Another part of the forest

Now there are seven. Seven new trees stand sentinel around the perimeters of the property. My septuplets, all of whom, like newborns or old rummies, are in constant need of a drink. I’m happy to water them, which I do twice a day, though I’d be happier about it if the temperature ever dropped below 90.

At first, all I intended was to replace the majestic elm that we lost while John was still here. It had shaded the front lawn for almost a century, and I knew that nothing I planted could reach those massive proportions – not in the time left to me. Still, the parkway seemed barren without it, and my neighbor, Terry, would  yell across the street, ” You have no trees! Where are your trees?” It’s an umm, close knit neighborhood.

The town would have partnered with me on the expense, but they move at glacial speed and set up so many restrictions and hoops to jump through that I decided to go it alone. Hindsight already wags a finger at me for my impatience, so please don’t add yours.

I ordered a maple that promised to be spectacular every autumn. While I was at it, Why not get something for the inner lawn? Something to fill the space with spring blossoms, like a crab tree. So then there were two.

The maple, though nice enough, was not what I had ordered. Rather than have it dug up and returned, I decided there was room in the parkway for a second tree Since they offered me a sizeable discount to apologize for their mistake, why not also replace the long ailing cherry tree at the side of the house? So now there were four.

Luke volunteered to pick up and plant the cherry tree to save me some money, and when the correct maple arrived, due to another mistake, it was accompanied by a second cherry. I could have, perhaps should have, sent it back, but to John, Kwanzens were the most beautiful of all cherry trees. I think so too, and it was almost as if he were taking a hand in things. So, I had them plant it on the back lawn. And then there were five.

Hearing of this, a friend said, “Now don’t go crazy.” As if one could when it comes to trees. As if one could ever have too many, especially on Forest Avenue. I looked long and hard at this newest tree. It centered on a space which had, for a quarter century, been shaded by a large plum tree whose ample branches spread everywhere and frequently had to be cut back. Ironically, it was called a dwarf plum. Behemoth would have been more apt. But now, the plum was dying and needed to be removed. Already, it had become inadequate to shelter the shade loving plants cringing from the assault of so much unaccustomed sun. I called the nursery and ordered a redbud and a dogwood. That made it seven.

Crazy? Perhaps. But this was money that, before the pandemic, I’d have spent on restaurants, theater, the opera, movies, popcorn, gas, all things of a distant past, ephemeral things. My seven sentinels are an ongoing, permanent source of joy. Having them planted helps me maintain the illusion that I still have some control over my life.

I haven’t named them, nor do I plan to. My neighbor, Vic, names his trees and plants. Recently, he introduced me to a number of them. I think, for now, it’s enough that I name my cars. When the men in the white coats come, I want them to grab Vic first.

Luke, who planted three of them (trees, not men in white coats) and so much else in the garden, brought his girl friend, Anna, around to impress her with his handiwork. She is lovely, and they make a sweet couple. I tried to stay out of their way, but as he took her hand and led her into the shade, I overheard him tell her, “This is a mystical garden.”

Yes, Luke, I do believe it is.

Dr. T.

I first met John 41 years ago yesterday. Every year, we’d make an event of the occasion. While it was still open, we’d drive into Chicago to have a drink at the Fireside, the site of our first encounter. We remembered our original conversation verbatim and would say those flirtatious phrases again. We were children of ritual.

How did I celebrate this time around? I went to the dentist. The experience was neither as painful nor dreary as you might suppose – far from it. But then you don’t know my dentist. You should.

Robert Thornton has long since morphed from trusted doctor to dear friend. It was on John’s recommendation that I went to see him. I’d been having a peculiar run of dental practitioners. There was the unfortunate Dr. Crystal whose increasingly shaky hands led to a bruised lip club among his patients. Then there was the celebrated Dr. Champagne who wound up in the pokey for peddling cocaine. I was spared Doctors Corkscrew and Decanter, if such there be, when I moved to Indiana to join John.

Dr. Thornton’s toothside manner is one of calm and reassurance, leavened with a boyish enthusiasm for life. I took to him immediately and thought he might be just the one to overcome my mother’s fearful skittishness about her own dental problems. He was and he did. She relaxed and agreed to see him as often as needed without the drama and delay to which I’d become accustomed. Years later, I was surprised and touched when he appeared at her wake.

Dr. T. and I began to discover quite a number of common interests, not least our delight at finding some new purveyor of really good food. For whatever reasons, the doctor and his family took a shine to John and me, and from time to time we’d break bread in their agreeable and stimulating company.

