It is my privilege to contribute to the anniversary edition of this fine publication. Marking an anniversary is a useful and timely way of recognizing landmarks along life’s journey. Landmarks can represent positive accomplishments, such as the continued literary contributions of a publication, or the dedicated service of an individual to his/her occupation. They can be somber reflection upon an infamous deed such as the attack on Pearl Harbor this past December 7. Or they might be the essentially neutral observance of the fact that an individual has persevered and survived to celebrate another year.
“King of the one liners” Henny Youngman was once asked to divulge the secret of his long and seemingly happy marriage. He responded, “A candle light dinner twice a week, a little music, a little dancing. She goes Tuesdays; I go Fridays.” So maybe it’s about finding a way to keep going. Humor helps. It won’t always be good times. We’re in it for the long run, if we’re lucky. Henny Youngman was. That’s for sure. Acquaintances recall seeing him well into his 80’s stalking the lobbies and riding the elevators in hotels across the country, violin tucked under his arm, searching for one more paying gig where he could perform for an audience – a wedding, a bar mitzvah, it didn’t matter. It was what he did. It’s who he was.
We celebrated John Glenn’s life recently upon his death at age 95. As a kid, he was fascinated with aviation, and had his dad drive him out to Port Columbus to watch the planes take off and land. As an original Mercury astronaut, he was the first American to orbit the earth in a space capsule. It was a capsule that the astronauts, led by Glenn, forced NASA to convert into a rudimentary space ship. They required the agency to make modifications that permitted the occupant to maneuver the vehicle. After all, they were pilots, not just “spam in a can” as one astronaut termed it. Glenn returned to space at age 77 to advance scientific knowledge, documenting the effects of space travel on an aging body. He flew his personal plane past the age of 90 until macular degeneration forced him to give it up. Then he spent his remaining years actively involved in the education of tomorrow’s aviators and scientists. Each passing year marked the anniversary of many of Glenn’s remarkable achievements. But none of them marked the end of his active quest to achieve more.
Singer Tony Bennett continues his career at age 90. After a successful start in the 1940’s and ‘50’s, Bennett’s career faltered in the ‘60’s. The rise of rock music’s popularity and the “British invasion” sent Bennett to the sidelines. Struggling to find work, he turned to drugs and squandered his earnings. One of his sons came to his rescue. He advised his dad to ignore record company executives who insisted that Tony must abandon his pop/jazz style in order to succeed. Instead, with his son’s assistance, Bennett found younger listeners who were receptive to his timeless talent. To them, Bennett was something new. His career resurrected, Bennett began a long series of collaborations with contemporary recording artists like Amy Winehouse and Lady Gaga. He continues these kind of cooperative ventures to this day. Asked what it is that keeps him going during an interview with NPR, Tony said, “I always think I can get better somehow.”
“Professor” Irwin Corey celebrated birthday number 102 this past summer. Billed for decades as “The World’s Foremost Authority,” Corey would wander onstage dressed in a threadbare tuxedo (with tails), his hair disheveled, a string tie hanging from his collar, black Converse high tops on his feet. He would stumble his way to the lectern, and spend several minutes groping for his speech in his jacket pockets. After locating it, he would read the first few lines silently to himself and break into hysterical laughter. Finally realizing that the audience was still awaiting his address, he’d pull himself together, straighten up to his full 5’5’’, and begin: “However!” The genius of this stumbling, bumbling, confused routine was that as he aged, it became more plausible. So he worked steadily, and it is not surprising that we find on YouTube a video of the good professor, age 94, doing his shtick before a small group of admirers at New York’s Cutting Room performance space: “We all know that protocol takes precedence over procedure. This Paul Lindsey point of order based on the state of inertia of developing a centrifugal force issued as a catalyst rather than as a catalytic agent, and hastens a chain reaction and remains indigenous prior to its inception. This is a focal point used as a tangent so the bile is excreted through the panaceas." And the crowd laughed.
Shortly before his centennial anniversary, Corey stopped by his favorite Manhattan restaurant and was hailed by an old acquaintance, “Irwin Corey, as I live and breathe! Irwin, I haven’t seen you in 30 years! You haven’t changed a bit!” “You mean I looked like this 30 years ago?!” The waiter showed Irwin to his table and dropped off a tube of denture cream so he could enjoy his meal. By his 100th birthday, Corey was confined to a wheelchair, when they celebrated his birthday at the Actor’s Temple. As a crowd of well-wishers gathered to extend their greetings, Corey could be heard loudly complaining to his audiologist, “You gave me a hearing aid that doesn’t understand English!” Happy Anniversary, Irwin. Keep on keeping on, because it is what you do. It is who you are.