Monday, December 24, 2012

Jack Klugman

Of course he was Quincy, and we'll always remember Oscar Madison.

He also appeared in several very good "Twilight Zone" episodes.

But when I learned of Jack Klugman's death, one thing leaped to mind:

He was the last surviving member of the cast of the original film version of "12 Angry Men."

An assemblage that also included Henry Fonda, Ed Begley, Lee J. Cobb, Jack Warden, E.G. Marshall, Robert Webber and John Fiedler.

The very definition of "powerhouse cast."

And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that the very definition of "non-powerhouse cast" would consist of my fellow students and I in our 10th-grade production of the play.

Perhaps "production" is putting it too strongly -- the nun who taught English had us act out the play in class.

But it was a small class with not that many male students, so it was really a performance of "10 Angry Men and Two Women Who Are Getting a Mite Put Off Themselves."

If you've never seen "12 Angry Men" in any of its incarnations, I won't be giving much away by telling you that a high point of the play is a confrontation between Juror #8, who believes the young murder defendant is innocent, and Juror #3, who wants the poor kid to fry. (I think I was Juror #5 -- Klugman's part.)

To prove a point, #8 goads #3 into such a fit of anger that #3 lunges for him, only to be restrained by some of the other jurors.

It's a loud, emotional scene.

Right afterward, our teacher said she didn't find our performance of that scene convincing. No, not at all.

And I remember that right after she said this, I looked at the closed door to our classroom and noticed that the principal, who'd been teaching a class next door, was standing behind it, peering at us through a window, goggle-eyed, apparently afraid that we were about to start a rumble.

Her review was good enough for me.

I can just hear Confucius saying it....

At the end of my lunch at a local Chinese restaurant, I dutifully cracked open my fortune cookie and found the following message:

"Keep on keeping on."

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Mary Murphy who wasn't my sister

When I heard about Newsweek's plans to scuttle its print edition, I thought of Mary Murphy.

Mary wasn't related to us, but she was a friend of the family. She was from Ireland and worked for many years as a private nurse. By the time I knew her, she had retired and, having never married, lived alone in an apartment up in the next block.

Once a week, weather permitting, she would walk down to our house to visit for a while, often bringing her copy of Newsweek, which she would leave with us.

At the time (I was a kid), she was probably the oldest person I knew.

I particularly remember one time when we visited her in her apartment. I noticed a paperback book on a stand in her living room. It had a maroon cover and an odd but intriguing title:

“The Catcher in the Rye.”

I didn't open it. I figured it was a book for grown-ups, perhaps especially for elderly ones.

Some time later, my Aunt Helen was shocked to learn that my older sister, also named Mary and then a teenager, was reading the same book.

Leaping to my sister's defense, I told my aunt that the other Mary Murphy also had a copy of the book.

Aunt Helen, turning the full force of her indignation on me, said, "Mary Murphy is eighty-aughty years old!"

Yes, she actually said "eighty-aughty."

I wish I could say I learned a lot from the senior Mary Murphy. I had the impression that her career had taken her to many places. And of course she'd lived in Ireland.

But at best I just sat around bored while she chatted with other family members. She was usually kind enough to try to involve me in the conversation (and seemed to actually believe I might have some insight into the world’s problems), but although I was polite I could never think of anything to say.

At worst – and I'll always be ashamed of this – I sometimes quietly resented her visits when they delayed or interrupted a family game of Jeopardy.

If I were really as bright as so many people said I was, I would have paid attention, asked questions and remembered whatever she told us about her past life and surroundings.

One thing I do remember:

Once she was talking about how she worked for someone in Dayton, Ohio.

She said she knew a little boy in the neighborhood who spent a lot of time by himself.

He was an only child. His family had money, but his parents didn't get along, and he often seemed sad.

Years later Mary was on vacation somewhere, and the little boy, who had grown up and entered show business, was performing nearby.

She thought about going to see him – she was obviously happy for his success – but she decided against it. Too shy, I guess.

The chances that he will ever read this are probably next to nil at best, but just the same (and because I somehow feel I owe it to her), I’d like for him to know that my friend Mary Murphy always remembered Jonathan Winters.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Seventy-six paper clips led the big parade...."

During a lull in my workday, I sat back and looked at the mess on my desk – mostly papers and pens. Red pens, to be exact, and a lot of them.

(When you proofread things for a living, you don’t want to have a red pen run dry and not have another one – or, better yet, many of them – within easy reach.)

But there was something else on my desk, something that hadn’t been there the day before, something I think I prize even more than those pens:

A box of paper clips.

If you work in an office, especially one in which many pieces of paper are continually routed from one employee to another, I suspect you know what I mean -- especially if most of those pieces of paper have other pieces of paper attached to them, and if, during the course of a typical day, you ride so many paper trails that you can’t keep from getting at least a little saddle sore.

On this particular box of paper clips, which the office receptionist had obtained for me just that morning, I noticed that the wording was in English and French.

And I discovered something that was quaint and even charming. (Or should I say charmante?)

What I discovered was the French word for “paper clip.” I never would have thought of it in at least a hundred years, and I had six years of French. (Which sometimes felt like a hundred years.)

And that word, mes amis, is:

Trombone.

You could have knocked me over with a plume.

Because I saw the resemblance immediately. And I’ll bet that you do too, especially considering that I’ve been nice enough to dig up and post these two public-domain photos.

Paper clip = trombone.

Very clever. And to think that these are the same people who think that Jerry Lewis is God.

(Having said that, I should admit that as a kid I would sometimes go to a local movie house to see the latest Lewis flick – “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” “Cinderfella,” “Who’s Minding the Store” among them – but still.)

The paper clip/trombone translation reminded me of how my uncle, who spent a lot of time in Canada, would sometimes bring us stuff from there that had labeling in two languages.

One time he brought us a bag of Kraft marshmallows, which taught me that the French word for “marshmallow” is “guimauve.”

This morning I bought groceries, then got home and realized I had forgotten to get bread.

But somehow I remember “guimauve.”

Perhaps I should do my grocery shopping in Canada....

Monday, November 5, 2012

A trivial pursuit that has yet to bear fruit

While watching “Jeopardy!” the other day, I heard Johnny Gilbert announce that one of the contestants was from Greeley, Colo.

I immediately remembered that Ted Mack was from Greeley, Colo.

In case you're too young to remember, Ted Mack (that's him at left) was for many years the host of the “Original Amateur Hour.” The program began on radio, hosted by someone named Major Bowes (Major of exactly what I don't know), and Mack eventually succeeded him. The program was the granddaddy of “American Idol” and similar shows, and some folks who appeared on it later became famous, including Pat Boone, Beverly Sills, Ann-Margret and (as a member of The Hoboken Four), Frank Sinatra.

I remember the program from its twilight years, when CBS showed it on Sundays, usually late in the day. I can’t remember anyone I ever saw on it, though I do remember that it was brought to us by Geritol (a tonic that was ubiquitous in early TV commercials) and another product called Serutan (“Nature Spelled Backwards”).

I can’t say I was a big fan of the show, so you might well wonder why I happened to remember Mr. Mack’s birthplace.

I can explain in two words:

Information Please.

That was the name of an almanac my family had, and the name came from an old radio quiz show. The book included a listing of famous people, their birth dates and birthplaces and (even better) their real names. If it weren’t for the Information Please almanac, I might never have known that Red Buttons was born Aaron Chwatt or that Raymond Burr (born in 1917) was a year younger than Jackie Gleason.

I also learned more about Milton Berle (born Milton Berlinger in 1908) and Wally Cox (born Wallace Maynard Cox), who came into this world in 1924. Not to mention game-show great Bill Cullen (to be precise, William Lawrence Cullen) who made his debut in 1920.

And I still remember that Imogene Coca was born in Philadelphia, Pa. – but apparently would not give her year of birth. It’s a secret she would have found impossible to keep these days, but I’m nothing if not a gentleman, and if you want that piece of personal information, you can look her up yourself.

Then again, when Andy Griffith died earlier this year, I was sure he’d been born in 1928. But the Internet Movie Database says he was born in 1926.

Perhaps my memory failed me.

Or perhaps my memory didn’t fail me, but Information Please got it wrong.

Or maybe Mr. Griffith shaved a couple of years off his age when the almanac folks came a-calling.

But Sheriff Andy wouldn’t lie to us – would you, Ange?

God knows why I immersed myself in this section of the almanac when I probably could have been learning much more useful stuff. But maybe someday it will prove useful, especially if I finally get to hear Johnny Gilbert announce my own name and hometown on “Jeopardy!” And if the categories that day include “Obscure Celebrities Named Ted” and “Famous Former Aarons.”

What are the odds of that happening? If I had to make a wager, I wouldn’t make it a true Daily Double….

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At the (old) movies: 'Meet Nero Wolfe'

Notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society….

If you’re a mystery reader, chances are that once you’ve read a whodunit, you never pick it up again.

But if you’re an experienced mystery reader, you might have exceptions to this rule.

Mine include Ross Macdonald, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler -- and Rex Stout.

Stout’s genius lay in his creation of two characters who were uniquely American mirror images of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Perhaps “funhouse mirror” images would be a better way to put it, for unlike Holmes, Stout’s Nero Wolfe did not like to work and especially did not like to leave his house. And unlike Watson, Archie Goodwin, Wolfe’s assistant, who narrates the Wolfe stories, isn’t exactly in awe of the lead character.

