Jottings from a pop culture junkie

On a matinee day especially you have to wonder how many physical therapists are backstage at Broadway’s “Some Like It Hot” to tend to all those tap and swing dancers. We saw a Wednesday night performance and left giddy with delight; standing in Shubert Alley as the cast emerged after the show, they were clearly ready to hightail it home. You couldn’t blame them.

A cavalcade of non-stop 11 o’clock numbers by songwriters Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman started from the opener and never let up. Those songs were further enlivened by all those tappers and swingers (plaudits to choreographer/director Casey Nicholaw) outfitted in eye-popping costumes (Gregg Barnes). And the book has been meaningfully updated from the 1959 film by Matthew López and Amber Ruffin, paying all due homage (and copping lines as appropriate), without getting overboard serious. This is a pure fun show, after all.

One complaint: The orchestra is so over-amplified I kept wanting to turn the volume down, and in the course of that blast the singing is consistently drowned out. That said, the cast gives its all throughout.

For those who qualify, as I write this there are eight upcoming performances at for significantly reduced price tickets, including this Saturday night. The house was probably less than two-thirds full. Go, and then you, too, will be inclined to help spread the word-of-mouth.

Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt introduced me to 38 characters I recognized instantly. Every person on stage was familiar in their talk, their thoughts, their walk, their actions.

This is Stoppard’s coming-to-terms with the discovery late in life that his mother and he were Jewish. Upon arriving in England from Vienna in the late 1930s his mother changed their names so that no one would know they were Jewish. He — and we — learn the family history and what happened to those they left behind as they escaped. No surprises here — really — but what a telling.

The writing is taut, as are the tableaux of the family in its home in Vienna, the acting, and the direction. Even the set, simple as it is, is spot on. Stunning me for a moment was the character Rosa, who had the precise posture and bearing of three German Jewish sisters (one our beloved family doctor here in NYC who delivered me and remained my doctor into my mid-20s, the others her nurse and office manager).

Go. You will hold your breath for a fleeting two hours and 10 minutes. At the end your muscles will be as taut as that writing. So rewarding.

Leopoldstadt is in previews at the Longacre Theater, formally opens next month, and is scheduled to run through January 29, 2023.

NEW YORK, NY; March 24, 2022—Shaina Taub’s passion and earnestness are brilliantly exhilarating and exhausting in the musical Suffs at the Public Theater, continuously from the opening number straight through the following 2-3/4 hours. A sung-through musical about the suffrage movement and passage of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, Taub is responsible for book, music, and lyrics, and stars as the voting rights activist Alice Paul. (The sold out run is in previews, with a formal opening April 6th.)

Yes, there are obvious references to our contemporary plights re voting, gender and racial equality, discrimination, and war. They are critical to Taub’s vision of the role of theater — and music generally, as those who’ve seen Taub as a cabaret artist at Joe’s Pub, as actor-singer/accordionist/composer for the Public’s Public Works Twelfth Night, or elsewhere will know.

Music is her métier and in Suffs she delivers inspiring song after inspiring song, with three or four motifs running through the entire score to provide continuity and heighten the drama of a story whose outcome everyone knows but for which the details are in long-past classroom memories. The casting under Leigh Silverman’s direction, and the scoring (music director is Andrea Grody) are excellent.

If you’re lucky enough to have tickets for Suffs at the Public, where it follows in large Newman Theater footsteps, you’re in for a treat. If not, you’ll likely have to wait until it goes to Broadway — which I fervently hope it will. Right next to the musical she’s co-writing with Sir Elton John for the Broadway-bound Devil Wears Prada. (Taub is lyricist for Devil, which is set for a pre-Broadway Chicago run this summer while Taub will be back on stage performing in Central Park as part of a revival of Twelfth Night.)

There will be inevitable comparisons to Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton. Don’t let them scare you. Suffs is not Hamilton. And most importantly, Taub is not The Next Lin-Manuel — she is original Shaina Taub.

Song sample: “How Long”.

Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster’s names spill off the marquee at the Winter Garden Theatre; you have to be across the street to see the half-block-long billboard above the marquee that announces the show Jackman and Foster are in. However, the real star of this incredibly happy-making production of “The Music Man” is The Ensemble. A 40-strong cast — and I mean STRONG — sings, dances, and struts its stuff with pizzazz.

I was too young to have seen the original 1957 Broadway production, never saw the City Center or Broadway revivals, and don’t remember the film version well enough (I’ll re-watch it soon) to know if more dance sequences were added, but the producers get their money’s worth in steps alone from every single member of this cast — and that’s before the curtain call, when Jackman and Foster break into a, well, swell tap routine. That’s not even counting the vocal strength from the very first number, “Rock Island.”

Think two and a half hours of the “Ahhhhhh”-inducing moment when the curtain rises on the second act of the Franco Zeffirelli “La Boheme” at the Metropolitan Opera — only with all this dancing added (choreographed by Warren Carlyle; directed by Jerry Zaks).

Maybe we caught a few places where Foster flubbed a spoken word (never while singing; such a glorious voice). Or when she pushed Jackman away from an embrace just a little too forcefully and he fell, responding by mugging his way up and teasing Foster lightly, she having trouble maintaining composure (just a few seconds…but exactly what makes live theater so special). Then when she got her dress caught in her heel while dancing and the dancers near her making sure she was OK. And when he broke character to pick up the stick he dropped that he was to use to pretend-conduct the non-existent band at the bridge…They’re still blocking for a February 10th formal opening.

Maybe like me, you went to the box office in January 2020 and scored two $99 seats (one behind the other) in the last and next-to-last rows in the mezzanine for October 13, 2020. Seats that were changed three times as the pandemic knocked one scheduled opening after another off the boards. And maybe those tickets still worked last night, just as ours did. I don’t often sing the praises of Telecharge, but this must have been a challenge for their programmers, let alone fielding the needs of people for whom the automatically-generated replacement dates no doubt didn’t work. (Reminds me of Miss Street, who single-handedly programmed 4000 students’ programs at Far Rockaway High School in the 1960s using index cards. OK, with some help from student volunteers — and how reliable were they?) And maybe the usher, unasked, generously checked if the woman sitting next to Riva, who was solo, would switch with me so we could sit together (she did; thank you whoever you are).

