Sunday, January 27, 2008

The day I saw Garrison Keillor (or did I?)

It's a Friday afternoon, maybe 10 years ago or more, and I'm about to board a train to Albany.

As I stand in line I notice that one of the other passengers has gotten off the train. He's having a smoke and looking around, a tall guy with glasses and with eyes that are taking everything in. A writer's eyes.

That's Garrison Keillor, I think to myself. I don't get all excited; I think that thought in the same way I might think "The sky is blue today."

Remembering the title of his first book, I'm tempted, as I walk past him, to say "Happy to be here?"

But I look at him and he looks at me and he doesn't look as if he especially wants to trade pleasantries with me.


I get on the train for the three-hour trip to Albany. He's in another car. I read a book, but now and then think, "Is that really him?"

Finally we're in Albany. He's among the people getting off. Boy is he tall. And that dark hair, those glasses, that chin.... Has to be him.

I see him get off. Two guys meet him. They seem nervous. If you were casting actors for an episode of "Those Nervous Guys from the NPR Affiliate," they'd do very nicely.

He says a few words, something like "They're not here." I'd heard Keillor speak before, either on the radio or TV. As Adrian Monk would say years later, "He's the guy!"

My relatives pick me up. I tell them I think I saw Garrison Keillor on the train. They look as if they're questioning my sanity, and not for the first time.

While I'm in Albany I call a couple of local NPR stations. They say Keillor isn't in town, and boy do they seem surprised that I'm asking.

A few days later, back in my hometown, I eventually look up the address of "A Prairie Home Companion." This is years before I had Internet access, let alone Google, so this takes some doing, but I find it and write a letter, asking if the creator of Guy Noir had stopped off in the state capital.

A few weeks later I get a letter. I've long since lost it so can't quote it, but this will give you the gist (and the tone):

"Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, on the date you mention, Mr. Keillor was on a flight to Europe, so he certainly couldn't have been in Albany, could he?"

I had never before realized that NPR actually stood for National Patronizing Radio.

I'd never really listened to "Prairie Home Companion," and I somehow manage to get along without it very nicely for some years, but I eventually give in, not because I'm a big fan of Keillor's (though I appreciate his talent) but because I think their voice actors are brilliant, especially Sue Scott.

And when I eventually get around to watching the Robert Altman movie inspired by the show, I can't help thinking it all over again.

That's the guy.

OK, maybe it isn't. Or wasn't.

But if it wasn't, Mr. Keillor should watch his keister, because he sure has one hell of a doppelganger. (Or, given his height, a doppelganglier....)

Suzanne Pleshette and Lois Nettleton

They died within a week of each other, but the death of Suzanne Pleshette received a lot more publicity than the passing of Lois Nettleton.

Which is understandable, given Pleshette's long career in movies and her long stint as the television spouse of Bob Newhart. And I'm afraid there's not much I can add to the posthumous tributes to her. She was beautiful, she could be naughtily witty, and her portrayal of Emily Hartley was one reason the relationship between her and Bob Hartley seemed at least somewhat more realistic than the marriages of many, if not most, sitcom couples. Emily was not a doormat, but neither was she a steamroller, and the couple's repartee always had an underpinning of respect.

I also remember thinking that they were the first couple who seemed as if they used their bed for more than just sleeping. This, of course, was well past the era of the Laura and Rob Petrie Twin Bed Set...

My first memory of Lois Nettleton is from 1960s TV: "Accidental Family," a short-lived series starring Jerry Van Dyke -- a redundancy if ever there was one. Jerry played a widowed comedian who moved with his very young son to a farm owned by Nettleton's character, a divorcee. I remember that it also featured John Byner, a comedian who in recent years has been too rarely seen. (I always remember a hilarious routine he did about a standup comedian who's bombing. And his impression of Brian Keith on "Family Affair." which basically consisted of Byner running his hand down the side of his face, in mock "Uncle Bill" frustration. I know he's still around, and I really wish he'd do a DVD of his best stuff.)

