The Comedy Life of Thelma Todd

Long before there was Lucy & Ethel, Laverne & Shirley, or the 2 Broke Girls, there was Thelma Todd and Zasu Pitts. No, these aren’t made-up names. In the early 1930s, when legendary comedy producer Hal Roach decided to create a female version of Laurel & Hardy, he chose Thelma and Zasu for the assignment. And they were wonderful in the 17 short subjects they starred in together.

But let’s back up a bit and focus on Thelma especially.  Why? She made more of a mark on film comedy than even many fans of the classic films may realize, as a great number of revered comedy stars benefitted greatly from their onscreen collaborations with her.  She has the distinction of having played the comic foil for Ed Wynn, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Charley Chase, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and others, but not simply as the passive object of raised eyebrows, leering smiles, and snappy one-liners. She knew her stuff, and more than held her own playing opposite film’s comic geniuses. Her work deserves to be remembered and enjoyed, even more than eight decades after her untimely death in 1935.

With Charley Chase.

Thelma was a ridiculously beautiful blonde who had won the Miss Massachusetts beauty pageant while awaiting acceptance to Paramout Studios’ school for aspiring actors. Before long, she was playing various supporting roles in silent comedy shorts until producer Hal Roach signed her to begin her comedy career in earnest. In her most notable early films for Roach, she appeared star Charley Chase in his own series of sound comedies for the studio, beginning in 1929. The two were a team in all but official billing, given their onscreen chemistry. Many of the movie plots were variations of Charley’s attempt to win over Thelma, with inevitable complications or misunderstandings getting in the way.

Thelma’s classic reaction to the size of Charley’s engagement ring (Looser Than Loose, 1930).

The most famous of these shorts  include The Pip From Pittsburgh and Looser Than Loose (both of which I highly recommend). Just as it seemed the two would be officially billed as equal co-stars, Roach decided he wanted to pair Thelma with another female to create his new, female incarnation of Laurel & Hardy, to star in a separate series of two-reelers .

Zasu Pitts (pronounced “Zay-su”) had made a name for herself primarily as a dramatic silent film actress, but her occasional forays into comedy proved even more popular, with her sad eyes, put-upon demeanor and gently fluttering hands as she spoke. When teamed with the vivacious and energetic Thelma, she provided a perfect contrast as the more cautious and socially awkward of the two, usually getting pulled into Thelma’s plans without time to object, or landing them in any number of uncomfortable situations.

On the Loose (1931).

Roach was so enthusiastic about the new team that he directed many of their shorts himself, until his other duties as studio chief necessitated him to leave the directing to others.  A few of the best in this series include Let’s Do Things, Pajama Party and On the Loose.

 

With Stan and Ollie in Chickens Come Home, 1931.

Thanks to Roach’s generous contract, Thelma was also busy working on other films at the time. She foiled for silent star Harry Langdon in his first sound film appearance, worked to great comic effect with Laurel & Hardy in their own first talkie, Unaccustomed As We Are,  served as the object of desire for the Marx Brothers in both Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, and appeared in still more films with Laurel & Hardy throughout the early ’30s.

Horsefeathers, 1932

She also shared a number of memorable scenes with Buster Keaton in his 1932 sound film Speak Easily (in which he was reluctantly partnered with Jimmy Durante).

When Zasu left Roach studios in a contract dispute (but continued an impressive career of her own in both comic and dramatic roles) Roach replaced her with

Patsy Kelly, who provided a more brash, streetwise, New York-style persona to mesh with Thelma’s onscreen character. The two continued the series by filming twenty-one more shorts together, most of which offer great comic energy, with some surpassing the Thelma-ZaSu shorts.

It was fortunate that Thelma was, at the time, recognized for her comic skills, and not just for her beauty. In 1934, she became hostess of Thelma Todd’s Sidewalk Café, a restaurant/night club on the Pacific Coast Highway, which became a popular night spot for Hollywood types, as well as those of a less savory variety. Thelma was not the owner (her ex-lover, Roland West, was), but she was happy to greet guests and keep the fun going among the patrons. Unfortunately, the site also attracted a number of gangsters who sought to acquire a piece of the establishment, in order to turn into a gambling den. Thelma was adamantly against the idea.