All of which is to say we, like everyone else walking up the street and into the Winter Garden, were psyched to be there. Have you seen the curtain call speech Jackman delivered to credit Kathy Voytko, the swing who appeared on several hours notice to replace Foster when Foster tested positive four nights after the first preview? What a mensch. Kind of like Prof. Harold Hill, it turns out. You go to “The Music Man” knowing that the crook is really a softy and a good guy, and that the love story is dated. Knowing all the songs. Knowing that Jackman and Foster are Stars and the drawing cards, and discovering this amazing, incredible, hard-dancing, beautiful-singing Ensemble.

If we the audience were psyched, so, clearly, was every performer on that stage, every musician in the pit. What a wonderful night on Broadway.

Journalist friends:

Reading the front page of the NYT this morning I realized that NONE of the news stories had what we were all taught would be a traditional “news lede.” They all kick off like feature stories; the news is often in a third or later paragraph, sometimes merely inferred. I went back to the Friday and Saturday front pages — one story on Friday and two on Saturday have classic news ledes — but most, again, are feature-style news reports. The WSJ uses proper ledes on the front page, except for what are legit features.

I’ve sensed this for a while at the Times, but hadn’t considered that it was a wholesale shift until this morning’s page 1. Is the Times abandoning the Who, What, Where, When, Why and How lede? I have to go back and re-examine the inside stories.

A quick Google search suggests j-schools are still defining ledes as answering those key questions, usually in the first paragraph and typically in one sentence. Just like the old days.

Is this a positive change?

Artist Fred Terna is a Holocaust survivor. It is no surprise that much of his work centers on the trauma of that experience, and of surviving multiple concentration and work camps. A new show at Manhattan’s Czech Center Gallery at the Bohemian National Hall consists mostly of 1980s pieces, plus a few more recent ones.

Titled “Flame Paintings,” it is a stunning, soul-wrenching exhibit curated by his son Daniel Terna, a photographer and artist in his own right. Riva and I are fortunate to number Fred and his family among our close friends. I try to visit Fred’s studio whenever we are at their house, to see what he is working on. Having recently turned 99, he is still climbing the stairs almost daily to his third-floor studio and actively painting.

I know his work. Our daughter wrote his biography. I know his life story. Nonetheless, seeing this selection of works displayed so forcefully, in a stark white hall under the auspices of the Consulate General of the Czech Republic puts these Flame paintings in a very special context, with a resonance for our times that should not be underestimated.

The opening on Tuesday night was crowded; I plan to go back to reflect on each piece and on the cumulative impact of seeing them gathered in this way. I hope you have the opportunity to go as well.

The Gallery is on the 2nd floor at 321 E. 73rd St.; the exhibit is on through December 9th. For more information about the show, visit…/flame-paintings….

To see more of Fred’s work, visit

To see a selection of Daniel’s work, visit

For information on “Painting Resilience,” a biography of Fred, visit

After a full and musically satisfying Friday at the Newport Folk Festival with the family last weekend, the heat got to me Saturday morning while waiting to get back in for Day 2. The medics on-site determined it was dehydration and did a work up in their M*A*S*H tent. (“You’ve seen M*A*S*H, right? You have to have seen M*A*S*H. This looks just like it.” It did, except this one was air conditioned.)

My wife Riva, who was in a second car coming in later in the morning, detoured from the parking lot to the medical tent, where I was admonished to stay away from my staple seltzer and drink a lot of water and Gatorade — the latter of which, in the best of times, I gag on. I was down for the day and headed back to the lovely airbnb our daughter had found in Bristol, RI. I assumed if I drank enough Saturday I’d be good to go at least late in the afternoon for whatever finale Brandi Carlile had planned. It wasn’t even supposed to be that sunny on Sunday.

Well, too fatigued and not wanting to risk being stuck in a car for a couple of hours getting out of the parking lot at the end of the day, I wasn’t there for Joni Mitchell’s now-widely-reported and documented set. I’m delighted that my daughter, son-in-law, son, and his girlfriend got to see and experience a legend, if not at the peak of her career at a peak of grace and dignity and survival.

The videos are all over Youtube and Facebook, and there’s an excellent piece from CBS News with background on how this came together, what Mitchell has recovered since her brain aneurysm in 2015, and a chat with Mitchell after the performance.

But friends, listen to the lyrics. Joni Mitchell is 78 now; she wrote “Circle Game” and “Both Sides Now” around 1966 when she was 22. There isn’t a wasted word, not a cliché. Full verses, stunning choruses. 22. What is it that true artists feel and see and can express so early that the rest of us need a lifetime to maybe fully appreciate?

That depth is true for so much of what Mitchell wrote. It is no doubt what lends her rendition of “Summertime” here, and the smokier jazz-inflected voicings on the 2000 album “Both Sides Now,” on which she performs mostly other people’s standards as well as a couple of her songs that have become standards too, its legitimacy. My how she balances gravitas and lightness.

As for Carlile, I’ve written glowingly about her before. A unique aspect of her genius is her ability to shore up other artists without overshadowing them which, along  with her wide net of musicians who respect her, is no doubt why she gets to program these closing nights at Newport. Watch her carefully sitting next to Mitchell in these Newport videos, conducting the band, filling in notes, urging Mitchell on with a gentle touch.

I DID see Joni Mitchell at Newport in 1969 — the last time she appeared there — when she was on the Sunday afternoon New Faces program, with James Taylor and Van Morrison. I also saw her at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto in 1972, when she, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young did simultaneous surprise guest sets on different stages, while Gordon Lightfoot did an impromptu unmiked set from a picnic table bench. And I saw her in concerts and club appearances from Carnegie Hall to the Bottom Line (the latter another unannounced guest set during an Eric Andersen show).