At any rate, there I was, yesterday, back in his office for the completion of some root canal work. At one point, he said,”I’m not going to numb you; this won’t be severe.” It wasn’t. I told him he’s so candid and precise about what to expect that if he ever said. “This will hurt,” I’d leap out of the chair and run for dear life.

In honor of the day, I was wearing a t-shirt which read, “Kruzan/Kingsmill Cottage.” We began to reminisce about John, and Dr. T. mentioned that not only was this his 50th year as a dentist, but that John had been one of his first patients back in 1970. Sentimental nostalgia welled up in both of us.

Dr. T. could retire, but I don’t fear he will anytime soon. He likes what he does as do those of us to whom he does it. There was a movie a while back about a dentist and his adoring, fiercely loyal female staff (ironically titled Dr. T. and the Women). Richard Gere was the star. In some ways (not all, Gere played a bit of a cad), it could have been inspired by my own Dr. T.  Gere, of course, is a most personable actor, but in terms of charisma, Robert Thornton could give him cards and spades.

The incomparable Max

The first time I became aware of the music underpinning the action of a movie was in early 1946. I sat in the Avalon between Mom and Dad. They were already separated, (divorced, but I wasn’t to be told that then). There were still confusing times, however, when we did things as a family, giving me false hope of a reunion.

The opening credits of Mildred Pierce began, letters washed away by ocean waves. Accompanying this was a stirring theme, echoing the pulse of the tide. To my eight-year-old mind, it suggested nobility and held the promise of lots of interesting complications to come. I decided to pay attention and see who was writing this heady stuff and sweeping us into the picture. It was Max Steiner.

I never looked back. From that day to this, I’ve made it a point to know who composed the score for what I watch. One after another, I discovered the masters of the field, musicians whose contributions were – or could be – equal partners with the writers, actors, and directors involved. At its best, their work was not mere flashy adornment, “mood music,” or cheesy indicators of the obvious (it drove John bananas every time “La Marseilles” was played when the scene shifted to France). In the right hands, music provides subtle commentary on the essence of the characters, their unexpressed thoughts, and motives sometimes hidden even from themselves.

My next discovery was probably Miklos Rozsa who created deliciously exotic soundscapes for Sabu‘s adventures in The Jungle Book and The Thief of Bagdad. In the 40’s, Rozsa became the go-to choice for film noir and psychological disturbance. The Dragnet theme was pilfered from his score for The Killers (he sued and won).

There were so many others who enriched my movie going experiences. Bear with me while I name just a few. As Montgomery Clift stands hitchhiking at the outset of A Place in the Sun, Franz Waxman‘s sweet, spacious trumpet theme grabs me every time. portending the sadness to come and the passion of one of the all time great movie kiss close-ups. Waxman is unmatched at foreshadowing. His frenetic opening credit blitz for Sunset Boulevard instantly prepares us for the neurotic dangers to come. And who but Waxman could have come up with the eerie romanticism he brings to the creation of The Bride of Frankenstein?

By the time I was able to focus on such sonic treats, Erich Korngold had moved on from the flickers to classical composition, but his epic scores romped on in popular re-releases of The Adventures of Robin Hood, Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, and The Prince and the Pauper. No one could buckle Errol Flynn‘s swash like Korngold.

Victor Young may have looked like a bouncer or a prize fighter, but this belied the shimmering sweetness of the melodic lines that poured out of him at Paramount. His romantic scores don’t just embellish such films as The Uninvited (“Stella by Starlight”), Samson and Delilah, and The Quiet Man, they caress them. Young remained at the height of his powers to the end. The work that won him a posthumous Oscar was a doozy – Around the World in Eighty Days.

No discussion of film music can omit the towering compositions of Bernard Herrmann. It’s difficult to separate the impact of such classics as Citizen Kane, Psycho, and Taxi Driver from Herrmann’s scores. The jittery, propulsive opening of North by Northwest, the sinuous evocation of the sea in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the brooding underwater menace of Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, and the warm hush of intimacy in Marnie and Vertigo – these are all Herrmann and all diversely wonderful.

But before all of them, there was Max, the Max Steiner of King Kong, Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and the orchestration of the early Astaire/Rogers musicals. I’ve just finished the brand new biography of him by Steven C. Smith, Music by Max Steiner. It’s a remarkable and engrossing account of his life and the creative process of scoring a film, often under punishing deadlines overseen by meddlesome demons like David O. Selznick.

Smith analyzes many of Steiner’s themes. This was a particular pleasure for me because a lot of them were still lodged in my head. One that isn’t discussed is an example of Steiner’s economy of effect. It’s a simple eight note descending melody that reappears in White Heat each time Virginia Mayo and Steve Cochran contemplate betraying Cagney. Just eight notes, but they taught this twelve-year-old a vivid lesson about the power of primal desire to wreak havoc.

I realize that not everyone shares my nerdy enthusiasm for the giants of film scoring. I guess you’ll just have to trust me that Smith’s book is a good read even without that predisposition. Steiner was a brilliant, funny, ribald, sad, generous workaholic. Given the chance, he’d have happily scored every movie Warners churned out. His life, as curated by Smith, is a page turner from start to finish.

As always, with a biography, I skip to the final chapter. Life’s endings are seldom happy or pretty, and I choose to get them out of the way first. In Steiner’s case, it’s a mixed bag. He never got over his son’s suicide. The boy was handsome and simultaneously overindulged and neglected. Reading not too far between the lines, he was also likely gay. Steiner’s finances, however, (always in jeopardy from gambling, a stable of ex-wives, a lavish lifestyle, and an open handed nature), took a surprising upturn toward the end. A simple song, dashed off quickly and not held in high regard by its composer, made Steiner a millionaire – the theme from A Summer Place

Steiner was an innovator who knew everyone on Broadway or in Hollywood. The book’s anecdotes, and Steiner’s often raunchy notations on his score sheets are worth the price by themselves. Max was the antithesis of Herbert Stothart, an MGM composer for whose dainty, derivative scores John and I had little use. Retreating as far and as fast into the background as they could, they are the musical equivalent of a watercress sandwich with all crusts and flavor trimmed away. Max Steiner is meat and potatoes. I urge you to dig in.

Trees

At this moment, to write about anything but the demonstrations sweeping the country, the final incident that provoked them, the looting that has spun off from them, the reaction of the president, and the reactions to his reaction – to write of anything else seems almost to indicate that one is visiting from another planet or has just emerged from a long coma.

Like all of you, I have thoughts and opinions, but I have no wisdom to impart. Curiously, I find neighbors and people I barely know soliciting my ideas, as if they need help to puzzle out what they themselves think about our current dilemma. I tell them, as simply as I can, what I believe about what has happened and continues to happen.

An event was captured on videotape which is difficult to describe as anything other than a murder. Outrage has driven hundreds of thousands of people to the streets in protest. Most have done this peacefully, even mournfully. Some have not. A small, venal minority take this opportunity to smash, burn and loot. Like the crowd, the police sent out to oversee them are also of two disparate groups. The largest has some understanding of why the streets have filled. They attempt to discharge an unwelcome task with as much decency and restraint as each situation permits. The smaller sub group is reckless and – can we still say otherwise? – racist.

On which element does one focus? They are quite separate, even antithetical. I am frightened and disgusted by violence from any source, but in my youth it’s likely I’d have been out in the crowd, swept up in the idealistic hope for change.

As to the president, once again, as is his wont, he turns a swell opportunity to score leadership points by calming, consoling, and uniting us, into a dark appeal to his base, an attack on the mayors and governors doing the job he is not up to, and a sinister call for “Domination.”

Ugly realities cannot and should not be ignored. Yet, like the sun, they can’t be stared at unceasingly without risking a kind of blindness. When I turn away it is to trees. When I moved in here with John, the pride of the grounds were the trees, two tall evergreens on the front lawn, a majestic giant elm in the parkway, and a kwanzan cherry tree just south of the house. They are all gone now.

The evergreens grew sparse and scraggly some years ago. The glorious elm, largest in the neighborhood, was struck by lightning and condemned by the town. The cherry tree, which John planted himself, has been slowly dying for fifteen years or more. It departed Saturday. I kept it going as long as I could, partly because John loved it so, and partly because it was always the first to bloom in the garden. I’d open the blinds in the study, discover a joyous sea of pink blossoms, and know that winter was over. In recent years, the sea had ebbed to a trickle. This spring it was scarcely to be seen. Ten years ago, Stu, who sprays our shrubs, gently suggested that it wouldn’t last another year. But it did, concentrating its stirring beauty on fewer and fewer branches. John loved all things oriental, and I loved all things John. We were in no hurry to let it go.

This is, after all, Forest Avenue. I’d been meaning to replace at least the elm for several years. The pandemic and my increased time at home finally spurred me to action. I called around, looked online, and found the greatest variety to be had at Alsip’s nursery in Dyer. I ordered an Autumn Blaze maple (huge, shady leaves and brilliant fall color) for the parkway and a pink flowering crab tree for where one of the evergreens had stood. Alsip doesn’t plant, but they recommended one Pancho, who does.

I discussed this with the indispensable Luke and mentioned that if I could ever get the cherry tree dug up, I’d replace it as well. He said, “Oh, I can do that,” and he did. When he had wrestled the last of the recalcitrant stump from the ground, he gave me a serious look and asked, “Are they charging you a lot of money to deliver and plant the trees?” I confirmed that this was true. “Lee,” he said in the sweet tones with which one addresses a dim witted child, “this is what I do every day.” He works for a landscaper. “Order the tree. Just don’t make it too big; there’s only one of me. I’ll pick it up in my father’s truck and plant it for you.” If hugging were still allowed, I’d have seized the opportunity to seize him.

Pancho and two strapping cohorts brought the trees out yesterday, and after they were planted, something didn’t seem quite right. “The leaves on the maple look different from the Autumn Blaze across the street.” “Oh, this isn’t a Blaze, just an ordinary maple, but the color will be nice in the fall.” Nice? Hmmmm. I called Alsip. “Oh my bad,” chirped the young clerk. “The Sun Valleys were right next to the Autumn Blazes when I was tagging them.” The nonchalant lilt in her voice conveyed that she found this amusing. I wanted to reach through the phone and throttle her. Instead, I bargained. “There is room for another tree on the parkway. IF, IF I ordered an actual Autumn Blaze, and didn’t send this pretender back to you, if we said no more about your creative tagging, would you give me a break on the price?” “Yes. (very quiet now and no lilt)” “How much of a break?” “25%?”

So now there will be four new trees gracing the yard, bringing delicate beauty every spring, vibrant color in the fall, and shade all summer. They will be here long after I am gone and this house is filled with people I will never know. Whether they are Irish, like me, or black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or Arab, whether they are straight or gay, perhaps even a policeman or woman, I wish them joy of what I have planted.

So what do I believe? I believe in trees.

Flash flood

I’ve always greatly admired the prose of Joseph Conrad. He wrote in an adopted language, making more of it than most native speakers. Last Saturday had me identifying with one of his characters, Captain MacWhirr in the novel Typhoon. Both of us were to find ourselves completely out of our depth.

The day began with such sun and promise that I couldn’t stay inside, not even for breakfast, which I took out to the gazebo. The birds racketed enthusiastically, puzzled to see me at so early an hour. I threaded my way through tangles of garden hose on the deck, trying not to spill coffee, orange juice, or the sinfully intense apricot preserves on my toast. I started the fountain and settled in with the difficult Saturday crossword while I waited for Luke to arrive and set everything to rights in the garden.

Luke’s primary task for the day was to power wash the north siding which periodically takes on a mossy and unattractive aspect. His agility would be the envy of a circus troupe. There was a greenish patch above the sloping back porch roof so hard to reach that I told him to ignore it. Instead, he lugged the power washer up a ladder, schlepped it onto the roof as casually as one might flip a coin, leapt after it and didn’t descend until he had me assure him the siding was spotless.

Before he left, he blew away the million spinners shed by the maple tree. They had almost obliterated the deck and the driveway. The place was now ready for company – not that company is currently ready for the place (save for Tim who is well schooled in keeping a pandemic distance).

When Luke was gone, I drove to Rob’s deli for the region’s best steaks and potato salad. Tim would be here tomorrow for a belated birthday meal. There’d been flash flood warnings, but that was Chicago weather, far away, and here the sky was clear and bursting with sunlight. Whatever would or wouldn’t come, I had time.

On the way back, the sky darkened, and a storm began. Like Captain MacWhirr, I thought, “What of that? I’ve ridden through my share of storms.” Neither one of us had the imagination to grasp what was in store.

I was almost home and turned off Calumet onto Fisher for the last short leg of my trip. Suddenly – instantly, I was driving through several feet of water – not inches but feet. Waves were spuming up over the car.  I could see little in front of me and nothing to either side. I slowed but didn’t dare stop or pull over. The edges of the street sloped even deeper. I knew if Dimitrios stalled out, I’d be trapped, unable to open the door.

