Arts Watch: Hellos and goodbyes

Published 2:31 pm Thursday, December 30, 2021

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By Bill McCann           Here at year’s end seems like a good time to say hello to some new art—a book and a film—and to acknowledge the passing of Winchester’s own Vanessa Rogers and Bluegrass music’s J. D. Crowe.

Mel Brooks’s autobiography, “All About Me!:My Remarkable Life in Show Business” (Ballentine Books, 2021) is an interesting, engaging book that sweeps readers along on his often-comic journey from Queens, New York to television, Hollywood, and, eventually, Broadway. As writer, director, producer and actor, Brooks is well known. Now, with the help of his very readable and enjoyable book we learn something of his off-screen, backstage life.

Growing up myself in the 1960s and ‘70s I relate best to stories about Get Smart (1965-70), Young Frankenstein (1971) and Blazing Saddles (1974). But the book covers his life growing up, through Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows, to his involvements in television and movies, and through his years as a Broadway producer of his script for The Producers (2001) as well as his Brooksfilms productions that began with Elephant Man (1980); The History of the World—Part I (1981); also included To Be or Not to Be (starring himself and wife Anne Bancroft) (1983); The Fly (1986) (written by Kentucky screenwriter and playwright Charles Edward Pogue—no, that isn’t mentioned in Brooks’s book); Spaceballs (1987), a Star Wars parody and beyond.

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This book is similar to many artists’ biographies; the more I enjoyed the artists’ work, the more I liked the book about him or her. The same is true here. I had little knowledge of Sid Caesar. Born in 1955, I never saw Your Show of Shows which ended in 1954 or Caesar’s Hour (1954-57). I have seen some of both on YouTube. But the stories behind those shows are not as appealing as those with which I am familiar. And I suspect that the same may be true for other readers.

The last time I attended a movie during the pandemic, I was the only person watching.

Earlier this week, there might have been 10 in Winchester’s Malco theatre as I watched Spider-Man: No Way Home.
As a kid, along with Batman and Superman, Spiderman was among my favorite comic superheroes. With the Marvel Comic superheroes getting lots of screen time it’s easy to forget that reading those comics required the active imaginations of readers to fill in the sounds, views, and personalities of that two-dimensional comic world. Today’s movies with their special effects, outstanding cinematography, casts, and music and sound effects literally put you in the world of the comic. Something may be lost. But much is gained under such circumstances.

The Spiderman of my youth—and for that matter, in some of the earlier films—was a youth playing at being a superhero. In this film Spiderman matures into a hero–whom friend, Penny Christian of Lexington, describes as–“young but ready.” Furthermore, Christian says audiences “sees that Peter Parker understands that he possesses the responsibility- and ability- to be more than a teenager who swings around New York. He literally becomes what he needs to be to survive….All of this led to a huge payoff for the audience, and it was beautifully done.”

Vanessa Oakes Rogers (1954-2021)

The community of Winchester is a bit duller, its arts and civic life a bit diminished by the recent passing of Vanessa O. Rogers whose talents and abilities as drama teacher and director at GRC and an actress, director, producer, and community leader away from it will be missed. And yet, Rogers will continue to be remembered, her influence extended through those she taught and those who have been and will be recipients of the Leeds Center for the Arts’ Vanessa Rogers Scholarship Fund which will help high school seniors pursue college degrees in education and the arts.

James Dee “J. D.” Crowe (1937-2021)

J. D. Crowe, Bluegrass’ innovative banjo player and head of the band J. D. Crowe and the New South died at his Nicholasville home on Christmas day. Crowe, whose honors included a 1983 Grammy award for his instrumental “Fireball” and a 2012 honorary doctorate from the University of Kentucky, was 84.

Of Crowe, John Lawless of Bluegrass Today wrote, “Everyone in bluegrass music was fond of J.D. Crowe… His affable, humble, and fun-loving personality made him everyone’s friend…. If Earl Scruggs was a machine, J.D. Crowe was a carnival ride. His playing was fun, lighthearted, and even frivolous at times, all coming from his own distinct personality.”

Bill McCann is an arts columnist, playwright, member of the Dramatists Guild, and a host of the Theatre Series, an occasional feature of WEKUs Eastern Standard news magazine. For more information visit