and about older people starting again.  Anyone can start again, but there are plenty of movies and plays about young people starting again, not so many about our older generation.  Right now, my generation.  I came away from that show not only singing beloved songs but knowing I could start again.  It took awhile but this blog is part of that second chance for me.

The songs of Hello Dolly are full of joy.  I Put My Hand In, It Takes a Woman, Put on Your Sunday Clothes, Dancing, Before the Parade Passes By, Etiquette, It Only Takes a Moment and of course the title song Hello Dolly.

Carol Channing the original Dolly in the musical tells the story of recording the cast album.  In the recording studio the whole cast couldn’t contain themselves and they burst into the kicks while singing the title song.  It has been said that the cast recording of Dolly is one of the few that makes you feel like you’re in the theater.

In the show Jerry’s Girls, the title song gives a list of many of the actresses that played in Jerry’s shows.  One of those names is Lucie Arnaz.  I reached out to Miss Arnaz about how she feels about performing the music of Jerry Herman.  Miss Arnaz replied:

“Jerry writes about joy and, as a performer, it’s a vacation to sing his music.”

And that is about the best thing that could be said.  Singing Jerry’s music can be a balm for me when I’m down.  The songs from Hello Dolly are infectious.  You can’t help singing along and if you have them in your heart you can’t help singing them when life has kicked you in the gut.

One such song from Hello Dolly is a sort of anthem for second chances.  The song is Before The Parade Passes by

Before the parade passes by,

I’m going to go and taste Saturday’s high life.

Before the parade passes by,

I’m going to get some life back into my life.

I’m ready to move out in front,

I’ve had enough of just passing by life.

With the rest of them.

With the best of them.

I’m gonna hold my head up high.

I’ve got a goal again,

I’ve got a drive again.

I wanna feel my heart coming alive again.

Before the parade passes by.

Can you think of better words to say to the world that you still have something to offer, that you still count, and that you are part of the parade ready to do your bit and find a full life?  In this respect, the roles of Dolly and Mame are very much alike.  Both women are driven to find the best out of the life that they have and to have joy in that journey.

After his stellar success with Hello Dolly and Mame Jerry would write several more shows for the Broadway stage some successful and some not so successful.  Even the shows that weren’t so successful had memorable moments and great music.  One such show was Mack and Mabel.

Mack and Mabel opened in 1974 and told the love story of silent movie director Mack Sennett and silent movie star Mabel Norman.  It opened with two Broadway legends as the leads, Robert Preston and Bernadette Peters.  It had wonderful music.  Movies were Movies, I Wanna Make the World Laugh, Look What Happened to Mabel, I Won’t Send Roses, Wherever He Ain’t and the ballad Time Heals Everything.

This show only played 91 performances which had to be a big letdown for the entire team.  I have read that the show’s ending with Mabel’s death due to drug addiction was hard for the audience to watch. With all the upbeat music the show brings you down in the end.  I have also read that the ending was reworked and is now not as dark.  I have never seen a production of this show but I would love to.  It does continue to be performed in regional and community theater.  The cast album is great and I enjoy listening to it.  No matter the ending you can’t help feeling happy while listening to the music.

Jerry’s Next Hit would come in 1983 with his show La Cage Aux Faux.  La Cage is about two gay men who have raised a straight son who now wants to marry.  I have not seen this show but the son wants his dads to act a bit more middle of the road which is hard to do when you consider that the dads own a club that features men in drag and one of them is the star performer.

The title in English translates to The Cage of Fools and it was originally a French film, but not a musical.  After the musical opened an American version of the film was produced called The Birdcage and it starred Nathan Lane and Robin Williams. 

La Cage Aux Faux was a big risk for Jerry and Broadway.  There had been plays about gay men before but they weren’t lavish musicals and this would be a big production.  It also opened at the beginning of the AIDS crisis and gay men were again being attacked for who they were.  But despite all of that La Cage was a hit and won the Tony award that year.  To add to its honors the show was revived twice in 2005 and 2010 and won the Tony for best revival both times.

There are two stand-out songs in La Cage.  One is almost a campfire song and Jerry himself describes it as such.  The song has a great melody and is easy to learn.  The song is The Best of Times.

The Best of Times is now,

What’s left of summer but a faded rose,

The best of times is now

As For tomorrow, well who knows

Who knows,

Who knows.

So make the moment last,

And live and love as hard  as you know-how,

And make this moment last,

Because the best of times is now

Is now

Is now.

The other song is an anthem for gay men and for everyone else who feels misplaced in society.  It is a song for the marginalized, for people of color, for the odd kid at school that gets beat up because he’s different.  The song is I am What I Am.

I am what I am

I am my own special creation.

So come take a look,

Give me the hook or the ovation.

It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,

My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.

Life’s not worth a damn,

‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am.”

I am what I am,

I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.

I bang my own drum,

Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.

And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,

Why not try to see things from a diff’rent angle?

Your life is a sham ’til you can shout out loud

I am what I am!

In 1996 Jerry Wrote the words and music for a Christmas television musical called Mrs. Santa Claus.  It was aired only once as far as I know but it had a terrific cast and storyline and of course incredible music.  The leading lady was Angela Lansbury as Mrs. Claus.  She feels neglected sometime around 1900 and decides she knows a better route for Santa to deliver his toys.  She takes the sleigh in order to go around the world only to be stranded in NYC on Avenue A where she meets and is befriended by many locals.  In the few days she’s there she reunites a family, softens the heart of an evil toy manufacturer, and strikes a blow for women’s rights.  All to the sound of some terrific and clever music.

 My favorite song from the show is Almost Young a declaration of you’re as young as you feel and Angela proves it to a bunch of children who work in the toy factory

I’m holding back the hands of time
And though a fool might say I’ve passed my prime
My heart has always clung to staying almost young

A few grey hairs, A few gold teeth
Can never hide the kid that’s underneath
The kid whose hopes are hung
On staying almost young

My walk is swift and sporty
My disposition is evergreen
Why say I’m over forty, I’m over seventeen

I’ll still have all the speed it takes
When all the others have applied the brakes
And when my knell has run

I’ll still be struttin’ and kickin’
Like some little chicken
I’m almost young

Considering Miss Lansbury was 71 when she made this musical you can see she was still pretty spry if you follow the Youtube link.

I haven’t said much about Jerry’s Love songs and there were a good many.  It Only Takes A Moment from Hello Dolly, Time Heals Everything and I Won’t Send Roses from Mack and Mabel, Loving You from the film version of Mame.  My favorite is from Mrs.  Santa Claus and it’s sung by a young couple who Mrs. Claus helps bring together.  It’s called, We Don’t Go Together at All.

{Sadie}:
Look Marcello…
A girl with a drive and a fellow with a dream
Are like pickled herring with vanilla ice cream
So, as unromantic as my words may seem
We don’t go together at all

My big loud mouth and your quiet ways
Are like August evenings with December days
Are like corned beef and cabbage topped with mayonnaise
We don’t go together at all

We’re like chicken soup
And a slice of ham

{Marcello}:
We’re the big bad wolf
And the little lamb

{Sadiе}:
Like a picnic lunch
That’s ruined by a sudden squall

{Sadiе}:
We don’t
{Marcello}:
No we don’t

{Both}:
No we don’t go together at all

{Marcello}:
Like an overcoat
And a hot July

{Sadie}:
Like a bowl of borscht
And a pizza pie

{Marcello}:
Like if I asked you
To come to the policemen’s ball

{Sadie}:
We don’t

{Marcello}:
No we don’t

{Both}:
No we don’t go together at all
{Sadie}:
An onion roll at a Mayfair tea
Like a march by Sousa in a minor key

{Marcello}:
So forget all the magic that was meant to be
We don’t go together at all

{Marcello}:
A stable boy and a suffragette
Are about as peculiar as a pair can get

{Both}:
So it’s, oh, such a pity
That we even met

{Sadie}:
We don’t go together at all


I love the cleverness of the lyrics to this song.  It also has a catchy tune and it’s fun to sing either the girl part or the boy part or both.

This is truly the longest blog I have ever written.  I hope I captured the joy of Jerry’s music and the inspiration he has given to…well too many people to count.  If you are unfamiliar with Jerry’s work the CDs are still available to buy and Spotify has all of his original cast recordings and soundtracks as well as many many different artists that have covered his songs in one way or another.  If you can catch a performance of any of his musicals spend the time and money it is well worth it.  Mrs. Santa Claus is available on DVD and well worth adding to your holiday film collection. The film Mame is available on DVD and electronically on platforms such as Vudo.  Hello Dolly is available on DVD and electronically.  It is also available to stream on Disney+.

I’m leaving you with Jerry’s first hit.  It was used in the show and to advertise lunchmeat and as a presidential song for Lyndon Johnson.  I don’t know if it helped but he won the 1964 election.  For the election it became Hello Lyndon, For Oscar Mayer it was Hello Deli, for me it will always be Hello Dolly. 

Hello, Dolly,
Well, hello, Dolly
It’s so nice to have you back where you belong
You’re lookin’ swell, Dolly
I can tell, Dolly
You’re still glowin’, you’re still crowin’
You’re still goin’ strong
We feel the room swayin’
While the band’s playin’
One of your old favourite songs from way back when

Golly Gee, fellas
Find her an empty knee, fellas
Dolly’ll never go away again.

It is my Hope Jerry Herman will never go away too.

MPL and the estate of Jerry Herman have graciously given me permission to use the lyrics to Jerry’s songs. This author is grateful and I hope the article is a source of joy for many.

JUDY

Had Judy Garland lived she would have been 100 years old on Friday, June 10, 2022.  Tragically, she passed away in 1969 at the age of forty-seven.  Judy is a show business legend and while delving into that legend I found some disturbing things.  About Judy?  Yes. But more about how we in the 21st Century treat our legends.  When I Googled Judy here is what came up as to what people wanted to know.

What Illness Did Judy Garland Have?

Why did Judy Garland have no money?

What was Judy Garland’s net worth at death?

What was Judy Garland’s cause of death?

This is what Google thought most people wanted to know about.  I have read more than one biography of Judy Garland.  She has fascinated me since I was a teenager.  I know about most of the struggles in her life and yet when I read some of the articles online they reported other tragedies which her biographers did not report and I am sure Judy herself would have preferred they remain private.

What is it about us as a society now that we have to take our legends and our heroes and tear them down?  Why do we need to lay bare every sin of every person?  To quote Lord Grantham on Downton Abbey, “We all have chapters in our lives that we would rather not have published.”  And yet as soon as anyone in our current media culture gets an ugly fact they can’t wait to publish it.  This is what I will not do today.  Yes, Judy Garland had problems.  Big Problems.  The ones we all know about are enough.  A battle with drugs, several broken marriages, people who embezzled her money, and much more.  It is out of those problems that there emerged a performer who has been hailed as the greatest talent of the 20th century.  This talent, this woman, this gift is what I will write about today.

Judy was born Ethel Gumm on June 10, 1922.  She was the daughter of a vaudevillian couple Frank and Ethel Gumm who had given up life on the road to manage a movie house in Grand Rapids Minnesota.  In addition to showing movies the Gumms featured Vaudeville acts between shows frequently using their daughters, Francis had two older sisters, Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia, as part of the entertainment.  Francis joined her sisters at the ripe old age of two singing “Jingle Bells’ with her sisters.  The Gumm Sisters were born.

In 1926 the family moved from Grand Rapids to Lancaster California.  Reportedly this move was precipitated because Francis’ or Judy’s father had homosexual inclinations and he had been found out.  In Lancaster, The Gumm sisters began to work the vaudeville circuit. Because their name, Gumm, seemed to attract laughter from audiences, and at one time they were billed as The Glum Sisters they were encouraged to change their last name.  The name Garland was chosen and Francis chose to change her first name to Judy.  This was late in 1934.  Francis now Judy was 12 years old.

