Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Snows of yesterday

Yes, I’m still here.

Sorry to be away for so long.

Things have been busy. For one thing, earlier this month the town where I live set a record for snowfall in December, with more than 70 inches of what a city editor I once knew used to forbid calling “the white stuff.”

About 45 inches of it fell within several days.

I experienced all this in the house I grew up in – and which I now own and live in.

And I got to thinking of another big snowfall, from my youth, which dumped about 42 inches in four days, an event forever known hereabouts as the “Blizzard of 1966.”

And then I got to thinking about how I react differently to such events now that I’m an alleged adult – and a more-than-alleged homeowner.

Forty-four years ago I wasn’t concerned about what might happen to the roof – or what might happen to the basement if there was a really big thaw.

Nope. Back then the main issue on the minds of us kids was: Would we have a snow day?

Owners of Powerball tickets can’t possibly experience the anticipation that I, and surely other kids, felt while listening to the list of school closings on the radio. The jackpot consisted not of numerals but of seven simple, magic words:

“City public and parochial schools are closed.”

As I recall, we had the whole week off, and my family was pretty much snowed in. A trip to the corner store was an expedition worthy of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.

And for no good reason I seem to recall that the spoils of this expedition included some Milkshake candy bars. My God, they were good – better than anything the folks at the Mars candy company ever came up with. I can taste them now.

The other main thing I remember from the Blizzard of 1966 was the fun we kids had jumping off the front porch. At that time the porch was not enclosed, and this enabled us to jump off it and into a huge pile of snow.

(One weekend some years later my father had the porch enclosed without consulting with my mother, who was off visiting her sister. This did not do wonders for my parents’ relationship, though their union ultimately survived.)

About a week after the Storm of 2010 a slight thaw got rid of some of the snow. Then we got some more. The next few days promise above-freezing temperatures. We might even ring in the New Year while basking in a balmy 50 degrees.

And maybe I’ll search eBay for any surviving Milkshake bars. (Who knows – maybe a cache of them has been hidden in someone’s freezer for lo these many years….)

Happy New Year.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Thanks a Million'

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

Perhaps the best way to describe “Thanks a Million” is to say that it’s the best Warner Bros. musical ever made by Fox.

The 1935 film borrows a number of ingredients from Warners films: singer (and later tough-guy actor) Dick Powell, leading lady Ann Dvorak, director Roy Del Ruth and producer Darryl F. Zanuck, who had been the production chief at Warners (in charge of such films as “42nd Street” and “The Public Enemy”) before jumping ship and co-founding a new company, Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon merged with the financially challenged Fox Film Co.

(Please don’t write in to tell me you’ve seen those two movies and gone over them with a fine-toothed laser but can’t find Zanuck’s name. He simply didn’t get screen credit, which I suspect, just suspect, is one reason he set up his own shop, as Hal Wallis, who did get screen credit, did years later after Jack Warner grabbed the credit – and the Oscar – for “Casablanca.”)

The songs, one or two of which I wouldn’t mind hearing again, are by Gus Kahn and Arthur Johnston instead of Warners’ Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

One character Fox borrowed – and improved on – is the smartass press agent or sidekick, a role that Ned Sparks had a lock on at Warners.

Nothing against Sparks (well, not that much against him), but in “Thanks a Million” the press agent is played by Fred Allen, who belongs in my very limited pantheon of Entertainers Who Can Do No Wrong.

This was Allen’s first feature film appearance after years of stage and radio work, and it’s obvious that he furnished some of his own lines; when a blowhard proclaims himself to be a self-made man, Allen says that points up the perils of unskilled labor. (A Google search I just did indicates that Allen wasn’t the first to say this, but I’m willing to bet that if he did “borrow” it, he would have gotten around to thinking of it on his own.)

One major difference between this movie and the Warners output is the quality and sophistication of the screenplay, which is about a traveling show whose star (Mr. Powell) is stranded in a small town. The star, through a series of developments that are indigenous only to 1930s musicals, winds up running for governor.

The main scriptwriter was Nunnally Johnson, whose name on almost any screenplay is the cinematic equivalent of “USDA Approved.” (Matter of fact, if you have one of those ebook thingies and search for his name, you might find and be able to download the text of a long interview he gave near the end of his life. Even with the multiple – to put it mildly -- transcription errors, it’s fascinating stuff for Hollywood-history buffs.)

“Thanks a Million” doesn’t appear to be available on video, which is too bad. Though it’s not a must-see film, if you have a taste for this sort of thing, your time wouldn’t be wasted.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Tom Bosley, RIP

I suppose he'll always be best known for playing Howard Cunningham, the father on "Happy Days." And I suppose there's nothing bad about that, though "Happy Days" lost me after Fonzie took over the show and the studio audiences began going crazy over everything he did.

And because Mr. Bosley seemed like a pleasant fellow, I had nothing against him making more money playing Father Dowling, even if I don't remember sitting through an entire episode of that show.

But I prefer to remember his more interesting roles.

Coincidentally, the night before I heard of his death, I saw watched him in an episode of "Route 66," doing a nicely shaded job as a sleazy, small-town businessman (with a mustache yet -- an adornment that made him look a little like William Conrad). The episode's characters also included a doctor, a small part featuring a young actor who didn't make much of an impression on me until the credits revealed he was Alan Alda, a light year or two away from Hawkeye. You can watch that episode here.

And I've always remembered him as Sidney Resnick, the hapless, hopeless, desperate guy who sells his eyesight to a rich, blind woman played by Joan Crawford in the pilot movie for "Night Gallery," written, of course, by Rod Serling. (The segment, one of several in the film, was directed by Steven Spielberg.)

He was, I suppose, among the last of an endangered species known as The Character Actor -- the kind of performer who never gets the girl (or guy) but who often captures the audience's affection (though they might not remember the name), along with a deservedly steady paycheck.

Sic 'em, Asta!

From The Hollywood Reporter:

"Johnny Depp and Rob Marshall, now in production on the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, are teaming up to develop a remake of classic private eye movie The Thin Man for Warner Bros.

"The project is out to writers for a take that would give a Sherlock Holmes treatment (meaning to contemporize the attitude but retain the period setting) to the classic Dashiell Hammett novel...."

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Barbara Billingsley, RIP

I hear the sound of vacuuming above
As aromas from fresh cookies swirl.
I look up, toward the skies,
And then find a surprise
Resting in my closed hand:
One stray pearl.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Innocents in Paris'

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

I’d never heard of “Innocents in Paris” (Romulus Films, 1953), but given that it’s a British film (with location footage in France) and featuring folks such as Alastair Sim and Margaret Rutherford, I figured it was going to be one of those eccentric Ealing-type comedies, kind of like an old Alec Guinness film without Alec Guinness.

Turns out I was wrong, but as much as I enjoy the Ealing films, I certainly wasn’t displeased by “Innocents in Paris.”

The plot is the kind of setup you’ve seen many times before and will probably see many times again: A bunch of people (of various types, of course) go on a journey that will Change All of Their Lives.

Not that there’s anything particularly philosophical or dramatic going on here; it’s a gentle comedy about people who behave a lot like people in real life, with some exaggeration. The script is by Anatole de Grunwald, and Gordon Parry is the director.

Alastair Sim is a diplomat who has a bad stomach and does crossword puzzles during boring international meetings. Margaret Rutherford is an amateur artist. Claire Bloom, in one of her earliest roles, is a young woman (natch) going to Paris for the first time. Monique Gerard is the girlfriend of an apparently well-to-do businessman who’s too busy to catch the plane with her but says he’ll join her at the hotel.

Laurence Harvey, in one of his earliest roles, plays a room service waiter at the girlfriend’s hotel. When he hears that her boyfriend still can't get away to join her, the waiter is determined to give her, shall we say, service deluxe.

James Copeland is a naïve Scottish man who is taken aback when young women in Paris follow him, laughing at his kilts. Jimmy Edwards is a blowhard who doesn’t seem to sense how ironic it is that, once in Paris, he retreats to a British-style pub where he seems to spend most of his time.

Ronald Shiner is a drummer in a military marching band that’s set to perform.

The various plots work themselves out in ways that pretty much wouldn’t surprise you, but they do so with a mostly understated charm. Sim and Rutherford have roles that they could easily make a 10-course meal out of, but they’re wise enough not to overact – at least not too much. Or maybe the director was reining them in.

For me (and quite possibly this is because I’d never seen him before), the standout performer is Shiner, who looks like a somewhat more refined Shemp Howard (no disrespect meant there, Shemp), with a beaklike nose added on. Or, if you want another comparison, imagine a Victor McLaglen who can underact. Shiner’s character, the infelicitously named Dicky Bird, is hilariously impudent and, ultimately, a bit touching.

I doubt this film is shown very often, and apparently the only DVD version is, for no discernible good reason, a Spanish one that can't be played on a DVD player in the U.S. Too bad, because perhaps the highest compliment I can give the film is that I wouldn’t mind taking this trip again sometime.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Two new links in (or is it on?) the blogroll

Submitted for your consideration....

Planet Valenti is the new website of my longtime friend and former colleague Dan Valenti.

A newspaper columnist and former radio talk-show host in the Pittsfield, Mass., area (he's interviewed such great icons of my youth as Betsy Palmer and June "Rocky the Flying Squirrel" Foray), Dan offers his thoughts on local politics. And although chances are you won't know the names, there's a good chance that some of his trenchantly pungent (or is it pungently trenchant?) observations will apply to folks with other names who live in your area.

His site also contains links to two of his news enterprises: Europolis Management ("involved in artist representation and production") and Planet Media Books, which just published its first offering, "Spring's Third Day," a collection of poems by Laura Gross....

If you grew up watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s, Classic Television Showbiz is a must. It's run by Kliph Nesteroff, who finds great, obscure videos from those days and occasionally posts outstanding interviews from people of that era. If, for example, you want to know what master malapropper Norm Crosby has been up to lately, this is the site for you.

My only regret about posting a link to Classic Television Showbiz now is that I didn't do it sooner.

I hope you will enjoy these sites.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Physicians, hear thyselves

My primary-care physician recently referred me to a specialist.

In yesterday's mail I received something from that practice -- the usual instructions and forms to fill out.

The envelope, however, was addressed to "Mark Humphrey."

I called the specialist's practice, gave my primary care doctor's name and said they'd put the wrong name on the envelope.

The woman who answered the phone asked for my date of birth.

I gave it.

Then she asked for my name.

I said, "Do you want what you think is my name or my real name?"

"Yes," she replied.

I got things straightened out anyway, but all this doesn't seem to bode well, given the nature of the practice.

It's an EAR, nose and throat place....

Sunday, October 3, 2010

At the (old) movies with The Lone Wolf

Some notes from a recent meeting of the local cinephile society:

The title character in “The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance” (Columbia, 1941) got his start in a series of novels by Louis Joseph Vance. “The Lone Wolf” was the alias of Michael Lanyard, a gentleman jewel thief.

The character was featured in silent movies and talkies, and in this entry from Columbia’s B-movie series about the character, the Lone Wolf is a reformed jewel thief who now solves crimes, even though the cops are always more than willing to think the worst of him. This setup is similar to the Boston Blackie movies – also made by Columbia.

In this film, directed by Sidney Salkow, the character is played by Warren William, who had been an A-movie actor in the 1930s. The Columbia series also gave Lanyard a valet named Jamison, played by the great British comic actor Eric Blore.

When he’s unjustly accused of murder, Lanyard has to try to both clear himself and solve the kidnapping of a young man who has invented some much-coveted printing plates for the government.

A newsreel-within-the-movie shows that the inventor, Johnny Baker, has been keeping the plates in a special railroad car that he’s come up with. The car has a lock with a combination, and if you try to get into the car and get the combination wrong, you’re trapped by poison gas.

Of course, as Anton Chekhov once said, if you have a railroad car with poison gas in the first reel, then someone must be gassed by it – or in danger of being gassed by it – in the last reel.

(OK, OK, I know he said something like that somewhere. Can I help it if my knowledge of the Russian language is spotty? OK, OK, make that non-existent.)

If Warren William was disheartened by his drop in status from A’s to B’s, his performance doesn’t show it. He seems to be having a good time and seems livelier than he does in some of his A pictures.

The young inventor is played by a newcomer named Lloyd Bridges, many years before his “Sea Hunt” days and decades before he became better known in some circles as the daddy of Beau and Jeff. Lloyd made a number of Columbia B pictures in this era; he can be seen as a college student in a Blondie movie, and I once spotted him as a bus driver in a Boston Blackie film.

Although it’s a B movie, “The Lone Wolf Takes a Chance” seems to have been made with extra care, and although you might not remember much of it long after you’ve seen it, you’ll probably remember it as a pleasant way to spend a couple of hours.

(Footnote: The fake newsreel is narrated by Art Gilmore, the master radio announcer who also did a lot of movie voiceover work, perhaps most memorably as the narrator of the Joe McDoakes shorts, which starred George O’Hanlon, who later became the voice of George Jetson. I’d thought Mr. Gilmore had died some years ago, but he actually died a few days after I saw this movie. He was 98. By all accounts he was quite a gentleman, and he might well have been the last of the great living radio announcers.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

I'll have to remember to stop saying this

According to a search I just did, the phrase "as I recall" has appeared in "Murphy's Craw" about 17 times in the last two and a half years.

The woman who loved Hopalong Cassidy

During the summer I bought a DVD that featured three of the films made by George Burns and Gracie Allen.

Although I much admire Burns and Allen, my main reason for buying the DVD was “Six of a Kind,” a 1934 film from Paramount that also featured W.C. Fields and Charlie Ruggles and was directed by the legendary Leo McCarey.

After watching and enjoying “Six of a Kind” (which is perhaps most notable for the scene in which a sheriff portrayed by Fields plays a game of pool while recounting the story of how he became known as, um, “Honest John”), I consulted the indispensable Internet Movie Database to look up some of the film’s other, lesser-known actors.

A character named Goldie – the girlfriend of an embezzler – was played by someone named Grace Bradley. I looked up her bio and found that I had indeed seen her before.

And she turned up again earlier this month in “The Gilded Lily,” a 1935 Paramount film I wrote about earlier this month.

Grace Bradley died last week. Her married name was Grace Boyd.

I’d first seen her some years ago while I was flipping channels, killing time before going out somewhere.

I stumbled upon an Encore Westerns documentary titled “Hopalong Cassidy: Public Hero #1.”

Hopalong Cassidy was a big deal back in the 1950s, when I was growing up, though I don’t believe I’d ever seen a Hopalong Cassidy movie. But what the heck, I thought, this is as good a way as any to kill some time.

Turned out I was right, to put it mildly.

The documentary, narrated by Dennis Weaver, told the story of William Boyd, who played Cassidy. In the 1920s Boyd had been a big star, and off screen he was at least somewhat of a playboy with a taste for the high life.

Then his career went off course, through no fault of his own: An actor with the same name had gotten into some well-publicized trouble, and the confusion caused by this coincidence all but killed Boyd’s career.

He was eventually able to pick up the pieces when he got the part of Cassidy, and he also decided to clean up his personal life, too.

Eventually he met a young actress who’d had a crush on him ever since she was a 12-year-old moviegoer who’d seen him on the screen. According to The Orange County Register, he proposed three days after their first date, and they were together until he died in 1972.

That woman was, of course, Grace Bradley.

Boyd played Cassidy in a slew of movies, then took a big financial risk and bought the rights to the character so he could make his own movies. When TV came in, he cashed in big time.

The image of Boyd as Hoppy appeared on a lot of products – but it’s said that Boyd was very careful about which products he endorsed. For although he and Grace never had any children of their own, he felt a responsibility toward Hoppy’s fans.

I especially remember Grace because of her appearance in the documentary. She must have been at least in her late eighties.

The main reason I remember her and that documentary, and one of the reasons I highly recommend it if Encore Westerns ever repeats it, is one sequence in which she recalls the first time she and Boyd ever dated. In recounting this, she suddenly tears up.

I defy anyone to watch that sequence without getting teary-eyed along with her.

And although I still feel no great compulsion to seek out any Hopalong Cassidy movies, I can’t help wishing I’d known Grace and Bill, two classy people who lived an exemplary life of quiet dignity, unblemished by scandal or sanctimony.

If that isn't a winning scenario, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Kevin McCarthy and Harold Gould, RIP

It hasn't been a good week for character actors -- or for those of us who really appreciate them.

When I was growing up, Kevin McCarthy was seemingly everywhere -- movies and particularly TV. He's apparently best known for his role in the original "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but I remember him primarily for two "Twilight Zone" roles.

In the original series, he played the title role in "Long Live Walter Jameson" -- a history professor who's lectures are particularly vivid because he literally knows whereof he lectures: He's literally been around for centuries. It was one of the show's better episodes, but though I don't want to play down the quality of the script (by Charles Beaumont), it probably would have been only half as good without McCarthy.

Many years later, I saw "Twilight Zone: The Movie" when it came out. Yes, that's the one where Vic Morrow and two children were killed during the filming of the scene, and I remember feeling maybe a little creepy, and even maybe a little complicit, in going to the movie.

As I recall, the film as a whole didn't have that much to recommend it except for Joe Dante's remake of "It's a Good Life," the story about the kid (originally played by the quintessential kid actor of my generation, Billy Mumy) who could "wish away" things -- and people -- he didn't like.

In Dante's hands, the material became an exaggerated, creepy comedy, material in which character actors (people for whom Dante obviously has much respect) could have a field day, especially William "Patty Duke's Father" Schallert and McCarthy, who played the most hilariously scared-to-death geezer in the history of films. McCarthy later said he based his portrayal on another fine character actor, Frank Morgan....

I suppose Harold Gould was best-known for playing Rhoda Morgenstern's father, but he was another guy who was everywhere on TV in the 1960s and 1970s. Movies, too.

He appeared in my town one weekend within the last few years, touring with a comedy about older people and Viagra. I'm sorry I didn't see it -- or, rather, I'm sorry I didn't see him.

Two movie memories of him:

In "Harper," he plays a sheriff who is hassling the title character, a detective played by Paul Newman. (It's faithfully based by William Goldman on "The Moving Target," Ross Macdonald's first Lew Archer novel.)

Gould's sheriff says, "I don't want to get ugly!"

"You ARE ugly!" Harper says.

In a sadly much less well known movie, "The Big Bus," a satire of disaster films, he plays a scientist. As I recall (I only saw this movie once, on TV; I've never seen it on video), there's an explosion, which leaves him lying on the floor of a parking lot. A phone happens to be next to him.

The phone rings.

He picks it up and cheerfully answers: "Parking lot!"

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Jackson Gillis

Recognize that name?

I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't. But if you watched a lot of TV from the '50s to the '70s, you might remember seeing his writing credits attached to some of your favorite shows.

You might especially remember it if, growing up, you were the kind of pesky kid who insisted that your siblings or parents not change the channel after a program until after you had seen the credits.

More particularly, if you were a pesky kid like me.

Mr. Gillis, who was 93, died earlier this month.

I think I first remember seeing his name on "Perry Mason," where he adapted some of the Erle Stanley Gardner books in addition to writing very good original scripts for the series.

In 1963, when the series finally got around to doing the first Mason novel, "The Case of the Velvet Claws," Gillis wrote the script, providing a textbook example of how to adapt a novel from the 1930s for the 1960s and even, if I may say so, improve on it.

Then I saw his name on "Mickey Mouse Club" repeats. ("Hey, that guy whose name is on the 'Perry Mason' show also wrote for the Hardy Boys and Spin and Marty!")

I learned early on that anything written by Jackson Gillis was worth watching.

