Mercoledi Musicale

One of the many things I recall from my evening with Josephine Baker was the varied programme she presented.  It wasn’t just the numbers from the glory days of her early career.  We did get “J’ai Deux Amours” and “La Vie en Rose” but they were outnumberd by songs that were of a more recent vintage.

I tried to find a decent version of  Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” but could only find this very blurry performance from French TV in 1972.  She does play fast and loose with rhythm and melody and my memory may be at fault but I seem to remember her singing it more as a ballad.

In an interview with Elwood Glover – as I recall his Luncheon Date was the only interview she would give – Josephine Baker admitted that she was having some problem with memorizing lyrics and often had to resort to cue cards.  When she sang Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a Changin'” I caught sight from our table of Jean-Claude Baker, her adopted son, standing in the wings with the lyrics copied in very large letters on cardboard.

There is only one known recorded version of her singing Dylan’s anthem to what he saw as the “change of the moment”.  It is from her legendary Carnegie Hall concert on June 5, 1973.  Unfortunately Baker was not in the best of voice that night; again she is a bit shaky on the lyrics and the orchestration is a bit OTT, but the emotion and immediacy cannot be denied.  And believe me in person it had twice the impact.

On this day in 1944:  World War II: The steamer Danae, carrying 350 Cretan Jews and 250 Cretan partisans, is sunk without survivors off the shore of Santorini.

My Night With Josephine

An early caricature by Al Hirschfeld of Josephine – possibly from her unsuccessful appearance in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1936.

Yesterday two things brought back the memory of  my night with the great Music Hall star Josephine Baker.  First, June 3rd was her birthday: she was born 110 years ago in St Louis, Missouri, the daughter of a laundress and a vaudeville drummer.  Second, I received a call from my old friend Shelia who reminded of that evening in April of 1972 when we went to the Royal York Hotel to see La Baker on stage.

It was during her career renaissance in the last years of her life that Josephine appeared at the Imperial Room – the premiere showroom in Toronto at the time.  Sheila was an acquaintance of Louis Jannetta, the renowned maitre d’ of the Room and knowing I was an adoring fan she had arranged a ring-side table.  After the first show, Shelia – who was never the shy one and had a flamboyant charm that disarmed men and women alike – cornered Mr Jannetta and said:  We’d kill to met that woman! He laughed and assured her that murder, the ensuing mess of a trial, and possible incarceration wouldn’t be necessary; he would be more than happy to take us backstage after the second show.  Her second show was a spectacular as the first – being Josephine it meant a costume change to something even more elaborate than her first ensemble.

Afterwards Mr Jannetta escorted us backstage and introduced me as her #1 fan in the city of Toronto.   She greeted us with hugs and so much charm – I dare say not too many people had come back during the run.  Sheila, being Sheila,  grandly, and to my surprise I should add, asked if she’d like to join us in a glass of champagne and an omelette at Gason’s a great restaurant she knew of in the old Markham Village.  Josephine laughing thanked us and said that after a show she enjoyed a cup of tea more than a glass of bubbly and that late nights were out of the question these days.  She then turned to me and I remember it to this day said: Could you help an old lady on with her slippers, good sir? And there I was helping one of the legends of French Music Hall slip into comfortable shoes. I had loved her before then but loved her even more afterwards.  She thanked me, gave me a kiss on either cheek and promised to send me an autographed photo.

This Hirschfeld lithograph has always found a place in our homes.  It was done in 1964 when she made her first New York appearance in 28 years.

Three years later I was doing a good deal of commuting between Toronto and Paris and had tickets to see her in a revue at the Bobino in the second week of its run.  Celebrating her 50 years on the French stage it was “un grand retour” to Paris, the city of her first success.  It became the hottest ticket in Europe and the media was filled with stories of her life and previous successes, and failures.  The show opened on April 8, 1975 to rave reviews and was sold out for months.  Four days later she was found in a coma lying peacefully in her bed surrounded by newspapers with glowing accounts of her performance.  She died later that day.

Happy Birthday dearest Josephine. Thank you for making a young star struck man very happy and for giving an old man such a wonderful memory.


On this day in 1855: Major Henry C. Wayne departs New York aboard the USS Supply to procure camels to establish the U.S. Camel Corps.

Mercoledi Musicale

Well it’s that time of year again – tomatoes are ripe on the vine and plentiful in the market – and there’s nothing I love more than a ripe tomato.  I have fond memories of those first beef streaks when I was a child – my father would cut one in two and we’d share the salt-seller – that’s all that was needed.   The taste of sunshine, summer and the approaching change of season all rolled into one.

My friend Spo is just as crazy about tomatoes as I am and was bemoaning his inability to grow and, more important, harvest the ripened berry of Solanum lycopersicum in his southern climate.  In response to his request of yesterday here’s my all-time favourite performer: the divine Josephine singing a timely warning about the fruit of the vine!

September 10 – 1939: World War II: Canada declares war on Nazi Germany, joining the Allies – France, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.

Stuff – Josephine, Hirschfeld and Sable

Though it is a little early to start our inventory – well actually it is never too early and when we arrived here 3 years ago I vowed to keep the inventory up-to-date and dutifully enter each new item when it was purchased. I really must find out where the inventory programme is on the hard drive. Let’s hope it wasn’t on the PC that fried last year!

Anyway I’ve been taking a look at a few of the things that we have hanging around the house and checking evaluation – mostly for insurance purposes. And I’ve been getting a few surprises – and so will my insurance company when I talk about a new policy.

Back in the late 70s early 80s we got into the habit of spending a week in Provincetown every summer with our friends Bernie and Don. It was a week of sun, food, drink, drag shows (Charles Pierce, Jim Bailey) and just relaxing – though somehow we never made it to the Tea Dance at the Boathouse. I know what the hell sort of gay men were we?????

There was (and I discover still is – 41 years in business) a gallery called Graphics Etc on Commercial St where I bought two lithographs -a caricature by Al Hirschfeld, one of the greats of graphic arts, the other by Kas Sable, whose work I recall as appearing in After Dark magazine. I still have both – the Sable has always hung in the bedroom no matter where we’ve lived and the Hirschfeld in the living or family room.

I will always remember the look on the face of the poor customs officer at the Canadian border when I brought this litho across. She was a young summer student and she wasn’t at all sure I wasn’t trying to bring pornography into the country. I had a feeling there was a discussion between her and her supervisor afterward as to what constitutes art and what is just plan smut. I haven’t been able to track anything down on Sable so I’m not sure if the litho actually appreciated or not – and frankly I’ve always enjoyed it so it doesn’t really matter.

The reason I bought the Hirschfeld was two-fold – first it was a Hirschfeld and I had seen his Broadway drawings in books since I was a wee laddie and second because it was of an entertainer that I adored: Josephine Baker. I believe it was done when she made her comeback in New York in 1973. As I have said before I was fascinated with the French Music Hall from an early age and had read about, listen to recordings of and seen pictures of La Bakir and when she appeared at the old Imperial Room in Toronto I made sure I was there to see her live. Not only did I see her perform but met her afterward and helped her into her slippers – don’t ask!

On April 8, 1975 at the age of 68 she opened in a new revue at the Bobino on the Left Bank, not quite the Folies Bergere or Casino de Paris of her past but a triumph nonetheless. Four days later she was found laying in a coma surrounded by the newspapers and magazines heralding her success – she died later that day. I had a ticket for a performance the following week.

As always with a few strokes of his pen – and including his signature hidden NINAs – Hirschfeld captured the glamour, showmanship and joy of performance that accounted for Josephine Baker’s success and popularity over 50 years. When I bought it back in 1980 or 81 it cost $150.00 USD – a not inconsiderable sum in those days but still within my budget. When I checked what Hirschfeld lithos were going for these days I was frankly astounded. It appears that the little stroll into Graphics etc was a wise investment move.

Hirschfeld worked almost up until his death at the age of 99 – recording in pen and ink the history of the American theatre and cinema. This video shows him at work on a drawing of Paul Newman as he appeared in Our Town in late 2002.

27 giugno – San Cirillo di Alessandria