Saturday, February 8, 2014

Show Them Your Assets

Being gifted is not enough. The real question is whether or not you can deliver on the promise of your talent. For some people, a creative career means constantly shaping, refining, and honing one's art. For others, it may mean finding a financially rewarding comfort zone and staying there.

In the process of adapting his 1968 comedy hit, The Producers, for the musical stage, Mel Brooks created a great number for the actress playing the part of Ulla Inga tor Hansen Benson Yansen Tallen Hallen Svaden Swanson Bloom. In the following clip, Uma Thurman sings "When You Got It, Flaunt It."

I had the strangest sensations while viewing Asphalt Watches, a full-length animation feature from Canada being screened during this month's SFIndie Film Festival. Created by Shayne Ehman and Seth Scriver (two filmmakers with a strong track record as visual artists), Asphalt Watches brings to life the storyboards they created in 2000 while hitchhiking across Canada from Vancouver to Toronto.

The film also gives the strange impression that its creators are flaunting what they can do with new technology. Although this full-length feature took eight years to complete, it was hand drawn using Flash animation. The colors are magnificent; the creativity is often staggering (Asphalt Watches received the award for the Best Canadian First Feature Film at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival). As the filmmakers explain:
"We saw Gary Panter’s Flash animation, Pink Donkey, right before leaving on our trip in 2000 and thought 'Ha ha, is this a Flash ad?' It’s easy to use without fancy computers or crazy equipment. The file sizes are small, but you can export it extra-large because it’s vector based. We use it for 2D digital animation made in a classical style with frames and layers." 

Asphalt Watches begins as its two protagonists -- Bucktooth Cloud (a floating cloud holding an umbrella) and Skeleton Hat (a grey nebbish with part of a moustache) -- find themselves in Chilliwack, British Columbia, attempting to follow the instructions written in an outdated train-hopping manual as they try to get out of town. Before they left Vancouver, Shayne Ehman had been involved in a strange battle with some neighbors across the street. As he recalls:
"I had Christmas lights up in my room and had no curtain. One day, the children from across the street came over and said that their grandpa had hit their grandma over the head with a frying pan and it was my fault because I had Christmas lights in my room which were red and my room directly faced their house. A battle of lawn decorations ensued. It was clearly a good time to leave Vancouver."

Much of the artwork in Asphalt Watches is quite impressive. However, the experience reminded me of several screenings I attended (back in the day) when Spike & Mike's Festival of Animation offered films that were considered radically subversive and hilariously funny. Although many of the folks in the enthusiastic audiences for those screenings were half baked and quite giggly, I found that viewing Asphalt Watches without the help of drugs (or an audience high on drugs) made the film seem surprisingly boring and juvenile. Here's the trailer:

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Back around 1960, Anita Gillette was starting to make a name for herself on Broadway as a reliable understudy for ingenue roles. Her Broadway debut was as one of the Hollywood Blondes in Gypsy (she understudied the role of June). David Merrick subsequently hired her to understudy Anna Maria Alberghetti in Carnival! and, late in the show's run, she took over the role of Lili.

I first saw Gillette perform as Sarah Brown in the New York City Center's 1965 revival of Guys and Dolls and in Woody Allen's 1966 comedy, Don't Drink The Water. During the 1960s, Gillette appeared in some notable flops (All American, Mr. President, Kelly, Jimmy) as well as being one of the replacements in the role of Sally Bowles in the original production of Cabaret.

Although she gained popularity for her appearances in Neil Simon's Chapter Two, They're Playing Our Song, and Brighton Beach Memoirs and as Mona in 1987's Moonstruck, in between her stage gigs there were plenty of appearances on game shows and soap operas. More recently, she was seen as Liz Lemon's mother on 30 Rock.

Last year, when The Rrazz Room scheduled an appearance by Gillette, I was eager to hear her perform. She finally made her San Francisco cabaret debut at Feinstein's at the Nikko late last month with an extraordinarily appealing act entitled "After All."

Unlike many of musical theatre's aging dames who turn to the cabaret circuit late in life, the 77-year-old Gillette's voice is still in excellent shape. On March 4th (along with Ben Vereen) she will be one of the honorees at the 29th Bistro Awards (which recognize outstanding achievement in New York's cabaret, jazz, and comedy scene).

A delightful raconteur, Gillette had the audience doubled over in laughter as she described her experiences working with Broadway legends like Joshua Logan, Ray Bolger, and Nanette Fabray as well as the time she had a few too many martinis at a White House function and ended up with President Lyndon B. Johnson's hand firmly cupping her breast. Descriptions of her long friendship with Irving Berlin (and what it was like to have Ethel Merman running interference for her when she was pregnant) were balanced with disarming arrangements of Jerome Kern's haunting "Yesterdays" (which she sang at Otto Harbach's funeral) and "Shall We Dance?"

Gillette sang some delightful novelty items which I would never have expected to hear during a cabaret act. These included Bob Merrill's poignant "Mira" (from Carnival!) and Irving Berlin's "The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous" (from Mr. President). A special treat was a song by Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz that had been cut from The Gay Life during its pre-Broadway tryout ("I Lost the Love of Anatol") as well as Victor Herbert's famous "Italian Street Song" from 1910's Naughty Marietta, "Cuanto le Gusta" (originally sung by Carmen Miranda in 1948's A Date With Judy ), and "Life Is Just A Bowl of Cherries" from George White's Scandals of 1931.

Gillette has always been a gifted songstress with strong interpretative chops and a solid ability to belt. Her renditions of "How Deep is the Ocean?" (Irving Berlin), "He May Be Your Man" (Joe Williams), and "Are you Havin' Any Fun?" (Sammy Fain/Jack Yellen) brought down the house. In the following clip, Anita can be seen performing at a Dancers Over 40 event.

I left Gillette's performance feeling intensely fulfilled and immensely satisfied by the work of a delightful performer who chose to take some curious risks with repertoire. The last thing I expected to hear was a snippet of "Ode to a Bridge" (written by Moose Charlap and Eddie Lawrence for 1965's big Broadway flop, Kelly)!

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