Tuesday, December 27, 2011

40 years ago this month ...

… I walked into the newsroom of the morning paper in my town and approached the copy desk.

It was early afternoon, so there was only one person there. The “desk” was actually a group of desks arranged in the shape of a right-angled horseshoe, and he sat in the center of it as the “slot,” or supervising copy editor.

When he saw me, he did a double take. To this day I don’t know whether it was a real double take or whether he was trying to be funny.

But given the ironic lack of communication among those who toil in the news business, I wouldn’t be surprised if no one had told Steve Mekeel that this high school student standing in front of him was supposed to spend an afternoon with him.

This had been arranged (or so I thought) by a guy named Dick Beaudet, who worked on the night desk of the evening paper, which was owned by the same company and had a separate staff that was literally walled off from their competitors on the morning paper. The company had recently launched a program in which young people with an interest in journalism could hang out at the papers to get an idea of what it was like.

Our group was part of the Exploring program, sponsored by the Boy Scouts, although I fortunately never had to wear a uniform and even more fortunately never had to try to cook anything over an open fire.

I’d joined after receiving a form letter from the publisher, inviting me aboard on the basis of a career questionnaire I’d filled out at school. The group met for the first time that fall and for the rest of the school year usually met every second Thursday night.

I’ll never forget our second meeting.

Dick had us all in the evening paper’s newsroom, seated at manual typewriters.

“All right,” I recall him saying with a bluster that would have done Perry White proud, “you’re all going to write a story tonight! You’re not going to have to do any reporting, because I’m going to give you the facts, and whoever writes the best story will get it in the paper!”

The “story” was about how, in the meeting room downstairs, someone from the local Boy Scout council was going to give a representative of the company the charter for our Explorer Post as our parents watched.

Dick rattled off the facts, and I put together a story. I’d never written a news story before, but I’d been reading the local papers for years – I was somehow able to read at a very early age and as a tot would sometimes beat my grandmother to the evening paper when it arrived – and I must have picked up the standard “inverted pyramid” newswriting format through some form of osmosis.

The next night when the paper arrived at my home, the top of the front of the second section featured a story “By Mark Murphy, Explorer Post Reporter.”

My first byline. (Nothing like it. Still have it somewhere.)

Some weeks later Dick tossed me a two- or three-page handout from a state senator and asked me to write a story from it.

Two weeks later, Dick, again in Perry White mode, came up to me. “You Mark Murphy?”

I indicated that I was.

“Here!” he said with no warmth whatsoever as he tossed a tearsheet at me. Then he walked away to handle some other onerous chore.

I looked at the tearsheet. It contained my rewrite of the handout. There was no byline on it, but it looked pretty much like what I’d written.

I realized I’d just been complimented.

I was less proud of my performance on another Thursday night, when there had been some local flooding and I was told to do a phone interview with one of the folks in charge of handling the disaster.

Nobody had warned me that the guy was going to talk so fast, and I struggled to keep up with him as I tried to jot down what he said. God knows what he thought of me.

(Well, actually, he probably thought I was a doofus the next day if he read the story and realized I’d gotten a minor fact wrong. Yes, that still stings a bit.)

As Christmas approached, Dick told us that we could come in during the holiday break and hang out with someone from one of the papers. I could have arranged to hang out with a reporter, but I’d been interested in what the folks on the evening paper’s copy desk were doing.

If Steve Mekeel was surprised by my appearance, he weathered the blow well. He had me sit down and gave me a few things to edit – harmless stuff, like a brief from the local museum or a military handout saying that Cpl. Whatsis, son of Mr. and Mrs. Whatsis of our fair city, had been promoted to something or other.

This was long before computers – hot type, though on its very last legs, was still the modus operandi – so I marked up the copy with a pen or pencil and tried to write the headlines to match the specifications on the copy.

At one point I proudly handed in the military handout, and Steve went over it.

“You did OK as far as you went,” I remember him saying, “but you didn’t really edit it.”

He handed it back, with all the changes he had made – tightening it, changing the wording to make it read better and conform to something called “style.”

Wow, I thought. I’d never thought to make those changes!

Yet I wasn’t dispirited. Somehow I knew two things:

1, I really liked this.

2. If I could learn to do it, I might have a real job someday – the very thought that was in my prayerful parents’ minds when they'd let me sign up for the program.

I did a few more stories and headlines. I think one of the headlines got in.

The Explorer meetings continued until the end of the school year. We’d started with a large group, but it had dwindled. I think the folks at the paper ran out of things for us to do. I once heard Dick grumble – well within earshot of me, though he plainly didn’t care – that his boss was supposed to be in charge of the program but had pretty much delegated it to Dick (not an uncommon occurrence, I was to learn years later), and how was Dick supposed to arrange things for us to do when he himself had his own work to do?

So a lot of kids lost interest. I especially remember one student who smoked a cigar in the meeting room and wanted to turn the program into a literary magazine. He walked out after Dick politely but firmly set him straight.

My high school career ended along with the program. I continued on to a hometown college where I worked three semesters as a “technical assistant” (typist and proofreader) on the paper, wrote freelance TV reviews for the alternative weekly and, in my last semester, worked as a PR intern.

During my college years I’d hoped to get summer work at the papers, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I’m sure that the fact that I misspelled Steve Mekeel’s last name in a letter to the managing editor didn’t help.

A few months before graduation, my PR boss, who’d worked for the morning paper, got me an interview with the managing editor.

Great, I thought, this is it!

It wasn’t. There were no openings.

I graduated and sat around like an idiot for several months before my PR boss called and said she’d heard of an opening at the morning paper. She said she hadn’t mentioned my name but that I should get down there ASAP.

Luckily for me, security at the papers was practically non-existent, so I was able to get into the newsroom and find the managing editor, who professed not to remember me. But I kept talking and, perhaps just to shut me up, he handed me an editing test.

I worked on it and handed it in.

He then told me to go to one of the electric typewriters and type up the test, which was two or three pages long.

I’d never used an electric typewriter.

I handed my work in about an hour later.

I’d raided the newsroom at 3 p.m. Now it was nearing 5, and the managing editor, having looked at my test and having sat me down, was telling me how there were a number of people in the newsroom who were around my age, and that he thought I might fit in well.

It occurred to me that without telling me he was hiring me, he was hiring me.

Oh my. (I’ve told a lot of people this story. They can hardly believe it. Years later, I just barely believe it myself.)

I started the next day, reporting to the managing editor, who escorted me to the copy desk and introduced me to the guy in the slot.

Steve Mekeel looked me over and said, "You've been here before, haven't you?"

I worked with him and learned from him -- and many others -- over the next few years and (in some cases) even beyond.

I spent 30 years there, mostly on the morning paper before it and the evening paper merged. If Dick Beaudet remembered me, he never mentioned it, though he always treated me as a fellow professional, and it was now obvious that his gruffness was (for the most part) a facade behind which lived a caring family man who over the years won the affection of those who worked for him.

I was too shy to bring up the Explorers with him until he retired some years later, and I sent him a card in which I mentioned my time with the group and thanked him.

I still remember him coming up to me at a company party and thanking me for the card; it had meant a lot to him.

That was the last time I saw him.

A few years ago I myself retired along with a few others, and the company threw us a little party.

Dick Beaudet wasn’t around to invite, but Steve Mekeel was.

During my farewell address, I mentioned that long-ago afternoon on the copy desk and introduced Steve to the staff, telling them he was the guy I was pretending to be all along.

I wasn’t looking, but a friend of mine told me Steve grinned from ear to ear when the room erupted in applause.

Within a few years, Steve, too, was gone.

There are others I could write about, and maybe I’ll do that someday, but this is long enough for now.

Monday, December 19, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Dodsworth'

Notes from another get-together of the local cinephile society…..

I first saw “Dodsworth” on cable TV some years ago.

I’d known nothing about it and hadn’t even read the Sinclair Lewis novel on which it was based. (Or any Sinclair Lewis novel, for that matter.)

But I knew that the 1936 film was directed by William Wyler and starred Walter Huston, so I suspected it might be worth watching.

Yet as I began watching it, I had a pretty good idea of where the plot was going.

It begins with Sam Dodsworth, a pioneer in the auto industry, selling his company and retiring – and planning to take a trip to Europe with his wife, who, unlike him, spent time overseas when she was younger.

Well, of course, I knew what was coming – a ham-handed satire in which Dodsworth, the American ignoramus, was going to make a fool of himself overseas and become an early embodiment of the Ugly American, or at least the Homely American.

So I sat back to watch this scenario play itself out.

But it never did.

Because I was wrong.

And when “The End” appeared on the screen and the picture faded to black, I was never so happy to be so wrong – once I was able to pick myself up off the floor.

If you’ve never seen the movie, I’m not going to discuss exactly how wrong I was because you should have the pleasure of seeing it for yourself.

But let’s just say that for its time, the movie is remarkably adult.

And by “adult” I don’t mean nudity or four-letter words.

I mean the kind of movie in which people behave and talk the way real people do.

So many of the older movie dramas, as wonderful as they are, had to make ridiculous compromises with the censors if they were to be released at all, and film buffs such as myself are used to just looking the other way.

But with “Dodsworth,” there’s no place to look but at the screen, at the performances: Huston, Ruth Chatterton as his wife, Mary Astor as a divorcee living overseas, and even David Niven, who was just starting out but who, even in a relatively small role, shows that he already deserves a place at the grown-ups’ table.

