Monthly Archives: August 2007

Elvis in Context

Elvis in Context

Elvis Presley on the “Ed Sullivan Show.”

August 23, 2007

On Sunday night, September 9, 1956, more than 72 million Americans (80 percent of the country’s television audience) tuned in to the “Ed Sullivan Show” to watch a cultural phenomenon named Elvis Presley. Presley had already appeared on several national television programs, but none as popular as Sullivan’s. The performance transformed Elvis into a controversial icon, creating the generation gap in the process.

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Image Entertainment has released a DVD set of the three complete Sullivan shows on which Elvis appeared in 1956 and 1957. While most Elvis fans have seen these legendary performances, the opportunity to see these shows in their entirety is what makes this set unique.

On January 27, 1956, RCA released the single “Heartbreak Hotel.” The next day Elvis appeared on Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s “Stage Show,” a low-rated national television program. A week and a half later, Presley was on “The Milton Berle Show.” Ed Sullivan was watching that night and dismissed Elvis’s seductive leg movements as “unfit for family viewing.” Later that summer, Presley was booked on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show,” which went head-to-head with the Sullivan show on CBS. That night Ed Sullivan devoted his entire program to director John Huston, whose film Moby Dick premiered that week. Steve Allen’s show trounced “The Ed Sullivan Show” in the ratings. Sullivan soon adjusted his definition of “unfit for family viewing.”

The night of Elvis’ Sullivan program debut, Sullivan was recuperating from a recent automobile accident. British actor Charles Laughton was the guest host. Sullivan asked the dignified actor to open the show with some poetry to “give a high tone to the proceedings,” according to Laughton. The actor chose a tasteless poem: “Willie in the best of sashes, fell in the fire, got burnt to ashes. Though the room got cold and chilly, no one liked to poke poor Willie.”

Sullivan’s was a true variety show, featuring eclectic acts that included acrobats, Irish children’s choirs, opera singers, and a couple of hilarious ventriloquists, Arthur Worsley and Señor Wences. A young Carol Burnett also made an unforgettable appearance.

The commercials are fascinating time capsules. One features a stunningly gorgeous woman behind the wheel of a 1957 Mercury convertible. “One touch of her pretty little finger to Mercury’s keyboard control” is all that’s needed to begin the dreamy ride, says the announcer as he’s chauffeured around a Universal Studios lot. Then, to exhibit the ample room available in the backseat, the car stops at a medieval castle on a Universal movie set where three knights in full armor awkwardly climb in.

A Real Character

A Real Character

Lily Tomlin brings her one-woman show to the Alys Stephens Center.

October 18, 2007At you can find a couple of clips of confrontations that occurred during production of the movie I Heart Huckabees, an irate Lily Tomlin flips off both director David O. Russell and co-star Dustin Hoffman as she angrily shouts “Fu** you.” After viewing them, I was a little nervous about speaking with Tomlin. However, the actress and comedienne was completely charming in relating anecdotes about Flip Wilson, Richard Pryor, her family’s Southern heritage, and summers spent on her cousins’ farm in Kentucky. Her laughter is the same genuine, infectious cackle she has let loose on late night talk shows for decades.

Black & White: I read that you were once a pre-med student.

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Lily Tomlin: Oh, kind of. You know . . . I was, technically, but that doesn’t mean much. It just means you take a lot of science courses, or start to. I never graduated college and I never did very well in college. I sort of had textbook narcolepsy. You open one and the aroma from the page or something just knocks you out. You crash forward.

Do you remember when you felt confident that you could consistently make someone laugh?

Tomlin as Ernestine. (click for larger version)

I did it all through my childhood because I always put on shows and things. I lived in an old apartment house in Detroit . . . You know how Southerners are. [Her parents and relatives are from Kentucky.] Everybody in the family—at least from that generation—was so quirky and had their own little personality. People were so colorful, [including] all my aunts and my uncles, and my dad and my mom, too. My mom was witty and adorable. My dad was just kind of a character, he was a street character. I went to the bars with him and the bookie joints. He was a factory worker but he always wore a suit jacket to work and a hat and he wore Florsheim shoes. And he always had a big roll of money on him because he gambled. My mom was, of course, the total opposite. She was a good Southern woman who had a good house.

Every summer I went to Kentucky and lived on the farm with my aunt and uncle and all those old cousins, with whom I’m still close. I have a real bond with family. As differently as I was raised, being in the inner city of Detroit and growing up in a black neighborhood . . . I just had a whole richness of experience with all kinds of different people. And, of course, then I would be on the farm when I was a little kid. I’d see animals copulating and I’d go back to kindergarten and paint it! I knew it was something I wasn’t supposed to talk about or illustrate. But I liked holding court, you know? Getting a little rise out of people.

Did your kindergarten teachers ever scold you?

No, I could see they would be a little bit shocked and a little bit amused. And so then I would just pursue it. I don’t ever remember really being suppressed. Maybe a kind of omission of praise. I was just more amused by it. I knew it caused a charge, a little charge in the room. And I must have liked the theatricality of it.

Tomlin as Edith Ann. (click for larger version)

I read that you studied under Charles Nelson Reilly.

I knew Charles, he was a friend. I only studied with him a couple of weeks because I got on “Laugh-In” and went to California. But the couple of classes I had with him—let me tell you, he was so inventive I feel like I missed out by not having a full course of study with him. He was just absolutely incredibly inventive.

Did you know Paul Lynde?

Oh yes [laughing], I knew Paul. I lived around the corner from him for a long time. I’d walk my dog up around his house and I went to his house many times for dinner. And I also went to a couple of Thanksgivings at his sister’s house. He was a scream [Tomlin does a quick Paul Lynde impersonation] . . . It was well-known that Paul was not a very, uh, happy drinker [laughs]. So if he got too abusive, rooms usually cleared. It was because he could be wicked. He had a real quick, acidic tongue.

Didn’t you upset some television executives when you gave Richard Pryor a big kiss in 1973 on your CBS special?

They had sent down word from the executive offices: “Don’t kiss Richard goodnight.” And we couldn’t believe it. It was certainly not for any show or anything. In fact, I kissed everybody, I kissed all my guests . . . Of course, Richard had his hair corn-rowed on that show. And he came on the set the morning we were gonna shoot and people hadn’t seen corn-rows very much. It was sort of a new thing. And he had it wrapped with white leather and he was making remarks like, “Well, imagine these came from certain Caucasian people.” He said they were wrapped in “human skin,” which wasn’t going over too well, either. But Richard was so brilliant. Actually, that was the show that we did the soul food piece that got a lot of play, a lot of attention. He played a junkie and I owned a soul food restaurant.

Did any of your characters originate from your early days spent performing in coffee houses?

Yes. One character, definitely: The World’s Oldest Living Beauty Expert. Of course, I was conscious of how women had to be younger and better-looking and the pressure on women to be like that. And I was fascinated because Helena Rubinstein and all the old queens of beauty—Estée Lauder and Elizabeth Arden—were so old. They were in their 80s. You never really saw photographs of them except early photographs.

And Helena Rubinstein had that ad on TV with these hands and great fingernails and great big rings she had, and she’d say [Tomlin claps her hands twice loudly and adopts a thick German accent] “I am Helenor Rubinshteim!” But you’d only see her hands and they would show her products. So I was just fascinated by that whole thing, and that was sort of my reaction to the obsession with youth and beauty, because she’s an old beauty consultant and her face is all deteriorated, as you can’t avoid with time and gravity. And then she rejuvenates it, and then she sneezes and it all falls down again. That was one of my first monologues.

Tell me about your experiences on Flip Wilson’s show.

That was one of the first guest shots that I got to do after I was on “Laugh-In” and was well-known. He was so big at that time. In those old days you had those half-dozen variety shows and everybody would do guest shots. You don’t have that anymore.

Flip and I did this whole routine where Ernestine is teaching Geraldine how to be a phone operator. [Flip and I] did a thing about date-matching and we’re in the lobby together and we’re getting along so well. And this is a very innocent, sweet kind of sketch from those early days. My God, this goes back 40 years, almost. And you can see that we’re just sort of meant for each other but then we go in and, of course, we’re not gonna be paired, partly because of the racial thing at that time. But that’s never spoken of but it’s implied.

Are you ever offended by comics like Sam Kinison or Andrew Dice Clay?

No, I’m not offended but it depends. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see it. Now, Sam used to tickle me a little bit. That one thing he had when he talked about people starving to death [in Africa]. He’d say, “There’s no food there, go where the food is!” That sort of incredible black irony. But I couldn’t even quote very much of what Sam did onstage. Who knows why people get up the persona they get to do what they do? I’m much more attracted to the more humanistic. I greatly adored Pryor. Because his material was so human, so vulnerable. He was so vulnerable himself. I’m more drawn to character portrayal. I’m not a big fan of scatological stuff.

