Josh Bell found it all -- classical music, tennis, sex studies -- in Indiana

You find interesting things in Indiana, including the former farms of Bill Monroe, Larry Bird and Cole Porter. Really. And in Bloomington, you'll find the musical roots of everyone from John Mellencamp to Joshua Bell. Bell, who has a PBS special Friday (Dec. 16) is an interesting guy; here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Let's say your
mad-scientist goal is to blend opposite forces – to make a
classical-music superstar who is still .... well, sort of normal.

Where do you start?
Try Bloomington, Indiana.

That's where Joshua
Bell – who has a PBS special Friday – grew up. “I tell that to
some people in Europe (and) they say, 'Oh, you're from the middle of
nowhere,'” he said. Still, it offered:

-- An unrushed pace,
where he could try many things. “I played a lot of sports,” Bell
said. “I played tennis (and) basketball.”

-- Extraordinary
music. Indiana University's music school has a top reputation and
about 1,600 students. “It's, I think, the largest in the country.”

Or the
second-largest; North Texas often edges it out. Either way, his
parents found it by accident.

Bell's dad, a
psychotherapist, had taken a job at the Kinsey Institute for Sex
Research – another thing you don't expect to find in Indiana. Once
his parents moved there, Bell said, “they were surprised to see
this music, because they love music.”

Bell started violin
lessons at 4, had several top teachers from the university and at 12
began studying with Josef Gingold, considered a master. By then, he
had already:

-- Done his first
solo recital at 11, which included a dizzyingly difficult piece by
Pablo Sarasate.

-- Prospered in
tennis. At 10, one account says, he was fourth in his age group in a
national tournament.

It was possible to
do both, Bell said, because he was blessed with a knack for intense

“My mother used to
drop me off at the Indiana University Music School and I'd go in the
front door and she'd say, 'I'll see you in five hours.' And then I'd
go out the back door and literally play Pac-Man and all those things
in the '80s for about four of those hours .... I actually learned how
to really cram

and really

Apparently, that
worked. At 14, he soloed with the Philadelphia Orchestra; at 17, he
was in Carnegie Hall, soloing with the St. Louis Symphony.

That was also the
year he signed his first record deal, eventually moving to Sony
Classical. He's had seven albums reach No. 1 on Billboard's classical
charts, winning two Grammys.

He's become a media
event, from playing the Sarasate piece for Johnny Carson at 21 to
doing soundtracks for movies -- “Music of the Heart,” “The Red
Violin” and “Ladies in Lavender.”

These days, Bell
lives in Manhattan and has three daughters and a 303-year-old
Stradivarius violin worth millions. But he also has that Indiana
manner and, at 49, a youthful look.

That makes him
logical for some cultural outreach. “Earlier this year, Joshua
traveled to Cuba as part of an historic cultural mission initiated by
Barack Obama,” said PBS producer Andrew Wilk.

With Dave Matthews,
Smokey Robinson, Usher and others, he met Cubans and jammed with some
of them. That included the Chamber Orchestra of Havana, with
musicians in their early 20s, Bell said. “They played
fantastically. I was so impressed with them – their spirit and

Afterward, he talked
Wilk into a concert special that includes that group, other Cuban
musicians and Matthews. This one isn't live, but it is at the Lincoln
Center, under the banner of “Live From the Lincoln Center,” which
Wilk produces and Bell has done several times.

With “my parents,
that was a regular thing,” he said. “We sat around and watched
live Lincoln Center programs.” There they were – a tennis player
and a sex therapist – watching classical concerts from
half-a-continent away. At that point, Indiana didn't seem like the
middle of nowhere.

-- “Life From the
Lincoln Center: Joshua Bell's Seasons of Cuba”

-- 9 p.m. Friday,
PBS (check local listings)



Fresh views of Van Gogh -- from the ear to the soul

We expect TV to deliver lots of cops and crooks and such; we don't expect it to tell us much about history's great artists. But here we are, with two fascinating films just six days apart. Last Thursday was Pablo Picasso (see previous blog); tonight is a richly revisionist view of the night Vincent Van Gogh is known for. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For generations,
schoolkids have heard the story of Vincent Van Gogh.

Wasn't he a solemn
and lonely artist who was jilted by a lover – then cut off his ear
and gave it to her?

Now, 128 years after
the event, comes Bernadette Murphy. “EverythingI thought I knew
about Van Gogh, I had to put aside,” she said.

Her research – now
in a fascinating PBS documentary – offers new views of what he cut,
why he did it, who he gave it to ... and what sort of person he was.

“Everybody thought
he was this lonely, solitary character with no money .... None of
that turned out to be true,” Murphy said. “He was a very
friendly, lively man.”

Yes, he hated the
early expectations that he become a clergyman like his father. “He
was unhappy with the whole idea of studying Greek and Latin to become
a pastor,” said David Kessler, a retired librarian (University of
California, Berkeley) who has extensively read letters about Van

He tried working at
his uncles' art-dealer business and soon failed. But his younger
brothet Theo thrived at the same business and promptly became Van
Gogh's patron.

Theo “was
extraordinarily generous,” Murphy said. He suggested his brother
paint in France and gave him a solid salary

And Van Gogh showed
that same spirit, Kessler said. Letters indicated “he was one of
the most generous and caring people you could ever imagine.”

The language barrier
frustrated him, Murphy said, but he had made friends and made plans.
“He had this vision of sort of an artistic community ... where
they'd all hang out, discuss paintings, exchange paintings with each
others.” He even bought 12 chairs for the tiny, yellow house he was

Theo paid artist
Paul Gauguin (who owed him money) to be with Van Gogh in France.
Soon, however, the argumentative side of Vincent's personality
flared. Then two setbacks were almost simultaneous:

-- Gauguin was
leaving, after just nine weeks. The artist-community dream was dying.

-- Theo was getting
married; some day, Van Gogh felt, he would no longer have his

“Those two things
pushed him over the edge,” Murphy said. On Dec. 23, 1888, he cut
his ear and delivered it to a woman. Other questions – how much was
cut and who did he give it to? – lingered.

Then they were
solved, apparently, by a someone with no academic credentials, who
grants she was “never, really, a big van Gogh fan.:

The youngest of
eight children in an Irish Catholic family, Murphy grew up in
England, but visited a brother in France – then decided to stay. “I
thought, 'It's now or never. What were your dreams when you were
younger? Why aren't you doing them?'”

Living in France,
she heard bits of the Van Gogh story and wondered about small
discrepancies. That pushed her to do fresh research. The documentary
shows how she used records and contacts to figure out who received
the ear ... and diligence and luck to learn how much was cut.

Before writing his
1934 novel “Lust For Life,” Irving Stone had done elaborate
research into Van Gogh. Much later, his widow gave his papers to the
University of California, Berkeley, where he had studied. Murphy
began an E-mail dialog with Kessler, who found what he calls “a
very tiny, little scrap of paper, which was written on a prescription
pad by Dr. Rey, with a little diagram and a little note in French,
asking that Irving Stone do good things for the memory of his beloved
friend Vincent.”

On that note was a
diagram showing what had been cut off. It was the entire ear – an
act of despair by a man who was also known for vibrancy and genius.

-- “Secrets of the
Dead: Van Gogh's Ear,” 10 p.m. Wednesday, PBS (check local


No surprise here: "Hairspray Live" was a gem

Let me pause to state the obvious: NBC's "Hairspray Live" tonight was sensationally good.

It was a tad better than Fox's "Grease Live" ... which was, until now, the best TV show of 2016.

Like "Grease," it had an uptempo, oldies-rock sound and a production that sprawled all over the studio lot. Unlike it, it also had a good story.

The production was dazzling, from the opening moments. I was convinced I was seeing a ceiling view of Tracy in bed; then the set dissolved and I saw that she was vertical, on a city street. From there, the camera work and choreography were superb.

"Hairspray" did sag a little in the middle -- shows do that sometimes; so do people -- but it bounced back sharply. Yes, newcomer Maddie Baillio was perfect as Tracy, but that was just the start of a superb cast. With one exception -- Garrett Clayton was so-so as Link -- this was an amazing group. Jennifer Hudson and Kristin Chenowith were amazing, as expected, but there was also the happy surprise of Derek Hough's singing and Ariana Grande's acting.

