My Happy Days in Hollywood

The Book of the Week is “My Happy Days in Hollywood” by Garry Marshall, published in 2012. This ebook is the autobiography of the Hollywood director, producer, screenwriter, playwright and actor.

Marshall grew up in the Bronx. After graduating college, he volunteered for the army. In 1959, almost immediately after returning home, he was hired on the spot as a copyboy at the New York Daily News. He writes, “They didn’t even care where I went to journalism school. As long as I could carry a cup of coffee without spilling it…” He made $38 a week.

The author paired up with a writing partner to create jokes and skits to be sold to stand-up comedians. He also wrote for famous TV shows and celebrity comedians. When he was starting out, in order to get the business, he had to write scripts on spec.

By 1963, Marshall and a different partner had “…written 31 produced sitcom scripts, [with a typewriter in those days] which was more than any team had ever written before.” The TV shows he produced that became most famous were “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley,” “The Odd Couple” and “Mork and Mindy.”

In theater and movies, he realized that “…you need more than ‘funny.’ You have to have a story with depth and emotions that people can follow.”

Read the book to learn what Marshall learned and experienced in his four-plus decades working in television, movies and the theater.

Cronkite

The Book of the Week is “Cronkite” by Douglas Brinkley, published in 2012. This tome is the biography of Walter Cronkite. Born in 1916, he was one of the first news reporters to appear on television. He spent most of his career at CBS, covering most of the major historical events of the twentieth century. He developed a reputation for trustworthiness in delivering information to Americans at a time when the nation watched an excessive amount of TV.

In the 1950’s, stiff and awkward newsmen initially read the headlines aloud in fifteen minute segments. Eventually, reporters broadcast on-location, and coverage was lengthened to half an hour and then an hour– and sometimes much longer (during political conventions and after assassinations) to provide more in-depth stories.

There were occasions when Cronkite “…abandoned all the rules of objective journalism he had learned…” such as during WWII, when, according to the author, he “… eagerly wrote propaganda for the good of the Allied cause.” The first TV anchorman believed that journalism was obligated to expose tyranny everywhere in the world. At the same time, he was concerned that TV could be used as a communication vehicle for hate speech.

This blogger thinks Cronkite’s concern smacks a little of arrogance and hypocrisy. Either, there should be free speech for all, or for none. The United States has committed and hushed up its share of political sins. In addition, it is too difficult to define hate speech. Some people might argue that hate speech is any communication that is offensive to the people in a society at large. How many of which people? Some might argue that the speakers have a right to express their opinions, or say whatever they want in the context of entertainment. In the United States, if an issue is controversial enough, the U.S. Supreme Court– nine people– are in charge of a majority vote that decides what constitutes “opinions” or “entertainment.”

This blogger thinks society is better off allowing blanket freedom of expression, than imposing a totalitarian gag order. For, American citizens have placed sufficient trust in their system of government to continue, more or less, to uphold a Constitution from its beginnings; the pendulum has swung back and forth with regard to numerous First Amendment issues. Nevertheless, movements that oppress free speech, whether hateful or not, on a large scale, are unsustainable in the long term, as are movements that spout hate speech.

For instance, the McCarthy Era did see a number of years in which people were oppressed for expressing unpopular political views, associating with those who did so, or being falsely accused of associating with those who did so. However, some witchhunt victims–a minority of the population of the entire nation– sacrificed their livelihood or their lives; backlash reached critical mass among the majority, and the nation righted itself again.

The author says that in the 1950’s, Cronkite also believed in objective reporting. He thought that a reporter covering a political election should refrain from expressing his preference for a particular candidate. Nevertheless, whenever it was convenient for furthering his career, Cronkite abandoned objectivity, like in WWII. He was a “huge cheerleader for NASA,” established in the summer of 1958. The “Space Race” (between the United States and the then-Soviet Union) was a great distraction. In 1962, a massive, six hundred square foot screen was placed “…on top of the central mezzanine in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal so commuters could watch [astronaut] John Glenn on CBS.” Besides, the newsman’s Vietnam War reporting included graphic images of atrocities every night in 1965.

Cronkite understood the conflict CBS faced as a profit-making organization. The network needed to entertain its audience in order to sell advertising to stay in business. It was in CBS’ best economic interest to report news inoffensive to Southern viewers, for example, during the Civil Rights Era; a tall order, to say the least. By 1960, critics thought that the head of CBS, William Paley, was shying away from controversial news reporting to please Republicans and big business.

Read the book to learn more of Cronkite’s role in informing the nation on what was happening, what he made happen, and his commentary on what happened over the course of about four decades. One caveat:  the book is wrong by one year on at least three major, recent historical events–  the year Iraq invaded Kuwait, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal started, and the Y2K situation.

My Extraordinary Ordinary Life

The Book of the Week is “My Extraordinary Ordinary Life” by Sissy Spacek with Maryanne Vollers, published in 2012. This is the ebook autobiography of an actor and filmmaker who grew up in a small town in Texas.

