Wunnerful, Wunnerful! The Appeal of Lawrence Welk

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My obsession started innocently enough. It was a quiet Saturday night at home. Lynn and I had nothing planned. No social engagement, no movie, no weekend junket out of town. It was “stay-at-home” night, a frosty January evening with a burning log in the fireplace, a wine cooler for her, and a couple Yuenglings for me (ok, maybe three Yuenglings).

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The maestro himself: Lawrence Welk

At 7:10 PM EST we turned on one of our favorite TV stations: PBS. There, on the screen, were three men tap dancing in perfect synchronicity. They wore matching suits – er, costumes: shiny black shoes, tight purple slacks with bells at the bottom, lavender satin shirts with puffy lapels the size of small pillows, and shirtsleeve cuffs almost as large. The best dancer – I later discovered his name was Arthur – was black. The most eye-catching dancer was a tall white guy with stiffly erect posture, perfectly sculpted hair, and a huge, frozen grin straight out of a toothpaste commercial.

I’m not sure if it was me or Lynn who laughed first. I’m sure I laughed the loudest (remember, I was nursing several beers). We ended up watching the entire show, smiling and wisecracking the entire time. Occasionally Lynn would Google one of the cast members to learn about his or her scandalous private life.

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Anyone over the age of 45 or 50 knows about “The Lawrence Welk Show.” This American television program ran from 1951 to 1982. Its host was a big band conductor who had a distinctive accent. The accent was sort of German-sounding, but it had gotten hijacked somewhere by Russia and North Dakota (!). Welk was famous for his catchphrase “Wunnerful, wunnerful!” and his song introduction of “Ah one, and ah two, and ah…” The music on the show ranged from polka tunes to novelty songs to big band standards. Colorfully costumed skits with low-budget props were liberally sprinkled into the program.

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Dancer Bobby Burgess

Sometime during the show’s long run, the music acquired the descriptor “champagne music.” Welk even selected one of his singers as the “Champagne Lady,” one Norma Zimmer, who had a pure, high-range soprano voice. Other notable regulars, which Welk called his “Musical Family,” included tap dancer Arthur (Duncan), who was the first African-American regular on a variety TV show; accordionist Myron Floren; legendary Dixieland clarinetist Pete Fountain; the four Lennon Sisters, who were as sweet and homey as apple pie; frenetic honky-tonk pianist Jo Ann Castle; and former Mouseketeer Bobby Burgess – the guy with the frozen grin.

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

The Lennon Sisters: Kathy, Janet, Peggy, Diane

Welk deliberately aimed his show toward a specific (and loyal) audience: white, Midwestern conservative, Christian, and definitely older. So it’s not surprising some of the principal show sponsors included Geritol (a dietary supplement marketed to elderly people), Sominex (a sleep aid), and Polident (a denture cleanser).

But Welk himself could be a harsh taskmaster. He fired his original “Champagne Lady” because he thought she showed too much leg. Pete Fountain quit after he was chastised by Welk for trying to jazz up a Christmas number. Fountain was later quoted as saying “Champagne doesn’t mix with bourbon.”fountain

I guess at this point I should elaborate on the “appeal” of Welk for me. Why do I like the show, which is now in syndication on PBS? Well, there’s the nostalgia aspect. This show was part of my childhood DNA. If my folks weren’t playing bridge or at a dinner party on Saturday night, Welk was usually on – at least for a few minutes. My dad loved good big band jazz (e.g. Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Count Basie). And even though he referred to Welk’s style of music as “schmaltz” – and my mom still calls it “fruity” – it was probably the closest they could get to their halcyon youth in the 1930s and ’40s… at least on television.

The other reason I like Welk is that, no matter how staid or cheesy the entertainment might be, it has a high “feel good” factor. For an hour, “The Lawrence Welk Show” is a great way to forget the stresses in life. I recently discovered that, of all people, the writer and infamous hermit J.D. Salinger (“Catcher in the Rye”) used to dance along with the Welk program. Maybe he found some joy here to leaven some of the darkness in his life.

You see, Welk’s music and skits are always upbeat. They may be corny, but they’re never sardonic or snide, like so much post-“Saturday Night Live” entertainment today. The performers are always smiling and really seem to be having fun. And the champagne bubbles are always floating. Right along with my beer suds.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, THE BEATLES! Let’s Bring ‘em Out!

