Happy 90th birthday, Tony Bennett!

Just a few words on a most special artist and human being on the occasion today of Tony Bennett’s 90th birthday.

I’ve been lucky enough to spend a lot of time with Tony, having milked my position as a trade music journalist for all it was worth. I’ve interviewed him, hung out with him in recording studios, at meet-and-greets after concerts, in New York, L.A., Vegas, in art museums and on the street. I’ve gotten to know his family, his friends, even his heroes. He’s gracious and kind to all, including—and especially—his fans.

I remember one fan in particular. It was during the session for his 2006 album Duets: An American Classic, for which he recorded “For Once in My Life” with Stevie Wonder—who actually released it after Tony charted with it in 1967. Stevie (with Tony) would receive a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals, but after the session he was barely able to speak about the honor of just sitting next to the outspoken humanist and pacifist who had marched with Dr. Martin Luther King.

I’m not much different. When you’re with Tony Bennett, no matter how comfortable he makes you feel, you’re still in the presence of an icon, an institution, a hero. And as an artist, I’ve seen him sing songs countless times, yet never the same way twice: He always finds something new from deep within himself.

He likes to tell his audiences that he’s been singing professionally for over 60s years, and if they’ll let him, he’ll do it for 60 more. I’ll be there, for sure.

serling

8/14/2013 Anne Serling writes about legendary father and finally finds peace

Anne Serling, again, was listening to someone gush over her father.

“I hear it all the time—the impact my father had on people,” she said. “But no one would be more surprised than he.”

Maybe because Rod Serling, whom Anne Serling so lovingly depicts in her new book As I Knew Him: My Dad Rod Serling, humbly considered his writing “momentarily adequate” at best, she noted, and not able “to stand the test of time.”

But Anne pointed out that her father, among other landmark achievements, wrote 92 of his historic Twilight Zone series’ 156 episodes.

“His writing dealt with the human condition, and social and moral issues that are still relevant today,” she said. “I think that’s why they’ve endured.”

Although she was just a child in the Twilight Zone’s heyday (in her book she recalls her dad bringing home Willy, the frightful ventriloquist dummy form the famous “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, to amuse her), like everyone else, she has her favorites.

“I was watching ‘Walking Distance’ some time ago,” she said, speaking of the celebrated episode where an advertising executive returns to his hometown to find it hasn’t changed—at all—since he was a boy.

“That’s one of the episodes that’s still relevant today: It gives you that punch, and maybe deals with a theme that our our age is in tune with: of going back in time and back to your hometown.
Same with ‘A Stop At Willoughby’ [likewise about a stressed-out New York media buyer who via the Twilight Zone, finds refuge in small-town New York, 1888].”

She also cited “In Praise Of Pip,” in which Jack Klugman famously played a bookie who learns of his soldier son’s serious wounds in Vietnam, and is filled with remorse for not having spent more time with him as a child. Not at all that her dad didn’t spend time with her; rather, a bit of “Pip”’s dialog was taken from an affectionate father-daughter routine.

But Serling surmises that the fact that The Twilight Zone was in black-and-white helped.

“I heard a quote last night, something about how black-and-white leaves an impression on you that color takes away,” she said. “I’m paraphrasing, but black-and-white gives you back that raw emotion.”

Much of that emotion, of course, came from Rod Serling. His Twilight Zone intros and recaps, delivered in his signature gritted-teeth intensity, were full of foreboding, though he still somehow came off as comforting, too.

“Any trepidation my friends had in meeting him that was connected to The Twilight Zone immediately dissolved within just a few minutes,” Serling related, echoing her warm descriptions of him in As I Knew Him. “He was so down-to-earth and welcoming and fun—and brilliantly funny. My friends adored him.”

Still, Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50, had heard him described as quite the opposite.

“I felt it was time to set the record straight,” she said. “He wasn’t a dark, tortured soul.”

But he was deeply concerned with the world around him, and often used The Twilight Zone to express his hatred of prejudice, injustice and war. Besides revisiting those classic episodes, Serling researched his letters and speeches in fleshing out the public and private man that she as a child knew most closely as a loving father—not as a man who suffered for his work.