What Joni Mitchell overcame to do this Newport set is impressive. What gifts she shared. Even for someone who wasn’t there.

Oh, the first time I missed Joni Mitchell? My first assignment for The New York Post in 1978 was to review Crosby, Stills & Nash at Madison Square Garden. I’d gotten the assignment about 4:30 that afternoon and immediately called the label’s publicist Stu Ginsburg. Stu said he couldn’t get me a ticket but he could get me a backstage pass and I’d have to stand at the side of the stage. As CSN finished its formal set, all of us in the wings were shuffled off the stage. I went to the Post to write my review. The next morning I got a call from my editor, Steve Cuozzo. “How come you didn’t mention Joni Mitchell singing the encore with them?” Well… Thank you Steve for not holding that against me; I wrote for the Post through 1990.

“Cousin Ira!” boomed the voice at the other end of the phone line. It was always Paul Bloch, James Caan’s publicist. I’d known Paul, the head of the music department at the PR firm Rogers & Cowan roughly since I was 18 when I started contributing music reviews to the Village Voice, Sunday New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and before he added James Caan to the roster of movie stars he was representing. I’d told him that Jimmy and I were cousins. That was it. I had a new name. No one else ever called me that except one other publicist who worked with Paul.

The fine print: James Caan’s grandmother Bertha and my grandfather Isi were sister and brother. That made James’s father Arthur and my father Louis Mayer (no relation to Louis B.) first cousins. So I’m a cousin once removed, or a second cousin, or something. But James was always Cousin Jimmy — not that there were any other James or Jimmys in the family.

My sister Joan and cousin Emily, a few years older than me/a few younger than Jimmy, remember being at Jimmy’s bar mitzvah; I would have been 1, so I assume I was left home for the occasion. By the time my bar mitzvah came around in June 1965, Jimmy’s younger brother Ronnie and sister Barbara were in attendance with their parents, Arthur and Sophie, who everyone loved. Arthur and Sophie turned any room they were in into a party. At that point, Jimmy would have been filming one of two Howard Hawks films he starred in that year,  “El Dorado” or “Red Line 7000.”

I remember my parents coming home after seeing Jimmy off-Broadway in “La Ronde” in 1960, and recall being allowed to stay up to see him on TV shows such as “Naked City,” the storyline for which I was too young to understand. Just as I was too young to understand, while visiting Jimmy and Ronnie in Malibu the summer I graduated high school, what to do when they left my friend Howard and me alone for the night with Jimmy’s Playmate girlfriend of the moment. That was the same trip when they took us out to dinner, got into their cars as we got into ours, with Jimmy calling out, “Just follow us.” Of course they pulled out and went off in opposite directions.

Many of the recent James Caan obits reference their father Arthur as being a kosher butcher. That’s half right: He supplied restaurants with meat — much of the beef sourced from my father and uncle’s wholesale operation in what is now known as the Meat Packing District in NYC, the veal from another relative’s packing operation also in the Gansevoort Market. However, kosher wasn’t part of the mix. Arthur left Germany in the mid-1930s after a schoolmate said something nasty about him being a Jew. Standing on a famous bridge in their hometown of Bad Kreuznach, Arthur held the kid by the ankles over the water and threatened that if he ever said something like that again he’d drop him into the Nahe River below. Arthur skipped town pronto.

The Caan’s were all characters. My father earned his formal butcher’s certificate before leaving Germany in 1936 and when drafted here was recruited to run a cooks and bakers school for the Army. At some point over the years, Sophie Caan made him a present to honor his legendary BBQ skills (or whatever): an apron with a giant 3D penis on it. Then there was the night after Jimmy and Ronnie had moved to California. The boys had a girlfriend phone Arthur, still living in New York, in the early a.m. hours to tell him she’d just slept with both his sons — “the two best lays in California.” Arthur didn’t miss a beat. “You ain’t been fucked ‘til you’ve fucked the old man.”

For that period in the 1970s when I was given to driving to California and back, Jimmy and Ronnie were always very generous to me and to the friends I brought with me. They would put us up in whatever rental house they had at the moment, take us out, and ultimately arrange, through Paul Bloch, for a friend and me to visit Jimmy on set. The only stipulation was that if whatever publication ultimately bought the story wanted him to sit for a photo session, it had to be for a cover.

Following is a piece I wrote for The New York Times Magazine in 1977; The Times rejected it, and some parts ran in shorter form in the Post and elsewhere. Here it is reconstituted. Jimmy and I hadn’t been in direct touch since the early 1980s, though I remained close to his parents and obviously followed his career. I spoke to Ronnie briefly six years ago when he happened to call his mother while I was visiting her in Beverly Hills. She was 98 and still very together at the time (she died two years later). Just remember, this is as reported and written 45 years ago.


“It happens to me all the time. You pour your heart out to somebody and all they write about is who you’re fucking,” cousin Jimmy tells me on the set of “Comes A Horseman.”

Some months later I call Jimmy a few days after the finalization of his divorce to Sheila Ryan — a second marriage that lasted about two years and gave Jimmy his second child/first son, Scott Andrew [now an actor in his own right; his first child was a daughter, Tara, by his first wife Dee Jay Mattis]. Claude Lelouche’s “Another Man, Another Chance,” in which he starred, was about to open — and close, all in a matter of days. An editor suggested I query Jimmy as to the similarities between the film and his real life.

“The parallel situation,” he explained, imitating himself as the English professor he played in “The Gambler,” “is that I have a son. My wife dies in the movie, but my wife hasn’t died as yet in real life. But I’m working on it.

“Fuck,” he adds instantly. “You didn’t go to school for nothing. Your cousin you don’t have to annoy with stupid questions. Make me sound intelligent, you asshole. Write it. Make it up.”

“Can I quote you on that?”

“Sure, go ahead. Why not?”

*   *   *

“Where’s Ronnie?!’ I ask my first day on the set. “Comes A Horseman, Wild and Free,” is an Alan J. Pakula film shooting on location in Westcliffe, Colorado.