On December 16, 1935, Thelma was found dead in her garage, sitting in her car, from carbon monoxide poisoning. While the coroner ruled it an accidental death, most observers question the many incongruous details connected with the scene. It had the appearance of suicide, but those who mingled with her at her restaurant the previous evening didn’t notice anything unusual about her behavior, especially nothing resembling depression or distress. Several murder  suspects have been considered in the decades since, but the case has never been satisfactorily solved. Thelma was only 29 years old.

There’s no telling how far her career could have continued on its upward trajectory, possibly including starring roles in comedy features, a la Carole Lombard.  Fortunately, we are still able to enjoy Thelma’s beauty, comic timing, and appealing energy in dozens of comedy (and dramatic) films.

 

The Thelma-ZaSu shorts will be released on DVD October 9, and the Thelma-Patsy shorts are already available, as is the Charley Chase series featuring Thelma. So, do yourself and favor and have some laughs, courtesy of the wonderful Thelma Todd and cohorts.

Thanks to my friend Michelle Morgan, who lives across the pond, and who wrote the wonderful and much-needed Thelma biography Ice Cream Blonde, which helped me keep my facts straight for this blog entry.

Until next week…

 

 

A musical milestone at Carnegie Hall

We’ve happily noted a few 50-year anniversaries in pop culture lately, but today marks the 80th anniversary of a legendary Carnegie Hall concert by the great Benny Goodman big band, on January 16, 1938.

The big bands and their leaders were the rock stars of their day, generating a growing excitement for swing music among young people all over the country, ever since the style took over the genre, largely credited to the Goodman band’s three-week run at the Palomar Ballroom in Los Angeles in 1935.  Dance halls and jazz clubs found themselves stuffed to capacity whenever big names like Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and dozens of others appeared.

To make a long story short, by late ’37 swing bands were the national craze in music, and enjoying tremendous popularity. Goodman’s band in particular favored high-energy arrangements by the likes of Fletcher Henderson and Edgar Sampson that had music mavens dancing in the aisles at concerts. This led to the unprecedented step of booking the band in the prestigious Carnegie Hall–the first jazz concert ever to be performed there. Goodman himself was only 28 at the time, but didn’t seemed unduly fazed by the prospect of performing in the Mecca of classical music. When asked how long an intermission he wanted for the concert, his reply was, “I don’t know. How long does Toscanini have?” Trumpeter Harry James sounded considerably more awed by the circumstances when, before the concert began, confessed “I feel like a whore in church.”

 

There was no telling how the music would be received, or even how a big a crowd would turn up for the occasion. The answer lies in both the recording made that night, and the fact that rows of overflow seats were set up right on the stage itself, within reach of the musicians. The band was at its peak, having spent the previous few years touring constantly, and trying out new numbers and arrangements, always gauging audience reactions. By January of ’38, the set list was about as reliable as Goodman could make it.

The Benny Goodman Quartet (Teddy Wilson obscured at piano).

The program for the evening presented a mix of numbers by the full band with those featuring Goodman’s trio (with Teddy Wilson on piano, Gene Krupa on drums), and Lionel Hampton joining in on vibes for the quartet. It should be noted that, at a time of segregation among virtually all aspects of American culture, Goodman welcomed black musicians in his band as well as those he brought on as guests that particular night. The concert was greatly enhanced with appearances by Count Basie, along with a few members of his band, including tenor sax god Lester Young, plus a few members of Duke Ellington’s band, most notably the awesome Johnny Hodges on alto sax.

As for the performance itself, the concert was recorded for posterity, with an edited version not released until 1950 by Columbia Records. An unedited version was released in 1999, with the true running order intact. Full band numbers such as “One O’clock Jump,” “Life Goes to A Party,” and

“Swingtime in the Rockies” provide thrilling moments, with “Swingtime in the Rockies” in particular featuring a wild, climactic trumpet solo by Ziggy Elman that fairly blows the roof off of Carnegie Hall. To this day, it’s one of the most frenetic trumpet solos I’ve ever heard.  Another point of interest, the improvised jam session, uses the standard “Honeysuckle Rose” as its starting point, and which includes exquisite sax solos by Young and Hodges. After a bit of meandering, the group follows Harry James’ dramatic lead-out to a satisfying conclusion.

