Altman receiving his honorary Oscar

Usually I don’t allow myself to have favorite artists? Do I prefer Bach to Beethoven? Or to Schubert? But I have to admit that Robert Altman is my favorite movie director.

This doesn’t mean I want to make a case that he is the “best” movie director ever. I don’t believe in such nonsense. I’d never say that Altman is “better” than Kurosawa, Keaton, Bergman, Carné, or many others I could name. But there’s something about Altman’s greatest films that makes me feel especially close to them, and that they do what I want to see more than anyone else’s.

Several years ago my local “art” movie house, Upstate Films in Rhinebeck, had a single showing of “Nashville.” I’ve seen that numerous times, but of course I hadn’t seen it in a theater since it was new. There is one glaring flaw in the film that gets on my nerves: the character of Opal, the British TV reporter played by Geraldine Chaplin. I don’t find her at all convincing, and although I know the stupidity of her reports is intended to make a point I think it’s too exaggerated to be plausible. (I hope.)

Aside from that, though, “Nashville” seems to me a magnificent statement of the state of American culture in the mid-70s (it was made in 1975), as seen through the microcosm of the country music scene in the city of Nashville. I’ve usually found that particular genre of music one of the few I don’t like, and I suspect Altman shared my opinion. As inventive as always, Altman hit upon the brilliant strategy of having the actors who play the roles of singers write their own songs and do their own singing. Some of them can sing, but only Keith Carradine could write a convincing song. (Ironically, it won an Oscar.) So most of the songs performed by these supposed icons of country music are pretty dumb, making in a subtle way a point that could easily have been overstated.

The interweaving of numerous stories in a single film is so much Altman’s invention that anything similar these days is immediately tagged as Altmanesque by film critics. “Nashville” was the first such Altman film to take on such an elaborate structure, although in a less complex construction it’s the basis of his first successful feature, “MASH” (Altman once stated that, although some of his films had lost money for the studios, they still owed him a debt of gratitude for “MASH” because it eventually earned a billion dollars for its studio through sales and TV royalties.) Other Altman classics like “Short Cuts” and “Gosford Park” have similarly complex stories.

“MASH” is only the first of Altman’s great films. Although “Nashville” might be my favorite of all of them, I might also love “3 Women” just as much. That magnificent, mysterious film, not one of his best known, is an exploration of the female psyche so convincing that it’s surprising to learn that Altman himself wrote it. Another of my many favorites, almost unknown today, is “Images,” a suspense story with a stunning shock ending which seems obviously a tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, an early mentor of Altman’s. (Before his successful movie career, Altman worked in television for a decade, directing episodes of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Combat,” “Bonanza,” and other series. In his mature career he went back to TV for several excellent projects, the greatest of which was “Tanner ‘88,” made for HBO.)

I’m lots fonder of “Popeye” than most critics seem to be. It’s a bizarre musical, with great songs by Harry Nilsson, and Robin Williams and Shelley Duvall are superb as Popeye and Olive Oyl. After that flopped, Altman had trouble getting funding for films for some years, and he worked mostly at making film versions of plays. Among those, “Secret Honor” is truly outstanding, with Philip Baker Hall as an amazing Richard Nixon. (“Beyond Therapy” is the only Altman film I’ve been unable to watch through. I find the Durang script unbearable. Durang didn’t like the film either.)

In the 1990s, Altman’s career had a renaissance. The post-1990 films are uneven, including such artistic flops as “Kansas City” (despite an amazing performance from Harry Belafonte”) and “Ready to Wear.” But they also include such masterpieces as “The Player,” “Short Cuts,” “Gosford Park” and even his last film, “A Prairie Home Companion,” based on the radio program and using some of its regulars (including host Garrison Keillor). When Altman died, he was working on a project called “Hands on a Hard Body,” based on the odd contests held by truck dealers in which the last person standing and still awake with both hands on a truck wins the truck. What a delight that would have been!

I haven’t been spending enough time with Robert Altman recently, but that’s going to change. While clearing out my collection of old VHS tapes I’ve found some Altman material I haven’t seen in years, including an interview done after “Vincent and Theo” was released and several TV projects including two one-act Harold Pinter plays (“The Dumb Waiter” and “The Room”). I’m going to copy all of the tapes to DVD and watch them in the process, and then I’m going start going through the features in a leisurely manner. It’ll probably take me two years or more. But what a trip that’s going to be!