In August of 1935, The Gumm Sisters disbanded when one of the sisters left to get married in Nevada.

Also in August of 1935, Louis B Mayer the head of MGM sent Burton Lane to the Orpheum Theater in LA to hear the remaining two sisters ‘ act.  Judy was brought to the MGM studio along with her father for an audition.  Judy sang “Zing Went The Strings of My Heart and an old Yiddish song called Eli Eli.  The studio immediately signed her to a contract with MGM and the magic began.

Unfortunately for Judy success wouldn’t come overnight.  She was 13 when she was signed to MGM and basically too old to play a child and too young to play an adult.  And though she wasn’t by any means unattractive she did not and never would have the glamour girl look of the 1930s.  MGM signed her but wasn’t sure what to do with her.

Judy’s big opportunity came when she sang You Made Me Love You to Clark Gable at his birthday party.  The studio was so impressed by her performance that they recreated it in the movie Broadway Melody of 1938.  In the film Garland sang to a photograph of Gable.  Here is the YouTube link: https://youtu.be/5OrCar5qFsQ

After the success of You Made Me Love You MGM made the historic decision to team Judy with Mickey Rooney.  The pair would make many films together including Love Find Andy Hardy, Babes on Broadway, Strike Uo The Band, Girl Crazy, and Babes in Arms.  Many of these films were dubbed Backyard musicals as in the story a bunch of kids always getting  together to put on a show.  Judy would star and also be featured in two other films Everybody Sing where she shared the bill with Fanny Brice (Funny Girl) and Billie Burke who would join Judy later in the film that would make her a star.  She starred in the very Irish film Little Nelle Kelly with songs written by George M Cohan.

Judy’s first triumph came in 1939 when MGM starred her in The Wizard Of Oz.  Judy would play Dorothy Gale a Kansas farm girl who gets knocked on the head during a tornado and dreams of an adventure in the Land of Oz.  In her dream, she must face her very real nemesis Elvira Gultch who, in the dream becomes the Wicked Witch of the West.  Judy was not MGM’s first choice for the role of Dorothy.  MGM wanted Shirley Temple for the part but 20th Century Fox would not release her to MGM.  The studio reluctantly went with Graland but they struck gold.

The funny thing about The Wizard of Oz, the film was based on the book by L Frank Baum.  In the book, the adventure is not a dream and there were a total of 15 Oz books written by Baum.  MGM could have gone on and made a small fortune if they had not made the film a dream by producing sequel after sequel much as they did with The Thin Man.  In the books, Dorothy, her Aunt Em, and Uncle Henry all go to Oz to live and there is a happily ever after for everyone.  Toto too.

The Wizard of Oz would give us the most famous of all performances by Miss Garland, the song Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  The song was written by Harold Arlan and Yip Harburg.  It comes in the story at a point where Dorothy is in trouble but her family and friends are too busy to help.  She’s told to go find a place where she won’t get into any trouble and walking with her dog she sings one of the most haunting songs of the movie musical.

Somewhere over the rainbow,

Way up high,

There’s a land that I heard of,

Once in a lullaby.

This song and the film is almost every child in the United States’ first memory of movies.  Though the film was a critical success in 1939 it wouldn’t be totally appreciated by the public until the 1960s when it would air yearly on television.  I was born in the early 60s and my earliest memories revolve around watching this wonderful story.  When I was very young I remember hiding behind my father when The Wicked Witch of the West appeared.  The Wizard of Oz was almost part of the rite of passage for being children.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow would be recorded by other artists over the years. It was in 1986 that Barbra Streisand even came close to capturing the same magic.  In 1986 Barbra Streisand lovingly and with amazing grace recorded the song in a concert filmed and recorded at her home called One Voice.  The concert was for 500 guests but it was a fundraiser for Streisand’s causes.  After that, many artists including Mandy Potimkim and Matthew Morrison recorded the beloved song.  None equaled Judy Garland.

Somewhere Over The Rainbow is haunting and hopeful.  It’s a song of yearning for a better place.  It speaks to the deep yearning in all of us for a world that’s different from the world we live in.  A world where dreams really do come true.CS Lewis wrote, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”  This is a desire that seems universal to all people.  Somewhere Over The Rainbow gives words to that desire and if we are willing we each can find our way to that other world.

Garland’s movie career would explode after The Wizard of Oz.  No longer the teenaged misfit she would give a wonderful performance as Esther Smith in Meet Me in St. Louis and she would give The Trolley Song, The Boy Next Door, and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas as gifts to the world.  Her other stand-out performances came in films that include, For Me and My Gal, The Harvey Girls, In The Good Old Summertime, Summer Stock, Easter Parade, and her acclaimed performance as Esther Blodgett in A Star is Born. 

In Summer Stock she co-starred with Gene Kelly and in a way, it was a return to the old days of the backyard musicals.  Judy plays Jane Falbury the owner of a farm that is struggling to make ends meet.  She reluctantly permits a group of Broadway performers to use her barn as a stage and Jane is drawn into the life of show business.  Judy’s break out performance is in the song Get Happy.  This is a revival-type song that reminds us to ‘get happy and ready for the judgment day.”  For me, it frames in music the joyous return of Jesus Christ where he will lead us across the river.

Garland would only be in two non-musical roles.  She starred in The Clock in 1945 with Robert Walker and as a featured character in Judgement at Nuremberg in 1961.

Judy was not idle when she was not making movies.  She did radio shows, went on publicity tours with her movies, and spent many hours in the recording studio.  There is a long list of musical soundtracks and albums that are to her credit.  When her film career ended due to her ill health, the star began concert tours that spanned Europe and the United States.  She played both The London Palladium and The Place Theater in NYC.  In the mid-sixties she desperately wanted to take over the role of Mame on Broadway when Angela Lansbury left but the producers, due to her ill health and her known erratic behavior on movie sets during her last years, could not trust her with the role.

Judy had a long history of drug abuse and mental health issues.  It was both of these that led to her death on June 22, 1969, just 12 days after her 47th birthday.  On that day, I believe, one of the stars in heaven went out.

Judy Garland worked for 45 years in the entertainment business.  She gave her heart and soul to her performances and she had a voice that was unlike any other.  She could belt like Ethel Merman but she could also sing very tenderly like Doris Day.  It’s been said that Judy only had to hear a song once to have it down.  In that way, she was a musical genius.

Many of us love Judy Garland and her many films.  We feel we know her and when we are old enough to understand how young she was when she died we feel a great sadness in ourselves over her passing.  I don’t know what would have happened if Judy lived.  I would have liked her to play Mame in the film version of that wonderful musical.  I think she would have recorded more and become very proud of her children Liza Minnelli and Lorna and Joseph Luft.  In her elder days, she would have been a Great Dame of the Golden Age of Hollywood.  With many of us listening to her stories.  That wasn’t meant to be.

I could have said a lot more about the life of Judy Garland.  She never had it easy.  I believe that out of her pain came something beautiful and something that will be remembered for generations to come.  Though we lost her too soon, we will have her forever.

Spider-Man

It was to my great delight to find out last week that Spider-Man No Way Home won the Kid’s Choice Award for best live-action movie.  As I wrote several weeks back the latest Spider-Man film should have received an Oscar nod for best picture.  But Hollywood, as we saw at the Academy Awards Ceremony, is not only full of snobs but a bad indicator of a good movie.  Kid’s on the other hand see the truth, sometimes to the dismay of adults as in The Emperor’s New Clothes.  They live more” in the moment” than most adults do and therefore can see more than most adults can see.  If a kid says something is good or bad, it’s best to pay attention.

Stan Lee got his start in comics while still a teenager.  He went to work for Timely Comics as a writer somewhere in the late thirties or very early 40s.  Lee worked for Timely for 20 years until that fateful day when his boss asked him to come up with a Superhero team comic book to go head to head with DC’s Justice League of America.  Lee teamed up with Jack Kirby and The Fantastic Four was born.  The Marvel Legends began.

What many people don’t realize is that Lee was ready to give up working in comics just before that fateful day.  He had enough writing thinly veiled comics that copied whatever was popular at the time.  In other words, if Zorro was popular, Lee would write a Zorro-type character and sell it.  Anything for the company to make a quick buck.  Really The Fantastic Four was a to be a copy of The Justice League, except for the fact that The Fantastic Four acted like a team only when they had to, they were no Justice League.  The League had honor and high moral standards.  Heck, they were indeed super friends.  The Fantastic Four could just barely tolerate each other.  They brought true human problems and emotions, including resentment and despair,  into comic books and the industry was changed.

But I digress.  As stated Lee was ready to quit comics.  He had begun to talk with his wife about leaving the industry and beginning work on what he hoped would be the great American novel.  His wife convinced him to give comics one last chance and in that last chance, The Fantastic Four was born.  Lee took every bit of the creative talent he had in writing the story of the Fantastic Four.  Maybe he figured this was his last shot so he’d go out in a blaze of artistic glory.  Instead of going out Lee began to soar to heights of popularity and stayed there until the day he passed away.

After The Fantastic Four Stan and Jack created the Incredible Hulk which, believe it or not, did not sell well at the beginning.  The Hulk, also, wasn’t green when he first made his debut, he was grey.  But things did turn around.  Grey turned to green and we have the Hulk that we all know and love today.

Lee came into his third inning.  He was up to bat.  Would he strike out or would he hit a home run?  OK, enough with the sports metaphors.  Amazing Adult Fantasy had reached its fourteenth issue and it was not doing well.  Adult: would mean that a bit of sleaze was probably in this magazine but Stan Lee himself tells us that the comice book was a collection of fantasy monster stories usually about five pages long.  The stories were written by him and illustrated by Steve Ditko.  The magazine was about to be canceled after the publication of its fifteenth issue and Lee decided to experiment. 

Stan Lee was a big reader of the Pulp Magazines that were published in the 30s, 40s, and 50s.  Many germs of comic book characters that would come later can be found in these ten-cent novels in a magazine.  The pulps’ main characters included The Shadow, Doc Savage, and one that Lee particularly liked The Spider.  The Spider was just an ordinary guy who was an expert marksman.  He disguised himself with fangs and a hunched back.  His true Identity was Richard Wentworth the last in the line of a wealthy family.  He began his career after saving a college friend from criminals.  Lee liked the name The Spider but he had other ideas than a man who was good with a gun.  Lee was about to break more comic book rules.

Teenagers were not the main character in almost any comic book.  There are a few notable exceptions.  Superboy, stories of Superman when he was a boy and then a teenager.  Captain Marvel Jr and Mary Marvel were both teenagers when they got their powers but unlike Billy Batson when he became Captain Marvel by shouting SHAZAM turned into an adult Mary and Junior stayed teenagers.  The last is Kid Eternity a teenager who was murdered but is granted the ability to come back and fight crime by being able to call up all the heroes from the past.  Aside from these most teenagers were sidekicks to other Superheroes.  Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Wonder Girl all fall into this category.  Even Johnny Storm, The Human Torch of the Fantastic Four was not on his own though eventually, he would gain his own solo stories.

Lee decided to take a chance and make his next superhero a teenager with all the problems that come with being a teenage boy.  He kept the name Spider but dropped the marksman and gave the young man the abilities of a Spider.  With those thoughts in mind, Spider-Man was born.

Lee didn’t have much hope for his new character.  He didn’t start him off in his own magazine as he did with The Fantastic Four and The Hulk.  He starred him in the last issue of Amazing Adult Fantasy only now the word adult was dropped from the title and Spider-Man made his first appearance in Amazing Fantasy number 15 in August of 1962. Lee’s first two creations were illustrated by Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko was the artist for Amazing Fantasy and Lee stuck with him for his new creation.

