Monthly Archives: April 2013

Alfred Hitchcock: The Chasen’s Restaurant Connection

Cover photo by Gene Daniels

Cover photo by Gene Daniels

In 1975 one of my first assignments for Holiday Magazine was to attend the annual reunion of the Holiday Magazine Fine Dining Awards winners at the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas.  The reunion group was a private association of the top restaurateurs in North America as qualified by their Holiday awards.  As the associate publisher of Holiday, I was an invited guest, not a member.

The host committees of these annual reunions plan their extravaganzas years in advance, with a can-you-top-this attitude.  The gourmet foods, the exceptional wines, and the lavish entertainments are always world-class.  For example, the feature dinner party at the Fairmont included a bicentennial-themed parade of hundreds of costumed actors, some on horseback and some firing Revolutionary War weapons, as the pageant passed through the ballroom.

Commander's Palace in New Orleans

Commander’s Palace in New Orleans

The following year, in New Orleans, the final dinner at Commander’s Palace consumed the final bottles of the red wine that the Shah of Iran had served under desert tents for the 5,000th anniversary of the Persian Empire.  The New Orleans hosts had searched the wide world and acquired all remaining bottles of the famous vintage.  Robert Lawrence Balzer, the Holiday food editor, wept as he recited the vineology of the wine before we carefully consumed it and ended its existence in wine history.

Maude Chasen

Maude Chasen

At the grand reunion party in Dallas, I was seated at a table with Maude Chasen and her sister.  Maude’s husband, a minor vaudeville and Broadway performer, had come to Hollywood to act in a Frank Capra film, and then stayed to open a restaurant in 1936 to feed the movie crowd his chili and barbecued ribs.  The West Hollywood location then expanded into a restaurant of comfortable elegance that attracted entertainment celebrities from nearby Beverly Hills.  Chasen’s had an intimate clubby feeling, and Dave and Maude Chasen protected the privacy of their celebrity guests with a policy that made the dining rooms off-limits to photographers and the press.  They also discouraged table-hopping.

Regulars at Chasen’s were scores of A-list celebrities like Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, and Groucho MarxRonald Reagan proposed to Nancy in a Chasen’s booth.  In 1962 Elizabeth Taylor famously ordered ten quarts of Dave’s chili  to be airlifted to her on the movie set of Cleopatra, then being filmed in Rome.  Alfred Hitchcock had his favorite booth reserved every Thursday “whenever I am in town” for a period of 30 years.

Dave Chasen had died in 1973, so when I met Maude, she was a widow but still a landmark figure in the restaurant world.  I was reared as a Virginia gentleman, and my wife being absent, I felt responsible to dance with every unescorted woman at my table, regardless of age or beauty.  I am a storyteller, so I not only danced with the two older women, but I also attempted to amuse them.  At the end of the evening, Maude was especially grateful for my attention to her and her sister, and she offered me her influence to put one of her celebrity regulars on a Holiday cover.

Family Plot   Back at the Holiday office, I wanted Maude’s influence to get the pop song hit maker Elton John on a Holiday cover, but my more conservative editors selected Alfred Hitchcock whose final film Family Plot was due for release.

Alfred Hitchcock was 77 years old when he and his wife Alma Reville arrived at Chasen’s to shoot the Summer 1976 cover of Holiday Magazine.  On that issue masthead, I was listed as Associate Publisher and Director of Marketing.  I also contributed a feature story to that issue titled “Norfolk: The Ship Came In.”  The Hitchcock feature “If It’s Thursday, It Must Be Hitchcock: An Epicurean Profile” was written by Sylvia Drake with photos by Gene Daniels.

Cover photo by Gene Daniels

Cover photo by Gene Daniels

The cover shot shows Hitch at his favorite booth posing with an aperitif in his hand.  The table itself had been laden with food wonderments—a crown rack of lamb in the foreground, a side of smoked salmon, and a seafood display of cocktail shrimp, crab claws, and oysters on the half shell.  I had hoped to go to Los Angeles to direct Hitchcock since I had arranged for the cover shot, but my schedule forbade.  I was later advised that he directed himself and cautioned the photographer to “get it over.”

Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window

Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window

Although Hitchcock was “the master of suspense” in such hits as Rear Window, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo, only Rebecca (1940), his first American film, won the Best Picture Oscar.  Without a single Best Director Academy Award, he received the American Film Institute Life Achievement Award in 1979, only one year before his death in 1980.

