14 November 2015

Will the Real James Murray Please Stand Up?

One of the fun-frustrating elements of approaching a new work of fiction is coming up with appropriate names for the characters. I had just finished plotting out “Murder at Eastern Columbia” when the name of the main character dropped into my lap, so to speak.

At that time, “Eastern Columbia” was to be a stand-alone novel, not the first in a five-part series that it became. I had to choose a good name for the lead male character, not realizing that name would come to represent the entire series.

I’ve written a lot about Hollywood over the years, mostly historic Hollywood. Combine that with a soft spot I have for the underdog and then fast forward to the day when my spouse, Matt, was watching the commentary for a film we had just seen called “Heroes For Sale” (1933). As I walked out of my office into the living room, the commentator mentioned that the bit part of a blind soldier was played by the actor who was once famous for being the star of “The Crowd” (1928) and was, when this later movie was made, down and out and forgotten by Hollywood.

Needing a name for my lead character, I selected that name and James Murray, of The James Murray Mysteries, was born. The name is the only similarity -- my character is a writer, not an actor; a small, sincere homage to the man who first bore the name who died broken and unknown. He was only 35 years old.

15 October 2015

One Night in 1976

I’m currently reading the massive biography “Fosse” by Sam Wasson. I love Bob Fosse’s work yet know so little about him as a person. I just read the chapter where Fosse’s “Chicago” was trounced at the 1976 Tony Awards by “A Chorus Line” and realized that that single award ceremony encapsulated so much about the kind of theater I love.

I remember sitting and watching the award ceremony on my portable black-and-white television, my cassette recorder running to capture every single moment of what I knew would be an “A Chorus Line” sweep: the musical’s dramatic opening number, Donna McKechnie’s stunning win and moving acceptance speech, and presenter after presenter opening an envelope and repeating the same three words: “A Chorus Line.”

Interspersed between those moments were excerpts from the three other musicals nominated that season: “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” Stephen Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” and Fosse’s “Chicago” (only “Pacific Overtures” won any awards). I watched a dance number from “Chicago” and thought, “this is dumb.” During the excerpt from “Pacific Overtures” I remember thinking “this is dumb.” (I was only 16 and for me it was “A Chorus Line” or nothing.)

Years went by. I learned more about theater. I realized how wrong I was that night -- not about “A Chorus Line,” but about theater history in general and those other two shows specifically.

Of course, I had heard of Fosse and I had heard of Sondheim but I didn’t know much about them. Through years of reading, seeing shows, and listening to scores, I learned more about these men who, along with Bennett, changed the face of modern theater in many ways. For example, Fosse’s unique dancing style (“Steam Heat” in 1954’s “The Pajama Game”), Sondheim and the first concept musical (1970, “Company”) and Bennett for taking attention away from stars and shining a light on dancers in “A Chorus Line.”

I find it interesting that all three were active on Broadway roughly the same time: Fosse began as a dancer in 1950 (“Dance Me a Song”); Sondheim’s first credit came in 1956 (“Girls of Summer”); and Bennett began as a dancer in 1961 (“Subways are for Sleeping”). Over many years, as these three men moved up in their careers -- Fosse and Bennett to choreographer/director, and Sondheim to full-fledged lyricist/composer -- their work affected the course of theater: Bennett’s last Broadway musical credit was in 1982 (“Dreamgirls”); Fosse’s last Broadway show was in 1986 (“Big Deal”); and Sondheim is still active on Broadway -- although mostly with revivals of previous successes.

I can only imagine what theater in America would look like today without the tremendous influence of these three men.

Note: Although Fosse and Sondheim went home with no awards that night in 1976, they were certainly not neglected by the Tony voters. Over their careers, Fosse won a total of nine Tony Awards, Sondheim won eight and Bennett won seven.

Note: McKechnie is one of the rare people to work on Broadway with all three men. She was in the cast of “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” (her first Broadway show) in 1961 with dances choreographed by Fosse (who received a “musical staging” credit); she worked with Bennett in “Promises, Promises” (1968), “Company” (1970), and, of course, “A Chorus Line” (1975); and with Sondheim in “Company.”

05 September 2015

Audio Book Anyone?

Great news! My book, “Sarah & Gerald” a novel of Paris in the 1920s, is now available as an audio book on Audible.com! Woot! Woot! It’s my first audio book and I’m pretty excited.

