For me, "The Music Man" is that kind of trusted celluloid pal. I've seen it at least 25 times in my life, both on the big screen and thanks to whatever version of the film is on VHS, Laser Disc, or DVD I had yet to experience it via Blu Ray and last weekend offered just the right opportunity to spend some time in River City all over again.
It's indeed a perfect summertime movie as that is when it is set. You star with the Fourth of July celebration in Madison Park and wind up with the Labor Day Sociable. I always try to watch it between those two warm weather holidays.
And I was enveloped in its aura one more time. Indeed, with every viewing, there is something in it that makes it feel all new again. And now it also prompts a pretty vivid memory for me from many years ago.
You see, "The Music Man" was the very movie I went to see all by myself.
Before you call Social Services, remember that back when was a different time and a different place in America. Kids less than double digits in age could walk freely around my hometown of Mount Vernon, New York and there would be no worries. Yet, even in those more comfortable times, this solo event didn't come without a bit of parental consternation.
Any regular readers know that I was pretty much a movie geek when I was a youngster. Indeed, I learned how to read at a very early age primarily because I would sift through all the movie advertisements in the NY Daily News and the NY Daily Mirror. I learned to print because I would write notes for my father, asking him to take me to some movie. I'd even provide the times the films started, so, yes, my numerical skills were all being developed.
I lived for the movie palaces that were in our neighborhood. The glorious RKO Proctor's on Gramatan Avenue. The stately Loews' around the corner on Stevens Avenue. There was the Wakefield underneath the elevated tracks on White Plains Road in the Bronx. Or the small but dependable Kimball on Yonkers Avenue.
On special occasions, we would take the D Train from 205th Street down to Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan. There, you never had to go outside. There was an entrance right into the lobby from the subway station. And, of course, if my dad was wiping down the Buick windshield during the summer, I knew it would be time for the drive-in theater in Elmsford. I'd dress in my pajamas and be allowed to stay up in the back seat for the first feature only.
I am forever grateful to my parents for instilling this love in me. But they enjoyed the movies themselves. Before my mom went back to work at night, she would go out every Monday evening to either RKO or Loews with her girlfriend Ronnie. I'd find a box of Poms Poms or Milk Duds on the kitchen table in the morning.
Of course, most of the time I was at the movies myself with either my mother or my father. They actually divided up the genres between the two of them. Mom would take me to Disney movies or cartoons and most Biblical epics. Dad was responsible for bringing me to any war flicks and anything that starred Jerry Lewis. Sorry, Dad.
But the one film genre that was not covered by either parent was the movie musical. It seems that neither one of them enjoyed the "all singing, all dancing" classics. It's not likely we were a music-less family. The radio was always on and so was the record player. But, when it came to screen musicals, my folks were a collective "meh."
And that brings me to our story for this Sunday. Yours truly was learning to love the movie musical because I was already captivated by what was happening on Broadway. It's not like I had seen any shows down there. Not with the lofty prices of $3,80 per ticket.
But I knew what the "Music Man" was and I had the original Broadway cast album. Now it was coming to the movies and, for a variety of reasons, I needed to go. Besides the music that was already engrained in my skull, one of the co-stars was Ronny Howard from my very favorite TV program, "The Andy Griffith Show." I wanted to be best friends with Opie. Or, in this movie, Winthrop Paroo.
But, notes to my parents about this movie didn't register. When it came to RKO on Gramatan, I did all my usual research about movie times, length, etc..
"It's a musical. Nah."
Crap...or whatever I was saying back then to demonstrate annoyance and disappointment.
I must have been persistent because I remember overhearing my parents discussing this very movie. And how they could satisfy my insatiable need to see it.
Cousins were considered. And dismissed. Aunts and uncles were considered. And dismissed. At this point, I still wasn't going to the movies with my friends up the block. I was seemingly the only person in Mount Vernon, New York who wanted to see Professor Harold Hill and company.
And, then, from the floor of my bedroom with a box of Colorforms cracked open before me, I heard the words from the nearby kitchen.
"Well, maybe we can let him go on his own."
What followed was a series of one-on-ones with each of my parents. This outing was going to be set up with the precision of the D-Day invasion on Normandy Beach. My mom positioned it all as if I would be nervous going by myself.
Wrong. I couldn't wait.
Of course, I really wasn't going to be alone. I wasn't just being dropped off at the theater one Saturday afternoon. My dad parked the car. He paid for my ticket and then exercised a full interrogation of the woman at the box office.
"How long is the movie?"
"Is there another feature?"
"What is the exact time he will be out?"
With my ticket in hand, Dad shepherded me into the lobby. As I picked out my treats at the candy counter, my father was making fast friends with the old lady sporting the flashlight.
The dreaded movie theater matron.