Monty Joynes HOLIDAY press card

Hitchcock was famous for his cameo appearances in his own films, and I now regret that I did not use my publisher status to make my own cameo appearance at the Holiday cover shoot at Chasen’s.  Of course, in attempting to direct the great one, I would only have been told to “get it over.”

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Garrison Keillor: The Will Rogers of our Generation

Photo by Paul Wellman

Photo by Paul Wellman

My father’s homespun philosopher hero was Will Rogers.  Characters like Will Rogers come along maybe once in a generation.  For my generation, Garrison Keillor has proven to be the American folk humorist most worthy of a statue in the U.S. Capitol Building.

I was born after Will Rogers died in 1935 at age 55, but I knew him through his movies and the retrospectives of his newspaper columns and radio shows.  As the quintessential American cowboy, Rogers performed rope tricks in the Ziegfeld Follies and then became one of the world’s best-known celebrities of the 1920s and 1930s as a humorist, social commentator, and star of 71 movies, 50 of which were silent films.

A 1900 photo of Will Rogers with his rope.

A 1900 photo of Will Rogers with his rope.

My father loved the folksy style of Will Rogers, and so I came to hear many of his aphorisms.  “I joked about every prominent man of my time,” Rogers famously said, “but I never met a man I ‘dident’ (sic) like.”

When I saw Garrison Keillor perform live in a show he titled “A Brand-New Retrospective” on April 16, 2013, I was immediately struck that he was the reincarnation of Will Rogers.  Keillor’s views of the “common man” seemed to me the same magic mirror that Rogers employed to reflect on America’s iconic values.  Both men had been born out in the American hinterland—Will Rogers in the Oologah Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), and Garrison Keillor on the prairie of Minnesota.  And both men had become acclaimed humorists on the radio.

2006 movie A Prairie Home Companion

2006 movie A Prairie Home Companion

I have been a fan of Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show, and I own a collection of his Lake Wobegon stories.  I had even seen his A Prairie Home Companion movie (2006) where he played himself as directed by Robert Altman.

Garrison Keillor program

Keillor’s touring show in Boone, North Carolina opened with two acts recruited from the North Carolina High Country environs.  The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys and The Forget-Me-Nots (three young women playing Celtic fiddle music) were equal in talent to anything on Keillor’s national radio show, and his recognition of them obviously boosted their careers.

Without an intermission or introduction, Keillor strolled onto the platform stage set at the end of a convocation center more suited to basketball and then descended with a handheld microphone down the center aisle.  After a greeting, he asked the audience to stand and join him in an a cappella singing of America the Beautiful.  The act of the communal singing was a powerful bonding experience.  Keillor remained in the aisles during a chatty monolog about turning 70 years of age, and then he stayed among the people for twenty minutes or more before he took the stage where his three musical accomplices had gathered for the rest of the show.

After performing for more than an hour, Keillor again came down into the aisles and announced a bathroom break for those who needed it.  With the house lights up, and nervous people moving around him, he strolled and talked and led the audience in some familiar pop songs including one from Elvis and one from the Beatles.  In all, Keillor performed non-stop for well over two hours.

The night of this performance followed the day of the Boston Marathon bombing, and we might rightly have expected Keillor to make comments.  The Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys had already dedicated a hymn—Shenandoah/Sweet Hour of Prayer—to open the show; and although Keillor did not mention the event that was on everyone’s mind, when he led the a cappella singing of Amazing Grace, there was great personal emotion, and the harmonies of the combined voices were profound.  I felt that a compassionate genius had recognized this moment of grieving and that he had allowed it to occur without any show business considerations.

Garrison Keillor photo

There is a statue of Will Rogers that faces the House Chamber in the National Statuary Hall Collection in the U. S. Capitol Building.  Presidents rub the left shoe of the Rogers statue for good luck before entering the House Chamber to deliver the State of the Union Address.  A friend of FDR during the traumatic years of the Great Depression, Will Rogers spoke for the common people who suffered and endured.

This statue of Will Rogers was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Oklahoma in 1939.

This statue of Will Rogers was given to the National Statuary Hall Collection by Oklahoma in 1939.

I think that Presidents today would do well to be the frequent confidant of Garrison Keillor.  Keillor is our Will Rogers.  He can speak for us without politics getting in the way.  If something works for Lake Wobegon, I’ll take a chance that it will work in my hometown.

Thank you, Garrison Keillor, for your visit to Boone.  Each one of us felt liked by you that night.  Will Rogers could not have done better.


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