Saturday, January 7, 2017

Going Their Way. Attention Must Be Paid.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. . . . His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. James Joyce, The Dead

James Joyce captioning a photo of Bing Crosby in Road to Zanzibar may seem an odd juxtaposition, but old echoes have been swirling about me these past two weeks, as 2016 gave way to 2017. Neither quite Marley's 3 Ghosts nor Carmel's mimosa scent, but equally haunting and demanding attention be paid. Herein I try to do that.

It started with attending the experience of James Joyce's The Dead, 1904, the Irish Rep's spirited idea to bring the short story to life in the appropriately Beaux Arts building of the Irish Historical Society. From Lily greeting the guests in the foyer, to the Irish whiskey and wines that flowed, it was an imaginative way into the world of Joyce. (My one criticism was the lighting: much too bright, much too modern.)

The Dead has deeply touched the heart of generations of readers, as it did mine. So much so that writing about it was one of the very first pieces I wrote for my little space on the blogosphere. And it is the post that Tom Watson found that brought me into the company of so many writers I have enjoyed for these past 10 years, so I have layers of deep attachment to it.

Rich Conaty

Three days later came the shocking news that Rich Conaty had died, on December 30. Rich was a singular soul. He fell in love with the music of the 1920s and 1930s, and made a career out of that love, primarily with a show called The Big Broadcast on WFUV.

I met Rich because of Bing Crosby, the life-long idol of my father. I was weaned on Bing Crosby because of it, watching every film and listening to as much of the enormous repertoire as was possible throughout my young years.

That lead me to be a fan of WNEW AM, and In 1983 Rich had a weekend show, Crooners Corner. That's where I first heard him. He played almost all Crosby, I couldn't believe it. A few years later, 1987, my father had died, and I wrote an essay called "October Song" about the 10th anniversary of Crosby's death (October 14, 1977) and my dad's death (sadly from colon cancer). I sent the essay to Rich. We met, and he read my essay on the air. I used to have a cassette tape of that show, but it got lost along the way. If anyone happens to have heard it, or knows which show it was, I would so appreciate getting a copy.

Shortly after that I starting working at the then Museum of Television & Radio as the senior editor of the publications department. The radio curator shortly after left, and I called Rich and encouraged him to apply. He did and that's how he became the radio curator there. We worked closely with the television curator Ron Simon to produce a book celebrating Jack Benny. It was enormous fun. Rich of course did an amazing job bringing the radio shows to life. The book is still available on Amazon. And there are many wonderful tributes to Rich from his fans on the WFUV site.

In thinking about Rich I tried to find a copy of my essay "October Song" that he read on air, since I no longer have the recording, but could not. It was from the Dark Ages,  pre-digital; if you don't have a hard copy, you don't have it.

The Road to Zanzibar
But I stumbled upon another essay I wrote 30 years ago that I had entirely forgotten about: "Going His Way." And it's not about that Academy Award-winning film, but Road to Zanzibar.

Allow me to be Robert Benchley, breaking into the narrative a bit to help move the story along:

Back in the day my father was diagnosed in January, he died in April. By March he was very ill, but he was home, and we were all living as normally as possible. I saw that Road to Zanzibar was on Channel 13 at 10:30pm that night, and announced it at the dinner table.

"Ordinarily it would have been a given that we would watch it together, but Dad was suffering and went to sleep early. Tacitly, we all knew that for him to miss this movie would be a strong, frightening sign that he would soon be leaving us.

"But then he didn't go up to bed. Instead, somehow, his love for us and his desire not to worry us gave him the strength to stay up, and he settled into his usual recliner chair."

"Benchley": I had never seen this Road picture at that time, and was not familiar with the music. And for some crazy reason I thought my Dad also did not know this flick or the music either. Back to the story:

"Every Road picture has a ballad. For Zanzibar, it's the Van Heusen and Burke, "It's Aways You" with Bing in a canoe with Dorothy Lamour, crooning in that lovely baritone range of his voice. This was new music for me. And to my left, my father leaned back a bit in his recliner, gently resting his head as he clearly sang

Whenever it's early twilight
I watch 'til a star breaks through
Funny, it's not a star I see
It's always you

He didn't falter for a word or a note

Whenever I roam through roses
And lately I often do
Funny, it's not a rose I touch
It's always you

"The years and the pain fell away, even if it was just for the beats of the ballad. And beyond all the resonance of the dying man connecting with his childhood idol was the fact that 5 years earlier my father planted a significant rose garden and become a serious rose gardener. It seemed out of the blue. Well, maybe not . . ."

Essay end.

I had not thought about that moment for decades. And I only revisited because of Rich Conaty.  And in my search for my mementos of Rich, I found my father's Decca 75 of "It's Always You." I didn't even know I had it. It's been sitting in a small part of my bookcase  among other 75's that I took from the house after my mom moved, but honest to God I never looked through them.

And on this first snowy, snowy day, where the snow truly is falling beautifully on the living and the dead, I learn from a tweet from James Wolcott that Road to Zanzibar is on TCM tonight. I have not seen it in 30 years.