Monday, May 25, 2015

On this Memorial Day

Late afternoon in Riverside Park on Memorial Day. Photo: JH.
A lovely, very quiet Holiday weekend where in many parts of town it seemed like just about everybody left. It was a weekend of reading, getting together some plants for a summer terrace garden, dining with friends, and more reading. On this Memorial Day we are running a Diary I wrote for Memorial Day 2013. It fits the bill, expresses the thoughts about this day.
It was a quiet Memorial Day here in the city in my neighborhood by the East River. The Sun was out and the temperatures rose into the upper 60s after a couple of days of unseasonal chilly weather in the low 50s and high 40s.

This holiday weekend traditionally signals the beginning of the summer season for many Americans. Many New Yorkers who could, left the city.

Although a national holiday, first known as Decoration Day when I was a kid, I saw no evidence of it in my neighborhood that compared to the holiday when I knew growing up in New England.
The Soldiers' and Sailors' Memorial Monument on Riverside Drive and 89th Street on Memorial Day.
The monument commemorates Union Army soldiers and sailors who served in the Civil War. On Memorial Day 1902 (then called 'Decoration Day'), the monument was unveiled following a parade of Civil War veterans up Riverside Drive to the site.
Decoration Day back then meant school was out for the summer, or nearly. It meant weather warm enough that if school were out, the kid could go barefoot -- for the rest of the summer. This was a milestone much appreciated and practiced if we had “permission” from our parents.

The day also meant a parade in almost every town across America. This included many veteran soldiers, often wearing their old uniforms, marching in the parade, bearing flags and led by brass bands playing patriotic tunes. In some places there would even be a surviving Army member who had served in some rank in the Civil War. This was rare, of course, for the eldest among the parade served in the First World War and the Spanish American War.

John Philip Sousa, once conductor of the United States Marine Band at the beginning of the 20th century, was venerated for his marching tunes, the most famous being “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Its strains were heard on every Main Street in the land on this day.

Sousa himself was still so famous by mid-century (he’d died in 1932) that a film bio was made about him starring Clifton Webb as Sousa and featuring a very young Robert Wagner and Deborah Paget.

Patriotism was a notion instilled in all school children, meaning bravery of our adults, goodness; freedom for all, and reverence for those who died on foreign shores to protect those words as realities.

The parade usually marched down the main streets of the town to the local cemetery where wreaths were lain against the gravestones and monuments of the men who had died while serving in those wars.

By the 1950s, the focus of these celebrations was on World War II, for all families either had members or knew someone who had served – many of whom had died --  in that war. My eldest sister (who is fourteen years my senior) married a soldier who served in Germany during that war.

My earliest memory of it was as a three year old watching my sister packing a cardboard box full of candy bars that she’d acquired over time (there was a rationing of sugar and chocolate) to send to him in Germany.

Everything about that box was a treasure to the eyes of this little one and although my dear sister was always kind and generous to her baby brother (all his life), she would never share a morsel from that box. I understood how precious those candies were of course, although I didn’t understand “why.”

The day itself meant a picnic. Hotdogs, potato chips, watermelon, ice cream and Coca-Cola – staples today to anyone who wishes, but which then, for many were special items for special occasions in those times. Sacrifice was a daily given. This was understood by all citizens.
Memorial Day Parade, Main Street, 1950s.
Sunday night I watched the Liberace movie “Behind the Candelabra” with Michael Douglas in the lead role and Matt Damon as Liberace’s boyfriend Scott Thorsen. Debbie Reynolds played Liberace’s mother.

Liberace came onto the scene about the same time that Elvis did and they couldn’t have been farther apart in terms of audiences. Liberace’s was mainly older women – mothers, grandmothers – while Elvis of course profoundly amazed the teenagers.

Debbie Reynolds and Liberace.
Liberace had a half hour weekly television show in which he played popular American tunes as well as classics. He was famous for gussying up the act with a candelabra on the piano and wearing formal clothes that were fancier than just a tuxedo. He was also famous for his effusive personality which had more than a hint of mint to it. Adults probably figured he was gay but gay wasn’t a word that was known in the American vernacular at the time. It was known that he lived with his widowed mother and that seemed to fit into his audience’s idea of a wholesome boy/man. Comedians made fun of him and minced about in imitation but his popularity only grew and grew, and he was greatly respected for it in the business where box office talks.

