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Saturday, July 11, 2009

The fickle finger of fame


I met Greg after he got off work today. It was a pre-planned meeting, right, but we still "accidentally" met on the street, which is always nice. He was walking towards Columbus Circle, where I was supposed to be, and I was walking along 59th toward 5th Ave because I'd gotten bored sitting in the same place, and felt like a walk, and assumed I'd either bump into him or miss him entirely.

Nice weather, btw. Too nice to sit in the middle of a round-about when you can walk through a park alongside horses. Which I did--my pace matched the pace of a bored-looking horse dragging a carriage behind itself through the park. I was listening to some Michael Jackson on my iPod, and the mottled white horse beside me was listening to the sounds of the park, and we were both nodding our heads a bit to our own private sounds, and there was a brilliant blue sky above, and green trees, and asphalt beneath both of us, and I did something one should never do: I reached out and patted the horse's neck. Couldn't help it. The horse was right there, and Michael Jackson was singing about human nature, and I always have to touch something, bounce against something, when he asks 'Why? Why?' It's like the end of the theme song of the X-Files--something has to be touched. So I did. With each 'why,' I put my hand out and lightly petted the horse's neck.

The horse didn't mind. It may have snorted a bit. Felt smooth, warm. But the horse's driver got pissed and yelled at me, as if I were about to, oh I don't know, whip the horse and then nail shoes into its feet. The midwestern tourists in the carriage looked at me as if I'd just declared twinkies to be a product of the devil.

Whatever. Nice day. Nice walk. Both the horse and I emerged onto 59th St without incident, and split--the horse went back to Columbus Circle, and I continued on toward 5th Avenue.

For a minute there, the horse and I were sharing some serious connections. Then the horse was gone, and I was gone.

Then I ran into Greg, who was wearing a red bandanna on his head because why not, and we both got excited because it's always nice to simply "run into" someone on the street, but to run into the one person you want to run into is even better.

"I thought you were gonna wait for me at Barnes and Noble," Greg said, plucking his earbuds out of his ears.

"I got bored," I said. "And I wanted to assault a horse."

We'd bought tickets for "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg," a documentary about some woman who was famous from the '30s to the '60s. Obviously she's not famous now. If I said the name "Gertrude Berg" to you, you'd think of Hamlet and, I don't know, the Titanic, maybe, but back in the day? Gertrude Berg was a star. Won the first Emmy for best actress in a television show. Won a Tony. Created the situational comedy.

Greg and I walked over to Lincoln Plaza to see this doc, and were standing in line for it, and realized we were the only people under 50. It's not an exaggeration: the median age for "Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg" was probably 65, and I would not have been surprised if someone had lined up in an urn.

We were also the only gentiles. Well, not the only gentiles, but I'd say there was a pretty heavy elderly Jewish presence on line at the Lincoln Plaza screening. Pat Buchanan might've had a shot being elected president with this line.

Here's what the documentary was about: fame, and how easily it goes away.

Gertrude Berg was once the second most admired woman in America, behind Eleanor Roosevelt. She wrote 12,000 scripts. She did radio, television, film, and stage. She gave Steve McQueen and Anne Bancroft their big breaks. She inspired Norman Lear, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Susan Stamberg, and most of the nation. She created the sit-com. And you have no clue who she is.

Chances are, you won't remember who she is even after watching this documentary. The Times gave it a rave, but I thought it was boring and insubstantial. The doc went a long way in setting up the history of Gertrude Berg, but made no effort explaining her obliteration.

There were hints, of course, and the film goes on at length to describe HUAC and Berg's perennial co-star's suicide (the actor who played her husband was accused of being a dirty Commie, was blacklisted, and eventually committed suicide. If you've seen 'The Front,' then here's a bit of trivia: Zero Mostel's role in 'The Front' was based on him).

About half way through this documentary about a woman who was "the Oprah of her day," I realized I'd left my iPod on. I'd tossed it into my bag earlier, when I'd bumped into Greg on the street, and hadn't turned it off. During the quiet moments of the movie, tinny, distant Michael Jackson hee-hee and sha-mony sounds were audible. I assumed the sound was from someone else, but no, the sounds were coming from (gasp!) within my own bag.

I reached out and ("Why? Why?") tapped Greg twice on the neck, then stooped down to dig through my bag and shut MJ off. And on the screen, Gertrude Berg was talking to Ed Murrow, a clip from one of his "Person to Person" interviews.

Here's to you, Mrs. Goldberg. And to Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are. Sha-mony.

2 comments:

Matt Osborne said...

The golden age of television captured a kind of glamor that has never existed since. Characters born in those times are immortal.

MM said...

That's not what I was talking about, tho. I mean, I don't agree about the glamor, because it was television, and no one respected it. 'Honeymooners' is hardly glamorous. And immortal? Look up 'DuMont Network'.

What I find interesting is fame, and how easily it falls away. The work it takes to keep anyone from Euripides to Elvis on the cultural radar is enormous.

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