Fame is intense but fleeting in a TV-driven culture, which is one of the many reasons why I love watching the old What’s My Line? kinescopes that air at three-thirty each morning on the Game Show Network. Most of the celebrities who appeared on the show between 1950 and 1967, when CBS cancelled it to make way for Mission: Impossible, are now dead, but a few are very much with us, though many of them are long forgotten. I saw an episode a couple of nights ago in which Mitch Miller was the mystery guest. The audience all but tore the roof off when he came on stage–yet who now remembers him save for pop-music historians and retired oboe players? On the other hand, Jerry Lewis, a guest panelist on another of last week’s episodes, is both alive and well remembered, so much so that I’m actually giving serious thought to reading his new book, unlikely as it may sound.
The difference, of course, is that Lewis was a movie star. As a rule, TV stars are remembered until their shows are cancelled, after which they fade away quickly. Sometimes they find work in the legitimate theater, but it’s been a long time since success on Broadway made anyone a household name. (Pop quiz for readers outside the New York area: who is Cherry Jones? Don’t peek.) Yet the producers of What’s My Line? regularly booked stage stars, confident that the show’s viewers would know who they were. Sic transit gloria Broadway!
Ben Gazzara, the mystery guest on a 1961 What’s My Line? that I saw recently, is a case in point. He created the role of Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof before relocating to Hollywood, where he appeared in a hit TV series, Run for Your Life, in 1965. Alas, he never quite managed to parlay his short-lived small-screen celebrity into bonafide big-screen stardom, though he’s worked steadily ever since and turns up from time to time in choice little roles (he’s in The Big Lebowski). Still, Gazzara is far from famous, and the fact that he starred in the original Broadway production of a celebrated American play is scarcely more than the tricky answer to a better-than-average trivia question, especially since some other fellow was tapped to play Brick in the movie.
It happens that Gazzara is returning to Broadway this spring: he’s been cast in Lincoln Center Theater’s revival of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, which opens April 17 at the Belasco Theatre. Odets, who died in 1963, is another one of those half-remembered names who used to be really, really big. In the Thirties he was one of the best-known American playwrights of his generation, a red-hot fellow traveler who palled around with all the big left-wing names (he commissioned Aaron Copland’s wonderful Piano Sonata, for instance). Then, like Ben Gazzara, he moved to Hollywood, and now he’s better known, if at all, for Sweet Smell of Success than Awake and Sing, Golden Boy, or even Waiting for Lefty.
It happens, too, that I’ve never seen a production of an Odets play, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing Awake and Sing, about which I first learned from reading “Clifford Odets: Poet of the Jewish Middle Class,” one of Robert Warshow’s finest essays (it’s collected in The Immediate Experience, an essential book to which I paid tribute in the Teachout Reader). I’ve never seen Ben Gazzara on stage, either, though I remember watching Run for Your Life as a child, and more recently was impressed by the videotaped snippet of his stage performance as Brick that Rick McKay included in Broadway: The Golden Age.
I’m not going anywhere with this: I’m just rambling. It’s the privilege of a blogger with a long memory who turns fifty next Monday. Believe it or not, I don’t live in the past. No working journalist does, especially one with so many young friends. Even so, I do enjoy rummaging around in my well-stocked memory, and I don’t mind admitting that there are times when I prefer communing with the increasingly distant past to grappling with the uncomfortably proximate present. Ben Gazzara, Clifford Odets, Aaron Copland, Robert Warshow, even Jerry Lewis: today they all seem far more real to me than the pretty people I’d be reading about in Entertainment Weekly if I read Entertainment Weekly. No doubt this has something to do with my recent brush with mortality. To borrow a line from Patrick O’Brian, I’ve been a bar or two behind ever since I got out of the hospital, and though I’m sure I’ll catch up sooner or later, I find it oddly pleasant to linger among ghosts.
I reread Brideshead Revisited last week, and found that Evelyn Waugh had once again summed up my mood better than I could myself:
My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.
These memories, which are my life–for we possess nothing certainly except the past–were always with me. Like the pigeons of St Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, single, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl.
I, too, am surrounded by pigeons this morning, and I’ll be sorry when the noon gun booms.