Although he wasn't basically a book writer (though his hometown paper, the Moscow Pullman Daily News in Idaho, mentions two mystery novels he wrote, which I'm sorry to say I haven't read -- yet), I think his best work can stand up with the best of the classic mystery authors.

Apparently the Emmy folks thought so, too. He was nominated for that award for writing "Suitable for Framing," one of the best "Columbo" episodes, starring Ross Martin as a murderous art critic. I watched it again on DVD earlier this year. It still holds up -- and it perhaps has the best "Columbo" ending ever. I still remember what an impact it had on me when I saw the episode the first time it was aired, in the early '70s.

He deserves to be remembered.

For The New York Times' obit -- which, curiously, doesn't mention his novels -- go here.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The sky queen (or was she a sky princess?)

You might have already heard that Gloria Winters, who played Penny on the "Sky King" television series, died the other day.

Unless you're above a certain age (50, maybe) you might well shrug this off.
But to those of us who grew up in the earlier days of Saturday morning television (I'll leave it to others to determine whether it was a Golden Era), the thought of Gloria Winters brings back memories of a more innocent time.

"Sky King" was about a rancher named Schuyler (or maybe Skyler) King who also wore a hat and flew a plane called the Songbird and caught crooks or helped rescue people. Penny, his niece, helped him.

I don't particularly remember any of the plots -- I strongly suspect the plots were never meant to be memorable -- but I remember watching it at noon on Saturdays.

I suppose we boys and girls were supposed to identify with young Penny. I didn't exactly identify with her; she was too much older than I. But I'm pretty sure there were some young men, not that much older than I, who didn't identify with Penny as much as they wanted to transport her into the wide blue yonder, if you get my drift, and if you do, you should be ashamed of yourself and hit the showers -- the cold ones -- right now.

Sky himself was played by a guy named Kirby Grant, who died in 1985.

I think the name "Kirby" struck me as uniquely neat, and I got the impression that Grant was as nice a fella off screen as he was airborne.

I suspect "Sky King" was the high point (figuratively and literally) of Grant's career. I do remember watching an Abbott & Costello movie, "In Society" (1944), and seeing him in it when I was a kid. I think he even sang. From what I've read, he was a child prodigy violinist, too, but in "In Society," he, like practically every other supporting actor in an Abbott and Costello movie, had to play second fiddle (actually it was probably fourth fiddle, at least) to A&C's interpolated vaudeville bits.

It wasn't until some years after "Sky King" left the airwaves that I found out that the show had originated as a radio program, without Kirby and Gloria.

I've since heard at least one of those shows. But what I remember of it isn't the plot, but the commercials, for Peter Pan Peanut Butter.

And when it came to smoothness, the announcer who did those commercials outdid his product.

Boy, did he want those kids to get their moms to buy that stuff. He was so enthusiastic, and in those days his enthusiasm might well have been contagious. I myself am not allergic to peanuts, but as I listened to his pitch I darn near broke into a rash.

That announcer's name?

Mike Wallace.

Yes, that Mike Wallace.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

A fremd (indeed!) is a fremd I don't need

What does it take to be a writer?

Well, let's see.

You need to have an affinity for words and the ability to use them well.

You need to be widely read and appreciative of the great literary works that have gone before you.

And if you aim to write fiction, an ear for dialogue is certainly a must.

But there's one thing that separates the real writers from the wannabes, a certain skill without which you might as well take up clam digging or yo-yo tricks.

And that one skill, the skill that's implanted in the DNA of every dyed-in-the-wool scribe, is:

The ability to find all sorts of other things to do to put off writing.

One thing I do (you are taking notes, aren't you?) is play computer Scrabble.

And at the risk of being branded as anti-social, I will admit for the record, your honor, that I don't play computer Scrabble with other people.

I play it against the software that came with the game.

I lose more often than not (OK, OK, way more often than not), but lately I've been putting up a good fight.

But not too long ago, during the course of a game, my computerized opponent came up with the word "fremd."

Whereupon I myself came up with a few words that are not to be used in polite company, let alone on this blog.

And I began to get a mite scared.

Because I know that in some real-life Scrabble games, some players try to bluff the other players with fake words.

Was my computer foe trying to do this? And if so, if his or her mind was that devious, could he or she be trying to take over my computer? My life? The world?

If it spoke, would he/she sound like Hal from "2001"?

Just to reassure myself, I looked the word up.

And darned if I didn't find it in Merriam-Webster's unabridged dictionary, which says "fremd" means "strange, belonging to someone else, alienated." Its etymology cites Middle English and Old English roots, with a nod to Old High German.

Now you'll notice I said this was in the unabridged dictionary; M-W's regular dictionary doesn't list it at all.

Yet the Scrabble dictionary that's built into the computer Scrabble game's software -- a dictionary that won't allow "ade" (meaning, of course, as every crossword fan knows, a fruit drink, as even M-W unabridged admits) -- thinks it's fine.

The Scrabble dictionary also seems to have an affinity for Scottish words, such as "wae" and "eme." Ay, laddie, 't would surprise me none to find out that the editor of yon dictionary goeth by the name of Laird Angus Blinkbonny.

Oh well. I guess I'm going to have to give in and accept the existence of "fremd."

But I'm not a wee bit happy about it.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Memories of Mitch

The album. I can’t remember whether it was in the late fifties or the early sixties, but I somehow know it was a Friday evening when my parents brought home the original “Sing Along With Mitch” LP. We played it right away, of course.

The cover was divided into two horizontal sections. At bottom was Smiling Mitch. Above him, in various colors, was a list of the songs contained therein. I remember listening to, and liking, “Sweet Violets.” Who knows why? And we all thought “Be Kind to Your Web-Footed Friends” was a scream.

The TV show.
This was a Friday night staple. Wildly popular. I know we watched it every week. Even now when I think of Leslie Uggams, I think of Mitch; she was pretty much a regular on the show, as I recall. Years later, a show named “Sesame Street” debuted and was a big hit. I looked at it and thought, “Hey, isn’t that guy with the Muppets none other than Bob McGrath from the Mitch Miller show?” Sure it was.

At some point in the show’s run, the producers came up with a cute gimmick. Sometimes during a song, as the camera would pan among the member’s of Mitch’s all-male troupe, all of a sudden we’d see that someone famous had been slipped into the group. Once it was Joe E. Ross, in costume as Gunther Toody from “Car 54, Where Are You?"

Creative “repurposing.” My younger brother had a 45 rpm record of “The Woody Woodpecker Song.” On the B side was something called “The Woodpecker Dance,” performed by “Mitchell Miller and the Orchestra.” Same guy? Almost certainly. The dance was a sprightly tune; I listened to it a number of times myself. Years later, listening to the classical radio station, I heard it again – it was actually part of a piece of classical music. Can’t remember the composer, though I suspect the person was credited on the 45. Mitch had obviously breathed new life (or at least a different life) into an old piece of classical music. Clever – and cost-effective, since the selection was in the public domain.

The bottom line. Was Mitch Miller a schlockmeister? Of course. But some people say that word in the same tone of voice that they normally reserve for “child molester.” Yep, Mitch’s stuff was corny all right, but it was the type of stuff that a family could enjoy together. And although many of the songs performed were very old standards that could be performed free, it was through Mitch and his gang that I learned songs like “That Old Gang of Mine.”

I also remember the night that Mitch featured a young classical pianist, only a few years older than I was, and I was about 10. As we watched, my parents turned to me and asked me if I’d like to take piano lessons. As I recall, I was noncommittal, but despite this they signed me up and I took lessons for five years. Forty years later, I still play and I’m still grateful for the lessons, as much of a pain as they sometimes were – not because of the teacher but because for so long I was such a tight-assed, nervous, inhibited student.

Did my parents have this idea before this episode was shown? Quite possibly. Or maybe they had the idea right then and there. They’re not around to ask now.

But if Mitch did give them the idea, I hope that he is now in a very pleasant place with that old gang of his.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Grace under stupidity

In my town we have a Triple-A baseball team that’s been having a pretty good season. (Ken Levine, whose indispensably hilarious blog can be found in the list at right, used to be a team announcer.)

Every so often some friends and I go out to a game.

On Saturday night, we’re sitting in the second row, way down the first-base line, where relief pitchers from the opposing teams often warm up.

It’s the top of the ninth, and the opposing team is enough runs behind so that it seems doubtful that it’ll catch up to our team. And by this time a bunch of players have congregated on the bench below us.

They’re probably not having a lot of fun.

Just below us, a guy and his young son have a pretty good chunk of the first row all to themselves and plainly are having a lot of fun, in a nice, wholesome, father-and-son way that’s always nice to see.

When along comes this drunk, maybe in his twenties.

The drunk plops himself down right next to the father, who looks at him.

For a moment I wonder whether the two know each other.

It’s clear from the way the father looks the guy over that the two aren’t friends and aren’t going to be friends any time soon.

The drunk doesn’t say anything to the father or the kid.

But he does decide it would be a great idea to begin heckling the players who are sitting on the bench.

I realize things could get ugly.

I leave it to behavioral scientists to determine exactly how stupid one has to be to get almost literally in the face of a group of men who are doubtless in better shape than at least most of the people in the stands, and who probably have at least a great deal of dexterity when it comes to wielding a baseball bat, and who could probably without undue exertion track down someone in a parking lot and beat that person to any of at least several degrees of pulpiness.

All I know is, professional athletes these days aren’t routinely touted as top prospects for openings in the diplomatic corps.

At one point, the drunk says, “Hey, what are you guys doing after the game? Gonna go out to the grocery store and bag some groceries?”

At which point, one of the players turns and calmly says, “Why should I go after your job?”

According to the people scoring the game that night, that player’s team lost.

According to me, the guys on that bench scored a more important type of victory, without laying a hand on anyone.

