Tuesday, December 23, 2014

For your holiday reading pleasure (I hope)....

Some years ago I wrote a holiday mystery story, "The Afternoon Before Christmas."

And for some years it appeared on a mystery website, and every year I would link to it.

For the past few years I haven't linked to it because it was no longer online.

But I'm happy to say that it is now appearing on the Over My Dead Body! website. It is 1,500 words long, you can read it free and you can find it here.

And I hope you will take the opportunity to browse the rest of the Over My Dead Body! website because there are a lot of fine people writing for it, and the person who runs it, Cherie Jung, is one of the most considerate and professional editors around.

Feel free to let me know what you think of "The Afternoon Before Christmas."

And last -- and most important -- happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Who says big business doesn't have a heart?

A friend of mine who turned a year older this week posted this note on Facebook:

"Awww. I got a picture of a birthday cupcake from the bank that I finance my car through."

"How sweet," I replied. "Next month, send them a picture of a check."

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Smiles from some long-ago summer nights

In my household, one of the pleasures of being a kid in the summer was the occasional granting of a rare privilege:

Staying up past your usual bedtime.

I can’t recall exactly what that usual bedtime was, but I know for darn sure that I was in bed by 11 – and probably by 10 – most nights.

But once in a while in the summer, my parents would ease this restriction and I would be allowed to see some of the stuff I’d been missing.

I especially remember one night when it was so hot that I and my younger siblings were allowed to sleep downstairs in the living room, on bed sheets, after watching “The Tonight Show”! (Not to mention listening to the national anthem at the end of the now interminable “broadcast day.”)

This was in the early 1960s. Johnny Carson had taken over the show, but on this particular night the host was Groucho Marx, who introduced a comic we’d never seen before. I still remember his routine – something about karate.

It was Bill Cosby, not very long before his groundbreaking role in “I Spy.”

Usually we were in bed long before "The Tonight Show" came on, though my folks might make an exception if it was New Year’s Eve.

But sometimes we made it all the way to 11 p.m. before our parents decided that enough was enough, even for a summer night.

One show I remember – I think it was on Wednesday nights – was called “Stump the Stars.” It was basically charades with celebrities. I never quite understood the show – I’ve never been a big fan of charades, and the charades that were acted out were quite long. Watching Sebastian Cabot act out some not-very-funny joke wasn’t exactly the cultural highlight of the season, but hey – it’s past my bedtime, and I’m downstairs watching TV!

“Stump the Stars” was hosted by a guy named Mike Stokey, whose whole career seemed to consist of hosting this show under various titles over the years. I recently watched one episode on YouTube. I’d never seen the episode, but it pretty much seemed like the few episodes I managed to see in the 1960s, with celebrities whose names will probably be familiar only to those of my generation and earlier: actress Phyllis Kirk, comedian Jerry Lester and the great actor/raconteur Hans Conried. In one neat live TV moment, the rather conservative Conried takes offense at something done by Lester off screen. (Not surprising, considering that the works of Noel Coward were conspicuously absent from Lester’s resume.)

Another show I watched way back when, but which I don’t remember too well now, was “Masquerade Party.” The idea was simple: a celebrity comes out in a costume, and the panel has to guess who it is. I found an episode on YouTube, but though it was enjoyable enough, something that happened at the end bothered me: They brought out another celeb, also costumed, whose identity would be guessed the following week. Nothing wrong with that, but when you’re watching the show 50 years later and you realize you’ll never find out who this person is, well, it feels a little creepy, though I can hardly blame the producers for that.

One series that I remember – and it’s well-represented on YouTube – is “What’s My Line?” I can remember staying up late on a summer Sunday and watching these sophisticated people play the game – live! And there was something thrilling about seeing the mystery guest come out, always to great applause.

As I watch the episodes on YouTube, the show seems exactly the way I remember it from when I was a kid. New York seemed a different, more magical place then, and even now it’s fun to watch an unmasked mystery guest reminisce with a panelist about some play they once did together. It makes me almost want to take a vacation via time machine: A week in New York in the 1950s or 1960s. You’ll notice I said “almost” – there would always be the chance that I’d be disappointed, that the world of New York wasn’t really golden but bronze -- or even leaden.

