Saturday, December 23, 2017

Kitty Kallen, Big Band Legend


Big Band Chanteuse Kitty Kallen Epitomized an Era


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Kitty Kallen.

We are all familiar with the classic film image of a sultry dark-haired singer of the 1940s, standing before a massive microphone, backed by a band led by Tommy Dorsey, Glenn Miller or Harry James, and pouring her heart out in a teary torch song. There were many real-life examples of the genre (Helen Forrest, Peggy Lee and Jo Stafford spring quickly to mind), and it is impossible - and unfair - to pin the image down to one specific singer. However, if you had to pick one singer who exemplified the breed, an excellent choice would be Kitty Kallen.

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Kitty Kallen and fellow ingenue Doris Day spent a cold day in Central Park some time during 1947 getting some publicity shots. Doris looks like her teeth are chattering.

Katie Kallen (her real name) was born on May 25, 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants, and she had six brothers and sisters. She showed an interest in singing as a child, and won a local singing contest. One thing led to another, and soon she was on The Children's Hour, a radio program sponsored by classic automat chain Horn & Hardart (a brand which may be about to experience a revival as a coffee company). Before you know it, Kitty had her own program on WCAU in Philadelphia, fronting big bands of the early 1930s. And that, kids, is how you do it.

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Kitty Kallen with Bob Eberly, a fellow singer with Jimmy Dorsey.

Having her own radio show was not a bad way to ride out the Great Depression, but Kitty Kallen was just getting started. In 1941, Jimmy Dorsey needed a replacement for Helen O'Connell of "Tangerine" fame (add her to the list above), and Kitty now was a mature woman just entering her 20s. Kitty teamed with Bob Eberly for Dorsey in a series of duets that became standards of the era.

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Kitty's biggest hit with Dorsey and Eberly was “Bésame Mucho." A Mexican bolero written by Consuelo Velázquez, “Bésame Mucho" went on to become the most the most sung and recorded Mexican song of all time, with Kitty's 1944 version hitting No. 1 on the pop charts. That Kitty sang “Bésame Mucho" to such acclaim will become significant below.

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Eberly got drafted in late 1943, breaking up the act, so Kitty hitched her star with Harry James and his orchestra. It was a match made in heaven.

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In those days, the emphasis was on the band, not on the singer. Typically, the singer would sing a quick "chorus" in the middle of the song, practically serving as one of the instruments doing a solo. Kitty was excellent at this task. Her emotional renditions also were perfectly aligned with the sentimental mood of a country making a dramatic transition from war to uncertain peace. Together, the Harry James Orchestra and Kitty Kallen had a phenomenal rund of hits in the war's final year.

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Kitty's No. 1 hits in 1945 included "I'm Beginning to See the Light" and "It's Been a Long, Long Time." The latter song has experienced something of a revival recently due to its inclusion in "The Winter Soldier," and deservedly so: it was a massive hit that encapsulates the feelings felt at the end of the war. All told, Kitty had eight top twenty hits just in 1945. It was a phenomenal run, and Kitty's voice came to define the era.

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While nobody knew it at the time, the big band era was in its terminal phase as the war ended, so Kitty hit it perfectly right at its climax. While she had occasional hits during the late 1940s and early 1950s, they were few and far between. Kitty married Bernard "Budd" Granoff, a publicist, agent, and television producer, in 1948. Granoff helped Kitty enter a new phase of her career that, in unlikely fashion, brought her to her greatest heights.

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Kitty Kallen in a publicity still for "The Second Greatest Sex."

Granoff helped Kitty get some film work. She made a series of shorts, beginning with 1949's "Piano Rhythm," which led to a starring role on Broadway in "Finian's Rainbow." Once again, one thing led to another, and Kitty nabbed a starring role in film "The Second Greatest Sex" (1955). The musical, a takeoff on the classic Greek "Lysistrata" play, did not lead to any further film work, but is a great way to catch Kitty Kallen in her prime.

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Kitty Kallen with Frank Laico at the CBS Records studio in Manhattan, 1958.

It was right around this time in the 1950s that Kitty's singing career experienced a huge resurgence. In fact, Kitty Kallen's hits from 1954/56 are probably Kitty Kallen's best-remembered. Now a solo singer, she had a massive hit with her 1953 album "Little Things Mean a Lot," and the title song gave her another huge No. 1 hit. Reportedly, the single of "Little Things Mean a Lot" sold two million  copies, and that ain't beanbag, especially in the 1950s. However, that's not all: the title single was one of six, count 'em, six singles released off that one album. That's pretty rare. In fact, Kitty became perhaps the top female singer of the mid-1950s, before withdrawing in late 1955 from concert work and returning to the studio. Her 1958 album, "If I Give My Heart to You," was another big hit. The death of Kitty's father, Samuel Kallen, in early 1955 seemed to take a toll on her, unfortunately, and may have contributed to the famous incident later that year when she "lost her voice" temporarily. Never discount the importance of seemingly routine emotional events like that in a person's life.