Everyone knew everyone else. They were church-going folk, farmers and merchants, Methodists and Baptists. The mayor of the town was also its fire chief, owner of the local insurance company and funeral home. His brother was an undertaker, hardware store owner and co-owner of a motel. The brother’s wife was room attendant at the motel and a chinchilla breeder.

Spacek’s immediate family included her parents and two much older brothers, and many pets through the years, including horses. She writes, “I learned to drive a car when I was still a little kid, seven or eight years old.” At thirteen, she was driving with a thirteen-and-a-half year old passenger who had an official driver’s license. This is because in rural areas, people learn to drive farm equipment at an early age.

In high school, Spacek took up baton twirling as a majorette with a marching band that performed at halftime at high school football games– one of three major values in Texas; the others being family and Christianity.

In 1971, the author acted in her first movie, Prime Cut, with Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman, that required her to do a scene in the nude. She is probably best known for playing Carrie in the eponymous movie.

Read the book to learn about her adventures as a young adult in 1960’s New York City, and as an actor, wife and mother in various states in later decades.

The Other Side of Me

The Book of the Week is “The Other Side of Me” by Sidney Sheldon, published in 2005. This ebook is Sheldon’s autobiography.

Born Sidney Schechtel in 1917, Sheldon showed a talent for writing at an early age. However, during the Depression, he was forced to work day and night at a series of dead-end, soul-killing jobs, such as courier in a gear factory and coat-check clerk at a hotel. Sheldon was unafraid to approach strangers, and at that time, low-skilled jobs could be obtained in a simple five-minute conversation.

One day, he went to a Chicago radio station to inquire about an amateur talent contest sponsored by a band leader, and by chance, was asked to be the show’s announcer. It was then that he changed his last name to Sheldon, thinking it sounded more show business-y. His excessive talking caused the show to go fifteen seconds overtime, so he was not asked back, but from that experience, he thought he wanted to become a radio announcer.

On another day, he wrote a song with the help of his family’s spinet piano. He went to a hotel to try to sell the song. “In that year, 1936, the major hotels in the country had orchestras in their ballrooms that broadcast [on radio] coast to coast.” He was introduced to a manager at a big-name music publisher who directed him to another hotel with a better-known band leader. Perhaps naively, he never signed a written contract. His song was played and aired, but was never published. He therefore never received a penny in royalties.

Sheldon encountered many more episodes similar to the above, in which he was at the mercy of powerful people who made arbitrary decisions on the use of his creative works– Broadway musicals, screenplays and TV scripts and novels. Read the book to learn more about his bipolar disorder that had a hand in his self-doubt and despair, baseless optimism and persistence, missed opportunities, failures and successes.

Memories Before and After The Sound of Music

The Book of the Week is “Memories Before and After The Sound of Music” by Agathe von Trapp, published in 2002. This ebook describes the real lives of the members of the family depicted in the legendary movie and musical “The Sound of Music.” The shows were Hollywoodized versions meant to appeal to American audiences.

Agathe, born in 1913, was the second-oldest child, and oldest daughter of an Austrian family of seven children by the first wife of a WWI commander of a submarine in the Austrian navy. The wealthy, farm-owning family had ties to royalty, and so had plenty of household help. Nevertheless, the family encountered some hardships during the political, financial and social upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century.

The author tries to set the reader straight on her family history. For example, she writes, “… we did not flee over the mountains into Switzerland. There is no mountain pass that leads from Salzburg, Austria into Switzerland. We simply took the train to Italy.”

A nanny taught Agathe and her siblings German and English. They found low-tech ways to amuse themselves. “…We used our imaginations to turn a row of chairs into an express train and a sofa into a hospital.”

They enjoyed natural wonders during their daily walks. They visited relatives, such as their maternal grandmother, Gromi, who had a spacious garden along the lakeshore. Agathe took an interest in beekeeping, mentored by the headmaster of the local elementary school, on “how to catch a swarm and how to extract honey.” He provided her with the necessary equipment, including bee hood, gloves and smoker. She harvested twelve pounds of honey a few months later.

Agathe played the guitar, while her father and siblings played the violin and accordion. They formed an amateur Schrammel Quartet; if it had been professional, it would have played Viennese folk music in “… little restaurants in Grinzing, a suburb of Vienna, during the time of harvest when the new wine is served.”

The von Trapps became a famous traveling singing group by chance. In the 1930’s, they were encouraged to enter a yodeling competition, and they won. Then came singing on the radio. Austria’s chancellor just happened to be a regular listener of the show they appeared on, and the rest is history. The “Trapp Family Singers” sang in concerts all over the world into the early 1950’s.

Read the book to learn of the von Trapp family’s adventures through the years, among them– how most of the family members lost their Austrian citizenship but were automatically granted Italian citizenship, how they stayed alive even after refusing to comply with specific Nazi orders, and what led the family to start a lodging business and music camp.

Model Patient

The Book of the Week is “Model Patient” by Karen Duffy, published in 2007.  In this ebook, Duffy describes her mid to late 1990’s bout with sarcoidosis, a life-threatening illness that is difficult to diagnose.

