A Very White Christmas in Atlanta: The Plaza Lets It Snow with Two Bing Crosby/Irving Berlin Christmas Classics

Posted on: Dec 20th, 2013 By:

HOLIDAY INN (1942); Dir. Mark Sandrich; Starring Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire and Marjorie Reynolds; Friday, Dec. 20 – Wednesday, Dec 25 (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

WHITE CHRISTMAS (1954); Dir. Michael Curtiz; Starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen; Wednesday, Dec 25 – Tuesday, Dec 31 , in repertory with MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET (1947) (visit the Plaza Theatre website for times and ticket prices); Plaza Theatre; Trailer here.

By Aleck Bennett
Contributing Writer

How much Bing is too much Bing? Trick question. There can’t be enough Bing this time of year. So when the Plaza Theatre offers up Der Bingle in HOLIDAY INN and WHITE CHRISTMAS—teamed with stars like Fred Astaire, Rosemary Clooney, Vera-Ellen, Danny Kaye and Marjorie Reynolds and built around numbers by the legendary Irving Berlin—well, it’s a Christmas present for every classic Hollywood musical lover.

In 1940, songwriter Irving Berlin came to Paramount Pictures with an idea he’d first toyed with after writing the song “Easter Parade” in 1932: a film set at an inn open only on holidays, featuring a series of different holiday-themed musical numbers. Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby—both riding high on waves of popularity—were quickly attached to the project, and filming began on November 1941. However, despite its reputation (and that the film begins and ends during the holidays), the film isn’t really a Christmas film at all. It’s the tale of a love triangle between Jim Hardy (Bing Crosby, as the retired stage performer who runs Holiday Inn), Ted Hanover (Fred Astaire, as Jim’s caddish former performing partner on a path set for stardom) and Linda Mason (Marjorie Reynolds, as the inn’s featured performer and Jim’s love interest, who is tempted by the future of fame and fortune promised by Ted).

Furthermore, while the song “White Christmas” is featured three times (once in the opening credits, twice in the film itself), its appearances are dictated more by the dramatic developments of the plot than to evoke memories of Christmases past or holidays longed for in the future. In fact, the song was unpopular at first (being released in the middle of summer might have had something to do with that) and was overshadowed by another song from HOLIDAY INN. “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” Crosby himself was initially indifferent to the song, simply saying “I don’t think we have any problems with that one” when first hearing it. (Irving Berlin, on the other hand, was more enthusiastic, calling out to his secretary “Grab your pen and take down this song. I just wrote the best song I’ve ever written—heck, I just wrote the best song that anybody’s ever written!”)

By the end of October, things had changed. The song skyrocketed to the top of the “Your Hit Parade” chart where it sat until the new year dawned. It also nabbed the “Best Song” Oscar in the 1942 Academy Awards. To date, it is the best-selling single of all time. (There’s some dispute over that, however: because standard record charts weren’t in existence when Crosby’s single was released, there’s a lack of hard info on just how many copies were sold. As a result, some have claimed that Elton John’s “Candle in the Wind 1997” holds that title at 33 million copies sold. However, Guinness World Records—after extensive examination—concluded that the single had sold 50 million copies as of 2007, thus beating out Elton.)

As a result, the film has become somewhat pigeon-holed as a Christmas staple, even though little of the film takes place during that holiday (the Fourth of July seems to take a much more prominent role, due to the bombing of Pearl Harbor plunging the country into war during the filming). What the film lacks in explicit Christmas content, though, it more than makes up in the fantastic performances of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. Berlin’s music is tailor-made to be sung with the easy-going elegance of the film’s stars, and Astaire is at the top of his game during the film’s dance sequences. Marjorie Reynolds is a standout dancer and utterly convincing as the aspiring performer Linda (though her singing was dubbed by Martha Mears). The film is crisply directed with a sure hand by Mark Sandrich, a veteran of numerous Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers musicals, and his camera showcases the musical performances beautifully.

Because the film was such a success, and because people just kept buying that Bing single, Paramount decided to return to the well again 12 years later with the film WHITE CHRISTMAS. It was intended to be the third Crosby/Astaire/Berlin feature (after 1946’s BLUE SKIES), but Astaire passed on the script. Crosby did, too, deciding to spend time at home after the death of his wife. When Bing returned to the project, finding a co-star proved problematic. Donald O’Connor was slated to take Astaire’s role, but suffered an injury prior to filming, so Danny Kaye stepped in at the last minute.

Determined to take full advantage of “White Christmas”’s perennial popularity, Paramount decided that the entire film should take place at the holidays. This time, the plot revolves around two ex-Army men who have made it big in show biz after WWII (Crosby and Kaye). They find themselves tangled up in a romance with two aspiring singer/dancers (Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen) and a deal to perform a new show at a ski resort run by their former commander over Christmas. However, when the winter proves unusually warm and no snow is due on the forecast, the resort’s future is in jeopardy and the team step in to try to save the day.

