Tag Archives: Rodgers & Hammerstein

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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Mamma Mia! There they go again! My, my, how can we resist them?

FLICKERS: Ridiculously rich Mamma Mia film producer Judy Craymer is hoping to persuade Benny Andersson and his musical sidekick Bjorn

SEYFRIED & STREEP: bella Donnas?

Ulvaeus to lend their irresistible ABBA tunes to a prequel, with a brand new young cast. Will Amanda Seyfried get to play the young Meryl Streep, who played her mother Donna in MM? Stay tuned … Deidre Kelly’s new book, Paris Times Eight, already sounds like a movie. Kelly first arrived in Paris, the city of her dreams, “as a starry-eyed ingénue.” In some of her subsequent visits she returns as a budding writer who interviews Rudolf Nureyev and crashes an

KELLY: Paris, je t'aime (photo: Bryan L. Davies)

exclusive fashion show, and as an emotional daughter who takes her mother to Paris to meet her “other mother;” until finally she returns to Paris as a mother herself. Sounds like a least three great roles for women, n’est-ce pas? … and yes, it’s true, shooting is already underway in Shanghai for the Chinese version of Disney‘s megahit High School Musical. How did Disney get the green light from China? Well, for one thing, the Chinese version is set at a university, “since Chinese high school students are so focused on academics that they would not have time to devote to singing and dancing.” Okay, got it.

QUOTABLE QUOTES: “I’ve no interest in playing oldies anymore. No, no, no. Far more fitting for the next stage in my career to play a slut.”

DENCH: Nothing like a Dame.

The speaker? Dame Judi Dench, now 74 but never at a loss for words. Currently starring in the about-to-be blockbuster movie musical Nine, Dame Judi’s next gig will bring her back to the boards, as Titania, the queen of the fairies in a new Midsummer Night’s Dream in Kingston, England. She first performed the role of Titania as a schoolgirl some 56 years ago, and is thrilled to be able to take another crack at it. “Of course,” she adds, “one is lucky to be acting at all. I’m happy when I have a job – any job. One is always afraid of having no work.”

Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein said it best. There really is nothing like a Dame.

21 AGAIN: It came and went 10 days ago, November 21 2009 was not just another Saturday night for Veronica Tennant. The prima ballerina who reinvented herself as a prima television producer was in three different cities that

TENNANT: November is the Coolest month

night. She was in Toronto attending the National Ballet of Canada’s performance of The Sleeping Beauty — the ballet she premiered more than 35 (!!!) years ago with Rudolf Nureyev as her prince — in tribute to Canada’s National Ballet School’s 50th Anniversary Assemble Internationale. But she was also in Edmonton, on film, as Honourary Chair of the Shumka Ballet, welcoming guests to Shumka’s Red Boots, Ballet and Bubbly Gala. And she was also in Cuba, where her much-lauded dance film, Vida y Danza, Cuba, was being screened at the 18th Anniversary celebration of Lizt Alfonso’s Dance Cuba.

JACKSON: new role

“November 21 has always been a significant day for me,” admits Tennant with a shy smile. I’ll say! Her Gala farewell performance with the National Ballet of Canada, A Passion for Dance: Celebrating the Tennant Magic, took place on November 21, 1989. And ten years later, to the day, she won her first International Emmy award as a television producer, for Karen Kain; Dancing in the Moment, on November 21, 1999.

Safety in numbers, you say? Sounds more like magic to me.

NO PEOPLE LIKE SHOW PEOPLE: Slaight Communications chief Gary Slaight will be lauded for his longstanding commitment to charitable initiatives

GABEREAU: hosting for Mercer

as the recipient of the Humanitarian Spirit Award. at the Canadian Music and Broadcast Industry Awards on March 11 at the Fairmont Royal York Hotel, during Canadian Music Week … rising marquee bait Joshua Jackson has won the lead in a feature adaptation of British TV series UFO … Robin Mirsky, executive director of Rogers Group of Funds, has succeeded CFTPA prez Norm Bolen as co-chair of Hot Docs board of directors with Michael McMahon. New board members include marketing maven Robert Pattillo, Cobalt Pharmaceuticals chairman Neil Tabatznik and filmmakers Lalita Krishna, Julia Ivanova and Danijel Margetic … and Vicki Gabereau will host when Rick Mercer entertains the multitudes in Vancouver at a gala fund-raising evening June 10 for the Kay Meek Centre.

