Happy Birthday, Fay Wray!

The lovely Fay Wray was born 114 years ago today in Cardston, Alberta.

Here’s the story of our one personal encounter with Ms. Wray. She was a patron and paying member of Film Forum, a terrific repertory movie theatre here in NYC, and every now and then she would attend a screening there.

We were waiting in the lobby one evening when one of her movies was on the bill—it might have been King Kong, we can’t be sure—and as the credits rolled on the previous screening, we heard a round of applause from within the auditorium. That’s not unusual at Film Forum; old-movie fans often show their appreciation at the end of a picture they’ve enjoyed.

But perhaps thirty seconds later, there was another, more boisterous round of applause. Why would they be clapping again?, we wondered. But then it occurred to us that there was likely an actor in the house who was being introduced to the audience, and we guessed—correctly, as it turned out—that it must be Ms. Wray.

The funny thing was, no one else waiting in line in the lobby seemed to be paying attention to these rounds of applause. They were in pairs and threes and were chatting among themselves, so we were, seemingly, the only ones aware that Ms. Wray might be on the premises. And when she left the auditorium, we were the only ones who took any notice whatsoever of the elderly lady making her way through the lobby.

“Hello, Ms. Wray,” we said as she drew near, and she, still on an emotional high from the ovation she’d just received in the theatre, said, “God bless you!”

“God bless you, too, Ms. Wray,” we replied, and off she went.

Fay Wray

Happy Birthday, Artie Shaw!

Today marks the 111th anniversary of the birth of one of the giants of big band swing, Artie Shaw.

Born Arthur Jacob Arshawsky in New York City, Shaw, who grew up in New Haven, Connecticut, was said to be a cantankerous, difficult sort of fellow who never really was satisfied with the music he was expected to play. The demands of stardom reined him in. As he put it in a 1994 profile in The New York Times, “I thought that because I was Artie Shaw I could do what I wanted, but all they wanted was ‘Begin the Beguine.'”

Well, heck, yes, we want Begin the Beguine! It’s one of the greatest recordings of the big band era. But we can see how a musician—any artist, really—can begin to feel creatively stifled by the expectations of fans and the press. But it’s sad that Shaw appears to have found little joy in the music he created, the music that has brought so much pleasure to the rest of us.

Heck, even Shaw’s theme song, which he composed, went against the joyful grain that characterized most swing music. It’s called Nightmare, and it is aptly named. Imagine being a swing fan in the late 1930s and getting the chance to take in a show by one of your favorite orchestras and having them open the show with that unsettling number!

Shaw retired repeatedly throughout his career, finally giving up the clarinet for good in 1954 (I wonder if he ever dreamed at the time he would live another half-century), and the reason he offered was his own perfectionism. “In the world we live in, compulsive perfectionists finish last,” Shaw told Michael Freedland in 2001. “You have to be Lawrence Welk, or, on another level, Irving Berlin, and write the same kind of music over and over again. I’m not able to do that.”

Here’s hoping Shaw found some peace in the fifty years he lived mostly apart from music. For the rest of us, we have the many records he left us, which amount to as a great a legacy as virtually any other musician from that era.

We’re featuring Shaw’s music all day today, so why not tune in now?