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Happy Birthday Virgina O'Brien

Posted by Whitmore, April 18, 2010 09:23pm | Post a Comment
virginia o'brien
So here is my annual tribute to one of my all time favorite comedic actresses and peculiar lady of song, Virginia O’Brien. Today is her birthday, though she passed away back in 2001. She was also a popular singer in the 1940’s, though never a big star. Often co-starring with Red Skelton in several MGM musicals/comedies, she is best known for her deadpan expression as she sang, a gimmick she stumbled upon by accident at the Los Angeles Assistance League Playhouse's virginai o'brienopening night performance of a musical comedy revue called Meet the People.
 
Some of her films include The Big Store (1941) with the Marx Brothers, Ship Ahoy (1942), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), and Merton of the Movies (1947), all with Red Skelton. Then there are Thousands Cheer (1943), The Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Francis in the Navy (1955) and Gus (1976).

After a guest appearance in 1948’s short film Musical Merry-Go-Round, O'Brien was dropped from her MGM contract, a victim of the old Hollywood studio star system fading.

Here are some of Ms O’Brien’s great musical numbers.



Bob Mitchell 1912 - 2009

Posted by Whitmore, July 12, 2009 02:36pm | Post a Comment

Bob Mitchell


The original ballpark organist for Dodger Stadium and the last surviving working keyboard accompanist from the silent-film era, Bob Mitchell, has died. He was 96.

The native Angelino, born in Sierra Madre in 1912, died this past week from congestive heart failure at Hancock Park Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles.
 
From the first Dodger game played at the Chavez Ravine Stadium in 1962 until 1966, Mitchell was the keyboardist on the Wurlitzer double-keyboard organ with a 25-note bass pedal board. Up until that time he was best known as founder of the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir and its director for over 60 years. They appeared in more than 100 motion pictures, starting with 1936’s That Girl from Paris. Other films included the classics Going My Way starring Bing Crosby from 1944 where they sang “Ave Maria” and 1947’s The Bishop’s Wife. The choir was also documented in the 1941 Academy Award nominated short Forty Boys and a Song. Over the years more than 600 kids between the ages of about 8 and 16 performed in the Mitchell choir. Alumni include members of the Modernaires, the Lettermen, and the Sandpipers.

In 1924 at the age of 12, Mitchell began playing organ at the old Strand Theater in Pasadena, improvising soundtracks to silent movies. But with the advent of talkies and The Jazz Singer in 1927, Mitchell's first career as a silent-film accompanist was about over by the time he was 16. 65 years later, in 1992, he once again sat at the organ accompanying films at LA’s Silent Movie Theatre on Fairfax Avenue. His last public performance was this past May when he opened the Last Remaining Seats film series at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown LA.
 
Bob Mitchell began taking piano lessons at four years of age. He attended the New York College of Music before returning to Los Angeles in 1934; eventually he graduated from what is now Cal State L.A. and Trinity College in London. During the Second World War Mitchell served in the Navy and played keyboards for the Armed Forces Radio Orchestra under the direction of Meredith Willson, who later wrote The Music Man.

Remembering Virginia O'Brien

Posted by Whitmore, April 19, 2009 07:40pm | Post a Comment

One of my all time favorite comedic actresses was Virginia O’Brien, and yesterday would have been her 90th birthday. She was also a popular singer in the 1940’s and often co-starred in MGM musicals with Red Skelton. O’Brien was best known for her deadpan expression as she sang, a gimmick she stumbled upon by accident at the Los Angeles Assistance League Playhouse's opening night performance of a musical comedy revue called Meet the People. The 20 year old O’Brien became literally paralyzed with stage fright as she performed her number. In her terror, standing completely still, wide eyed and expressionless, she managed to finish her song, and the audience thought she was absolutely hilarious. Two weeks later she signed a film contract and in less than a month Virginia O’Brien found herself opening on Broadway.
 
Some of her films include The Big Store (1941) with the Marx Brothers, Ship Ahoy (1942), Du Barry Was a Lady (1943), and Merton of the Movies (1947), all with Red Skelton. Then there are Thousands Cheer (1943), The Harvey Girls (1946) with Judy Garland, Ziegfeld Follies (1946), Francis in the Navy (1955) and Gus (1976). After a guest appearance in 1948’s short film Musical Merry-Go-Round, O'Brien was dropped from her MGM contract, a victim of the old Hollywood studio star system fading. But she found continued success on stage and with television appearances on a variety of shows such as Ed Sullivan, Jack Carter, Steve Allen and Merv Griffin. She also created a cabaret act, mostly a retrospective of her MGM career, and during the 1980’s released an album, recorded live at the legendary Masquers Club in Hollywood.
 
On January 16, 2001 at age 81, Virginia O’Brien died suddenly of a heart attack at the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills. She’s buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale.