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Kitty also accomplished a pretty rare feat during her renewed fame in the 1950s. Throughout her entire career, Kitty Kallen had exactly one single that made the UK chart: "Little Things Mean A Lot." That one and only record, though, went to No. 1 in the UK. So, Kitty Kallen may well be the only recording artist in history who has a perfect record on a major national recording chart: exactly one song on the chart, and that a No. 1 hit. Offhand, I can't think of anyone else who did anything like that, though maybe some novelty act pulled it off at some point. Kitty Kallen was no novelty act, of course. People in the UK who know of Kitty know her for that song, not any of her previous big band hits.

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Kitty Kallen being used to hawk shampoo during her resurgence of popularity in the mid-1950s. Now that's fame.

Kitty was now pushing 40, and she was facing the rising tide of rock singers such as Elvis Presley. It was not a great time to be a singer of classic ballads. However, Kitty cranked out one more hit album and single, "My Coloring Book," in 1962. It turned out to be her last hit. While everyone remembers the Barbra Streisand version of the same year, Kitty's was the one that actually made the charts, peaking at No. 18 on the pop chart. During this period, Kitty received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard.

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Kitty Kallen's last big hit, "My Coloring Book."

Kitty continued recording through the 1960s, but it was tough for a big band singer to compete against The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. By the 1970s, Kitty was basically retired at her longtime home in Englewood, New Jersey. She was known to promote local community causes, but basically adopted a low profile. The press erroneously reported her death in 1978, which initially alarmed her husband, but they all got a good laugh out of it later. Granoff actually predeceased Kitty in 1996.

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Kitty was a revered figure in Mexico due to her wartime rendition of “Bésame Mucho," and this likely contributed to Kitty's decision to have a home in Cuernavaca. She passed away there on 7 January 2016. Kitty is buried at Beth-El Cemetery  Paramus, Bergen County, New Jersey, USA. Her classic recordings, however, live on and continue to evoke the passions of World War II and the postwar era.

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Kitty Kallen's resting place (Chuck Kearns).






2017

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Lynda Carter, '70s Wonder Woman


Wonder Woo-man!


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Lynda Carter.

Everybody seems to love Lynda Carter. How can you not? She managed the tremendously difficult feat of making a female superhero sympathetic and likable back when there were no female superheroes. As television's "Wonder Woman," Lynda remains one of the most beloved female action star icons, at least on a par with television's Lucy Lawless of "Xena: Warrior Princess" and film star Scarlett Johansson of "The Avengers." With a resurgence of interest in "Wonder Woman" due to the 2017 hit film starring Gal Gadot, it's time to take a look at the lovely original Wonder Woman.

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Lynda Carter and stuntman Bob Yerkes during filming of "The New Original Wonder Woman" in 1975.

Linda Jean Córdova Carter was born on July 24, 1951 in Phoenix, Arizona. Her Juanita Córdova is of Mexican, Spanish and French descent, while her father is Scots-Irish.

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Queen Hippolyta, played by Cloris Leachman, kissing Diana, played by Lynda Carter (Courtesy ABC).

Lynda became interested in show business at a young age, but her first love was singing. She appeared on a television talent show at age five, then in high school hooked up with some garage bands. This led to a few paying gigs in Las Vegas in the late 1960s, back when Vegas was still being built up from its dusty origins. So, if anyone ever asks you to name any '60s singers still working today... you can surprise them by answering Lynda Carter.

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Diana turning into Wonder Woman ultimately included a big flash (Courtesy CBS).

The Vegas gigs enabled Lynda to save up some money. After briefly attending Arizona State University, Lynda dropped out and continued singing. In 1972, she also decided to enter a local Arizona beauty contest. Why not? She was a stunningly pretty girl. And, you know what stunningly pretty girls do at beauty contests - they win them. And that's what Lynda Carter did, winning both the local contest and, ultimately, being crowned Miss World USA. Lynda even made it to the semifinals in the international pageant, losing the Miss World 1972 crown (in one of history's worst judging decisions) to Belinda Green of Australia.

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Lynda during filming of "Wonder Woman."

Capitalizing on her success in the pageant, Lynda decided to try acting. Her first credit was on a 1974 episode of short-lived Robert Forster ("Banyon") television series "Nakia." This led to other guest appearances and work as a Bob Hope USO cast member. However, these sorts of appearances weren't paying the bills.

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While there were stuntwomen, the role of Wonder Woman required a lot of physicality (courtesy CBS).

