CONVERSATION FANS !
It’s been a few weeks and I was starting to miss talking to you.
Ever find yourself nostalgic for good conversation?
I found myself in a long discussion with four writers on a panel recently. The Topic?
Was it Nietzche who said nostalgia was, “looking backwards with bullshit in both eyes”?
Well this panel was certainly full of it.
And full of fun too.
Presented by the Independent Writers of Southern California (IWOSC) at the Veterans Memorial Building in Culver City, CA: “Writing Nostalgia: When the Past Sings, Make it Zing.”
IWOSC host Gary Young quotes Noel Coward to get things going: “May you have a warm hand on your opening,” Coward told a starlet before her show. Warming to the idea of a raucous couple of hours, I lean into the microphone when moderator Bob Birchard asks us how we became nostalgic, and say: “I’m nostalgic for good conversation and can’t wait to hear some tonight!”
I take my cues from the venerable experts here tonight, like Jordan R. Young, showbiz historian and author of books like, Spike Jones Off The Record. He recalls a time, he says, “Before camp, before nostalgia,” way back in the 1950s when he could call up Silent Movie actors names he saw listed in the phone book.
They don’t make researches like that anymore.
Through such determined journalistical sleuthing, Jordan sought out celebrities, holding conversations with Hollywood figures like King Vidor and John Carradine, eventually starting Past Times Publishing. One of his books, I truly loved: The Laugh Crafters: Comedy Writing in Radio and TV’s Golden Age featured an interview with Irving S. Brecher. And I got to help Irv complete his memoir The Wicked Wit of The West in 2009.
I met Robert S. Bader once in Palm Desert at a dinner thrown by Harpo Marx’s son Bill. Tonight he talks about Groucho Marx and Other Short Stories and Tall Tales. It’s been translated into “dozens of languages, including Catalan.” Bader, a producer of PBS specials on Dick Cavett and Bing Crosby, tells us he didn’t know it was being nostalgic when as a kid he got into the Marx Brothers. But upon sharing that interest, discovering that some other people found it “cool too,” he knew he’d “made a group of friends forever.”
Panel moderator Birchard, writer of a book series called Cecil B. Demille’s Hollywood, makes a point of describing we few fellows on the dais as: “Not Historians.” He wants us to explain to the packed house of Southern California writers how we do our research. Herbie J Pilato, author of The Essential Elizabeth Montgomery and Twitch Upon a Star: The Bewitched Life and Career of Elizabeth Montgomery suggests using classic stock photo agencies like Globe and Photofest.
“Hey whatever happened to Black Star,” I interject. “Does anyone remember them?” When I first saw their photo credits in magazines as a kid I thought it was an African-American agency. (It was around the same time I learned that “Black is Beautiful.”) Bader and Pilato think Black Star is long gone or was bought up by a larger stock house.
Pilato, a one-time actor and NBC page, is founder of a nonprofit called the “Classic TV Preservation Society,” dedicated to shows that reflect “positive things,” including old programs like, “Life Goes On,” “Kung Fu,” “That Girl,” and “Gidget.”
“Herbie, you’d make a great host on the TVLand channel,” I offer.
“I’m working on it,” he says.
Robert S. Bader thrills the Culver City faithful with this tale of research: He discovered two hundred Marx Brothers photos in an attic.
“From that early 1900s period of the Brothers performing on the road.”
Bader’s book comes out in October and is called, Four of the Three Musketeers: The Marx Brothers on Stage. Devoted to Minnie’s boys’ pre-Hollywood movie career. I can’t wait to read about their earliest vaudeville shows and see that trove of pix. (NOTE TO SELF: I also need to pick Bader’s brain about getting The Wicked Wit of the West translated into Catalan.)
We take questions from the audience. (Flo Selfman, President of IWOSC, at panel above)
One man says he wants to write about a B-movie actress who did pin-ups and died young, but he can’t remember her name.
One woman says she’d like to write a biography, but read a Marilyn Monroe book that was nothing but erotic stories never documented in any history. Three panelists tell her you can write anything you want about a person no longer living. You see, one says, just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean it can’t also be a lousy read.
Wow. Shouldn’t it matter if a life story is true to the page its printed upon? Neal Cassady offered this advice to Jack Kerouac after reading an early draft: “Embellish.”
Robert Bader says, regarding his Marx Brothers research, Groucho would give two answers to your question, “and then tell you both of them were lies.”
Okay then. I jump in with an “IWOSC mini-seminar,” telling audience members not to worry, but “YOU’VE GOT TO HIT THE TYPEWRITER BROTHER! CREATE YOUR OWN MYTH SISTER!”
In other words, get the dang thing written. To another writer waiting for permission from a subject’s estate: “Write the book already; it’s easier to be forgiven than it is to get permission.”
(Also thinking now of Scoop Nisker, the unique radio man at KSAN in San Francisco who ended every broadcast of “The Last News Show” with, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!”)
“Any one of these gentlemen up here will be happy to write you a perfectly good biography or memoir,” I add, although of course I’m thinking of myself on the prowl always for next writing gig.
THE LAST ARCHIVISTS?
A question for Herbie Pilato:
“You can write about Elizabeth Montgomery,” a man asks. “But how can you write about a TV show?” Isn’t that program — product — a corporate property?
“Nah,” Pilato aces it. “There have been ninety books about Star Trek, none of them authorized by Gene Roddenberry.”
“And isn’t everybody an archivist now?” I toss in. “Able to look up anything in a single bound on the web and assume they’ve done the research?”
Jordan Young says he thinks the millennial generation is the last who actually do archive things. “The next generation won’t.”
The first archivists, in Jordan’s field, were the people who audio-taped TV shows. Robert Bader makes a joke about a guy who audiotapes silent movies. I playfully punch him in the side. Later, after I blurt out something, he will say, “You’re scaring me.” (Which you love to get that from an adult. It’s only when you get it from a 4th-grader that you should worry.)
Bader, who said he loved the research part of his job, has been very generous to me this evening, praising The Wicked Wit of the West which he told the audience he read before beginning his new Marx Brothers book. (Yes, fine, but did he believe any of it?)
Realizing my fellow panelists are the kind of people who tape TV shows on reel-to-reel audio, I must confess to being part of that techno-nerd set, taping The Bill Cosby Show, but adding the caveat that this was in 1971 and I was using a cassette recorder.
BEST PART OF THE NIGHT
About halfway in I realize: this is not nostalgia, these are pop historians. Jordan Young describes his work as, “the diggings of a cultural archeologist.” Afterwards, I ask his wife if she thought the panel had covered the basics pretty well — the legal aspects, dealing with a subject’s family members, getting their memories straight. Yes, she says, “but it did skirt into the weeds a bit.” I think back on one panelist who described “looking for stills from Nancy Drew movies,” and another bringing up clearances and contracts. Still another mentioned Emil Jannings (1884-1950) in regards to a bon mot from Ernst Lubitsch (1892-1947). I wanted to blurt, “Where’s my MTV?” into the microphone I was forced to share with Robert S. Bader, but that would have sounded ancient…
Inside baseball to be sure, but this was about nostalgia.
SEMI PROFESSIONAL PANELIST LOOKING FOR TWO-HOUR POSITION
I could have been a better panelist. When moderator Birchard, author of King Cowboy: Tom Mix and the Movies, said he recalled Shakespeare’s “Richard III” appearing on TV’s “Omnibus” in the 1950s, I asked why, with today’s plethora of stations we still have no Shakespeare channel. “Springsteen claimed in song how there were ’57 Channels and nothing’s on. But today there’s like a zillion aren’t there? Thornton Wilder said at the end of every civilization there’s a period of great creativity and production. Look at the stuff being churned out, the platforms, the programming!”
Oh well. Just trying to get the conversation beyond clearances and contracts. At the panel’s completion, some of us rush off to greet well-wishers or potential customers, some remain seated there at the dais, basking all self-actualized, awaiting groupies. A woman comes up to tell me the story of a young actor in the closet who marries a woman, Hollywood style, but she kills herself, and a year later with the same gun, he kills himself.
“Great Story, huh?”
Um, I did make two nice contacts. One said she had a friend in Madrid who could translate the Italian version of The Wicked Wit — A PESCA CON GROUCHO — into Spanish. Then I’ll translate from Spanish back into English to see if any jokes exist at all.
Perhaps I’m bitter about never making it onto their rarified USC and UCLA stages in late April every year since 1995? (See picture of typical panel above) Listen, I spend a lot of time alone writing, so when I do make public appearances — slide shows about Irv Brecher pretty much — I tend to get excited.
But hey, IWOSC wanted me on their panel, right?
Perhaps I could learn how to become a professional panelist. Should I try and become more nostalgic? Anyway, if you know of any upcoming panels, I might be able to add some semi-comic relief to the proceedings.
(I mean, the guy’s own wife thought he got into the weeds; this is from someone who gets all his arcane references, you know?)
Finally, one more IWOSC audience member came up. She’d seen me reading TWWOTW at Chevalier’s Books on Larchmont in Los Angeles a few years ago. “Remember when you gave me the Groucho glasses and nose?” she asked. I didn’t, but I told her I should have given her a kiss instead, and leaning past the microphone stand, pushed into her as she stood on her tippy toes to reach the dais and I thought: That’s showin’ em! If a semi-professional panelist can’t get a kiss, he aint doin his job right.
Jordan R. Young, Herbie J Pilato, Robert S. Bader, Gary Young, HR, Flo Selfman, Bob Birchard
WEBSITES REFERRED TO
Independent Writers of Southern California
Jordan R. Young
A Pesca Con Groucho!http://www.libridivertenti.it/a-pesca-con-groucho-c2x13427728