Keeping in line with the song’s continued success, the film was the top moneymaker of 1954, bringing in almost twice as much as its closest competitor, THE CAINE MUTINY. And why not? It’s hard to go wrong with such an appealing cast and such a great set of Irving Berlin tunes. However, I feel it lacks the dramatic edge of HOLIDAY INN, and while it may be a more traditional Christmas movie, it errs on the side of schmaltz a little too often for my taste. Danny Kaye makes for a particularly saccharine replacement for Astaire, replacing Astaire’s lean elegance for a cloying sweetness.

But on the plus side, Crosby’s as on as he ever was (though he’s a bit long in the tooth by this point to be the love interest of Rosemary Clooney, some 25 years his junior), and Clooney and Vera-Ellen are both incredibly engaging. Director Michael Curtiz brings his trademark flair for inventive camera set-ups and capturing the emotion of a scene to the proceedings and makes the film—Paramount’s first shot in the widescreen VistaVision process—a visual delight. My small criticisms aside, the film is undoubtedly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great Hollywood musicals, and is a bona fide Christmas classic.

With the holidays as hectic as they are, it’s important to take the time to cool down. And here’s a perfect excuse to do just that. Simply sit back at the Plaza and let the glorious tunes of Irving Berlin and the incomparable pipes of Bing Crosby carry you away to a White Christmas of your own.

Aleck Bennett is a writer, blogger, pug warden, pop culture enthusiast, raconteur and bon vivant from the greater Atlanta area. Visit his blog at doctorsardonicus.wordpress.com

Category: Retro Review | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Kool Kat of the Week: A Jazz Interlude With Kayla Taylor: Why She Loves ‘30s/’40s Classics, the Unsurprising Success of Her New CD and the Pleasures of Playing the Vintage Artmore Hotel This Friday

Posted on: Nov 16th, 2011 By:

Atlantans who love classic jazz won’t be surprised to hear that Kayla Taylor’s new and sixth CD YOU”D BE SURPRISED hit #23 on the CMJ Jazz charts this week and is receiving airplay across the nation and throughout Europe. Instead, we’re liable to say it’s delovely and just one of those things that had to happen. But then local audiences have had the treat of listening to this Atlanta native and chanteuse extraordinaire resurrect top tunes from the ‘30s,  ‘40s and ’50s  live for a decade or more with musical partner/guitarist Steve Moore. And because this Friday night, Kayla will be performing at one of Atlanta’s coolest vintage venues, the courtyard of the Artmore Hotel in Midtown whose building dates back to 1924, we thought the timing couldn’t be more perfect to make her Kool Kat of the Week.

One of those rare actual Atlanta natives, Kayla literally grew up singing, in her school chorus, church choir and in the shower, but winning two awards in a 7th grade talent show cemented her ambition to make music a career. Along the way, she has performed country music, gospel, R&B and classic and original rock ‘n’ roll until she finally found her heart resided in the golden era of Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Irving Berlin—all of whom are represented on YOU’D BE SURPRISED’s playlist. ATLRetro caught up with Kayla to find out more about why she decided to embrace one of our favorite musical eras, what she has planned for this Friday night at the Artmore, her new CD, what’s next and where you might catch her singing while shopping…

ATLRetro: According to your bio, you always sang even as a little girl, and through the years, in addition to jazz, you’ve performed country, gospel, R&B and rock n roll, too. How did you come to embrace vintage jazz?

Kayla Taylor: I have always loved vintage jazz. The charm and romance of the ‘30s and ‘40s was something that always attracted me. I love how clever the lyrics are. When I was a kid, I watched a lot of old movies that were filmed and set during that time period and found all of it to be a natural embrace. Then in the mid-‘80s, Linda Ronstadt—one of my rock heroes—came out with her Big Band albums with The Nelson Riddle Orchestra and the romance started all over again.

Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

I understand that your earliest award was for singing Irene Cara’s “Out Here on My Own” from FAME? What’s the story and how big an early influence on you was the movie, FAME?

I wouldn’t say that FAME had a big influence on me, but the music and Irene Cara’s voice definitely did. I loved the pure emotion that was in her voice when she sang “Out Here On My Own.” The school talent show was coming up, and so I decided that I’d sing that song. I practiced for weeks in my room with the door closed. I must have played that record hundreds of times. My parents had no idea. I wasn’t trying to win—I just wanted to sing in front of all those people. I was also in a girls’ trio that performed “Sincerely”— a tune from the ‘50s. Well, the trio took 1st place, and I took 2nd place. I was so thrilled and excited. My parents had always been supportive of whatever I wanted to try, but at that point, they jumped completely onboard with my singing adventures.

Who are some of your favorite classic jazz composers and performers, and why do you think their music remains so timeless and relevant today?

