Skip to main content

Insomnia.

Film critic John Powers

05:37

Contributor

Related Topics

Other segments from the episode on May 24, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 24, 2002: Interview with Daniel Handler; Interview with Keely Smith; Review of the film "Insomnia."

Transcript

DATE May 24, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Daniel Handler talks about his children's books, "A
Series of Unfortunate Events"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Our today is the author of eight best-selling, mock Victorian novels for
children. They tell the tales of three unlucky orphans, who lead lives filled
with misery and woe, as they are constantly on the run from a repulsive and
treacherous villain and endure terrible accidents, itchy clothing and bad
singing.

These novels are collectively known as "A Series of Unfortunate Events." They
are written by Lemony Snicket, the pen of Daniel Handler. Handler, aka
Snicket, has a new book, "Lemony Snicket: The Unauthorized Autobiography," a
mishmash of memos, news clippings, photos and even musical scores concerning
the series and its alarmingly elusive author.

When Terry spoke with Daniel Handler last December, they started with a
reading from the first Lemony Snicket book, "The Bad Beginning," which begins,
as Snicket often does, with a warning to his readers.

Mr. DANIEL HANDLER (Author): (Reading) If you are interested in stories with
happy endings, you would be better off reading some other book. In this book,
not only is there no happy ending, there's no happy beginning and very few
happy things in the middle. This is because not very many happy things happen
to the lives of the three Baudelaire youngsters.

Violet, Klaus and Sunny Baudelaire were intelligent children and they were
charming and resourceful and had pleasant facial features. But they were
extremely unlucky, and most everything that happened to them was rife with
misfortune, misery and despair. I'm sorry to tell you this, but that is how
the story goes.

TERRY GROSS, host:

A little further into the story, we find out that the Baudelaires' parents
just perished in a fire that also destroyed their home, and so their endless
misfortunes begin. Now your book, as we heard, starts with a warning that
readers might be better off with a more cheerful book. Why did you decide to
start your book that way?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, it seemed only fair to warn anyone who was seeking
cheerfulness and also when I sat down to start writing for children, I really
had no bearing in children's literature. I hadn't read a book for children
since I was a youngster, but I remembered this overwhelmingly moralistic tone
in all of my least favorite books, so I thought it might be good to sort of
mock that from the outset and warn children away from a story instead of the
sort of typical treacly beginning, which is, you know: This is a very
charming story, and you're just going to love the adorable hero.

GROSS: What are some of the terrible things that have happened to these
orphans?

Mr. HANDLER: Oh, well, I mean, it's such a depressing list I hate to think
of drivers listening to NPR driving off the road as I list them off. I mean,
they meet Count Olaf, who is a distant relative, who is only after the fortune
that their parents have left behind. He's a terrible person who tries to
merry the eldest Baudelaire, Violet, and locks up the baby in a bird cage and
dangles it outside of his tower window.

They go to stay with their kindly Uncle Monty who's murdered. They go to stay
with their Aunt Josephine who throws herself out of a window or at least so it
appears. They're forced to work in a lumber mill. They go to school. That's
always a terrible thing. They stay with rich people and find themselves
falling down an elevator shaft. They're driven out of town by an angry mob,
you know, with torches and barking dogs. And then in the most recent volume,
they find themselves prepared for unnecessary surgery in the hospital, so it's
really quite a cornucopia of terrible things.

GROSS: Well, there's a lot of literary jokes, like little in references that
only adult readers would get, or at least teen-age readers, you know, like the
orphans are named the Baudelaire children.

Mr. HANDLER: Mm.

GROSS: Their first names are Klaus and Sunny, two of them. You want to name
some of the other, like, little references? Yeah.

Mr. HANDLER: Well, they're cared for by Mr. Poe. At one point, they fall
into the household of Jerome and Esme Squalor, who are named after J.D.
Salinger's story of "For Esme With Love and Squalor." They attend Prufrock
Preparatory School after the poem by T.S. Eliot. Yeah, they're pretty much
surrounded by the world of books.

I liked the idea of a universe that was governed entirely by books. The
Baudelaires find the solutions or what appear to be the solutions to their
problems in libraries in each volume, and so there's sort of some heavy-handed
or I hope mock heavy-handed propaganda, saying that all of life's difficulties
can be solved within the pages of the right book.