I just got to see the National Theater of London’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and it set me thinking a great deal about an aspect of contemporary theater. Movies started as mostly filmed versions of what people saw in theaters, but now things seem to be turning around.I am not a frequent consumer of live theater, much as I enjoy it. I do go to see some local productions, which are often good, and I get to New York shows once in a long while. So being able to see high definition broadcasts of these London productions in a local theater is a real treat.

I was particularly interested in the play version of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” created (by another writer, Simon Stephens) from Mark Haddon’s best-selling book. I had read the book and enjoyed it greatly. And I didn’t see how it could be made into play very effectively. The book is told from the point of view of an autistic teenager, using his own highly idiosyncratic style and filled with drawings and graphics in his style. How the hell do you do that on the stage?

Well, for starters, while the book has an uncommon variety of appearances on the page, Christopher is individual only through his words and his graphics. On the stage, he can be portrayed by someone with a characteristic tone of voice and physical mannerisms. The opportunity to express these comes from the work of the novelist and the playwright, but without the brilliant work of actor Luke Treadaway they would have only been potentials. Treadaway realizes Christopher’s character, with his limitations and his strengths, in an extremely vivid manner.

And all the actors, some of whom play several parts, were excellent in this production. But the playwright, and the designers, also decided to use a very plain set and enliven and elaborate constantly with projections, graphics, and sound effects (sometimes deafeningly loud, apparently to convey the way sound impinges on Christopher’s psyche).

This was all very vivid and had a powerful impact even at the remove of seeing it projected on a screen. But, at intermission, I found myself wondering, why the hell didn’t they just make it into a movie? There are so many cinematic devices being used in this production that perhaps the producers should have gone all the way and put the frightening scenes on the train and in the railroad stations into real trains and stations and filmed it. At that point, my friend Lee pointed out that in the theater we have the physical presence of the actors, which came across even in the broadcast. In a movie, we know nobody is actually there.

I am not quite as naive as this may sound. I do know that even in the 18th century there were elaborate mechanisms for special effects in theaters. And I know about the elaborate settings of Broadway musicals (which can cost as much to produce as a movie). I’ve also seen the Metropolitan Opera’s multi-media Wagner Ring cycle. I just don’t associate such doings with “serious” theater. So maybe I am naive after all.

Without Treadaway’s physical presence, I don’t know if this play would have worked. It could easily have dissolved into a collection of special effects without a center. When I first saw “Amadeus” on the stage in London, almost 30 years ago, I had some of that feeling. The special effects, very original at that time, seemed to take over the theatrical experience. I liked the film version better. In this case, I know a movie would be quite a different experience. I suspect it might be an inferior one.

And in a film you would not have been able to enjoy the virtuoso “encore” (taken straight from the book,) in which Christopher, having postponed giving the audience an elaborate mathematical explanation earlier in the play, gets his chance to do that after the story is over. I don’t know how the hell Treadaway managed to memorize that scene, but it was dazzling.

One summer I attended a huge party in rural Indiana hosted by science-fiction fans and writers Buck and Juanita Coulson. When the party was down to about 20 people, Buck pulled out a book of poems and offered a prize to anyone who could read through one of them without cracking up. Nobody made it.

This event, when I was a teenager, was my introduction to great bad art. The poet, who is still unknown even to most connoisseurs of inadvertent humor, was Violette Peaches Watkins. The book, her second, was “My Dream World of Poetry: Poems of Imagination, Reality and Dreams.” Mrs. Watkins was “a popular radio announcer on Station WHFC, Chicago, and a prominent patron of the arts,” according to the dust jacket. (I’ve guessed this means she was a gospel music DJ, since many of her poems have a religious theme, but I have no evidence.) My friend Marianna Boncek has done some research on Mrs. Watkins and discovered that she was apparently well known in black artistic circles in Chicago.

I searched for a copy of “My Dream World” for four decades, even though I had a photocopy provided to me, years after the party, by Buck. I used to tell people I was confident I would die without ever finding a copy, but I was wrong. Eventually an Internet search turned up two copies from the same seller, and I bought them both. Hey, you never know.

Incidentally, when I first told Marianna about the book and the contest, she told me with great confidence that she was certain she could read one of the poems without problems, having read plenty of awful poems produced by the students she teaches. She got through three lines of Mrs. Watkins and started laughing so hard she couldn’t go any further.