“That was one of the toughest things,” she said. “For instance, I didn’t know how my dad had to battle the censors—I wasn’t cognizant then. And one of the most difficult things for him was writing letters to and receiving them from his parents during the war: My own son was 18 when I was writing the chapters that includes them, and I was reading his letters from training camp and it drove home how young these guys are that we send to war, and the letters broke my heart. My dad enlisted in the Army the day after he graduated high school, and his scars never healed. He was going to major in physical education, but was so traumatized he pursued writing to get it all off his chest.”

Anne Serling seems to have come to her own career as a writer out of personal pain.

“My dad always said to me, ‘If only you knew your grandfather’—and I never dreamed I’d say the same thing to my children,” she said. “But I guess you do arrive at some peace [even though] every day I miss my dad. I started another book eight years after he died, but I wasn’t even beginning to work through my grief–even after almost a decade. I had to set it aside and finally write this one, which I started six or seven years ago.”

Unable to “be that open with my grief” in an early draft, she “opened up more because it was so essential” after being encouraged by her editor.

“It ended up not as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said, adding, “a lot of people really connected with me and their own grief—which was humbling and gratifying.”

As for her father’s continuing impact, what with regular Twilight Zone Marathons over 50 years after the shows first aired, she reiterated: “His writing dealt with the human condition, and that doesn’t change. There are elementary school classrooms that study The Twilight Zone to learn about prejudice and scapegoating, and it’s really fascinating how kids get these messages from the show. I believe that would have been my dad’s greatest accolade.”

She cited the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, about a small town’s aliens-induced paranoia: “The teacher showed it and asked the class who the real monster was, and the entire class stood up! Who would have thought that after all these decades kids would really get this.”

The Twilight Zone, Anne Serling concluded, was “an extraordinary program with a gifted teacher.”

That teacher, of course, was her father, Rod Serling.

8/9/2013 Anne Serling’s loving book tribute to her dad Rod Serling

Writing As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling (Citadel Press) was clearly a cathartic experience for Anne Serling, who was 20 when her father died unexpectedly of a heart attack in 1974 at age 50.

Yet her beautifully written book somehow becomes cathartic, too, for the reader. True, Rod Serling was her father, this kindly but intense gentleman of stern yet comforting voice and ever-present cigarette. As he described himself, he looked tall, dark, and close to omniscient on screen, issuing “jeopardy-laden warnings through gritted teeth.” But in person he was five-feet-five, had a broken nose, and looked altogether “about as foreboding as a bank teller on a lunch break.”

Such self-deprecation extended to Serling’s self-criticism. Of an early attempt at writing a western, he said, “I gave better dialogue to the horses than the actors.” But with The Twilight Zone, short as he may have been in height, Rod Serling, with “that wide, captivating smile and those dark eyes that I know so well,” in his daughter’s warm description, became a towering cultural figure, indeed, even a father figure as he guided the new baby boom generation through the twilight terrors he conceived.

Most of us, of course, know him mainly through The Twilight Zone. But Anne Serling, who required years of therapy to deal with his loss, shows just what a special man he was beyond it, both as innovative talent and devout humanitarian. And while she was forced to withstand the pain of his absence, his life, as she relates, was likewise full of doubt, but above all else, the internal stress brought on by empathy, conscience and commitment.

And censorship. Serling recounts her father’s various struggles with network higher-ups, like when he couldn’t show a scene with New York’s Chrysler building due to Ford sponsorship. Worse, he had to change a story inspired by the infamous 1955 murder in Mississippi of the young African-American Emmett Till to a northern setting—and an elderly Jew character.

His script for the TV movie Carol For Another Christmas—based on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol—brought forth huge protests that he was furthering the Communist conspiracy, and promoting the United Nations as a means of establishing a single world government superseding that of the U.S. As he would tell an audience in the Library of Congress auditorium, “From experience, I can tell you that drama, at least in television, must walk tiptoe and in agony lest it offend some cereal buyer from a given state below the Mason-Dixon.”