Archie’s brisk prose style and his arguments with Wolfe – and Wolfe’s arguments with the long-suffering Lt. Cramer of Homicide -- make the Wolfe stories worth reading, and that’s a very good thing because, as even some of Stout’s admirers will tell you, the plots of the Wolfe stories are generally not much to write to Baker Street about.

The first Wolfe book, “Fer-de-Lance,” was published in 1934, when Stout was in his late forties. One year earlier, another late bloomer, Erle Stanley Gardner, three years younger than Stout, published his first Perry Mason book.

Around this time, “The Thin Man,” based on Hammett’s last novel, became a surprise hit for MGM, so it’s probably no coincidence that other studios decided to see what they could do with (or, perhaps better yet, to) Wolfe and Mason.

Warners made several movies based on Mason books, but they were heavily influenced by the “Thin Man” film’s mix of comedy and mystery. As played in most of the movies by Warren William (the B movie equivalent of William Powell), Mason was a wise-cracking bon vivant, and there was so much joking around that the plots, although faithful to the books, seemed like grudging afterthoughts.

Gardner hated these movies, and when Mason reappeared years later on television, Gardner made sure he had total control over the show.

Something similar happened with Nero Wolfe. Columbia made two Wolfe movies, “Meet Nero Wolfe” (in 1936 with Edward Arnold) and “The League of Frightened Men,” made one year later with Walter Connolly.

“Meet Nero Wolfe” was based on “Fer-de-Lance,” and the screenwriters (there were three of them) pretty much stuck to the plot, probably because that was the least of their worries.

One big problem (in more ways than one) was the corpulent Wolfe himself. How were they going to make such a crabby character palatable to the movie-going public?

The books succeeded because Wolfe and his world were filtered through Archie Goodwin’s hilariously jaundiced first-person narration. The screenwriters and director Herbert Biberman couldn’t rely on this literary device, so they decided to make Wolfe cranky one moment and jovial the next. Edward Arnold was a good enough actor to get away with this, but the fat guy we’re seeing is obviously an impostor.

Archie doesn’t fare much better. He’s played by Lionel Stander, the character actor who is perhaps best known for playing Max in “Hart to Hart.” He’s likable, but he’s no Archie.

Also likable is the actress who plays Wolfe’s client, a young woman named Rita Cansino, who in a few short years metamorphosed into an even more likable actress named Rita Hayworth.

Not likable at all is Dennie Moore, who plays Archie’s whiny girlfriend. If you want to get good and plastered, gulp down a strong drink every time she says “When’re we going to get married?” (In the books, Archie’s girlfriend is the infinitely more charming and sophisticated Lily Rowan.)

I probably won’t be giving much away by telling you that the plot involves a golf club that has been made into a murder weapon – a type of gun that fires a needle that contains a fast-acting poison. At first glance it seems diabolically clever, until you begin to wonder why the killer went to so much trouble when he could have bought a real gun and ambushed the victim – or paid to have someone else do just that.

The movie also omits one of the book’s key scenes, in which Wolfe kills a deadly snake (the fer-de-lance of the title) in his home. As I recall, he smashes it with beer bottles. Try staging that in one take.

On its own terms, “Meet Nero Wolfe” is engaging enough if you forget that it’s supposed to be about Nero Wolfe.

A better idea: Get the DVD set of A&E’s Nero Wolfe series, where Wolfe is capably played by the late Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton is the perfect Archie Goodwin.

The series was filmed in Canada, and in a quaint (sometimes perhaps too quaint) touch, it features a sort of repertory company of actors who keep reappearing in various episodes as various characters, including George Plimpton and Kari Matchett, whom you might know better as Joan in the USA Network’s “Covert Affairs.”

On the whole, the series is – as Wolfe himself might put it – “satisfactory.”

Saturday, October 6, 2012

To chew or not to chew?

According to experts (and I found them on the Internet, so they must be experts), you can determine the age of a tree by counting its "growth rings."

Similarly (and I didn't find this on the Internet, but you can trust me, right?) you can often determine the age of a human being by counting the number of pill bottles in his or her bathroom.

I'm not going to tell you how many bottles I have -- prescriptions plus vitamins -- but it's quite enough, thank you.

For many years I chewed all my pills before swallowing them -- even the tiniest aspirin.

Occasional gagging is a trait I share with one of my brothers, who, when making his First Communion, choked at the communion rail, prompting one of my mother's friends, who idolized Joe McCarthy, to speculate kiddingly that my brother might be a communist.

Which might well have prompted my mother to speculate silently but not at all kiddingly about her alleged friend's parentage.

In recent years I've had to man up because a couple of my prescriptions are time-released and have to be swallowed whole.

And, of course, one of these pills is rather big.

With the help of the Internet, I finally found a way to do this. I place the pill in my mouth, at the edge of my tongue, moisten it, then take in some water and bow my head, and darned if the thing doesn't obligingly float up to the back of my mouth and then head downward when I swallow.

At least that's the way it usually works.

Once in a while I get the timing wrong and the pill heads for what I once heard a TV doctor call the "Sunday throat." A quick cough averts this, and the pill changes course.

But every time this happens, I think of how ironic it is that something that's meant to keep me alive and well could so easily kill me.

And I can't escape the feeling that even now, some pharmaceutical company is rubbing its hands and licking its lips in anticipation as one of its flunkies works long into the night to develop the next pill I'll have to swallow. I fear to speculate about how big this pill will be, but it's a good bet that if they try it out on the nearest horse, and said horse -- communist or not -- can't get it down, it will be coming soon to a medicine cabinet near me.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Where I've been

If you're a particularly eagle-eyed and regular visitor to this establishment, you may have noticed a change in the wording of my profile, at right.

It no longer says "freelance."

This is because I am once again a full-timer after five years of freelancing.

A local firm unexpectedly made me an offer last month and I started a few weeks ago, so I've been busy, and time has slipped away.

I did mean to write about the recent passing of actor William Windom, who was a mainstay of television when I was growing up. I first knew of him as the slim and handsome lead actor in the sitcom "The Farmer's Daughter." I especially liked him in "My World and Welcome to It," the undeservedly short-lived series based on the works of James Thurber, whom Windom later played in a one-man show.

In later years a not-nearly-so-svelte Windom played the local doctor and confidant of Jessica Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote" with an accent as thick as New England clam chowder, but I'm sure he was glad to get the work.

I was surprised that the obits I saw neglected to mention his particularly fine work in Rod Serling's "They're Tearing Down Tim Riley's Bar," one of the best episodes of "Night Gallery," in which Windom plays an advertising man whose career -- and life -- are on the skids. I've read that Windom himself thought this was one of the best things he ever did.

I'm not about to argue with that.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques, Sacré Bleu!

From John Kobal's interview with actress Ann Sheridan, as reprinted on a website dedicated to her:

"Ross Hunter offered me a part in a film he was making, 'The Art of Love,' but I didn't feel right for that." (Ethel Merman later played it. It was a madam in a French brother.)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Barkleys vs. the Cartwrights

I was never a big fan of “Bonanza,” though I often watched it with my family on Sunday nights.

When the Cartwright family’s saga made its debut in 1959, NBC made a big fuss about it because it was one of the first shows (and I think the first western) made and telecast in color, and the network pretty much had a monopoly on color, at least for many years. By a strange coincidence, the network also had a parent company, RCA, that was in the business of making color television sets.

So NBC was hoping that people would go out and buy RCA color TVs so they could watch “Bonanza” – and particularly the show’s surroundings – in what NBC loved to call “living color.”

My parents’ attitude toward this prospect could be summed up with another pithy two-word phrase: “fat chance.”

We couldn’t afford a color TV. I don’t think we had color TV until the early 1970s, when I was about to begin college.

Oops – your honor, let me rephrase that: We didn’t have a color TV set until the early 1970s.

For there was one period, in the 1960s, when we did have color TV of a sort.

Some enterprising soul had invented a rectangular plastic sheet that you could place over a black and white TV to make it seem like a color TV. It had a thick strip of blue at the top and green at the bottom, with a more neutral color in between.

My mother bought it, and we six kids played along with it for a while; we knew it was the best my parents could do.

But that didn’t stop us from lusting after the color TVs we saw each week at a local department store. This was also when you could control the colors with knobs on the set, and it was sometimes fun to look at a color TV that had been tampered with (though not, of course by us, oh no). Purple Rice Krispies? Who knew?

So for me, color TV was not a selling point for “Bonanza.”

It also didn’t help that the show was on Sunday nights, which to me often had an ominous feel because I knew another week of school was lurking around the corner.

And although I don’t remember the early “Bonanza” episodes, some of which might have been interesting (Robert Altman was one of the directors, and he later dedicated the “The Long Goodbye” to the memory of Dan “Hoss” Blocker), the episodes I recall often had a leisurely, even sluggish pace. Not to mention the uniquely unsubtle and intrusive music scores by David Rose, who early in his career must have traded his baton for a trowel.

And the characters, for the most part, were at best bland, with the possible exception of Pernell Roberts’ Adam, but even he didn’t stay for very long; Roberts eventually quit the show, figuring he could do better. Years later, he was back on Sunday nights as “Trapper John, M.D.” In 2010 he went to the Great Actors’ Studio in the Sky, where perhaps, at this very moment, he and McLean Stevenson are teaching a seminar on Great Career Moves.

