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A Long History in the Making : After 35 Years, Vol. 2 of Stan Freberg's Landmark 'America' Spoof Arrives

July 08, 1996|RICHARD CROMELIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Stan Freberg looks like a subdued Uncle Sam as he strolls into a Beverly Hills restaurant in a dark blue jacket, red shirt and matching pocket handkerchief, and a necktie emblazoned with small American flags.

The get-up is no surprise--the silver-haired satirist is celebrating Rhino Records' release of his "The United States of America Vol. 2," an event that fans of recorded comedy have awaited with growing impatience for more than three decades.

The surprise is that Freberg, sitting down for lunch, fails to inquire, "What do you think? Is it me?"

As uttered by the vain George Washington, that's one of the recurring signature lines from 1961's "United States of America--the Early Years," a collection of skits and songs that constitutes the "Sgt. Pepper" of comedy albums.

"The original album was one of a kind, it was just a totally original concept when it happened," says Barry Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento, the syndicated radio host and an authority on novelty and comedy records. "And it's proven to be pretty durable in terms of timelessness. . . . Most of it holds up real well today."

A daunting legacy, but Freberg says he wasn't intimidated when he picked up the thread last year.

"I felt a relief, if you want to know the truth, I felt a great relief that I was finally in the studio starting to record Vol. 2. I'd just been interrupted for 30 years or whatever it's been."

"Interrupted" is putting it mildly. Freberg, who had dominated recorded comedy in the '50s with a barrage of hit singles skewering pop idols, TV shows and politicians, intended his collection as the first of an ongoing series.

The initial snag came when he hooked up with with theater impresario David Merrick to adapt the album for Broadway. Merrick wouldn't let Freberg release any more albums while the project, which spanned the years from Columbus' voyage through the Revolutionary War, was in the works. But after a drawn-out struggle that saw the show reach the rehearsal stage, Freberg left, unable to deal anymore with the demanding producer.

"It was terrible," says Freberg. "It crippled me emotionally. I went a year without writing anything of significance. . . . It was very difficult. I literally put the script in a drawer in my desk and slammed the drawer and said someday I'll get back to this."

But other work--primarily in advertising, where he applied his irreverent touch to everything from canned chow mein to pitted prunes--intervened. Freberg returned briefly to the project in the late '80s when 20th Century Fox proposed a film version, but that effort sank when the studio changed regimes.

Then Rhino Records began pursuing him for Vol. 2, and Freberg finally rounded up some of his old collaborators, including legendary musical arranger Billy May and actors Jesse White, June Foray and Peter Leeds. Newcomers including Tyne Daley, John Goodman, Harry Shearer and David Ogden Stiers came on board to take the saga through World War I.

"It was great to be in the studio working and creating and doing what I know how to do, which is to create audio experiences," Freberg says. "Man, it just whet my appetite to do more now."

At 69, Freberg is a droll and jovial patriarch, still enough of a ham to want to read aloud a sample of his syndicated, 90-second radio commentaries rather than simply hand over a transcript, and to duplicate the precise voices he contributed to Warner Bros. cartoons in the '40s--the first job the inexperienced but talented kid from South Pasadena landed out of high school.

Freberg was also there at the dawn of television, writing and performing the pioneering puppet show "Time for Beany." After establishing himself with such popular Capitol Records singles as the soap opera spoof "John and Marsha" and the "Dragnet" takeoff "St. George and the Dragonet," he turned to his original love, radio, taking over Jack Benny's Sunday night time slot on the CBS network in 1957.

Through it all, his view of comedy has remained constant.

"A true satirist tries to hold a mirror up to society, so that society can see itself, and he uses the tool of exaggeration. . . . If you didn't have humor in there it would just be pure preachment. . . . I don't know, we seem to have lost our moral compass, and if I can ever do just a little bit as a satirist to point up some of the absurdities of mankind, like war for example, that's fine."

Does Freberg, who will turn 70 next month, give any thought to slowing down?

"No, I have thoughts about speeding up, before I get hit by a bread truck or something. . . . I want to accelerate now, because I have a lot of things I want to do. I still want to see 'The United States of America' on its feet as a musical. I want to do it with an eye to Broadway. . . . I can get that together very fast if somebody actually wants to do this.

"Making this album sort of got me back in the spirit of things now, and Rhino says they're ready for Vol. 3, so we'll see."

Freberg has already started writing it, and he recently reached Gen. Douglas MacArthur's departure from the Philippines during World War II.

"See," Freberg says, "the reason he can't quite leave yet is he can't find his sunglasses. So he finally comes in with his wife's harlequin sunglasses with rhinestones all over. . . ."

Freberg fans will savor the payoff, as much as they'll see it coming.

"And he says, 'Is it me? What do you think, Is it me?' "

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