25 May, 2020—Two Birthdays: My Dad’s 115th and My Beloved English Conductor John Wilson’s 48th

My father, who would be 115 years old in 3 days, went to the movies with me only a couple of times. The first was for Taras Bulba (United Artists, 1962). I remember him getting a particular kick out of the ride of the Cossacks scene, thrilling Franz Waxman music and all.

The second time was for Tora! Tora! Tora! (20th Century Fox, 1970). The movie house in Columbia Heights, just over the city line from Northeast Minneapolis, was within walking distance, I walked it all the time, and could still get in for 50 cents because at 15 I still looked 12. For some reason my father ended up not only driving me the few blocks, but after I’d found my seat and the lights went down I was astonished to notice him come in and sit down beside me.

“Dad, what are you doing here?” I whispered loudly. “You know, the Japs win in this.”

“Not for long,” he answered cheerfully, which is about as close as anyone in our family got to talking about the 7 December 1941 attacks and the general brutality my mother, then a teenager in Bangar in the province of La Union, had to face in an occupied country.

Bangar in those days was rather like Nouvion in ‘Allo ‘Allo—a little town situated a ways from the capital but near the sea, a hotbed of resistance. When you read about Bangar here, just remember: that kid who escaped, which resulted in occupying troops burning down the place, was one of my cousins. When the guards marched him to town to be executed, his family, through looks and gestures from a distance, pretty much gave him the word that they expected him to “take one for the team” i.e. let himself be shot; but at the last moment, as family legend goes, he grabbed the officer’s sword and in the confusion was able to get away into the forest. And so as feared came the reprisals.

A shadow still hangs over the de la Peña family.

Fil-Am 1941Taken at a banquet of an old Filipino-American association my dad was part of (that’s him under the picture on the right; keep forgetting he still had hair before I was born), one of about a hundred around at the time. Note the date: only a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor. Note also the Philippine flag on the wall. The Philippines wasn’t yet a sovereign nation but a Commonwealth and didn’t achieve independence till 1946.

Meanwhile in California my dad, who had come to the States a young man in 1927, was engaged to a woman from St Louis he eventually COULD NOT MARRY because—are you ahead of me on this?—HE WASN’T WHITE!!! Yes! The MISCENEGATION LAW of the State of California—which by the way was NOT REPEALED UNTIL 1962—prohibited them and God knows how many other California couples from legally joining, forcing them to travel to other states where they could. (Recently read this happened to that fine actor Dean Jagger and his Chinese-American fiancee in the early 50s and I’m curious to hear other people’s stories).

How my dad, residing at last in Minneapolis, eventually found and married my mother in Manila is another story, and it’s a doozy. I’ll tell it on their 70th wedding anniversary next year.

Now to my beloved John Wilson, who was born the day of my father’s final birthday, in 1972. John, I’m not saying we’re psychically linked, but about a month ago in the middle of defrosting the refrigerator I think I got a weird emotional flash from you where you were being right annoyed… I got the impression it might’ve been about The John Wilson Orchestra, you were waiting for some kind of answer re your orchestra and not getting it, and I actually felt your annoyance… As I say, it was weird, like listening in on a party line…

That’s all I could make of it. But it’s enough to make me want to give you something special for your birthday. So…I’ve tried this only once, with an old boyfriend, and I think because I was really, really into him it worked. On the actual day of your birthday, John, I’m going to try to send you an energy shot. [UPDATE: Just did it. Think I got through. 25 May 2020 2AM UK time.] Until then, Happy Birthday, light of my life, fire of my loins. And if you and I ever make that date at the Metropole, tell me if it worked.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Shostakovich’s Symphony No 1 and the Japanese Attack, 7 December 1941

Serge Koussevitsky, Leonard Bernstein’s mentor, was on the podium conducting the first symphony by the “new young Soviet composer” Dmitri Shostakovich in the CBS radio Sunday afternoon broadcast of the New York Philharmonic when, in the middle of the first movement, none other than famed NY correspondent John Charles Daly broke in with the news of Pearl Harbor. The Japs bombed the naval base at Pearl twice that morning, first at 8am Hawaii time, then again at 9:30am…then went on that same day to bomb the fuck out of Singapore, Hong Kong, Burma, Guam…

Dmitri Shostakovich.jpg

Then about 6pm they finally got around to Clark Air Base and the RCA transmitter on the outskirts of Manila


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Silly Sexy Love Songs: “Goodness Gracious Me” Sung by Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren (1960)

Sophia Loren is so incredibly sexy just singing this bouncy love duet she sexes up whoever she sings it with. Even blogy old Sellers…

No idea what musical category to put this under, maybe I’ll make up a new one.

