January 3, 2020

By “Huckabee” writer/pop culture maven Pat Reeder ( )

During our brief holiday break from the daily news, a number of prominent people passed away.  We’d feel remiss if we didn’t take a moment to tell you about them and pay our final respects.

The beautiful actress/model Sue Lyon passed away in Los Angeles at 73. She first came to fame in Stanley Kubrick’s controversial film “Lolita,” then appeared in many movies and TV shows throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s before leaving show business in 1980.

It seems somehow sadly appropriate that TV animation producer Lee Mendelson died on Christmas Day at 88, of heart failure after a long fight with cancer. He was remembered by many who worked with him as one of the nicest and most honorable men in a sometimes disreputable industry. Mendelson and partner Bill Melendez won 12 Emmys and 4 Peabody Awards for their work, mostly for all the classic “Peanuts” specials.  Those include the first, and still the greatest Christmas special in history, “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” for which Mendelson wrote the lyrics of “Christmas Time is Here.” CBS nearly refused to air it originally because it broke every rule in the then-book, from using real kids as voice talent to the Vince Guaraldi Trio jazz score.  But what they most objected to was Linus explaining what Christmas is all about by quoting the story of Christ’s birth from the Bible.  Charles M. Schulz refused to budge, CBS caved, and the rest is history.  Can you even imagine being able to do that today, when networks cringe in fear that some triggered atheist will complain on Twitter?

One of Broadway’s greatest composers and lyricists, Jerry Herman, died at 88 on the day after Christmas (ironically, he wrote one of our most beloved Christmas songs, “We Need a Little Christmas.”)  Sometimes derided by critics for his crowd-pleasing shows and catchy melodies, he gave the world such timeless hits as “Hello Dolly,” “Mame” and “La Cage Aux Folles.”  Even his rare flops, like “Mack and Mabel,” are fondly remembered for their great scores. For some reason, his trademark became songs in which the male chorus hailed the female lead as she entered down a big staircase.  Songs like “Hello, Dolly,” “Mame” and “When Mabel Comes in the Room” became known in the biz as “staircase numbers.”

Two days after Christmas, radio legend Don Imus died at 79 of undisclosed causes.  In his long and tumultuous career, he was a DJ, stand-up comic, and eventually, one of the most listened-to interviewers and commentators in the worlds of politics and pop culture, with a caustic, uncensored style that sometimes got him in trouble with the PC set. His career covers too many interesting corridors to explore here, so check out the link for more.

Also on December 27th, trumpet master Jack Sheldon passed away at 88.  He worked with many jazz and pop greats, from Stan Kenton to Frank Sinatra.  But he was best known to the public as Merv Griffin’s wisecracking bandleader/sidekick on his TV talk show, and of course, to a generation of kids for providing the gravely vocals on “Schoolhouse Rock.”  That’s him singing the iconic and often-parodied lyrics of “I’m Just a Bill” (“…and I’m sitting here on Capitol Hill…”

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Neil Innes died at 75 on December 29th.  His mixture of music and surreal comedy in the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band helped inspire such influential British comedians as the Monty Python troupe.  He later contributed music to Python’s shows and records, and with Eric Idle created the best pre-Spinal Tap fictitious rock band, the Rutles (a parody of the Beatles.) 

I’ll leave you with my favorite Neil Innes quote.  He sometimes performed as a parody of a Bob Dylan-style folk protest singer, and before launching into an off-key song, he would tell the audience:

“I’ve suffered for my music…Now, it’s your turn.” 

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