Cole Porter, The Gershwins, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Johnny Mercer . . . there are so many amazing composers from that era that I adore, but these are just a few of my top picks. As far as performers, Julie London, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Peggy Lee, Etta James, Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. I think the music is so well-crafted that it can’t help but remain timeless and relevant. Most of the songs are about love or the loss of love—that will always be timeless and relevant.

How did you meet Steve Moore and end up working together?

Great Story! Steve Moore was in a rock band called A Fine Line—an original rock project. They ran an ad in the Creative Loafing looking for a female vocalist. (That’s what you did 19 years ago—you ran an ad in a printed publication if you were looking for a musician.) I called about the position. They sent me a demo of some of their tunes, and I thought they were really cool, so I learned them and showed up at the audition. Later that night, Steve Moore was the one who called me to tell me I had gotten the job. That was the beginning of an amazing relationship as friends, co-writers and business partners. We went through several original rock projects together (A Fine Line, OneWithout) and even an acoustic duo (The Adventures of Kayla & Steve). One day we were talking about all these great jazz standards that we both loved and how much we would both love to play that music one day and to have our own jazz combo. Five minutes later we had made a decision to start working towards that direction. That was over 10 years ago, and we’ve been at it ever since.

Kayla Taylor and Steve Moore. Photo credit: John Lee Matney.

Can you tell us a bit about YOU’D BE SURPRISED came together, and what it means to you that it’s doing so well?

To say we are excited is an understatement. OVER THE MOON with excitement might scratch the surface. All of this came about because we hired an expert to handle it for us. We’re indy artists—SmartyKat Records—that’s our own label. We don’t have the connections personally to make this kind of airplay and exposure happen, so we hired Kari Gaffney and Jeff Williams of Kari-On Productions to handle all of it for us. Kari has over 21 years experience promoting and marketing CDs to radio and print media. I have never seen anyone work as hard as she has been working. I don’t know when she even has time to sleep. She’s done a fabulous job for us.

What’s your favorite song on the CD to perform and why?

WOW. To pick one tune—that’s tough because I love every song that’s on the CD. It’s like asking a parent to choose a favorite child. If I have to pick one, though, I’d have to say the title track—“You’d Be Suprised.” What I love about that song are the great lyrics. They are so clever!!! I love the Marilyn Monroe version.

The Jazz in the Courtyard series at the Artmore, where the building dates back to 1924, promises an urban escape with “sultry music, sexy vibes and sinful drinks.” And the signature cocktail is “The Prohibition.” Can we surmise that the goal is to create a speakeasy atmosphere, and will you be tossing some Roaring ‘20s tunes into the mix?

Artmore is a great hotel, and the courtyard is a beautiful venue. We have a great time playing there and love that they have embraced our music. We’ll still be hanging out in the ‘30s and ‘40s era but love that they have created a speakeasy feel—with a modern twist. All concerts take place in the courtyard, and there is a fabulous firepit and heaters to keep everything warm. If it should rain or turn freezing cold—we’ll move the show into their basement speakeasy lounge. I think we might be good to have this final concert of the season out in the courtyard, though.

Anything else you’d like to share about Friday’s gig at the Artmore?

Reservations are not required, but if you want to reserve a seat, you can email them at sales@artmorehotel.com. Come prepared to have a great time. I have a retro-styled microphone that is wireless so I can move all over the courtyard, and I love to come by and sing to anyone who seems like they might be receptive. Trust me, though—if it’s clear you’re there with a date and you just want to make eyes at each other—I’ll stay out of your way.

Where else will you be playing in Atlanta soon, and any plans for a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED?

Our next big show will be at Feast in Decatur on Saturday, December 3. This will be a great show because it’s the beginning of the holiday & Christmas season, and we’ll have some of the great jazzy Christmas tunes from the era to throw into the mix. This show generally sells out, so it’s a really good idea to call them to make a reservation. We play from 7:30 p.m. – 10:30 p.m. with the five-piece combo. The food at Feast is fantastic and we always have a great time. [Call] 404.370.2000 – for reservations.  As far as a tour to promote YOU’D BE SURPRISED—definitely something we are thinking long and hard about we just have to make the numbers work out.

Do you really burst into song at the grocery store? If yes, where do you shop?

Not every time I’m in the grocery store, but yes, I have been known to burst into song in the middle of a shopping excursion. My sweet husband, Scott, has been so good about dealing with those moments and I know they have been embarrassing—but sometimes a song just wells up inside and I have to blurt it out. For the record, my favorite place to shop locally is Publix—the stores are smaller and easier to navigate and everyone is super-friendly. If I’m going to travel away from my neighborhood to shop, you’ll find me at Whole Foods.

Finally, we’ve got to ask. What would we be most surprised to know about you?

Two things: first, I am an avid gardener. I love digging holes and putting plants in them and then nurturing them and watching them grow. It fascinates me! The next thing . . . I actually suffer from stage fright on occasion. It’s true.

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