Dancing In the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part II of III)

“I was born and raised to entertain other people. I’ve heard laughter and applause and known a lot of sorrow. Everything about me is based on show business. I think it will bring me happiness. I hope so.” — Donald O’Connor, Parade, 1954

 

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Read Part I here.

Gene Kelly knew what he was doing when he hand-picked Donald O’Connor as his right-hand man in Singin’ In the Rain. His own ballet training was perfectly complemented by O’Connor’s raw hoofing talent. O’Connor later credited Kelly with teaching him to be a “total dancer,” from the waist up. Each borrowed motifs from the other to create their iconic synchronized routine “Moses Supposes.”  But working with Kelly had its tense moments. In this rare interview clip (edited by yours truly), O’Connor shares a priceless anecdote about the legend’s famously short temper on the set of their number “Fit as a Fiddle”:

The memories of Debbie Reynolds also offer some insight into O’Connor’s gentle, professional personality. When Gene became frustrated with Debbie, he would take it out on Donald. But Donald bore it with perpetual good humor. In one instance, as all three practiced a step in “Good Morning,” Kelly himself was unknowingly repeating an error while blaming O’Connor for it. Reynolds expected O’Connor to retaliate at any minute, but all he said was “I’m sorry.” Finally, Kelly stopped and announced, “I’m doing it wrong! Why didn’t you tell me?”

Yet for all his abrasiveness, Gene recognized a professional when he saw one: “Nobody else in the business could have taken the beating I gave Donald O’Connor in Singin’ In the Rain… Donald comes from vaudeville. He’s disciplined. I’ve seen him rehearse a step a thousand times.” Looking back on it all, O’Connor could only laugh and say “Working with him? Yeah, he was miserable. No, we had a great time together… I was never offended by Gene, I love the guy too much.”

Of course, “Make ‘Em Laugh” is the number that everyone remembers from O’Connor’s work in the picture. When MGM released its compilation That’s Entertainment, this was the one that could still make listless audiences break into spontaneous applause in the theaters. Mark Steyn has described it as “the essence of entertainment,” adding “Its only purpose is to delight. Which is a lot harder than it sounds.”

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Dancing in the Rain: The Donald O’Connor Story (Part I of III)

Actor Donald O'ConnorQuickly: Who’s the most talented entertainer you can name? For many, it would be the man who just took his own life last month. An older generation might name Dick Van Dyke. Yet another generation might reach still further into the past, to silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. What do legends like these all share in common? Answer: They all had an extraordinary gift for making anyone happy, except themselves.

To that remarkable list, I would add another name. I would add the name of the man who immortalized laughter in three short minutes of pure genius on film. I would add the name of Donald O’Connor.

Perhaps Paramount exec A. C. Lyles said it best: “Donald O’Connor’s name, spelled backwards, would be talent.” Gene Kelly simply dubbed him “The O’Connor.” But his story sounds too painfully familiar: a lightning-fast comic wit, a master of improv, full of explosive energy and beloved by fans, yet privately haunted by divorce, addiction and depression. Except that his story does not end like so many other sad, sad stories. No, my friends. This is a story that ends with hope. Continue reading

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Lost Soul: My Video Reflection on Robin Williams

Last week, I had some thoughts on the suicide of Robin Williams. While they deviated a bit harshly from the norm, I stand by what I said, because some balance was desperately needed amid the obsessive adoration. However, I can’t deny that once my attention was drawn to this character and the characters he created, it was difficult for me not to be drawn further in. It’s a rare talent that can leave you limp with laughter in one moment and move you to tears in the next. This sad, strange little man filled me with curious fascination, yet simultaneously, with pity. That was his way.

By sheer coincidence, I was recently  listening to some Bruce Hornsby music and came across a little-known song called “Lost Soul.” The lyric brought me up short, because it was so startlingly poignant and apt. With surprising speed, something came together in my mind and my movie making software. I began to create and edit.

The finished product surprised even myself. Continue reading

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Address Change Pending This Weekend

At the suggestion of a reader and after gathering more info, I’ve decided to move to a self-hosted WordPress site with the new name: yankeegospelgirl.com. It may not look like a seismic shift, but I like it for several important reasons: First, it’s still familiar to people who’ve gotten to know me through my work promoting gospel music. Second, it’s distinctive. Finally, with an unmodified “gospel” in the name (well, unmodified except for “yankee” of course), it better reflects the scope of this site, namely to explore the gospel writ large, whether that be through music, film, or my own theological ramblings. Removing “wordpress.com” has the added benefit of a simpler and more professional appearance. I plan to make one more post this week, then purchase my new domain over the weekend. After this, I’ll allow a few more days in case WordPress needs to transfer any subscribers before making a new post next week, which will be that research bio I mentioned before. For those curious about who the subject is, I will give you the clue that he would have been 89 years old tomorrow, and he was one of the greatest talents of his generation. His story is both heart-breaking and inspiring, but it’s hardly ever been told well, much less from a Christian perspective. I aim to rectify this on both counts.

All readers will automatically be redirected to my new address, so you should not be left staring at any “Oops, something’s gone wrong, sorry” pages. In the unlikely event that you do, keep my e-mail address handy (my newsogofan gmail account is still active, or you can use estherioreilly@…) and PLEASE write and tell me if you are experiencing weird stuff. Thanks so much for making this transition with me!

