A weekly feature in which my five-year-old son is let loose on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Los Angeles, and chooses a star from among the more than 2,500 honorees. His “random” picks sometimes reveal unexplained connections such as the summer day in 2012 when he sat down on the star of actress Celeste Holm and refused to budge. We later learned that the Oscar-winning actress had died only hours earlier. There are five categories on the Walk of Fame: motion pictures, television, radio, music and theater but Charlie tends to favor the movies.
For the first time ever, Charlie chose one of the stars on the Walk of Fame dedicated to radio performers. But Arlene Francis would also apply in the categories of movies, TV, and theater. I am a huge Arlene Francis fan, mostly from her 25 years as the brilliant, urbane, incredibly witty panelist of What’s My Line?, the game show hosted by John Charles Daly on which Francis was a regular along with publisher Bennett Cerf and columnist Dorothy Kilgallen. If you’ve never seen this show during its golden years, get online immediately and take a look. Trust me, you will fall in love with Arlene Francis before the first commercial break.
Born Arlene Francis Kazanjian in Boston on October 20, 1907, Arlene’s family moved to New York when she was seven and she never looked back. She studied acting in college and was only 20 when she made her Broadway debut in La Gringa with Claudette Colbart and Clara Blandick (who would go on to play Aunt Em in The Wizard of Oz). She appeared in 26 Broadway plays over the years including the original production of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women, Once More with Feeling opposite Joseph Cotten and Walter Matthau, and a revival of Dinner at Eight with Walter Pidgeon and June Havoc.
But Francis was mostly known as a radio and TV personality. She hosted several programs, from talk shows to quiz shows, and, beginning in 1950, began her long association with What’s My Line? In addition to that weekly appearance and stints on other game shows such as Password and Match Game, Francis was a television pioneer — one of the first women to host a magazine-type news show. She was host and editor-in-chief of Home from 1954 to 1957, causing Newsweek to crown her “the first lady of television.”
Arlene’s movie career began in 1932 as one of Bela Lugosi’s streetwalker victims in Murder in the Rue Morgue. Other notable film roles included a nice part as James Cagney’s wife in Billy Wilder’s One, Two, Three (1961) and a role as one of obstetrician James Garner’s patients in the sparkling Doris Day comedy The Thrill of it All (1963). The fact that 56-year-old Francis’s character gets pregnant in the film did not cause much of a stir — the lovely actress could have easily passed for 40! He final screen appearance was in Billy Wilder’s Fedora (1978).
My childhood memories of Arlene Francis are intertwined with her 1961 cookbook, No Time for Cooking, that was a staple in my home. But even then I knew that the color photos of Arlene’s glamorous high-life in New York bore little resemblance to anything I was experiencing in our middle class life in Chicago. The caption on the photo at right says, “I like to entertain informally. The little spread you see here is set out on the coffee table in my living room. Like most working women, my schedule simply doesn’t allow for big affairs very often.” Um…this is informal? I guess in Arlene’s world it was, even though the silk dressing gown, canapés, and carved pineapple evoke a palace event at Versailles compared to what we considered an informal meal at my house.
I’m sure a lot of celebrity cookbooks are ghostwritten by professional writers but this book had Arlene’s unique wit all over it — I’m sure she wrote it herself. Just take a look at her “Act 1” introduction:
Just as some people lose their attractiveness at the beach, others seem stripped of all charm at the breakfast table. They fall into two types — and I’d wish they’d fall farther. You have either those determined human-robins, who chirp brightly over their orange juice, or you are confronted with the Great Stone Face, who won’t speak!
The following panacea of breakfast suggestions are so good the human-robin shuts up to eat them, and the Stone Face speaks up in appreciation. Either way, with a Breakfast Winner, how can you lose?
While Arlene’s repartee is always sparkling, many of her recipes make my 21st century stomach want to hurl. But what do I know? Maybe you’d enjoy her breakfast selections which include such items as Prune Delight, Fruited Pork Roll, Tongue Omelet, or Smoked Sliced Beef Pancakes.
In addition to providing many recipes, Arlene was a bit of a shill for her co-publisher, Mickleberry Food Products, a Chicago-based packaged food company that would suffer a terrible factory fire in the late 1960s and go out of business. This photo shows some of their prepared products. (Notice the careful placement of Arlene’s book, That Certain Something, on the table!) The caption reads, “HE might want Beef in Red Wine, SHE might prefer Lobster Newburg. These and many other truly gourmet dishes are individually packaged in Flex-Vac ‘boil-in-bag’ form and frozen.” I would never question Arlene’s honesty, but if that Lobster Newburg came out of a frozen pouch, then my name is Bennett Cerf!
In the chapter on picnics and cookouts, Arlene offers up her Bacon Kebabs that include grilled bacon wrapped around carrots, olives, and cucumbers, all basted with garlic butter. How about cubes of canned luncheon meat interspersed with buttered bananas? Another recipe involves folded slices of pork luncheon meat and salami mixed with maraschino cherries, vacuum-packed dried apricots, and canned pineapple chunks. For a special treat called Asparagus Mornay, Arlene arranges a 6-ounce package of sliced luxury loaf in a pie plate and then thaws some frozen asparagus tips in Hollandaise to sprinkle on the meat along with some cheddar cheese. Yum…but what the hell is luxury loaf?
Feel like entertaining? Arlene has all the advice you’ll ever need, as well as delicious recipes for Tongue Spread, Prune Rings, a melted cheese dish called White Monkey, her famous Bologna Ring Gelatin Mold, and something called Frankfurter Suey which combines hot dogs with soy sauce, brown sugar, bean sprouts, onions, and chicken bouillon cubes. Mmm-good! If anyone knows how to throw a well-heeled soiree, it’s Arlene Francis:
Parties, like plays, need plotting. You can’t just ring up the curtain and hope for the best. One plot element, as important as the menu, décor, and advance preparation, is your cast of characters. To wit, if your guests lack mutual interests, their dialogue, witty or not, will give out before dinner.
The party setting is a manner of brightening your home as a mute but warm compliment to your guests. Remember, too, in that setting you, the hostess, will be stage center. If everything’s ready in the wings, there’s no need for you to make your first entrance in a dash from a hot kitchen into the spotlight looking like a road company witch from “Macbeth.” If you’ve plotted well and timed things properly, you can glide onstage, glamorous as a professional model. The hostess’ temperature serves as a reverse thermometer for her guests. When she’s feverish, their spirits drop to zero; when she’s cool, their spirits soar.
I’d be willing to eat Arlene’s Bacon Kabobs or Luxury Loaf if I could spend some time in her gracious, elegant presence. Throughout the book, Arlene talks about her teenaged son Peter (with her second husband, actor/producer Martin Gabel) who “likes to feed his friends in his own room where the record collection is handy.” She explains that Peter and his “constituents in Young America” prefer cold cuts, hot dogs, and hamburgers to anything else in or out of this world. “When teenagers have four miles of catsup in which to drown anything they’re eating, they’re in heaven. Beyond that there’s little to say except ‘Batten down the hatches, and lots of luck!’”
Today that teenager is 67-year-old Peter Gabel, graduate of Harvard Law School, and associate editor of Tikkun magazine. He is the author of several books including the recent Another Way of Seeing: Essays on Transforming Law, Politics, and Culture. Arlene, you did good! Sadly, Arlene Francis suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease during the last years of her life. She died on May 31, 2001, at the age of 93.
Thanks for remembering this lovely woman, Charlie. As a reward, I promise to make some of Arlene’s famous Bologna Ring Gelatin Mold tonight!