“Sarah & Gerald” takes place in the years after the great war, when life was golden and happy for those who had survived it. An entire generation of young men died so others could sit on a beach and splash in the water and have sandwiches on the sand. It was a perfect time for American expatriates -- like Sarah and Gerald -- to be in Paris: everything had worked out so well for them. They had money, they had friends, they had three golden children and they had each other. And everyone was so young. Gerald was a painter and his bold new painting would shock the French art world; but the consequences of his artistic success would soon bring tragedy to Sarah and their family. Despite doing everything right, things would soon start going very wrong.

Audible.com gave me some free coupons that I can share with anyone who wants to give it a listen. Just reply in the "comment" section below with your email address and I'll send you the information.

I'll be honest and say that part of this giveaway is to generate reviews and publicity for it. If you've not already given "Sarah & Gerald" a review on Amazon, this offer is for you. (And, if you have already given it a review on Amazon, thank you. I will still be happy to send you a coupon for a free audio copy if you want.) I am also hoping for some reviews on the Audible.com website (link below).

You can read more about the novel and listen to an excerpt here.

12 August 2015

Thank You, Brad

It all started with a friend named Brad.

Matt and I had this really good friend named Brad. He was an actor. He was a new father. He was a weird and funny guy. Then, one day, we got an email from his wife that he was dead. They were on vacation and he dropped dead of sudden cardiac arrest. He was only 49.

I had just turned 52 that year and had been having my own heart problems for a couple years. Put all that together and Brad’s completely unexpected death hit us all hard. Hard. Hard. Hard.

It was horrible, but it turned out to be the catalyst that got me to quit my day job and hunker down and return to my long-form writing (novels) that I had been putting off until “the right time.” Who knew when that would happen? Who knew if I would be the next to drop dead from heart issues? I didn’t and I wasn’t going to wait to find out.

So now, nearly four years since his death, I have Brad to thank for getting me off my butt. I had open-heart surgery, Matt and I celebrated our twentieth year together and I just published my eleventh (!) book.

Because of what he did for me, I dedicated my novel “Blackmail at Wrigley Field” to him. I decided it was time to thank him publicly.

Smooth sailing, Major Matt Mason. Second star to the right.

30 July 2015

"Haunting at Ocean House"

Yes, it's true: there are now FIVE James Murray Mysteries!  (See link in the "My Books" section to your right.) 

James Murray is a young man with a dream -- to be a writer just like his idol, Dashiell Hammett. He pens his first novel while working as a clerk at a swank downtown department store. He writes his second while working at a famous movie studio turning his first novel into a screenplay. His third novel chronicles his adventures trying to find a kidnapped scientist. His fourth novel details his efforts to help a baseball player find the source of several blackmail threats.

And now, the fifth and concluding novel in the series has him facing perhaps the most dangerous threat of all: the ghost of a young woman who died under mysterious circumstances. James and his wife, newspaper woman Arden St. Johns, investigate a supposed medium who holds séances for the rich and powerful of Hollywood’s elite. But, they encounter a mystery: someone is trying to convince others that the dead niece of a famous actress is out for revenge. Can James and Arden team up to solve the mystery?

Haunting at Ocean House -- like its predecessors Blackmail at Wrigley Field, Abduction at Griffith Observatory, Sabotage at RKO Studio and  Murder at Eastern Columbia -- is unlike any other book you've read: Not a single novel, it's two parallel novels, featuring two heroes, working two mysteries in two different versions of 1930s Los Angeles. Join James and his alter ego as they each try to discover who’s behind the mysterious séances. His hard-boiled alter ego -- neither a private detective nor a police officer: just someone "who wants to help" -- needs to find out whether it’s really a ghost or just someone playing an elaborate and dangerous hoax.

Along the way, they encounter a rich cast of characters including a famous movie actress who is the mistress of a rich and powerful newspaper publisher, the wealthy scion of a condiment manufacturer who designs and races custom cars, an ex-farmer’s daughter who came to the big city to make good, a dangerous gangster, a famous movie canine, and plenty of famous actors and actresses.

In addition, this final novel is filled with countless Southern California locations including a lavish Santa Monica beach house, the newly opened Los Angeles Union Station and its Fred Harvey Cocktail Lounge, the famous pet hospital of Dr. Eugene Jones, the Hollywood Park Racetrack, Biltmore Hotel, Clover Field airfield, the S.S. Rex gambling ship, Mary Pickford’s Wilshire Links and the notorious San Simeon castle. Haunting at Ocean House is filled with twists and turns leading to a dramatic climax inside the city’s most popular dance spot: The Palomar Ballroom.

Come along for the ride in this, the fifth and final James Murray mystery: the story of a young man who dreams of something better.

08 July 2015

Queer Eye for the Designer Guy

I might not know a lot about graphic design, but I know good design when I see it.

I recently stopped at Ikea for a new bedroom rug. I had a specific design in mind that I skipped when I saw this one (pictured). I’m slightly color blind (red-green) so I’ve always gravitated toward bright, primary colors -- which this rug mostly has. I also love the black-and-white stripes.

Later, I found out it was one of the rugs in the new Onskedrom collection based on the designs of famed Swedish artist Olle Eksell. That’s pretty cool!

You can read more about this design and the designer here.

26 June 2015

Jot and Tittle

In several of my blog posts about my genetic heart condition, I mentioned how the tests did not show my condition at first, but finally spotted it three years later once it had gotten worse. I asked my cardiologist for copies of those EKGs so I could show you the difference.

You will see a certain jiggle on the graph above the arrow in 2011. That’s basically normal. But that same jiggle is quite different in 2014. That was my illness.

15 June 2015

Coincidence or Foreshadowing?

In May 2009, I had my first symptoms of what was later determined to be hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

In November 2009, we traveled to Burbank to attend the filming of an episode of “The Big Bang Theory” (season three, episode eleven: “The Maternal Congruence”). When rewatching the episode last night, we noticed that Sheldon observed, when the Grinch’s heart grew three sizes, that “enlargement of the heart muscle, or hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, is a serious disease which can lead to congestive heart failure.”

I nearly fell off the couch.

It wasn’t until nearly five years after we attended that taping that my doctor diagnosed my issue.

Was Sheldon trying to tell me something?

You can see the clip here.

06 June 2015

Symptomatic Symptoms

I recently read an article about seven symptoms that could signal heart problems. It got me thinking about the long journey I traveled from my first symptoms to my heart surgery in January.

Nearly six years before my operation, I had my first symptoms: crossing a street, my vision began to narrow, my hearing nearly disappeared, I could barely breathe and had trouble walking. I nearly fell over in the middle of the street. I went to my doctor and told him I thought I’d had a mini-stroke. Tests ruled that out.

That incident -- which occasionally recurred -- began a years-long odyssey of visiting doctor after doctor: my regular doctor three times, a pulmonologist, a gastroenterologist, two different cardiac specialists. In each case, tests were done and nothing was found. After a couple years of this, one doctor suggested he should give me a referral to a psychologist because clearly these symptoms were all in my head.

I ended up at an endocrinologist who discovered I had bouts of low-blood sugar after eating. I stayed away from bad carbohydrates and the symptoms seemed to abate. Along the way I found out I had a heart murmur that was, over time, getting more pronounced. Five years after this all started, my general doctor recommended I return to my cardiologist. That was the suggestion that saved my life.

The cardiologist repeated many of the tests he had done a few years before. This time, they found it: hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM). It’s genetic. It’s the thing high school football players suddenly die from. It hits before the age of 20 or after the age of 50. When my symptoms started, I was 49 years old.

Upon researching this, I found out HCM can be very hard to diagnose. Its symptoms mimic many other illnesses (like low blood sugar) and it takes a long time for some of the symptoms to be bad enough to be found in normal testing. In fact, despite HCM being relatively common, my cardiologist told me I was the first patient he’d ever seen who had it. (I presume that’s because most people discover they have HCM when they suddenly die from it.)

I don’t want to say I was lucky to find a diagnosis and life-saving surgery before I dropped dead. Rather, I want to show how persistence is important when it comes to our health. NO ONE will advocate for you. YOU have to advocate for yourself all the time. My years as a journalist have taught me to continue to ask questions until I understand the answer. Ask. Ask. Ask. If your doctor won’t answer, find another doctor. Keep asking until you understand.

It’s not overreaching to say that, had I not kept asking, my HCM would have ended my life by now. And it would have been only then that someone would have seen the damage to my heart and said: “Hmm. I guess he was right. There was something wrong.”

02 June 2015

Broadway To Hollywood

I love theater; but then again, I hate theater.

Unlike almost any other art form, theater is transient: it is there one moment and then gone the next. Many of these ephemeral stage productions are preserved on film or tape, courtesy the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive which records Broadway productions, but this only started in 1970, and these recorded productions are not readily available for viewing by the average person. And, what about everything else?

For example, you can’t see the Broadway production of “Bus Stop” (1955) that made Elaine Stritch a star before her star-making turn in “Company” (1970). And you can’t see Jessica Tandy’s Tony Award-winning performance of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947). And no one will ever see the theater performances of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne in “The Guardsman” (1924) which was apparently the greatest theater experience since the invention of the wheel.

So, what to do? Thankfully, this is one of the rare times Hollywood has come to the rescue by allowing brilliant actors to turn brilliant stage performances into brilliant film performances that are still available for the average Joe to see.

Here are five examples of great Broadway performances that were transferred (perhaps not exactly) to film, allowing future generations to see what all the fuss has been about all these years:

Shirley Booth: I grew up watching Booth on the television show “Hazel.” I was amazed to find out she had acted in films. Then I was more amazed to find out she acted on Broadway and even won two Tony Awards -- one for “Goodbye My Fancy” (1948), the other for “Come Back, Little Sheba” (1950). She was brought to Hollywood to reprise her roll in Come Back, Little Sheba and justly won an Oscar and a handful of other major awards. [Photograph: Booth with Sidney Blackmer in the 1950 production of “Come Back, Little Sheba]

Marlon Brando: What can I say about the young, hungry Brando that hasn’t already been said a million times before? He fought for and won the role of Tennessee Williams’ Stanley Kowalski for the Broadway production of “A Streetcar Named Desire” (1947) and won raves. Wisely, Hollywood cast him in the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire and he was nominated for an Oscar. [Photograph: Brando with co-star Jessica Tandy in the 1947 production of “A Streetcar Named Desire”]

Joel Grey: Grey won a Tony Award for his performance as the Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway production of “Cabaret” (1966). He then won an Oscar for recreating his performance in the film version of Cabaret. [Photograph: Grey in the 1966 production of “Cabaret”]

Katharine Hepburn: Hepburn was a movie star. Then, in the 1930s, she became “box-office poison.” Determined to prove Hollywood wrong about her, she went back to her Broadway roots and signed on to do Philip Barry’s play “The Philadelphia Story” (1939). It was a huge hit. Hepburn starred in the film version of The Philadelphia Story and was nominated for her third Oscar. [Photograph: Hepburn and Dan Tobin in the 1939 production of "The Philadelphia Story]

Robert Preston: Preston won a Tony Award for his performance in the Broadway production of “The Music Man” (1957). The musical’s creator, Meredith Willson, insisted Preston be brought over to Hollywood. Despite the objections of Jack Warner (who wanted Frank Sinatra), Preston appeared in the film version of The Music Man. [Photograph: Preston and co-star Barbara Cook in the 1957 production of “The Music Man”]

25 May 2015

Who were the Murphys?

Sara and Gerald Murphy were incredible people who led incredible lives at an incredible time. They counted among their intimates F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Leger, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Benchley, John Dos Passos, Philip Barry and many, many others who were part of what we refer to as The Lost Generation.

Here’s the story of how I came to write a novel very loosely based on the real lives of real people Sara and Gerald Murphy:

I'm a voracious reader -- biography and history. I love the 1920s and 1930s and have read biographies of all the movers and shakers of that era. In nearly all of them, over the years, I would encounter at least one mysterious reference to a fabulous but tragic couple called the Murphys -- just a word or two but nothing in depth. I would mention this to my spouse, Matt, every time it came up. Who were these people? How were they everywhere with everyone all the time?

One day, we were in a used bookstore (where I find most of my books) and Matt found Everybody Was So Young by Amanda Vaill. He handed it to me and said "This sounds like the kind of book you'd like." When it dawned on me that it was about THE Murphys I started jumping up and down, there, in the used book store, screaming something along the lines of "Do you know what this is about? Who these people are? It's the Murphys! It's the Murphys!" It was one of the most exhilarating moments in my life. I read it several times and then dug in to research their lives in earnest. It was only then that I realized how obscure they really were and set out, with my humble little novel, determined to change that, if only a little.

My book Sarah & Gerald, a novel of Paris in the 1920s, came out in 2012. It’s enjoyed good sales and received good reviews. Soon, I’ll have some wonderful news to share with you about by book, so stay tuned over the next few weeks.