July 26, 2012

By JAKE COYLE and JUAN CARLOS LLORCA,

Associated Press

 

George Jefferson was a bigot. A loudmouth. Rude. Obsessed with money. Arrogant. And yet he was one of the most enjoyable, beloved characters in television history.

Much of that credit belongs to Sherman Hemsley, the gifted character actor who gave life to the blustering black Harlem businessman on “The Jeffersons,” one of TV’s longest running and most successful sitcoms — particularly noteworthy with its mostly black cast.

The Philadelphia-born Hemsley, who police said Tuesday July 24 died at his home in El Paso, Texas, at age 74, first played George Jefferson on the CBS show “All in the Family” before he was spun off onto “The Jeffersons.” The sitcom ran for 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985.

With the gospel-style theme song of “Movin’ on Up,” the hit show depicted the wealthy former neighbors of Archie and Edith Bunker in Queens as they made their way on New York's Upper East Side. Hemsley and the Jeffersons (Isabel Sanford played his wife) often dealt with contemporary issues of racism, but more frequently reveled in the sitcom archetype of a short-tempered, opinionated patriarch trying, often unsuccessfully, to control his family.

Hemsley’s feisty, diminutive father with an exaggerated strut was a kind of black corollary to Archie Bunker — a stubborn, high-strung man who had a deep dislike for whites (his favorite word for them was honkies). Yet unlike the blue-collar Bunker, played by Carroll O’Connor, he was a successful businessman who was as rich as he was crass. His wife, Weezie, was often his foil — yet provided plenty of zingers as well.

Despite the character’s many faults — money-driven, prejudiced, temperamental, a boor — Hemsley managed to make the character endearing, part of the reason it stayed on the air for so long. Much like O’Connor’s portrayal of Archie Bunker, deep down, Hemsley's Jefferson loved his family, his friends (even the ones he relentlessly teased) and had a good heart. His performance was Emmy and Golden Globe nominated.

“He was a love of a guy” and “immensely talented,” Norman Lear, producer of “The Jeffersons” and “All in the Family,” said after learning of his death. El Paso police said the actor was found dead at a home where neighbors said he’d lived for years, and that no foul play is suspected.

The actor had been ill and died of natural causes, so no autopsy will be performed, according to Irene Santiago, a manager at the El Paso coroner’s office. She did not elaborate.

“When the Jeffersons moved in next door to the Bunkers, I wanted to deliver the George Jefferson who could stand up to Archie Bunker,” Lear recalled. “It took some weeks before I remembered having seen Sherman in ‘Purlie’ on Broadway.”

Hemsley read for the part and “the minute he opened his mouth he was George Jefferson,” Lear said. Hemsley was smaller than O’Connor’s Archie but “he was every bit as strong as Archie,” Lear said.

Lenny Kravitz, whose mother, Roxie Roker, played Helen Willis on “The Jeffersons,” said, “When I was a kid, Sherman would always take the time to hang out with me on set. We would listen to music and talk about it. He was very knowledgeable, and was a big rock ‘n’ roll fan. He was an extraordinary human being that made a huge difference with his talent. I will miss him.”

Sherman Alexander Hemsley was the son of a printing press-working father and a factory-working mother. He served in the Air Force and worked for eight years as a clerk for the U.S. Postal Service.

Having studied acting as an adolescent at the Philadelphia Academy of Dramatic Arts, he began acting in New York workshops and theater companies, including the Negro Ensemble Company. For years, he kept his job at the post office while acting at night, before transitioning to acting full-time.

He made his Broadway debut in 1970’s “Purlie,” a musical adaptation of Ossie Davis’ Jim Crow-era play “Purlie Victorious.” (Hemsley would later star in a 1981 made-for-TV version of “Purlie” as well.) It was while touring the show that Hemsley was approached by Lear about playing a character on the sitcom that would become “All in the Family.”

Hemsley joined the show in 1973, immediately catapulting himself from an obscure theater actor to a hit character on the enormously popular show. Two years later, “The Jeffersons” was spun off. Among the numerous “All in the Family” spin-offs (“Maude,” “Archie Bunker’s Place,” “704 Hauser”), “The Jeffersons” ran the longest.

The character, the owner of a chain of dry-cleaning stores, was devised, Hemsley said, as “pompous and feisty.”