“Taking a well-deserved rest,” wisecracks Jimmy, who is co-starring with Jane Fonda and Jason Robards, Jr.

Kid brother Ronnie is the living manifestation of Jimmy’s “I’d rather play than work” ethic. He went to Hollywood to visit Jimmy shortly after the actor’s first film, “Lady In A Cage,” in 1964. They’ve been horsing around together ever since.

Most people on the “Horseman” set know we’re related, and know I’m writing, so when I jokingly ask how much they pay Ronnie to stay away, the question doesn’t even elicit a smile. Some of Jimmy and Ronnie’s producer friends, however, have offered Ronnie upwards of $10,000 cash to get Jimmy to sign on for one or another picture. The two brothers just laugh at how little such “friends” seem to know them.

*   *   *

Westcliffe, Colorado is in the Wet Mountain Valley 50 miles west of Canon City, which is 50 miles south of Colorado Springs. It is nestled in at the foot of the Rocky and Sangre de Cristo mountains. Set publicist Harry Clein is driving several of us from the Canon City base to the set on very winding mountain roads. I’m in the middle of the back seat, having not said anything about my proclivity for motion sickness. It doesn’t take long. I lean over my friend, crank the window down just barely in time…most of what comes up lands on the outside of the door, though, and there is nowhere to stop and nothing with which to wash the car down anyway. “Cousin Ira,” as I’ve become known by Jimmy’s handlers, “if you say anything bad about this film, THIS story is EVERYWHERE!”

*   *   *

The weather changes several times a day, from crystal clear, windless 80-degree heat, to overcast with heavy gusting winds, to occasional thunderstorms that bless the then drought-stricken area with much needed water.

Geography and weather are all important because, while it is discomfiting to think or say that an area so beautiful is boring, this place is boring. Once you have noted how much Westcliffe resembles something you’ve seen in a 1940s western, and checked to make sure that the buildings on the main street aren’t just the facades you see on a studio tour in Hollywood, you’ve done what there is to do. Westcliffe is so small that its movie house lists the week’s title on only one side of its triangular marquee. The two block main drag dead ends on the other side.

Canon City, where the 80-member cast and crew for “Horseman” are headquartered, is even less to write home about. The town itself lacks charm or individuality. It boasts the Royal Gorge Bridge — the “highest suspension bridge in the world,” according the brochures, built as a tourist attraction, not out of commuter need — and medium and maximum security state penitentiaries. Local legend has it that the townspeople were given the choice between a state university and a state pen. The good people of Canon City (pronounced “canyon” though the cedilla is never written in) opted for the latter as that was “the more likely to be well attended.”

A dozen motels and a handful of routine restaurants line the main thoroughfare. The Ramada Inn, home base for those involved with “Horseman,” has a live band in the lounge weekend nights. So much for entertainment. The “Horseman” entourage will be here for two months.

Jimmy Caan needs action and is famous for making his own when things get quiet. The National Enquirer may stretch some tales to get what it wants, but three days in Canon City and Jimmy had already punched out a guy in a bar who had insulted Ronnie.

The temper and practical joking are a gossip columnist’s dream. As is Jimmy’s love life. Even members of the Caan family joke that Jimmy doesn’t know who he’s slept with until he reads the morning papers. But a few weeks in Canon City have blunted the edge of Jimmy’s well-honed personal style. And without his saying anything, it is obvious he is at odds with director Pakula.

*   *   *

The films Alan J. Pakula has produced and directed, including “Klute,” “The Parallax View,” and “All the Presidents Men,” won all manner of awards, including Oscars for both Jane Fonda and Jason Robards, Jr. Pakula is a soft-spoken, red-bearded man of 49 who exercises a quiet, steadfast control over his set.

For “Horseman” he has assembled what is probably the finest film-making crew available — from cinematographer Gordon Willis (“The Godfather,” “Annie Hall”) right on down the line. Pakula consults constantly with actors and technicians, but from the little I overhear during rehearsals and between takes, it is plain that the phrasing of his questions suggests the answers he wants.

Pakula arrives on the set each morning in neatly pressed chinos, Oxford shirt, golf jacket, and broad-rimmed felt hat. He could be a professor of film at any big name liberal arts university. And he confirms that impression upon replying to the one question I have the opportunity to pose to him: What drew one of Hollywood’s most in­-demand directors to a western — a genre that has not been popular in years.

He answers with abstract references to 19th century expansionism, Ayn Rand, and the ages old quest for individual freedom. He is a thinker, a questioner, an intellectual. He is not given to impulsive decisions, sudden actions or spontaneity. He is as precise in his approach to a journalist as he is in demanding word-for-word adherence to a script.

*   *   *

“I hate 44 rehearsals,” says Jimmy defiantly. “People who just rehearse and rehearse…I don’t knock their system. For me it’s no good because everything becomes mechanized.”

The comment, made in the privacy of the 21-foot Apollo motor home which serves as Jimmy’s daytime hangout and dressing room, is not directed specifically at Pakula. Jimmy’s treading water cautiously: Pakula’s track record is impressive, and James Caan needs a hit.

“It’s a whorish business,” Jimmy is fond of saying. “Two or three flops and you’re the lower right hand corner on ‘Hollywood Squares.'”

But Jimmy the doer is in direct conflict with Pakula the analyzer. Pakula rehearses every scene, sometimes closing the set even to the crew, and he then shoots repeatedly as much to experiment with effect (dust flying, cattle roaming, cloud formations) as to capture the exact performance he wants from the actors. During the week I am there, a day and a half are spent waiting for the sun to shine properly in order to match up with earlier shots.

Jimmy prides himself on becoming the character he is playing for the duration of filming and prefers what you might euphemistically call a less rigid approach. He reports glowingly, for example, of his experience with Lelouche — of filming “Another Man, Another Chance” in five weeks, shooting each scene straight through, and going for the reality of the moment. “In a sense,” Jimmy says, “it’s like a stage play. Whatever happened — if a chair fell or something — happened. That type of film has a wonderful kind of documentary feel. It’s a good feeling for an actor.”

