Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Grand Dame of Insults

Joan Rivers puts her wits and cosmetic surgery on display at the Alys Stephens Center.


November 25, 2010

Born Joan Molinsky in Brooklyn, New York, in 1933, Joan Rivers changed her name at the suggestion of a talent scout when she began working comedy clubs in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. By 1965, she was working as a gag writer on the TV show “Candid Camera,” which employed hidden cameras to film everyday people on the street in setups that were designed to garner shocked reactions (such as trees or cars that talked to the unwitting subject ). Although Rivers is known for abrasive, brash humor that focuses on insults and self-deprecating remarks, her stage persona in no way represents her true character, as reflected in a recent phone conversation. At age 77 she’s not slowing down. In 2009 she starred in—and won—”Celebrity Apprentice” and in 2010 returned to E!’s Red Carpet to critique Oscar night fashion. She currently hosts E!’s “Fashion Police” with Kelly Osbourne. Rivers will appear at the Alys Stephens Center on Sunday, December 12, at 7 p.m., as part of the ASC Holiday Comedy Show. Alys Stephens Center, Jemison Concert Hall, 1200 10th Avenue South. Tickets: $20–$65. Details:

Black & White: I was surprised to learn that you worked on “Candid Camera” in the 1960s.
Joan Rivers: Yep. I think that was the original reality show. A lot of us came out of that show —Lily Tomlin worked there, George Carlin.

I also didn’t realize you were in the film The Swimmer with Burt Lancaster. How did you come to be cast in that?
They saw me working a nightclub and liked me. They wrote the part in for me, which was exciting. That was the first movie I ever did. I remember thinking what on old guy Burt Lancaster was, and he was 45 years old! I remember thinking, “God, this old guy—what’s he doing here?”

An aging Joan Rivers, with nary a wrinkle in sight (click for larger version)

Are you ever offended by comics?
Oh no, no. I think comedy should be a little offensive. To be funny, you’ve got to step out of the box. Somebody’s always going to get offended, but that’s good. Comedy should always be making a point and making people aware of things.

It’s impressive that you were the first permanent guest host to fill in for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.”
I was the first woman guest host, and then the first permanent guest host—man, woman, or child.

What type of show will you be doing in Birmingham?
It’s a standup-style show, very simple. I come out and talk to the audience for an hour, hour and a half. I talk about everything that annoys me; everything that is right and wrong with society, I discuss. It’s funny, I hope . . . they’re all funny!

You were one of the groundbreakers among female comics, weren’t you?
Well, they’ve been around for years but I was one of the first that wanted to look nice on stage. Before me was Phyllis Diller, and she always looked like a clown. But I was single and I wanted to get married, so I was trying to look as nice as I could on stage.

On “Fashion Police,” you’re working with Kelly Osbourne. Have you met her father, Ozzy?
Kelly is adorable. I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting her father, but I’m not so sure it is (a pleasure). I think it may be a little bit of an act with him, because she talks about her father grounding her and driving her to school. It sounds a lot more normal than you think it would be.

Pee-wee Herman was your first guest when you had your talk show on Fox (“The Late Show Starring Joan Rivers,” which premiered in 1986)?
Yes. He’s back now, he’s back on Broadway. He is so funny. It’s about time they forgave him. I mean, all he was doing was picking up a guy in a theater. So what? Don’t worry about that, there’s a lot worse things that can go on. I loved being on “Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” too.

Did you and Sam Kinison make up after he failed to appear on your show after you had promoted his appearance all week?
Oh yeah. Now there’s a talent that shouldn’t have died. He got over drugs and got married and everything was tip-top and terrific, then he gets killed in an automobile accident. He was so funny and so brilliant.

Were you on “Hollywood Squares” when Paul Lynde was there?
Now you’re mentioning names that nobody’s going to know, except the two of us . . . Paul Lynde was brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. But a mean guy. He was a bad drunk.