Has Ernestine [Tomlin's telephone operator character] been approached by the Bush Administration to perhaps assist with wire-tapping in the past few years?

When the whole NSA thing surfaced, a lot of editorial cartoonists went back and used Ernestine. They had her in the White House phone room with those little slit eyes, listening. She constantly resurfaces. In recent times, she has a reality-based webcast chat show called “Ernestine Calls You On It, and You Better Have an Answer.” Wherever she can have power. Not too long ago she took a job at one of the HMOs so she could decline all the requests for life-saving healthcare. [laughs]

Didn’t you and other cast members snub John Wayne when he appeared on “Laugh-In”?

[Laughing] Well, I didn’t get my picture taken with him ’cause I was so anti-war at the time, and so anti-Nixon and the White House scene. And then once a very sad thing happened. You know, when you’re young like that, instead of engaging John Wayne in some way . . . to me it was more juvenile, but in those days—or any day—it seems like that’s how you took a stand. But I’m not saying it’s productive. It’s not a very good tactic.

Anyway, so Martha Mitchell [the wife of Nixon attorney general John Mitchell who frequently leaked to reporters information about her husband's Watergate activity] came on the show. You know how she was always calling journalists at night. She was known for that, her phone activity. So I was supposed to do a phone call with her. And I did but I only did it on the split screen, you know? It was just stupid [not to appear on the set with Mitchell]. I mean, I really see it as stupid.

And then later, when all that terrible stuff happened to her with John Mitchell—many people think she was really, really suppressed, both physically and verbally. Many people think she was taken prisoner in a sense, or sedated. And then in her autobiography she talks about that, on one of the very earliest pages. And I only read it after she died. And she said how deeply hurt she was that I snubbed her at “Laugh-In.” And she would be exactly the kind of woman that I would be able to communicate with. She’s just like a family member—flamboyant, Southern, plenty to say, and kind of has that engaging innocence. It was something I totally regretted.

What was your reaction when you discovered that the clips from I Heart Huckabees, where you and director David Russell are cursing one another, were on YouTube?

Well, first of all, they were old. They were like four years old, and I had never really seen them. But they had made the rounds of the agencies here at the time. We’re [Russell and Tomlin] still friends. In fact, we were friends probably 10 or 15 minutes after one of those things happened. But it was the same week that poor Britney Spears was in that incredible, uh, you know, uh, crotch shot—I’m trying to choose a word for “crotch shot”—on the internet. Those words [on the YouTube clip] were inside of me and I said them. People are going to have to realize that maybe I’m not the perfect, well-behaved, well-spoken person they might imagine I would be. And some guy in China made a rap song to it . . .

Would the type of confrontation you had with Russell ever have happened between you and Robert Altman?

Noooo, God, no . . . David’s pretty volatile, anyway, and it was just the nature of what was going on that day. And you saw me. I said, “I’ve had it up to here!” [laughs] And I was pretty upset that day from all kinds of circumstances. You can’t hear David. He’s yelling at me outside the car, saying all kinds of things. But you can only hear me, unfortunately.

Altman, he was one of a kind. Even when we were making A Prairie Home Companion, he was getting chemo. But you would never even think about it, other than that he was kind of frail. But he was completely Altman, he was completely in charge without being in any way authoritative or overbearing. He was just so cool. Actors just adored Altman because he was just incredibly human, available, unpretentious. And if you made Altman laugh, that was really awesome.

Let me tell you this story because it didn’t get in the movie, because his cameras are floating all the time. A lot of times you do something and it’s not really being photographed. So when Meryl Streep and I would talk [in the film] about our mother when we would sing, and we’re talking about the old days and how Momma was scrubbing the floor and how our singing made her smile and all that, and what hard times we had. This is a story about my own father and his family. And I love this story so much that I was always thinking, “Now where can I get it into [a movie]? This is the perfect movie.”

So I said [to Streep's character], “Well, all our times weren’t hard. Remember when we as kids were acting up and Momma would boil an ear of corn and put it down on the floor and we’d all root around and eat it like we were pigs? Those were happy times!” And Altman laughed . . . It wasn’t on film and I never repeated it. If I’d known it wasn’t on film, believe me, I would have repeated it. &

Lily Tomlin appears Saturday, November 3, 8 p.m., at the Alys Stephens Center. Tickets are $28-$62. Details: 975-2787 or

Hog Heaven

Hog Heaven

Professional and amateur barbecue teams compete at Sloss Furnaces’ annual Stokin’ the Fire barbecue festival.

