Two Giants Gone
One of the best parts of my job with these newspapers is the opportunity to acknowledge and call readers’ attention to the positive contributions of people who have devoted their lives and their life’s works to the arts.
In our society, which often undervalues and fails to appreciate the vital quality of the arts, it’s important to spend a moment in quiet appreciation to those who have spent their lives, in the advancement of artistry – both popular and classical.
Today, we want to remind you of the lives of two giants of popular performing arts: Shirley Temple and Sid Caesar. Neither is a Beethoven nor a Michaelangelo, but both of whom brought much happiness and for a few minutes, removed the weight of labor and grief from the shoulders of the world.
Also, although his influence was not as great as the two mentioned above, we remove our hat and bow our heads in honor of the departure of actor Ralph Waite, who died of age-related ailments at age 85, earlier this month. Waite is best remembered by the public in general as the father of the large family which made up the action of the television series ”The Waltons,” from 1972-81, plus multiple ”reunion-type” specials. He also had major roles is films such as ”Cool Hand Luke,” ”Five Easy Pieces,” ”Roots,” ”The Magnificent Seven Ride” and young readers might best recognize him as the crusty father of Jethro Gibbs, on the NCIS series.
Waite was a Presbyterian minister, who ran for Congress three times. He had graduate degrees from Yale, and served as an editor for Harper and Row, before entering on his acting career. He will be much missed.
Shirley Temple died this month at the age of 85. For well more than half of her life, she used her married name: Shirley Temple Black. She married Charles Alden Black in 1950. He was her second husband, and left her a widow, in 2005.
One of the great surprises I came across in reading up on her life and career is that she had a daughter with her first husband, actor John Agar, who is older than I am. This is extraordinary, because Shirley lives in the hearts and minds of film-goers around the world – including me – as a child of approximately 8 years of age.
Her mother, Gertrude Amelia Temple, was perhaps the epitome of the stage mother. She first enrolled Shirley in dance classes at the age of 3. At about the same age, she began to use a variety of strong hair products and a seemingly endless collection of curlers, tongs and similar hardware, to shape her daughter’s hair into curls and ringlets, to make her into the public’s idea of the perfect child. One site I read claimed that Shirley’s coif is intended to call to mind – in childlike mode – the typical hairstyles of silent film actress Mary Pickford, who was described throughout her career as ”America’s Sweetheart.”
At the age of 4, Shirley was cast in a series of single reelers, called ”Baby Burlesks,” in which pre-school children were dressed and made up to resemble world and national leaders, and given adult dialogue to speak, as a lampoon of the perceived foolishness of behavior, by people who ought to know better.
Gertrude would guide her daughter’s career for many years, and some of her techniques, such as pulling Shirley aside, between scenes, and telling her (falsely) that her dog had been killed by a car, to improve the quality of the child’s crying, in the scene, have become Hollywood legends. Her mother’s habit of calling out ”Sparkle Shirley, Sparkle!” just before the cameras began to roll, has become a watch word in the industry.
In addition to her film acting, Shirley did a lot of modeling, her curly-haired image adorning the boxes of breakfast cereals and other products. Her mother would claim that the money earned by the modeling was the only way they could afford the acting, singing and dancing lessons which helped to create her daughter’s career.
At the age of 5, Shirley was freed by the bankruptcy of Educational Films, the studio which made ”Baby Burlesks,” and to which she was under contract. She and her mother signed with Fox Film Corporation, the ancestor of 20th Century Fox, and she made her first feature film, ”Stand Up and Cheer,” in which she earned the love and support of the nation, as the image of wholesome, family entertainment. For four consecutive years, she sold more movie tickets than any other actor, pushing Clark Gable well into second place.
She would eventually make 44 feature-length films, in addition to almost that many short films and even supplying voices for cartoon and animated films. Her final film, not counting later summary films showing clips from previous features, would be ”A Kiss for Corliss,” made in 1949, at which time she had attained the advanced age of 17.
Throughout her film career, Temple was usually cast as the spunky little girl who stood up for what she perceived to be right, and who gave hearty speeches, encouraging adults to have courage and to do what was right, even when considerable risk was involved. In many of her films, she sang, becoming forever associated in the public’s mind with the song ”On the Good Ship Lollipop.” She also was often a surprisingly agile dancer, doing elaborate duets with adult dancers, most noticeably Bill ”Bojangles” Robinson.
