Tag Archives: Harold Arlen

No Last Names needed: Sweet black & white glimpses of times spent with three glorious gals — and the guy who made sure I got to know them

Woke up today thinking about three glorious songbirds — Ella, Lena, Peggy.

Remarkable, I think, that you already know who I’m talking about. I don’t have to mention their last names. And Gino was devoted to all three of them.

LENA: MGM publicity shot circa 1948

Okay, his last name I will mention. Gino Empry was a great publicist in the true, old-fashioned sense of that job description. At one point he was King of the Hill in Toronto because he had three of the biggest clients in the country: Ed Mirvish’s lovingly-restored Royal Alexandra Theatre; the fabled Royal York   supper club, the Imperial Room; and the star-laden Grandstand shows at the CNE.

At one time or another Gino also represented Ella, Lena and Peggy. As a newspaper columnist I enjoyed the privilege of sometimes interviewing and sometimes just hanging out with all three powerhouse ladies. And I enjoyed that privilege immensely. But the reason I got to enjoy it in the first place was because all three of them knew I had earned Gino’s stamp of approval.

LENA & TONY: all sold out

I met Lena when she and Tony Bennett were sharing the stage of the 3,250-seat O’Keefe Centre, in a weeklong series of concerts that were completely sold out by opening night. I already knew Tony — by that time I think Gino was also his manager — but I was a great fan of Lena’s, and already owned at least a dozen of her albums — okay, maybe two dozen — so I was a bit shy about meeting her. But then I think most men were. Lena was a revelation. She was one of a rare breed, one of those breathtakingly beautiful women who have no idea how truly stunning they are.

GINO & LENA

Backstage in her dressing room she asked me where I’d heard one particular song I’d mentioned (I think the song was Polka Dots And Moonbeams.) “It’s on your Songs by Burke And Van Heusen album,” I said. Her eyes lit up and we were soon gossiping like old friends. We had lots of time, too, because she did the first act in a dazzling evening gown, then changed into a comfy bathrobe while Tony did the second act, and then changed into a second glamorous gown to join Tony onstage for their duet finale. (Is it any wonder the whole week was sold out?)

Lena had an amazing history. She had gone from The Cotton Club in Harlem to MGM, where she appeared in all-star musicals like Words And Music, giving show-stopping performances of such American pop classics as The Lady Is

LENA: no songs for the south

A Tramp and Where Or When, sharing the screen with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney and  June Allyson some of the studio’s most celebrated players. Ironically she never got to perform with any of them. The studio shot her as a solo performer because her numbers were inevitably cut for audiences in the south. Her fans expected that MGM would cast her as Julie in the screen version of Show Boat; she’d already performed one of the songs in another all-star musical, Till The Clouds Roll By.  But it was only the ‘50s, and America was not nearly as enlightened as we like to think it was. Only a few years earlier, Judy and Mickey and Betty Grable and Dan Dailey had all donned blackface in some of their biggest production numbers. At MGM, after Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel were cast as Magnolia and Gaylord Ravenal, studio screen siren Ava Gardner said she thought her friend Lena Horne was perfect for the role of Julie. But the studio was afraid that casting Lena would kill box office receipts in the south, so it was Ava who ended up playing Julie.

LENNIE & LENA: MGM marriage

Although the Harold Arlen tune became her signature song, Lena’s private life had more than its share of storms. Her first marriage at 19 had left her with two children. When she married again she married a white man, in Paris, in secret – and not just any white man. MGM had several brilliant musical arrangers on staff, including André Previn, who was also a gifted young pianist, and Lennie Hayton, who was as comfortable conducting a symphony orchestra as he was a jazz quintet. It was Lennie who Lena married, and it was Lennie who came up with the innovative musical twists that would keep her at the top of her game. When Rosalind Russell opened on Broadway in Wonderful Town, a young soprano named Edith Adams (yes, the future Edie) got to sing Leonard Bernstein’s lilting ballad, It’s Love — but it was Lennie who slowed it down to a finger-snapping beat for Lena. When Can-Can opened on Broadway, Cole Porter unveiled not one but two strong ballads: I Love Paris and It’s All Right With Me. Lennie took the second ballad and electrified it for Lena. He created her classic Rodgers & Hammerstein rhythm medley, forever changing our concept of that surrey with the fringe on top. And when John Denver wrote his lyrical, folk-y monster hit Sunshine On My Shoulders, it was Lennie who translated it into a jazz waltz. Years after he died, Lena was still adamant about giving Lennie the credit he deserved.

