Sunday, May 12, 2013

Celebrating the Lives of Artists We've Lost

Whenever a famous performing artist or celebrity dies, there is the inevitable sadness that accompanies the announcement of their passing. In recent weeks, four people who made an impact in their artistic field died. All of them lived into their 90's. I would like to suggest that instead of mourning their loss we should celebrate their longevity and rejoice in the contributions they made to their art.

Deanna Durbin - 1921-2013 - 91.  Miss Durbin was a brilliant coloratura singer when she was signed by MGM at the age of 13. She was paired with another 13-year-old, Judy Garland, in a one-reel short, "Every Sunday"in which she sang classical music and Miss Garland sang swing. Shortly afterwards her contract was not renewed.  Signed by Universal she became a popular star in her first film, "Three Smart Girls."  However, she became disillusioned by Hollywood when she became typecast as the girl who solved problems for the grown-ups in her life. In 1949, she married her third husband, French director Charles David, who had directed her in one of her few more adult roles in "Lady on a Train." She retired to France, raised her children and rarely gave interviews for the rest of her life. Miss Durbin was a brilliant singer and actress, who when frustrated by the constraints of Hollywood stereotyping found a way for a happily-ever-after in the French countryside.

Frederick Franklin - 1914-2013 - 98.  Mr. Franklin was a British-born ballet dancer who made an impact on the world of classical dance throughout his life.  He not only was a dancer and choreographer, but also the founder of several dance companies. In his later life he became the crucial preserver of the original choreography of "Giselle," which he staged for Dance Theatre of Harlem in an updated setting in the Creole culture of Louisiana. He also memorably remounted Michel Fokine's 1910 "Scheherazade"on DTH. I had the privilege of seeing the production at the Kennedy Center. It was announced before the curtain rose that Mr. Franklin would substitute that night in the role of the Chief Eunuch. I distinctly remember the audience members around me saying "Who is Freddy Franklin?" My response was elation as I knew exactly who he was.  Into his 90's Mr. Franklin continued to dance. I once again had the privilege of seeing him dance the role of Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet with American Ballet Theatre. Mr. Franklin was a treasure to the classical ballet world.

Ray Harryhausen - 1920-2013 - 92. Mr. Harryhausen was the most brilliant stop motion special effects artist working in film. There will never be another artist like him, yet his influence on modern film special effects remains. From the famous skeleton fight in "Jason and the Argonauts" to the many dinosaurs he animated for such films as "The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms" and "One Million Years, B.C." to the original, and in my opinion vastly superior, 1981 "Clash of the Titans," Mr. Harryhausen's painstaking frame-by-frame work was sheer genius.  His development of the Dynamation technique  allowed his creations to appear as though they were a natural part of the story, whether walking behind trees or fighting the actors. Mr. Harryhausen's work led to a well deserved Academy Award for technical achievement in 1992. If it existed in real life, I'd say we all head to "Monsters, Inc.'s" Harryhausen restaurant to give Mr. Harryhausen a proper wake.

Merrill Brockway - 1923-2013 - 90.  Mr. Brockway was responsible for producing the PBS series "Dance in America" which brought dance by the leading companies in the United States to a broadcast audience. He also produced "Camera 3" a half-hour program broadcast on CBS on Sunday mornings from 1967- 1975 that was devoted to culture. Taking a cue from Fred Astaire films and the advice of George Balanchine  "Dance in America" was known for showing the dancers in full-body shots. Without him, many people outside of New York and the major touring cities might not have had a chance to see the works of such amazing choreographers as Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, Agnes de Mille, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, etc., etc. etc. Mr. Brockway received two Emmy Awards and two awards from the Directors' Guild of America. Bravo and thank you.

As a postscript, I'd like to add one more person to this list. She didn't make it to her 90's, but, in my opinion, her contributions to her art, deserve the same accolades.

Jeanne Cooper - 1928-2013 - 84. Miss Cooper is the last of the Soap Opera grande dames. It is true that there are many actors in daytime drama that are superstars, but Miss Cooper was the last one of her character type.  The longest serving member of the cast of "The Young and the Restless," Miss Cooper began her tenure six months into the show's run in 1973. She played Katherine Shepherd Reynolds Chancellor Thurston Sterling Murphy, the wealthy older woman who was in a triangle with the younger, poorer Jill Foster and her then-husband, Philip Chancellor.  Over the decades, Miss Cooper was rarely on the back burner portraying story lines that involved  alcoholism, kidnappings and her many, many marriages.  In other words, par for the course. What made Miss Cooper so enduring was her willingness to incorporate events in her own life into Katherine's story. Most famously this included the actress' facelift, shown on camera in 1984. Miss Cooper was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Daytime Emmy Award in 2004. She then, deservedly, won the Outstanding Performance by a Leading Actress in a Daytime Drama Emmy in 2008.  She was 80 when she won.  Outside the word of daytime drama, she was best known as the mother of actor Corbin Bernsen. To her fans she will always be the irreplaceable Mrs. Chancellor.

May all these artists rest in peace knowing that their impact on the world of the performing arts will endure.