The image of the little blonde white girl, dancing with the African-American Robinson inspired protests in certain central and mid-western states, although the outrage died out, of its own accord.
At the height of her career, Temple was invited, with her mother, to meet the President of the United States, and to share a picnic at the family’s vacation home, at Hyde Park. There, it was said, the youthful star struck the formidable Eleanor Roosevelt in the bottom, with a hard pea launched from a sling shot. Roosevelt released a statement, at the time of the picnic, claiming that, ”As long as America has Shirley Temple, we’re going to be all right.” It has been suggested that the Temple/Roosevelt events were inspiration for the interaction of that president with curly-haired Little Orphan Annie, in the Broadway musical and film versions of that story.
Although her acting can still get tears from adults, when her films are shown today, in fact, her pouty-mouthed, overly emphasized manner of speaking does not sound natural. When she reached her teens, there were several efforts to team her with other young stars, such as Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, and she was the originally intended actress to portray Dorothy Gale, in the film ”The Wizard of Oz,” although studio brass became certain that she would be overshadowed by the more natural deliveries of Rooney, Garland, and others of that era.
A number of histories of the film industry have suggested that the teenaged Temple was the object of inappropriate attention from film studio executives, who were alleged to have made the conquest of the sparkly clean national icon, a trophy of their personal success. Some blame her refusal to participate in such an effort to have explained the studios’ abandonment of supporting her career. Others insist that by the time she reached her late teens, her talents were comparable with those of many other performers, no longer the prodigious gifts which had made her famous.
In the 1950s, Temple abandoned Hollywood, and made a number of television series, including ”The Shirley Temple Storybook,” where she introduced and occasionally appeared in enactments of popular children’s stories. The series was overwhelmed in the ratings by ”Maverick” and ”Lassie.” She made some guest appearances in the 1950s, on programs such as ”The Red Skelton Show” and ”Sing Along with Mitch.”
It’s known that studios managed to get California state officials to change Temple’s birth certificate, to make her seem younger than she was, and her accomplishments even more remarkable. Writing with the benefit of hindsight, modern critics have claimed that if she had been allowed to act and dress more mature and to grow on film at the same rate as her natural development, she might have gone on to a successful adult career, but that can only be conjectured.
Temple divorced Agar in 1950, and married Black – a businessman alleged to be among the richest men in California, with extreme conservative connections, in December of that same year. The couple had two children of their own, whom they raised together with Temple’s daughter by her first marriage, of whom she won custody in the divorce.
Whether the actress felt oppressed by her mother’s ambitions, or by the mis-handling of her young adult career, or by the lechery of film executives, she never said so in interviews, nor is there any record that she wrote nor encouraged others to write her memoirs.
In 1967, the retired actress unsuccessfully ran for Congress, on a platform supporting the U.S. involvement in Vietnam. When her campaign failed, she was named Ambassador to the United Nations by President Nixon, that same year. She would later be appointed by Republican presidents to a series of government posts: in 1974, Ambassador to the Republic of Ghana; in 1976, Chief of Protocol for the White House, in which role she was stage manager of the inauguration of President Carter; and in 1989, Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she was the last person to fill that role, before the country split into the separate nations of Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
As a child, Temple was awarded a special, child-sized Oscar by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, where she was the only child to be honored by the academy until 1973, when a 10-year-old Tatum O’Neil was awarded the Oscar in regular competition for her role in ”Paper Moon.” In the 1980s, the academy would present Temple with a full-sized statuette and acknowledged for her career.
In addition to these honors, Shirley Temple would inspire a line of dolls and doll-related merchandise such as doll-sized furniture, paper dolls, clothing for dolls and similar things.
Late in life, Shirley Temple gave an interview, in which she claimed that she rose to fame during the Great Depression and the years of World War II. She claimed that she and Rin Tin Tin served to distract people for a few hours from their genuine suffering and misery, and she attributed to that, her unequaled success and fame. The world is much the worse, for the loss of this fine lady.
Isaac Sidney Caesar was six years older than Shirley Temple. He also died in February of this year, aged 91.
Caesar was popular only as an adult, and his fame began early in the 1950s, by which time Temple’s most successful years were behind her. He was a pioneer in sketch-oriented comedy programs, which were broadcast live, originally, although most were recorded on film or video tape, and are still studied by media scholars for the many techniques which he introduced which are now considered just standard practice for television comedy.