Huston, of course, is the standout – he’d played the role in the Broadway adaptation. He’s so good, you wish you could meet the guy and thank him afterward. (I rarely feel that way about performers; the only modern equivalent I can think of offhand is the late Jerry Orbach.)

But even though the whole film is wonderful, it’s the ending that knocked me out. It’s not the sort of ending you’d usually see in this kind of drama. Not that there’s anything censorable about it (although heaven knows the censors might have found some silly reason to object to it), but … well … without giving anything away, it’s the kind of ending that might well happen in real life as opposed to the way people usually behave in “domestic dramas.”

Then again, calling “Dodsworth” a domestic drama is like calling “Hamlet” a mere whodunit. (And as a card-carrying member of Mystery Writers of America, I feel obliged to add that there’s nothing wrong with that.)

It was obvious that many in the cinephile society’s audience had never seen the film, and it was great to see them paying such close attention to it. And afterward, after the lights came on, the audience members, who on other occasions usually get right up, put their coats on and leave, just sat in silence, almost an eerie silence, for a minute or two.

The president of the cinephile society later told me that some found the picture almost too intense and draining, comparing it to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”

I wouldn’t go that far; whenever I see "Dodsworth" I’m exhilarated, not enervated, by the total effect: the performances, the settings and camera work, and, perhaps most important, the writing.

Matter of fact, “Dodsworth” contains one of my favorite all-time lines of dialogue, spoken by Huston to Spring Byington, who is excellent as a family friend.

I believe the line is:

“That the way they write sevens in Europe.”

I know, I know – you’re scratching your head, wondering why this is such a great line.

Thing is, you have to hear it in context.

Which means you have to actually see the movie.

Which is something I hope you’ll want to do now.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why I won't write about Harry Morgan

Mind you, I was all set to write an appreciation of this fine character actor, whom I first saw as a kid on a sitcom called "December Bride," when I found that the Self-Styled Siren had already written the best possible tribute to him, which you can read here.

I added the Siren's blog to my blogroll a few weeks ago. Answer the Siren's call and you will easily see why.

Where have I been all her life?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cover story

A few years ago, in a bookstore, I saw a new paperback book about writing.

The author, a well-known writer whom I'd seen in person and whom I knew to be a good guy, had previously written a book about writing that I'd bought in hardcover and liked.

So I snapped up the paperback, got it home and -- you guessed it -- discovered it was the same book, with the original title mentioned (and not too conspicuously) on an inside page.

I suppose I should have taken the book back and asked for a refund, but I chalked it up to experience (does anything ever get "chalked down" to something else?) and I now figure that someday I'll give the book to another aspiring writer.

But this week the same thing darn near happened.

Different writer, but same subject -- writing. I looked at the hardcover in the store and even looked it up on my ebook reader.

(And by the way, have you noticed that traditional publishers are now being called legacy publishers? Or am I misunderstanding that term? Then again, I don't want to run too late here, as it's now well past 1 a.m. according to my analog watch.)

The only thing that tipped me off that it was the same book was when I realized -- on further inspection of the hardcover -- that it had the same famous-author blurb.

Of course, authors and publishers have a perfect right to call a book whatever they want to call it, from edition to edition, from format to format.

And this sort of thing has been done for years. A number of Agatha Christie's books have been known by more than one title. But I think in Christie's case, whenever a book is retitled, the original title is, in at least many cases, noted on the cover.

I'm not sure why authors and titles keep doing this. Or is it the doing of some graphic designer who thinks the extra type would make the cover "too busy"?

But by burying the original titles, legacy publishers -- and their authors -- aren't doing themselves (let alone you and me) any favor.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Memo to The Amazing Spider-Man:

In Saturday's installment of your comic strip, you're confronting Serra Carson, who has secretly been framing you.

"I must know -- what made you suspect me?" she says.

"You insisted I was innocent despite all the evidence against me!" you reply. "And when something seems too good to be true -- it usually isn't!"

Um, sorry to break it to you, O great web slinger, but methinks you're saying the opposite of what you really mean -- namely that if something seems too good to be true, it is too good to be true.

Best wishes,
Your friendly neighborhood Syntax-Man

Friday, October 14, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'This Gun for Hire'

Part of the fun of attending the local cinephile society’s get-togethers is seeing (and hearing) the audience’s reaction to the movie.

I should explain that these gatherings are held at a family restaurant, and although the folks who run the society are very knowledgeable about movies, they’re not highfalutin. (If anything, they’re lowfalutin.)

Many of the folks who come to have dinner and see the films often haven’t seen the movies before or haven’t seen them in a long time. And I’m also happy to note that quite a few audience members are very young.

I especially pay attention to the audience’s reactions when the film is a comedy. I enjoy seeing which gags work and which don’t.

The cinephile society’s latest offering was “This Gun for Hire” (Paramount, 1942). It’s definitely not a comedy, but the audience’s reaction to something that happened near the end provided a stark example of how one false note can screw up an entire cinematic symphony.

“This Gun for Hire,” directed by Frank Tuttle and based on a Graham Greene novel, catapulted Alan Ladd (below) to stardom – right over the head of Robert Preston, who was originally billed as the major star. Veronica Lake came along for the ride, and she and Ladd made a number of repeat journeys together.

Ladd plays Philip Raven, the kind of cold-blooded hit man who likes cats a lot more than he likes people. He’s hired to kill a blackmailer, but after the job, the guy who hired him (played by Laird Cregar) pays him off with hot money. After discovering the double cross, Raven tries to find him – and the mastermind behind him – to exact his revenge.

Along the way, he meets Ellen Graham (Lake), whose boyfriend, wouldn’t you know it, is the cop who’s leading the hunt for Raven. And shame on you if you haven’t figured out that the cop is played by Preston.

The mastermind is an ailing industrialist played by Tully Marshall, who was nearing the end of a 60-year career in show business. (According to the Internet Movie Database, he was born in 1864.) The industrialist has to use a wheelchair, and he’s assisted by a secretary/nurse played by Victor Kilian (left), whose most famous role came many years later – as the “Fernwood Flasher” in TV’s “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman.”

For most of the movie the audience was quiet: The story was strong and the suspense was plentiful, not to mention the all-but-palpable chemistry between Ladd and Lake.

The audience was with the movie until the scene where Ladd confronts Marshall at gunpoint.

Then Victor Kilian, as the long-suffering servant, had to go and spoil it all with a line that was something along these lines:

“For years I’ve changed his clothes for him, washed him, and taken his abuse! I can’t take it anymore! Shoot away!”

At which point many folks in audience erupted in laughter, to the point where they couldn’t take the rest of the film seriously. They were (as we writers say) “taken out of the story.”

Now to be fair to Mr. Kilian, it probably wasn’t all his fault. The line was melodramatic to begin with (W.R. Burnett – of “Little Caesar” and “Asphalt Jungle” fame – and Albert Maltz are credited with the script, but there’s always the possibility that one or more other writers – or even execs – fiddled with it), but Mr. Kilian’s delivery sure didn’t help.

If Alan Ladd had been in the audience, he probably would have gone after whoever was responsible. And given his menacing performance, I’d be deathly afraid if he broke down my front door.

And I have two cats.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Not coming soon to a TV near me

My friendly out-of-neighborhood chain bookstore's DVD section now includes a set of three Charlie Chan films.

Unfortunately, the three films aren't among the best of the series; they were made near the end, after the series had moved from Fox, which was a major studio, to Monogram, which, um, wasn't.

Two of the films feature Sidney Toler in his declining years. The third, made after Toler's death, stars Roland Winters, who is generally considered the least of the movie Chans, although he was generally a good character actor who shows up in a lot of old movies and TV shows.

If I wanted to buy this DVD set, I'd have to pay $39.95.

That's too much for me, given the general quality of Monogram's Chan films.

But I can't help suspecting that this is the first time in entertainment history that the cost of a DVD set has equaled the combined budgets of the movies themselves....

Thursday, September 15, 2011

As Freud would say, 'You hadda be there'

I rarely remember my dreams, but here's one from last night:

Somehow I'm meeting Johnny Carson -- he's alive and well. Maybe it's just after his last show.

He's very pleasant to me.

At some point he says something.

I can't remember what.

What I DO remember is my response:

"I'll have my girl get in touch with your girl."

Somehow this makes him double up with laughter.

Wow, I think with unbounded joy, I made Johnny Carson laugh uproariously!

And that's it.

If anyone knows what this dream means, please keep it to yourself.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A joke for Steven Wright (if he wants it)

One night when I was a kid, my father said he was going out and leaving us for good. Then he went to the store, bought a pack of cigarettes and came right back.

Today's travel tips

"If a train doesn't stop at your station, then it's not your train."

-- author Marianne Williamson, on Facebook

If it's an Amtrak train, you'd be better off at the airport.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Another bright star in the blogosphere

"At what point did the transition happen? The one where the child and parent trade places?"

In her new blog, my longtime friend Judy Berman writes about (and reflects on) a visit to her father.

Judy has been a schoolteacher for some years now, but for many years she was a radio and newspaper journalist.

You have to be good to make it as a radio or newspaper journalist.

You have to be damn good to make it as both.

And though it's been a while, it's clear that Judy still has it.

I hope you'll visit her blog. I know I'll be stopping by often.

Today I fly across cyberspace ...