Not many people need to be told the origin story of Spider-Man.  A teenager, Peter Parker, who is a bookworm and a student of science is shunned by his peers.  On attending a demonstration of radioactivity, a spider who has absorbed some of the radiation during the experiment, bites Peter giving him the abilities and proportionate strength of a spider.  Peter, after learning of his new abilities decides to cash in on them and make himself rich with his new talents.  He hopes to be able to help his elderly Aunt May and Uncle Ben who had raised him.  He designs a costume for himself to conceal his identity, web-shooters to gain another spider ability and begins to make TV appearances.  He also becomes arrogant and a bit self-centered.  When a thief runs by him in the hallway of the TV studio Peter lets him go and tells the police that it is their job to catch crooks, not his.  On his way home that night there are police cars at his home.  His Uncle Ben has been killed by a thief he found in the house.  The police tell Peter that they have the killer trapped in an old warehouse.  Peter immediately dons his costume and goes after the killer himself.  Peter does nab the guy but on catching him realizes it is the same crook he let run by him in the studio.  His guilt overwhelms him as he feels responsible for his Uncles death.  He remembers something his Uncle Ben once told him, “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

Stan Lee says in the book, The Origins of Marvel Comics, with the publication of Amazing Fantasy number 15 and the story of Spider-Man out of his system, Lee went back to working on his new superstars.  Lee essentially forgot all about Spider-Man.  It would be months before it was realized that Amazing Fantasy #15 was a best seller and the reason had to be Spider-Man.  There was a swift meeting held and The Amazing Spider-Man comic magazine number 1 made its debut in an issue dated March of 1963.

Spider-Man has entertained us now for 60 years.  He has starred in several different Marvel Magazine titles and is probably one of the most iconic heroes of all time.  Spider-Man is to Marvel what Superman is to DC, their most recognized character and almost a symbol of the company itself.  Spider-Man like Superman has appeared in almost every form of entertainment.  In television shows, both live-action and animated, and movies also both live-action and animated, novels based on the character, a newspaper strip, and a Broadway musical, the only thing Spider-Man did not get is a radio show.  Spider-Man was born a bit too late for that.

Spider-Man broke down all kinds of barriers in his 60 years and continues to do so.  The comic book character took on many of the social issues of the 60s and 70s and made an impact.  I well remember being affected by Peter’s best friend Harry Osborne having a drug addiction.  It helped keep me on the straight and narrow.  There were also gut-wrenching stories like the death of Peter’s first true love Gwen Stacy at the hands of The Green Goblin.  There were also some joyful tales including Peter’s marriage to Mary Jane Watson an event that took place in the comic book, the newspaper strip, and at a live ball game in NYC.

Spider-Man continues to entertain us today.  His movie adventures are now reaching millions of people and his comic books are still enjoyed.  As I stated at the beginning of this blog, it did my heart good to see Spider-Man No Way Home win The Kid’s Choice Award for the best live-action movie.  I hope that the film will pick up more honors in the months ahead.  It’s also my hope that The Academy of Motion Pictures begins to see that movies based on comic books or children’s literature or animated films all have artistic value and should be placed in the best films category.  To me leaving these movies out, movies that the people love is a disgrace.  A movie does not have to be filled with sex, over-the-top violence, and foul language to be a good film.  It has to have a solid story well-formed characters and great acting.  The Marvel movies have all of that.  DC we are waiting for you to catch up.

The Academy Awards

Let’s start by saying I am not, nor have I ever been, a big fan of award shows.  I do like the spectacle and the sometimes-amazing musical numbers.  When it comes to The Tony Awards, I enjoy watching the scenes from different nominated shows because it is unlikely, I will see them on Broadway.  It’s a glimpse into a place I get to less than once a year.  Award shows in general just don’t seem quite right to me.  One person’s art is another’s garbage so how can an award show be objective?  Who’s to say what makes any art form great?

The Academy Awards are also known as The Oscars, a term I will use from now on, used to be at least fair in their award shows.  These days I don’t see it as fair at all especially with our new world of political correctness.  Political correctness seems to be something everyone hates and yet no one wants to do anything about.

I believe in equal rights for every person on this earth.  I believe that we should all be able to pursue those things that make us happy.  I believe that we should work in the field that we are gifted in.  I believe that every person is entitled to dignity and respect.  And I believe that everyone should be able to believe in what they choose to believe.  Every person has to grapple with their beliefs and then live with the outcome of that battle.

I don’t believe that we should forget or erase the past.  I don’t believe Columbus Day should be replaced by Indigenous People Day.  I believe there should be an Indigenous People day it just shouldn’t cancel out Christopher Columbus, who though a flawed man, like we all are, still did an amazing thing that I am reaping the benefits of today.  You see for me it’s not either-or but and.

This brings me back to The Oscars.  In 1958 Auntie Mame was nominated for best picture.  Auntie Mame is a comedy about a madcap aunt raising her orphaned nephew.  It’s a great film was a terrific cast and great performances.  The movie didn’t win.  It was a comedy and it was rare for comedies to win an Oscar but it was in the running now you never see a comedy in the Academy Awards.  Making people laugh seems unimportant to those who make these decisions.

In 1966 The Oscar for best picture went to The Sound of Music.  In 1965 both My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins were nominated for Best Picture.  My Fair Lady won but Julie Andrews took The Oscar home for best actress.  All three of these movies were family-friendly and were beautiful films.  Could you see any of them winning an Oscar today?  Of course not.  Not many films today that win Oscars are family-friendly.  Very few even get nominated and that is a tragedy.  We keep talking about needing diversity in our culture and that is absolutely true but diversity does not have to be serious or violent or sexy.  It can and should be fun exciting and humorous.  We need serious films with strong endings to teach us about life and the fact that it’s hard.  No one gets out without some bumps and bruises but life is also funny and joyful and warm and cuddly we need our films to express all these things and those that do this well should be given an Oscar, After all, it was Auntie Mame who said, “Life is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death.”

This brings us to the nominees for this year’s Oscar for best picture.  This year’s nominations are not as bad as the last few years.  There really is diversity in tone and subject matter.  It was great to see West Side Story on the list and Dune, a Sci-Fi epic was a complete surprise to me.  The rest were films I am less impressed with but that is a matter of taste.  There is just one problem with this list.  One movie that checked every box that makes a movie great was snubbed by The Academy.

This movie was well written, filled with both action and suspense.  It has a great cast and had humor as well as tragedy.  The film was loved by almost everyone who saw it.  It got good reviews and ranked at 96% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.  It has also won a Golden Tomato award.  It is still in theaters and is slowly overtaking the films that have grossed the most amount of money.  The film I am talking about is Spiderman No Way Home.

Spiderman No Way Home would have been up for best picture 60 years ago without a doubt.  It has everything a movie should have and then some.  Even surprises that no one was expecting but were wonderful to see as the story unfolded.  So what happened to us.  Why is this film not Oscar-worthy.  I’m not sure I know.  Still, I’ll take a shot at it.

I think the Academy has become a group of politically correct snobs.  They don’t see that life can be fun and that Superheroes, who are part of our modern mythology have a long-standing and respected place in our society.  There are college courses on comic book heroes and though originally a form of entertainment for children is now a form of entertainment for adults.  The characters are complex and interesting and the fact some of them have been around for more than eighty years proves that they have something that our world needs.  I think that is hope.

Today’s world doesn’t seem to have much hope.  This is reflected in some of our TV shows, our books, and our films.  Superhero movies provide hope because good always triumphs in the end.  Disney films do the same thing.  As did the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and three films that were done in The Chronicles of Narnia.  Only one of these won best picture and that was The Return of the King the third part of The Lord of the Rings the first two parts were never even nominated.  Movies need to give us hope again.

It all comes back to story.  We are all a story have I have stated before.  We are our own story but we are also part of a bigger story that God began to write when he created the earth and everything on it.  Our movies and our books and TV shows and comic books are all ways for us to find our place in our own stories.  Are we the heroes or are we the villain?  Are we the one who disaster strikes or are we the one who saves the day?  The answer to these questions is yes, we are all of these.

Let me give you an example of how stories have affected my life.  Back in 1972, a television show premiered on the CBS network.  That show was The Waltons.  I was 11 at the time but the show became a family favorite.  The lead character John-boy the eldest son became a hero to me.  He had to wear glasses to read and I had just been given my first pair, he was creative and he wrote, and it was watching that series that inspired me to become a writer as well.  I wrote all kinds of things and for a little while in 6th grade started the first and only school newspaper my elementary school ever had.  The Primos Press.  I did this with my best friend Charlie Meo but behind all of it was John-boy Walton.

Stories shape us.  They help guide us and help us make decisions.  The process may not be conscious but it’s there.  We are formed by our own story and by the stories of others both fictional and real.  This is why we watch movies and it’s why we need those movies that are honored with an Oscar to be films that show the things we need to know.

Remember that movies are subjective so what I love will not always be what other people love.  But when a vast majority of people enjoy a film, that film deserves an Oscar nomination.  Spiderman No Way Home is such a film.  And it is a sad reflection on our culture that it was ignored.

Christmas Memories

I think was blessed to be born in the early part of the 1960s.  Technology had not come near the point where things were handed to you instantly.  Fast Food restaurants did not exist yet and microwaves and cell phones were in the far-flung future.  Because of this life was slower and could be savored and we did even as children.

Television was still in its infancy in the early 60s.  Sure it had been around a while but it was still black and white and though color sets existed they were out of the reach of most people.  We had three channels to choose from NBC, CBS, and ABC.  Eventually, we would have PBS and three UHF Channels for my area they were channels 17, 29, 48.  It was on these channels that the reruns of shows that had gone off the air would play as well as a plethora of old movies.  That was it and I don’t think all of that was established until I was at least 6 or 7.

So what did that mean?  It meant that we had to wait.  There were no streaming shows when we wanted to see them.  There was getting hold of the newspapers TV listings and scanning what was on that week to plan what you were going to watch.  And if you missed it that was too bad.  Never was this more true than at Christmas.

I was the youngest of four children and at Christmas time I became the ruler of the TV set, or at least my family let me think I was.  I was born just as the great Christmas shows were being made for the first time.  I was three When Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer first went up against the Abominable Snowman.  Mr. Magoo had already captured the world with his version of A Christmas Carol and so many were to come.  A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty The Snowman, The Year Without A Santa Claus, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, The Little Drummer Boy, and so many others.  I would grab The Sunday TV supplement every week, as soon as I learned to read, scanning for these yearly events and hoping my family didn’t have to go out the night they were aired.  If we did, it would be a whole year before I could see them again.  I was pretty lucky.  I don’t think I missed any of them except Rudolph once when I was in the hospital with an eye injury.

Anticipation, which ultimately is the theme of Advent, was in the heart of every kid I grew up with.  Not anticipation for spiritual things, that comes with growth and maturity, but anticipation for the fun and joyful things of Christmas.  In some ways, it was good practice for when we grew up and awaited Christmas for its true meaning.

But we didn’t wait just for kids’ shows.  There were other more adult shows that we waited for.  Bing Crosby’s yearly Christmas show, the same for Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and the now almost forgotten King Family.  The whole family gathered around the set for these treats presented to us by the three networks.

Then there was that special night.  My brother Vince would usually spot it first in the TV listings.  The night the movie White Christmas would air.  White Christmas was not a kids movie, it is a full musical that kids can be charmed by but also can be loved by parents.  So every year until the family began to go our separate ways all six of us sat around that TV and watched this beautiful movie unfurl.  That time will never come again but it is sweet to remember.

The family watching White Christmas led me to even more Christmas movies.  Things that were being shown but the rest of my family had little interest in.  Movies such as Holiday Inn and Meet Me in St Louis soon became more yearly favorites.  When a new version of Miracle on 34th Street was shown starring Sebastion Cabot and David Hartman I was hooked and wanted to see the original.  I had never heard of It’s A Wonderful Life until Marlo Thomas remade the film switching the gender roles and calling it, It Happened One Chrismas.  Eventually, these made-for-TV movies made me want to back to view the original and they all became favorites. I directed a stage version of It’s a Wonderful Life in 2000 it remains a lovely memory.

