Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Happy Birthday, Al Martino!

My list of favourite singers of all-time would seem to consist mostly of Italian American baritones. And right up there with Frank, Dino, and Tony would be this man: the great Al Martino! Like many of my generation, I was first introduced to Al by way of his appearance in the classic film, The Godfather, as Johnny Fontane, the singer with aspirations to break into the movies (albeit through unsavoury means!)

Several years later I was captivated by his song To The Door Of The Sun, a hit on the pop charts in 1974. I was just a young teen of the time, but quite frankly I was intrigued by this crooner of my parents' generation far more than any of the artists my peers were grooving to in that era. I suppose Al Martino himself decided to try adapting somewhat to the times when he recorded a hit version of the Italian standard, Volare, with a distinct disco beat to it. Still, he raised the bar even there, by belting it out in his majestic, rich voice of near operatic proportions.

I collected several of Al's albums on LP back then, and have since bought a number of hits compilations released on CD. I do wish that more of his original albums would be released on CD, but I must admit that I do get a nostalgic kick out of spinning that vinyl. I'm glad I've kept all of my LPs through the decades!

My caricature of Al Martino on the wall of his family's home
In recent years, I was fortunate enough to see Al Martino in concert whenever he performed here in Mississauga at the Stage West hotel theatre. It was particularly nice in that I would go see his shows with my Mom, also a longtime fan of his. After the show, Al Martino was gracious enough to come out and greet and sign autographs for his many fans. It was a huge thrill for us to meet him, and I presented him with a framed caricature I had drawn of him. It was also very gratifying when he returned the next year to perform and his lovely wife Judi told me in the lobby before the show how much he appreciated the caricature, hanging it on his home office wall once he'd returned from his tour. I got to see Al after this show too and it was great to chat with him again, and he thanked me once more for the artwork. Unfortunately, Stage West's dinner theatre is no more, but I'll cherish seeing those shows and spending such wonderful times with my Mom through those years.

In 2009, we sadly lost Al Martino at the age of 82, and his passing affected me deeply. Of all my favourite crooners of that great era, Al was the only one whom I'd had the pleasure to actually meet, so he'll always be a very special memory for me. He was a ruggedly handsome man, with such a majestic voice and stage presence. There will likely never be any more singers to come along of that calibre. They are the product of a superior era of genuine entertainment.

Al and Judi Martino at Stage West in Mississauga, Ontario

And so, I have created this new caricature of Al Martino that appears at the top of this post in tribute to this magnificent man on his birthday. It has also been my pleasure this year to have been reacquainted with his wife, Judi, and their daughter Alison through Facebook. It's very gratifying to see that Alison Martino has dedicated herself to remembering that era of entertainment by setting up interviews with noted veteran performers to reminisce on stage for appreciative audiences. Alison, I know your Dad would be so proud of your efforts! I would therefore like to dedicate this post to Judi and Alison, with much admiration. 

Here is the video reference that I mostly used to create my new caricature of Al Martino, in which he performs his hit song, Spanish Eyes. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Happy Birthday, Fess Parker!

Today is the birthday of Fess Parker, the actor who gained great fame in Disney's three-part, made for TV movie, Davy Crockett - King of the Wild Frontier, later edited into a theatrical release. Fess had only done some small roles in movies, and it was from viewing him in the sci-fi 'B' movie, Them! that Walt Disney himself thought that Fess had the right look and personality to play the frontiersman, Davy Crockett. The film was a huge hit with viewers, and young kids created a mass demand for coonskin caps so they could play at being Davy too. For Fess Parker, it was the role that made him a star, and he went on to doing several more films for Disney, including the sequel, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.

This caricature of Fess as Davy, I first drew for a publication called Persistence of Vision, a first rate historical journal from the early 90s that was created by Paul F. Anderson, a very knowledgable historian on the Disney films and Disneyland park attractions from the era when Walt Disney himself was still running the studio. Though the publication has run its course, Paul continues to document the studio's classic films and attractions on his Disney History Institute blogsite. I highly recommend it!