GROSS: Well, another thing you do in your books is you use kind of big words,
and then you define them for your readers. Let me read an example. This
comes from the last page of your first Lemony Snicket book. And the sentence
is, `The car drove farther and farther away, until Justice Strauss was merely
a speck in the darkness, and it seemed to the children that they were moving
in an aberrant--the word aberrant here means very, very wrong and causing much
grief--into an aberrant direction.' Tell me how you developed that approach
to taking a big word that may be above the reading level of your readers and
then managing to humorously define it within the sentence?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, it wasn't really as artificial as that. I mean, I just
like a lot of words, and I wanted to put them in these books. And as I was
writing them--when I was writing the first book, it would occur to me that
maybe aberrant was a word that wasn't known to many third-graders. And so
then it seemed to fit right into this mock moralizing tone that the narrator
would stop, often at very, very suspenseful moments, and define the word in a
way that was hopelessly bound to that individual context. And so it makes me
very happy to know that now, I mean, there are sort of millions of
fourth-graders who know what the word `ersatz' means, and that's--or know what
the expression `casing the joint' or understand dramatic irony. That really
excites me. So I don't sit around pedagogically and think, `Well, what can I
teach the little nippers?' But I just love these words, and I just wanted to
put them in my books. There are not enough books that have the word
`corpulent,' in my opinion.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Handler, and he writes
under the name Lemony Snicket. It's a series of novels geared at young
readers, but having a really popular audience. Several have been best
sellers. And the series is called "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

Your new novel is set in Heimlich Hospital...

Mr. HANDLER: Mm.

GROSS: ...a little Heimlich maneuver joke in there.

Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think he's such an unheralded medical phenomenon it would
only seem fair to put him in at least one book.

GROSS: Why a hospital?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, hospitals are really terrifying places, I think, for
children and for adults, and they're also places that are so often sanitized
in children's literature. There's this sense that children ought not to worry
when we go into the hospital, and so there are all these books that say, `Oh,
the hospital's really a fun place, and everyone there just wants to make you
better. And you get to watch TV and eat ice cream all day long. And it's
really quite a pleasure.' And that just seems terrible to me to tell a child
that they're not going to have a scary time in the hospital. Of course
they're going to have a scary time in the hospital.

GROSS: Now there's a group of professionals in your novel whose job it is to
cheer up the people in the hospital, and initially the Baudelaire children
hide out in their van...

Mr. HANDLER: Mm.

GROSS: ...and this is how they end up in the hospital. They're hiding out in
this van carrying a group called Volunteers Fighting Disease. And this is a
van of people who go to the hospitals to cheer up the sick. And they sing
this weird, seemingly cheerful song. Would you recite the song that you wrote
for them to sing?

Mr. HANDLER: Yes, of course. `We are volunteers fighting disease and we're
cheerful all day long. If someone said that we were sad, that person would be
wrong. We visit people who are sick and try to make them smile, even if their
noses bleed or if they cough up bile'--and the chorus is--`tra-la-la,
fiddle-de-de, hope you get well soon. Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a
heart-shaped balloon. We visit people who are ill and try to make them laugh,
even when the doctor says he must saw them in half. We sing and sing all
night and day and then we sing some more. We sing to boys with broken bones
and girls whose throats are sore. Tra-la-la, fiddle-de-de, hope you get well
soon. Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a heart-shaped balloon. We sing to men
with measles and to women with the flu. And if you breathe in deadly germs,
we'll probably sing to you. Tra-la-la, fiddle-de-de, hope you get well soon.
Ho-ho-ho, hee-hee-hee, have a heart-shaped balloon.'

GROSS: What do you think of the song? How would you feel if this song were
sung to you?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think I would have that same annoyed feeling that I
always feel if I'm surrounded by people who are singing to me in order to
cheer me up. I mean, I think every child and adult knows the horror of going
to a restaurant and having it turn out to be the sort of restaurant where
everybody stands around and sings "Happy Birthday." And it's that same dread
that I tried to capture in those lyrics.

GROSS: I'd like to hear an example of a song that you do like, so I thought
I'd ask you to do this. Stephen Merritt, who is with the group Magnetic
Fields and is probably best known for his CDs, "69 Loves Songs," which is 69
songs in every imaginable genre of love songs...

Mr. HANDLER: Mm.

GROSS: ...and some of them are straight songs, and some of them are parodies
of love songs. Anyways, he has...

Mr. HANDLER: And some of them are decorated with accordion played by myself.

GROSS: Uh-huh. And you and he are old friends. You wrote the liner notes
for his CD. And he's writing a series of songs to accompany the audio
versions of your books.

Mr. HANDLER: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So perhaps you can sing unaccompanied one of those songs?

Mr. HANDLER: Certainly. This is the song that he composed that I perform
when I'm usually in front of an audience of children. And usually I'm
accompanying myself on the accordion, but today will be a cappella due to some
accordion-related trouble. Here we go.

(Singing) `The Count has an eye on his ankle and lives in a horrible place.
He wants all your money. He's never at all funny. He wants to remove your
face. And you might be thinking, "What a rump this is," but wait till you
meet his accomplices. When you see Count Olaf, you're suddenly full of
disgust and despair and dismay. In the whole of the soul of Count Olaf
there's no love. When you see Count Olaf, count to zero, then scream and run
away. Scream, scream, scream and run away. Run, run, run, run, run, run, run
or die. Die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die, die.'

GROSS: Very good. I like that.

Mr. HANDLER: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Did you write the lyric?

Mr. HANDLER: No. That's Mr. Merritt's invention thoroughly.