However, it is a nice place to visit on YouTube, which I often do when I should be doing something else like, um, blogging. (I especially recommend seeking out the episode where mystery guest Red Skelton is quizzed by blindfolded panelist Fred Allen. Live, ad libbed TV comedy doesn’t get any better.)

But it did occur to me recently that in today’s world, a producer would be less likely to risk doing “What’s My Line?” live.

Because it amazes me to think that during the show’s Sunday night run, which lasted about 17 years, with most of the episodes live, they always brought out a mystery guest and no one – NO ONE – in the audience ever yelled out something like, “Hey, it’s Jackie Gleason!” It probably would never have occurred to anyone in the audience to do that.

Today? I’m not so sure, though I’d be delighted to be proved wrong.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

You know you're getting old...

... when the TV news headline says "Obama addresses Iragi conflict" and you immediately hear Art Carney saying, "Hello, Iraqi conflict!"

Monday, July 21, 2014

Then again, sometimes a nozzle is just a nozzle

Whenever I pass a gas station, I occasionally wonder what Sigmund Freud would think if he saw one of those gas pumps that have a sign on top of it that says "Self."

Thursday, April 24, 2014

You know you're getting old ...

... when you find out that the performer whom you first knew as Gidget is in the new Spider-Man movie -- playing Aunt May.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

'Mr. Mariposa Bids Adieu'

That's the title of my latest mystery story, a solve-it-yourself tale. (Think Encyclopedia Brown.)

It's now available FREE at Over My Dead Body, The Mystery Magazine Online.

And you can read it here.

I hope you will like it. Please feel free to let me know what you think.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Something fishy about that ichthyologist

This morning I was watching one of the later Charlie Chan movies -- made by the bargain-basement (to put it kindly) Monogram Pictures and starring Sidney Toler -- when something caught my eye.

One scene takes place aboard a ship where a murder has been committed. One of the suspects, a middle-aged and cranky ichthyologist, is sitting in a deck chair, reading a book about his specialty.

When it came to designing a cover for the book that the fish scientist was reading (yes, you guessed right -- I didn't want to have to type out that word again), the Monogram prop department spared no expense.

The cover for the book, at least on my iPad, seems to be made from a paper grocery bag. (My mom used to make covers like that for my grammar-school books.)

On the cover, in block letters, is the title of the book, in its entirety:


I suppose I should give the prop folks the benefit of the doubt -- perhaps a longer title was planned, but the Magic Marker ran out of ink, the prop department didn't have any more of those pens, and there was no money in the budget to buy more.

(Which reminds me of how, at my former workplace many years ago, if your pen ran out of ink, you could get a new one from the woman who was in charge of the supplies -- if you returned the one that had just stopped working.)

Speaking of Charlie Chan (ah, I'm a clever lad when it comes to transitions, am I not?), a few years ago TCM released a DVD set of four of the Chan Monogram movies at a list price of about $40.

Even now, I'm surprised that the media -- or at least the entertainment media -- missed what I think is a big story.

For as far as I can tell, this is the first time in entertainment history that the cost of a DVD set has far exceeded the movies' combined budgets.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

From 'Beautiful Dreamer' to grisly murder

Having spent last Sunday night at the airport waiting for my flight home after the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I finally got around to watching the season finale of HBO's "True Detective."

It's a fine show, with outstanding performances by Woody Harrelson, Matthew McConaughey and others, but it's definitely not for the kiddies, and the finale had a couple of scenes that made me glad I hadn't just eaten an eight-course meal.

In another scene, the detectives played by Harrelson and McConaughey question an elderly woman in a nursing home.

I was sure I recognized the woman. I thought she might be Jacqueline Scott, who was always showing up in 1960s TV shows, especially "The Fugitive," in which she played Richard Kimble's sister.

After the show, I looked the series up on the Internet Movie Database, and it turns out I was wrong.

It wasn't Jacqueline Scott.

But it was Terry Moore.

Yes, the same Terry Moore who more than 60 years ago starred as the keeper of the giant ape named "Mighty Joe Young." I first saw that movie many years ago on TV and haven't seen it since, but I remember thinking at the time that it was wonderfully tongue-in-cheek. Maybe I'd have a different opinion today. Then again, how can you make a movie about an ape who is always calmed down when Moore's character plays "Beautiful Dreamer" on the piano and not be tongue-in-cheek?

I always get a kick out of seeing older actors in new movies. Some years ago at a mystery conference, I saw a short film called "The Grand Inquisitor," starring the marvelous Marsha Hunt, the quintessential dream girl next door from the 1940s, playing someone you might not want next door. It's a great piece of noir made by Eddie Muller, and you can see it here.

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you're going to be doing this year's American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn't read this.)

During the Friday evening of fun and games preceding this year's tournament in Brooklyn, something happens that makes me think that I might -- just might -- have a chance of improving my ranking from last year's 166 to (dare it be hoped?) the Top 100.

Ten stations are set up in the ballroom. At each one, a puzzle maker presides over competitions involving a particular kind of puzzle. You can spend 20 minutes at each of four of the stations, with breaks in between. If you do well enough, you get tickets that you can redeem for puzzle books at the end of the evening.

The competition at the first station I go to involves estimates -- what's the total current population of the U.S., how many screen credits did Mel Blanc have, and other esoteric queries. Those whose answers fall within certain percentages of the right answers are to get tickets.

I take my best shots, but I am well aware of how poor my aim is when it comes to things like this. I estimate that my chances of winning range from zilch to diddly-squat, and this estimate alone proves to be right on the money.

The next station involves cryptic crossword puzzles, which I am sometimes fairly good at, but I usually need a lot more than 20 minutes, and this time is no exception.

I do a lot better at my next competition -- a word search puzzle -- but I fall one answer short of winning anything.

Finally I hit some pay dirt at a competition that involves the kind of puzzles featured on "Wheel of Fortune." Each puzzle shows only the vowels, and each involves all five of them.

I've long had a knack for this sort of thing, and although I don't do a perfect job, I do well enough to get four tickets.

Aha, methinks -- I'll at least have something to bring home.

So I stay through the wine and cheese party that follows, but when the winners are announced at the end, it turns out that you need a lot more than four tickets to win anything.

So my "pay dirt" is really, at best, a smudge.....

On Saturday I'm up bright and early for the first of six puzzles, and I'm seasoned enough to waste little time in getting a seat in what I know will become a crowded ballroom. I'm ready for battle with my five soldiers -- OK, OK, lead pencils -- arrayed before me, awaiting orders, just as they have for the past year as they sat in a resealable bag in a shelf in my home.

The first puzzle, "To Tell the Truth," by Kelly Clark, is fairly easy (the first words of the theme answers are "open," "frank," "candid" and "real"), but I still take longer than I should because of two crossing answers in the right middle section; it takes me a while to figure out that "Sound from a bell tower" is BONG and "Like many homes on HGTV" is REDONE.

Next is "Five Borough Bridges," by Patrick Blindauer, whose puzzles can be fearsome. But this one seems easy -- maybe too easy. I never do figure out the theme, and I'm concerned that my answer to one clue, "Lightning Bolt," seems to make no sense but is apparently the only possible answer.

A few minutes after tournament director Will Shortz calls time, I find out that the trick of the puzzle involves names of local bridges that are separated by black squares -- BatMAN HAT TANdem, for example. It also turns out that I might be the only person in the civilized (and perhaps uncivilized) world who hadn't known that there is a famous sprinter named USAIN Bolt. But that doesn't matter because, as I later find out, I have a perfect score on this puzzle -- and the first one, too.

The third puzzle, "Silence of the Lampreys," is by Merl Reagle, whose Sunday-size puzzles appear in my weekly paper. This one seems a little harder until I figure out that all the theme answers involve a missing "eel" sound -- FIX THE CAT instead of Felix the Cat, for example. OK ... if Merl says so.

Before lunch, preliminary standings are online. I can't recall whether these were based on the first two puzzles or just the first one, but I do know that I'm now No. 142 out of 580. Not the top 100 of course, but not 166 either, and I have four more puzzles to do -- including the dreaded No. 5.

After lunch I face the fourth puzzle, "Spaced Out," by MaryEllen Uthlaut. The theme answers include the letters "ET," so that an inexperienced alien becomes a GREEN HORNET (or rather GREENHORN ET).

The puzzle is pretty easy, which is just as well, because I'll need all my stamina for Puzzle 5, traditionally the hardest puzzle, and in this case it's "Send in the Clones" by Brendan Emmett Quigley, who to me is even more fearsome than Patrick Blindauer.

The trick in the puzzle might be the most convoluted one I've ever seen in a Puzzle 5, and I've seen seven of them so far. See if you can follow this (perhaps better yet, see if I can follow it): The clue is "Tried / 1964 title role." The answer is STRANGELOVE -- you take STROVE (tried), separate the letters and insert ANGEL, and you get STRANGELOVE.

Where, you might ask, does the ANGEL come from? It comes from the Down answer that gave us the G: "Religious figure." So you have one ANGEL crossing another ANGEL.

Yeah, I know. I didn't really figure it out myself. But what helped me, I think, is that I took the approach I often taken when Puzzle 5 comes along: Fill in the answers you know as quickly as you can and hope the theme will occur to you. And although it never really did, and although few people, at most, seemed to finish the puzzle, I was only a few clues short of a perfect solution. Perhaps STRANGELOVE was, in its obscure way, the key. Once I got STROVE, I knew it had to be STRANGELOVE, even if I didn't know where the ANGEL came from. Or perhaps I have a GUARDIAN ANGEL (or, perhaps more aptly, a CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL) who has been coming to Brooklyn with me.

Puzzle 6, the last one of the day, is usually pretty easy, and for the most part this puzzle, "UH ... LIKE ... YOU KNOW?" by Anna Schectman, ran true to form, with theme answers that included "UM" and "ER." ("One singing psalms loudly" is a BIBLE BELTER.)

That was easy enough. But my problem was a case of "The cultural references giveth and the cultural references taketh away."

It was a classic instance of what I call the Dreaded Double Cross -- two intersecting words for which you don't have much of a clue. This was payback for my getting lucky with USAIN.

"One of the girls on 'Girls.'" Now I know what "Girls" is. It's the HBO show that sometimes came on after "True Detective." I watched "True Detective," but in my household we always switched before "Girls" came on.

Big mistake -- as far as the tournament was concerned.

I knew the answer was _ESSA. What else could it be but TESSA?

The clues for the intersecting word was "Backpack brand" and had to be _ANSPORTS. So I figured it was TANSPORTS, ignoring that an answer below it was SPRAY TAN.

As I'm guessing many if not most of you know, the correct answers were JESSA and JANSPORTS.

Saturday night, the current standings, based on the first four puzzles, show me around 166, even though I did the first four puzzles perfectly. I'm guessing I'm still not fast enough, and I'm hoping that I did so much better on Puzzle 5 than many others seemed to that it will cushion the self-inflicted blow of Puzzle 6.

The big Sunday morning puzzle, Puzzle 7, the last one everybody does, is "It All Ads Up," by David J. Kahn. It's trickier than usual for a Puzzle 7, with a square of numbers in the middle (each row adding up to 15), but I figure it out soon enough to finish 22 minutes early.

The championship showdown is exciting enough,involving Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer (four-time winner and current champ) and Tyler Hinman (five-time winner). Feyer beats Hinman by a few minutes to successfully defend the title.

And now, one week after the tournament, I'm at 164, up two places from last year's 166. Perhaps the rankings will be revised again (as they usually are as scoring mistakes are found), but I have a feeling they won't be at this late date.

Were it not for JESSA, I think I would have finished around 142 again.

At any rate, I won't be going to Brooklyn again.

No, I'm not bailing out of the tournament; the tournament is bailing out of Brooklyn after seven years and returning to Stamford, Conn., where it started in the 1970s.

Who knows? Maybe a change of venue will improve my score.

And maybe I should look for another CROSSING GUARDIAN ANGEL -- preferably, one who watches all the TV shows I can't be bothered with.

UPDATE, March 21: Just checked the standings again, and I'm now down to 165 -- one place above last year. Well, it's still progress, I suppose....

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Never mind that tree in the woods....

Q. How many epistemologists does it take to screw in a light bulb?

A. How do you know it's a light bulb?

Across and down to Brookyn, yet again

This weekend I'll be traveling to Brooklyn to try my skill (and luck) at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament for the eighth straight year.

Last year I finished 166th out of 572 overall (down from 142, unfortunately), but did manage to finish eighth in my regional division.

We'll see what happens. Hope to get back to you next week.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Sid Caesar

For many years when I was a kid, the high school up the street played host to traveling summer-stock ensembles.

These groups were headed by stars of varying magnitudes -- including Joan Fontaine, George Gobel, James Whitmore and Durward Kirby. (Yes, my younger readers, there was once a show-biz person by the name of Durward Kirby. Calling him a star might be stretching it -- he was basically an announcer who found fame as a sidekick on a variety show headed by perhaps the best M.C. of all time, Garry Moore.)

During one of those summer weeks, the star was Sid Caesar, who appeared in "The Last of the Red Hot Lovers," written by his one-time writer Neil Simon.

I didn't see the play. (I was too young and stupid to attend most of these plays, not realizing that they provided a great opportunity to see a form of summer entertainment that is now gone forever.)

But I did see a local TV interview with Caesar.

I'm not sure whether "Ten from 'Your Show of Shows,'" a movie featuring some of the best moments from Caesar's signature TV show, had been released. I was too young to have seen that 1950s TV classic, and I mainly knew him from his later appearances on TV shows like "That Girl" and in movies like "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" and "The Busy Body," a mystery-comedy directed by William "The Tingler" Castle and based on a book by Donald Westlake. Caesar starred in "The Busy Body," but it couldn't bring his career out of rigor mortis.

Anyway, Caesar was interviewed outside a motel less than a mile from my home. The local guy who brought in the summer stock shows apparently had booked a room for him there. (I like to think I'm wrong about that -- the motel is now an assisted-living home, and from what I saw of it once while visiting a couple of friends there, I'm sure that Caesar deserved much better.)

The filmed interview defined the word "paradox" better than any lexicographer could. Some (including me) say that Sid Caesar was one of the funniest comedians ever, but in the interview he acted as if he were days away from a trip to the electric chair and kind of looking forward to it. I don't remember any of the questions or answers -- all I remember is the body language, his stiffness and terseness. The interviewer would have had a much easier time getting blood out of all the stones in the Grand Canyon.

For all I know, onstage up the street from me, and armed with material by the country's best-known playwright, Caesar was his usual brilliant self. Off the stage, as himself, he seemed to be in some sort of pain.

Years later I read his autobiography ("Where Have I Been?"), and the broken pieces of Caesar's life and career seemed to fall into place. The book told of his struggles with depression and pills, and I'm now pretty sure that on that summer day outside the motel, he was in the midst of one of those battles.

Apparently he was able to overcome his problems, or at least deal with them, by the time the book came out, because during interviews at that time he seemed much happier. Or at least less tortured.

I won't attempt a deep-dish analysis of Sid Caesar's genius. I'll just say that his work still stands up and, I think, always will because like the best comedy performers, he understood human nature, which never changes from century to century -- or from kinescopes to digital.

(To read more about those summer stock shows, go here. The "Rolls-Royce lady" is Joan Fontaine, whom I didn't identify at the time because she was still alive and still, I assume, capable of filing lawsuits.)

Monday, February 3, 2014

The irony always rings twice

I received a letter in the mail today.

The letter is from the U.S. Postal Service.

It invites me to volunteer for a study to help them “understand and improve processing and mail delivery.”

The study would require me to spend “only a few minutes a day” to report the kinds of mail I receive each day. I would make these reports “via an easy-to-navigate website.” (Hmm. Where have we heard that before?)

I hope I won’t seem like a disloyal American when I say that I won’t be participating in the study.

For one thing, I often can’t spare “a few minutes a day.” And I’m sure I’d be forgetful; as it is, I sometimes have trouble remembering to floss. (Just ask my hygienist.)

