15 September 2009
A sharper Wit
Awhile back I was musing on black and white television and the old variety shows. In addition to those, there were the early talk shows such as Jack Paar and Steve Allen among others. What was distinctive about them was that people came on to talk. They might have been hyping a motion picture, stage appearance, or book, but mainly they talked and they did it with wit, charm and a vocabulary that could have served a masters thesis in English. Stories were frequently risque in the best sense of that word ... suggestive but not blatantly dirty. Language danced and flirted. It didn't assault.
One guest who was always welcome was Oscar Levant. He might look as if he were permanently half asleep and the cigarette dangling from his mouth was an invitation to disaster, but oh could that man talk. The man was so sharp that a zinger could go between someone's ribs without them feeling a thing until the audience started laughing hysterically. From 1958 to 1960 he even had his own show featuring some of the biggest names in music, motion pictures, and theater. There are very poor quality kinescope clips of the show on You Tube but are worth viewing for Fred Astaire as his guest. Today you can only get a tiny taste of his ascerbic and musical abilities in films such as "An American In Paris" or "The Band Wagon".
Concerto Scene from American in Paris
Oscar had been a musical prodigy, but seemed to prefer just noodling around until he really needed to play to accompany an Al Jolson or Fred Astaire, then watch out! The man could play everything from boogie woogie to classical and do it perfectly. In addition to playing, he composed. While many songs are still performed from time to time, one has become a classic. So here is Blame It On My Youth.