GROSS: Based on your character.

Mr. HANDLER: Yes.

GROSS: So I'm glad you get to sing that at your readings. It goes over well,
I assume?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, yes. We usually encourage everyone's least favorite
thing, audience participation, so during the part where I sing `run,'
everyone runs, and then in the part where I sing `die,' everybody slumps over
on the floor. And really you haven't lived until you're standing in an
independent bookstore watching a lot of eight- and nine-year-olds slump over
as if dead.

BOGAEV: Daniel Handler speaking with Terry Gross last December. Under the
pen name Lemony Snicket, he writes the best-selling children's serial novels
"A Series of Unfortunate Events." His new book is "Lemony Snicket: An
Unauthorized Autobiography." We'll hear more after the break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Now back to Terry's interview with Daniel Handler, aka Lemony
Snicket. His best-selling series of mock Victorian children's novels is
called "A Series of Unfortunate Events."

GROSS: Now you write your series of "Unfortunate Events" novels under the
pseudonym of Lemony Snicket. How did you come up with that name?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, first off, I should say that I'm not sure pseudonym is
exactly right because the character of Lemony Snicket, this man who speaks
directly to the reader and also who is tangentially involved in the story that
he's telling, is really more of a character. We just thought it would be fun
to publish the books under the name of this character.

But the name Lemony Snicket I actually had lying around before I had any
desire to write for children. I was researching the first of two novels that
I've published under my own name, the first novel, "The Basic Eight," and I
needed to contact for research purposes some right-wing political
organizations and religious groups, and I wanted material mailed to me, but I
didn't want to be on their mailing list, for obvious reasons. And so someone
asked me, `So what is your name?' And I opened my mouth and out popped the
words, `Lemony Snicket.'

And it became among all of my friends then a joke. We would write letters to
the paper and sign them Lemony Snicket, hoping they would be published, and
reserve tables in restaurants under the Lemony Snicket and all sorts of
things like that. And so for a small, select group of the population, the
idea that the name Lemony Snicket has risen to such notoriety is particularly
shocking.

GROSS: It's a very snidely whiplash-sounding name.

Mr. HANDLER: Oh, thank you.

GROSS: Well, why did you stumble on that? I mean, why not something like,
you know...

Mr. HANDLER: Terry Gross.

GROSS: ...Steven Jones or whatever?

Mr. HANDLER: I really can't describe it. It was as inexplicable as an
epileptic fit, I guess. It just came right out of my mouth. It's since been
pointed out that it resembles, of course, the name Jiminy Cricket, who is
exactly the kind of overly moralistic, cheerful narrator who I despise, but it
was not on purpose, I hasten to add in public, to mock the Disney Corporation.
But it has since been pointed out to me that the names are a bit rhymey. And
it does fill me with delight that there was an inadvertent slap in the face to
that overly--just that nasty cricket.

GROSS: Do you have much merchandising involved with your books?

Mr. HANDLER: No, really none as yet. We gave away some Band-Aids for "The
Hostile Hospital" that said "Unfortunate Event" on them. I'm pretty proud of
those. And we just had some terrible greeting cards just in time for the
holidays, which are available at one of the chain bookstores, greeting cards
that say things like, `Why haven't you called?' and `It's all downhill from
here.'

GROSS: If people start asking you more about merchandising, is there a place
where you would insist on drawing the line, some kind of typically commercial
way of merchandising children's literature that you wouldn't want to be part
of?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, gosh, it's such a slippery slope. I mean, you know, I
always think, `Well, it would really be horrible to be associated with fast
food,' but then not too long ago I had a fantasy that, you know, there would
be un-Happy Meals that would come out of "A Series of Unfortunate Events," you
know, maybe a little mad cow disease in the burger or just whatever we could
do to really make them unsavory.

No, I don't know. It's very difficult to say. More and more children write
to me or come up to me in bookstores and say, in effect, `What else is there
that I can buy?' And it's sort of a--it's both a frightening question and an
understandable one. And I hope that if there is any merchandise, that it will
be the sort of merchandise that encourages people who buy it to really have
fun in their imaginations.

I mean, on one hand, a movie like "Star Wars" seems overmerchandised, but it
would really be impossible to overemphasize how much fun I had when I was a
kid playing with all the "Star Wars" characters and making up my own stories,
and I think becoming a storyteller rose out of that kind of play, so it's very
hard to tell.

It's so easy to say, `Oh, well, I shouldn't have any of my literature sullied
by commercial intention.' But once you begin to actually think of how people
would use what other people want to make, it's also hard to say no.

GROSS: Have you run into any parents, teachers or librarians who object to
either the tone or the content of your books?

Mr. HANDLER: Not nearly as many as I thought I would. I really thought that
there would just be an overwhelming wave of outrage, and instead there have
just been a few isolated complaints that I've heard. We were banned in one
school district in Decatur, Georgia. I'll always have that. You can't take
that away from me. But...

