My Mother, Lu Mitchell

Lu Mitchell, my mother and satirical songwriter, died March 25 at the age of 95. A memorial service was held May 5, 2019, at Sons of Hermann Hall in Deep Ellum. This is the eulogy I delivered.

“MOM” – the word might sound odd when attached to the name of the woman who wrote “The Night John Bobbitt Lost His Weeny.” I was reminded of this when one of her musician friends said to me, “I keep forgetting that when you refer to ‘Mom,’ you mean Lu.” True enough.

It’s hard to remember when Lu – that is, Mom – was not a performer and something of a public person. We presume she was born a performer, though her working class parents, Irish and Hungarian, were not musical or theatrical. She found her voice singing in Girl Scouts, and in her early 20s discovered acting at the Bethlehem Civic Theater in Pennsylvania, where she met and married my dad, Gene, a director and playwright. They both had day jobs at the Bethlehem Steel Company – not a place that encouraged creative types. They needed something different and in 1949 took off for Texas after seeing an article in Holiday Magazine promoting the new Southwest. They didn’t know a soul here. Dad originally wanted to go to Vancouver or San Francisco, but Mom hated the Pennsylvania winters and insisted on someplace warm.

THOSE FIRST years in Dallas – South Oak Cliff, in fact – were not just warm but a scramble to make ends meet, with no time left for self-expression beyond the occasional charades party. The turning point came when she met Hermes Nye, a lawyer and writer who played the guitar and sang old English ballads and cowboy songs. Mom wanted in on that right away and started taking guitar lessons. She and Hermes and a couple others founded the Dallas Folk Music Society and helped bring Pete Seeger to town when he was still blacklisted.

Something was in the air, the times were a changin’, and because of Mom, I was surrounded by it – albums by the Weavers and Judy Collins and Bob Dylan, plus the hootenannies, where she and other grownups strummed these big, beautiful Martins and Gibsons, transmitting songs that settled in my soul. The music seemed important and different from what was on the radio. It was full of history and the blues, storytelling and poetry – and righteous. Songs about the struggles of the common man, the Civil Rights movement and against the War. Lu and Gene had left the Catholic Church, and the three of us happily became Unitarians. If someone had asked me then what kind of music was played in the Unitarian Church, I would have said Woody Guthrie and Odetta. Folk music and Unitarians seemed to go together.

AT THE TIME, I took all this for granted, as a kid does. Only later did I come to appreciate what a gift it had been. She also taught me to play the guitar and banjo and even allowed me to back her up on occasion. If that’s not love…

She didn’t want me to play football – evidence that she was not a native Texan. “It hurts me to see you lying on the ground like that,” she said after watching me get crumpled as an undersized quarterback on the 9thgrade team at St. Mark’s. To spare her further angst – and there might have been other reasons – I gave up football after that season. She worried a year earlier that my being at an all-boys school was stunting my social development. The red flag? Unlike her, I didn’t know how to do the Twist, let alone the Foxtrot and Waltz. Nor, at age 14, did I seem to care. She enrolled me in Dick Chaplin’s dance studio at Preston Center – tough love – and drove me there faithfully from Farmers Branch every Tuesday night, at least once in an ice storm.

SHE BELIEVED in education. She wanted to go to college after high school and certainly had the ability, but her father, a crane operator at the Steel Company, did not support that ambition. No one in her family had gone to college at that point, and if anyone did, it wasn’t going to be a woman, her father said. She never forgave him for that. She later earned a two-year associate degree at Richland College, going to classes after work. She helped make it possible for me to go to Brown and later for her two grandchildren, my son and daughter, to attend top colleges. She was generous. She was generous toward her band, too, and shared her appearance fees equally with all who played with her, not typical of someone whose name is on the marquee.

She had talents apart from music. She could sew, really sew. When my dad joined the staff at the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts (as it was then known) and was expected to attend the beaux arts ball and other classy events, she couldn’t afford to buy a gown from Neiman’s so she made her own – from sheets! You look at photos of those dresses, and they don’t look cheap. They look like they were designed by somebody. Which, of course they were.

Whenever I moved, which was often, the first thing she wanted to know about my new apartment was the dimensions of the windows so she could make curtains. She was always concerned about my living quarters and how she could help improve them. She could have been an interior designer. She had an eye. Which is not to say we always saw eye to eye in this regard. There came a point where I had to say, “Mom, enough with the decorating help. I’m 42 years old.” I moved to New York from L.A. about that time, and I was not yet married. She wanted to come along. “Mom, really? This is not a good look for a grown man, moving to New York with his mother.”

But she was stubborn, harking back to her childhood during the Depression when, as she said, “families helped each other with everything.” Right, well, eventually I gave in because she had been taking care of my dad, who was ill, and I thought she could use a break. I had rented a truck and so on we went to Manhattan in an Isuzu cabover, mom riding shotgun. I think she composed “The Great K-Mart Singalong” somewhere in Tennessee, and I might have contributed a line or two. Families helping each other with everything.

SHE WORKED 29 years as a secretary for the Dallas office of Eastman Kodak, a company that also did not encourage creative types – or women. The political climate there was such that the day John Kennedy was shot, she noticed her office manager was not at work and thought he probably did it. She wrote a song about wanting to stuff her boss in the paper shredder, but she never gave up that day job until she qualified for a pension.

She and my dad had both known real financial hardship as children. They were tough in ways that my own generation did not have to be. She had an iron will and determination that I wish I had inherited. My dad brooded – not her. Therapy? What was that? The whole notion was foreign to her, like anxiety itself. That is, until her last years, when she started having some episodes, and I found a therapist for her. I took her to see him four or five times, but it didn’t seem to be helping. I asked her, “Do you want to continue to see Dr. Fogle?”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “He’s a nice man, but he asks me questions, and I don’t want to give the wrong answer.”

 “What kind of questions?” I said.

“Like, ‘What’s bothering you?’”