Lynda auditioned for the role of DC Comics character Diana Prince/Wonder Woman in a proposed ABC Television series. This series was based on a 1974 television film which had starred former pro tennis player Cathy Lee Crosby in the title role. Crosby claims that she was offered the part in the subsequent television series, but that she turned it down. In any event, there was an opening for a new Wonder Woman.

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An ad for the original television movie of "Wonder Woman," which starred Cathy Lee Crosby as the titular character.

The studio paired with Warner Brothers to retool the concept, which in the TV film was set in the present day more or less, to the original comic book concept set during World War II. Once this was done, ABC was ready to air the series beginning in late 1975. To hammer home that Wonder Woman would be the "original" version from the 1940s, the studio titled the pilot "The New Original Wonder Woman."

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Lynda with "Xena: Warrior Princess" star  Lucy Lawless.

Casting for the series came down to either Lynda Carter or Joanna Cassidy. While Cassidy went on to a stunning career of her own (which continues to this day), Lynda got the part. Incidentally, that brings up a subtle point, which is that virtually everybody associated with "Wonder Woman" became successful and continued to work into the 21st Century, meaning the show helped a lot of careers. But, let's get back to Lynda Carter.

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The pilot showed Wonder Woman's origins on Paradise Island (courtesy ABC).

The show's creators decided to play the series "straight," but also to create a light atmosphere of camp. Now, some folks ask, "What exactly is camp?" That's actually a good question. We're not talking about summer camp here. It's a bit hard to define, but camp combines a tongue-in-cheek approach combined with underlying respect for the original material. That about sums up the television series "Wonder Woman," keeping everything light-hearted but managing not to descend into farce.

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Lynda with Jenny McCarthy.

The creators of the comic book character, and specifically Charles Moulton, intended Wonder Woman to be sort of "counter-programming" or a riposte to Superman. There are obvious similarities between Superman and Wonder Woman in the original DC comic books, and the television show retained them. These included the vivid costume, which the television faithfully reproduced. Other similarities between the characters were created for the show. While Superman in the George Reeves series would race into a telephone booth to change into his Superman outfit, the Wonder Woman of the television series did a signature spinning move, after a while accompanied by a blinding flash, to accomplish the same task. The series used the unusual device of actually showing comic book text during the title sequence and at times during the show itself.

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The stuntwomen got a real workout on "Wonder Woman" (courtesy CBS).

The pilot of "Wonder Woman" (actually, the second pilot when considering the television movie) aired on 7 November 1975 and set the background for the entire series. Lynda Carter's character is an Amazon princess, Diana, on Paradise Island in the Atlantic (no, not that Paradise Island). After an American pilot (Major Steve Trevor, played by Lyle Waggoner) bails out over the island, he needs to be brought back to the States by one of the Amazons. Lynda Carter's character volunteers to do this, and, after much controversy, is allowed to do so. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta, thoughtfully designs Diana's colorful costume for her, which Diana will wear throughout the series when she is acting as Wonder Woman (and not her disguised alter ego, Clark Kent, er, Diana Prince). By the end of the pilot, Diana is working as Major Trevor's secretary when not out saving the world from bad guys.

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The pilot succeeded, i.e., it got good ratings and critics tended to like it. The audience liked the concept, the theme song was snappy, and in particular everyone loved Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman.

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The "Golden Lasso of Truth" was probably something a lot of women would like to have (courtesy CBS).

The network produced a couple of one-hour specials which basically were episodes of "Wonder Woman" during spring 1976. These also did well in the ratings, and ABC placed the show on the fall schedule.

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Wonder Woman is given several special "weapons" and talents. These include her signature bullet-deflecting bracelets, her invisible plane, her "golden lasso of truth," and her ability to impersonate voices. She also displays other "talents" at times, such as being able to communicate telepathically with dolphins. Everything apparently stems from her magic belt, without which she has only normal human abilities.

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Wonder Woman deflected bullets with her bracelets (Courtesy ABC).

Ratings for the weekly series were good, but not great. ABC hesitated to pick it up for a second season - nobody knows if it would have or not - and, before it had made a decision, CBS Television decided to buy the series. CBS altered the title to "The New Adventures of Wonder Woman," updated Wonder Woman's costume, changed to setting to the modern day (as in the original television movie), and replaced most of the cast. However, CBS kept Lynda Carter and Lyle Waggoner as the leads, though Lyle wound up playing the son of the original character.

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Lynda did some of her own stunts on "Wonder Woman." The most notorious instance was when Wonder Woman dangles from a helicopter as it takes off.

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The famous helicopter stunt (courtesy CBS).