I kept slowly plowing up the middle of the street. To my relief, there was little traffic ahead of me. Rain and hail thudded furiously on the roof. The high water continued up to Ridge and beyond. I had only a few blocks to go, but Forest runs down from Ridge, and the water was higher still. My sight lines were so dark and blurry I feared I’d be unable to pick out my house. I’d almost gone past it when I caught a glimpse of the rounded arch on my front porch. It served me well that no two houses on Forest are alike.

My driveway is raised and so I had only about eight inches of water to slog through after I deposited poor Dimitrios to dry out in the garage. I patted his sleek black shell, grateful that the little guy had gotten us home in one soggy piece. I looked toward the yard. There was no yard. Not a blade of grass. Just lake.

Inside, of course there was water all over the basement despite two efficient sump pumps. They’d simply been overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of the storm. So had I. In a moment, I’d step into the kitchen and raid the freezer for a slug of Bombay Sapphire. But for now, I just stood in the hallway, dripping and feeling my heart pound. I thought of Conrad’s final sentence describing the Captain’s experience.

“I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

Spring will be a little late this year

I have become an overstuffed pack of memories. They spill out and, in my enforced leisure, I have the time and the inclination to pick them up and hold them to the light, twisting them this way and that to examine each irregular facet.

One such recollection was triggered by recent events. It was a song, and the far away events surrounding it. It kept me awake but so pleasantly that I couldn’t mind. The song is quite lovely, both in lyric and melody, thanks to Frank Loesser. It was a favorite of mine and my father’s. He’d play it, and I’d chirp along, struggling to negotiate the leaps and dips of the tune.

“Spring will be a little late this year

a little late arriving in my lonely world over here.”

It’s a heady ballad and, should you check it out, I recommend Ella Fitzgerald’s version. She does it simply and beautifully. The song was written for a movie, Christmas Holiday.

Christmas Holiday Movie Poster

I remember seeing it with my parents on a Sunday in the fall of 1944. It had opened in July, I believe at the glamorous RKO Palace, but in those days, pictures played for weeks and weeks downtown, and it took several months more for them to trickle down to a neighborhood theater like the little Rhodes on west 79th Street.

That’s where we were going, Mom and Dad with me squeezed in between them in the front seat of the deep turquoise Buick we had all through the war. Who was minding baby Steve I couldn’t say. With a title like Christmas Holiday and a cast of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, this must have seemed to my father like perfect family fare. He was soon to be disabused of such notions. We all were.

I loved the Rhodes because it meant a malted milk and butter cookies at the Joy ice cream parlor next door. And then, when we’d bought the tickets, just inside the lobby were those cement squares with footprints and signatures of movie stars like Ann Sheridan. At seven, they were exciting to me, and as always, I hung back and delayed our entrance until I had planted my feet inside the shoe prints of Jeffrey Lynn, or John Garfield. I suppose I thought they would bring me luck. I’m still here, so maybe they did.

In the mid 40’s, Universal had one of my favorite logos, lustrous mirrored letters circling round the world. I settled in to see Christmas trees and snow. Somerset Maugham had other ideas. The movie was based on his tale of homosexuality, prostitution and murder. The title is brutally ironic. Even when run through Hollywood’s censorial laundromat, the story remains dark, sinister, and Oedipal.  Usually a lovable hoofer, Gene Kelly is instead a psychopathic killer. Sweet, cheery Deanna Durbin is now an embittered, depressed dance hall “hostess.” And then there is Gale Sondergaard as the creepy mother-in-law from somewhere south of Purgatory.

When the song arrives, instead of being highlighted, it’s tossed off quickly and casually. Durbin’s character has been around, seen it all, and phones it in to get it over with. This is quite a stretch for Durbin and she’s really good at it. Clearly, she hoped to take her career in a new direction, but audiences didn’t know what to make of it. What my dad made of it I never did find out. This was one of the few times he and I didn’t discuss a movie to pieces on the ride home.

The song had been running through my head during weeks of miserable weather.

“Where is our April of old?

For you have left me, and winter continues cold.”

Would it ever be warm enough to buy anything to set out on the deck for a trace of color and cheer?

But then it was, and thanks to Lois and her roomy Hyundai, I found my masked self at Elzinga’s nursery, filling carts with geraniums of white, scarlet, pink, and violet, with begonias of peach and apricot, with daisies of orange and crimson, scaviolas of deepest blue, and the exotic, paint spattered petunia called “Midnight Sky.”