You’ve had a few facelifts. What is your opinion of Mickey Rourke’s face job?
All the men wait too long to have facelifts. Women are smart, and they do it when they need it. Men wait until they are really desperate and then they look like they went into a wind tunnel. They figure it’s sissy. But it’s a business where you have to look good; our business is all about that. And as you need it, you do it.

What do you do when you’re not working?
I watch a lot of old movies, I’m a big old movie buff. I love dogs, I’ve got three now. I don’t understand anybody that doesn’t have pets, something to make you have a home.

Any new shows on the horizon that you’ll be in that you can tell us about?
My daughter and I have a reality show coming called Joan and Melissa: Joan Knows Best? (It premieres January 2011 on the WE network). &


A Day in Hell

A Day in Hell

A candid portrayal of World War II vets not necessarily driven by patriotism.

December 10, 2009 

Mighty by Sacrifice: The Destruction of an American Bomber Squadron, August 29, 1944
By James L. Noles and James L. Noles Jr.
University of Alabama Press, 277 pages; $34.95

“Fighters coming up. Probably are friendly,” tail gunner Robert Donahue reported to pilot Bill Tune from his rear perch on a B-17 bomber dubbed Tail End Charlie. The assumption that the approaching aircraft were Allied fighter planes assigned to escort U.S. “Flying Fortress” bombers to their targets in Czechoslovakia on August 29, 1944, quickly proved incorrect. Speculation that the bombing raid would be a relatively easy mission—often known as a “milk run”—immediately disappeared. There were no Allied fighter planes to help the bombers defend themselves as the “friendly”

Bill Tune’s B-24 flight crew posed stateside in Topeka, Kansas, before deploying overseas. Tune is in the front row at left. (click for larger version)


fighters opened fire on the 28 airplanes that comprised the 2nd Bombardment Group of the 15th Air Force.

The ensuing mayhem is described by Birmingham attorney, author, and former army helicopter pilot Jim Noles, and his father, retired army Brigadier General (and Vietnam veteran) Jim Noles Sr. in their thoroughly researched Mighty by Sacrifice. The book is a history of the lives and deaths of the crews of the 20th Squadron, one of four units that comprised the 2nd Bombardment Group. The 15th Air Force sent more than 500 aircraft into combat the day the 20th Squadron was decimated, with the majority attacking the Czech city of Moravska Ostrava. The 20th Squadron lost all seven of its B-17s on a raid of oil refineries and railway yards that August day.

The authors were inspired to write a history of the doomed squadron after Noles, Sr., learned that fellow Florence, Alabama, resident Bill Tune—originally from Carbon Hill—had a fascinating war story to tell. Tune, pilot of Tail End Charlie, along with the plane’s navigator, had self-published a booklet about the final mission. The Noles wanted to share more than the crews’ combat experience, though, revealing the background of crewmen in the 20th Squadron and their individual journeys that led them aboard B-17s fighting the Nazis. The result is a surprisingly honest portrayal of World War II vets not necessarily driven by patriotism, as many might assume, especially considering that the authors are veterans themselves.

A WWII-era B-17 Bomber. (click for larger version)


The Noles relate the ever-present desire of American soldiers to get “duty to country” over with as soon as possible. (An aviator’s tour of duty was complete only after flying 50 combat missions, a leap from earlier requirements that required 25, then later 35 missions.) The group medical history, penned in June of 1944, noted that some men required psychotherapy to complete their quota.

Refreshingly for a World War II book, the authors share less than glorious portrayals of how spoiled many airmen were. The medical history offers a jaded, somewhat startling observation: “Combat crews often have to be treated with ‘kid gloves’; they expect much and at times their requests and complaints are unreasonable and selfish in the eyes of the ground personnel. The majority of those who fly combat have but one thing in mind and that is to fly their required number of missions and get back to the U.S. They protest any major or minor discomforts. They are the first to complain. They have been the ‘fair haired’ boys ever since they got their wings.”

