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My mother was tough.

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Sue Stautner doesn’t look tough in this photo. But she was tough.

She was born in the middle of the Great Depression and a chunk of her youth was taken up with the scarcity of the effects of a world at war. Those raised during the Depression and World War II were engrained with an exceptionally particular view that economic turmoil was always on the horizon and my mother was no different.

And despite my mother’s father having a job in advertising at National Cash Register (NCR) during those times of high unemployment he was an alcoholic. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 57. Having an alcoholic father is tougher than tough. It’s a wound.

Happy Mother’s Day, right?

But it is a happy Mother’s Day for me because I recall a woman who endured hardships and went on to have a productive life. I gave my mom her last Mother’s Day card a few days before she died last month.

Before she graduated from Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio she had played field hockey, was a homecoming queen, and worked at the Dayton radio station WINK where she met comedian Jonathan Winters and humorist Erma Bombeck early in their careers. She also took classes at the Dayton Art Institute. 

 

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She met my father when she was a student at Ohio State University and part of the Delta Gamma Fraternity (Delta Gamma was formed in 1873 when what we commonly call sororities were called women’s fraternities). And to show how tough she really was—she taught art at South Seminole Middle School for 30 years.  Days before she died I saw a woman at Starbucks wearing a shirt that proclaimed “I ain’t scared—I’m a middle school teacher.”

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A student’s creation at South Seminole Middle School

She also raised two kids mostly as a single mother, and mostly on a teacher’s salary. Did I tell you my mom was tough? One year I gave her a Mother’s Day card featuring the iconic World War II art work of J. Howard Miller that originally encouraged women to roll up their sleeves and do wartime jobs in the defense industry.

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My mom was strong. And she was also loving, funny, and supportive. Looking back perhaps one of the toughest/loving/supportive things she did was sit through all of my football and baseball games. That’s part of her life spread over a decade just  standing or sitting in the Florida sun watching her son play sports.

My mom went to high school and college in the 1950s which was during the peak of cigarette smoking being cool. She started before the dangers of smoking were widely known, and unfortunately never stopped long after she knew the damage it was doing to her lungs.

 

 

I took the below photo sometime after she turned 80 and shortly before she was wearing oxygen full time due to having COPD. Living and dying with COPD has been called the long goodbye because it can be a long, slow process. For my mom it was a decline of six plus years from when she really began having difficulty breathing.

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Over those last six years my mother never missed a chance to tell me that this could be her last Mother’s Day. I knew one of these years she would be correct so I tried to maximize my time with her in person and on the phone.

My mom’s final act of toughness was enduring a month in various hospital rooms, an intensive care unit, and at a physical rehabilitation facility.  She always said she wanted to go peacefully in her sleep and she was able to do just that with her son and daughter on each side of her holding her hands as she took her final breath.

It was a sad and sweet moment. I’m thankful for my mom bringing me into this world and giving me the foundation to live a creative life. And I’m glad my sister and I had the opportunity to help her in the later stages of her life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. The definition of tough is to “endure a period of hardship or difficulty”—so I think all mothers are tough.

And another group of tough women were the nurses, med-techs, and care workers at the assisted living facility where my mother lived in her later years. They oversaw her medication, brought her food daily when she after she could not longer go to the dining hall for meals, made sure she got her daily paper, joked with her, often has extended conversations with her, and maybe put up with a complaint or two from my mother.

My mother was an avid reader of novels, enjoyed well-done witty Tv shows (Young Sheldon was her recent favorite), and I look forward to watching Cannery Row again because that was one of her all-time favorite films.

It was a tough but human process to watch my mother die. And it will forever shade how I live my life.

P.S. One of the fringe benefits of having someone close to you die is you get to hear stories you never heard before. I just received a phone message from Vivian Hurston Bowden (who is author Zora Neale Hurston’s niece) and she commented on how much she loved my mom and enjoyed working with her at the junior high/middle school.  She also let me that my mom did the decorating for her wedding in Sanford, Florida back in 1971. A long time neighbor of hers told me how my mom bought her little gifts when than woman went through treatment for cancer.  I love hearing those stories.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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My mother died yesterday and it was a peaceful end to her 85 years on this earth. She took her last breath at 1:05 PM with both her kids at her side which is as good as it gets. I’ll write about my mother (she graduated from Ohio State and was a middle school art teacher for 31 years) and her influence on me in a later post—perhaps on Mother’s Day, but for today I’ll just leave some photos I took in her assisted living room after she died. IMG_2579.jpg

 

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One of the songs we played in her final hour was the Judy Collins version of Amazing Grace. 

