Friday Video: Meat Pies & Substitutiary Locomotion

We lost another great one this week.

Angela Lansbury just passed away five days short of her 97th birthday. I got to see her perform live twice. Once in 1981 in Sweeney Todd with George Hearn as Sweeney at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. (I liked Hearn, but I loved Len Cariou on the soundtrack album.)

The second time I saw her live was at the Hollywood Bowl concert for Stephen Sondheim’s 75th birthday on July 8, 2005. They were a little rusty, but I finally got to Lansbury and Cariou as the definitive Mrs. Lovett and the definitive Sweeney Todd performing their definitive version of “A Little Priest” as shown below. Definitely (and definitively) worth the wait.

My first awareness of Angela Lansbury was probably her role as Eglantine Price in Disney’s BEDKNOBS AND BROOMSTICKS (1971). I knew that the film was based in part on “The Magic Bed Knob” by Mary Norton, a book that my second grade teacher, Mrs. Young had read to the class. I had been absolutely enthralled by the book and was looking forward to seeing on the big screen. Alas, I missed seeing the film in the movie theaters during its first run.

A few years later, the Seal Beach recreation department had a screening of B&B as part of their children’s summer program. The screening was held on a Saturday afternoon in the Seal Beach city hall council chambers because it was large enough to seat an afternoon crowd of kids.

I remember being trusted enough to supervise my two brothers, probably around age 5 and 7 at the time, after being dropped off with them. I’m happy to report that they were very well-behaved and loved the film. That afternoon is one of my fond and treasured memories of the three of us from our shared childhood.

Over 40 years later I spent too many unpleasant hours in those same council chambers as the history chair during Seal Beach Centennial chair meetings, and I would sometimes imagine Angela Lansbury leading an army of empty suits of medieval armor animated by “substitutiary locomotion” into the room to smite the more obnoxious people at the table.

Sigh. That sound you hear is the ancient creaking door of the Twentieth Century slowly shutting.

Little Richard 1932 – 2020

It’s 1956, and my father is listening to The Johnny Otis Show in the dark.

When my father was a teenager growing up in Seal Beach, California, he would stay up late at night listening in the dark to The Johnny Otis Show being broadcast from KFOX, a Long Beach AM radio station. It’s hard at this late date to imagine what a subversive act it was for a white bread teenage square like Allan Dean Dobkins to be listening to that sort of devil music in that house with my strict and upright grandparents sleeping in the room next door. My pop kept the sound volume on his radio set at a barely perceptible level to avoid discovery and punishment.

I didn’t come into his life until a decade later when he started dating my mother. They married, set up house together, and co-mingled their belongings. A couple years later, Dean adopted me, making me a Dobkins and becoming officially my father.

It’s impossible to meet our parents before we are born, or, in my dad’s case, before he started dating my mother. Who they were remains a mystery that we can never fully crack, but young children are excellent observers like little mini-Jane Goodalls in the field, collecting clues, listening to stories, and noting details about these large looming giants that dominate our early lives so, our parents.

Somewhere in my explorations out in the field of the Dobkins co-mingled household, I came across an old 45 record of Little Richard. It was issued in 1956 with “Long Tall Sally” on side A and “Slippin’ and Slidin'” on the B side. I was just beginning to listen to pop music on my own initiative and this 45 record, no longer of use to its original owner in the age of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Woodstock, became part of my growing collection of LPs and 45s. I inherited a lot of culture this stealthy fashion when I was just starting out.

It wasn’t until decades later when I mentioned in passing that I had been listening to Johnny Otis on KPFK, a left-wing and left of the dial FM station in the Los Angeles area, that I found out my dad’s naughty little secret about listening to forbidden music played low in the dark when he was a stealth teenage rebel in the fifties. I didn’t immediately make the connection, but at some point, I realized that the Little Richard 45 I now owned was a direct physical artifact from that era in my dad’s life.

So I’m not really writing about Little Richard in this piece. Other people, better versed in his autobiography and his musical significance will be doing that. What I am trying to set up and share is a scenario that I’ve conjured in my mind from the strands of youthful field research into my now deceased dad’s life. I can’t swear that it happened exactly this way, but it’s possible. Maybe even likely.

It’s 1956. My father’s sixteenth birthday is less than three months away. A cool night sea breeze laps at the lingering heat from summer day, and there’s a slight salty tang in the air from the waves breaking on the shore of the beach two blocks away. The only light in my dad’s bedroom is the faint glow of the radio’s tuner.

From a tinny little mono speaker, Little Richard’s voice swoops and dives and delivers all you will ever need to know about a gal named Sally while a sax wails and the drum and piano pound a joyous rhythm that makes you giddy to be alive. The track ends and Johnny Otis tells my father in a low volume whisper that he has just heard “Long Tally Sally,” a brand new 45 recorded by Little Richard. Right then and there, Dean Dobkins (he never really liked Alan part of his name) decides he has to possess this 45 record — even if it means a trek into Long Beach to find a record store selling this music.

It’s a moment I want to believe happened, when my dad was fifteen and Little Richard was only twenty-three, and their whole lives waited ahead of them.