GROSS: On what grounds were you banned?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, I hate to get too catty about Decatur, Georgia, but they
were very concerned in "The Bad Beginning" that Count Olaf wants to marry
Violet, who is a distant relative. And this strikes me as something that,
without being too stereotypical about the South, but perhaps Decatur, Georgia,
has heard of before, let's just say.

And, also, I'm at a loss for how to construct a villain who isn't doing
villainous things. If Count Olaf were only doing things that no one would
object to, then he really wouldn't be much of a villain. So I'm somewhat
nonplussed by that kind of criticism; that, `Boy, Count Olaf is sure a
terrible person,' and so I always have to write back and say, `Well, yes.
Yes, he is. He sure is. Let's catch him.'

And a woman once in Oregon came up to me at a bookstore and said, `You know,
in one of your books, you teach that it is sometimes necessary to lie, and
that seems like a very disturbing lesson to me. Can you name one time when it
would be absolutely necessary to lie?' And I was so happy that the answer
came to me right away instead of, you know, as it usually does when people say
something to you, and then you think three days later `Oh, that's what I
should have said.' Instead, it came right away and I was able just to turn to
her and say, `Nice sweater.' I was just really proud of that.

GROSS: What was her reaction?

Mr. HANDLER: Well, I think she said, `Thank you.' I'm not sure that the
lesson was taught, but at least I was able to sleep at night knowing that I'd
been able to say something in response.

I mean, of course you have to lie, and I can't imagine that you would want to
teach your child never to lie under any circumstances. That's not going to
serve the child well when the child goes to a birthday party and is forced to
say whether or not he or she had a nice time.

GROSS: Well, Daniel Handler, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. HANDLER: Oh, well, thank you for having me.

BOGAEV: Daniel Handler, aka Lemony Snicket, spoke with Terry Gross last
December. He's the author of the children's book series called "A Series of
Unfortunate Events." His new book is "Lemony Snicket: An Unauthorized
Autobiography."

I'm Barbara Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: Coming up, singer Keely Smith. She was 16 years old when band leader
Louis Prima discovered her and hired her to be a singer for his band. Later,
they married. Smith has a new CD. And John Powers reviews the new film
"Insomnia."

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Keely Smith on her music career
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

Louis Prima discovered Keely Smith in 1948 when she was just a teen-ager. He
hired her to sing with his band, then married her in 1953. They took their
act to Vegas and became one of the most popular lounge acts of the Rat Pack
era.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. KEELY SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you.

Mr. LOUIS PRIMA: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you, too, baby.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I need you.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Honest, I do, baby.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Oh, I need you every moment.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) In your eyes, I read such strange things, baby.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) But your lips, they're not that true, baby.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Would your answer really change things? Making me blue.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Making me blue.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Making me blue. And I'm afraid someday you're going to
leave me. Say, can we still be friends--be friends?

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) If you go, you know you'll grieve me. All my life on
you depends. Am I guessing that you love me?

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Dreaming dreams of you in vain.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I'm confessing that I love you over again.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) And I'm afraid someday you're going to leave me. Say,
can we we still be friends?

BOGAEV: That's Louis Prima and Keely Smith recorded in 1960. Their marriage
lasted eight years. They divorced in 1961. Prima died in 1978.

Keely Smith's recent CDs include "Keely Sings Sinatra" and "Swing Swing
Swing," on which she sings several of the songs she and Prima were known for.
A collection of her recordings, including some performed with Louis Prima, has
just been released on the Varese label. It's called "Absolutely the Best of
Keely Smith." And she's been performing this month at the Feinsteins at the
Regency. The run concludes tomorrow night.

Terry spoke with Keely Smith two years ago.

TERRY GROSS, host:

What was it like to go on the road with Louis Prima when you were 16?

Ms. SMITH: Well, when I left home, my mother had one condition, and that was
that I had to travel with Louis and his wife. And Louis had three conditions,
and they were you can't smoke or drink or date the musicians, which I wasn't
interested in any of that. So it worked out fine. After a few weeks, though,
they moved me over to traveling with the musicians, and I must say they took
care of me, they looked out for me, and they were perfect gentlemen. Not one
of them hit on me. And it was just a great friendship and camaraderie in that
band. He had some really nice men.

GROSS: Now did Louis Prima give you any suggestions about your singing?

Ms. SMITH: No. For years, he never said a word to me, and then when we went
to Vegas, someone said to him, `Are you going to send her to a vocal coach?'
And he said, `No.' He said, `She'll find whatever she needs on stage.' And I
sing, actually, Terry, like I talk.

GROSS: So what about in phrasing and in rhythm? Did you feel like you could
just naturally fit in to the kind of swing rhythms that Louis Prima was using?