I was introduced to her and virtually handed over like those kids who are flying alone and entrusted to the care of a flight attendant. On this afternoon, I wasn't even going to have to pick out my own seat.
"You're sitting right here where I can see you."
She had a five dollar bill in her hand. So, I suppose that's how much not seeing "The Music Man" was worth to my parents. Essentially, I had a baby sitter. And I was the one going out for the day. In retrospect, I wonder why one of my folks didn't simply come along and doze throughout the entire film. But, I didn't care.
"The Music Man" was that special of a movie experience for me. And has been ever since that afternoon when I didn't flinch or risk getting a flashlight blasted into my eyes.
Meredith Willson's "The Music Man" is arguably the best thing to ever come out of the Midwest, save for maybe Abe Lincoln. If it were not for this movie musical, I would probably ignore the state of Iowa altogether.
Willson obviously knew about Iowa, because that's where he was born around the turn of the century. My guess is that he waited for many a Wells Fargo wagon in his time. This music composer kicked around Hollywood and network radio for most of his life, until he achieved his true watershed moment when "The Music Man" debuted on Broadway in 1957. Apparently, you couldn't get into the show for about two years, and those were the days when Broadway audiences were smart and could tell the difference between gold and crap.
Hollywood has a nasty history of recreating a Broadway musical on screen, but forgetting to include the stars that first authored the roles on stage. Angela Lansbury got dumped in favor of a croaking Lucille Ball for "Mame." Carol Channing got bypassed for the film version of "Hello Dolly," which opted instead for Barbra Streisand, who turned the whole thing into a hackneyed Yiddish production you might find at a local nursing home.
Indeed, I'm betting there were some ridiculous thoughts about replacing the amazing Robert Preston in the role of Professor Harold Hill. Maybe Frank Sinatra. Or perhaps Sammy Davis Jr., who could have sung "Y'all Got Trouble, my brothers." As a matter of fact, Cary Grant was approached and declined by saying that WB needed to go back to the source. So, in a rare stroke of genius, producers realized that Robert Preston was the only "Music Man" we should see. Sure, there have been others to do it on Broadway since. And, for some reason perhaps known only to aliens residing on Pluto, some idiot tried to remake the movie into a TV production with Matthew Broderick. Regardless, if you are to enjoy this musical wonderment, you have to see it with Robert Preston.
After that solo in RKO Proctor's, I was addicted to the words, the music, and the performances. I would walk to school, singing the songs like some loon. And that included doing "Gary, Indiana" complete with the Ronny Howard-perfected lisp. A few years later, CBS seemed to run this movie once a season, and I would be plopped down in front of the set days and weeks in advance.
There was something about the town of River City and the very special summer they experience that captivated me. Perhaps, it was because my hometown of Mount Vernon, New York was slowly evolving into something very unspecial. For us, there would be no such thing as a boy's band. Instead, there would be gangs, riots, and hostility. If only our worlds could be about the ice cream social in the local park. A place where you couldn't necessarily let your young child go to a movie theater by himself.
Indeed, over several decades after its initial release, I still feel like I am seeing it for the first time all over again. And every time I watch it, I see something new. Or revel particularly in one single moment. After being on the Warner Brothers back lot, I could pick out actual locations that were used as River City in the movie. The first time I saw it on DVD, I could pick out the Burbank hills in the background, along with some electrical power lines which probably didn't exist around the turn of the century.
The cast is first-rate, and none of them probably had finer film moments. Shirley Jones, Buddy Hackett, Ronny Howard, Hermione Gingold, Paul Ford, Pert Kelton, and Mary Wickes are all incomparable. While everyone remembers the classic moments like "Trouble," "76 Trombones," and "Marian the Librarian," there really is not a weak musical number in the whole film. Take a look at one of my favorites, the blending and harmonizing of two completely different songs. It is as smooth as silk.
In the stage musical, there is a ballad sung by Marian called "My White Knight." It's okay, but Wilson very smartly replaces it on screen with another much better song, "Being In Love." Shirley Jones' rendition of it is magical. You also probably have heard some of the other clever quirks embedded in the music. For instance, "76 Trombones" and "Goodnight, My Someone" are essentially the same tunes except played at different tempos. And, of course, the fabulous "Till There Was You" is one of the best romantic duets ever filmed for the silver screen. Coincidentally, "Till There Was You" is a song that the Beatles actually covered on one of their first albums.
I've seen the musical in a Broadway revival with Craig Bierko and Rebecca Luker. I've seen it done at the Hollywood Bowl with Eric McCormick and Kristin Chenoweth. I'll probably see it another half dozen times mounted with a variety of performers. But, at the end of the day, it is the movie that shines best. With Robert Preston as the brightest light.
And takes me back to the day when I saw it for the very first time. Thanks, Mom and Dad. You made it happen.
Dinner last night: Cheedarwurst at the Hollywood Bowl.