Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Taffeta, darling!: Q&A with Madeline Kahn Biographer William V. Madison

While we are excited to present the iconic work of Mel Brooks this summer, Mel couldn’t have done it alone. He needed a comic troupe of shameless, fearless actors who were willing to do anything on film. One of his frequent stars was Madeline Kahn. Since I am lucky to know her official biographer, William V. Madison, I thought we could pick his brain about what makes Ms. Kahn so darn funny. His book will be published by the University of Mississippi Press soon.

MJH: Mel Brooks utilized many of the same actors over and over. How did Madeline Kahn end up as one of his muses?

WVM: Madeline was co-starring in Two by Two on Broadway with Danny Kaye when she came to the attention of casting director Liam Dunn. He recommended her to Peter Bogdanovich for What’s Up, Doc? (1972). Bogdanovich in turn cast Dunn in the movie, too, as the judge in the courtroom scene, and then he recommended Madeline to Brooks — who also hired Dunn for Blazing Saddles (as Rev. Johnson, in 1974), and for Young Frankenstein (as a hapless patient, in 1975).

Right there you get a sense of a kind of repertory company forming. But as for why Madeline herself appealed to Brooks, I think it was her willingness to try anything he asked of her. At their very first meeting, he asked to see her legs. Another actor, fearing a summons to the casting couch, might have fled the room, but Madeline kept her cool and simply asked, “Why?”

“It’s a Marlene Dietrich part, and I need to see whether you have Dietrich legs,” Brooks answered. A legitimate response, so she showed him her legs.

The “open sesame” to the collaboration between Madeline and Brooks — and to that between Madeline and Gene Wilder, for that matter — is the “I’m Tired” number in Blazing Saddles, which Madeline plays to the hilt, of course, but to which she also lent her creative intelligence and some remarkably diplomatic suggestions. Seen only in cutaways, Wilder wasn’t even needed for that scene, but he remained on set to watch every take. “If your whole picture is that number,” he told Brooks, “then you’ve got a hit.”

Brooks has a reputation for absolute directorial control on the set, but when Lili goes off pitch, or tries to lean against the set and misses, it’s Madeline’s contribution. Even the introduction to the song, according to Brooks, was written at Madeline’s behest. Again, that’s highly unusual for Brooks. But I think he was willing to trust Madeline’s instincts not least because she brought him that flawless Dietrich imitation, which is the result of a lifelong immersion in Dietrich’s movies and also in Brechtian theater and Weimar culture. Brooks couldn’t have anticipated finding all of that in many other actors, but Madeline was a highly cultivated lady.

MJH: They must have worked well together. Did you come across any amusing stories about their collaborations?

WVM: Brooks told me that, during The Producers, Zero Mostel cracked up the crew so much that he was spoiling his own best takes. So Brooks went out and bought some handkerchiefs, for the purpose of (literally, to hear him tell it) stuffing them in the mouths of the crew to muffle their laughter. Brooks had let the practice drop, however, until shooting “I’m Tired,” when Madeline’s performance made it necessary again. He told me he went through a couple of crates of handkerchiefs, just for that scene, and he always kept handkerchiefs at the ready thereafter.

In terms of the personal relationships, I think it’s telling that, at perhaps the lowest ebb of her career, after an abrupt departure from the Broadway musical On the Twentieth Century in 1978, Madeline reached out to Brooks and his wife, and to one of her co-stars from the Brooks movies, Dom DeLuise and his wife: trusted friends who could make her laugh.

MJH: What is your favorite role of hers in a Mel Brooks film and why? What is your favorite line or scene?

WVM: There are so many to choose from! My favorite line may be one from the morning-after scene in Blazing Saddles. Bart has just left Lili’s boudoir, and she closes the door and sighs, “Vot a nice guy!” The tiniest moment, and yet it gives you so much of the character, both Lili’s history and the change that’s come over her.

One of her favorite scenes was the airport security scene from High Anxiety, in which she and Brooks disguise themselves as an elderly Jewish couple. For once she doesn’t have to worry about her appearance, she can draw on personal observation of neighbors back home, and she can be zany and outrageous in a way she seldom got to explore. You can see that she’s having a terrific time.