*    *    *

At 37, Caan has fulfilled a childhood ambition: He is a cowboy. He enjoys the liberty the $1 million-plus-percentage-of-the­ gross almost each of his films affords him, but he prizes the $125 purses he wins as a team roper in rodeo competitions as the child prefers the box to the brand new toy. He’ll take less for a film he really wants to do (“Another Man, Another Chance”), figuring that the big money numbers pay for the more arty roles and cover the rodeo entrance fees.

But while he insists he hasn’t learned to say “No” to friends, he turned down $4 million to play the lead in the remake of “Superman.”

“Marlon Brando called me up,” he says, “and asked what was the matter, wasn’t the money enough. I told him the money was incredible. But, I said, you don’t have to wear the suit.”

In Sunnyside, Queens in New York City, a tough, street-wise neighborhood where Jimmy grew up to the roar of an elevated train, Superman was, no doubt, sissy stuff. Taking to the rodeos, though, was one way of becoming the all-American. Jimmy’s previous shot at that title, at age 16, was quarterbacking at Michigan State, a career which ended when the injuries outnumbered the completed passes.

After dropping out of Michigan and drifting a while, the eldest of the three Caan children (sister Barbara is in the middle) took up acting at Adelphi University on Long Island. Soon thereafter he landed bit parts on television’s “Naked City,” played the lead in an off-Broadway production of “La Ronde” and after marrying Dee Jay Mattis at age 19, took off for his Hollywood film debut opposite Olivia de Havilland in the best-forgotten “Lady In A Cage.” “Overnight success” came in 1972 when the television film “Brian’s Song,” about late football star Brian Piccolo, and “The Godfather,” in which he played Sonny Corleone, brought the recognition the critics had long been saying he deserved.

The critics have always been generous to Jimmy, no matter how awful the picture. And his career has been all too populated with turkeys. Four of the latter he has never seen. “I suppose I could name them, but then I’d just be reminding the public that I did them.” And some of the bigger money-makers — such as “Slither” and “Funny Lady” — have been satisfying neither critically nor personally.

“The Gambler,” in which Jimmy portrayed an obsessed English professor, and “Rain People,” in which he played a mentally disturbed football player, are generally considered his acting triumphs to date. “The Gambler,” however, was a hit in New York alone; “Rain People,” released in 1971 amidst an executive upheaval at United Artists, never received the distribution or promotion it should have gotten.

“What upsets me,” Jimmy explains during a discussion of the inconsistent quality of the films he’s done, “is that sometimes I feel like I had more respect as an actor seven, eight years ago than I do now because I’ve been in these — there’s that word — ‘commercial’ films. Hopefully they’re all commercial. But you’re put in the position of having other people run your life. They ask, ‘What do you want to do all these characters for?’ Well, that’s what it’s all about to me.

“When I was 20 I used to say that if I was going to play the saxophone and I played ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ on the saxophone better than anybody in the world, I still wouldn’t be playing the saxophone. You’ve got to play a lot of things. That to me is one reason this is an art.

“‘Oh you’ve got to do this picture with Peckinpah,'” [“Killer Elite, another one of the turkeys].

“Why? But I say okay. If it was up to them I’d be doing Sonny for the rest of my life.

“‘Oh Jimmy, you can’t play this nebbish guy with glasses.’

“‘Why not?’

“‘This isn’t you.’

“Well ‘this’ isn’t the story of my life.”

Outside the trailer on the “Horseman” set the technicians, costumers and prop people stand in the shade by one of the equipment trucks and play poker using the serial numbers on dollar bills. Actor James Keach sits under a tree playing a guitar. Jane Fonda alternately reads and suns herself using a foil-lined cardboard reflector. If there is one subject about which everybody on the set agrees, it is that this is slow going. Half a day might be spent setting up a shot. Then if the sun isn’t positioned right Pakula and Willis move to another location and shoot a completely different scene. It takes about three hours to make each switch, plus rehearsal time, before the single camera being used begins to roll.

The pace is particularly irritating to Jimmy because he has just come off the Lelouche film and, in addition to his disagreements with Pakula, his marriage is in serious trouble. He won’t discuss either of those subjects, though, so we move on to other directors. He has praise for Francis Ford Coppola, with whom he worked on “Rain People” as well as “The Godfathers,” and for Stanley Kubrick, with whom he hasn’t worked. But he has serious grievances concerning the “lack of imagination” in Hollywood. Told in June of Coppola’s planned television version of “The Godfather,” Jimmy’s reaction is one of disturbed cynicism.

“More money for ‘The Godfather.’ They’ll beat it to the ground. It’s a terrible thing. They don’t let nice things rest, ever. ‘Godfather I’ was a hell of a picture, but they just don’t let it rest. It was a great feeling of accomplishment for Francis, but now they’ve got to do ‘Godfather II,’ ‘Exorcist II,’ ‘Jaws II.’

“I believe in the younger people today. These old scripts you get from guys who write during their coffee breaks — you’ve seen them a hundred times. But the studios are afraid to go with younger people. Yet it’s the young audience that we’re after. Young in mind, not necessarily in age. But they’re bright, they’re hip. They want to be stimulated mentally and emotionally rather than be hit in the head and told everything.

“That’s my biggest gripe. The scripts are full of exposition and poignancy. Every page,” he spits his words vehemently, “is

P-0-I-G-N-A-N-T. Directors and writers are afraid audiences aren’t going to understand, so they have to tell them.

“There are a lot of guys who write, produce, direct, act, and make nine zillion dollars, I’m never in that position because I don’t want to be bothered with it. I’d rather play than work.”

Does he see himself turning to directing?

“I suppose the more disappointed you get….I’d like to work with actors because I know what they feel and what they go through. So often your best shit is on the cutting room floor.” (That conversation took place in late June. By January Jimmy had taken on his first picture as director under a new contract with United Artists.)

Jimmy has contempt, too, for some of Hollywood’s big-name actors “who used to be good actors but who find themselves making a lot of money to smile and look cute. They don’t want to act anymore.”