Mrs. Watkins has the qualities required by artistic inadvertent humor: ambition, incompetence, and gradiosity. They’re all necessary, and when done “right” they add up to a kind of anti-genius. I have seen plenty of movies made more ineptly than those of Ed Wood. Mill Creek Video has issued three 50-film collections of amateur horror movies, “Catacomb of Creepshows,” “Tomb of Terrors,” and “Decrepit Crypt of Nightmares.” The ones I’ve watched are incredibly awful but few of them are funny.

Mrs. Watkins’s “best” poems go on for several pages. But I want to quote one complete, so here is one that shows off her typical qualities:

The Cure for Juvenile Delinquency

You must start, from the beginning of time,
Praying hard daily, at least three times,
Thanking Almighty God for what you’ve got,
To be sure He will take care of that.

If your prayers successfully reach God’s throne,
Your child will be trained before it’s born;
For the Almighty God, who made heaven and the universe,
Will guide your child while it’s on this good earth.

Both parents should be faithful, loyal and true,
Because your child will have characteristics of you;
This much you owe to your child before it’s born:
To be brilliant, healthy and have a happy home.

Pray that he will be a blessing to humanity
And won’t lead a life of crime and insanity;
Pray hard that he will walk in God’s light;
Pray that he will always live upright.

And somewhere, sometime, the day will come
You’ll be repaid for the songs you’ve sung,
The prayers you’ve prayed, your toil and patience,
For being faithful and true, and your kind consideration.

There’s no reason to point out all the many reasons why I consider Mrs. Watkins the greatest bad poet I’ve ever read–even funnier than the legendary William McGonagall. All I can say is that if anyone ever finds a copy of her first book, “Violette Peaches’ Book of Modern Poetry for All Occasions,” let me know. I’m offering serious money!

I can think of only two other producers of legendary bad art whose work makes me laugh a lot. One is the singer Florence Foster Jenkins, who in her brief career managed to convulse thousands of music lovers, without ever realizing that people were laughing at her. Jenkins’s rich husband wouldn’t allow her to perform in public. After his death, though, she started a series of salons which eventually grew to concerts in hotel ballrooms and finally, in her last great moment of triumph, a sold-out recital at Carnegie Hall. No doubt such recitals would have become annual events had she not died soon afterwards.

Listening to Mrs. Jenkins carefully–which is, I admit, difficult–you can actually hear some suggestions of musicianship. And she doesn’t sing consistently out of tune. (If she had, she would have been less funny.) But hearing her grasp for the notes in the famous aria of the Queen of the Night from Mozart’s “Magic Flute” is an experience which continues to crack me up even after having heard it for more than 50 years. It’s also fun to hear her accompanist, one Cosme McMoon (his real name!), trying to keep up with her. We are fortunate indeed that Mrs. Jenkins decided to immortalize her art on private recordings, which she sold only directly to individual music lovers after interviewing them and making sure they were sufficiently educated in music to appreciate her work.

Mrs. Jenkins’s recordings are most conveniently available in a reissue from the Naxos label. My friend Gregor Benko’s collection “The Muse Surmounted” includes an interview with McMoon as part of a collection of other bad singers whose work he has enjoyed. One of them is Vassilka Petrova, whom operaphiles generally consider the worst singer to record a complete opera role. (She did two for the early bargain-priced Remington label. Rumor has it that she was married for a time to Remington’s owner.) When I was a dealer in classical LP records, I always rejoiced when I found a Petrova recording. They sold for very high prices. Follow the link above and you will be able to buy all of Petrova’s LP recordings on CD!

Then, of course, there’s the great bad film director Edward D. Wood, Jr. His “Plan 9 from Outer Space” is often cited as the worst film ever made, but it’s definitely not. His first feature, “Glen or Glenda,” is even worse (and perhaps even funnier), and the 1930s films of Dwayne Esper (probably best known for “Maniac”) are certainly worse in all respects. But it’s the grandiose stupidity of Wood’s dialogue that makes his films among the greatest examples of inadvertent humor ever produced. You can demonstrate this by seeing movies like “Orgy of the Dead” or “The Violent Years,” which are hilarious even though Wood only wrote the scripts and did not direct them.

Since most of Wood’s work is now in the public domain, it’s relatively easy to find. Two useful collections of Wood’s worst have now gone out of print, and the new “Big Box of Wood,” as wonderful as it is, doesn’t have “Glen or Glenda” in it. If you’re curious try “Plan 9” or this collection.