I MOVED to Los Angeles about the time she took the Kodak buyout that allowed her to go full speed into songwriting and performing. So I missed a lot. But she called regularly to keep me informed and report on the latest show she had done with Catch-23, the name she gave to the group backing her up. Catch-23 had different members through the years, but they were all good. Some of them are here tonight. (Would all members of Catch-23 past and present please stand and be recognized?) She attracted fine musicians – including the many who played only on her albums – and you can hear that for yourselves on the compilation CD we’ve put together and are giving out for everyone to take home.

Looking back, she was smart about making a place for herself in the herd of talented pickers and singers who filled the stages of coffee houses and folk clubs in the wake of The Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and Dylan. She did her own thing, writing new lyrics, usually humorous, to the tunes of traditional ballads, in the folk tradition. And though she recorded 11 albums, her best work was in front of an audience.

SHE DREAMED of being on The Tonight Show, and, yeah, that could have happened, but it didn’t. I have no doubt that had the opportunity presented itself, she would have killed, as we say today. She had no fear onstage. She probably should have been on Prairie Home Companion, but that never happened either, for whatever reason. Doesn’t matter now. I want to think she achieved just the right level of acclaim and success, somewhere safely this side of the “big time” in the music business – where she would have needed therapy. She played Uncle Calvin’s 51 times and made it to Musikfest back in her hometown of Bethlehem maybe 10 times. Not counting the hours spent behind an IBM Selectric, helping one boss or another reach his sales quota, she did what she wanted to do and heard a lot of applause.

On a trip to New York for the Dallas Times Herald in the 1970s, I went to a club to hear a great blues singer and piano player named Alberta Hunter, who was 80 at the time. The notion that Alberta Hunter was, my God, 80, and still performing, was newsworthy. I could not have imagined then that I would one day witness my mother take the stage at age 90, during a birthday concert at Poor David’s Pub.

I had moved back to Dallas by then to help care for her as she became more frail and battled nerve pain in her back and legs. I arrived with the apprehension that any son might have contemplating moving back in with his mother in his 60s – even one who had taught him to play the guitar. And the apprehension was justified. It was not easy. I watched her trademark good cheer being eroded by pain and old age. We argued over many things, including the temperature setting in the house. Sauna level was her default.

SHE PREFERRED donuts and coffee cake to anything nutritious, and my attempts to cook healthy meals for her were mostly in vain. “I’m not a big eater,” she would say as she pushed a bowl of pasta or an omelet aside that she had barely touched. Ten minutes later, after the table was cleared, I would spot her in the kitchen spooning out some ice cream or chocolate pudding. A role reversal had taken place, with me now the parent admonishing the child to eat her vegetables. Which, by the way, she never did. Her defense was always, “Well, I lived to be this age.” What could I say?

When her eyesight got worse, and I said it wasn’t safe for her to be driving anymore, she agreed. But often when she agreed to things, she had her fingers crossed behind her back. One morning a few weeks later, before I was up, I heard a car pull into the driveway. I bolted out of bed and went out to confront her. She had driven just a few blocks to Walmart to get milk, but it had been raining, and I could see muddy tire marks on the lawn.

“Mom, you drove over the lawn,” I said.

“Well,” she said, “I’m out of practice.”

There were unexpected pleasures and challenges in this unplanned reunion of mother and son at this stage of our lives. And I should mention that I got a lot of help from Elizabeth Van Vleck, a former dancer whose artistic sensibilities and compassion Mom could sense the moment they met.

SINCE SHE COULD no longer read, I read to her, something we had never done before and, it occurred to me, represented another role reversal. Both at home and after she moved into assisted living, we read almost every night, a chapter or two at a time, biographies of Leonard Cohen and Paul Simon, folk producer Jim Rooney’s memoir, Maureen Corrigan’s wonderful book about the The Great Gatsby (her favorite novel) and others.

She loved crossword puzzles but needed a partner to read the clues. Despite her memory loss, she was amazing at coming up with correct answers — truly. She figured out words before I did.

We also watched television, though she would have to sit close. Some of her favorites might surprise you. She liked Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under and House of Cards, in addition to historical dramas from the BBC in which sexual relations were portrayed more candidly than in the days of Alistair Cooke.

 “Did they sleep together?” she asked me one night. We were watching an episode of Poldark, and Ross, the series’ attractive hero (“He’s so good looking!”), after months of virtuous resistance, had finally taken the comely maid, Demelda, to bed. Unlike the racier Tudors,which she loved, the mechanics were not clear, and with her failing eyes she could not be sure if the romance had been consummated.

AT A YOUNGER AGE, my mother would not have asked me such a question. In fact I would not have been watching shows and movies like this with her. She sang in public about mammograms and the tawdry motel hook-ups of Jimmy Swaggart, but frank talk about sex had never been part of dinner table conversation. Now, in her last years those inhibitions were suspended, and I was hearing pronouncements like, “I don’t think I’d kick him out of bed.” What does a son say to that?

And the news about all her boyfriends! After my return to the family homestead on Eric Lane, she shared with me, for the first time, photos of all the suitors she had before marrying Dad at age 23. Where these photos had been all these years, I have no idea, but now she had them organized in an album, which she reviewed with me on several occasions. “He proposed to me,” she would say, staring at the headshot of a nice-looking guy in uniform. Next page, different guy. “He asked me to marry him.” And next page, “I almost married him,” a guy she said was headed to Harvard after the war – that being World War II. Hmmm. Wonder how that would have turned out? Would she have come to folk music from another direction, in another place – or found a different outlet for her irreverence? Obviously, I would not be standing here if she had picked one of those other guys. But she didn’t. She and my dad had a marriage that lasted 50 years, until his death in 1996.

I’ve told you a lot about her and the many gifts she gave me, including the gift of herself. But the greatest gift was that she was supportive of anything and everything I did. I know not everyone gets that. I’m sure it’s going to take a while for me to get used to her not being here and asking me how my day went and could I bring her some sugar cookies? (The right kind, Pepperidge Farm.)