No, “Bonanza” was just another weekend ritual that you had to get through, like my mother’s overcooked rump roast.

But then, in the mid-1960s, came “The Big Valley” and the Barkleys, led by Victoria (Barbara Stanwyck), the widow of rancher Tom Barkley.

The Barkleys were far more interesting than the Cartwrights. What can you say of a western – or any other TV series – whose first episode contains a scene in which the young female star is on horseback, going after someone with a whip?

That young star was Linda Evans, later of “Dynasty,” playing Audra Barkley, and she was batting her lash (but not her eyelashes) at an equally young Lee Majors.

Who was Majors’ character? Well, that was the point of the whole first episode. Matter of fact, I remember how shocking it was when Majors, having finally made it to the family mansion, proclaimed that he was “Tom Barkley’s bastard son!”

Whoa. You never heard language like that on TV. And especially not on “Bonanza,” at least not at that time; some years later, in one of the first episodes written by Michael Landon, someone did utter the B-word in an episode about a dying unwed mother, but the effect just wasn’t the same.

By the end of the first “Big Valley” episode, Majors’ character, Heath, was accepted, if grudgingly, into the Barkley family, which also included three brothers: Nick, a headstrong, take-no-prisoners guy (Peter Breck, at left with Anna Lisa, from his earlier series, "Black Saddle"); Jarrod, a cerebral, cautious lawyer (Richard Long, below); and Eugene, who was such a cipher I’m not even going to look up the name of the actor who played him, especially considering that after a few episodes, Eugene was banished to TV limbo, where I suspect he occasionally ran into what’s-his-name, Richie Cunningham’s brother, after he vanished from “Happy Days.”

“Big Valley” had a number of memorable episodes. One I remember featured a nun played by an actress named Ellen McRae, better known today as Ellen Burstyn. But one episode that especially stands out, and perhaps best shows the refreshing difference between “Big Valley” and “Bonanza,” is “Court Martial."

A former Union general, played by Henry Jones, is visiting the Barkleys; Nick was one of his junior officers during the war. While he’s there with Victoria, Audra and Jarrod (Nick and Heath are away on a cattle drive), five former Confederate soldiers break in, take the three Barkleys hostage, and put the general on trial for alleged war crimes. When Nick and Heath unexpectedly return, they too are taken hostage.

Near the end of the episode, the general breaks down and confesses, and then comes the twist: The whole thing is a sting, arranged by Jarrod, and the ex-soldiers are really government agents.

After the general is hauled away, Jarrod approaches Nick, who is understandably upset.

I’m sorry we had to do this, Jarrod tells him, but it was the only way we could get him to confess.

Now if Adam had said this to Hoss, the big guy would have said, “It’s OK, brother. You’re right – it had to be done.”

Whereas Nick socks Jarrod a good one and stomps off.

Which is a lot more believable.

Of course, “The Big Valley” had its share of less memorable moments. Like “Bonanza,” it did not do comedy well; you know it’s a bad sign when the series’ composer pulls out his repertoire of “cute music” cues to let you know that yes, folks, this is going to be one knee slapper fer sure.

And occasional stunt casting – Milton Berle? Buddy Hackett?! – didn’t work either.

But you could tune in to “The Big Valley” and enjoy the travails of a family whose members were not clean-living goody-two-shoes, but real people whose boots were perpetually caked with the grime of the real world – or at least a world that was as real as 1960s TV would permit.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Gore Vidal

Early one Sunday afternoon some years ago, I was fiddling with the remote, looking for something to look at before I had to get ready to go to work at the newspaper.

I noticed that one of the public-affairs channels was showing an interview with Gore Vidal, who died this week.

It was three-hour, live interview. And this was a channel that did not have commercial breaks.

I'd seen Vidal on TV many times, though I hadn't read his work much. I'd read his essay on Edgar Rice Burroughs in a special anniversary issue of Esquire, which also featured one or two essays by Nora Ephron.

I'd also once bought a paperback copy of one of Vidal's historical novels, "Lincoln," I think. I read some of it, liked what I read, put it down somewhere and never quite got back into it.

I'd also read two of the three mystery novels Vidal wrote under the name Edgar Box. The hero and narrator was a PR guy whose attitudes and style made it clear that he was a stand-in for Vidal. The mysteries were quick reads and amusing enough, but with a humor that was brittle and distancing. The plots weren't much, either; the mysteries seemed to be resolved not so much by clever deductive reasoning as by inertia.

And I'd also enjoyed the movie version of Vidal's play, "The Best Man." I've seen it several times and will do so several times more if I get the chance, partly because of the writing but mostly because of the performance of veteran character actor Lee Tracy as a former president.

So on this Sunday afternoon I figured I'd kill some time by watching the Vidal interview, just to see what the old gadfly was going on about now.

Little did I suspect that I was about to witness one of live TV's most embarrassing moments.

I tuned in about 20 minutes into the interview -- the live, three-hour, no-commercial-interruption interview.

Vidal was, not surprisingly, in the midst of saying something or other.

When he finally stopped, the woman who was interviewing him had a sly look on her face.

She said something like this:

"Before we went on the air, you were telling me about this plan you found out about, a plan that practically nobody knows about, but involves this great conspiracy, and I think our viewers would really like to know about it!"

I'll never forget the look on his face.

Or what he said. Or how he said it.

"I ... just ... told ... you!"

The director mercifully did not cut to her reaction.

All I could do was feel sorry for her, knowing that she had about two hours and 40 minutes of air time to fill with this guy.

On live TV.

With no commercial interruptions.

And surely there would be a post-show meeting in the producer's office.

I switched to something else soon after.

Perhaps the interview eventually got back on track, and perhaps Vidal and the interviewer established some kind of rapport.

And perhaps the next time one of the cats in our household captures a mouse, he'll set it free without killing it or even toying with it for half an hour.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

William Asher

Among people of my generation, I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that "Bewitched" was on my family's must-watch list.

This was the era of shows that had outlandish or otherworldly gimmicks -- "I Dream of Jeannie," "My Mother the Car" and one that I suspect few remember, "My Living Doll," which starred Julie Newmar as an amazingly lifelike (OK, I really mean "sexy") robot named Rhoda. (I think she had on and off buttons on her back that were disguised as moles.)

The first few seasons of "Bewitched" were quite good. One key reason was Bernard Slade, who was the script consultant early on and later wrote "Same Time, Next Year. " Slade wrote one of my favorite early episodes, featuring two old pros: Marion Lorne, as Aunt Clara, and the incomparable Charlie Ruggles, as an old flame of hers who was trying to hide the fact that his skills as a warlock weren't anywhere near what they used to be. (You've probably guessed by now that Aunt Clara had similar concerns about her own powers.)

As someone who paid a lot of attention to TV credits when I was a kid (this being long before the phrase "Get a life" was coined), I noticed that many episodes of "Bewitched" were directed by someone named William Asher, who for some years also served as the show's producer. Mr. Asher, who died this month, was also the husband of the show's star, Elizabeth Montgomery, who was the main reason I watched the show.

Yes, I admit it: As a red-blooded preteen I had a crush on Ms. Montgomery. A big one. I also was not immune to the charms of Meredith MacRae and Diana Rigg. And if Ms. Rigg was anything like her character, Emma Peel, on "The Avengers," she could also protect me from evildoers.

(Hey, I said I was red-blooded. I didn't say I wasn't a wuss.)

Around this time, CBS began showing repeats of "I Love Lucy" on weekday mornings, and I eventually noticed that Mr. Asher also directed many of these shows, including the one in which Lucy and Harpo Marx re-enact the mirror scene from "Duck Soup."

(This episode also featured Lucy's "frenemy," Carolyn Appleby, played by Doris Singleton, who also died recently. )

And then the Saturday night late show began showing the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach movies, and guess who directed those? (OK, so they weren't great works of art, but they weren't meant to be, and they did provide work for folks like Buster Keaton.)

Mr. Asher also somehow found the time to direct a gangster movie called "Johnny Cool," with Rat Packers Peter Lawford and Sammy Davis Jr. -- and Ms. Montgomery.

I get tired just thinking about his output.

His career eventually slowed and he wound up directing things like "The Dukes of Hazzard," which I did try to watch once. Perhaps I was tired that night, but boy did it seem like slow going, though I was glad to see that it provided character actors like Denver Pyle and Sorrell Booke with steady paychecks.

But I am grateful to Mr. Asher for providing me with many enjoyable hours.

And while I'm at it, another pioneer TV director died earlier this year.

I mostly associate John Rich with "The Dick Van Dyke Show" and "All in the Family," but during his long career he also worked on "I Married Joan," "The Brady Bunch," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza" and even "The Twilight Zone."

Wow.

And somehow I can't help thinking that when RCA first telecast that famous test pattern, the one that so many of us baby boomers remember, it was Mr. Rich's voice that could be heard saying "OK ... stand by ... cue the Indian!"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Encyclopedia Brown

The Encyclopedia Brown tales weren't the first mystery stories I ever read, but they might have been the first that I could completely understand.

I had tried to read the Perry Mason books because I liked the TV show, but I was too young to understand the plots. (During the show's later years, Raymond Burr acknowledged that the story lines were sometimes too complex even for him.)