Good save.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

If you want a really big thrill, try 'The Waste Land' and '99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall'

As I was trolling the Web while I probably had better things to do, I learned that other people who probably had better things to do have discovered that the poems of Emily Dickinson can be sung to the tune of the theme of "Gilligan's Island."

And "The Yellow Rose of Texas."

Friday, July 9, 2010

A travel tip you won't find in Fodor's

When you're overseas, avoid countries whose exchange rate is dollars to doughnuts.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

I'm almost sorry I solved it

A few weeks ago, the local cable TV company announced plans to upgrade everyone’s service by downloading new software to everyone’s boxes.

Fearing the worst (a not unreasonable strategy to adopt when any company announces plans to “improve” anything), I got on the company’s website and printed out the manual that goes with the new software.

With all these preparations, it only follows naturally that the downloading went off without a hitch and as yet there have been no “issues.”

So I put the manual aside.

And then, yesterday, I began to wonder where it was.

And I couldn’t find it.

I was sure it was around my work area somewhere, so I spent a few minutes looking for it in case I might need it sometime.

It was then that I came across a mysterious receipt.

No company’s name was printed on the receipt. No order number, either. Just the date, last March 26; a scrawled word that I took to mean “Kim”; the initials “NW”; and the abbreviation “Pd.”

Apparently I “Pd” a total of $40 for two items at $20 each.

What were these items?

According to the handwriting, I am now the proud possessor of a “Doll” and an “Oyster.”

Problem is, I didn’t remember buying a “Doll” or an “Oyster.” I have a niece who’s still young enough to play with dolls, but last I heard, she didn’t play with oysters.

Heck, I myself don’t play with oysters. I can’t recall ever eating one. Or seeing one in real life.

Besides, what kind of a place sells dolls and oysters?

And who is “NW”? Nero Wolfe was my first thought, but he’s a fictional character, though he’s so corpulent that he’s probably seen more oysters than anyone has a right to see.

I finally consulted my desk calendar, and the answer came to me.

On March 26 I was attending a film festival run by the local cinephile society, and in the dealer’s room I bought DVDs of two silent films Ernst Lubitsch made while he was still in his native Germany: “The Doll” and “The Oyster Princess.” “Kim” was actually Kino, the company that made the videos.

“NW” must have been the guy who sold them to me.

So the mystery is solved, though the solution is something of a letdown, as sometimes happens with mysteries and magic tricks.

Then again, it’s not as if this was one of life’s bigger mysteries.

Such as, is there a God? Is there life after death?

And what the hell happened to that cable TV manual?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Bank Dick'

Some notes from a recent presentation by the local cinephile society:

Agatha Sousé and her little daughter, Elsie Mae Adele Brunch Sousé, are watching Egbert Sousé make a fool of himself in public.

Elsie Mae: Shall I bounce a rock off his head?
Agatha: Respect your father, darling. (Pause.) What kind of a rock?

W.C. Fields' movie characters tend to fall into one of two categories: the incorrigible, smooth-talking con man (The Great McGonigle in "The Old-Fashioned Way" and Eustace McGargle in "Poppy" are prime examples) and the family man who can't get a break from anyone, including (and sometimes especially) his family, although his older daughter might be on his side, especially if she's from a previous marriage.

"The Bank Dick" (Universal, 1940) is kind of a hybrid. Egbert Sousé doesn't get respect from anyone in his family, and he doesn't necessarily deserve it, because as lovable as he is (at least to Fields fans), he's a little bit like the other kind of Fields character.

Although Edward F. Cline directed the movie, Fields wrote it under the name of Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

I won't go as far as to say that the plot defies description, but I will say that it defies common sense, and, given the star, I might be sorely disappointed if it didn't. Let's just say that Egbert accidentally foils a bank robbery, is hired as a guard at the bank (where his older daughter's boyfriend works), becomes the target of a conman selling shares in a "beefsteak mine," talks the boyfriend into embezzling money to buy shares, and then the bank examiner comes to town.

But, again, in this kind of movie the plot plays second fiddle to the memorable (perhaps even immortal) bits and set pieces.

Who, after having seen "The Bank Dick," will ever forget the bank president's "hearty handclasp"? Or Shemp Howard as the bartender?

My favorite scenes involve Franklin Pangborn as J. Pinkerton Snoopington, the bank examiner. Pangborn appeared in scores of movies, always playing basically the same fussy, officious character. In terms of range, he was about as one-note as an actor could be. But nobody played that one note better, and his scenes with Fields are quite possibly the best work he ever did.

I have no understanding of the art of ballet, but, at the risk of sounding blasphemous to any balletomanes out there, I can't help suspecting that watching Fields and Pangborn work together makes me feel the way dance fans felt when they watched Nureyev and Fonteyn.

My mouth almost waters as I think of Shemp drugging Pangborn's drink; Fields trying to get Pangborn into his hotel room; Fields telling the severely nauseated Pangborn that he could arrange for him to have a coconut cream pie -- and Pangborn's reaction; later, at the bank, Fields trying to fend off Pangborn's audit by smashing Pangborn's hand and breaking his glasses.

With all the logic of the kind of dream that you yourself might have if Shemp were your mixologist, the Pangborn subplot (and Pangborn himself) go by the wayside as the bank is robbed again, leading to the endearingly hokey climax and the last scene, in which Egbert (like Fields fathers before him) is vindicated.

It's true that Fields is an acquired taste -- several people walked out at intermission -- and I wouldn't want to watch one Fields film after another. But an occasional visit can be at least as restorative as anything Eustace McGargle ever peddled.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Ode to The Chicago Manual of Style

(To the tune of -- what else? -- the 1922 song by Fred Fisher)

Chicago! Chicago!
A heck of a book!
For wannabe wordsmiths,
It's well worth a look!

Bet your bottom dollar you'll soon get lost in its pages --
What sages!
The book that Billy Sunday liked second best!

Chicago! Chicago!
Nirvana for nerds!
Hawaii? Tahiti? Who needs them?
Word geeks and mavens flock there and roam!
Serial commas call it their home!
Oh, Chicago!
How I really like your style!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Hmm ... should I have it shaken or stirred?

Baltimore Sun language guru John McIntyre recently ran a contest in which contestants had to come up with a food-related book title that includes a literary allusion and write a one-sentence jacket description of it.

The prize: a martini mixed by Mr. McIntyre, whose blog, "You Don't Say," can be found on the blogroll at right.

The results can be found here.

Monday, May 10, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'The Glass Key'

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

“The Glass Key” (1942) was based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett. The novel was Hammett’s favorite among all his books. (There were five, not including short story collections.)

The book is about Ned Beaumont’s efforts to keep his friend and employer, political boss Paul Madvig, from being arrested for the murder of a senator’s son. Complicating matters is both men’s attraction to the senator’s daughter, Janet Henry.

I read the book some years ago and reread parts of it after I saw this movie. I’m afraid I don’t share Hammett’s affection for it, though the book is certainly respectable and enjoyable. But I much prefer Hammett’s first-person stuff – his Continental Op stories and “The Thin Man.”

In “The Glass Key,” Hammett seems to be aiming for a Hemingwayesque objectivity, never outright telling us how anyone feels about anything, apparently feeling that describing what they do and say is enough, and the readers can form their own conclusions. This type of writing can work really well or it can seem really mannered; it doesn’t help that Ned Beaumont is always referred to as Ned Beaumont, never as Ned or Beaumont. (Erle Stanley Gardner treated Della Street the same way. Maybe Ned Beaumont and Della Street should have paired up.)

Stuart Heisler’s movie pretty much sticks to the book, which was adapted by another mystery writer (and a very capable one, too), Jonathan Latimer. Latimer, who later adapted several of Gardner’s books for the “Perry Mason” show in addition to writing original scripts for that program, does a good job of shepherding Hammett’s work to the screen -- knowing when, for example, to combine characters for the sake of cinematic economy.

Then again, I’d be interested to know why a couple of the characters’ names were changed. Shad O’Rory, the villain in the book, becomes Nick Varna. Was Paramount afraid of offending the Irish, or had the actor – Joseph Calleia – already been cast and someone decided he didn’t look like an O’Rory? And why does Ned Beaumont become Ed Beaumont while Paul Madvig gets to keep his name?

Not that this really matters; the movie still works today, and for two reasons.

The first is the casting. Alan Ladd (Beaumont) and Veronica Lake (Janet) had already set off sparks in “This Gun for Hire.” True, the two of them have a limited range – perhaps a very limited range – but for the purposes of the film they’re perfect. William Bendix, as Varna’s chief henchman, is exactly what you’d find if the Yellow Pages had a listing for “vicious” or “brutal.” He probably could have taught Quentin Tarantino’s thugs a few things.

But Brian Donlevy, as Madvig, is perhaps the standout. He’s playing a guy who’s corrupt, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty or violent, but who is also likable – and sympathetically clueless and vulnerable when it comes to romance. That’s a tall order to fill, but Donlevy does it with little if any apparent effort. Never mind Willy Loman – if you want to take the movies of the 1930s and 1940s seriously, attention must be paid to Brian Donlevy.

The second reason the movie still works is that it seems to take it for granted that politics is, at best, a slightly tainted business, to say the least; Frank Capra’s heroes need not apply. Whether or not you agree with this philosophy, it does make for good movies, and today’s jaded audiences can probably go along with it.

Me, I’m still wondering how this kind of world view got past the Hays Office. But for the sake of enduring movie entertainment, I’m glad it did.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Waikiki Wedding'

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

Paramount Pictures, like 20th Century Fox, had its own stable of performers who were perfectly suited for various permutations of whatever musical formula hadn’t been used lately. (And “lately” sometimes seemed to mean “in the last three months.”)

So, in “Waikiki Wedding” (1937), directed by Frank Tuttle, we have Bing Crosby (who, to be fair, was First Among Equals in the pecking order, unlike, say, Fox’s Don Ameche and John Payne, neither of whom had Bing’s status) along with Shirley Ross, Martha Raye and Bob Burns.

