MUSIC/MEMORIES/MEDICINE

CBS TV showed parts of the Tony Bennett/Lady Gaga concert at Radio City in Special touted as the last time you will see Tony Bennett, who is 95 and has Alzheimer’s. What a cold way to sell a show!

I watched one song in it. Tony was standing in the crook of the piano singing ‘Love For Sale, while Gaga danced. I turned it off. I felt that it was a case of taking advantage of Bennett. See the old man try to remember the words. Kind of like going to an auto race hoping to see a crash. Going to a hockey game hoping to see a fight. Slowing down driving by an accident to see if it was more than just a fender bender.

But Danny Bennett praised both the concert and the special. Said it was good for his father. And Danny loved his father. He gave up a musical and producing career to save his father’s life and get him back to being the man that Tony Bennett was before he hit rock bottom.

In an interview on CBS’s Sixty Minutes, Lady Gaga also said that working with his music again helped Tony Bennett. She described how during rehearsals and the first of the concerts, Bennett sang his Standards without missing a beat; but she said he was oblivious to her and everything else. But then when she came on stage in the second concert to do her duets with him. Tony watched her as she approached him. He broke out in a big smile and said, ‘Lady Gaga’. He remembered her.

Her words were a breakthrough in my understanding how the music helped Tony Bennett, even if only for a short while. I thought back on the countless times I held a fussy baby in my arms and sang,Hush, little baby, now don’t you cry.’ Or cuddled a little one in my lap and sang,’You are my Special Angel, sent from up above’. While the song brought to the little one it also helped the singer’s disposition.

Familiar music brings back warm memories of bits and pieces of my life when I hear a certain song. There isn’t a day that I don’t tell Alexa to play songs from my library.

Jan and Dean were pioneers in Surfing Rock music. One of their biggest hits was Dead Man’s Curve. It dealt with a dangerous curve in a highway outside of L.A.. At the peak of their career, Jan Berry, driving his usual dangerous speed rammed into a parked truck a few miles from the curve. He was thought dead at the scene; but he manged to live, even if it took years before he could regain a semblance of his past life.

During these rehab years, Jan went on tour with Dean. One of the concerts was at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. I worked the lights from the stage right wing. Prior to half hour I went into the green room to get a cup of coffee. Both performers were sitting there. Dean was friendly and talked a good bit with me. Jan didn’t look at me. He stared out the window all the time. When they came into the wing waiting to go on stage. Dean smiled as he led Jan in. Jan had a hard time walking and just stared ahead.. My first thought was there was no way there would be a concert with Jan in that condition. I took the house lights out, the band began, stage lights up and watched as Dean holding onto Jan’s hand led his partner to the mic.

When the applause ended, the two began to sing. Jan gazed out into the darkness but he sang his parts without any problem. At the end, Dean led him off stage and Jan was back to his blank stare persona.

Eventually, Jan recovered and led a normal life in the music industry, albeit, with much physical pain. Then, 38 years after the accident, Jan suffered a stroke and died. But for that second lifetime, music was his medicine.

Back in 2016 I read where one of favorite lyric poets, singer/songwriter, Kris Kristofferson was in the early stages of Alzheimers. Kris was living on his ranch in Hawaii with a large portion of his 8 children, their children, and just about anyone who wanted to spend some time there. His wife took him to their place in California where the only extraneous noise would come from the music that Kris liked best. His memory improved in the solitude and in the fact a California doctor’s diagnosis was Lyme Disease, not Alzheimers, and changed the medicine. Kris announced his retirement in 2020, not because of health concerns but just old age. His wife says he is constantly filling up scraps of paper with new lyrics. So music helps but so does Second Opinions.

Brian Wilson was the musical genius behind The Beach Boys; the writer, producer, co-lead singer; but he thought the music was pedestrian, and aspired to compose in the manner of George Gershwin and others. His first nervous breakdown came on tour in Australia. He was replaced by a fine studio musician, Glen Campbell.

His bouts with mental illness led him to enlist a handler, Eugene Landry, a self professed expert, (aka con man), in helping the mentally disturbed. Landry soon became the biggest influence in Wilson’s life, taking over Wilson’s finances and in return ‘rehabilitated’ him with LSD, coke, opium, booze, junk food, etc., and cutting him off from his old friends and family.

In one of the rehab years, Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis, persuaded Brian to go on tour with the Beach Boys. One of the stops was Northrop Auditorium at the U of MN.

When it came time for Brian to take part in the concert, it was as if I was seeing Jan and Dean again. Brian’s two brothers led him to the mic. As he was led past me. I saw that blank stare Jan had had .But when it came time to join in, to co-lead sing, he did so just as if he was back in his old form. The same way Jan had done.

It took several years before he came back completely and when he did he broke off on his own. His two brothers were dead. Dennis drowned and Carl died of cancer. Their was bad feelings and lawsuits between Brian and the other members of the group.

Once again I witnessed the effect that music had on a person who was in grave need of it.

Age can also bring about a softness in the heart. I see where Brian Wilson is going to reunite with cousin Mike Love and Al Jardine, two other founders of The Beach Boys, and former unfriends, in a reunion tour of the group. You think maybe a new album will come out of the tour?

