Reflecting On Four Decades
Of Entertainment Journalism
How Two Teenagers From St. Paul Followed Their Dreams And Ended Up Interviewing Some Of The Biggest Names In Hollywood History
David Fantle (left) and Tom Johnson (right) with director Stanley Donen (center).
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Modern Times Magazine
June 29, 2015 — Time flies.
It’s been more than a year now since we started contributing our weekly blog column to ModernTimesMagazine.com., and we thought we’d post a story this week about our beginnings as entertainment journalists – a nearly 40-year career (and counting) that led us to amass a fairly eclectic collection of interviews with, chiefly, celebrities from the Golden Age of Hollywood.
The year was 1974 and That’s Entertainment! the compilation film of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studio’s most wondrous musical moments had just opened wide in theaters across the country. A new generation of movie fans that hadn’t been born during MGM’s heyday could now watch Gene Kelly joyously dancin’ and singin’ in the rain, Judy Garland belting out “Get Happy,” or Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell whirling around each other like syncopated pinwheels to Cole Porter’s sublime “Begin the Beguine.”
To millions of moviegoers, That’s Entertainment! was a revelation; to us – a couple of St. Paul, Minn., teenagers — it was galvanizing. Like many kids growing up in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, we dutifully watched the “Mel Jass Matinee Movie” on local television in the early afternoons and for years had been treated to campy double-bills like I Was a Teenage Werewolf and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. Entertaining as such B-grade fare could be; it could not remotely be classified as art. Artless was more like it.
So, when That’s Entertainment! opened, our interest was piqued far beyond seeing a few choice snippets from those Arthur Freed Unit productions. We wanted to see the musicals — in their entirety — which gave birth to the clips. We wanted the main course, not just the appetizer. However, in an era before DVD’s, streaming video or even videocassettes, viewing what you wanted when you wanted was, to say the least, problematic.
Undaunted, we formed a film society that shuttled musicals (of our own choosing, of course) to nursing homes in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. By renting 16-millimeter prints of the movies and then splitting the expense among the venues, we kept costs affordable for the nursing homes that signed on. We dubbed our organization “Films On Wheels,” which seemed appropriate since most of our elderly audience were on wheels, too.
Later on, at the University of Minnesota, we expanded our hucksterish notion into a new film group (“The Song and Dance Cinema Society”) with all proceeds, after expenses, donated to the Ronald McDonald House for children with cancer.
Although eventually sated by seeing practically every musical ever made, our interest took a new turn; we wanted to meet some of the leading lights of the films we so admired. By sheer luck, during the last years of the 1970s, many stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age were still in the picture – if not exactly making pictures. What’s more, an interview query with a stamped, self-addressed envelope for their reply was often all it took to get an affirmative response in those simpler days.
Just liberated from high school, in the summer of 1978, we snagged the first two interviews that paved the way for much of what you have read in these weekly blogs the last two years. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly (after talking it over between them, we always suspected) agreed to sit down and talk with us.
As vendors at Metropolitan Stadium in Bloomington, Minn., selling Schweigert hot dogs and Frosty Malts to hungry Minnesota Twins and Vikings fans, we figured we had put away enough money for a quick trip to Los Angeles to meet Astaire and Kelly and then get back in time to work the next Twins home stand. What we hadn’t factored in was the cost of taxicabs and buses (we weren’t old enough to rent a car in L.A.). Fortunately, back then even the rarified purlieus of Beverly Hills contained a couple of budget motels with weekly rates and life-saving kitchenettes.
The visits with Astaire and Kelly, though brief, were transcendent. Their musical exploits had already attained an almost mythical status for us. In our star-struck minds, the dancers weren’t tethered to terra firma (we weren’t in a position to see them engaged in such prosaic pursuits as walking the dog or trimming the hydrangeas, something they both did).
So, in a way, it was an eye-opener to interrupt Astaire in his accountant’s office while he was busily engaged not in some terpsichorean matter of the greatest creative urgency, but in the laborious chore of balancing his personal checkbook!
Did we experience even a momentary letdown at having our illusions shattered so completely? Hardly. Our appreciation for the hundreds of artists we’ve interviewed since has only deepened knowing that they were flesh and blood – some, like Astaire and Kelly, leavened with a touch of genius.
The next logical step in our fledgling journey toward becoming celebrity chroniclers was writing up notes from our interviews with Astaire and Kelly for the arts section of the “Minnesota Daily,” the student newspaper of the University of Minnesota where we enrolled that fall. From there, perseverance became habit and some habits are hard to break as we find that we’re still interviewing movie and television stars 37 years later.
“Don’t quit your day jobs,” Gene Kelly said, laughing, when we once confided to him that we’d like to try and carve out a living interviewing celebrities of stage and screen. Gene’s gentle admonishment proved prescient. Although we’ve never exited the 9-to-5 grind, we’ve had tremendous fun interviewing the great, near great (and merely grating) the last few decades. Consider the blogs that have come before and the ones that follow to be our corollary to Kelly’s bit of cautionary advice.
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have been entertainment journalists for more than 30 years and co-authored the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV. Fantle teaches film and television at Marquette University in Milwaukee and Johnson is a former senior editor for Netflix. They can be reached at www.reeltoreal.com
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