Shirley Ross is perhaps most famous for introducing two songs, both with Bob Hope – “Thanks for the Memory” and “Two Sleepy People” – in a couple of other Paramount films.

Martha Raye made 14 Paramount movies in the 1930s alone, beginning in 1936. Talk about overexposure – if moviegoers didn’t see her on the screen, they probably figured she was elsewhere in the building, making the popcorn.

Bob Burns, an Arkansas native, was a comedian who specialized in hillbilly characters – kind of a more mature version of Goober Pyle, which isn’t saying much, though I prefer George Lindsey. Burns was famous for a weird musical instrument he invented, called a bazooka – and yes, that’s where the military got its name for its handheld anti-tank rocket launchers during World War II.

In “Waikiki Wedding,” Burns is Bing’s sidekick. Bing, in turn, plays a PR guy for a Hawaii-based pineapple company. His latest bright idea is to have a Miss Pineapple contest, the winner of which gets a trip to Hawaii, during which Bing will ghostwrite syndicated newspaper pieces for her, extolling the island’s charms.

Problem is, the contest winner (Ross), who has arrived at the island with Raye, isn’t all that charmed. In fact, she’s bored. Which means Bing’s in hot water (or maybe even hot lava) if he can’t get her to change her attitude.

Actually, it’s hard to imagine why Ross would be bored by Hawaii, considering that her fiancé, back at home, is a stolid and humorless dentist played by a singularly stolid and humorless actor, Leif Erickson.

A not-yet-famous Anthony Quinn is also around, playing a native.

The movie goes down relatively easily – a sly plot twist involving a volcano helps – and although the songs written for the movie by Leo Robin and Ralph Rainger are OK, most of them aren’t the types of tunes that you whistle on the way out, even subconsciously. (Your subconscious’ subconscious won’t even remember them.)

One possible exception: “Blue Hawaii.” (Though I haven't found myself whistling or humming it lately.)

Another song was added as an afterthought. (Specifically Bing’s afterthought, and at that point in his career Bing’s afterthoughts carried enough clout to make the amendments to the Constitution look like mere suggestions scribbled on a cocktail napkin.)

That composition, “Sweet Leilani,” by Harry Owens, won the Academy Award for best song and became Crosby's first gold record. But like the previous year's Oscar winner, Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields’ immortal “The Way You Look Tonight” from “Swing Time,” it doesn’t seem to get much screen time.

Then again, in the long run, I doubt that Mr. Owens, and his heirs, minded very much.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Friday, April 30, 2010

I hear Floyd the Barber is packing heat

The actress who played Thelma Lou on “The Andy Griffith Show” was robbed this week.

According to The Associated Press, Betty Lynn was robbed in Mount Airy, the North Carolina city that is the birthplace of Mr. Griffith and was the inspiration for the show’s setting, the fictional town of Mayberry.

Ironically, Ms. Lynn, whose character was the girlfriend of Deputy Barney Fife, had moved to Mount Airy because she’d been robbed several times in Los Angeles.

This is indeed disquieting news for those of us who grew up watching TV in the 1950s and 1960s and enjoyed the comedies that were set in a pleasant, much more innocent world – such as “The Real McCoys,” "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" and “The Lucy Show.”

But if reality continues to intrude on our fond memories, we baby boomers should perhaps steel ourselves for headlines like these:


Fed Official 'Can't Believe Bank Approved Application
From Guy Who Apparently Hasn't Held a Job in Years!'


Sunday, April 25, 2010

At the (old) movies: 'Captain Blood'

Some notes from a recent gathering of the local cinephile society:

I hadn’t seen “Captain Blood” (Warner Bros., 1935) in many years.

I think the last time I’d seen it might have been when I was a kid, watching a local show called “Hollywood Matinee.”

Actually, that might not be exactly right, if you consider that the host, Ed Murphy, always seemed to pronounce this as “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!”

The show ran Mondays through Fridays, 1 to 2:30 p.m. Into those 90 minutes the station would shoehorn Ed’s opening and closing, a bunch of commercial breaks and, oh yes, a movie.

I’m guessing that most of the movies Ed showed had a running time of 90 minutes, tops, or an hour and 45 minutes.

You probably won’t be surprised to learn that most of the time, the movies were not presented in full. They’d show the opening credits, then jump to the second reel, or maybe the third.

Surprisingly, as I recall, this didn’t hurt that many movies, especially as a good number seemed to be Universal B pictures.

Occasionally a movie would be so long that the traditional “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!” treatment wouldn’t work. So they’d make it a two-parter.

I especially remember that they did this for Frank Capra’s “Arsenic and Old Lace.” I don’t know why, but they always seemed to show this while I was home sick from school.

As the years went by, I suspect the ratings began to slip, because the station decided to add something in an attempt to perk things up (though it cut into the movies even more):

Dialing for Dollars.

Remember that? And remember Bowling for Dollars, which the same station aired at 7 p.m.? I’ve sometimes wondered why they didn’t combine the two, for a show called Dialing for Bowlers. But then again, I don’t have the brains to be a network executive and come up with red-hot show ideas like “Minute to Win It.” (Which I never enjoyed all that much years ago when it was called “Beat the Clock.”)

Oh, I’m supposed to be talking about “Captain Blood”?

OK, if you insist.

“Captain Blood” was one of those two-part “Hollywood Mmmmmmmmmmmatinee!” movies. I remember enjoying it when I was a kid, and I’m happy to report that years later it seems to hold up quite well.

The hero, played by Errol Flynn in his first big role, is about a pirate named, quite conveniently, Peter Blood. Actually, Blood doesn’t start out as a pirate but as a doctor (go ahead, write your own joke here, I'll wait), and when he gets called away one night to attend to a patient and tells his housekeeper that he’ll surely be back in time for breakfast, well, even audiences in 1935 knew that the housekeeper’s next paycheck would be a long time coming.

Blood gets into trouble for treating someone who is unpopular with the kind of folks who can, if they want, have Blood deported and made a slave somewhere in the Caribbean. And of course it turns out that this is exactly what they want to do.

So Blood winds up being sold to Olivia De Havilland, who’s the niece of perennial bad guy Lionel Atwill, here wearing a wig that makes him look like a demented Buster Brown.

Blood gets revenge – and Ms. De Havilland – all to the strains of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s score and under the expert directorial supervision of Michael Curtiz.

On the one hand there is something triumphant about the picture – not only Blood’s triumph but the triumph of a studio that was gambling that Flynn could become a major star. It was a gamble that paid off big-time, and I can only imagine the thrill that the audiences felt as they realized they were seeing a major star become a major star before their eyes.

And there’s something about Flynn’s boyishness and inexperience that works in his favor, and you do root for his character.

But, 75 years after the film’s first release, the sense of triumph and the thrills are offset by what we know now: that as the years pass, Flynn and his characters will gradually grow more cynical and dissolute; only eight years after this film came out, Flynn was parodying himself during a number in the Warner variety film “Thank Your Lucky Stars.” He was quite amusing as he parodied himself, but still.

And he was only 50 when he died.

But I suppose his diehard fans can take comfort in knowing that the young, promising Flynn, on a fast and seemingly inevitable track to stardom and good fortune beyond a Powerball player’s dreams, will always be with us as long as “Captain Blood” survives.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Elizabeth Montgomery

There are some concepts that are beyond imagination.

I cannot imagine a square circle.

Or the total immensity of the universe.

Or an insurance policy that's easy to understand.

And there is at least one concept that is way way beyond imagination.

I cannot imagine being a growing boy in the 1960s and not having a crush on Elizabeth Montgomery.

And neither, apparently, can Ken Levine, whose name you might have noticed on my blogroll.

I suppose I would have gotten around to writing about her sooner or later.

And I also suppose that as a former journalist, I should resent being scooped.

But when the scooper is as eloquent as Ken is, and when, after all, he has saved me some work, what's there to resent?

Read this, and see if you don't agree.

At the (old) movies: 'Murder at the Vanities'

Some notes from the local cinephile society’s first presentation of the new spring season….

I don’t know what modern-day critics think of “Murder at the Vanities” (Paramount, 1934), but the Federal Trade Commission would probably approve of it, and why not? It’s a perfect example of truth in advertising. You have a murder (actually, more than one), and the story takes place at a Broadway show called “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.”

And of course, and as you’ve probably already figured, it takes place on the show’s opening night. (As much as we might yearn for a more original approach, I suppose you do have to grudgingly admit that “Murder During the 13,517th Performance of ‘Cats’” doesn’t exactly evoke a frisson of excitement.)

But if you’re hard up to find an actor who’s name rhymes with frisson (or at least seems to), there’s Carl Brisson, who plays Eric Lander. Brisson comes across as a combination of Laurence Harvey and Allan Jones, but that’s not as gruesome as it might sound because he does have some charm, or at least enough of it to attract Kitty Carlisle, as Ann Ware. Unfortunately, as Mitchell Leisen’s film gets under way, we find that although Carl has fallen for Kitty, heavy objects – such as a sandbag or two – have been falling for but just missing Kitty.

The plot thickens (“congeals” might be a better word) when a Private Detective Who Knows Something is murdered. (The dick – or dickette? – is played by Gail Patrick, years before she produced the “Perry Mason” series.)

This leads Jack Oakie, who is running the show, to reluctantly call in a police lieutenant, played by Victor McLaglen, who spends a lot of the movie trying to lose his Scottish accent.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, the show’s diva gets her just deserts.

Along the way we meet a number of 1930s character actors, a couple of whom seem a bit out of character – Donald Meek, as a police doctor, plays the role without any of his usual fussy, jittery mannerisms, and Jessie Ralph, whom I’ve most often seen in aristocratic roles (I’m particularly thinking of “After the Thin Man”), plays a Wardrobe Mistress Who Has a Secret.

The always welcome Duke Ellington is also on hand.

