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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Colleague Cory Franklin of Chicago is a gifted obituarist who is often published in The Chicago Tribune among other publications.  His article below is an interesting opinion piece combining comments on two living divas with obit narratives for two who have recently died.  Dr. Franklin can be reached at  

One of the knocks on show business is that it is kinder to men than it is to women as they both grow older. Men like Cary Grant and Sean Connery who age gracefully often get choice acting parts while the phone stops ringing for women who were once big stars in their twenties and thirties. True enough. But this week’s news has the stories of four women, all of whom proved talent and determination can overcome. They survived and prevailed.

America’s biggest star right now might be 88-year-old Betty White. Fresh off hosting Saturday Night Live and a popular Super Bowl commercial, Betty is “hot”. Her career has spanned seven decades, all the way back to radio. She was a star of the 1980’s sit-com The Golden Girls and is also familiar for her portrayal of Sue Ann Nivens, The Happy Homemaker, on the 1970’s Mary Tyler Moore Show. This spot-on parody of Martha Stewart, before there was Martha Stewart, is so uncanny you wonder if Martha used Betty’s character in creating her serious persona. Betty’s formidable acting skills, sense of humor, and ability not to take herself too seriously, are what brought her superstardom today.

Doris Eaton Travis, who died at the age of 106 was the last surviving chorus girl of the Ziegfeld Follies, a popular theatrical spectacle of the early 20th Century designed to "glorify the American girl." Impresario Flo Ziegfeld presented a show with beautiful female dancers dressed in silk and bedecked with jewels (Ms. Travis was one of the youngest when she joined the troupe). The Ziegfield Follies was the popular American counterpart to the Folies Bergre of Paris, and featured the era’s great entertainers such as W.C. Fields and Will Rogers, as well as introducing songs by Irving Berlin and other leading composers.

A Ziegfield archivist said Mrs. Travis's death "marks the end of the Ziegfeld golden era of Broadway." But Ms. Travis, who remembered Woodrow Wilson as President, remained active in show business until her death. As the Washington Post described, “she was regularly featured in an annual Broadway AIDS benefit, most recently in April, when she danced a few steps with the help of two shirtless young male dancers. After rapturous applause, she walked off stage by herself.”

74-year-old Dame Julie Andrews recently staged a comeback at London’s O2 Arena. Her unique four-octave voice, described by one writer as “embodying youthful qualities of purity and sweetness” is gone now, the victim of age and a vocal cord operation she believes was mishandled. Some in attendance demanded their money back because her voice is not what it once was. She, however, continues to perform and entertain as few others can. She jokes of her obvious vocal limitations, “I want to assure you I can still sing the hell out of … Old Man River,” a song usually sung by husky-voiced men.

Her voice may not be what it used to but Julie Andrews remains one of the iconic talents of our era. When she was 21, she gave one of Broadway’s most memorable performances as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Then she went on to two of Hollywood’s greatest musical performances in The Sound of Music and as Mary Poppins (a role she got after she was turned down for the screen version of My Fair Lady). Musically, no one else has ever conquered Broadway and Hollywood in that fashion. It’s the entertainment equivalent of Michael Jordan going on to play baseball as well as he did basketball and reaching the Baseball Hall of Fame also. Paul Newman once called Julie Andrews “the last of the really great dames”.

Lena Horne died at 92 last week. Another one of the peerless 20th Century songstresses and performers, she also left her mark on Broadway and Hollywood. Her trademark ballad “Stormy Weather” is an American classic. She was African-American and her obituaries were saturated with the requisite "battled discrimination” stamp in boilerplate and cookie-cutter fashion. While true, these obits didn’t approach doing justice to her marvelous singing and acting talents, as well as her individuality. In her 70’s, she won a Tony Award for her one- woman Broadway show and she was still so beautiful that a running joke on the 1970’s sitcom Sanford and Son was comedian Redd Foxx’s infatuation with “The Horne”.

“Do not go gentle into that good night” is the poet Dylan Thomas’s famous admonition that people should not accept old age passively (ironically Thomas died before he was 40). Our generation has been fortunate to experience the joie de vivre of old age expressed in the stories of Betty White, Doris Travis, Julie Andrews and Lena Horne.

Hats off to The Happy Homemaker, a Ziegfeld Girl, “the last of the really great dames” and “The Horne”.

Cory M. Franklin

1 comment:

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