I remembered him for his first house in Hollywood where the fan magazines showed a swimming pool was shaped like the top of a grand piano – very cool to a kid who played the piano and couldn’t imagine having a swimming pool in the backyard.

Over the years his popularity waned on television but his phenomenal career grew on the national nightclub circuit such as Las Vegas, Miami and New York. I saw him perform once at Lou Walter’s Latin Quarter on Broadway to a sold out audience.

I can’t recall why I went to see him as I wasn’t a fan, but was aware of his huge popularity with audiences. I remember very little of it except for the club itself (owned by Barbara Walters’ father) with its long tables seating scores of customers, facing the stage, and a runway that Liberace strolled down talking about his diamond rings and furs, showing them off to the ladies in the audience, while reminding them that he didn’t have to do anything to get them (haha). Everyone thought that was a riot. There was something smarmy about that stage personality, and even tacky, but who could argue with success.
Douglas and Damon as Liberace and Scott Thorsen.
He held onto that success through the Sixties and the Liberation years when rock-and-roll was here to stay and hippies were smoking dope and women were burning their bras in public demonstrations. By the late 70s he was kind of a joke but still, amazingly, a big draw on the nightclub circuit.

All of this is found in the film which portrays a tawdry yet glitzy existence that authentically describes Hollywood life for a gay man in those times whose life was consumed by his work and his after hours sex companions.

Michael Douglas as Liberace and Matt Damon as his boyfriend during the late 70s and early 80s, is an accurate portrayal of the ego-driven, sexually obsessed life style that existed and probably still exists in show business and its Hollywood and Las Vegas environs. The man himself, while charming his audiences -- mainly women of a maturing age -- with his talent as a pianist and especially as a showman, lived an otherwise almost sordid monastic life privately centered around his life with those young men who fell prey to what he possessed in abundance – expensive cars, jewelry, fancy digs and the music of ballyhoo.
It was a very sad story behind the velvet curtains, behind the candelabra as it were. Liberace’s work was his life. After the show and the niceties it was booze and drugs and sex with much younger men attracted to his possessions. He knew that and he used it in spades to fulfill his carnal desires. The characters in this situation were gay but they could easily be straight (male-female).

Both Douglas and Damon are very believable in their parts despite the radical departure from their public images as actors and individuals. Liberace is the monster egomaniac whose campy personality at first seems coy and funny. He is the nicest, most flamboyantly generous guy in the world when romancing the young man, and eventually a creep when he’s finished and ready to move on. Damon, the victim with a past that is almost a cliché in Hollywood lore (think Marilyn Monroe), falls into the trap fully credulous of the make-believe.

Debbie Reynolds has a very small part that is notable because she is so believable (and unrecognizable as herself) as Liberace’s elderly Russian immigrant mother Frances, and an important character in the turn in the drama.
Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s elderly Russian immigrant mother Frances.
Debbie was a friend of Liberace’s in life. They were troupers who played the casinos and clubs in Vegas often at the same time, often socializing after the show the way troupers do – unwinding after a performance with late night hours, amusing one another and their friends and co-workers with gossip and anecdotes. These were parties and fun times reflecting their talents to perform, their wit and their humor. Their friendship extended into their lives outside of work. She met Mrs. Liberace and was in her company more than once. You can be sure that her portrayal was probably the most accurate/realistic of all the characters in the film because she is not only a quick study but a brilliant impersonator as well as an accomplished actress. The role is a tribute to her talent and career. The last of the studio movie stars to still be working – an amazing sixty-five years in the business – long a seasoned pro who loves her work, she is game for a challenge, and her work in the film displays what can be interpreted as eternal resilience.

Stephen Soderbergh, the director who evidently put years into bringing this story to the screen, has given us a 21st century update of “Sunset Boulevard” and his cast indemnify it thusly. It's a classic Hollywood story that has finally made it to the screen.

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