“All of it was really hard ... because — rude, I don’t like to be that way,” Hemsley said in a 2003 interview for the Archive of American Television. “But it was the character, I had to do it. I had to be true to the character. If I was to pull back something, then it just wouldn't work.”

And he brought some of his hometown with him. “That dance I do (as George Jefferson), it’s the Philly Slop,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News in 1996.

After “The Jeffersons” was abruptly canceled, Hemsley starred in the sitcom “Amen” as a fiery Philadelphia church deacon, Ernest Frye. The show lasted five years, running 1986 to 1991.

Jackee Harry, a longtime friend who made appearances on the show, said she and Hemsley had planned to tour in the musical “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” She said they had discussed it recently and that he seemed in good health and in good spirits.

“It’s a sad, sad, sad day,” she said from her home in Beverly Hills, Calif.

She recalled when the two of them were on a Manhattan sidewalk during the era of “The Jeffersons,” and passers-by went wild.

“He got mauled and mugged,” she laughed. “He said, ‘What’s all the screaming about?’ He was so popular and he didn't even know it.”

She described him as “a very private person unlike George Jefferson. But he was very kind and very sweet, and generous to a fault.”

Hemsley frequently turned up as a guest on sitcoms like “Family Matters,” “The Hughleys” and even, in a voice role on “Family Guy.” He twice reprised George Jefferson, appearing as his famous character on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and, in 2011, on “House of Payne.”

Hemsley, whose films include 1979’s “Love at First Bite,” 1987’s “Stewardess School” and 1987’s “Ghost Fever,” released an album, “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head,” in 1989.

In an interview with the Gloucester County Times in 2011, Hemsley said his show business career actually began in childhood.

“Making people laugh was automatic,” he said. “I was in a play in elementary school and had to jump up and run away. I was nervous and tripped and fell down and everyone laughed. Their laughter made me relax, so I pretended it was part of the show.”

“I always told my mother I wanted a job where I could have a lot of fun and have a lot of time off,” Hemsley added. “She asked me where I was going to find that, and I said, ‘I don’t know, but it’s out there.’ ”

Parent Category: Lifestyle
Category: Arts & Culture

July 19, 2012

“I dance upstairs tonight.”

That simple and somewhat cryptic statement by one of the women in the production, “Nylons,” aptly sums up the conflict some of the characters face.

“Upstairs,” although never seen, is where the dancers strut their stuff “au natural.” It is also where the best money can be made.

But, there is a price the characters—including a married diva, a gifted bartender and a struggling beauty—might have to pay for leaving the conventional and romantic dances downstairs for the excitement of upstairs.

“Nylons” originally appeared on Stage 52 last April and has now moved to the much larger Wilshire Ebell Theater for a one-night performance July 28 at 8 p.m.

“Nylons” is the fifth play written since 2005 by Compton-born, Moreno-Valley raised playwright Brandi Burks, and follows on the heels of the critically successful “Shhh . . . Quiet as Kept.”

Burks said she was inspired to write Nylons because, “My last four plays have been based on gospel story lines. I feel like the religious people already have a solid foundation, and it's time that I reach out to the world no matter what religion or creed. I decided to get risky with “Nylons” and deliver a message that everyone should be aware of.

“Nylons are universal from the office to the church to night clubs.

Nylons range from plain to lace to fishnet and everything in between. Going from Gospel-based plays to “Nylons” is a way to show my creativity and versatility as a playwright.”

Prior to this latest stage venture, Burks penned and produced “Shhh . . . Quiet As Kept,” in 2009; “Men Cry Too” in 2008; and “Come Sunday” in 2006 and 2010. A 2005 production at the Los Angeles Theatre Center in downtown Los Angeles, “This is Not My Destiny” which sold out every night of the show, began the up-and-coming young playwright’s string of successful productions.

The NAACP Theatre awards even recognized her talents with a nomination in 2006 for “Come Sunday.”

Chicago native Tiffany Snow, who plays the lead role of Flossy, is a 2011 NAACP Theatre Award winner and she and the rest of the cast will perform to original music

Vincent M. Ward portrays the role of Kenzo. A Dayton, Ohio, native, Ward is a versatile actor and has played stage, television and movie roles that range from drug dealer to pastor.

Like her last production, Burks has also included live, original music, and the musical director for this show is veteran Cedric Lilly.

Lilly has more than 20 years of experience behind him and has performed with musicians including Roy Hargrove, Latoiya Williams, Vesta, Yo Yo, Bobby Brown and the Greater Los Angeles Cathedral Choir.

Tickets for “Nylons” are $35. They can be purchased in advance online at www.brownpapertickets.com. Additional information is available by calling (323) 600-7402.

The Wilshire Ebell is located at 4401 W. 8th St. in Los Angeles, just west of the intersection of Crenshaw and Wilshire boulevards.

Parent Category: Lifestyle
Category: Arts & Culture

July 19, 2012

By BRETT ZONGKER,

Associated Press

 

Michelle Obama said the nation’s top designers in fashion, architecture, landscapes and technology were making life better through their everyday work and honored them at the White House July 13.

The first lady joined the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum in hosting a luncheon in the East Room for winners of the National Design Awards. The New York City-based museum presents the awards, along with a design fair for Washington teens to meet some of the nation’s top creative minds.

Richard Saul Wurman, who created the popular TED conferences for discussing technology, entertainment and design ideas, won the Lifetime Achievement Award. The first lady added that he was “quite dashing and sassy” after meeting him last Friday.

Thom Browne, who designs the Black Fleece line for men and women by Brooks Brothers, was honored for his fashion design that evokes the late 1950s and early 1960s. Winners were also named interior design, product design and other sectors.

Obama told a crowd of designers from companies like Facebook, Nike and New York's fashion scene that the design winners help improve daily life through their work.

“Every day, these visionary designers are pushing boundaries, creating and revealing beauty where we least expect it and helping us all lead healthier, more sustainable lives,” Obama said. “From the clothes we wear to the technologies we use to the public spaces we enjoy, their work affects just about every aspect of our lives.”

The first lady hailed the nonprofit design firm Design that Matters in Cambridge, Mass., which partners with social entrepreneurs to address needs in developing countries, including a neonatal incubator made of spare car parts and a projector for nighttime adult literacy classes in Africa. The company won the design award for corporate and institutional achievement.

She also saluted Wurman, who is an architect and author known for his travel guidebooks. He began TED conferences in 1984 and they would introduce such innovations as the first Mac computer, the Segway and the first announcement of Google, among other creations.

Obama said Wurman has spent his career transforming information into knowledge to help people better understand the world.

“But in the end, as he put it,” Obama said, “he does this work ‘not for fame, fortune or money,’ but ‘just really to do something good.’ ”

After the ceremony, Wurman said he treasured the award and cried when he heard he was receiving the honor.

Atlanta-based architects Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam, a husband-and-wife team, won the top award for architecture. Scogin said it was a unique honor to receive at the White House but that design has historically been part of the U.S. presidency.

“Thomas Jefferson is still one of the great — he was not an architect — but he was one of the great architects in American culture,” Scogin said. “His interest in the visual and making spaces is always to this day still original thinking.”

The architects joined a teen design fair at the Smithsonian earlier in the day to share their careers with teens from Washington and New York City. Elam said there’s great design around the world now, so the nation needs to cultivate its next generation of innovators.

“There’s no reason that American design shouldn’t be the most inventive,” she said. “We have the most freedom of any place on the face of the earth, and our design work should just reflect that on and on and on.”

Other winners included:

— Design Mind Award: Janine Benyus, a biologist and innovation consultant working to use biomimicry, looking to nature to create sustainable designs.

— Design Patron: Red Burns, an arts professor and chief collaborations officer for the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University for her innovations in communications technology.

— Communication Design: Rebeca Mendes, a professor in media arts at the University of California, Los Angeles.

— Interaction Design: Evan Roth, an artist who visualizes and records often unseen moments in public spaces and collaborated with Jay-Z on the first open-source rap video.

— Interior Design: Clive Wilkinson Architects, a Los Angeles-based firm whose clients have included Google, Disney and 20th Century Fox.

— Landscape Architecture: Stoss Landscape Urbanism, a Boston studio that works in both landscape design and urban planning.

— Product Design: Scott Wilson, founder of the Chicago-based studio Minimal that collaborated with Microsoft to design Kinect for Xbox 360 and who created TikTok watches for the iPod Nano.

