Bill Katz is the proprietor of Urgent Agenda and our occasional contributor. He’s been spending some time in remembrance of things past via YouTube:
It’s holiday time, and you’re due a little relaxation and real entertainment, as opposed to the kind of entertainment we get from Washington every day.
And where do you go for real entertainment? Surprisingly, some of us go to YouTube. When most people think of YouTube, they may think of vanity videos, “caught on tape” events, and embarrassing moments that have humiliated more than one public figure.
But YouTube has also become one of the nation’s most important repositories of great moments in entertainment history, from film clips to TV appearances, to the best recordings. In fact, there is no more accessible resource for a real dose of quality nostalgia, and it’s free. And it’s especially welcome late at night, when you can watch alone, Google in a famous name, and just enjoy what you’re seeing.
Here are some recommendations: Start with comedy, and one of the classic routines of all time, Abbott & Costello’s “Who’s on First?” You can find it here.
“Who’s on First” put Bud Abbott & Lou Costello on the map, making them one of the most popular comedy teams in America during the 1940s and 50s. If you go to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, you can see the sketch run on a continuous loop. It is more than 70 years old, but you’ll probably still laugh, and laugh some more. Classics never get old. If the writing is right, and the delivery is right, the routine is right.
Or, you can turn to more recent classics, like Johnny Carson’s “Carnac the Magnificent,” a character Carson regularly portrayed in his nearly 30 years of hosting The Tonight Show. One “Carnac” is here.
If you look to the right of your screen, you’ll see other “Carnacs” listed. They’ll each show you why Carson has never been replaced: the timing, the deadpan stares (learned in part from Carson’s mentor, Jack Benny), the smooth delivery, and the writing. I was a talent coordinator on The Tonight Show, and saw many Carnacs live, standing about 12 feet from the right front of Carson’s desk. I still laugh my head off when I see the clips.
By the way, you’ll notice that, if the audience failed to laugh at a Carnac punch line, Carson snapped back. (“May a diseased camel leave a gift in your Christmas stocking.”) Those moments were not spontaneous. The writers would write “savers” into the script, allowing Johnny to save the moment by insulting the audience, which loved it.
I mentioned Jack Benny, truly the master of comedians, and there are clips of him on his TV show. Here is a classic, Jack Benny with Marilyn Monroe:
It’s wonderful to see them both again. If you want to know why Jack Benny is legendarily famous for his timing, go to about the two-minute mark on the clip, and wait for the line, “I understand.” Perfect, and perfectly timed, with Marilyn as the ideal “straight man.”
You’ll also see Marilyn at her most beautiful, and, getting beyond the looks, you’ll see her comic talent. Sir Laurence Olivier, who starred with her in “The Prince and the Showgirl,” greatly admired Marilyn’s way with comedy. In my view, she was underestimated, regarded too easily as just something to look at.
As far as the looking, however, Marilyn Monroe was only five feet tall, a fact evident in the clip, when one realizes that Jack Benny was a smallish man. I once watched her walk across a room, and, believe me, she did more with five feet than any woman before or since.
Turning from comedy, I’m sure we’re all moved these days as we say goodbye to Nancy Pelosi in her starring role as speaker of the House. She becomes minority leader as a result, from the Democrats’ viewpoint, of the unpleasantness of early November.
Nancy Pelosi represents San Francisco, a city now known for ultra liberalism and certain lifestyles. But there was once a different San Francisco, defined by the 1906 earthquake and the city’s truly heroic recovery.
That episode was celebrated in the 1936 film, “San Francisco,” with Clark Gable and Jeanette MacDonald, which produced the song of the same name. Everyone should, at least once in his or her life, hear Jeanette MacDonald sing “San Francisco.” It’s here.
Jeanette MacDonald was a highly popular singer of the 1930s and early 40s. She was one of the stars who sustained the American movie industry in the midst of the great depression.
MacDonald had a magnificent, classical voice. Her singing may seem dated today, but during her time she was the top of the list, and one of our greatest movie stars.
The song, “San Francisco,” was actually popularized by two major stars. Judy Garland was only 14 when Jeanette MacDonald sang it, with Clark Gable watching her. But Garland then popularized the song again, making it perhaps even more famous. Her version from the 1960s, in which she mentions Jeanette MacDonald, is here.
The difference in the styles is stark. Jeanette felt the song. She sang it only 30 years after the San Francisco earthquake. Judy made it into more of a bouncy novelty number. Jeanette was operatic. Judy was hit parade.
Judy Garland was a brilliantly talented, but terribly neurotic performer who died, tragically, in her forties. She will always, of course, be remembered as Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” I never knew her, or even met her. But I did spend a delightful afternoon, while at The Tonight Show, with her daughter, Lorna, talking about “mama.” What came through was that, as great an entertainer as Judy Garland was, she was an even better mother, who would put on a wig and dark glasses, and take her three kids to see…Judy Garland movies. I would have liked to be sitting behind them, listening to their comments.
Continuing with music, we note the recent death of Eddie Fisher, a man whose career was crushed by his private life, especially his dumping of “America’s sweetheart,” Debbie Reynolds, for Elizabeth Taylor. The public never forgave him. It should have. Debbie Reynolds was not America’s sweetheart, but a prima donna. Taylor was as well, but at least she could act.
While he was on top, though, in the early to mid 1950s, Eddie Fisher had one of the purest voices in popular music. He really was that good, very much a young Sinatra, and his personal failings should not lead us to disparage his talent. His rendition of “Any Time,” written in the 1940s, has become a classic. Listen here.
It’s really too bad that Fisher could not maintain his personal stability. He was a first-class singer.
Finally, we’ll celebrate New Year’s Eve within days. It is reported that the man who invented New Year’s Eve – it didn’t exist before him – was a bandleader named Guy Lombardo, now forgotten by all those who are pre-gray hair. Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians became so associated with New Year’s Eve that some people felt the holiday couldn’t go on without Lombardo.
He died in 1977, but the memory remains, and I personally know of people who pull out their old Guy Lombardo vinyl records every New Year’s Eve. Here is his rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” the authentic, Heaven-accepted version.
Happy New Year.
And that is just the beginning of the treasures found on YouTube.
PAUL adds: I believe Lombardo himself once joked that “when I die, I’m taking New Year’s Eve with me.”
As for Jack Benny, I highly recommend his classic violin duet with Giselle MacKenzie.
JOHN adds: Call me old-fashioned or whatever, but Jack Benny was the last comedian I really liked.