Lester Young.

There were quieter, slower-paced numbers scattered throughout, including a few by the trio and quartet, but the grand finale came with the granddaddy of all swing arrangements, “Sing, Sing, Sing,” originally written by trumpeter and all-around showman Louis Prima, and expanded over time into the gargantuan arrangement Goodman’s fans always anticipated at his appearances. The main section of the piece gives way to a series of solos, and on this particular night, a surprise solo by band pianist Jess Stacy. Accounts seem to differ on whether it was Goodman who unexpectedly gestured to Stacy to take his solo, or if Stacy himself found a split-second opening in the beat to jump in with an improvised creation of its own.

Either way, his sudden, plaintive, quiet solo set a sharp contrast to the band’s musical adrenaline rush that had just preceded it, and, once his 96-bar solo hit its soft, final note, the audience erupted into tremendous applause. It’s a moment that has been discussed and written about by music historians ever since.

A few encores followed, the crowd went wild, and the swing era had reached an early peak. Swing music wouldn’t begin to lose its mass popularity until the end of World War II (and the coming of bebop jazz).  But as of January of 1938, the music–and Benny Goodman’s band–were the talk of the music world.

Until next time…

 

 

The 747: When Getting There Was Half The Fun

This week’s blog isn’t really to do with entertainment, but if we consider “popular culture” to include nearly anything that most of us have experienced–either often, or seldom–as part of our normal lives, then perhaps this topic makes the cut.

An item that didn’t get much attention last week, with so many news stories covering natural disasters and political chaos, reported that the very last Boeing 747 jumbo jet owned by a domestic airline has been retired. Delta Airlines flight 9771 from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona, with 48 people onboard (including a couple who got married mid-flight), marked the final flight of a 747 for any U.S. airline. Several European-based airlines, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Luftansa, still have hundreds of 747s in service, but the future of the huge, majestic plane may not be bright.

The news made my heart sink a little. And, though I’ve tried to make this blog more history-based than personal, my past few entries have failed to maintain that delineation. This one, to be honest, continues that trend. My apologies.

I was about nine years old when Pan Am’s first 747 began regular service in 1970. I had seen TV commercials and magazine ads leading the hype up to that event, and I was fascinated. The sheer size of the plane, unlike anything we had seen before then, was unbelievable. To this day, I remember its vital statistics, which quickly became ingrained in my mind as a kid: the plane was 231 feet long, with a 195-foot wingspan, seating for 430 passengers, 12 restrooms,

two aisles, 9 seats across, 8-foot high ceilings, and most mind blowing of all:  a spiral staircase in first-class leading to a 2nd floor lounge! On an airplane! My 9-year-old mind nearly exploded at the concept (only decades later would I learn that earlier passenger propeller-driven planes included lounges, and some even included a 2nd deck). Most 747s even had a piano in first class. I became obsessed, always searching for the “hump” in a plane’s front end whenever I saw one passing overhead.

Adding to my excitement that same year was the news that my family would be visiting my brother, who was in London for a semester in college, that April, in time for my birthday. Naturally, it was to be a Pan Am flight (back when Pan Am, which brought us the first passenger jet in 1959, was still the airline to take for international flights), and, best of all, we would be traveling on a 747!

I remember those first steps inside the plane at the boarding gate–the famous spiral staircase to the left, and countless rows of seats in economy class, stretching back almost as far as the eye could see. My mother’s first words were, “I don’t believe it.” My own first words were probably squeals of delight rather than anything intelligible.  Once the flight was underway, I took as many opportunities as I could to roam the spacious plane, walking to the very rear and its maze of restrooms, returning up the opposite aisle to the very front tip of economy class, and crossing through the galley to the other aisle, and finally back to my seat.

No, not my photo, but an appealing representation.