Parent Category: Lifestyle
Category: Arts & Culture

July 19, 2012

By MARK KENNEDY, Associated Press

 

Producers of a musical based on the life of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy are seeking an exceptionally talented young actor — one who can play a preteen Gordy, a young Michael Jackson and a precocious Stevie Wonder.

Gordy launched an audition website July 17 to help find the young man between the ages of 8 and 11 who can sing, dance and act like the King of Pop in his Jackson 5 days and Wonder at about age 11.

“Motown” will open on Broadway next spring.

Gordy says he’s not looking for imitators, but someone who “can be themselves in the role” and give him “the same chills” he experienced when he first saw Jackson at age 10 in 1968.

Parent Category: Lifestyle
Category: Arts & Culture

July 19, 2012

ARIES

Be flexible as others present changes and new schedules for a group activity. Your easy-going attitude will allow you to reschedule appointments easily. Watch the sun rise it’ll be good for your spirits! Soul Affirmation: I release internal pressure by enjoying the beauties of the world around me. Lucky Numbers: 22, 26, 29

 

TAURUS

Give your busy brain a rest and work your body this week. It’s a great day for physical activity that can loosen up muscles and relieve tensions. You’ll receive some practical advice from a distant relative. Soul Affirmation: Newness of outlook helps me deal with the monotonies of life Lucky Numbers: 2, 16, 33

 

GEMINI

Family responsibilities may feel like a chore this week. If you relinquish control of the situation, a natural order will occur, and things will organize themselves. You can let people be who they are. Soul Affirmation: I call on my creative talents to pay my bills. Lucky Numbers: 5, 9, 42

 

CANCER

A secret may be revealed in a casual conversation. Your confidence is valued and appreciated. Take it all in! There’s no returning to what has been once you realize the gift you’ve been given. Soul Affirmation: Helping others is the true measure of my worth. Lucky Numbers: 12, 13, 27

 

LEO

A friend from the past could suddenly appear in your life. This could be a highly beneficial reunion for both of you. Let bygones be bygones, and renew this friendship. Love isn’t used up just because it’s shared. Soul Affirmation: Charm is my middle name this week. Lucky Numbers: 4, 17, 18

 

VIRGO

Drive the speed limit this week or you could wind up with a ticket. Why rush? Serenity is available if you only stop and listen for it inside of you. Discharge your usual obligations with dignity and count your blessings. Soul Affirmation: I am guided by the joy within. Lucky Numbers: 1, 13, 49

 

LIBRA

Justice is on your mind again this week. This may be in a cosmic sense, or you may still be speeding along trying to get a ticket. Slow down and relax your brain-energies! The universe knows how to take care of itself and of you. Trust!  Soul Affirmation: Distant love is sometimes sweeter. Lucky Numbers: 8, 11, 13

 

SCORPIO

No need for rowdiness, wild ones. You can make your point without waving your hands and arms about wildly! Speak your wisdom softly, gently this week, so that others can hear it and benefit. Soul Affirmation: I face each week with a smile and the week smiles back at me. Lucky Numbers: 22, 27, 31

 

SAGITTARIUS

Things speed up again this week and you are in a highly creative mood. An outspoken female in your circle may illuminate a thorny question for you. You’ll be surprised and pleased by what you hear. Soul Affirmation: I look for the good in all that comes to me this week. Lucky Numbers: 25, 31, 36

 

CAPRICORN

One of your most unique gifts is the power to change your mind. You know how to change the way you think, and it gives you great personal magnetism. This week you may be called upon to change the way you think about a person close to you. Do it. Soul Affirmation: Friendships are shock absorbers on the bumpy roads of life. Lucky Numbers: 10, 14, 22

 

AQUARIUS

Focus intently on the personal this week. Others may seem scattered or impersonal, but it’s not about you. Keep your thoughts and feelings to yourself until others are more receptive to your good vibrations. Soul Affirmation: I master fear by knowing that all is well. Lucky Numbers: 1, 5, 39

 

PISCES

A personal decision is made, and you are happy for the person who makes it. This person may be younger than you, but you’ve got a karmic bond between you. Enjoy the excitement of moment, and know that faith is being kept by your very actions.  Soul Affirmation: This week I forgive myself for everything that has happened. Lucky Numbers: 3, 4, 10

Parent Category: Lifestyle
Category: Arts & Culture

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