Wednesday, June 14, 2017

President John F. Kennedy Inaugural Gala, January 19, 1961 (NBC, 1961; PBS, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a PBS special that was potentially one of the most promising and compelling programs on television, only it got turned into a hideous mishmash that almost totally wrecked the historical value of the material. It was shown on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John F. Kennedy, and the main focus was the recently rediscovered footage of the fabled inaugural gala hosted by Frank Sinatra at the National Guard Armory in Washington, D.C. January 19, 1961, the day before Kennedy’s inauguration as President. Sinatra had been a key part in Kennedy’s campaign and had rounded up an impressive list of celebrities not only to come out for him publicly but, after he was elected, to participate in the gala: Ella Fitzgerald, Milton Berle, Alan King, Joey Bishop, Ethel Merman (who came out to participate in the Kennedy gala and to wish him well even though she was a lifelong Republican — today our country is so polarized it’s virtually impossible to imagine a performer crossing party lines to honor a new President with different politics from their own!), Nat “King” Cole, Gene Kelly, Harry Belafonte, Jimmy Durante and opera star Helen Traubel. Sinatra was particularly proud that he had got Fitzgerald, Belafonte and Cole on the program because he was hoping that the presence of African-Americans on the talent list at the gala would not only publicly dramatize Kennedy’s commitment to civil rights but would “push” the administration to be more active on race issues than Kennedy had promised in the campaign. (The fact that Kennedy put in a call to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s wife Coretta while King was famously languishing in that Birmingham jail, while his opponent, Richard Nixon, thought doing that would be showboating and ignored it, was a highly symbolic gesture that helped signal the historic switch in the two major parties’ positions on civil rights through the rest of the 1960’s; the Democrats, historically the party of slavery, segregation and the Ku Klux Klan, became the party of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, while the “Party of Lincoln” became, thanks to the deal Richard Nixon cut with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond to institute the “Southern Strategy” to neutralize the third-party threat of George Wallace in 1968, the party of racism and white supremacy.) 

Apparently the entire inaugural gala was filmed by NBC for an all-star TV special, but for some reason it never aired; the commentary on this program said this was because Washington, D.C. was gripped by one of the worst snowstorms in its history, though even in 1961 that shouldn’t have prevented a broadcast — even if they couldn’t do it live, they could still have shown the film later. The footage was rediscovered, and of course the obvious way to present it would have been to shoot a short documentary prologue about the 1960 Kennedy campaign and the involvement of Sinatra and his celebrity friends in it, use that to preface the gala footage and show the extant footage of the gala, start to finish. Did they do that? No-o-o-o-o-o! Instead they decided to use the gala footage simply as raw material, dragging in talking heads like historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and actress Phylicia Rashad (who seems to have been dragged in just because she’s Black and she could give props to Kennedy and Sinatra for having so many Black performers on the show), sometimes having them talk over the performances, and so frequently cutting away from the actual gala to show video footage or still photos of the Kennedys that after a while it started to seem like they were just using the soundtrack of the gala as basis of a series of music videos of Kennedy, his family and his Presidency. The gala, what you could see of it, looked quite impressive despite the horrible circumstances under which it was being performed: a hall way too big for the kind of intimate entertainment being provided (though decades later Sinatra would perform in similarly huge venues to accommodate the thousands of people who wanted to see him live before he croaked), a snowstorm that literally stranded Ethel Merman inside the Armory (she had shown up to rehearse, intending to go back to her hotel, pick up her stage costume and wear it during the actual performance; instead she couldn’t leave, so she sang in the plain plaid overcoat she’d worn to the rehearsal), and a “ceremonial” audience that nonetheless seemed to appreciate what they were being given. 

The gala — or at least the bits and pieces we got of it during the PBS show — opened with Sinatra singing “You Make Me Feel So Young” in the beautiful arrangement Nelson Riddle had given him for the Songs for Swinging Lovers LP in 1956 (and the recording quality was surprisingly good for a concert film in 1961; the charming background parts Riddle wrote for a flute section were quite audible), a song that seemed on that occasion to conjure up the youthful effervescence that had attracted millions of voters to pick the young, glamorous Kennedy over the more experienced but also more dour Nixon. Ella Fitzgerald was up next, doing a version of “Give Me the Simple Life” that continued the exuberant mood — I’ve long thought Ella was at her best singing in slow or medium tempi and using her magnificent musicianship and phrasing to put a song over, and this one was a little too bouncy to show her at her best, but she was still great and the song fit the upbeat mood of the overall show. Then there was a series of comedy routines involving Milton Berle, Joey Bishop (the only Rat Packer besides Sinatra himself who was part of the gala), Alan King and Bill Dana (doing his stereotypically racist but still screamingly funny “Astronaut José Jimenez” routine), after which Ethel Merman came on in her rehearsal coat and belted out her big hit “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” from the musical Gypsy. I’ve never been a fan of La Merman — I can tell those loud, belted high notes must have had a visceral effect on her audiences but I don’t like the way they only rarely approached pitch (I remember when I got the CD compilation From Gershwin’s Time on Columbia in 1997, celebrating Gershwin’s centennial, and Merman’s star-making song, “I Got Rhythm,” was performed on that set by Kate Smith, whose voice was just as big as Merman’s and whose musicianship, especially her intonation, was far superior) — but on this occasion Merman was better behaved musically than usual and the whole theme of the song, with its notes of indomitability and ultimate triumph, couldn’t have been more appropriate for the inauguration of a new young President. After that the PBS producers plugged in an earlier recording from the 1960 campaign singing “High Hopes,” the song James Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn had written for Sinatra’s 1959 musical A Hole in the Head and which Cahn rewrote as a JFK campaign theme song (“Back Jack/Jack is on the right track”). 

