Shelley Winters, Ina Balin and Leonard Bernstein

Nate Bloom blogs on this week's Jews in the News

Tony B. and More Oppenheimer

As no doubt you heard, singer Tony Bennett died last week, age 96.  His singing voice was very strong well into his ‘80s and he was still “very good” until he had to retire in 2021. I had the good fortune of hearing him (1996) sing a few of his classics in front of San Francisco’s City Hall. As I looked around, I noticed how diverse (age, race, etc.) the large adoring crowd was.  

I long knew he was a mensch. In one of his memoirs, he spoke about the harassment that Italians got in his New York neighborhood. Then he noted that blacks and Jews “had it worse”.

Bennett walked (1965) with Dr. Martin Luther King in the voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery. This took some courage, because the marchers were often subjected to violence. The Jewish celebs who walked with Dr. King, and Bennett, included actresses SHELLEY WINTERS and INA BALIN, LEONARD BERNSTEIN, comedian ALAN KING, and PETER YARROW (of Peter, Paul, and Mary). 

I’m sure that Bennett had tons of “Jewish connections”.  I can only cover, here, four of them. The most notable Jewish tie is Tony’s daughter, singer ANTONIA BENNETT, now 49.  She converted to Judaism in 2013, shortly before her marriage to RONEN HELLMAN, an Israeli businessman. In 2013, she told a Jewish paper that she was guided in her conversion studies by a Chabad rabbi (but she’s not a Hasid). In a 2015 interview, she said she and her husband were members of an Orthodox minyan. (Yes, they are still married).

Tony was “fine” with her conversion and walked his daughter down to the chuppah.

Antonia sings “jazzy” stuff, sophisticated pop songs, and some of the tunes her father sang. She has many videos on Youtube (some duets with her father) and you can judge, for yourself, how good she is.

Tony had several low points in his very long career. One came in 1968. In the late ‘60s, singers of “standards”, like Bennett and Perry Como, were being eclipsed by rock music singers. Tony’s agent thought an acting role might help Bennett’s career and Tony agreed to take a co-starring role in “The Oscar”. This film had a good cast and a pretty big budget. But the script was bad. So bad it was unintentionally quite funny in parts.

Bennett played Hymie Kelley, the “go-fer” for a “bad guy” actor who somehow got an Oscar nomination. Hymie was supposed to be the son of a Jewish mother and an Irish father. Tony played Hymie “pretty Jewish”.

Tony’s “Oscar” co-star was JILL ST. JOHN, now 82. She was born Jill Oppenheim. St. John and TINA 'Gilligan’s Island'  LOUISE, now 89, were the top “stealth” Jewish ‘hotties’ of the ‘60s.

Bennett was actually pretty good as Hymie, but “The Oscar” was his first and last movie.

Like Sinatra, a huge percentage of Bennett’s big hit songs were written by Jewish songwriters. The “Greatest Hits” section of Tony’s official Youtube channel has 24 songs. 14 were written or co-written by Jews. Four are by GEORGE and IRA GERSHWIN.

The first episode of the Tonight Show that Johnny Carson’s hosted (Oct. 1, 1962) had four guests. Three are now deceased: Joan Crawford, Rudy Vallee, and Tony Bennett. The one still living guest is MEL BROOKS, 97. Like Bennett, Brooks was a WWII vet with genuine musical talent.  

As I write this, I just found a nearby theater that shows an enhanced version (70M) of “Oppenheimer” and I will see the film soon. I’ll tell you what I think in the near future. Meanwhile, if you have seen “Oppenheimer”, or plan to see it, do watch the new documentary “To End All War: Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb”. 

No documentary can cover any big topic completely, but this 90-minute film is the best Oppenheimer documentary I’ve seen. It features commentary by Kai Bird and the late MARTIN SHERWIN, the co-authors of the book that the feature film was based upon. Bird’s segments were filmed for the documentary. Sherwin frequently talked about Oppenheimer before his death and recorded excerpts, from those talks, are used in the documentary.

If you get MSNBC, you can view it on-demand. If you don’t--well, three different persons have posted the entire film on Youtube. I am not saying you should view a “pirate” copy (which are all over Youtube)---I am just saying they are up there as I write this.

NBC should get smart and offer to rent the flick, on Youtube, for a modest sum.


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