Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Larry Gelbart Would be 82

Today, February 25, is, sadly, the first time the expression "would be" can be used for Larry Gelbart's birthday. To say I miss him is an understatement: the loss has been palpable in my life.

I thought I'd throw out a few moments of wit and wisdom that I culled over the years, just to add to the tribute and to remind the world once again how much poorer the world of comedy writing--and the world writ large--had become with his passing last September. These aren't the usual, canned quotes and stock stories that you find in circulation; they're all personal and so are priceless to me (speaking as Larry's "official memory").

* When the agent and deal-maker (the diminutive) Irving Paul "Swifty" Lazar died, someone called Larry for a comment. He replied "Good things come in small packagers." The reporter, however, printed "Good things come in small packages," which is the cliché, a thing Larry never left unimproved in his lifetime of writing. When we discussed it, he seemed genuinely hurt that someone would accept a hackneyed expression from him.

* When I asked him (at his London apartment in 1994) about the experience of writing the disastrously unfunny film Neighbors (1980), he looked at me for a second, stood up, walked to a bookshelf, and removed a copy of Bob Woodward's Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. He handed it to me and said simply, "Page 200." He was right about the page and he spoke nothing more of the project.

* Larry called me once--when I was living out in California, researching my dissertation and eventual book about him--to talk about the murder of the guy who ran the Silent Movies theatre on Fairfax the day before. We talked for about an hour about the good times we had each had there (separately) over the years. In fact, the cinema was just across the street from his old high school. I was so flattered that he considered me a worthwhile partner with whom to lament.

* Speaking of high school, when Larry was still a student at Fairfax during World War II, Larry would play music (clarinet and sax) at the Hollywood Canteen sometimes with his friend, (fellow high schooler) André Previn. Larry told me that he would go to Previn's house and practice, and that Previn politely hinted it was time to leave before Art Tatum would arrive to give Previn a lesson.

* The last meal I shared with Larry was at the legendary Musso & Frank's in Hollywood. I had been there before, but when we decided against his first choice (it was unexpectedly closed), I suggested Musso & Frank's and there we lunched. He showed me where to park--behind the place--and took me in the back entrance, careful to point out to me the cash register that the waiters use to pay for everything they take from the kitchen, then collect the money from the customers later (a protection for owners against "lost" food items). We sat and talked, Larry having the shrimp salad, I the trout filet, and went over comedy theory, his recent work, family, everything. Near the end of the meal, a gentleman came to the table and said, "Hey Larry! I was in the men's room peeing when some guy said to me, 'did you see Larry Gelbart is here talking to some college professor?'" Larry was known.

* When I handed him a copy of a screenplay I wrote (and with trepidation that it might finally be good enough to share with LARRY GELBART), he asked me to send it to him electronically to read because his eyes were still bad from a screwed up cataract surgery. When I pointed out that I still wanted to give him this copy because I had dedicated the work to him, he leaned over and gave me a hug and asked me to inscribe it to him, as he had done so many times with his works for me. I was thrilled beyond description, and when he called a few days later with notes for me about the script, telling me it had a Preston Sturges feel at times, well, that was about the best feeling I've ever had!

I could go on and on (and those who know me know that's true and usual), but if you really want more, read my biography of Larry, The Classically American Comedy of Larry Gelbart. Since I'm still overseas here in Zagreb, it took me a while to receive a card from Larry's widow (hate having to use that word), Pat Marshall. She told me she looked forward to my next visit and sharing what I could with her to help with her transition without Larry.

"Without Larry" . . . still so hard to grasp. Happy birthday, Larr!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Video Se

The Fulbrighter I've spent the most time with in Zagreb, Willie Osterman, is a professor of photography at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. He was invited to exhibit his work here in this new year, and asked if he could display some new work, not his past material, but something he might derive from his time here. Once he got the go-ahead for that plan, he invited many of the people he's come into contact with over the past months in Croatia to sit for portraits--but not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill portraiture. His concept, which you will see snippets of in the video below, was to capture a detail of the subject in his viewfinder, and thereby to replicate the dreamlike quality of the furtive and fertile period of his Fulbright semester in Zagreb. He titled his show FROM THE CORNER OF MY DREAMS for this reason, and the exhibit was astonishing to say the least.

First of all, it was held in the Lotrščak Tower, the wicked cool defense structure from which every day at noon a cannon is discharged. Willie's exhibit took up three floors of the tower, and the reception was on the first of these. This is mostly the reason the video pingpongs between boisterous party and quieter viewing.