Who's on first, Whats on second

Posted by Whitmore, March 3, 2009 07:43pm | Post a Comment

On this date, March 3rd, fifty years ago, comedian Lou Costello, best known as the plump bumbling half of the comedy team of Abbott and Costello, died of a heart attack. Reportedly his last words were "That was the best ice-cream soda I ever tasted," as he was finishing a strawberry cream soda.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made over 40 films together in a 20 year career. Their signature comedy sketch Who's on First? was voted by Time in 1999 as the single greatest comedy routine of the 20th century. Who's on First? first appeared on radio in March 1938, after Abbott and Costello joined the cast of the The Kate Smith Hour. Two years later, with minor alterations, Abbott and Costello reprised the sketch in their Hollywood film debut, One Night in the Tropics starring Allan Jones, Nancy Allen and Bob Cummings.  
 
It was so successful, so famous that the bit appeared in several of their films. Audiences never seemed to tire of its ridiculous rapid-fire word play. In 1944 Abbott and Costello had the comedy sketch copyrighted.
 
The piece starts with Bud Abbott talking about the crazy nicknames of baseball ballplayers and Costello wants to know more about the local team and needless to say, who is playing each position.
 
Oh yeah, who's on first ... naturally.
 
The concept is as simple as that.
 
Unfortunately each of the ballplayers nicknames can also be interpreted as a non-responsive answer to Costello's endless questioning. Nearly 70 years later this bit is still absolutely brilliant. And absolutely absurd. Here's two versions.


The Nicholas Brothers

Posted by Whitmore, February 26, 2009 07:09pm | Post a Comment

Back in the hey day of the Hollywood Musical, during the 1930’s and 40’s, there was a plethora of extremely talented high flying family dance troupes, starting with the ballroom sophistication of Fred and Adele Astaire to the lightning fast feet of the Condos Brothers to the tap dancing brilliance of Four Step Brothers to the over the top athleticism of the Berry Brothers. But the best, most explosive, and daringly innovative were the Nicholas Brothers, Fayard (1914–2006) and Harold (1921–2000). With their highly acrobatic "flash dancing" tap style and spectacular choreography, they are considered by many to be greatest dance team not only of the era, but of all time.
 
Growing up in Philadelphia, Fayard and Harold were the sons of vaudevillian musicians-- a pianist mother and drummer father who led their own band working the circuit. In 1932, when Harold was 11 years of age and Fayard 18, they became the featured act at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club. That same year they shot their first film, a short subject musical called Pie, Pie, Blackbird.
 
The Nicholas Brothers made their Broadway debut in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1936, directed by Vincente Minnelli and choreographed by George Balanchine, they performed alongside stars such as Fannie Brice, Bob Hope, and Josephine Baker. Two years later in a packed Cotton Club, Fayard and Harold reigned supreme in the legendary dance-off against the other leading tap dancing family of the day, the Berry Brothers. By some accounts the Berry Brothers trio showed perhaps more bravado, but the Nicholas Brothers brought down the house with sheer finesse and artistry.   
 
Shortly thereafter, Fayard and Harold found themselves in Hollywood starring in a series of short subject films and guesting in several big budget musicals, like Down Argentine Way and Tin Pan Alley. In 1941 the duo appeared in both Glenn Miller movies, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives. The former included the definitive version of “Chattanooga Choo Choo;” the brothers' dance number also included Harold’s future first wife, the incomparably beautiful Dorothy Dandridge.
 
In 1943 the Nicholas Brothers filmed what Fred Astaire has called the greatest dance sequence ever put to celluloid. In an amazing display of strength, agility and timing, they danced to Cab Calloway’s hard swinging “Jumpin' Jive” in the classic film Stormy Weather. The routine included Harold and Fayard hopping from table to table and over music stands, bounding between musicians in the orchestra and finally leap-frogging over each other down a flight of stairs, landing a complete split each time. Mikhail Baryshnikov called them the most amazing dancers he’d ever seen.
 
They’ve received numerous awards and accolades. In 1948 The Nicholas brothers gave a royal command performance for the King of England at the London Palladium and over the years they danced for nine different Presidents. Retrospectives of the Nicholas Brothers' work in film include a special presentation at the 1981 Academy Awards and a Kennedy Center Honors in 1991. They were awarded an honorary doctorate degree from Harvard University where they taught master classes in tap dance as teachers-in-residence. In 1994 they received a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7083 Hollywood Blvd and were inducted into the first class of the Apollo Theater's Hall of Fame and the Black Filmmaker's Hall of Fame. The Nicholas Brothers were also recipients of the 1998 Samuel H. Scripps American Dance Festival Award for Lifetime Achievement in Modern Dance.
 
I once met Fayard and Harold back in the 1980’s while I was attending LACC. They were invited to give a talk about their careers and incredible lives. Both of them still looked pretty damned fit, but unfortunately neither danced. I wanted to ask a question about life with Dorothy Dandridge, but I figured the conversation might take a gloomy turn, so I just kept my mouth shut; I suspect it might have been the right decision. Her life ended prematurely and tragically. Somewhere in my pile of papers I still have the program signed by both brothers.  
 
Harold died July 3, 2000 of a heart attack following minor surgery. Fayard died January 24, 2006 of pneumonia -- a complication from a stroke.
 
Check out the footage below-- some of the dance routines are simply mind blowing.





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