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Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
million-dollar-quartet2

Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Million-Dollar-Quartet-hits-high-note-at-Bucks-County-Playhouse

That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

milliondollarquartet_originalphotoresizedjpg

From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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Oh, Oh, Oh … Christ was a Jew!

25 Jan

Christ

A certain American president is dominating 90 percent of what we see, hear, and discuss, so I’ve decided to write about a somewhat anonymous but highly unusual person I’ll call Melvin.

 

Melvin was intelligent. He did his undergraduate work at MIT and was studying veterinary medicine when I roomed with him and another vet student at a large university. Melvin is difficult to describe. I like to think he was Andy Kaufman before Andy Kaufman was Andy Kaufman. His life was a performance, not on stage, just walking around. The difficulty with Melvin, like Andy, was understanding the purpose and meaning of his performances.

Andy_Kaufman

For example, I could hear Melvin in his room when he had women over. During climax, he would always shout, “Christ was a Jew!”

 

After a time, I asked why he said this. He probably was employing his distinctly odd sense of human when he answered, in complete deadpan, “What else would you possibly say?”

 

I always suspected he was mimicking a character from a William Burroughs novel or some equally obscure place.

 

As a vet student, Melvin studied much more than I did. One evening, I was in the living room of our campus townhouse entertaining two women friends. He had a test the next day and was upstairs with his books. He obviously needed a break, and he took one in performance mode.

 

Melvin came running down the steps, frantic, dressed in cutoff jeans, no shirt, no shocks, no shoes. It looked like he was sweating. He carried a beat up old guitar.

 

“I’m on in 10 minutes,” he said to the three of us in a panic, “and I can’t play a thing.”

 

Then he ran to a window, opened it and jumped out.

 

Andy Kaufman couldn’t have done better.

brokenglasses

But the best of his bits occurred when I and our third roommate walked him to a house where he was to meet a blind date. We wanted to see what she looked like and stood nearby as he knocked on her front door. When she opened it, we could see she had an exquisite body. It was rare and perfect in every way. She was not, however, attractive. My recollection is she had a slight resemblance to Richard Nixon.

 

Melvin looked at her and excused himself for a moment. He walked to the street and, with a rather demonstrative gesture, threw his glasses under the wheel of a passing car. Melvin then looked at me and the other roommate and said, in a tone of old movie contempt, “So long, suckers.”

 

He went back to the house, went inside, and wasn’t seen again for three days.

 

I’m certain that by the end of the three days the young woman who looked like Nixon knew almost certainly that Christ, indeed, was a Jew.

 

Now isn’t that better than Donald Trump?

Donald Trump

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

Is Democracy Sick?

14 Oct

 

With the Russians continuing to mess with us, it might be time to consider an alternative system of government. Perhaps Plato can guide us.

 

A $1.5 million mistake! Do you just let it go?

15 Feb

Golden-nugget-dealer

I once made a painful mistake and was absolved. Recently, a much larger mistake was made by an Atlantic City casino. It, too, was absolved.

I considered my absolution reasonably fair. I’m not sure about the Golden Nugget’s.

It would be nice to know what others think, so please keep reading.

I was in college when I committed my blunder (neither my first nor my last). My classmates were finishing their final exam in political science when I realized I was supposed to be there. Upset and perplexed, I ran to the class and arrived as everyone was leaving. With exceptional humbleness I told the professor what happened and apologized, repeatedly.

His reaction stunned me: He laughed.

“You’ve had an ‘A’ all semester. Forget it.”

And so I wondered if the folk at the Golden Nugget were equally stunned – or more so — this week when their mistake was wiped clean by the State Superior Court of New Jersey.

golden-nugget-buildingAccording to the Associated Press, the case dates to 2012 and a game of mini-baccarat. Fourteen players who had been betting $10 a hand suddenly up their bets to $5,000 and won 41 straight hands. Their total winnings were $1.5 million.

The court, ruling in favor of the Golden Nugget, ordered them to give it back.

They didn’t cheat. They broke no rules.

What they did was notice that the cards being dealt had not been shuffled. As the cards came off the deck, they showed a consistent, predictable pattern. The players took advantage of this pattern to win.

The dealer was not shuffling the cards because the decks were supposed to have been pre-shuffled by the manufacturer. The cards came from a Kansas City company that admitted its error in court.

The judge’s ruling said New Jersey’s Casino Control Act requires that cards be shuffled. Since they were not, the mini-baccarat play was illegal, unauthorized and therefore void.

The court ordered the 14 players to return their winnings, minus their original bankrolls.

