Saturday, February 28, 2009

They Followed Their Dreams

Some people may not know that Rex Harrison was originally supposed to star in Man of La Mancha. However, when it became clear that the vocal demands of the songs written by Mitch Leigh (with lyrics by Joe Darion) were beyond Harrison's grasp, the lead role went to Richard Kiley, a popular Broadway baritone who had introduced Stranger in Paradise in Kismet (1953), and sung the romantic leads in Redhead (1959, opposite Gwen Verdon), No Strings (1962, opposite Diahann Caroll), and I Had A Ball (1964, opposite Karen Morrow)

For the second time in his career, Kiley introduced a song which went on to become a pop standard. The Quest (The Impossible Dream) has been recorded by numerous artists and sold millions of albums. Here is the star of the 2002 Broadway revival, Brian Stokes Mitchell, performing the song at the Tony Awards:

If anyone embodies the concept of following one's dream, it is Barack Obama, the 44th President of the United States. Not only was his path to the White House an inspiration to people around the world, the pace he has set for his administration since taking office inspired National Public Radio to create the Obama Tracker, an online tool which allows people to follow the President's achievements on a day-by-day basis.

Defining, refining, and living one's dream is easier said than done. Opportunities fall into some people's laps through the sheer good fortune of having been in the right place at the right time. Others have spent a lifetime making their ideas become reality. As one looks back at their lives and achievements one is often struck by the fact that, no matter what obstacles came their way, these people simply never gave up.

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While previewing some of the films that will be shown in March at the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival, I had a chance to watch a rough cut of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story. I'm sure this 60-minute documentary by Jeff Adachi will end up on PBS, where I hope it is seen by millions.

Some people may remember when black actresses started refusing to be cast as maids. Not that many remember when Asian men refused to be cast as houseboys. Jack Soo may have been the first to do so. Known to television audiences for his comic roles opposite Tony Franciosa in Valentine's Day and as detective Nick Yemana on Barney Miller, Soo grew up in Oakland, where he became a popular entertainer under his own name, Goro Suzuki.

As friends from the old days reminisce about watching Goro perform (he was originally known as "Chinatown's funniest comedian"), little bombshells drop from their mouths. In their youth, they knew other Japanese Americans mostly through their church in Oakland. They had no idea that they were not allowed to live in other parts of the city. Some recollect what it was like to be a Japanese American on the day Pearl Harbor was attacked. Others describe the temporary barracks they lived in at Tanforan (near San Bruno).

Standing six feet tall, with a dusky baritone that made women swoon, Suzuki became the most popular entertainer at the Japanese internment camp at Topaz, Utah. After changing his name to Jack Soo (in order to make the authorities think he was Chinese), he was eventually released and began to tour the nightclub circuit (where he met his future wife -- a Croatian woman -- who claimed that it was love at first sight).

While most people came to know Soo for his deadpan comic delivery, he had originally hoped to have a career as a singer. An accomplished crooner, he was signed by Motown Records and recorded Ron Miller and Orlando Murden's For Once In My Life (the unreleased recording is heard over the film's final credits). Soo's version was held back and Motown instead used the song to promote a young black singer named Stevie Wonder, who turned it into a major hit early in his career.

Soo had a long association with the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song (which tried to emply as many Asians as possible). Although initially cast as Frankie Wing, he eventually replaced Larry Blyden in the role of Sammy Wong (which he took on tour with the show and repeated in the film version).

In this rare clip from the movie of Flower Drum Song, we see Jack Soo in one of those godawful Hollywood fantasy sequences which helped to kill the concept of a movie musical.

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The San Francisco Jewish Film Festival recently screened another documentary (scheduled to make its PBS debut in late March) about the birth of the cosmetics industry in America. The Powder and the Glory tracks the parallel careers of Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubenstein, two women who took lipstick from the exclusive province of stage actresses and prostitutes and made it available to the masses.

Arden and Rubenstein were tough businesswoman who became multimillionaires at a time when it was assumed that businesses were meant to be run by men. By knowing what women used, and how to market beauty products to women, they built their respective empires with astonishing skill. Tracking the rise in popularity of cosmetics over half of the 20th century, this documentary by Ann Carol Grossman and Arnie Reisman shows how the pursuit of glamour helped some women get through the Depression (and how the psychology behind selling makeup was to make women feel better about themselves). Even during hard times, if a woman could not afford a dress, she could at least afford a stylish compact from Elizabeth Arden.

Born near Toronto, Florence Nightingale Graham changed her name to Elizabeth Arden after her business partnership with Elizabeth Hubbard fell apart. After traveling to Paris in 1912 (where she learned as much as possible about tinted powders, rouges, and facial creams), she built an international empire of beauty salons (noted for their red front doors) that catered to the wealthy. A lifelong enthusiast of racing horses, Arden's firm was sold to Eli Lilly in 1971 for $38 million. Eli Lilly, in turn, sold the company to Faberge in 1987 for $657 million.

Elizabeth Arden

By contrast, Helena Rubenstein was a tiny Polish immigrant (4'10") who studied medicine in Switzerland and launched her career in Melbourne, Australia. She opened businesses in London and Paris before moving to New York in 1915. During the course of her career she amassed a great deal of modern art and poured much of her earnings into her foundation.

Helena Rubenstein

While The Powder and the Glory does a stellar job of documenting their career paths and their effect on marketing products to women, it also reveals two dominant personalities who were actively involved in their businesses until very late in life. The two women were bitter rivals (the Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of the cosmetics industry). Even if you're not into fashion or cosmetics, this documentary offers a fascinating tale of two bold and extremely competitive female entrepreneurs who, in their own way, changed the world. Check with your local PBS station for screening dates.

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