Ms. SMITH: Well, no. I have to be very honest about that. I've always been
known as a ballad singer, and I prefer singing ballads, but when this
situation came up, my husband, Bobby Milano, who's also my producer of the
record, he said, `I think you should go back. We should listen to the old
Louis songs and some Louie Jordan things and really pick out some good swing
things that haven't been done.' And he played "Sunny Side of the Street,"
Louis's version, and he said to me, `Can you do that?' I said, `Sure, I can
do that.' Well, Terry, I didn't have the faintest idea if I could do it or
not.

And with a lot of studying and slowing the tape down, I was able to do it.
And you know something? I loved it. I loved copying him. I loved the
feeling that I got singing it, and I was very happy making the CD.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Grab your coat, your tie, your hat, leave your worries
on the doorstep, and just direct your feet to the sunny side of the street. I
can hear the pitter-patting, a happy tune, as your step in life can be so
sweet on the sunny side. I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade,
but I'm not afraid, 'cause (scats).

I ain't got a cent, I feel rich as Rockefeller, and gold dust round my feet,
oh, (scats). Grab your coat, your tie, your hat, your pants, your shoes, your
(scats) baby. Just direct your feet, sunny, honey (scats) baby. I can hear
the pitter-pat, pitter-pat, pitter-pat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat...

GROSS: When you were singing on stage with Louis Prima, the act evolved in
such a way so that, you know, he would be clowning around on stage and scat
singing, and you'd stand there perfectly still and, you know, occasionally
come out and sing a ballad, but you'd even look bored and, you know,
scratching your face and, I mean, that was part of the act. How did that part
of the act evolve? And I should mention, too, sometimes he'd go over to you
on stage and try to like provoke you into a reaction, and you would just be
reactionless, just totally straight-faced.

Ms. SMITH: Well, actually, I scratched because I itched. It was not part of
the act. We had very hard water in Las Vegas, and I remember one time we did
the Sinatra TV show, and the director came over to Louis and he said, `I want
her to scratch her nose at this point,' and Louis looked at me, he said, `Man,
she scratches when she itches.' And that's the truth. I never scratched
unless I itched. As far as the deadpan thing was concerned, that was very
accidental. We worked from midnight till six in the morning in Las Vegas, and
we did five shows a night, and the shows were 45 minutes long. For the first
half-hour, I had nothing to do but stand there. I was not a hand-clapper. I
wasn't a finger-snapper.

I was not a moving type of a person, so we had a little tiny upright piano,
because we were working behind the bar up on a little tiny stage that just
barely held all of us. And I just crossed my arms because I didn't know what
to do with my hands and stood there. And when we first started, the lounge
was wide open. There were no curtains, no windows, no nothing. I could see
the people that came in the front door. I could see the people that came in
the side door. I could see the people coming out of the big showroom. And I
paid attention to what was going on in the casino. I could tell you who came
in, who they were with, what they were wearing, almost what time they left.
And I was so busy doing what I called being nosey, that when Louis would come
over and pull on my skirt and I'd turn and I'd look at him, it was like,
`Don't bother me. You're interrupting my thought here.' And that's how it
happened.

GROSS: Now let me ask you, how would it feel when you were singing, you know,
a beautiful ballad on stage, and then in the middle or toward the end of the
ballad, Prima would come over and start clowning?

Ms. SMITH: It didn't bother me. The people loved it. And you know what?
It's really crazy to say this, but when we were very big, I never knew we were
very big. I didn't know how big we were until after we broke up, which is
kind of crazy because it shows that I lived in my own little world. But when
Louis would do all of his things, I just thought it was wonderful and it
didn't bother me at all.

GROSS: How could you not know how big you were?

Ms. SMITH: I don't know. I guess just dumb. I don't know.

GROSS: Or isolated.

Ms. SMITH: Well, I was very protected. I never had to make a decision.
Louis never made me wear a gown I didn't like or sing a song I didn't like,
and that was all I cared about. All the decisions he made pertaining to
music, business, whatever, and all I had to do was get up and do my shows and
sing, and in the daytime, I spent with my children, so I was very happy.

GROSS: Maybe all that was a function of starting with him so young, when you
were too young to make big decisions.

Ms. SMITH: Well, I was going to say something, but I'm not going to say that.

GROSS: OK.

Ms. SMITH: When we broke up, I didn't know how to talk to people. I was
broke. I don't know about him. It was a little tough, you know. And thank
God for people like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Shore. You know, Dinah's the one
that got me out of the house after Louis and I divorced. He had convinced me
that I'd be nothing without him. And he told me that he'd hire a girl and
call her Kelly Smith and that I should just forget about a career because I
was nothing without him, and I believed him. And then Dinah called one
day--oh, golly--about five or six months after we broke up, and she said, `I
want you to come do my TV show,' and I told her--I said, `Dinah, I can't do
that.' And she said, `Yes, you can. You've got to get out of that house.'
And then Frank was calling and I was very close with Sinatra and Dean Martin
and Sammy. And they were all wonderful to me, and they got me out of the
house, and I went back to work.

