Wednesday, 2 September 2020

MARGE AT 101: STILL A STAR AND A 'CHAMP'!

Eleven years ago, I spent a couple of incredible days in the company of the amazing Marge Champion who is, today, celebrating her 101st Birthday! 

 

 

Marge, with her second husband Gower Champion, became Hollywood's headlining dance duo. They danced their way through a slew of memorable MGM movie musicals, among them Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), Show Boat (1951) and Everything I Have is Yours (1952). Other films in which they starred included: Mr. Music (1950) with Bing Crosby, Give a Girl a Break (1953) with Debbie Reynolds, Jupiter’s Darling (1955) with Esther Williams and Three for the Show (1955) with Betty Grable and Jack Lemmon. 

 




What is less well known is that, in 1937 – as the then Marge Belcher – she was the live-action model for footage created to guide the animators grappling with the task of convincingly giving animated life to the heroine of Walt Disney's first animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

 

 

Marge's hidden life as Snow White was very quickly revealed  to the public in Life magazine (April 4, 1938) with a picture shoot also featuring dancer Louis Hightower, the model for Snow White's Prince...

 

 

 

While working at the Disney Studio, (where she later modeled for the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio and some of the balletic creatures in Fantasia) Marge met and married her first husband, legendary animator Art Babbitt who was responsible for animating Snow White’s nemesis, the Wicked Queen, and – in a somewhat different style – Mickey Mouse’s pal the hapless Goofy and who is also featured in the Life feature above.

 

The marriage ended after four years and, in 1947, she married Gower Champion and the couple were soon a hugely success dance partnership, becoming, de facto, the Fred and Ginger of the '50s.

 



In 2009, I was drafted in (as 'Disney Historian') to accompany Marge and Disney representative Mindy Johnson, through a couple of days of British press promotions for the newly issued 'Diamond Edition' DVD of the film – the classic movie for which she had received no credit and yet to which she had had a major creative input.

 

  

Although at the time of our working together, Marge was already 90 year of age, she was indefatigable! At the end of a second gruelling day of interviews, when I expected her to want to do nothing but crash out in her London hotel (and by which time, frankly, I was ready and eager to drop) she blithely asked my partner David Weeks and myself what we were doing that evening and insisted that we join her on a visit to see her friend Donna McKechnie (the first Cassie in A Chorus Line) who was in performance at the then music venue, 'Pizza on the Park'.

 

Donna joined us after the show and Marge kept us all engaged in tirelessly animated conversation until the staff were stacking the chairs on the tables and beginning to switch off the lights! When we finally had to leave (closer to midnight than not), David and I offered to drop Marge at her hotel: "Goodness no!" she replied, "the walk will do me good!"

 

Now, at 101, she is still the trouper! Great going, Marge! Happy birthday and keep dancing!

 


 

Saturday, 22 August 2020

MY FAVOURITE MARTIAN

Today, 22 August 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the birthday of RAY BRADBURY, one of the all-time greatest writers of fantasy fiction and a personal friend for almost forty years.

 


Portrait of Ray Bradbury by Barnaby Conrad

[Sibley-Weeks collection]

 

To mark this significant day, I’m posting a link to the full, raw, unedited recording of an interview I had with Ray in November 1988, taped in the Disneyland Hotel, Anaheim, California. I was there covering a publicity junket to mark Mickey Mouse’s 60th birthday and as I didn’t have the time to go over to Ray, he got a cab and came down to visit me.

 

The recording begins mid-conversation with talk about a new edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated with Victorian lantern slides that I had recently edited and introduced, a copy of which I had carried with me to give to Ray.

 

 

In exchange, he gave me a copy of his newly published story collection, The Toynbee Convector –– with a unforgettable inscription!

 

 
 
 

 

Although I had many meeting with Ray over the years, very few of them were recorded – this being one the longest and, I think, most revealing…

 

Follow this LINK to SOUNDCLOUD to hear BRADBURY 100

 

 


Monday, 17 August 2020

A CALL TO ADVENTURE

It’s 6.00 am on 25th December 1957, Christmas morning, and my eight-year-old year self is plunging excitedly into a small pillowcase of surprises which Santa has left at the end of my bed… 

 

It won’t take long to pillage this horde for we are not a well-off family, but ­after registering the ubiquitous tangerine, a handful of nuts and gold-foil-covered chocolate coins – I seize on rectangular package that instantly declares itself to be a BOOK!

 

Shredding the holly-and-robins wrapping-paper, I catch my breath and my eyes open wider than wide… 

 

ROBIN HOOD Annual 1958

 


 

There are no words to express my joy and delight! Exciting full-page colour illustrations, picture-strip stories, ‘proper stories’ with lots and lots of words and historical information of the kind that every amateur medievalist needs to know! 

 

 
 

 

 

I instinctively know that this book will not just be a Christmas feast, but will be my constant sustenance for many months to come: poring over those glossy paintings of deeds of derring-do, reading, re-reading, and locking away all the stories and pictures in my memory bank…

 

What else would I do? Robin Hood was already the hero of my young life avidly following his black-and-white adventures on TV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood with the dashing Richard Greene as the swashbuckling hero, Robin of Sherwood.

 

Robin provided the favourite game of my contemporaries and myself: running wild as ‘outlaws’ and ‘sheriff’s men’ among the woods surrounding our little country junior school. 

 

Already the aspiring thespian, director and impresario, I plotted and choreographed the various scenarios of our childish play and – with my gabardine raincoat worn like a cloak (and secured with the top button under my chin) ­– I cast myself not, as you might suppose, in the role of Robin, but as the Sheriff of Nottingham in honour of Alan Wheatley whose suave but dastardly TV portrayal of Robin’s nemesis had totally captivated me ­–– doubtless because there was about his performance a certain quality that I would now define as elegant and sardonic camp! 

 

 

Anyway, sadly – somewhere in the mists of time – we were parted, the Robin Hood Annual 1958 and I.

 

One of the personal effects of the Covid-19 pandemic has sent me back, across the years, to relive (and often struggle with) the events of my childhood that would, later, shape my life, my emotional development (or lack of it) and, inevitably, my career…

 

Many of these mental encounters have been painful: reassessing the relationship between my parents and between them and I, or helping me understand my childhood passions for things – especially books, music and films ­– and my youthful crushes that, in the culture of the times, I and the subjects ­of my love, had no way of understanding or managing…

 

In their turn, these meditative excursions have led me to try and reclaim some of those objects that were a pivotal part of the process of mapping the journey of where I came from and how I got to where I am now.

 

I have spasmodically scoured the Internet for a copy of that Robin Hood Annual and now, wonder of wonders, I have secured a copy that is so near-mint as to feel as though it was the very one that I excitedly unwrapped, that Christmas morning almost sixty-three years ago!

 

Turning the pages, I am eight years old again and swashbuckling my way through the chivalric romance of an age that never actually was, but, without question, should have been!

 

I can now also pinpoint perhaps the very earliest recognition of my still-to-burgeon sexuality as (in the very first story, ‘Robin Hood and the Mystery of the Mill’) I read as I remember reading back then with a curious sensation of excitement:

 

“The summer sun shone brightly down upon the lush green of Sherwood, glancing from the dappled leaves and setting the forest streams a-sparkle.”

 

[Not bad vocabulary for a comic book! But to continue…]

 

“Upon this splendid morn, bold Robin Hood peeled of his garb of Lincoln green and scarlet … and plunged headlong into the cooling waters.”

 

 

A page or two later (having lost his ‘garb’ to a passing thief!) Robin, bare-chested and, for modesty’s sake, “clad in pair borrowed breeches” set out to exact revenge!

 

 

I suspect that, even then, the die was cast!

 

Anyway, now we are back together again, after an eternity, and what an unmitigated joy it is to follow the book’s opening invitation to…

 

“Turn the pages and be carried back to… THE DAYS OF ROBIN HOOD.”

 


Lovers of the Nottingham hero may like to tune-in to a radio programme, Back to the Greenwood, celebrating the films of Robin Hood made in the year in which two rival screen versions were produced.

 

Written and presented by Brian Sibley

Contributors: Patrick Bergin, Bob Bushaway, Sean Connery, Alan Frank, John Irvin, Richard Lester, Mike McShane, Jeffrey Richards and Richard Todd.
First Broadcast on 'Kaleidoscope', BBC Radio 4, 16 February 1991.

Produced by Adrian Washbourne

 

Follow the golden arrow to this link: BACK TO THE GREENWOOD

Monday, 10 August 2020

A MOST BEFUDDLING THING!

In 2014, I caught up with my friends Richard M Sherman and his wife, Elisabeth, when they were in London. I took the opportunity to grab an interview with him for a programme I was making celebrating the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming's Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, for which Richard, with his brother Robert, wrote the song score.


I took with me one of my long-treasured possessions, the 1963 Disney film-tie-in paperback edition of T H White's The Sword in the Stone, for which Dick and Bob had also composed the songs.

 

 

To be honest, fifty years earlier, I had ONLY bought the book because I'd recently seen 'the film of the book' and this copy had Disney characters on the front cover!

 

But – and it's a BIG 'but' – happenstance is a tricksy wench and sometimes (to quote one of Dick and Bob's songs) we can find life a 'most befuddling thing'. 

 

I got past the cover and actually read the book! The result: I was so totally captivated by White's fantastical writing and unique style that I immediately dashed off to the library and borrowed his full Arthurian epic, The Once and Future King, a book that started me on what was to prove a long journey...


Many years later – and for many long years – I tried to convince the BBC to let me make a radio dramatisation of White's wonderful comical-tragical-historical-romance and, in 2014, after interminable negotiations with Disney and the estates of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (who had turned White's book into the musical, Camelot), I finally succeeded in achieving that ambition with a six one-hour serialisation starring Paul Reddy as Arthur and the David Warner as the very embodiment of White's Merlyn. 

 

And so, you see, Richard's apt inscription, added to the book that day, perfectly sums up the wonderful, often long-term, fortuosity with which coincidence and connectivity can sometimes generously reward us! 

 

 

 

Thursday, 6 August 2020

A POPPINS PUZZLER

I have an extensive collection of literary, theatrical and cinematic autographs – mostly in books, or on artwork and photographs, but I do have some autographed items that don’t quite belong on the bookshelf or fit in the photo album. 

 

Here’s one such recently acquired treasure…

 

A copy of the 1973 reissued original cast soundtrack LP recording of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins, signed by its four stars: Julie Andrews (the ‘practically-perfect’ Miss Poppins), Dick Van Dyke (the beloved ‘Cockney’ chimney sweep, Bert), David Tomlinson and Glynis Johns (Mr. and Mrs. Banks) and Karen Dotrice (their daughter, Jane).


The album's cover-art was also used on posters and while it is – for those of us of a certain age – very much part of the film’s historic iconography, it remains something of a marketing puzzle.

 

As I noted in a recent blog post, the Broadway-marquee-style neon-lit lettering is curiously out-of-step-in-time with the film’s Edwardian setting and wildly at odds with the art and lettering used on more family-child-oriented releases such as these…





As for the central image of Dick and Julie dancing, this is – in the case of the very-proper Mary Poppins – a very uncharacteristic image!


 

Mary Poppins showing all that leg? No! That just isn’t right – and certainly not proper!

 

As can be seen from the still film image used on this record of Duke Ellington's interpretations of the Mary Poppins score (one of the best Poppins 'spin-offs' and P.L. Travers' personal favourite), our heroine wore black stockings NOT flesh-coloured tights! Nor was she sporting red, high-heeled shoes!



So, what can we deduce from this shameless, hussy-like behaviour?

 

Discussing this mystery with Richard Holliss, my friend and fellow Disney historian, Richard offered what is, I believe, the definitive answer in that, following Mary Poppins’ hugely successful debut, the Disney Studio were anxious to reclassify the film as being in the mould of a mainstream Broadway-cum-Hollywood film musical rather than another kiddie offering from the Mouse Factory.

 

And, as Richard suggests, there is one particular show-become-film that offered the perfect a prototype: the 1957 Broadway smash-hit, West Side Story ­– with its accent on youthfulness and energised dance – and the subsequent, and equally successful, movie version made in 1961 –– just three years before Mary Poppins flew onto the screen.

 



Yes... I see what Richard means...