Boom puddy-boom puddy-boom puddy-boom
Puddy-boom puddy-boom puddy boom-boom-boom

Goodness Gracious Me 3Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren in The Millionairess (20th Century Fox, 1960). By the way, as an Asian-American, I have no problem with Peter Sellers playing a Muslim Indian doctor—or Anthony Quinn playing a Filipino war hero, for that matter. (If you’re looking for the BBC-TV show Goodness Gracious Me, here’s the pub sketch to start you off…)


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My First Music: Al Bowlly Sings Ray Noble’s “Goodnight, Sweetheart” in “City on the Edge of Forever” on the Original TV Show Star Trek (NBC, 1967)

The traditional closing number for any formal dance (the orchestra played this at every Rizal Day dance I ever attended in Minneapolis as a girl), the tender song “Goodnight, Sweetheart” was written by the English composing team of Ray Noble, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly. In the recording used in Star Trek it was played by the Ray Noble Orchestra and sung by Al Bowlly, that darkly good-looking singer who, at the height of WWII, was found in the rubble of his London flat after a blitz attack, dead, but without a mark on his handsome face.

City on the Edge of Forever
Above Joan Collins and William Shatner in this memorable final episode of the first season, 1967: “Goodnight, Sweetheart” sung by Al Bowlly.


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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“We Can’t Let Those Hands Go Down a Pit”: Jean Heywood (1921 – 2019) in When the Boat Comes In, Episode 7, BBC 1976

Of course it’s not Bella Seaton (Jean Heywood) speaking that line, it’s her daughter, schoolteacher Jessie, pleading the case of an artistic young pupil doomed to work down the coal pit in Gallowshields, a post-WWI fictional town—a composite, I believe, of all the little towns along the River Tyne in the north near Newcastle (you know, that place in the phrase “Selling coals to Newcastle is like selling ice to Eskimos”) including the town where my beloved John Wilson was born and bred, Gateshead*.  Bella is the strong-willed matriarch, as we Yanks would say, of the Seaton family, so she gets a lot of scenes, which is great because I pick up the Geordie accent from Northumberland-born Heywood more easily than from anyone else in the show.

As I might have mentioned a few postings ago I did three of my flicks speaking in a foreign accent: one in French, one in Cuban, and one in Malaysian, which I actually did in Filipino but no one could tell the difference. I like to practice the Geordie accent during off moments, you know, because it reminds me of John, and so it gives me pleasure.

Jean Heywood When the Boat Comes In.jpgAmerican audiences will probably better remember Jean Heywood, who died in September at the age of 98, as the grandmother in another classic story about artistic aspirations in the north, Billy Elliot. Above Jean: Neighborhood lad Alex Glasgow singing the show’s theme song “When the Boat Comes In” with the backing of the (now Royal) Northern Sinfonia.

*Low Fell, to be precise.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My First Music: The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold

There must be something in the English character that enables the better artists among them to depict situations of unassuming, steady bravery with superior deftness, which is probably why their World War II pictures are better than ours. One of them, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (20th Century Fox, 1958), doesn’t technically qualify either as a UK picture—Fox produced it; or as a WWII picture—it’s set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1938; but it does have unarmed peasantry scattering to the hills under Japanese gunfire, which is a theme that ran through my mother’s life starting with Pearl Harbor and ending in March, 1945 when American troops marched through the rubble-strewn streets of Manila, hunky victorious good guys. My mother’s first teenage romance was with a private in the 1st Cavalry Division named Kelly, come to think of it.

