I was on the radio

Ring of Red: A Barrio Story is a play I wrote, based on the hundreds of hours of oral history interviews I’ve conducted with Vietnam veterans and their families. It’s on the stage now at the Bootleg Theater in Los Angeles, with three more shows to go this weekend: Friday, September 28 at 7:00PM; Saturday, September 29 at 7:00PM; and Sunday, September 30 at 2:00PM, followed by an audience “talkback.”

Our efforts were spotlighted in a story on The Frame, and arts and entertainment program that airs on the NPR station in Los Angeles, KPCC radio.  It’s a really well put together story, one that hits all the right points when it comes to me project and the play I’ve helped produce, with the help of theater folks who know what they’re doing.

Check it out online.

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Elvis Day, 2018

Today is the 41st anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley. I made my first post to the original “Latino Like Me” blog (hosted on Blogspot) on this day 11 years ago.

To mark the occasion, I could go on about why I love Elvis so much; or make my argument why he is the greatest rock ‘n roll star in history; or play clips of his best performances. Instead, I’d like to share one of his most historic performances, one that captures his position as a cultural phenomenon.

This is Elvis’ “Welcome Home” performance from 1960. Fresh out of the Army, Elvis made his first television performance in three years as part of the fourth (and last) Frank Sinatra Timex Show, this one subtitled Welcome Home Elvis.

Wikipedia tells a little bit of the story:

On March 26, at 6:15pm, taping for the show took place at the Fontainebleau Hotel. It was Presley’s first appearance on television in over three years, and his first serious performance since 1957, making Presley nervous about how he would be received. Colonel Parker, perhaps due to nerves of his own, had arranged for as many Presley fans as possible to fill the audience, although at least half of it was still made up of Sinatra fans. For the occasion, to fit in with Sinatra’s “rat pack” persona, Presley wore a tuxedo.

Sinatra and Elvis were kind of rivals in the 50s. Sinatra represented the kind of music and vocals which were the antithesis of rock ‘n roll, while Elvis. . . well, he was the king. Sinatra had once said rock ‘n roll was “sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons” and “manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth.” But here, the two are friendly and complimentary in every way.

As they say, it was a big deal. Here is the long clip of his appearance.

Ring of Red

As you may know, I’m working on a book about Chicano/Latino communities and America’s war in Vietnam. Most of my research comes from oral histories with veteranos and their families, work I’ve been lucky enough to do for the last seven years.

The book is still a bit off but, in the meantime, I’ve been trying to find creative ways to share this history with people, especially people in my own community. Well, thanks to support from the Whiting Foundation, I had a sabbatical this spring to do exactly that by using these oral histories to write a play.

We’re performing a “stage reading” of the play this Saturday, May 26 at a theater in downtown LA. This is a very informal kind of performance (no costumes or things like that) but it’s a chance to hear the play in draft form. After the reading we’re hosting an audience discussion, too, to hear what you think and to share more about the project.

Even better, it’s a completely FREE event!

This is a great way to commemorate the Memorial Day weekend and a fantastic way to learn more about our history. I hope to see you there.

MLK Day: “Beyond Vietnam”

It remains one of the most powerfully incisive speeches in U.S. history. Delivered at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was gunned down.

My Happiness

Elvis Presley was born 83 years ago today. It’s a good time to take a little taste of what made the man special, musically speaking.

Here’s a recording of the song “My Happiness” made by Elvis on July 18, 1953. It’s his first ever recording, an acetate press made for $3.98 at the Memphis Recording Service at Sam Phillip’s Sun Record Company.

There’s no producer here. No technological tricks. No band even. No nothing, really, just Elvis and his guitar and a style made up of the diverse musical upbringing he had.

It’s a great example of Elvis in an unadulterated form. Maybe we can think of it as a “pure” Elvis, before he gets marketed as a “product” and long before that process makes it so that many other forces are involved in what his music is.

To put that specialness into context, here are some popular recordings of the song made before Elvis walked into Sun Studios. This is “My Happiness” by the Marlin Sisters, a 1947 recording that is believed to be the first:

Here are Jon and Sondra Steele, whose May 1948 recording was the first “hit” version of the song:

Competing versions by the Pied Pipers and none other than the great Ella Fitzgerald also came out in 1948:

There are elements of all of these in Elvis’ version. Perhaps he’s closest to the last two, which are a touch slower than the earlier ones. But Elvis’ phrasing and vocal shifts are his all alone. He’s more than an imposter, even at this early stage in his career. He was a hybrid, a part of this and that, mixed with something from here and something from there. The resulting style brought together white and black musical styles, along with specific trends from different genres (like country and gospel and rhythm & blues) and made them into something else.

Elvis certainly wasn’t the only one doing this. I’m willing to admit he might not even have been the best. But he certainly wasn’t something to be dismissed. The tradition of that hybridity, mixed with raw talent, and even mixed with the commodification of the marketplace, all that is the history of rock ‘n roll.

So happy birthday to the King!

They Made it to 2018

Happy New Year! The start of 2018 gives me a chance to update my list of celebrities who are still with us but, because of advanced age or the passage of time, are kind of forgotten. As I’ve said in earlier posts, think of this as a chance to experience the “I didn’t know s/he was still alive” feeling before reading their obituaries.

A good number of past spotlighted celebrities are still kicking. Carol Channing (96), Hal Holbrook (92), Henry Silva (89), and the private Doris Day (93) are alive. Olivia de Havilland continues to be the standout celebrity for my list. At 101, the former actress who had a lead role in Gone With the Wind is likely the oldest living Oscar winner. Of course, former “Lollipop Guild” member and oldest living “Munchkin” Jerry Maren (98) is also a noteworthy mention.

The passing of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry in 2017 make legends like Little Richard (85) and Jerry Lee Lewis (82) worth mentioning. Carl Reiner (95) recently made a documentary for HBO called If You’re Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast spotlighting nonagenarians like himself. Friends Dick Van Dyke (92), Betty White (95), Mel Brooks (91), and Norman Lear (95) were all among the folks featured.

That’s already a lot of celebrities, but let me draw attention to three you might not know about:

Larry Storch (94)
Comedian and former star of the show “F-Troop” will turn 95 on January 8. He had a full career in television as a frequent guest star in notable shows of the 60s and 70s and as a voice actor in cartoons later on in life.

Charolette Rae (95)
Mrs. Garret is now 95. She announced last year that she has cancer, but she’s made it to 2018 despite the disease. She is most famous for playing one character on two television shows. Edna Garret began as the housekeeper for the Drummond family of “Diff’rent Strokes” and then became the lead adult in the show “Facts of Life,” which ran from 1980-1988.

Kirk Douglas (101)
The star of Spartacus, Paths of Glory, and The Bad and the Beautiful is perhaps the most famous “Gold Era” Hollywood star still with us. He reached the century mark in December 2016 and is now 101. Father to Michael Douglas, the elder Kirk is arguably the most prominent oldest living celebrity.