Still, we had to wait every year for these treats.  Watching television was not the only thing that made Christmas special.  I remember going out every year to find the perfect Christmas tree.  At first, it was in local lots where people were selling freshly cut trees, as we grew older my family began to drive out to Christmas tree farms where we would cut down our trees.  By then my brother and sisters were married and it was a caravan that would go to these places.  Stopping at Burger King for a quick lunch and then coming home to hot turkey rice soup and meatball sandwiches that mom had warming in crockpots while we were away.

Then there was the tree decorating.  No one was more of a perfectionist than my father when it came to how the tree looked.  It had to be straight as an arrow before one light or ornament could be placed on the branches.  And the lights, this was still back in the time when if one light had blown none of the lights would come on.  You then had to spend as much time as it took to find the dead bulb.  There were more Christmases with dead bulbs than without.

After that, we kids generally took over looking for our favorite ornaments to hang on the tree.  We had a nice variety of the delicate glass balls, homemade ornaments that my brother had done, and some store-bought figures.  My favorites were Santa’s eight reindeer with Rudolph in the lead.  Those needed to be spaced nicely so it looked as if they were flying around the tree.  My family were tinsel people and my dad again took charge of that,  Tinsel had to be placed delicately on the tree almost one strand at a time.  It took forever. when I learned about garland and you only had to drape it around the tree, I thought I had been given the Holy Grail of Christmas.

Christmas was family time, but not just our immediate family.  I had cousins and aunts and uncles and second and third cousins and we all got together on Christmas night, not just once but three times.  My father had two sisters, My Aunt Mary and my Aunt Dolores.  My grandmother, my father’s mother (My grandfather had died before I was born) would alternate  between her three children where she would go on Christmas day for dinner.  Where ever she was the whole family would descend on that house for dessert first.  After that, we went to the two other houses for dessert making it a three dessert holiday.  Actually, it was four desserts as we had dessert with dinner too.  We kids had a blast because there were still gifts to be received at each of the Aunt’s houses.  I liked going to my Aunt Mary’s and Uncle Steve’s best.  She had a wonderful bakery at the top of her street and she always had mini Danish and coconut cream pie which was my favorite.  I got it once a year as mom never made it. That is not to say Aunt Dolores didn’t outdo herself. At her house, there would be delicious stromboli and Christmas punch made with soda, juice, and a tub of sherbert.

Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve had another wonderful tradition that fascinated all the kids and most of the adults. In their basement, there was an enormous train display. It had mountains and tunnels and trees and all sorts of things to delight the mind of a child. I don’t know where the tradition originated and who was most responsible, my Uncle Steve or his eldest son Steven or if it was a yearly team effort. I do know that Steven kept up the tradition as best as possible in his own home. Trains weere a big part of Christmas. At our house there would occasionally be a set wrapped around the bottom of the tree. But nothing I have ever seen compared to that wonderful set in my aunt and uncle’s basement.

Christmas eve was a day of preparation, as a little kid I remember going to midnight Mass with my whole family.  The Mass was said in Latin up until 1966 so I understood very little of it.  It was, however, still beautiful to me.  There was a solemness in the church that I could feel but also great joy and anticipation.  In those days our church had the whole town of Bethlehem laid out in a special display, I remember filing past this to catch a glimpse of the tiny baby in his manger.  I couldn’t wait for that moment.  At that moment I knew Christmas had come.

I had been to see Santa and I made sure, one way or another a letter got written to him.  In those early days, my family had a custom of meeting my dad in Center City Philadelphia for dinner and to see the amazing light show at Wanamaker’s a prestigious, though now gone, department store.  We would take the train in town and meet Dad at the station, we would then proceed to a restaurant called The Pub and then on to Wanamakers.  The light show was amazing and if I was lucky I could sit on the eagle statue’s base, which was in the middle of the hall.  I am happy to say that Macy’s bought the Wanamaker’s building and keeps the light show going every year.

After the light show, it was on to Santa’s village for the walkthrough display of animated dolls in Christmas scenes, and at the end of the village was the man himself waiting to hear about my list of toys and questioning my behavior of the previous year.  Like I would ever tell him I had misbehaved.

There was still a last treat for the littlest of children.  Between the ages of maybe 3 and 10, you could ride the in-store monorail.  This monorail took you all around the toy department and let you see from above all the things you could wish for.  It was exciting because it was a ride that, after I was 5 years old, I could go alone.  I think that was the first thing I could ever do for myself.  I don’t think there was anything like it in any other store in the country.

Christmas morning came early, even if we did go to Midnight Mass.  Little kids don’t need a lot of sleep and I’m pretty sure I was the first one awake.  I shared a room with my brother Vince who was seven years older than me.  He was the second one to be awake on those mornings. 

I don’t remember eating breakfast on Christmas morning at all.  I do remember piles of gifts for all four of us under a lovely tree.  My parents were generous to us, for me, in the name of Santa.  Not everything was there but there was never a reason to feel disappointed.  There was enough to keep you very happy.

There wasn’t much time to play with my new treasures.  Shortly after we opened the gifts and got ready for the day we got whisked off to my other grandmother’s house for another round of gift-giving and receiving.  Sometimes my grandfather, who was a chef, would make apple dumplings with warm vanilla sauce and the sugar rush would begin.

And there was a sugar rush all day long.  My mother was a wonderful baker and so all kinds of cookies were made and decorated.  There were sugar cookies in Christmas shapes and raisin filler cookies that looked like little round ravioli, then there were butter cookies also pressed out into festive shapes and of course chocolate chip.  And it wouldn’t be Christmas if my mother didn’t spend hours making the Italian Pizzelle.

At dinner, which would always be a turkey (In the early years my grandfather, my mother’s step-father, would cook the bird, but as he got older my mother took over) we also enjoyed mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce from a can, until I learned how to make it myself, green beans, apple, and pumpkin pie and then, what we now call, a Jewish apple cake.  Back then it was a German apple cake.  I don’t know why.  The reason for the cake was that December the 25th was not only Jesus’ birthday but also my father’s and my mom did the best she could to separate the two.  After dinner, we sang Happy Birthday and gave him his gifts.  It was a shame that he had to do it all in one day but he took in stride and never complained.

In later years my sister’s Trish’s husband would be included in the ranks as he was born not on Christmas day but very close.  Mom would always get him a large chocolate chip pan cookie with Happy Birthday written on it from the local bakery.  A lot went on in the Roberto house at Christmas.  For the kids it was a lot of fun, for the adults I think, it was mostly exhausting.

I think the most important thing in my Christmas memories is that from a very early age I knew what Christmas was all about.  I didn’t need Linus to explain the Gospel story to me, I knew it and saw played out in church every year and every Sunday.  At an early age, I connected Christmas to Easter and in the third grade, I wrote a poem about the child who waited for death so near.  Even as a babe Jesus was both fully man and fully God.  This is the mystery of the incarnation, how God worked it all out I will never know.  I only know he did and because of Christmas and Easter, we have freedom from our slavery to sin and great joy in knowing that there is a reward waiting for us after death.

Christmas has come under scrutiny now and many want to dismiss the day.  Some folks only see the non-Christian side and just decorate trees and wait for Santa without knowing what is behind these symbols of the season.  This is very sad because these symbols, the tree, the holly, the wreath, Santa, the TV shows and big screen movies and everything else is pointing directly at Jesus.  But it is as the saying goes, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.”  If you are interested in the great traditions of Christmas may I point you to the books by Ace Collns.  He has done his research well and in three volumes captures just about everything you’d want to know about the holiday.

What are your Christmas memories?  I’d love to hear about them.  Please leave them in the comment section so everyone can share your joy in the season.

Magic

Magic!  What an amazing word and there is so much meaning in those five simple letters.  There is the “magic” in a child’s eyes when they spy the gifts under the tree at Christmas.  There is the “magic” that a stage magician conjures up by diverting us and seemingly makes impossible things happen.  There is the scary “magic” that real witches perform or at least claim to perform by casting spells and make potions and charms.  Then there is the fictional “magic”, the magic of The Lord of the Rings, Bewitched, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Harry Potter series, this is the magic I’m going to focus on today.  This is my own history of magic.

I guess my first exposure to fictional magic would have been the television show Bewitched starring Elizabeth Montgomery and Dick York as well as the amazing Agnes Morehead.  The premise of the series was that a mortal Darin Stevens marries a witch a fact that he is unaware of until after the marriage takes place.  When he finds out he forbids her to use her powers in the house and of course this is impossible especially with his wife’s family of witches and warlocks always at hand.  This show was cute and funny and stayed on the air for several years even after having the original Darin replaced by another actor.

The next bit of magic would have been when I was introduced to the classic film The Wizard of Oz.  The Wizard of Oz is based on the children’s book written by L Frank Baum and published on March 17, 1900.  It quick became a childhood classic and Baum would go on to write fourteen more Oz books.  These could have made a great movie series but for some reason MGM, the studio that produced the original film, made the adventures of Dorothy trying to find her way home. A dream, so no future films could be done.

There seems to be certain films everyone is afraid to touch because they are perfect the way they are.  The Sound of Music, Funny Girl, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz are four of those.  People have tried to do sequels to Oz, but they all pale in comparison the original movie which was almost flowless in its making.

The Wizard of Oz in the 60s became a yearly treat that families would gather around their television sets to watch around the Easter holiday.  My family was no exception and I remember being little and hiding behind my father whenever The Wicked Witch of The West would make her appearance.  There wasn’t a lot of magic actually done in The Wizard of Oz.  Dorothy gest to Oz by tornado.  She walks to The Emerald City and meets non-human creatures and talking animals but the only magic that is actually performed is Glinda magically having the Ruby Slippers appear on Dorothy’s feet, The Wicked Witch conjuring the poppy field and Glinda creating the snow that destroys the poppies effects.  Of course, Glinda makes her appearances in a magic bubble and The Wicked Witch rides a broom stick but that’s about it.  To compare the two there was more magic in a half hour of Bewitched than there was in the full-length movie of The Wizard of Oz.

But Oz was magical in an of itself.  A talking Scarecrow, Tinman and Lion as well as talking apple trees and colors that were brighter and more beautiful than in our own gray world made this movie a delight for our senses.  And at the end of the 1930s when America was just coming out of the depression but was on the brink of another world war, that kind of beauty and unreality was much needed by children and adults.

My next stop in my magical tour must be Neverland.  I was introduced to Peter Pan fairly young.  My mother was a big fan of musicals and when Peter Pan starring Mary Martin was aired on television in the early 60s it was a family event.

Peter Pan began as a nonmusical stage play by JM Barrie.  Mr. Barrie based his play on his relationship with three young boys and the games they would play.  Peter Pan opened in 1904 and did very well.  Mr. Barrie was already a celebrated playwright, but Peter Pan elevated him to an immortal status and is the only thing still remembered today.  Peter became so famous that Barrie, told everyone to watch Kensington Gardens for a surprise on a certain date and when London woke up that morning there was the magnificent statue of Peter in the gardens.

It was in 1911 that Barrie published the novel that told the story of his play for all the world.  He titled the novel Peter Pan and Wendy, and it is still enjoyed by people today.

Peter Pan is a difficult role, and it was decided early on that a child could not handle the work in a full length play so a woman has been traditionally cast as Peter.  In recent times in cartoons and films as well as some stage production this has changed but more often than not Peter is still played by a woman.

Peter Pan has very little magic.  In fact, the only magic we see is Peter teaching the children to fly.  We know there are fairies as Tinker Bell is a main character in the play and we know that is by thinking good thoughts and the use of fairy dust that we can learn to fly.  Bu that is the extent of the observable magic in the play.