But the Encyclopedia Brown stories, written by Donald J. Sobol, who died this month, were fairly -- but not insultingly -- simple. And although I remember them as being clever, more than 40 years later I can't remember any of the telltale clues. Instead I remember Encyclopedia himself -- a nerd (before the term was invented) who lived in the town of Idaville and was quietly competent and fearless. I liked how he stood up to Bugs Meany, the neighborhood tough kid, and defeated him with logic. (Then again, Bugs was not exactly the Napoleon of Crime.)

While Encyclopedia was fearless, he wasn't foolhardy. One of the few details I remember from the Brown canon is the time he prepared for an interview with a suspect who had an intimidating dog by sticking some doggie treats in his pocket so he could surreptitiously slip a couple to the animal and in effect neutralize him. (When it came to paying to get information, Paul Drake was merely Encyclopedia Brown with a bigger allowance.)

You might have (correctly) guessed by now that although I lacked his probity, I did identify with Encyclopedia Brown, whose real name, by the way, was Leroy. And how could I not, being someone who, on a visit to the beach, was the kind of kid who was likely to have sand -- or even entire hourglasses -- kicked in his face?

I could never be a Schwarzenegger, let alone a Chicago gangsta.

But I could easily settle for being as "bad bad" as Leroy Brown of Idaville.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

At the (old) movies: 'G Men'

Notes from a gathering of the local cinephile society....

A guy walks into a nightclub where a female singer he knows is performing a fairly elaborate number with the help of a singing and dancing chorus line.

A master shot shows the guy, the singer, the chorus line and the patrons, who are waving party favors and tossing what look like small Styrofoam balls at each other.

Cut to the singer, who playfully tosses a few of these spheres at the guy.

Cut to the guy, who smilingly tries to fends off this attack and gives the woman a shy little wave before he eventually leaves....

I've seen a lot of movies and read a lot (maybe too much) about movies, so when I watch a scene like this it often occurs to me that the shot of the singer tossing the little balls at the guy and the shot of the guy's reaction might well have been done at different times.

So that a) when the balls were tossed at the guy they might well have been tossed by a prop man and b) the guy might well have been smiling back and waving at the prop man, a stand-in -- or maybe nobody at all.

The fact that none of these thoughts occurred to me as I was watching this scene from "G Men" is a testament to the genius of James Cagney.

(And, of course, the brilliance -- and beauty -- of Ann Dvorak, at right, who plays Cagney's singing friend.)

In this 1935 Warner Bros. film, directed by William Keighley, Cagney plays Brick Davis, a lawyer who decides to join the Department of Justice as an agent after a friend, also a government agent, is gunned down.

One complication (from the Department of Foreshadowing) is that Brick's law school education was paid for by an older mobster named McKay in hopes that Brick would stay on the straight and narrow. (Yep, mob bosses do that sort of thing every day.)

You can pretty much write the rest of the movie yourself. Brick's boss, played by a post-Kong Robert Armstrong, is wary of him.

And Robert, of course, has a sister, played by Margaret Lindsay, whose ostensible opinion of Brick is, of course, at least as low as her brother's, though you know that deep down she Really Likes Brick. (And you know this partially because so many of the characters Lindsay was saddled with playing had all the depth of a wading pool.)

At one point Brick is teamed with a young agent played by Lloyd Nolan, making his film debut. But you sense right off that this character has the life expectancy of anyone who ever worked alongside Dirty Harry Callahan, and sure enough, Nolan is gone before too many reels have slipped through the projector, the victim of a gang led by a boss played by Barton MacLane, who would re-emerge years later as the general on "I Dream of Jeannie."

And who is MacLane's girlfriend? Yup, Ann Dvorak. (Sound of one shoe dropping.)

The plot builds to the climatic scene where the gang has kidnapped Lindsay and is holding her at a hotel run by (cue that other shoe) McKay, who doesn't want anything to do with the gang and winds up getting killed -- as does Dvorak.

Cagney winds up with Lindsay in what is supposed to be a happy ending -- but heck, we all know, don't we, that Dvorak would have been a much better match for him, or at least a lot more fun.

Although I've been kidding the plot, I don't mean to put this movie down. This kind of plot might have been fresh back then. Or maybe, to the people making it, it was already at least a little old-hat.

But there are just so many ways to do a genre movie, just as there are just so many ways to play football or baseball or some other sport. The enjoyment -- the thrill, even -- is in the execution, and the team behind "G Men" racks up a very respectable score.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Wile E. and me: Two kindred souls

I feel a certain kinship with Wile E. Coyote.

OK, so I've never been blown up by one of my own inventions.

When it comes to mail -- electronic or snail -- I'm not on Acme Products' sucker list.

And I've never run 20 feet off the edge of a cliff before realizing that, as Ms. Stein might put it, there's no more there there, and I've never waved goodbye just before the gravity kicks in, sending me to the ground with an impact that produces a muted sound effect and mucho broken bones.

Nope -- never been there, never done that.

But I have tried out for "Jeopardy!"

Unsuccessfully.

At least four times.

I would have tried out for the show 50 years ago, back when the great Art Fleming (at left) was the "star," but I was only a kid.

(My family had most of the editions of the "Jeopardy!" home games. I usually served as host. My siblings were fond of referring to me as "Art Phlegm." Ah well. As the Bible sayeth, "An emcee is without honor only in his living room.")

My most recent attempts have been made online, through the show's annual test.

My second attempt was at a Native American casino in a nearby town. I went with two other newspaper staffers. We and the other would-be contestants were given a 10-question test. All three of us flunked, but it wasn't a total loss: One of my colleagues treated us to lunch after visiting the gaming room and finding that, at least on this day, the House was a lot more merciful than Merv Griffin Productions.

But I especially remember the first time I tried out for "Jeopardy!" on a Friday afternoon in 1987 after working late the night before.

I was then assigned to my newspaper's news desk and had Fridays off. My desk handled national and international news, along with whatever local stories were deemed worthy of the A section.

And on this particular Thursday night we had a doozy.

One of the city's ex-mayors had been indicted in a kickback scheme.

Not only that -- he was a major ex-mayor, having once served as head of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

As for his overall popularity, I'm sure he had fresh charisma flown in every day.

So it was a particularly long Thursday night with a lot of page proofs for me to read.

But despite my fatigue after such a long shift, I still showed up around 1 p.m. the next day at the suburban hotel where the test was to be given.

I was far from alone. At least 50 other people stood around nervously before we were led inside a ballroom where card tables had been set up, one for each would-be contestant.

The test consisted of 50 answers. The good news: Our responses didn't have to be in the form of a question. The bad news: We had only 12 minutes to complete the test. No points were taken off for wrong answers, so even a semi-educated guess would be better than a blank space.

As I recall, I knew a few answers immediately. The others? Here's an example: "What 80 and a grand slam have in common."

Give up? Four score.

(Don't feel bad -- I didn't figure it out until I was more than halfway home.)

The answer: "We're whipped!"

The correct response: What was the collective sentiment in the room after those 12 minutes had passed?

As the papers were collected, a TV at the front of the room was turned on and one of the show's staffers said something like:

"And now, while we're scoring your papers, you can watch your favorite show!"

Most of us, I think, just wanted to slink out of the room, holding our coats and hats up to our face in case any photographers were waiting outside to record our shame.

Instead we commiserated about how badly we'd surely done, only to be shushed at one point by a nerdy guy who was sitting near the front and wanted to hear his "favorite show."

"If he doesn't make it," the guy next to me said, "it will have been worth it."

Finally the show's staffers came out to announce the names of those who had made the cut and who would the go on to the next round, in which they would play a pretend "Jeopardy!" game.

A name was announced.

Applause.

Another name was announced.

More applause.

"And that's it! Thank you for coming!"

Only two?

I don't know whether it's physically possible for a group of people to gasp in unison, but I'm sure we at least deserved an E for effort.

And I'm pretty sure that Mr. Shusher was sent packing along with the rest of us.

The ex-mayor went to prison, eventually returned home and wound up as a greeter at a downtown restaurant. He died one Christmas Day, leaving me with no one else to blame for any future "Jeopardy!" failures.

But I still take the online test each year, and I'm sure that someday I'll be right up on that stage with Alex Trebek.

Just as Wile E. is sure that he'll be having that long-awaited Road Runner repast any day now -- just as soon as that brand-new, atomic-powered slingshot arrives from those ever-innovative geniuses at Acme. What will they think of next?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Am I really all that sweet?

Something odd has been happening to me lately.

It doesn't happen every day, but it happens often enough.

And, who knows, maybe it isn't happening just to me.

Maybe it's rampant, almost like a virus, but no one else wants to talk about it.

And if so, I can see why, because it is kind of embarrassing.

Or maybe it's not a viral thing.

Maybe it's something that's almost as bad.

Specifically, a conspiracy.

A customer-service conspiracy.

Because I keep noticing that more and more, if I go to a restaurant or coffee shop, if a woman waits on me -- and it doesn't matter whether she's a table-side server or behind a counter -- she spews an epithet at me.

An epithet that, I will admit, has been applied to me before.

But in the far distant past.

Like when I was a little kid.

It's something that nobody has regularly called me in years.

It's a five-letter word.

It's H-O-N-E-Y.