This went into one of the most bizarre parts of the gala, in which Sinatra, Berle, Kelly, Fitzgerald and Cole teamed up for a medley of songs with special lyrics telling the story of the 1960 campaign. It began with a rehash of the famous “Gallagher and Shean” vaudeville routine, after which Alan King sang, and Gene Kelly danced to, “It’s Been a Long, Long Time.” Then Nat “King” Cole warbled a bit of his 1951 hit “Too Young” to make fun of the frequent criticism during the campaign that Kennedy was too young to be President (though Nixon was only five years older!). After that Berle went into a number, based on Gay New Orleans pianist Tony Jackson’s turn-of-the-last-century classic “Pretty Baby,” which purported to explain the Electoral College. (In 1960 we were still in the middle of that long and remarkable run of 26 Presidential elections in 104 years, from 1892 to 1996, in which the winner of the popular vote for President also won the Electoral College, and hence the Presidency. Since 2000 that’s happened only three times out of five!) After that Harry Belafonte came out to sing the 1920’s song “My Buddy” with a rewritten lyric, “My Bobby,” paying tribute to the new President’s brother Robert and the importance of their political relationship. Then there was an ensemble version of the old college fight song “On Wisconsin,” about the importance of the Wisconsin primary to Kennedy’s eventual win of the Democratic nomination, followed by Sinatra doing a campaign rewrite of the song “That Old Black Magic” as “That Old Jack Magic.” Ella Fitzgerald then came on for the song “Too Close for Comfort” — a reference to the razor-thin margin by which Kennedy won the 1960 election — and the medley closed with the ensemble singing yet another rewritten lyric to “High Hopes,” “Moving Forward.” After that things reverted to more traditional showbiz as Nat “King” Cole came out and did his jazzy version of the song “The Surrey with the Fringe on Top” from Richard Rodgers’ and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Oklahoma!, and Gene Kelly came on for an elaborate dance routine which began with a bit of “Singin’ in the Rain,” segued into an Irish jig commemorating the shared Irish-American ancestry of both Kelly and Kennedy, and ended with a batch of patriotic songs during whose final entry, John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever,” Kelly ended up break-dancing. 

Then Belafonte sang “When the Saints Go Marching In,” and after that came the high point of the evening: Frank Sinatra singing Earl Robinson’s anthem to patriotism and tolerance, “The House I Live In.” Frank Sinatra had introduced this song in a 1945 short film, also called The House I Live In, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and written by future Hollywood 10 blacklistee Albert Maltz, in which he’s taking a break from a recording session, he runs into a group of kids who are targeting one of their number for a beating because “he’s a different religion.” Sinatra delivers a lecture on racial and religious tolerance in the weird combination of profundity and corn that was the stock in trade of Leftist writers during the Popular Front era, and then he sings the title song — only in neither his rendition in the film nor the record he made at the time for Columbia did he sing the song with anything like the sheer emotion and soul he brought to it at the Kennedy gala, flush with the hope that the President he had just helped to elect might, not only as a liberal Northern Democrat but an Irish Catholic whose forebears had suffered discrimination themselves, actually do something to bring about equality. (Sinatra would keep “The House I Live In” in his live act for decades, but as his politics lurched Rightward and he ended up supporting Ronald Reagan the song would sound more like an empty gesture, just one more of his old hits he had to slog through to keep his audiences happy.) After “The House I Live In” — which the producers of this PBS presentation at least allowed us to see and hear most of straight through — Nat “King” Cole did his hit version of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” though the PBS producers defaced it with stock footage of Kennedy-era rocket launches and a sound clip of JFK’s voice saying we were going to the moon and addressing the nation’s other challenges “not because they are easy, but because they are hard” — obviously somebody at PBS thought “Stardust” should be presented as a metaphor for the space program. 