Let’s talk about flying.  When Barrie first opened his play in 1904 Peter had only one requirement to fly.  You had to think good thoughts.  Many children left the theater with that idea in their heads and soon found themselves jumping off roofs and out of windows thinking they would fly.  This of course caused some injuries but as far as I know no life was lost.  On learning this Barrie modified his play to add fairy dust to the flying equation and the attempts ceased.  I believed a similar situation occurred in 1964 when Disney released Mary Poppins and Mary seemed to fly by umbrella to the front door of the Bank’s home.  I know my friends and I spent some time jumping from steps with an umbrella in hand, but we never got air born.

Neverland is a magic place.  It is inhabited by fairies, and mermaids.  We know from the play that it is Spring, summer, Winter and Fall all at the same time on different parts of the island.  Peter describes it as crammed with hardly any room between one adventure and another.  And of course, if you go there as a child, you never grow up.  There is magic in the very soil of Neverland.

I was transported as a child to Neverland in my dreams.  Not long after seeing the Mary Martin TV special I brought to see the Disney version of the classic story.  The problem with Disney and Miss Martin’s work is that they watered the story down quite a lot.  They took out the scary stuff and so missed some of the best parts.  In time I grew to love the book that Barrie wrote mush more than the film versions.  To this day no one has written Peter the way Barrie did.  I would love to see new stage production that left it all intact.

The fantasy that taught me how to think would begin and end with The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster.  The Phantom Tollbooth is about a bored little boy whose name is Milo.  Milo has no interest in anything until one day a mysterious box appears in his room.  The box contains a life size toy toll booth which Milo proceeds to put together.  When it’s completed Milo gets into his toy electric car and drives thru into The Land Beyond.  

Milo’s adventures in the Lands Beyond are filled with strange creatures that are magical in some ways but they only way to deal with them is to think.  There is the land of the doldrums where you get very sleepy, and can get yourself killed if you don’t wake up and begin to think your way out by reciting poetry and equations as well as using your imagination.  Milo is saved from The Doldrums by Tok a watchdog.  This is a large dog that has a clock built into his side and he guards time he especially is after those who waste time.

Milo is told the story of the Lands Beyond and knows that there are problems there that could be solved if the Princesses Rhyme and Reason could be rescued from the castle in the clouds which must be gotten to through by way of The Mountains of Ignorance. This stuff is great.  He must first get permission to save them from the warring kings of Dictionopolis and Digitopolis the kingdoms or Words and Numbers.  The kings hate each other even though they are brothers because they each believe that their own kingdom is better than the other.  In other words, words are better than numbers and numbers are better than words.

Milo has many adventures in The Lands Beyond and meets many strange creatures including a Spelling Bee and a Humbug but he eventually reaches the princesses and rescues them through the power of thinking.  When he returns home, he has a new lease on life and is no longer bored as there is always something new to learn.  This is a lesson many adults could use right now.

As I grew up so did my magic stories.  First there was my comic book heroes.  Doctor Strange from Marvel Comics and Doctor Fate from DC.  Doctor Fate came first and made his first appearance in the early 1940s in the pages of More Fun Comics.  He is Kent Nelson who, as a boy, finds The Helmet of Nabu an ancient Egyptian wizard, when he puts the helmet on, he becomes Doctor fate with all kinds of magic abilities.  Doctor Fate would fade away with the rest of the comic book heroes in the early 1950s as discussed in earlier blogs.  He would return the 1960s in the pages on The Justice League of America when DC Comics rebirths The Justice Society in the pages of that magazine.  He would eventually get his own title for a short while but for the most part remain a supporting character in the comic book universe.  With the popularity of the television series Stargirl and the reemergence of The Justice Society Doctor Fate may soon make a return.

Doctor Strange made his first appearance in Strange Tales and remains a favorite character of mine to this day.  Steven Strange is a surgeon, skilled and vain about those skills.  He cares only for money and little for the actual people he treats. An accident renders his hands useless and in seeking a cure he becomes a penniless derelict.  His search continues, however, and he makes it to Tibet where he hears of a man known as The Ancient One who may be able to help him.  He seeks The Ancient One out and finds him only discover that it is sorcery that the Ancient One believes can cure Strange.  Strange, being a man of science, rejects this and decides to leave only to discover that the Ancient One’s disciple Murdo is going to kill The Ancient One.  Strange attempts to warn the old man only to be stopped by a spell put on him by Murdo.  The Ancient One saves both Himself and Strange and Strange becomes the new disciple.  After years of training Doctor Strange become The Master of the Mystic Arts and a main player in the Marvel Comics and Cinematic Universe.

My journey in fictional magic continued.  The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Magic Kingdom of Landover, The Belgariad and The Harry Potter books all added to my magical fun and adventure.

Why does magic entice all of us so much?  Why does the idea of conjuring strike our imaginations so hard?  I think the answer lies in what CS Lewis once said.  Lewis, the author of the Narnia books said “If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  And we were made for another world.  When God created us in The Garden of Eden, he created us in a perfect world and was grooming us to be like him.  He wasn’t looking for slaves or he wouldn’t have given us the ability to choose.  But the ability to choose comes with consequences.  Adam and Eve were told they could do whatever they wanted except to eat from the fruit of one tree.  They couldn’t accept that one rule and so were banished from a perfect world into this one.  And here we remain as Lewis calls us, the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve.

But God left in us a desire for our true home.  He gave us glimpses of that home in our imaginations and in the many books of fantasy that have been written.  Whether you are a fan of The Shire or Shangri La, or Neverland or Oz all of those places are glimpses of Eden our true home and the place we all long for.

The thing is we have another act of God where in we can begin to get Eden back.  God sent his son Jesus to pay for the sins of Adam and all the rest of us.  Jesus’ death on the cross and his ultimate resurrection pave the way to the real place of magic known as Eden or Heaven.  To return to that place God asks only one thing from us and that is to believe that Jesus died and was resurrected for us.  That’s it.  This is what Tolkien called “the one true myth.” No great acts of heroism or penance are required just belief that in the work God has done.  Will our lives change after that?  Yes, they will but the change will come not as an act of payment but as an act of gratitude that comes from believing in this amazing gift.  It would be the same way you would act toward the person who showed up at your door with the keys to a brand-new house or a car.  Just handed those keys to you and said enjoy it.  We would go out of our way to show our gratitude.  This is why our lives change when we understand what God has done for us.

I will continue to enjoy the fantasy worlds that are so much a part of my life.  These worlds have added color and excitement and mystery to this existence, but they have also been a pointer.  Little by little they pointed me back to Eden and to God.

Peanuts

Peanuts

On the 19th of September Linus Van Pelt turned 69 years old.  I know this because the Charles Schulz Museum put a special post on Facebook reminding me of my favorite Peanut’s character’s birthday.  They also ran the first strip.  In that historic strip Linus is still in diapers and hasn’t even learned to walk yet.  But that uniquely shaped head and the scraggly hair definitely told you that this was Linus.

That’s true of all The Peanut’s characters.  If you go back and look at the original strips, they look remarkably different than what they would be in ten years’ time.  Ten years after that they would change a little more but not by much. Even the characters would change.  In the first strip which was dated October 5, 1950, we see three characters two of which are all but forgotten today.  Shermy, who is always the shepherd in A Charlie Brown Christmas, Patty (not Peppermint) a blond-haired girl who be most often seen with Lucy, and Charlie Brown.  These three were the center for awhile but slowly the cast would grow as Snoopy, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty Marcy, and Franklin would all join the cast as well as a host of other characters.

Charles M Schulz was a genius born in 1922 and died in 2000.  For fifty of those years from 1950 until 2000 Schulz wrote and illustrated every Peanuts strip.  If he took a vacation, he wrote strips 2 or three weeks in advance.  Not one line of a pen or one word came from anybody else.  Every strip was pure Schulz.

That’s not to say he didn’t take ideas from those around him.  Watching his own children grow gave Schulz much fodder for his strip.  Watching them at play or what they were learning in school or how they got things mixed up was him plenty of ideas.  He took outside advice to and when an African American lady wrote him asking him to put an African American child in his strip, he took the advice and Franklin was born.

One other gift that Schulz had was seeing the human experience the sad and the happy and making us laugh at it.  His strip had the capacity to make kids laugh at the antics of a beagle and adults laugh and yet ponder the words of Linus who, more often than not, was the moralist of the characters.  He saw inside of us and liked what he saw but he also knew we could be better.  It’s all there in The Peanuts strip.

Mr. Schulz was a Baptist at the beginning of his career and through out the 1950s and 1960s you will find Bible verses peppered through out those years.  Of course, the most famous moment is Linus reciting from Luke Chapter Two in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  But he could be subtle too.  There is one strip where Linus is building a sandcastle.  It was a Sunday strip, and it was panel after panel of turrets and towers, high walls, and battlements.  In the last few panels, it starts to rain and the whole thing disappears.  Linus, looking at the work he has done melting away say, “I know there’s a lesson to be learned here, but I don’t know what it is.”  If you know your New Testament you know exactly what it is.  It’s a pictorial reference to Matthew Chapter 7 verses 26 and 27 where Jesus says, “But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on the sand.  The rain came down, streams rose, and the wind blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.  This is the end of The Sermon on the Mount.

Peanuts somehow enters all of us.  I know at different times of my life I can be as crabby as Lucy, as insecure as Charlie Brown, passionate as Schroeder, Adventurous as Snoopy, as loyal as Woodstock or as wise as Linus.

For a good part of my life, in recent years, I saw myself as Charlie Brown.  The loser, the guy that had little to offer the world.  The guy that failed at life.  Like Charlie Brown too many curve balls knocked me on my back on the pitcher’s mound, but I got up and tried again.  Like Charlie Brown I sought help.  A few times I ended up with advisers that might just as well been Lucy and her psychiatric booth, but more than once I ended with councilors who could and did advise me well and I found myself back in the game again.

Physical issues knocked me down too and again I needed help to get back in the game.  And again, there were people there, professionals who knew how to advise me and get me moving.  Like Linus helped Charlie Brown see what the true meaning of Christmas is.  People helped me to see what the true meaning of life is and how to live it.

These days I think I see life as a cross between Linus and Snoopy.  I want to see the meaning behind the events of my life.  I want to have deep discussions on philosophy and faith and how each of these fits into my life.  I also want to live an adventure.  Snoopy became whatever his imagination decided he would be, A World War One fighter Pilate, A lawyer, a doctor, A skater.  You see Snoopy swimming and surfing and sometimes driving a car he is almost always at the head of an adventure and willing to take the risk of the next one.  This is how I want to live.

What is an adventure.  Thornton Wilder said that you can tell if you’re in an adventure if you look around and say, “How did I get into this?”  But he countered with that you know “There is something wrong with you when you sit quietly at home hoping for an adventure.”

Right now, life is full of adventure for me.  My journey has taken a new turn and there is much to decide in the coming months.  I have been asking myself, “how did I get into this?”  And the answer has been through no fault of my own, at least for most of it.  Regardless of how, the question now is what?  What’s the next move?  How do I solve the puzzle?  I could look on the issues I am facing and be all, “woe, is me”, or I could see each situation as an adventure.  A chance to learn and grow as a person and ultimately to be a better man than I am.  To me that’s the perfect balance between Snoopy and Linus.  Seizing the adventure and seeing the meaning and the potential behind it.

I’d like to talk a little more about Charles Schulz.  Schulz was an amazing man with an incredible mind.  His work will live on through out the ages.  Other comic strips will come and go because they are grounded firmly in the time they were written.  The political landscape of Doonesbury is not the same as we have today and so the strip will fade as its creator passes on.  The same could be said for other comic strips.  Schulz work is timeless.  He makes us laugh and hits are hearts and minds at the same time.  An example of one such strip goes like this.

Linus (Pretending he has a gun) Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown:  What are you playing Linus, cops, and robbers?

Linus No!  Bang Bang!

Charlie Brown: Cowboys and Indians?

Linus: No.

Charlie Brown: Then what are you playing?

Linus: Liberals versus conservatives!  Bang Bang!

 Now Charles Schulz passed away 21 years ago.  This strip was written in the late 50s or early 60s and it is still as relevant today as the day it was written.