“Just didn’t want to see that obit,” Tom Adams said – Tom Adams, the Dallas cultural pioneer and a founder of the Texas International Theatrical Arts Society, known as TITAS. I’m sure he echoed the thoughts of many. “She was uncommon,” he said in his email, “You can’t copy that. She fed herself life. She was part of the great family of theater. She was made for the theater — theatrical hair, those oversize glasses. She will be missed.”

“She was, in many ways, ahead of her time,” Mike Granberry wrote in the admiring obit he did for The Morning News. I think he was right, and the proof of that to me is in the number of young women who recognized her in recent years when Elizabeth and I took her out in public — to a play or a concert. They would come over to her wheelchair and say, “Are you Lu Mitchell? I saw you at such and such place in such and such year…” And invariably they would add what an inspiration she had been to them and thank her. That would make her day. And mine, as well.

I ONLY WISH some of those encounters could have been shared across time and space with the nun at Bethlehem Catholic High School who once said to her…“Miss Reiser, we’ll never make a lady out of you.” That nun knew what she was talking about. But she didn’t know the rest.


Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Joan Baez Says Farewell

THE 60s LIVED ON a little longer last night watching and listening to Joan Baez onstage at Strauss Square, presumably the last time she’ll play Dallas. This is her “Fare Thee Well Tour.” She is 78. Never the chummiest of performers (maybe she and Dylan made a pact not to charm audiences back in 1965), she seemed at first as chilly as the unseasonable April breeze. No “Big D, how ya doin’?” show biz from her. She gets right to the music and remains a folk singer with issues and justice on her mind and in her voice. With only 2 sidemen (one of them her son, Gabriel, a drummer) and a backup singer who appeared mid-show, she stood center stage for more than 90 minutes, picking and strumming a few acoustic guitars with a singular skill and conviction, reminding the thousand or so faithful at the outdoor venue of her history of marching for peace and civil rights. I wondered what number show this would be in a career that started in the late 1950s at Club 47 in Boston and the Newport Folk Festival?

She opened with Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice” and did two more by Bob, “It Ain’t Me, Babe” and the protest era standard “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall.” She sang them without the sharp edges of the originals, more laments than confrontations. Not known primarily as a songwriter, she did deliver a stellar “Diamonds and Rust,” her killer song about Dylan and herself when they were young together. Other numbers included Phil Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” Donovan’s “Catch the Wind,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” tagged to a plea for respect for the migrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. (A reminder that some things haven’t changed much since Guthrie wrote that song in 1948.) She did lesser knowns by Tom Waits, a song about coming to terms with mortality, the ironic Chilean protest anthem “Gracias a la Vida,” Paul Simon’s “The Boxer,” “House of the Rising Sun” and the negro spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” she performed at Woodstock in 1969. She introduced it with a story of how she once sang it for a slumbering Martin Luther King in Alabama during the freedom march days in order to rouse him in time to give a speech. Close to charming, that one. I did miss “Amsterdam” and maybe one or two more from her Newport days, but the set list was solid. Does she still sing “The Night They Drive Old Dixie Down?” Possibly not.

AFTER A COUPLE encores, she closed with a distinctive take on “Dink’s Song,” the public domain classic about having wings like Nora’s Dove in order to fly away to one you love. Oscar Isaac sang it in Inside Llewen Davis. “Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well” goes the refrain. Which took on additional meaning now for her audience last night. Who wants to think about that?

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Live from Here Was Here


MUCH AS I ADMIRED Chris Thile during his time in Nickel Creek, I’ve been slow to accept him as the worthy successor to Garrison Keillor. He hosts Live from Here Saturday afternoons on your local NPR station, and Saturday the show was live from the Winspear Opera House here in Dallas. I went, curious, and also eager to hear The Head and the Heart, one of the featured bands. Seeing the show in person completely won me over to Thile, who is surely the Eric Clapton of the mandolin, covering Bach to the Pixies with a dexterity that seems impossible. Winning stage presence, too. Charming, warm, humble, funny.

I was introduced to Thile and Nickel Creek back in 2000 during Prairie Home Companion’s visit to the Pasadena Civic. Loved him and his modern bluegrass band instantly — put them on the annual family mix tape (“Reasons Why”). Hard to believe that was 19 years ago.

Let me connect more dots: I learned about The Head and the Heart from my son, Devin, circa 2012, and put “Down in the Valley” on another mix tape. It could have been the theme song for my drive back to Dallas after 28 years in Los Angeles (“I am on my way back to where I started…”). The band did not disappoint at the Winspear, and their last song, a new one, “People Need a Melody,” shouted “keeper.” The lyrics, about musical touchstones in the mind and memory pack a punch (“People need a melody to open their eyes / Like a key to a memory frozen in time…Boy, when you gonna learn that the world moves fast”).

IT’S DIFFICULT AND PROBABLY futile to try to explain why a song can have such meaning and power because of one’s own history and references. But the Head and the Heart clobbered me with that one, onstage with Thile, not long after my musical mom left us, she being my introduction to all this kind of music going back to when I was 10 years old. Well, there you have it. An extraordinary show that seemed more than the sum of its parts, and I haven’t mentioned the half of it. Esperanza Spalding? Who knew? I guess Thile knew. I hate to use the word “magic,” and maybe it was just me, but I felt something transcendent took place in Arts District Saturday. And I am newly grateful that the forces of darkness did not succeed in defunding the National Endowment for the Arts and public broadcasting. KERA. Go public!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Rickie Fowler Untucks the PGA

AS SOMEONE WHO came to golf later in life, there’s a lot about the game I still don’t understand – like some of the inscrutable rules and the rigid and senseless dress code in force on the pro tour. Just how rigid and senseless was underscored last week when Rickie Fowler made headlines at Torrey Pines by daring to to wear a shirt not tucked into his slacks, bucking the custom that has been in place for golfers since at least the First World War. The daring part is overstated; he had to ask permission first from the Lords of the PGA, who for some reason (Fowler has been ranked as high as #4 in the world) granted his request. Oh, let’s take a flyer on this one, guys. It’s California.