Scott W. Smith

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On Sunday I went to a sunrise Easter service that was held in a cemetery.  Over the years I’ve been to big churches and little chapels. I’ve been to weddings, funerals, and church services across a wide range of denominations. (I’ve even been to a foot washing service.) But a church service in a cemetery—that was a first.

After the service I learned about the gut-wrenching news about the bombings in Sri Lanka where more than 300 people were killed in churches and hotels. Then I drove to visit my mom who was put on hospice a few days ago. An unusual morning to be faced with life and death issues.

But those are times that are good for your soul.  Moments that force you to pause and ponder life’s great mysteries.

I’ve never seen the dying process up-close so it’s been a sad yet sweet time. My mom has late stages COPD so this has been a long and slow landing. After seeing her struggle and be anxious for the past month in the hospital and other medical faculties it’s actually nice to see her in a calm place.

I’m not 100% sure she knows I’m there when I visit, but her eyes do open wide occasionally for a moment or two when I talk to her. This morning she wan’t able to swallow a few drops of water the nurse gave her from a syringe, meaning she’s most likely in her closing days.

My mom likes acoustical music and the hymn “How Great Thou Art” so I searched YouTube this morning and found this version by Lauren Daigle. I played it from my phone with one EarPod in my mom’s ear and one in mine. That won’t be a moment I forget anytime soon.

When the song was over I glanced at a TV in the background that had a report of a young girl who died in a church on Easter Sunday in Sri Lanka. That’s the first time I’ve cried in a long time.

P.S. My mom starting smoking cigarettes as a teenager in the fifties and continued until she was 80 years old when she started using oxygen to assist her breathing. COPD is a horrible way to die because it’s slowly taking your breath away. Recently I heard separate interviews with screenwriters Paul Schrader and Joe Eszterhas who I assume where smokers because they have signs of COPD in slight gasping for breaths as they speak. That’s what I first noticed in my mom seven years ago. Stephen King once said something like Smoking in great for the synapses—the problem is it’s killing you at the same time.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“‘Girl-writer’ is honestly what they called me. This was because comedy shows for people like Bob Hope and Jack Benny were usually written by groups of men who were known as ‘The Boys.’”
Madelyn Pugh Davis

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Madelyn Pugh Davis was kind of the Diablo Cody in the early days of sitcom television, back when there weren’t many female writers. She majored in journalism at Indiana University and got her start in radio before eventually moving to Los Angeles and becoming a staff writer for the entire run of  I Love Lucy. 

”I had come to Hollywood from Indiana not too long before [meeting Lucille Ball], and she was the first real celebrity I had ever met besides Hoagy Carmichael, the Hoosier composer of “Star Dust,” and everyone in Indiana had met Hoagy or claimed they had. Bob [Carroll] and I had written lots of radio scripts as staff writers at CBS for Pacific Network, but this was the first full network script we had ever written. We rehearsed all day and did the show in front of a studio audience in the late afternoon. The two of us sat upstairs in the glassed-in clients’ booth during the show, and I hate to admit it, bit we counted the laughs—ninety two. This was it! We were writing a network show for Lucille Ball, and we got ninety-two laughs. We were on our way to The Big Time.”
Madelyn Pugh Davis
Laughing with Lucy: My Life with America’s Leading Lady of Comedy
(On working on the radio program My Favorite Husband )

“For four of its six seasons, ‘I Love Lucy’ was the most popular show on television; it never ranked lower than third in any of those seasons. It received two Emmy Awards for best situation comedy and two nominations for best comedy writing.”
Dennis Hevesi
New York Times (April 21, 2011)
Madelyn Pugh Davis, Writer for ‘I Love Lucy,’ Dies at 90

It’s estimated that over their career that Davis and her writing partner Bob Carroll write a total of 400 radio shows and 500 TV shows. In 1992, they were given the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award from the WGA.

They weren’t known as joke writers but specialized more in visual comedy. Watch this video of classic I Love Lucy visual comedy moments.

Ken Levine points out on his History of Sitcoms podcast that through the entire run of I Love Lucy (181 episodes) that they only used five writers. And only two of those writers are credited on every episode— Bob Carroll Jr and Madelyn Pugh Davis.

Not bad for a boy writer from Florida and girl writer from Indiana.

Related link: Interview with Madelyn Pugh Davis and Bob Carroll Jr. 