That night, there was a frost warning, but with the help of my neighbor, Terry, I schlepped everything into the garage.

Since then, there has been an actual primavera. Spring was late, but it came.

And on my left . .

I wake at one or two in the morning and have to fight to stay in bed. I don’t always win. On losing nights, I slip into flip flops and pad upstairs to the study and my computer. Then, when I’m not playing minesweeper or solitaire, or looking for Danny Callahan‘s edifying posts on “The Chiseler,” I search for episodes of What’s My Line on YouTube.

In my teens, I watched it on Sunday nights with my family. Everybody did. It was almost as popular as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town . Celebrities of all stripes were eager to be the next “mystery guest,” for which the panel was blindfolded. Several generations of Kingsmills were glued to the nine inch black and white tube to see if the cast could identify hog callers, dynamiters, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Hundreds of these shows are available, and while the earliest are not as sparkling as it soon became, I find it interesting to watch it grow into the well oiled machine that ran for decades. At first, for example, everyone smoked – cigarettes, sometimes in holders, or even cigars. The initial episodes resemble a tobacco convention. Contestants, or challengers as they were called, had to submit to “reasonable” requests such as touching their toes or showing the labels on their outfits as they met the panel. That moronic convention didn’t last long.

Creators Mark Goodson and Bill Todman were, at the time, undisputed kings of tv quiz shows. They realized pretty fast that what they had – or could get if they tended it carefully – was something rare, a show of considerable sophistication that would still play well with mass audiences. The key elements would be the panel and the moderator. Their choice for the latter was a stroke of brilliance: White House and foreign correspondent John Daley.

Daley was simultaneously urbane and endearing. He could have been the love child of Noel Coward and Tom Hanks, crisp and proper, yet eminently huggable. It was Daley who broke the news of President Roosevelt’s death to the nation. I was eight at the time, but I knew that something solemnly awful had happened. Daley was friends with FDR and his tribute the following day (I heard it again recently) was both eloquent and heartbreaking.

Panelists came and went on What’s My Line, but three came and stayed. When the chaff was winnowed out, what remained were a trio of warm, witty New Yorkers, a columnist, an actress, and a publisher. They seemed to be, should have been, and perhaps were, fast friends. Week after week, year after year, they certainly gave a convincing impression of it. In doing so, they forged the crucial family nucleus of the show.

Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen & John Daley

Dorothy Kilgallen was there from the very first episode, and she was Broadway personified. A compelling journalist, she was the sharpest tool in anybody’s shed. Watching her petite, amusing sleuthery can be painful if I let my thoughts drift to what lay ahead for her. I try not to. There is considerable evidence that she was murdered to prevent her publishing a story tying the assassination of JFK to Jack Ruby and the mob.

Arlene Francis was an engaging actress whose early career found her menaced (and crucified!) by Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue. She was also part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater group. Her strong suit, however, was the irrepressible good humor and friendliness she radiated. It’s on display in a late career movie, The Thrill of it AllOn one episode of WML? she takes the hand of a contestant frozen rigid with nerves and can be heard to murmur, “Loosen up, fella. You’re gonna have fun.”

Random House exec Bennett Cerf struck audiences as similarly agreeable. One of the most successful publishers of his era, his anthologies saw me through the dark days of several Alaskan winters.

What keeps me going back to these ancient and sometimes fuzzy kinescopes? So many things. They’re still great fun. There’s a marvelous time capsule quality to the changing vogues of new look dresses and mile high teased hairdos. And has there ever been a New Yorkier progam? The four of them not only knew each other well, they knew everybody popping in town to hawk their latest book, movie, play or concert (or UN appearance, for heaven’s sake!). I confess to the shallow vicarious pleasures of watching a world where the talented and notable rub shoulders, dine and party with each other. One night, Bennett Cerf disqualified himself because he recognized the voices of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He’d had supper with them the night before.

But what really gets me out of bed and draws me back to What’s My Line more than any of that is our lost capacity for civility. There has never been, and sadly may never be again, a program on which people are as unfailingly gracious, kind and polite to each other. And in the darkest hours before the Coronavirus dawn, these ghostly memories of  oh, niceness and respect have become my drug of choice.

So good night Dorothy, good night Arlene, good night Bennett, and good night John, until we meet again.