Predictably, golf’s hidebound clan immediately took to Twitter to decry this violation of country club tradition, dissing Fowler’s full-buttoned and collared Hawaiian-style shirt (from Puma) as “unprofessional.” Some said he “looked like a bum.” “I thought he had manners?” “What’s next, shorts?” Please. What’s “professional” about John Daly’s fashion-crushing outfits? Or the unsightly bulk of Trump stuffed into standard links attire. I guess by PGA standards ugly doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got all the extra yards of fabric tucked into pants cinched with a white patent leather belt that could have belonged to Pat Boone or the guys on “The Love Boat.” By the way, who made that the modern golfer’s uniform? Not Ralph Lauren or Tommy Hilfinger.

I THOUGHT FOWLER looked great, but then I’ve been waiting and waiting for someone on the tour to bust this move. It’s long overdue and likely here to stay because untucked shirts can not only be flattering but are cooler and more practical if you’re walking 18 in the Sahara summers of Texas. And who wants to keep tucking in a wet shirt every other hole?

It defies logic and common sense that businessmen in the great Southwest still adhere to the obligatory coat and tie in July, when temps soar into the sweat-soaking 100s, but at least they spend most of their days indoors. Golfers get no such shelter and, with enough sunscreen, could play naked. At least let them wear loose shirts that allow more air flow to the upper body.

ON PUBLIC COURSES around here some amateurs already wear their shirts outside their pants in the summer (not to mention shorts) but they occasionally get the evil eye from purists who view such behavior as disrespectful of “the royal and ancient game.” By the way, the royal and ancient game had its beginnings in Scotland, where too much clothing was never a problem in any season.

Tennis gave up its archaic all-white dress code at the 1972 U.S. Open. Forty-seven years later, Rickie Fowler is giving the untucked among us the encouragement of a top-ranked player to be cool on the golf course. I’ll take it.

 

Posted in Sports, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Who Is Jackson C. Frank?

WATCHING THE NEW Robert Redford movie, The Old Man & the Gun, a song popped up onscreen that sounded familiar. It recalled Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin'” from Midnight Cowboy: solo acoustic guitar, 2-finger picking, restless male vocal, spare arrangement. Eric Andersen? “Wherever I have played, the blues have run the game…” I liked it immediately and gave the director (David Lowery) points for picking a forgotten song that deftly underlined the story of a romantic outlier robbing banks (nonviolently) for the thrill of it, in Texas and other places, in the 1970s and ’80s. A tamer, older Sundance perhaps, with Redford, now past 80, looking comfortably crusty and dusty in the role, a mysterious drifter whose compulsive illegality is complicated by a chance encounter with a winsome ranch widow (Sissy Spacek).

But what was that song? The end credits rolled by too fast to I.D. it, and the movie’s official website and IMDB listing do not include the songs in the soundtrack. (What’s up with that, by the way?) Finally I found a website, filmmusicreporter.com, that showed the movie’s song list, followed by a reader comment, “At last, someone else has discovered Jackson Frank. Beautiful song from an underrated and tragic singer/songwriter.” That had to be it, and a trip to i-Tunes confirmed as much, along with discovering it’s used in one of the film’s trailers.

“Blues Run the Game” is the title, but who is Jackson C. Frank? Turns out I’d heard of him but forgotten. Born in 1943 in Buffalo, New York, he was a singer-songwriter who in his early 20s found his way to England about the same time as Paul Simon — both drawn to the rich folk scene there as the Beatles were conquering America. They became friends. (Robert Hilburn mentions him in his recent biography of Simon.) Frank recorded his only album there in 1965, which Simon produced, and it included “Blues Run the Game,” the cut that is heard in The Old Man & the Gun.

SIMON & GARFUNKEL recorded a version and almost put it on their Sounds of Silence album. (It’s included on a later collection, Old Friends.) Eric Andersen, as best I can determine, did not record the song, but many others did, including English folk icon Bert Jansch, Fairport Convention’s Sandy Denny, who dated Frank for a time. Many others have covered it — John Renbourn, Nick Drake, John Mayer and Counting Crows. The song was also used in a 2016 episode of the TV show This is Us.

So, yeah, I knew I’d heard it somewhere. Frank, sadly, is not around to enjoy his newfound fame as he died in obscurity in Massachusetts in 1999, at the age of 56 of pneumonia and cardiac arrest after years of schizophrenia, ill-health and a period of homelessness. This, according to Wikipedia. He seems to have led a hard life that could be traced back to surviving a furnace explosion in grade school that killed 15 of his classmates and left him with lasting injuries. You figure he could not have imagined his words and voice — and a song he wrote and recorded in England in 1965 — one day matched to the big screen face of the actor who played the Sundance Kid, Bob Woodward and so many other memorable roles.

It occurs to me that underappreciated ’60s folksinger Dave Van Ronk is someone who could have relished Frank’s posthumous recognition, but then he, too, died before witnessing his own cinematic redemption, as the model for the title character in the Coen brothers’ 2013 film Inside Llewen Davis.

One o’ dese days, an’ it won’t be long,
Call my name an’ I’ll be gone.
Fare thee well, O Honey, fare thee well.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Arizona Phony

October 5, 2018

Senator Jeff Flake:

I am sorely disappointed by today’s news that you will vote to confirm Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, proving that your request for a further FBI investigation was merely a show, winning you some national attention while playing the American people for stooges. In the end you concluded the White House-constrained FBI investigation was “thorough,” when it is public knowledge now that significant leads were not followed and key witnesses not interviewed. It was a sham. So you are a liar as well as a showman.