Then Kennedy himself emerged to deliver the sort of short greeting the honoree at these sorts of events usually contributes, after which the program closed with Jimmy Durante, of all people, singing the Kurt Weill-Maxwell Anderson “September Song” (an odd bit of nostalgia — the singer is supposed to be an old man reminiscing about his love life and hoping he can have one last fling with a member of the opposite sex before he croaks — for a gala honoring the inauguration of the second-youngest President in American history), and a closing with Helen Traubel belting out “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Despite the wretched hash PBS made of it in their presentation — may we dare hope for a straightforward presentation of the gala, start to finish, on DVD or Blu-Ray? — the gala is fascinating not only musically but politically. Musically the biggest surprise to a modern-day audience is that there’s no rock ’n’ roll — in 2017 it seems like an odd omission for a tribute to a President that exuded youth and had won at least in part to the youth vote, but Frank Sinatra personally couldn’t stand rock and people of his (and Kennedy’s) generation wouldn’t have regarded it as a legitimate feature of something so serious and Important as honoring a newly elected President. Politically what’s most surprising about this is that at a time like today when we’re constantly being told what government can’t do — including providing health care to all its citizens — and when the current President is not only the oldest person to be elected to that office (as Kennedy was the youngest — though Theodore Roosevelt was even younger when he assumed the presidency following the assassination of William McKinley) but his entire approach is to warn the country of dire dangers that he alone can fix, it’s wrenching to be taken back to a time when a young, exciting, dynamic, handsome President told us what we could do and beckoned us to join him on a “New Frontier.” (The cultural gap between John F. Kennedy and Donald J. Trump is weirdly symbolized by the difference between the alacrity with which the stars of 1961 accepted the invitation to be part of his inaugural gala and the difficulty Trump’s people had getting anybody to perform at his in 2017.) 

Kennedy’s legacy has become one of the oddest in American politics, not only because he died way too soon but because he achieved relatively little, and yet that little allowed people who came after him to claim his legacy for their own and say, “If only … ” More sober-minded historians could argue that ironically it was Kennedy’s assassination that allowed for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and much of what he had proposed — if only because Kennedy proved wretchedly incompetent at getting Congress to approve all those things, while the man Kennedy’s death elevated to the Presidency, Lyndon Johnson, was a master at dealing with Congress — but Kennedy basically became a palimpsest on which just about everyone in the Democratic Party could write their own desires, their own priorities, their own positions (and Kennedy’s brother Robert became even more of a palimpsest when he was struck down by an assassin’s bullet 4 ½ years later in the midst of a run for the Presidency that was probably doomed to failure, though that hasn’t stopped generations of liberals and progressives since from thinking, “If only RFK had lived … ”). The production with which PBS surrounded the footage of the Kennedy inaugural gala essentially reflects the “white” Kennedy legend — quite a lot of which was built on lies: the seemingly vigorous young man who was in fact chronically ill; the guy with the glamorous wife who behind the scenes couldn’t keep from sticking his dick into anything as long as it was alive, human and female; the politician who promised heroic achievements and delivered almost nothing. And yet the Kennedy ideal has so hypnotized America, and especially liberal and progressive America, that just about every Democrat who’s run for President since, most notably Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, has had at least to try to claim some part of it for themselves (which is one reason why it was such a horrendous, stupid mistake for the Democrats to nominate Hillary Clinton in 2016 — though Trump mobilized his base through resentment and fear, not hope and positive change, at least he was the breath of fresh air, while Clinton presented herself as the voice of “experience” and attacked her opponent as “not ready,” basically making the same losing argument against Trump that Nixon had against JFK in 1960) — which led comedian Mort Sahl, a personal friend of JFK, to say that Democratic voters were like people who got married and then tried to fall in love. 

The commentators on the PBS presentation of the Kennedy gala made the obvious point that JFK’s administration “ended badly,” and it wasn’t just the murder of its central figure that qualified as an unhappy ending: after working his ass off to elect John Kennedy President, Frank Sinatra had a hissy-fit when the Kennedys abruptly dumped him in 1962. Kennedy had been planning a vacation in Palm Springs and Sinatra offered to put him up, setting up quarters on his estate for the Secret Service agents who would be providing security and building a helipad on his property for JFK’s helicopter to land. Then Kennedy, warned off by his brother Robert — who at the time was using his powers as U.S. Attorney General to bring down the Mafia and was all too aware of Sinatra’s Mob ties — abruptly canceled his plans to stay with Sinatra and spent his California vacation at the home of lifelong Republican Bing Crosby instead. Sinatra never forgave Robert Kennedy for that one, and it was that which led Sinatra to endorse Hubert Humphrey for President in 1968 and thereafter switch parties and support Nixon and Reagan. One sees the great entertainers on these film clips and realizes with a start that Harry Belafonte is the only one who’s still alive — just as, of all the speakers at the 1963 March on Washington, Congressmember John Lewis (D-Georgia) is the only one who’s still alive (though quite a few of the musical guests on the program, notably Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, are not only alive but still active) — which gives one a sense not only of the inevitable march of time but also that the idealistic torch which JFK in his inaugural said had been passed to a new generation of Americans has since been dropped, and not very many people in this country — certainly not the ones leading it today! — seem all that interested in picking it up again.