Rehearsing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Mamaroneck High in 1958…

In senior year (fall, 1958) at Mamaroneck High School in Mamaroneck, NY, we presented the 1939 play Arsenic and Old Lace by Joseph Kesselring.  I was lucky enough to be cast as Mortimer Brewster, the role played by Cary Grant in the 1944 movie directed by Frank Capra, after it had run on Broadway from 1941 to 1944.  (I recall learning at some point that the play, about Mortimer discovering that his two beloved maiden aunts are homicidal maniacs, was originally called Bodies in the Cellar.)  Anyway, I just want to tell you about what happened during our dress rehearsal…

Mamaroneck High

Mamaroneck High

We were rehearsing in the full set with costumes on, going through the entire play non-stop [or at least, that was the intention] while the lights were being adjusted and so on.  Our director was out in the audience — Miss Schmidt, I believe — and I was onstage with the two aunts when my fiancée, Elaine Harper, came through the front door.  The dialogue was supposed to go this way:

Elaine: Mortimer!

Mortimer: Elaine!

[They rush to each other and embrace.]

arsenic-and-old-lace-priscilla-lane-cary-grant-1944It sounds simple, eh?  Well, the lovely girl playing Elaine arrived at the door, right on time, stepped into the living room and saw me.

Elaine held out her arms toward me and cried:  “Elaine!”

I stared back at her.  After a few beats, I replied:  “Mortimer?”

We all laughed so hard that the dress rehearsal stopped in its tracks.  It took at least ten minutes to get back into it without cracking up again.

I have no idea how I might have reacted if this had been a genuine performance in front of a packed auditorium in the high school.  But such surprises are part of the joy of acting.  They give you a jolt of new energy.  They put you into a state of sudden, instant aliveness.  And such surprises are not at all “mistakes,” not while you’re on stage, because there’s no choice other than to react in some real, honest way — to deal with the surprise, to “go with” whatever happens, in the moment.  And hopefully to deal with it the way we might do so in life itself.

Maybe I would have said to her, “Well, now, as far as I can recall, you are Elaine, and I — I am Mortimer!”

Or any of a hundred variations of that reply … or of some response that might have been much more clever.

Why have I never forgotten that moment?  The jolt?  The uncontrollable laughter that followed?  I’m not sure that I know the answer, but it must have something to do with the way all those signals in my brain went on alert and scrambled around to make sense of things.  All I really know is that, out of so many other moments involving Arsenic and Old Lace that I’ve long forgotten, that one has stuck with me.

Published in: Uncategorized on December 18, 2012 at 18:19  Leave a Comment  
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Jim Craig – A Look Back at the Real Deal

Jim Craig - PARADE - By Hank Whittemore - Sept 21, 1980

JIM CRAIG:
One Young Man Americans Would Like to See Win New Glory

Thirty years ago I interviewed Jim Craig in Boston some months after he had led the U.S. hockey team that beat the supposedly unbeatable Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.  In those days Craig was a national hero; today he’s a national legend.  And he’s been up there in Vancouver rooting with the rest of us for Team USA.

Re-reading my article, I marvel at the wisdom Jim Craig possessed even then.  He’s the real deal!  Here’s the full text of what I wrote:

PARADE
September 21, 1980
By Hank Whittemore

No one who saw it will ever forget. When the U.S. Olympic hockey team did the impossible in Lake Placid and skated off with the gold medal, it was a victory America needed.

Jim Craig as Goalie for the USA

A handful of youngsters were the nation’s gladiators-on-ice, briefly reducing the entire- world political situation to the resounding chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

In the midst of it all, goalie Jim Craig stood apart from his exuberant teammates, searching the stands and asking aloud, “Where’s my father?” As he counted the rows of seats in a vain search for his dad, the millions watching had sudden lumps in their throats, tears in their eyes. By instinctively reaching out for his family, this one young man had tapped the deepest impulses in America’s heart.

[NOTE: Jim has a great personal website]

Now Jim Craig is a professional hockey player, entering his first season with the Boston Bruins, but no matter what happens he will always be more than that. Wherever he goes (and he’s been “going” constantly since last winter), he is a national hero and a symbol of the best the country has to offer. Always, there is applause; and nobody knows the meaning of it better than he does:

“People are expressing their happiness about themselves. Through me, they see the country and clap for themselves. I’m a vehicle, that’s all I am, and it’s great.  I just want to be used in a positive way.”

The Winners - 1980 Olympics

Craig is not the matinee-idol type like Bruce Jenner to name another Olympic champion who stirred the nation’s emotions. Rather, he is the product of the sprawling, Irish-Catholic neighborhoods of Boston. He has the unshaven, unpretentious, rugged look of the working class, and there is a feeling that he would be far more at home in a local tavern than signing contracts for commercials up in the plush offices of his agent.

From a blue-collar section of North Easton, Mass., Craig is full of restless energy and strength. This past summer he could be spotted easily as he rode through Boston in his jeep, hopping out on Federal Street wearing a T-shirt, a bathing suit and a pair of old sneakers without socks.

At 23, he retains his love for family, friendship and basic values, but by now he also admits that he is “smarter” and “not so naive” and “a little more cynical” about the world. The Great American Media machine has created one of its overnight celebrities and woe to him if he falters.

PARADE - "FAME - Can Jim Craig Survive It?" (Answer 30 Years Later: You Betcha)

So it is no wonder that Jimmy Craig, a carefree spirit if there ever was one, has developed a tension ulcer. It is no wonder that he still wants to be with his father, three brothers, four sisters and Huey, the dog.  It is no wonder that he is so thrilled to be playing for the Bruins this season, in his own back yard. The applause of strangers must be balanced by the familiarity of home and strength of his roots. Otherwise, the pressure of it all would flatten him faster than a speeding hockey puck.

“The biggest thing I know,” he says, “is that they want to make a hero, but they also want to knock you off that pedestal as quickly as they put you up there. And that’s why I don’t consider myself a hero or anything like that. The Olympics was the highest moment of my life and no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to touch it.  So now I just take one day at a time and do what I think is right. See, I know everything that goes on in my own head, and as long as I can live with myself, I know I’m doing okay.”

The new Jim Craig might be likened to a kitten venturing out into full cathood. On the one hand he is totally relaxed and loose, just being himself; and on the other, he is poised, always on the alert for danger. Very much like the goalie that he is, he crouches, ever- watchful, waiting for the action as it speeds inevitably his way.