Although a real-life, honest-to-goodness mystery writer had a hand in the plot (Rufus King, pretty much forgotten today), if you ever see “Murder at the Vanities,” don’t waste your time trying to figure out whodunit, because the plot is resolved by a sort of deus ex murderer who, near the end, confesses to keep the chief suspect from being arrested.

Perhaps “Murder at the Vanities” is best known for two of its songs – “Cocktails for Two,” still a nice standard and often the object (some might say “victim” is a better word) of parodies, most notably the one perpetrated by Spike Jones. My own favorite send-up of it features Steve Allen and his old gang – Don Knotts, Pat Harrington Jr., Louis Nye and Gabe Dell, with assists from Jo Stafford and Tony Randall. You can find it here.

The other famous song – well, maybe not that famous, and maybe “notorious” would be a better word – is “Sweet Marijuana,” which is performed by Gertrude Michael and has to be seen and heard to be believed. And as luck (I’ll let you decide whether it’s good or bad) would have it, you can see and hear it here.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Robert Culp and John Forsythe

The last couple of weeks have brought sad news to those of us who grew up watching TV in the fifties and sixties.

Last week, Robert Culp died. I first remember him from “Trackdown,” in which he played Texas Ranger Hoby Gilman. I don’t remember any of the episodes. I’m not sure I even watched any; I was quite young. But Culp’s sullen presence made an impression on me.

In the early sixties he was an occasional visitor to my family’s TV screen, kind of like a cousin who drops by while he’s just passing through town, guest-starring on what was available.

Then there came “I Spy,” and who can forget those images of him in the opening montage: first, that horizontal split screen during the show’s opening, in which his eyes, at top, reacted to the scenes below, and then that shot of him looking at the camera, then throwing a bomb at it? And his easy camaraderie with Bill Cosby, the type of relationship you can’t force. I sometimes wondered whether they were, to some extent, improvising. Were they? Then again, did it really matter?

After “I Spy,” more guest shots, most notably on “Columbo.” Not only did Culp play three murderers in the original series (one of them wearing a moustache; I suppose this was to prevent the lieutenant from saying, “Oh, just one more thing: Haven’t I arrested you before?”), but in the ABC revival of the show years later he played the father of two murderous college students.

Culp was such a perfect “Columbo” villain (perhaps in a dead heat with Jack Cassidy) that when Mad magazine published its satire of the show, called “Clodumbo,” the murder looked remarkably like Culp and, of course, was named “Robert Culpable.”

Perhaps his best role in more recent years was that of FBI agent Bill Maxwell in "The Greatest American Hero," where he was over the top (and perhaps a little sideways) in a part that called for exactly that kind of approach.

Would I have wanted to know him in real life? I dunno. I remember seeing him on an episode of “The $10,000 Pyramid,” where, as I recall, he got way too intense; at one point, after one of the rounds, they even had to bleep his reaction to the news that his team hadn’t done as well as he wanted. I also have a pretty good idea that he didn’t suffer fools gladly, if at all. But I’ve also heard that he was a great guy, one you definitely wanted to have on your side, and I’d prefer to think of him that way….

John Forsythe, who died this week, was one of those guys who probably would have never really made it as a big-screen star but who was more at home on the little screen – and we viewers were always comfortable with him there, too.

I never watched “Dynasty” – shows like that and “Dallas” rarely interested me, even if I appreciated the talent that went into making them. I mostly remember Forsythe from his “Bachelor Father” series of the fifties and sixties, in which he played carefree Bentley Gregg, who winds up taking care of a niece.

It was a pleasant enough, forgettable show. Some years ago a cable station showed reruns of it. I watched maybe a couple all the way through, and parts of other episodes. Not exactly must-see TV; it was more the type of thing Universal/Revue churned out. And as a kid I remember hearing that Sammee Tong, who played Gregg’s servant, had killed himself. And I’ve sometimes wondered what happened to Noreen Corcoran, who played the niece, and whether she was related to Kevin “Moochie” Corcoran of the Walt Disney TV show.

Anyway. John Forsythe was a classy guy who, by all accounts, never blew his own horn but seemed content to sit on the roadside of superstardom -- one of those lucky people who not only march to the beat of a different drummer but come up with the arrangements as well.

“Bachelor Father” was part of an era of TV history in which the stars often thanked the viewers “for inviting me into your home.”

Given Mr. Forsythe’s professionalism and self-deprecatory charm, we should have been thanking him.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Taking 'niche marketing' a bit too far?

Sign seen at a mall store that is holding a going-out-of-business sale:


Monday, March 15, 2010

Peter Graves

I know, I know -- everyone remembers him from "Mission: Impossible," as Jim Phelps, who replaced Dan Briggs (played by Steven Hill).

Fair enough.

But I first knew him from "Fury" -- "the story of a horse and a boy who loved him."

Or something like that.

Whatever it was, NBC used to run it at 11 a.m. Saturdays when I was a kid.

I don't remember any specific episodes of the show. I do recall that besides Graves it featured an older kid played by Bobby Diamond, a younger kid played by Roger Mobley and an old geezer played by old geezer William Fawcett. (I'm guessing the first-string old geezer of all time, William Demarest, was unavailable.)

Graves also played a key role in "Stalag 17," which I bought some months ago on DVD but have yet to get around to watching.

And, of course, all the obits are mentioning his role in "Airplane" and his Geico commercial, and rightly so.

But I also remember him as Lew Archer in a TV adaptation of Ross Macdonald's "The Underground Man."

As I recall, it was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, though somehow it didn't quite come off, though Graves did his best, which at the time I thought was pretty damn good.

Lew Archer later had his own series, titled, oddly enough, "Archer," and starring Brian Keith. That didn't quite come off either. Most of the episodes didn't seem to be in the spirit of the books, but even if they had been, I'm not sure that would have helped, because after a point (the late 1950s, I think) the Archer books became quite similar, usually involving a present-day murder with links -- physical and psychological -- to a past crime.

That's not to put the books down -- I read all the Archer books, and if Macdonald were still alive and still active, I'd still be buying them in hardcover, because even though he kept plowing the same field, nobody plowed it better, and besides, I'm a sucker for stories of current crimes that are rooted in past ones.

But you can't make a weekly TV series out of that sort of thing. Not only would it be repetitive, but the Archer books didn't tend to have endings that would make you jump for joy at the wonderfulness of the world and its inhabitants.

Oh -- I'm supposed to be talking about Peter Graves? Oh, all right.

Let's just say (at least I'm about to say it) that Peter Graves seemed like a nice, classy guy, kind of like a friendly, helpful neighbor who also happened to be a fine actor, though you'd never hear him talk about it much, much less brag about it.

The type of guy who would always know his lines -- and always bring the lawnmower back as soon as he could after borrowing it.

Not a bad legacy.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 4

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament’s puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

As I head down to the tournament room Sunday morning to do Puzzle No. 7 – the last puzzle for everyone except the finalists – I’m not feeling totally up to snuff. I’m even wondering whether I did indeed catch something from the woman on the plane who’d left a sick kid at home, or the guy on the elevator the night before whose wife asked him if he’d thrown up yet.

Of course, and not for the first time, I’m psyching myself out, because I feel a lot better for the rest of the day when I see the newly posted scores (in hard copy this time), showing that after the last two puzzles of the previous day I have risen from No. 231 to No. 221.

Puzzle No. 7, by Merl Reagle, is not unusually hard, at least for me. It is a big puzzle, the size of a Sunday puzzle, which, given what day it is, is entirely fitting.

And Mr. Reagle – who is prominently featured in the documentary “Wordplay,” which I recommend if you haven’t seen it – makes a living (or at least part of one) by designing Sunday puzzles with clever themes.

“Heads of State” is no exception. The theme consists of postal state abbreviations that have been attached to familiar phrases.

Thus “Like some political scandals?” translates as “MISTRESS RELATED” (MI + STRESS RELATED).

For the most part, the trip through the puzzle is an easy one, though I occasionally run into a section with one or two clues I can’t answer and sweat a bit until I find one or two nearby easier clues that help me solve the harder ones.

My worst problem is self-inflicted: 16 down, “Some bow ties,” seems to be coming out as “PASTS.” I try hard but can’t see any direct or even indirect connections between the past – or any pasts – and bow ties.

It takes way too long for me to discover that I’m getting “PASTS” because of a typo in my 33 across answer, which reads: MISTRESS RELSTED. Oops. Change the errant S to an A and I get “PASTA,” which makes a lot more sense. Whew.

Even with this, I finish well ahead of the deadline and go upstairs to finish packing, check out and check my luggage.

I get all this done in plenty of time to watch the finals, in which the top three contestants in three divisions (A, B and C) compete by doing the same puzzle on huge boards set up in front of the audience.

One major piece of news this year for Division A, the top division: Tyler Hinman, the young man who has won the division – and, in effect, the entire tournament – for five years in a row has just missed being one of the three finalists.

Instead, the top contestants going into the last round are, in alphabetical order, Howard Barkin, Anne Erdmann and Dan Feyer.

If you’re interested in how things went, with running commentary by Merl Reagle and NPR’s Neal Conan, click here.

The excitement, for me, at least, doesn’t end with the naming of the winner.

For as I leave, I discover that for the first time since I’ve been coming to the tournament, the final scores – taking into account all of the seven pre-final puzzles – have been posted. (This is due to advances made in the electronic scoring system and overseen, I gather, by Will Shortz and Doug Heller.)

And it turns out that I am no longer No. 221.

I am now No. 213 – out of 643 – in the top 33 percent.

And I immediately begin to wonder how long I’ll be able to hold this position; in the past, in the week following the tournament, my score has changed (and not for the better) as tournament officials make adjustments for newly reported scoring errors.

But right now, almost a week after the tournament ended, I’m still at 213, probably because the improvements brought forth by Shortz, Heller and their helpers have enabled the contestants to spot scoring errors earlier, during the tournament itself.

I’d considered making this year my last one at the tournament out of a concern that my score wouldn’t change much from year to year. But the latest score changes my mind.

