• BY   December 26, 2008 at 12:32 PM EDT

    Eartha Kitt’s first album, “RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt,” was released in 1954, featuring “Santa Baby.” The song has since remained a radio staple every holiday season, and there’s no doubt countless heard it on Christmas Day, the day she died.

    Kitt, the singer, dancer and actress, who amazed and seduced audiences for six decades, died Thursday at age 81. The cause was colon cancer, a family spokesman said.

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  • BY   December 25, 2008 at 1:11 PM EDT

    Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright who has been lauded as the most influential dramatist of his generation, died Wednesday at age 78 after a long battle with cancer.
    Harold Pinter; AP file photo
    “There’s always a sense of struggle for power within Pinter,” said Ben Brantley, chief theater critic for the New York Times, on the NewsHour in 2005. “It’s given voice not only in the repetition of simple words, which acquire different weights as the plays go on, but also in the silences in Pinter’s trademark pauses.”

    Those pauses and the way they highlight the tensions, lurking dangers and uncertainties of daily life earned the playwright his own adjective: “Pinteresque.”

    In addition to writing plays, Pinter was an actor, screenwriter, poet and director. He penned more than 30 plays, most notably “The Birthday Party,” “The Homecoming” and “Betrayal.”

    He also was very outspoken about his politics and used his speech upon receiving the Nobel to criticize President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and the Iraq war. His later plays, like “One for the Road,” became more openly political.

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  • BY   December 24, 2008 at 12:59 PM EDT

    It was the Sixties — a time of counter culture and social revolution, radical trends and liberal attitudes. And in 1964, an unlikely iconoclast for the times was born: the “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” Christmas special. Millions of viewers later and more than 40 years after its debut, Rudolph’s stop-motion animation tale of individualism continues to charm television audiences.

    A refresher: The surprisingly complex story follows young Rudolph as he struggles with his very shiny nose (like a light bulb!) and his exile from all of the other reindeer. He soon meets and befriends fellow social outcast Hermey the Elf. (Hermey wants to be a dentist, not a toy-making elf.) Chased by the Abominable Snow Monster, they are saved by eccentric prospector Yukon Cornelius, who is looking for gold and silver that tastes like peppermint. All three flee to the island of Misfit Toys, an oddball, free-thinking toy colony. (Hey, it was the Sixties, remember?) Unable to stay, they return to Christmasville where a bad storm is threatening to cancel Christmas. Cue Rudolph to the rescue.

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  • BY   December 24, 2008 at 12:47 PM EDT

    It has been widely noted that President-elect Barack Obama is a reader of poetry. Only days after winning the election, Mr. Obama was spotted with a copy of Derek Walcott’s collected poems. (Walcott recently penned his own poem about Mr. Obama). The president-elect even tried his hand at writing poetry, publishing two pieces in a 1981 literary journal.
    Elizabeth Alexander

    Therefore it came as no surprise last week when it was announced a poet would read at the inauguration ceremony for the first time since 1997. As millions of people watch around the world, poet Elizabeth Alexander will present an original work.

    “I have to take a deep breath and do what I do,” Alexander said in a recent phone interview. “[Mr. Obama] is asking us to bring what we have to the table, to contribute what we have, so it is not like I have to figure out how to be a poet from scratch suddenly.”

    Alexander will be just the fourth poet to read at a swearing-in ceremony for the nation’s highest office: Robert Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s in 1961; Maya Angelou read “On the Pulse of Morning” at Bill Clinton’s in 1993; and Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope” was also read for Clinton in 1997. (James Dickey almost made it, reading his poem, “The Strength of Fields,” at Jimmy Carter’s inauguration eve gala at the Kennedy Center in 1977.) Alexander is the author of four volumes of poetry, including “American Sublime,” which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize.

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  • BY   December 23, 2008 at 2:11 PM EDT

    For more than 30 years, film critic and scholar David Thomson has been asked one question over and over again: “So, what movies should I see?” His latest book, “Have You Seen….?,” is an extended romp of an answer, with short essays on 1,000 films.

