Friday, April 24, 2015

Tales of Manhattan

In deciding who was to contribute Johnny's voice in "A Captain Unafraid," our deliberation was short and our decision was sweet-Wynn Handman is to be the contributing voice actor for, among other things, the illustrated sections of A Captain Unafraid. This all means that whenever we use direct quotes from Johnny in our documentary, Wynn's voice will be heard. Wynn, at 92 years of age, is probably one of the most productive nonagenarians in Manhattan. He still gives acting classes four times a week, each four hours long. Since 1963 Wynn's non-profit theatre company "The American Place Theatre" has been a shining beacon of dedication to, as George Bernard Shaw said of theatre in general, "the ascent of man!"

Early last March I travelled to New York on very short notice to record Wynn's voiceover. The week before St. Patrick's day a window of opportunity opened that suited all involved, and we quickly dove with abandon into the breach. A million thanks to, among others, Norrina Fleming, Billy Lyons, and of course, the mighty Wynn Handman.

Norrina Fleming took this photo before we started recording

Here is an example of some of our recording -

Wynn told us of how he was once stuck in pack ice during World War II, surrounded by German submarines. Wynn's vessel was a destroyer class, intended to destroy submarines. When we had our first "dynamite" reading up on 57th street, Wynn read out these pertinent quotes for us from Johnny-

“I would like to chase those submarines, they are the fellows to go after. But we’ll win, they haven’t got a chance.”

“We can lick those Deutshmen, we can lick ‘em, and we ought to drive them off the seas. I could do it! We ought to have three submarines to every one of the Deutshmen’s, and we ought to ride over him 'til he’s gone. If only I were able I’d like to ride over him and under him and just trample him until he’s gone. If only I were able I’d like to take another ship out tomorrow. I’d go where I pleased and no submarine would stop me either.”

Our meeting took place in Wynn's apartment right by Carnegie Hall. The whole experience was as strange and wonderful as walking into the first scenes of some Hitchcock movie from the 40's.  It did indeed feel like walking into the past, and why wouldn't it? As the writer William Faulkner said "the past isn't dead it isn't even past." Wynn's home abounds with the depth and color of a long and well lived life. As you walk down the hall, one of the first things to catch the eye is a stars and stripes hanging on one of the walls. We were told by Billy that it hung over the white house for two weeks in recognition of Wynn and his wife Barbara's contribution to the arts. In the corner of the living room is a rare bust of the aforementioned George Bernard Shaw, only three exist.

Wynn told us how he spent his childhood, just like Johnny, rambling round the banks of Manhattan's East River. He also regaled with tales of his brief time in Cuba. On one particular sojourn in Havana he discovered how it felt to, as he put it, "stare into the eyes of a dictator." Wynn and another Navy companion were being courted by two Cuban lasses (as is often the fashion in Cuba), when suddenly they were interrupted by an eerie silence from the two girls. A creeping arm curled around the ladies, as a voice with very few words told them to curtail their advances on the two Navy men. The imposing, reprimanding figure was none other than that of Fulgencio Batista. Wynn told us how Batista stared single-mindedly into his eyes before departing, along with the ladies.

Fulgenio Batista, Cuban dictator
When it finally came to recording the voiceover I brought on enough audio gear to record an orchestra, but ended up having to resort to my fateful Marantz field recorder. The recording was done in Wynn's dressing room (you can see the set up in the first image above). We had to turn off the air conditioning because of the rattling hum it caused. To keep other sounds out we compounded our isolation by shutting the door to our tiny room. It was hot, it was muggy, every few minutes, like divers digging for oysters darting for the surface, we flung open the door and breathed easy as Billy Lyons blasted us with the air conditioning. Our oysters were "Dynamite" Johnny's words and didn't we pick out some good old ones!

"Certainly it does not come with good grace from a country which prides itself on the principal that the will of the people is the law of the land to say to its neighbours that it shall not oppose tyranny and fight with every means in their power for what they believe to be their rights. We [Americans] should not forget that we were rebels once ourselves, and warmly welcomed filibustering aid from France in the time of the revolution."

One of the added bonuses that came from this last trip to New York was the filming of the opening scene of our documentary. Geoff Cobb, Brooklyn native and local historian, took me on a merry jaunt of various Johnny related sites. While on our ramble, I managed to capture some eerie images of the East River from Greenpoint. Greenpoint is where Johnny got his first taste of the sea, aboard his brother's sailing ferry which ran from there to Manhattan, back in the 1850's. 

"A Captain Unafraid" still, East River from Greenpoint, Brooklyn
We celebrated our successful trip in Fannelli's, one of Soho's last old time bars. Now it was Billy's turn to regale us with tales from the past which lighted up our present, in between shuffling dances around the bar. Billy, whose family have resided in Manhattan since they stepped off the boat 150 years ago from County Cork, Ireland, had tales of woe and wonder spanning a century or more, up and down the mighty broadway!

Billy Lyons dancing off broadway in Fanelli's Bar