Years ago when I learned I had screwed up, I was willing to accept the consequences. Naturally, I felt that the Golden Nugget should accept its loss, or at least go get the $1.5 million from the company – Gemaco — that didn’t shuffle the cards. (They reached an undisclosed settlement.)

I changed my mind when I learned more about the case. Now I don’t know what to think.

The additional details and background came from the website Cardplayer.com.

It seems that back in 2012 a lower court actually ruled in favor of the gamblers. It was willing to award them their winnings – which they had not fully collected. The Golden Nugget suspected it was being scammed and paid out only $500,000. The 14 gamblers were forced to hold the rest in chips.

The gamblers, all of Asian descent, were not happy with this first ruling. They wanted more than their winnings. They wanted damages and made allegations of illegal detention and racial discrimination.

The owner of the casino, Texas billionaire Tillman Fertitta, said he would gladly pay the $1.5 million if all other charges were dropped. The 14 gamblers refused.

Now they have lost, and most likely will appeal.

Even for a guy who got As in political science, I’m not sure who is right or wrong; who is being fair or unfair. I’d like to hear from others on how they would rule.

The one resounding thought I’m left with is this: If I had been playing mini-baccarat and the cards started showing a pattern, would I have been smart enough to take advantage of this, or would I have been kicking myself for the rest of my life for missing the opportunity?

A final footnote: Gemaco, the company that didn’t shuffle the cards for the Golden Nugget, once manufactured cards for the Borgata that had flaws on the side. Ten-time World Series of Poker champion Phil Ivey was dealt those cards. He noticed the flaws and used them to win $9.6 million.

Lanny Morgnanesi

Get me out of this prison!!!!

27 Jan

Another Day, Another Time the Music of "Inside Llewyn Davis" Another Day-Another Time

Mull over, if you will, these few lines from a Woody Guthrie song:

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

It takes a worried man, to sing a worried song

I’m worried now, but I won’t be worried long

You’ll hear a bit of that tune in a documentary called, “Another Day, Another Time.” The film, embedded below, features mostly folk and old tyme American music. Producer T. Bone Burnett got a bunch of very fine musicians together to celebrate the traditional approach to music, and the movie gives us both on stage and off stage performances.

As I watched it, enjoying every note, I realized a preponderance of the songs were about imprisonment and the destruction of individuals by authority. There were songs like:

  • Hang me, Oh Hang me
  • The Midnight Special
  • The Auld Triangle
  • House of the Rising Sun
  • Worried Man Blues

Spanning decades, these songs continue to touch people, which is why they prevail. They reach something inside us. You don’t have to be a criminal or a con to appreciate them. As I listened to all these prison songs, it came to me that so many of us, whether we have been in a cell or not, must fell imprisoned.

I believe it’s these feelings that keep such songs with us and inspire new ones.

Johnny Cash is famous for his “Folsom Prison Blues,” where a man convicted of killing someone “just to watch him die” longs for freedom and is incensed every time a train filled with free people passes near his cell. The song is so convincing many believe Cash served time in Folsom. Not so. He wrote the song while in the Air Force, stuck at a base in Germany and longing to once again be his own man.

So the song was a metaphor for him, and for us.

Why do we feel this way? Where do our shackles come from? More important, how can we get rid of them?

Although Woody Guthrie wrote about the imprisoned Worried Man, he also wrote “This Land is Your Land” – which joyfully describes a vast, beautiful country and the unfettered right we have to travel it. In the documentary, Dave Rawlings, Gillian Welch and Willie Watson do a number called “I Hear Them All,” and combine it with “This Land.”

They received the loudest applause when they sung this Guthrie verse:

There was a high wall there that tried to stop me

A sign was painted said “Private Property”

But on the backside it didn’t say nothin’


This land was made for you and me.

Maybe we’d all be happier if we, too, focused on the back of the sign. Our minds have put us in prison. It is up to our minds to get us out. The freedom and expression of music will help, as will the film, “Another Day, Another Time.”

By Lanny Morgnanesi

She’s the first this, he’s the first that. But why?

18 Jan

Bess-Myerson

Bess Myerson died recently. The new stories about her said she was the first Jewish Miss America. They didn’t explain why.

If a Man From Mars visited Earth, he might come up with these possible reasons:

  • Jews aren’t pretty enough.
  • Jewish culture prohibits women from entering pageants.
  • Jews hadn’t heard of Miss America.

If he possessed special powers of insight, he might get closer to the truth and say: Jews don’t become Miss America because some people don’t like them.

While the Man from Mars might say this, the many obituaries on Miss Myers did not.