    Have You SeenBorn in 1941 in London, Thomson started watching movies during “the moment in film history when more people went to the movies than they have ever done before or since.” He would go on to create his own life with the movies, writing for publications such as Film Comment, Salon and the New York Times, teaching film studies at Dartmouth, helping select films for the New York Film Festival and writing the screenplay for the award-winning documentary, “The Making of a Legend: Gone with the Wind.” He is the author of nearly two dozen books, including his popular “Biographical Dictionary of Film,” now its third edition, and “The Whole Equation: A History of Hollywood” (2004).

    “Have You Seen…?” covers films both loved and unloved, the awful with the artful. “I was very keen that the book be readable, and I didn’t want it to be 1,000 essays that had all seemed to have been stamped out of the same machine,” he told me. There’s plenty of opinion, of course, but the entries also feature history, unsung heroes, description and gossip.

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  • BY   December 23, 2008 at 10:45 AM EDT

    The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art has agreed to accept $30 million in financial assistance from billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, the Los Angeles Times reported.

    The museum will also announce the resignation of museum director Jeremy Strick after nine years on the job. UCLA Chancellor Emeritus Charles Young will be named the museum’s first chief executive officer. A formal announcement will be made today at a news conference at 10:30 a.m. Pacific Time.

    In the face of economic troubles, MOCA had been deliberating between two offers in recent weeks: one by Broad and the other a merger with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

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  • BY   December 22, 2008 at 11:04 AM EDT

    By Jason Gray
    'Photographing Eden' by Jason Gray

    1. First Lesson

    The first thing I ever heard from you
    Was how to paint the Savior dead.

    I felt unseated, struck like Mary
    At the angel’s visitation,

    And fell in love with your voice. Here
    Was prophecy: I sensed the words

    Shook you as much as they shook me.
    But the foretold means nothing if none

    Can read what’s on the summer air
    And what is not: against the dark

    A flash of fireflies, a speck
    Of water on the brightest day.

    2. Interpretation

    Here you are the Corinthian Maid,
    Trying to get your lover into the sun
    To trace his shadow. Always he must go,
    Always you stay. How you will learn to love
    The rock you drew on when he’s gone.
    Born out of need to keep at least a ghost
    Of our loves, the history of art is this:
    The bitter kiss of chalk left on your lips
    When stone is film plate and adored.
    Forget the process, love the aftertaste.

    When Adam left to tend his olives,
    You were left to bear his image.
    His knee-high boys with jelly-covered fingers
    Grasped your skirt and marked their territory.
    The jelly stains were little hearts all over you.
    No woman had ever been so loved, you told yourself,
    And scratched a stick into the ground.

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  • BY   December 19, 2008 at 1:59 PM EDT

    The new film, “Milk,” by director Gus Van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk, who in 1977 became the first openly gay elected official in the United States as a member of the San Francisco County Board of Supervisors. Less than a year later, he was assassinated in his City Hall office along with San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. Dan White, a former city supervisor, shot Milk five times.

    “Harvey was one of those extraordinary personalities that people need to know about, primarily because of his ordinariness. He really was an ordinary man,” former associate and gay activist Cleve Jones said in an interview this week.

    Born in 1930, Milk left New York for San Francisco in 1972. He and his partner, Scott, opened a camera store in a struggling San Francisco neighborhood, the Castro, which was becoming the epicenter of the city’s thriving gay community. Milk was soon referred to as “the mayor of Castro Street.”

    One of Milk’s greatest achievements was a campaign in 1978 to defeat Proposition 6 in California. Also known as the Briggs Initiative after California legislator John Briggs, Proposition 6 aimed to ban and fire homosexual teachers and any public school employee who supported gay rights. The proposition lost by more than one million votes.

    Jones was a witness to it all and remains an activist. He became a key organizer for Milk in the 1970s, mobilizing thousands with little more than pay phones and staple guns.
    Cleve Jones and Emile Hirsch; photo courtesy of Focus Features LLC. All rights reserved.
    “It was really pretty amazing; we could turn thousands of people out in a very short time,” said Jones, adding, “Harvey had a real gift for involving young people, and he was a wonderful mentor to many young people, gay and straight alike.”

