‘This Is A Girl I’d Like To Hang Out With’

That’s how Jerry Stiller described his first meeting with his eventual wife and partner, the comedian/actress/playwright Anne Meara.

The headlines over the obituaries for Meara, who died yesterday at age 85, consistently described her as the mother of actor Ben Stiller. But she is also deservedly remembered for the warmth and wit of her 1960s comedy routines with Ben’s dad.

A lot of Stiller/Meara humor revolved around cultural differences that might not seem like a big deal today, but mattered a lot when I was growing up. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, an Irish Catholic girl marrying a Jewish guy was a big enough deal to provoke questions even if the couple were the last two humans on Earth, as the duo illustrated in a routine from the Ed Sullivan Show. (The routine covers the clip’s first three minutes.)

“Mixed” marriages, fear of nuclear annihilation – who else could combine those two particular strands of mid-century angst so deftly?

As the AP notes, Stiller and Meara, for all their gently wry humor, were very much a part of the cutting-edge 1950s Beat scene in Greenwich Village. Not that they were noticing at the time, as Meara observed years later:

But WE thought that when the Village was REALLY happening was in the ’20s, the F. Scott Fitzgerald days, before our time. People never know what’s going on while it’s happening. You think, during the Renaissance, people called it ‘The Renaissance’?

Nailed it — talk about polishing off the topic of time-wasting nostalgia!

Anne Meara certainly made things happen whenever she was in the room. Rest in peace, and thanks for the smiles.


Mid-Century Memories

I see that actress Jayne Meadows has passed away, aged 95.

Busy with Broadway, movies and TV, she had notable mid-20th century showbiz chops – and pedigree. Her husband was comedian/talk-show host Steve Allen, while her younger sister, Audrey, made history giving Jackie Gleason what-for as Alice Kramden on “The Honeymooners.” And Jayne was a game-show panelist par excellence in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Perhaps one of Meadows’ most endearing collaborations with her husband was a long-ago PBS series called “Meeting of Minds,” in which Steve Allen presided as his urbane talk-show host self over a roundtable of “guests” who were actors portraying pivotal characters from history.

Watch Meadows (as Catherine the Great) sitting down for a chat with Oliver Cromwell and Daniel O’Connell. The clip manages the feat of being both a hoot and a brain-teaser at the same time. Could you imagine anyone successfully pitching a show like it today?


Musical Memories: Sing Amen, Everybody

The Archaeologist is Irish-American-Catholic, and a chorister. This entails two deeply felt but diametrically opposed things: church singing and old-style Irish-American Catholicism.

In my Catholic youth, everybody sang pretty much all the time until they got to church, where they clammed up and glared at anybody who dared so much as intone an Amen. Churches were places of reverent silence, muttered responses and rigidly maintained personal space. (During my adolescence the Vatican enacted the Sign of Peace, a part of Mass ritual in which you shake your neighbor’s hand and say “Peace be with you.” For many in my hometown parish, this was the emotional equivalent of requiring a raised middle finger and a raspberry.)

Music was show-offy, vaguely suspect. Especially the good stuff. (Was Mozart’s setting of the Regina Coeli OK for church? Oh, Mozart was Catholic? Seriously? He wrote that stuff for Catholics?)

As for Handel … well. He belonged to the Protestants. You could hear him in a concert hall, if you wanted. But not in church, not on Easter Sunday.

Happily, that has changed. My present-day parish revels in its music program. We have adult choir, children’s choir, bell choirs. And we do Handel, especially at Easter. This year at the Vigil we took a gander at “Worthy is the Lamb,” with its majestic, endlessly textured Amen.

It’s kind of a monster. But a great one. Here’s an old-school version conducted by Otto Klemperer, with a big fat chorus and orchestra. Not the Baroque-authentic, smaller-scale sort of production favored today, but delightfully rich and ripe. Enjoy.

 

P.S. For a penetrating and frequently hilarious dissection of American Catholics and their love-hate relationship with music, read Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing. It’s a treat.

 

 

 


Pinterest: Too Much Fun

Pinterest_Logo_2The Archaeologist has the unfortunate social-media habit of being a person who enters the room, looks around, says, “What? Nobody’s here. Let’s hit the 7-Eleven for slushies!” …. and leaves before the party gets started.

I think it’s called being an Early Abandoner.

Honestly, this has been going on forever, so forever, it’s embarrassing. Once upon a time, my tech-nerd friends were telling me how cool dial-up BBS-es were. Somewhat (ahem) later, it was: “Facebook. SO cool. Join it!” I did, but nobody else I knew was there, so I never logged in again until two years later, when all my friends wanted to know why I wasn’t on Facebook.

Pinterest: Same story. I got on there, and used it for a few months it to file fabric swatches related to a kitchen-design project, and then I got bored and left for a slushie.

I had no idea the genealogists were there, too. I could have done a snack run for them.

Now there is so much genealogy on Pinterest, and it’s presented in such a fun way. I feel a bit guilty promoting yet another day-to-day time vampire, but I cannot lie: Check it out, if you haven’t already.

Some examples from just a quick Pinterest browse today:

Anatomy of A Social Security Number (at blog.genealogists.com — what those digits REALLY mean)

Seven Reasons You Are Not Finding Your Ancestor (Robin Foster — common-sense research tips)

Don’t throw the baby (or the paper) out with the bathwater (Lauren Mathieu — a spirited and sensible defense of paper-based recordkeeping)

Genealogy Organization and Planning (a board curated by Mary Czarney McNair that is full of interesting ideas)

Oh, and I’m there too. Again. See you around.


Images That Hurt Too Much

Image from THTK (Too Hard To Keep). Via PetaPixel.com.

This morning on the photography site PetaPixel, I learned about a online collection called THTK (short for Too Hard to Keep), curated by Jason Lazarus, an adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago.

The story link is here, but a caution: Although most of it is not graphic, the material is definitely disturbing. 

Lazarus collects images that people can’t bear to live with anymore. In some the pain is obvious —  a building falling to the wrecking ball, a family at the bedside of a desperately ill relative. Others disturb by implication — scenes of cluttered, chaotic rooms hinting at some offstage crisis.

Why do we take photos, why do we keep them?

Maybe some images should never be made at all. (Personally I will never think it’s a good idea to photograph an open coffin at a wake. I don’t care if the Victorians did it. I bet some Victorians didn’t like it, either.)

Yet even as I write that, I realize that painful images can be an act of bearing witness, fulfilling important human and historical needs. And even ostensibly happy images hold potential pain as life unfolds.

But what do you think? Have you ever possessed a photo that harmed your peace of mind? And should it be kept, or destroyed, or passed on to someone else?

 

 


The Bystanders’ Tale, With Second Thoughts

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, the Queens bartender whose 1964 murder became a symbol of modern apathy and alienation. Photo: AP

Kitty Genovese, rest her soul, would be 80 years old this July. Instead, she ran into a serial rapist-murderer on her way home from work on this day in 1964, and became a symbol. The influential New York Times coverage of her murder, spearheaded by then-metro editor A.M. Rosenthal, framed it indelibly as a crime of apathy as well as violence.

But the famous story of the 38 uncaring witnesses in Queens is not completely true. Yes, two in particular would qualify as villains in this piece. But of all the dozens of potential Good Samaritans, it transpired very few heard the struggles clearly enough to understand their seriousness. As it was, one neighbor shouted from his window at Genovese’s attacker, driving him temporarily away. Two others called the police. And Sophia Farrar, far from cowering behind a closed door, left her apartment to try to help Genovese, who was lying in Farrar’s arms when the ambulance came. A 2014 review of the case by Nicholas Lemann in The New Yorker is interesting reading, and recommended.

To me what bugs the most about the legend is its vision of city dwellers as a bunch of urban zombies jammed uncaringly together. Why, somebody could be murdered right in front of them and they wouldn’t lift a finger! The uncritical belief that every single one of Genovese’s neighbors turned over on their pillows and went back to sleep always seemed odd to me, given my mother’s account of her Greenpoint girlhood, where a night out meant risking the window thrown open, the nosy neighbor’s pointed query: “Coming in a bit late, aren’t ya?”

So in addition to noting the genuine advances that resulted — the birth of New York’s 911 system is the major example – I’d also like to remember the neighbors whose actions remained unsung for decades. They reflect the outer boroughs of today and of my parents’ day – places where people are simply people, for bad and, yes, for good too.


The Family Lens, With Perils and Rewards

Not long ago, filmmaker Yael Reuveny recounted the emotional roller-coaster ride of directing her first full-length film, Farewell Herr Schwarz, a family-history documentary rooted in the Holocaust. In particular, she writes about handling a prickly interview subject – her own mother. And I think genealogists working on their own family histories may find her insights quite useful.

Early in the making of the film, Reuveny sweated out a two-hour session in her childhood home, interviewing her mother. The result felt like a disaster. “My mother is the worst interviewee imaginable,” was how Reuveny described it. “I’m beyond exhausted. This was obviously a very bad idea.” Her mother sounded forced and awkward; Reuveny was snappish and impatient. The footage was a mess, best ignored.

Except of course, Reuveny couldn’t. Four years later, with a painful family mystery retraced, it was time to review and assemble a wealth of material, and as Reuveny’s editors warned, her mother’s absence would “create a real hole in the film.” Reuveny had to face the music. She apologetically asked one of the editors to watch the old footage without her, “just in case … [although] it’s probably a waste of valuable editing time.”

Within two hours she had her feedback: “Pure gold.”

What had changed? Perspective, and passing time. As Reuveny observes, the tension and awkwardness between mother and daughter generated an energy that was peculiarly apt in a film about a mystery unsolved and even unspoken for decades. It just took a while for the interview to slip into its proper place. And it took another viewer, “a certain distance,” to see what Reuveny herself could not.

I think the lesson for those of us investigating our own family stories is that patience is key, both with our subjects and with ourselves. Questioning a relative, particularly a parent, is tricky even for those with professional training. It’s a rare family historian who sails through interviewing Mom and Dad without a chilly patch or two. The interviewer can feel as embattled as the subject.

Another important lesson: We can’t rest our reactions on our first impressions. The interview we feel doesn’t go deep enough or isn’t compelling enough might take on a different luster with the benefit of more research. Even more important is the benefit of an outside opinion. A third party might look at our allegedly frustrating material and see poignance, rather than pointlessness.

Note: Farewell Herr Schwarz, about a Polish-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and his mysterious decision to make a new postwar life a stone’s throw from the site of the concentration camp where he was imprisoned, won the Best Documentary prize at the Haifa International Film Festival. I grind my teeth at the fact that I missed its recent run in Manhattan. In the meantime, here’s the trailer.


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