Scarlett Johansson

Scarlett Johansson

This defies the journalistic tenet to never leave questions unanswered. Reporters sometimes even explain things most people know, like who O.J. was, or that Lee Harvey Oswald shot JFK. But when reporting on “firsts,” they avoid the truth. Maybe they just don’t know how to say it.

The stories almost always include a sort of wink and nod or a code that we all are supposed to understand — mainly that certain groups of people receive unfair, unjust, discriminatory treatment, which makes awards and honors difficult.

I did see one article that tried going deeper into the “why” of Bess Myerson. Writing in the Daily Beast, Emily Shire said:

Kat Dennings

Kat Dennings

“What perhaps affected people more on a day-to-day basis were the pervasive anti-Semitic stereotypes that Jews were cheap, weak, big-nosed, swarthy, and ugly little creatures.”

But she considers other reasons as well, saying that Jews make up only about 2 percent of the adult U.S. population and statistically are long shots. She also suggests that the Jewish-American emphasis on education and intellectualism could be keeping Jewish women off the runway.

Still, she points out that there are scores of Jewish beauties in Hollywood, which ain’t Harvard. She mentions Mila Kunis, Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones. She could also have included Alison

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman

Brie, Kat Dennings and Scarlett Johansson. There are so many web pages devoted to “hot and sexy” Jews that it’s hard to believe they comprise only 2 percent of the population. At the bottom of this post is a video on Playboy magazine’s top picks.

It could be argued that the strong Jewish influence in the movie industry permits bombshell Jewesses to become stars, while the Miss America pageant is without a similar tradition of semi-inclusiveness.

Alison Brie

Alison Brie

It’s a shame we can’t talk about such things and get to the heart of them.

Shortly after Bess Myerson died, Edward W. Brooke III passed away. His obituary said that in 1966 he became the first African-American popularly elected to the United States Senate. It didn’t say why.

But I think we all know the reason. Cheers to us.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Like Ben Stiller, he felt the pain of an unfortunate act. Unlike Ben, he couldn’t discuss it.

9 Jun

franks_and_beans

The Ben Stiller movie, “There’s Something About Mary,” was on the other night and it reminded me of Bill Foley.

 

Bill Foley was a reporter who always carried a notebook and pen. He needed them for work but also because he couldn’t talk. When you asked Bill a question, he’d pull out the notebook and write his answer. Often, it was only a word or two. Usually, it was funny.

 

Because of throat cancer, Bill had his voice box removed.

 

Everyone assumed he could not utter a sound. Through odd personal circumstance, however, I learned this was not true.

 

It happened while we both were in the men’s room at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. As we stood side-by-side at the urinals, I noticed Bill was in a hurry. Upon closing up, he – like Ben Stiller’s character in “There’s Something About Mary” — caught the frank-N-beans between the teeth of his zipper. And just like Ben, but not as loud, he let out a sound of agony and helpless distress.

 

The Stiller character, comically, was unable to free himself. Bill quickly fixed things and exited.

 

And there I was, with a secret to share: Bill Foley can’t talk but when it’s necessary he can moan! I tried being discreet and limited in my telling of the tale, but the worst got the best of me and the story spread. I never heard back from Bill and don’t know if my disclosure ever made it to his ears, which worked just fine.

 

Bill was a wonderful, witty columnist. Some knew him before the operation. I didn’t. I knew him only from his column, his actions and his laconic, handwritten retorts.

 

For a quiet guy, he brought lots of personality to the newsroom. I remember the time when lunches were being stolen from the office refrigerator. Members of the Refrigerator Users Group – RUG – went on a tear, sending out threatening memos and edicts to all possible suspects and devising multiple strategies of defense. Bill’s running commentary on the crisis was hilarious and ultimately silenced RUG.

 

It was pleasant to think of him again.

 

He died in 2001 at age 62 after working in newspapers for 40 years. I left the Times-Union in 1993 and never read his obit. I looked it up today.

 

Among other things, it said that, “Mr. Foley had written columns about generations of visionaries, bootleggers, politicos and hapless saps whose exploits helped shape the city.”

 

It said, “His wry humor and precise, staccato language attracted a following of readers that ranged from schoolchildren to corporate executives.”

 

It mentioned that he had played catch with Hank Aaron and spent time in Cuba with Che Guevara.

 

It didn’t mention Ben Stiller, frank-N-beans or “There’s Something About Mary.” For that I am grateful. I’m also grateful that Mr. Stiller, via his one-of-a-kind performance, was able to bring back some nearly forgotten memories of a man who could say a whole lot with so very little.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

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