The gathering of the forest clan

Some days (and nights), I feel like a ghost rattling through the haunted rooms of this house. It was once so full of people and talk and laughter. That was when John was well enough to entertain, and before I lost – whatever it took to do so on my own. Now, with only me roaming about, the place is quiet and spectral. Fortunately, thanks to Mickey’s creative genius, and John’s and my lifelong accumulation of peculiar and decorative stuff, my castle, though haunted, is anything but grim.

Still, it is oh so very quiet. Needless to say, I was cheered no end Sunday when Tim called and asked if I wanted to walk. I was outside at the time, snapping pictures of sun splashed tulips and azaleas. I walk almost every day, but it had been ages since I’d walked with somebody.

We kept our distance but were close enough to talk. Somewhat ahead, in figure hugging workout togs, was a pretty girl exercising her dog and raising Tim’s spirits. The day was warm and bright, and it was good as John would say, “beyond the telling of it,” to have a conversation without having to phone it in.

I was grateful for the company, unaware of the social windfall about to come my way when we got back. Up strolled Scott and Tony, both masked. Tony’s was down around his neck, understandably. If you have a face like Tony’s, it’s a shame to cover it up unless you must.

While we stood chatting, Ken and Susan approached from the opposite direction. When Ken’s ebullience threatened to bring him too close to one of us, Susan would call out, “Ken, keep your distance!” I suggested we all invest in six foot poles. Across the street, Terry was mowing his lawn. We told him to keep it down because we wanted (needed) to talk. He shut it off and joined the conversation. Someone Susan knew was walking his sad eyed dog and stopped to add to the group.

There was much indeed to catch up on. If our quarantine is ever lifted, Ken, Susan and Tony will appear in a local production of the Young Frankenstein musical. We all agreed that Ken would be a most excellent monster. To prove the point, he stomped about and grunted a bit of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Further gossip revealed that James and Anthony, the young gay couple across the alley have put their house up for sale and bought a farm in Lowell where they plan to raise chickens and goats. This was dismal news indeed. I for one would put up with chickens, goats and whatever other livestock the boys fancy to keep such cuties in Munster. Perhaps there’s still time. I must check our ordinances on llamas.

We all stood around, gabbing and smiling for the longest time. None of us wanted to end it. I least of all, who would disappear inside when it was over to skulk about the solitary corridors of the Double K Ranch.

I’ll not complain. For almost two hours, there was sun and company.

Sleepytime Gal

There was always music in our house – until there wasn’t. When I was eight, my parents divorced, we moved out, the piano was sold, and the music stopped. But up until then, hardly a day went by without the little bungalow ringing with song. I wish my brother had been born sooner. I’d have liked him to remember Dad at that piano – and the singing. Sometimes our mother would join in. She loved “Deep Purple,” “Japanese Sandman,” and “Don’t Bring Lulu.”

I don’t exaggerate to say that Dad could have played professionally. He was that good. He read music, of course, (the piano bench overflowed with sheet music), but he could play by ear and knew how and when to toss in a tasteful flourish or boogie things up.

They paid for piano lessons, but, to my eternal regret, I was too young to appreciate them, and didn’t stick with it. Actually, I believe I was sent home in disgrace when my teacher discovered I’d been cutting pictures out of my lesson book, rendering some of the exercises unplayable. What a comfort it would be, in these days of isolation, to sit down and pick out a tune. How blessed Steve is in that respect, with any of his thousand guitars in hand.

What I did appreciate was Dad’s talent, and I loved to sit beside him, turning pages as he spun out “Stardust,” “Paper Doll, or “Sleepytime Gal.” In a way, I learned to read on sheet music, memorizing as fast as I could to be able to sing along.

Sleepytime gal, you’re turning night into days.

Sleepytime gal. you’ve danced the hours away.”

Sleep doesn’t come as easily to me these days as it did then, but lately, I’ve found an aide to my slumbers, a sort of sleepytime gal of my own. Her name is Rosemary Clooney. Hers was always an expressive voice, one of my favorites, especially on dreamy ballads like “Hey There,” “Mixed Emotions,” and her incomparable rendition of “Tenderly.” I regretted the wildly popular but inane and jangly novelties forced on her by Mitch Miller, and as I learned later, so did she.

I met her once, with John, in Cincinatti. John was indulging me with a trip to a movie poster convention and he had found a refurbished art deco hotel (I wish I could remember the name of it), whose bar was a hangout for musicians. One night, Clooney walked in. John was crazy about her but too shy to approach until I egged him on. She was very gracious to him, and I know it was the highlight of his trip.