Peggy, like Lena, was a true original, a musician’s musician with the face of an angel and a voice to match.  I loved my visits to her exquisite home in Bel Air. One night I noticed that the peach-coloured guest towels in her powder room were all meticulously rolled, one on top of another, into a perfect pyramid. When I commented on the presentation of her guest towels, she beamed, both pleased and impressed that I had noticed, and I wondered aloud where her housekeeper had learned such artistic dexterity.

PEGGY: towel-folding in Bel-Air

“Would you like her to show you?” she replied, her eyes twinkling mischievously.  She led me back to the powder room and demonstrated how Miss Lee, not Miss Lee’s housekeeper, had personally acquired the art of towel-rolling during her visits to Japan.

Peggy was about to do a Broadway show, Peg, a musical autobiography of her life. An accomplished composer, she was still writing the score for the show, and I think it was that same night she asked me if I would like to hear a few of the songs she had written so far.

“I’d love to!” I said. “I didn’t know you had already recorded them,” I added, secretly hoping she might give me a copy.

GINO & PEGGY

“Oh, I haven’t,” she said with a shrug. “Not yet.”

Blissfully oblivious to the puzzled look on my face, she turned on a nearby tape recorder. As the sweet sound of piano and strings filled the room, she picked up a portable microphone, and sang three or four songs she had written for the show to an enthralled audience of one:  Me. Lucky, lucky me.

Gino admired Lena, and he loved Peggy, but he adored Ella. And Ella loved the way Gino treated her, the way he consulted her, the way he looked out for her. To Ella, Gino was Toronto. She understood that he was hired by the Royal York to make sure her Imperial Room gigs were well documented in the media, but they became fast friends, and in time she came to regard him as both her personal publicist and, at times, her personal property.

ELLA: the one, the only

One of my favourite Gino Empry stories occurred long after he and Ella had become bosom buddies. Ella’s agent accepted a lucrative booking at a major Toronto concert hall, so Ella flew in from Beverly Hills, where she lived, and after arriving at Pearson she was greeted by the concert hall publicist, who presented her with a beautiful bouquet of roses.

“Thank you!” she said, accepting the flowers with a shy smile. She looked around. “Where’s Gino?”

The concert hall publicist explained that Gino Empry did not represent the concert hall, and thus was not involved in this particular engagement.

“I see,” said Ella, who had stopped smiling. She glanced at her dainty diamond wristwatch. “So when is he coming?”

Gino was in his office, meeting with a prospective client, when he got a call from the concert hall publicist. “I’m at the airport with Miss Fitzgerald,” he said, panic rising in his voice. “She refuses to budge until you get here.”

GINO & ELLA

Gino had a heavy foot on a gas pedal at the best of times, so it didn’t take him very long to get to the airport. He raced towards the Arrivals, turned a corner, and there sat Ella, impatiently tapping one foot.

“Gino, do you know how long I’ve been waiting here?” she said, fuming.

“I’m so sorry, Ella,” he began. “I just – “

“This is very unprofessional!” snapped Ella, interrupting him.

“It was my sister,” he lied. “I had to rush home, because of my sister.”

“What’s wrong with her?”

“She fainted,” he said, further embellishing the lie. “But she’s all right now.”

