Midge and Birdie and Me

I am a child of the late sixties and seventies.  What this means is that I grew up at a very opportune time. 

There was a social and cultural revolution going on in America and I was young enough not to have to worry about getting drafted but old enough to enjoy the tail end of hippie culture, rock ‘n roll music, the second golden age of movies and the takeover of America by a new generation.

OK — but we did have to deal with the turtleneck/plaid suit combo

Never mind that these people were merely the older brothers and sisters of my friends, or their aunts and uncles, most of whom I didn’t admire and none of whom I could see leading me anywhere I particularly wanted to go.

At the very worst they’d be mere placeholders, warming up the expensive seats until me and mine would make everything better, or at least a lot more fabulous, fun and fair.

So, how’d we do…………..????

OK ignore this

This is why while I enjoy looking back on films, television and music from those days I also find it, well….a little depressing.  Especially when I stay too long.

I love The Graduate, The Godfather and Cabaret and have watched them a zillion times but at this point it’s hard not to walk away disappointed that no movies these days, or for many decades since then, can measure up i.e. have quite the same impact on me. 

Same with the music of The Beatles, Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Motown.

Let’s not even start with Laugh-In, Carol Burnett or the early shows of Norman Lear.

And the first time I saw a then-unknown Bette Midler perform on The Tonight Show in 1971 on my teeny tiny black and white screen TV. 



Yet I have no baggage for anything that was made, or takes place, prior to that time. 

If it’s great, or fun or thoughtful or silly I can live there as long as I like and not have it mess with my psyche.  It lingers in my mind safely and I can enjoy it as many times as I like and for as long as I like any time I need some cheering up or to even think about contemporary issues without touching too much of an experiential nerve.

I think this explains my fascination with two samplings of TV and film this week set in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Enter Midge Maisel

The first three episodes of the fifth and final season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and the Turner Classic Movies Festival showing of the film version of Bye Bye Birdie, which began with a live on-site interview with its still very much alive triple-threat star, Ann-Margret.

Thanks TCM and Amy Sherman-Palladino & Co. for making these trying times fabulous and fun while softening the blow, via your use of full flashy color, that life has never been, nor ever will be, consistently fair.

See, it’s not that either that series or movie don’t address the issues of their day.  It’s that they do it in a way that I can take right now.  They engulf me in somebody else’s baggage and allow me to drift off to another time that reminds me of what it must have been like before there were Orange ex-presidents, rampant assassinations, especially school assassinations, and a strange aversion to network prime time variety shows on television.

plus hats!

Full Confession:  The fast-paced, delicious world of former NYC housewife and now aspiring comic Midge Maisel is not totally foreign to me.  My family didn’t have nearly as much money as hers but I was close to the age of her youngest kid.  Also, the incessant, fast-paced shreying (Note: Yelling in Yiddish) and whining in her household is not a tempo or type of patter unfamiliar.

But Midge’s world is a Technicolor interpretation of something familiar, backed by a soundtrack of period singers crooning recognizable tunes from the great American songbook, that is told with wit, creativity and thoughtful integrity.  It’s out of life the way any screwball-styled comedy is yet at the same time it refuses to steer clear of the human frailties of its characters or totally let them off the hook for their actions or reactions.

Amen, Midge.

In this 1950s/early 1960s world men can rule women for only so long before they bite back and win.  The children of neglectful parents also get to have their say, as do other discounted, marginalized people who have been forced to stand on the sidelines in the past.  In this world, it pays to be a little strange, a little off, and also a lot culturally Jewish, and perhaps that is why I like it as much as I do.  Or perhaps it’s merely that it takes place in a time that is a gauzy idea I barely recall.

Or maybe, just maybe, it’s simply funny, inventive and in its final season.  Once inventors of top notch series that haven’t stayed too long decide on their end point, they do some of their most satisfying, if not best, work.  This was the case with Mad Men, another set in that era, and so far seems the case here. 


It costs us nothing to see Midge go out as a star and will give us infinite pleasure as we watch her stumble over every living thing in her way to get there. Her life clearly won’t be without consequences, if the first three episodes of season five are any indication, but when you get to be funny and sass back the jerks while some of the best music ever made plays in the background, how bad can your life, or ours, really be?