Among the actors and writers whose careers Caesar began or greatly advanced were Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart, Carl Reiner, Michael Stewart, Mel Tolkin and Woody Allen. Caesar’s regularly scheduled program, ”Your Show of Shows,” which utilized the writing talents of all of those people, and performers who included Imogene Coca, Jackie Cooper, Pearl Bailey, Robert Preston, Geraldine Page, among many more, has served as the basis of a number different successful television series and one award-winning Broadway show.
”The Alan Brady Show,” which was the center of ”The Dick Van Dyke Show,” was actually a fictional form of the Caesar Show. Carl Reiner, who in real life was one of the writers for the Caesar program, portrayed Alan Brady, an egotistical, pampered, insulting, but extremely talented television comic with a huge collection of artificial hair pieces, and the character played by Van Dyke and his family and his writing colleagues shaped their lives around Brady’s whims and desires.
Simon wrote his successful play ”Laughter on the 23rd Floor,” based on the same writing situation for the Caesar Shows, with many of the original writers, including himself, Mel Brooks and Larry Gelbart portraying the characters for which they were the genuine inspiration. Caesar accepted the role of the self-involved leading comic actor, in the play, often serving as the butt of put-downs and insults from the script, in the process.
Critics often claim that the role of Ira Stone, a constant hypochondriac, is based upon the real Woody Allen, but although Allen used hypochondria in his stand-up comedy acts, Simon, Caesar, and the rest of the writers for the Caesar Show have universally claimed that the role is based upon Mel Brooks.
Caesar himself was born in Yonkers, the youngest of three sons, born to a father who emigrated from Poland as a child, and a mother who emigrated from Russia. The family’s name in the U.S. has always been Caesar, and it is assumed that it was assigned to the comic’s father by an official on Ellis Island, to replace a long and difficult-to-spell Polish name.
Max and Ida Caesar supported their family by running a 24-hour cafe and delicatessen, where all three of their sons worked as waiters. Sid began at an early age to imitate the chatter of the cafe’s many customers’ nationalities, and while speakers of the language he was imitating insisted that he wasn’t saying anything in their language, non-speakers couldn’t discern the sounds he was making from the sounds made by actual speakers of the many languages.
At the age of 14, Caesar made his professional debut in a Jewish vacation resort in the Catskill Mountains. He began, not as a comic, but as a saxophonist. Playing both saxophone and clarinet, Caesar attended classes at the Juilliard School of Music, and later in life performed with symphony orchestras and well-known dance orchestras, although he often used poor performing on those instruments as a source of comedy in his acts.
The Catskill resorts, which are often called ”The Borscht Belt,” served as the nurturing influence for a vast number of professional performers. One reason is that they were so isolated that if a comic or a musician showed up drunk, became ill, or got delayed by a railroad derailment or another problem, there was no way to replace him from the outside, so anyone already at the resort who was willing to try to perform, was often accepted and pushed onstage. This is how Caesar first began doing comedy as a professional.
During World War II, Caesar served in the U.S. Navy, and there he put together a musical show called ”Stars and Spars,” which traveled around the various theaters of war, performing to increase the morale of members of the U.S. military. Immediately after the end of the war, famed producer and director Max Leibman made a film of the show, so that returning vets could take their wives and families to see the show they had enjoyed while on duty. It was the beginning of Caesar’s greatest success.
Caesar began his 90-minute ”Show of Shows,” in the 1950s, which was eventually shortened to a one-hour program called ”Caesar’s Hour.” After 10 years of success, the show’s ratings began to fade, and it was suggested that Caesar’s drinking had begun to interfere with his ability to perform the long and demanding skits with which he show was associated. When he blacked out, while playing a role in his former writer Neil Simon’s ”The Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” he gave up drinking permanently, and was never known to drink again.
Throughout the years since the series’ demise, Caesar has had roles in a number of successful feature films, including ”Silent Movie,” ”Grease,” ”History of the World, Part I” and ”Airport, 1975.” He hosted ”Saturday Night Live,” where he received such a long standing ovation when he first walked on the stage, it threw off the timing of the entire live broadcast.
Since his death, a number of charities have come forward to claim that he was a major supporter of their work, although he usually insisted on remaining anonymous for his contributions.
Sid Caesar was a complex man, with many talents, who dealt with many challenges in his life, yet managed to entertain millions, while introducing styles of performance and the recording of performances which revolutionized the performing arts.
The Critical Eye is honored to praise and to encourage your respect and praise, for these important figures in the arts.