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Bye Bye Birdy

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When the full onslaught of the British Invasion arrived on the shores of America, spearheaded by The Beatles, I was nine years old although I would turn ten by mid-year. To understand how complete the occupation and subjugation was, note that in April 1964 The Beatles laid claim to the top 5 spots on the Billboard 100 Charts (1: “Can’t Buy Me Love” 2: “Twist And Shout” 3: “She Loves You” 4: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” 5: “Please Please Me”). They had seven more in the Hot 100 with two more arriving the following week. And there were also two tribute records on the list: We Love You Beatles by The Carefrees at #42, and A Letter To The Beatles by The Four Preps at #85 (the first boy groupies?).   

The Carefrees were a British girl group formed in 1964, which disbanded the same year they were formed. They were a 1-hit wonder that cashed in on the Beatles success, more specifically Beatlemania, with their song “We Love You Beatles," which was followed by their tribute LP, We Love You All. Vocalists Lynn Cornell, Barbara Kay, and Betty Prescott made up the group. Cornell was married to Andy White, who had played drums on one of the versions of the Beatles' "Love Me Do."

I was reminded of this putrid tripe via a serendipitous mirror when I recently watched the 1963 movie, Bye Bye Birdy based on the 1960 Broadway musical. We Love You Beatles was a direct steal of the song We Love You Conrad from the musical. God only knows if there were any royalties paid; no one else got paid any back then, particularly if you were black.... put on your favourite sports helmet and ask Chuck Berry about that.

Bye Bye Birdy is one of those terrible movies that are so bad, they are great. Ann-Margaret plays the 15 year old lead (meant as a star vehicle, she's about 25 when she made the movie and it would launch her for a co-staring lead with Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas the following year). The play/movie was based on a rock'n'roll idol, Conrad Birdy (a spoof on Conway Twitty) who is a thinly veiled parody of Elvis Presley, who is being inducted into the army, as Elvis was in 1958. In real life the army introduced Elvis to 3 things which would become central to his life, karate (Elvis was passionate about his martial arts but somehow it just seemed to reinforce his juvenile philosophy/lifestyle.... like Austin Powers running around saying “judo chop.”) amphetamines (he really loved them) and 14 year old Priscilla Beaulieu/Presley. The ridiculous plot is standard farce where Albert Peterson (Dick Van Dyke) schemes with his secretary and long-suffering girlfriend Rosie DeLeon (Janet Leigh: note, Van Dyke and Lynde had appeared in the original play whereas the role of Rosie was played by the incommensurate, Chita Rivera. That they didn't use her for the film is definitive of the times.) to have Birdie sing a song Albert will write. Rosie convinces Ed Sullivan to have Birdie sing Albert's song "One Last Kiss" on The Ed Sullivan Show, and then kiss a randomly chosen high school girl, Kim MacAfee (Ann-Margaret) goodbye before going off to the Army. With this success, Albert will be free to marry Rosie, against his widowed, overbearing mother Mae's (Maureen Stapleton) wishes. A sub-plot involves Albert being a biochemist who has developed a miracle supplement for domestic animals that will make a hen lay 3 eggs a day. Ann-Margaret's father,  Harry McAfee (Paul Lynde), a fertilizer salesman, sees a great future for himself in partnership with Albert marketing this pill. There are jealous boyfriends and Birdy's dance gyrations which cause women to faint and and we assume, in the mayor's wife's case, spontaneously orgasm. 

As rotten as this sounds, and trust me its worse than it sounds, I was amazed by how influential and haphazardly insightful the movie was.... Art, imitating life, imitating art.

I'd never realized that swooning, screaming girls hadn't been initiated by The Beatles. Vaguely, I was aware this shit dated back to Frank Sinatra and there were some moist bloomers on the Bobby-Soxers and Elvis was no stranger to crying and screaming girls, but when Broadway is mocking it (and remember the old Merry Melody cartoon with the two crooning roosters, one is Bing Crosby and the other is Sinatra, who have all the hens laying hundreds of eggs? A classic!) 4 years before The Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan (Sullivan plays himself in the movie adaptation of Bye Bye Birdie) then you know it was common because otherwise, the theatre-goers wouldn't get the joke. For those who don't know it, Swooner Crooner is a 1944 Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Frank Tashlin. The cartoon was nominated for the 1945 Academy Award for Best Short Subject. Rather than give a synopsis here is a link to this wonderful cartoon which perfectly illustrates my point.

Here's the thing about broadway musicals up to present day, and to a great extent Hollywood as well; the people who are writing them hate rock music. This can be a drawback when you are doing a play/movie about a rock star. The rock music is beyond lame while the showtunes are highlighted. In "Birdy" there is the title tune, as well as the ubicquitous broadway pieces, Put On a Happy Face, Kids, and A Lot of Living to Do. If  you are reading this you've heard these songs somewhere, be it an episode of The Simpsons or on some high school stage. In Bye Bye Birdy, the staging, the way the play is constructed and scripted reminds me of every musical I've seen since 1960. The singing, the dance numbers, they look the same as Chicago. The song, The Telephone Hour which has numerous people gossiping on the phone has been duplicated adnaseum.     