MJH: What is it about her acting that makes her so ridiculously funny?

WVM: Believe me, if I knew her secret, I’d be acting right now and not writing a book about her. But I’ve been struck from the beginning — and some of her friends and colleagues have confirmed this — that she treated a script like a piece of music. She sings her lines. This may be natural, since she had classical training beginning in early childhood and continued voice training to the end of her life.

MJH: Was Kahn among the first female comics to be able to pull off sexy, funny, and smart all at the same time?

WVM: There had been a few others, though not with the kind of exposure Madeline got, especially in the Brooks films. When I interviewed Brooks, I ventured a comparison with Carole Lombard, but Brooks insisted that Madeline brought to her work an emotional resonance that Lombard didn’t: “Madeline could move you,” he said. Of course, she got scant opportunity to move anybody in his movies, and when he remade To Be or Not to Be, he gave the Lombard role to his wife, Anne Bancroft, not to Madeline. But Brooks to this day considers her the greatest screen comedienne of all time, and I’ll happily defer to his judgment.

MJH: Do you see any glimpses of actors performing today that remind you of her?

WVM: Far be it from me to suggest that Madeline wasn’t unique, or that today’s talents aren’t unique! However, I’ve spoken to several actors and even opera singers who draw inspiration from Madeline, especially when it comes to her musicality. Classically trained performers such as Audra McDonald and Kelli O’Hara have acknowledged that inspiration, and the most obvious example someone who might qualify as a “new Madeline” is Kristin Chenoweth (with whom I haven’t spoken). I find that Chenoweth has a more modern, somewhat harder edge to her performing persona, but I do see Madeline’s influence — including in her choice of certain roles.

MJH: What attracted you to Madeline Kahn as the subject of a book?

WVM: I was watching YouTube clips of her one night, and at some point scrolled down to see the viewer comments. The universal affection that’s recorded there is extraordinary: if you look at clips of other performers, even Maria Callas or Judy Garland, you’ll find sniping and negativity. And yet for Madeline’s work there was nothing but love, every single comment, every single clip. (This was a few years ago, and it’s possible that a troll or two has left a nasty comment about her since then.) In a lot of audiences she inspired a kind of protective affection, similar to that generated by her friend (and fellow ovarian cancer casualty) Gilda Radner, and her several fan bases have this much in common: they’re smart, which means they might read a book about her.

She connects us directly to so many important figures in the culture of the second half of the 20th century: Leonard Bernstein, Bill Cosby, Mel Brooks, Lily Tomlin, Marilyn Horne, Joseph Papp, just to name a few. I never met her, although as I continue my research and interviews, I’m surprised by that: we have many cases of “one degree of separation.”

MJH: What would you like people to take away from your book?

WVM: There’s a very human story at the core of Madeline’s biography. She was this luminous spirit, and yet she was also a child of divorce, a single working woman, trying to support her family, looking for love and not always finding it, facing a lot of the pressures and challenges that all of us face on a day-to-day basis.

Frankly, too, I hope readers take away a sense of loss. Madeline died much too young, with an astounding range of possibilities ahead of her: she’d have turned 70 this year, and I believe that she might easily have become America’s answer to Maggie Smith. That’s just one possibility, but ovarian cancer deprived us of them all: a truly awful disease snuffed out a bright and singular light. So I hope readers will join me in supporting research into effective testing for ovarian cancer — and ultimately a cure.

Mel Brooks on Film: The Spoof is in the Pudding starts tomorrow night. Photo of Kahn in Blazing Saddles

Monday, June 25, 2012

Celebrating a Life Cycle Event

This blog comes from our colleague Sharon Steinbach, who became a bat mitzvah Saturday. We were hoping she would blog about the experience of preparing, and we are delighted to share the following with you. Mazel tov, Sharon! We're kvelling with pride.

