A SINGULAR COMPOSER, A TWO-TIMING WIFE, AND A THREE PENNY OPERA

“THE ROMANCE of Kurt Weill, the Jewish cantor’s son, and Lotte Lenya, the Viennese coachman’s daughter, changed the history of Western music. Their work on The Three Penny Opera provides a knowing insight into their relationship: Weill was the creator whose work was backstage, unseen. Lenya was the performer who put the work into view. They heard the same unique music, but he gave it form while she gave it life.”
–from the cover flap of LOVE SONG, by Ethan Mordden

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If you like a bargain and biographies, I’ve just read a book I’m about to tell you about, titled LOVE SONG. The “bargain” is hinted at in the subtitle: THE LIVES OF KURT WEILL AND LOTTE LENYA — a double biography, two lives for the price of one. If you’re acquainted with the music of Kurt Weill and the mystique of Lotte Lenya, an individual biography of either would be a bargain at twice  – nay, thrice — the price.

Kurt Weill was born in Germany in March 1900. As a young man (according to Mordden), “Music was his only interest, in total immersion.” He later fled the Nazi takeover and came to New York, U.S.A., in September, 1935. That month is notable for its namesake song, which may be the most unforgettable of his many memorable compositions:

Lotte Lenya, twice-married to Weill and many times in bed with other men, was born in Vienna in 1898 and outlived her husband by 31 years. Quoting from the book, “Lenya was quick to adapt to her audience: a performer, but a warm and giving one, quickly intimate with anyone she liked….she could play everything from the merrily heartless Jenny of The Threepenny Opera to the helplessly coquettish Frau Schneider of Cabaret.” Here she sings one of my favorite Weill songs:

I wish I could give you a front row seat at the real-life opera that is the LOVE SONG of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya, for it is not only a love story, but an adventure and a 20th century history ranging from early success in Weimar Germany, escape from war-torn Europe, and finding the fulfillment in America which was cut short in their native land….but I could not begin to get you as caught up in their story as this “meticulously researched and detailed” book does. If you love the music of Kurt Weill, you will love this biography.

I would love to post clips of such Weill classics as Speak Low, This Is New, and To Love You And To Lose You, but that would perhaps be too much of a good thing….so I’ll bring down the curtain with this Bobby Darin hit from The Three Penny Opera which my fellow seniors will well remember (assuming your memory is sharp):

 

 

BEWARE THE BRIDES OF MARCH

March 15 being THE IDES OF MARCH (but still winter), I thought I’d work on a post I’d call THE BRRRR-IDES OF MARCH — however, it hasn’t been very winter-like where I live, so it’s no weather for snow jobs. Thus I’ll settle for a post about The Brides of March, of whom there have been some blushing ones, some gushing ones, some rushing ones, and a mother lode of if-at-first-you-don’t-succeed-try-try-again ones….such as singing star Peggy Lee, whose marriage to jazz guitarist Dave Barbour was her first of four such gigs.

Here are twenty March brides who gave it the old collage (French for to stick together) try, listed by March wedding day (along with the names of the grooms, just for the wreck of it):

March 1, 1968   JUNE CARTER / Johnny Cash
March 8, 1952   NANCY DAVIS / Ronald Reagan
March 8, 1943   PEGGY LEE / Dave Barbour
March 9, 1796   JOSÉPHINE de BEAUHARNAIS / Napoléon Bonaparte
March 13, 1946 MARY WELSH / Ernest Hemingway

March 15, 1964 ELIZABETH TAYLOR / Richard Burton (again)
March 16, 2002 LIZA MINNELLI / David Gest
March 17, 1905 ELEANOR ROOSEVELT / Franklin D. Roosevelt
March 18, 1869 HARRIET TUBMAN / Nelson Davis
March 19, 1918 DAISY PARKER / Louis Armstrong (who recorded this song 3/2/1932):

March 20, 1969 YOKO ONO / John Lennon
March 21, 1945 LAUREN BACALL / Humphrey Bogart
March 21, 1963 BARBRA STREISAND / Elliott Gould
March 21, 1984 SARAH BRIGHTMAN / Andrew Lloyd Webber
March 23, 1985 CHRISTIE BRINKLEY / Billy Joel

March 24, 1950 INGRID BERGMAN / Roberto Rossellini
March 27, 1916 GLORIA SWANSON / Wallace Beery
March 28, 1920 MARY PICKFORD / Douglas Fairbanks
March 28, 1939 CAROLE LOMBARD / Clark Gable
March 28, 1957 BILLIE HOLIDAY (LADY DAY) / Louis McKay

All but three of those ladies married multiple times, and one of the three (Daisy Parker) died soon after her divorce from Louis Armstrong. Lost passion being the fashion, this quote seems a fitting way to call it a day:

“I guess the only way to stop divorce is to stop marriage.” –Will Rogers

So ladies, this be your day to be given away. Gents, beware the BRIDES OF MARCH (apologies to Shakespeare) — not to mention, pity your poor (after the divorce) befuddled comrades-in-arms who married them.

 

 

 

 

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH

Does this melody ring a bell?

Does the name Ringling Bros. ring a bell?

If it does, the connection between the two should be clear as a bell, because that melody was used for decades on Hollywood soundtracks to accompany circus footage. The most famous circus of them all was Ringling Bros., which was founded on April 10, 1871, merged with Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth in 1919, and closed on May 22 2017.

I recall seeing a circus as a young boy (regrettably, I don’t recall if it was Ringling Bros.)…. but this post’s focus is on circus movies, two of which I’ve seen several times since I was a teenage boy: Charlie Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS, and {The Marx Brothers) AT THE CIRCUS.

THE CIRCUS (1928) is not as well known as such Chaplin masterpieces as THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, and MODERN TIMES, but it is still a great show. Here is the trailer, followed by the closing scene when the circus leaves town with the circus girl he loves:

AT THE CIRCUS (1939) isn’t one of the Marx Brothers’ best films, but it has one of Groucho’s most famous scenes:

How this song came to be written is a story in itself, but the history of Lydia actually pre-dates the song. In Germany in the 1920s, an entertainer named Wilhelm Bendow had a stand-up act as Lydia Smith, the tattooed lady, in which he wore a body cast and performed a satirical sketch. It is no stretch to assume that American lyricist Yip Harburg had heard of that act when he and composer Harold Arlen wrote the song in 1939 (yes, it’s the same Harburg and Arlen who earlier in 1939 wrote OVER THE RAINBOW and the other great songs in WIZARD OF OZ).

As for the song’s lyrics, Harburg was a friend of Groucho, and both were fans of Gilbert and Sullivan. One evening (as AT THE CIRCUS was being developed) at a gathering at Groucho’s house, they were playing G & S records and singing along. Harburg was inspired to show his G & S-like inventiveness with rhyme scheme and verbal dexterity by writing a song for Groucho for the film, and the result was Lydia, The Tattooed Lady.

But the song ran into trouble with the Breen office censors. Quoting Harburg: “That song was thought to be risqué, and we had a hell of a lot of trouble with it. This was 1939 and censorship was at its full height. We were told we would have to cut it out of the picture. Harold and I were mad. Finally, we got an idea of how to save the song. We put in a final verse to legitimize [it]”:

She once swept an admiral off of his feet
The ships on her hips made his heart skip a beat
And now the old boy is in charge of the fleet
For he went and married Lydia.

There have been other circus movies (including the 1952 opus with the same title as this post, starring Jimmy Stewart as a circus clown), but that would make a three-ring circus of this post, and two is enough for this old boy.

The Big Top stops here.

 

 

 

 

PREACHING TO THE LIAR

Mr. President:

Why did you lie when you said….

in September 2018 (addressing the United Nations), “My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country”….adding, “So true” as laughter broke out among the foreign dignitaries.

in October 2018 (when there were still about 1,000 troops in Syria) , “Look, we have no soldiers in Syria. We’ve won.”

in February 2019, “And when I look at what’s happened in California with the votes — as you know, there was just a case where they found a million fraudulent votes.”

in April 2019, “If you  have a windmill near your house, congratulations, your house just went down 75% in value. And they say the noise causes cancer.”

in May 2019 (about Veteran’s Choice, a bill co-authored by John McCain which President Obama signed into law in 2014), “I disagree with John McCain on the way he handled the vets, because I said you got to get Choice. He was never able to get Choice. I got Choice.”

in October 2019, “They heard a whistleblower who came out with a false story. What the whistleblower said bore no relationship to what the call was.” (The whistleblower’s primary allegations were proven correct, including by the rough transcript Trump himself released.)

Etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum….

Why, Mr. President — WHY, WHY, WHY, WHY, WHY?

 

TWO TO GO

As 2019 goes into the history books, we close out the year and our series of 1920s-30s female songwriters with two of the best: BERNICE PETKERE and DOROTHY FIELDS.

PETKERE, the longest lived (1901-2000) but perhaps least remembered of the women in this series, had her greatest success as a composer in the 1930s. This hit (with lyrics by Joe Young) was recorded in early 1932 by a rising star by the name of Bing Crosby:

Petkere, primarily a composer, also wrote the lyrics to a few of her songs, including….

Saving the class of the field for last, we turn to the most prolific lady lyricist of the era (and the first woman to be elected to the Songwriters Hall of Fame), DOROTHY FIELDS, “the only female songwriter of the golden age whose name has not sunk into oblivion with time.” –Deborah Grace Winer, author of ON THE SUNNY SIDE OF THE STREET, subtitled THE LIFE AND TIMES OF DOROTHY FIELDS

Named after Dorothy of Wizard of Oz fame, she teamed with composer Jimmy McHugh in 1927 to write many hits over the next eight years, including this all-time standard in 1930:

Fields went on to write many songs with other composers until her death in 1974….but as much as I’d like to post links to more of Fields work, I’m going to resist temptation (you know what they say about too much of a good thing), Take It Easy*, and call it a Fields day

….except to say, Happy New Year!

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*the title, it so happens, of a Fields song I resisted linking to (recorded by Fats Waller)

 

WHAT VEE/TOT BEGOT, BE WHAT WE GOT (AND THEN SOME)

In a comment to my last post (on composer Kay Swift), a certain mister mused that more posts should follow devoted to women songwriters of the 1920s-30s, of whom there were too few. I’ve since found that two of those few got together to form what was the era’s only successful female songwriting partnership: VEE LAWNHURST (composer) and TOT SEYMOUR (lyricist). We shall proceed accordingly forthwith….or forthwith accordingly. Whatever.

Let’s start with their biggest hit, a #1 bestseller for 11 weeks in 1935, AND THEN SOME:

VEE LAWNHURST (1905-92), born in NYC, was a pianist, singer, teacher, and a pioneer in radio broadcasting. She worked with several lyricists before teaming with Tot to write a lot of hits in the mid to late 1930s, including the title song from the 1935 film ACCENT ON YOUTH, played here by the DUKE ELLINGTON Orchestra (Johnny Hodges on alto sax):

TOT SEYMOUR (1889-1966), also born in NYC, was a multi-talented writer, including special material for such stars of the day as Fannie Brice and Mae West, then turning to popular song writing in 1930, working with various composers until teaming with Vee Lawnhurst. Among their many fine songs is this 1937 Billie Holiday classic featuring such jazz greats as Jonah Jones, Ben Webster, Teddy Wilson and Cozy Cole:

Apparently Vee and Tot wrote no Christmas songs, which is just as well because you’ve probably already had more than your fill. So I’ll just close by wishing you a Happy Humbug….and then some.

 

WE’RE OFF TO HEAR THE WIZARD

To those of you who may think the fourth word of the above title is a misprint, I hasten to tell you that we’re not off to SEE the Wizard of Oz , but to HEAR the Wizard of Menlo Park (as Thomas Alva Edison was known) speaking the first words he recorded:

Many of us have seen photos of the famous inventor when he was old. Here he is at age 31:

https://www.onthisday.com/photos/thomas-edisons-phonograph

Note that in the “Photo Info” several paragraphs below the photo, the location is given as Menlo Park, California. I believe it should be Menlo Park, New Jersey. There is a Menlo Park, CA, which, surprisingly, was founded before the New Jersey town, which was named after the California town, which happens to be the headquarters of Facebook, which is located at 1 HACKER WAY, Menlo Park, CA. Just for the record….would I kid you?

Seriously, why am I publishing this post on this day?

http://www.findingdulcinea.com/news/on-this-day/December/Edison-Successfully-Tests-Phonograph.html

Would you care for a demonstration?

I leave you with this famous Edison quote: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” So stock up on deodorant and don’t give up, or you’ll be foiled again.