I worked many Frank Sinatra concerts over the years. Heck, I even paid to see him, once prior to being a stagehand and once while I was in the business. I worked the Rat Pack Tour in 1988 just after Dean Martin pleaded sickness and was replaced by Lisa Minnelli. The tour was just two years after Sinatra was hospitalized with a serious intestinal malady. It hadn’t slowed him down. His road manager told me that Martin left, not because of illness, but because of the antics of Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr., like lighting firecrackers in the hotel corridors late at night.

But his age and past life caught up with him soon after. His heart, his lungs, his stomach began to slow him down. And he developed a form of dementia. One of his last concerts took place at the Met Ice Arena in Bloomington, MN., during the Super Bowl Week festivities in the Twin Cities in 1992. He had regressed greatly since I worked him in 88.

I got a hint of his problems during the stage set up. We put three very large video monitors across the front stage. In the test I saw the words to songs Sinatra had sung for years. The band was conducted, not by names like Nelson Riddle or Buddy Rich, but Frank Sinatra Jr., whose main concern was not so much the conducting as taking care of his father.

After sound check Jr. left to bring his father to the arena. I was there when he helped Frank out the limo in the corridor. Of all the times I worked Frank Sinatra he always pointed at me and said he remembered the hat. Always. He had always joked with the stagehands, but not this time. He looked only at his son.

I held a flashlight and walking backwards up the escape stairs to the stage shined it so Frank could see the steps, while Jr. followed, placing a reassuring hand on his father’s back.

He was breathing heavily as he struggled up the stairs. He paused midway up and spoke.

‘Hey, kid, where did you say we were?

‘Minneapolis, Pop.’

‘I’ve been here before, haven’t I?’

‘Couple years ago on the Rat Pack tour.’

‘They with me tonight?’

‘No, Pop. Just you. You’re the big act for the Super Bowl shindig.’

‘Super Bowl! Who won?’

‘It’s next Sunday, Pop. We’ll watch on TV at home’.

I tried to swallow the lump that was in my throat. We waited stage left as the band played the introduction. Stage lights to dim and Jr. brought his dad to the large glow tape X where the vocal mic stand stood. Frank took the mic, held it the right distance from his mouth and launched into his first song, Night And Day’.

His voice was raspy but he still pronounced the lyrics distinct as he always did. He gave a good performance, relying on help from the video monitors. A few times he went up searching for what was next in the song; but Jr. and the band covered until he was back on track.

His familiar music was working a transformation. With each song’s ending, he seemed to regain more and more of his personality. His old patter returned, the wise cracks, even his remembering that it was Super Bowl week. But his voice was sounding more and more tired. Near the hour mark of the concert, the band cut loose with ‘Come Fly With Me’. At the end of the song, the stage lights went down. The applause erupted. The lights came back full and Sinatra sang ‘My Life’. Each time I find myself flat on my face, I just pick myself up and get back in the race.’

The lights dimmed and the applause was louder than before. Sinatra’s encores always consisted of six or more song; but when the stage lights returned, Frank was at the top of the escape stairs with Frank Jr. and me and my flashlight.

‘Do I go back on, Kid?’

‘No, Pop. We’re going back to the hotel and then fly home tomorrow.’

‘Good. I am tired.’

Thank goodness the set had not included Frank singing ‘My Way’; but ease time I hear the song and the words ‘And now the end is near and I must face the final curtain’, I think back on the last Frank Sinatra concert I worked.

Frank Sinatra died two year later. But his music is still a favorite way of mine to relax me.

Glen Campbell suffered from Alzheimers for several years. His last tour is the subject of a documentary by James Keach of his last tour. The title of the film is ‘I’ll Be Me’. If you have a couple hours free and a couple boxes of Kleenix, I would recommend watching it.

In the first part Campbell is happy go lucky, singing his songs, carrying on with the three of his children who are in the band, doing Donald Duck impressions, teasing the young son of the bus driver, and fighting back against the loss of memory. But helpful as the first part of the tour was to Campbell, the second part broght out the horror of the disease. It showed Campbell in a foul mood most of the time, constantly complaining about the way the music was being played, the audiences, and wandering around the stage changing songs on the fly. Making up things to rant about. Forgetting importing things. At peace only when he was deep into singing or talking to his daughter.

His music had helped him but the length of the tour just was too much for anyone, much less a person with his mental problems.

The film premiered in 2015 and was updated in 2017 when Glen Campbell died.

The award winning song, ‘I’ m Not Going To Miss You,’ came about from a quote of Glen Campbell’s one day when he grew tired of trying to answer questions about his Alzheimers. ‘I don’t know why everybody’s worried about. It’s not like I am going to miss anyone anyway.’

And to Jan Berry, Kris Kristofferson, Brian Wilson, Frank Sinatra, Glen Campbell, and Tony Bennett, we understand about the times you didn’t miss anyone; but believe me I will always miss you and your music, memories, and medicine.

And I, for one, use your music as a balm to help overcome the anxiety of growing old.

And in the words of William Congreve

Music has charms to soothe a savage breast’

TONY BENNETT-AGE 95+

Tony Bennett – Age 95 +

On his 95 birthday, Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga performed at Rockefeller Center. They did another show the next day. The advanced billing proclaimed it was the last time Bennett would ever perform. His son/manager, Danny Bennett announced that because of age frailty his father official retired.He did not mention that his father was afflicted with Alzheimers.

A month later Tony cut an album, Love For Sale, with his costar Lady Gaga.