This past weekend, after two years of study, I became a bat mitzvah, along with my husband, Stephen, who became a bar mitzvah. After he converted to Judaism a year ago, he felt it was the logical “next step,” and prompted me to do the same. In my teens, I opted for a Sweet Sixteen rather than a bat mitzvah.

In the days leading up to the big event, my Museum colleagues frequently began to ask, “Are you ready? Nervous? Excited?” Depending on the moment my answer was either, “All of those things,” “Not sure,” “How do kids do this?” or “What was I thinking?”
Because I spend so much time working at my desk, I don’t visit our galleries as much as I would like. However, last week I did, and with the bat mitzvah on my mind, I had the unexpected experience of reconnecting with the first floor, Jewish Life a Century Ago, from a new perspective.

In preparation for the bat mitzvah, the clergy asked for the Hebrew names of my parents and me – something I rarely think about – which would be used in a blessing and handout for the ceremony. The Core Exhibition opens with a “Names” gallery, a place where we often ask school children, “What’s in a name?” Now I was asking myself that same question, thinking about the importance of how my name, and in particular, my Hebrew name, is such a meaningful symbol of my family’s legacy.
Then there are displays representing life cycle events and the people connected to them. I thought about my upcoming life cycle event, and how it would produce my own “artifacts” and a story to tell about them. The Core Exhibition’s film in which individuals talk about the meaning of Shabbat from a personal and communal point of view too had greater resonance for me. Coincidentally, my D’var Torah (essay and speech) was about the Sabbath and its role in preserving Jewish identity.

The Core Exhibition also illustrates tzedakah (charity/justice) in Jewish life. In honor of my bat mitzvah, several friends made donations to charitable organizations. Many people donate to the Museum to honor the simchas of friends and family, which is always a mitzvah, yet I felt particularly proud that I was a direct catalyst in the Jewish tradition of charitable giving.
I have always felt that the Museum’s stories contain pieces of my own story. Now they mean so much more. With the bat mitzvah behind me, I expect that in the coming days my colleagues will stop to ask, “How was it?” I will answer assuredly, “It was wonderful, emotional, moving, and uplifting” – as it turns out, the same response we hear from visitors all the time when asked about their Museum experiences.

Photo of Sharon and Stephen at the lunch following the ceremony.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What We're Reading Now: New York: The Novel

I’ve always loved studying history, but I often find myself wanting to know more about the day-to-day lives of ordinary individuals who didn’t make headlines. In addition to visiting historic sites across the country, and reading first-person accounts of various time periods, I’ve learned a lot from reading historical fiction.

In honor of the Fourth of July, our summer staff book club pick is New York: A Novel by Edward Rutherfurd, which has been named one of the best books of the year by the Washington Post who calls it “a riotous, multilayered portrait of a whole metropolis.” It may weigh in at more than 800 pages and a couple of pounds, but it is a thrilling account of the history of our city told through the eyes of several generations and a handful of families whose fates and lives are intertwined.

The novel starts in the 1664 when the city was called New Amsterdam and home to the Dutch, English, Native Americans, and even a handful of Jews who came by way of Brazil. More than a history lesson, its characters, both real and imagined virtually jump off the page. Whether he is bringing life to a cross dressing governor or shedding light on slavery in New York, Rutherfurd’s attention to detail is staggering.

At this point, I am up to the Revolutionary War, which is fascinating to read, as many of the main characters live right around Bowling Green, New York’s oldest park, which is just a stone’s throw from the Museum of Jewish Heritage. As I got off the subway this morning, I pictured the statue of King George III being taken down and made into bullets for the Patriots.

I really look forward to continuing to delve into other chapters of the city’s history and hope you will read along.

Image: Bowling Green, complete with its original fence from 1771.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

All About Mel Brooks: A Q&A with film historian Leonard Quart

In advance of our free summer film series, which will showcase the work of Mel Brooks, we took the time to interview film historian Leonard Quart, who will introduce the festival.

MJH: What about Mel Brooks’ humor is quintessentially Jewish?

Quart: In all his films Brooks incorporates Jewish motifs. Among other elements, he utilizes a constant use of Yiddishisms, reference to his Jewishness and gentiles, and a sense that his comedy relieves the pain of historical intolerance, and being a social outsider.