What do we gain by laughing at the ineptitude of others? Well, the most useful element I can think of is the way bad art illuminates the difficulties of creating great art. Seeing how badly Wood’s films demonstrate elements of film making we usually take for granted, I realize just how hard it is to make even a competent run-of-the-mill film. But the hell with that. Mostly what we gain are laughs, which are always useful. I still remember the experience of my old friend Sasha Gillman, who unwillingly accompanied her husband Jerry to my house for an Ed Wood Night. (I still do these!) She said she wouldn’t find anything to laugh about in a bad movie, and she wound up laughing so hard she literally fell off the couch.

Brad Bird and cast of "Mission Impossible"

Movie lovers like me often make the director of a film our main point of interest. I don’t allow myself such nonsense as having a “favorite” director. But I can tell you that I have seen every feature film Robert Altman ever directed. (even the TV movie “Nightmare in Chicago,” which has never been issued on commercial video), most of them more than once. The main reason I prefer Buster Keaton’s movies to Charlie Chaplin’s is that I find Keaton the superior director. Both of them were superb screen comics but the direction elements in Keaton’s films are among the most inventive and satisfying of the entire silent film era.

Since Altman’s death, I’ve been paying attention to the directors of films I love, hoping for someone whose work I would enjoy as much as his. When I saw Michael Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” I thought I had found a new top genius. (Hearing him speak in New York once reinforced that impression. And I was already a great fan of his music videos.) But although I also loved Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep,” I was deeply disappointed by “Be Kind, Rewind,” which he wrote. It was a marvelous conception carried out carelessly and without focus. And as much as I enjoyed “The Green Hornet” (the departures from comic book orthodoxy not bothering me at all because I’ve never cared much about comic books), even Gondry’s imaginative work didn’t make it a great film. I was finally forced to recognize that Charlie Kaufman’s brilliant script had as much to do with the success of “Eternal Sunshine” as the direction.

Kaufman’s directing debut, “Synecdoche, New York,” struck me as a masterpiece. But he hasn’t had a chance to direct since, and if he goes on writing unconventional scripts like that one he may never.

One of my favorite films of recent years was the Pixar animated masterpiece “Ratatouille.” I have watched that one repeatedly with ever-increasing admiration for it, and for its director Brad Bird. Bird had also directed Pixar’s excellent “The Incredibles.” Was he going to become a favorite director? Curiosity has just driven me to see Bird’s live action debut, the latest installment in the “Mission Impossible” franchise. I should admit that, although I do enjoy a good action movie sometimes, I would probably never have gone to see the fourth movie in this series if I hadn’t been curious about Bird’s work. And reviews were pretty good.

It’s a disaster. The “plot” is ridiculous and incoherent. The story makes no sense at all. There’s no apparent continuity between one scene and another except that good guys are chasing bad guys and trying to keep the world from being destroyed. Characters’ motivations are barely even referred to, and then so cursorily that you can’t really understand what bugs are up their respective asses. Perhaps if I’d been paying better attention by the end of the movie, I might have understood why Ethan, Tom Cruise’s character, finally reunited with his beloved wife, waves to her at a distance as she smiles at him and enters a building with someone else. But by then I didn’t care.

Did Bird’s contribution to this stupid mess make any difference? I don’t know. The various explosions and stunts were all pretty noisy and gaudy, but since there was no emotional involvement with the characters or the situation they didn’t mean anything to me. When Cruise was trying to climb up the side of the top stories of the tallest building in the world and one of his magic adhesion gloves failed, I hoped he would fall and put an end to the picture. And as the renegade atomic missile streaked through the stratosphere and the magic timer counted towards zero, I was hoping it would blow up and put us all out of our misery.

OK, any great artist is entitled to a flop here and there. Beethoven, after all, not only wrote “Wellington’s Victory,” he proclaimed it one of his best works. (I’m not alone in considering it one of the worst pieces of crap ever written by a great composer.) But “Mission Impossible:  Ghost Protocol” left me strongly suspecting that “Ratatouille” was the product of a great creative team, among whom the director was merely a successful technician rather than a major motivator.

This experience actually does not help me answer the question posed by my title. Frankly, I can’t answer it. Of course, a great artist like Akira Kurosawa managed to infuse many films with his personal vision as well as his technical skills, and the films are his films. But if you think “Casablanca” is a great film, tell me who directed it. (I remember this one:  Michael Curtiz.) And if you can do that, answer my favorite movie trivia question. In 1939, the year of “Gone With the Wind,” its director made one other film. Name it. I’m not even asking for the name of the director, since most people who do manage to answer the question will not know the director’s name. The film was “The Wizard of Oz,” and the director was Victor Fleming. Go figure.