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

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“The farm was a stage set; the tractor drivers and nurserymen were stagehands.”
Steven Bach

“When I order a tree at nine a.m., I want to be sitting in its shade by five p.m.”
Moss Hart

In 1937 Moss Hart (You Can’t Take It with You) was a rich and successful Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter. He had a Pulitzer Prize and a little cash to spend. So he purchased a more than 200 year old farmhouse house on 87 acres—called Fairview Farm— in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. (About an hour and a half from New York City.)

Back in August, I wrote a post about Bucks County because that’s where a young playwright named Neil Simon took one of his first plays that was struggling to find an audience. He called the the three-week summer stock run at The Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania a ”last ditch for his play.”

Playwright George S. Kaufman also had a farm in the area, which is probably originally drew Hart to the area. Plays that Kaufman & Hart wrote together would be performed at the Playhouse, sometimes with Kaufman or Hart also directing or acting.

When Moss Hart married Kitty Carlisle in 1947 the two spent their honeymoon performing the Kaufman and Hart play The Man Who Came to Dinner, at The Bucks County Playhouse.

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Moss & Kitty Hart on their Fairview Farm in Bucks County where they started a family and entertained famous guests.

The Playhouse helped attract many people to the area including John Steinbeck, Burgess Meredith (perhaps now best known as Rocky Balboa’s original trainer), Lillian Hellman, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Harpo Marx. Many who found a way to spend time with Hart on his farm.

Hart also did much of his writing on the farm including a story based on his own property—George Washington Slept Here. He also spent a good deal of money on the farm—including expanding the farmhouse, adding a pool and tennis courts, and thousands of trees and shrubs— which had an positive economic impact in the area during the 1930s.

“Landscaping, decorating, and remodeling would continue as his Broadway and Hollywood earnings helped end the Depression in Bucks County, bringing delight to friends and contractors, not to mention well-diggers.”
Steven Bach
Dazzler: The Life and Times of Moss Hart

Hart “bought the farm” in the other sense when he was only 57 years old after three heart attacks.

P.S. When I started this blog in 2008 I knew that I could probably gather enough notes to write a year of posts. I never thought I’d be doing to a decade later. Now I realize I could do a year of posts on just Moss Hart (1946-1961), but this will be a last post on him for a while. But in a few days I’ll begin a string of posts on early Hollywood screenwriter Frances Marion who had a connection with Hart. In the 1930s he rented her famed estate overlooking Beverly Hills.

Scott W. Smith

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“Borscht — beet soup usually served cold with sour cream and the waiter’s thumb — is a metaphor for Jewishness. . . . Thus the Catskills, which catered almost exclusively to Jewish vacationers for two generations, might have been called Pastrami Paradise, Derma Road or the Bagel Circuit. But Abel Green, the editor of Variety, reputedly coined the term Borscht Belt — and so it remains.”
Stanley Karnow
The Washington Post, “Goodbye to the Borscht Belt”

Some day I’ll do a run of posts on Yiddish theatre and why screenwriter/playwright David Mamet says parts of Hollywood were built by Ashkenazi Jews with Eastern European roots. Consider this a primer on how some Jewish entertainers in the early and mid-20th century got stage time experience at summer camps and resorts in upstate New York.

Before Moss Hart became an established Broadway playwright and Hollywood screenwriter he decided that he could not rely on working a regular job and have energy to write at night. (He did that once with limited success.) He wanted instead to write in the daytime while his mind was fresh. So what he did was take low paying theatre directing jobs and earn a chunk of money working as a social director at various summer camps and resorts.

In his autobiography, Act One, Hart both relished and abhorred his six seasons working the camps. The social director was in charge of the nightly activities. Here’s a snapshot of Hart’s week in his first summer season—one that was repeated each week from June to September.

Monday night: Campfire night that would include a Shakespearean recitation, usually out of Hamlet, Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet.” Hart was a skilled singer and guitar player.
Tuesday night: Costume or dress-up night. This would be something like “A Night in Old Japan” where the staff presented a Yiddish version of The Mikado.
Wednesday night: Game night. One-legged races, peanut relay races, and dancing.
Thursday night: Free time to play basketball or rehearse play for the weekend. (Some rehearsals were all night affairs that didn’t end until 7 AM the next morning.)
Friday night: Drama night. (Dress rehearsals began at 4 PM.)
Saturday night: Musical comedy night.
Sunday: Farewell to guests. Movies were shown at night for the new guests allowing the staff to get some sleep before beginning another week of activities.