At almost 82 years old, Ann-Margret has had quite a life.  But it’s the present and her declaration that she has as much energy as she’s ever had that she claims keeps her going.  This could account for why she’s recorded an album of classic rock ‘n roll tunes, Ann-Margret: Born to Be Wild, that’s now available to download or to purchase on Amazon.  Or why when she confesses to an audience of film lovers at a movie theatre in Hollywood on a Saturday afternoon that there is the me you see here, and the me you don’t see with all this….energeeeeeeeee, and nearly jumps out of her demure sitting stance while doing it, that we absolutely believe her. 

Love herrrr

The thing about Ann-Margret is that she’s always been a bundle of energy and honesty.  You can see it in her breakthrough lead role in 1963’s Bye Bye Birdie as well as her Oscar-nominated work in such films as Carnal Knowledge (1971) and Tommy (1975).

In Bye Bye Birdie, set in the late 1950s, she plays a teenager picked to give a symbolic kiss to singing star Conrad Birdie, a fictionalized version of Elvis Presley, before he goes into the military.

The movie musical, based on the hit Broadway show, embraces a somewhat cartoonish, larger than life comedic tone, but the sensuality and sincerity of her scenes and dance moves still electrify the screen and bring us back to a fictional moment in time when the drafting of a teen idol into the military was billed as the principal concern of teenagers (okay, mostly young female teens) in this country.

Fetch me my wind machine!

Would that it was ever so and nice to remember it actually was partly true, especially these days.

There are some politically incorrect moments in the film by today’s standards and its view of America was at best a fictionalized construction of the era that would soon get deconstructed by the end of the 1960s.  But I was barely alive in 1958, the year it was set, and there is plenty to see and read from that time that balances what this type of movie shows us.

Aside from Dick Van Dyke at some of his singing and dancing best (Note: Do NOT think or say a bad word about one of my personal faves) it also gives us a joyful look at a more innocent moment in the American story.   That would be an era where a parents’ version of wild offspring involved teenagers staying out late, dying their hair and maybe, well, riding a motorcycle.  


Much like Ann-Margret did onscreen back then and still does to this day in real life.

Can you imagine?

Well, you don’t have to because that’s what movies like this are for.  To not take ourselves so seriously that we fail to recognize that hypersexual singing stars and kids who play dress up as something other than they are is just camp.

And at the end of the day it isn’t camp that is dangerous for kids and teenagers.  The real danger lies in the retribution that adults heap on their kids when they do what every generation does with camp at their age – enjoy it.

Ann-Margret – “Born to Be Wild”

Turning Back Time

Screen Shot 2016-06-26 at 2.21.08 PM

We all came to America in different ships – but we are all in the same boat now

– Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) outside the Capitol Building last week to a mostly young crowd supporting a Democratic-led sit-in demanding a vote on gun legislation

John Lewis has been a congressman for almost 30 years but is still best known to most Americans as one of the young protégés of slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In that realm, he is also renowned as the young Black man whose skull was brutally fractured by nightstick-wielding Alabama state troopers during the 1965 March on Selma when he, Dr. King, and hundreds of others merely decided to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in non-violent demonstration in order to integrate the South.

Living legend

Living legend

Now 76-years old and bald, one entire side of Rep. Lewis’ head still very clearly bears the bold, visible scars of that fateful day. So as he encouraged demonstrators to never give up on their goals it is also unsurprising that a veteran lawmaker like himself would admonish them to also not give in to their anger over 200 mass shootings since 2006 (the latest of which was responsible for a record body count of 49 inside an Orlando gay nightclub) despite absolutely ZERO modifications of laws that allowed those gunmen to purchase their often quite sophisticated military grade weapons.

The way of peace is the way of love, Rep. Lewis shouted out towards the crowd as he went on to further share with them what he said Dr. King related to him all of those decades ago.

Hate is too heavy a burden to bear, so we need to lay it down – it is better to love.

And to even that he then added this 21st century addendum.

So with all of you working together — we can turn our nation around. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or White, Latino American, Asian American, Native American, Straight or Gay – we are all Americans.

