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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Pioneer Women. 3.

Here are some more.
Each, in my mind, funnier and more pioneerish than Phyllis Diller.

Totie Fields:

I've had extensive encounters over the years with Totie Fields.
I found her to be very much the genuine article.
She was what you saw.
Her act was basically an extension of her personality.
Phyllis Diller's wasn't.
You knew nothing about Phyllis Diller from what you saw on stage.
I was once at a gathering of comedians.
Contemporaries of hers.
She did not open her mouth the entire evening.
She was like a sponge. Listening, and drinking it all in.
This was surprising, and certainly not the Phyllis Diller I knew.

Totie Fields, on the other hand, was always who you expected her to be.
Brash, loud, warm, attention-getting, and most of all, funny.
Maybe she wasn't as much of a pure one-liner stand-up as Phyllis Diller.
But she was genuine.
And genuinely self-deprecating.
She had a lot to work with in this in this regard.
She was short, fat, dumpy-looking, and not particularly feminine.
Her act consisted of a lot of special material, because she sang well.
And she mostly told stories.
Very funny stories, that were funnier because of the way she told them.
She was kind of a short, fat, dumpy, Jewish version of Danny Thomas.
(That's right. Danny Thomas WASN'T Jewish.)
I always looked forward to seeing her on TV.
For one reason: She always made me laugh.
In a way that Phyllis Diller did not.

Kaye Ballard:

Kaye Ballard was perhaps the direct antecedent to Carol Burnett and Dorothy
Loudon. And,to some extent, Totie Fields.
Kaye Ballard was around, working clubs and stage a good seven or eight years
before any of the others I've mentioned so far.
Very musical. A great singer.
Very brash, very sophisticated.
Don't judge her work by what she did on "The Mothers-In-Law"
She was pretty funny in that too, but it really only showed one side of her.
There's some really good YouTube stuff of Kaye Ballard's cabaret act.
She does a tribute to E.Y. Harburg, the great lyricist, and is accompanied on
the piano and vocally by the late Arthur Siegel, who was extremely gifted and wrote some wonderful songs his own self.
Kaye Ballard was often a riot.
Phyllis Diller was never a riot.

Betty Hutton:

Betty Hutton, you ask?
Every generation or so, someone from a younger generation will ask someone from
an older generation "What was the deal with (fill in the blank)? Why on earth was
this person a star?"
In my case, it was me asking this to my father about Betty Hutton.
I think it was right after I saw "The Greatest Show On Earth", certainly the worst
movie to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture.
And it contained the worst performance by someone who was considered a star,
Betty Hutton.
My father's response was "I don't know....she was peppy."
I wasn't buying.
Then, I saw the movie "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek".
It immediately became my favorite movie, and Betty Hutton was terrific in it.
And wasn't even particularly peppy.
It was the difference of having Preston Sturges rather than Cecil B. DeMille direct
you. One was an actor's director, one was not.
Betty Hutton's movie career then crashed, and she played nightclubs, Vegas, and
the stage. She did a lot of special material.
I've seen some of it on YouTube.
A lot of it was pretty peppy.
And I'm sure she talked to the audience between numbers.
She was around earlier than any of the previous ones mentioned, so she was
certainly more of a pioneer, and with hard evidence to back it up, genuinely
funnier than Phyllis Diller.

A few more miles to go before I sleep.


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  1. I remember a time when Kaye Ballard was apearing on Johnny Carson's show, sometime in the early '70s.
    She was center stage, withArthur Siegel on piano behind her, and she started singing a romantic ballad from a recent movie (I want to say "The Way We Were", but I might be wrong on that).
    Kaye paused briefly to sy that she loved to sing Academy Award-winning songs, but hen Arthur Siegel interrupted her to say that the song she was singing hadn't won.
    Kaye was miffed: "I only sing the winners!", and she told Siegel that she would only continue if he and the band played the winning song for her.
    So Siegel threw a cue to the band, and they launched into that year's Oscar winner:
    "Theme from 'Shaft'"
    And Kaye Ballard belted out:
    "Who's the black private dick that's a sex machine with all the chicks?
    Damn Right!"
    By the time she got to "They say that Shaft is a bad mother", Carson was on the floor, and the audience was cheering.

    This is what you had in mind, right, Mark?

  2. THANK YOU for mentioning Totie Fields. So many people I know—even people my age—don't seem to remember her. When she sat with Merv Griffin, she was hilarious—even in her last appearance, when she came out on a motorized scooter because her leg had been amputated. She was terrific.

  3. Mark: Perhaps you already know about this, but a kinescope of the original version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella," starring Julie Andrews, was released on DVD not too long ago. It's much better than the later Lesley Ann Warren. (Which is not to knock Ms. Warren; it's just that the earlier script was more sophisticated and had some wit.) The Andrews version features Kaye Ballard and Alice Ghostley as the stepsisters, and the DVD's additional features include reminiscences by Ms. Ballard of a lamentably long-gone time in show business. I think you might well enjoy it, if you haven't done so already.

  4. I think one of the hallmarks of a great performer is that for some reason you never forget their appearances. When Totie Fields made her always-welcome visits to Merv's show, she was naturally funny even once the material was done and the chat began (and you usually can tell when the chat is scripted, this wasn't).

    How else can I still remember she had crush on Dane Clark and her onetime boyfriend was named Moishe Bakufsky?

    The Mothers in Law is a better show than it usually gets credit for, and that is largely due to the cast, which often elevated the material. Kaye Ballard and Eve Arden knew exactly how to time and deliver each line like singers at the Met. Kaye Ballard wrote an autobiography but it's especially entertaining to hear her perform it. It's fun from almost the moment it begins, when she does her Italian Bette Davis impression.

    My personal favorite is the very odd and somehow beguiling Peanuts album she did for Columbia Records with Arthur Siegel as Charlie Brown. With Charles Schulz' full approval -- and his custom art for the cover -- Kaye Ballard was the first actor to play Lucy.

  5. You could be qualified to receive a Apple iPhone 7.



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About Me

Hi. I am, according to my Wikipedia entry,(which I did not create) a noted television writer, playwright, screenwriter, and occasional actor. You can Google me or go to the IMDB to get my credits, and you can come here to get my opinions on things, which I'll try to express eloquently. Hopefully I'll succeed. You can also e-mail me at Perhaps my biggest claim to fame is being responsible, for about six months in 1975, while Head Writer for the "Happy Days" TV series, for Americans saying to each other "Sit on it."