Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Plays Nicely With Others

A week and a half ago, or thereabouts, would have been Dean Martin’s 95th birthday.

Martin was an icon of American entertainment from the late 1940s well into the 1970s, as a singer, a film star, a television variety show host and a comedian. In addition, he was linked comedically and musically with (and stood as tall as) Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra. He passed away in 1995, and I’m not sure whether he casts much of a shadow in American entertainment at this moment, at least in the view of those who currently shape American entertainment. Other than the occasional infomercial plugging the DVD collection of his Celebrity Roast television series episodes (which could be hugely politically-incorrect, but could also be really funny), I don’t know whether he’s on anyone’s mind on a regular basis. In his day, he was nicknamed “The King of Cool”, but I doubt those presently in charge of determining Cool would agree now.

The thing that strikes me about Dean Martin, knowing what I know about him and after a tiny bit of research (for confirmation), is that in spite of being a 1950s and 1960s stage, movie and TV star (speaking of jobs you can’t do without a little bit of ego), he knew how to be a team member, too.

He’s best remembered for being part of two teams in his career: Martin and Lewis, and the Rat Pack.

Now, as a kid, of course I knew who Frank Sinatra was. (Any time the Yankees beat the Sox at Yankee Stadium, I knew.) I knew who Sammy Davis Jr. was (from seeing him on the Mike Douglas Show, of course!). Joel Grey, … no idea, really, which was more my problem than his. But I had only a very vague idea who or what the Rat Pack was … even after a series of 1980s movies established a group of twenty-something actors and actresses as the Brat Pack and briefly revived recognition of the nickname. In my mind, even though as a kid I was a devoted fan of the Marx Brothers and other entertainers who worked in the days before most filmed entertainment was presented in color … the Rat Pack was a group of singers in grainy 1960s black-and-white photographs. … Until I chanced to visit Las Vegas a few years ago.

As I strolled down the Vegas Strip – clearly not fast enough! – I was engaged by a street vendor who wanted to know whether I’d be interested in attending a presentation about time shares?, with no obligation!, and an exciting prize at the end of it!. I know, I know. Scam. But a prize to follow. Probably a cookie and a brochure about when the next presentation would be. Sure, what the heck. For all I knew I might have been taking my life in my hands.

When I arrived at a relatively reputable-looking conference room later that day, indeed, I was presented with lots of great reasons why investing in a time-share would make my life complete. I paid attention. I weighed the pros and cons. With absolutely no intention of nodding yes. I was probably not the only person in the room who was putting on a really good show for a sales guy who was basically making a living here. Be polite. No need to be abusive or scornful. But I endeavored to put on a pretty good show.

My reward for expending that hour of my life (that I would never get back)? A pretty good show.

In the little reward envelope were a pair of tickets to a stage show at the Sahara Hotel, called “The Rat Pack is Back. It was a re-creation of one of the Pack’s typical 1961 performances, featuring about the swingin’-est 16-piece big band I’d heard maybe ever, and four celebrity impersonators who created the onstage characters of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Joel Grey. And they did it to perfection – no one looks exactly like Sinatra, but after about 30 seconds no one was paying attention to that because the fellow who was the evening’s Ol’ Blue Eyes sounded just … like … him! While singing; while speaking; while joking; while smoking (oh, my, yes – this was 1961, and cigarette smoke was a constant – perhaps you’ve seen “Mad Men”). And the other three gents had their acts down cold, as well.

Their four characters were performers who doubtless had monstrous egos (talk about an example of “you can’t do this job unless you’ve got at least a little bit of ego”) … nonetheless playing nicely with each other. Or faking it. But the longer you watch ancient video of the Pack on stage, the more sense you get (I do, at least) that they didn’t have to fake it. If occasional upstaging went on, well, here were four monstrous talents, and undoubtedly competitive souls too. But each of them seemed to have a just-wide-enough sphere of awareness to recognize the talents around him, and appreciate them, even if a joke came at his own expense. Biographies may give the lie to this; but on stage, they all seemed to be having a great time, and if the audience was having a great time watching them have a great time, all the better.

How often would that happen now?

Yes, you very often have tunes put out with the artist listed as “John Smith, featuring Fred Smith”. Occasionally you will see a performer bring out a “special guest” for a duet. But not for a whole show. Or a string of shows. Or a whole run in a given venue. I can’t think of very many performers in current American Entertainment who would be able to do that sort of thing, what the Pack did, without an approved script and a very tightly-negotiated contract. I even wonder if there are many well-known and hugely-popular celebrities who would be versatile or talented enough to pull off a Rat Pack-esque show on One Special Evening, never mind night after night for weeks and months and years in a row.

Not that I wouldn’t be interested if someone genuinely tried to put something like this together. I just don’t know that the people currently in charge of deciding what constitutes mass-media entertainment – marketable American entertainment – have the imagination to conceive of such a thing.

So instead, we direct your attention to the mighty YouTube.

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June 18, 2012 - Posted by | celebrity, entertainment, Famous Persons, music | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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