BOGAEV: Keely Smith speaking with Terry Gross. Her new CD is "Absolutely the
Best of Keely Smith." We'll hear more of their conversation after the break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to our interview with singer Keely Smith.

GROSS: I think, you know, you were friends with Sinatra and the other members
of the, you know, Rat Pack.

Ms. SMITH: Right.

GROSS: What was it like to hang out with them then, when they were the stars
of Vegas? You were a star of Vegas, too. I mean, you guys kind of, you know,
owned the city in a way in terms of entertainment. Can you like tell a story
that would bring to life those days and that crowd?

Ms. SMITH: Well, I think I mentioned before that when they would come in our
lounge, they would get up on stage with us. Frank did every time. Sammy did
almost every time. Dean did a few times. But I was closer to Frank. And
when we would go to his show, I would get up and sing with him. Now Louis and
I didn't, but I would. And then on Monday nights, which was our off night,
Frank would call and he'd say to Louis--he said, `Hey, Chief'--they called
Louis the Chief--`Hey, Chief, why don't you and the Injun come on in? I'm
going to have a little cookout tonight,' or whatever show, a movie. And Louis
didn't fly. So Louis would say to me, `Babe,' he said, `you go ahead and have
a good time,' because Louis knew I was really thrilled with meeting all those
people.

And I'd get on a plane and I'd go into LA and Frank would pick me up, and we'd
go to his house, and there I'd be sitting with Jack Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy
and Kim Novak and all these kind of people, Billy Wilder and Rosalind Russell
and, you know, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. So I did that almost
every Monday night for quite a while. And it was a thrill. And then, of
course, Frank and Peter--Peter and Pat Lawford were my good, good friends, and
they kind of looked out for me when I was in there. And they took me all
over. And then the next thing I know, Frank asked me to record with him, and
I did a couple of duets with him.

And then Sammy is an interesting story, because when Louis had the big band in
the late '40s, early '50s, we worked the Apollo Theater, and one of the acts
on the show was this young kid, The Will Maston Trio, and that's all it was
called in those days. It wasn't even Sammy Davis Jr. And I became friendly
with Sammy from then on, and he became like a member of my family. And so I
was very involved in what you call The Rat Pack, and I loved it. It was just
wonderful.

GROSS: Were you the shy one in the group?

Ms. SMITH: Mm-hmm, always. I've just come out of my shell recently. Look,
my husband, Bobby, says that when I was with Louis, Louis never let me talk.
Now he can't shut me up.

GROSS: When you started singing with Louis Prima when you were 16, did you
think, `One day I'm going to marry this man'?

Ms. SMITH: Oh, I didn't even like him, no. Oh, goodness, no. Mercy, mercy.
No. When we would do tea dances in the summer, he'd wear short sleeves and
he'd put his arm around me and he was so hairy I couldn't stand it. And it
used to just drive me crazy when he'd touch me. And, also, I happened to be
very close with his wife. I was crazy about his wife, Tracy, and we became
the best of friends. And--no, I had no inkling whatsoever. As a matter of
fact, my mother told me that I was in love with Louis. I didn't even know it.

GROSS: God, that sounds like a movie.

Ms. SMITH: I know. It's gonna be a movie.

GROSS: What did she tell you when she told you that you really loved him?

Ms. SMITH: I remember exactly where it was. We were standing backstage at
the Paramount Theater, and we did like five stage shows a day. And at the
beginning of each show, I was dressed in my gown, in the high heels, standing
in the wings watching everything he did on stage. And she pulled me aside one
day and she said, `You know that you're in love with him?' I said, `No, Mom,
no. No, I'm not.' And she said, `Yes, you are.' I said, `No. I appreciate
him as a performer, and I love watching him from, you know, from the
sidelines.' She said, `No.' She said, `You listen to me, you're in love with
this man.' And she was right. I didn't know it, though.

GROSS: Well, it must have been really hard when you did become lovers because
he was married and you were really close to his wife.

Ms. SMITH: No, it wasn't, because our friendship kind of deteriorated prior
to that. I don't know...

GROSS: Your friendship with his wife?

Ms. SMITH: Terry, do you have children?

GROSS: No, I don't.

Ms. SMITH: No? Well, when I was pregnant with my girls, I was the happiest
person in the world. I thought there was nothing in the world more beautiful
than having a baby, and it showed. It showed in the way I dressed and the way
I looked and so forth. And it kind of got a glow when you really want your
baby. And Tracy wanted her child, I'm positive of that, but she changed. She
changed so drastically that she kind of alienated me. She tried to get me
fired from the job. And she didn't succeed in that, but she almost did. And
she changed as a wife with Louis. And I guess that is what kind of threw
Louis and I together a short time afterwards, you know? It's hard to really
put into words exactly when it happened, but that's what happened.

GROSS: Right. When you divorced in 1961, he married a woman who also became
the female singer in his act. Did you find strange that you seemed to be
replaced by a person, you know, in his personal life and in his act? I don't
know, it...

