D-DAY: I was almost seven years old on June 6, 1944. A few of my relatives were fighting in the Pacific theater of World War Two on that day. World War Two was "our" war, for those of us in our 70s, and no global conflict since has stirred the patriotism we felt and was instilled in us via every possible medium during that time. That war permeated our thoughts in every waking hour as the enemies were then very identifiable and it was everyone's passion to make sure they didn't win. It was a different kind of war from those fought recently. We KNEW who they were as opposed to today's extremists who cowardly hide in the shadows to perpetrate their evil, deranged inhumanity and disregard for innocent lives while parading their own suicidal maniacy.
Today's live TV network feeds of aircraft over, and paratroopers landing on, Omaha Beach, was awe-inspiring to see, for yours truly, anyway, as it dredged up memories of a time when all of us were in the fight together, regardless of age. I remember food ration books, victory postage stamps and ongoing radio and movie efforts to boost our morale and honor those of the ilk who landed on Omaha Beach and everywhere we were fighting the enemy, be it in Europe, North Africa or the aforementioned Pacific. It was enriching to learn, via some of today's newscasts, General Eisenhower told everyone involved in D-Day's execution there was no Plan B regarding that historic invasion to liberate France, set the vicious Nazis into permanent retreat and turn the tide of that war into our favor from that day onward. It was also tragic to learn, via some of today's newscasts, more of our soldiers died in that 24-hour D-Day period than all our forces who have lost their lives in ten years of battle in Afghanistan. A horrific statistic, but also, in my opinion, one that illustrates the true courage and determination we, as a country and society, possessed and that proved to be an inspiration to and for the remainder of the free world.
Even for those who didn't have the privilege to "live it", watching today's ceremonies should surely help resurrect or remind us what a truly magnificent legacy those D-Day troops forged for us. Those who don't know how we thought in those days should still be inspired, in perpetuity, to wish to preserve for what they fought and died, if only out of common human decency and respect for their sacrifices. God bless them, as they surely blessed us with their selflessness.
BOB RYAN - KSTP television and radio pioneer anchorman Bob Ryan, honored in the Star Tribune a few weeks ago in a fitting post-mortem tribute/obituary was, without exaggeration, the most excellent human being I have ever had the privilege to know or call a friend. Bob invented first-class, in my opinion, and the opinion of so many who had the honor and privilege to know him. His personal demeanor was elegant, as was his delivery of the news and his commentaries. Bob also fought in World War Two. His final resting place is in Fort Snelling National Cemetery. Those who watched and listened to his newscasts and commentaries must surely be grateful he was not a war casualty. His memorial service and funeral were also as dignified as the man himself. Please pardon the sentimentality, but his many kindnesses to me, including his constant encouragement during "down" times, were too numerous to elicit here. Knowing he's gone is very difficult to acccept.
SCHOOL SHOOTINGS - Current campaign ads for Senator Al Franken include those that address his bill and concern for troubled young minds. In my opinion, it's an excellent and important step to exploring why not only young minds, but all our minds, have the capacity to "snap" to extremes of violence when provoked beyond individual maturity to think more rationally. The recent series of school shootings and killings are becoming too-constant reminders of that extreme non-thinking. In my opinion, the genesis of education in that regard should start at home, from birth onward. Every parent could execute that thought process. I think, possibly over-simplistically, THE most important teacher is The Golden Rule. Recently, the late Maya Angelou stated that thought during one of her last interviews. Paraphrasing, she stated, "Treating others as you would wish to be treated" would solve ALL the world's problems stemming from ego, power trips and greed. That thought was also echoed recently by the oldest living American, another African-American lady, who's lived well past the century-mark of life. Too bad human nature, en toto, can't embrace that simplicity as the ultimate credo for living.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my geezer thoughts.
Mayday! To those unfamiliar with the term, it's been used as a distress message when disaster strikes, mostly at sea. THIS May day, however, should be, in my opinion, one of major celebration since it heralds the return of Minnesota Orchestra conductor, Maestro Osmo Vanska to the helm. As was stated in this space a few months ago, when a London (England, not Ontario) newspaper critic a couple years ago named The Minnesota Orchestra the best in the world, he was not only correct, in my opinion, but also credited Maestro Vanska with his ability to the glue the world's best symphonic musicians together, all of them sharing a mutual affinity for each other, for perfection and, most of all, love for what they so magnificently always perform. It could be characterized as a love-love and win-win relationship. That combination is music to the ears (pun intended) of anyone who's an aficionado of the best, and we have it, housed at Orchestra Hall.