50 years

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U.S. Press: Are you embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

John: No, it’s great.

Paul: No.

Ringo: Marvelous.

George: (giggling) We love it.

John: We like lunatics.

Thus started the first of many U.S. press conferences for the Beatles.  John’s witty remark “We like lunatics” was typical of the cheeky humor the band used to win over so many Americans, both young and old.  But the humor wasn’t necessarily strategic.  Although different personalities, all four really were fun-loving and outgoing, and excited as can be to be in the home country of their rock ‘n’ roll idols.  And throughout their career, they never let success get to their heads (just a few illicit drugs, that’s all).

The stamp of approval in middle America came when Ed Sullivan introduced them on Sunday night to a then-record setting 73 million television viewers.  Sullivan was respected and admired around the country.  If someone of his age and stature could showcase four long-haired English musicians with their amps cranked… well, they must be alright!beatles6

Before Sullivan could even finish his introduction, he was drowned out by the screams of the New York studio audience (their biggest fans, at least in the beginning, were 94.3 percent young and female).  Those of us watching on TV at home were transfixed.  Finally, we get to see them.  And they’re more exciting than we’d anticipated.  Dressed in tight-fitting, matching suits.  Paul beaming and bobbing.  George a little nervous, but harmonizing with Paul (he was actually recovering from the flu).  John stoic and in command.  And Ringo sitting high in the back, tossing his mop of hair to the beat.

The first song was “All My Loving.”  Next came “Till There Was You,” a tune from “The Music Man,” and which further endeared them to parents.  Then “She Loves You.”  Later in the show they did “I Saw Her Standing There,” and closed with their No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles’ first live appearance in America was an unequivocal smash.  A week later they did a second show in Miami Beach, where they posed with another cultural icon,  Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), who was training for a fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.  A third show was aired on February 23 (though it was actually taped early in the day of their February 9 show).

***

A lot of people, primarily of the World War II generation, considered the Beatles a fad.  How could four kids from Liverpool with a fan base of fainting girls sustain any kind of artistic credibility?  The naysayers can’t be faulted too much, though.  Musical fads were around going back to the 1920’s and the Charlston, and they happen today every few years.

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But the Beatles had sustainability because they wrote their own music, it was pioneering, ever-changing and had popular appeal, and they wrote a lot of it.  And, they had a visionary leader in John Lennon (and producer in George Martin).  Their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sent a shock wave throughout music and popular culture that continues to this day.  Folkies like Bob Dylan and the Byrds suddenly bought electric guitars.  Leonard Bernstein started dissecting their musical structures.  And thousands of kids across America started garage bands to emulate the British musicians that, after February 9, 1963, U.S. record companies were signing to contracts right and left.  Here are just a few of the musicians who followed the Beatles to American shores in the “First British Invasion”:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • Petula Clark
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • The Yardbirds
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Peter and Gordon
  • The Small Faces
  • The Troggs
  • The Zombies
  • Tom Jones
  • Chad and Jeremy
  • The Moody Blues
  • The Spencer Davis Group
  • Van Morrison and Them
  • The Animals
  • Lulu
  • Dave Clark Five
  • Donovan
  • Georgie Fame
  • The Hollies

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (and reliving my childhood).  If you don’t have any Beatles records (hard to believe, but I guess it’s  possible), I urge you to treat yourself to some great music.  The Beatles are one of only a few artists whose music can be said to be “timeless.”  They appeal to all genders, ages, cultures, socio-economic classes.  The one message they stressed over and over was Love.  That’s really what it’s all about.

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make.

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How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

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WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

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The Origins of BEATLEMANIA

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.

I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.  There are so many clichés.  The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.”  Both are true, of course.  Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement.  I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music.  That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.

But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment.  In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube.  No PCs with internet.  No texting or tweeting.  No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.

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Elvis, during rehearsal with Steve Allen in 1956

Instant global communication was decades away.  All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth.  If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

***

When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances.  But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade.  And there was often friction between the hosts and performers.  For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music.  So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.

Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly.  He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild.  Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however.  Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.