Ms. SMITH: No. No. As a matter of fact, she wasn't the first singer. He
had about three singers before her.

GROSS: I see.

Ms. SMITH: And he didn't marry her right away. But a very quick story--one
of the singers that he hired--the one he hired right after me, I don't even
remember her name. She was a nice girl. And she came up to me one night in a
club and she introduced herself, and she said, `I'm the new singer.' She
said, `I just wanted to tell you that I've always admired you.' And I thanked
her, and she was very sweet. Louis heard about it and fired her. So in those
days, I was taboo. Nobody was allowed to talk to me. None of the
musicians--you know, it was just like, I mean, a complete erasing somebody
from your life.

GROSS: Did you become friends again with Louis Prima before his death?

Ms. SMITH: Yes. Yes. As a matter of fact, he asked me to remarry him, and I
told him, I said, `I love you very much, but I'm not in love with you.' And I
said, `I could work with you if you want, but as far as marriage, that's out
of the question.' And he had a mild heart attack, and that's when we became
really good friends again and stayed in contact up until he died.

BOGAEV: Keely Smith spoke with Terry Gross in 2000.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I say either (pronounced EE-thur).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I say either (pronounced EYE-thur).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I say neither (pronounced NEE-thur).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I say neither (pronounced NY-thur).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Either (pronounced EE-thur).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Either (pronounced EYE-thur).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Neither (pronounced NEE-thur).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Neither (pronounced NY-thur). Let's call the whole
thing off.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I like potato (pronounced po-TAY-to).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I like potato (pronounced po-TAH-to).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I like tomato (pronounced to-MAY-to).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I like tomatoes (pronounced to-MAH-to).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Potato (pronounced po-TAY-to).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Potato (pronounced po-TAH-to).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Tomato (pronounced to-MAY-to).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Tomato (pronounced to-MAH-to).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Let's call the whole thing off. ...(Unintelligible).
If we call the whole thing off, then we must part.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And, oh, if we ever part then that might break my
heart.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) So then if I like pajamas (pronounced pa-JA-mas) and you
like pajamas (pronounced pa-JAH-mas)?

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) I'll wear pajamas (pronounced pa-JA-mas) and give up
pajamas (pronounced pa-JAH-mas). Oh, we know we need each other solely.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Let's call the calling off off.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Oh, let's call the whole mess off.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I say house (pronounced HOWSE).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I say house (pronounced HUSE).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I say mouse (pronounced MOWSE).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I say mouse (pronounced MUSE).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) House (pronounced HOWSE).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) House (pronounced HUSE).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Mouse (pronounced MOWSE).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Mouse (pronounced MUSE).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Let's call the whole thing off. Oh, I like vanilla
(pronounced ven-IL-la).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I like vanilla (pronounced van-EL-la).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) I sarsaparilla (pronounced sasper-IL-la).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And I sarsaparilla (pronounced sasper-EL-la).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Vanilla (pronounced ven-IL-la).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Vanilla (pronounced van-EL-la).

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Chocolate.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Strawberry.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Apricot.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Gagutzahs(ph).

Mr. PRIMA: (Laughs) (Singing) But, oh, if we call the whole thing off, then
we must part.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) And, oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Now if you go for oysters (pronounced OYE-sters) and I
go for oysters (pronounced UR-sters).

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) While I'll order (pronounced OYE-sters) and cancel the
(UR-sters). For we know we need each other solely.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Better call the calling off off, babe.

Ms. SMITH: (Singing) Oh, let's call the whole thing off.

Mr. PRIMA and Ms. SMITH: (Singing in unison) Let's call the calling off off.

Mr. PRIMA: (Singing) Babe.

BOGAEV: Keely Smith with Louis Prima. Smith has a new CD, "Absolutely the
Best of Keely Smith." Coming up, a review of the new film "Insomnia." This
is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New movie "Insomnia"
BARBARA BOGAEV, host

"Insomnia" is a new film based on the 1997 Norwegian film of the same name.
The remake stars Oscar winners Al Pacino, Robin Williams and Hilary Swank.
It's directed by Christopher Nolan, who made "Memento." Our film critic,
John Powers, has a review.

JOHN POWERS reporting:

Last year, filmmaker Christopher Nolan surprised the world with "Memento,"
which forced both the audience and its hero to piece together its story as if
it were a shattered mirror. The movie became a cult hit, to some an
obsession. And its success raised the question of what Nolan could possibly
do next. Would he make another off-beat independent movie? Or would he, as
the saying has it, `go Hollywood'?

Turns out, he's done a bit of both in "Insomnia," an enjoyable big-budget
remake of a small, creepy Norwegian thriller about a tormented policeman. It
stars Al Pacino as Will Dormer, a famous LAPD detective who's been sent with
his partner, that's Martin Donovan, to the Alaskan backwater of Nightmute(ph)
to help solve the murder of a teen-age girl. Although he's greeted
worshipfully by an eager cop, played by Hilary Swank, whose looser here than
she's been since winning her Oscar, Dormer is not a happy man. He's worried
about an internal affairs investigation back home and assailed by a sense of
comic justice that eats at his liver like a buzzard.