Your brief and misleading turn as a putative hero in this crisis of partisanship threatening our democracy will be replaced permanently in chronicles of American history with the plain truth that you are, on the contrary, a profile in cowardice. You will indeed be famous—or, more accurately, infamous. I’m trying to imagine what that would feel like.

You had nothing to lose by voting your conscience on Kavanaugh, but that assumes that you have a conscience.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Removing Ben Fountain from the DMA Recalls the 1950s in Dallas

 

ONE OF THE MOST jarring pieces of cultural news in Dallas this fall concerns something that is not going to happen. Ben Fountain, the distinguished local author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, will not be speaking at the Dallas Museum of Art about his newest book, Beautiful Country Burn Again as expected. According to published accounts, he’s been disinvited by the museum’s new director, Augustin Arteaga, because Beautiful Country Burn Again, a collection of essays about the 2016 presidential election written for U.K.’s Guardian newspaper, is presumed to be “divisive,” in Arteaga’s words, as quoted in D Magazine’s online blog that broke the story.

The book is not out yet, but its subtitle, Democracy, Rebellion and Revolution, plus the publisher’s synopsis were apparently all Arteaga needed to yank Fountain from an “Arts & Letters Live” appearance that coordinator Carolyn Bess had been planning with him. (Fountain has appeared at the DMA’s speakers series before.) “Ben Fountain argues that the United States may be facing a third existential crisis,” reads the advance advertising from Harper Collins, “one that will require a ‘burning’ of the old order as America attempts to remake itself.”

“The museum is all about inclusivity,” Arteaga said, by way of explaining his decision. Inclusivity that does not include Ben Fountain.

Is this a big deal? Let’s see. Ben Fountain is Dallas’ pre-eminent writer of the moment. His 2012 novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, an unmistakable literary achievement that got under the surface of Dallas, the Iraq War, Hollywood and the NFL all at the same time, was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller made into a feature film by Ang Lee. If Arteaga, who came to the DMA two years ago from the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City, is unaware of this, you’d think someone could tell him. Keeping Fountain out of the museum is likely to bring charges of censorship and timidity at the DMA, not to mention pissing a lot of people off.

MAYBE ARTEAGA (or someone who sets his salary) is afraid that Fountain’s unblinking views of America in the age of Donald Trump are going to piss off museum patrons and donors. Politics. Hard to escape these days. The museum has been in political controversies before, memorably in the McCarthy era of the 1950s when it was assailed by local citizens groups (one funded by oil baron H.L. Hunt) demanding that no works of art created by suspected communists be allowed on the walls – including Diego Rivera, George Grosz and Ben Shahn. Such was the fear in the air.

This is not quite the same – and Ben Fountain is a writer, not a painter – but removing or blocking him from the DMA’s popular Arts & Letters Live series raises the same issue of pre-emptive censorship at the museum, a public institution.

Unacknowledged by Arteaga in his spin-doctored rationale is that Dallas and the nation are already divided – as sharply and emotionally along partisan lines as anyone can remember – and that is likely a part of what Fountain explores in his reporting on the 2016 election. We expect our artists, visual and literary, to reckon with conflict and crisis in our midst, don’t we? Or would we prefer they look away and avoid it altogether?

Back in 1955 the museum’s critics and guardians of the public’s virtue worried that modern art was subversive and politically dangerous. Taking a cue from a Republican congressman’s assertions that art museums were agents of communist aggression, a group called the Dallas County Patriotic Council pressured the Park Board to cut off funding for the museum for “giving aid and comfort and prestige to [our] enemies.”

I remember some of this as a kid whose father was then the business manager of the museum, but the whole saga is chronicled in Francine Carraro’s 1994 biography of former director Jerry Bywaters for the University of Texas Press. It’s worth revisiting to remember how Bywaters and the museum stood up to that pressure. Bywaters rebuffed the Council’s demands to remove paintings by Rivera and others, and his board, headed by Stanley Marcus, backed him up with a statement that said, in effect, the citizens of Dallas were intelligent enough to view the offending paintings and make up their own minds.

THE FOLLOWING YEAR Bywaters and the museum took more flak ahead of the arrival of the traveling exhibit, “Sport in Art” – 85 works, four of them by artists with possible communist ties, including Ben Shahn, a Lithuanian-born American known for his social realism and left-wing views. His piece in the exhibit was a drawing of a baseball player. A prominent banker lobbied Stanley Marcus to have the four works removed, but Marcus pushed back. The show went up.

John Rosenfield, the respected Morning News art critic at the time, supported the museum in an editorial, quoting President Dwight Eisenhower, who at the celebration of the Museum of Modern Art’s 25thanniversary in New York had said, “Freedom of the arts is a basic freedom, one of the pillars of liberty in our land.”

Freedom prevailed against cant and fear in the art world of Dallas in the 1950s, in what looks now to have been a defining moment for the city, a demonstration of courage and principle that comes to mind as the museum today shows a different side of itself in closing the door to Ben Fountain. In the 1950s the attempted censorship was from outside the museum; this time it’s from within. It seems to me that is kind of a big deal.

Fountain will have other opportunities to speak about his book around town (publication date is Sept. 25), but that’s not the point. The point is that if the visitors to the museum were intelligent enough in 1955 to make up their own minds about art, surely they are capable of doing the same in 2018.

Editorial Note: I submitted a version of this column to the Dallas Morning News as an opinion piece for its Viewpoints page, and it was rejected — with the explanation that “the column makes an assertion that it doesn’t back up, that Fountain was censored by Arteaga or the board for political reasons.” Really? What other reasons would there be? 

Texas Monthly has a short interview with Fountain about the new book and his being disinvited by the DMA, in which he refers to Arteaga as “gutless.” Not sure if he meant that in a political way or some other way.

https://www.texasmonthly.com/the-culture/ben-fountain-thinks-the-revolution-is-coming/

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Robin Leach Could Have Been in Trump’s Cabinet

Robin Leach, the British-born TV celebrity and host of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” died Friday at the age of 76 in Las Vegas. Here is my encounter with him in Los Angeles in 1985, when he was shrewdly legitimizing greed and envy as cultural values that also produced high Nielsen ratings.

