Books and Beyond
The Alan Alda book I’ve just read is “Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and Other Things I’ve Learned,” c 2005. That’s the title of Chapter 3 too, so I will start by telling you about this chapter.
When Alan is 7 years old, he has polio, and his parents, who are actors in burlesque, give him a black cocker spaniel they name Rhapsody. This name is chosen because Alan’s father is acting in the film “Rhapsody in Blue.”
Their house now, in 1943, is in Hollywood, and we read “The country was in the throes of an epidemic” (p. 16). Alan explains that he was in the hospital for some time with polio, and then he is in his bedroom at home where his parents gave him the Sister Kenny treatments of hot blankets wrapped around him. They also gave him massages.
About the time he could resume a life without polio, the family moved to a house in La Tuba Canyon with a pool, a barn, and several animals. Doctors told Alan that swimming would be good for him.
The first night at their new home Rhapsody dies, probably from something he ate. Alan’s dad was going to help bury the dog, but then he suggests that the dog be stuffed so they could still be together. This plan didn’t work for Alan. The stuffed dog did not make him happy like the alive dog Rhapsody did.
Alan learns lessons about life all the way through the book, and this is one of them: sometimes what you plan as a helpful action is not helpful after all, and you move on to learn a new lesson.
For the chapters in what he gives the title “Act One,” Alan is a young boy, sometimes going with his parents to their acting assignments. When he was 9 years old, his father let him be in a sketch at the Hollywood Center for troops passing through Los Angeles. He got a laugh. When he’s in seventh grade, he learns about bullies at school. At home he learns how babies come into being.
Act Two in the book (nine chapters) begins when he is 12 and attending a Catholic school in Burbank. He and two friends write a musical comedy called “Love’s the Ticket,” and it is a success. If he maintains grades with an average in the 90s, the school will approve his going to Paris for his junior year. His parents happen to be in Europe at the same time because his father got work in a television series about spies in WWII. They visit him in Paris, and he visits them in Amsterdam.
Then they are all back in Burbank, and Alan tells us more about the mental illness his mother has. His parents divorce, and his father remarries and has a son, Antony, a half-brother for Alan. Back on the west coast Alan meets Arlene, a musician he falls in love with. How this happens: they are both at a gathering where a rum cake falls to the floor, and he and this woman sit on the floor and eat the cake. They spend time together, get married, have three girls, and they are still together in 2020.
One of the times he is with his father, they talk about what name Alan would use. The family last name was Italian — D’Abruzzo. They come up with Alda for his last name. They think it sounds Italian.
Along the way, he has many parts in plays, and he writes more about improvisation as he learns more about it: ” … an approach to improvising that changed theaters in America and changed my life along with it” (p. 115).
About halfway through the book, we come to many pages of photos. I especially like the ones where he is a young boy standing with his parents.
At the end of Chapter 12, he is offered a script for a “television series about a bunch of doctors and nurses in Korea” (p. 145). That is “M*A*S*H,” and many friends I’ve talked to lately watched the program from 1972 to 1983, and still find a way to watch it. Alda in the program is the character Hawkeye.
Improvisation describes one of our favorite “M*A*S*H” programs. It’s in Season 4, and the title is “Hawkeye.” He is driving a jeep, and to miss hitting some children on the road, he swerves, and the car turns over. He is injured, and walks to the nearest house he sees. It’s a Korean family doing everyday chores. Hawkeye knows he needs to walk and stay active mentally.
For nearly the entire program, he walks (unsteadily) back and forth in the house, talking with family — mother, father, and young children. The oldest girl leaves the house to walk to the M*A*S*H compound to bring help for Hawkeye. This twenty minutes to me tells the story of Alan Alda’s life. To me the title is “Improvisation.” (Do you need to look this up in the dictionary?)
As other Alda books, this one does not follow a sequential path. The reader goes back and forth in his life and learns many lessons. The other titles are “Things I Overheard While Talking to Myself,” c 2007, and “If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look On My Face?” c 2017. There are two CD sets of Alda reading from his books. I never get tired of his books or CDs. All of them are available at Plum Creek Library System.
From my notes: Rabbits — Alda has rabbit stories from his boyhood. Is that why Radar in the TV show has some rabbits? Is that why I just bought a stuffed rabbit? I will be tempted to write another Alda book column some day.
Your Marshall-Lyon County Library is open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-4:30 p.m., with the drive-up window available Monday-Friday 4-5:30 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m.- noon, Marshalllyonlibrary.org.