Sunday, February 26, 2017

For The Love Of Mel Brooks

(Caveat: I published this item in 2007. It is reprinted here by request).

I am going to tell you about my fun-filled first meeting with Mel Brooks which occurred in the earliest days of my life in Greenwich Village. In 1958, I lived in a one-room basement apartment in a building which still exists. I know: I paid a brief nostalgia call to the address recently.

My neighbor, Charles Morgan Harris, a sweet, starving illustrator, lived in the identical cramped unit beside mine. We learned quickly that we shared a love of jazz and our friendship lasted until his untimely death. Our small building contained six other tiny apartments, one of them the second-floor residence off the elderly, cob-webby Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb who shared her digs with a tortoise shell tabby.

Our flats faced an indoor courtyard, an area which dampened street noises considerably and provided my Siamese cat ample opportunity to pay Courtesy Calls on the very tolerant neighbors who left windows open. The building, which fronts West 15th Street, was also the home and office of a woman who provided secretarial services. One of her clients was Mel Brooks.

On a balmy spring night, Charles and I were sitting in the courtyard as we always did when I came home from my secretarial job uptown, sipping our adult beverages, and listening to our favorite Miles Davis recordings.  We recognized Mr. Brooks as he strolled jaunty-jolly toward us, smiled and pulled up a chair. We knew who he was from his occasional television appearances with his best pal Carl Reiner. He politely asked about our lives, what kind of employment we had, did we like living in that place, etc.  We exchanged this sort of light chatter which included describing our 85-year old neighbor, Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb.  Mel seemed interested that she was fragile but feisty in nature. *

Mel was not as well-known to the general public then as he is today, but I was aware of his background and experience as one of the writers for a favorite television variety show of  mine called "Your Show Of Shows" which was a live 90-minute program starring comedy legends Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca.  It was broadcast on Saturday nights from 1950 to 1954. I was usually glued to the television screen.

The show employed an amazing staff of writers, among them: Mel Tolkin ("All In The Family"), Carl Reiner ("The Dick Van Dyke Show" and others), Mel Brooks, Michael Stewart ("Bye Bye Birdie", "Hello Dolly"), Joseph Stein ("Fiddler On The Roof"), a diminutive woman named Lucille Kallen who took notes and managed to contribute more than her share of funny lines, brothers Danny ("The Carol Burnett Show") and Neil Simon ("The Odd Couple" and numerous Broadway hit plays).

Before long on that soft April night, Mel had us reeling with his jokes and hilarious takes on people and life in general. He was scheduled to appear on The Late Show Starring Johnny Carson, and he couldn't resist rehearsing his schtick for us:

He was going to be sitting in that Number One spot beside Johnny, and after a few minutes, Johnny would mention, feigning naive curiosity: "You like to sing, don't you Mel?" To which Mel would reply: "Well, yes ... and if I may ... I'd like to ... may I?"  "Of course, please do", says Johnny.

Mel: (To Skitch (Henderson, band leader): I'll sing "Dancing In The Dark" if that's okay ... just give me an arpeggio in C ... "

Mel begins to sing, and gets as far as  "... and it soon ends", suddenly breaking off. "No, sorry Skitch, that key's too low ... could you take it up a half-step." Skitch complies. Mel stops in the same place. "Sorry, it's still a little too low ... another half-step please?" Mel stops at the same place again, and this time he's standing, presumably to make it easier to reach the low notes. The back-and-forth continues, taking Mel progressively into higher musical range. He's now standing ON the chair.  The key is still not a good fit. Finally, Mel is standing ON Johnny's desk, audience is screaming and JC looks appropriately bemused. Charles and I are now hysterical, holding our sides and gasping for air. He did this bit on the show the following night.

Before he left us that evening, I asked what he was working on.  "Well, I can tell you right now that I want to produce a show on Broadway called "Springtime For Hitler".  We explode into tear-producing laughter:  "Oh Mel! STOP ... we can't take it any more".

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P.S. This meeting with Mel Brooks took place in 1958.  The movie "The Producers" was released ten years later in 1968.  Of course, I was thrilled and delighted that Charles and I had learned of "Springtime For Hitler" a full ten years before its release.  The Broadway sensation opened in April, 2001, and received a record twelve Tony Awards.  Mel's vision was realized in spectacular fashion.  I saw a matinee about two weeks into the run.