August 09, 2007

On August 24 and 25, Sloss Furnaces will host the third annual Stokin’ the Fire BBQ Festival, featuring professional and amateur cooking competitions plus live music by acts such as Alejandro Escovedo and Southern Culture on the Skids. The professional competition is sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) and will include cooking teams from around the country.

Unfortunately, this event is similar to others of its kind, such as Memphis in May, in the fact that most of the competitors do not sell their barbecue to the general public. Instead most devote all of their efforts to impressing the judges (and winning a portion of the $20,000 in prizes). However, three of the professional championship teams will be selling their wares: Governor’s BBQ from Nashville; Arlieque from Mt. Juliet, Tennessee; and Willy T’s from Hildebran, North Carolina.

Troy Black is a former Southern Living magazine editorial staff member who is now a full-time competitor on the barbecue circuit. A KCBS board member, Black has been competing professionally for two years. “The payouts . . . have gotten really good. . . . We’re starting to see full-time barbecue competitors out there.” Black is sponsored by Southern Living and travels with a 40-foot trailer that includes two smokers, a kitchen, and living quarters. At Sloss, Black will give cooking demonstrations, and offer samples, at the Southern Living site at noon and 3 p.m.




Mary Head, marketing director at Sloss Furnaces, rhapsodizes about the artful cooking techniques of the pro competitors. “Not to say that Jim ‘n’ Nick’s and Dreamland and everything isn’t wonderful, it is,” she said. “[But] they’re cooking for the masses. I mean, the pros sit with their ribs all night long, starting, like, on Thursday night, you know? So it’s a totally different kind of level of barbecue than you would get at a restaurant.”

Head explains that entry dishes are never passed from hand to hand; rather they are placed onto a table before a judge will pick it up. “The main reason is to avoid jostling a box, because if you hand it to a KCBS judge and they drop it or something . . . You turn it in, set it down, and from there it’s in our hands. It’s fun to watch these guys that have been baby-sitting their ribs all night long. They’ll often put the ribs in a box and then turn them around 15 times so they’ll look pretty.”

“Competition barbecue is nothing like restaurant barbecue,” explains Carolyn Wells, executive director of the KCBS. “No restaurateur could stay in business giving as much TLC as you have to for competition barbecue. Right now, we seem to be in a sweet cycle. Almost everybody will use a dry rub on things, and then they will glaze it at the end.”

James Blumentritt, general manager of Tria Market in Homewood, finished eighth in the amateur competition in 2005. “We had a great time. Had a lot of fun out there cooking that day,” says Blumentritt. “But I discovered that there were certain things that I think appeal more to judges than other things. My experience was that they tend to like a lot of sweeter style sauces on things. . . . If I were going to do it again, I would definitely put more sauce and a sweeter sauce on my ribs.”

Those who wish to enter next year’s amateur competition should be forewarned: Though professional KCBS judges rate the pros, local “celebrities” are drafted to judge the Back Yard competition. When pressed for names, Head would say only, “We hope we can get some city councilors and some, uhh, Jefferson County folks.” (So, before you consider slaving over a hot grill for a day, remember that your fate may be in the hands of a bunch of news readers from a local television affiliate—or a Birmingham city councilor.)

KCBS rules and regulations are used in judging both the professional and the amateur—or Back Yard—division. Tenderness and texture, appearance, and taste are the three criteria for judging, says Wells. Surprisingly, taste makes up only half the score. Appearance is slightly less then a quarter of the scoring, while tenderness and texture make up a little more than a quarter of the points accumulated.

The Grand Champion prize is $3,000 cash, while Reserve Champion wins $2,500 as the runner-up. Category winners (pork, chicken, brisket, and ribs) receive $1,500 for first and $700 for second place. Back Yard payouts are $250 for first place and $150 for second. &

The festival will be held at Sloss Furnaces on Friday, August 24, from 4 to 11 p.m., and Saturday, August 25, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Admission is $15 for a weekend pass or $10 per day ($5 per day for children 5 to 12; children under 5 are admitted free). Details: 324-1911 or visit




Band line-up

Friday, August 24

Band of Moose 5:00

The Sudden Rays 6:15

Eliot Morris 7:30

Alejandro Escovedo 9:00

Saturday, August 25

Beyond Me 11:30

Erin Mitchell Band 12:30

Newgrass Troubadors 1:30

Hightide Blues 2:30

Warm In the Wake 3:45

Moses Mayfield 6:00

Jason Isbell 7:00

Southern Culture on the Skids 9:00