More recently, this caricature was also used on the cover art I did for one of the volumes of Walt's People, a series of books published and edited by Didier Ghez, collecting interviews with various notables from Disney animated and live-action films, as well as those involved in the development of the Disney theme parks. Didier currently operates the Disney History blog, also devoted to the films and attractions of classic Disney.

Here's a clip of Fess Parker in his iconic role of Davy Crockett, with Buddy Ebsen (famous as Jed Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies) as his friend, George Russel:

Monday, August 11, 2014

RIP Robin Williams

I just got home to hear the tragic news of the death of Robin Williams from an apparent suicide. For all of his outward wild humour, he must have been a tortured soul. His death only a couple weeks after the death of Jim Garner marks a very strange coincidence for me, as I had met both of these actors while on my vacation to Los Angeles in 1982. I'd written about my visit to the set of Mork and Mindy on the Paramount lot on this earlier blog post.

As I mentioned in that post, I noticed that Robin Williams could turn it on and off so suddenly, as he was wild on the set while rehearsing, yet was very quiet and reserved backstage in the break room. Sadly, it does not surprise me to now find out that he was given to severe bouts of depression. I really don't know what else to say, as this news is a real shocker. I hope the poor man has found inner peace now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

So Long, Jim...

This blog has been dormant for awhile now, and it is with some irony that my last post was my annual tribute to James Garner on his birthday last April. For today I woke up to the very sad news that he has now passed away at the age of 86. I knew he'd been in poor health for some time now, and when someone reaches that age you know that the day they'll no longer be around is inevitable, it's just a matter of when. Yet somehow it still remains difficult to imagine this world without them in it. On previous occasions, I'd felt that way upon the passing of Audrey Hepburn in 1992 and of Frank Sinatra in 1998. That's the way I feel about Jim Garner too.

For me, Jim was more than just my favourite actor. It wasn't merely that I appreciated his considerable skills on the movie or TV screen. There was something more that he had - a quality that went beyond his celebrity. He was a genuinely nice man, exuding a warmth, charm and friendliness that just naturally engaged people. As a result, his numerous fans were extremely loyal and dedicated to him, as evidenced by the Facebook site set up by his friend, Robert Howe, The Official James Garner Fan Page. We had all grown up enjoying watching Jim in his movies, and especially his two long running TV series, Maverick and The Rockford Files. To all of his finest roles, he brought a special element of self-effacing humour. He was the "reluctant hero" - the man who would rather avoid trouble if he could help it, but would stand up for himself and others when push came to shove.

I am grateful that I got to meet Jim back in 1982 on the set of his series, Bret Maverick, a sequel to his original series that featured him still as a sly yet conscientious gambler, but now 20 years older and looking to settle down from his roving ways. The visit to the set at Warner Brothers had been arranged by my good friend, Bryan Stoller through a studio contact, and it was just wonderful to meet Jim himself that day. I'll never forget shaking his hand, then him saying, "Come on over here, son", in that distinctive voice of his, as he motioned me over to one of the tables in the show's Red Ox saloon set they were filming on, so he could look at the drawing I did of him and autograph another one for me. He was as tall and handsome a man as could be, with that warm manner and engaging smile that I'd grown up watching on the movies and TV. A real square-jawed, silver screen hero in the flesh!

Me and my friend Bryan gathered with Jim Garner and cast on the set of Bret Maverick, 1982

But now James Garner is gone. And I'm filled with a great sadness at his passing. My heart goes out to his family, wife Lois, and daughters Gigi and Kim. In recent years I'd had email conversations with Gigi on her Dad's birthday, and she told me that she'd printed out one of my blog posts a couple years ago and Jim himself read it aloud at the family home. She said he was quite touched by my words and that it was something he needed to hear. I'm grateful for that knowledge that my words may have brought some small comfort to this wonderful man. I'll miss you Jim...