His mood only gets bleaker. When staking out a suspect he makes a terrible
mistake with fatal consequences. Trying to cover it up, Dormer suddenly finds
himself playing cat and mouse with a psycho named Walter Finch, played by
Robin Williams who, in a touch that recalls "Strangers On a Train," insists
that they're two of a kind.

Dormer isn't buying it, but stewing in guilt and utterly unable to sleep--you
see, the summer sun shines in Nightmute 24 hours a day--he sinks into a
profound exhaustion. The only thing that keeps him going is his dedication to
nailing bad guys. Here, he gives the local cops a lesson in how to look at a
dead body.

(Soundbite of "Insomnia")

Mr. AL PACINO: (As Will Dormer) No fibers, flakes, hairs?

Unidentified Actor: We know how forensics work up here. I told you, the body
gave us nothing.

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) Oh, she gave us plenty. All this trouble; all
this care. Why?

Ms. HILARY SWANK: (As Ellie Burr) He knew her.

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) He knows we can connect him to her.

Unidentified Actor: This isn't some random psycho? Crime of passion?

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) Oh, I don't know. Maybe. But whatever
happened, his reaction to it wasn't passion. He didn't panic. Didn't chop
her up or burn her beyond recognition. He just thought about what we would be
looking for and then calmly removed all those traces. No haste. No rush.

Ms. SWANK: (As Ellie Burr) Why would he clip the nails after scrubbing them?

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) You know, manipulating the body, prolonging the
moment.

Unidentified Actor: No mutilation.

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) Not this time.

Unidentified Actor: Do you think there's been others?

Mr. PACINO: (As Will Dormer) No. But there's going to be. This guy, he
crossed the line and he didn't even blink. You don't come back from that.

POWERS: Although "Insomnia" comes burnished with a Hollywood sheen, it's
careful to preserve what made the Norwegian film worth adapting in the first
place: its psychological twists and sense of moral unease. Still, I suspect
that fans of "Memento" may well be disappointed, for this is a very
straightforward thriller. No one will feel the need to see this one twice.

It's not that Nolan's sold out or been crushed by the studios, but that
finally he's a less distinctive talent than "Memento's" time gimmicks made him
appear. At bottom, he's not so much an idiosyncratic artist like David Lynch
as a kindred spirit of director Steven Soderbergh, an old-style Hollywood
director with a knack for making entertainments geared to an intelligent
audience. In particular, he's terrific with actors. And he needed to be, for
the pairing of Al Pacino and Robin Williams could have easily turned into a
WWF bout of overacting. After all, both men's default setting is too much.
But not here. Nolan wins a memorably melancholy turn from Pacino, that icon
of angst, who wanders through the film with the ravaged, vainglorious grandeur
of an ancient Roman ruin. His world-weary eyes make "Insomnia" the merest of
formalities.

The movie also boasted an unexpectedly muted performance from Williams, whose
increasingly crumpled face makes Robert Altman's long-ago casting of him as
Popeye look positively visionary. As Finch, he's finally figured out how to
play normal. He actually appears saner than Dormer. And the great joke is
that here he's playing a murderer. Still the casting is curious. Why hire
Robin Williams to play a down-to-earth-seeming guy when hundreds of other
actors can do that without breaking a sweat? And if you do cast him as a
psycho-killer doppelganger, why not unleash him and get the benefit of his
improvisational glee?

The answer, I think, is that "Insomnia" aspires to be more than just fun. For
this isn't really a movie about a cop solving a crime. We know who did it
early on. It's about a detective who starts out investigating a murder and
then winds up confronting his own guilty soul. And in that way, it's a
natural follow-up to "Memento." Indeed, if you look beyond the glossy
production values and the big-name stars, you see that Nolan's still exploring
the preoccupations of his earlier film. There's a hero who's in a state of
psychological distress. There's the shared guilt of the wicked and the
seemingly innocent. And there's the inescapable awareness that the past is
often more alive than the present.

Nolan never tires of reminding us that memory can be as treacherous as
quicksand, which is enough to keep anyone awake at night.

BOGAEV: John Powers is executive editor and media columnist for LA Weekly.

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?

Advertisement

Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR

52:30

Democracy Is 'Strained' But Not 'Broken,' Former President Obama Tells 'Fresh Air'

In his first interview with Terry Gross, Obama talks about what he misses most about being president and reflects on the turmoil of the Trump White House. Obama's new memoir is 'A Promised Land.'

20:56

'Alex Rider' Novelist On The Joys Of Reading (And Writing) Mysteries

Anthony Horowitz's novels about a reluctant teen spy have been adapted into a TV series for IMDB TV. Horowitz is also the author of Moonflower Murders, a mystery for adults.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.

Playing

Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue