Thursday, June 19, 2008

I DO believe in hype! I DO believe in hype!

The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce has announced that "25 of our greatest talents" have been selected to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Topping the list in the category of motion pictures is, um, Tinker Bell.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The Fast-Food Worker/Bob Hope Syndrome

Granted, this phenomenon might not be as well-known as the Stockholm Syndrome, and if I really worked at it, I might be able to come up with a catchier name for it, but maybe you've experienced this:

You're in line at a fast-food place and the person at the counter finally says, "Can I help the next person?" and it's you.

You step forward. The person makes eye contact with you. But as you start to give your order, the person's eyes move to your left, as if something's just happened -- as if, say, someone more interesting just walked in the door.

You get the person's attention again (I've been known to hold up an index finger, as if giving a sobriety test) and place your order.

This used to happen to me quite a bit, then I noticed it happening less. Then it happened again the other day.

I'm not angry about this; heaven knows, these employees don't make that much money. But it's happened often enough that I wonder what causes it. It's quite possible, of course, that someone far more interesting than yours truly has just walked in the door. (It wouldn't have to be, say, Elvis, though from what I've heard about him he wouldn't exactly be out of place at a Mickey D's.)

But I always feel as if I'm in one of those TV specials that Bob Hope used to do as his career was winding down. He and the guest star would appear in a skit, and it would soon become quite clear (perhaps I should make that "ridiculously obvious") that they hadn't bothered to learn their lines and were unabashedly looking over each other's shoulders to read the cue cards.

Then again, this syndrome also reminds me of a "Twilight Zone" episode where a guy (Howard Duff?) learns that his entire life has been scripted, or something like that.

Could this (once again cue "Twilight Zone" sound effect) be happening to me? To all of us? Are our lives merely scripts being played out, and are most of the people in our lives very adept at learning their lines, but the fast-food folks aren't that great at it because, well, let's face it, they are walk-ons, they are inexperienced, and they're just being paid scale?

Or am I just hard up for a way to fill this space today?

(And did someone just yell "CUT"?)

Monday, June 9, 2008

Jim McKay and The Gut Guy

He was, of course, best known for his work on "Wide World of Sports" and his coverage of the Olympics.

But Jim McKay is also one of a handful of broadcasters whom I recall seeing (or listening to) before they became famous. And somehow I always associate these folks with the first time I saw (or heard) them.

McKay, for example, was once featured on a show called "The Verdict Is Yours." I believe it was on CBS at 3:30 p.m. EST weekdays. According to the Internet Movie Database, it made its debut in 1958, which means I was almost 4 years old at the time.

On the show, McKay, complete with earphones, was a court reporter giving the details of fictional trials that were enacted on the program. I guess I liked this show because I also liked "Perry Mason," and courtroom stuff fascinated me, even though I didn't understand a darn thing about it. I even remember that once, while we were downtown, my mom and I stopped by the county courthouse and she showed me an empty courtroom. (Perry, Della and Paul were obviously on their lunch break.)

But whenever I saw McKay in later years, I often thought of "The Verdict Is Yours."

And, speaking of lunch breaks, there was the first time I heard Charles Kuralt.

Years before he went "On the Road," he did a daily health feature for CBS Radio. Sometimes the topics of these features were things you didn't necessarily want to think about while you were eating. So, of course, some programming genius put Kuralt on sometime between 11 a.m. and noon, when my siblings and I were home from school on our lunch break. And because we were kids, and had that typical try-to-make-each-other-spit-up-their-lunch mentality, the juxtaposition of unpalatable health topics with our Spam sandwiches apparently appealed to our sense of absurdity, and we'd get silly.

My mother, noting how often Mr. Kuralt's reports focused on some aspect of digestion, dubbed him "The Gut Guy."

Years later, and skatey-eight journalism awards later, when Mr. Kuralt appeared on our household's TV screen he was still -- and always would be -- "The Gut Guy."

And then there was the time my mother called me over to the radio and said there was a guy reading the news who sounded a lot like Dick Van Dyke.

And gosh darned if he didn't.

And gosh darned if the guy's name wasn't Charles Osgood, years before he had to get up early on Sunday mornings.