The helicopter stunt took place in season two episode "Anschluss 77." The stunt double didn't look enough like Lynda to pull off this particular stunt, so Lynda herself decided to perform it at the last minute. So, she held onto the chopper's skid as it ascended, a risky thing for a star to do. The studio later scolded her for taking such a risk, but it paid off in the final product.

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Lynda ran in many episodes, and as a bonus we get some good scenes of mid-70s Los Angeles (courtesy CBS).

While Lynda was athletic and can be seen running and throwing things in "Wonder Woman," she did have stuntwomen who performed some of the more dangerous stunts for her. Jeannie Epper of the famous Epper stunt family did normal stunts for all four seasons of the show, while Kim Renee - recruited from the trapeze at Circus Circus in Las Vegas - did aerial stunts during seasons two and three. Both stunt ladies treasured their time on the show and, as of this writing, remain in show business along with Lynda.

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The television series "Wonder Woman" is available in various packages, including the individual seasons and a "Wonder Woman: The Complete Collection" DVD Box Set.

The stunts on "Wonder Woman" were tough work. Renee once incurred a collapsed lung from a five-story fall. She said later that Lynda was very concerned and kept in touch with her in the hospital. Overall, Renee says, Lynda Carter was an absolute doll to work with.

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Some of Wonder Woman's accessories were a hoot, including the football helmet with imperial crest (courtesy CBS).

CBS kept the revamped "Wonder Woman" on for two more seasons until finally cancelling it due to declining ratings.

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While it only lasted for three seasons, "Wonder Woman" created an enduring impression. In fact, DC Comics later produced an entirely new series of Wonder Woman comic books set in the Lynda Carter "universe" of Wonder Woman. It is a rare instance of a television adaptation influencing the source material - sort of.

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"Wonder Woman" kept the violence in check most of the time, but Lynda did have to strong-arm some thugs from time to time (courtesy CBS).

While there is absolutely no question that portraying "Wonder Woman" was the highlight of Lynda Carter's acting career - how could it not be? - she went on to a long acting career after that. This included a main role on television series "Hawkeye" in 1994-95, the continuing role of President Olivia Marsdin in "Supergirl" (2016-2017), and appearances in video games such as "The Elder Scrolls" series.

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Lynda has had action figures made of her as Wonder Woman, including a limited-edition set issued by DC Direct. It is an impressive piece, standing 13 inches tall.

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Lynda played a secretary as a cover for her Wonder Woman activities.

Lynda learned about the reboot of "Wonder Woman" as a film series in 2016. She admitted that she wasn't too thrilled at the idea of someone else taking over the character, but new star Gal Gadot and director Patty Jenkins of "Wonder Woman" (2017) won her over.

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Wonder Woman in action (Courtesy CBS).

While Lynda Carter did not appear in the first "Wonder Woman" film, she apparently will appear in the sequel in 2018. However, that has not been confirmed yet.

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Lynda Carter knew how to give penetrating glances (courtesy ABC).

Lynda maintains an active Twitter account which keeps fans up to date on her interests.

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Lynda behind the scenes in her first-season costume (courtesy ABC).

Lynda also maintains her own web site This is a good place to catch up on her personal appearances.

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Lynda had no trouble facing down the bad guys (courtesy CBS).

Lynda Carter was married to talent agent Ron Samuels from 1977 to 1982. Samuels contributed to her iconic image as Wonder Woman, including a wall poster that was extremely popular.

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The best episodes were those in which Wonder Woman showed off a new outfit (courtesy CBS).

Lynda later married D.C. attorney Robert A. Altman. She left Hollywood in 1985 and moved to Potomac, Maryland. Robert and Lynda have have two children, James and Jessica.

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Wonder Woman getting a bit bored with a bad guy (courtesy CBS).

Lynda has a video on her website in which she discusses her decision to leave Hollywood, saying:
I really wanted substance in my life. I had a large body of work already, and I didn't really have a lot of substance in my life.... Now I really... things are good.

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Among other things, Lynda gifted the "Wonder Woman" crew with "Wonder Crew" satin jackets.

Altman was involved in the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) and its secret acquisition of First American Bankshares Inc. After a lengthy jury trial, during which Lynda stood by him, Altman was acquitted in 1993.

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Lynda showing some emotion as Wonder Woman (courtesy CBS).

Lynda, in 2008, admitted to a drinking problem. She said that she had entered rehab for alcoholism, and that it helped her to quit the alcohol habit.

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Lynda with the newest Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot.

As an iconic figure, Lynda Carter has been showered with honors. Among those is a Star in the "Television" category on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (2018).

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Lynda works with charities such as the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, which addresses breast cancer.

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Lynda Carter continues to give performances, such as one at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. on 17 March 2018. She shows no signs of slowing down because... she's Wonder Woman!



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2017