And in a cast filled with stars, I was impressed by Ephraim Sykes, a relative newcomer. He's been confined to the ensemble in five Broadway shows (including "Hamilton") and played Marvin in "Vinyl"; here -- as the dancer who taught Tracy her moves and then integrated a TV dance show -- he was terrific. 

For Picasso, art and love and lust entwined

We don't always understand Pablo Picasso's work, but the human dimension behind it is -- for good or bad -- universal. In a cable special Thursday (Dec. 8), his grandson takes an intriguing view of the loves that shaped Picasso's life and work. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

For most artists,
there are two stories to tell – the art and the life.

For Pablo Picasso,
his grandson insists, there's only one. “His life as an artist and
as a man were exactly the same,” Olivier Widmaier Picasso said.

Some men wear their
hearts on their sleeves, but Picasso wore his on his canvasses and
sketch pads. Examine any period, said Olivier (as we'll call him to
avoid confusion) and you'll know which woman was his lover-and-model
and how he felt about her.

That emerges in
“Picasso, The Legacy,” a cable documentary that Olivier
co-produced and co-wrote. It includes experts and grandkids, plus two
remarkable women:

-- Francoise Gilot,
an artist who was Picasso's lover for almost a decade. “She is (95)
years old and I was absolutely astonished by her energy,” Olivier
said. “She met him when she was 21” and he was 61.

-- Maya Widmaier
Picasso, 81, Olivier's mother. She told the stories she had heard
from her mother, Marie-Therese Walter, one of the profound forces in
Picasso's life.

By then, there'd
been others – eight years with the bohemian Fernande Olivier; three
with Eva Gouel, before she died of illness at 30; then marriage to
Olga Khokhlova, a ballerina and sophisticate.

Nine years into his
marriage, Picasso saw Walter enter a Paris department store. “He
waited outside for her for a long time; it was fortunate that he
waited,” said Olivier, who owes his existence to moment his
grandparents, then 17 and 45, met.

“She was very
young and athletic,” Olivier said. “She didn't know who he was
... To him, it was starting over.”

Picasso's wife, the
ballerina, had shown him a cosmopolitan life, Olivier said. “Pictures
then showed him dressed up in a three-piece suit. He was not very

With Marie-Therese,
the mood was different, he said. “It was seaside and bathing suits.
Everything was easy.” Or semi-easy, considering that the
relationship was kept secret from Picasso's wife.

Olga found out when
Marie-Therese became pregnant with Maya (Olivier's mother). She left,
but didn't divorce; Picasso spent almost a decade each with
Marie-Therese, Dora Maar and the remarkable Gilot.

Gilot was the
opposite of an easygoing teen-ager. “Francoise had ideas about
raising children and many things,” Olivier said. “She told me
that he said, 'No one leaves me.' She said, 'We'll see about that.'”

She left, took their
two children, wrote a book and later married Dr. Jonas Salk. Picasso
moved on. At 79 and a widower, he married Jacqueline Roque; they
would be together until his death at 91.

“I always remember
the moment my mother said, 'Your grandfather is dead,'” Olivier
said. “She was devastated.”

Olivier was almost
12 then and had never met the man. Still, Picasso's paintings lined
the walls of his home. “That was normal to me .... I had to get
used to seeing my mother and grandmother with their nose and both
eyes on the same side of their face.”

At the time, he and
his mother were using his dad's “Widmaier” surname. But the
French had just revised their laws, legitimatizing children born out
of wedlock; Maya became one of five heirs.

Since then, Olivier,
55, has studied Picasso's life. “He was not a womanizer,” he
insists. He was someone who loved women passionately, but not
permanently. “He was not aiming to hurt them.”

But many were hurt
and two committed suicide – Jacqueline at 59 and Marie-Therese
(Olivier's grandmother) at 68. Both outlived Picasso and have
permanent roles in art history.

Ultimately, Olivier
said, Picasso's work was his strongest attachment, “He said his
life was spent alone in the studio. But there was always a woman
outside the door.”