Schulz was a man who struggled.  He may have been at one time the most famous cartoonist in the world, but he struggled with insecurity and depression.  And yet they never beat him.  For 50 years this man would turn out strip after strip.  All those raw emotions and self-doubt became fodder for his imagination and instead of wallowing in self-pity he made us laugh and gave us the great gift of all of his characters.

I used to think that Schulz modeled Charlie Brown after himself.  I read an early biography of him where he talked about feeling out of place while in school and felt genuinely insecure.  But when Schulz was asked what character, he saw himself as he simple answered, “All of them”.  That answer, at first, surprised me.  But after thinking about it awhile, it seemed to be exactly true not only for him but for all of us.

As people we switch hats and masks every day.  Maybe to put it better we play different parts every day.  In a days’ time I can be a son, a brother, a writer, a chef, a researcher, a movie or book critic, a house cleaner, a good friend, or a councilor.  You in a day could be a mother or a father, a hockey player or businessperson, a student, or a teacher all in a single day.  We change our roles as we go from one of our interests or jobs to another and we don’t even think about it, the change is instant, sometimes simultaneous.

Charles Schulz is basically saying the same thing as he claims he is all of his characters.  He can lose and yet still be determined as Charlie Brown of be angry and crabby like Lucy.  I guess I’m pushing this to some extent, but the universalness of Charles Schulz Characters cannot go understated.

Charles Schulz is distinctly the only Newspaper cartoonist to have covered all the ways we can be entertained.  His characters have been successful in the newspapers and on-line, in movies and television and on the Broadway stage.  His entire 50 years of work has been bound in 25 hard cover books and are available for purchase.  Peanuts is read the world over and I doubt there are many countries where Snoopy plush dolls are not available for purchase.

One night in December 1969 Charles Schulz had printed his daily strip.  A Boy Named Charlie Brown was playing in the movie theaters, A Charlie Brown Christmas was on our television sets and You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was being performed off Broadway.  Every form of media was corned by Peanuts that night.  No one has done that since.

Peanuts, Featuring Good Ol’ Charlie Brown has entertained informed and inspired us for 71 years. It has hit our hearts and our minds and our faith.  It remains popular being published every day still in print newspapers or daily delivered to your in-box.  (Since Schulz death they have been reprinting the strip from 1975 to 2000, this will end in 2025)  The Characters remain popular on television and though each of the holiday specials are available on DVD or digitally we still clamor for them to be shown on network television.  Last years rage over Apple buying the rights to show exclusively on Apple TV proves that.  The messages and the joy in those holiday specials should be free to the world as I think Schulz would want it.  Charlie Brown once said, “Life is like an ice cream cone, you have to learn to lick.”  I’ll leave you there.

The Sound of Music and Me

It was 1965, I was four years old so I don’t expect that I saw The Sound of Music when the movie was released on April first. But the movie would begin to have it’s effects on me at that early age and would continue to the present day.

First, as I stated before, mom loved musicals and I can bet she bought that album as soon as it came out. The music from that movie would permeate our house frequently.  I remember in kindergarten one of the kids brought in an album that told the story of The Sound of Music along with the songs and I think that was my first introduction to what the movie was about.  In those day movies ran for year and I know at one point I was taken to see the film.  I, of course loved it.

Sometime in early part of the 1960’s 20th Century Fox Studios was about to close its doors.  It had begun producing movies in 1935.  20th Century Fox was responsible for such films as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Miracle on 34th Street, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Robe, and The Rodger’s and Hammerstein films, Oklahoma, Carousel, and The King and I.  Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote the only musical they ever wrote specifically for film for 20th Century Fox which was State Fair.  Hard times had come on the studio, but they had one card left to play The Sound of Music.

Sound of Music was hit with people if not with critics on it’s 1965 release.  Christopher Plummer it’s male lead would call it The Sound of Mucus and for the studio it was The Sound of Money.  Starring Julie Andrews, The Sound of Music would win Best Picture at The Academy Awards and Best Actress at The Golden Globes award.  It also took the Oscar for Best Original Score.  The Sound of Music saved 20th Century Fox and helped keep them going for many years.  Unfortunately, the studio would eventually get into financial difficulty again and would be sold to The Disney Studio in 2019.

As a boy I remember being delighted by the story of the nun that becomes governess to 7 motherless children.  You couldn’t help but wonder at romping thru Salzburg, it’s mountain and meadows while singing.  The movie was a delight to both the ear and the eyes despite what age you are.

I don’t remember when I found out that Maria, Captain Von Trapp, and the children were actual people.  Actual living people.  It may have been when Julie Andrews had her own variety show on television and she had as a guest Maria Von Trapp.  I remember the interview vaguely I know you can see some of it on YouTube.  One thing I remember is Maria saying she caused much more trouble in the abbey than the movie portrayed.

This made me curious and I found in one of frequent trips to the bookstore the book that The Sound of Music was based on…The Story of The Trapp Family Singers.

The Story of the Trapp Family Singers was first published in 1949.  It is a memoir of the Von Trapp family from Maria’s point of view and is told in the first person.  Maria, I think was surprised at herself for writing this book.  At least that’s the feeling you get if your read the introduction.

The book itself is different in many ways from what would become The Sound of Music.  For instance, though Maria did upset the abbey quite a bit as a postulant that was not the reason she was sent to The Trapp’s.  She had been suffering from severe headaches and it was thought that fresh air and regular exercise would be of help to her.  When the need for a teacher for The Captain’s youngest daughter, who was also named Maria, reached Mother Superior, she felt this a good opportunity for Maria to get her health back before permanently entering the abbey.

So Maria was sent to the Von Trapp’s

It was Maria’s personality that won the other children to her.  Their were other governesses and staff in the house but the children liked Maria and yes eventually because Maria loved to sing especially folk music she taught the children how to sing together and in harmony.

The Captain too was not the ogre he is presented as in the film.  He is a man that grieved for his wife and so ran a strict household, but the children didn’t want for anything that they knew of and he loved them, frequently coming home with gifts after his absences.

The family had all become recent converts to Catholicism.  Maria opened whole new worlds of worship of God for the family.  Two chapters in the book An Austrian Christmas and Feasts in a Family go into great detail about this.  I read these two chapters each year one at Christmas and one at Easter because Feasts in a Family goes deeply in to how Easter was celebrated prior to Vatican II, the Christmas chapter in advent is self explanatory.

The first half the book  in many ways resembles The Sound of Music.  The Captain is engaged to an Austrian Noble Woman and he does break it off when he realizes he is in love with Maria.  Many things happen between his marriage and his ultimate decision to flee Austria.  Many things and many years pass.  The couple married in 1927 and left Austria in 1938.

In the years between the marriage and the departure The Captain’s children grew up.  Rupert, the oldest son was a practicing physician and was also offered a place in The Third Reich along with his father.  The Captain also lost almost his entire fortune.  He had the money in a bank but that bank went under.  The Family still had the estate but they began renting rooms out in order to secure more income.

It was during this time that they were heard singing by Lotte Lenya a popular vocalist at the time.  It was She who encouraged them to go professional and they did and were a huge success.  The Captain did not sing with his family.  He found the whole thing very painful to endure.  He would eventually get used to it as he had no choice  And ultimately because they had some international contracts being offered to them to sing outside Austria they were able to flee the country when both father and son were offered place’s in Hitler’s regime.

Before leaving Austria Maria would have two children of her own Eleanor and Rosemarie.  She would have a third in The United States as she was pregnant with her youngest Johannes when they left.

The second half of the book is about their adventures in America.  Settling first outside Philadelphia, where Johannes was born and their early concert tours.  Ultimately they found a place in Vermont that reminded them of the Austria they left behind and they settled in Stowe before the America got involved in WWII.

First they farmed the land and made their own branded maple syrup.  Eventually they would buy an army barracks that was abandoned and they ran family music camps so that families could learn to sing together.  

When the war started the two Von Trapp boys, now young men, served in the U.S. military.  The family was successful in The United States and they gave back.  Thankfully both boys came home.

The Captain died in 1947 at the age of 67.  Maria was 22 when she married him and 42 when he passed away.  In 1949 her book was published and it gained the interest of a German film maker who made dramatic film called The Story Of The Trapp Family Singers.  Maria sold the rights to her book for 200 dollars.  They were the complete rights and so it was the German film company who owned the rights when Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted to make a stage musical about the family. Maria and the family made very little money from the Sound of Music.  I think signing her rights away for 200 dollars was one of her biggest regrets.  She was given a certain amount from the film and even had a few seconds of a scene In the movie.  Ultimately that scene was cut, but you can glimpse Maria crossing the square during the Do Re Me Montage.  But you must look very carefully.

The Sound of Music opened on Broadway in November 1959.  It starred Mary Martin as Maria and Theodore Bikel as Georg Von Trapp.  It would run for four years on Broadway closing in 1963 and would be perennially done by schools, touring companies, community theaters, and Broadway revivals.  It would star many well known actresses such as Florence Henderson who took over for Mary Martin, Shirley Jones, Maria Osmond, Debbie Boone and the list could go on.  There are some lovely pictures online of the real Maria posing with the actresses who portrayed her.

But Maria’s work and her story do not end with The Sound of Music.  It was my first year of college, probably the spring of 1980, I was walking through the stores in downtown Mansfield PA when I spotted a book by Maria Von Trapp called Yesterday Today and Forever.  I bought it and devoured it.  The book was a sort of Life of Christ from a family’s point of view.  It was also a guide on how to bring Jesus into your own life.  Several years later I would find that book as a hard cover at our local library book sale.  I got it for a dime and opened it to find Maria’s signature.

Maria would go on and write a separate book about Our Lord titled When King was Carpenter.  This book was about the hidden years of Jesus, between his being found in the Temple at age 12 and his baptism by John. The book gives the details of how people lived in Judea at the time of Jesus.  Both books are marvelous treasures for a Christian and I recommend you reading them.  You feel as though Maria and her family really loved The Lord and it comes out in these books.  If you are lucky you may come across a book titled Let Me Tell You About My Savior this book is Yesterday Today and Forever and When King Was Carpenter in one volume.

Maria would write another book on her family called A Family on Wheels.  This book is about their adventures giving concerts across the United States.  It’s a fun book.  A lighthearted look at artists on the road.

In 1972 Maria would publish her last book, Maria My Own Story.  This book is a much more intimate look at the woman separate from her family.  It is her faith journey from a family of non-believers to becoming a novice in a convent.  There are many surprises in the book as well.  Maria felt in 1927 that she was more marrying the children than their father.  The fact is she brought the marriage proposal to Mother Superior and the nuns met and decided for Maria that she would accept.  Maria wasn’t expecting the marriage to be intimate.  She loved the children when she married the father but she grew to love the father as well.

Maria’s story has become part of my own faith story.  I and my housemate do an advent wreath and Advent devotionals during the time leading up to Christmas because of her books.  Maria made Jesus accessible to me.  Especially in the book Yesterday Today and Forever.  She helped me realize that Jesus can be an intimate part of my life if I choose to get to know him better.  And these books help you get to know the real Jesus not the untouchable Christ that some churches portray him as being.

The songs in The Sound of Music give me great strength to do what I need to do.  Climb Every Mountain is a hymn in some churches.  And My Favorite Things brings Paul’s Letter to The Philippians Chapter 4 verse 8 to life.  You can look that up on your own and then compare the instruction to the lyrics.  It is my go-to song when I am feeling very low.

Maria’s life, and her faith have brought much encouragement to me.  She passed away in 1987 at the age of 82.  I felt that passing.  It was like a good friend had died.  But she left a legacy for us all to find if we dare look for it and listen for the sound of music.

DISNEY

It was December 1966.  I was 5 years old, and my mother told me Walt Disney had died.  I remember going out to our side yard and wandering around feeling a little lost.  I know I didn’t really understand what death was at that age, but I knew something precious had been lost never to be found again.

