A friend of mine sent me this color photograph the other day, remarking that he suspected it was the only time that Louis Armstrong and George Bernard Shaw appeared in the same painting.
It is, as I immediately guessed, by Al Hirschfeld, but I knew nothing about it, and was delighted to learn that it’s a detail from a much larger mural by Hirschfeld that hangs on one of the walls of the Frolic Room, a Hollywood bar. The people portrayed therein are all—or, rather, were—celebrities of the Thirties. I recognized most of them, though a few eluded my grasp.The Frolic Room opened in 1934 and has been in continuous operation since then. It is, I gather, is the last old-fashioned dive bar on Hollywood Boulevard, a fact universally known to historically aware Los Angelenos that had, I blush to admit, escaped my awareness until now. Located next door to the Pantages Theater, it has a long and elaborate history about which it is amusing to read. While I’ve never been to the Frolic Room, I’ve seen it, and so, most likely, have you. Its distinctive neon sign appears in any number of films, most recently in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and most prominently in Curtis Hanson’s L.A. Confidential, in which a key scene involving Jack Vincennes, Kevin Spacey’s character, unfolds there. You can bet that Mrs. T and I will have a drink there on our next visit to Hollywood. As for whether Armstrong and Shaw are portrayed together in any other paintings…well, I doubt it. If Shaw ever took an interest in jazz, I’m not aware of it, and I can’t imagine that he had any notion of who Louis Armstrong was. But I rejoice to remind you of a discovery that I made while doing research for Pops, my 2009 biography of Armstrong, who was one of the first Americans to own a tape recorder and who eventually amassed a 650-reel collection of private tapes that are now part of the Louis Armstrong Collection at New York’s Queens College. As I wrote in Pops,
That’s right, Don Juan in Hell. Believe it or not, Louis Armstrong owned a copy of the First Drama Quartette’s 1952 LP recording for Columbia of the “Don Juan in Hell” scene from Shaw’s Man and Superman, directed by Charles Laughton, acted by Laughton, Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, and Agnes Moorehead, and performed by them all across America. (You can read more about it by going here.) I can’t tell you how often he listened to it or what he thought of it, but he definitely owned it, which might just be my all-time favorite piece of Armstrong trivia. Nor would I be entirely surprised to learn that he loved it, for Satchmo contained multitudes. If you’ve read Pops, you’ll also know that Armstrong was one of Hirschfeld’s favorite subjects. He drew him countless times, most beautifully and memorably in a 1990 caricature of which I am the proud owner of a pencil-signed lithographic version. It is reproduced in Pops, with the following caption: “Many now feel ill at ease with the old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing entertainer portrayed in this 1990 caricature by Al Hirschfeld, but there was nothing false about Satchmo’s unselfconscious smile.” Nor is there anything remotely false about the Armstrong who shares space with Benny Goodman, Bernard Shaw, Eleanor Roosevelt, Tallulah Bankhead, and Albert Einstein on the east wall of the Frolic Room. May they party there to the end of time.
Most of them are full of music: “I have all my records on tape, interviews, and every classical number that you can think of….And I index them—why, that’s my hobby.” His collection was an eclectic mishmash that comprises, among other things, Walter Gieseking playing Debussy, Helen Traubel singing the Liebestod, Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Shostakovich’s First Symphony, the original-cast albums of The King and I and South Pacific, recordings of Julius Caesar and Don Juan in Hell, and jazz and pop in profusion: Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Bing Crosby, Fats Waller, Bert Williams, and a surprising amount of modern jazz, including albums by Stan Kenton, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, and George Shearing.
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A scene from L.A. Confidential:
A video feature about the Frolic Room:
The First Drama Quartette’s 1952 recording of Don Juan in Hell: