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.