But even if I wanted to participate, there’s another problem.

Although the letter I received today is from the U.S. Postal Service, it was not sent to me by the U.S. Postal Service.

It was sent to me by my stepmother.

She had received the letter at her home because it was addressed to me at her address.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

A coming attraction

I'm very pleased to announce that the "Over My Dead Body" online mystery magazine has accepted one of my short stories.

When the story is published I'll post a link to it, and you'll be able to read it free.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

A not-so-perfect week for second bananas

You’ve probably heard that Russell Johnson and Dave Madden died last week.

Johnson played the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island,” and Madden was most famous for portraying Reuben Kincaid on “The Partridge Family.”

Johnson had played many other roles before landing the part that would make him famous. One Sunday morning when I was a kid, I was surprised to see him playing the villain in a 1950s Universal western. Although he did his customary good job, he seemed out of character. (Then again, is a versatile character actor ever out of character?)

Not long before “Gilligan,” he starred in a “Twilight Zone” episode as a man who goes back in time and tries to avert the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. His failure to do so did not inspire much confidence that he would ever figure a way to get off that island.

For the first year of “Gilligan,” the folks in charge of billing didn’t seem to have much respect for Johnson and Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann. During that first season, the song that told the saga of the shipwreck of the Minnow and sang of the castaways mentioned that “Gilligan … the Skipper, too … the millionaire and his wife … the movie star … and the rest … are here on Gilligan’s isle!”

“And the rest”?!

I can’t help thinking that after seeing this opening, Johnson and Wells and their respective agents had what reporters on the diplomacy beat used to call “a spirited discussion.”

Years after the show ended, Johnson seemed good-natured about the fact that he would be best remembered for a part that probably limited his career without making him rich. I would have been honored to meet him.

Dawn Wells (now one of the two last surviving members of the cast, along with Tina Louise, who played Ginger), has always seemed like a good sport about the show. (For years my little sister cherished an autograph “Mary Ann” gave her while appearing in a summer stock play up the street from our house.)

Although Dave Madden was best known for “The Partridge Family,” I remembered him more from the early days of “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.” But one of the obits for him reminded me of another, long-forgotten show he appeared on:

“Camp Runamuck.”

If you’ve never heard of it, you probably won’t be surprised to know that it was a comedy about a kids’ summer camp. I remember it as being a broad comedy; perhaps it wasn’t all the way over the top, but it was at least seven-eighths of the way there. It might be the only sitcom that ever made “Gilligan” look like Chekhov.

The camp was run by a guy named Wivenhoe, played by Arch Johnson, who otherwise played mostly heavies in shows like “Perry Mason.” I think Madden was one of the counselors, and the cast also included Dave Ketchum (later Agent 13 on “Get Smart”) and a young woman named Nina Wayne, whose sister Carol was for many years Art Fern’s blond “Matinee Lady” on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”

Nina was a brunette version of Carol, and “Camp Runamuck” came along at a time when not quite so little old me was beginning to take an interest in the opposite sex.

“Camp Runamuck” should have been a lot better than it was, considering that it was created by David Swift, who was better known as the creator of “Mr. Peepers” and the writer and director of the original “Parent Trap” (starring my first big crush, Hayley Mills).

Perhaps NBC suspected that “Runamuck” wouldn’t be a runaway hit and for that reason decided to stick it on Friday night, which even then seemed to be a TV dumping ground.

I think the show preceded another sitcom, called “Hank,” which was about a guy who badly wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it and kept attending classes in disguise. I recall that the publicity for the show described Hank as a “drop-in.” (As opposed to “dropout.” Get it? Get it? OK, I’ll stop nudging you now.)

The best thing about “Hank” was that it made “Camp Runamuck” look like Chekhov. (Which, in turn, made “Gilligan” look like Sophocles.) “Hank” starred a guy named Dick Kallman, a graduate of the Keefe Brasselle School of Reverse Charisma.

You don’t remember Keefe Brasselle? Lucky you.

You want to see Keefe Brasselle in action? Go here. But don’t say I didn’t warn you. And if you’ve just had a big meal, wait for at least one hour before jumping into it.

You’ll thank me later.