MJH: Do Brooks' films continue to push the boundaries of good taste?

Quart: Yes, he can be vulgar, scatological, and outrageous. But for me, his films are too innocent, even sweet-natured to draw blood, even though Brooks believes "comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

MJH: Is he still relevant?

Quart: How do we define comedy's relevance? If it's able to make us laugh, escape our lives, and, at its best, make astute sharp social and psychological points, it's relevant. I wouldn't say all of Brooks’ work meets those criteria, but he does meet some of them.

MJH: What is your favorite Brooks' film? What’s your favorite line?

Quart: My favorite films are Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein. Most of Mel Brooks’ funniest lines are profane, so I will say that one of my favorite (non-profane) lines is something Brooks said himself that is apt: “Humor is just another defense against the universe.”

MJH: In what ways does Brooks' comic style and vision differ from Woody Allen's?

Quart: That's a big question. To be honest, Allen, in his middle period (e.g. Manhattan and Annie Hall) was the more controlled, stylistically rich, and gifted director. And his works then seamlessly combined the comic and pathetic, with characters who had internal lives, and weren't merely cartoons. Brooks is the more manic and anarchic, and can evoke belly laughs that Allen rarely does. Both engage in social criticism, though Brooks' use of pop culture makes his work broader and less subtle. For a time, these two Brooklyn products, who did stand up comedy, and wrote for Sid Caesar, were, albeit in different ways, the two best American directors of comedy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Somewhere Over The Rainbow

Let's face it -- one of the intangible benefits of working late and seeing Biblical storms roll over New York Harbor is this little indication that the storm has passed. Whether one believes that the rainbow is a promise to Noah and his family that God will never again bring a deluge to destroy humankind, or that the rainbow already existed and God decided that it would make a nice symbol of the covenant with Noah, or that it is an optical and meteorological phenomenon that results when the sun shines on water droplets (you know, like rain, a whole lot of rain) in the Earth's atmosphere, you have to admit it is quite pretty. Shari, Clara, and I went into the stairway to get a better look at said rainbow, and Clara snapped this picture. While the skies over NJ are clear as can be, the skies over Brooklyn...not so much. I hope to be home for dinner soon, hon.

An Eye-Opening Weekend in Poland

This blog comes from Dara, our Auschwitz Jewish Center coordinator, who is in Poland studying and leading fascinating tours for students abroad, among other things.

It's Thursday evening and a group of North American college students studying abroad throughout Europe and Israel sit family-style at Karma, a trendy vegetarian joint in central Krakow. After a few moments of introductions, students begin mimicking each other: "I didn't expect Krakow to be so beautiful!"

This is a common scene during the first evening of the Auschwitz Jewish Center Program for Students Abroad (PSA). The long-weekend program begins Thursday evening and ends Monday morning when students return to their respective cities. Days are spent touring Krakow, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and its neighboring city Oświęcim, while examining Polish-Jewish history and pre-war Jewish life, scholarly approaches to the Holocaust, and contemporary Jewish life in Poland.

Roughly a quarter of Krakow's population are students, so young people, many of whom speak English, are easy to come by. Colorful cafés and bars as well as modern hotels and restaurants dot the streets full of beautiful pre-war facades. Concert posters are plastered on street corners; a beautiful park filled with benches surrounds the Old Town. This is not the city most PSA participants expect, with prior knowledge generally derived from black and white films and Holocaust education. Some students enter the program with a religious connection through Judaism, relating to Poland through the lens of Holocaust victims; many other students are non-Jewish with or without Polish ancestry who simply feel drawn to learning more about the period of history. The program has the ability to challenge students' viewpoints while engaging with a diverse group of peers. A distinct component of the discussions throughout the program is examining different approaches toward the history.