In final tribute, here is the memorable speech from Jim's personal favourite of his films, The Americanization of Emily:

Monday, April 7, 2014

Happy Birthday, James Garner!

"Basically, I'm just passin' through here on my way to Australia!"
As has become a regular annual custom on this blog, I wish to celebrate the birthday today of James Garner, my all-time favourite actor. For me, watching Jim in one of his many films or on The Rockford Files TV series is like wearing a comfortable old sweater. I've got quite a few of his films in my DVD library, but the one I always turn to the most is his 1969 western comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff! In fact, between this film and his performance in Marlowe, also in 1967, Jim seems to have perfected the on-screen persona for what would become his most famous portrayal of all, as private investigator, Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files a few years later on TV.

In Support Your Local Sheriff!, Jim plays Jason McCullough, a fellow casually making his way west with a goal of someday reaching the great frontier of Australia. Hearing of a gold rush in the small town of Calendar, Colorado, Jason decides to try his luck at finding gold to finance his trip Down Under. Turns out the town is run by a family of desperadoes by the name of Danby, including Walter Brennan as the patriarch, and Bruce Dern as his trigger happy, no-good son, Joe. When Jason first rides into town, he witnesses a shootout in the local saloon with Joe Danby suckering and gunning down some yokel in a dubious claim of "self defence".

When it looks like he's going to need a regular job first to pay for his gold hunting hobby, Jason applies for the job of sheriff, which the town officials are only too happy to hire him for, due to the fact that the Danbys keep killing or running off the previous sheriffs. Jason decides that his first duty will be to arrest Joe Danby for cold-blooded murder back at the saloon. However, with a newly built town jail that has yet to install the iron bars for the cell, since they're still on back-order, it looks like Jason will have to use his wits to figure out a way to keep some sort of law and order until then:

Support Your Local Sheriff! also features Harry Morgan as the town mayor, Olly Perkins, and lovely Joan Hackett as his feisty, yet humorously accident prone daughter, Prudy. In my opinion however, the standout performance in the film is delivered by veteran western actor, Jack Elam, as Jake "The Town Character", who very reluctantly allows himself to be deputized. With his craggy face and wall-eyed grimaces, Elam is just a delight in every scene he's in.

So, Happy Birthday, Jim! And thanks for creating one of my favourite comedies with Support Your Local Sheriff!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Happy Birthday, Crystal Gayle!

Yes, today is the birthday of that sweet-faced little country girl with the never-ending mane of hair, beautiful Crystal Gayle. Back in the late 70's and into the 80's, Crystal was my favourite female country vocalist. The kid sister of the legendary Loretta Lynn, Crystal was born Brenda Gail Webb, but received her stage name courtesy of Loretta, who got the inspiration for that moniker from the Krystal hamburger restaurant chain!

Loretta actually wrote many of Crystal's first songs, but they didn't really go anywhere, although I must admit I quite love her first single, I've Cried the Blues Right Out of My Eyes. That title may have been prophetic though, in that Crystal had her biggest success just a few years later with the similarly titled, Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, a massive crossover hit that did big business on both the country and pop charts.

Crystal has a great range of music styles, not just country. She loves jazz standards and broadway showtunes from the "Tin Pan Alley" era, and late in her career she recorded a beautiful album of the songs of Hoagy Carmichael, a composer she admired very much. She'd first sung a medley with ol' Hoagy on a country TV special, seen here. Looks like Hoagy adored Crystal right back!

But Crystal is always going to be remembered best for the aforementioned Don't It Make My Brown Eyes Blue, so here is a prime rendition from a concert that first aired on HBO in 1982:

Incidentally, January 9th is not only Crystal Gayle's birthday, but also is the birthday of my dear Dad, John Emslie, who passed away in 2001. Both Dad and I were huge country music fans back in the 70's/80's, and I have many fond memories of seeing a great many of our favourite performers in concert halls and big outdoor summer jubilees together. He was a wonderful father who did so much for me and my sister, and we will always miss him like crazy. So here's a Happy Birthday to you too, Dad! :)