In Pages from the Arts we review books on the subjects of what we cover on the site: theater, opera, classical music, dance, comedy, spoken word and film/TV with a stage connection. Look for our opinions on biographies, memoirs, histories, work about practice and theory, coffee table books and other tomes. These will be curated and mostly written by contributor Cathy Ritchie, who has retired from the Dallas Public Library and is now based in Urbana, Ill.
In this edition of Pages from the Arts, we review a new memoir from actor Gary Sinise, a biography of Ray Bolger, and a guide to Sci-Fi cinema.
Grateful American: A Journey from Self to Service
By Gary Sinise
Thomas Nelson Books, 2019
I’ve named my personal bucket list “Actors I Hope to See Perform onstage Before I Kick My Own Bucket.” Its membership fluctuates periodically, but one name is permanent: fellow Illinois native, Oscar nominee and Emmy Award winner Gary Sinise. I so admire this man, as a great actor and creative artist, and as a dedicated citizen of the world, that I was delighted to learn of this memoir. It’s a fine read, befitting a fine man.
The book’s subtitle offers a good clue to the shape of its narrative. To my perception, the text falls into three fluid, overlapping sections. First comes Sinise’s early stage-focused career, highlighted by his co-founding of, and association with, as both performer and director, Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf Theatre in 1974. His active tenure there included appearances on Broadway in transplanted Steppenwolf productions, followed, secondly, by years more oriented towards his film and television work.
Finally, there’s Sinise’s seemingly non-stop “giving back,” especially to America’s armed forces in both peace and wartime. Along the way, there’s also been time for a 30-year-long marriage and three children. Through it all, we see a man of integrity and devotion to the causes he holds dear, and someone continually in search of new ways to “serve” wherever he’s needed.
Sinise credits a high school teacher for launching him into performing, when she urged her somewhat directionless student to try out for a production of West Side Story. The long-haired young man was enthralled, and so began a career which would branch into several areas. Along with his starring role in television’s CSI: New York (2004-2013), and several Emmy Awards for performances in made-for-TV biopics, Sinise’s film work has included Of Mice and Men (which he directed); The Stand; Apollo 13; The Green Mile; Jack the Bear; The Quick and the Dead; and many others. Arguably, his Supporting Actor Oscar-nominated turn as “Lieutenant Dan” in 1994’s Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks proved pivotal in jump-starting what became the other major thread of his life — support for the US military and other related causes. Music also found itself in the mix, as Sinise’s own rock group the “Lt. Dan Band,” featuring him on guitar, would entertain troops and raise money for countless causes in succeeding years.
As he states early in his text: “I love my country, and I’m grateful to be an American. I know where my freedom comes from, and I do not take for granted the sacrifices of those who provide it. Because of that, I want to do all I can to ensure America’s defenders and their families are never forgotten.”
Politics aside, it’s apparent that Sinise also cares about people affected by the military in locations around the world, plus those who “serve” humanity in other ways, including the New York City and Chicago police and fire departments; Disabled American Veterans; the Wounded Warrior Project; the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial; the Dancing Angels Foundation, and countless others. He has also frequently hosted PBS’s televised National Memorial Day Concert broadcast.
In this engrossing book, multi-devoted citizen/artist Sinise offers true testimony as to how one individual’s efforts on behalf of others can make a difference. He summarizes: “Freedom is not something all human beings simply get to have and enjoy. A price must be paid, and I am grateful to those who are willing to pay that price. Because of those special Americans, I have been able to live out my dreams, succeed at my chosen career, and turn that success into something positive for others.”
Along with seeing him on stage in the flesh someday, I personally hope to witness a Presidential Medal of Freedom placed around Gary Sinise’s neck in the not-so-distant future. In the meantime, we can enjoy being in the presence of an accomplished artist, and an even better man.
Ray Bolger: More Than a Scarecrow
By Holly Van Leuven
Oxford University Press, 2019
To many, Ray Bolger will always be synonymous with The Wizard of Oz’s Scarecrow while those of a later era might memorialize him as the “Amy guy” from Broadway’s Where’s Charley? But as Van Leuven strives to convince readers via her long-researched effort: at his peak, Ray Bolger was a fixture in mid 20th-century American entertainment, an arguable triple threat with seemingly effortless dancing always the anchor to his offerings.
Born in 1904 Massachusetts, Bolger became a vaudeville baby early on, and carried that entertainment form’s modus operandi with him long after it began to fade in popularity. From the start, while his singing talents were questionable, his dancing abilities were not: he mastered tap at a young age but found his true calling via improvisational “eccentric dancing,” wherein he used his remarkably limber body to cavort effortlessly about a stage — his high kicks (which he could still demonstrate into his 60s), and overall ability to throw his lower body every which way but always stay upright unless scripted not to (e.g. Oz) became enduring trademarks.
Van Leuven describes it further: “Eccentric dance depended upon loose-limbed, rubber-legged parody … To be successful, the eccentric dancer needed to develop a physicality and steps unique to a character and storyline … Bolger’s shins were unusually long, and the combination of his long legs and short torso were well suited to a comic form of dance.” Bolger’s classic solo “If I Only Had a Brain” is considered the epitome of eccentric dancing.
His 1939 cinematic turn as the Scarecrow was significant in his career but didn’t define or pigeon-hole his performing future: Bolger continued to appear on Broadway and in nightclubs, with additional film appearances such as Rosalie, Stage Door Canteen, and The Harvey Girls. (Fortunately, YouTube offers copious examples of Bolger’s inimitable dancing styles, from both film and television.) When TV came along, Bolger offered himself there as well, headlining his own 1950s sitcom and variety shows, and making small-screen guest appearances for decades to come.
But Broadway was perhaps where Bolger truly shone brightest. After starring roles in On Your Toes and By Jupiter, he became THE raison d’etre behind the 1948 musical farce Where’s Charley?, for which he would win the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical. The number “Once In Love With Amy” wasn’t originally conceived as an ad infinitum solo for Bolger The Star, but when he started encouraging his adoring audiences to sing along with him, what might have begun as a standard-issue musical interlude rapidly morphed into a romp of 15 minutes or longer at every performance. But audiences loved it, and since Bolger WAS the show, the “Amy” phenomenon never died: I vividly remember watching him extol his lovely lady for the benefit of variety show television cameras decades later.
Bolger’s life and career weren’t diamond-plated: he had some difficulty keeping himself relevant in the midst of a changing entertainment climate, and could become easily bored with his gig of the moment. His devoted wife, Gwen, to whom he was married for nearly 60 years, strongly inserted herself into the nuts and bolts of his career, antagonizing many over the decades.
And Bolger’s professional choices weren’t always slam-dunks: in 1962, he was part of the extremely short-lived and regrettable-to-many musical All American, by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams. (However, on that occasion, he also introduced one of the most beautiful songs ever heard on the Broadway stage, in my opinion, the exquisite “Once Upon a Time,” so there was some silver in the lining.) Ray Bolger died in 1987, the last Oz non-Munchkin performer still living at that time.
Holly Van Leuven has offered us pretty convincing proof of Ray Bolger’s importance to the entertainment world during a lively era in American culture. His unforgettable celluloid turn as the Scarecrow would never define the man — he kept moving and dancing forward for decades to come. A good thing for all of us.
The Geek’s Guide to SF Cinema: 30 Key Films That Revolutionised the Genre
By Ryan Lambie
Robinson Publishing, 2018
I thought I would be an ideal reviewer for this book, objectivity-wise, since I am not a “geek,” and “SF cinema” — or science fiction in any format, for that matter — holds no inherent interest for me. However, I do enjoy learning about the history and development of film and its various genres, so I was happy to give this book a try. Wise decision: I enjoyed it immensely.
Ryan Lambie frames his survey of pivotal sci-fi-related movies by focusing on one title per chapter, in chronological order. He begins with the 1902 silent classic A Trip to the Moon, and concludes with 2010’s Inception. His choices include the obvious suspects and others perhaps lesser known: Metropolis; Frankenstein; Flash Gordon; Godzilla; Dr. Strangelove; The Thing; Day the Earth Stood Still; Brazil; Terminator; Forbidden Planet; Aliens; and Avatar, to name but a handful.
After a synopsis and analysis of his title of the moment, he then broadens his parameters by discussing how each film contributes to science fiction cinema as a whole. Each chapter is reasonably self-contained, so the book could be dipped into at random, but I recommend reading it from first page to last in order to savor the full tapestry of Lambie’s insights.
In his Introduction, he states: “At its most basic level, sci-fi is about humankind’s relationship with technology, how it molds us and changes us, and how — for better or worse — it might affect us in the future….At their core, sci-fi movies are about ourselves, about the very best and very worst of our natures.”
While I’m still no sci-fi geek and don’t foresee becoming one any time soon, this book is a welcome gateway to a cinematic world worthy of attention and respect. And I can almost guarantee that readers will be seeking out at least a few of these special titles at a public library or via cyberspace.
PREVIOUSLY IN PAGES FROM THE ARTS
- February: A Mary Martin biography, Joel Grey's autobiography, Jack Viertel's book about the structure of musicals, and a book about playwriting by T.J. Walsh of Trinity Shakespeare Festival
- March: A memoir from Broadway legend Barbara Cook, a history of the Bolshoi Ballet, and a helpful primer on classical music.
- April: Two biographies of legendary pianist Van Cliburn, namesake for the upcoming 15th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition; a story of African-American opera singer Ryan Speedo Green; a chronicle of a summer repertory production of Much Ado About Nothing; and gorgeous book (and CD) for musical Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812.
- May: A book about Chicago's famed Steppenwolf Theatre, a portrait of how Venezuela's El Sistema became a model for publicy funded music education, and a biography of the late comedian Joan Rivers.
- June: Three memoirs from classical musicians: Andrea Avery's Sonata: A Memoir of Pain and the Piano; Min Kym's Gone: A Girl, A Violin, a Life Unstrung; and Marcia Butler's The Skin Above My Knee: A Memoir.
- July: Dominic Dromgoole's chronicle of taking the Globe Theatre's Hamlet to nearly 200 countries; a new biography of dance/choreoraphy legend Gene Kelly; and the script of Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat.
- August: Biographies Sam Sephard and stage and screen actress Teresa Wright; and the script of David-Lindsay Abaire's Ripcord.
- September: A biography of Sarah Vaughan, an informative journey through theatrical history, and the scrip of Martyna Majok's play Ironbound
- October: A biography of choreographer Katherine Dunham, a new book by acclaimed set designer David Hays, and the script of the play Application Pending
- November: A biography of singer Julie London, a history of the stand-up comedy club The Improv, and a look at Annie Baker's 2016 play John.
- December: Memoirs by jazz musician Fred Hersch and coloratura soprano Charity Tillemann-Dick, and a biography of turn-of-the-20th-century actor M.B. Curtis.
- January: Biographies of acclaimed and award-winning actress Anne Bancroft, quixotic pianist Glenn Gould, plus the scripts of Lucas Hnath's Hillary and Clinton, and Quiara Alegría Hudes' Elliot, A Soldier's Fugue.
- February: A memoir by director/producer Harold Prince; an introduction to classical music by Jan Swafford; Rick Elice's love letter to the late Roger Rees; Jenna Fischer's survival book for actors; and the script of Marco Ramirez's The Royale.
- March: John Mauceri on the art of conducting, a memoir by ballet great David Hallberg, a memoir by British actor Tim Pigott-Smith, an interesting look at Paul Robeson, and the script of Rebecca Gilman's Luna Gale.
- April: Biographies of Sophie Tucker and Richard Wagner, and Nicholas Hytner's memoir of his time at the National Theatre of London.
- May: A tome about Angels in America, a memoir about music as therapist, and Paula Vogel's Indecent.
- June: memoirs from actress Christine Lahti and Leonard Bernstein's personal assistant; Martyna Majok's Pulitzer-winning Cost of Living.
- July: A biography of Rodgers and Hammerstein, a memoir from polio-stricken pianist Carol Rosenberger, and Robert Askin's Hand to God.
- August: A new biography of Bob Fosse, a primer on how to watch ballet, and the definitive Broadway plays and musicals.
- September: A memoir from Andrew Lloyd Webber; a lesson from Leslie Odom, Jr.; and Lucas Hnath's A Doll's House, Part 2.
- October: A memoir from Sally Field; and the rivalry between Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse
- November: A memoir from director Kenny Leon, an easy guide to jazz, and Philip Ridley's Radiant Vermin.
- December: A new biography of Jerome Robbins, an ode to the art of opera, and the script of The Band's Visit.
- February: A book about the past and future of the New York City Opera; the script to Will Power's Fetch Clay, Make Man
- March to October: On hiatus
- November/December: A memoir by Dallas arts philanthropist Donna Wilhelm, trailblazing women of comedy, a rembrance of Woodstock, and the script of Elise Forier Edie's The Pink Unicorn.
- January/February Chicago-based theater critic Karen Topham reviews P. Carl's Becoming a Man; and Cathy Ritchie reviews new biographies of actress Elaine Stritch and blues-rocker Janis Joplin, and a detailed look at a great American story-song.