... and land on my friend Dan Valenti's website, Planet Valenti, where I discuss a certain recent incident involving a famed Claymation character.

I hope you'll drop by.

Friday, September 9, 2011

It's a small world (or at least a small backlot)

I've gotten into the habit of watching DVDs on my computer, and I've found that I often notice more details that way.

Tonight, for example, I watched the 1946 version of "The Postman Always Rings Twice," with John Garfield, Lana Turner and Cecil Kellaway.

At one point, the exterior of the hospital where Nick (Kellaway) is treated after Cora (Turner) tries to kill him (though Nick doesn't know that) reveals that the name of the hospital is Blair General.

Ring a bell, trivia fans?

Blair General is where Dr. Kildare and Dr. Gillespie worked. (The Kildare movies and TV shows, like "Postman," were made at MGM.)

Which leads to (not "begs") this question: Where were Kildare and Gillespie while all this was going on?

Considering that in their own movies Kildare (played by Lew Ayres) and Gillespie (Lionel Barrymore) seemed to spend half their time playing detective, couldn't they have figured out that Cora and Frank (Garfield) were up to no good and put a stop to things, thus saving Nick's life and, ultimately, Cora's and Frank's?

This, at the very least, constitutes a dereliction of duty, if not flagrant malpractice.

And I know just the man to investigate. (Does anyone out there have Dr. Christian's number at RKO?)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Some housekeeping

Sorry I haven't been around much lately; I've been trying to keep a number of balls, and possibly a chain saw or two, in the air.

In the meantime, I'd like to alert you to a couple of additions to my blogroll:

Lingua Franca, an offshoot of The Chronicle of Higher Education's website, features entries by author Lucy Ferriss, professor and author Allan Metcalf, linguistics professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, veteran editor Carol Fisher Saller and author Ben Yagoda.

If you're interested in words and writing, I'm sure you'll find plenty of food for thought, and if you're annoyed that I just used a cliche, you might enjoy Mr. Yagoda's latest essay. (He's also a very nice guy -- I met him after he gave the dinner speech at a conference I attended last year.)

The other contributor whose work I'm more familiar with is Ms. Saller, whose eminently sensible book, "The Subversive Copy Editor," is a must for anyone who handles words and deals with the people who write them.

Stu's Show
is the successor to a previous link, Shokus Internet Radio. I wrote about Shokus here, but I'm sorry to report that after a long, heroic effort, proprietor Stu Shostak has had to pull the plug on this wonderful service.

However, "Stu's Show," the crown jewel of Shokus, will continue once a week, with new shows beginning Sept. 21. The first new show will feature Jay North, Gloria Henry and Jeannie Russell, and if you're of a certain age, namely mine, you won't have to be told that these three starred in the TV version of "Dennis the Menace," and you don't need to be told to tune in on that date.

But you don't have to wait until then to visit the site -- and download, for a mere 99 cents each, past episodes of "Stu's Show."

These two new links should be enough to keep you busy while I attend to other matters.

Now, where did I put those balls and chain saws....

Monday, August 22, 2011

How I get through life

My last reality check bounced, but I'm going to pretend that it didn't happen.

It ain't exactly 'Remember the Alamo'

From The Associated Press:

"Libyan rebels raced into Tripoli Sunday and met little resistance as Moammar Gadhafi's defenders melted away and his 42-year rule rapidly crumbled....

"'It's over, frizz-head,' chanted hundreds of jubilant men and women massed in Green Square, using a mocking nickname of the curly-haired Gadhafi."

A friend and former newsroom colleague has remarked that as a rallying cry, this lacks a certain something.

My guess is that they tried to come up with something better but couldn't agree on how to spell the guy's last name.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I liked her, didn't love her (Let me splain)

A lot of fuss is being made about the 100th anniversary of Lucille Ball’s birth.

And I certainly can’t argue with that.

But I must confess – and please give me a second to duck after I say this:

I’ve never been a huge fan of hers.

But I also would never dispute that she deserved a lot of respect and still does.

I did enjoy watching “I Love Lucy” when I was a kid – especially the Hollywood episodes. Haven’t seen them in years, but I suspect they still hold up. After all, they were made when it was extremely rare to see movie stars appearing as themselves on TV. And doing a TV sitcom? Whoa!

Then, too, Ball had worked with a number of these people before in movies before she hit it big as Lucy Ricardo – people such as William Holden (“Miss Grant Takes Richmond”) and Harpo Marx (“Room Service”). And it's always a pleasure and a privilege to watch old show-biz pros work.

I'll also readily admit to shedding a tear whenever I see that nightclub scene where Lucy Ricardo tells Ricky she's pregnant. And I can laugh with everyone else at the Vitameatavegamin bit, and one or two of the other classic scenes.

But I somehow can't bring myself to rush to the TV set whenever an "I Love Lucy" repeat is airing.

Yet I respect the amount of work and dedication it took for Lucille Ball to get where she did.

She did have a substantial movie career before Lucy Ricardo came along, even getting top billing, but it took many years for lightning to strike, and when it did, she was ready.

And let’s not forget that she was no slouch as a dramatic actress. Her role as a callous showgirl in “The Big Street” seems to be the example most often cited, but in some ways I prefer her coolly understated work as the faithful secretary to Bradford Galt, the detective played by Mark Stevens in “The Dark Corner,” a movie that doesn’t seem to be much remembered today because Mark Stevens himself isn’t much remembered, but if you see it around give it a try – it also includes William Bendix and Clifton Webb, both of whom are usually worth watching.

When I was a kid I also enjoyed watching the “Lucy-Desi Comedy Hour” on summer nights. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of Ball and Desi Arnaz that I had no way of suspecting that while they were making the “Comedy Hour” episodes their marriage was not only on the rocks but practically out to sea.

In later years, my family watched “The Lucy Show.” Arnaz and William Frawley were gone, but Vivian Vance stayed around for a while, and then came the great Gale Gordon as Mr. Mooney. Yet the “Lucy Show” I remember most is one I remember not because of Lucy but because of the guest star – Phil Harris, playing a once-great songwriter who is down on his luck. If you see the episode, you won’t be surprised to know that Lucy Carmichael helps him find his way again and reunites him with an old flame who still loves him. But you might be surprised by Harris’ humorous, understated performance – Ball lets him pretty much steal the episode.

Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Somehow I could never watch “Here’s Lucy.” In later years I think I watched the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton episode, but that’s it. (I was happy to read recently that Richard Burton was openly in awe of Gale Gordon, which says a lot about both of them.)

See, the problem I got into with Lucille Ball was the same problem I had with Bob Hope.

No one can ever dispute their brilliance or their work ethic.

But they both gained fame playing characters that didn’t age well – Ball as the ditzy schemer, Hope as the quick-witted coward who always tries to get the girl.

It was painful to watch them both in later years – Hope in his execrable TV specials and, even more painfully, Ball – and Gordon – trying to do slapstick in “Life With Lucy.” Very few older comics can get away with doing physical humor; it’s hard to laugh when you’re afraid that the folks you’re watching might actually injure themselves. (I think only Buster Keaton could get away with that sort of thing when he got older because he’d been doing acrobatic stuff since he was a kid and audiences somehow sensed that and knew he could take care of himself.)

Anyway, when all is said and done, I’m not a Lucille Ball fanatic and never will be. But she certainly deserves to be celebrated.

In the meantime I’ve been thinking about another performer who would have been 100 years old this year – born just six months before Ball.

And I hope to write about her soon.

Friday, July 29, 2011

That old doppleganger of mine

So I’m walking down the street today, on my way to the local shopping center, when a sheriff’s department car, heading in the opposite direction, slows and turns in my direction.

Uh oh, I think.

But then again, I think (more than a little stupidly) that the young deputy driving the car is going to ask me for directions. After all, drivers do stop and ask me for directions every once in a while, and I am glad to oblige, though I sometimes worry that I haven’t give them the right directions and even now they’re still hopelessly wandering around somewhere.

The deputy says, “Louie?”

I tell him I’m not Louie.

He asks me to show him a photo ID.

I comply.

He thanks me and acknowledges that I am not Louie.

I tell him that my father’s name was Louie.

He smiles. A nice, polite kid. (And yes, I’ve reached the age where practically everyone in any kind of uniform is a kid.)

So I go to the shopping center, have some lunch, and am walking down to one of the stores when, out of the corner of my eye, I see another sheriff’s department car heading my way.

A woman’s voice says, “Louie?”

I turn.

The deputy again says, “Louie?”

I put on my very best polite smile and tell her that I am not Louie and that this is the second time I have been mistaken for him.

She doesn’t ask me for photo ID but instead laughs and tells me that I look a lot like Louie.

Too bad for Louie, I tell her, friendly smile still firmly in place.

I go to a store and buy some stuff. Then I decide I need to make a phone call and that I need to find a quiet place where I can make the call.

So I duck into a fairly quiet drugstore and make the call.

Then I leave the drugstore and head down to the shopping center’s bus stop.

As I’m heading there, a third sheriff’s car pulls up alongside me.

A guy says, “Louie?”

I turn and see another smiling young sheriff’s deputy.

Back goes the friendly, polite smile as I tell him that I am not Louie and that this is the third time I’ve been mistaken for him.

As I’m explaining this, a sheriff’s car pulls up alongside this car, driven by the first deputy, who, I presume, was going to tell this guy that I am definitely not Louie.

