Friday, April 12, 2013

Maria Tallchief and Me.

I am not a dancer, nor did I ever meet the great Maria Tallchief, but she did pass away and her passing brought up a very strange childhood memory.

Sometime during the third grade, my Father brought home some Black History flash cards.  He did this because one of his co-workers at his lab at the U.S. Customs didn't know who George Washington Carver was.  I cannot remember all of the cards, but I can still recall Norbert Rillieux, Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, in part, due to those cards.

Fueled with the militancy borne out of one night with flash cards I went to my (Caucasian) teacher, Mrs. Tobia and asked that we introduce Black History into the classroom.  What this woman did was unprecedented.  Instead of dismissing me outright, she sat down with me and found a catalog with films that dealt with issues of color and we ended up screening "Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed".

Blessings on both of them for that.  That happened in New York.

In San Diego ca. 1976-77 in ninth grade and I don't remember HOW I got involved in this, it was decided that a good way to introduce the diversity of American History was to have several students (including my dear self) go to the various classrooms and talk about some of the prominent non-White people.

Were this an inspirational movie or musical, I would tell you of my stumbling first attempts and my rise to galvanizing speakers, but this is being written on my seldom-read blog, so you may already know what happened.

I felt as if I was thrown under a bus.

I had a list of names and summaries and I was to lecture various classes on various people.  Let's put this into perspective.  I was NOBODY in Junior and Senior high.  Were I on fire, people would have stopped only to toast marshmallows.  So I, the Anti-Billy Dee Williams went off to educate Amurrca.  I went to Dr. Frankville's history class.

Dr. Frankville was not in a good mood that day, exacerbated, I gather, by a student who was told to be quiet, or some such and was not taking this in good humor.  Hold this thought.

As I went down my list, trying to corral this class into listening, amid the indifference, derision, and smirks, I think it was around "Maria Tallchief" that it really unraveled.  I spoke her name, asked if anyone had heard of her, read the synopsis, and asked if there were any questions.  Up came this aforementioned kid's hand:

"Yeah, I got a question.  I don't understand why someone isn't doin' anything gets punished while all these other guys was..."

I came unglued.  I actually was fighting back tears as I said,"HEY!  There's a bunch of us walking around doing this and YOU DON'T CARE.  You don't care!"  As one forgets dental surgery, the rest of that day is a bit blurry, but I remember it not being regarded as a success.

Sometime later we had an assembly.  On the stage were three actors with no props who covered the same subjects as I and my dreary band went over.  Except they were:

 - Scripted
 - Older
 - Invited

They were also quite talented.  When they came around to Maria Tallchief, the two men pretended to be Russian ballet dancers and the woman knocked on a door.  The men kept rehearsing and one said,

"Ignore the door, Igor!"

And it got a laugh from the same folks that couldn't be bothered with me.  At first I was a bit miffed, but I found that I retained the knowledge better and looking back on this, I wished that the powers that be had done this in the first place.

After all of this, it is only to-day that I saw actual footage of her dancing.

Even though this is a not a cheesy movie or a bad musical, one would figure that I would loathe getting up in front of people and talk, but that moment showed me that it was OK to do it, but never when you were unprepared.  Tomorrow, I will be performing at 221B Con with the Atlanta Radio Theater Company.
There is Sound!!

Much of it stems from that day and that is what Maria Tallchief did for me.

You can hear me performing with them here.  I'm Peter Perkins.

The Impact of Jonathan Winters

Jonathan Winters is gone and it is sad.

There shall and should be many tributes to him, but instead of fulminating about who got what wrong about his legacy, I will do my best to summarize it.

Comedy in America has been many things.  It has been mostly the domain of men, and it has been part of the Vaudeville show, the person who emceed before the dancers came onstage, the opening act for the band, the warmup for the politician, the warmup for the band, the warmup for the radio/TV show and inevitably, the main act.

With all of those niches comes a need and the prerequisites for being a comedian changed over time.  Before radio, one piece of material could sustain you for years as you toured the country.  Then radio came along and that one piece could absolutely kill on the air, but what do you do for an encore?  You had to be new every week and those who could do this did and those who didn't, fell by the wayside.  There was also the wave of comics who would find a book of jokes, memorize them and tour doing just that.  Eventually comics started doing their own material or material written for them.

Sometime in the 1950's, amid the family jokes, the drunk jokes, the traveling jokes, the straight person-funny person double acts, new types of comedians started appearing.  Richard "Lord" Buckley would recite Classical Literature and History in what he called, "Hipsomatic" that took African-American slang and re-used it for his own ends as well as affecting his own posh persona (he was "Lord" Buckley!).

There was Shelley Berman whose monologues concerned themselves with character and also reflected a wild neurosis, i.e. "the ugly white map" that buttermilk leaves on the glass.  There was Mort Sahl who mostly took what he read and saw in the media and reflected on it; a clean break from the old schools of humor.  There was Lenny Bruce who took on the social mores of the day with amazing frankness.

Then there was Jonathan Winters.  You couldn't confuse him with anyone.  His fertile imagination, range of expressions, command of accents,  and love of sound effects made him truly unique.  Coming from a time when the predominant media were movies and radio, he wasn't solely a "sound effects" man like Wes Harrison or Michael Winslow.  He was steeped in theater of the mind, as much of America was at that time.  Bill Cosby's act is also augmented by self-generated sounds.  There were imitators, to be sure: Robert Klein used to complain that if he followed one of those acts the mic would be wet from saliva.

As we know now, there was no one quite like him.  His most prominent fan would be Robin Williams, and there is no denying his talent, but, and it cannot be emphasized enough, there was no one quite like Jonathan Winters.  He did what he did, almost without precedent and there are few direct descendents.  Richard Pryor mirrors many of the same qualities, but his most famous stage persona solidified AFTER Winters' rise.

Eighty-seven is a good run.  He left behind a wealth of material.  Watch him on YouTube : this routine shows what he could do UNPREPARED for four minutes, just being handed a prop. Listen to his albums on Verve although his CBS album can descend into too much improv, but oh what a standard he had! If the truth is to be told, avoid his most famous film role in "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!", which, in the long run doesn't do a lot of people justice.

R.I.P. Jonathan Winters.  An original if there ever was.