“I’m going to survive.” he says. “I’m a survivor. I’m going to do a good job at whatever I do, because I feel obligated to myself. My biggest goal now is being a professional hockey player and doing well for the Bruins. I’ll be a big disappointment to myself if I don’t play well this season.

“Fortunately I simplify everything as much as possible. I don’t put any more pressure on me than I have to. If I walked around trying to act a certain way all the time, I’d be a basket case. You can fool everyone in the world, but not yourself.”

Jim Craig

After Lake Placid, Craig was catapulted into a whirlwind: lunch at the White House, appearances on television, parades, speeches, airplane crowds and more crowds. In Chicago, he walked into his hotel room and found a nude woman lying in his bed.

“Please leave,” he told her, having no need for such favors, and besides, the cat had reared up its back: “You never know, it could have been a setup.”

Craig also joined the Atlanta Flames hockey team and tried to help save their franchise. Under tremendous stress he played four games, winning one, losing one and tying two.  Despite his numerous promotional appearances for the Flames, and a burst of new life at the box office, the team was sold to Calgary and Craig wound up with his tension ulcer. In June, he was traded to the Bruins and went home.

“It couldn’t be better,” he says with a look of wonder in his watery blue eyes. “You know that phrase, ‘You were made to be there’?  Well, I’m made to be here.” As if life were a storybook, he will be playing with the team he rooted for as a boy; and his boyhood idol, Gerry Cheevers, retired as goaltender and became the Bruin coach.

“Unbelievable.” Craig says with a smile.

Until the summer, Craig still lived in the house in Easton, where he had grown up as the sixth of Donald and Margaret Craig’s eight children. Now he has his own apartment in Boston, not far away; but the roots of his Irish- Catholic background are still his main source of nourishment.

“I love my family,” he says, and it still amazes him that people enjoy hearing him express that simple, strong emotion, as if it were unusual.

“My father never made more than about $13,000 a year when I was growing up, but I consider myself fortunate. Dad was a food director at Dean Junior College up in Franklin for 28 years. He was like a father to those kids, too. He worked seven days a week and really enjoyed it.

“The amazing part, though, was that he’d come home after a long day and always have time for us. He wouldn’t grouch and say, ‘Leave me alone.’ Never. Instead, he’d go out and hit balls to us and so forth,

“I feel very lucky that   I got to thank my old man before it was too late. These days there are so many kids who want to give their old man a big hug and a kiss, but they can’t.  Fathers think that if they send ’em to the best prep schools or give ‘em the car or money, they’ve done a good job. ‘So why doesn’t my son love me?’ they ask.

“Why not?  Because that’s not what the kid is looking for. And if he doesn’t get it, he’ll miss it when he’s older. In my opinion, if a kid doesn’t have a relationship with his father before he’s 16, he won’t have one later on. The giving and taking has to start before that age or it never will. By then, there are too many gaps to fill.”

Craig’s mother, who died of bone cancer in 1977, was an even greater influence on him. “It was as if she was a big bear and we were all her cubs.” He recalls. “She was a great, great lady, and all I have is fond memories. My parents played typical roles – Dad going out to work, Mom taking care of us kids and giving the discipline. When she died, my father had to switch roles suddenly and do a little bit of everything.”

When Jim Craig was real small, he would go down to the frozen ponds on a narrow section filled with trees, and while the older boys played hockey, he would skate on a narrow section filled with trees. “It was like an obstacle course,” he says. “There was just enough ice around the trees to skate in-between.”

From then on, the obstacle courses grew tougher, but Craig seemed to glide through them all with hard work, strength, instinct and grand success.  He played goalie in high school and his team racked up 53 wins, three losses and a tie. In his sophomore year at Boston University, the Flames drafted him, meaning that they would “own” his services after college.

Meanwhile, he led the 1978 B.U. team that won the National Collegiate title.  After graduation, he postponed the professional career and went off to Moscow with the U. S. 1979 national team for the World Games.

“I hated Moscow,” he says. “It was just awful. You get off the plane and they have guys with machine guns putting you on a bus. They had KGB agents following us everywhere we went. A very scary experience. On the ride home, we sang ‘God Bless America.’”

Then came the Olympic triumph at Lake Placid, followed by the whirlwind, the Flames and the call back to Boston. Craig signed a contract with Coca Cola (he received $35,000 for doing a one-shot TV commercial), committing himself to make 10 appearances around the country. Under the guidance of his agent, Bob Murray, he has accepted dozens of invitations to appear at charity events, and to give speeches, in nearly every state.

“We also turn down a lot of things,” Craig says.  “Everybody wants a piece of me, but I want to do only quality things. I feel a moral obligation to certain friends and charities, but I’m going slow.  I try to spend three days a week with my family and keep my feet on the ground.

“I date girls here and there, but I don’t want to be tied down yet. I just want to go out and have fun, with no strings attached. No commitments.  Just friends.”

Once again, it is the instinct of the cat who is suddenly out in the world, feeling his way along and trying to learn while not getting trapped. In his quest to be an award-winning .pro hockey player, Craig has vowed to re main unmarried for at least five more years.

In this new, high-pressured world he has entered, Craig is still speeding through the obstacle course: “People tell me, ‘Oh, Jimmy, you gotta be careful. They’re all using you.’ Hey, I’m just being me. And if anybody’s using me, well, I’m using them too. What I’m trying to do is just learn from people.

“I’m not an intellectual, but I have lots of common sense, I can get fooled once, but I won’t make the same mistake again. If somebody is my friend, he’s my friend.  If he’s not, he’s not.  And I’ll tell him right up front.

“But do you know how lucky I am? To be able to travel and meet so many people? Their character comes out without them even knowing it. You can see the character in a person, or the lack of it, right away.  And when I meet a guy with experience. I’ll sit there and just listen.”

That is Craig’s way of educating himself, not through books but from life itself. Long before he was sharing platforms with governors and movie stars, he was studying people in all walks of life. He did so when he moved furniture, landscaped gardens and painted houses. He learned from the well-to-do when he caddied at Thorny Lea Golf Club (where he now has a free membership), and from dock workers when he packed groceries in Fernandes Supermarket.

Over the summer, however, Jim Craig went to California by himself, with no one. For nine days, he stayed in a house without a telephone. Slowly, gradually, he began “getting mentally ready” for the Bruins.

From now on, Boston will claim him as its own; but a sure bet is that America will not forget him and the other boys of winter for a long, long time.