AMERICANS ONCE were squeamish about displays of wealth and mumbled when guests inquired into the benefits of the new oil well being drilled in the back yard. But history may record that a trans­planted, low-born Englishman changed all that beginning in the third year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

Robin Leach, whose first job on these shores was selling shoes at Lord & Taylor in New York, was, even then, happy to be here. He is, conceivably, happier now. An inde­fatigable journalist whose instincts for satisfying a variety of the public’s deepest fascinations have served him well through the years, Leach has risen from the tabloid lowlands of the supermarket press to his current first-class window seat as the globe-trotting host of the popular, unabashedly titled weekly television show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

In the process he has done and is doing as much as any American (he remains, somewhat apologetically, British) to elevate the once slump­ing connotation of the word “rich.”

“The world would be a pretty sorry place without the rich,” says Leach. “We should be grateful for them. The museums, the charities…”

He expresses his gratitude every week, audibly. On the widely syndi­cated Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (160 stations in the U.S. after one year on the air), Leach eagerly leads his camera crews past the iron-barred gates of mansions belonging to baronial entertainers and assorted world-­class entrepreneurs. Barbra Streis­and, Paul Newman, Ryan O’Neal, Lana Turner and Bunker Hunt swung open their doors to him in the show’s first year. For one of the upcoming shows of the new season, airing in February, he has scored what must be for him the ultimate story: the first extended TV inter­view with Adnan Khashoggi, the Saudi businessman and international arms dealer thought to be the world’s richest man.

“He’s a fan of the show,” Leach explains, with visible delight.

But the focus of Lifestyles isn’t so much the celebrities themselves as the loot they have accumulated – the customized swimming pools, multimillion-dollar yachts, palatial second homes, Swiss vineyards, Arabian stallions and retinues of servants. How many pairs of shoes does Cher own? Robin wants to know. The show is emblem and testament to the fruits of freeenterprise, luck or rapacity, de­pending on your point of view.

Leach, who is also the program’s executive producer, approvingly dubs it “a non-fiction version of Dallas and Dynasty.”

Unlike other celebrity interview shows that present three or four subjects in an hour, Lifestyles gallops through 12 to 14 segments in the same amount of time, taking in panoramic vistas of, opulence from the emerald lawns of Beverly Hills to the celestial penthouses of Houston to restored castles in the English countryside. And always there to read the price tags is Leach, whose punchy Fleet Street-­inspired commentary achieves a kind of secular reverence.

(He doesn’t actually do all the interviews himself, but back in the studio he adds his voice-over narrative to those done by assistants.)

“The voice, he admits, “is dis­tinctive or fascinating to Americans because it’s English.”

Yet for the record he makes light or his own television presence. His face shows up only in brief cut­aways from the splendor at hand. “My theory of Lifestyles is that it’s one of the first 60-minute shows without a host. I don’t think the people tune in to see me. They tune in to see the stars and their homes.”He says his staff jokes about the way he appears on camera. “They talk about my rumpled coat or my messy hair, but I feel you don’t see me that much. So why should I tart myself up with lacquered hair?”

True, his ears are a little expan­sive, his teeth a little thin, his hairline a little lofty by movie. Standards. But it’s possible that under the circumstances Leach’s looks might be perfect, accenting his role as the commoner invited to the royal wedding.

And not everyone would agree that he is quite so inconspicuous as he makes out. Saturday Night Live’s Harry Shearer has already taken notice of him in a recurring parody (Lifestyles of the Relatives of the Rich and Famous). Imper­sonations of Leach’s servant to-the­-manor hosannas have surfaced with a rising frequency at office and cocktail parties.

“I hear stories of people doing imitations of my voice on their answering machines,” Leach says with a hint of a smile. “I know that there is a club in Redondo Beach that every Sunday gives a Rich and Famous party where they all get into the Jacuzzi in tuxedos and evening gowns and sip champagne and watch the show.

“I know that we’ve become like a cult joke since the show has been on the air.” There is a note of resignation in his voice. “If that campiness is there, it certainly was never my intention to create that.”

“I don’t think he has much of a sense of humor,” says a colleague who has known him for some years. Robin takes himself very seriously.”

Leach prefers to think of himself as a dedicated reporter who takes his satisfaction from going after a good story and, especially, “getting an exclusive.” On Lifestyles an “exclusive” is more likely to be defined as the first televised inspec­tion of Marissa Berenson’s New York brownstone than an interview with the actress that anyone is likely to remember.

“The old Ed Murrow shows used to do this,” says the accommodating host on a morning in Hollywood when he was previewing some of the Khashoggi footage at the Sunset Gower Studios, the The West Coast home of Lifestyles.

“But their problem was they’d be sort of locked in position with three cameras for their remote, whereas with video technology today…with one camera, we can just go right through a house in five hours. And we can really peek into wardrobes, and we can really go in the bathroom and open up the medicine cabinet. I mean, I do it.”

Why do people let him do it? “I can’t answer that question. I just do not know that answer. Sometimes when I come off a shoot. I will go outside and go in the crew van and say. ‘Why on earth did they let us do that?’ ”

One reason, some think, is as simple as Madison Avenue. Whether a star is advertising her career or an entrepreneur his land holdings, exposure on Lifestyles is unlikely to diminish the value of either.

Leach has his own theory. “It may be a little cockney cheekiness that I have. Because I’ve been working in show business journal­ism for 25 years. Basically every­body trusts me. They know they’re not going to get screwed or roasted over. So if I ask somebody to get in a bathtub for me, they know that in the context of what we’re doing it’s not going to look like a cheap shot.”

