Monday, February 28, 2011

Jane Russell

Jane Russell, the well-known actress (who also sang with Kay Kyser's orchestra, for part of 1947), has passed away.  She was 89.

(Photo:  Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Radio Once More"

Since mid-January, I’ve appeared several times on the Internet radio station “Radio Once More,” as both a guest, and guest co-host (on the station’s four-times-per-week talk and entertainment program, The Live Show). The station features Old-Time Radio and nostalgia-oriented programming.

The hosts of The Live Show (as I’ve noted previously) are Neal Ellis and Ken Stockinger. The program airs Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 9 p.m. to midnight, and is heard on Sundays from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.

Featured on tonight’s program:  a conversation with Laura Leff, the president of the International Jack Benny Fan Club. The program can be heard at

The S.S. United States's new owners

I’m very pleased to note that the S.S. United States, the legendary ocean liner, is now owned by the S.S. United States Conservancy, the organization which has, for some time, led a campaign on behalf of the ship’s preservation.  The Conservancy acquired the title to the ocean liner at the beginning of February.

The ship, which has not been in use since 1969, has been docked, since 1996, on the Philadelphia waterfront. I wrote in a post last year that the fate of the ship (which had been owned since 2003 by the Norwegian Cruise Line company) was in doubt. The cruise line, it had been reported, was considering bids, for the ship, from scrap companies.

In 2010, the S.S. United States Conservancy received a $5.8 million gift from H. F. “Gerry” Lenfest, the Philadelphia philanthropist. The money provided by Mr. Lenfest paid for the purchase of the ship—the cost was $3 million—as well as providing for 20 months of maintenance fees.

The Conservancy said, on its website: “Owners Norwegian Cruise Line/Genting Hong Kong entered an exclusive purchase option with the Conservancy last year, graciously declining a bid twice as high from a vessel scrapper, in order to support the Conservancy’s efforts. The Conservancy is deeply grateful to both Gerry Lenfest and Norwegian/Genting for their support.” (Genting is one of the parent companies of NCL.)

As I have noted previously in this space (and as I wrote in my book), the final telecast of the 1951-1952 season of Your Hit Parade, on NBC, took place on the ship, five days before its maiden voyage.

Here is additional information about the purchase of the ship. The last link is to a New York Post piece by Dan McSweeney, the S.S. United States Conservancy’s executive director.

(Above: cover of the 1953 children's book The Superliner United States, published by Rand McNally & Company.)

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lady Gaga, and "Your Hit Parade"

Lady Gaga (who is, I think, a terrific singer, and performer) will be interviewed on tonight’s telecast of CBS's 60 Minutes. She will also be appearing on tonight's Grammy Awards, also airing on CBS.

Here are a few thoughts about her—and about the Hit Parade TV show from the 1950s. (I am going to try, here, to briefly establish a connection between Lady Gaga, and the TV show.)

First, Your Hit Parade:

There was a difference in intent, between the Hit Parade radio show, which made its debut in 1935, and the TV show, which appeared in 1950.

The radio show (which notably, for a time, starred Frank Sinatra) featured vocal and orchestral performances of each week’s hit songs. The television show, on the other hand, featured not simply music, but dramatizations of the songs.

Hit songs routinely appeared on the Hit Parade for weeks at a time. The TV show’s producers, in creating the television version of the program, decided that song dramatizations—storytelling treatments, which changed from week to week—could serve to attract, and maintain, the interest of viewers.

In 1981, I spoke with Ted Fetter, one of the television show’s creators, and one of its producers in its early years; the interview with him appears in my book. He told me (as noted in the book) that while viewers of the TV show might enjoy learning which song was the number one song each week,

the greater appeal of the TV show, for viewers—“the point of the show,” Fetter said—was the stories themselves, and viewer curiosity regarding how the same songs—appearing week after week—would be presented; what the stories, the fictional treatments, would be.

And now, to Lady Gaga.

I like her singing a great deal, she dances/moves nicely on stage, and is a fine musician (she not infrequently accompanies herself, on piano).

She is also (as has often been noted by others) very theatrically-oriented: she often seems engaged, on-stage, in a kind of performance art.

Which perhaps explained, to some degree, the outfit, made of meat, that she wore to last year's  MTV Video Music Awards. While she offered, indeed,  a socio/political explanation of the outfit, I think there were probably a lot of people (I would include myself in that group) who thought the idea of it was pretty unpleasant.

(She explains, here, her motivation for wearing the outfit: )

Yet, nevertheless: I think  Lady Gaga is extremely talented. One of the things I particularly like about her is the changing nature of her performances.

The staging of her songs often changes, from one performance to another. Sometimes it is more minimal, straightforward; at other times, it is elaborate, spectacle-like.

In the first YouTube video, below (from a 2009 MTV performance of“Paparazzi"), Lady Gaga emerges from a volcano-like construct; the pieces of the volcano move, and shift, during the song (the people operating the pieces, from behind, are occasionally visible).

In the second video, below, also from 2009, Gaga performs “Paparazzi" by herself, at a piano in a radio station studio—what she calls her acoustic version of the song.

As the presentations of her songs regularly change, so, too, frequently, does Lady Gaga change, in a physical sense. There is, I think, something of a chameleon-like quality to her; she often looks markedly different, from one appearance to another—because of hair style, say, or costuming, or makeup. Her look can change, too, within the same performance, as she removes, say, a mask covering part of her face (also part of the first video, above). She puts me in mind (to some degree) of photographer Cindy Sherman, and how (in Sherman’s “film stills” series) her physical appearance regularly changes.

There are, certainly, great differences in tone and style between Lady Gaga and Your Hit Parade. The Hit Parade was part of a dramatically different era; the TV show did not, for example, contain anything approaching the sexuality which has been a part of Lady Gaga’s performances.

Yet there is nonetheless, it seems to me, this commonality: that in a manner similar to the Hit Parade, in which the dramatizations of songs changed from week to week, and viewers tuned in to see how the song productions would change, Lady Gaga pays heed to the idea of variation, on stage—altering, with regularity, how she presents a song to audiences, how a song is staged, choreographed, performed. She thus avoids, in this way, a sense of pre-conception: her audiences are not sure what to expect.

Here are two videos of Lady Gaga performing her 2009 song “Bad Romance.” The first is from Ellen DeGeneres’s TV show. The second is from the British TV series, The X Factor. (In the second video, the performance of the song begins at approx. 1: 15.)

(Photo above:  Lady Gaga performing "Paparazzi" on MTV, via YouTube)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Buddy Holly

Buddy Holly died on February 3, 1959, 52 years ago today, in an Iowa plane crash. He was twenty-two.

Here is a video of Holly from December of 1957, singing “Peggy Sue.” The appearance took place on NBC’s dance-oriented show, The Arthur Murray Party.

He and The Crickets are introduced by the show’s host, Kathryn Murray. Kathryn Murray was married to Arthur Murray.

Here, too, is Holly's recording of "Everyday":