We all have a laugh over this, and I head to the bus stop.

I don’t know whether they found Louie. Given how relatively laid back they seemed about the matter, my guess is that Louie is some poor soul with a mental illness or some other disability who had wandered away from his home, and his relatives were worried.

If this is so, I really hope they’ve found him.

But then again, there’s always the possibility that Louie is a maniacal criminal mastermind and genius and that the deputies are only pretending to be laid back because they have been warned to be very circumspect because Louie is such a genius that he knows how to make miniature but very potent hand grenades and hide them in his armpits for use at a nanosecond’s notice.

If this is so, I really really hope they’ve found him.

Because as much as I might enjoy travel, I was planning on a quiet weekend.

I have no real desire to spend part of my weekend visiting Mount Rushmore or the Statue of Liberty, much less hanging off either of them while someone is trying to kill me.

And I find myself wishing that I could call up Cary Grant, Robert Cummings, Robert Donat and Henry Fonda so we could all get together and form a Mistaken Identity Support Group.

Thank you for letting me share.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Peter Falk

My first substantial memory of Peter Falk – aside from TV guest spots or secondary movie roles – is from a series he did in the 1960s, “Trials of O’Brien,” in which he played a lawyer who got involved in criminal cases and was always behind on his alimony payments.

(At least that’s how I remember it – I was too young and unsophisticated to “get” the series, though I somehow knew it was good. I also suspect the show marked the first time I’d ever heard the word “alimony.”)

The only specific episode I recall was called “Dead End on Flugel Street” and featured Milton Berle.

According to the Internet Movie Database, only 22 episodes were shot. I don’t know who owns the rights, but I do know that if the show ever comes out on DVD, I’ll snap it up.

A few years after “O’Brien,” I became one of the millions of fans of “Columbo.” It was hands-down the best of the rotating “NBC Mystery Movie” series, though “McMillan and Wife” had its moments. (And remember that neat “Mystery Movie” opening, with the Henry Mancini music?)

I think all the “Columbo” episodes are available on DVD, including the later ones that aired on ABC, but the only ones I own are those from the first season. This isn’t to say that the other seasons’ episodes are bad, but the first season was produced by the series’ creators, Richard Levinson and William Link (somehow I feel whenever I type those two names, I should genuflect), Steven Bochco was one of the writers, and one of the directors was an up-and-comer by the name of Spielberg.

Levinson (now deceased) and Link were, for my money, the best TV writing team ever. Some of the occasional TV movies they wrote – “My Sweet Charlie,” “A Certain Summer” and “The Execution of Private Slovak” – tackled social issues with scripts that were dramatic and literate but never ponderous.

But even as kids, Levinson and Link had always loved the mystery genre, and their mystery scripts were as literate and intelligent as their more serious efforts. It was almost physically impossible for them to write down to an audience.

In addition to “Columbo,” I recommend their stand-alone TV mystery movies, including “Rehearsal for Murder” and “Murder by Natural Causes.” (Another “Mystery Movie” series they came up with, “Tenafly,” starring James McEachin as a detective who balanced his work with his duties as a family man, should have caught on but didn’t.)

Their Emmy-winning first-season “Columbo” script, “Death Lends a Hand,” is required viewing for any student of fiction writing. And like the other first-season shows, it’s 90 minutes long.

After the first season, some of the “Columbo” episodes (with Levinson and Link staying on as executive producers) were two hours long. Eventually, I think, almost all of them were. I think I read that this was at the network’s request, but most of the time the extended length hurt the show because the padding – no matter how well written – was evident.

But even when an episode was too long and sometimes tedious to the point where I, as the viewer, was almost tempted to confess just to get it over with, Falk was still interesting to watch. Even given the talents of Levinson and Link, I doubt the series and the character would have lasted as long if it hadn’t been for Falk.

(And I also think it’s about time that I bought the DVD of the original version of “The In-Laws,” starring Falk and Alan Arkin. Can anyone who saw it ever forget Falk yelling “Serpentine! Serpentine!” as he and Arkin flee gunfire?)

I remember being saddened a few years ago by the news that Falk had Alzheimer’s disease – a particularly tragic twist, I thought, for someone whose most famous character was known for being (apparently) forgetful.

Although he is gone, I’m happy to say his character lives on in book form. “The Columbo Collection,” a collection of 12 stories by William Link, is available. If you’re a Columbo fan, you’ll want to get it – but don’t read it too quickly; these stories are to be savored. Me, I have three more to go. I hope that by the time I finish them Mr. Link will have come out with a second collection.

Friday, June 24, 2011

When dialogue is way too ahead of its time

About 10 years ago I was watching a new "major motion picture" that featured well-known actors and was set overseas in the 1950s.

At one point, one of the characters said, "Sounds like a plan."

Huh?

Now, mind you, it wasn't as jarring as it could have been if the guy had whipped out a cell phone, called his girlfriend and asked her to TiVo something for him.

And I suspect that the actor may have been ad-libbing.

But still.

Yesterday I was reading a short story set during the late 1930s in Hollywood and featuring some celebrities of the time along with other characters.

As an old-movie buff I know a lot about this era.

At one point, a character said, "Who's the Marx Brother wannabe?"

Wannabe?

A word whose first recorded use, according to Merriam-Webster, was in 1981?

Now it is true that the story was narrated by an anonymous character who wasn't there, who says this was the way he (or she, for all I know) heard it.

So maybe the author could argue that the narrator has a faulty memory or a tin ear.

But still.

I'm not trying to nitpick. But anachronisms like these "take me out" of the story, make me aware that I'm reading something, or watching a movie or TV show, instead of experiencing it.

And that's not where I wannabe.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Charley's Aunt'

Some notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society….

“Charley’s Aunt” (Fox, 1941) is one of several movie versions of the Brendan Thomas farce that was first performed in England in 1892. Back then the star was W.S. Penley, portraying Lord Fancourt Babberly, an Oxford student whose friends Jack and Charley persuade him (with at least a dash of coercion) to pose as the title character, a rich widow from Brazil, “where the nuts come from.” (That line must have been a hoot back in 1892, and it still plays well with a receptive audience.)

Penley (that’s a drawing of him in character at left) was unavailable for the movie, having died in 1912, so Fox obtained the services of Jack Benny, who does his best to pose as a British undergrad. Since this kind of material requires audiences to cheerfully check their common sense at the door anyway, what’s another implausibility among friends? (And Benny’s best is, as usual, very very good.)

Director Archie Mayo expertly guides the actors through the plot’s permutations. (Even if you’ve never seen this or any other farce in your life, you just know somehow – it’s probably in our DNA – that these complications will include the appearance of Charley’s real aunt, here played by Kay Francis.)

I suppose you can give the cast extra points (or extra marks, considering that this is a British play) for being able to pull off such a carefree, lightweight piece of material during a particularly heavy time in the world’s history. It helps a lot to have Edmund Gwenn around; he practically came out of the womb performing stuff like this.

A few casting notes of interest:

Charley is played by Richard Haydn in his first feature film. Haydn made a career out of playing eccentric characters who talk through their noses. (In Haydn’s case, it sounded as if he had several noses.) It’s always nice to see him in this character, but it’s particularly interesting to see him in this film, where he drops that character (which perhaps he hadn’t really established in the U.S. anyway) to play something closer to a real human being, or as real as one can get in a farce.

Anne Baxter is around – very young, very pretty, very underused.

Laird Cregar plays Jack’s father, Sir Francis Chesney. Because Chesney’s title is about all he has left to his name, he is especially eager to meet Charley’s rich aunt. Cregar was noted for playing villains, but it’s always nice to see that he can do stuff like this (and Lubitsch’s “Heaven Can Wait”).

Perhaps the most shocking moment of the movie (and the one that got the biggest laugh from our crowd) comes as Cregar, brandishing a big walking stick, swaggers in to meet the aunt (who is really Benny). The fake aunt is hiding his/her face with a fan. When Benny removes the fan and reveals the “aunt’s” face, Cregar’s walking stick instantly shrinks.

Never mind the elephant in Captain Spaulding’s pajamas – how that gag got past the censors, I’ll truly never know....

Before the movie: “The Antique Shop,” a 1931 short featuring George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Burns sometimes said that the secret to Gracie’s success was that she wasn’t a comedian – she was an actress. I used to think this was a pretentious thing to say, but I eventually realized that Burns, whose self-deprecating gags hid the fact that he was one of the smartest folks in show business, was, as usual, right.

Gracie didn’t just say dumb and silly things. For one thing, they were usually dumb and silly and very funny – the duo generally had top-drawer material. More to the point, Gracie was playing someone who fervently believed she was right – and felt sorry for you because you just couldn’t understand. If that isn’t brilliance, I don’t know what is.

I’ve sometimes wondered how Gracie Allen would have fared in a serious part – no gags. Kind of a reverse of what Leslie Nielsen did late in his career.

I guess we’ll never really know the answer.

But somehow I think I do anyway.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Leonard Stern

When I was a kid, I noticed that the credits of some of the better comedy shows included this man's name.

I'm thinking of "Get Smart," "The Governor and J.J." and "He and She," to name a few.

("He and She," by the way, was one of my family's favorite shows, featuring Richard Benjamin and Paula Prentiss as a young Manhattan couple and Jack Cassidy as the quintessential ham actor. It was funny and sophisticated, and when it was canceled we and many others -- though apparently not enough of us -- wrote to CBS, asking that it be kept on the air.)