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Buddy Holly, looking away from Ed Sullivan in 1958

Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse.  He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.”  According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.”  Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back.  Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.

After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music.  Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis,  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.  So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material.  Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).

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Brill Building songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin

The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.

Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.

Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.

So the stage was set for something new.  A band that looked and sounded different.  Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality.  Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.

But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964.  Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:

Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.

Don’t touch that dial!

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Christmas in Celluloid (A Short List)

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Red Ryder BB-guns and green roast beast.  As the yuletide season approaches, so too does a smorgasbord of holiday-related entertainment.  In my last post I got into trouble with a few family members.  So, this is sort of my olive branch (or mistletoe twig).  These are films and animated specials that have stood the test of time and appeal to both juveniles and adults.  If you see them on TV, check ’em out!  And if I’ve omitted your favorite, please let me know!

Here they are, oldest to newest:

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

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Frank Capra directed this uplifting (literally) fable starring Jimmy Stewart.  It concerns how a man’s seemingly insignificant acts of kindness can have an enormous effect on people and events around him.  Lots of subplots and spot-on acting, and the ending is one of the most heartwarming in cinema history.

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

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I’ve never seen this movie beginning to end, but it must be good because the original 1947 version has been remade numerous times.  An unassuming Santa Claus at Macy’s claims he’s the real Kris Kringle, and his sanity is called into question.  Edmund Gwenn, as Kringle, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.  Also stars Maureen O’Hara and a precocious child actress named Natalie Wood.

White Christmas (1954)

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With Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, and Rosemary Clooney, and featuring the timeless songs of Irving Berlin, this has both great storyline and music.  The highlights are the gold-plated vocal cords of Crosby and Clooney.  I’m not big on musicals, but this has to be one of the best.  To be shared with loved ones and a tray full of hot toddies (or hot chocolate) while wearing red and green turtlenecks before a crackling fire.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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This is a stop-motion animated movie, narrated by Burl Ives, and it’s the longest-running Christmas TV special in history.  Why is it so popular?  My guess is the sly adult humor and offbeat characters: a nerdy elf who wants to be a dentist, a rambunctious prospector named Yukon Cornelius, and a cross-eyed Abominable Snow Monster who has his teeth extracted by the elf.   If this were made a few years later, I’d suspect the creator of experimenting with more than just animation.

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

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Linus’s speech “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown,” alone on stage, in hushed silence, is the centerpiece.  But my favorite scene is when Schroeder starts jamming and turns the Christmas play into a dance party, much to Charlie’s dismay.  Creator Charles M. Schulz was equal parts animator and sociologist.  His genius, and pianist Vince Guaraldi‘s cool jazz score, makes “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the gold standard among animated Christmas specials.  My personal favorite.

Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966)

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Dr. Seuss as narrated by Boris Karloff.  What a brilliant teaming!  Karloff, for those who don’t know, was the original movie “Frankenstein” monster and made many subsequent horror films.  His lilting and slightly ominous delivery make him perfect to narrate this tale about a sinister green creature who lives on a mountaintop and plots to ruin Christmas for the townsfolk below.  This animated special came on the heels of the Peanuts and Rudolph specials and caps an amazing three-year run for network television at Christmastime.

A Christmas Story (1983)

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This comedy is shown as a marathon every holiday.  We’ve all had that experience of yearning for that one special toy.  Here we have a man’s reminiscence of his boyhood in a small Indiana town and his obsession with getting a BB-gun for Christmas.  It has a ton of old-fashioned charm, and some folks consider it the greatest thing since spiced egg nog.  I haven’t joined the cult yet (the narration gets to me after a while).  But it has more holiday ambience than any other movie of the last 30 years, ages like a fine wine, and appeals to kids ages 9 to 90.

A Christmas Carol (aka Scrooge) (various years)

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Charles Dickens’s miserly Scrooge is so compelling he’s become part of the vernacular, and it’s hard to imagine him and “Bah humbug!” not existing until the mid-19th century.  There are several fantastic filmed versions starring, variously, Reginald Owen, Alistair Sim, Albert Finney, and George C. Scott.  Also a modern translation with Bill Murray that got mixed reviews, and a well-regarded cartoon movie starring Mr. Magoo, among many others.

I’ll let Tiny Tim have the last words: “God bless us everyone!!”

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My Lonely Boycott of Sports

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DISCLAIMER: This editorial isn’t intended to disparage those who like sports.  Sports encourage physical well-being and can build character in young people.  The criticisms here are directed at those who make money from big-name sports as entertainment.  Not the fans.  But if you’re sensitive to my opinions, leave a comment, and I’ll dig out my old boxing gloves.

***

John Lennon, in his song “Working Class Hero,” rails against nebulous power elites for keeping the rest of us “doped with religion and sex and TV.”  He could have also included “sports.”

Until recently I was a fairly big sports fan.  I liked athletic competition (and still do).  I admired the skill required to pinpoint a receiver forty yards downfield, or smack a 95 mph fastball over the fence, or nail a jump shot over outstretched arms at the buzzer.  When my boy was small, I enjoyed attending trading card conventions with him, and watching our favorite teams on TV.  I bought the merchandise (hats, jerseys, flags… you name it).  I was a cheerful little sports consumer.

But over time I became more jaded.  Some might say “Well, you shouldn’t have picked Cleveland teams.”  Or “For heaven’s sake, why did you choose Penn State over Ohio State??”  Honestly though, picking losing pro teams and a shattered college team isn’t why, on weekend afternoons, I now go to the art museum or prune my azaleas.

These are the reasons:

1. Stupid TV commercials.  They’re dumb everywhere these days, but they’re especially dumb during sports broadcasts.  Maybe because advertisers know that most sports viewers are men, and men are dumber than women.  floSo if it’s not “The all-new this” or “The all-new that” (usually referring to a car or TV sitcom… these things are never “half-new”), it’s a pig squealing “Wheeee!!” from a car window, or a talking gecko, or Flo, or Peyton “I’ll sell anything!” Manning, or some other redundant image trying to dig into my wallet.

2. The Super Bowl.  This orgy of capitalism might be a good excuse for a party in dreary February, but the action on the field is only incidental to the media frenzy and swirling commercialism.  Every piece of this bombastic event is sold to the highest bidder: pre-game show, trophy presentation, televised replays, touchdowns, field goals, and, of course, the atrocious halftime extravaganzas.  beerIt’s gotten so bad, even some advertisers are complaining about the gluttony.  And the alcohol and junk food emphasis should require a public health warning.  My wife looks forward to the “funniest Super Bowl commercial.”  I look forward to the day when Western civilization is no longer in decline.

3. League of Denial.  The National Football League recently settled out of court with ex-NFL players, who sued the league for ignoring the seriousness of concussive injuries.  As detailed in the book LEAGUE OF DENIAL: THE NFL, CONCUSSIONS AND THE BATTLE FOR TRUTH, the NFL went as far as hiring its own dubious “experts” to debunk the reality of serious brain trauma caused by repetitive head impact.mike webster  With the settlement, Commissioner Roger Goodell and company are betting their troubles will disappear.  But unless all helmet contact is outlawed, and the league actually gets serious about fines and suspensions, there will be more Mike Websters and Junior Seaus.  In the meantime, the NFL hopes fans suffer collective amnesia on this subject, and asks… “Are you ready for some FOOTBALL?!!”

4. Steroid use.  All I can say about this is that baseball records and statistics used to have meaning.steroids3

5. Ex-jocks in the broadcast booth.  This is a disease that’s spreading rapidly.  Who would have thought I’d yearn for Howard Cosell?  Howard would be crestfallen at the surfeit of grammatically bemused rhetoricians today (and he’d use those exact words).  What’s worse than bad English are the endless clichés like “He’s a class act.”  The underlying meaning of “He’s a class act” is that the individual mentioned is an exception, so his peers must therefore be without class.  So the “class act” is the football player who doesn’t thump his chest after a tackle, or gyrate in the end zone after a touchdown.jocks  Maybe it’s the baseball player who graciously agrees to forego a raise in his multi-million-dollar contract to stay with the same team.  Perhaps it’s the team owner who at the last minute decides – with feigned humility – to keep his asset (sports team) in the same city.  Or any coach or athlete who flaunts his Christian faith.  According to ex-jocks-in-the-broadcast-booth, these are all examples of “class acts.”