Wikipedia has some information with links, too.

“FAME” – The Real Story Behind the Scenes…

FAME 2009 the movie failed to live up to the original FAME of 1980, and the TV show that followed, but I figure it’s time to reprint my PARADE article in 1982 on the real-life “Fame School” — the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.
Parade Magazine - Aug 22, 1982
FAME – The Real Story
PARADE – August 22, 1982
By Hank Whittemore

“I want to live forever . . . Baby, remember my name!”

Those words are from the theme song of the movie Fame. They sum up Hollywood’s version of what drives the students at the prestigious School of Performing Arts in New York City, which inspired the film and the TV series that followed it.  In both, talented young actors, singers. dancers and musicians are portrayed as having little else on their minds except seeing their names in lights.

In reality, though they may arrive as freshmen with stars in their eyes and “remember my name” in their ears, that ego trip ends when they walk through the door. The message turns out to be entirely different.  The six hundred students at “P.A.” – as they affectionately call their unique public high school – regard celebrity as an elusive, fleeting and even unworthy goal.

Their talk spills over with words like achievement, commitment, integrity, quality, respect, work.  One word that almost never comes up is fame.

“The TV series doesn’t truthfully portray what kind of people we are,” says Oliver Barreiro, a junior in the drama department. “They make it seem as if everything is a playground. with singing and dancing on top of cars.”

“They don’t show the commitment needed to work in this school,” adds Caren Messing, another acting student. “They’re very result-oriented.  All you see are these musical numbers, with kids performing all the time. But we deal with the process and the practice.”

The film did capture the highly competitive audition process required for admission – out of about 4500 annual applicants, only 200 new students are accepted – and the school’s balanced racial mix.  “This is a school where black kids, white kids, Puerto Rican kids, yellow kids and all the others come together to be liberated,” says Jerry Eskow, chairman of the drama department. “In a real sense, they are all breaking out of their individual
ghettos.”

Erica Gimpel

One of the graduates this year is Erica Gimpel, who took time off to play the leading role of Coco Hernandez in the Fame TV series. In a press release, MGM Television speaks of Coco’s “consuming hunger for success.”  She “knows she’s bound for stardom and fame,” it adds. “It’s just a matter of when it will happen. Her choice is tomorrow … or sooner!”

The real Miss Gimpel is a serious acting student – not a dancer like Coco – and she could hardly wait to get back from Hollywood to continue her work at P.A.  There she is treated as an equal, not as a celebrity. “Erica came back to school to find the reality,” Eskow says.  He adds that, like her classmates who regularly watch her on Fame, “she understands the difference and feels just as strongly about work as they do.”

Erica Gimpel

For Gene Anthony Ray, who played the role of Leroy Jobnson – a streetwise, resentful black dancer – in both movie and series, the difference between Hollywood and reality is perhaps more ironic. Ray had been a Performing Arts student, but he left the school without completing its program.  In the screen version, however, Leroy is kept on and even treated as a special case.

“Now, that’s really unrealistic,” says Corinth Booker, a young black student and, like Leroy, a dancer. “And on the series, nobody wants to get on Leroy’s bad side because he’s so talented.  Here, there’s just no kind of favoritism like that. Leroy gets away with being very stubborn and selfish, and he argues with teachers – like, ‘Are you telling me what I should do?’  That’s not the way it is.”

Gene Anthony Ray died of a stroke at age 41 in 2003

As head of the P.A. dance department, Lydia Joel resembles a strict but caring aunt. Her lecture to freshman dancers comes right to the point “This is an absolutely undemocratic situation you face. You have no rights here. Your only right is to come to class and be wonderful. You can’t protest, you can’t be absent, you can only work. If you are aspiring to work on the professional level, there is only quality, quality, quality.  And we will help you be wonderful.”

“Dancing is an extraordinary human endeavor,” Joel tells her students.  “We can try to find flexible bodies, vitality, response to instruction and the potential for achievement, but what we really can’t judge is your motivation. It’s like a little flame that burns inside of you.  And no matter how much you want to be a big star, it won’t work if that fire doesn’t burn strongly enough to give you the patience and dedication you need. You must give your entire self in an act of faith.  If you have any sort of resentment or lack of clarity, you will find heartbreak.  But if you manage to live through four years of this
demand upon your inner self, your life will be literally changed.”

The original FAME poster - 1980

The students say that Hollywood’s depiction of competitiveness among them is unrealistic.  “It seems like everyone is scratching their eyes out to beat each other out,” Oliver Barreiro says, “but that is just the opposite of how it works here. We don’t talk about each other behind our backs. We work together, all striving for the same thing.”

In a city loaded with crime, drugs and other problems involving teenagers, P.A. students insist that drug usage is far less here than at other high schools. “They have real respect for their bodies,” says Fred Wile, P.A.’s guidance counselor.  “Just as you can’t be twenty pounds overweight and function as a dancer, you certainly can’t play Beethoven while you’re stoned on drugs.”

Long before Fame the movie brought Performing Arts into the national limelight, the school was known among professionals as the alma mater of such stars as Al Pacino, Lisa Minnelli, Ben Vereen, Melissa Manchester and the late Freddie Prinze. And to most of its illustrious graduates, the school is something very special. “I tell my freshmen students to go out and interview an actor or director,” Jerry Eskow says, “to find out what they feel is important.  And even the biggest stars will talk to a kid from Performing Arts.”

The FAME Television Show

Dustin Hoffman, Eskow recalls, was approached one time by a fourteen-year-old girl from the  drama department. “Could you give me an interview?” she asked.

“No time,” Hoffman said.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Oh!  Well, listen,” Hoffman replied, “I can’t do it now, but why don’t you come to my home tomorrow morning?”

When she arrived, Hoffman was still asleep, but he roused himself for the interview.  The girl couldn’t get her tape recorder to work and started to cry. Hoffman helped her with the machine and even conducted the first half of the interview by asking himself questions until she overcame her shyness.

Another student approached George C. Scott at a time when the actor was refusing to talk to the press.  As Scott emerged from a lobby in Lincoln Center, the young man tried to get his attention.

“What the hell do you want?” Scott roared in his familiar gruff voice.

“I’m from the School of Performing Arts.”

“Come on,” Scott barked, grabbing the student by the arm and marching him across the street to a drugstore.  “Sit down,” he said, ordered coffee for them both and launched into a forty-minute interview as if it were the most important thing in the world.

