Friday, December 25, 2015

Let's just say I'm more than willing to take her word for it

“When we were doing our dance lessons together, I’m pretty sure he sweats from his butt first," Jennifer Lawrence told KISS FM in an interview about working on "Silver Linings Playbook" with Bradley Cooper.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Christmas Eve memory

When I was a kid I really liked board games. And that’s an understatement.

Monopoly. Scrabble. The Game of Life. Parcheesi. You name it, I probably had it.

And I was especially nuts about games that were based on TV game shows. We had the first edition – and many others – of “Password,” “Jeopardy!” and “Concentration.”

I even had first-and-only editions of TV games that didn’t last that long, including “Get the Message,” a Goodson-Todman show hosted by a guy named Frank Buxton, who was also the co-host of an ABC kids’ show called “Discovery” that I watched every weekday.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Buxton at an old-movie festival.

I told him that I once had the home game of “Get the Message.”

“I didn’t even know they had a home game,” Mr. Buxton said.


I probably got a new game every Christmas. My parents used to hide the stuff downstairs. But I got wise one year when I happened to look down there and see, sticking out from the side of a table, the Ideal toy company trademark – confirming that yes, my parents had indeed bought me the home version of ABC’s “Seven Keys,” hosted by the great Jack Narz.

As we six kids got older we either figured out or were told somehow that (Spoiler alert!) there was no Santa Claus.

So my parents would bring the swag up on Christmas Eve.

I especially remember one such night when my mother emerged from the basement and came toward me holding out a big, rectangular box, with an equally big smile on her face.

The game was “Risk.”

“I knew you wanted it!” she said, and her happiness at giving me what I wanted so badly was so great that I couldn’t bear to tell her that I never wanted it at all.

I’d seen “Risk” advertised, of course, but the goal of the game – which was, basically, conquering the world territory by territory – never appealed to me.

And when we started playing the game, I still didn’t like it much – it was basically, for all its cards and “men” and big board, a dice game. I couldn’t get into dice games. Yahtzee? Not me.

So why did my mother think I wanted “Risk”? As the years passed, I still could never bear to ask her.

I did notice that one of my brothers always seemed to play the game with special enthusiasm. Were I possessed of anything remotely resembling a brain, I would have picked up on the fact that this was a Clue (which happens to be the name of a game I did like, though it took me some years to figure out how to figure out who the killer was, and please don’t tell Mystery Writers of America that or they’ll drum me out of their group with a blunt instrument).

Years later, my brother fessed up: He had told Mom that I “really wanted” “Risk.”

And years later, I still have no urge to invade Irkutsk.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'On Moonlight Bay'

After I noticed that this movie was on the local cinephile society’s schedule, I was reminded of a guy I used to know.

This guy -- I'll call him Al -- was in his sixties when I knew him and was married to a woman I'll call Arlene. They were my older brother and sister’s godparents. Arlene was also my mother’s godmother. Arlene and Al themselves had no children.

In the 1920s Al was a reporter on the newspaper where I later worked. In the 1930s he became a police captain through the good graces of his friend the mayor. If what I remember my mother telling me is correct, they must have been exceedingly good graces indeed, because she said Al came to the force as a captain; apparently he never walked a beat. That must have set real well with the rank-and-file.

Al retired in the 1960s and died a few years later. In the late 1970s, after I had joined the newspaper, I looked up his clip file just for the heck of it.

And I got a heck of a surprise. For along with the usual “longtime police officer retires after decades of service,” there were earlier clips that showed that Al’s retirement came not too long after a woman he had questioned during a case accused him of making a pass at her.

I asked my mother about this, and she said yes, Al did consider himself to be something of a ladies’ man, even if the ladies themselves saw him as something worse than that. Faced with the possibility of being alone with him, most of them went out of their way to stay out of harm’s way.

Poor Arlene.

Al also fancied himself to be a poet, and over the years he wrote what was supposed to be light verse (it was really not so much Ogden Nash as Ogden Gnash) and submitted it to the paper, where he still had friends who would publish it. After he retired, he self-published a book of this verbiage and brought a copy of it over to our house.

I still remember my uncle, himself a published poet of some renown, reading Al’s book and laughing his ass off. He later showed it to a friend, who, after perusing a bit of it, said, “Was it meant to be doggerel?”

As if this weren’t more than enough, Al also thought himself to be quite the piano player. Arlene and Al didn’t have a piano, but it was not unusual for him to sit down at our Story & Clark and torture the ivories.

He never needed to be asked. Then again, I don’t remember anyone ever feeling the need to ask him.

And he seemed to know only two songs.

One of them was – you guessed it – “On Moonlight Bay.”

I like to think that I am nothing if not a fair person, and as I was heading out for the cinephile show, I was not about to let the sins of a semiliterate sexual harasser be visited upon this charming 1951 film from Warner Bros.

Then again, “On Moonlight Bay,” at first glance, is not the type of movie I like much. It begins during what was supposedly a simpler, more innocent time, shortly before the outbreak of World War I. It stars two people who are substantially older than the characters they’re playing. It’s set in a small American town, but it might as well be in Never Never Land.

But in spite of this, the film works, and the audience and I had a good time.

Why does it work? I can think of at least three reasons.