It wasn’t from Edward R. Mur­row that Leach learned how to coax Morgan Fairchild into a tub with the cameras rolling. For almost as long as he can remember, he has walked a beat on the soft side of the news. And he has become as familiar to many entertainers as their hairdressers or psychiatrists.

“It’s tough being a show business figure. These people know that I care about them and their endeavors. They’re not all people who deserve to be hung and quartered. There’s a level of decency in all of us.”

“I don’t honestly think we’re doing anything different with this form of journalism than I’ve done all my life. Primarily “I’m a gossip and I don’t hide from the word.”

But the “gossip” on Lifestyles isn’t likely to make anyone recall Louella Parsons or even Rona Barrett. Any stars who might have been put off by Leach’s tabloid past have come around to seeing that on television he is up to no harm.

“I call it ‘soft gossip.”’ he says. “One can be sensational without being scandalous. I have a basic rule that you don’t hurt people in their pocketbook.”

UNTIL HE jumped ship to star in Lifestyles in August 1983, Leach’ was a roving reporter for Paramount Television’s Entertainment Tonight and before that for the Cable News Network. He left E, he says, because of creative differences. “My inclination, be­lieve it or not, has always been to stay away from the puffery of the business. To really get people to talk about how they live.” At “E.T.,’· he claims, he was asked to deliver “the serious side of the business” and “so we used to lock heads every now and then.”

On Lifestyles, a program that Leach created in collaboration withAl Masini (who also created Entertainment Tonight and Solid Gold), there is no such conflict.

“If you’ll notice, in the series we very, very rarely talk about people working. You’ll never hear an actress on this show sit there and say, “I want to stretch. I want to leave my 30-rninute-a-week sitcom on the network and go do Shake­speare.’ We’re only interested in bedrooms, baths” – he pronounces it baahths– what they sleep in, how they cook their breakfast, how they furnish their homes, what they choose to buy with their money.

The show has included “the world’s richest pet” (terrier bequeathed $12 million), “the most expensive penthouse in the world ($11.5 million) and a $3 million car. Financial superlatives fall like rain.

In one segment in the first season viewers were whisked to Midland, Texas, “home to more millionaires per square mile than anywhere in the world.” No millionaires turned up on screen. No people at all. As the camera panned across prairie skyscrapers and ranch mansions we simply heard Leach reciting a Dunn & Bradstreet profile of the town’s wealth.

“The American public’s appetite for this kind of gossip journalism­ – silk pajama journalism as I call it – is voracious. It just does not quit.”

One could assume that the appe­tite is shared by the man leading the video assaults on all these castles and mountain hideaways – a reporter, who, after all, has devoted much of his career to discovering what Mary Ann Mobley’s swimming pool looks like or how many rooms Paul Anka and his wife need to live comfortably. Yet Leach insists otherwise. “I have absolutely no persona interest in how famous people live their lives. None Whatsoever.” Then he adds, “Professionally I’m very interested.”

“That’s his stock answer,” says a Lifestyles staffer in the Los Ange­les office. “I don’t know why he always says that. I think he loves the whole celebrity thing.”

LEACH IS thrilled by the United States. He left England to come here when he was 21, after taking a hard look at the rigid salary scale dictated by British newspaper unions.

“Everybody has a dream, and America is the only country in the world where that dream is allowed to take seed and come to fruition, and you can be a winner. Americans forget that that privilege exists in this country It doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

“If only Americans realized how lucky they were to live in this country. Every time I run into a whining, sniveling American, I would love to be able to afford to send him on a trip to Europe. Not vacation – go and live there. And see what socialism has done. They’d come back in very short order.”

Yet curiously, Leach maintains that his primary motivation for creating Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, for tracking down the stars day in and day out, is not money.

“Money to me, I could give a damn about. I don’t make a lot of money. It’s not important to me.” Though he owns a piece of the show, which is likely to return him a small fortune some day, , in the meantime he is proud to point out that he pays himself only scale.

“My kick doesn’t come out of the paycheck. It’s getting inside the Vatican, getting permission from Buckingham Palace to let our cam­eras spend a night on the town with Diana and Charles.”

“Robin’s the most hard-working person I’ve ever come in contact with,” attests John Kalish, a director who worked with Leach on Entertainment Tonight. “He makes you feel guilty for taking time out for a sigh now and then.”

Leach, who is 42, spends a lot of time on airplanes, and when he is not airborne he divides his time between New York and Los Ange­les, where the show’s two produc­tion offices are located.

He owns “a very ordinary” house in Connecticut and rents a “tiny house” in the Hollywood Hills for the 10 days a month he spends here. He drives a Chrysler New Yorker when he’s back east and Hertz rent­-a-cars out here. He doesn’t want you to get the impression in other words, that he is becoming that which he covers.

“I wouldn’t want the worries these people have,” he says in an uncharacteristic disclaimer about life among the beautiful people.”

He is divorced, with no children, and is currently seeing soap opera actress Jackie Zeman. a regular on General Hospital. He is reluctant to talk about her or even to give out her name. “I’m old-fashioned. The hardest thing for me is to talk about affection for a woman,” says the man who has chronicled the couplings and uncouplings of countless “supa-stahs.”

His idea of a perfect evening is staying home and cooking a meal for “my lady and me.”‘

But such evenings apparently are rare because of his rigorous schedule. When he’s not on the road, he gets to the office, either east or west by 6 a.m., sometimes staying till midnight. Besides going on location on stories, he oversees the program and writes much of it himself. Lifestyles employs a staff of 30, including five segment producers.

He prefers New York to Los Angeles, where he has “never gotten used to people coming to work in tennis shorts.” He feels better in a coat and tie. Still, he comes here regularly in deference to the symbol of Hollywood and because about 40 percent of the people who have been featured on the show live in Southern Califor­nia.