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CD Review: Vintage, by the Akins

The Akins, Vintage album cover

The Akins are some of my favorite artists in southern gospel. Their freshness, natural musicianship and contagious enthusiasm always lift my spirits. However, their country-rock flair is a tad edgier than most fans of southern gospel may be used to, so they’ve been quietly flying under the radar for a while. However, their music definitely deserves a closer look. (Pssssst, hey Ernie/Stowtown…?) This table project finds them tackling some old standards with vim and vigor. The production credits are simple: recorded, sung, mixed, and mastered by the Akins. Lucas Vaughn is the only outside contributor, playing drums. The result sounds very organic and cohesive.  Continue reading

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Jim Brady Leaves the Booth Brothers

This just in from the Booth Brothers. I’m stunned! In this video announcement, Michael shares that Jim has some new ministry opportunities that will keep him from being able to continue working with the group. Although I presume that he will contribute his writing skills to them along with the other groups who’ve recorded his work, his singing will be sorely missed.

This has really been a year of hard losses for southern gospel music. If you thought it couldn’t get worse than Pat Barker leaving the Mark Trammell Quartet, this is about the only thing that could beat it. I’m excited for Jim and his wife Melissa as they step into God’s will, but man oh man. Pray that Michael and Ronnie will find just the right replacement. Fortunately, he will continue touring with them until the end of the year—long enough for me to catch them all in concert for one last time!

(Added note: I love Michael’s approach in explaining why they did this in video form rather than writing. Because people always wonder whether there’s “something between the lines” in a press release, they chose this way to make it clear that “there is NOTHING between the lines!” Thank you Michael!)

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Blog Update: Title Change in Place, Address Change TBA

[Note: This post originally had some information about how I thought subscribers would be affected by a move that I've since learned may not be true. I've amended it accordingly.]

As you can see, I’ve changed my header from “Southern Gospel Yankee” to “Yankee Gospel Girl.” Functionally, this is a very minor change which shouldn’t affect your experience of the site at all, except that it has a shiny new header now. However, a change of address is a bigger deal, so I haven’t done that yet. In combination with my purchase of a site redirect from WordPress, this will redirect traffic from southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com to yankeegospelgirl.wordpress.com. One possible change is that subscribers from the old address will have to be moved to the new one (though a,  I’m actually not sure about that, and b, even if this is the case, the process can be automated by the WordPress team so you don’t all have to re-subscribe individually). So, I’m not in a great hurry to do that. For one thing, I’m excited to share my latest research project with all y’all soon, and it’s a real gem that I don’t want anyone to miss in the confusion—maybe my best work since the Steve McQueen piece.  So, I’ll be sure to give you all advance notice if and when an address change is pending. Meanwhile, lest anyone be confused, southerngospelyankee.wordpress.com is still the right place to come.

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A Book a Week: America’s Favorite Movies, Behind the Scenes

Here is the first of my used bookstore finds: America’s Favorite Movies: Behind the Scenes, by film historian Rudy Behlmer. Published in 1982, this now out-of-print work is a treasure trove of primary source material for some of the most enduring classics of Hollywood’s golden age. It covers some that I either don’t know or don’t care for, but it also includes many personal favorites such as The Adventures of Robin HoodStagecoachCasablancaThe African QueenSingin’ in the Rain, and High Noon. These are movies whose staying power derives largely from the fact that you don’t have to be a stuffy film critic to appreciate them. No directorial narcissism or abstract mucking about, just good stories well told, made by people committed to getting it right, sometimes at enormous personal cost. The book also sets their production in rich historical context, explaining how they were affected by the Depression, WWII and the Cold War. Herewith, a few quotes and notes that I found to be of particular interest (with trailer links in the titles).

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An Update On Future Blog Plans

It’s come to my knowledge that some criteria have changed since I was first offered the chance to move my blog to Patheos, so that what with one thing and another, the opportunity has been taken off the table for the moment. The new editor has been very friendly and helpful, but after consulting with the content director, he’s advised me to spend more time building my own brand first. So, since the majority of you were at least comfortable with a name change, I’m thinking that this is the most logical choice all things considered. That way I can hopefully begin to grow a wider audience, but on my own turf. I will let you know when this is happening, but your experience should be seamless if my understanding is correct, since simply changing the name of a free wordpress site isn’t supposed to be a big deal. Thank you all once again for giving your opinions. I look forward to continuing to produce great content for you!

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Joseph Habedank Shares Addiction Testimony With Billboard & The Blaze

While this isn’t news to people who’ve found Youtube footage of Joseph Habedank giving his testimony in concert, these secular outlets are revealing new details about his struggle with prescription pill addiction. The Blaze just did a write-up the other day, while Billboard ran a story earlier in the month. The Billboard piece actually goes further in depth, as Habedank shares that addiction runs in his immediate family, including a brother who became hooked on narcotics in his teens. He also shares in both pieces that the Perrys had to stage an intervention after he had been taking “10 to 12 hydrocodone or oxycodone a day.” This led to his resignation from the group, after which he checked himself into rehab and began the long journey back.

I have even more respect for the Perrys now that their handling of his resignation has come to light. I also admire Habedank’s forthrightness and humility in sharing this deeply private struggle with his fans and the world, as well as his responsible recognition of the seriousness of his disease. I wish him continued sobriety and many more years of fruitful ministry. This is something he could have chosen to keep to himself, but instead he’s chosen to use it as a way of offering hope to other addicts. Hope for the addict is a hauntingly timely message, especially now in the wake of Robin Williams’s suicide. While I certainly don’t believe Christians are obligated to announce their private demons from the rooftops, people in the pew aren’t immune to addiction, and it’s healthy for the Church to be aware of and prepared for that reality.

On a more wry note, it’s a little sad that one of the few moments when southern gospel gets major mainstream media coverage should involve some kind of failing on the part of one of its stars. I guess we’ll have to wait until Ernie Haase & Signature Sound get invited to open for Susan Boyle.

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