Which, of course, it often is. The youngsters are being asked to look deep within themselves and come up by age seventeen with answers to the questions:  “Do I have what it takes?  Should I make this my whole life?”

“Talent is all around us,” Eskow says, “but the trick is to identify it and then help the students to see themselves as talented entities rather than as street kids.”

“Most schools see a student as an empty vessel to fill with knowledge,” he explains.  “We believe that these kids are the reverse. You go to a medical school and come out a doctor.  Here, the actor or dancer or musician already exists, and our job is to peel away the layers preventing that professional from emerging.”

At 6 a.m. on weekdays, dance student Corinth Booker wakes up in Harlem, does his chores, takes his little sister to a babysitter’s apartment and then rides the crowded subway down to the very different world of Performing Arts. He attends his classes, goes through muscle-numbing practice sessions, takes more dance classes on the side and works as a busboy three nights a week.  He has his chance, yet he knows time is already running out.

“They want these young dancers out there,” says student Terri Hall. “It’s like, if you’re twenty, you’re old! I mean, at sixteen, I’m halfway over.  I’m really so unsure about what want now.  If I went to college, I wouldn’t major in dance because the level isn’t high enough.  Should I stay in New York when I graduate?  On the Fame series, you never see any of the characters going through these changes.”

Henry Rinehart, also sixteen, says he has lost his adolescence by having had to make his own way in the city while studying acting at P.A. His parents are separated, so he lives at another student’s apartment and copes on his own. “I’m supposed to be a teenager growing up.” he reflects, “but I look at myself and find that I’ve already done it.”

The reality, Henry says, is learning about failure:  “They tell us, ‘If you’re going to fail, do it here and go all the way.  Fail big!’  Because you learn so much from having to pick yourself up and go on.  In deciding whether to continue as performers, we’re really experiencing how to face life.”

Nina LoMonaco, seventeen, is another part of the reality, practicing her French horn on the staircase, blowing it so loudly that the paint starts chipping and falling down all around her.  While other young people are off having a good time, she studies and practices hour after hour.  She says she often wonders: “My God, am I making the biggest mistake of my life?  What am I doing this for?”

Should Nina skip regular college and try to become one of the best musicians in the country?  “I can understand people getting discouraged,” she says, “but that’s fine because it’ll mean less competition for me.  I’m going to reach as high as I can, and if I don’t make it, that’s my problem.  But I have to take this chance.  Now.”

Is the punishing life of a dancer the only way Corinth Booker can break out of Harlem and the urban jungle?  How will Henry Rinehart know, really, if he has what it takes to be a professional actor?  Does Terri Hall honestly want the life of a dancer to the exclusion of so much else?

In the real world, these youngsters are at the edge of adolescence, looking out at an unclear future. Yet they have to make decisions about leaping into it. They’re seeking an answer – some sort of message that will make them decide one way or another.

For Lydia Joel, the answer comes every day.  As we sit in the tiny office from which she runs the dance department, the pounding of a practice piano underscores the sound of dancers practicing in a studio two floors above. In another room, a student orchestra plays.  Down the hall, some acting students rehearse a scene from Euripides.

“These kids are beautiful in the right sense of the word,” Lydia Joel says. “The sounds of this school are the sounds of involvement.”

Then she picks up a postcard from a former dance student:  “I would like to thank you for recommending me. I did very well at the audition and in made it to the last 15 out of 300 girls.  But nothing came of it. Well, maybe next time.  I’m not going to give up. I love it too much.”

She puts down the postcard.  She sighs.  “One very beautiful girl who was doing quite well came to me last year and told me she’d decided to become a nurse instead of a dancer.  The flame inside her burned toward nursing. But here,” she points to the postcard, “the flame is toward the dance as a way of life.  That’s how it burns.”

Flame – not fame – is the message.

///////////

Fame TV Show Cast:
Debbie Allen .…………. Lydia Grant
Gene Anthony Ray ………. Leroy Johnson
Carlo Imperato ………… Danny Amatullo
Albert Hague ………….. Mr. Benjamin Shorofsky
Ann Nelson ……………. Mrs. Gertrude Berg
Carol Mayo Jenkins …….. Elizabeth Sherwood (1982-1986)
Billy Hufsey ………….. Christopher Donlon (1983-1987)
Valerie Landsburg ……… Doris Rene Schwartz (1982-1985)
Bronwyn Thomas ………… Michelle (1982-1985)
Cynthia Gibb ………….. Holly Laird (1983-1986)
Jesse Borrego …………. Jesse V. Valesquez (1984-1987)
Nia Peeples …………… Nicole Chapman (1984-1987)
Lee Curreri …………… Bruno Martelli (1982-1984)
Morgan Stevens ………… David Reardon (1982-1984)
Ken Swofford ………….. Quentin Morloch (1983-1985)
Loretta Chandler ………. Dusty Tyler (1985-1987)
Graham Jarvis …………. Mr. Bob Dyrenforth (1985-1987)
Dick Miller …………… Mr. Lou Mackie (1985-1987)
Lori Singer …………… Julie Miller (1982-1983)
Erica Gimpel .………Coco Hernandez (1982-1983)
Dave Shelley ………….. Caruso (1983-1984)
Janet Jackson …………. Cleo Hewitt (1984-1985)
Page Hannah …………… Kate Riley (1985-1986)
Olivia Barash …………. Maxie (1986-1987)
Michael Cerveris ………. Ian Ware (1986-1987)
Eric Pierpoint ………… Jack (1986-1987)
Carrie Hamilton ……….. Reggie Higgins (1986-1987)
Elisa Heinsohn ………… Jillian Beckett (1986-1987)
P.R. Paul …………….. Montgomery MacNeil (1982)

My Brother Jim & I – A Story About Bowling … and Much More

Here is one of my all-time favorites among the articles I wrote for PARADE from the mid-1970’s until the mid-1990’s.  There’s no need for me to explain up front; I think it speaks for itself:

Two brothers renew a family bond and make a discovery
A POCKETFUL OF DREAMS
PARADE – September 15, 1985

My brother Jim and I have seen ourselves through many good and bad times by going out to the alleys. When one of us feels high or low, the other might say, “Let’s go rolling.” Pretty soon we’re bowling as if our lives depended on getting strikes or spares.