I don't remember much else about "Accidental Family," but I always remembered Lois Nettleton's performance, and I almost always watched everything she did after that. I suppose this was at least partly because I had a little crush on her, but she also had a way of making you care about her characters. (I would have liked to see her performance as Blanche in "A Streetcar Named Desire.") She also made many game show appearances -- mostly on "Pyramid," I think -- and I read somewhere that she spent so much time chatting with her "civilian" partners, showing an interest in their lives, that she could lose sight of the game.

Don't know what you think, but that sounds like a very nice person to me.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Edward D. Hoch

If you pick up the latest issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, you will find a short story by Edward D. Hoch.

Actually, if you pick up any issue of EQMM from the last 35 years or so, you will probably find a short story by him.

Mr. Hoch died Thursday.

As I suspect you have deduced, he was one prolific guy. His byline appeared on more than 900 published stories. Some stories were standalones, but I think he was more famous for his series characters including Nick Velvet, Dr. Sam Hawthorne and, most recently, Stanton and Ives.

He never lost the ability to fool the reader, and he devised so many ingenious locked-room mysteries that I'd almost have hesitated to be in the same room with him unless I had a key to it.

But Mr. Hoch was not an inhuman plotting machine; within the limits of the traditional mystery story, he knew how to create characters that weren't stick figures. And he wasn't stuck in the past; the Stanton and Ives series, featuring two young amateur sleuths, were distinctly modern and fresh.

I wish I could say I'd known him, especially considering that he lived in a city that's less than two hours away from my city.

But I met him only once -- in Toronto, oddly enough, at a conference for mystery writers and their fans.

He had just given a presentation along with several other writers and was sitting at a table signing copies of EQMM. I approached him and told him how much I admired his work and how I studied each story as it came out, wondering how he'd fool me THIS time.

He was impeccably polite, but it was clear he did not want to talk long. I suspected he had had a long day and was tired, so I politely withdrew and he closed his eyes, probably for a catnap. (After 900 stories, who could blame him?)

Or maybe, behind those closed eyes, he was plotting yet another locked-room murder....

If you search the Web over the next few days, you'll probably find many tributes to Mr. Hoch by people who had the great fortune to know him far better than I did.

I hope you will look up these tributes -- and his stories.

Therein lays the rub

Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich reports with a heavy heart that a copy editor called her about this sentence she had written:

"The event night comes and you'd rather lie on the sofa."

According to Schmich, the copy editor thought it should say "you'd rather lay on the sofa."


The lie/lay distinction is often misunderstood if it's even respected at all. I myself didn't understand it until my freshman year in high school, when the teacher offered this simple device: lie = recline, lay = to place.

Of course there's the issue of whether people who know the difference should correct people who don't, especially if they're not writers.

I suspect it depends on the situation.

During my annual checkup, my former doctor used to tell me to "Lay down on the table."

Which, for me, raised two questions:

1. Should I correct him?

2. Has he done that thing with the K-Y Jelly yet?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Where have you gone, Dearly hogmanay?

Tonight I watched an episode of Turner Classic Movies' "Private Screenings" featuring former child actors Darryl Hickman, Jane Withers, Margaret O'Brien and Dick (formerly "Dickie" Moore). The four of them discussed their careers with host Robert Osborne.

The show included a plug for a book Hickman had written about creativity and acting.

The book seemed interesting, so I decided to look it up on the local library's online catalog. I wrote in Hickman's name and selected the category of "author."

There were four hits, all of them for movies Hickman had appeared in. No mention of his book.

But I mention this because, in giving me the results, the catalog asked me:

"Did you mean Dearly hogmanay?"

Never having heard of Mr. or Ms. hogmanay, I clicked on the name.

Turned out the library hadn't heard of him or her either.

So, you might ask, why did the Web site ask me if I meant Dearly hogmanay?

I dunno.

But one doesn't want to be rude, so I suppose I should respond the question. After all, the online catalog was only trying to be helpful.

Wasn't it?


Dear online catalog:

In response to your question:

I did not mean Dearly hogmanay.

I also did not mean Dearly Beloved.

Or Sadly Mistaken.

Or Snidely Whiplash.

Or High on the Hog.

Or Hi and Lois.

Or Green Eggs and Ham.

Very truly yours,

Markly Murphmanay