Maestro Vanska is the Minnesota Orchestra's tenth conductor. His predecessors included those who went on to deserved international fame and acclaim. They included "giants" Eugene Ormandy (who later brought The Philadelphia Orchestra to global prominence and deserved recognition), Dimitri Mitropoulos, Antal Dorati, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski and Sir Neville Marriner (under whose baton, as I recall, The Minnesota Orchestra performed the score for the film, "Amadeus"). Quite a legacy, to say the least, and Maestro Vanska is very arguably another "giant" in that rarified Pantheon of those whose passions and abilities enrich the lives of any of us who really care about hearing great music performed by the collective great talents of our symphony orchestra. This is a great day for the audible arts here in Minnesota.
Sidebar relating to "perfection", paralleling The Minnesota Orchestra and what they always deliver: Since 1968, I've had the honor to have a strong friendship with Peter Nero, who, in my opinion, is the greatest pianist, ever. Peter also conducts The Philly Pops Orchestra (Philadelphia-based, of course) and has for well-over 30 years. During my years on television in Detroit, Peter told me he and The Pops were going to be performing an all-Gershwin concert at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, and invited me to the performance. The performance was magnificent. (Peter is also a perfectionist who began his music studies at Juillard beginning at age seven. He has performed with The Minnesota Orchestra several times, although, sadly, not in recent years.) Regardless, after the show I went backstage to visit with Peter, and he was perspiring "bullets" and actually shaking. I asked him if anything was wrong. He replied nothing was wrong, but his orchestra was so right. He said they left him shaking because they were "so tight", his exact words. He went on to say they were always great, but that night they shook even him with their incredible mastery of what they did. I think "so tight" would also apply to our Orchestra, every time. (My grandfather, on my mother's side, had the privilege to be first violinist for The Pittsburgh Symphony, under the wing and baton of conductor Fritz Reiner, in 1938, one year after I was born. My immersion into appreciating music excellence, from almost day one, is a blessing for which I'm very grateful.)
Something else for which I'm grateful is having had the friendship of Irv Benson, who turned 100 years of age this year. I learned about Irv's milestone birthday via a Letter to the Editor from a friend of Irv's in the latest edition of EQUITY NEWS, our Actors Equity union newspaper. Irv was not only an outstanding burlesque comic during burlesque's Hayday, but also a famous mainstay of Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in television's fledgling days. "Uncle Miltie" WAS television in those early days (late 1940s-early 1950s) and Irv was featured weekly, "heckling" Berle from the audience. Irv kindly took a shine to me during my Las Vegas television years (1967-70) and one night invited me to his performance at The Silver Slipper. He introduced me to the audience from my stage-side table, but did so before introducing Johnny Carson to the audience. Irv had appeared on THE TONIGHT SHOW STARRING JOHNNY CARSON dozens of times, as one of Johnny's guests. Johnny was sitting at the next table, facing me, with a very upset look (daggers) at me because Irv had started the introductions with yours truly. Regardless, after the show, Irv suggested he and I should go to The Aladdin Hotel so I could meet Elvis. It was the night after Elvis and Priscilla were married. I enthusiastically agreed. Irv knew Elvis well, and also knew where we'd find him and Priscilla, i.e., at a particular blackjack table. Indeed, after Irv and I arrived at The Aladdin, we did a beeline to the table where Elvis was. Elvis called a lull to the dealing, looked up and warmly said hello to Irv. Irv then said "I want you to meet my friend, Barry ZeVan, The Weatherman, who's on Channel 8 here", with a big smile on his face. (I'm smiling now as I type this, recalling the wonderful memory of that moment.) I said, somewhat blubbering with the following stupid comment, "Wonderful to meet you and congratulations for your marriage. I enjoy your work". Elvis replied with a very soft-spoken thank you and a warm smile, and then said, "I enjoy your work, too! I watch you whenever I'm here." I almost fell over, but thanked him and that was that, except I noticed Priscilla glaring at Elvis during our exchange. Years later, I interviewed her a few times for films in which she co-starred and reminded her of that night and her somewhat furious looks at him. She said she didn't remember me, but remembered the night, and her displeasure, because Elvis had chosen to play blackjack just one night after they were married and had her simply sitting beside him just to watch. She said she, of course, eventually got over it, but it was definitely a "moment" to remember.
Thanks for taking the time to read my geezer memories and thoughts, and Happy May. Even though our basement is flooded from all the rain, still glad we've made it to this month of hope for warmer days ahead.