Singing was an important part of his life even as a youngster. At the age of 10, standing next to Mayor La Guardia, Anthony Dominick Benedetto sang at the opening of the Triborough Bridge in New York City. Even though he had to drop out of school to help support his family, he continued to try and advance his singing career by working as a singing waiter and going to amateur singing contests, landing a small gig at a club in Paramos, New Jersey, under the stage name Joe Beri.. And all the while trying to earn a decent wage in Hoover’s Depression, a impossible task that made him an outspoken Democrat from then on.

When he tuned 18 he was drafted. The War in Europe was nearing the end. The Battle of the Bulge had reduced the German Army to slow combative retreat. The Allies were pushing the Germans back to their Father Land but at a heavy cost on both sides.

In March of 45, Benedetto was sent to the front in the 255th Infantry Regiment which had suffered enormous casualties in the Bulge and continued as it led the assault to push back the Germans to their homeland and hopefully their surrender. As Tony described the fighting as a ‘front row seat in hell’. House to house, hedgerow to hedgerow. Wondering if the next dawn would be his last. Somehow he escaped death and physical damage. But the insanity caused Benedetto to be an outspoken pacifist from then on.

He took part in the liberation of a German concentration camp which held a number of American POW’s. This event only increased his hatred of War.

After VE Day he was assigned to Special Services as a singer. But that plum duty was short lived.

He was seen dining with a soldier, a friend from high school, a black soldier. Demoted for this US Military ‘crime’, he was transferred to a desk in Grave Registrations. Funny, while he couldn’t dine with a black soldier, he could work on registering the proper graves of the dead soldiers, irregardless of their color, religion, or any other difference. This punishment did nothing to change his acceptance of people.

Nor did he take a hiatus from his goal of being a professional singer. He found he could entertain in the military by using his old stage name, Joe Beri.

His discharge brought Tony a chance to advance his singing via the GI Bill. He enrolled in the American Theater Wing, a school more dedicated to the theater arts rather than the teaching of music, especially pop music. He was taught in the bel canto method, a 19th Century Italian Operatic school of preserving one’s natural voice and respecting both the melody and lyrics.

He adopted the style of certain musicians, like Stan Getz and Art Tatum. And he followed Frank Sinatra’s respect for the lyrics of the song, No crooning like Bing Crosby but crisp and precise pronunciation of each and every word.

There were several recordings done in a small studio under the Joe Beri name, but none took off. Pearl Bailey hired Tony to open her show in Greenwich Village where Bob Hope saw him and hired him to go on tour. Hope told Tony Benedetto to shorten his name to Tony Bennett. After sending a demo to Columbia he was signed by Mitch Miller to help fill the void of Sinatra who had just left Columbia.

The first Columbia recording for Bennett was a cover of The Boulevard of Broken Dreams, accompanied by the Marty Manning Orchestra and it had a modest success, which prompted Miller to have Bennett work with Percy Faith.

Faith, the originator of ‘easy listening’ put a lush arraignment to Bennett’s singing Because of You, a song from the movie I Was An American Spy. Ten weeks #1, way over a million record seller. Tony Bennett made the big time. With the song still on the charts, Tony did something he would be known for his whole career, he introduced himself to a brand new audience..

Hank Williams was the hottest C&W artist of the time, one of the best of all time. Williams had a big C&W hit of hisCold Cold Heart and recognizing the greatness of the song, Tony Bennett cut a recording of it. It helped both men because it introduced them both to a new audience, one of the first crossover hits. Williams telephoned Bennett and told him how much he loved Bennett’s version and he plays it on the juke box all the time.

Bennett’s next record, Blue Velvet was hit with the teenagers and he played a run of 7 concerts daily at the Paramount Theater in New York City. Rags to Riches followed and was another #1 hit. The producers of the upcoming musical Kismet got him to record A Stranger In Paradise, a song from the show in order to promote the opening. It worked and the recording hit #1 in Britain, and the young man from Queens became an international sensation.

In the late 50’s Ralph Sharon became Bennettt’s pianist, arranger, conductor, and confidant. Sharon persuaded him to get back to his jazz roots, to forget the sugary songs, and work with jazz instrumentalists like Herbie Mann and Art Blakely. Sharon worked with Bennett for over 50 years.

Sharon almost made a grave error when he put a copy of a song in a drawer and forgot about it; but years later, he remembered it and brought it out for a tour that included San Francisco. I Left My Heart In San Francisco far exceeding the boundaries of the Bay Area and became Bennett’s signature song.

(The first time I worked Tony Bennett was a two concert night at the Guthrie. When we were almost done with loading out the sound equipment, Tony came up to me, shook my hand, told me how much he enjoyed working with us, and asked if he and Ralph could work out something on the piano, which was still on stage. I told him fine and when the sound was loaded, I sat backstage and enjoyed a private Bennett/Sharon concert.

What I didn’t know at the time was Ralph Sharon had taken a few years off from working with Bennett to avoid the endless touring and this was their reunion concerts, and I was privileged to be present when they worked out details of what they thought should be improved on.

Although I worked Tony Bennett many times, one concert was at Orchestra Hall. In addition to Bennett, I worked Anthony Benedetto.)

The other talent Anthony enjoyed as a youngster was drawing, painting when he could afford oils and canvases. Once he became an established singer he turned to art as a relaxation. Oils, water colors, still life, landscapes, and portraits of the likes of Ellington, Fitzgerald, Gillespie, Mickey Rooney, and others.