Of course, I didn’t know Walt Disney and yet he had been a part of my life every Sunday night for as far back as I can remember.  He hosted what I remember, being called, The Wonderful World of Color.  We didn’t have a color TV set yet, but those shows were wonderful.  Walt led us into the deepest parts of our imaginations and taught us the about the natural world on those Sunday nights.  He was woven into my generations DNA, and I believe I am the better for it.

Walt Disney, his television shows, his movies, his music his cartoons, his toys and his theme parks have played a huge part in my life.  They are part of what makes me who I am, and they help sustain me in the tough times.

It has been 55 years since Walt Disney died and yet his philosophy and his work lives on.  It has been in danger of being lost and sometimes the quality of what was produced was not always great.  The 1980s were a tough time for The Disney Studio but somehow it always comes back.  Disney always finds a way to fly again.

I think my first Disney film that I was taken to Was Mary Poppins.  Now I’m not sure I saw the original release as I was three when the movie debuted.  But back in the 1960s a movie could play at theaters for a couple of years or make the rounds to different theaters.  The Sound of Music was running well into the 1970s from its initial 1966 release.  Movies don’t do that today.  I believe I was probably about 5 years old when I was taken to Mary Poppins, and I fell in love with a wonderful Nanny that could fly with a umbrella and walk up the smoke that came out of chimneys.  Oh, and lest I forget, cleaning out your room with a snap of your fingers was awesome too.  One thing I disliked doing was cleaning my room.

Fun fact:  Julie Andrews was given a song in Mary Poppins that she didn’t much care for.  The Sherman brothers, Richard, and Robert, decided to write a new song for her to take its place.  When, I believe it was Richard, got home from work that day his daughter came in from school and he asked her about her day.  She told him that they had received the polio vaccine on a small sugar cube.  That was all he needed.  He got in touch with his brother and soon A Spoonful of Sugar was written.  It didn’t become a radio standard but it’s part of what we like to refer as The Great American Songbook.

In reflection it’s a little funny to me that back then children and adults took a vaccine without question.  Everyone knew what polio could do and they were eager to remain healthy.  Now today I don’t think a child could be given a vaccine at school and some parents don’t allow their children to get the childhood vaccines that are necessary.  Then there is the resistance of people to take the vaccine that could save their lives right now as we face a worldwide pandemic.  With the last important vaccine, we got a song.  What will get from what we have now?

Another fun fact about Mary Poppins.  Richard and Robert Sherman were the only composer and lyricist ever to be given offices at The Walt Disney Studio.  After Mary Poppins was released when Walt was feeling down, he would call the brothers in to play Feed the Birds, another iconic song from the film.  Mary Poppins had some stiff competition at The Academy Awards that year.  It was competing against My Fair Lady.  And though My Fair Lady would win for best picture.  Mary Poppins took best actress, Julie Andrews, and best song which was Chim Chim Cheree.  I always thought that was kind of funny as in my opinion that was the weakest song in the film.

Disney continued to delight, entertain, and educate me as the years went by.  Films like The Jungle Book would follow and Bed knobs and Broomsticks, with the great Angela Lansbury, The Love Bug and The Winnie the Pooh shorts.

When Disney first acquired the rights to do Winnie the Pooh it was originally thought of as a full-length film.  When the film was completed, Walt insisted that the movie be cut into shorts and would be shown before a full-length Disney feature.  The film was broken down into Winnie the Pooh and The Honey Tree and Winnie the Pooh and The Blustery day. I know I saw both on the big screen when they came out.  But I only remember that I saw Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day with my mother before seeing The Love Bug.  In 1977 Disney released the full film The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Putting those shorts back together.

That’s something else that needs explaining.  Back in the 60s and into the 70s when you went to the movies you didn’t go to see just one thing like today.  There was always a cartoon or a short documentary first.  With most movies it was a Bugs Bunny Cartoon, but with a Disney Film you could never know what you might get but it was always good.  They even had double features where you would see two movies for the price of one.  I remember going to see a double feature Of Yours Mine and Ours and The Yellow Submarine with my family at a Drive In.  I was asleep before The Yellow Submarine got under way.

The Disney Studio had a policy with its animated movies to release them every seven years.  I was nine when Peter Pan was released again.  The film made its debut in 1953 and was magical from the start.  Of course, Tinker Bell became a Disney Icon opening all his television shows, I knew her well, but not so much Peter Pan, the boy who wouldn’t grow up.

Peter Pan changed me somehow.  It awoke in me a spirit of adventure that I never really knew I had before.  I went from playing cops and robbers and Cowboys and Indians to playing Peter Pan and the lost boys and I was Peter.  We had a creek across the street from the house I grew up in and at places the creek had banks that were four or five feet high.  That was good enough to become my home underground, like Peter’s.  A little way up the street there was a tree that was easy to climb and where you couldn’t be seen in the leaves that was my place to fly to.  When things got bad for me in one way or another, I would wish fervently that Peter would come and take me to Neverland. 

In The Bible we read Jesus saying that “Unless you become like little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”  I think that’s the great lesson of Peter Pan.  We don’t have to grow up completely we can keep the child inside of us alive and be filled with living in the present moment, finding joy in the sound water makes in a creek or stream, or being happy with simple things.  I remember when a refrigerator box gave me more pleasure than the most expensive toys.  The toy could only be one thing.  That box could be anything.  Maybe we surround ourselves with all of our adult to toys because we are lookiing for an empty box.

It was about this time that my cousin Maryann and her husband Chuck were moving to California, eventually settling in San Jose.  (yes, I am proud to say my cousin can answer the age old question, “Do you know the way to San Jose?)   The important thing was they were moving to the state that had Disneyland.

Disneyland was my big hope back in those days.  But there were six of us in the family and a trip across the country was out of the question.  We went on vacations.  We had great times down the shore in Wildwood NJ and twice to Canada.  We were even taken To Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster, but it was no Disneyland.  The reason I bring this up is because Maryanne had a younger sister, Diane, in the year that Maryann and Chuck lived in California My Aunt Mary and Uncle Steve along with Diane went to visit.

A trip by plane anywhere in those days was a big deal in our family and all of us went to the airport to see them off.  And all of us was a lot.  My grandmother my parents, myself and my brother and sisters and my other aunts, uncles, and cousins.  I knew that they were going to Disneyland and asked my cousin, more like pleaded with her, to get me Peter Pan’s autograph.  I knew he was there I saw him there on TV.  They came back and my cousin had no autograph for me.  She told me that Peter was played by a woman in the park, and she didn’t think I would want it.  I was terribly disappointed.  To this day on my trips to Disney World, where I know for a fact Peter is a boy I still hope for an autograph or at the very least a picture with my hero, but it has yet to happen.

This was the early 70s and Disney magic still filled our lives.  Angela Lansbury would play her first part for Disney in the wonderful Bed knobs and Broomsticks.  I spent many nights dreaming that I had a magic bed that could take me anywhere I wanted to go, and where did I go on those imaginary flights?  Disney World, of course.

!971 brought us Disney World.  This was a project that Walt himself had started before he passed away.  He secretly acquired the land in Florida and then made promotional films.  He unfortunately never saw Disney World completed, but he walked the grounds and imagined where everything would be.  Those dreams were kept alive by Walt’s brother Roy who put off his retirement until Disney World could be completed.

It was the summer after my sixth-grade year, 1973, that my mom, dad and my sister Susan and I went to Disney World.  12 years old is the perfect time to be in Magic Kingdom.  You are old enough to appreciate it and not old enough to become cynical like most teenagers do.  I enjoyed every minute of that trip.  The first time I saw Cinderella Castle I knew I had found my special place in some ways I had come home.

My friend Brad, who is a pastor, told me long ago that we all have sacred places.  Those places are unique to us and the to the way God had made us.  For some people it is great churches and cathedrals.  For other people that sacredness is found high in the mountains or the ocean shore.  Though I have felt the sacredness by the ocean I feel very close to God standing outside Cinderella Castle and looking up at the towering spires.  Maybe it’s because as a Christian I know I am part of The Kingdom or God and I’m sure that His Kingdom is filled with such fairy tale palaces.  Or maybe its’s because in that spot reality and fantasy bend and become one, and one day I believe that my faith in the things I cannot see and the reality that I live in now will also become one.  I will see and know God and His son Jesus and The Holy Spirit as they really are.  In my own head that all comes together in Disney World.

The 70s turned into the 80s and part of me did grow up and part of me got a little cynical.  We went back to Disney World in 1976 and I still thoroughly loved that trip, but something had changed.  I wasn’t going to many Disney movies now.  I put most of the childhood stuff away and had to get through junior and senior high school.  Those years were hard for me.  They are for most of us, and I had a hard time figuring out who I was.  I fell in love with other things during that time.  Movie musicals and stage shows as well as other activities.  My interest in Disney waned until 1991.

In 1991 Disney released the second of it’s renaissance movies Beauty and the Beast.  The first of these films was The Little Mermaid.  I hadn’t seen that.  In fact, I avoided it.  Disney’s animated films of the 1980s were lack luster and I figured The Little Mermaid would just be more of the same.  I was completely mistaken, of course, and found that out when I watched the film for the first time at my friend’s Manny’s house.  I was living with him and his family at the time in Syracuse NY which is where I would also see Beauty and the Beast.

In the animated film the character of Mrs. Potts was played by Angela Lansbury.  Sometime, before the film was released, in a Disney special on TV, as the finale, Miss Lansbury appeared in a beautiful gown, with a full orchestra and sang the title song.  Disney magic was 100% back in that song.

I remember seeing the film for the first time and being blown away by the incredible animation that was being played out before my eyes.  This film rivaled anything that Broadway or MGM ever produced.  Every member of the voice cast was perfect and well suited to the roles.  The scene of the dance in the dining hall took your breath away as much as when the king sweeps Anna up in his arms to dance in The King and I.  It would be years later in 2020 after Disney World restructured Fantasyland that I would I have a chance to eat in that dining hall in the Be Our Guest restaurant.  That was magical too.  Sitting there with my good friend and Disney Buddy, Pam, enjoying an amazing meal in place that looked exactly the animated film.  Disney had made magic come to life.

After Beauty and The Beast almost every Disney movie was a treat.  I’m not die hard, I didn’t like all of them but most of them yes, absolutely.  Aladdin, Tarzan, Toy Story, James and the Gian Peach, and more recently, the live action remake of Cinderella, Mary Poppins Returns and the live action Beauty and the Beast which opened on my birthday in 2017 all continued to bring magic to my life.

I am very lucky and blessed in my friend Pam who lives in Florida.  I would be blessed to know her wherever she lived but we are both fans of Disney and the last time I was in Disney World she spent much time with me making my trip extra special.  She also allowed me to talk and dream and she allowed me to be me and that is the greatest gift anyone can give another person. That was February of 2020 after I returned form that trip Covid 19 struck and paralyzed the world.  Disney World shut down and the movie theaters shut down, but Disney helped rescue us during this time with their new streaming service Disney+, that not only gave us a great portion of the Disney Movie and TV show catalogue but also gave us Broadway’s Hamilton to watch in our homes with the original cast.

I would be remiss in not mentioning my niece Melissa, her husband Chris and their kids Caitlyn, Dominic and Joseph.  They are a whole family of Disney fans and do many Disney things together.  We swap stories, pictures and recipes, especially for the famous Disney Parks Dole Whip and the Strawberry Soup at the Grand Floridian Resort on the Disney World property.  Disney is in my DNA and that gene got passed down.