Whether it is his sense of diplomacy (not generally regarded as one of Jimmy’s strong suits) or fear of being misunderstood (he often blames the press for “misconstruing my words”), he will not name names, nor comment on his impression of “A Bridge Too Far,” one of those blockbuster Hollywood war pictures in which he was one of nearly two dozen name stars.

*   *   *

The rodeo is Jimmy’s escape from movies, fan magazines and family (journalists and otherwise). It requires total concentration. And that, for him, is relaxation. (A bad shoulder kept him from tennis for more than a year, but his interest remained strong enough that he sold a Beverly Hills mansion that he had spent two years converting into a glorified ranch house when the city elders wouldn’t allow him to build a tennis court that would have faced Sunset Boulevard.)

His movie contracts stipulate that he can’t ride while filming, since an injury would mean several weeks or months off the set. Nonetheless he is disconsolate when he can’t get a half day off July 4th weekend to ride in a rodeo in Greeley, Colorado — a rodeo no one on the set wants to know about officially, lest the insurance company find out that the thought had even crossed Jimmy’s mind.

Denied the emotional and physical release that the rodeo provides, all of Jimmy’s tension continued to mount in Canon City; “Horseman” running weeks behind schedule did not help matters.

It was not, apparently, a fun time for anyone. Jimmy became increasingly temperamental, and the set remained pretty much off limits to journalists in the interest of keeping flare-up rumors to a minimum. Of course they made the gossip columns and fanzines anyway. Talking to those who were on hand throughout the filming yielded two general attitudes: Jimmy’s face and technique had matured considerably in the last few years; yet even those who had worked with him in the past were surprised at his ”lack of professionalism. Everybody’s as bored as he is,” went the “don’t quote me” comments. “We’ve all got our personal problems. But at a million dollars a shot, you have to separate those things out.”

Jimmy and Ronnie got into a car accident on a winding Colorado road, demolishing their car, but walking away unharmed. A stuntman died on the set in the course of rehearsing a scene. Two new location moves — to Arizona and northern California — were added to the shooting schedule.

When it was all over, the no-fault divorce was settled.

Friends and relatives alike had been surprised by the sudden marriage to Sheila in 1975. The divorce was less of a shocker. Jimmy will be paying $3000 a month alimony and child support for the next five years. And as of mid-1978 the divorced couple are said to be spending a good amount of time together and getting along just fine.

Jimmy then returned to the rodeo circuit. And he started doing talk shows in support of the ill-fated “Another Man, Another Chance.” (“Even if it doesn’t do well,” he’d told me after seeing an early cut, “I’ll still like it. It’s a lovely film.”)

*    *    *

It’s a rainy, cold afternoon on a ranch a few miles outside Westcliffe. We are sitting in Jimmy’s trailer where, since 7 a.m., he has been playing cards and joking around with some of his rodeo pals who are on hand as stuntmen and herders looking after the cattle being used for “Horseman.” 

One of the assistant directors enters to tell Jimmy that they are about to rehearse the campfire scene. Jimmy points out that he rehearsed it 20 times the day before, but adds that he’ll be happy to oblige. Five minutes later another assistant director enters to inform Jimmy that they are about to rehearse the campfire scene. Jimmy pretends never to have heard of it.

“That’s show business,” he says, as assistant director #2 leaves. “Dealing with assholes. They never taught us that in acting school.”


I always told people I wanted to grow up to be Pete Seeger. That was a lie. I wanted to be Chad Mitchell.

Chad had a great tenor that rode over the often acerbic and histrionic harmonies that were the Chad Mitchell Trio’s signature on Woody Guthrie’s “Great Historical Bum” and Michael Brown’s takedown of “The John Birch Society.”

Michael Brown re-worked “The John Birch Society,” and the Trio performed it at their reunions as “The George Bush Society.”

Then there would be three-part gentleness with Chad and Mike Kobluk singing harmony behind Joe Frazier’s beautiful version of Tom Paxton’s “Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound.” Or Chad would be alternately excitable and tender on the Trio’s mashup of “Johnny I Hardly Knew ‘Ya” and “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

More than that, there was a mystery to Chad’s stage presence that already as a preteen I desperately wanted to emulate — intense, charged, a little removed from the audience even on the group’s most dramatically staged songs. And the Chad Mitchell Trio was nothing if not well staged and scripted.

Why not Pete? Most people had no idea who Chad was. Many of my parents’ lefty friends in1960s Rockaway Park, NY knew of Seeger and the Weavers, and they were my likely “what do you want to be when you grow up?” inquisitors. But they didn’t know Chad or the Trio.

And while I spent countless hours in my bedroom with Seeger’s “How to Play the 5-string Banjo” instruction book (still have it, though no banjo), and had perfect pitch, it was clear I would never get the hang of frailing and using that fifth string on the banjo deftly. Meanwhile, my pitch disappeared when my voice changed at 12, just in time for my bar mitzvah at 13. Plus, I would never get my Adam’s apple to bob the way Seeger’s did.

As a pre-teen, I was already a Chad Mitchell Trio groupie before that term was coined. If the Chad Mitchell Trio was appearing anywhere in the New York City vicinity, my parents or my cousin would take me — at least until I was old enough to get around by bus and subway on my own.

The group went through several incarnations after Chad left in 1965, replaced by the then-unknown John Denver. By the summer I got my license, Denver was a soloist and I drove to see him at the 1969 Philadelphia Folk Festival.

Blame my infatuation with the Trio on my sister, Joan, who was in college as I was finishing junior high. One summer she came home with the album “The Best of the Chad Mitchell Trio.” I played it out and eventually bought a second copy out of a used record bin. Joan also turned me on to “Hootenanny,” a 1963 show on ABC-TV that had blacklisted Pete Seeger; Peter, Paul & Mary — arguably the Chad Mitchell Trio’s biggest “competition” — refused to play on the show in deference to Pete, as did many others. The Chad Mitchell Trio continued to appear, singing at least some songs from its topical repertoire.