Inevitably, Rod Serling became TV’s Angry Young Man—and with reason: Because of sponsors’ fears of upsetting southern customers, they chopped up his script, he wrote, “like a roomful of butchers at work on a steer.” Eventually he found that “a Martian can say things that a Republican or a Democrat can’t,” that is, via The Twilight Zone.

For The Twilight Zone gave him license to intone, at the end of the classic “The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street” episode from 1960, how “prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all its own—for the children and the children yet unborn.”

His own nightmares (his daughter would hear him awaken screaming in the night) from his service in World War II also surfaced throughout the series, in episodes like “A Quality Of Mercy,” which takes place in the Philippines, where he served, and “The Purple Testament,” in which a lieutenant, again in the Philippines, sees a strange light showing on the faces of soldiers who are about to die.

Not surprisingly, death itself—along with justice and hope–are central themes in Anne Serling’s account.

A student at Antioch College who later taught writing there, Rod Serling absorbed its first president Horace Mann’s words, “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity,” inserting them into the script of The Twilight Zone’s “The Changing of the Guard” episode about an old professor wrongly convinced that his life has no meaning left.

In a letter to The Los Angeles Times in response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, he wrote: “We must look beyond riots in the streets to the essential righteousness of what he asked of us. To do less would make his dying as senseless as our own living would be inconsequential.”

Prophetically pointed as well as extraordinarily eloquent, he said, in a 1970 commencement address at the University of Southern California, that if we don’t respond to the screams of those suffering from poverty, hunger, racial tension and pollution, “we may well wind up sitting amidst our own rubble, looking for the truck that hit us—or the bomb that pulverized us. Get the license number of whatever it was that destroyed the dream. And I think we will find that the vehicle was registered in our own name.”

Like his daughter, Rod Serling was forever haunted by the death of his father, at 52, from a heart attack, before he could return home from the war. The letters to and from his father—and to and from his daughter—are deeply moving; there’s also a tender introductory letter from him to a Korean foster child (“We are tremendously interested in your welfare, and to that end we’ll do all we can on your behalf”)—one of two he supported (the other being Filipino).

These letters and speeches fully flesh out this most remarkable man, still so much a part of our lives “35 years after my father’s death, four decades after The Twilight Zone went off the air,” writes Anne Serling, adding, “its parables are still relevant today”—even though he felt, according to her quote, “I’ve pretty much spewed out everything I had to say, none of which has been particularly monumental, nothing that will stand the test of time.”

Tell that today to the legions of fans, old and new, who tune in to those holiday Twilight Zone marathons that Syfy sure enough butchers as if it were a steer. Those legions of fans who discover, in his daughter’s loving reminiscences, this slight giant who is everything anyone could want in a father, a storyteller who in only 25 years of professional writing, wrote the definitive book on decency, courage, integrity, brilliance and pioneering creativity.

10/17/2011 Classic ‘Twilight Zone’ action figures get William Shatner’s approval

Keeping time with the release of William Shatner’s latest album Seeking Major Tom and book Shatner Rules: Your Guide To Understanding The Shatnerverse And The World At Large, pop culture toy/collectibles supplier Entertainment Earth introduced an exclusive, “officially approved by William Shatner” addition to its Bif Bang Pow! Line of Twilight Zone merchandise at last weekend’s New York Comic Con show at the Javits Center.

The novel Bob Wilson/Don Carter Deluxe Action Figure is a fully articulated eight-inch figure of Shatner (featuring a Shatner-sanctioned all-new head sculpt), along with clothing and accessories to recreate Shatner’s image from two legendary Twilight Zone episodes: “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet” (which originally aired in October, 1963) and “Nick Of Time” (November, 1960).

In “Nightmare At 20,000 Feet,” Shatner famously played former mental patient Bob Wilson, who is terrified by his vision of a hairy gremlin on the wing of the airplane he and his wife are passengers on. In “Nick Of Time” he was Don Carter, a man obsessed with a “Mystic Seer” fortune telling machine on the table of a café he and his wife visit when their car breaks down.