GINO EMPRY: the one, the only

Ella slowly nodded her head. “Well, I’m glad she’s all right.” She adjusted her glasses. “You should have phoned, to say you were going to be late,” she added, scolding him gently.

“I’m so sorry, Ella,” said Gino sheepishly.

She patted him on the shoulder. “Never mind,” she said. “You’re a good brother.”

He stayed by her side the rest of the day and night, and waved her goodbye as she boarded her Air Canada flight back to Los Angeles. And then he went back to his office to work.

Ella, Peggy, Lena. Sweet memories of another time, another place.

Thank you, Gino.

See? I haven’t forgotten.

*     *     *

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Toronto gets Broadway’s Dr. Frankenstein, and Ms Smith’s wisdom falls on glamorous but deaf ears

BROADWAY BABIES: He’s so good in Desperate Housewives that we sometimes forget that it was Roger Bart who originated the title role of the

BART: T.O.-bound

sexually deprived, spiky-haired Young Frankenstein on Broadway in 2007. Good news is, he’s set to reprise his star turn when the Mel Brooks musical opens in Toronto next spring. And coming with him are two of his Great White Way co-stars, Shuler Hensley as the Monster and Cory English as Igor …  Liza’s at the Palace, a recording of Liza Minnelli‘s most recent show as it was performed at the MGM Grand’s Hollywood Theatre in Las Vegas, will be broadcast as a 60-minute special on PBS

USHKOWITZ: back to Broadway?

stations this month. A DVD version of the full two-hour production will be available on February 2 … former Spring Awakening star Jenna Ushkowitz, currently playing Tina on the hit FOX-TV series Glee, says she still dreams of returning to Broadway in a revival of Miss Saigon. “And I’ve been pushing and pushing to be seen for the film version, too!” … and here’s one for your Daytimers: The indefatigable Elaine Stritch officially returns to soignée saloons January 5 – 30, with a new show titled At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim.

JAMES: New Year's Eve

NO BUSINESS LIKE SHOW BUSINESS: The Toronto Banjo Band headlines this year’s annual King Township Historical Society concert this Friday at 7:30 PM at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in King City. For reservations, call 905-841-5048 or 905-833-3324 … Ballets de Monte-Carlo and the Monaco Dance Forum next week open a seven-month salute to the 100th anniversary of Ballet Russes. The festivities run Dec. 2009 thru July 2010 in Monaco … shhhh, it’s a secret, but there may be some seats still available for the taping of the Ron James’ New Year’s Eve Special, tomorrow and Friday at 7 p.m. at the CBC.  Special guest stars include Gemini

SMITH: advisor to the stars

Award winners Peter Keleghan, whose new CBC-TV series 18 To Life bows in January, and Patrick McKenna. To become part of the live studio audience, contact tickets@enterthepicture.com … and Manhattan gossip girl Liz Smith says she was surprised to see herself in the December issue of Glamour magazine. Go to page 86, she says, and “you’ll see me giving unwanted advice to A-listers like Lindsay Lohan, Miley Cyrus, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Mariah Carey and Madonna. None of these big stars will read or take my advice, of course. Never mind! … I gave it.”  Attagirl!

SHARPS ‘N’ FLATS: Nominations for the 10th Annual Canadian Independent Music Awards – “The Indies” – are now open. Submissions are being

KIM: Christmas with friends

accepted through The Indie Awards website at http://www.indies.ca, as well as through Sonicbids at http://www.sonicbids.com/indies2010 until December 15, The awards will be handed out on Saturday, March 13, 2010 in Toronto as part of Canadian Music Week.  For additional eligibility requirements, voting procedures and a complete list of award categories, click here ... Kim Mitchell, Divine Brown, Broken Social Scene and The Beauties (a.k.a. Now magazine’s Top Indy Band Of The Year) have all signed on to spread musical cheer at the fifth annual Andy Kim Christmas Show on Dec. 9 at The MOD Club. All Proceeds will benefit the Regent Park School Of Music. Call Ticketmaster to