His amateur status as an artist soon became professional. His works are in in galleries round the world. There are three hanging in the Smithsonian. All his art is singed Anthony Benedetto, which allows them to stand alone, not on the crutch of the famous ‘Tony Bennett’.

(The concert at Orchestra had a large screen and Anthony Benedetto’s art was projected on it as Tony Bennett sang downstage. I was on a spotlight in the balcony, a perfect place to see the painting projections and hear the Tony sing and Ralph on piano. What a treat!)

The 70’s s started out strong for Tony. He worked and recorded with jazz greats like Basie and Adderly. Then the Beatles turned the pop music into the dominating force. Bennett tried his hand at pop and failed. He tried acting and one picture convinced him to forget it.The one positive was he participated in the Civil Rights marches.

He moved to London and became a modest hit with his own talk show. Came back home and started a recording company which turned out two fine Bennett jazz records; but with no experience in distribution, the company failed.

At the end of the decade, Bennett had the IRS on his back along with a cocaine monkey. His music career was nothing except for gigs in Vegas. He almost died from a drug overdose. Enter his son, Danny, an aspiring musician whose career was going no where fast. He devoted his time to getting his father’s life and career back on track.

He convinced his father to stick to the American Standard tunes with jazz backing. Forget Vegas. Take gigs in small venues. He brought back Ralph Sharon just in time for me working the two of them at the Guthrie. Thank you, Danny.

While Tony’s fans stuck with him, he and his songs were unknown to the younger generations. To cure that Danny got him booked several times with Dave Letterman which led to MTV taking an interest and Tony Bennett Unplugged resulted in bringing not only young fans but also a contract again with Columbia, which led to Unplugged winning Album of the Year. Like Sinatra had done, he forewent recording singles and concentrated solely on albums.

Theme albums featuring the works of a great such as Duke Ellington or Louis Armstrong followed along with his Duets album where he sings with a pantheon of great singers like Barbra Striesand. Elton John, Paul McCartney, among others. Albums with just him backed up by jazz artists.

He teamed with the talented K.D.Lang in both recording and live concerts. Later he would do the same with Lady Gaga, who would sing with him in Duets II, along with the voices of Willie Nelson and Amy Winehouse and others.

As the accolades and honors poured in, he continued to work for charitable and political causes. He wrote two books of his memories. There was a big to-do when he reached the age of 80, little did anyone suspect he would have another 15 years of work ahead. At age 88 he recorded another Grammy winner, Cheek to Cheek, which debuted at #1 on Billboard. And he went on an extended tour with Lady Gaga. There was another big to-do when he reached 90, followed by a singles recording of Fascinating Rhythm which he had recorded a few weeks short of 69 years before. At the age of 95, he cut his album. Love For Sale.

The last time I actually spoke to Tony Bennett was New Years Eve, 2015, in an elevator at the Paris Casino in Las Vegas. Bennett was appearing that evening at the Paris where my wife and I were staying. Tickets for his performance had been long sold out and much too expensive for us anyway.

(I was going to the lobby when the door opened up and Tony Bennett got in.I offered condolences on the death of his friend, Ralph Sharon. Tony smiled and said it was a great loss after all those years working with his friend.

Tony asked if I knew Ralph; but the elevator stopped at Bennett’s floor and ended our conversation. He wished me a Happy New Year.

And as the door closed he gave me a thumbs up.

ON ICE – I

Another Olympics. Another scandal. Some of the usual suspects…Russia/young figure skater.

This one had the best excuse I have heard in a long time, ‘I took my grandpa’s medicine by mistake’. But even with the tears and excuse, she finished fourth.

No skating scandal in the 1968 Winter Games though when Peggy Fleming won the only Gold Medal for the US, just gasps of awes. And those awes, some of them mine, were heard again every time she took to the ice in the Ice Follies.

Here is a reblog from the past.

Ice Follies 63This started out to be another KGB story; but then as I got writing I realized that large Ice Show revues are a thing of the past… just like vaudeville. So as I began to give a brief backstory to the intended story, KGB AND THE ZAMBONI, then I decided to delay it and write a longer version of ice shows as I remember them and as I worked them.

Back in the day when ice shows were full blown revues, ala Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, only on ice, and not today’s costumed skaters presenting a cut-down Disney movie, there were three major ice shows touring the country. Big shows. Big sets. Large casts that included solo stars, chorus lines, comedy sketches. And they used a large number of local stagehands. Spectaculars!

The original was Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies. It was launched by the two Shipstad brothers, Eddie and Roy, and Oscar Johnson. The three friends grew up in St. Paul, MN and were regular ‘Shop Pond ice rats’. The Shop Pond was behind the Great Northern railroad shop where the neighborhood kids had adopted as a rink for hockey and figure skating. It was on this pond that the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson worked out routines and entertained audiences who were standing in the cold at the edge of the pond, and it was here that a new kind of entertainment was created. The world of lavish ice skating productions.

The three friends started the company in 1936. They were featured in the Joan Crawford movies, THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939, starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Steward, hoping to compete with the Swedish ice skater Sonja Henie’s popular movies. It flopped and didn’t put a dent in Henie’s popularity, but it put Ice Follies on the map. Sonja Henie eventually worked with the two major ice shows that followed the Follies; but she never worked for Shipstads and Johnson, because they had their own stars.

Over the years they presented many stars of the ice, for instance the comedic skating duo from Switzerland, Frick and Frack. Prior to bring in this act, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson were the comic skaters, with their skid row routine. They were good but Frick and Frack were great.

Vastly popular, their stage names were adopted into the English language as a term for two closely identified people. Some of their routines are seldom performed because they are just too hard to do.

When Frack retired, Frick continued as a ‘solo’, using various young skaters as second bananas, who were never given a name as part of the act. One reason being the young skaters changed quite often. Some quit the act after just few performances. Frick was not an easy person to work with. He was very good but not as good as he thought he was. He was popular on the ice but not backstage. He was not friendly to his fellow skaters or the stagehands.

Roy Shipstad was a talented figure skater. He skated under the name Mr. Debonair. Recognizing that his age and front office work would force him to discontinue his Mr. Debonair routine, he scouted for someone to eventually take over the role. He found a youngster who was so good they didn’t wait for him to replace Roy Shipstad. They gave him a spot in the show under the name Young Mr. Debonair. He became a fan favorite from the start.

Young Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer, grew up in the show. Starting out as a preteen he continued skating well into adulthood. He went to high school in every city they stopped that had a Christian Brothers school. A few weeks here. A few weeks there. Had assignments to do from school to school. Got his high school degree working and touring.

Like Roy Shipstad, Richard was the epitome of a gentleman, before and after he dropped the ‘Young’ from his introduction, skating a classic form, dressed in a tux with a flower in his button hole. He always skated with six beautiful women in flowing gowns and gave out roses to women in the audience. And off the ice he was also a gentleman. A favorite of any one who worked with him, including the local stagehands like me.

Then there was a second generation Shipstad, Jill. Daughter of Roy, her routines were athletic and used some humor. Skating to music with a jazz beat, she seemed to be jitterbugging rather than the traditional graceful gliding.

One of Eddie’s son, Bob Shipstad worked in the front office and helped develop routines for the skaters. For one season the show presented Sesame Street costume skaters. When the Follies went full time Disney, Bob worked several years helping Vince Egan develop Sesame Street Live, (no ice skating), into the block-buster it is today.

Another star developed by the Follies was Karen Kresge. That gal was quite an athletic skater. And her routine was sexy with a capital S. Every male in the audience, that might have been nodding off, woke up when she was burning up the ice. In later years she, like many of the ice skating stars, worked for Holiday On Ice and also did choreography for both skaters and dancers. She worked with Woodstock Productions, a Charles Schultz company, for over 30 years. She was a great favorite of Snoopy, Schultz’s famous creation.

Charles Schultz grew up only a few miles from the Shop Pond albeit several years after the Shipstads and Johnson were on the Pond ice. Like many kids in that neighborhood Schultz loved ice skating all his life. In his later years he owned an ice rink in California and has an ice rink named for him in St. Paul.

(A little aside. Although Shipstads, Johnson, and Schultz grew up in St. Paul they had problems with their hometown. Feeling they were slighted at their start, the Ice Follies refused to perform in St. Paul. All their Twin City performances were in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Schultz had his first strip ‘Lil’ Folks run the St. Paul Dispatch and then in 1950 the paper dropped him. A few years later they begged to have him back, but he vowed never to allow his strip, now re-titled as Peanuts, run in the St. Paul paper and it never has.)

And my all time favorite figure skater is Peggy Fleming, Gold Medal winner in the Olympics. Three times World Champion. Went on to be one of the biggest stars of Ice Follies. And like Richard Dwyer, one of the nicest people to work with.Peggy Fleming

Such a sweetheart! I made certain I had the same task each time the show was in town. After she finished her routine I would hold a flashlight so she could ‘walk’ up the rubber mats on the ramp to her dressing room. She asked me my name the first time I helped her, and she always remembered it over the years, and thanked me by name each time up the ramp. And always with her warm smile.

She changed her act each season but the one I remember the most her all blue routine. The ice bathed in blue light. Peggy wearing a blue gown. The eight follow- spots spread around the arena capturing her every movement, every facial expression, in their soft pale blue lights.

And, even though the show trouped an orchestra, she skated this routine to a specially made tape of Frank Sinatra singing, IF YOU GO AWAY. Slow, sad, graceful skating as the lyrics lamented the thought of ‘you’ going away. Fast, gleeful skating as the lyrics changed to ‘but if you stay’. Back to the sadness of ‘if you go away, as you know you must.’ And ending in a slow face to black with the words, ’please don’t go away.’ Frank Sinatra singing a great song and Peggy Fleming skating in a blue world! The poetry of a real ice show.

Peggy married her high school sweetheart and they have two sons, and three grandchildren. She overcame breast cancer and is a spokesperson for early detection of the disease.

She keeps her hand in ice skating as a TV commentator.

Beloved by millions, her biggest outspoken fan was Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog. Charles Schultz devoted many a panel on Snoopy’s love for Peggy.

The Follies went downhill in a hurry as a lavish ice revue when the Felds, father and son, bought it. The father, Irving, was a show business promoter specializing in rock concerts . He brought his son Kenneth into the business and the two became big time promoters, with their flagship show, Ringling Brother Circus. In 1979 they bought Ice Follies and in 1981 they worked out a deal with Disney and Ice Follies was no more. The only big ice show now is the Disney costumed show centering around a Disney movie.

The Felds were not innovators but grew rich from the hard work and genius of others. The name Feld is not popular the show business community. The skaters of the Follies complained that the Felds were trying to make their show a circus on ice. They took acts like trained dogs and traditional clowns from the circus and introduced them into the ice show as additional acts that worked on rubber mats. They also introduced common circus practices such as low pay and disregard for their workers and performers. They helped grease the skids toward the extinction of the big ice reviews.

(In 1984 the Follies were doing their yearly stint in the Twin Cities. We had just finished up the between-acts preset and as we walked up the ramp we heard a lot of clapping and gleeful shouting in the dressing rooms hall. I asked a skater if what the clapping was about. ‘Somebody win the lottery?’ He said that the stage manager had just announced over the horn that Irving Feld, (the father), had just died. Ooh, applauding this. Cold, cold!)

I don’t know about the popularity of the Ice Follies around the country prior to the plug being pulled, but I do know they were selling out in the Twin Cities. I often thought that the show changed to Disney On Ice was because the big-name skaters did not want to work for the Feld Organization. It was much easier to control youngsters wearing Disney costumes, who are thrilled just to be in show business, then skaters who upheld the tradition started by the Shipstads and Johnson way back on a little ice pond behind the railroad garage in St. Paul.

After the Ice Follies began, two other organizations put large scale ice shows on the road. Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice. In On Ice Part 2, I will write about them.

Ice Follies

ON ICE – I

Ice Follies 63This started out to be another KGB story; but then as I got writing I realized that large

Ice Show revues are a thing of the past… just like vaudeville. So as I began to give a brief backstory to the intended story, KGB AND THE ZAMBONI, then I decided to delay it and write a longer version of ice shows as I remember them and as I worked them.

Back in the day when ice shows were full blown revues, ala Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway, only on ice, and not today’s costumed skaters presenting a cut-down Disney movie, there were three major ice shows touring the country. Big shows. Big sets. Large casts that included solo stars, chorus lines, comedy sketches. And they used a large number of local stagehands. Spectaculars!

The original was Shipstads & Johnson Ice Follies. It was launched by the two Shipstad brothers, Eddie and Roy, and Oscar Johnson. The three friends grew up in St. Paul, MN and were regular ‘Shop Pond ice rats’. The Shop Pond was behind the Great Northern railroad shop where the neighborhood kids had adopted as a rink for hockey and figure skating. It was on this pond that the Shipstad brothers and Oscar Johnson worked out routines and entertained audiences who were standing in the cold at the edge of the pond, and it was here that a new kind of entertainment was created. The world of lavish ice skating productions.

The three friends started the company in 1936. They were featured in the Joan Crawford movies, THE ICE FOLLIES OF 1939, starring Joan Crawford and Jimmy Steward, hoping to compete with the Swedish ice skater Sonja Henie’s popular movies. It flopped and didn’t put a dent in Henie’s popularity, but it put Ice Follies on the map. Sonja Henie eventually worked with the two major ice shows that followed the Follies; but she never worked for Shipstads and Johnson, because they had their own stars.

Over the years they presented many stars of the ice, for instance the comedic skating duo from Switzerland, Frick and Frack. Prior to bring in this act, Eddie Shipstad and Oscar Johnson were the comic skaters, with their skid row routine. They were good but Frick and Frack were great.

Vastly popular, their stage names were adopted into the English language as a term for two closely identified people. Some of their routines are seldom performed because they are just too hard to do.

When Frack retired, Frick continued as a ‘solo’, using various young skaters as second bananas, who were never given a name as part of the act. One reason being the young skaters changed quite often. Some quit the act after just few performances. Frick was not an easy person to work with. He was very good but not as good as he thought he was. He was popular on the ice but not backstage. He was not friendly to his fellow skaters or the stagehands.

Roy Shipstad was a talented figure skater. He skated under the name Mr. Debonair. Recognizing that his age and front office work would force him to discontinue his Mr. Debonair routine, he scouted for someone to eventually take over the role. He found a youngster who was so good they didn’t wait for him to replace Roy Shipstad. They gave him a spot in the show under the name Young Mr. Debonair. He became a fan favorite from the start.

Young Mr. Debonair, Richard Dwyer, grew up in the show. Starting out as a preteen he continued skating well into adulthood. He went to high school in every city they stopped that had a Christian Brothers school. A few weeks here. A few weeks there. Had assignments to do from school to schoo. Got his high school degree working and touring.

Like Roy Shipstad, Richard was the epitome of a gentleman, before and after he dropped the ‘Young’ from his introduction, skating a classic form, dressed in a tux with a flower in his button hole. He always skated with six beautiful women in flowing gowns and gave out roses to women in the audience. And off the ice he was also a gentleman. A favorite of any one who worked with him, including the local stagehands like me.

Then there was a second generation Shipstad, Jill. Daughter of Roy, her routines were athletic and used some humor. Skating to music with a jazz beat, she seemed to be jitterbugging rather than the traditional graceful gliding.

One of Eddie’s son, Bob Shipstad worked in the front office and helped develop routines for the skaters. For one season the show presented Sesame Street costume skaters. When the Follies went full time Disney, Bob worked several years helping Vince Egan develop Sesame Street Live, (no ice skating), into the block-buster it is today.

Another star developed by the Follies was Karen Kresge. That gal was quite an athletic skater. And her routine was sexy with a capital S. Every male in the audience, that might have been nodding off, woke up when she was burning up the ice. In later years she, like many of the ice skating stars, worked for Holiday On Ice and also did choreography for both skaters and dancers. She worked with Woodstock Productions, a Charles Schultz company, for over 30 years. She was a great favorite of Snoopy, Schultz’s famous creation.

Charles Schultz grew up only a few miles from the Shop Pond albeit several years after the Shipstads and Johnson were on the Pond ice. Like many kids in that neighborhood Schultz loved ice skating all his life. In his later years he owned an ice rink in California and has an ice rink named for him in St. Paul.

(A little aside. Although Shipstads, Johnson, and Schultz grew up in St. Paul they had problems with their hometown. Feeling they were slighted at their start, the Ice Follies refused to perform in St. Paul. All their Twin City performances were in Minneapolis and its suburbs. Schultz had his first strip ‘Lil’ Folks run the St. Paul Dispatch and then in 1950 the paper dropped him. A few years later they begged to have him back, but he vowed never to allow his strip, now re-titled as Peanuts, run in the St. Paul paper and it never has.)

And my all time favorite figure skater is Peggy Fleming, Gold Medal winner in the Olympics. Three times World Champion. Went on to be one of the biggest stars of Ice Follies. And like Richard Dwyer, one of the nicest people to work with.Peggy Fleming

Such a sweetheart! I made certain I had the same task each time the show was in town. After she finished her routine I would hold a flashlight so she could ‘walk’ up the rubber mats on the ramp to her dressing room. She asked me my name the first time I helped her, and she always remembered it over the years, and thanked me by name each time up the ramp. And always with her warm smile.

She changed her act each season but the one I remember the most her all blue routine. The ice bathed in blue light. Peggy wearing a blue gown. The eight follow- spots spread around the arena capturing her every movement, every facial expression, in their soft pale blue lights.

And, even though the show trouped an orchestra, she skated to a specially made tape of Frank Sinatra singing, IF YOU GO AWAY. Slow, sad, graceful skating as the lyrics lamented the thought of ‘you’ going away. Fast, gleeful skating as the lyrics changed to ‘but if you stay’. Back to the sadness of ‘if you go away, as you know you must.’ And ending in a slow face to black with the words,’please don’t go away.’ Frank Sinatra singing a great song and Peggy Fleming skating in a blue world! The poetry of an ice show.

Peggy married her high school sweetheart and they have two sons, and three grandchildren. She overcame breast cancer and is a spokesperson for early detection of the disease.

She keeps her hand in ice skating as a TV commentator.

Beloved by millions, her biggest outspoken fan was Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s dog. Charles Schultz devoted many a panel on Snoopy’s love for Peggy.

The Follies went downhill in a hurry as a lavish ice revue when the Felds, father and son, bought it. The father, Irving, was a show business promoter specializing in rock concerts . He brought his son Kenneth into the business and the two became big time promoters, with their flagship show, Ringling Brother Circus. In 1979 they bought Ice Follies and in 1981 they worked out a deal with Disney and Ice Follies was no more. The only big ice show now is the Disney costumed show centering around a Disney movie.

The Felds were not innovators but grew rich from the hard work and genius of others. The name Feld is not popular the show business community. The skaters of the Follies complained that the Felds were trying to make their show a circus on ice. They took acts like trained dogs and traditional clowns from the circus and introduced them into the ice show as additional acts that worked on rubber mats. They also introduced common circus practices such as low pay and disregard for their workers and performers.They helped grease the skids toward the extinction of the big ice reviews.

(In 1984 the Follies were doing their yearly stint in the Twin Cities. We had just finished up the between-acts preset and as we walked up the ramp we heard a lot of clapping and gleeful shouting in the dressing rooms hall. I asked a skater if what the clapping was about. ‘Somebody win the lottery?’ He said that the stage manager had just announced over the horn that Irving Feld, (the father), had just died. Ooh, applauding this. Cold, cold!)

I don’t know about the popularity of the Ice Follies around the country prior to the plug being pulled, but I do know they were selling out in the Twin Cities. I often thought that the show changed to Disney On Ice was because the big-name skaters did not want to work for the Feld Organization. It was much easier to control youngsters wearing Disney costumes, who are thrilled just to be in show business, then skaters who upheld the tradition started by the Shipstads and Johnson way back on a little ice pond behind the railroad garage in St. Paul.

After the Ice Follies began, two other organizations put large scale ice shows on the road. Ice Capades and Holiday on Ice. In On Ice Part 2, I will write about them.

Ice Follies

SINATRA’S ART OF A DEAL

 

It seems that Trump’s art of dealing often included threats and/ or the reality of bankruptcy and stiffing the people he owned money to. I was present at the conclusion of a Frank Sinatra dealing. Like Sinatra himself, it was the Epitome of Cool.

Frank and the moron

There’s a new book out by a former manager of Frank Sinatra. In it, Eliot Weisman tells of having brokered a deal to have Sinatra open Trump’s Taj Mahal Casino in Atlantic City; but before the contract was actually signed, Trump’s Casino Manager was killed in a helicopter crash.

Trump, fresh from hitting it big in his ghost-written book, THE ART OF THE DEAL, decided to renegotiate himself with Sinatra’s agent.

Weisman came back to Sinatra with Trump’s new deal demands. He would pay Frank less money. Sammy Davis Jr., who had just been diagnosed with cancer at the time, would not be on the bill; nor would Steve and Edyie, who Trump said he never heard of.

Sinatra gave his agent two choices. Tell Trump to go @#^@ himself, (an act which is anatomically impossible even for Trump), or just give Trump’s phone number to Frank so Frank could tell Trump himself.

Sinatra played The Sands in Vegas those dates and Trump opened his casino without Sinatra.

Eventually, Trump did something nobody thought was possible. He butchered the running of his casino to the point where he declared it bankrupt and closed it down. How can anybody with first count on the money ever go broke running a casino? Maybe the juice off the top demanded by his partners was too exorbitant, you think?


Like most performers, Sinatra didn’t have much time for promoters. The promoter that booked Sinatra in the Minneapolis Auditorium tried to do some late fast shuffling on Frank and almost lost the event.

The promoter’s rep, who didn’t like the promoter anymore than we did, told us the outcome of the promoter’s finagling. Sinatra told the promoter that not only would the deal stand as verbally agreed to, there would be one additional clause added to the rider. The promoter would have a new baby grand in the in the dressing room next to his, or Frank would go with another promoter for the Minneapolis gig.

‘No problem’, the promoter told Frank.

‘And’, added Sinatra, ‘At the end of the show, the piano belongs to me’.

The promoter sputtered and stammered, pointing out how much a baby grand piano costs.

Sinatra pointed out the original deal should have been honored, and if there was anymore arguing, it will be a concert grand instead of a baby grand.

It was a sell out performance. Even with the additional cost of the piano, the promoter still came out okay. Sinatra gave a full concert and encore after encore after encore.

We were breaking down the show when Sinatra came on stage, as he did in the smaller venues. He shook our hands, thanked and tipped us. And, unlike most entertainers, Frank never believed in having a roadie throw us a T shirt as a tip. He was a one of the last holdouts to the old school of giving cash for a for a tip.

Then he handed Mark, the house carpenter, a piece of paper. ‘The piano movers will be in first thing in the morning,’ Frank explained. ‘Here’s the address where the piano gets delivered to.’

‘Wow!’ said Mark said, reading the address out-loud. ‘The St. Joseph’s Children’s Orphanage in St. Paul. okay!’

‘And remind the movers not to tell the Orphanage where it came from,’ Sinatra said. ‘Just tell the good sisters they owe the donor a Rosary or two.’

He thanked us again and walked off the elevator to the garage.


Sinatra had a reputation of being one of the most generous celebrities around, even though he tried to keep his giving a secret.

Trump, on the other hand, brags about his charity giving;  but there are a lot of organizations that he said he gave to are still waiting for the first dollar.

And that’s a wrap.

Frank

FRANK’S 100TH

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Watching the tribute to Sinatra on his 100th birthday brought lumps to my throat. I have so many of his albums, worked him many times. Heck, I even bought tickets to see him in Vegas. One of my FAVORITES.

But watching the tribute tonight reminded me of the last time I worked him in person. It was at the Met Arena as a part of the Super Bowl festivities in town. As I did before, I sat in a front chair for his sound check. As he had done before, he walked by and pointed at my hat. “Nice hat,” he said, as he did a time or two before.

I didn’t pay much attention to the fact he was using the teleprompter during the check; but I certainly did during the show, and so did the audience. Songs that he had sung for years were stumping him. He couldn’t remember the lyrics. He had to read darn near every song on the prompter. Sometimes he had to pause. He still had the Sinatra style, the crisp singing of the lyrics; but it was not only his voice that betrayed his age, his memory also.

Everybody there enjoyed his show, after all it was Sinatra; but we all knew it would be only a matter of time our enjoyment would be confined to his albums, his CD’s, or times like tonight watching old TV clips.

100 years

R.I.P. ROD MCKEUN

rod mckuen

R.I.P. ROD MCKEUN

A critic once told us you were the King of Kitsch; but as for me and a great many people, you were a talented poet, song writer, composer, and singer.

One of the best concerts I ever worked was your performance at the Minneapolis Auditorium. One of my favorite albums is your SOLD OUT AT CARNEGIE HALL.

Talk about a multi-talented man! In addition to your songs, you also received 2 Oscar nominations for your movie soundtracks, and a Pulitzer nomination for your ‘serious’ composition. You introduced us to, and translated for us, the works of Jacques Brel.

Sinatra was a critic. He thought so much of your work he devoted an entire album, Sinatra – A MAN ALONE: THE WORDS AND MUSIC OF MCKUEN, to your songs. He did a masterful job, and especially with your LOVE’S BEEN GOOD TO ME.

And another masterful version of that song was sung by Johnny Cash in his AMERICAN V CD. The CD which he titled A HUNDRED HIGHWAYS,  words taken from the lyrics of your song. The CD that Cash recorded when he knew that he didn’t have long to live. Knowing Cash’s backstory, I defy anyone to listen to that cut and not have a lump in his throat.

Terry Jacks sang your and Brel’s SEASONS IN THE SUN to number one in the pop charts in 1974. And your works have been recorded by a host of the best in so many genres of music.

Your own singing voice was raspy, but it was good enough to  have been the lead singer for Lionel Hampton’s band. You voiced-over assorted characters in THE LITTLE MERMAID movie with that voice. Your voice in your spoken word albums has made your poems familiar to so many.  And your voice was heard loud and clear in the fight against child molestation.

All this from a man who ran away from home and an abusive stepfather, at the age of 11. A man who made a living as a laborer, ranch hand, rodeo rider, stunt man, etc., and never failing to send money back home to his mother. A man with little formal education, but a great deal of talent and determination.

And now, it’s a wrap, Mr. McKuen. Thank you for your volumes of works and the hours of enjoyment that you left us. R.I.P.