Special P.S. to Rick Mercer Report aficionados: Mercer’s final 2009 outing airs tonight at 8 pm on CBC-TV.

TOMORROW:

Roger gets ready for Toronto, and

Liz gives some advice to some dazzling Glamour girls.

What you may not know about the two ‘overnight sensations’ who are making GLEE your favourite new show of the 2009-2010 television season

MORRISON:  as 'Mr Shuster'

MORRISON: as 'Mr Schuester'

LYNCH: as not-so-sweet Sue

LYNCH: as not-so-sweet Sue

It seemed like they came out of nowhere, this tall, lanky high school teacher and the razor-tongued athletic coach determined to be his nemesis. If they’d been major players (or even minor ones) on earlier TV shows, I’d obviously missed those series. And even after Glee made its auspicious and, yes, spectacular debut as a test pilot, no one ever said, “Oh you know him, he’s the guy from Law & Criminals: Baltimore.” Or anything even remotely like that. We saw him in action. Then we saw her in action. And then we went wow! — who are these people?

MORRISON: in South Pacific

MORRISON: in South Pacific

Apparently we were looking for answers in all the wrong places. We should have been looking to Broadway. Matthew Morrison, who plays Will Schuester, the Spanish teacher who decides to try to resuscitate the high school glee club, is an accomplished song and dance man who co-starred in the sensational still-running Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific, nightly revisiting such Rodgers & Hammerstein classics as I Have Dreamed and Carefully Taught.
And when he isn’t playing the beleaguered high school teacher in the runaway hit of this TV season, he’s working with his South Pacific director Bartlett Sher on developing a musical version of Pedro Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

LYNCH: with Streep in Julie & Julia

LYNCH: with Streep in Julie & Julia

(Who knew???)
We sure knew he could sing and dance, however — and stay in character — after we saw him ‘teach’ his irresistible Glee club misfits how to sell a song. (Still don’t know what I’m talking about? Just click here.)

As for the outrageously funny Jane Lynch — frankly, and i mean candidly: Where Have I Been? She’s been a popular recurring multi-episode player on such long-running hit series as Boston Legal, Criminal Minds, The ‘L’ Word and Two And A Half Men. Comedy

GLEE: tonight at 9 pm

GLEE: tonight at 9 pm

aficonados will tell you in a heartbeat that she performed all her own singing and guitar playing in A Mighty Wind, and that she made them scream with laughter when she appeared with Steve Carrell in his breakthrough film The 40 Year Old Virgin. (Morrison also has on-screen history with Carrell. He played the cop that wouldn’t get off his case in Dan In Real Life.) What many of her fans don’t realize, however, is that Lynch is currently on screen with Meryl Streep, playing the small but key role of Julia Child‘s sister in Julie & Julia. And that she opens off-Broadway with Tyne Daly tonight — yes, tonight — as part of the rotating all-female cast of the new Nora & Delia Ephron opus, Love, Loss And What I Wore. So she continues in very good company, on stage and screens.

MORRISON: Broadway baby

MORRISON: Broadway baby

LYNCH: TV veteran

LYNCH: TV veteran

So does Glee. Two weeks ago, barely into the run of the series, Glee cast recordings accounted for 10 spots on the iTunes list of top 200 downloaded songs and four places on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week. The top-selling Glee cast recordings included two mash-ups created for the series — one of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” and Usher’s “Confessions Part II,” and the other of Beyoncé’s “Halo” and “Walking on Sunshine,” by Katrina and the Waves. And more sales are in the offing. On Nov. 3 Columbia Records and 20th Century Fox Television will release Glee: The Music, Volume 1, the first in what is planned as a series of soundtrack albums. And last week the Fox series made more headlines when NBC reneged on its invitation to have the Glee cast perform during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which it broadcasts. So now the Glee cast will perform during the World Series, singing the national anthem in either Los Angeles or Philadelphia, depending on the outcome of the playoffs, during game three of the series, which is telecast by Fox.

Still wondering what all the fuss is about? To catch up with the pilot that started it all, just click here. To catch a new episode, tune in tonight at 9 pm to Fox or Global. And enjoy!

TOMORROW:

More star-studded news and views

from Vanessa Williams, Lily Tomlin and more.

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