My head is still spinning over this....

My head is still spinning over this….

I am hesitant to say a few unexpected tears welled in my eyes as Rep. Lewis spoke. As a gay guy of a certain age I have not yet grown used to national leaders openly including us in the multi-layered cloth of identities in this country. Yeah, I know it’s been at least a couple of years but I’m not sure you ever relax about this sort of thing when more of your life has been spent battling inequality than basking in the rewards of the opposite. In this way, I can only begin to imagine how he must feel as the purveyor of this message after what he has managed to live through.

By the way, I know his above quotes to be accurate because I watched him say them on live television during the many multi-hours of coverage this 2016 demonstration received and then sped it back using my Direct TV rewind button in order to write it down exactly and remember it. That’s yet another way the world has changed for the better since the 1960s. Not only do you get to see government and civil disobedience live and unedited, you have the opportunity to record it permanently in case you forget it, don’t pay attention in the first place or if anyone doubts you.

I have the power!

I have the power!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the sixties, seventies, fifties and even forties for several reasons this week. No, they don’t all have to do with the passage of Brexit and the anti-immigration wave not only blowing throughout England but back on to and throughout this country via our current Republican presidential nominee. They also have to do with my home TV viewing habits via one of our own fave channels – at least in this household — Turner Classic Movies.

This month TCM’s been showing musicals from the 1960s and I was seduced into too many off hours of diversion in the last few weeks somehow – mostly recently several days ago by the film versions of The Music Man (1962) and Bye Bye Birdie (1963). Now don’t get me wrong, neither of these are great films but they are infinitely watchable and entertaining. So evocative are they of another time and place and naiveté that doesn’t exist anymore that it becomes impossible to turn away.

Saturated with glee

Saturated with glee

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to imagine that there is a town still as rosy as Sweet Apple, Ohio where all teenage girls looked like Ann-Margret; with fathers who had the gay sensibilities of Paul Lynde (Note: But you didn’t have to talk about them) and where the country’s biggest problem was just how on earth we could all handle the departure into the military of our own #1 word famous swivel-hipped pop star? (Note: And one with no discernible bloodshed because we clearly were fighting no discernible war).

Well, the only thing that could be better is viewing a kind-hearted con man re-energize one of our small towns citizen by citizen and, through his deeds (and unbeknownst to himself until the end), finding that he does have a soul underneath it all. So much so that he decides to leave his life of capitalistic crime, fall in love with and marry the local spinster librarian, and spend the rest of his life as a mere private citizen in the very town that at the beginning of the story he was determined to massively rip off?

Oh sweet Americana

Oh sweet Americana

Those are the thumbnail plots of Bye Bye Birdie and The Music Man and a pretty good representation of where we were sociologically in the early 1960s. No wonder such a significant portion of white America, not to mention white England, are nostalgic for the past and want to take our country(ies) back….there????

Yes. Make no mistake about it. That’s where they want to be. To a place that, well, never existed.

Because you can’t return to Sweet Apple, Ohio without returning to a time when Rep. Lewis types not only did not serve in Congress but would get their skulls bashed in or worse in some (many?) places if they dared to eat at the same lunch counter with you. And to return to the kind of Europe that Brexit proponents are suggesting – a time where citizens of one country were not free to emigrate and work in another nearby European country as legal citizens – means also going back to a place in history not that far removed from our most horrific example of nationalistic pride and anti-other/immigration gone amuck – Nazi Germany.   You just don’t get to say that brown and black and yellow and every shade in between of people are taking your jobs and your opportunities so you’re going to outlaw them from coming any where near you without also owning the idea that you are opening the door of advocacy for a time you would most likely publicly eschew.

Sounds about right

Sounds about right

This appears to be the dilemma now. Do we trudge forward in love as Rep. Lewis suggests? Or do we go back to the real time – not the fantasy of it – that Brexit, Trump, and the brewing worldwide nativism movements suggest?

As much as I like a good or even decently nostalgic movie musical – I’ll choose to follow a battle-scarred leader like Rep. Lewis any time of the day, week or year.

I mean what could happen, right?