Bellingham by the Bay

Here’s the October surprise

The surprise is that few of us may be surprised at all these days. Small wonder. To most civilized people, we have tumbled into an era of incivility. Of vulgarity, and a sad excursion into mediocrity. Often I’ve used the cliché, “Well, nothing surprises me anymore.” Believe me, I didn’t mean it. At least, I didn’t think I did. …

Naturally, I am influenced by this election season. But this column is not about politics. Many of us are weary of the whole thing. As a kid, my parents took me to the circus. I thought to myself, This will soon be over. I felt sorry for the animals. And I did not like the clowns. Now, the ridiculous performance is all over CNN and MSNBC — and the “fair, unbiased” Fox News. Send in the clowns. No, wait. Don’t.

When I think of eloquence, and a time when being a gentleman counted, I think of my old friend Harry Miles Muheim. He embodied statesmanship. (Happy to say, we have stateswomanship, as well.) Harry grew up in the Marina. He went on to Stanford, and when Pearl Harbor was inflicted on this country, he went to Boulder, Colo. to join the U.S. Navy’s Language School. There, he learned Japanese, and was part of the effort that broke the Japanese code that led to the American victory at Midway. Later, Harry was a speechwriter for Jimmy Carter. He consulted to some friendly governments. But even friendly governments, like old friends, can surprise you. Harry wrote a terrific political satire, “Vote for Quimby — and Quick!”

Harry once said to me, “Bruce, remember that we have more of an influence on people than you’d think.” Every time I spoke to Harry, I’d always come away with something. Later, Harry lived on Telegraph Hill. He never divorced his wife, who remained in Colorado, though they lived separate lives for decades. When Harry became ill, his wife called, and said, “Harry, it’s time to come home.” And so he did.

I don’t know what Harry would say about what’s happening on the American landscape these days, but I imagine it would be on point — yes, pointed — but not cruel. As Oscar Wilde said, “A gentleman is never unintentionally rude.” …

And now, for something completely different: John Stanley, who knows more about movies than Cecil B. DeMille, has a new book out. It’s quite wonderful, and it’s about my favorite sort of people — funny people. The title is The Funniest Comedy Icons of the 20th Century. Oh, this is John’s second volume. John, who lives on the Peninsula, has interviewed (mostly for The Chronicle) an extraordinary collection of amusing people. To name a few: Bob Newhart … Harvey Korman and Tim Conway (never separated at birth) … of course, Carol Burnett — why break up the act? … John also includes the Smothers Brothers, of course. They were always at odds with CBS. They would openly ridicule Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam. Tommy decided to move their hit TV show from Hollywood to San Francisco. Tommy sat in then-Mayor Joe Alioto’s office at City Hall to negotiate a deal to do the show at the Palace of Fine Arts Theater. A call came in for Tommy from CBS in Los Angeles: “Your show is canceled. Out you go.” John includes local boy Tom Hanks … one of my faves, Dick ShawnShelley Berman, who recorded the first comedy album way back when — and who could forget Phyllis Diller? She was a doll. Remember Jerry Colonna? Right. Bob Hope’s second banana. I like John’s account of spending an afternoon with “The Tiger Skin Woman,” Agent 99 from Get Smart. Right. That’s Barbara Feldon. It’s a delicious read for the old-timers to fans of TV land. Tony Gantner, the lawyer, and a Democratic Party leader, reminds me that many of these artists played at the Hungry I, Enrico Banducci’s nightclub from the old days.

By the by, John Stanley is very funny, too. …

Now, as we trundle into this election season, and submit to the tractor beam of the holidays, let us be cheerful. Let’s consider that Halloween will soon be here, though it seems like every day is Halloween in San Francisco. Let’s consider that we all don costumes from time to time. And, as the old blues song goes, “We may be fighting a losing battle, but having a lot of fun trying to win.”

No surprise there.


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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. Surprise him at [email protected]