Monday, July 29, 2013

HANS CONRIED - PETER MEETS THE WOLF IN DIXIELAND

The wonderful actor Hans Conried had one of the most unique voices in show business. He also was one of the first performers who realized he had to "invent" himself. He took on the persona of a grand Shakespearean ham, a scholarly sophisticate with a wickedly down to earth cynicism. To listen to him speak, you'd think he was born in England somewhere, or perhaps moved there after being exiled from his royal home in Austria.

Actually, he grew up in Manhattan, having spent his childhood in Baltimore. Like Vincent Price (who grew up in St. Louis) he was pure American even if he seemed to have European manners and sophistication. The family name does come from Vienna…his Jewish father. But perhaps some of the comic haughtiness that Conried brought to his acting work came from his mother, who claimed to trace her ancestry back to the Pilgrims.

Conried found success on radio (and perhaps early lessons on how to carry one's self with grand pretension) via Orson Welles, who ran the Mercury Theatre Company and shocked the world with that "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Conried was soon known as a brilliant voice man, capable of all kinds of accents, and of playing both drama and comedy. Decades later he would apply his talents on made-for-TV cartoons, most notably as Snidely Whiplash and as Uncle Waldo in the Jay Ward "Dudley Do-Right" and "Hoppity Hooper" shorts.

He was enough of a celebrity to be invited onto quiz shows, and that's where, in a kind of despair, he "invented" himself. How could he come out and be funny, urbane, and a deadpan comic realist when he wasn't sure who "Hans Conried" was? So he made Hans Conried into a character, a somewhat pompous intellectual with a comical common touch, not the kindly family man who would be married to the same woman for 40 years and raise 4 children. From the 40's to the 80's, he would get chances to perform in a variety of roles on TV, film and stage.

Some know him as "Uncle Tonoose," the eccentric relative on "The Danny Thomas Show." Film fans of course will point to "The 5000 Fingers of Dr. T," "The Twonky," and his cartoon voicework as Captain Hook in "Peter Pan." Some went to see him on the "straw hat circuit," when he was in "The Sunshine Boys" (opposite such veterans as Phil Leeds in a Georgia production and Jerry Hausner in Florida and Washington). Conried's last memorable stage appearances were in 1979, in "Barefoot in the Park" in Canada, "Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" in St. Louis with Avery Schreiber, Arte Johnson and John Carradine, and 1981 when he starred in "Never Too Late" in Illinois. His last time on the boards was also in 1981, in a Seattle production of "Barefoot in the Park," which was broadcast by HBO. In 1981 the veteran star filmed his last TV show, an episode of "The Music Shoppe," which was aired posthumously. That year he was also on "Goerge Burns' Early CHristmas Show" special and "through the Magic Pyramid." His last film appearance was very brief, a few minutes in "Oh God Book II" with George Burns in 1980.

The "Hans Conried" character can best be seen on DVD via the 3 disc set of "Fractured Flickers," which may have only lasted one season, but remains a vivid example of his personality. The show also has lots of oddball guests (from Allan Sherman to Rod Serling) interviewed by Conried, who usually casts himself as the low budget hosts who can't, to his chagrin, get more than 3 minutes with his busy celeb guest. Many of the screwed up silent film clips on the show (way before "Mystery Science Theater 3000") are still very funny, including the notorious send-up of Lon Chaney's "Hunchback of Notre Dame," which enraged Chaney Jr.

And below? Mr. Conried grandly soars to the heights of classical music, but plummets back down again because HIS version of "Peter and the Wolf" is being done Dixieland style. As usual, the great character comedian is caught between high art and low humor, between hoping to hear the piece played elegantly, and secretly enjoying the down and dirtier Dixie styling.

There are tons of "Peter and the Wolf" narrators out there, and fairly similar versions of the famous "child's introduction to classical" music that Prokofiev created. Conried's is one of the few comic variations. Others would be Weird Al Yankovic (CBS) backed by the synthesizers of Wendy Carlos, Peter Schickele (Telarc) doing it as a Western, and Allan Sherman's "Peter and the Commissar" (RCA)

The Prokofiev piece is so confined to a kiddie audience, and so well associated with having a star describe the action, that there really are very few recordings that DON'T have a celebrity introducing the various instruments and telling listeners what the music is now representing. If you do want a real orchestra version after the Hans Conried, and not Dixieland, your choices of narrator include:

Boris Karloff (Mercury Childcraft, Vanguard) one of the best of the 50's narrators, although a strong case can be made for the Disneyland version done by flutey-voiced Sterling Holloway. Sean Connery (Decca, London-Phase 4) did it. So did Rob Reiner (Angel), Basil Rathbone (Columbia), Jonathan Winters (EMI), Tony Randall (IBM-cd rom), Captain Kangaroo (Everest, International House of Pancakes promo), Arthur Godfrey (Columbia), Brandon De Wilde (Vox), Garry Moore (Early Years-Record Club of America), Will Geer (Vanguard), Cyril Ritchard (Columbia), Lorne Greene (RCA) Patrick Stewart (ERATO) and David Bowie (RCA). Michael Flanders' version (ANGEL) got some critical flak because he introduced the duck as 'stupid.' Not PC to call a duck stupid!

There are versions from Sophia Loren (Pentatone), Hermloine Gingold (DG), Jacqueline du Pre (DG), Mia Farrow (Angel), Carol Channing (Caedmon), Beatrice Lillie (Decca, London-Jubilee), Eleanor Roosevelt (RCA Victor 10 inch), Alastair Smythe (Fairyland/Corona), Jack Lemmon (Laserlight), Sir Alec Guinness (RCA), Sir John Gielgud (Virgin), Paul Daneman (Music for Pleasure), Oleg Prokofiev (Hyperion), Frank Phillips (Decca), Paul Hogan (EMI), James Pease (Rocking Horse/Diplomat), Alec McCowen (Philips), Alec Clunes (DG), Sting (DG), Peter Ustinov (Angel), Yadu (Magic Maestro), Richard Baker (Classics for Pleasure), Frank Milano (Golden), Jose Ferrer (Kapp), William F. Buckley Jr. (Proarte), Richard Hale (RCA), Christopher Lee (Nimbus), Dudley Moore (Philips), Itzhak Perlman (EMI), George Raft (London), Tom Seaver (MMG) and a host of others. Conductor Andre Previn, who recorded a version with Mia Farrow, also narrated it himself (Telarc), and with his ego, it's no surprise that Leonard Bernstein did as well (Columbia). Rock fans will already be way ahead of me in adding that stupid rock version with the "all star" cast that included the lead singer from Procol Harum…whatever his name is. Oh, and I had Dame Edna Everage autograph my CD (Naxos) of her version of it…although she was dressed in Barry Humphries drag at the time.

Now here's Hans Conried using his comically sour Shakespearean ham-voice to contrast the earthy instrumentals of his Dixieland pals. It's not only one of the most unusual versions, it's probably the least likely to ever get a CD release….

PETER AND THE WOLF... IN DIXIELAND

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