6. NCAA hypocrisy.  College sports were once a refuge from the corruptness of the professionals.  That was yesterday.  Today, college football and basketball are swimming in money.  So it’s ok for the NCAA to stuff its athletes into Final Four TV ads, while simultaneously penalizing a college coach (the late Rick Majerus) for buying a player a meal after the player’s dad died.  Or as sportswriter Frank Deford puts it, “peddling sanctimonious claptrap about how it really cares about academics” when its real concern is revenue.  More recently, there’s the controversy over the NCAA’s spider web of lawsuits with video gaming company EA Sports and Collegiate Licensing Company, after uniting with them to profiteer from student-athletes’ likenesses.ncaa  The NCAA also violated its own rules by sanctioning Penn State University without conducting an investigation (the Freeh report was outside of the NCAA), and for disallowing appeal.  What happened in Happy Valley was tragic beyond belief.  But it seems to me the NCAA can just make and break rules whenever it sees fit (and when it can get away with it).

***

I’ve talked to others who agree with me on the above.  And a few have also taken the bold step of boycotting.  Problem is, everything seems to suddenly be forgiven and forgotten when your favorite team wins four games in a row (I wouldn’t know about this, though).

But lest you think I spend all my time watching “Antiques Roadshow” reruns, I haven’t completely sworn off televised sports.  I’ll probably tune in the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving Day.  And I love watching tennis.  I also find televised golf very relaxing (despite having to endure hearing Tiger Woods’s name every two minutes – even when he’s not in the tournament).  I may even start following ice hockey or soccer.  There may be few authentic class acts sprinkled in those sports.  But I first need to examine the commercials, and find out how many ex-jocks are in the broadcast booth.

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There is Nothing Wrong With Your Television Set…

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… Do not attempt to adjust the picture.

We are controlling transmission.

These were the ominous words of The Control Voice.  They were delivered with the authority and cold austerity of an Orwellian manipulator or Soviet Gulag director.  You did not dare touch the TV and defy The Control Voice.  The monsters and terrors encountered during the coming “great adventure” were intended for you and you alone.

Some people have Star Trek.  Others have The Twilight Zone, Dr. Who, or The X Files.  For me, the most intriguing science fiction and/or horror show ever on U.S. television was the original run of THE OUTER LIMITS.

THE OUTER LIMITS was a black-and-white, hour-long show that ran for two seasons on ABC in 1963-65.  It returned sporadically for syndicated reruns, and was resurrected (disappointingly) in 1995 as a totally new, colorized series.  Because September 16 is the 50th anniversary of the airing of the pilot of the series (“The Galaxy Being” starring Cliff Robertson), I’d like to pay homage to this offbeat but very influential TV show.

What was happening in September 1963?  Well, John F. Kennedy was U.S. president.  Nikita Khrushchev was Soviet Communist secretary.  Civilization was only 18 years from WWII, Nazism, and the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  The U.S. had fought a war in Korea, undergone McCarthyism, and was jacking up a military presence in Vietnam.  The superpowers were also beginning to explore the frontiers of space.  Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin had completed the first orbit of the Earth in 1961.  A year later, President Kennedy promised that America would beat the Soviets to the moon “in this decade.”

So while there was heady excitement over the space race in 1963, there was also concern about the nuclear arms race.  The U.S. and Soviet Union were at the height of their Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis only narrowly averted in ’62.  It was against this backdrop that creator Leslie Stevens and producer/writer Joseph Stefano unveiled THE OUTER LIMITS.

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The Galaxy Being

Stevens, a one-time night attendant at a mental hospital, had been writing for theatre and the screen since 1954.  He envisioned a show that had the acuteness of “The Twilight Zone,” but darker, with less plot-twisting and a larger dose of science-fiction, horror, and social commentary. He wanted to explore issues like warfare, atomic energy, totalitarianism, mind control, space exploration, etc. in the guise of a small morality play.  Like “The Twilight Zone,” THE OUTER LIMITS would be an anthology, and with alternating writers, directors, and actors for each show.