Which leaves me with this to-do list for the 2011 tournament:

1. Crack the 10,000-point level (my point score this year was 9775).

2. Correctly finish a bastard/bitch mother puzzle well ahead of deadline.

3. Marinate myself in Lysol before boarding any public conveyance.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 3

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament's puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

It’s Saturday afternoon and time for the fourth of the seven puzzles designed for all the contestants in this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

And this time I get a surprise:

The fourth puzzle is constructed by Mike Nothnagel, the guy who’d handed me my registration folder the night before.

This is a surprise because a) in the previous two years the person who handed me the folder has turned out to be the person who constructed Puzzle No. 5, traditionally the tournament’s most difficult puzzle, and b) Mr. Nothnagel certainly has the chops to construct such a puzzle.

So I guess the streak (if two years in a row can be called a “streak”) is broken.

The puzzle, “Without Fail,” is pegged to words that can be used to form phrases when combined with the word “pass.” It’s an entertaining, pleasant puzzle, and I finish it perfectly, with nine minutes to spare.

The puzzle – as so many puzzles these days do – reflects a kind of generation gap. Some present-day puzzles contain modern references that I’m too old to get. This one, however, contains an answer that leaves a young woman two seats away from me clueless: Wavy Gravy (“Woodstock emcee who had a Ben & Jerry’s flavor named after him”). This charming young woman also mentioned earlier in the day that she’d had a dream in which she was on a car trip with Will Shortz, during which Will challenged her with this crossword clue: “The Opposite of Mexico.”

Yeah, I can see where that would be an odd dream, if not an out-and-out bad one.

And speaking of bad dreams, here comes Puzzle No. 5.

And it’s by Brendan Emmett Quigley.

I’ve written about Mr. Quigley before – he’s one of the most ingenious of the newest crop of constructors. And in the world of crossword terminology, “most ingenious” generally means “You’ll never get out of this alive.”

And if a puzzle sets my heart a-palpitatin’, it’s this Puzzle No. 5.

I don’t think I panic much when it comes to doing a puzzle – unless I’m having trouble finding a clue that I know the answer to, something that can give me a foothold or a toehold.

In this case, I’ll settle for a toenailhold, for at first glance none of these clues seems to mean anything to me. Heck, I’d even settle for “the opposite of Mexico.”

Finally – finally – I find something I can grab on to, and bit by bit I start filling in the grid. It’s a slow process, and the fact that I can’t seem to figure out the theme doesn’t help. Eventually I get part of the theme figured out, but that doesn’t help much.

And I once again find that, as with the other fifth puzzles I have done, there comes a point where you look at the clock, see you have only a few minutes left, realize you’re probably not going to get the theme (or the bonus for finishing the puzzle) and try to fill in as many answers as you can.

As the clock runs out, I realize I am one of many, many people who haven’t finished the puzzle. I later find out that I got 76 out of 94 answers right, for a total of 760 points.

Saturday ends, as it usually does, with a tension-relieving, amusing puzzle by longtime constructor Maura B. Jacobson, called “MISFILINGS: Seemingly the new library assistant hasn’t a clue.” (“Ivanhoe,” for example, has been filed “under Soviet Farming.”)

Cute idea.

Since last year, the folks at the tournament have been fine-tuning their electronic scoring system, so that at the end of this day the scores for the first four puzzles – and preliminary standings – are now online, along with scans of the actual completed and corrected puzzles.

In other words, I can call up these scans and see if there have been any scoring errors and, if so, report them.

That is, I could do that if I had a computer or fancy cell phone with me. I have neither. (My cell phone can supposedly surf the Web, but somehow I can’t figure out how to do it.)

Fortunately, I’m scheduled to get together for dinner with a niece who is a local college student and who is far more advanced than I, and she uses her super-duper Swiss Army phone to determine that with the scores from the first four puzzles in, I’m at No. 231 out of about 643. I’m quite happy about this, considering that I finished at 250 last year.

If that won’t give me a good appetite, nothing will.

Next: The Rousing Finish. (Assuming you’re easily roused.)

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back from Brooklyn, Part 2

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re one of the people who will be solving the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament's puzzles after getting them in the mail, you shouldn’t read the following until after you’ve finished the puzzles.)

Once again it’s time for me to pick up my tournament folder at the registration desk.

This is my third year at the tournament, and in past years my folder has been handed to me by two nice fellows: David J. Kahn in 2008 and Patrick Merrell in 2009.

Or at least they seemed nice – until I got to each year’s Puzzle No. 5.

For the unitiated: The tournament consists of seven puzzles for everyone: three on Saturday morning, three on Saturday afternoon and one on Sunday morning. An eighth puzzle, the championship puzzle, is done only by finalists.

During my first two years at the tournament, Will Shortz, in announcing Puzzle No. 5, mentioned that the fifth puzzle is known as “the bastard puzzle.”

This year, he will describe the puzzle as the “bitch mother.”

I’m curious to know what he calls it when he’s not anywhere near a live microphone.

Anyway, this year’s folder is handed to me by a very nice gent named Mike Nothnagel.

Uh oh.

I know that name.

I know I’ve done some of his puzzles.

But I can’t remember exactly how many of those puzzles I have actually finished.

I can only conclude that he is the father of the bitch mother.

But Puzzle No. 5 will have to wait. In the meantime, this year I’m smart enough to get into the puzzle room early enough to get a good seat. I like to do these puzzles with my glasses off, and I like to be close enough to the clock to be able to read it without squinting too much.

In 2008, I finished in 262nd place. In 2009, I was No. 250. I’m hoping to better my score, especially considering that were it not for a stupid mistake I made last year, on a puzzle by Brendan Emmett Quigley, I think I would have placed somewhere around 223.

Puzzle No. 1 is by Stanley Newman, a veteran crossword compositor and editor, and the author of a good book on crosswords, “Cruciverbalism.”

The first tournament puzzle is always supposed to be easy, and this one is no exception.


We have 15 minutes. I get stuck near the bottom, with this downward clue: “Aptly named journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union.” Given the surrounding words, it seems as if this can only be “The Auk.” Which kind of makes sense, as I know an auk is a bird. But I can’t help thinking that the journal would have a more clever name. Eventually I come to think that I’m overthinking this, and I let it be.

Which turns out to be a good thing, because “The Auk” is correct and I’ve completed the puzzle perfectly, with five minutes to spare. I get 25 points for each of those minutes. I would have had more if I hadn’t spent so much time on that clue, and it also occurs to me that I might be taking too much time in proofreading my solution before handing it in, maybe taking two minutes instead of one. But a perfect solution means a 150-point bonus, which I really want.

Puzzle No. 2 – 25 minutes –is by Elizabeth C. Gorski, another name I know, respect and, most of all, fear. For the most part, there’s not much to be afraid of here, though when I get to “Feldman and Robbins” I write in “Corey.” After all, I know there’s a young actor named Corey Feldman (or at least I remember him when he was young), and maybe there’s another young thespian named Corey Robbins.

But the surrounding answers indicate that I’m wrong, and I eventually curse myself for, once again, overthinking, because although I don’t know how old Ms. Gorski is, she’s been doing puzzles long enough so that she’s probably around my age and remembers – as I should have remembered – comedian Marty Feldman and singer Marty Robbins. (I wonder how many of the younger contestants had heard of Marty Feldman, who died in 1982.)

But then I meet the vampire – or at least the clue for 33 Across, which is “vampire.”

The answers going down indicate that the answer to 33 Across is “lamia.”

Lamia? I’ve never heard of that. I’ve seen “Dracula” a couple of times and “Nosferatu” once, and I don’t remember hearing anyone say “lamia.” (Then again, “Nosferatu” was a silent picture.)

I have a brother back home who spends much of his time watching horror movies and TV shows. When it comes to loyalty, no one is truer to “True Blood” than he. If only he were here! Or if only those movies and TV shows had taught him to read my mind and transmit the answer to me!

I double-check the down answers: Yes, a leaf (L) is something a caterpillar would eat; abr (A) is indeed an abbreviated synonym for “condensed”; an amateur (M) is a hobbyist; Tiny Tim (I) was a “blesser at Christmas”; and that actress’ name is Virginia Madsen (A), not Medsen, Midsen, Modsen or Mudsen. Or at least I think it is; I do know she was on the last episode of “Monk” and that’s how here name was spelled. Right?

So I leave it, and I turn out to be (whew) right – a perfect solution, again handed in early.

We have 30 minutes to do Puzzle No. 3, by Patrick Berry, which has a punny theme that’s built around sports terms. This is worrisome to me, considering that on a good day I’m barely able to distinguish between the Final Four and the Fab Four. But it turns out that I’ve heard a lot of the terms mentioned, and what I don’t know I can figure out from the other clues. Another perfect solution, with 11 minutes to spare.

And time for a lunch break.

More to come, if all of you can stand the suspense.

Back from Brooklyn, Part 1

Oh, the suspense! The uncertainty! The nervous fears!

Am I talking about the 2010 American Crossword Puzzle Tournament?

Well, yes, I suppose I am – a little bit, at least – come to think of it.

But I’m mainly referring to the harrowing fear that I wouldn’t be physically able to get through it.

Scene one:

I’m on the plane to Brooklyn, looking out the window. The seat between me and the guy on the aisle is empty -- but not for long.

A woman whose assigned seat is somewhere else on the plane plops down between us and buckles the seat belt. She’s a colleague of the guy on the aisle seat and hates sitting alone.

Apparently she hates sitting alone because she also hates not talking, and she’s such a flannel mouth that during the flight, representatives of several pajama manufacturers drop by and place bids on the rights to her upper palate.

But this is OK with me. I often like to listen to people’s unguarded public conversations. (Especially if they’re talking on cell phones. One of Murphy’s Rules of Nature: the loudness of a cell phone conversation held on a public conveyance is directly proportional to the privacy – not to mention indictability – of the matter being discussed, and inversely proportional to the percentage of space in the caller’s brain that is not occupied by seaweed.)