What's even more disconcerting is that many of the women who call me this are young enough to be my kids.

Or (big sigh) grandkids.

I remember a "Mary Tyler Moore Show" episode in which Rhoda was taken aback when a younger woman who was waiting on her called her "Ma'am."

So I wonder:

Is "Honey" the male "Ma'am"?

Of course, my gray hairs may have something to do with this.

OK, OK, maybe more than something.

Although I'm not quite 60, perhaps I'm perceived as a helpless older guy who is still (thank God) a few bricks shy of "doddering."

If I am perceived this way, I suppose there's nothing I can do about it

So I suppose that the next time some sweet or semi-sweet young thing calls me "honey" or "hon," I'll take it in stride.

As long as she remembers to give me the senior discount.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Nora Ephron

Dick Cavett introduced me to Nora Ephron.

No, not in person -- but thanks for the thought.

Ephron appeared on Cavett's ABC show, back in the '60s, I think. She had just published "Wallflower at the Orgy."

Although I was perhaps too young and unsophisticated to understand all the humor, I was smart enough to realize that this deadpan, low-key lady was someone special, someone who was trying to be amusing without, well, trying to be amusing.

I heard more about her on and off within the next decade as she published two more books, both collections of articles: "Crazy Salad" and "Scribble Scribble." I used to own a copy of "Scribble Scribble," and it was one of the few books I could pick up and enjoy every few years. It was impossible for her to write badly about anything -- I could follow her style anywhere.

I liked her essay on Brendan Gill's "Here at the New Yorker" the best. Gill's pompous book -- his ego alone would have given Macy's balloon handlers the challenge of their lives -- was made-to-order for her.

When she became a successful movie director and screenwriter, I was happy for her but not for me -- Hollywood's gain was a nonfiction lover's loss.

(Her parents, Phoebe and Henry Ephron, were also screenwriters, and when I heard that Nora Ephron was gravely ill I couldn't help remembering that she once wrote about being at her mother's deathbed and that her mother told her to take notes, on the theory that "everything is copy.")

In recent years I was happy to see that Ephron was writing books again, and her parody of Stieg Larsson in The New Yorker a couple of years ago did me the considerable favor of being so hilarious that I could no longer feel guilty about not finishing "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo."

For that, and so many other things, I will always be grateful to her.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Dick and Mickey and Mike

I suspect that many folks who have spent as much time in journalism as I did can boast that they’ve met a lot of famous people.

I can’t make this boast.

I suspect this is mostly because I was a copy editor, working indoors, as opposed to a reporter working out on the street and meeting a variety of famous and not-so-famous people.

At most, I can say that I saw – but didn’t talk to – two celebrities who happened to be at my newspaper.

One day, for example, someone pointed out a guy who was visiting the sports department. He was sitting way off in a corner, chatting with some sports guys. (And in those days they all were “guys.”)

The visitor didn’t look very impressive. He was maybe in his forties of fifties, with black hair and glasses. He looked like the accountant who lives next door to you and is always conscientious about returning your lawn mower.

He was Dick Smothers.

It turned out that Dick was into car racing. Apparently there was some racing event in the area. I know that brother Tom was not with him, more’s the pity.

My second semi-brush with greatness came during a slow day at the newspaper. It might have been a Sunday, but I suspect it was one of those holidays that practically everyone has off.

Because it was a slow day, I ambled into the break room and noticed that our veteran entertainment reporter was seated at a table with an older guy.

It was the guy’s apparel that gave him away. He wore a suit and fedora, like some guy out of a 1940s film noir.

Or, more to the point, like someone in a beer commercial.

I returned to the newsroom and went up to one of my colleagues who, like me, knew a lot about mystery stories.

I said, “I think Joanie is interviewing Mickey Spillane."

My colleague, nowhere near as shy as I was at the time (this was before I’d had a few mystery short stories published), went out, introduced himself and came back with an autograph from the great man, who at that time was among a number of celebrities who appeared in a series of beer commercials.

I thought about Mickey recently after I bought a set of DVDs of the Mike Hammer TV show that was broadcast during the 1950s and starred Darren McGavin. I’d never seen the show, but I’d heard about it, and the DVD set was selling at a 50 percent discount.

I’ve watched quite a few of the episodes. I’d read they were more violent than the usual 1950s fare, and I guess by those standards they are, though the violence is a bloodless as it is plentiful. Then again, Hammer, as played by McGavin, occasionally really seems to enjoy throwing punches.

Of course, Hammer as played on TV isn’t the Mike Hammer of the books. And neither, really, was Stacy Keach’s Mike Hammer. You couldn’t really do that character on TV.

I’ve read that McGavin insisted on playing the part with tongue in cheek, and he was probably right. As played by McGavin, Mike Hammer is more like a test run for Carl Kolchak, the character whom McGavin played (or rather overplayed, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way) years later in “The Night Stalker.”

(In retrospect, I marvel at how McGavin stayed so trim over the years, given his diet; I suspect that if you broke into Universal’s warehouse and took a close look at the “Night Stalker” sets, you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find McGavin’s bite marks. Then again, if McGavin had ever underplayed anything, I would have worried that he was sick. And boy, how perfect he was as the father in “A Christmas Story.”)

I’ve also read that McGavin not only insisted that his approach to playing Hammer was the right one, but he also went toe-to-toe with Lew Wasserman, who ran Universal (and, some would say, all of Hollywood) over the matter. But this doesn’t surprise me, given that Burt Reynolds, who had an unhappy work experience with McGavin on a series called “Riverboat” (from which this photo of McGavin is taken), once said that on the Easter after Darren McGavin died, McGavin would be a very disappointed man.

The Hammer episodes are generally not bad; so far, a couple of the ones I’ve seen have been based on stories by Ed McBain under his Curt Cannon pseudonym. (McBain was, in turn, the pseudonym of Evan Hunter, whose birth name was Salvatore Lombino. Yes, I know, I should have embedded a scorecard.)

The show’s production values aren’t bad; I suspect Revue/Universal spent a little more than usual, and they did take the time to film some exteriors in New York City, though I’m guessing the indoor stuff was done in Hollywood.

And as often happens with old TV shows, part of the fun is keeping an eye out for performers who later became famous. So far, Mike Hammer's femme fatales have included Angie Dickinson and -- heaven forfend -- Mrs. Cunningham herself, Marion Ross!

One amusing thing (to me, at least): The show begins with a shot of McGavin in New York City, over which McGavin’s name is superimposed in big letters. Then Mickey Spillane’s name is shown in big letters. Then comes “Mike Hammer” in big letters. Fine. But in one of the episodes (so far) the execs, apparently believing that Mickey Spillane’s fans can’t really read, insist on having an announcer intone all this information, in case we can’t quite make it out.

In all the episodes that have followed (or the ones I’ve viewed, at least) the announcer is nowhere to be heard.

I can’t help thinking that one night this announcer was out walking when he made a wrong turn into a very dark alley and met up with a certain tough guy.

And I keep imagining the aftermath of this encounter -- the battered broadcaster lying helplessly on the ground, rubbing his throat and saying, “You – you’ve ruined my voice! How could you?”

His assailant’s response:

“It was easy.”

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Oh, look -- a new link!

Just added to the blogroll: She Blogged by Night, by Stacia Jones, who, like the Self-Styled Siren, writes perceptively -- and charmingly -- about classic movies.

Most recently, Ms. Jones has written about "Johnny Guitar" (which I've never seen all the way through) and "Rope" (which I just bought on DVD).

I'm about to mosey over and see what she thinks of them. I hope you'll feel free to join me.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Another one of life's little ironies....

A little while ago my brother Michael was trying to remember the name of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film that he has seen many times.

Try as he might, he couldn't come up with the name, though he could remember a couple of other things about the movie.

After some Internet sleuthing, I had the answer.

"Total Recall."

Friday, April 27, 2012

The man who taught dirty plays

It was a beautiful spring day, so our class, which met at 2:30 p.m., was supposed to be held outside, in a plaza outside the academic building.

There was just one problem.

It was now 2:40, and our professor, who also ran the English department, hadn’t shown up.

Which was unusual, because he was always on time.

Not only that, but there was a rule – though I don’t think I ever saw it written down – that said that if a professor didn’t show up on time, the students were free to leave after the 10-minute-late point unless the professor, like ours, had a doctorate. Then we had to wait an additional five minutes.

I think our professor made it with about two minutes to spare.

“Sorry to be late,” he said, “but George Hampden accidentally set his wastebasket on fire and I was helping him put it out.”

And we all laughed because we knew this was the kind of thing that could happen to Dr. Hampden (whose name I have changed here), back in the days when it was not unusual for professors to smoke in their offices.

And this wasn’t the first time that we or any other students laughed at something that happened to Dr. Hampden – or even laughed at the mention of his name.

The story on campus was that Dr. Hampden didn’t have to teach, that he was a Boston Brahmin, a man of independent means. He was also a bachelor and lived across the street from the college in one of many apartment buildings in a complex that was beginning to go to seed.

I suppose you could say that Dr. Hampden was beloved by his students, but not in the same way that Mr. Chips was. The accounting students loved him and always picked his classes for their required English courses because he was an easy A.

And he often cut his own classes.

Each semester, after the first couple of weeks, the “cut board” outside the registrar’s office would bear a sign reading “Dr. Hampden will not meet with his classes today.” Within the next few weeks this sign would reappear more frequently.