Stefano had written the screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s infamous film “Psycho,” so he knew horror.  He led a cast of scriptwriters that included sci-fi novelist Harlan Ellison and Oscar-winning screenwriter Robert Towne (“Chinatown”).  The other key ingredients were Oscar-winning cinematographer Conrad Hall, who specialized in the shadowy camera techniques of film noir, and composer Dominic Frontiere, whose creative music scores provided bold dramatic coloring (his music has since been released on CD; AllMusic critic Bruce Eder called it “the best music ever written for television”).

A number of young actors used THE OUTER LIMITS as a launching pad.  They included future stars Martin Landau, Martin Sheen, Bruce Dern, Robert Duvall, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Robert Culp, Sally Kellerman, Ed Asner, etc.

Martin Landau as Andro in "The Man Who was Never Born"

Martin Landau as Andro in “The Man Who was Never Born”

Others had been major stage and film stars and were on a career downswing, such as 1930s-40s star Miriam Hopkins, B-movie queen Gloria Grahame, and venerable actor Sir Cedric Hardwicke, whose last role was in the episode “The Forms of Things Unknown.” The big attraction for an impressionable kid like me was the monsters.  Although the costumes and makeup were primitive by today’s standards, some of these creatures could be literally nightmarish.  In fact, the monster created for one episode, “The Architects of Fear,” was considered so frightening by some ABC affiliates that they blackened it out!  Stevens and Stefano deliberately utilized these creatures, which they collectively called “the bear,” to create atmosphere and as a springboard for plot development.

A total of 49 episodes were created over the show’s two-year span, with the best airing during the first season.  After this, ABC in its infinite wisdom decided the show was too opaque and cynical for audiences, so they dumbed it down with simpler plots, more low-tech sci-fi and less true horror.  They also replaced Frontiere’s majestic scores with more mundane music and added a gimmicky Theremin sound device.  Producer Stefano, not surprisingly, resigned in disgust.  There are a few second-season shows that stand out, however, notably the Ellison-written “Demon with a Glass Hand,” the space-themed “The Invisible Enemy” (with Adam West), and “The Duplicate Man,” which features a good “bear” in the alien creature the Megasoid.

Here are a few of my favorite episodes (all from the first season):

Nightmare (starring Martin Sheen): a coalition of international astronauts lands on the black planet Ebon, hoping to rescue an earlier flight crew with whom Earth lost contact.  eboniteThey immediately become imprisoned by frightening Ebonites, and start behaving very strangely.  Are they truly prisoners of the Ebonites?  Or are they guinea pigs for sadistic torture experiments guided by their own leaders?  Does Dick Cheney know the answer?

The Guests (starring Luana Anders and Gloria Grahame): a drifter stumbles into an old house where the inhabitants never age.  Upstairs lives a massive alien blob that searches their brains for the “missing part of the equation.”  guestsWhat is the missing part?  Will the drifter and his new love – Tess – escape from the house?  Or will they forever be playing cornhole in darkened hallways?

The Zanti Misfits (starring Bruce Dern): a runaway criminal and his moll tumble upon a spaceship in the middle of the desert.  The craft is filled with hideous insect creatures, prisoners shipped from the planet Zanti, who escape and go on a rampage.  Is Zanti using Earth as its own little penal colony?  zantis2How should a society deal with the problem of overcrowded prisons?  Has Zanti ever considered decriminalizing soft drugs like marijuana?

Note: TV Guide selected this episode as one of its 100 Greatest Episodes of All Time.

The Sixth Finger (starring David McCallum): a scientist creates a machine to speed up human evolution.  A dim-witted coalminer becomes his first test case, and evolves into an arrogant creature that has the ability to read people’s minds.  sixth fingerHow far should science go before man is playing God?  If the human hand does eventually develop a sixth finger, what new gesture will we use when someone cuts us off in traffic?

We now return control of your television set to you… until next week at the same time, when The Control Voice will take you to…

outer limits2

Steve Allen to Jerry Springer

allen3springer

Dysfunctional excess

Is all it took for my success.

(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)

Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum.  Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute).  I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.”  One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!).  It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.

For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson.  He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show.  He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.”  And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument!  In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out.  His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.”  In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product.   In my opinion, his voice carries weight.  Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period.  That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Politically, Allen was a Democrat.  And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity).  He didn’t believe in censorship.  But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness.  Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council.  The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen.  Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.

In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation.  But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment.  Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity.  And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.

