Friday, March 5, 2010

Razing the Salad Bar

On relocating to New York’s Hudson Valley in mid-2008, I was delighted to discover that two of the giants of American technology and popular culture in the 20th century were born right here in Vacationland. Frank Lloyd Wright, with his cousins Orville and Wilbur, invented the aeroplane and the prairies, and the oceans white with foam. Orson Welles was famous for his hit movie — you know, the one with the sled — and briefly batted leadoff for the old Brooklyn Dodgers before they broke every right-thinking Brooklynite’s heart by moving to Atlantis for a few bucks and a bottomless bowl of nachos. Serves them right the continent got lost!

But I was most thrilled to learn that my own favorite recording artist, Frank Sinatra, whom listeners younger than 80 will remember for his duet with Bono — not the one who was married to Cher, but the one who saved Africa — was also born right here in Dutchess County, down the street in Beacon, in fact, from Orson Welles, with whom he wasn’t childhood friends because Orson went in for such stereotypically masculine pursuits as fly fishing and strip mining, while his younger, smaller-boned neighbor preferred to spend his time foxtrotting to the timeless melodies of, for instance, George and Ira Gershwin, who are not known even to have visited Beacon, but whose affection for cheese, Monterey Jack in George’s case, grated Parmesan in Bono’s, is well documented.

Frank got his first break singing with Lawrence Welk, himself a former accordionist for the Poughkeepsie Pups back in the dead ball era and later discoverer of the Lennon Sisters, of whom John was not a member for obvious reasons. Their version of the Bob Marley classic "No Woman, No Cry" topped charts throughout the state in the fall of 1946 in spite of its suggestive syncopation, which was denounced by everyone from the Archbishop of Dutchess County to the Archbishop of Canterbury to best-selling author and shortstop Geoff Chaucer, whose own tastes ran more to Maytag blue, and who spelled Geoff the weird old way, which probably made sense in light of his living in the 14th century.

Sinatra’s fame grew to the point at which he was offered a part in the Denzel Washington vehicle The Manchurian Candidate. He recorded a duet with his overly made up daughter Nancy that raised more than a few eyebrows, was the subject of an unflattering autobiography by Sammy Davis Jr, petulantly cozied up to Nancy Reagan and her husband What’s-His-Face after John F Kennedy declined to name him Secretary of Cruel and Unusual Punishment, wondered if this sentence would ever end, and married the tempestuous Ava Gardner, about whom no laudatory comment could be derogatory. The union produced no offspring, but a couple of on, and an album – recorded across the river in Newburgh in 1953 with local favorite Pete Seeger on Hawaiian guitar. Many critics regard it to this day.

By the time of his death in Los Angeles in 1998 of something fatal, Sinatra had established himself as Beacon’s favorite musical son, this without ever having recorded or even sung "The Beer Barrel Polka", a song for which Billie Holiday, among others, didn’t consider herself too good. It’s instructive to remember that during the lifetimes of many current inmates of Dutchess County convalescent hospitals, the clarinet, so prominent on many versions of the song, was considered quite sexy.

My original intention when I moved here was to open a papal supplies store on Maine Street, but I soon came to understand that there are relatively few Catholics in the region, and that those with delusions of grandeur are more likely to imagine themselves Pete Seeger than whatever the current, you know, pontiff calls himself.

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