The first is that the screenplay was co-written by Melville Shavelson, who was one of Bob Hope’s better writers, back when Hope was actually funny. Shavelson also was the key writer behind “My World and Welcome to It,” a sadly short-lived TV series based on the works of James Thurber.

The second reason is that its stars, Doris Day and Gordon MacRae, are so charming that they almost wheedle you into suspending your disbelief.

The third reason is the supporting cast, made up largely of folks I used to see all the time on TV and in movies, a class of performers that I fear I and others took for granted: the character actor. In this case, they are Leon Ames and Rosemary DeCamp as Day’s parents, Mary Wickes as a (surprise) maid and Ellen Corby as Day’s brother’s schoolteacher. Talk about typecasting: None of these actors had to stretch themselves much, but they certainly weren’t phoning it in, for they each played their roles better than practically anyone else could have played them.

One bonus: Billy Gray as the boy. I saw him for years as the teenage son on “Father Knows Best.” He was quite good in that, but in “On Moonlight Bay” he shows a talent for comedy that I didn’t know he had, and that sadly doesn’t seem to have been used to its full potential as his career continued.

Earlier I mentioned that the audience had a good time. One reason I like to attend the cinephile programs – even if I’ve seen the movie before -- is to see how the audience reacts. Normally I suspect this film would have gone over moderately well.

But sometimes one person’s reaction can goose the others into enjoying a film even more.

I’m particularly thinking of the scene in which Day is dancing with MacRae. Before the dance, her mother has stuffed a couple of powder puffs into Day’s dress, in an attempt to heighten (or maybe deepen) Day’s appeal.

You won’t be surprised to know that the puffs eventually fall out, and at the worst possible time. The gag was staged well – director Roy Del Ruth was a comedy veteran – and it caused a woman sitting near me to literally screech with delight, and caused the rest of the audience to fall like dominoes as they loosened up and laughed with her and kept laughing throughout the picture.

Would they have laughed so hard if the screecher hadn’t been there? Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

A sequel to “On Moonlight Bay” was made a couple of years later, with the same basic cast but with a different director and different writers.

“On Moonlight Bay” proved so popular with the cinephile audience that the society might show the sequel next year.

The name of the sequel is “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” which – have you guessed it? – also is the name of the only other song that good old Al ever seemed to know.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A mysterious holiday tradition

You've heard of "the gift that keeps on giving"?

This is the gift that I keep on giving:

"The Afternoon Before Christmas," a mystery story that I wrote some years ago.

I've sold it several times, most recently to the wonderful folks at "Over My Dead Body," and you can read it here.

I often link to this story at this time of year, and I hope you'll give it a try -- or even read it again, if you like.

I hope you will enjoy it, and I hope you will feel free to let me know what you think of it. All comments accepted -- even those made of coal.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

At the (old) movies: 'Detective Story'

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the get-togethers of the local cinephile society, and this is mostly because my full-time job kept me too busy or tired – or both – to attend them.

The good news is that now that I’m semiretired, I have the time to go again.

The bad news is that the group’s current fall season is almost over. Aside from the film I’m about to write about, there is one more, scheduled next week, with the spring season set to begin in March.

For now, let’s look at William Wyler’s version of “Detective Story” (Paramount, 1951), based on the play by Sidney Kingsley. In the late 1930s, another Kingsley play, “Dead End,” was also filmed by Wyler.

I suppose some audiences might find “Detective Story” a little too familiar, especially if they’ve watched such TV shows as “Barney Miller,” “Hill Street Blues” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” But “Detective Story” set the mold for this kind of thing. Most of it takes place in a squad room, with police officers and suspects who behave like real people. It’s a slice of life, but with a savage twist at the end.

Kirk Douglas – or, given his style of acting, maybe I should say KIRK DOUGLAS – stars as Detective Jim McLeod. McLeod is as easygoing as a triple dose of milk of magnesia; he is such a hardass that, were you to drop him from the roof of the Empire State Building butt first, he wouldn’t get so much as a hemorrhoid.

(And I don’t mean to knock Douglas’ acting – no one else could play a Kirk Douglas role as well as Kirk Douglas.)

For most of the movie, the story plays out like a typical day in a police precinct. A hapless shoplifter is brought in, played by Lee Grant in her movie debut (she originated the role on stage). Grant, who is excellent, provides the comedy relief.

A young man (Craig Hill) who is also a war veteran is accused of embezzling from his employer. His ex-girlfriend’s sister, who really loves him, stands by his side. She is played by Cathy O’Donnell, who throughout her career seemed to specialize in playing The Pretty But Sad Girl Who If She’s Really Lucky Might Make It to the Last Reel Alive.

Add to this mix two burglars (played by Michael Strong and Joseph “Dr. No” Wiseman, also re-creating their stage roles) and an abortionist (George Macready), whom McLeod has a particular dislike for, to put it in the mildest of terms.

And we also meet Mary McLeod, the detective’s wife, who is played by Eleanor Parker, who was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar – for a performance that, according to the Internet Movie Database, is the shortest ever to be nominated for a leading acting Oscar (20 minutes and 10 seconds). Another Oscar contender was Lee Grant, for Best Supporting Actress.