Following last week's Overland Park, Kansas, shootings at the town's Jewish Community Center and also at a Jewish assisted living site, where two Methodists and one Catholic were senselessly killed (any killing of any innocent person of any faith, or no faith, is senseless, heartbreaking and revolting), I was reminded of the time I met and interviewed one of Hitler's closest confidants, but, dichotomously, a man who also didn't like Hitler and who had nothing to do with the beliefs of The Third Reich, to wit: In late 1974, as part of a television interview series taped after I moved from the Twin Cities to Washington, D.C., my D.C. producer booked a man named Stefan Lorant to be an interviewee. Mr. Lorant was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1901 but moved to Germany in 1919, immediately following completion of his high school education. In 1974, Mr. Lorant's 16th book was published, entitled, "SIEG HEIL: AN ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF GERMANY FROM BISMARCK TO HITLER", about which I'd interview him. He kindly gave me a copy of the book, which I still treasure. The book contains unique photos of every facet of German life from the time of the book's first photo, i.e., a picture of the October 18, 1861, coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm I, in Konigsberg, as Prussian King, to the book's final photo of a bomb-decimated silhouette of one Hitler's most beloved buildings, with the accompanying quote, "THE END OF THE THOUSAND-YEAR REICH: It lasted twelve years, four months and eight days. Inside the bombed-out building, a naked lightbulb sheds its flickering light; a wisp of smoke trails Heavenward from the chimney. Life begins anew."
I asked Mr. Lorant how he acquired the plum assignment to photo-chronicle Hitler from his days in prison in the 1920s to the end of his life. This is what he told me, verbatim: "Because I was a well-known journalist and photographer, Hitler asked me to join the Nazi party as one of its six original members. I did so, but after two meetings within a week, I knew Hitler was crazy. I also knew this man would meet a violent demise, but I also knew if I quit the party so soon after its formation, he might have me killed. After thinking for a day or two, I approached him at the next party meeting and told him I was not a politician and would like to respectfully quit the party, but would still like to choronicle all that he would achieve. For some odd reason, he agreed to allowing me to quit and also agreed to letting me be his personal photojournalist "biographer". I was relieved, because I knew, from a mercenary point of view, all the exclusive photos and liners that accompanied them, would someday be worth a lot. I was correct".
Mr. Lorant was given exclusive access to every facet of Hitler's and Eva Braun's lives. The book and the photos are more than historic. Mr. Lorant's written chronicle, accompanying the over 1,000 photos, is also insightfully-deep, reinforcing his original thought that Hitler was "crazy".
Even though Hitler's atrocities are more than well-documented, I think it's too bad people like the Overland, Kansas, Jewish Community Center and assisted-living facility shooter, and all of his deeply-troubled ilk, either never read nor knew of Mr. Lorant's incredible book which, from one who knew Hitler best, lays bare and amplifies the treachery and insanity of the person who would arguably become the ultimate historic exemplar for those who are deranged and evil to the extreme. After reading SIEG HEIL, perhaps maybe some of them might have not held such a lofty opinion of their hero. Mr. Lorant died at Rochester's Mayo Clinic, November 14, 1997 at age 96.
Thanks for taking time to read these memories and to the Star Tribune for allowing me the privilege to share them. Next time: Irv Benson, the man who introduced me, socially, to Elvis and Priscilla Presley, as well as Johnny Carson. Some will remember Irv fondly from 1940s and 50s national television. He's still alive at age 100.
MICKEY ROONEY AND HIS DAD, JOE YULE: Anyone who's ever visited my house has seen one of my most treasured photos, which has the following inscription: "To my Pal, Barry. Best wishes, Pal. Be a good boy. Sincerely, Joe Yule, Mickey Rooney's Dad. September 10, 1949." Backstory: It's two years earlier, i.e., August, 1947. My mother and I were walking through the lobby of New York's Edison Hotel during a vacation stay there. Alan Greenspan, who would later become Chairman of The Federal Reserve and husband of NBC News's Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent, Andrea Mitchell, was a musician with Henry Jerome's orchestra (the Edison's "house" band) at that time. Regardless, while walking through that lobby, my mother stopped me to say, "There's Joe Yule, Mickey Rooney's father!" Having been immersed in show business much of her life, she recognized Mr. Yule from publicity photos and his fame in general. We stopped to talk. He gave her his contact information, was kind in his exchanges, even remarking that Mickey was now married to actress Martha Vickers. "This one's going to be 'it'. This one's a keeper", referring to Mickey;s third wife. Sadly it didn't last, but I'll never forget Mr. Yule's enthusiasm about Mickey's marital choice at that time. The scene now shifts to late August, 1949, when Mr. Yule, along with Harry Stockwell (Dean Stockwell's father) and David Wayne, were performing in a national tour of FINIAN'S RAINBOW at Pittsburgh's Nixon Theater. We lived in Pittsburgh (my birthplace). My mother called Mr. Yule and he invited us to see the performance, but afterward, backstage, and knowing I'd begun the stage acting phase of my career a year earlier at The Pittsburgh Playhouse (taking drama lessons with Shirley Jones, but that's another story), he asked my mother if she'd consider having me be one of the kids who danced around the wishing well (part of the play) in the Pittsburgh performances as well as Cleveland, the next stop. In those days, stars could make suggestions and they were okayed by road-company managers. She said "Yes", and I got to dance and act as a chorus kid with Mr. Yule for the next two weeks, almost a paid vacation and just in time for me to get back to my Pittsburgh grade school classes. We kept in touch on and off for a few years until he passed away. The twinkle in his eye and enthusiasm for everything about show business and life were definitely passed along to Joe Yule, Jr. (Mickey). I was blessed to be with Mickey socially a few times in the early to late 1950s after we moved to New York to amplify my acting and singing career, but I only worked with him once, when he was a guest on THE PERRY COMO SHOW, whereon I was one of The Ray Charles Singers, Perry's backup group. (I'm listed as a soloist on the 1957 Christmas show if you search THE PERRY COMO SHOW on the Internet. It was my only solo performance during my very privileged two-year stint on the show.) During rehearsals, my Mom, Mickey and I reminisced about his Dad's kindness to me in FINIAN, followed by Mickey kissing my Mom smack on the lips. She told me afterward she didn't like that little episode, but, regardless, it happened. The last time I was with Mickey to recall the old days was at Northrop Auditorium in the 1980s when he and dancer/actress Ann Miller were in a touring production of SUGAR BABIES. I then also met his last wife, Jan, to whom he was married more years than to all previous seven wives combined. She was/is a lovely lady and was a centering force for "The Mick", as he sometimes used to be called. His spirit was dichotomously infectious and filled with life, but also with pathos, both on and off stage and screen. He was in real life what he portrayed on the screen and stage: the consummately brilliant entertainer who loved entertaining.
SID CAESAR - When people like Mickey pass, it brings a flood of personal memories regarding that era. One of those was watching the comedic brilliance of Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner and Howard (Howie) Morris every Saturday night in 1952 and 1953 on YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS. Included in the writing team for that show were Mel Brooks and Woody Allen, when the latter was just a teenager. I was a teenager, too (one year younger than Woody), not knowing I'd get to know Woody and Mel (and Carl) much later in life, but that's also another story. The point of all this is the wonderment I felt every SUNDAY morning at 7 when I'd walk into the same NBC television theater wherein YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS was performed the preceding night to begin rehearsals for the show on which I appeared every SUNDAY evening at 7 (Eastern Time), live. The show was MISTER PEEPERS, starring Wally Cox and Tony Randall, along with supporting players Marion Lorne, Gage Clark, Reta Shaw and so many others, such as Elaine Stritch, who would guest star. I portrayed one of the students in "Robinson J. Peepers's classroom" at the fictitious Jefferson Junior High. (Tony Randall named one of his two children Jefferson, in honor of that great television "Junior High" and the show that launched his television and film career.) It was a delightful two years, but I never lost being in awe of who had performed on that same stage the night before, i.e., The RKO Center Theater in Rockefeller Center (which was eventually gutted to create more lucrative office space in that, the RKO Building). When learning of Sid Caesar's death a few weeks ago, I was reminded that this comedic genius was, in person, as soft-spoken and self-effacing as any human could ever be. He was the antithesis of conceit. I had the privilege to be with him in person only once, witnessing his humility at a press conference in D.C. in 1976. I simply shook his hand and left, but wanted to tell him about our "sharing" the same stage 20-plus years previously. Several years later, in Las Vegas, Imogene Coca, also very humble in person, visited our television station, and I DID have the privilege to relate that "stage-sharing" story. She smiled and said she was glad the memories were pleasant.
UNPLEASANT MEMORIES - Even though I was only a pre-teen at the time, those of us who "lived" World War Two remember being taught, after the war ended in 1945, about Hitler's armies taking over countries because Germans needed more room to live. They called it Lebensraum, or "living room". Their intrusion into Czechoslovakia's Sudetenland was very reminiscent of Russia's inclusion and incursion of Crimea as part of its territory once again, fomenting the takeover via "elections". President Putin's recent comments about ethnic Russians needing to be re-patriated into Russia, politically and culturally, were almost verbatim to those Hitler uttered in 1938-39, post Munich Pact. My grandfather (on my mother's side of the family) was born in Kiev in 1890, then part of Russia, but still called The Ukraine. He, his siblings and my great-grandfather and great-grandmother escaped the Pogroms of the early 1890s to flee to America. They settled in Pittsburgh, but never forgot their Ukrainian roots. To envision the possibility of another Nazi-like Anschluss occurring should be unthinkable in the 21st century, or any century, ever. Secretary of State John Kerry is no naive Neville Chamberlain, but if Russia decides to try to pull another Hitler-like takeover of bordering countries, we and others in our corner will need to make some tough, but very necessary, decisions to prevent it from happening all over again. Different player, different century, same sad story.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read my geezer thoughts and memories.