Now, when I refer to better artists of English character I don’t mean the film’s producer, director, writer (American, American, American), or stars (Swedish, Austrian). But it’s because of: one, the true-life heroine the story was based on; two, the location shooting; three, the non-lead casting; and four and most importantly, the music, that I think of Sixth Happiness as an English film. The true-life heroine of the story was English-born, not to mention the film has Snowdonia standing in for the daunting terrain around Yangcheng and pretty near the entire Chinese heritage population of Liverpool standing in for Chinese nationals, with supporting roles portrayed by stalwarts of UK stage and screen. This is the first thing I ever saw Burt Kwouk in.

But to the music. This is not Malcolm Arnold’s finest score—Bridge On the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957) really is a superior composition—but it rates higher with me becauuuse, you guessed it, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a gorgeous Love Theme, which you can hear below as the Royal Academy of Music performed the suite back in 2014. You’ll also hear the bright, high fanfare brass that Arnold used in a few other of his movies, River Kwai and the one below, for examples. Also, I’m starting to develop a theory to satisfy myself that certain intervals, played with conviction, are the real sinews of English music: they make for that sound of “rightness”, which you can take one way or another, depending on the mood—or your mood, for that matter. Sixth Happiness has plenty of those.

Inn of the 6th Happiness.jpg

Besides the satisfying fanfare brass, Sixth Happiness shares with the satirical The Belles of St Trinian’s (British Lion, 1954) a bit in the score where there’s a song meant to be sung by children—in Sixth Happiness it’s “This Old Man”; in St Trinian’s it’s the school’s hilarious “Battle Cry”. I’m not posting the lyrics here, so click on the link in red to listen to those cheerfully bloodthirsty oaths. But can you imagine what a liberating tonic this ferocious roar from the depths of The Untamed Female Soul was to a little girl in the Catholic part of Minneapolis, watching this on Saturday matinee TV (a tonic, incidentally, I would not imbibe again till I heard Bernadine Dorhn mouth off a few years later)—?

Here’s the BBCCO doing the St Trinian’s suite at the Proms (Timothy West, narrator) bringing back almost all the familiar, funny-music leitmotifs to smile at, like George Cole’s character’s “Flash Harry”, a loping, rattling kind of tune (although lamentably there’s no sign of Joyce Grenfell’s scurrying “Ruby Gates”) before returning to that ghoulish school pageant march, lyrics I believe provided by Arnold himself.

In contrast, “This Old Man” is meant to be a “found” song, purportedly a children’s counting song, heard on the playground since the 19th century, and in a way that’s right, as the first time I heard “This Old Man” was on the playground—but only because it had become a hit on US radio first in 1959. It’s still impossible for me not to hear “This Old Man” and not think of the climactic scene in Sixth Happiness: the hundred children crossing the Yellow River into safe territory, ragged and exhausted but alive, marching into the unoccupied city to cheering crowds, loudly singing this song. Invariably it brings tears to my eyes, immigrant daughter that I am, and I remember the first time I watched—and heard—this film on TV with my mother, my mind nearly forming the question I never asked her, not then, not ever: “What happened to you in the war, mom?” Because the music was so ravishing, the love story was so satisfying, and my mother just wanted to enjoy an Ingrid Bergman film.

~ for Stephen Tobolowsky


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My First Music: “Dahil Sa Iyo” and My Sentimental Devotion to Bonny John Wilson, Conductor

If you could, my bonny John Wilson, imagine me wearing a Maria Clara (like great-grandmother Aberin below) and you wearing a barong, I’d be singing you this song:

Verse: Sa buhay ko’y labis
Ang hirap at pasakit, ng pusong umiibig
Mandi’y wala ng langit
At ng lumigaya, hinango mo sa dusa
Tanging ikaw sinta, ang aking pag-asa.

Refrain: Dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay
Dahil sa iyo, hanggang mamatay
Dapat mong tantuin, wala ng ibang giliw
Puso ko’y tanungin, ikaw at ikaw rin

Dahil sa iyo, ako’y lumigaya
Pagmamahal, ay alayan ka
Kung tunay man ako, ay alipinin mo
Ang lahat sa buhay ko, dahil sa iyo

Dahil Sa Iyo”
Mike Velarde Jr music (1938), Tom Spinoza, lyrics
Cora and Santos Beloy, vocalists
Tri-World Records (1964)