I'm not certain, but Bye Bye Birdy may mark the inception of very camp, gay Broadway musicals. Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart and Cole Porter may have written double-entente songs but they were heavily shrouded. Paul Lynde plays Ann-Margaret's father which was no doubt purposely ironic. In a 2013 radio interview, Dick Van Dyke recalled the wrap party for Bye Bye Birdie: all the men toasted Ann-Margret, predicting success and stardom for the young actress. Lynde stood up and began, "Well, I guess I'm the only one here who doesn’t want to fuck Ann-Margret." It wasn't because he was a father-figure.  Dick Van Dyke's character is a 40 year old virgin who wants to fuck 35 year old virgin, Janet Leigh (In her real life Janet Leigh was married twice by the time she was 18; the first marriage being annulled as at 15 she had lied about her age.) but his Jewish mother played by Maureen Stapleton is always cock-blocking him. It's unclear whether Stapleton's character is Jewish but she plays it that way with a Borscht Belt breadth which is impossible to miss. We've all encountered this stereotype so often that in"The Big Bang Theory" Howard Wolowitz's mother is only needed as as a voice character bellowing from off-screen.As comedian Jackie Mason once quipped,Jewish mothers are so expert in the art of needling their children that they have honorary degrees in "Jewish Acupuncture"  (Mason claims he appeared on the first The Ed Sullivan Show featuring The Beatles and unimpressed referred to them as "four kids in search of a voice who needed haircuts". This sort of disdain is standard for the sixties which for such a fondly reminisced decade was awash with racism, all manner of prejudices and domestic and social violence. The sentiments of the early 1960s are a carryover from the previous decade where the most beloved comedian's famous punchline, is just that, a threat to hit his wife so hard he will knock her clear to the moon. The song, Kids performed in Bye Bye Birdy by Paul Lynde and Maureen Stapleton is an age old scree with the “long suffering” parents exclaiming:

 Kids! Kids!

 Laughing, singing, dancing, grinning, morons!

 And while we're on the subject!

 Kids! They are just impossible to control!

 Kids! With their awful clothes and their rock an' roll!

 Why can't they dance like we did

 What's wrong with Sammy Caine?

 What's the matter with kids today! 

All very tongue-in-cheek, however this British Invasion and the oppressive hypocrisy of the 1950s is about to set winds of change in motion which will impact society for decades to come. What's the matter with kids is about to become a serious lament.

Of course Elvis Presley will miss most of the 1960s, at least all the relevant moments. Colonel Tom Parker has Presley making 27 B-movies through the decade which were mostly musical comedies with a 1950s slant where all his troubles centre on losing and winning back a girl which is usually achieved with a sappy love ballad. There are lots of cars, speedboats, gentle fisty-cuffs and shenanigans. The only thing worse than the acting are the songs. How out of it is Presley during the sixties? In 1967 The Beatles are releasing Sgt. Peppers and Elvis is starring in Clambake which surprisingly doesn't contain perhaps his worse song, “Do The Clam” which is from 1965 movie Girl Happy. ()  The Beatles released Rubber Soul in 1965. On the plus side, there is no doubt, these Elvis vehicles along with Bye Bye Birdie provided John Waters his inspiration for Hairspray and Cry-Baby. Presley will wake up in the seventies long enough to become a full-blown drug addict, and trade-in his trademark gold lame suits for Vegas sequins which he will be poured into until he expires in 1977 at age 42. As Harvard professor and social pop critic Marjorie Garber described the latter day Presley, he had become garish pop crooner: "in effect he had become Liberace. Even his fans were now middle-aged matrons and blue-haired grandmothers.”

I remember the early sixties with a pained anti-nostalgia. Ignorance was omnipresent. The suburban middle-class were entertained by television and the occasional Hollywood movie. When you had 3 or 4 kids you weren't heading out for any nights on the town. There were house parties and office parties where the neighbours or colleagues and wives got together during your standard Christian holiday seasons and drank too much or close friends had dinner parties where they charred steaks to the consistency of shoe-leather and feed the kids hot-dogs, while they drank too much. Surprisingly, a lot of people listened to records.... bad ones for the most part. Lots of comedy records featuring Borscht Belt and New York comedians who once you eliminate Lenny Bruce, Woody Allen and Bob Newhart all sound dated and more to the point, not particularly funny. What people did listen to was a lot of Broadway/Hollywood soundtracks: Bye Bye Birdy, Camelot, Funny Girl, Holly Dolly! West Side Story, The Sound of Music. What is truly bizarre is almost no one had every seen live theatre. We didn't have the venues. Recall this is also a golden age of serious theatre: Stoppard, Albee, Pinter, Williams, Shaffer, Ionesco, Genet.... while a lot of the writing is done in the 50's it is most certainly being staged in the 60s. The only person I knew who had seen a Broadway show was my mother who'd seen Funny Girl in New York in 1964 when Mimi Hines who had replaced Barbara Streisand in the original cast. One of my childhood friend's mother was particularly annoying. She had attended Dalhousie studying law (she loved to remind everyone of that) while she specialized in hooking a suitable husband and thereafter pursued being a snobbish hausfrau. She loved to belt out the hits by overpowering the radio. A favourite was Manana by Peggy Lee which she would explain meant “tomorrow” and that Mexicans were so lazy they never did anything today, but were always saying they'd take care of things tomorrow. Technically, as far this racist song goes, she wasn't wrong, but in her personal modus vivendi, she would always be right and anyone who disagreed with her, was wrong.  Ingrained on my memory is the time I went to call on her son, Tony and knocking on the the back door entered and came face to crotch with Mrs. T disembarking her bath and aged 10, fled aghast from the image of a pendulous semi-shaved Sasquatch. I spent several traumatized years until I discovered there was indeed a toned, diminutive and less hirsute version of the fairer sex. Several years later, Tony would rat me out out to his mother for sharing a joint with him along with several teenage girls and myself... Tony would confess to his mother a year later he'd become addicted and obsessed by pot and onanism by yours truly. Poor Tony, if you only knew. I figure he still spends a lot of time listening to show-tunes.

So, can we find a morale here? I doubt it. Except perhaps, things often do get better. The human spirit continues to evolve and the winds of change, ever stir.






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