In the early 1970s, this man's name (with a middle initial -- B. -- added) showed up on the credits of a mystery series, "McMillan and Wife."

By that time, I think I'd found out that Leonard Stern had also written for "The Honeymooners."

Leonard B. Stern died this week, and the obits I've seen so far play up the fact that he was one of the creators of the Mad Libs books, which were popular with my family for a time. The New York Times, I think, goes overboard with this angle in its obit, but I suppose Mr. Stern wouldn't mind; these books probably made him rich.

But I think he deserves to be remembered more for his fine comedic mind and sense of taste.

(And if you ever get a chance, read one of his lesser-known books, a collection of idiotic network memos -- yes, I know, some would say that's a redundancy -- titled "A Martian Wouldn't Say That.")

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Monday, April 25, 2011

She's a painter -- a boxer -- a fashion model!

From Newsweek.com:

"Having observed her over the years, one senses that Couric feels liberated in leaving a job that utilized only part of her emotional palette. She’s a bit bruised by the experience, but ready to bandage her wounds and try on a brighter wardrobe."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Meanwhile, back at the (old) movies....

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s recent western double feature….

“California Gold Rush,” directed by R.G. Springsteen and released by Republic Pictures in 1946, features a character who’s probably best known today for a movie he never actually appeared in – “A Christmas Story,” Bob Clark’s classic rendition of Jean Shepherd’s masterwork of nostalgic humor.

I’m talking, of course, about Red Ryder – he of the “Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle!” that young Ralphie so desperately wants, despite the adult voices warning him that "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Red Ryder originated as a comic strip character. In the movies he was brought to life by several actors, including, in this film, “Wild Bill” Elliott, accompanied by Bobby Blake (at right, and later known as, yes, that Robert Blake) as his sidekick, Little Beaver.

I’d never seen Elliott before. As an actor he’s no threat to Laurence Olivier, but that’s OK because the part doesn’t call for that. For this kind of role you need a guy who knows his lines, can ride a horse and is very personable – kind of like the next-door neighbor who always says hi with a friendly smile, a guy you can trust; though he might well mostly keep to himself, you know in your heart that you could dig up his basement without finding any trace of a body.

Robert Blake’s charm as a child actor mostly eludes me – and I’m talking about not only this film, but also those Our Gang comedies he was in near the end of that series’ run. He has a nice smile, but when he’s not smiling he seems ill at ease, as if he has to go to the bathroom, or one or both of his parents are just out of camera range, ready to flog him if he blows a line.

And although, years later, I enjoyed “Baretta,” I sometimes feared that Blake’s career would evaporate if he ever lost his right arm – he always seemed to be pointing at he other performer while saying his lines. (“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time! And! That’s! The! Name! Of! That! Tune!”)

In “California Gold Rush,” Red’s services are requested after a series of stagecoach robberies led by a harmonica-playing smiler with a gun, named Chopin. (That pretty much clues you in to the level of humor here.)

Turns out that the real leader of the gang is the guy who runs the local hotel. Also turns out the guy’s name is Murphy. (A Murphy who’s a less-than-perfect human being? Talk about suspension of disbelief.)

Murphy finds out that Red is on his way, so he hires The Idaho Kid to ambush Red and ride into town accompanied by a kid posing as Little Beaver. (Why just killing Red wouldn’t be enough is never explained, unless I wasn't paying attention.)

Fortunately, Red foils the ambush, in the process killing The Idaho Kid, and comes to town as himself. (He knows The Kid is The Kid because while searching the body he finds a wanted poster of The Kid – and a little bag of money or grub or something that has “The Idaho Kid” written on it. Accommodating, eh what? Red does stop short of checking to see whether the dead bad guy’s mom sewed “The Idaho Kid” into his underwear.)

Eventually Murphy finds out that the guy posing as Red really is Red, then gets him framed for something or other. But eventually things turn out all right.

I realize I’ve been making fun of this movie, but it would be wrong to be too hard on it; I often like watching low-budget movies to see what they do within their limitations. Sometimes they do remarkably well.

In this case, I fear the pardners who rustled up this entertainment shot themselves in the foot by breaking two of the Commandments for Chief Bad Guys. (And I’m not talking about that silly Murphy name.)

1. Thou shalt not surround your Chief Bad Guy with henchmen who are at least half a foot taller than he is.

2. Thou shalt not cast as your Chief Bad Guy an actor whose worst scowl provokes not abject fear but genuine concern that he hath gone far too long without a bowel movement….

“New Frontier” (also known as “Frontier Horizon”), directed by George Sherman and released by Republic in 1939.

The film is one of a series of pictures featuring “The Three Mesquiteers,” a trio of cowpokes who went around righting wrongs in complete compliance with The B-Movie Cowboy Code of Behavior.

According to Wikipedia, 12 actors appeared as Mesquiteers over the run of the series. In this film, the Mesquiteers are Ray Corrigan, Raymond Hatton and a young guy who would soon be going places via a legendary stagecoach captained by John Ford: John Wayne.

In this outing, the Mesquiteers come to the aid of settlers who’ve been swindled in a phony land deal. The chief settler’s daughter is played by a very attractive young woman named Phyllis Isley who, a few years later, would win an Oscar for “The Song of Bernadette” under the name Jennifer Jones.

Playing her brother Jason is Dave O’Brien, who never achieved Isley/Jones’ fame but is fondly remembered as the fall guy (often quite literally) in the Pete Smith shorts.

All in all, it was a mildly entertaining evening at the movies, and the company as always was good.

And none of us got shot in the eye.

The worst crossword puzzle clue ever?

I'm sitting at the grocery store, killing time before my bus comes, and I decide to do the crossword puzzle in one of the local weekly newspapers.

If you've seen the movie "Wordplay," about the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, you might recall Jon Stewart saying that when the New York Times crossword is unavailable, he sometimes does the USA Today puzzle, "but I don't feel good about myself when I do it."

Imagine me with this puzzle, which includes two-letter answers, which alone would make Will Shortz throw it back to the constructor with fearsome force.

At one point, I come to this clue: "About chronology."

The answer is 13 letters.

As I work my way around the puzzle, I begin to discern what the last seven letters are.

Naw, I think, couldn't be.

But the answer (I checked the solution on the back page) does indeed turn out to be:

CHRONOLOGICAL.

Madelyn Pugh Davis and Sol Saks

Two writers who left their mark on classic TV comedy died within the past seven days.

If you've ever watched "I Love Lucy," you've almost certainly seen Madelyn Pugh Davis' name at the end. She also wrote for "Alice" and "The Mothers-In-Law."

Sol Saks created "Bewitched" and wrote that show's pilot episode. He also wrote for "Duffy's Tavern" and Ozzie and Harriet on radio and for Joan Davis on TV, and wrote the screenplay for "Walk, Don't Run," Cary Grant's last movie.

Some years ago Saks wrote a very good book, "Funny Business: The Craft of Comedy Writing." I haven't read it in years, but I hope to reread it soon.

Saks also is the author of one of my favorite quotes, which goes something like: "Never try to ad lib with professional comedians. They can remember faster than you can think."

Saks is among a number of veteran comedy writers interviewed in an excellent book, "The Laugh Crafters," by Jordan R. Young. Sadly, most of them are gone now; I think Hal Kanter might be the only one of them who is still around.

By coincidence, I "met" Mr. Young on Facebook this week after I discovered that he and I had a "friend" in common. He graciously accepted my compliments on his book.

If you're interested in show biz history, and particularly the history of TV and radio comedy, "The Laugh Crafters" is indispensable.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

'Changes, changes....'

A close friend of my family, an older lady named Agnes, often used to say that.

And as she said it, she'd always shake her head.

I thought of her a little while ago after I took a few minutes out to have a noontime snack in front of the TV.

I, who watched a lot of daytime TV when I was a kid in the 1960s -- especially game shows.

I, who remember seeing Jonathan Harris, who played Dr. Smith on "Lost in Space," as a celebrity player on "You Don't Say!" I particularly remember the day he screwed up something and said what must have been "Damn!"

Only I couldn't know for sure because the censors bleeped it.

Today, within less than five minutes, I saw:

A commercial for toilet paper featuring two cartoon bears, a mother and her little boy, trying to sell the idea that after you use their product, bits of it won't stick to your ass.

And a commercial for some kind of ointment, intended for couples who want to get, um, a little more out of life.

As for Agnes, I'm sure she is in heaven now.

I have no idea whether they have TVs there.

But if they do, and if Agnes has been watching, I can only imagine her saying "Changes changes" (or something stronger) and shaking her head even more.

I have no idea whether Agnes has an HMO in heaven.

But if she does, I hope it covers whiplash....

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Hello again, Mary Lou

On a beautiful afternoon 35 years ago this month, some fortunate souls at my college, myself included, gathered in the lounge of a campus building and listened to a genius.

Mary Lou Williams (that’s her on the right, from about 1946) was scheduled to perform in concert the next evening and at a Mass – which she had written, on a commission from the Vatican – the day after.

But on this Friday afternoon she was conducting what was billed as a “workshop” on jazz. That wasn’t quite accurate; it was more of a lecture and performance.

Not that I objected.

I'd taken a few years of piano lessons in grammar school. The nun who taught me figured out that I had a fairly good ear (my first “arrangement,” in the third grade, was a right-hand rendering of that notorious jingle, “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” – even as an 8-year-old I was a sellout).

She also thought I had an above-average sense of rhythm. So she tried to steer me toward jazz. Which was fun but didn’t work out as well as it should have because I was such an uptight moron, afraid of making a mistake; and God forbid I should try to have fun at the piano.

After a few years the nun moved on and I decided to stop taking lessons. I didn’t touch the piano much over the next few years, but then I was introduced to – and immediately captivated by – the works of Scott Joplin (below); this was several years before “The Sting” made him a household name, more than 50 years after his death.

So I began to play the piano more often and even tried writing my own rags.

And now, on that Friday afternoon, under the impression that jazz and ragtime were the same thing (I told you I was a moron, didn’t I?), I was expecting Mary Lou Williams to play some Joplinesque stuff.

But in her opening remarks in this very informal setting, Ms. Williams almost immediately set me straight, saying that ragtime, Scott Joplin music, wasn’t what she was going to play. (Not that she despised it – I didn’t get that impression – but it wasn’t her thing, as we kids used to say way back then.)

The eerie thing, though, was that as she said this she looked directly – and pointedly – at me.

I suppose this could have been a coincidence. But, although Ms. Williams and I had never met and never did meet, I can’t help thinking that it wasn’t.

My theory: Just as some people supposedly have something called “gaydar,” which lets them know whether a certain person is homosexual, jazz musicians – especially ones as hip as Ms. Williams – have something called “square-dar,” which sets off internal alarms whenever the musician is anywhere near anyone who is tragically unhip. If that’s true, Ms. Williams’ interior alarms must have been buzzing like crazy; had we been in a David Cronenberg movie, her head surely would have exploded.

She went on to play – for the better part of an hour, as I recall – accompanied by a bassist. At one point, while she was deeply into one of her solos, she looked up at him, and the two of them grinned. They’d just struck the musical equivalent of pay dirt, a sort of musical intimacy that could perhaps be verbalized with only one word: joy.

And I think she also managed to work in some stride piano and boogie-woogie, which to me are at least first cousins to ragtime.

I've been thinking about Ms. Williams because over the weekend I found a DVD of a performance she gave a couple of years later at the Montreux Jazz Festival.

It’s very well done. For one thing, whenever I watch a TV performance of pianists like Ms. Williams, I look for the shots of their hands at the piano, to see how they do it. Whoever made the video not only did a good job of this but also added close-ups of her face. You see the concentration, eyes closed or just about closed, as she literally composes on the spot. Sometimes you see sweat. Once in a while, a lot of sweat. But that’s to be expected – although she obviously enjoys what’s she’s doing, it is, of course, damned hard work.

Then, after the number, a beatific smile. A smile of (here’s that word again) joy.

Put one hundred cats in a room, sit each of them at a typewriter, and they will produce a perfect transcript of “King Lear” several eons before I can achieve even one-fifth of Ms. Williams’ mastery.

I suppose this should depress me, but it doesn’t.

It doesn’t depress me because when I sit at the piano these days – I play much better now, with a fairly good amateur right hand balanced by a terminally hopeless left – I sometimes, in the heat of improvisation, surprise myself, at my own level, and it is then that I think I understand what Ms. Williams and the bassist were feeling that day.

And now, if I’ve been doing my job right, chances are you want me to shut up so you can go find some of Mary Lou Williams’ music.

I’m way ahead of you, with a selection from that video: “The Man I Love,” from YouTube. Especially watch what she does with her left hand. It fascinates me, even if my own left almost hurts as I watch it. Enjoy.

No room at the IHOP?

The McDonald's in my neck of the woods has TV sets hanging in several corners of the dining room.

Under one of the screens is this message:

TO CHANGE CHANNEL OR VOLUME, PLEASE SEE A MANGER

Friday, April 15, 2011

A digital thumbs down

Hmm. I suppose that headline might seem like a redundancy. After all, isn’t a thumb, pretty much by definition, already a digit?

Maybe “A doubly digital thumbs down” would be more appropriate.

Anyway, in days of yore (and, sad to say, I fear I’m finally old enough to be able to refer to my “days of yore,” even if I’m not sure exactly what “yore” is and I’m still young enough to be too lazy to look it up), if I wrote something I thought The New Yorker, or any other magazine, might be interested in, I’d stick it in an envelope, schlep it to the post office, and find out how much postage I needed to put both on that envelope and on the return envelope (in the of course unlikely event that the magazine would want to send it back to me).

This required a fair amount of effort, and of course the cost of postage never seems cheap.

Not to mention that I’d have to wait a few months for a yes or no.

Well, sir – and madam and all the kiddies – times have indeed changed.

Early this week I sent another humor piece to The New Yorker. But this time I sent it as a PDF attachment to an email – which is the way the magazine now wants it.

A couple of days later, I got a response.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t one of those “your email couldn’t be delivered” messages, accompanied by inscrutable sets of numbers and upsettingly mysterious words like “daemon.”

Nope. Turns out my piece was rejected.

In what may have been record time.

But you’ve got to hand it to whoever wrote what I take to be The New Yorker’s standard rejection message. (I guess we can’t say “rejection slip” anymore, can we? We poor mediocre scribes are even being denied the pleasure of papering our office walls with such slips – or at least bragging that we’ve been doing so.)

The message said my piece had been rejected despite its “evident merit.”

Although I don’t know who composed this message, I’m betting it was someone who was taught by Jesuits.

I say this because the phrase “evident merit” evokes (for me at least) the concept of “mental reservation.”

In theological terms (and I speak authoritatively as a non-theologian), “mental reservation” is Catholic-speak for “yes, it’s kind of a lie, but…”

One classic example given involves the issue of what to do when someone in your home is being pursued by a killer, and said killer comes to your door and asks, “Is so-and-so home?”

Under the theory of mental reservation, you would be allowed to say, “No he isn’t” when what you really mean is “No, he isn’t home to you, and he wouldn't be if you were the last homicidal maniac on earth!” It’s not the killer’s fault if he or she can’t figure out that you’ve only uttered part of what you really mean.

Then again, I’m not sure this really qualifies as a practical example; I’ve never known any killers, but I somehow doubt many of them spend much time studying, let alone observing, the niceties of etiquette. They’d be more likely to shoot you first, and then, at best, apologetically say, “Oh, please pardon my manners, but is so-and-so home?” as the maggots begin to congregate around your bleeding body.

And now you might ask (among many other questions), what does all this have to do with “evident merit”?

I mean simply that the clever New Yorker rejection message writer might really be saying: “It obviously seems evident to you that this piece has merit, but after looking at it, we had to fumigate our hard drive – twice, to make sure.”

Eventually, I suppose technology will get to the point where a magazine will be able to see what you’re planning to submit before you even submit it, at which point a pop-up will appear and say “Don’t even think of sending this! And if you do, we’ll send a murderous daemon to your home, asking for you -- and he won't take no for an answer!”

Sunday, April 10, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'Shall We Dance'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

Right off the bat, I suppose I should make something clear to any fellow copy editors who might be reading this: The title of this movie does not have a question mark. Don’t know why; the budget seems to have been lavish enough so that you’d think an extra piece of punctuation wouldn’t have sent RKO into bankruptcy.

There’s no question, however, that this 1937 film, directed by Mark Sandrich, is a typical Astaire-Rogers vehicle. Of course the plot is ridiculous – you were expecting maybe “Death of a Salesman”? (Come to think of it, one of the characters – an impresario played by Jerome Cowan – is named Arthur Miller.) But criticizing 1930s musicals for having silly plots is a little like criticizing a junkyard dog for having fleas – they do tend to come with the territory.

And to a great degree it’s mighty nice territory, and if you’re in the mood it’s a pleasantly familiar turf, what with the usual plot misunderstandings and secondary characters played by a couple of the best character actors of their time – and quite possibly of all time.

I must admit that for years I didn’t really appreciate Edward Everett Horton. I knew him mostly as the voice who narrated the Fractured Fairy Tales on the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. But in the Astaire-Rogers films, he’s one of the ones who has to carry the burden of keeping the movie going while Fred and Ginger are resting. If Horton isn’t the fussiest of all the movie fussbudgets, he comes pretty close – and his arsenal includes some of the best double takes in the business.

If Horton weren’t enough (he plays Astaire’s manager, if you’re keeping score), you also have Eric Blore (below) as a hotel manager – lisping, blundering, easily frustrated. Horton and Blore have one brief scene together and a longer scene in which they’re kind of together – Blore in jail, talking to Horton on the phone. Both scenes are very funny (it’s hard to forget Blore, on the telephone, trying to spell “Susquehanna”), but when the two of them are physically together and trying to understand each other, the result is sublime, kind of a mutual stupefaction society.

Besides the musical numbers (the closing one, which also resolves the plot, is quite clever if a bit odd), perhaps “Shall We Dance” is best known for its songs, by George and Ira Gershwin.

True, you don’t hear “Slap That Bass” and “Beginner’s Luck” that much anymore, though the latter is kinda catchy. But then you have “They All Laughed,” “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” I don’t know about you (obviously), but whenever I see the first performance of a song that was written for a movie and became a classic, I always get at least the beginnings of goose bumps. And I always wonder: Did the audiences at the time know right then and there that they were listening to an indelible part of the national culture?

Then I stop wondering and just sit back and enjoy a form of entertainment that will probably never be done as well.

Sidney Lumet

Aside from his considerable achievements in movies, I think that Mr. Lumet might have been the last of the major movie directors to come from the era of live TV drama in the 1950s (sometimes referred to as TV's "Golden Age") -- including Franklin Schaffner, George Roy Hill, John Frankenheimer, Delbert Mann and Arthur Penn (who died just last year).

Or am I forgetting someone?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

At the (old) movies: 'All Through the Night'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

“All Through the Night” (Warner Bros., 1941) is the kind of film that is usually described as “Runyonesque” – a reference to journalist and author Damon Runyon, whose fiction features a lot of cutesy gangsters who say things like “The companionship of a doll is a pleasant thing even for a period of time running into months.” (Sky Masterson, “Guys and Dolls.”)

I generally run away from Runyon’s stuff; for me a little of his cuteness goes a long way. Oh, there are some exceptions: I can tolerate “Guys and Dolls” because of comedy genius Abe Burrows’ contributions to the script; Frank Capra’s “Lady for a Day” has its moments (Capra remade it almost 30 years later as his last film, “Pocketful of Miracles.” Capra, too, was a genius of sorts, but this was not his best idea – oops, pardon me, this Runyonesque syntax is catching); and Lucille Ball, with Henry Fonda, gives perhaps her best performance in “The Big Street” as a callous showgirl.

But although “All Through the Night,” directed by Vincent Sherman, has Runyonesque elements, Runyon (that's him at left) had nothing to do with it. Subtle it’s not, but it generally manages to steer clear of coyness.

Humphrey Bogart stars as Gloves Donahue, who is described as a “promoter.” Apparently the studio didn’t want to make him a full-fledged gangster, although we’re pretty much told several times that Gloves isn’t averse to giving orders and that those who don’t follow those orders are made to wish that they, um, had done so.

Gloves does not lack for sidekicks or gofers. Fortunately for us, they include William Demarest, Frank McHugh and two performers who would eventually fare better in another medium: Jackie Gleason (here Jackie C. Gleason and rather svelte) and Phil Silvers. Gleason and Silvers aren’t given much to do, but as usual they do their best.

A denizen of Manhattan, Gloves probably hasn’t heard of Casablanca, but oddly enough, he does have something in common with a prominent resident of that city and a character Bogart fans would come to know well: Rick Blaine.

Both characters don’t care a fig about world affairs until they’re personally affected. For Rick, the catalyst is the love of his life, Ilsa Lund, played, of course, by Ingrid Bergman. Gloves’ motivation is more visceral – quite literally, his gut: When the baker who makes Gloves’ favorite cheesecake is rubbed out, Gloves’ gloves come off. (Not necessarily a good thing, particularly when Gloves accidentally leaves one of his gloves next to the body of a murder victim and is then pursued by the cops as he pursues the real killers – almost becoming a classic Hitchcock “wrong man,” or as Gloves himself might put it, the “wrong mug.”)

There’s plenty of action and comedy – and, on the bad guys’ side, Peter Lorre and Conrad Veidt and that grande dame of sweetness and light, Judith Anderson – and the whole thing moves fast enough that you don’t question the logic of the plot, but then again, with a film like this, you weren’t exactly on the lookout for logic, were you? Nor should you be – and that’s as it should be.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Fun with the phone

I get home and find a message on my answering machine: a recorded voice from a company I deal with, asking me to call an 877 number.

I notice that the Caller ID has a different number.

I sit down at the telephone table and call the 877 number, and a recorded voice begins to talk to me.

And that’s exactly the moment when the cat jumps on the telephone table, once again trying to prove he’s the boss.

The phone isn’t exactly a trendy model; it has a handset connected to a fair-size console that has big buttons – buttons that the cat has been known to step on, disconnecting me.

So I put the console on my lap as the voice tells me to punch in my home phone number.

I do this, and the voice says it’s sorry, but they can’t find a match, and could I try again?

I do this, and the voice says it’s sorry, but they can’t find a match, and could I call later when I’m at the number to which their call was placed.

On the theory that having the console on my knees might have screwed up my dialing (or rather punching in, if you want to be literal about it), I put the console back on the table, hang up, lift the cat, carry him out of the room and put up a barricade to keep him out.

I then dial the 877 number again and get the same prompt.

I punch in my number again.

I get the “we’re sorry” message again.

I punch in my number again.

I get the “we’re sorry and call back later, idiot” message again.

I haven’t erased the Caller ID.

I write down the number and call it.

This time, I’m immediately connected with another recorded voice, but this one knows my name, and I am finally able to conduct my business.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Milestone!

A few minutes ago, this blog received its 5,000th hit.

I'd like to congratulate the lucky winner, except that a) the winner isn't really lucky or even a winner because I don't have a prize to give out, and b) the visitor is almost totally anonymous -- having left practically no tracks, or at least any tracks that a non-geek like me can use to solve this mystery.

However, he or she dropped by three hours ago, leading me to believe that Mr. or Ms. Shy is from the West Coast.

I'd also like to thank Will Shortz and the folks at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, who have been linking to the blog all this week, bringing a barrage of visitors that put it over the 5,000 mark.

And I of course thank all of you who've stopped by, especially the regulars. (And feel free to drop me a note sometime if you'd like.)

Sunday at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: I was looking in your refrigerator, and although I’m not an expert on dairy products, I don’t think egg salad comes in plaid. Besides that, you shouldn’t read any more of this blog entry if you will be getting this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail.)

As I head toward the ballroom Sunday morning to do my last puzzle, #7, I notice that standings have been posted on one of the walls.

I’ve already been buoyed by the knowledge that as of last night I was 209, so imagine my reaction when I find that I am now at 221.

I guess I’m going to have to do even better with #7.

It’s “Kangaroo Phrases,” and the constructors are Ashish Vengsarkar and Narayan Venkatasubramanyan. The puzzle seems about the size of an NYT Sunday puzzle.

Normally #7 isn’t very hard, but this year’s is harder than usual, with the theme answers self-defined.

For example, the answer to 23 across, ISRAELI AIRLINE contains four circled letters: E, L, A and L – or EL AL.

Although I figure out the theme, this doesn’t make the puzzle much easier because I have to dope out each answer and clue by working out the rest of the puzzle, and this takes more time than I would like to take.

I run into two trouble spots, which, as usual, I leave to the end.

At 31 Down, the clue is “Big Sur retreat,” and I have “E_ALEN.” At 35 Across (the first letter of which is the second letter of 31 Down), the clue is “___ soda,” and I have “_AL.”

I seem to recall, maybe sometime in the 1960s, hearing about a place called “Esalen” in California. Maybe surfers hung out there? Or druggies? Or druggie surfers?

Also, maybe the other answer is “SAL SODA.” I haven’t exactly heard of “Sal Soda,” but when I was a kid there were ads for something called Sal Hepatica, which (as my hazy memory recalls) was both an antacid and a laxative, if that’s possible. (Can you tell that my marks for my high school chem lab projects ranged from F to “Evacuate this building immediately”?)

So I go for ESALEN and SAL SODA and later find out I’m right.

Similarly, 87 Down’s clue is “German donkey” (?), for which I have “_SEL,” while 65 Across is “Randomizer” (??), for which I have “DI_.”

This is particularly treacherous because the first letter of 87 Down is the last letter of 65 Across.

At least I know that the first letter of 87 Down must be a vowel, considering that an S follows. I mean, German isn’t that convoluted a language, right? Hmm…. ASUL, ESUL, ISUL, OSUL, USUL. Those last three seem too absurd. ASUL has two of the letters of “Ass,” but then again a lot of German things begin with “Es,” right? Isn’t there a place there called Essen? That reasoning seems good enough for me, especially considering that the only letter I can come up with that would complete “DI_” in any sensible fashion is E, for “DIE.” I’ve never come across the word “randomizer,” but when you toss a die (as in dice) the result is random, right? (At least it is if you haven’t loaded the die right.)

So I decide it’s Do or Die with DIE and ESUL. And later I find out I’m right.

I finish the puzzle in about 27 minutes, which is par for my course these days with a Sunday NYT puzzle. I’d wanted to finish a lot sooner, but the theme and those last two clues slowed me up. I later find out that my score is 140 points less than what I scored for #7 last year, but I do notice as I leave the room that a lot of people haven’t finished.

After I leave the room, I notice that another set of rankings has been posted, this time in alphabetical order.

And this time I notice that I’m now somehow at 223.

So I’m apparently stupider when I’m alphabetical.

As we all await the beginning of the talent show that precedes the announcements of the winners and the finalists, I hear someone talking about one of the puzzle answers – which puzzle I can’t remember, but it involved UAR (United Arab Republic) and UAE (United Arab Emirates). Apparently a guy put down one when the correct answer was the other.

Somehow I bamboozle myself into thinking that a) this was in #7 and b) I might have screwed it up. Turns out it was in #4, which I aced. (I did tell you I’m not at my best when I’m in alphabetical order, right?)

The talent show, featuring contestants, is very amusing, with the standouts including two repeat performers from last year, Amanda Yesnowitz and Lorinne Lampert. I’m particularly indebted to Ms. Lampert (whose boundless energy could put Con Ed into receivership) for introducing me to a Harold Arlen song I hadn’t heard of, “You’re a Builder-Upper” (lyrics by Ira Gershwin and E.Y. Harburg). I’m particularly abashed because Mr. Arlen once lived in my hometown. (No, I didn’t know him. I’m not that old, as I keep telling the kids at the bus stop.)

