Wendy and the Lost Boys

The Book of the Week is “Wendy and the Lost Boys” by Julie Salamon, published in 2011. This is a biography of Wendy Wasserstein, award-winning playwright.

Wasserstein grew up in a wealthy Jewish family with a mythmaking, high-pressure mother. Born in 1950, Wasserstein had four older siblings. As an adult, she followed in her mother’s footsteps, carefully orchestrating public relations for herself. For much of her life, she denied the existence of an older brother who was mentally challenged and sent away to a home.

A large number of women of Wasserstein’s generation were fighting for gender equality. She realized that she was attending the wrong college when her classmates at Mount Holyoke knitted sweaters in class and obsessed over getting engaged instead of planning their careers.

Wasserstein became famous through making connections with powerful people she might not have met had she not been born to an upper-class family.  Nevertheless, it took her several years to find herself; all the while her mother was needling her about her super-successful older siblings.

At one point, Wasserstein befriended New York Times theater critic Frank Rich. He found himself in a conflict whereby as Wasserstein’s friend, he was inclined to write a favorable review of her plays. A New York Times theater review makes or breaks a new production because it is the bible of theatergoers.  One review can hold overwhelming power and influence over the success of playwrights like Wasserstein.

Another factor in Wasserstein’s popularity was getting the right directors for her different works. The wrong director can spell doom for a show while a different one with a certain vision can make it shine.

Read the book to learn about Wasserstein’s relationships, eventual fulfillment of her dreams and her and her family’s sad fate.

Shakespeare’s England

The Book of the Week is “Shakespeare’s England,” a Cassell Caravel Book, by the editors of Horizon Magazine, published in 1964.

This book recounts English cultural, theatrical and royal-family history of the late 1500’s through 1616– the years of the height of Shakespeare’s fame.

In the late 1580’s, Shakespeare’s acting company performed for Queen Elizabeth. At that time, the status of acting company members was divided into three groups: veteran actors who were shareholders in the theater, weekly wage-earning minor-role actors who doubled as stagehands and writers, and young boys who played girls’ and boys’ roles (as females were banned from theater careers).

There were two kinds of playwrights: university-schooled, and non-; the plays of the former were more stiff and serious than that of the latter. All intellectual property rights to a work were transferred from the writer to an acting company upon purchase of a play. Nevertheless, works were pirated all the time, with no adverse consequences for the thief.

Read the book to learn about the events and issues that affected the fame and fortune of Shakespeare and his colleagues– the plague, censorship, a theater fire, playhouse construction, political intrigue and more.

One More Time

The Book of the Week is “One More Time” by Carol Burnett, published in 1986.  This is an emotionally rich, memorable autobiography. Its author had a tough childhood, as the older daughter of two alcoholic parents. Raised by her grandmother on welfare in Texas, she enjoyed a few happy times nevertheless.

Burnett experienced excellent luck on days when it was pouring rain. For example, on a rainy day, a benefactor appeared in her life to allow her to pursue her dream of becoming an actress. He provided her with two years’ worth of funding in which to succeed. She met the deadline.

Read the book to learn how her life experiences provided tons of material for her comedic TV show.

Growing Up Laughing

The Book of the Week is “Growing Up Laughing” by Marlo Thomas, published in 2010. This book is part memoir, part snippets of conversations with comedians of different generations, and lots of jokes.

Marlo’s famous father, Danny, ran with a crowd of live entertainers, which included, but was not limited to George Burns, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Don Rickles, the Marx Brothers, Joey Bishop and Sid Caesar. Danny was mistaken for Jewish due to his nose and the company he kept, but he was actually of Lebanese, Catholic extraction.

In this book, Marlo chats with various personalities– Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld and Stephen Colbert among them– about how they started their comedy careers, and why their acts are funny.

Marlo is probably most famous for starring in the sitcom “That Girl” and co-creating– along with a group of other celebrities– the book, movie and record, “Free to Be You and Me,” a hodgepodge of songs and skits for kids.

Here Comes Trouble

The Book of the Week is “Here Comes Trouble” by Michael Moore, published in 2011. This is a collection of stories from the life of a passionate political activist. The author has used various ways to inform the public of injustices, including running a newspaper, producing a TV show and movies, and writing books and articles.

At the end of Moore’s freshman year at a Catholic seminary, he was asked not to return. It was an academically challenging environment, but he was a good student. He committed no serious infractions.

However, Moore was a frequent questioner of authority, as he had been from a very young age. He grew up in a generation of Americans whose early childhood was still innocent, having been born in the mid-1950’s.  He asked his religious instructors pointed questions such as “Why don’t we let women be priests?” and “Do you think Jesus would send soldiers to Vietnam if he were here right now?” and “In the Bible, there’s no mention of Jesus from age twelve to age thirty. Where do you think he went?”

Moore had changed his mind about becoming a priest, anyway. Read the book to find out about some of the more entertaining episodes in his life, religious and otherwise.

Too Fat to Fish

The Book of the Week is “Too Fat to Fish” by Artie Lange, published in 2009. This is Lange’s autobiography. He discusses his father’s untimely death, his mother’s saintliness, bouts of cocaine addiction, being a dockworker, career as a television and radio comedian, and the title of his book, among other topics.

He claims his mother, who embodies the idiosyncratic stereotype of an “Italian mama,” was cleaning the house at the crack of dawn on a Saturday, when his friend called regarding a fishing trip that day. His mother got on the phone and aggressively gave the friend an earful about how Lange, who was 23 at the time, was “too fat to fish” and would fall off the boat and drown. She thus would not let him go. Having a bad hangover, he was secretly glad that her concern for him, even if a bit overprotective, gave him an excuse to go back to sleep.

Piaf

The Book of the Week is “Piaf” by Simone Bertaut, published in 1969.  This is Bertaut’s biography of her sister, Edith Piaf. They shared the same father, and both grew up in Paris in the nineteen teens and twenties, with nary a formal education.

Edith spent her early childhood in a brothel whose occupants acted as  her surrogate mothers, because her biological mother never cared much for her.   However, her father was an artist and street performer, who took her with him as soon as she was old enough to sing so he could earn enough money to survive.  Fortunately, she had incredible natural talent.  Simone also accompanied her father on his rounds after Edith had left him, but she could only do some simple acrobatics.  At fifteen years old, Edith took twelve year old Simone into her employ, and Edith embarked on her quest for fame and fortune as a singer.

The inseparable sisters endured many hardships before Edith achieved fame.  Throughout her life, the strong-willed, bossy Edith fell in and out of love with numerous men, some of whom she made into singing stars.  Read the book to learn about her antics with them, and other aspects of her edgy existence in the fast lane.

Sesame Street Unpaved

The Book of the Week is “Sesame Street Unpaved” by David Borgenicht, published in 1998.  This book commemorates (almost) thirty years of the scripts, stories, secrets and songs of “Sesame Street,” an award-winning American educational television show for very young children.  It went on the air November 10, 1969.  It features dialogues between human and combination-marionette/puppet characters, animated segments and music/video snippets.

There have been countless humorous features, such as the recurring early-episode bits when Big Bird kept flubbing the name of human store owner Mr. Hooper, calling him Mr. Looper, Mr. Blooper, Mr. Duper, Mr. Snooper, Mr. Pooper, Mr. Scooper, etc.  In one of many memorable skits involving puppets Ernie and Bert, the latter asks the former whether he’s aware that he has a banana in his ear.  Ernie asks him to repeat that.  Bert starts yelling.  Ernie yells back, “I’m sorry– You’ll have to speak a little louder, Bert!  I can’t hear you!  I have a banana in my ear!”

“Kermit the Frog” came into being around 1955, and in previous shows, his appearance evolved through the years.  For the sake of neatness, the puppet character “Cookie Monster” usually ate painted rice cakes rather than real cookies on-screen.  Another early, (but short-lived) popular character included Roosevelt Franklin.  A purple puppet featured in a classroom, he was booted off the air because some of the show’s creators felt he portrayed a “negative cultural stereotype” in that he was a smart-alecky, paper-throwing disruptive kid, and he appeared to be African American.

A host of celebrities have also visited the show, and have usually sung songs.  When Ralph Nader visited, he insisted on correcting a grammatical error in the song “People in Your Neighborhood” by changing a line to “…the people WHOM you meet each day.”

On one occasion, the Boston Pops accompanied the show’s cast in playing the song, “Rubber Duckie” but a union rule considered squeezing a rubber duckie (so it would squeak) to be an instrument additional to that each musician was already playing– requiring that extra wages be paid.  The rule was skirted by having only the percussionists play rubber duckies.

Sesame Street has garnered wide international appeal through the decades, airing in Kuwait, Turkey and Mexico, among many other nations.

A Gift of Laughter

The Book of the Week is “A Gift of Laughter” by Allan Sherman published in 1965.  This is the autobiography of song parodist and co-creator of the TV show “I’ve Got a Secret.”

Sherman became most famous for the song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” which describes the humorous adventures of a kid in summer camp. President John F. Kennedy was heard to be humming his song, “Sarah Jackman” while walking through the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York City.  Some of Sherman’s other songs, such as “J.C. Cohen,” “Al ‘N’ Yetta” and “Harvey and Sheila” also captured Jewish stereotypes, but had American appeal.

In the book, Sherman provided bits of trivia on Hollywood of the 1950’s and 1960’s. When he had finally become rich and famous, he bought a house next door to Harpo Marx, with a rubber tree in the yard.  When he was interviewing candidates to hire a secretary, he came across one who deliberately failed a typing test.  She admitted to him she was a member of an “Unemployment Club.”

The goal was to stay jobless for the maximum membership duration, six months, at which time her unemployment benefits ran out, anyway.  She was receiving $55 a week, which was pooled with benefits of eleven other people, who were renting a sprawling ranch house in the Hollywood Hills (that had a swimming pool), and a convertible car.  Members engaged in sunbathing and skinny dipping, and practiced free love.

Sadly, Sherman died at 49 years old of heart disease, possibly due to his admittedly poor diet of Kraft macaroni and “cheese” dinners. He was survived by his college-sweetheart wife, a son and a daughter.