After completing his twenty-fifth mission, Bill Tune enjoyed a mid-tour R&R visit to the AAF rest camp on the Isle of Capri. (click for larger version)


The burnishing of war facts and figures is noted by the authors when writing of the “Combined Bomber Offensive,” the joint effort of U.S. and British air forces. Reports of “daylight precision bombing” were rather misleading.

“It was certainly daylight and it was certainly bombing, but it was hardly precise.” The U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey’s postwar review found less than impressive results. “For every hundred bombs dropped against such targets, one hit an oil pipeline, two hit production facilities, two failed to explode, three hit decoy plants, eight landed in open terrain inside the target area, and eighty-four missed the target altogether.”

By 1944, Allied escort fighters were no longer flying close to bomber squadrons because flying with the slow-moving bombers allowed the Germans to decide when and where to attack. The AAF’s new tactic sent fighters ahead of a bombing unit so that the Allies could either pick off or delay Luftwaffe fighter planes as they became airborne or before they could assemble as a group in the sky. The process was called “clearing the air.” The problem with that scheme, however, was that it left bombers vulnerable. The day the 20th Squadron lost all its bombers, the 306th Allied Fighter Wing was miles ahead, looking for Nazi fighters.

An American bomber encounters anti-aircraft fire during a daylight run. (click for larger version)


Riveting accounts of frightened yet determined young men make Mighty by Sacrifice a dramatic read that complements the book’s historical aspect. The authors interviewed Bill Tune (and other survivors of the 20th Squadron), who confessed the fear involved in learning to fly an airplane. Tune, for example, flew his initial solo mission in a P-17 biplane a mere eight hours after his first lesson in that World War I-era fighter.

Of the crewmen in the squadron, 40 were killed the day all the bombers were lost, and 46 survivors were captured and remained POWs for the final year of the war. Four escaped capture, including Tail End Charlie tail gunner Robert Donahue. Donahue was changing from his awkward leather flight boots into his army brogans when he received the order to bail out of the plane, parachuting to Earth in his sock feet. He ran from would-be captors and hid in dense brush, so terrified that he “thought for sure they could hear my heart pounding,” he later said. A Czech couple sympathetic to the Allies picked him up in their horse-drawn wagon and carried him to a nearby town. Donahue was outfitted in a Slovak soldier’s uniform, which allowed him to freely continue his escape with a simple salute whenever he encountered the enemy. He ended up in the home of an elderly couple working with the Czech resistance. The next day, he continued his trip to freedom, only later learning that the elderly couple who had given him refuge for the night had been shot by German soldiers after their sanctuary for anti-Nazi Slovak rebels had been discovered.

Tune, originally a B-24 pilot, had no choice but to learn to fly quickly. His first combat mission was also his first time piloting a B-17 bomber because there was no time for non-combat training flights. The bombing raid that destroyed the 20th Squadron was Tune’s 48th mission. His escape from his damaged plane is among the most dramatic anecdotes in the book. Rendered unconscious either by an enemy shell or lack of oxygen, Tune appeared doomed. Two crewmen shoved his unconscious body from the aircraft. “Caught in the slipstream, Tune’s limp body flew back and smacked into the ball turret, breaking his leg. He bounced off the bomber and tumbled earthward.”

The reader might find it odd that a crew would shove an unconscious comrade out of an airplane. In an interview, Jim Noles, Jr., admitted curiosity about such: “The same thought crossed my mind and I never could get to the bottom of that. I don’t think that you could physically jump with somebody and exit the plane and pull the rip cord for them. Throwing him out and hoping for the best might sound sort of harsh but in that situation, with the plane on fire and people just trying to get out, they knew he would stand no chance of surviving if he remained in the plane.”

The authors know how to tell an exciting story, leaving the reader with the image of an unconscious Bill Tune plunging to his death before eventually picking up the pilot’s freefall two chapters later, when Tune regained consciousness 6,000 feet above Czechoslovakia. Yes, he finally got his parachute open and lived to tell of his adventure. &