Blogs > Jim Collins' Editor's Notebook

Jim Collins is editor emeritus of The News-Herald and also serves as executive in residence at Lakeland Community College. His popular weekly column appears each Sunday in Comment in The News-Herald.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Dinner table gets crowded with some all-time greats

When I daydream, I make no pretensions of originality.

In other words, I dream the same dreams others have dreamed before — long before and often before.
Thus I am not plowing fresh ground today, because many others have addressed the same topic.

The difference is, previous writers have expressed their own preferences, but I have my own. And you, presumably, have yours. If you would care to share them via email or U.S. Mail, that is OK.

But please, not on blog. I do not read blogs. Even the word blog is distasteful to me. It sounds like something you might find ... oh, never mind. But I digress.

The subject is this: What three people, living or dead, would you like to have dinner with? One on one, of course. Not as a group.

I have given this a great deal of thought. And I came up with many names. But unfortunately I am not able to get my list boiled down to three. The best I can do is four. So here are the four people I would invite to dinner — if they don’t mind splitting the check. As Clint Eastwood once observed, a man’s got to know his limitations.

1. Frank Sinatra is my first choice. I have said this before. I consider him to be the single greatest entertainer since the invention of music.

I know that covers a lot of notes, and you would probably disagree. Well, you have your opinions and I have mine.

I would talk to him about music, singing, movies, people he hung out with, his days with Tommy Dorsey, the resurgence of his career after “From Here to Eternity,” and how Ava Gardner kept him on life support when he couldn’t find any work at all until that great movie transformed him into a superstar.

I would want to talk about Nancy, what went wrong there, about Dean and Sammy and how they came up with the madcap antics of The Rat Pack, and how he ever got the reputation of being nasty on occasion when in public he was such a charmer.

And how he ever got away with that Kingfish impersonation when he was singing with Count Basie at The Sands. Anyone else would have been called racist, but there was not a smidgen of racism in Frank’s makeup.

2. Steve Allen is my second choice. To me he was the funniest person who ever cracked a joke. But he was also an incredible musician and composer. He used to ask people to sing three notes, any three, and he would build a song around them.

He made his name as a late night TV host, and believe me, there is nothing on in that time slot today that compares with him. Leno, Letterman and the others are mere pretenders compared with Steve.

His wisecacks always broke me up. Once he observed, “Yes, sir, folks. There’s only one Al Jolson. And that’s Larry Parks.”

At dinner, I would turn that around on him. “Yes, sir, folks. There’s only one Benny Goodman. And that’s Steve Allen.”

3. Next I would nominate William F. Buckley Jr. We ran his column in the paper for many years before he died. What a brilliant mind! An intellectual, to end all intellectuals! And good grief, what a vocabulary!

I once read an article by Clifton Fadiman who said that people like to be teased by big words, they like to have their curiosity piqued and be sent to the dictionary — as long it’s not overdone.

Maybe Bill Buckley overdid it once. But he minced no words when he offered to punch Gore Vidal in the nose during their commentary at the 1968 Democrat Convention in Chicago. Only Buckley didn’t just say nose. He said “your goddamn nose.”

4. Finally, Duke Ellington. The greatest genius ever in the field of jazz. My friend Alan Wright would refer to him as Edward Kennedy Ellington, because that was his full name. But Alan is a stickler for detail.

The Duke was incredibly talented and creative. I once heard it said that he could compose a song while writing notes on the back of an envelope — sort of like Lincoln writing the Gettysburg Address.

He was brilliant, a great musician as well as a great composer, hired people who stayed with him for decades (think Johnny Hodges), was the sharpest dresser I have ever seen in front of a band (they say he bought suits a dozen at a time) and he had a personality and a voice that could melt butter.

I never met The Duke, but I once sat with his son, Mercer, at dinner on a cruise ship. I guess I’ll have to settle for that.


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