Great-Grandmother Aberin 1.jpgMy mother’s lola, my great-grandmother, the spitting image of my mother the way Georgiana Drew is the spitting image of Drew Barrymore. I have no documentation for my assertion—my gran’s house and possessions were completely destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. But whenever we came across this picture in the media—in an article in Time, for example—my mom would always point her out and tell me the story of how my great-grandfather came over from Ireland and, upon discovering he was meeting fellow Catholics in a sea of Asians, stayed, changed his name from O’Brien to Aberin, and married the local beauty. How the Dutch photographer found her is anybody’s guess.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My First Music: “Padanggo Sa Ilaw”, Another Tricky Filipino Dance

I’m not going to talk about the Tinikling here as it brings back unpleasant memories of having my ankles banged with bamboo poles, but I will mention the Pandanggo (from the Spanish word “fandango”). This is very elegant dance where dancers wear not the formal Maria Clara, which is hard to get around in, but the patadyong, which is a simple cotton dress with butterfly sleeves. My cousin Wilhelmina looked very nice doing this dance, with the candles on the backs of her hands and the candle on her head. You try balancing that. I almost started a fire.

Pandanggo Sa Ilaw (Marty McCorkle, 2016)Above “Pandanggo Sa Ilaw” by Visayan resident Marty McCorkle (2016) the title dance to this posting, performed by Juan Silos Jr and his orchestra.

Pandanggo traditionally is danced to rondalla music, which is a sort of serenade played by an ensemble of guitars and mandolins and other stringed instruments. It originated in Spain during the Middle Ages. You can also hear the rondalla sound in Mexican and Central and South American music, which should show that Filipinos are more cultural kin to the Hispanic world than the mainland Asian. But we claim both.


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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John Wilson Conducts Oklahoma at the 2017 BBC Proms, Rouben Mamoulian Howls In Protest from His Grave, 2

John my bonny, if we ever sit down someday and have a natter like two old friends I’d tell you how much in common you have with The Old Man, which you’d better take as a compliment, because Rouben Mamoulian was a genius. I didn’t think so when I worked for him, but then I was only 23 and he was 81, and the only movie I knew of his—besides The Mark of Zorro with Basil Rathbone and Tyrone Power, which I remember from TV as a kid—was Queen Christina, the result of cinema art-house hopping in New York in the mid-70s, and which had a special place in my half-lesbian heart on account of The Divine Garbo.

CXG Oklahoma
The most subtle reference ever to Agnes De Mille that was clearly about Agnes De Mille without having to mention her name was on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, season 4 episode 2: “So now they’re randomly doing ballet?” “I guess so, it’s hard to follow.” (Hip-hop follows.) “That’s not even the correct dance language for this piece.” Bay Area-born Vincent Rodriguez III is the hunk in the red neckerchief who plays Josh Chan, heroine Rebecca Bunch’s pinoy love interest. Above: The 2019 Broadway revival version of Oklahoma! re-orchestrated by the estimable Daniel Kluger.

But like I said earlier, I was already familiar with the fact that Mamoulian had directed Carousel and Oklahoma! on Broadway. So when he finally started to chat me up more familiarly, after a few weeks of my just coming in every weekday morning and answering his phone, opening his mail—unpaid bills, media people from all over wanting interviews, a few lines from old friends like Armina Marshall…Paul Horgan…Pamela Mason…Ray Bradbury—balancing his checkbook, reassuring Zayde on the intercom over and over that Henry their handyman hadn’t gone home yet etc etc, and basically fooling around during the many dull spots in the day (which is how I ended up playing the Waltz from Carousel to myself on the actual legendary Richard Rodgers piano), it was easy to follow The Old Man’s train of thought because I already knew a lot about the original production of Oklahoma!

“You know, Agnes…” he started right off the bat one day, and we both immediately understood who he was referring to: Agnes De Mille, the choreographer for the original 1943 production.

I sat up attentively, pen in hand, ready to take dictation. My main duty for Mamoulian was supposed to have been as amanuensis for his memoirs, after all. At least that’s what the temp agency had told me. Although they didn’t say amanuensis.

“No, put your pen down and listen!” he ordered. He was, in the weeks and months to come, going to say that a lot.

So I did.

Part 1 “The Rodgers Piano” here.
Part 2 “Laying It On the Table: “The Eugene O’Neill Story”

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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