The big finish of the tournament is supposed to be the Division A finals, featuring Anne Erdmann, Dan Feyer (last year’s winner) and Tyler Hinman (who didn’t make the Final Three last year but has won five previous tournaments). I’m particularly interested (probably along with everyone else) in seeing how Feyer and Hinman face off, but Feyer wins it by several minutes. The puzzle, "Well-Connected," is by Mike Nothnagel.

More suspenseful was the Division B playoff, in which David Plotkin beat Ken Stern by a whisker, a hair, an eyelash, or whichever cilium you prefer.

(For videos of the playoffs, the talent show, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast's announcement of the winners and Friday night's very entertaining show by magician David Kwong, go here.)

After the tournament, I have lunch with my niece, who looks up the standings on her phone, and we find out that I have – wonder or wonders – finished at No. 194!

This cheers me up considerably, and I figure on coming back next year.

However, the ACPT standings are subject to change, given that the officials often wind up checking and quite possibly rechecking stuff, so that later in the week I’m 195. For a few hours I was apparently 196 but managed to regain my itsy-bitsy piece of turf to stay at 195.

And as far as I’m concerned, I’m staying at 195.

That’s my score and I’m sticking to it. Shove bamboo shoots under my fingernails. Beat me within a half-inch of my life. Draw and quarter me and feed my body to the wolves. Force me to listen to 2,713 consecutive choruses of “Blue Tango” – I don’t care. I’m Number 195!

Unless Will Shortz tells me differently.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Saturday at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the folks who will be getting this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s puzzles by mail, you should read no further. And by “you should read no further,” I do not, of course, mean that you should literally never read anything else ever again, but you knew I didn’t mean that, right? I mean, this is the Internet, and there are a lot of other things you can read until after you’ve done the puzzles. Whether you should read these things, of course, is something else again….)

For the past year or two, as I’ve headed to Brooklyn, I’ve wondered whether this will be my last visit to the tournament. I’m not talking about whether my plane will land safely, or whether the cabbie will get me from the airport to the hotel without mangling the car’s chassis, let alone my own chassis, though I’m always amused that I wind up spending more time in the cab than I do in the wild blue yonder.

I’m talking about my score, and whether it will improve enough to make it worthwhile to keep going to the tournament. This was my fourth year; in my first year, I finished at 262. The next year, I went up to 250. Last year, I was 213.

My mission this year was to not only beat 213 but to get somewhere between 100 and 200.

In analyzing my last performance, I decided that I’d been far too anal. I usually get perfect scores on each puzzle but #5, but although the folks who run the tournament recommend that you check your answers before turning in your puzzle, and although that’s a very good idea, I think I overdid it and that this affected my score.

One thing I’ve learned is that you should try for speed when doing #1, which is always an easy puzzle. So I breeze through “Blithe Spirit” by Kelly Clark but spend only a minute at most checking my work, reading only the across answers. Perhaps I’m taking a bit of a chance in not checking the down answers, but the risk seems worth it.

This strategy apparently works; my #1 score is 50 points more than last year’s. (Hmm. Maybe I should take even more risks in my life – skydiving, bungee jumping, doing my own taxes….)

Puzzle #2 is usually one of the two hardest ones. “Counter Offer,” by Pete Muller, seems harder than the usual #2. The theme answers are the kind that can be treacherous, where they’re all part of one long quote or connected in some other way. In this case, the whole thing turns out to be instructions for making a Brooklyn egg cream.

There are a couple of spots in the puzzle that I have to leave near the end; in general, my method is to read a clue, and if the answer doesn’t come to me in maybe three seconds, I move on and come back – “Keep it moving” is my philosophy.

“Notches on arrows” is one of them; I’d gotten to NOC_S, and it takes me probably longer than it should to figure out that “Gang leader?” was KOOL, and I remember that NOCKS is indeed what those notches are called.

I almost wipe out in the southwest quadrant: 77 Down is “Baseball scoreboard initials” (I’d gotten as far as RH_); 83 Across is “Like Washington, Adams or Madison: Abbr.” and for this I have _PIS.

But this problem is of my own making; in the first clue, I’ve misread “scorecard” for “scoreboard,” leading me to think in terms of RBIs, flying out, ground outs, etc.

Even worse, the “Abbr.” on the second clue doesn’t register, leading me to think that _PIS is a plural, and I am in a quagmire and a quandary (technically known as a quaggary) until I realize what I’ve done (or maybe haven’t done), and I wind up going with EPIS (short for “Episcopal”) which means that the other answer has to be “RHE.” I hand in the test with four minutes to spare and later realize that RHE is indeed right – I’ve seen it on scoreboards (not scorecards) for years. Anyway, my #2 score is 175 points less than last year’s. If I hadn’t been so dense, I might have picked up extra points for being earlier. (Then again, if wishes were horses, Jiminy Cricket would have sung “When You Clydesdale Upon a Star.”)

Puzzle #3, “Hooked on Homophonics,” is a Merl Reagle puzzle, and since he does a big weekly crossword that my local paper runs, I’m familiar with his style of puns. (“Collection of Hindu aphorisms on punctuation?” THE COMMA SUTRA.) Even so, my score for this year’s #3 turns out to be 15 points less than last year’s.

After lunch, Puzzle #4, “A U.N. Assembly” by Bonnie L. Gentry and Victor Fleming, goes fairly quickly, perhaps because I figure out the theme fairly early – familiar phrases that have the letters UN in them are changed by putting an A before the UN, so that POWER LUNCH becomes POWER LAUNCH. Even so, I pick up only five points compared with last year’s #4.

And now comes #5, which is known (and not very affectionately) as “the bastard puzzle.” The father of this particular bastard is Mike Shenk – one of the puzzle constructors whose names are wont to provoke a collective “Uh oh.” He’s the puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal and did last year’s extremely tricky championship puzzle.

So already I’m intimidated.

The title is “Crossover Hits.”

As I work on the puzzle, I never do work out the theme. I do know that the theme clues pertain to pop music – not always my strong suit. But what’s more weird is that the answer to “1966 hit for the Monkees” would appear to be I’M A BELIEVER (yes, I used to watch “The Monkees,” yes, I’m an “old guy” – as kids at the bus stop insist on referring to me). But the answer has to be only nine letters.

What I didn’t figure out was that the clue across from it “1977 hit for Barbra Streisand” is supposed to mesh with it, so you’d have “IMABELIEV” and “ERGREEN” to combine “I’m a Believer” with “Evergreen.”

You do feel my pain, don’t you? Especially when you consider that there are three other sets of clues that work the same way.

Thing is, sometimes I can dope out a theme like this by filling in the other answers, but the clues to those answers are so tricky that I can only conclude that they were leftovers from last year’s championship puzzle. Example: “Ruby’s partner.” Hmm. Which Ruby? Didn’t Snow White have a sister or a cousin or a mother-in-law named Ruby Red? Or are we talking about Jack Ruby, who killed Lee Harvey Oswald? Who was that Ruby’s partner? Is this some kind of conspiracy-theory thingy?

The answer? OSSIE. (“Ruby” is Ruby Dee, the actress who was married to the late actor Ossie Davis.)

And this is one of the answers I figured out.

Anyway, it turns out to be my worst showing ever for a #5, with only 34 answers out of 92.

I’m not very happy as I head into #6, “Future World,” by Maura Jacobson, the grande dame of crossword makers, even though it has a healthy supply of her charming puns, such as LEAVE IT TO BIEBER. However, I do score 115 more points than I did on her puzzle from last year.

But I’m figuring that I’m not going to meet my goal of beating 213 – far from it.

But a few hours later, a check of the standing shows I’m at 209. OK, I think, if I can really pick up speed Sunday morning with the last puzzle for all competitors, #7….

More to come.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Words, words and more words

Those of you who read this blog regularly (OK, I know there’s at least one of you) might be wondering why I haven’t posted my annual account of my February trip to Brooklyn for the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

There’s a very good reason for this.

The tournament has been moved from February to March – specifically, March 18 to 20 this year.

But it isn’t as if words didn’t keep me busy last month.

Early in the month, I survived another stint as a judge for my community’s annual spelling bee on live TV. Nothing major went wrong, though at the beginning the camera showed me while the other judge’s name was announced and vice versa. (Then again, I suppose the other misidentified judge might see that as a major problem….)

A couple of weeks later, I was a member of my former full-time employer’s team in a Scrabble tournament. We were supposed to collaborate in putting together high-scoring boards. We finished fifth out of 29 teams. One of the winning teams had help from a kid who has been in the spelling bee twice. I suppose there’s some significance to that, and perhaps one of these days I might spend one 40,000th of a second pondering it.

Finally, as I kind of warm-up for Brooklyn, I competed in a crossword event that raised money for a charity. There were three winners, not including me. The top guy has been a big finisher in the Brooklyn event; the woman who finished third is someone I have outscored at that event. I suppose there’s some significance to that, and perhaps one of these days I might spend one 100,000th of a nanosecond pondering it.

Freelance work for two clients also kept me busy.

In the weeks to come, I hope to report on my latest excursion into Brooklyn. Besides that, the local cinephile society comes out of hibernation for its spring season.

I hope you’ll stay tuned.