The film’s ending is still powerful – afterward, the audience stuck around and discussed it instead of dashing out to their cars as usual – but instead of discussing it myself, I’d like to pay tribute to the fine character actors who help make this a top-notch piece of ensemble acting, including Horace McMahon (the squad’s leader, who later played a similar role on TV’s “Naked City”); Bert Freed; Frank “Herbert T. Gillis” Faylen and especially William Bendix.

Bendix is probably best known for his years of playing the title role in “The Life of Riley,” and thus becoming the quintessential bungling TV husband and father.

But Bendix is another one of those actors whom I’ve come to appreciate more as I get older. For when he wasn’t playing America’s Favorite Idiot Dad, and playing it well, he could play other kinds of roles – such as Alan Ladd’s brutal, bestial enemy in “The Glass Key” or Alan Ladd’s tough but pathetic injured war comrade in “The Blue Dahlia.”

In “Detective Story,” Bendix’s character, who lost a son in the war, wants to give the embezzling veteran a break because his sense of right and wrong is not nearly as monochromatic as McLeod’s. Bendix is able to put this across without chewing any scenery – he doesn’t seem to play the part as much as he embodies it, and I can’t help thinking that as popular as he was, Bendix and his talents were still taken for granted.

Before the main feature: “How to Be a Detective,” a 1936 Robert Benchley short.

I am sure of increasingly few things in this world, but there’s one thing I can state with unqualified confidence: If it weren’t for Robert Benchley, I wouldn’t be writing these words. Or practically anything.

When I was a kid and had decided to be a writer, I discovered Benchley’s work, and from there on there was no stopping me. (Please don’t hate Benchley because of this.) I wanted to write funny things for newspapers, just like Benchley. Eventually I did, for a little while, anyway. And now I’m doing this.

For years I was unable to see Benchley’s movie shorts because they weren’t on TV, and it took a long time for someone to get around to inventing videocassettes and DVDs. I now have almost all his short films on DVD.

Unfortunately, to some extent they don’t wear well, for the same reason that “Detective Story” might seem familiar to modern audiences. Benchley was really the first person to do what he did, and is it his fault that so many people copied him?

Even so, when I watch a Benchley short by myself, I wish I could enjoy it more; I wish I could forget all the people who came after and copied The Master. Then again, no one could duplicate Benchley’s charm, and I doubt anyone ever will.

Then again (yet again), I am very happy to say that “How to Be a Detective” elicited a lot of loud, heartwarming laughs from the audience.

Maybe Benchley, like the Marx Brothers, needs to be seen with an audience to be truly enjoyed.

Monday, November 23, 2015

'The Comedians' by Kliph Nesteroff

A few years ago I discovered a website called “Classic Television Showbiz” and unhesitatingly placed it on my blogroll.

In addition to YouTube clips of old TV shows, "Classic Television Showbiz" features interviews with people whom I remembered watching while I was growing up, including Jack Carter, Peter Marshall, Rose Marie and Pat Carroll. Not to mention other show business figures I’d never heard of but who, it turned out, were well worth interviewing.

Such interviews can be painful to read or watch if the interviewer hasn’t done his or her homework.

But Kliph Nesteroff, who runs the site and conducts the interviews, knows his stuff – to put it mildly. You could almost say that Kliph knows more about old show business than any whippersnapper (he’s in his thirties!) has a right to know. He’s almost preternaturally knowledgeable – a few centuries ago, I fear he would have been burned as a witch.

Last year Kliph announced that he had written a book for Grove Press. I figured it would be a collection of these interviews but decided I’d buy it anyway – I’d read enough of his stuff for free that I felt I at least owed him the price of a hardcover book.

The book, titled “The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy,” came out this fall, and it’s even better than I expected. Kliph has taken information from these interviews and combined it with other stuff he has dug up, and the result is a smoothly written, fascinating history of comedians in this country.

A couple of fascinating anecdotes from the book:

Former “Tonight” show host Jack Paar, attempting an ill-advised comeback in the 1970s, way past his controversial glory days, tells a young comedian that he carries a gun -- as if he were still famous enough to be on any weirdo’s hit parade.

During a production meeting for the at least equally ill-advised “Make Room for Granddaddy,” Danny Thomas keeps expectorating tobacco juice into a spittoon. When the director, sitting next to Danny, asks him to move the spittoon away from him, the comedian pulls out – you guessed it – a gun. (Then again, as I remember the show, the only way to watch “Make Room for Granddaddy” was at gunpoint.)

“The Comedians” is not just an amusing book that helps you pass the time – it’s (and I know it’s an overused word) a classic that will be the go-to reference on the subject for many years to come.

If you’re interested in this subject, you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t buy it.

And that’s no joke.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Back in the blog saddle again

Yes, I'm still here.

I've been busy with a number of things -- including hernia surgery, which was my first operation since I was a kid and had my tonsils out. I can't remember what I was doing last Wednesday, but I somehow remember that tonsillectomy and my fifty-year-old hospital stay quite vividly. But I think I'll save the details for another post.

I also have more free time because I'm now semiretired. One major reason my blog posts have fallen off over the last three years is that I was offered a full-time job by one of my freelance clients. Having taken a buyout from my previous job, I wasn't expecting that. (It's not every day, especially these days, that a fifty-something person is actually recruited by a company.)