In the 1980s my boss Barb had us watch the film version of a book called In Search of Excellence.  Part of the film focused on the Disney company and their philosophy for work.  No one in the parks is an employee.  They are all cast members expected to play a part as long as they are at work.  Once they start their jobs they are on stage and must play the character they are assigned whether it be a hostess or a dishwasher as if they are in front of an audience.  No attitude, a constant smile, no guest in a Disney owned business is ever to see a cast member in any thing but a good mood.  I was a dialysis technician at the time and decided it would be a good idea to adapt this philosophy as my own. I’m an amateur actor, so developing a work character for myself was a joy.  I’m not saying I was perfect at this.  I had bad days and messed up more than once, but I think over all I became better at my job because I believed that my patients were better served by a happy smiling me than a grumpy me.  I tried to keep that work philosophy wherever I worked, and it has served me well.

There is so much more I could say about Disney.  We got our first dog, Lightning, a dalmatian, after my seeing 101 Dalmatians.  There were other trips to Disney World, and I left out adventures in Epcot and Animal Kingdom.  There are wonderful movies that I didn’t mention like The Happiest Millionaire and The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh both of which I hope you take the time to find and watch.  There is The Disney Channel that appeared on cable networks in the 80s but also imported a wonderful stop action animated television show from England, The Wind in the Willows, that show gave me hours of entertainment and also introduced to the breat children’s classic book by Kenneth Graham.  There is the fact that Disney now owns both Marvel Comics and The Star Wars franchise and has given us all so many new adventures over the last dozen years, and lastly Disney magic brought to New York City where they bought and refurbished many run-down theaters that were close to 100 years old so they could bring Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and Mary Poppins to the stage.  Disney Magic in a whole new medium.

Walt Disney is quoted as saying “All our dreams can come true if we have the courage to pursue them”.  I am now 60 years old and find myself reinventing me.  I’m doing this blog which is new, I’m working on a book and I’m working on some other surprises for the near future.  At 60 I feel like a 30-year-old with a lot of experience.  I have something left to give to this world and as long as I live, I hope I have the opportunity to give it.  I believe that’s what Walt would do.

Give My Regards To Broadway

I grew up on Musical Theater in one form or another.  My mother cleaned on Saturdays, and we had one of those stereos that took up the whole wall of the house.  You remember the type.  It was about 5 feet long and it had a flat service the center part was cut out and you lifted that and the turn table was there.  The speakers were built in.  You could stack albums on the spindle in the center of the turn table and the next one would drop and play when the first was finished.  I know all you vinyl lover are cringing at that.  On those Saturdays mom loaded that spindle up with original cast albums and soundtracks of her favorite stage and screen musicals.  She would clean and sing and in the summer, anyone walking by could hear my mother’s wonderful voice as they walked past the house.

That was my introduction to Broadway and the wonderful world of musical comedy and drama.  It wouldn’t be long before I would see my first stage show.  I was probably four or five when I went to spend the night at my cousin’s John’s house.  In the afternoon my Aunt Dee sent us to see a Performance of OKLAHOMA.  This was a production by The Saint Francis Players a group that performed musicals in The Saint Francis Chrch Auditorium  The performance was just for kids and as I remember it was pretty much pandemonium in the audience.  I, however, was mesmerized.  I can still see Curly singing Poor Jud is Dead.  I had been to the movies, but I had never seen anything live before and I was bitten.  In the years that followed I know I saw L’il Abner there as well as Camelot and I loved every minute.

From entering school until eight grade my interest in musicals waxed and waned.  Every year as a family we sat down to watch White Christmas and The Wizard of Oz .  These were family traditions and my sister and I scanned the TV supplement in the Sunday paper looking for when these favorites would be aired.  In the fourth grade my class did a watered down version of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown.  I dearly wanted to play Linus and I got the part.  I think I was one of the only kids that ended up with a solo and I pulled off well.  Now not only was I watching musicals I was in one.

You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown was also my first original cast album.  I wore that album out and to be honest still love it to this day.  The whole show is amazing and stayed true to the characters created by Charles Schulz in the Peanuts strip.  Fun fact one evening in December 1969 Peanuts was off Broadway in You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown, on television in A Charlie Brown Christmas and on the big screen in A Boy Named Charlie Brown and in the daily newspaper strip.  I don’t think any other writer can claim dominating almost every form of entertainment in one evening.

Musicals waned again after this.  I still loved musical films and enjoyed being taken to see Tom Sawyer with Johnny Whittaker and the musical version of Lost Horizon and The Phantom Tollbooth, but as we moved into the 70s movie musicals were disappearing on the big screen and my interest lagged until 1975.

One of the musical that my family watched together every year was Bye Bye Bridie.  This was mostly due to the fact that my father was smitten by Ann Margaret.  I loved that movie especially the song The Telephone Hour it was fun to watch all those kids talking to each other.  In 1975 I was in 8th grade and it was announced that the All School Musical that year would be  Bye Bye Birdie.  I wanted in on that show, and I knew the part I wanted Harry MacAfee the father of the girl who was to be kissed by Conrad Birdie a thinly disguised version of Elvis Presley.  Harry was played on Broadway and on the screen by Paul Lynde who I thought was awesome.  To keep this short I got the part and was in my first full length musical.

Being in Bye Bye Birdie was a great experience.  I found my spot in the teenage social order, I was a theater geek.  Not the highest place on the social ladder but not the lowest either.  I made friends in that production too.  Some of which I still have to this day.

I would get into my share of shows over the next four years.  My High School offered acting classes as part of the English Department.  I took those and in my tenth-grade year we were taken to New York City to see A Chorus Line at The Schubert Theater.

I still remember that trip.  It was a blast and NYC was at it’s lowest point so I saw much more than I bargained for, but when the lights went down in that theater and the show started it was electrifying.  A Chorus Line was everything you can imagine on stage.

I didn’t get to NYC again until the mid-eighties but my love for live theater was kept alive.  My parents bought season theater tickets at The Valley Forge Music Fair.  This venue was theater in the round.  With my folks I saw Godspell, Pippin, Fiddler on the Roof, and The Sound of Music.  Dinner Theater was also very big at the time and I saw The Music Man and OKLHOMA at different venues.

My cousin Joanne lived next door to me and she was years older than I.  She took me to see The Wiz and 42nd Street in Philadelphia.  These were the national touring companies, and it was almost as amazing as being in NYC.  When I got older, we went to see A Chorus Line together at Valley Forge.

Valley Forge would continue to be my place for productions.  My sister Trish and I got season tickets there one year and saw West Side Story and South Pacific.  The cool thing about the Music Fair is that these were professional productions with stars in the leading roles.  In South Pacific It was Barbara Eden and Robert Goulet and The Sound of Music was Debbie Boone.

Valley Forge Music Fair was a great venue for all kinds of music events.  It started in a tent and then they had a building and were very successful for several years then I guess things got hard.  It’s gone now.  There’s a shopping center in its place. That saddens me.  Anytime a theater dies we lose something very special.

I could go on about the wonderful shows I saw in person and the wonderful experience I had working as an actor or director in amateur productions, but that’s not what this writing is about.  I want to talk about the magic of musical theater.

The magic of musical theater comes from the songs.  I believe that there is a song from some show about every life experience out there.  There are songs about falling in love but there are also songs of losing someone, getting a new job, having a difficult boss, how hard it is to be old and how are hard it is to be young.  Every human emotion and condition has been brought to life in some way on the Broadway Stage.

Musicals teach us lessons too.  The Sound of Music  is about putting faith before anything else.  I already wrote about Mame’s lesson, “Life is a banquet, and most suckers are starving to death.”  South Pacific and Finian’s Rainbow are both about the damage bigotry can do and both were teaching that lesson long before the civil rights movement.  A lot of shows simply tell us that we can be all that we want to be if we work hard enough to do it.  There is a song from the musical version of I Remember Mama whose lyrics say “When you really want something,

                            When you really got to have something,

                            And you feel that it’s the only thing in life worth fighting

                            For,

                           Doesn’t matter if you’re strong or not,

                           You’ve got to try to give it all you’ve got,

                           And when you think you’ve given all you’ve got,

                           Give a little bit more.”

Musicals teach us life lessons; the songs can give us joy and comfort us.  Song such as You’ll Never Walk Alone and Climb Every Mountain have even made it into hymnals and are sung at church.

There is a verse from the Bible that says “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if anything is excellent or praiseworthy, think about such things. (Philippian’s 4:8)  I believe Oscar Hammerstein must have come across that verse when he wrote:

                           Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on kittens

                           Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens,

                           Brown paper packages tied up is string,

                           These are a few of my favorite things.

for Maria to sing in The Sound of Music.  Interesting note on this song.  In the film the song is sung to the children during a thunderstorm.  In the original stage version, the song is sung by Maria and The Reverend Mother in order to prepare Maria for the news that she will have to leave the abbey.  I find it more effective in the stage version than the film.  Where ever it is sung I believe it actually reflects Paul’s instructions to the Philippians in his letter and I would love to see My Favorite Things added to every worship team song list and every churches hymnal.

Hello Dolly ranks as my favorite musical at least right now.  Dolly is about older people having second chances.  As I am now 60 this musical is reminder that dreams can still come true.  That I have every chance to make life better.  Dolly is also full of joy and that joy is expressed in almost every song in the show.  It is a show of hope and great courage.  It is a show that everyone should see just to feel good and hum the songs on the way out of the theater.

Mame taught me that life can be good, even in the tough times.  When Mame is broke and jobless in The depression she sings We Need A Little Christmas, and celebrates the holiday a week after Thanksgiving because, “We need it more now.”

Musicals became musical dramas more and more in the latter part of the 20th century and moving into the 21st.  Show’s like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera, and Rent all told tragic though hopeful stories with memorable songs such as All I Ask of You. And Bring Him Home and I Dreamed a Dream.

I believe that most of my life philosophy has come from the hours and hours I have spent listening to musical theater albums.  Memorizing the songs and singing them out with gusto.  I remember having very difficult time at work for a season and every morning as I walked across the parking lot I would sing Oh What A Beautiful Morning and when I got to my job my stressed lowered and I felt good despite the bad stuff that was going on around me.

I’m going to be up front.  I don’t get much out of worship music.  I love the people that lead us in worship, but I never feel close to God while I am singing those songs.  I feel close to God when I am singing the songs that I love.  The songs from Broadway.  I know I worship Him when I sing My Favorite Things.  I know I am relying on Him when I sing, You’ll Never Walk Alone, I know I am praising him when I sing Happiness.  As Eric Liddell states in the film Chariots of Fire. “I feel God’s Pleasure.”  And I do.

I have so mush to say about musicals and their effects on me and others, but I’ll save it for another time.  For now, let me encourage you to see live stage musicals as the world begins to open back up, Locally Anastasia and Hamilton are both coming to Philadelphia as touring companies.  One of my favorites, Baby will be played at the Media Theater, Swarthmore Players Club is doing Anything Goes this year and on Broadway the amazing Hugh Jackman will open in The Music Man this fall.  All of these are amazing shows and great opportunities to see the magic of the musical.

As for movie musicals almost every one that was ever made is available to buy or rent on Vudu through a Roku device or a smart TV.  There is even Broadway HD which has many live performances filmed on Broadway or West End, London’s Theater District.  On that channel I recommend 42nd St, and the stage version of Holiday Inn.

When I was growing up the songs from Broadway shows would become standards and would get radio play.  Groups like the Beatles and Herman’s Hermits sang and recorded songs from musicals.  The great soloist of the time Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and Edie Gourmet all sang songs from Broadway and made them popular.  That doesn’t happen now and it’s a shame.  Music is an amazing tool and kids, and adults should be exposed to all kinds.  Not just what’s popular, but romantic music, classical music, folk music and musicals.

For me musicals are a way to keep the blues away.  They are a way to feel my own heart break when I can’t find my own words to express it myself.  The songs from musicals help me express great joy and the anticipation of a new day.  There’s always a song in my head and heart and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

                                   Happiness is singing together when day is thru,

                                   And happiness is those who sing with you.

                                   Happiness is morning and evening, daytime and,

                                   Night time too.

                                   For Happiness in anyone and anything at all,

                                   That’s loved by you.

                                   (The Finale of You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.)