Quite recently, thanks to Danny Callahan, I’ve discovered what is surely her most beautiful album, called, most appropriately, Love.

Rosemary Clooney’s “Love” album cover

It’s done after the height of her ’50’s pop fame, in collaboration with Frank Sinatra’s frequent arranger, Nelson Riddle. At the time, Clooney and Riddle were deep in an affair, and it shows. His scoring caresses her voice, and she breathes into each lyric a sensual intimacy that is achingly, breathtakingly personal.

This isn’t primarily an album of standards, though there are a few: “Someone to Watch over Me,” “More than you Know.” Mainly, Clooney has chosen personal favorites, out of the way gems like “Invitation” and “I wish it So.” Each is delivered with such thoughtful attention to phrasing and articulation that it’s as though she fears a single misjudged syllable will shatter the spell she is weaving.

And what a spell it is. The best way I can describe its effect on me is that it’s as if a falling angel were whispering torrid lullabies in my ear. I lie in bed, savoring each word, but can’t seem to get past more than four tracks before my lids close in a deep and luscious sleep.

Before each silvery star fades out of sight,

Please give me one little kiss, then let us whisper goodnight.”

I can hear Dad’s voice on the next line, though sometimes he’d just whistle it.

“It’s gettin’ late and dear, your pillow’s waitin’.

Goodnight all.

Harold Lang

These are strange times. You never know whom or what you’re going to wake up thinking about. This morning – actually about 4:00 a,m. – for me it was Harold Lang.

If it’s possible to have an aural crush on someone, I did, at about thirteen. I’d never seen Lang, not even a picture, but that year his voice was splashed all over two of the best selling LPs: Kiss me Kate and Pal Joey. There was just something inexplicably seductive about that voice. It was the kind you get when you’ve a bit of a cold and start to sing in the shower. You wish it could stay that way because then you could have a recording career.

Lang’s voice was well suited to the roles he was getting on Broadway, bad boys, heels with charm to burn. And it was perfect for the slangy, whiz-bang lyrics of Lorenz Hart in such tunes as “You Mustn’t Kick it Around” and “Plant you now, dig you Later.” Like the characters he played, this was a voice smooth as syrup, with an astringent aftertaste, caressing, teasing, and brash. It was a voice freighted with frankly naughty implications, and it made the adolescent me sit up and take notice.

Then, I began to see pictures of Lang, handsome and playful. The result was a full blown crush. Many of these photos caught him in mid air.

Harold Lang

He’d  started as a dancer with the Ballet Russe and was spotted by Jerome Robbins who cast him as a sailor in “Fancy Free,” the forerunner of On the Town. Lang was born to wear sailor suits, and to leap about in them, being a spectacularly athletic dancer, a kind of human jumping jack.

His agility and vocal chops recommended him to Cole Porter for the role of Bill who “can’t behave” in Kiss me Kate. Lang was a prankster, and perhaps a jerk, neither of which endeared him to Porter. In rehearsals, he took to stuffing his Shakespearean tights with obscene padding. Porter is reported to have grumbled, “If that cod piece grows any bigger, he’s fired.” He wasn’t fired.

Perhaps more than any other dancer, his athleticism evoked Gene Kelly, and he inherited a part created on stage by Kelly, the calculating womanizer, Pal Joey. At first, there was just a studio recording of the show, but what a recording, with Lang singing opposite the original Vera, Vivienne Segal. Its sales led to a sizzling revival of the play. It outran its predecessor. Perhaps New York was warming to louses. Lang continued to work in the theater, but his greatest successes were behind him. Eventually, he found admiration and acclaim as a teacher of dance.

Since he had popped back into my head so vividly and unexpectedly, I decided to reward myself for getting out of bed by googling him. I found, among other things, a video of his appearance on the Red Skelton Show. It was an eye opener. He does the “I Could Write a Book” number from Pal Joey. His swagger and self amusement are evident at once. He sings to Cindy Robbins, and though she appears ready to swoon, there isn’t much chemistry from his direction. Maybe that was reserved for lovers like Gore Vidal. There are also a group of little girls, just the sort with which Kelly could engage so charmingly. The tots are given short shrift as Lang speeds toward a dazzling display of gymnastic choreography: leaps that soar, Olympic grade flips and bounces that – well, bounce.

That was as close as I’d come to seeing him live. Just as well. I’d have made a stammering fool of myself asking for an autograph. But that’s how it is with ancient crushes.