My job was with an ad agency, the Pinckney Hugo Group. They're great people, and I might still work on some projects for them from time to time. And if you're interested (and I hope you are), the company is now in my blogroll, and if you visit their very well-designed website, I think you can still find a charming video about the company that includes a cameo appearance by yours truly.

Anyway, I hope to see you folks more often. Thanks for your patience.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Corpse in a folding chair

According to NPR, two plays have dominated the world of high school theater for the last 76 years: “You Can’t Take It With You” by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart – and “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder.

Aside from proving that hard-hitting investigative reporting is still alive and well (I’m awaiting their forthcoming expose disclosing that cats meow when they want something, though we’ll never know exactly what because the feline critters refuse to acknowledge the existence of the Freedom of Information Act), NPR’s finding brings back bittersweet memories of my senior year in high school.

In case you’ve managed to make your way in the world without seeing it in some form, “Our Town” is about the town of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire, and its inhabitants, including young George Gibbs and Emily Webb, who during the course of the play get married.

The play is narrated by a character called the Stage Manager.

The last act takes place in a cemetery. Emily has died, and she sits among other Grover’s Corners inhabitants who have shuffled off their respective mortal coils and are now sitting on stage, like Emily, in folding chairs.

During the act, Emily is permitted to return to Earth to relive one day: her 12th birthday. For Emily, this turns out to be one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time, but considering that “the time” was eternity, and considering that she had found herself among as dull a bunch of stick-in-the-grounds as you could ever hope not to meet, I wouldn’t be all that hard on the kid.

And by now I’m sure you’re wondering what my role in all this was. Was I the dashing, handsome George Gibbs? (OK, I admit I knew all along that you weren’t anywhere near wondering that.)

Or maybe the Stage Manager – but surely casting me as that gasbag would be casting against type, right?

I said, right?

OK, OK, I’ll end the suspense – unbate your collective breath as I inform you that I was a corpse in a folding chair – a farmer, to be exact.

Although I appeared as an extra at the end of Act Two – a guest at George and Emily’s wedding – I had nothing to do until the third act, when I declaimed lines like “Aya, right smart farm!” in a New England accent that was so disgracefully shoddy that after the final curtain call, Jessica Fletcher herself ascended the stage and personally horsewhipped me.

While the other two acts were being rehearsed, I’d chat with my classmates – though not too loud, lest you cause the director, Mrs. Jensen (yes, this was 1972 and she was still calling herself “Mrs.”) to blow her whistle at you.

Perhaps my most pleasant memory is playing cards with a couple of girls named Barb and Kris. Barb was a very attractive cheerleader who seemed to have no trace of vanity and was convinced I was a laugh riot. Kris wasn’t a cheerleader but was also good-looking and at least twice as smart as I was. She and I and another classmate appeared together on a local quiz show.

I think the three of us mostly played pitch, which I was pretty good at, but they also tried to teach me poker, which I still can’t play because I can never remember all those combinations of hands, and I’m sure that if you asked me to chew gum while trying to remember them, well, let’s just say the result wouldn’t be pretty.

But all in all, I guess I had a good time doing this play.

But would I, like Emily, like to relive it?

Part of me says yes.

But another part of me remembers two of the cemetery’s other inhabitants – Debbie, who played the gabby Mrs. Soames, and Louie, who played Wally Webb, Emily’s brother.

If I were to do that last act again, along with the same cast, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to do it without thinking of the Sunday night, years in the future, when I’d be at my newspaper job, going over the obits, and finding Louie’s name.

Or the Memorial Day weekend when, while checking over the first edition for errors, I found Debbie’s picture on the obit page. I hadn’t known she was sick; I later learned that illness struck her not long after two of her nephews were struck by some jerk who decided that it would be a great idea to drive into a crowd of people on purpose. One nephew was killed; the other suffered a permanent disability.

Other classmates have also gone – including Barb, whom I never saw again after graduation, though I always wanted to thank her for her kindness toward me.

So perhaps the emotional overload of reliving the whole experience might prove to be too much.

Best to draw a curtain over the past.

Aya, right smart move.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Newsroom memories: Dick Beaudet

It’s about 7:30 on a Thursday night in early autumn, and I’m sitting at a manual typewriter in the newsroom of one of the two newspapers in my town – both newspapers, owned by the same company, are in the same building.

I am 17 years old.

I’m there because I received a letter from the newspaper company, which invited me to join a group the company was forming for high school kids who had shown an interest in journalism. (I had checked off “writing, journalism” as a career interest on a survey that was passed out in school. “Best-selling novelist” somehow wasn’t on the list.)

The program is sponsored by a division of the Boy Scouts of America, though it’s open to both genders and no one has to wear a uniform or (especially lucky for me and society at large) try to start a fire. The idea is for this group to meet every two weeks at the newspaper building to get a taste of newspaper work; there’s supposed to be more to the program than that, including a field trip to the local forestry school.

I liked the idea of joining the program, and when I tried to sell the idea to my parents, it seemed to be a ridiculously easy sell. Only years later will I realize that they jumped at this opportunity on the chance that it might eventually result in a job for their nerdy and phenomenally uncoordinated bookworm of a kid.

On this Thursday night, I’m sitting in the newsroom with a lot of other people my age. We’d already officially joined a couple of weeks before, and this is the second meeting. And while we’re upstairs in the newsroom, our parents are downstairs, watching someone from the Boy Scouts present some kind of charter to the newspapers’ PR guy.

And as we would-be journalists sit at our typewriters, a real-life news guy named Dick Beaudet is talking to us, doing his best imitation (intentional or not) of Perry “Don’t Call Me Chief!” White, Clark Kent’s boss. (A few years later, I will learn that Dick’s subordinates call him “Chiefie” and he apparently doesn’t mind.)

Dick’s spiel goes something like this:

“All right -- you people are going to write a story tonight. Only you won’t have to go out and get the facts, because I’m going to give them to you now! And whoever writes the best story will get it published in tomorrow night’s paper!”

He then proceeds to give us the who, what, where, when and why about the charter ceremony taking place downstairs. Then he tells us to get to work.

I’ve never written a news story in my life, but I’ve read a lot of them. Having somehow learned to read at a very early age, I’ve long been fond of newspapers and as a tot was known to grab the evening paper before my grandmother could get to it.

Matter of fact, I used to look at the ads and ask my mom things like, “What’s a J-A-C-U-Z-Z-I?” My aunt once told me that I was doing this during one of her visits, and my grandmother warned my mother that I might someday ask, “What’s M-O-D-E-S-S?”

“Oh, he already asked that,” my mother said.

“WHAT? Well, what did you say?”

“I said, ‘Oh, those are supplies, dear.’ That satisfied him.”

Which explains why, when it came to intrepid investigative reporting, Woodward and Bernstein never had anything to fear from me.

But as I sit at the typewriter on that Thursday night, I don’t seem to have a really hard time putting the words on paper. I’ve never heard the term “inverted pyramid,” but I somehow know that when you write a basic news story, the important stuff is supposed to go at the top, followed by the rest in descending order of urgency.

So I hand in my six paragraphs (or was it five?), eventually rejoin my parents and go home.

When Friday night’s paper arrives, there it is at the top of the front page of the second section, stripped across five columns, above a big ad.

My story.

It’s not exactly as I wrote it; I think one or two words have been changed (and for good reason), and five or six paragraphs of background copy have been added, but it’s my story, and the stuff I wrote basically got in the paper the way I wrote it.

And for the first time I see these words in print:

By Mark Murphy.

I am sure of very few things in this life, but I do know this: Any writer who claims not to remember his or her first byline – and the accompanying thrill – is lying through his or her cursor.

I’d like to say that as the weeks go by, the newspaper program fulfills all its big promises, but that’s not the case. The main reason seems to be that the person nominally in charge, who is Beaudet’s boss, has dumped everything on Beaudet, who on Thursday nights has enough trouble trying to put together the advance pages for Sunday. Years later I will learn that Beaudet getting dumped on by his boss is an occurrence as rare as the setting of the sun.

The group, which had maybe 70 kids at first, dwindles as it becomes clear that the program isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and they get bored. One member, who seems a bit old for a high schooler – and smokes cigars, to boot – storms out one night after Beaudet gently (for Beaudet) informs him that no, the group is not going to be publishing a literary journal.

I never get another byline as a member of this group, though one night Beaudet hands me a press release from a state senator and asks me to turn it into a story.

A few weeks after I hand it in, he comes up to me.

“You Mark Murphy?” he growls in full Perry White mode.

I tell him that I am, and he hurls a tearsheet at me and walks away.

It’s the rewritten press release, cut out of the paper – published pretty much as I wrote it, though with no byline.

The program ends shortly before my senior year ends. I go to college and afterward am lucky enough to get a job on the copy desk of the morning paper. Beaudet is still working nights for the evening paper. Sometimes I have to talk to him for professional reasons. He never mentions that I was a member of his group, and he treats me as a fellow pro, a fact that still makes me proud.

Many years later, he retires, neither of us ever having brought up my membership in the high schoolers’ group.

I send him a card congratulating him on his retirement and finally thanking him for his gruff kindness during my high school days.

Not long after, he comes up to me at a company clambake and thanks me for the card, saying it meant a lot to him.

We don’t talk long – he’s no longer gruff, but he’s a long way from touchy-feely, and I’m fine with that, and for once I’m proud of myself for sending the card.

That’s the last time we ever talk; not too long after that, he is gone.

As I write this, I’m sure I am a lot older than Dick was when he was bellowing at us high schoolers and trying to get the Sunday advance pages out while grumbling not too quietly – and not particularly caring who heard him grumbling – about his boss.

And during the express train ride from my teens to my 60s, I suppose I’ve tried to follow Dick’s example, mentoring other copy editors and interns. For long before the phrase “Pay it forward” became popular, Dick, whether he meant to or not, somehow taught me to do just that.

But even if I could “pay it forward” into the next millennium, I could never fully repay what I owe to Dick Beaudet.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

From the Department of No Good Deed, etc.

I recently bought an item from an Amazon seller. It came on time, and it was what I wanted. Today I received an email from Amazon asking me to rate the seller. I clicked on a link and gave the seller an excellent review -- meaning that I checked "Yes" under "Item arrived by July 14, 2015?" and "Item as described by the seller?"