Right now I’m keeping a hopeful eye on Sylvain Chomet, the French-Canadian animator now working in Scotland. His first film, “The Triplets of Belleville,” was one of the most satisfying movies of recent decades, one I’ve watched repeatedly and shared with numerous friends. His follow-up, “<The Illusionist,” a tribute to Jacques Tati based on an unpublished script of his, was even better, a significant evidence of artistic growth and a more deeply emotional and involving experience. I can’t wait for his next movie—but I’ll have to. After the success of “The Triplets,” it took Chomet eight years to make “The Illusionist.”

I’m always in search of interesting material to listen to in my car on long drives with my wife. We like lots of different kinds of music, but her interest in audiobooks diminished after she suffered a brain injury. Her favorite listening has been Spike Jones and His City Slickers, but there’s only so much of that hilarity available.

Recently my car’s CD player started to fail, and I decided to replace rather than repair. Unfortunately the difficulty in obtaining a new unit which included a cassette player closed off a lot of possibilities in our old collections. But more possibilities opened up when I learned that my new player was capable of playing MP3 discs. I had a few of these but was able to play them only on my DVD player at home.

Searches on eBay opened up to me the world of OTR (“old time radio”) MP3s. Various dealers have an astonishing variety of old radio broadcasts, which they claim are public domain material and therefore free of copyright. (This doesn’t accord with my understanding of current U.S. copyright laws but wotthehell.) From the bewildering number of choices, I decided to try a few discs, one of which included 60 (!) programs of the old Groucho Marx “comedy quiz show” “You Bet Your Life.” They were big hits with both of us. Within a couple of months we had listened through the entire disc. As we neared its end, I did another search and found another seller (in the U.K.!) who was offering a disc with 209 “You Bet Your Life” programs. It arrived just before we exhausted the first disc. These listings come and go so rather than providing a link I’ll just suggest you try eBay if you’re interested.

There are also plenty of “You Bet Your Life” TV shows available on DVD. Some of them are very low priced “public domain” issues of variable quality. But the excellent Shout! Factory label has issued two boxes of programs. (The second one, “You Bet Your Life – The Lost Episodes” includes the appearance of Lord Buckley as a guest.) Some of the PD issues are of surprisingly good quality, but they include the now-boring De Soto-Plymouth commercials, edited out in the Shout! Factory issues. For most of the decade-plus run of the show, there were separate radio and TV programs every week. The Shout! Factory collections are the best ones, but if you’re willing to sit or fast-forward through the commercials the 13 episode collection “Comedy Legends Series – Volume 1” is good and cheap.

While we watched our way through a disc of TV shows during a recent vacation, I’ve been dealing mostly with the radio programs. When you listen to so many programs in such a short period of time (we’ve now heard over a hundred, some of them twice) patterns emerge. Groucho’s humor becomes pretty predictable. He will never pass up an opportunity to make politely suggestive remarks about women contestants, some of which would be considered offensive today. (He almost invariably refers to them as “girls.”) Another favorite type of joke consists of pretending he hasn’t heard a contestant correctly, or pretending he doesn’t understand an idiomatic expression and taking the words literally.

But damn, the guy is funny! He obviously got, and kept, the job because of the quickness of his wit, and it’s often pretty impressive. When his foil, George Fenneman (who also did announcements for “Dragnet”), got the chance, he could be rather funny himself. But he knew his role as straight man and performed it admirably.

One reason for the success of “You Bet Your Life” was the producers’ ingenious decision to record the programs in open-ended sessions and then edit them down to the desired length. On the MP3 discs, there are a few programs taken from unedited tapes, and it’s fascinating to hear the way the programs take shape. Groucho, freed by the knowledge that if a gag fizzled it would disappear, takes all kinds of chances. Plenty of them do fizzle. The editing is made plain when you are listening to a program with a readout of the elapsed time visible, and you can see how unequally the time is allotted to different pairs of contestants. Some of them get five minutes of air time, some fifteen.

The betting strategy is a constant source of amusement to me. In the classic radio shows, each pair of contestants was given $20 to start. They were then free to bet as much of their money as they wished on each of four questions. The couple which wins the most money then gets a chance to answer a big money question, for $1000 plus $500 for each week that the big prize hasn’t been won. Almost inevitably the contestants start by betting $10, obviously wanting to stay in the contest if they miss the question.