Seated directly in front of a TV monitor that is unreeling pictures of the inside of Adnan Khashoggi’s private jetliner on this morning, Leach looks on studiously. Then, as the eye of the camera travels over a sable bedspread, he moves forward in his chair and with his index finger touches the screen where a gleaming buckle is visible in the center of a sash encircling the bed. “Gold,” he says.

HIS FATHER worked 40 years for a company that sold vacuum cleaners. “And when he retired, they gave him a gold watch,” Leach remembers all too clearly. “I de­cided that wasn’t for me. I wanted to be able to afford to buy the gold watch myself.”

By the time he was 10, he was already sending articles to the local paper in Harrow, the town outside London where he grew up. It is home to one of England’s most elite prep schools. “I went to the school at the bottom of the hill,” he explains. “Winston Churchill went to the one at the top.”

He headed right into newspapers at the age or 15, passing up college. ‘”I was the youngest reporter on Fleet Street.”

While still serving his appren­ticeship, he did an interview that seems to have changed his life. It was with Leslie Bricusse, the songwriter who had just written Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” for Anthony Newley.

Bricusse liked the article so much he invited Leach backstage on the show’s opening night in London in 1960. There the young man witnessed something he has never forgotten. “There had been thunderous applause, standing ovation and everything, and Tony Newley was backstage literally crying, saying he hadn’t given enough or what he wanted to give to that opening night. And it made me want to’ find out what made people tick in this business.”

“Then I started the movie page on the local newspaper. And from then on it was always show biz.”

In the U.S., Leach moved up from his job as a shoe clerk to covering show business for The New York Post. Rupert Murdoch’s StarThe Globeand The National En­quirer. For four years in the late ’60s he published his own nationally distributed rock ‘n’ roll tabloid, GO. He still writes a weekly personalities column that appears in the Star and 110 newspapers around the world.

Television, he has discovered, is much harder than newspapers. “It’s tough, tough work. The hours are much longer. The burnout factor in television is much higher than print. I mean, you fry people in this business.

If Leach is frying on the inside, he looks only soft-boiled in the dim light or the studio where he is screening the Khashoggi tapes and segments of two other celebrity specials the Lifestyles company has created for the new year. His excitement at the results in front of him is barely contained. “Good stuff,” he says out loud.

We are watching Brooke Shields (“a good friend”) on safari in Kenya. She is being introduced to a tribe or Masai warriors. The Masai are nearly naked and are carrying spears. “We’re going to get some flak on this one,” he predicts.

He’s prepared, as always. “I’ve been accused of white-washing people, of being sycophantic in the way I do interviews, that I’ve been morally bankrupt in my commitment to the profession of journalism. People are welcome to throw the barbs.

“I’m not ashamed of what we turn out for television. I’m proud or what we do.”

Robin Leach is proud of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

This may come as a surprise to a network television writer I know who, during a discourse on the subject or Leach, told me, “I’m convinced there is an empire awaiting this guy. There are depths of cynicism in him that are profound.”

Harry Shearer, the comedian who has imitated Leach from time to time on Saturday Night Live, believes “The show is proof that envy is where we’re at in this country.”

Other critics have been less charitable, some even moved to observations along the theme that Lifestyles may be the strongest evidence yet that Western Civilization is finished.

If Leach sees the humor in such reactions he isn’t letting on. He claims he has received only two pieces of mail complaining about the show’s moral railings – both, interestingly, from Los Angeles.

If he has whiffed a stale odor near the Hollywood dream or considered the downside of being a billionaire, he’s keeping his misgivings to himself.

“Remember that we’re in the entertainment business,” he instructs. “People from all income strata love the show.

“We haven’t mocked what we’re doing. We leave it all to the audience to decide whether this is the right kind of lifestyle to like or dislike. We’re just Joe Friday. We just present the facts. No judgments. The public is the filial arbiter of taste.”

A common enough observation in television. So why does it sound fresh when repeated by Robin Leach? The PUB-lic is…the final AH-biter of taste. It’s more than the burbling tone, more than bottom-of-the-hill-at-Harrow accent that shapes the words. It’s what’s missing: the customary grumble of concession heard when this is repeated up and down Sunset Boulevard and over the hill in Burbank. From the lips of Leach it is not a concession. It is wisdom, warmly expressed. It is common, yet it is priceless.

Los Angeles Herald Examiner 1985

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Harry Dean and All Them

Henry Fonda in rehearsal at SMU

WATCHING THE OSCARS, I was reminded that Harry Dean Stanton died last year, followed by David Ogden Stiers just other day. What the two actors have in common is that both were members of the estimable cast of NBC-TV’s production of Preston Jones’ The Oldest Living Graduate, starring Henry Fonda, staged before a live audience at the Bob Hope Theater at SMU April 7, 1980 and broadcast in real time. No editing. It was promoted as the first of a series of Live TV dramas that would showcase the vitality of America’s regional theater, recalling of Playhouse 90 in the 1950s. A historic moment in Dallas theater, it went off without a hitch, directed by Tony-Awarded Jack Hofsiss, who is also gone now. Surely the best production of the play ever. The cast included, besides Fonda, Stanton and Stiers…Cloris Leachman, George Grizzard, John Lithgow, Timothy Hutton, Penelope Milford and Allyn Ann McLerie.

Fonda died two years later, after filming On Golden Pond. Grizzard died in 2007. The three actresses, Leachman, Milford and McLerie, are still alive, as are Lithgow and Hutton.

Graduate, part of Jones’ Texas Trilogy about a doomed West Texas town succumbing to the New World, was originally going to be broadcast from the stage of The Dallas Theater Center, where Jones, a member of the company, had written and developed the plays. But when the Theater Center insisted the network use DTC actors instead of a Hollywood cast, the NBC producers went down the street to SMU.

Sadly, NBC’s live theater project lasted only one more installment, with Sally Field starring in Tad Mosel’s All the Way Home, from Los Angeles in 1981. With 400 channels of dreck and dross clogging the screen, you’d think they might dare try it again.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment