At this point it’s surprising that any of my mother and father’s contemporaries are left. Kenny Kingston, who my mom hung out with at some point in the late ’60s or early ’70s, was a little younger than her; he died Monday at 87. My mom had a thing for psychics, gurus and other vaguely supernatural trappings. She threw Iching coins, played the Ouija board, conducted seances and read palms, as well as preparing astrological charts for her friends.
She even roped me in with Kreskin’s ESP game, on which I did about as well as Kenny. I’m not sure how she met Kenny or if they ever really dated — she never had a real longterm boyfriend after she divorced my father and his Los Angeles Times obituary says he met his partner in 1970. Maybe there’s a story there, but I guess it’s too late to find out. Maybe they met on the Merv Griffin show; MJ appeared on the show to talk about her book “How to Tell if Your Husband is Cheating on You” while Kenny was a frequent guest. But as the L.A. Times points out, he wasn’t a particularly gifted psychic:
The predictions were often no better than those in an office pool. For example, in 1994 Kingston said he had it on good authority from the likes of Greta Garbo, Gloria Swanson and James Dean that the acting winners would include Holly Hunter and Tommy Lee Jones. Those picks turned out to be correct, but the dead stars also wrongly picked Liam Neeson and Emma Thompson. The always genial Kingston, known for his oversized tinted glasses and ample mop of blond hair, blamed misfires on the dead stars, saying that they rigged it by choosing the people they wanted to win.
No matter, in Hollywood and especially in those days before Snopes.com and an internet full of paraprofessional fact-checkers, it was more about the presentation and bonhomie than the actual clairvoyant powers. We used to listen to him on the radio, and my mom was always happy to hear him and his tagline, “Sweet spirits!” Here’s to Kenny and the Jewish American Indian guru White Eagle Schwartz and the rest of MJ’s colorful cast of friends.
Groucho’s house, Trousdale
My dad rented two houses in Trousdale, both of which my mother would have undoubtedly thought were déclassé. I remember her derisively calling Trousdale a “tract” since many of the houses did indeed resemble each other; of course they bore absolutely no resemblance to ugly cookie cutter suburban houses. The first was in 1967 or so after he and my mom got divorced. At first he stayed in a bungalow in the Beverly Hills hotel, then rented a large furnished house on Haynes in Trousdale with a huge bathtub in the master bathroom, an all-white formal living room that was almost never used and a manly den where we watched TV. After he remarried for the fourth time, he moved back to Trousdale to Arkell Drive, where he paid a small fortune in rent each month to a Korean doctor landlord. I feel somewhat happy to have stolen a large Moroccan hanging lamp from the landlord which I still have. The New York Times T Magazine looked at Trousdale this week.
Im looking forward to reading the upcoming book “OVER THE TOP: the Architectural History of Trousdale Estates, Beverly Hills” when it is published and seeing if either of my dad’s houses are in it.
One of my biggest regrets is not realizing until it was too late that the UPA studios, which I spent my childhood roaming, were a pristine example of mid-century architecture and design. The studios were sold and torn down around the time I was away at college, and though I couldn’t have prevented the demolition, I certainly could have salvaged more of the furniture. At least I was lucky enough to inherit a Herman Miller credenza and a cel depicting John Lautner‘s clean-lined modern design. My memory banks are full of pastel ’50s colors, pots of animation cel paint, men with skinny ties and white shirts bent over drawing boards and an editing room full of whirring projectors and Moviolas. I know my dad just bought the studio, didn’t build it himself, and was then responsible for its destruction. But it was another time and as I pointed out in another post, he never claimed to be an artist, just a businessman.
Larry Sloan was my mother’s editor at Price Stern Sloan, the groovy publishing company that put out her three books including “How to Tell if Your Husband is Cheating on You.” He died October 14 at 89, after a career that included being a Hollywood press agent and running that rare bird — a Los Angeles-based publishing company. Price Stern Sloan was sold to Penguin in 1993, according to this L.A. Times obit, but its heyday was the mid-60s to mid-70s, when “Mad Libs” took off alongside my mom’s books and “How to Be a Jewish Mother,” which I used to re-enact with a reel to reel tape recorder. Here’s a snippet from his obit:
Working from offices on La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood, Sloan directed the editing of manuscripts that often emphasized humor. As of 1973, the company had 150 titles — mainly original softcovers that sold for a dollar — and expected to gross about $1.6 million that year.
UPA, the studio my dad bought on the verge of bankruptcy, is getting quite a bit of attention this month. The long-in-the-works book about the studio, When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA by Adam Abraham, is now available. I haven’t seen the book yet, although I talked to Abraham about UPA a few years back.
Most everything written about my dad and the entertainment business is fairly negative, but naturally I take a more charitable approach. UPA was started by visionary ex-Disney artists who tried to keep their studio going as long as possible, producing advertising spots and making theatrical shorts. As I understand, the founders were better artists than businessmen, leading my businessman dad to get involved and take over the studio.
He moved the studio into television production, where the money was, keeping UPA chugging along for another decade or more. Of course the cartoons produced for TV were less labor-intensive than the early shorts, possibly less creative too. But the world had changed — theatrical shorts were never a money-making proposition anyway — and at least “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which he produced, was still held in high regard.My dad knew absolutely nothing about the reasons why the Oscar-winning artists that founded UPA hired John Lautner to design the Burbank studio and stocked it with Eames furniture, but he tried as hard as he could to keep the lights on and the bills paid.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is holding a UPA night March 30 called Madcap Modernism in conjunction with the California Design exhibition, which features UPA’s colorful letterhead. An evening program will screen 10 newly-restored 35mm UPA cartoons from the 1950s theatrical shorts era, and Abraham will be present signing his book. A new Jolly Frolics DVD of these theatrical cartoons was just released by TCM.
- Patti Gilbert was Queen Shirley on “Batman” to Victor Buono’s King Tut
This one’s not about Hank or MJ — my stepmother Patti was also an important part of my life although she and my father were married only seven or eight years. An actress in Chicago dinner theater, she moved to try her luck in Hollywood when she already had two daughters, Laurel and Gina. She scored a few small roles in “Get Smart,” “That Girl,” and most notably as one of King Tut’s consorts in “Batman.” Voted Miss Subways in her youth in New York, she also did voiceovers for commercials, painted, produced a play and wore a Pucci dress like nobody’s business. Here’s the obit I wrote — I like to think she would have been thrilled to be in Variety.
Elephant print, David Weidman
It’s amazing how many great, lesser-known artists and designers are still being unearthed, mostly by the New York Times style magazine but occasionally by other publications. Sunday’s L.A. Times home section profiled Highland Park artist David Weidman, whose whimsical mid-century style prints are instantly recognizable as the work of a former UPA artist. Weidman worked on shows including Uncle Sam Magoo, which I got to help research as a child, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo and Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. I think one of his elephant prints would go perfectly with my elephant collection. His prints can be purchased through this website.