Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Zero Mostel - How The Grinch Stole Christmas

When the animated special for Dr. Suess' "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" first aired in 1966, it so quickly became identified with its narrator (Boris Karloff), its musical score (written by Albert Hague and the main song sung by Thurl Ravenscroft), and its animation director (Chuck Jones).

Several have tried to recreate the magic of Suess's Grinch - ask Jim Carrey and Ron Howard. Few have come close to duplicating it - ask Jim Carrey and Ron Howard.

So when this album was first posted at Way Out Junk (their first Christmas LP post ever) on December 1, 2006, it took me several days to track it down. When I eventually secured my copy on December 4, 2006 at 8:14 PM, I was floored.

Samuel Joel Mostel was born in 1915 and raised in Brooklyn with his family. His first love was art; quickly developed an eye for painting and drawing. As a teen, Mostel would go to museums and sketched near perfect replicas of paintings, always to a group of onlookers. However, his sense of humor would always prevail - he once copied his favorite painting to perfection upside down, delighting his audience.

After attending Public School 188, Mostel attended City College and obtained a degree in 1935. FDR's New Deal was in full swing and Samuel was able to join the Public Works of Art Project and continue his studies in art. This led to a job leading groups of art students on guided tours of many museums throughout New York City. Once again, Mostel could not suppress his comedic nature and his tours became wildly popular.

In 1941, the Café Society (one of NY's premier nightclubs) approached Mostel with an offer to become a professional comedian and play a regular spot. Mostel accepted, and in the next few months he became the Café Society's main attraction. It was here that he adopted the stage name Zero (Zee to his friends) and his new career in show biz began to take off.

Zero began appearing on radio shows, bigger venues, Broadway shows, and even made an appearance in a bonafide MGM musical ("Du Barry Was A Lady"). Even a quick hitch in the U.S. Army during World War II didn't slow down his career - after his discharge, Zero was quickly treading the boards again on Broadway - plays, musicals, movies, even an attempt at opera!

When he wasn't performing, Mostel was getting involved with many causes, including the Free Earl Browder Movement and attending Communist Party meetings. These causes came back to haunt Zero when the House Committee on Un-American Activities began witch-hunting Hollywood.

Mostel's appearance before the Committee has become the stuff of legend - most of his testimony was written into a 1972 play called "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been...?". For almost a full hour, Zero unloaded with both barrels, making the members laugh one moment, frustrating them the next. He refused to name names, confronted the Committee on ideological matters, and even asked the Committee if they wanted to see his impression of "a butterfly at rest".

Zero was immediately blacklisted and didn't work for nearly five years. In the late 1950s, as the blacklist began to crumble, Mostel was called to star in an off-Off-Broadway adaptation of James Joyce's "Ulysses". This led Jack Kroll of Newsweek to quote: "Something unbelievable happened. A fat comedian named Zero Mostel gave a performance that was even more astonishing than [Lawrence] Olivier's."

In 1960, just as Mostel's career was getting back on track, he was exiting a taxi and hit by a crosstown bus. One of his legs was crushed and the doctor's recommended amputation. Zero refused, knowing that gangrene could settle in at any moment. He remained hospitalized for four months but his decision paid off - he kept the leg but it would bother him for the rest of his life.

Zero then got two great shows in a row on Broadway. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum opened in 1962 (music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), was awarded a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical, and became one of Zero's three signature roles. He reprised his role as Pseudolus in the 1966 film adaptation with Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, and a young Michael Crawford.

Shortly after Forum's close in 1964, Mostel appeared as Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. This musical was a smash, running for 3,242 performances (once the record-holder), and gained Mostel another Tony award, another signature role, and much critical acclaim. Any remaining memories of the blacklist were erased when Zero was asked to perform at the White House in 1965.

In 1967, Zero was sent a movie script by a first time writer of a screenplay who intended to direct the movie as well. The write also asked Zero's wife to persuade him to read the script, knowing Zero would be a hard sell to do the film. She convinced her husband to take his third signature role, Zero said yes to Mel Brooks, and soon became Max Bialystock in the 1968 film "The Producers":

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw Zero appearing in several movies, including "The Great Bank Robbery" (1969). Despite the plot, setting (comedy westerns were in vogue at the time), and grade Z direction, there's some fantastic Zero moments in it - a bank robber disguised as a priest with sexy Kim Novak as an accomplice. This was one of my favorite Zero movies growing up as a kid in Chicago (thanks again WGN-TV).

In this latter part of life, Zero was becoming more tired and troublesome. In many of the films and plays he performed in, he clashed with directors, producers, fellow actors, you name it. To quote Mostel:

"There's a kind of silliness in the theater about what one contributes to a show. The producer obviously contributes the money... but must the actor contribute nothing at all? I'm not a modest fellow about those things. I contribute a great deal. And they always manage to hang you for having an interpretation. Isn't [the theater] where your imagination should flower? Why must it always be dull as shit?"

In the midst of this turmoil, Zero began making appearance on such kid shows as "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" where he re-teamed with Gene Wilder on the famous "Letterman" animated shorts. This probably led to his appearance on the 1975 album you are looking at.

Side one is the retelling of "The Grinch". The sheer force of Zero's personality grabs you by the ears and doesn't let go. He makes you forget Boris Karloff's classic narration or any thoughts of Thurl Ravenscroft. Just when you think the background effects and music (including some Moog) are getting in the way, Mostel turns a phrase, whispers, SCREAMS, and he captures you yet again.

Side two contains thirteen songs sung by Alan Mills, a Canadian folksinger who wrote the music for "I Know An Old Lady Who Swallowed A Fly". His voice is quite relaxing and his selection of folk and carols are well done. I doubt many kids turned the record over and listened but side two is very refreshing and stands up time after time.

Zero's last masterpiece was "The Front", a 1976 film starring Woody Allen posing as a writer for blacklisted talents to submit their work through. Mostel stands out as Hecky Brown, a comic actor (much like himself) who admits to attending Communist Party meetings only to meet girls but is blacklisted nonetheless. To watch Brown then suffer the humiliation and personal destruction of his life falling apart is chilling, knowing this is what Zero went through some twenty years previous.

Mostel taped an appearance for a television show in early 1977, went into rehearsals for a play entitled "The Merchant" and began a diet that saw his weight go from 304 to 215 pounds. His health deteriorated quickly and collapsed in his dressing room on September 8, 1977 - Zero Mostel had died of an aortic aneurism.

I remember seeing the obituary on the WBBM-TV newscast with then-local news reporter Bill Kurtis. It didn't strike me until later when I saw the broadcast of the television show he taped earlier and laughed my eight year old head off (flash forward to 2:00):

Zero became the only posthumous performer in the history of "The Muppet Show". When this episode was released on DVD earlier this year, I made my three kids sit down and watch Zero - they laughed harder than me.

Thanks to Way Out Junk for rescuing this album!



Stephen said...

Thanks for the background on Zero, Cap'n! I agree - from the first moment I listened to Zero's Grinch, I was in love. I can't forget Karloff's narration, of course, but comparing the two is like apples and oranges. And man, what a crazy apple Zero Mostel's version is!

CaptainOT said...

Stephen - Zero's version lends itself a lot better to the imagination - no visuals to help you out like the Karloff version.

If we only had a video of Zero reading this in the recording studio!


Megan Quinlan said...

This was one of my favorite albums when I was a kid! I especially miss the Christmas carols from around the world on the B side!

CaptainOT said...

Megan - Those carols by Alan Mills are very good - almost a soothing quality about them.

Thanks for your comment!


Anonymous said...

I have this record! The background music is so haunting. I jut loooooove it!

CaptainOT said...

Anon - I gave this another listen and tried to block out Zero in order to listen to the music (hard task).

You're right! There is some happenin' music going on!

Thanks for your comment!