This makes me wonder if any of them had ever heard the program before. The questions in the first round are sometimes tricky but mostly quite easy. I answer most of them correctly except for ones dealing with current events. The contestants answer most of the questions correctly too. Sometimes they bomb out, and I remember one program where contestants wound up winning only $20 but still got the chance at the big money because the other two couples lost all their money. (When that happens, they get a chance to win $10 by answering a question like the famous “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”)

Do the math. If you start out winning $10 on your first question (total $30), and bet all you have on the three subsequent questions, your maximum winnings add up to $240 (and few bet all). If you start out winning $20 on your first question and bet all, your maximum winnings are $360. Since few contestants who miss any question wind up with the highest score anyway, it would have made sense to bet everything on each question. Sometimes I feel like shouting at these poor people, almost all of whom are dead by now anyway. The “big money” questions tend to be rather difficult; while I haven’t been keeping score I’d say they are answered correctly less than half the time.

The compilations we’ve been listening to aren’t ideally prepared. They aren’t strictly chronological (easiest to track by the amount of money offered in the final question), and the sound quality is variable. But they are almost always intelligible, which is all that really counts. It’ll be a while before we get through episode 209 on the current disc, but we’ll be sad when we do.

The Ernie Kovacs Collection DVD On a recent vacation I took a batch of videos of old TV shows with me for evening entertainment. One of them, which I had been eager to start watching, was a set called “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” (Shout! Factory SF 12359). I loved Kovacs when I was a teenager and he was still broadcasting, and since his death I have always looked for opportunities to see some of his work. I still have tapes of a Kovacs series broadcast on Comedy Central Sundays at midnight, and I also have an earlier Kovacs DVD issue. But this is the most extensive Kovacs collection ever issued, and I’m sure I’ll be enjoying it for months. He was a comedy genius and a visionary in the use of television as a medium, and although his work is dated technically its imagination remains fresh.

Kovacs was a great classical music enthusiast and often used classical pieces in his programs. But I’d never seen a one-hour special called “Kovacs on Music” until this publication. It was originally broadcast in 1959, done with a full orchestra, conducted by Andre Previn! Most of the items use music as settings or background for comedy, but there is one completely serious performance:  the opening aria from Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5,” sung by Kovacs’ wife Edie Adams. Adams was a successful pop singer, and she continued to have something of a career after her husband’s death. (She made enough money to pay off in full a $500,000 tax debt he had left.) But I had no idea she had the classical chops to perform this difficult music. And after hearing Joan Baez’s miserable attempt to sing the piece, as soon as I heard the announcement of what was coming I expected the worst. I was totally surprised. Adams’s is one of the most beautiful performances of the music I have ever heard, even to the very difficult pianissimo humming at the end. She was actually a Juilliard graduate in voice, and fell into pop singing almost by accident. If I were more familiar with Los Angeles cellists of that period, I’d probably recognize some of the cellists, too.

Another item I brought with me is one of Mill Creek’s super-bargain video sets, Essential Family Television, a 12-disc set with 150 programs on it (no catalog number that I can find). Of course most of them are junk that nobody in his right mind would want to see today. And some of the promising items (like a Phil Silvers special co-starring Jack Benny) turn out to be disappointing. But the Jack Benny programs are still quite entertaining, and although the two Buster Keaton Show episodes aren’t very good it’s always a great treat for me to see Buster in action; he’s one of my heroes.

One evening I decided to try a Milton Berle show. I hadn’t seen Uncle Miltie in years but I remembered him as being pretty funny at his best, and there had to be some reason why for several years he had the most popular show on television. Sure enough, the first (of five) episodes began with some frantic but pretty funny comedy. It was a weekly program, and nobody could have come up with and performed live that much wild comedy every week, so the program was always filled out with guests, some comedians, some musicians. About 2/3 of the way into the show, Berle introduced an amazing 15-year-old violinist, and I shouted in astonishment when he announced the young man’s name:  Michael Rabin. I’d never seen Rabin on video before. He played Kreisler’s “Tambourin Chinoise” (the title never announced) like the young master he was. That two minutes justified for me the cost of the entire set. Incidentally, a few minutes later Vivienne della Chiesa showed up for another wonderful performance.

Classical music on commercial TV was not so rare in the past as it is now. Johnny Carson would often have celebrity classical performers as guests, and they would show up on other programs with loose enough formats. In December of 1964 I saw my friend Jacob Lateiner playing a Beethoven Piano Sonata on a Sunday morning arts program over Channel 4 New York (WNBC-TV). The most recent such use of classical performers I’ve seen was the Colorado Quartet playing Piazzolla on “Penn & Teller’s Sin City Spectacular” over FX, and that was a good decade ago.