A totally unexpected delight came when the chief steward of the flight arrived at my seat (as per a previously-arranged request my father had made for my birthday), and offered to take me on a tour of the plane. I was both excited and hesitant, being quite shy, but my family cheerfully sent me off with him (what was he going to do, kidnap me on a plane?) He escorted me not only into first-class, but up the spiral staircase and into the lounge. He then opened the door to the cockpit and let me take a peek, and say hello to the pilots. Wow!

I returned to my seat fairly overwhelmed, and thankful to my parents for having arranged the tour. It was already a great trip, and we hadn’t even arrived in London yet.

I’ve enjoyed many other flights on 747s since then–to and from London several more times, to Israel and back, California, and perhaps a few that have slipped my mind. There was People Express in the 1980s with its budget-friendly fares and picnic baskets used to serve meals, and Virgin Atlantic in the ’90s with new, seat-back TV screens (also a discontinued accoutrement for new aircraft models, thanks to the takeover of smartphones, laptops, and other personal devices). I’ve even been on a

These lucky passengers got orange juice!

flight with Virgin owner Richard Branson onboard; he strolled the aisles serving water to whoever wanted to quench their thirst. I took him up on the offer and said, “Nice little airline you’ve got here.”

The 747 interior, as designed for different airlines around the world to their own specifications, later offered a variety of seat configurations, sleeper-seats, and lounge designs, some quite elaborate

and luxurious. But in recent decades, most ordinary people, regardless of which kind of plane they’ve flown on, have endured increasingly cramped planes, resembling sardine cans rather than the airy, comfortable transports the 747 once offered everyone, even those in coach class. In many cases, the lounges have been simply replaced with more seats on the elongated upper deck, in order to cram as many passengers into the available space as possible. I haven’t flown for quite a few years now, but I hope that before too long I’ll be bound across an ocean to an exciting locale, again aboard a 747 (perhaps Virgin Atlantic to London, for old time’s sake?)

It’s often difficult to know ahead of time when something that has been so familiar to us will cease to be, so it’s equally difficult to express appreciation before it’s too late. But getting sentimental over an airplane? Why not? The gradual passing of the 747 can evoke memories of happy, exciting times traveling the country or the world. Sentimentality has a way of creeping up on us when we least expect it, especially when a source of those memories is gone, or nearly gone, completely.

Until next week…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, Laugh-In!

I can hardly believe I just typed “50th birthday” and “Laugh-In” in the same sentence. But it’s true. After airing a pilot episode in September of 1967, NBC placed Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on its regular schedule in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (sorry, Bill Parisho).

To those television viewers who were comfortable with the more genteel, moderately-paced variety shows and sitcoms at the time, Laugh-In shocked them with an onslaught of one-liners, blackout gags, songs, sketches, and a lot more, all coming at breakneck speed and psychedelic colors. The cast of versatile, genuinely funny cast members during that first year included Artie Johnson, Joanne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, and Alan Sues–with plenty of celebrity cameo appearances thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, hosting the madness in their distinguished tuxedoes were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, both 46 at the time, and who had already been performing as a comedy team for the previous decade.

Laugh-In was the result of the duo’s collaboration with producer George Schlatter, who found himself on the same creative wavelength as Rowan & Martin, and who oversaw the writing, editing, and overall tone of the show. As explosive as the show was in 1968, with its breakneck pacing and topical humor about politics, the Vietnam War, pollution, and Women’s Lib, it did have its predecessors. Earlier satirical comedy programs, such as the 1964 American version of the British hit That Was The Week That Was, and The Smothers Brothers Hour, which debuted in 1967, laid the conceptual foundation for the outspoken and often risque nature of the show. This in turn led to many a challenge by NBC censors to a good deal of material. The show quickly acquired the

George Schlatter.

reputation as pushing the envelope of acceptable, prime-time network comedy, in part because just about everything that had come before it had been so very bland and inoffensive.

In 1968, Time magazine called it “the smartest, freshest show on television…it has an artful spontaneity, a kind of controlled insanity, emerging from a cascade of crazy cartoon ideas.” Actually, the show was aimed most directly at teenage audiences, who promptly lapped it up, yet who could still watch it and enjoy it with their adult parents. The jokes were often in the style of the vaudeville era (or earlier), the sight gags ranged from a cast

member–usually Judy Carne–or guest getting splashed with a bucket of water, to quite clever gags, dance numbers, and news reports presenting “news of the future, twenty years from now…”Bikini-clad girls, covered in graffiti consisting of puns and one-liners, shimmied against psychedelic backgrounds. It was all presented in good, silly fun. In addition

to a first-rate cast of comedians, the show continued to attract an impressive range of A-list celebrity guests, who didn’t always completely grasp what was going on during the energetic, even chaotic tapings. I won’t even go into the countless characters and their catchphrases that emerged from the program, and that quickly found their way into daily conversation.

 

As a kid in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived for Monday nights and Laugh-In. So did my friends. We spent long hours reciting jokes and re-enacting gags we had instantly memorized while taking in each episode. One of my friends and I even attempted to create our own Laugh-In episode on my ever-present cassette tape recorder. When our own 6th grade standard of material ran out, we turned to a few of the most recent Mad magazine issues, and read them into the microphone within the Laugh-In format (believe it or not, I actually still have those very tapes today).

Throughout its five-season history, the show’s cast went through a number of changes, with only Rowan, Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens appearing in every episode. The last episode aired in May of 1973, by which time the flower-power/hippie era that pervaded much of popular culture at the show’s birth had faded, with Watergate becoming the defining issue of the early ’70s. But thanks to nightly syndication on the Decades network, we can enjoy seeing some cast members before they moved on to still bigger accomplishments in their careers. Who would have

 

thought that the young, giggling Goldie Hawn would one day become an Academy Award winner, or that Lily Tomlin would win several Emmys, and a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show?

For all of its goofy silliness and hit-or-miss approach to gags, Laugh-In remains a classic, fifty years after taking the nation by storm. Times have definitely changed, and some examples of the show’s comedy wear better than others when we watch it today; it was a program of its time, of course, but the sheer cleverness and energy that permeates each episode is undeniable, and it can still give us a strong sense of what was going on in our culture, and our world, during a unique era in our history.

So, Happy Birthday, Laugh-In! Thanks for the laughs, and the memories!

Until next week…

Nostalgia in the New Year

In this New Year, I’ve just been looking back on the blog posts I’ve done in 2017, and I look forward to writing more in 2018. Yes, my blogs are really quite all over the place, not emphasizing any one aspect of pop culture history over another, because my own interests tend to be quite varied.

This might be working against me in a way; unlike other bloggers who specialize in one field or another, I’m not often thought of as the go-to guy for any specific knowledge. I just like to do my research, absorb information, pick out a few choice facts or stories that aren’t well known by the general public, and offer it to you in an entertaining and (hopefully) concise way.

People like me, who sometimes like to get pretentious by calling ourselves “pop culture historians,” are susceptible to being accused of living in the past, and indulging in movies, music, television, and social fads of long ago that the majority of people today don’t take much time to think about.

 

Indeed, when I was only about 14 years old, I was listening to big band music of the 1940s, and enjoying movies and listening to recordings of radio shows from decades going even further back. In a way, I was living in the past– not my own past, but that didn’t matter to me.  Of course, I had my favorites among the current TV shows at that time, too, and I listened to the Top 40 hits on the radio, but I also felt drawn to entertainment of earlier eras that wasn’t as familiar to me. What can I say…I liked it!

I am selective, however. I’m not the kind to say that everything today is “junk,” and everything back in the good ol’ days–even the days before I was born– was wonderful. But I like teaching myself about how everything today grew from that which came before. And I enjoy my meager attempts to shed some light on entertainers, films, music, TV shows–from both past and present–that you may not have been aware of, or have had the chance to learn much about.

So, for those few of you who have been gracious enough to follow this weekly blog in 2017, I have a few ideas lined up for 2018 that I hope you’ll enjoy, and might even learn a thing or two, in a fun way, requiring about 1,000 words or less (that’s where my dubious skills as a self-editor come in).

Have a happy New Year!