Then, ignoring a box in which I could comment further, I hit "Submit," but that wasn't good enough. I was told that my comment "is too short. Please elaborate on your transaction experience," which in olden times we used to call a "purchase." So I wrote that I bought the thing, it came on time and it was what I wanted.

Hope that's elaborate enough....

Literary note: Kafka's 'Metamorphosis' turns 100

Memo to Gregor Samsa:

Yo, Gregor -- here it is 100 years (the 21st century, even!) and you STILL haven't posted your disgusting puss on Instagram?! Get with the program, man! If archy the cockroach could handle a manual typewriter, you oughta be able to manage a selfie stick!

P.S. I myself once had an idea for a delicious breakfast treat, called Kafkakake. Only problem: No matter how much of it you ate, you could never finish it -- there was always some left.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The best TV ad you'll probably never see

First, a warning – a caveat lector, if you will:

I am about to describe something that I saw at least 45 years ago, so there’s a good chance – a 110 percent chance, I would say – that I won’t get all the details right.

Understood? Then here goes…..

We fade in on a typical living room – typical for the 1960s or early 1970s, that is.

Dad is in his easy chair, reading the paper.

Mom is on the couch, possibly knitting.

Just another quiet night at home.

Until the door opens and their teenage daughter walks in.

She is dressed for a date, but she is in tears.

Both parents, alarmed, go to her.

“What’s wrong, dear?”

The girl can barely get the words out.

“It’s Herbert … he says … he says … we need THIS!”

And she holds out the sponsor’s product – a deodorant! Or maybe it’s a deodorant soap. Whatever.

Mom bursts into tears, but Dad’s Irish is up as he looks out the window.

“Is he still out there? I’ll tell him a thing or two!” And he storms out, determined to settle Herbert’s hash.

Quick dissolve to shot of sponsor’s product, which the announcer quickly but smoothly describes in glowing terms.

Then back to the living room, where Mom and the girl, just barely able to hold themselves together, are looking at the door.

Dad walks in, defeated and on the verge of tears, and looks at Mom.

“You know, Edna,” he says, “the boy makes a lot of sense!”

Then he completely loses it while still managing to say, once again, “The boy makes a lot of sense!”

Of course by this time Mom and the daughter have lost it again, and the three of them embrace, tearfully resigned to their fate as social pariahs.

Then a quick shot of the product, a few quick closing words from the announcer, and we’re done.

This may be the funniest TV commercial I’ve ever seen, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

It manages to kid the product by exaggerating the trauma of body odor, and it does it quickly and efficiently – while still praising the product.

It gets the job done so efficiently that you only later stop to wonder why, after unceremoniously dumping his date, Herbert is still parked outside.

You could argue that he is checking his messages, but this was years before the Internet. Of course you also could argue that Herbert is a really brilliant kid (though falling a little short in the tact department) and that he has already invented his own Internet and email system, which of course leaves open the question of who would be sending him messages.

But as Alfred Hitchcock would say when someone questioned the logic of a plot point in one of his movies, “Who cares? You believed it as you were watching it, right? And that’s all that matters.” (OK, those weren’t his exact words, but you get my point – and his.)

I wish I could send you a link to this commercial, but it doesn’t appear to be anywhere on the Internet. I tried to find it on YouTube, but after several attempts to dig it out, I quit.

I freely admit that I might not have dug deeply enough. What we really need these days is an Internet equivalent of Lloyd Bridges.

(To my younger readers: Lloyd Bridges was the star of a show called “Sea Hunt,” in which he played a scuba diver named Mike Nelson – the guy on Mystery Science Theater was named for him – who every week would go searching for sunken treasure, sunken satellites, sunken corned beef sandwiches, whatever. And it seemed that every week, some bad guy would confront him underwater and try to cut off his air hose. Mr. Bridges, now deceased, was the father of Beau and Jeff Bridges. I’m sure that Beau and Jeff learned a lot about acting from watching Lloyd. I’ll bet they also, unlike Dad, figured out that they should never go underwater without a full supply of air and a finely whetted meat cleaver.)

Another point about this ad, which may not come as a surprise if you know a little about the history of advertising (I know a teensy-weensy bit):

You probably noticed that in describing the commercial, I never mentioned the name of the product.

This is because I don’t know the name of the product – or, as I said before, whether it was a deodorant or deodorant soap.

And this is a problem that some TV advertisers of that time ran into.

This was the era of funny commercials – ads that won a lot of awards. These were ads that the public liked and remembered.

So that if you asked Jane or John Q. Public if they’d seen that funny deodorant ad, they would probably say, “Oh, yes! Isn’t it a scream?”

But if you asked them what product it was pushing, they would go into full-blown Ralph Kramden “homina homina homina” mode.

This did not please sponsors, so funny commercials were out of favor for a while.

Luckily you can still see quite a few of the ones from this era on YouTube, including some of the Alka Seltzer ads that remain classics.

An actor named Jack Somack never, as far as I know, never won an Oscar, Tony or Grammy, but he was assured of immortality after this ad, which, 46 years later, still makes me laugh.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Winters of our discomposure

I know I told you last time that my next post would be about one of the funniest TV commercials I’ve ever seen, but while I was doing the research for that piece, I was sidetracked.