Finally, and perhaps at a point in the semester when he felt he wanted to avoid the wrath of the academic dean (whose office was just down the hall from the registrar’s office), Dr. Hampden would sneak across the street to the college, find his classroom, pick up a piece of chalk and write, well, you guessed it.

When I was a junior I took two classes from him. I don’t remember any of his lectures, but I do remember that he would always start the semester with a prayer and that when he made the sign of the cross he’d say “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” which seemed quaint and old-fashioned at a time when Catholics almost universally had begun to refer to that third entity as the Holy Spirit.

The first course was about the age of Samuel Johnson. At one point, all the students had to do a presentation on some aspect of Johnson’s life and era. Dr. Hampden assigned the topics, and though I now couldn’t remember my topic if my life depended on it, I do recall that the student who was assigned the topic of Food and Drink brought in some wine. She doubtless received an A++.

Around this time I was told that I had been chosen for the Departmental Honors program. This meant that I was to do a special project for one of my English classes in each semester of my junior year, along with a yearlong project for my senior year.

The only English class I was taking that semester was Dr. Hampden’s, so I approached him one day in his office and told him I had been tapped for Departmental Honors.

“Congratulations, dear boy!”

I then awkwardly asked him what special project he wanted me to work on.

“Oh, just keep doing what you’re doing, dear boy!”

For a long time I felt mildly guilty about not doing a special project that semester, but Dr. Hampden had taken the matter out of my hands.

And though it’s almost 40 years later, I can still see him in that office that day: a short, chunky man sitting at his desk, hunched over it, a cigarette in one hand, a desk lamp casting a dim light – it might as well have been a shadow – on his weathered face.

He was obviously – I realize now – hung over, and with supreme good manners, he was trying to get me out of his office.

During the next semester, while I was doing my honors project for another professor’s class, I took Dr. Hampden’s other elective course, Restoration Drama, which he himself referred to as “Dirty Plays,” and with good reason. The other students and I spent most of the classes reading scenes from the racy plays at our desks. He seemed to enjoy that.

I never really got to know Dr. Hampden, and after graduation I didn’t see him for years until one day, when I was taking the bus downtown to my job at the newspaper and saw him crossing a busy intersection with a pleasantly oblivious – perhaps dangerously oblivious – look on his face.

On several occasions I saw him in the food court at the downtown mall. I’m not sure I ever saw him eat anything; I do remember seeing him with that same mildly happy, buzzed look on his face.

He had retired by this time, and he apparently had nowhere else to go. I never knew whether he had any family back in Boston or what he did with his time when he wasn’t getting a buzz on.

I never approached him. Chances are that he wouldn’t have remembered me anyway, though he probably would have had the good breeding to at least pretend he knew who I was.

And as I myself got older I would think about that day in his office when he obviously didn’t feel that well, and I would wonder what his life was like, if it was like anything much at all, despite all the money he was supposed to have had.

Was he filled with regrets? Was there someone special in his life whom he’d let “get away”? Or who had broken off with him? Was he always self-conscious about his height?

Did he drink to forget? Or did he just drink?

Whatever his past, or present, in the food court he seemed happy enough.

Maybe he originally started drinking to forget, and maybe now, years later, he was blissfully beyond the point of forgetting.

One day Dr. Hampden’s obliviousness apparently proved fatal – he was struck while walking in the road.

One of his colleagues – my old professor who helped him put out that wastebasket fire – said it was a blessing. He didn’t go into detail.

I suppose I could try to say something facile and clichéd about Dr. Hampden – how, even later in life, he taught me something. Except that I’m not sure he taught me anything much aside from an appreciation for Samuel Johnson and his times, and those “dirty plays” – and perhaps, now that I think of it, a further appreciation for the mysteries behind every human heart.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The guy who stayed home

Earlier today I was considering writing something about Dick Clark.

But a lot of other people have been writing about him, and I wasn’t sure I had much to add. I never watched “Bandstand” much, but I did watch a lot of “Pyramid” episodes and I had to admire his smoothness – not only with the celebs and contestants, but also with the crew.

One time I heard him telling the stage manager – on air – to tell the director (who’d wanted him to go to commercial instead of talking further with a contestant), that he, Clark, would “pick up the time” later.

In other words, “You do your job and let me do mine.”

All very smooth, without anger, without missing a beat.

But there didn’t seem to be much more I could say about Dick Clark.

That is, until a few minutes ago, when I heard that Alan Milair died.

I’m sure that, unless you've lived where I live, and have lived here a long time, you’re asking yourself who Alan Milair is.

Fair enough.

I guess you could say that Alan Milair is the Dick Clark who stayed home.

Alan Milair had a 30-year career in local radio and TV. During that time, I think he worked for only one station.

And he had a million-dollar voice. Smooth. Mellow. Rich.

If you were a program director in the 1950s, and if you needed someone to host a show geared for housewives who wanted a touch of romance as they did the vacuuming, fed the baby and did all the other things that they didn’t get nearly enough appreciation for, Alan Milair was your man. He could fill the time between records by almost caressing his audience with his resonant, oh-so-understanding voice.

Nothing in bad taste, mind you. No double entendres. The very essence of a non-shock jock.

He had a voice that belonged on a dessert tray.

And he was a member of that generation of broadcasters who had to know how to do everything -- spin records, do the news and weather, maybe even sweep the floor.

As far as television is concerned, if you’re my age and grew up in my town, you’ll probably always remember him best for “Monster Movie Matinee.”

“Monster Movie Matinee” ran on Saturday afternoons. It offered the usual assortment of monster/horror pictures, from old classics like “Frankenstein” and “Dracula” to newer and more cultish ones like “Bucket of Blood” and, of course, “Little Shop of Horrors” – anything in Roger Corman’s oeuvre was fair game.

And in a way, the Corman pictures, with their cheapness and tongue-in-cheek tone, were better suited to “Monster Movie Matinee” than the Universal horror classics.

This is because “Monster Movie Matinee,” in addition to having a budget that today would probably get you an order of fries at McDonald’s, did not take itself very seriously either.

To say the least.

The host of “Monster Movie Matinee” was a guy named Epal, who wore a beard and an eye patch. Epal was played by the late Bill Everett, who was also a lifer in local broadcasting. Everett also hosted the Popeye show, where he appeared as Salty Sam, and if you were really in the know, you knew that Everett’s real last name was Lape – Epal spelled backwards!

Epal was the assistant to a mysterious figure who was played by Milair and went by the name of Dr. E. Nick Witty. I can’t tell you much about what Dr. Witty looked like because we never saw much of him, though we did indeed hear him, as you can see in this clip from the show’s early days.

I suppose it’s possible that no one from a bigger station in a bigger market ever tried to woo Alan Milair away. But I’d have a hard time believing it, and if you just heard him in that clip, I suspect you’ll agree with me.

And it’s certainly not unusual for people from my area to go on to Bigger and Better Things in broadcasting. The director of a local children’s show eventually won an Emmy for directing Sonny and Cher. And I could name a couple of national TV reporters who used to work around here.

But I don’t think Alan Milair ever saw my town as a stopping-off place to the big time. I suspect he liked it here just fine.

I don’t mean to imply that someone like Alan Milair is superior to someone like Dick Clark or anyone else in broadcasting who moves on to greater fame.

But, as Willy Loman’s wife might say, attention must be paid to people like Alan Milair.

Willy Loman himself maintained that it was important to be well-liked.

But being well-liked was something Alan Milair never had to worry about. And I think that those of us who watched and listened to him will always like him all the more for sticking around here and amusing us kids on many a dreary Saturday.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

At the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you are among the solvers who will be doing this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn’t read this now.)

Saturday

As the official competition in the tournament gets under way, I am competing with about 600 other solvers.

And a computer program.

The program, named Dr. Fill, has been designed by Matt Ginsberg, a software engineer who also makes crossword puzzles, many of which have been published in The New York Times, whose puzzle editor, Will Shortz, has run this tournament for 35 years.

One of Ginsberg’s Times puzzles was constructed in collaboration with actress Dana Delany, whom I find at least a little more interesting than Dr. Fill but who, unfortunately, is not at the tournament.

Will has announced that anyone who beats the computer program will receive a button that says “I beat Dr. Fill.”

Soon, all of us – and it – get to work on the first puzzle. The first puzzle of the tournament is supposed to be pretty easy, and I’m not surprised to learn that it’s by Lynn Lempel, who often does the Monday Times crossword – the easiest of the week.

Her tournament puzzle, “Plus Ten,” adds an X to five familiar phrases to form the theme answers – GREAT APE, for example, becomes “GREAT APEX.”

I finish this fairly quickly but, once again, take perhaps a little too much time double-checking the answers.

Between puzzles, I chat with the woman next to me. It’s her first time at the tournament, and she’s not that frequent a crossword solver. She works for a utility company and often faces deadlines, and she wishes that the competitors didn’t have to try to outrace a clock.

If women were running this tournament, she says, it would be a lot different – it would have a more laid-back atmosphere, with contestants occasionally consulting with each other (“What are you getting for 31 Across?”).

Oh, I say. You mean something like a “crossword bee”?

Exactly! she says.

I nod pleasantly, though I know that the odds of her idea taking hold are about the same as the odds of me collaborating with Dana Delany on anything.

Puzzle Two and Puzzle Five are supposed to be the two hardest. Given the panic attack Puzzle Two gives me, I am for a time unsure that I will make it to Puzzle Five.

The title and description alone raise my blood pressure:

Boustrophedon: adj. (and n.): having alternate lines running from left to right and right to left.

I freeze upon seeing that first word – a word that I’ve not only never heard of, but which looks a lot like Bouchercon, the name of the annual mystery festival that I have sometimes attended. I barely read the description and for a moment worry that it’s going to be one of those puzzles where a word goes to the end of the grid, then continues vertically.

What’s more, the puzzle is by Patrick Merrell. So I know I’m not going to be let off easy.

What even more: I have a problem getting started with the puzzle. It seems to take a long time for me to find a clue that I can grab hold of, and even then it leads me nowhere, so I have to look elsewhere, while envisioning myself up in my room, packing.

Somehow I calm down and gain some footholds and learn to deal with such theme answers as DLIEFAGNIWOLP for PLOWING A FIELD.

And despite my initial moments of panic, I manage to finish the puzzle – and finish it eight minutes early. A lot of other people don’t finish it as quickly, if at all.

The next puzzle, “Letterheads” by Patrick Berry, has a slightly larger grid but is more gentle. The theme answers involving adding one letter to the beginning of two initials, so that PS I LOVE YOU become GPS I LOVE YOU.

After the lunch break, it’s on to Puzzle 4, “Two for the Show,” by Ian Livengood, in which the theme answers are two-word phrases made up of one-word movie titles, so that CHICAGO and SEVEN become CHICAGO SEVEN. I pretty much sail through this.

Between puzzles, I chat with the very nice young man who is now sitting next to me, and he mentions how age and cultural references can affect a puzzle-solver’s progress. Puzzle 3, for example, asked for the name of “Grandpa Munster’s portrayer.” A baby boomer like me instantly writes in AL LEWIS, whereas my young competitor has never heard of him – or even Grandpa Munster. I sympathize but note that references to modern-day pop singers can cause me to fizzle.

But enough chitchat, for here comes Puzzle 5, which is traditionally thought of as the hardest puzzle of the tournament – or, to put it more bluntly, “The Bastard Puzzle.”

It’s by Patrick Blindauer (why are so many devilishly difficult puzzles created by people called Patrick?), and it’s called “Going Underground: Follow the tunnels made by five creatures to complete this pesky puzzle.”

Oh, great.

Up to now I have never completed a Puzzle 5. I’ll again give it my best shot, but my usual strategy is to solve as many “straight” clues as possible while hoping that somehow I’ll be able to figure out the theme.

I know that something really dastardly is up when I see the clue “1958 Curtis/Poitier film” in the left part of the grid and, unlike my young neighbor, instantly know the answer is THE DEFIANT ONES – but then see there is space for only seven letters.

So I write in THEDEFI and hope that somehow everything will make sense some point.

Eventually, it does; an answer in the right part of the grid is ONES. Aha – the ANT – the “creature” is missing! Turns out the other theme answers are similar. What I don’t find out until much later is that the word ANT appears diagonally between THEDEFI and ONES, and between the parts of the other theme answers.

But it doesn’t really matter because I soon realize that – wonder of wonders – I have a good chance of completing Puzzle 5! But there’s very little time left. By the time I complete the last part – in the lower right – there’s less than a minute on the clock, so I don’t take my usual amount of time for checking (and hey, haven’t I sometimes taken too much time?) and hand the puzzle in with maybe less than 30 seconds to spare.

The last puzzle of the day, by Elizabeth C. Gorski, is “Foodie Film Festival,” with punning them answers that include A LEEK OF THEIR OWN and SILENCE OF THE CLAMS. I do pretty well on this, then leave to eventually have some food of my own.

The Saturday night social program includes a demonstration of Dr. Fill by its creator, Matt Ginsberg.

It turns out the doc hasn’t been doing that well – Puzzles 2 and 5 have posed some problems. (Welcome to the club, Doc.)

And I begin to hope that, for their own sake, the folks running the tournament have a lot of those buttons ready.

Later that evening, I get a very pleasant surprise – a check of the results, posted online, shows that I scored 1170 on Puzzle 5 – meaning I got all the answers right.

Better yet, my current ranking is 113 – up from 195 last year! Way up!

Wow, I think, if I do really well on the last puzzle I might crack the top 100! And move from C division to B division (the top 20 percent)!

And rumor has it that the last puzzle – Puzzle 7 – which, to be more precise, is the last puzzle everyone solves, is by Merl Reagle. Reagle does a weekly Sunday-size puzzle that appears in my local newspaper, and lately I’ve often been solving it in less than 20 minutes. Given that I’ve had a lot of experience doing Reagle’s puzzles, and that Puzzle 7 is a 45-minute puzzle, with the usual 25-point bonus for each minute left on the clock after you turn it in….

Is Sunday going to be a great day, or what?

Sunday

To answer that last question:

What.

Before the last puzzle I check the standings and find that my score for Puzzle 5 is now 1000, which – I’ll spare you the math – means that I made one mistake (and that someone, darn him or her, double-checked it).

So I’m now at 130 overall.

OK, I think, I’ll burn some rubber with the Reagle puzzle and climb back up.

An excellent strategy. Napoleon would have applauded me.

Except for the fact that Puzzle 7 isn’t by Merl Reagle.

It’s by Mike Shenk. The puzzle editor of The Wall Street Journal – who has sometimes designed the championship puzzle.

Uh oh.

Fortunately, the puzzle, “At Last!,” has a theme that I grasp fairly quickly – AT is added to familiar phrases, so that, for example, THE POWERS THAT BE becomes THE POWERS THAT BEAT.

I get through the puzzle as quickly as I can, though Shenk has planted a couple of words that almost stymie me – MHO and, particularly near the end, TRIGRAM. Although I finish in fairly good time, I wish I’d done better.

Merl, where were you when I needed you?

That’s the last puzzle I have to solve. Not much more for me to do than check out, check my bags, watch a variety show including some talented contestants (and emceed very capably by Liane Hansen, formerly of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday”) and watch the championship finals.

The A division finals feature Dan Feyer, who won the last two tournaments; Tyler Hinman, a frequent winner who (as I recall) hasn’t competed with Feyer in a final before; and Anne Erdmann, who was also one of last year’s three A division finalists.

Who won? You can see it here.

I, of course, didn’t do nearly as well: My final standing is 142. Still, it’s nothing to complain about, considering that I was 195 last year.

Still…

For a while I can’t help being a little put out at Will. Why did he – or one of his minions, acting for him – feel it necessary to recheck my Puzzle 5?

But eventually I have an epiphany.

Will, in his infinite wisdom, was doing me a favor. (A favor I wouldn’t have minded doing without, but I think I see his reasoning.)

As a puzzle editor, Will has to be a master of detail, and to run a tournament like this he has to be a master of detail to the nth power.

And one of those details is this blog. Believe it or not, I know that Will has read my tournament blog entries on at least one occasion – last year. I even got a nice email from him, which I still have, though as yet I have been unable to have it bronzed.

So this year I’m sure Will was thinking, “Gee, how can we make Murphy’s blog more interesting this year, instead of the usual blah, dumb jokes?

“I know – let’s add some suspense. Let’s make him THINK he’s at 113. It’ll boost his morale – and add to the drama. Of course he won’t like it when we bring him down to earth at 142nd place, but hey, it’s his fifth time here -- it’s too early for him to be at 113, much less in the top 100. After all, Dr. Richard Kimble didn’t catch the one-armed man in the fifth episode of ‘The Fugitive,’ did he? So let’s make Murphy sweat some more – that way he’ll appreciate it all the more when (or I should say if) he crashes the top 100!”

Gee, thanks, Will. I think.

And by now you might be wondering what my mistake was.

It turns out I stumbled on a one-word clue: “Slight.” I took this as a noun and wrote SLANDER. It should have been SLENDER, as I might well have figured out had I checked one of the crosses and noticed that it read as DIA when it should have been DIE. (“It may be loaded.”)

I later figure out that without this gaffe I would now be at, maybe, 123.

Talk about losing by a slender thread. (Or maybe a slander thread?)

Still, 142 isn’t bad.

I also finished 10th in my geographical division, though I must acknowledge that this was almost certainly because one of the very top solvers in my region suddenly took ill this year. Hope you’re feeling better, Rex.

Though I’m mostly happy with 142, I do have one final bone to pick with Will.

If I have to fall from grace, did it have to be as far as 142nd place?

Considering that, um, Dr. Fill finished one notch above me, at 141?

There’s such a thing as overkill, Will….

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Back from Brooklyn

In a few days I hope to provide a full account of my latest trip to the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

In the meantime, a couple of highlights from my trip:

While at LaGuardia for the first time, I noticed an establishment called Slip Mahoney's Bar and Grill.

This caught my eye because, as you might know, Slip Mahoney was the character portrayed by Leo Gorcey in the Bowery Boys movies, which I enjoyed as a kid.

I didn't visit the place, but as I looked at it from the outside I could see no trace of Leo.

Or Huntz Hall.

Or Gabriel Dell.

Heck, you would have thought that at least Billy Halop would have shown up.