That topical repertoire was appealing to a budding liberal, and reading the fine print in the liner notes to the Chad Mitchell Trio’s albums led me to the best songwriters of the day — Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs, Ewan McCall, Ed McCurdy, Shel Silverstein, Bob Dylan, of course — and many from before then, including Kurt Weill and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg.

I spent years searching for the book (that didn’t yet exist) from which the Harburg poems on the Trio’s 1965 “Slightly Irreverent” album were drawn. I still quote them often: “No matter how high or great the throne, what sits on it is the same as your own.” And “When nuclear dust has extinguished their betters, will the turtles surviving wear people-neck sweaters?”

About 10 years later, having found and treasured E.Y. Harburg’s book, “Rhymes for the Irreverent,” I interviewed Harburg but was too embarrassed to ask him to autograph it. I still regret that decision.

I’ve been unable to track down the exact date I first saw the Trio live. I’m convinced it was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House in 1963, though the archivist there has no record of the concert. Maybe it was the ’64 Carnegie date?

Either way, I sat on the left pretty close to the front. With my parents. Who had escaped Germany just before World War II. When the Trio launched into the “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” a highly dramatic satire (hardly the right word) in which a group of “ex-Nazis” sing of the presents they want for Christmas, I got very nervous about whether my parents would find it hurtful in some way. I frankly didn’t understand the song — I was 11 or 12. I don’t know if mom and dad laughed — I couldn’t bring myself to look — but it didn’t seem to offend and they loved the concert. In retrospect, “Twelve Days” was intended to make listeners uncomfortable, any laughter notwithstanding.

Close to the stage I watched Chad intently, and that’s when I decided who I wanted to be when I grew up.

Of the other members, Mike Kobluk was the grounded, calming, steadfast force, while Joe Frazier, often with his neck craned (another great Adam’s apple!), was both more political and more expressive. Joe seemed desperate to connect with the audience — the counterpoint to Chad’s remove.

I loved the Trio and its music, the way they balanced the political with the “secular,” the blend of their voices, the wider musical world they introduced me to. But I wanted to be Chad.

The quote my 14 Jewish Day School classmates chose to include for me in our 1966 8th grade yearbook was, “I have a song about that.” And for the class “Last Will and Testament” I was bequeathed “a lifetime supply of Chad Mitchell Trio records.” The Trio is who I invariably cited when we discussed civil rights (5th and 6th grade with Mrs. Fink, who chided all of us for not insisting our parents take us to the 1963 March on Washington), the anti-war movement (I brought the school record player into our classroom so I could play the Trio’s rendition of Phil Ochs’s “Draft Dodger Rag” for everyone), or any other social issue, inside the classroom or out. The song “Which Hat Shall I Wear,” written by former Weaver Fred Hellerman — I didn’t really know how my parents would take that, either, sweet harmony or not:

Oh dear, I must hurry and be on my way
There’s never a time for relaxing
Mary, the windows need washing today
The hall and the foyer need waxing

I’ve left some dresses piled up on a chair
The cleaner is coming at two
Don’t let him take the green silk with a tear
That one, my dear, is for you

Which hat shall I wear, the red one or blue one?
Which hat shall I wear to the PTA?
The red hat’s becoming, the blue one’s a new one
Mary, come here, tell me which do you say?

We were a middle class Jewish household with a Black housekeeper (Negro was the proper word at the time — a word whose pronunciation by a certain U.S. president the Trio satirized in the John Denver itieration of the group; listen to the first 30 seconds here). Our housekeeper, too, was often given the “green silk[s] with a tear.” I wasn’t sure what to do with that, either.

The “Slightly Irreverent” album, its followup “Typical American Boys” and next concert ads referenced “The Mitchell Trio.” I didn’t get why Chad’s first name disappeared, but I was loyal.

A March 1967 Mitchell Trio concert was at Brooklyn College, which campus had served as the cover of their 1961 “Mighty Days On Campus” album. By now the highly animated Denver — no remove here — was fully integrated into the group and stunned on 12-string guitar. They’d done two albums together by then, and when Denver went off on his own…well, that will be another story.

A few years after leaving the trio that bore his name (or part of it, now) Chad had a run-in with the authorities in the mid-’70s. Something to do with 400 pounds of marijuana transported between Mexico and Texas. He spent about six months in various “country club federal prisons,” he told me in response to the first draft of this article. The sentence had been five years, and Chad assumed he would be incarcerated for at least three. The decision was overturned by an appeals panel on technical grounds, and he returned to performing solo in between stints as an entertainment director on Delta Queen cruise ships out of New Orleans, as a real estate agent in Spokane, and other assorted jobs.

In New York, as mentioned, he played The Ballroom, Greg Dawson’s Soho restaurant and nightclub before Soho was SOHO. The gig was December 1976 through January 1977. I was reviewing for a trade magazine, Record World, and went to see my idol several times. I have an audiocassette of one of the shows that I’m afraid to play because it might disintegrate. I recall the shows as expectedly dramatic, showcasing some of the best contemporary songwriters in a way that was much more effective — which is largely to say dramatic — than the CDs he released. The highlight for me was that I got to sit down with Chad between sets. I asked about that “remove” from the audience at the height of the Trio’s career.

One of the reasons he left the Trio, he said, was that he couldn’t accept the audience’s adulation. So he had this shield that came down between him and the audience. It wasn’t an intentional theatrical effect, he insisted, though it clearly played out as one (I say). And maybe not always wanting to be “the good boy” had something to do with getting caught in some nefarious scheme. Maybe I related to not always wanting to be the “good boy” too.

Two decades later I saw two of the original Trio reunions, which took place sporadically beginning in the mid-1980s. A bit of history was made at the 92nd Street “Y” in Manhattan on May 23, 1994: For the first time since the “Hootenanny” TV show more than 30 years earlier, the Chad Mitchell Trio appeared on the same stage as Peter, Paul & Mary. At least that was the talk in the audience that night and at a reception following the concert; Chad tells me this is “news to me. I always assumed because PP&M had such big hits they didn’t want to be on TV. But I was hanging around with Mary — we were both living in New York. There was no animosity at all…we were on such different levels. They’d play a big university show, and we’d have to do four shows to make the same amount of money.” Peter Yarrow also sent a note that was read at the trio’s farewell concert yet another 20 years later.