A prolonged, severe headache was the first symptom. Numerous tests revealed that she had a growing lesion on her brain and spinal cord. This produced numbness and paralysis in various parts of her body, including her limbs. It took months before she saw a doctor who recommended treatment of steroids and chemotherapy. She writes, “I’d lost the playbook to my life. I had no idea what to do.”

Despite the psychological stress brought on by her inability to continue modeling and working as an on-camera reporter for MTV, she did her darndest to remain positive. Fittingly, she happens to have a facial feature known as “risorius of Santorini”– her cheek muscles form a natural smile, without her consciously trying to do so.

Prior to her entertainment career, Duffy had worked as a recreational therapist at a nursing home. Her job was to improve the psychological states of the residents. She continued to try to volunteer once a week there after she got sick.

Read the book to learn other strategies Duffy used to cope with her illness.

All By My Selves

The Book of the Week is “All By My Selves” by Jeff Dunham, published in 2010. This is the autobiography of a politically incorrect, professional ventriloquist. He developed his career-passion as a child when, by chance, he was given a dummy as a gift.

Dunham auditioned to be a guest for The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson” nine times before he was finally accepted in April 1990. His striving to become famous took a toll on his family, but when he “made it” he was afforded an “entourage of management, agents and publicists.”

Read the book to learn of Dunham’s experiences as a professional ventriloquist, that include but are not limited to:  his decades-long struggles to achieve an act of sufficient quality to appear on television (prior to the advent of social media), his learning the hard way what not to do before performing, and being stiffed on compensation by night clubs.

Jokes My Father Never Taught Me

The Book of the Week is “Jokes My Father Never Taught Me” by Rain Pryor, published in 2006. The author is one of the daughters of the late Richard Pryor, the African American comedian; the only child of a Caucasian, Jewish mother.

During her childhood in the 1970’s, Rain struggled with her three identities:  black, white and Jewish. Her biracial appearance caused people to instantly develop biases, making it easy for them to practice tribal exclusion when it suited them. She found she could dispel the discrimination by making people laugh. Rain writes, “Comedy was about connecting with people in places so personal that it actually made them uncomfortable, and then showing the humor in it.”

Rain’s early-childhood circumstances did not allow her to develop a personal relationship with her father until she turned four. But when she finally did, he shamelessly exposed her to the birds and the bees. She commented that one redeeming trait of her father’s call girls, was that they were honest.

“They weren’t there because they loved my Daddy, and they didn’t pretend to love my Daddy… That was life with Richard Pryor. Sex and violence, puctuated by rare moments of family happiness.” In addition, over decades, her father went through five wives, who bore a total of seven children.

Although as a young child, Rain witnessed the seamy side of the adult world, she enjoyed a sense of love and belonging from a large family on both her parents’ sides. Another lucky aspect of her life was that of her father’s fame and fortune. He could afford to, and did take her and her siblings on various luxurious domestic and international trips.

Read the book to learn more about Rain’s issues with her own ethnicities, her father’s and her own addictions, his multiple sclerosis, and her family crises.

Maybe You Never Cry Again

The Book of the Week is “Maybe You Never Cry Again” by Bernie Mac with Pablo F. Fenjves, published in 2003. This is the autobiography of a man who heeded his mother’s wisdom in achieving his life’s dream of becoming a famous comedian.

Foremost, Mac’s mother taught him to be self-reliant. One of her sayings was, “If you want a helping hand, look at the end of your arm.”

Mac listed the four kinds of standup comedians:  mediocre joke tellers, political commentators, observers of human nature, and tellers of personal stories. He exemplified the fourth kind, making audiences of mostly his own ethnicity laugh by comparing his African American experience to that of Caucasians without mincing words. “The most personal is the most universal.”

For example, he told the reader that, as an adult, he became as excited as a kid in a candy store when he flew in a plane for the first time. He said, “White people wouldn’t understand that feeling. White people get on planes all the time. They born on planes. Same thing with photographs. White people, they got pictures of themselves every minute of their lives. Here’s little Libby…Black people, they lucky to have one or two pictures of themselves.”

Read how Mac put his mother’s teachings to use to get through the trials and tribulations he suffered on the way to stardom.

Confessions of A Prairie Bitch

The Book of the Week is “Confessions of A Prairie Bitch” by Alison Arngrim, published in 2010.  This is the autobiography of the actress who played Nellie Oleson on the hit American TV show, “Little House on the Prairie” which aired from 1974 to 1983.

On the show which was set in a small town in the late 1800’s, Arngrim played the role of the spoiled, rich teenage daughter of the owners of a general store. She frequently got into fights with a goody-goody girl from another family in the neighborhood. Arngrim was twelve years old when she started the show.  Prior to that, her show-business parents had afforded her the chance to play some small parts in TV commercials and movies. Starting when she was six, she was subjected to sexual abuse at the hands of her much older brother.

Read the book to learn how Arngrim was able to deal with the trauma from her early childhood in positive ways later in life through her acting career and social and political activism.