To explain, first I should mention Grosso’s Alleys. This was a worn-out, ancient bowling establishment in my hometown of Larchmont. N.Y. I used to go there with my grade-school friends on weekends. Jim was still too young to bowl, but he knew that I went there often. He knew I went rolling even in the summertime, when other kids were outside at the beach or playing ball. He figured there must be something special and even magical about the place.

Grosso’s Alleys was up a flight of old wooden stairs, above a row of stores. To me, it was a second home. I thought of Mr. and Mrs. Grosso as another set of grandparents. It was still the ‘50s, and in those days the alleys had no computers or pin-setting machines, so we had to keep score and have the pins set by hand. When my friends and I bowled, we acted as  pin boys for each other.

Pin Boys - We used to get a quarter per game!

We became acquainted there with the men who made a living by setting pins. They earned a quarter a game. When all twelve alleys were filled with league bowlers, Mr. and Mrs. Grosso often allowed us kids to work as pin-setters too. That was my first real job. It felt good to be sweating down in the alley pits with the grown men and to be making my own money – which I usually spent on more bowling.

In the fifth grade, I rolled a 207, thanks to an older boy who taught me how to throw a pretty fair hook.  One Saturday morning, my Dad and I won a father-son tournament.  It gave us a new feeling of closeness. We brought home a trophy in the form of a bowling pin crudely painted red, blue and yellow to resemble a doll.

My brother took that weird-looking trophy into his hands. He stared at it with an expression of awe. I knew right then that before long he, too, would be rolling.

Now, there's a nice hook for you -- spinning its way off the edge of the gutter before heading for the pocket!

By the time I was in high school. Grosso’s Alleys was designated a fire hazard and closed down.  Meanwhile, a new, modern bowling establishment was built nearby. Lots of us would go there to roll and play the pinball machines and hang around with the girls. In fact, it was at the new alleys that I met my steady girlfriend, whom I eventually married.

I was on the varsity bowling team. The five of us wore glossy orange shirts with our school initials printed in black. Each week, we went to a new set of alleys to roll against a team from a different high school. There were no cheerleaders, no spectators. It definitely wasn’t a glamour sport.

One of the great feelings you can have -- rolling into the pocket for a perfect strike!

At the same time, off somewhere by himself, Jim was rolling and perfecting his game. He was catching up with me. When I went away to college, he wrote to say that he’d bowled a 253.  That, I had to admit, was a family record.

When I was back in town as a married man with a newspaper job, occasionally Jim would call and say, “Want to go rolling tonight?”  For us, bowling was a way of staying in touch. It gave us a lot of laughs. The time I flung a ball and ripped the seat of my pants up the middle, I thought he’d die.

It also gave us a chance to talk and express our visions of the future. He and his girlfriend were going to get married, Jim said, and then he and I both would have families. We would grow old together as brothers, fathers and uncles, watching our children and grandchildren share their lives and even bowl together. That was one of his dreams.

While rolling we competed, but not really against each other. What we were doing was “searching for the pocket.” We meant trying to find the exact spot to hit on the first throw, so all ten pins would go down for a strike.

We taught each other that finding the pocket is an elusive goal. If you try too hard you lose it. You have to throw the ball out toward the gutter, so it has room to curve back in.  You have to let go and not be afraid and trust your natural hook.  You can’t force the destiny of the ball by aiming directly into the pocket.

Sitting up in back there, you had to watch out for flying pins...

Even if you do find it once – getting a strike – the important thing is to do it again. And again.  And again.  Any triumph is only fleeting at best. It quickly recedes into the past, and you are faced with ten more pins all over. We decided that bowling, by itself, means very little. What counts is how you bring yourself to the game. What matters is not how good or bad your previous try was, but viewing each new roll as the first, last and only one.

We knew without saying it that the lonely concentration and persistence required by bowling has something to do with what’s required by life.

And, in fact, life took over.

My brother went off to the Navy and Subic Bay...

When the Vietnam War started building up, my brother joined the Navy. He went to the Philippine Islands and was stationed on the base at Subic Bay. We wrote back and forth all the time, and the tone of his letters grew increasingly bitter.

He was always under the threat of being shipped over to “Nam,” but what made him angry was the thought that he’d been abandoned by people at home. He imagined that all of his friends in the States were growing their hair long, using drugs and protesting against the war.  He was several thousand miles away, trapped in his uniform. He felt misunderstood and cut off.

My brother's not in this picture, but I'm sure he sat at one of those tables with a very similar bunch of guys ...

Jim wasn’t alone in that feeling.  Just about every week, one of the guys in his barracks would receive a painful “Dear John” letter from a girlfriend, telling of her decision to break off the romance. In the minds of the guys in the barracks, all the girls back home were wearing beads and becoming hippies; and. in their worst midnight fantasies, all were sporting T-shirts either denouncing the military or advertising free love.

My brother tried to cheer up his buddies by holding a ‘Dear John” contest. The winner would be the guy who received a letter using the most original excuse for dumping him: “Dear John. I’ll al ways love you, but I’ve become a different person, and you wouldn’t know me anymore, so…”

The standings in that contest kept fluctuating with the incoming tides of mail. No one, however, could top the experience of the guy who received a copy of his hometown newspaper and discovered a photograph of his fiancée in a bridal gown, taken after her wedding to someone else.

Eventually Jim, too, got a “Dear John” letter.  It was from that girl he had planned to marry. He’d felt it was coming.  Now he went into a rage and took action – for himself and for his Navy pals.

Subic Bay

What he did was form a bowling team. He took four volunteers from the barracks and told them, “I don’t care what it takes – we’re going to beat every team on the base!”

None of his recruits was a great roller. A few had never even bowled before. It didn’t matter. My brother channeled all his fury and pain into this bunch of fledglings. He took his nervous, skeptical players onto the alleys and drilled them in practice. He cajoled and inspired them. Once, to make them see that anything was possible, he lobbed the ball over to an adjacent alley and made a strike for another bowler. His amazed teammates roared with delight. For a while, they even forgot the girls back home.

Jim and his four colleagues entered formal competition on the base. With the concentration and persistence that bowling requires, he rolled up terrific scores. His fellow players continually surprised themselves, week after week, spurred on by a wild cheering section made up of the other guys from their barracks. In the Navy on the Philippines, bowling had been turned into a glamour sport.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Jim’s team got into the finals. In the championship match, they went up against five officers whose scoring average – not to mention rank – was much higher.  It started off as a lopsided contest, but in the end my brother and his motley band of bowlers prevailed. Their barracks mates erupted onto the alley as if the World Series had just been won.

In his letter to me, Jim described the triumph and added, “Wish you’d been here.”

After returning home, Jim looked back on his experience in the Navy with mixed emotions.  He had used bowling to help him and his friends survive the long period away from home, but he also found it hard to forget the feeling of having been abandoned by people in the States.

And he couldn’t really get over that “Dear John” letter he’d received from his girlfriend. He did get married, to someone else, but the marriage ended in divorce.

My brother Jim Whittemore (the handsome guy at left) became a great success in the real estate business in Westchester County -- here in an earlier stage of his career, with former partner Emmy Lou Sleeper at right

By now, we were leading very different lives. He was in real estate, I was an author. We still got together and talked a lot and shared our feelings, but we lived in separate worlds. And we didn’t bowl.

By the fall of 1982, my marriage of nearly 20 years was over.  I joined my brother in the ranks of divorced men and found myself in a daze and feeling low. I couldn’t start up my life again. When Jim invited me into his home, I accepted with a shrug. He gave me a room upstairs and left me alone. He asked no questions. He watched me mope around and heard me blame myself for being a failure.

Several weeks of this went by. On a Saturday, Jim announced that we were going to a sporting goods store. When I asked why, he said nothing and drove to town. Inside the store, I followed him to the counter.

“We want to buy a couple of bowling balls,” he told the sales clerk. “With ball bags.  And we need some bowling shoes.”

“This is crazy,” I told him as the balls were fitted to the size of our hands, “The last thing I want to do is bowl. I hate that stupid game.”

A few days later, we were on the alleys. This was the first time in our lives that we had our own equipment. We took our new bowling balls out of our new bowling bags and put on our new bowling shoes. We started to roll.

My younger brother, who used to look with awe at my trophy from Grosso’s Alleys, beat me soundly game after game, showing no mercy. I kicked the ball- return rack.  I sent my new ball flying so hard that it slammed into the pin-setting machine. I snarled at a kid, just because he was staring at me. Through it all, Jim pretended not to notice and just kept knocking down more pins.

After that, we bowled each week with the same results – until, at some point, all my frustration seemed so useless that I finally let go and relaxed.  I created a mental picture of the ball’s journey into the pocket, but otherwise I forgot my tension and simply rolled as if each new shot were the first, last and only one. Soon my game progressed, and I started catching up with him – the way, long ago, he’d caught up with me.

One day, up in his guest room, without realizing why, I began packing my bags. I walked down the stairs and announced to Jim that I would be going off on my own. He didn’t seem surprised.  I thanked him for the room and explained that I’d stopped living in the past and that it was time to get on with the rest of my life.

As we stood facing each other at the front door, I knew he was thinking about those old dreams of the future and about how the future, which was here, hadn’t become exactly what either of us had envisioned. He blinked tears from his eyes.

“I guess,” he said, “were still searching for the pocket.”

“We’ll never stop,” I said. “And we’ll find it, too.”

We stared at each other until, slowly, he forced a smile.

“Listen,” my brother said as I turned to go, “if you don’t mind, I’ll keep your ball right here in my closet, and whenever you stop by, if we feel in the mood, we’ll – ”

“Of course,” I said.

We hugged.

Of course, Jim – we’ll go rolling.

The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

A Stint in “Take Her, She’s Mine” on Broadway – 1961-62

In the summer of 1961, after sophomore year at the University of Notre Dame, I landed a lead role in Take Her, She’s Mine, by Phoebe and Henry Ephron, with Art Carney, Phyllis Thaxter and Elizabeth Ashley, under the direction of George Abbott and produced by Hal Prince.  I got the role Of Alex Loomis, a sarcastic Harvard guy in love with Mollie Michaelson, the role played by Ashley.

Art Carney

It didn’t last long, folks, because I got fired midway through the second act rehearsals in November (Richard Jordan took over the role).   I did get back in the show the following summer, however, after returning to Notre Dame to catch up with my classes.

Elizabeth Ashley

It had started after a wonderful agent named Hilary Holden, at the Deborah Coleman Agency, got me the audition that summer.  I recall standing in line with dozens of other guys in the stage-door alley of the Biltmore Theatre on 47th Street.  When it came my turn I went out on the stage and read a short scene with the stage manager.  For some reason I caught onto the sarcasm in the lines and, to my surprise, I could hear Abbott and Prince laughing out there in the darkened theater.  The next day Hilary telephoned me to say I’d gotten a callback.  And so it went, several times, until I actually got the role.

We began rehearsals that fall and I figured things were going pretty well.  The stage hands were laughing at my lines, a good sign.  But I was just turning twenty at the time and Liz Ashley, though just a few years older, was far more mature and sophisticated and confident that I was.  And of course she was a terrific actress on her way to becoming a great star.  And I could feel the end was coming…

George Abbott

We were in the middle of Act Two rehearsals.  The scene was a pizza parlor with Carney, the father; Ashley, the daughter, working there as a waitress; and me, the fiance.  I had a line to say and Carney was to ask her, “What’s so funny?”  But every time I said my line, Ashley stared back stone-faced until Carney shouted to director George Abbott, “How can I say my line unless she smiles?” At which point Liz turned to me and snapped, “Well, make it funny!”

That was it.  Producer Hal Prince called a break and bounded up on stage to tell me they were giving me two weeks’ pay.  “She has a run-of-the-play contract,” he said, referring to Ashley, “so obviously we have to let you go.”

Johnny Weissmuller as Jungle Jim with Marty Huston

I was crushed, of course.  Devastated.  Suddenly one of the cast members, Martin (Marty) Huston (who as a youngster had played Jungle Jim’s son in the TV show) came over and put his arm around my shoulder and shouted that he thought it was wrong to fire me and he was taking me across the street to the bar to get drunk.  And that is what we did.  I never forgot that gesture from Marty, who had been a child star and had enough stature to know he could get away with it.  We remained friends for a couple of years afterward.

(The television series of Jungle Jim, produced in 1955, starred Johnny Weissmuller; and Marty, 14, played his son Skipper.  He and the chimp “Tamba” were friends and played together like kids during rehearsal breaks.)

(During those rehearsals for Take Her, another young actor, Barry Primus,  also left the cast.  If I recall correctly, he just wasn’t right for the role in which he’d been cast; but in fact he continued on with a solid career, proving to be one of the best actors of his generation.)

Take Her, She’s Mine opened at the Biltmore on Dec. 21, 1961 and it would run for nearly a year.  In the spring, Judy Abbott called to ask if I wanted to return to play another role.  I was grateful, but had to wait until my classes at Notre Dame were over in June.  Then I did get into the play, in a very small role.  It was an interesting summer, however, to be racing around New York City taking classes in singing, Yoga and creative writing while also acting on Broadway.

By that time Marty Huston had replaced Joel Gray across the street as Buddy in Come Blow Your Horn, the hit comedy that was Neil Simon’s first play.  On those hot summer nights, Marty would dash out the stage door of the Brooks Atkinson Theatre and we’d play stick ball with the stage hands right there on 47th Street.  Suddenly one of the guys would yell, “Marty, you’re on!” — and he’d race back through the door and keep running right onto the stage and back into the play in front of a huge audience.

He was an amazing guy, rough around the edges, full of life and laughter, never taking himself or anything else too seriously — and I should add that the girls always seemed to fall for him.  (Marty died of cancer in August 2001, at age sixty.)

There’s much more about all this, but that’s it for now.

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

WOULD MY FATHER COME MARCHING HOME AGAIN?
After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.

CLOSEUP OF PIC WWII ARTICLE

He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

ALDEN1

The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.

The Muppets – Three Decades Ago…

Given the current celebration of Sesame Street’s fortieth anniversary, I reached into my files to find an article I wrote on the Muppets for PARADE, the Sunday supplement, more than thirty years ago in 1978.  Jim Henson was forty-two; he died twelve years later, in 1990, at fifty-four.  Richard Hunt was twenty-seven; he died fourteen years later, in 1992, at forty-one.

December 24, 1978

The Magical Hands of TV’s Muppet Zoo

MUPPETS

Article on the Muppets in PARADE on December 24, 1978

By Hank Whittemore

It’s the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature is stir ring, not even a – frog?

Unless, perhaps, there are visions stirring in your head inspired by the likes of Kermit—the nation’s First Frog – and his Muppet friends, including Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and all the other funny, fantastical, foam-rubber TV creatures whose weekly antics make us laugh while reminding us of ourselves. The Muppets delight children and grownups alike with a magical blend of illusion and reality. They may not quite have the appeal of Santa Claus, but they’re the most popular puppets in the world.

Over the last decade, more than half of America’s preschoolers have grown up watching Cookie Monster and other Muppets on Sesame Street, the daily show on National Educational Television.  Forty million viewers in the U.S., and 230 million in 103 other countries, tune in for The Muppet Show, the weekly TV series now in its third year of syndication.  And now, folks, The Muppet Movie has just been filmed, for release this spring.

With Kermit and his friends already superstars, it’s time for a look at those behind – actually, under – them. Beneath the characters is a team of five men whose hands and voices give life to the Muppets. Each is tall, slim, agile, multi-skilled and possessed of a streak of nutty humor:

Jim Henson, 42, a soft-spoken man with long brown hair and full beard, is the Muppets. Twenty-three years ago he created Kermit (Out of a partiality to frogs) and coined the word “Muppet” to describe his own unique cross between marionette and puppet. Since then he has built a veritable Muppet empire, operating out of his New York-based Henson Associates – or just plain HA!

“I love the anonymity of it all,” Henson says, although he has allowed himself a degree of public visibility. He’s the guiding genius behind the Muppets’ success, acting as a designer, writer, producer and director, while continuing to perform below Kermit, Rowlf the Dog, Dr. Teeth, Captain Link Hogthrob, Waldorf the Swedish Chef, the Newsman and Mahna Mahna.

Frank Oz, 34, has a mustache, spectacles and receding hairline that gives him the high-domed look of a scientist. “I was a perfectly normal kid,” he insists. “You know—serious, studious, rotten. This craziness is a contagious disease I caught from Jim Henson.” Oz, a veteran of 15 years of Muppet service, is creative consultant for The Muppet Show and a vice president of Henson Associates. Henson says Oz is “probably the person most responsible for the Muppets’ being funny.”

Oz based Cookie Monster on his own addiction to chocolate-chip cookies. He drew Grover’s character from that of his dog, Fred. When 0z’s Bert began his first routine with Henson’s Ernie, one of the great modern comedy teams was born.

Perhaps Oz’s most inspired creation is Miss Piggy. “I am certain,” a colleague jokes, “that she’s a reflection of Frank’s warped soul.” She’s a complexity of bravado and vulnerability, a coy lady pig whose delicate identity is not only sustained but fiercely protected by Oz.

* Jerry Nelson, 38, a lean, bearded, actor, is regarded as the “master of voices” among the five, especially as a singer. “With the Muppets you never stand still,” he says. “You keep growing. The character keeps learning, expanding, changing – just like a human being.” He brings alive a range of Muppets, including Robin the Frog, Sgt. Floyd Pepper, Dr. Julius Strange- pork, Fleet Scribbler, Crazy Harry, Uncle Deadly, the Count, Herry Monster and Sherlock Hemlock.

Richard Hunt, 27, with a mop of curly hair and seemingly boundless energy, had never sent up anything more exotic than a basketball before becoming a Muppet performer. “I came aboard when I was 18,” he recalls,” so I’ve been kind of a younger brother to Jim and Frank and Jerry.  You might say I’ve grown up with the Muppets.” Hunt gives us Scooter, Sweetums, Gladys, Beaker and Statler, among others,

Dave Goelz, 32, the newest member of the regular team, with a beard and a mischievous glint in his eyes, performs for Great Gonzo, Honeydew, Muppy and Zoot, “My background wasn’t show business,” he says, “but my whole family was raised in an atmosphere of weird.  So I guess my doing this was inevitable,”

“We’re all pretty much group people,” Henson points out, “To become part of the Muppets, you have to know how to share and work unselfishly for the total effort.”

And what an effort that is! On the set, the Muppeteers stand together, jostling around with their arms up, moving their Muppets’ mouths and arms for the camera, which is poised up high to catch the action. They speak or sing into microphones attached to headbands, following a memorized script. On top of all that, they must constantly glance sideways to watch TV monitors so they can see what the camera sees.

For a character like Kermit, who cannot grasp objects with his hands, Henson moves the arms with thin rods painted to match the background. The many other characters who can hold objects require two performers standing together. One manipulates the mouth and the left arm (and hand) while the other operates the right arm, “It takes twice the work of an actor,” Hunt says, “because you’re trying to communicate everything through a piece of foam rubber.”

“We’re really actors who use puppets,” Nelson adds. “The Muppets have a personality makeup that extends beyond caricature.  I think it goes all the way back to the cavemen, who wore animal heads. It begins as a visual stimulus, but it also goes deeper and touches something basic in man. The Muppets let people indulge in fantasy, but they’re also rooted in real emotions that people can identify with.”

New Muppets are born only after much creative input from designers, writers and performers. When a character is ready, Henson tries to “link the puppeteer with the Muppet, whenever there’s an affinity.” Only after a long period of practice with a mirror and a tape recorder does the fledgling character go public.

Rehearsals are usually relaxed, jovial sessions. “When you’re squashed under a stage all day with two or three other guys, you’d better like each other,” Nelson says.

This genial, creative atmosphere is a reflection of Henson’s quietly offbeat personality. He maintains a firm artistic hand but is singularly unthreatened by others’ talents. His wife – the former Jane Nebel, his original puppeteering partner – says the best insight into his style comes from close observation of his alter ego, Kermit the Frog:

“Kermit is the emotional pivot point for the other Muppets to work around. He sort of watches and enjoys the characters around him, taking them for what they are. Jim does the same for the people around him. The result is that they all have great respect for their characters and lend a general balance to each other,”

Jim and Jane Henson met as art students at the University of Maryland. Henson, who grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., had joined a puppet club during high school. Alter graduation he started building his own creations and, in 1955, toward the end of his freshman year in college, he landed a late-night five-minute TV show of his own on a local station.

Married in 1959, the Hensons kept that show, Sam and Friends, on the air for eight years. Kermit went on The Ed Sullivan Show as a regular for five seasons, and Rowlf the Dog, created for a dog-food commercial, wound up as resident comedian on The Jimmy Dean Show in the 1960’s.

“From the beginning we played to an adult audience,” Henson says, so in some ways Sesame Street was a set back. Starting in 1969, it became a tremendous success – but mostly for preschoolers.  Some of the Hensons’ own children (there are five, ranging in age from 7 to 18) helped with their reactions. It wasn’t until The Muppet Show began in 1976 that Henson’s original conception was proved once and for all: the Muppets are for everybody.

Sesame Street is taped in New York while The Muppet Show, produced by Henson and ITC Entertainment, is done in London, “We have a schedule to drive people crazy,” Hunt says, alluding to the additional travel to Hollywood to do The Muppet Movie.

“The feature film has been one of our big goals,” Henson says. “We’ve reversed the format of the TV show. Instead of guests coming to visit from outside, we’ve taken the Muppet characters out into the real world. The story begins with Kermit down South in a swamp. He hitchhikes across the country, and all the friends accumulate.”

Another movie, planned for 1980, would involve all new Muppet creations in the form of “gnomes, wizards, elves and other uglies,” according to Hunt.

Henson says it’s coincidence that all current members of the performing team are male. There have been female performers in the past – notably Louise Gold of London – and he says there undoubtedly will be again. “There are always people on the fringes and working toward joining us,” he adds,

The Hensons live in Bedford, N.Y. Of the others, all of whom are bachelors, Oz and Nelson live separately in Manhattan, Hunt in New Jersey and Goelz in California. They all have outside interests. Oz, for one, has been an Off-Broadway actor and is also a playwright, sculptor, videotape producer and enthusiastic sailor.

One day he was strolling on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near his apartment, when he overheard two men discussing Cookie Monster. “Excuse me,” Oz said, “but I am Cookie Monster.”

“Hey,” said one of the men, “no kidding! He’s great!”

Not you’re great, but he’s great – which pretty well sums up the public identity of a Muppet performer.

The White House Press Corps – A Nixon Photo Op in 1971

I traveled during eight months of 1971 with the White House press corps for a possible book about reporters who cover the president.  When in Washington, D.C., often staying with my brother Bill when he was in law school, I’d arrive at the White House in the morning and go to the press room in the West Wing.  I’d take notes during the day, interviewing reporters when they had time and at lunch or dinner.

There were some wonderful people — off the top of my head, I count among them Helen Thomas of UPI, Robert Semple Jr. of the New York Times, Peter Lisagor of the Chicago Daily News, Dan Rather of CBS, Herb Kaplow of ABC, Fay Wells (the pioneer aviator; see photo below) of Storer Broadcasting — these are just a few of the folks who were covering President Richard Nixon at the time.

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Dan Rather of CBS and White House Press Secretary Ron Zeigler (standing, right) in the early 1970's

Ron Zeigler was press secretary; Diane Sawyer was one of his assistants.   Here’s just one little incident that somehow always stands out for me:

One late morning in the press room, when things had been pretty uneventful so far, there was an announcement of a “photo op” in the Cabinet Room.  A couple of reporters got set to go with some photographers, along with Cleve Ryan, who held the light for them.  (He had been doing that job since the FDR days.)  On this occasion I asked to attend the photo op and was told it would be fine.  A few minutes later we were trooping up the hallway past some Secret Service agents into the Cabinet Room, where Nixon was meeting with Republican governors seated around the big table.

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President Nixon in the White House Press-Briefing Room - 1971

The reporters and photographers were on one side of the table and Nixon was across the way, looking good with a tan and wearing one of his favorite blue suits.  Cameras started flashing and clicking as the President spoke to the governors — making small talk — and he pointed across to Doug Cornell of the Associated Press, who was seated at the table with his pen and notepad in front of him.

“There’s Doug Cornell of the AP,” Nixon said.  “He’s covered five presidents.”

“Six,” Cornell shot back.

“Six,” Nixon said.  “He started when he was a Boy Scout.”

The governors around the table took their cue from the president and they all laughed.  Then one of Zeigler’s assistants shouted to us that it was over and
Cleve Ryan switched off his big round light.  On our way back down the hallway, I caught up with Cornell.

“Hey, Doug, that was something, hunh?  I mean, how’d it feel to be singled out by the president like that?”

Cornell laughed.  “Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve gone through that routine more times than I can count!  Nixon likes to do it because it loosens him up.  He says ‘five presidents,’ I say ‘six,’ and then he gives the Boy Scout line.  Works every time.”

As we walked back into the press room of the West Wing,  I realized how naive I’d been to assume that the little back-and-forth between Richard Nixon and Doug Cornell had been spontaneous!  A tiny matter, perhaps, but it taught me something nonetheless.

Fay_and_Amelia

Fay Wells (left-center) with Amelia Earhart (right-center)