*  Please take special note next time you see it: In the movie "The Producers", starring Zero Mostel as Max Bialystock and Gene Wilder as Leo Bloom, there is a scene in which Leo is carefully entering the names and amounts little old ladies have contributed to the next Bialystock project. One of the checks is signed "Mrs. Eleanor Biddlecomb".  Mel did not have a note pad with him during this visit, so I can only surmise that the lady's name struck him as perfect for one of his doddering underwriters who might use a walker.  He may even have immediately added it to his notes for the movie.  In fact, Mrs. Biddlecomb looked exactly like Estelle Winwood (below) known as "Hold Me Touch Me" in the movie.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The ides of January are upon us, and much has occurred which directly affects my mental and physical well-being. First came a heavy dose of euphoria in the form of several hours spent in the company of my brilliant friend, jazz pianist Bill Charlap who played with generous sensitivity for two sets of classic songs which we presented to an ultra-aware audience at The Jazz Standard on January 11th.

Bill and I enjoy a long and loving relationship which has included club and concert appearances as well as numerous recording sessions spread over twenty-five years. You can track his tour dates at Bill Charlap's web page, so if he's appearing within driving distance, you can plan accordingly. To hear him with his partners, bassist Peter Washington and drummer Kenny Washington, is an exhilerating experience, not to mention the truly divine moments when he and his remarkably gifted wife Renee Rosnes appear together in concert. Renee is a leader in her own right, and is focused on her thriving career, of course.  But believe me: It's a match made in Michelangelo's ceiling when they share the stage in a duo-piano setting. No excuse is good enough to miss that unless, of course, you find yourself in the ER, heaven forbid.

My own focus, after the surge of encouragement I felt on that magical night at The Jazz Standard, is to find sympathetic assistance to help me locate a compatible record label.  I am determined to return to an active career, and my inspiration derives from Bette Davis.  In 1962, she placed this ad in The Hollywood Reporter which gave the clear impression she was desperate for work.

Like me, she most certainly was not unemployable.  In her case, she was trying to make a point that some actresses "of a certain age" were overlooked because of their longevity (Ms. Davis was 54 at the time).  A false rumor has persisted that she was given her role in "Whatever Happened To Baby Jane" because of it. Nothing of the kind.  In fact, it was published about a week after the movie wrapped. 

I am not suggesting I have any age-related issue.  In fact, since my significant weight loss of 55+ lbs in the past year, I am feeling as effervescent as my esteemed colleague Marilyn Maye

To borrow a baseball metaphor, I still have my fast ball, and I'm ready to get back into the Starting Line-up. 

 Look out World.  Here I come!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

Fanfare, please ...

Since my last post in May, I am quite happy to report that Mr. Wonderful and I have become best friends, and share our love of music, good food and wine, art and the art of conversation. All is copacetic in the extreme.

The latest news is the announcement that the elegant Bill Charlap Trio is scheduled to appear at Scullers Jazz Club in Boston (scroll down to September 10), and I could not be happier at the prospect of sharing the stage with Bill, Peter Washington (b) and Kenny Washington (dr).  Hope to see many new and old friends on that evening.  To prepare for the event, you might want to listen to their latest cd on Impulse! called "Notes From New York". Look for this distinctive cover art by David Cowles:

Otherwise, I am going slightly mad living mostly indoors to avoid the stifling heat and humidity.  Of course, this is my annual whine because summer is my least favorite time of the year.  Oh, I do understand the joys of driving with the top down, dry pavement, clear visibility, a mostly light, white wardrobe, salty air and blue skies, sandals and lobster rolls.

But it's right about now my heart beats a little faster with anticipation for the end of summer.  Images filled with the sturdiest of woolen hats and mittens, cashmere sweaters, and tweed jackets.  Crisp autumn days, crisp Baldwin apples and crisp air turning the leaves to red and gold.  Football, apple pie, turkey, boeuf bourguignon (I make a mean one), and Christmas!!!!

I hear my fellow New Englanders shouting: "Yeah, and darkness at 4 PM, six feet of snow, towering drifts and unplowed streets, major travel disruptions and getting out of a warm bed to go outside and clean the car. And children glued to the local tv channel which will announce school closings.  Yes, all those miseries are unquestionably difficult and Baby it's cold outside too.

In my digs, the prescription reads: fill the cavity of a chicken with at least 8-10 unpeeled cloves of garlic, and roast it to make the place smell great; bring out DVDs of favorite b&w movies of the 1930's and 40's (Ah, the veiled hats, white gloves, matching shoes and handbags), and/or read a good book and listen to Beethoven, Chopin, Basie or Charlap.  And let it snow let it snow let it snow. Did all this help cool you off a bit?  It does me.

I look forward to seeing all Boston jazz fans on September 10th.  Bring a scarf .  If we're lucky, an early chill might be in the air.


Sunday, May 1, 2016

Set 'em up Joe ....

