Thursday, February 5, 2015

A little of this, a little of that ... strikes again

Another round of short Guaraldiana bits...

Director Tim Burton's new film, Big Eyes, is a stylized biographical drama about the tempestuous relationship between Margaret and Walter Keane (played by Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz), the former best known for her pop-art paintings of small, wide-eyed children, which were quite the rage in the late 1950s and early '60s. The story's "hook" is the fact that Walter initially took credit for his wife's work: a ghastly artistic tussle that eventually climaxed in a famous courtroom trial ... all of which you can see in the film.

For our purposes here, though, Burton and production designer Rick Heinrichs are to be commended for re-creating Margaret's artistic origins with such authenticity. She was "discovered" in the 1950s at San Francisco's hungry i nightclub, where owner Enrico Banducci was approached by Walter, to use the venue as a gallery showcase for his new bride's work ... although patrons initially believed that they were Walter's paintings.

The film spends some time in a re-created hungry i, where at one point the Cal Tjader combo can be seen and heard performing in the background (actors portraying the musicians, of course). The club's exterior establishing shot, shown above, has an added bonus: signs that advertise the entertainment within, which accurately includes the Vince Guaraldi Trio and Faith Winthrop! (Click on the image for a larger view.)

The production team certainly did its homework ... because there aren't many sources that mention Guaraldi, Winthrop and the Keane paintings, all at the same time.

That said, the research wasn't perfect. A second Guaraldi "sighting" pops up further along in the film, as Amy Adams' Margaret Keane wanders into the club with one of her newest paintings. Look closely, toward the upper right of this darkened hallway, and you'll see a poster with Guaraldi's name and signature publicity pose. (Again, click on the image for a larger view.)

But — and this is a big "but" — that particular photo comes from Guaraldi's mid-1960s publicity kit, whereas this early portion of Burton's film still is in the mid- to late 1950s. 

Margaret Keane and her husband had parted company long before this photo of Guaraldi would have been circulating; during his hungry i days, he wasn't yet sporting his signature mustache, as shown in this photo with Winthrop, at right, which was taken in the famed club.

Indeed, Guaraldi made a point of growing his famous mustache, and then keeping it as part of his iconic appearance, because he looked so boyishly young without one (not a good thing for a jazz musician, at the time).

So ... Heinrichs deserves credit for finding what looks like an authentic, vintage Guaraldi publicity poster ... but it's the wrong decade. (Oh, well.)


Further on the subject of San Francisco jazz clubs, I've exchanged several e-mails with a fellow fan named Edward, who remembers seeing Guaraldi perform at the Blackhawk — way back in the day — while being in the cramped, chicken wire "underage cage" that separated teens from the adults in the club proper, who were drinking alcohol while enjoying the show.

The Blackhawk's "underage cage" (photo courtesy of the San Francisco History Center)
"It was so abominably smokey, I could barely see him," Edward recalls, "let alone the issue of jostling for position at the screen. The cage was small: maybe about the size of a normal tract home bathroom, say 5-by-8 feet. Depending on how many other people were in there, it could be tight, and visibility was poor. I remember not staying long, because I hate cigarette smoke, especially in industrial-strength concentrations.

"The Blackhawk was on a corner, and to get into the cage, one had to walk up the side street and enter via an obscure door. The cage was above the club's floor level: a sort of balcony along the side of the club's long dimension.

"I wasn't underage; I would have been 22 or 23, and I likely learned about Vince from the Black Orpheus album. My date and I were in the cage because I had a tight student budget and didn't want to pay the club's cover charge!"


Back in early December, I was contacted by an editor at Cuepoint, the "music hub" of Medium, a nifty new Internet site dedicated to long-form, magazine-style writing. With the approaching annual re-broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas, they asked if I'd be willing to supply an excerpt from my Guaraldi bio, focusing on the sequence of events that led to Dr. Funk being selected to write the music for that debut Peanuts TV special. As an added bonus, they were even willing to pay me for the effort.

Who could refuse? I agreed immediately, even though December is always an insanely busy month for me ... and, for obvious reasons, they wanted the finished piece very quickly. They offered to cherry-pick the contents of Chapter 10, but I wasn't having any of that. (I do my own editing, thank you!) The abridgment actually proved a bit more challenging that I had expected, because I wanted to come in under 3,000 words ... and it's a long chapter. But it was an interesting exercise, and I finished the work in five days; the draft then had to be approved by my publisher, McFarland, which maintains control over such things. They okayed it as written, so I passed it along to the folks at Medium, and it was published on December 16.

Those who have my book won't find anything new, of course, but I was delighted by the story layout, which included a vintage photo of director/producer Lee Mendelson, during the 1963 filming of his first documentary, A Man Named Mays. That photo was new to me, although the various photos of Guaraldi himself were familiar.

During the next several weeks, I received numerous e-mail notices that the story was "tracking" quite well: In the first 30 days, it generated 11,532 "views" (3,040 on December 18 alone), 2,288 "reads" and 132 recommendations. It has tapered off since then, although there was an interesting "viewing spike" on January 20-22. (Ah, social media ... such a mystery!) At any rate, Medium seems to feel these are worthy stats, so I rate the experience successful on both sides.


And, finally...

Jazz pianist/singer Diana Krall has been making the media rounds to support her new album, Wallflower, and her corresponding concert tour. On February 4, she took over the Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy Facebook page to handle questions from fans. She wound up fielding 17 questions, on topics ranging from who cooks the best breakfast in their house (husband Elvis Costello, as it turns out), to the second-best thing she's good at, after singing. (You can visit the site to find the answer to that one.)

But I'm particularly delighted by Question 6, and her reply:

Is the late, great Vince Guaraldi an influence on your musical style?

Absolutely. Still is.

I'd love to know who posed that question!