And gosh darned if he still doesn't sound at least a little like Rob Petrie. (Hmm. I wonder how good he is at stumbling over ottomans....)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ms. Altman, my ankle and Agatha

I'd never heard of Sophie B. Altman before I saw her obituary on The New York Times' Web site..

But when I found out about her main claim to fame, the phrase "Altman Productions" leaped to the front of my alleged mind.

For I used to see that phrase every week at the end of the TV program that Ms. Altman started in 1961: "It's Academic."

In case you've never seen it, "It's Academic" is a quiz show featuring three teams of high school students representing their respective schools. A number of local stations produce their own versions of the show, probably under some kind of franchise agreement with the company, which is based in Washington, D.C.

According to the show's Web site, contestants on the show over the past 47 years have included Washington Post CEO Donald Graham, New York Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Charles Schumer; political commentator George Stephanopoulos; Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon; and best-selling mystery author Laura Lippman.

Conspicuously absent from this list (OK, maybe not so conspicuously) is yours truly. This is an especially outrageous omission because Hillary, Chuck, George, Michael and Laura, famous as they are, did not have to play with a handicap. ...

It's the middle of a week in January 1972. My brother Martin and I are walking in a parking lot, toward the spot where a friend and his father are going to pick us up and take us across town to school. The weather isn't bad, but there's some left-over "black ice" on the lot, and this kind of ice is particularly treacherous if, instead of wearing real boots with decent treads, you are sporting a much flimsier pair of overshoes that have slightly more traction than a fresh roll of wax paper.

One moment I'm walking along, perfectly fine; the next, I'm on the ground, spouting all sorts of words that my brother will later swear he had never before heard me utter.

Our ride comes, and on the way to school I notice my left ankle is swelling. Just a sprain, I think. My friend, a basketball player, seems to think differently.

We get to school, and I'm stupid enough to climb two flights of stairs and walk all the way down a hallway to homeroom, where the nun in charge immediately figures out that something's very wrong with me.

Eventually I wind up home, my ankle in a cast.

Thing is, the following Saturday I'm to appear on "It's Academic." I'm incompetent with crutches, but luckily the cast has a rubber heel that I hope I can get used to.

On the morning of the show -- one of several episodes to be taped that day -- my folks take me to the TV station, which is part of a shopping center. I'm still wobbly on the rubber heel, but my mother has cut a hole in a ski hat and placed it on the bottom of the cast, and my father helps me up what I remember as a (wouldn't you know) tall flight of stairs that leads to the studio.

I get situated on the set with my two teammates, a guy and a young woman, with the woman at the center. I notice that some stagehand has apparently left an empty pack of smokes on our desk.

The host shows up. Before doing the show, we tape a promo, with the host doing all the talking, but he manages to botch one of the other school's names, provoking a heartfelt and very audible barnyard epithet from somewhere behind us in the hidden control room.

We're finally into the show, which includes several rounds of questions for each team. The questions and long and involved; they're apparently written that way in the hope of tricking you into giving an early -- and wrong -- answer.

The final round is more like "Jeopardy!" All nine students can press a button, attached to a light, to answer a question.

Going into the final round, our team is in second place. At one point, the hosts says something like, "This movie, about a mode of transportation, stars Burt Lancaster --"

I hit the button!

"'The Train'!" I say.

"No, if you'd listened to the entire question, you would have found out that the movie was 'Airport'!"

We're now in third place. Good one, Murph.

But a little while later comes my big moment, my shining hour, the nerd's equivalent of the last-second jump shot from halfway across the court that goes into the hoop and wins the game.

"Celebrating her 80th birthday with her 80th book --"

I hit the button again! "Agatha Christie!"

The host, a note of incredulity in his voice, confirms that I'm right. Somewhere from the audience I hear a gasp. A swooning cheerleader, I hope.

We're back in second place, and my teammates correctly handle two other questions, and when the buzzer goes off, we're the winners.

Some weeks later we return for the semifinals. The producer tells me not to lean too far into the microphone. She doesn't really have to tell me; when I'd seen the previous show at a family friend's house, I'd noticed that if my mouth and the mike had been any more intimate, we would have been officially married under the laws of 16 countries.

We're blown out of the water by an aggressive team from a nearby city who apparently spent the previous night finishing a new translation of the Dead Sea Scrolls while munching on steroids.

Maybe if I'd broken my arm earlier that week....