Happy New Year! I wanted to kick this year off by thanking each of every one of you for your support of Latino Like Me. Whether you visit my blog on a regular basis, or subscribe, or just stumble upon here from time to time, I appreciate your time and consideration. I hope from time to time I fill it with a little something entertaining, maybe even thought-provoking.
I’m feeling like I’m going to keep on going with my “Monday Blues” feature, if for no other reason than it’s a good way for me to kick off my work week.
To inaugurate 2011, we return to Willie Mae “Big Mama” Thorton, the mistress of blues who kicked this feature off for us last year. This time she’s singing “I’m Feelin’ Alright” from her 1966 album “Big Mama Thorton with the Muddy Waters Blues Band.”
Well here we are–the 2nd Annual “They Made It To ___” on LatinoLikeMe!
For those who don’t remember, in an effort to recognize (largely inactive) entertainers before they’ve actually died, every New Year’s Eve I write a post about three celebrities who lived to see the new year. Each featured celeb had an impact on me in some way and also happened to live long enough that people might be surprised to hear they are still around.
Last year we spotlighted Phyllis Diller, Lena Horne, and Carol Channing. I’m happy to report that two of the three also made it to 2011. Of course, recording and screen legend Lena Horne died in May, but what a legacy she left behind.
This year, I want to say how much I have enjoyed the acting talents of Mickey Rooney; the comedic gifts of Sid Caesar; and the legendary career of Esther Williams.
When he began his career at age 7, the young Joe Yule played the character “Mickey” in a series of serials, eventually taking the name of the title character as his own. Before he reached 19 years of age, he had been in scores of productions, won a “juvenile” Oscar, and starred with Spencer Tracy in “Boys Town.” Already one of the top box office stars of the late Depression, this role catapulted Rooney to the respectable big time. He went on to be one of Hollywood’s most recognizable figures in its “Golden Era” and beyond, making more than 200 films (!), many of which (like “Boys Town,” “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” and “National Velvet”) are among the best Hollywood turned out. The diminutive man is also well-known for his romantic life, having married 8 times (his first to star Ava Gardner). His romance with Judy Garland is the stuff of Hollywood legend.
I won’t pretend Rooney was better than he was. He had talent–anybody who watches “Boys Town” can see that–but it probably never really had the chance to mature in any meaningful way. He was a star at a young age and managed to remain so for the rest of his professional life, more focused on “the next picture” than on any kind of artistic development. In a lot of ways, he was a well-established figure before such concerns came of age, but in an industry which celebrates the “working actor,” Rooney worked. Some of that work made an impression on me at a young age. Raised on the classics, and a big fan of Johnny Carson, Rooney has always been a part of my entertainment life. He turns 91 this fall.
If Milton Berle “invented” television, Sid Caesar was the first to perfect it. His “Your Show of Shows” and “Caesar’s Hour” are television legends, as big as it gets in the medium. Sid, Imogene Coca, Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner (who I almost chose for this year’s list) are arguably the best variety comedic cast in TV history, and they were among the first. His writing staff…well, when you have a play written about your writing staff, you know you were big. Caesar was a TV favorite for most of American in the early 50s, and some of their sketches are the stuff people can still talk about and get a laugh, half a century later.
Sid Caesar, who is now 88, is a figure I can’t neatly summarize in a paragraph or two, and I don’t really want to try. I do want to say, that in addition to always being one of those figures who I knew as long as I knew of such things, the young historian in me was always respectful and enamored with what he and his crew did. Every time I got a chance to see a documentary on Caesar I’d watch it, every time I got a chance to see clips from his shows I would. Maybe more so than most figures of his generation, I liked Sid Caesar because I actually liked his work, not just because he was a big star.
Finally, Esther Williams–who is now 89–began her career as a professional swimmer. She would have competed in the 1940 Olympics if not for the outbreak of WWII, but instead found her way into acting in one of those legendary stories of “being discovered.” Williams acted for less than 20 years, and though she was a formidable talent behind the camera, he aquatic talents earned her her stardom. Below you will see why:
Williams participated in some of the most visually impressive cinematic creations Hollywood ever produced, and became a household name for a generations of this country. In my house, like in so many others, she became synonymous with swimming talent of any sort (“Look at you! You think you’re Esther Williams?”). I don’t know why–the visual symmetry or the fact that it was ladies in swimsuits–but for some reason I always loved her work.
Plus, she was once married to Fernando Lamas!
And there you have it! Congrats Mickey, Sid, and Esther! You made it to 2011!!