On Friday evening, students have the opportunity to join the local Jewish community's Shabbat dinner at the Jewish Community Center in Krakow. After learning about the Jewish history and Holocaust, this experience illustrates an element of contemporary Jewish life in Poland. Many students express that until this experience, the history they were taught overshadowed any positive elements of Polish-Jewish relations. Many students partake in the program to learn about the Holocaust and leave impressed by the beauty of Krakow, the progressiveness of Poland, and with a new-found appreciation of the existence of Poland's cultural gems, the dynamism of Polish-Jewish history, and contemporary Jewish life. Most recently, the May PSA group had the opportunity to attend the annual Life Festival in Oświęcim, which attracts roughly 20,000 people. For many participants, seeing the city full of music, life, and people adds a human face to the complicated history.

Photo of the spring group of PSA participants.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Bringing Lessons Learned in Poland to Iraq

Auschwitz Jewish Center Foundation
, our affiliate in Poland, held its annual benefit dinner at the Museum last night. As you may know, one of the innovative educational initiatives that the AJC is known for is the American Service Academies Program (ASAP), an immersive three-week trip to Poland. First Lt. Nathan Custer spoke very eloquently about his experiences in the program in 2008. Below is an excerpt of his remarks.

In our travels in Poland, we saw towns where Jewish cultural life thrived prior to World War II that today have no Jews. Learning about the warmth and richness of Jewish culture made the near elimination of Jewish life in the Holocaust harder to bear. Hearing testimony from some of the bravest individuals I have ever met placed a human face on the historical accounts of the Holocaust. Standing at the entrance to the crematoria and in the barracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau made the statistics far more real and overwhelming to comprehend. Through these experiences, the idea that affected me most was that military leaders, especially those at the junior level, planned and executed atrocities that dehumanized and murdered millions of people. I came to realize that a nation of leaders in positions like mine made conscious decisions to commit seemingly unthinkable acts against other human beings. This experience reinforced the moral obligation we, as junior military officers, have in preventing atrocities like those that took place during the Holocaust from ever occurring again.

When I became a platoon leader and prepared to deploy to Iraq, I remembered the lessons I gained from my time in Poland. Prior to deploying, I had several group discussions with my paratroopers about the nature of the current wars and the importance of respect for other cultures. We talked about how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are based on working with the population rather than achieving tangible military objectives. Also, we addressed the fact that any ethical deviation when interacting with the local populace could result in global consequences. I wasn’t sure if the discussions had an effect, but 6 months in Iraq demonstrated that my paratroopers understood the message.

While deployed to Ramadi and then Baghdad, my platoon worked alongside the Iraqi Army and interacted with the local population on a daily basis, often without direct supervision from my chain of command. During these operations, I was the highest-ranking leader and decision-maker present. On every patrol, my soldiers and I stood in government offices, businesses, or people’s living rooms interacting with civic leaders, corporate staffers, and everyday people. Thanks to the American Service Academies Program, I realized that if I deviated in word or deed when interacting with the Iraqi population, my soldiers would follow my example and potentially create a human rights issue with worldwide diplomatic and military effects.

While the ASAP opened my eyes to the rich complexity of Jewish culture, I never fully internalized the importance of cultural acceptance until working and training with the Iraqi Army. I am very thankful that my paratroopers paid attention during our talks, because for two months, my platoon of 19 paratroopers trained an Iraqi unit of 375 soldiers to conduct extremely dangerous combat operations against armed criminals. The relationship between my platoon and the Iraqi unit depended on quickly adapting, accepting, and working within Iraqi social and cultural norms. By helping my paratroopers to open their minds to learning about another culture, we created a greater level of trust between my platoon and the Iraqi soldiers. Even in frustrating situations, my soldiers maintained their professionalism and ethical conduct, which gave us overwhelming success and allowed every paratrooper to return home safely after 6 months.

My experiences with the Auschwitz Jewish Center helped to develop my perspective on my role as an officer and a military leader and contributed to my platoon’s success in combat. I cannot truly express the respect I have for the survivors who persevered in the face of the utmost adversity to preserve and pass on their beliefs and identity. I thank the Auschwitz Jewish Center very much for the opportunity to participate in such an enriching experience, and I thank you all for your continued support of the soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen who preserve our way of life.

Photo by Elena Olivo.