    In 1985, Jones came up with idea of the AIDS Quilt. Two years later, the memorial, with 1,920 panels, was spread across the National Mall for the first time. Jones continues to speak at colleges across the United States. Speaking with Jeffrey Brown, Jones credits Milk with training him in the art and power of public speaking and political participation.

    Striving to keep Milk’s memory alive, Jones was central to getting the film made. He linked writer Dustin Lance Black with director Gus Van Sant, and acted as historical consultant to the film. Sean Penn stars as the ebullient Milk, and an impassioned Emile Hirsch as Jones himself. “Milk” is now playing in theaters across the country.

    Jeffrey Brown talked to Cleve Jones earlier this week. Jones spoke via cell phone from California:

    Here is a clip from “Milk” featuring Hirsch as Jones and Penn as Milk:

    Editor’s note: There is a wealth of information about Harvey Milk available from various PBS programs and stations. Just go to PBS.org.

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  • BY   December 19, 2008 at 1:17 PM EDT

    The “Hope Speech” became Harvey Milk’s stump speech. He gave a skeletal version when he declared his candidacy in 1977 and an expanded version in 1978 for the San Francisco Gay Freedom Day Parade, later known as the Gay Pride Parade. For that parade, Milk commissioned his friend Gilbert Baker to come up with a logo; Baker created the gay pride Rainbow Flag, which first waved at that parade. Chicago native and science fiction writer Frank Robinson, also Milk’s speechwriter and a close adviser, helped pen the “Hope Speech.”

    In the speech, Milk references adversaries Anita Bryant and California legislator John Briggs, who campaigned nationally against gay rights. Addressing gay youths across the United States afraid to come out, Milk cites his own election as a gay politician in San Francisco as a testament of hope. For those youths contemplating suicide or staying in the closet, there were two new options, Milk said: “Go to California, or stay … and fight.”

    On Nov. 18, 1978, Milk recorded an audio tape at his camera store to be played in the event of his assassination. Nine days later, his fears were realized when he was shot five times by Dan White, a former city supervisor who had recently resigned. White hoped to rescind his resignation and believed Milk to be a threat to that end. In the tape, Milk acknowledges that a gay activist is a target but believed it important to state his thoughts, memories and motivations in the event of his assassination. Milk mentions Mayor George Moscone, who would have been in charge of nominating Milk’s successor, and puts forth Robinson as an option. White, however, assassinated Moscone minutes before killing Milk.

    Later Friday, we will post Jeffrey Brown’s conversation with Milk’s associate and friend Cleve Jones. Jones spoke to Jeffrey Brown via cell phone from California. In the film, “Milk,” Jones is played by actor Emile Hirsch.

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  • BY   December 19, 2008 at 1:00 PM EDT

    I want to thank all of you ‘first responders’ who’ve written here and reached us in other ways with comments on our new Art Beat blog. The positive feedback has been very gratifying and encourages us to go forward with this effort. I apologize for not being able to respond to everyone individually, but please know that we’re reading your comments and pondering your suggestions. Keep them coming!

    I also want to take a moment to thank the small but energetic team that’s doing all the real work — especially Tom LeGro, Mike Melia, Vanessa Dennis, Meghann Farnsworth, Molly Finnegan, Katie Kleinman, Zoe Pollock and Zack Seward.

    It’s been interesting to me to see the first batch of stories we’ve posted. I’ve been especially happy to learn of several people — Bryan Bell, for example — of whom I knew very little. That’s what I hope will continue for all of us. As I said on the NewsHour that first day, this is a chance to expand our arts coverage, share more stories and speak with more people who help shape our cultural lives.

    I’ll try to write every Friday with a preview of what’s to come. Next week, among other things, we begin a “poem of the week” feature and we’ll have a story on stop-motion animation. We’ll also have a conversation I recorded today with film writer David Thomson, a longtime favorite of mine, about his new book, “Have You Seen…?” and some of his favorite new films. And, coming soon, we’ll have a look at the new production of David Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow” and a conversation with sculptor Andy Goldsworthy.

    Thanks again for joining us on Art Beat.

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