This meant Hart and his staff of 10-12 people would be performing new plays every week. Lines had to me memorized, props gathered, sets built and painted.  Hart says these were amateurish productions but “elaborate and difficult in terms of light cues, props and quick changes of costume and scenery.”

Hart may have never spent a day in college, but one could argue that he got more than an equivalent of an MFA by directing and acting (and sometimes writing) two plays a week. Not only that but a ton of experience in managing people, problem solving on limited resources, and learning what works and doesn’t work in entertaining a crowd.  And along the way, Hart made a name for himself.

”In time, Hart’s status as social director changed markedly for the better. By 1929 he was, as he said, ‘the most highly paid [$200 per week], the most sought-after social director of the Borscht Circuit,’ as the string of hotels catering primarily to Jewish customers in the Catskills was known. At the Flagler Hotel he had a personal staff of twenty-six people, a substantial budget to work with, and he was able to provide much more polished entertainments than he had presented in earlier years.”
Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre
Jared Brown

Here is a program for the 1929 summer season when Hart presented recent Broadway successes that regularly filled a 1,500 seat theatre. That was Hart’s last year working the Borscht Circuit as his own play Once in a Lifetime  (written with George S. Kaufman) became a hit on Broadway.

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Many other well known entertainers honed their craft on the Borscht Circuit on their way to Broadway and Hollywood. Perhaps none better than Danny Kaye. (Who would eventually work with Hart on Broadway.)

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In the Catskills; A Century of the Jewish Experience in ‘The Mountains’
Edited by Phil Brown
Page 228

The heyday for summer camps appears to be between the 1920s to some point in the 1960s. From when automotive travel became more common until the days when air travel became common place. Hart’s autobiography was published in 1959 and even then he said the summer camps that still existed were greatly different from the ones were he worked.

The film Dirty Dancing (while shot in North Carolina) depicts that era in the Catskills.

And to prove what’s old is new again, the second season of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (2018) takes a trip to the Catskills. (Episode 4: We’re Going to the Catskills!)

Related Books:
A Summer World: The Attempt to Build a Jewish Eden in the Catskills, from the Days of the Ghetto to the Rise and Decline of the Borscht Belt by Stefan Kanfer

Article:
The Ghosts Hotels of the Catskills (Sad photos of the remnants of abandoned theaters.)

Scott W. Smith

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“Poverty was always a living and evil thing to me.”
Moss Hart (on his childhood in the Bronx and Brooklyn)

Before Moss Hart become the wonder boy of Broadway at age 26, before be would buy a farmhouse on 87 acres in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and before he won a Pulitzer Prize in Drama, he was a young man working with the established playwright George S. Kaufman on the play Once in a Lifetime.

This is what he daily routine was like leading up to his Broadway premiere in 1930.

“By the end of the first month of our working together, however, I was in a state of constant weariness. . . . I was suffering from insufficient sleep. Out working hours were from eleven o’clock in the morning until five thirty or six in the eventing, at which time I would eat a walloping dinner and rush off to Newark or Brooklyn for my little-theatre rehearsals, which began at seven thirty and usually continued until midnight and sometimes past. By the time I reached home again, after obligatory socializing with the cast over coffee and cake, was usually three or four in the morning. Since I had to be up shortly after eight o’clock in order to allow enough time for the long subway ride, which would get me to 158 East 63rd Street at five minutes of eleven. . . .I did not dare give up my little-theatre work. Apart from the necessary weekly income that it provided, the basket I carried most of my eggs in was too precariously balanced to shake, even with a Broadway production in the offing. I knew well enough that failure is the norm of the theatre, not success.”
Playwright/screenwriter Moss Hart
Act One, pages 288-289

So Hart’s schedule looked something like this:

8AM—Wake up, eat breakfast, get dressed, take the subway to George S. Kaufman’s place
11AM-5:30/6:00—Work on play with Kaufman
6:00-7:30—Grab dinner and travel to Newark or Brooklyn for rehearsals
7:30-Midnight—Play rehearsals (his “day job”)
Midnight-3:00AM—Socializing
Travel home for a few hours of sleep

And keep in mind, that before his play caught the attention of Kaufman that Hart had devoured reading plays at the library, gone to Broadway plays nightly (a perk to being an office boy), and spent six seasons as a social director to several summer camps where among his other duties he directed plays to entertain the guest.

Milton Glaser’s phrase “Art is Work” comes to mind.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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