I told my friend and fellow Bowery Boys devotee Dan Valenti about this, and he asked me whether there was a Louie's Sweet Shop next to Slip's place. (Louie being the irascible Louie Dumbrowsky, played by Bernard Gorcey, Leo's father.)

I said I could find no trace of Louie, though I hadn't checked out the Jamba Juice stand.

Dan said that Louie would more likely be running an Orange Julius place.

Or (he said) as Slip would have called it, Orange Juniper....

After the tournament I went to a diner and ordered some ziti with half a chicken breast.

Although the serving was ample, the marinara sauce was too spicy for my taste.

And it didn't help when I looked around and saw this sign, posted prominently:

FIRST AID KIT

& CPR

RESUCITATION (sic) KITS

ARE LOCATED AT

THE CASHIER'S POST

All of this placed above another sign, which, taken in context, added to my feeling of unease:

OUTGOING

ORDERS

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

'E-N-C-Y-C-L-O-P-E-D-I-A!'

If you're over the age of maybe 55 or so, that headline might bring a smile to your face.

If you're not, you're probably scratching your head, and rightly so.

For those of you who came in late, back in the 1950s the original "Mickey Mouse Club" would occasionally present a feature what was supposed to educate and entertain us stay-at-home Mouseketeers.

How educational were they? Maybe not very, considering that I can't remember any of the topics.

But what I do remember -- along with a lot of other baby boomers -- is that these segments were narrated by Jiminy Cricket (voiced by Cliff Edwards), who opened them with a tune in which he spelled out (or maybe rather sang out) the above letters.

I thought of Jiminy today as I read that the folks behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica (yes, they insist on that extra "a") plan to discontinue their print edition, though the content will continue to be available online.

This saddens me, because although my family never owned a set of the EB, we did have another kind of encyclopedia, which I remember fondly.

It was called the Golden Book Encyclopedia, and you could buy one volume a week at the grocery store where we did our shopping.

It's entirely appropriate that these books were sold at a food store, because I almost literally gobbled up each volume after we got it home.

One thing that appealed to me was the covers. Each was cleverly laid out with objects from that particular volume. The cover of Book 14: Silk to Textiles, for example, featured stamps, a starfish and a photo of a spacecraft nearing what appeared to be the moon. I always looked forward to seeing what the next cover would look like.

I also especially remember the maps of the various countries and states, with their various symbols. As I recall, a tiny picture of a steer's head (I suppose today we'd call it an icon) indicated that they had a lot of cows in Texas. I also think there were one or two pictures of oil wells there, too.

I learned a lot from these books. I probably forgot a lot of it too. Perhaps my mental hard drive erased this information to make room for all the stuff I wound up learning (willingly or not) during the next 50 years.

Perhaps what I liked most about these books is that a new surprise awaited you on every page. ("Oh, I didn't know that part of your ear is made of this stuff called cartilage!")

I suppose you could argue that surfing the Internet provides its share of surprises, too. And it would certainly be hypocritical of me, a blog writer, to disown the Internet.

But I often find that on the Web my attention ricochets from one topic to another, kind of like a mental pinball, and I forget what I was trying to find out in the first place. (Assuming I was trying to find out anything in particular to begin with.)

No, there's still something to be said for leisurely turning the pages of an encyclopedia, or some other reference book, from left to right, never knowing what you might find next, kind of the intellectual equivalent of the Sunday drive. Whereas a "drive" on the Internet can often lead to zigzags and detours that lead to information that can be questionable at best -- kind of like a smart-aleck kid who moves an arrow on a road sign and sends you to Albuquerque when you're trying to get to Poughkeepsie.

Then again, I'm not sure I'd like to re-examine any of the Golden Book Encyclopedia's volumes. Perhaps I'd find that the entries explicitly or implicitly reflected attitudes that we'd shy away from now. Or that some of the entries were just plain dumb. All of which would prove, once again, that the past is often best revisited from a distance -- and without high-powered binoculars.

But whatever its worth as an educational document, I'll always be grateful to the Golden Book Encyclopedia for the thrill it gave me each week -- the thrill of learning something new. A thrill that, over the last 50 years, still hasn't gotten old.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Across and down to Brooklyn, yet again

This weekend I will compete in my fifth American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Brooklyn.

Last year I finally made it into the top 200 -- No. 195, to be precise. I'll be hoping to score even higher this time.

One new wrinkle this year: Not to be outdone by "Jeopardy," which last year placed a supercomputer named Watson against two of its top champions, ACPT will place a computer program named Dr. Fill in competition with its contestants.

As if I my 600 or so human opponents won't be enough to contend with....

As in previous years, I'll be reporting on my adventures after I return, and I hope you will stay tuned.

Friday, February 24, 2012

This Just In

My story "A Personnel Matter" has been published in the Winter 2012 issue of Mysterical-E.

You can read the story -- free -- by going here.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Bless us, Ms. Clooney, for we have sinned

One of the local shopping malls has an unusual feature: a Roman Catholic chapel. It's been there for 12 years.

The chapel, operated by the Franciscans, offers services five days a week.

One of the local weeklies ran a feature story about it.

According to the story, the chapel also "offers reconciliation, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and Praying of the Rosemary."

(Maybe the opening hymn will be "Come On-a My House of Worship"....)

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Alice, Where Hath Thou Gone?

No, that happy fellow you see here isn’t Alice.

His name is Bosko.

Not to be confused with that chocolate syrup called Bosco that was popular (or was at least advertised a heck of a lot when I was a kid) and that had this jingle:

Oh, I love Bosco!
That's the drink for me!
Chocolate flavored Bosco
Is mighty good for me.
Mommy puts it in my milk
For extra energy.
Bosco gives me iron
And sunshine vitamin D.
Oh, I love Bosco!
That's the drink for m
e!

I suspect that the alternate version of this jingle was better known to my generation:

I hate Bosco,
Bosco's not for me,
My Mommy puts in my milk
Just to poison me,
But I fool Mommy,
I put it in her tea,
And now there's no more Mommy,
To try and poison me.


The Bosko in the picture is in a scene from a motion picture that was a first – a landmark in the history of cinema. And no, I’m not kidding about that, and I’ll explain later.

But back to Alice.

She was a tragic figure from my childhood. The source of a minor trauma, if you will.

The kind of trauma that Fred Rogers, who understood kids better than anyone, zeroed in on years later in one of his songs.

I can still see him perched on his bathtub the day he reassured his very young viewers that “You can never go down the drain.”

Some in our family made fun of him for doing that. I myself was long past being a toddler (I’d probably recently collided with that 10-ton truck that is known to all as Puberty) and so chances are that I, with the knowing ignorance of youth, joined in the japery.

But if I mocked Misterogers, I suspect my heart wasn’t in it.

Because his song did touch a nerve. And evoke memories of the long-lost Alice.

I made her acquaintance when I was a little kid, at that stage where your parents still don’t trust you to adequately bathe yourself.

And to pass the time while she was making sure my neck and back were as presentable as possible, my mother would croon a tune about Alice. My father might well have sung it too when he filled in for her, but I mostly remember my mother singing it.

And although I think my mother sang it to other kids in the family, I suspect she sang it to me because she liked the effect it had on me – me, the kid who was able to read at a very early age and was, therefore, considered precocious and relatively sophisticated.

For though I tried not to show it, the song did scare the heck out of me.

Which is ironic, because now I can remember only parts of it.

I believe it began with a little musical dialogue:

“Alice, where are you going?”
“Downstairs, to take a bath….”


I can’t remember the lyrics from the middle part of this ditty, but I remember the melody, which, along with the words, built up the kind of suspense and tension that Alfred Hitchcock would have envied.

For you see, our Alice happened to be a toothpick.

And the last two lines went something like:

(Blank blank blank blank blank) in vain:
There goes Alice down the drain!


So of course, when my mother would pull the plug, there was that momentary fear – flying in the face of all that was known about physics – that I might too meet Alice’s fate. Irrational, yes? But then again, although I knew how to read, Archimedes wasn’t one of my favorites.

Some time ago I began wondering where my parents picked up that song.

So I consulted everybody’s reference work: the Internet.

Where you can find anything.

And I mean anything.

And I found nothing.

Absolutely nothing about Alice the Toothpick.

Talk about dying in vain.

My best guess is that someone in my mother’s family made it up. Maybe her brother – my uncle – who was a published poet. Or their father – my grandfather – whom I never met but who was known for his sense of humor.

I suppose it might have come from my father’s side of the family, but I doubt it. His relatives had no discernible sense of humor and I can’t recall them ever laughing at anything, although I suppose that the sight of some guy falling down a flight of stairs might have given them a chuckle, especially if they'd pushed him.

And because no one is still around from my mom’s side of the family, I guess Alice’s origins will forever remain a mystery….

The photo with our friend Bosko is from a 1930 cartoon called “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub.” It was the first Looney Tunes cartoon ever made, and it was animated by one of the true (and I fear still unsung) geniuses of animation, Isadore “Friz” Freleng.

Freleng went on to become a cartoon director – most of the Tweety and Sylvesters were his, he also gave us Yosemite Sam and he helmed (as we critics like to say) my favorite Bugs Bunny cartoon, “Little Red Riding Rabbit.”

And more than a quarter century after drawing the primitive “Sinkin’ in the Bathtub,” Freleng made a masterpiece, “Three Little Bops,” with voices by Stan Freberg.