MARSHAK: only A Matter Of Time

reserve your seats now … and at long last, veteran showstopper Judy Marshak has finally released her first album, A Matter Of Time, and as expected, it’s a musical bonbon to savour. Marshak brings a unique interpretation to tunes by Harold Arlen, Joni Mitchell and Randy Newman, but the real revelation is the calibre of her lyrical collaborations with John Alcorn, including the title track (not to be confused with the John Kander-Fred Ebb song created for the 1976 Vincente Minnelli film of the same name.) Add such top-of-the-heap musicians as Rob Piltch, Marc Rogers, Denis Keldie, Guido Basso and Davide Direnzo, and your ears will thank you for listening. To sample some of the Marshak’s musical magic, just click here.

TOMORROW:

Emilio shows his dad The Way,

and Jason & Carly indulge in some hot text

Yo, listen up, next week it’s Moore vs. Barrie as CFRB challenges CBC Radio’s morning monopoly

MOORE: morning glory-seeker

MOORE: morning glory-seeker

GOOD MORNING, TORONTO: That’s what popular CFRB drive-home lion John Moore will be saying next week when he goes up against CFRB alumnus and current CBC icon Andy Barrie, who continues to rock morning radio ratings on CBC. Moore will reportedly start his on-air ‘RB shift at 5:30 a.m., 15 minutes before Barrie kicks off his daily Metro Morning broadcast. He’ll also get a little help from his friends, e.g., sportscaster Rick Hodge and Breakfast Television grad Liza Fromer, both of whom are old hands at getting up really really early every morning.

Stay tuned.

BERGMAN: her Turn, 1959

BERGMAN: her Turn, 1959

ONE MORE TURN OF THE SCREW: It was Ingrid Bergman who first tackled Henry James’ scary psychosexual thriller The Turn Of The Screw on television. Then Deborah Kerr played the governess in the movie version called The Innocents. Now DVxT Theatre Company is set to present a new stage version in Toronto, but not on stage. Instead both cast and audience will inhabit the elegant Campbell House Museum. Built in 1822, its candle-lit rooms “will come to life as the audience weaves through all three levels of the house, following the characters through the labyrinth that is this psychological thriller.” Directed by Vikki Anderson, this new production

KERR: her Turn, 1961

KERR: her Turn, 1961

opens Oct 16 and stars Christine Horne as the governess “and Clinton Walker in all (!?!) the other roles. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

FOOTLIGHTS: Dancap Productions, the folks behind such hit Toronto productions as The Drowsy Chaperone and the long-running spellbinder Jersey Boys, is now set to present a summer season of theatrical productions at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, starting next year. Which shows will Dancap be staging or importing next summer? Stay tuned … Andrew Lloyd Webber still wants to restage The Wizard of Oz for Broadway with new songs to

TUNE: living landmark

TUNE: living landmark

go with the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg classics … Yo-Yo Ma serenades tomorrow night in Ottawa at the National Arts Centre … and nine-time Tony-winning tap dancer-singer-choreographer Tommy Tune will be made a Living Landmark on November 4 at Cipriani on 42nd Street.

Wow! — a Manhattan monument that still has all the right moves!

HOW SICK IS THAT: Remember when Sick meant Ill? When he was making Sicko. his documentary on U.S. health care woes, Michael Moore gathered a group of Sept. 11 heroes — rescue workers suffering from debilitating illnesses who have been denied medical attention in the United

MOORE: Canadian premiere

MOORE: Canadian premiere

States – and took them to Cuba so they could finally receive some care. Outrageous moves like that one helped win him an Oscar for Bowling At Columbine, and some fans believe his recent TIFF entry, Capitalism: A Love Story, is his best film treatise yet. Meanwhile, if you missed Sicko first time ‘round, CBC Newsworld hosts its Canadian television premiere this Sunday night at 9:30 pm on The Passionate Eye.

Happy Nuit Blanche!

-/-