Reading the weekend news and remembering, from Jonathan Winters to corporate democracy | Bleader

Reading the weekend news and remembering, from Jonathan Winters to corporate democracy

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Jonathan Winters
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  • Jonathan Winters
Maria Tallchief: The ballet world mourns the death of a prima ballerina and one of Balanchine's greatest muses. I remember that in 1986 her Chicago City Ballet—a company that collapsed a year later—produced Prokofiev's Cinderella in the Auditorium Theatre. The children of Chicago tried out for parts; my daughter Molly danced the important role of a ladybug. We had an early, light dinner at the Artist's Cafe in the Fine Arts Building and then sauntered over to the Auditorium for the performance. It's as fine a memory as parenthood can offer, and I'll be grateful to Maria Tallchief forever.

Jonathan Winters: Said the New York Times, in its April 13 obit: "He thrived when he could ad-lib, fielding unexpected questions or pursuing spontaneous flights of fancy. In other words, he made a brilliant guest, firing comedy in short bursts, but a problematic host or actor." Winters made a brilliant guest when a host like Jack Paar turned the show over to him.

One night Paar invited Bob and Ray onto his show along with Winters. It must have seemed like a good idea. All three of them had a genius for making things up. But ad-libbing isn't the same as improvising. An ad-libber takes over the stage. An improviser shares it. Bob and Ray, whose humor was far drier than Winters's and wasn't geared to flank speed, improvised brilliantly with each other, but with Winters they could hardly get a word in edgewise. And because Bob and Ray were closer to my heart, I didn't laugh at Winters that night. It might have been the only time I didn't.

Corporate democracy: New York Times financial columnist James Stewart came up with a list of 41 public companies with directors who stayed on the board even though a majority of the shareholders didn't vote for them. The headline called this "sham democracy." One of the companies is Chesapeake Energy, with two directors who were kept on the board although they "were opposed by more than 70 percent of the shareholders in 2012." Another is Cablevision Systems, three of whose directors lost elections in 2010 and 2012. Stewart noted that Cablevision, whose CEO is James Dolan and whose board chairman is his father, Charles Dolan, received wages last year of more than $16 million each, "about 50 percent higher than the year before," even though Cablevision stock has dropped in the past two years from $36 a share to under $15. A Cablevision spokesman told Stewart: "Cablevision has been a family-controlled company since it was founded 40 years ago. Our shareholders have always been aware that Cablevision is a controlled company."

As I recall, that's the attitude Conrad Black had running Hollinger International. Technically, it was a public company, but it was really his company, and he could reap all the benefits he chose to. No wonder he was dumbfounded and deeply offended when shareholders rebelled on the grounds that he was sluicing off value that was rightfully theirs. None of it was rightfully theirs! It was all rightfully his! He went to prison on what looks more and more like a technicality—those noncompete agreements he wrote into the sales contracts when he sold off the company's newspapers, so he (and COO David Radler) could make a personal fortune from the sales while the shareholders got leftovers. Who better to make that fortune than himself? Surely not the anonymous pygmies he stood before once a year at the shareholders meeting, counseling patience.

Stewart concludes, "Even though shareholders nominally own companies, it seems appalling that they can't even elect a board of their choosing." But companies are nominally people, and people can't own people. Not in this country!

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