Hoping to pass my infatuation forward, my wife Riva and I took our kids, then 10 and 7, to Symphony Space on September 28, 1996 to see the Chad Mitchell Trio headline Robert Sherman’s annual live edition of his “Woody’s Children” radio show.

I never could sing once my voice changed, so I was never going to be Chad. Apart from a one-show Peter, Paul & Mary cover band in high school (Winky, Ira & Marian — we weren’t going to call ourselves Weinberg, Mayer & Cohen), my “performing” beginning in the 1990s had morphed into public speaking. As marketing consultant Robert Passikoff once told me, “So you did grow up to be Pete Seeger, just without the banjo.”

In my teens the Byrds became my next infatuation, and now I was practicing on my electric 12-string guitar, trying to play “Mr. Tambourine Man” (which I first learned from the Mitchell Trio rendition) and “Turn, Turn, Turn.” I didn’t make the connection at the time that the Byrds’ Roger McGuinn, whose 12-string was what I wanted mine to sound like, was the same Jim McGuinn who had been the Chad Mitchell Trio’s accompanist on its earliest albums. There’s a great video of Chad, Mike, Joe and Jim on NBC-TV’s Bell Telephone Hour, a three-song set on a show that also featured Rudolf Nureyev, Andre Segovia, and Jane Powell, among others!

Still, I managed to pass on my admiration for the Chad Mitchell Trio, if not necessarily with Chad specifically: In grade school our daughter Julia built a Chad Mitchell Trio tribute diorama. And in November 2014, at 28, our DC-based son Jesse attended the Chad Mitchell Trio’s 55th anniversary/farewell concert in Bethesda, MD.

A man sitting next to Jesse looked at him, then scanned everyone else in the audience, and told Jesse, “In 55 years, you’ll be the only one who remembers being here.”

NOTE 1: I was delighted to have Chad reach out when the initial version of this article was posted, and to set the record straight on his prison time and the non-existent “rift” between the Trio and Peter, Paul & Mary. It was like speaking with a long-lost friend, only we’d only “known” each other previously across footlights.

NOTE 2: Many of the links here are audio only. There is quite a bit of video of both the early years and the reunions, and the era with John Denver in between. “Chad Mitchell Trio Then & Now” is an excellent 3-DVD set that is out of print, but there are periodically used copies for sale. Youtube also has more clips from the “Hootenanny” show. Full album audio is on Youtube for many of the LPs, and there have been several CD collections; some of that material is available on streaming services, as well.

We are so overwhelmed by these past weeks, months, this year that sometimes masquerades as a decade. We have gone to sleep fretting over every cough or sneeze, to the sound of helicopters circling, protesters chanting, sirens whirring. We keep our contact with the outside world to a minimum, masks on and at a distance. Then, in the midst of protests fueled by the horrific death of George Floyd and so many others, in the middle of a pandemic, I received a package of photos and a video of the latest work by book-artist Julie Shaw Lutts entitled The VOTE.
About a year ago I gave Julie a collection of white-leather gloves that had belonged to my and my sister Joan Mayer Teichman‘s late mother, hoping she might create something both beautiful and impactful. Julie’s book art typically integrates text with “things,” mostly found or acquired at flea markets, and are typically “bound” in boxes. They are, at heart, collections of ephemera with a textual root. In this case, my mother’s gloves spell out, in its entirety, the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, passed by the needed 36th state 100 years ago today.
I originally suggested that the piece Julie creates from my mother’s gloves have something to do with immigration. Both of my parents were Jews who fled Germany, my mother on the last boat out of Italy in 1940. She, my father, and the others who managed to escape, took their U.S. citizenship very seriously. And a year ago, immigration was very top-of-mind.
The VOTE open boxBut immigration, per se, turned out to be a little far afield for Julie, whose ancestors may have been on the Mayflower (or not very long after). Instead, she asked if she could use the gloves to commemorate the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. Given how important voting was to both my parents, this felt comfortable. Little did Julie or I anticipate just how linked immigration and voting would be in the minds of those now contemplating The VOTE in a very different time.
I remember my mom putting on her gloves to go vote, which she may well have done, as Julie suggests in the video below. She and I certainly talked about the joy my mother took in her gloves and I DO remember going with her to vote — me little more than knee high standing next to her in the voting booth. She would show me how the levers worked, and sometimes let me push the ones she wanted.
I sent the photos and video about The VOTE initially to my family and friends. They triggered the kinds of memories and detailed responses an artist in the rarefied book-arts community only hopes for:
Babette Sanders:
Those gloves told amazing stories, as did the hands that filled them. Wonderful memories of my Aunt Trude, my mom and so many others like them who understood the power of their vote. The power of the vote…yes, indeed.
Emily Wilkins:
Ever with their white gloves on, they managed to do it all. We can all learn (and we all did) from these strong women.
Norma Rothstein:
My mother never wore gloves — white or otherwise. I doubt she owned a pair. Her hands were too busy cooking, sewing, cleaning up after us all and then going to work at her little store on the Lower East Side. However, she was never too busy to vote. Her vote was probably the only thing she could truly call her own.
Margot Stern:
I am reminded of how my father said, “Now we vote!” after we obtained our American citizenship and after having had our right to vote taken away as Jews in Nazi Germany. I have never since skipped my right to vote, to a point of always voting even in every primary! I also recalled how in my first job as an 18-year-old going to college at night, I always wore gloves to go out anywhere. It was just the thing to do!
The VOTE - Trude's glovesAdd concerns over voter suppression and it all comes together — gloves, immigration, the fight against racism, and The VOTE — more desperately, I’m sure, than when Julie first contemplated what to do with Trude’s white-leather gloves just one year back.
Voting is so crucial to correcting the direction of our country. May The VOTE bring us hope on this anniversary and going forward.