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?