Could a triumvirate such as the one pictured above have an impact on the rapidly escalating situation between Israel and Hezbollah factions based in Lebanon? On the left is my father, Peter Miller, Jewish business owner and President of the 1959 Uptown Chamber of Commerce. In the middle is Lebanese Christian entertainer and philanthropist Danny Thomas, son of Middle Eastern immigrants and star of the TV mega-hit “Make Room for Daddy.” On the right is Art Niemann, assistant to billionaire businessman and self-help author W. Clement Stone. So there you have it: Jews, Arabs, and Christians united for the common good. What could be more inspiring in these difficult times?
I guess it’s a bad day to joke about the latest conflict in the Middle East. When I woke up this morning the big news was that Hezbollah rockets had reached Haifa and killed eight Israeli citizens. The main story a few hours later was that Israeli warplanes had fired missiles at a Lebanese civil defense building in the southern port city of Tyre, killing at least nine civilians and wounding 42. It’s looking like casualties will continue to mount on both sides and any hope for peace in the region has disappeared for the duration.
I’ve been trying to educate myself about the current crisis by reading various news accounts and analyses. I hesitate to offer my personal opinions here, though, since I don’t feel I have the background knowledge or expertise to discuss this complex issue in an intelligent way. In general, I am a strong supporter of the state of Israel even though I sometimes vehemently disagree with the government’s policies but if I tried to voice my feelings about the latest events I’m not sure I’d have the stomach to endure the discussion that might follow.
One blogger I read regularly, Neil Kramer, who writes the wildly funny “Citizen of the Month,” stuck his toe into the political waters the other day by looking at the unsavory relationship between French presidents and extremist Arab leaders. Touching on this subject, it was fascinating to see the change in the type of comments Neil usually receives from his legion of fans. Instead of the usual witty and adoring remarks from his readers (the majority of them female), he received a series of lengthy and passionate diatribes on this issue. It was as if several of his regular readers were starting their own blogs within the confines of Neil’s comments section—their responses were far longer than Neil’s original post. It was an interesting discussion and I admired Neil’s attempt to broach this topic, but as the intense reactions took on a life of their own, I could almost hear him watching helplessly and thinking, “Oy, what have I unleashed?”
I met someone a few days ago who, during a discussion about blogging, listed all of the big-time political blogs he reads. After revealing this extensive list, he announced, “I have no interest in reading personal blogs.” I found myself wincing at the comment. Is that what my blog is—a personal blog? Of course it is, how could it be anything else? Suddenly, in my defensiveness, I saw a whole blog hierarchy emerge, with those famous political blogs at the top of the heap, and the blogs that touch on people’s daily lives gathering barnacles at the bottom of the sea. But are those distinctions real? I thought about the different blogs that I read and every one of them seems to be a combination of the personal and political. In the context of blogging, that feminist motto seems more relevant than ever: the personal IS political.How can we make sense of anything that is happening in the world if not through the lens of our own experience?
I also thought of the individual strengths and styles of the different bloggers that I read and how much I enjoy that diversity. So instead of feeling self-conscious about my personal blog that refrains from offering an informed analysis of the conflict in the Middle East, I will try to accept and embrace my own freaky lens that somehow seems to insert figures from American pop culture into every rumination. Besides, I don’t think I could write with so-called journalistic objectivity even if I wanted to, despite my admiration for bloggers who are able to discuss what’s going on in the world with clarity and intelligence.
I know it sounds like I’m apologizing for my blog. But why? And to whom? The truth is I’m perfectly comfortable with the knowledge that I’m never going to be the Middle East correspondent for The New York Times. With that in mind, let me go back to the moment in time captured in the above photograph and my speculation about Danny Thomas’s role in improving Arab-Jewish relations.
Born Amos Yakhoob in Deerfield, Michigan, Danny Thomas probably did more for dispelling negative stereotypes about Arab-Americans in the 1950s and 60s than anyone else in public life. Lebanese actress Kathy Najimy, in accepting an award from the Arab Anti-Discrimination League several years ago, remembered how Danny Thomas and his family were revered in her household when she was growing up:
My Aunt Lillian still has pictures up of us belly dancing right next to the photo that was up in every one of my relatives' homes...the photo that still to this day is yellow and faded and ripped but remains on every wall and in every wallet...the photo of me and my cousins in our belly dancing costumes with the Lebanese T.V. God...Danny Thomas. When I was on “The Tonight Show,” Jay Leno said, “Oh, you’re Lebanese, then of course you must have that altar that is in every Arabic home I've ever been in. The one with the picture of the cedar trees and the framed photo of Danny Thomas.” And yes, we did! Actually I was particularly influenced in my life by Marlo Thomas. She was Arabic and beautiful and smart and feminist, an author, actress, and activist and the first woman character on T.V. who was single, a career woman, not living at home, and not supported by a man.
Besides his films and TV work, Danny Thomas’s main legacy is the children’s hospital he founded in Memphis. After raising the money to build the hospital, Thomas formed the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities with the sole purpose of supporting the daily operations of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. The hospital opened its doors in 1962 and is now recognized as one of the most important centers for the study and treatment of catastrophic diseases in children.
At the height of his TV fame, my father invited Danny Thomas to perform at an event that was being held to aid community development in the struggling Chicago neighborhood where my father ran a department store called Bissett’s. The Chamber of Commerce offered to pay his way and provide an honorarium but Thomas wouldn't accept a dime. He performed his act free of charge and then schmoozed with the crowd for hours afterwards. This while he was busy traveling the country fundraising for his hospital. My God, what a mensch he was.
We were obviously not an Arab family with an altar to Danny Thomas in our living room like the families of Kathy Najimy, Ralph Nader, Tony Shalhoub, Sela Ward, and many others, but the photograph of my father with Danny Thomas remained in a place of honor in our home for decades. I do think Thomas’ work back then was an important factor in promoting Arab-Jewish tolerance and cooperation. Despite being an Arab and a Maronite Christian, Thomas had already played Jews in several films. In Betty Garrett’s film debut, "Big City," which I recently mentioned, he was Cantor David Irwin Feldman; in the Doris Day vehicle, “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” he played Jewish composer Gus Kahn, who wrote songs such as “It Had to Be You” and “Makin’ Whoopee;” and in the first remake of Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer,” Danny played would-be cantor Jerry Golding opposite Peggy Lee. Thomas certainly never had any trouble “passing” for Jewish, despite his heritage, proving that Semites of all nationalities have as many commonalities as they do cultural differences.
One of my earliest memories as a child is watching the long-running “Make Room for Daddy” on our huge RCA console. This show began airing six years before I was born and continued for six years afterwards. Thomas’ Danny Williams felt like a second father to me during those years and I worshipped his beautiful wife Kathy played by Marjorie Lord (mother of actress Anne Archer). Jean Hagen, the brilliant Lina Lamont in “Singing in the Rain,” played Danny’s first wife in the 1950s but when Hagen left the show her character was killed off (a first for a TV sitcom) and Lord appeared as a widow that had married Thomas in between seasons.
Danny quickly adopted her daughter Linda, played by Angela Cartwright. Cartwright was the subject of my earliest crush and my interest in her only deepened when she reappeared as Penny Robinson in “Lost in Space” and then Louisa von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Ah, the perfect girl! But her older brother on “Make Room for Daddy” was played by Rusty Hamer, the poster boy for child stars’ lives gone wrong. Once one of the most popular children in the country, Hamer couldn’t get any work after the series ended in 1965. He and Cartwright did appear in the short-lived 1970 sequel, “Make Room for Granddaddy,” but following the cancellation of that show, Rusty’s life took a steep dive and he shot himself to death at the age of 42.
We all loved Danny’s Uncle Tonoose, played by Hans Conried, surely one of the only Arab characters seen on television during those years but not one that was immune to Arab stereotypes. Tonoose, who loved goat cheese and grape leaves, used to joke that his family descended from King Achmed the Unwashed. Oy. We also loved the Williams’ close friends, Charley and Bunny Halper, played by Sid Melton and Pat Carroll. We had the pleasure of having Pat over to our house for brunch several weeks ago. Her daughter Kerry is a friend of ours and Pat told us fascinating stories of her early years in the business as well as her most recent role in the upcoming Hilary Swank film called “Freedom Writers.” In this story of an inner city teacher trying to teach her students about tolerance, Carroll plays Miep Gies, the woman who helped hide Anne Frank.
Do you remember when the characters from “Make Room for Daddy” appeared on an episode of “I Love Lucy?” Or that the pilot for “The Andy Griffith Show” first aired on “Make Room for Daddy” with Danny Williams wandering into rural Mayberry? Thomas was the executive producer of Griffith’s show as well as many other 1960s sitcoms, most notably “The Dick Van Dyke Show” where he also appeared as the alien Krolak in the famous walnuts episode.
Okay, I’m rambling again. I guess my tendency to get lost in a reverie of old TV shows and name-dropping is one of my survival techniques for dealing with the harsh realities of what’s been happening in the world.
I pray that this latest conflict ends without too many more casualties on either side and that public opinion doesn’t turn hysterically against Israel or against the millions of Arabs who want nothing to do with the Hezbollah terrorists. Danny Thomas built St. Jude Children’s Hospital as a shrine to the saint he said had helped him when he was a struggling young man without a penny to his name. St. Jude is known as the Patron Saint of Hopeless Causes. Oh St. Jude, please hear the prayers being sent your way this week, we sure do need you now!