The second reason I found his work astonishing was the reaction I found myself having to seeing my detail portrait among the selected. Not only was I flattered, but I discovered the real thrill of seeing something so familiar (my own ear) through the artist's eye and lens, like hearing my script performed by someone else for the first time . . . the duality of what I knew and what I had not considered as an objective rendering. It's akin to something I always share with my students about the purpose and power of art: ARTISTS MAKE THE STONE STONEY AGAIN FOR THE AUDIENCE. So much is taken for granted in this life that art can remind people of the simplest object anew, be it a stone, a laugh, a scent, or even an ear.

Third, because of my intimate connection to the exhibit, and to my own portrait, I find the result of his work with me to be beautiful and engaging, and I'm sure all of the others who sat for him with a big camera lens inches away from random body parts feel the same way!

Still, flattery aside, and humility (as usual) dispensed with, I believe my ear to be one of the highlights of the series. This is partly the reason for this entry's punny title: "Video Se" is a play both on the video camera I employed and sounds close to the Croatian for "I Saw myself."

So how did I like the exhibition as a whole? Well, to paraphrase Abe Burrows' review of I AM A CAMERA, "Me Leica!"

[I don't want to infringe on his art by concentrating my commemoration of the evening exclusively on his pictures . . . see his blog for the better renditions of the photos at]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Train Ride to Vienna with Gina Marie Mazzetti

As some of you know, I met a lovely, lovely person just before leaving Morgantown and she quickly grew to sweetheart status. More than that, she took time off from her job at the year's end to visit me! We had a marvelous time together, and I will document more of that in future 'blogs, but here is a taste of the trip we took from Zagreb to Vienna . . . for around $40 each! We also enjoyed the first sunshine in over a week, and Mother Nature couldn't have chosen a more beautiful terrain to shine on than these foothills to the Alps. The route went roughly from Zagreb through Maribor in Slovenia, through Graz in Austria ending up in Vienna. All told, about six hours of serene travel. Well, there was one drawback--I taught Gina to play Shithead* on the train and she beat me the first four games! Grrr.


Wednesday, January 6, 2010

And Now a Legal Disclaimer

“This site (enter site’s title and address) is not an official Fulbright Program site. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of its author (or insert name here) and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.”

I received a nice email from someone at the embassey that reminded me to include the above verbiage in my 'blog somewhere. Sharp-eyed followers of ZagreBlog (and you know you are!) will notice that I've just now added the paragraph to my "About Me" section.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Vidimo Se

The Fulbright is ipso facto exciting, fun, and a highlight of any career. I don't have to explain the incredible thrill that spending an academic year abroad in a country such as Croatia affords me. The news to you, dear reader, comes in the understanding that the people I meet on the trip are in many ways the most rewarding part of this expatriate experience: sure, there are beautiful mountains and old buildings and strange alphabets, but the people with whom I come into contact constitute the lion's share of the Fulbright raison d'être.

Students, colleagues, artists, and random people I encounter in my day-to-day activities all contribute to my absolute enjoyment of Croatia. Larry and Judy Moneta have been two of the high points of my stay here so far (not to imply I'll meet any better down the line . . . I doubt it). Larry is a Student Affairs guru at Duke University and he brought his lovely wife Judy along to make this a joint experience.

Not only did they suck the marrow out of their semester in Europe, filling every day with new adventures and making a real difference to the university system here and in other parts of Eastern Europe, but they also provided a much-needed sanctuary in their apartment for regular Fulbright potlucks . . . so welcoming and generous!

Here they are on one of their many outings:

I know one of the best mementos I'll be bringing back with me is their friendship, and one of the advantages of people over objects is that I'll be able to keep their particular gifts in my memory and heart, and add some potlucks back in the States in the coming years.

Bon Voyage, Larry and Judy, and as we pseudo-Croats say, VIDIMO SE! ("Be Seeing You!")

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Lippizaners in Training

In the small, picturesque town of Đakovo (pronounced "Jakovo"), in the central Croatian region called Slavonia (not to be confused with Slovenia, Slovakia, Slavonska, or any other permutation of those sounds), live several dozen mares, their colts and fillies, and a few lucky studs. There are actually two separate places: a stud farm and a training stable, separated roughly ten minutes by car. The horses are born dark and the lucky ones grow to be white and get to perform with the world-famous Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, and around the world (on tours). Others become coach horses and fulfill other specialized functions, as they have for centuries. Below, the video displays some of the horses I encountered on a beautiful day in October 2009.

Friday, January 1, 2010

You Say You Want a Resolution . . .

As this is the time of year for such things, let me say that I hereby resolve to update my blog more assiduously in the coming months. It is not for lack of exciting adventures that I have been derelict, but a kind of inertia sets in when one does not develop the habit.

I intend to post a mix of major moments of the past two months along with timely updates as they happen, the better to chronicle this Fulbright year abroad.

So, as I am beginning anew, and without further ado, let me introduce the New Year with the Zagreb experience last night: the sweet and lovely Gina Mazzetti in town and in my heart 31.XII.2009 . . .