Great Songs in Film #11: “Oh What a Beautiful Morning.” Gordon MacRae opens Fred Zinnemann’s 1955 film “Oklahoma”

June 21, 2014

I grew up hearing about Gordon MacRae’s problems with alcoholism and its consequences.  I was a star-struck kid, read magazines like Photoplay, and was totally caught up in both the  nonsensical gossip  being produced by Hollywood press agents and  the embarrassing truths being being suppressed by the same Hollywood press agents. In college, I even got a part time job with Cinema Center films as a publicist for perhaps the most forgettable film the great Dustin Hoffman ever made.

Fun? Of course.

But looking back, I see that what all the nuttiness obscured was the actual talent that celebrities did or did not bring to the table. Set all the rumors and backbiting aside, and someone could either act, sing, or dance or they couldn’t.

Well, Gordon MacRae had more raw charm and acting chops than any one human being deserves.

And he could sing. Beautifully.

When he was given a chance at one of the greatest songs Rodgers and Hammerstein ever wrote — “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” —  the result was sublime.

Gordon MacRae died in 1986, having faced his demons, recovered from alcoholism, and become a visible spokesman for this insidious disease. 

But before everything, there was the voice.

And the fact that when two of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest musicals were filmed, one guy was cast as the male lead in both. 


Maxine Greene 1917 – 2014

June 6, 2014

Riveting lecturer,  human being of unlimited compassion, intellectual and philosopher of mind-boggling depth, champion of the arts, and wonderful, unforgettable teacher.

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The T.A.M.I. Show (1964), Santa Monica, California Civic Auditorium: Big. Very Big.

May 30, 2014

Seriously, The T.A.M.I.  Show was big. And not just because of a lineup that seemed to include every popular pop, rock, and R&B  artist short of the Beatles.

What will always make The T.A.M.I. Show  special is the fact that, at a time just before the Watts riots when Southern California was as racially, culturally and geographically segregated as any place in the United States, the show was the first high-profile opportunity for cloistered white kids to see black  R&B artists up close.

It’s painful to admit,  but many white kids who went to their local theaters to see The T.A.M.I. Show had never seen a person of color in person.

These were the artists  who in many cases had written and first performed the songs that squeaky clean white artists like Pat Boone subsequently appropriated,  “cleaned up” and recorded in excruciatingly saccharine versions.

It was a revelation.

Music was never the same. Life was never the same.


He was 14 years old. 14. And he could already do this. 14.

May 15, 2014


For John Duvanich. Teacher, Mentor, Fountain of Joy and Curiousity. 6th Grade Teacher, Vincent Avenue Elementary School, 1962. Covina, California.

May 6, 2014


Ron Takaki: Teacher, Scholar, and Activist for the Ages

May 3, 2014

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Five years ago this month, one of my most extraordinary and unforgettable undergraduate professors at UCLA — Ron Takaki — died at the age of 70. I am re-posting the tribute I posted at the time. Truly a teacher and scholar for the ages. SMG.

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Ronald Takaki  was a teacher, historian,  and extraordinary human being.  He  was a pioneer in ethnic studies and a faculty member at UCLA and Berkeley.  Ron Takaki died at the age of 70 this past May.

Ron was also my teacher and  easily one of the 2 -3 greatest and most inspiring professors I had as an undergraduate at the University of California. He is one of the main reasons I chose to spend a lifetime in higher education. Remembering his brilliant and packed lectures, and thinking back to his influence on so many students, I am yet again reminded of the incredible responsibilities, challenges and opportunities we all have as faculty members.

In the spring of 1970, I can’t say I had ever heard the term “globalization.” National, ethnic, religious, and racial borders, especially in a place like California, could not have been more closely guarded. White middle class suburbs — even ones directly adjoining Chicano or African American or Asian neighborhoods — were social and cultural fortresses. Many of us who came directly from those fortresses to UCLA or Berkeley had never been in close proximity to any ethnic diversity. None. It was shameful. We lived in a well armored comfort zone that neither challenged us nor expanded our world view beyond the San Bernardino Freeway.

But there we were as freshmen, looking over the schedule of classes, trying to figure out who was responsible for the typo that had listed some professor with a Japanese surname as the professor for intro to African American history.

When we showed up at class, imagine how baffled we were to see this soft-spoken Asian American professor speaking  with a quiet yet furious indignation about the shame of slavery.  I vividly remember thinking almost immediately that nothing I thought knew about how the world worked, about the fortresses that were our ethnic and racial and religious enclaves, would ever be the same. Something was happening, and — if we didn’t fully understand all the complex forces — Professor Takaki would be there as a guide to the perplexed. And believe me, in the spring 1970 quarter we needed guiding —   Kent State, Cambodia, the Moratorium, and violent confrontations with campus police. Even a fatal shooting on campus. As I look back and calculate the chronology, I am stunned to realize that this gentle and powerful man was then  only in his early 30s.

There has never been a time in the intervening 40 years when, seeing someone trying to persuade with bluster and arrogance, I haven’t remembered Ron Takaki in the spring of 1970 and thought:  Rage born and nurtured in gentle soul can burn with even greater intensity.

It was an extraordinary time at UCLA, full of fury and passion. Across campus, another great and inspiring professor, Angela Davis, was approaching these issues of inequality from another perspective. And it was a loud time – a time of rage and grievance. How extraordinary it was to have Ron Takaki there amidst the ferment, showing us that even rage could be expressed with civility, that scholarship could reveal layers of barbarity and fuel the kind of anger that can lead to social change.

Sometime later he brought to campus some of the great figures of the infamous WW II relocation of Japanese Americans, people like Fred Korematsu and Joe Grant Masaoka. For many of us in 1969, this shameful episode was still virtually invisible in the exclusionist and triumphal narrative of California history.

He never minimized the conflicts and inequalities and injustices that fueled the growing rage. There was nothing “feel good” about these classes. But simply by explaining these forces, by struggling to help us understand the fires that were starting to burn in urban America, he helped us see that — through understanding and rigorous scholarship — a peaceful future just might be possible.

Really a teacher for the ages.


And on some dark days, there was only the voice of a little girl singing.

April 15, 2014

 

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In the early 1990s, before the advent of the anti-retro viral cocktails that largely rendered HIV a treatable, chronic disease, I found myself at one of the many memorial services that punctuated those years.

In this case, the mourners included a group of children who, much too early in their young lives, were facing the reality of grief, the unforgiving fact of finality.

One of the children, a young girl with a beautiful voice, had never sung in public. But she knew the favorite song of the young man who had been lost, and the only reason she even considered singing My Funny Valentine was that she loved him and wanted to do it for him.

So she found a way.

She would sing the song, but she would turn her back to the assembled. She would share her voice, but not the sight of her tears.

She sang. And it was beautiful. She was beautiful.

It was still several years before the cocktail. The deluge of losses wasn’t close to being over.  Courageous activists from Act-Up — the fearless, front line warriors in the battle against apathy and invisibility — were still struggling to wrench affordable drugs from stubborn pharmaceutical companies.

And on some dark days, there was only the voice of a little girl singing.


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