Celebrity Calvacade

Richard Avedon's 1972 photograph of Oscar Levant

Richard Avedon’s 1972 photograph of Oscar Levant

Back in the day, I prided myself on my prowess as a popular entertainment trivia master, both in the contemporary and vintage categories, though, admittedly, I’m talking way back in the day when there was no such thing as trivia nights at bars or reality tv — not to mention personal computers or the Internet.

We’re talking the Late Fifties, Sixties and Early Seventies when they were fewer bands, movie and television stars, and gameshow hosts. Back in the day when someone might be billed as “a comic sidekick.”

One of the reasons for my encyclopedic knowledge was my grandparents’ letting me at a wee age stay up to the wee hours to watch the Tonight Show — we’re talking before the mighty Johnny Carson, we’re talking Steve Allen and Jack Paar.

Back during the live era, celebrities sometimes came on “doped up” as my grandfather put it — people like Judy Garland and Oscar Levant, whose presence both troubled and fascinated me. The quaint phrase “all hepped up on goofballs” comes to mind. Note how cavalier Paar is about Levant’s condition.

On one of his appearances Oscar Levant’s hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t light his cigarette. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

Back then, late night television wasn’t a constant corporate Hollywood movie marketing inside joke fest. Truman Capote would show up on Johnny Carson to impugn Brando’s intelligence or Sammy Davis, Jr’s singing chops.

Also, I watched a helluva lot of old movies on weekdays during the summer in the mornings and late at night on the weekends in those pre-cable days when movies constituted a goodly chunk of broadcast television’s abbreviated 6 am to 2 am day, movies that featured George Raft, Myrna Loy, William Powell, the Marx Brothers, Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers, Micky Rooney, Humphrey Bogart — you know the TCM MGM line-up.

The game show What’s My Line was one of my favorites with its sophisticated panel that included Bennett Cerf, James Joyce’s American publisher. Each week they’d blindfold the panelists and bring out a celebrity whom the panelists would try to identify through a series of questions — celebrities like Salvador Dali or Carl Sandberg. Descendants of Oscar Wilde, these witty New York sophisticates on the panel were fun to hang out with, even for a nine-year-old.

Well, boys and girls, my days of trivia supremacy are over. When I flip through an issue of Vanity Fair, I’ve never heard of 80% of the swells captured in various parties. This morning, the imp of the perverse bade me hit the Red Carpet Met Gala LINK on the Times, and I realize that when it comes to celebrities, I don’t know a Ethan Hawke from a Shankshaw Redemption.

I recognized a few — I hadn’t realized that surfer Kelly Slater was a patron of the arts – but what really surprised me was how many of these celebrities go by just one name, like they’re walking brand names. Of course, I’ve heard of Beyonce, Rihanna, and Usher, but who in tarnation are Solange, Grimes, Common, and Miguel?

Call me a square, a crotchety old man (who else would use the word “tarnation” ) shaking his cane at these new celebrities, but something tells me I’d rather hang out with Judy Garland and Oscar Levant than Christopher Kane and FKA Twigs.

Gimme a D, Gimme a U, Gimme a H.  What does that spell?

Gimme a D, Gimme a U, Gimme a H. What does that spell?


Time’s Winged Educational Chariot

tumblr_m5hcfaWVuu1qbyk5qo1_500This marks the fourth year of my teaching second-generation students – the sons and daughters of students I taught the in 1980’s.

It’s somewhat surreal – I was 32 when I stumbled into my first class of high school students, never having taught adolescents before. My teaching experience came from Trident Technical College, a community college that offers vocational training and some associate degree programs. There, many of my students were my age and older, some of them Viet Nam vets who certainly knew much more than I did about certain facts of life.

Classroom management was never a problem, except for that one night in a Developmental Studies class when a young blonde-haired man showed up drunk and red-eyed and started hitting on women in the back of the classroom. At the break, I mentioned to him he couldn’t come to class stoned, and he assured me that the red glazed look in his eyes came from welding all day. Nevertheless, he agreed to quit hitting on the woman.

No, classroom management wasn’t a problem at Tech; the problem there lay in that many students lacked basic academic skills, and I became a decent developmental studies teacher because I came up with some mechanical steps that students could follow in constructing sentences so that their writing wouldn’t mirror their speech.

If a student wrote, “My sister eat at her boyfriend house,” I’d have him find the verb.

“Who eat?” I’d ask.


Then I’d have him plug in a pronoun for the subject. If the pronoun was “he,” “she,” or, “it,” the verb needed an “s”; if the pronoun was “they,” no “s.” Getting him to add an apostrophe “s” for the possessive was a more difficult task, but that was merely a 2-point error versus the 10-point subject/verb disagreement deduction. The final exam consisted of writing a 150-word paragraph with fewer than 30 points of grammatical or mechanical errors. If he passed, he could go on to enter the small engine repair or welding certificate program or take classes for an associate degree.

The vast majority of these students wanted to better themselves, many were receiving GI bill checks, so getting them to pay attention wasn’t a problem. Although the job wasn’t intellectually stimulating, it was rewarding. I felt as if the Dalai Lama would approve.

I-and-I in my 1985 annual photo

I-and-I in my 1985 annual photo

Fastforward to 1985, my first class of seniors at Porter-Gaud. I asked each on that first day to introduce herself and tell me a little about herself and discovered that among these young scholars sat a “cocaine dealer,” a “Soviet spy,” etc. Whenever one of them offered one of these puerile bits of misinformation, the class erupted in gales of laughter as if Robin Williams stood before them performing a monologue.

The good news is that I was able to rein them in fairly quickly with a couple of scathing, sarcastic counterpunches. No, my problem here was not a lack of academic ability but roiling hormones and the unsettling fact that many of these students were much more intelligent than I when it came to brain circuitry.

The good news is that I was profoundly hipper and knew my stuff when it came to literature and writing. By the end of the year, I hated to see them go.

Next year will mark the 30th year since they graduated from high school, and to me, as I tumble faster and faster down the Great Hour Glass’s avalanche, it seems as if just last month my mother was preparing to go to her 30th high school reunion!

So here I am at the same school teaching the second generation, who are taller and better behaved (but less worldly and mature) than their progenitors, and it’s really eerie how much they can look alike, virtual doppelgängers in some cases.

I do my best not to show them favoritism, but it’s hard.

And to be truthful, I’m feeling the tug of time, feel like Yeats that old age has been tied to me “as a dog’s tail.” I get the feeling that some of the students think of me as ancient, the way they once thought of Blackburn Hughes, a colleague who was the age I am now when I first started teaching, and that it might be easy to pull something on me, the old coot. Even a couple of colleagues occasionally make playful cracks about my age, facetiously asking if I would like to join the faculty track team to challenge the students.

I-and-I at graduation in 2014

I-and-I at graduation in 2014

The good news is that I’m still hipper than these 30-something whippersnappers (where were they when I saw Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee perform in the bar where I worked, the Sonny Terry who played with Woody Guthrie on such songs as “Hard Traveling” “Bow Weevil Blues,” and “We Shall Be Free?) and I still know my lit and writing shit, so why not keep on another year or two despite the great demoralization of the bureaucratic technocracy that rules 21st century education, despite the irritating intrusion of a few arrogant fathers and snippy mothers, whom I certainly could teach a thing or two.

What shall I do with this absurdity—
O heart, O troubled heart—this caricature,
Decrepit age that has been tied to me
As to a dog’s tail?

Yeats, “The Tower”