The Girl With the Novocaine Lip

When I was a kid in the ‘60s there was a science-fiction horror show called THE OUTER LIMITS (Stephen King has since called it “the best show of its kind ever on TV”).  One of the episodes was entitled “The Guests.”  It was about a drifter who stumbles into an old Victorian house where the residents never grow old.  If they try to leave, they age rapidly and turn to dust.  One of the “guests” is a Norma Desmond-like silent film actress who pathetically clings to the idea she’s still a star.  In one particular scene, she slithers over to the drifter, gives him a peck on the lips, and says, “I had to do that.  It was my madcap heart.”  There’s a slight pause.  Then, “’My Madcap Heart’ was the name of my first bad picture.  Did you think I was sincere?”  At that moment I became smitten with Gloria Grahame.

Going back a few more years, to the late ‘40s and ‘50s: a style of film emerged in Hollywood that is today called “film noir” (“noir” being French for “dark”).  These films were much more downbeat and cynical than the buoyant adventures, musicals, and romances that proliferated until the end of WW2.  They were B&W crime pictures that usually featured a hard-boiled detective and a tough, sassy “dame.”  The cameras made heavy use of shadows, cigarette smoke, rain-soaked city streets, and train yards.  Most film noirs were low-budget ‘B’ movies featuring actors generally unrecognized today except by hardcore film buffs.  A few ‘A’ movies included DOUBLE INDEMNITY (Barbara Stanwyck), THE BIG SLEEP (Bogart and Bacall), and TOUCH OF EVIL (Orson Welles).  If you’ve ever seen Leslie Nielsen in the hilarious NAKED GUN series, well, film noir is what those comedies are spoofing.

Mention the name Gloria Grahame to any male film noir buff and he’ll hyperventilate and gush “Ahhh yes…the girl with the novocaine lip!”  Grahame is today considered one of the queens of film noir.  She only made about eight noirs, but they are some of the best and most beloved of the genre.  Grahame was somewhat ahead of her time.  Her looks and acting had a sleaziness closer to today’s femme fatales.  There was always a hint of the forbidden about her.  I’ll put it bluntly: she oozed sex.

She also made a number of movies outside of film noir.  Her most visible roles were as town flirt Violet Bick in the Christmas classic IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE starring Jimmy Stewart; and as plucky Ado Annie Carnes in the film version of OKLAHOMA!  The last-named was made in 1955 and is responsible for driving Grahame’s movie career to a halt.  Not so much because she was tone deaf, couldn’t sing, and was miscast in a family musical, but because her truculent behavior (she crushed the cowboy hat of a co-star) pissed off everyone on the set.  The word went out that Grahame was “difficult,” and producers and directors stayed away.

But there were a couple other reasons her career dried up.  One was her boisterous private life.  She had four stormy marriages and divorces.  She is also rumored to have slept with her 14-year-old stepson (they later married and had two kids – after he turned 21!).  She also had a series of surgeries on her mouth and chin to make herself look sexier – long before plastic surgery became fashionable.  During one operation in Germany, the doctor accidentally severed a nerve, rendering her upper lip immobile and earning her the sobriquet that titles this essay.  Needless to say, Hollywood distanced itself even further from her.

In the ‘60s and early ‘70s Grahame popped up occasionally on popular television shows – like THE OUTER LIMITS – usually portraying a washed-up actress or conniving stepmother.  She had some cameo film roles in the ‘70s, as well as leading roles in drive-in exploitation trash with titles like MAMA’S DIRTY GIRLS and MANSION OF THE DOOMED.  She also did a lot of stage work (her first love).  Grahame died in 1981 from complications due to breast cancer.

November 28 (tomorrow) is her birthday, and Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is honoring her by showing a bunch of her movies.  So those of you unfamiliar with Gloria Grahame, and who can access TCM, can see why longitudes is making such a fuss.  If you can only see a few movies, on TCM or elsewhere, I recommend CROSSFIRE (Robert Mitchum), IN A LONELY PLACE (Humphrey Bogart), and THE BIG HEAT (Glenn Ford and Lee Marvin).  All three are not only excellent examples of film noir, but my girlfriend Gloria is at her absolute best.  I’ll allow you to feast your eyes for a while.  Just don’t get too close.