The drink and the laugh is on me.  It all began in mid-April, the start of a two-week period which suddenly over-flowed into school-girl palpitations, speculation, uncertainty, high anxiety.  I was instantly smitten, and made no effort to hide it.  It was fun and adventurous. An acquaintance even commented that my eyes were sparkling. There were breathtaking moments of exhilaration courtesy of a technicolor fantasy of my own creation.  The days (and sleepless nights) were tumultuous, much like being flung about in a gigantic industrial-sized clothes drier. Some of it was exciting and even thrilling, but reality demanded acquiescence. It was all a dream.  My brain has taken steely control, and I have forced my heart to sign a restraining order.. After all! A woman of my age.  Really.  (See footnote)

In spite of the turmoil, I managed to attend brilliant jazz performances by Bill Charlap ...

Bill Charlap April 15, 2016
Regatta Bar, Cambridge, MA

Then I was inducted into the
Rhode Island Music Hall of Fame

April 21, 2016 

Rhode Island Hall Of Fame Induction

And then heard Kenny Barron at The Regatta Bar
in Cambridge, MA

Kenny Barron, April 29, 2016

Now on this first of May, appetite and health restored, (I have dropped 20 lbs since January but it's not easily discernible yet), I continue my dietary regimen, daily walks and vocal warm-ups in preparation for my participation in the prestigious JAZZ IN JULY series in New York, held at the 92nd St. Y.  On July 27th, I will sing some songs written by revered composer/lyricist Billy Strayhorn with Bill Charlap and his remarkable wife, jazz pianist Renee Rosnes.  I am frankly filled with effervescent enthusiasm.

* * * * *

For those who have been kind enough to inquire, I AM writing the memoir, admittedly at a glacial pace, but I have been a jazz singer for over sixty years, and there are so many events and people and places ... well, you can understand.
* * * * * 

Footnote: When I told one of my best chums about these roller-coaster days, she wrote: "If I may venture a wild guess? It is painfully obvious you felt spontaneous attraction, becoming a wee bit delirious in the bargain, resulting in disorientation and accelerated heart rhythm.  You also felt thoroughly pixilated for an entire fortnight, but have now managed a graceful return to normalcy, just in the N.O.T., I might add.  It must have been confusing and exciting.  And the truly wondrous fact is that these sorts of convulsive seismic shocks to the psyche can and do occur to those of us living the "golden" years.  Someone should write a song on the subject.   Will you now add "The Man That Got Away" to your set list?   
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Please send comments to me at 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Hear Ye, Hear Ye! It's officially on sale today!

This is the cover of the superb new cd featuring my good friend, master pianist Bill Charlap, along with his long-time colleagues bassist Peter Washington and drummer  Kenny Washington.  The melodies have been fastidiously chosen, are elegantly performed and convey instrumentally what New York City represents to so many: The Best of Everything.

It is available in general release tomorrow, April 1st, and I am certain you will share my all-consuming enthusiasm for this newest recording from Bill and his best buddies.   I was thrilled by his request to write the liner notes, so I am proud to have participated in this remarkable project.  I am also happy to know you will read my modest contributions.  The songs are:

     I'll Remember April (Gene DePaul/Don Raye)
     Make Me Rainbows (John Williams/Alan and Marilyn Bergman)
     Not A Care In The World (Vernon Duke/John LaTouche/Harold Adamson)
     There Is No Music (Harry Warren/Ira Gershwin)
     A Sleepin' Bee (Harold Arlen/Truman Capote)
     Little Rascal On A Rock (Thad Jones)
     Too Late Now (Alan Jay Lerner/Burton Lane)
     Tiny's Tempo (Lloyd "Tiny" Grimes)
     On The Sunny Side Of The Street (Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh)

It is a thrilling recording in every respect.  Bill will be appearing in Boston on April 15th at The Regatta Bar, Charles Hotel Cambridge.  I will see you there.


Another Significant Date for your calendar ...

     On Saturday, April 2nd, my good friend, the superior singer Donna Byrne brings her formidable talent to Rhode Island's singular music venue Chan's Egg Rolls and Jazz Club for one night of a delightful mix of swing and best ballads.  I know this is short notice, but if you reside in Southern New England, I think you might want to make the effort to see and hear her.  She enjoys a huge, loyal following in this region, and I'm pleased to forward this notice on her behalf.


     As for my extended silence, I can only say that I feel my two years in mourning, filled with grief and sadness, loneliness and some confusion have been difficult at times, but with the help of friends, blessed silence and serious introspection, I feel a new confidence and cheerful outlook for whatever comes. And SloaneView will appear in your mail box more frequently as well.  Thank you all for your patience.