But to give these two other passengers some privacy, I make sure to keep my head turned to the window.

Near the end of the trip, she talks about how her boy needed a sitter and that one problem she faced was that the boy has had some kind of intestinal flu, and she didn’t want the kid’s regular sitter to catch it.

I now make doubly, tripley, quadrupely sure that my head is facing the window for most of the rest of the flight….

Scene two:

It’s Saturday night, and I’m on one of the hotel's elevators, headed toward the lobby.

There are two other passengers, including a man and a woman who appear to be a couple.

The dialogue goes something like this:

She: “Have you thrown up?”

He shakes his head, not happily.

She: “You might be better off if you did.”

I keep my eyes straight ahead and thank the gods and the ghost of J. Willard Marriott that the lobby is only one floor away.

More to come.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Across and down to Brooklyn, yet again

This weekend I will once again be a contestant in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

I've competed twice before, both times pretty much winding up in the upper 37 percent overall.

Do I have any real hope of winning the thing? Not really, though you never know. It's not that I can't solve the puzzles -- I think I solved six out of seven perfectly the first year and five out of seven last year -- but I doubt I can do it fast enough to beat the likes of Tyler Hinman, Trip Payne, Ellen Ripstein and all the others.

My guess is that in addition to brains (and, um, yes, I'm willing to concede that the above three -- and others -- might be at least a little smarter than yours truly), the true crossword champs have perfect hand-and-eye coordination.

Me, I never could learn how to ride a bike.

But one big selling point of the ACPT -- for me, at least -- is that unlike competitive mind games, the tournament has champs that are likable, real people.

Matter of fact, everyone there is nice.

If you've see the documentary film "Wordplay," filmed at the 2005 tournament, what you see is what you'll get if you compete or even hang out at the tournament.

And the players have a sense of humor about themselves; when Amy Reynaldo (who might be the queen of the crossword bloggers) was kind enough to link to my wrap-up of the ACPT last year, this blog received many hits, some of them, I suspect, from the higher-profile players.

Fortunately for me, these hits weren't physical.

And, of course, I hope things stay that way.

Matter of fact, if the only thing I suffer this weekend is a bruised ego, I'll figure I will have come out ahead.

See you soon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There's no business like Shokus' business

For a long time now I’ve been regularly listening to something called Shokus Internet Radio, and although I rarely plug other Web stuff (aside from what’s in my blogroll), I finally realized that you might also enjoy listening to it, especially if you’re interested in old movies and old TV shows.

Shokus calls itself “TV on the radio for baby boomers,” and I’m glad it describes itself that way because it sure saves me a lot of time and effort.

I will, however, add that Shokus offers an entertaining mix of music and interview programs.

The hosts and disc jockeys remind me of what local TV and radio stations used to be in the days before two or three media companies seemed to own everything, the days when local broadcasting featured charming, distinctive personalities whose programs weren’t canned and homogenized and playing on who knows how many other stations nationwide.

Although I enjoy listening to the music, the real drawing card is the interviews. The crown jewel of the station is “Stu’s Show,” hosted by Stu Shostak, who is the Sho in the Shokus.

If the prospect of listening to in-depth interviews with people like Peter Marshall, June Foray and Jack Narz (among many others) makes you drool to the point where you put Pavlov’s pets to shame, this is the station for you.

But it’s one thing to have guests like these; it’s another to have a host who knows what to ask them and how to treat them. Shostak knows his stuff (he himself spent many years working with Lucille Ball), and he not only shows his guests the proper respect but also extends this respect to the folks who call into his show and to listeners who write in.

I suppose it’s an oxymoron to say that Shokus is a high-tech mom-and-pop-type station, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it, or a better compliment.

And if you’re still drooling, get a napkin, wipe your mouth off (and your keyboard, too, if necessary), and go here to find out more.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Why St. Peter is shopping for a blow dryer

"Frank N. Magid, a marketing consultant who was widely credited, for good or ill, with standardizing the face of local television news, introducing the fast-paced, user-friendly 'Action News' format in markets nationwide," has passed away, The New York Times reports.

Services are Monday on his roof

Walter Fredrick Morrison, who has been credited with inventing the Frisbee, has died at the age of 90, The Associated Press reports.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

With no mononey down

A local car dealership's commercial proclaims: "FINANCINING AVAILABLE."

Thursday, February 4, 2010

That dry cappuccino looks so natural....

USA Today reports that cemeteries and funeral homes across the nation are offering “environmentally friendly burials” that include “biodegradable caskets made of pine, wicker or even cardboard.”

Not a bad idea, but the paper quotes one Georgia man who might be a mite too enthusiastic:

“I’m trying to be more green in my everyday; why not be more green in eternity? I’ve actually thought about buying my casket and using it as a coffee table.”

Monday, February 1, 2010

Haven't I read this before?

Zelda Rubinstein, who played the psychic in “Poltergeist” (“This house is clean!”) died last week.

Sir Clement Freud, grandson of Sigmund Freud and a noted broadcaster in his own right (I remember seeing him with Jack Paar many years ago), died last April.

You might be hard put to come up with two people who have less in common than these two, but there is one bond that they indubitably share.

When I saw each one’s obituary, I had the same reaction:

I thought they’d already died. I was sure I’d heard they’d died.

But nope. To paraphrase Mr. Twain (who must be getting sick of being paraphrased, especially because, as far as I know, he doesn’t get paid for being paraphrased), my memories of their deaths are premature.

But how to explain it?

Is it some subcategory of déjà vu?

(Hey, look, my word-processing software automatically added those accents – both up and down! How cool! And yes, I’m a sucker for card tricks, too.)

How about “deja deceased”?

(Hey, wait a minute. Where are the accents this time? Does this software give only one set of accents to a customer? Or does it happen only when you type “déjà vu”? Ah, yes, that’s the answer.)

It’s quite possible – and quite possibly more than possible – that I’m the only one who thought these two were dead. (And it’s happened to me with other celebs, too.)

But am I the only one who has ever prematurely buried a celeb? (Come to think of it, with some of the celebs around today, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.)

Has this ever happened to you?

Or, to pose an even scarier question:

Are there people out there who think I’m already dead?

And do they know something I don’t?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

This could explain a lot

When I want to take money out of the bank, I usually use ATMs. But when it comes to depositing checks, I’m still neurotic enough to want to deal with a live human being.

Not too long ago I went to a branch of my bank with a check and was waited on by a person identified by her nameplate as (name uncreatively changed to protect the innocent):


I’ve been out of the daily journalism biz for some time now, but it seems to me that the biz news biz may be missing out on a big story here.

If the bank is taking pains to identify Ms. Doe this way, does that mean that (unbeknown to us all) the bank has been allowing amateur tellers to handle our money?

And if so, have these people been doing the job without pay and just for the “love” of handling money?

Does the bank have “pro-am” events, where the amateurs team up with the pros to process our transactions? Is there a banquet afterward? Is a trophy awarded to the amateur who has improved the most? (“This year Joe caused only three banks to fail, down from 16 in 2009!”)

Is it easy to tell amateur tellers from professional ones? I should think there would be some telltale signs:

They say things like: “Wow! I didn’t realize Benjamin Franklin invented $100 bills, too!”

They ask for your driver’s license and your high school graduation picture “because I always like to see how people change over the years!”

They count out your money and ask if you want fries with it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Where has the year gone?

Imagine my surprise when, a couple of weeks ago, I happened to glance at this blog and notice that I hadn’t posted anything in a long time.

I’m sure some of you regulars – there might be two or three of you – thought that I was trying to get over an excruciatingly long New Year’s hangover. Which would have been a neat trick, considering that I’m a teetotaler. (Come to think of it, where did that word come from? Sounds like a job given to the lowliest of caddies at the pro shop.)

But this year is moving kinda fast. And … well … I might as well come right out and admit it …

I’m trying to adjust to the breakup of a longtime relationship.

Yes, I know, you’ve probably read far too many confessional blogs, blogs where the writer – to use a phrase from my younger years that now sounds quaint – “lets it all hang out.”

OK, OK. But I hope you’ll indulge me just once. And maybe you’ll understand. Chances are you’ve been through something like this yourself.

I am, of course, referring to my relationship with the pay phones of America.

For years, dear readers, I often fed a pair of quarters into these things so I could call people. Could be wrong, but I think I even remember the days when you only needed one quarter to do it. Maybe even one dime before that.

And for years I scoffed at the idea of getting a cell phone.

For one thing, I couldn’t understand why it was necessary for me to stay in constant potential contact with other people. There are times when I like being alone, thank you very much. And that’s not to mention my revulsion at the sight of people who walk down the street, talking on their phones, or looking up something on them. At best, they’re missing the world around them. At worst, they’re risking injury by being oblivious to other people – not to mention drivers, some of whom, of course, are talking on their cell phones, and at least a couple of these folks have nearly made mincemeat out of me (and a possible fortune in mincemeat for some lawyer) by almost running me down.

And then there are those cell phone contracts. My life is complicated enough, thank you very much again.

But then, about a year ago, my mind began to change, with (as per usual for me) the speed of your average continental drift.

I was in Brooklyn, at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, when my airline needed to talk with me. Because the only number the airline folks had was the one for my home phone, they had to call there and get someone out of bed, and that someone had to leave a frantic phone message for me at my hotel room while I was cluelessly grappling with crossword clues downstairs.

It was then that I decided I needed a cell phone – at least by the time of the next tourney.

And not too long ago, someone pointed out the existence of cell phones that come without contracts and require only the occasional purchase of more time.

I was finally sold.

So, now that we’re well into the 21st century, I have finally jumped into the tail end of the 20th.

But it has been a bittersweet achievement, as I am reminded whenever I furtively file past one of my old pay phone friends at the mall. And it doesn’t in the least ease my conscience to know that even without my defection, their number is up.