-- “Picasso, the
Legacy,” 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Ovation Channel (via cable or






The Obama era -- an 18-month swirl ... and then six years of improvising

.This is what TV should be doing more often -- taking big looks at the mega-events that change the world. Now -- Dec. 7, plus reruns -- CNN's Fareed Zakaria views the Obama era. Here's the story I sent to papers:

(Very interesting TV
story about an Obama CNN special that debuts Wednesday and reruns

By Mike Hughes

How do you ponder
the Barack Obama era? For starters, you could split it in two.

There was that
first, swirling stretch. “It all happened in 18 months,” said
Fareed Zakaria, whose two-hour special debuts Wednesday on CNN.

And then there was
the aftermath – six years of government by executive action. “We
may look back and be surprised by how much was done in small-ball
ways,” Zakaria said.

It was the early
swirl – viewed by Obama as the busiest domestic-policy stretch
since the Lyndon Johnson years – that led to the Republican
takeover of the House and Senate.

During that stretch,
Obama had resisted public opinion. “The auto-industry bail-out was
wildly unpopular,” Zakaria said. “Two-thirds of the people
opposed it.”

Even more unpopular
was the bank bail-out. “David Axelrod (then Obama's senior advisor)
said. 'I've never seen anythig that polled so badly.'”

The Wall Street
collapse had come at the end of the Bush Administration, which made
the same recommendation – bail out the banks, to avoid a total
economic collapse. But the bail-out came at the start of the Obama
years, sparking outrage. Zakaria points to what Timothy Geithner,
Obama's first Treasury secretary, wrote: “We saved the economy
(but) we lost the country.”

That came as the
unemployment rate was climbing toward 10 percent. Preparing a
stimulus package, Obama made the rare move of going to Congress to
push for Republican votes; he got none.

“The Republicans
say his mind was made up .... he didn't want any feedback,” Zakaria
said. They used the phrase “arrogant”; Zakaria falls short of
that. “He tends to be a compromiser, but he's a technocrat” who
prefers to mold his own version of the compromise.

That approach
collided with total opposition, Zakaria said, nudged by “the fact
that it started so early.” On Inauguration Day, 15 Republican
leaders formulated a total-resistance policy. “(Sen.) Mitch
McConnell said, 'Our No. 1 priority was to make sure Barack Obama was
a one-term president.'”

Ironically, he
served two terms, leaving with a fairly high approval rating and low
(under fivepercent) unemployment rate. But the early actions,
particularly Obamacare, led to the Republicans' takeover of the House
and Senate.

With no chance of
getting things through Congress, there was improvising. “Obama's
use of executive action has been very creative.,” Zakaria said.

Some actions (on
immigration, for instance) didn't hold up in court, but most did.
Some – involving climate change and gun-control – may be
susceptible to quick turnover. But others could linger: “We
actually have a very strong clean-energy industry now,” Zakaria
said, due to executive actions.

Also likely to
survive is some form of Obamacare. It may change, Zakaria said, but
Americans now have “the expectation that there will be health care
in one of the richest nations in the world.”

Other presidents
have pointed to mistakes; Bill Clinton, for instance, said he should
have moved more quickly to stop genocide. But when Zakaria
interviewed Obama in September., he found little of that.

There wete some
Obamacare regrets -- “he feels that it got way too complex,” with
key things missing. But even when pondering disasters involving the
Middle East and ISIS, Zakaria said, Obama felt he'd done “the best
he could, with the hand he was dealt.”

This is the Obama
nature, he said. The image -- “the cool, methodical act” -- is
part of his make-up. “He said, 'When things go well, I don't get
that high and when things go badly I don't get that down.'”

That's handy,
because he's wrapping up eight years of extreme highs and lows.

-- “The Legacy of
Barack Obama,” 9-11 p.m. ET Wednesday, CNN; rerunning at midnight.

-- Also: 11 p.m.
Friday, rerunning at 2 a.m.; 9 a.m. Dec. 25; 9 p.m. Dec. 26,
rerunning at midnight.

-- Each could be
pre-empted by news events; all times are ET, three hours earlier PT