“It’s very well done,” says Shatner of the figure. “The reality is that these three young guys who run Entertainment Earth came up with it, and I thought it was cute and fun and went with them.”
The future Star Trek hero, who says he’s signed a couple of the figures, is flabbergasted by the continuing fascination with The Twilight Zone–and his two big episodes in particular.

“The fact that a half-hour show has remained in the public consciousness–and that these two episodes are among the most popular–why me? I don’t know!” says Shatner. “I stand with my mouth agape!”
He recalls the shows’ production.

“My goodness! It’s a half-hour show,” he notes. “You fly in and do it in three or four days and fly out. I think I was living on the East Coast then and had worked with those [Twilight Zone] guys in live television, and they liked me and I liked them and just did them. I figured they’d be broadcast once or twice and ‘goodbye!'”

Acknowledging that “Nightmare At 20,000” remains so memorably terrifying, Shatner still wonders why “a furry little monster on a wing doesn’t bring gales of laughter and derision!” When he himself gets on a plane, he’s more concerned that “the thing flies today and doesn’t crash into a swamp, than this furry little guy!”

Incidentally, Entertainment Earth was at Toy Fair earlier this year, when it introduced a companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin that were designed to be used as bookends. The company also brought out a full-sized, functioning replica of the Mystic Seer counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show.

A miniature replica of the Mystic Seer is packaged as an accessory in the Wilson/Carter figure, along with Carter’s watch, Wilson’s handgun and newspaper, and both characters’ clothing. A small Mystic Seer is also available separately in black-and-white and color non-functioning versions.

2/24/2011 New “Twilight Zone” figures unveiled at Toy Fair

Fans of The Twilight Zone will be thrilled to learn that cult audience-targeted action figure, toys and collectibles supplier Bif Bang Pow! (BBP) has plenty of new Twilight Zone figures and merchandise on the way.

The North Hollywood-based company, which has been licensing Twilight Zone bobble heads the last couple years has a new Willie And Jerry bobble head, from the famous 1962 ventriloquism episode “The Dummy” starring Cliff Robertson, and a new companion piece bobble head set of Bob Wilson and Gremlin, from the equally unforgettable 1963 “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet!” installment starring William Shatner, that are designed to be used as bookends.

Forthcoming on the Twilight Zone action figure side are two-figure sets featuring Doctor Bernardi (“Eye of the Beholder,” 1960) and Henry Bemis (“Time Enough at Last,” 1959) and the Venusian (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?,” 1961) and Invader (“The Invaders,” 1961).

More than 20 Twilight Zone figures and bobble heads are now available from BBP, which has expanded the line with license plate frames, lunch boxes, journals, magnets and coasters.
“We have a big master license, excepting apparel,” says BBP co-owner/executive VP Jason Labowitz, who displayed all the Twilight Zone merchandise, along with other popular licensed product from properties including The Big Lebowski and Dexter, at last week’s Toy Fair.

Most of the Twilight Zone collectibles are easily affordable. But two forthcoming pieces are understandably high-priced.

From the 1960 episode “Nick Of Time” (also starring Shatner) comes a full-sized, functioning replica of the “Mystic Seer” fortune-telling counter-top amusement piece, complete with napkin holder, menu holder, and working coin mechanism that dispenses “fortunes”–just like in the show. Available in July, the 13 1/2 x 7 1/2 x 6-in. unit is priced at $250 and unlike most Twilight Zone figures, is in full color–red box with a grey “seer” devil head.

“It’s a working replica that people might set out on display,” explains Labowitz. “The series was in black-and-white, and there are no color-reference shots available, so none of the merchandise has ever been seen before in color. And black-and-white is what fans remember: We’ve attempted some figures in color in limited edition runs to gauge the response, but people like black-and-white versions more than color.”

The Mystic Seer, which is already available in small $13 black-and-white and $15 color non-functioning versions, was a hit at Toy Fair, says Labowitz, who also showed an 18-inch black-and-white Talky Tina doll replica, from the 1963 Twilight Zone episode “Living Doll” (starring Telly Savalas). Also available in July, the $140 piece features vinyl head and limbs, soft fabric body and clothing, rooted hair, eyelids that open and close and a talking mechanism. The doll also comes in a replica box, and like its $18 Talky Tina talking bobble head counterpart, it speaks five phrases.

Labowitz notes, though, that the doll is black-and-white. He explains: “I wasn’t going to make a color doll that might end up in a child’s room, and have it say, ‘My name is Talky Tina, and I’m going to kill you!'”

Labowitz helps his Twilight Zone “superfan” BBP partner design the product after a “selection process” in which characters are culled from their favorite episodes. But not every character translates well to a figure, Labowitz says.

“One that doesn’t is a manikin, because that’s just a doll–and nothing special,” he says. “So we look for unique faces: aliens like the three-eyed Venusian or robots, or someone with a unique outfit.”

The Mystic Seer and Invader figures are the most popular, says Labowitz.

“Everybody has their favorite episodes,” he notes. “We don’t expect anyone to get the whole collection, just one that really resonates.”

Concert Highlights–Ledisi at The Beacon Theatre, 4/30/14

Makes perfect sense that Ledisi would call her new album The Truth, for that’s what everything she does as an artist is all about.

In the case of the titletrack tune, which she performed last week (April 30) at The Beacon Theatre, it’s about facing the facts in a failing romance. But at all times it’s about being true and real about yourself and to yourself, in relation with yourself and others.

She sang it at the Beacon to a backdrop of video testimonials from a few other African-Amercian female role models, including Sheryl Lee Ralph, who invoked another central Ledisi theme, self-empowerment.

In concert and on record, Ledisi exudes equal parts self-empowerment and vulnerability—the latter by choice.

“Don’t worry about what other people think,” she instructed at one point, then putting it into practice with, “I hope you’re enjoying the show so far—and if not, I can’t do anything for you.”

That’s because she never gives anything less than her all—except out of time constraints. Hence, she had to truncate some of her earlier hits into medley format (“Don’t go Facebooking me if I don’t do your song!” she implored), including “Stay Together,” in which she sang both her part and the recording’s duet partner Jaheim’s—in his voice. It was just a taste of her breathtaking vocal ability: She could sing in a low Louis Armstrong growl—“Old School,” she put it—or lift it up to the stratosphere spectacularly in a “wiggly” “New School” soar. And though she can and did sing—and scat–all over the place, she also never got lost in any vocal pyrotechnics displayed just for show.

The “Old” and “New School” designations, by the way, provided another running theme, with Ledisi demonstrating on second Truth single “Like This” how both styles  can co-exist.

“Old School and New School need each other,” she said. “New School needs to learn where it came from, and Old School must let New School be New School!”

And Ledisi must perform to both schools “because I have so many audiences to please now!” To this end, she pulled out all the stops, jumping octaves and otherwise flying through the air with the greatest of ease, singing and spinning and holding notes while her serpentine strands of two-tone dreads swirled around her. There were four costume changes—also Old School (a beautiful blue gown) and New School (red mini and black leather with chains)–and two dynamite dancers to go with her two sensational backup singers.

The backup singers, figuratively speaking, were quite the opposite of the dancers, who were perfectly shaped and faced—if magazine-cover perfection is the criteria. But when Ledisi discoursed about how women use their walk to attract a man—and to walk out if he “acts up”—she brought both dancers and singers over to join her in a demonstration: Ideal beauty aside, the dancers had nothing on the singers in terms of walk, look and tude, and further illustrated Ledisi’s message of women supporting each other.

Unlike anyone else, Ledisi exudes both sensuality and spirituality, both upfront and without apology.

“Change for yourself,” she instructed ahead of her performance of her comprehensive confessional 2011 album titletrack “Pieces of Me,” “not for anybody else—man or woman.”

And she ended by divulging three things to remember, that she herself has learned in a 15-year career that has surmounted all doubts and obstacles and taken her to the White House, the cover of Essence’s current Beauty Issue and the forthcoming Martin Luther King biopic Selma, in which she plays Mahalia Jackson.

“Have faith,” she said. “Be yourself, and most important, be careful of who and what you allow in your personal circle.”

“Not everyone deserves your presence,” she concluded. “Some people you love from afar.”

She was preaching to the converted, of course, to those who were close to her.