By a woman from my past.

How to explain her?

Maybe I should start with the Jessica Fletcher Syndrome – the idea that anyone who befriends Jessica Fletcher, or is befriended by her, will be wrongly accused of murder. Which means that it’s a very good idea to steer clear of Ms. Fletcher, lest you inevitably find yourself booked and printed in a capital case that, with your luck, would probably turn out to be the only one Jessica couldn’t crack.

The 1960s equivalent of Jessica Fletcher was a woman named Katy Winters.

Katy was neither a mystery novelist nor an amateur sleuth. And instead of a series with hour-long episodes, Katy was on for only a minute – sometimes only 30 seconds – during other people’s shows.

Still, Katy was a woman to avoid – even more so than Jessica. For while a friendship or even the merest acquaintanceship with Jessica might start you on the not-so-primrose path to death row, getting anywhere near Katy could lead to an infinitely worse disaster: being exposed on national television as someone who smells as if you just stepped ashore after a two-year tour of duty on a garbage scow.

Because, as you’ve probably figured out, Katy Winters peddled deodorant – Secret, to be exact.

All of Katy’s commercials had the same plot: Someone she knows is facing some sort of minor crisis that is stressful enough without the added fear of smelling like something the cat dragged in with one paw while holding its nose with the other.

The ad agency showed great creativity in devising variations of this plot: A couple is about to open a new restaurant; another couple is about to enter a costume contest as both ends of a horse; someone else (played by Maggie Peterson, who was Charlene Darling on “The Andy Griffith Show”) is about to take her road test.

Never fear: Katy always had some Secret handy to save the day. She probably loaded her pockets with the stuff -- both roll-on and aerosol – before she left the house each day. If the EPA had been around then, she would probably have been arrested as a one-woman ozone layer assassination squad.

A dip into that Sargasso Sea known as the Internet indicates that Katy was portrayed by Ann (or maybe Anne) Starr Roberts, who doesn’t seem to have any other credits. If anyone knows what happened to her – or if she herself is still around – please feel free to write in.

The Katy Winters ads ran for quite some time, and you knew she had become an Official Cultural Phenomenon when Johnny Carson began making jokes about her.

I was a kid when the ads ran in the 1960s, and I remembered her as being an annoying, middle-aged busybody.

But when you’re a 12-year-old, anyone above 20 is middle-aged if not out-and-out decrepit, and when I looked at a few of her ads on YouTube yesterday, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, far from being over the hill, Katy was relatively young – and more than relatively cute.

If I had been a few years older, and if Katy had ever given me a come-hither look (I mostly get stay-yonder looks), I suspect I would have come running – after first emptying my 401K or robbing a bank, or both, so as to have enough money to send her to a first-rate psychiatrist who could rid her of her perspiration complex.

Ah well. So much for what might have been. Next time I promise I will write about that other ad – cross my heart and hope not to offend.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Two not-so-great moments in advertising

One day, possibly in the late 1960s, I heard a catchy tune coming from my brother Michael’s bedroom.

My brother liked, among others, The Doors, the Rolling Stones and Joe Cocker.

But this tune wasn’t from any of them. It had a marchlike beat and arrangement (“Sweet cream ladies, forward march…”), like a faux Salvation Army anthem, and I liked it.

When I expressed interest in the song, Michael told me it was called “Sweet Cream Ladies” (surprise!) and was sung by the Box Tops.

He also told me that the song was about prostitutes.


Um, OK.

Then again, if I’d listened more closely to the lyrics, maybe little old naïve me would have figured this out from lyrics like “Let them satisfy the ego of the male / Let them fabricate success to those who fail.”

So imagine my surprise when, some time later, while watching some prime-time network TV, I came upon a new commercial from a food company. The product was some kind of whipped cream – Cool Whip, Dream Whip, Dreamy Cool Whip, whatever – and as I recall (I have to rely on memory because you won’t find this ad on YouTube, and you’ll soon realize why), it featured a montage of smiling Stepfordian wives strutting from their kitchens to their dining rooms while carrying a bowl of the sponsor’s ambrosia.

The lyrics (so help me, Don Draper) began: “Cream pie ladies, forward march….” And yep, that same tune – same arrangement, even.

It was comforting to know that someone on Madison Avenue was at least as naïve as I was.

And I suspect that all the Box Tops had to buy new sneakers because when they ran to the bank in record time to cash their checks before the food company got wise, the friction from the pavement annihilated their Adidases.

I’m sure that someone did tip off the company -- after I saw the ad maybe one more time a week or two later, it disappeared forever.

I would love to have been a fly on the conference room wall during the next agency-client meeting.

Then again, perhaps there was no such meeting. Perhaps the president of the food company merely sneaked into the ad agency president’s home late one evening, walked into the agency chief’s bedroom, placed a $20 bill on the dresser and skulked out.

Surely that would have gotten the food company’s message across. And surely any shame and dread the agency president felt about becoming the laughingstock of the entire industry would have been at least partially offset by relief at the thought that there was now no need to go through the hassle of reserving a conference room.

And I also wonder whether the ad might have so impressed the denizens of the local “sporting house” that they figured that maybe they, too, should advertise, or at least set up some exploratory meetings with the agency.

If those meetings ever took place, I would love to see the expense sheets – you never know just how creative a creative director can be.

The other ad I referred to in the headline involved a brand of dishwashing liquid.

Actually it was one of a number of ads from the same campaign, each of them conveying the same message.

Each ad featured identical twins. And this being the 1960s, you won’t be surprised to learn that the twins were female, young and attractive, but in a homespun way – the type of young woman that Ricky and David Nelson would have been proud to take home to Harriet.

The point of each ad was that the twins – in this particular ad, let’s call them Jan and Jane – looked so much alike that you couldn’t tell them apart.

Unless – and it was a big, 72-point Unless – you looked at their hands.

Because Jan, who used the sponsor’s product, had a perfect pair of hands, each of them a thing of beauty and a joy forever, or at least for the next minute of air time.

But Jane? Tsk tsk tsk. Her hands were raw, rough, not good looking at all. I won’t go into the details – for all I know, you might be reading this during dinner – but let’s just say that Jane’s hands were supposedly in such bad shape that you were sure – you just knew – that the local health officials were only moments away from breaking down the door and placing a bell around her neck.

And of course I don’t have to tell you that Jane used – gasp – a competitor’s dishwashing liquid.

All of which prompts (NOT begs) a few questions:

Why would the same household have TWO brands of dishwashing liquid?

Or was Jane a masochist who wanted her hands to look bad? Was it her way of distancing herself from people? Was she so afraid of reaching out to people that she sabotaged herself to keep anyone else from hurting her?

The commercial never even began to probe these questions – you can do only so much in a minute, especially when you have so much soap to peddle.

But my main reason for mentioning the ad is the way it began:

A two-shot of Jan and Jane.

“Hi, I’m Jan.”

“And I’m Jane.”

Then, the two of them together:


Swear to God, that’s what they said. I was only maybe 15 years old – not exactly an idiot, but neither was I what Jimmy Durante would call “duh toast of the intellectuals” – but even I knew how ridiculous and unintentionally funny this phrasing was, as if 60 seconds of sexism weren’t bad enough.

Next time, to be fair, I’ll tell you about an old commercial that’s one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever seen but which, alas, is also apparently not on YouTube.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Methinks someone is overthinking something

From the "Ask the Editor" section of the online version of the AP Stylebook:

"Which is it: to-do list, to do list or todo list? Using a hyphen would seem to confuse the meaning of 'something yet to be done' with 'a bustle, a stir, a fuss.'"

Friday, June 26, 2015

Farewell to an ever-faithful Steed

“An old enemy lures Emma to a deserted house for a deadly game of cards.”

That’s how the Internet Movie Database describes the setup for “The Joker,” my favorite episode of “The Avengers.”

And for our purposes, that’s pretty much all you need to know.

Except, maybe, that the enemy is deadly, crazy and, in an odd way, pathetic.

And very weird.

Emma Peel figures this out pretty quickly when, while alone in the house, and not having seen her host, she finds a picture of herself cut up. And someone is playing an old phonograph record of a German song that is sweet and haunting – think “Lili Marlene” – yet somehow threatening.

I admit that when I watch the episode these days on YouTube I mainly watch the last few minutes, which epitomize the show and the relationship between Emma Peel and John Steed. (And you might successfully argue that this relationship was the show.)

The villain has revealed himself, and he comes after Emma as an organ on the sound track frantically covers the action. Emma can usually take care of herself very well, thank you, but this time the bad guy gets the upper hand, and the hand is holding a knife, and he has every intention of doing to her what he’s done to her picture when….

From out of nowhere, that song starts playing again; someone – who? – has turned on the phonograph.

The bad guy gets up and then sees, coming toward him, a giant playing card that, as it approaches, is swaying in rhythm to the eerie song. I’m still not sure whether the giant card hits the villain or if he just faints, but it doesn’t matter – he is disposed of.

Emma, now armed, points her gun warily at the giant card.

Then the card falls to the floor and the gentleman who was behind the card looks down at the villain.

“Oh dear,” says the dapper gent in the bowler hat. “I hope I didn’t frighten him.”

“Steed!” Emma says, her voice and face showing her relief – and great affection.

If anyone who wasn’t around in the 1960s and has read the tributes to the late Patrick Macnee and “The Avengers” ever asks you what all the fuss was about, just show those last few minutes of “The Joker.”

It’s almost amazing that “The Avengers” caught on in the U.S. It’s everything that most American TV shows of that era weren’t – subtle, classy, made for viewers who, it was assumed, were smart enough to get the humor.

You might have noticed that I said it was “almost” amazing that it played well here. I think the main reason it did was the chemistry between John Steed and the character that he almost always called “Mrs. Peel.”

Or, if you want to put it another way (and I sure won’t argue with you), it was the chemistry between Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg.

I suppose there are still fans today who debate the all-important issue of “Did they or didn’t they?” I like to think they didn’t; I like to think that Steed was too much a gentleman to do more than playfully flirt with a woman who, as far as everyone knew, was still married, even if her husband was missing somewhere.

And in Rigg’s last episode, he did turn up, and that was the only time that Steed, saying his final goodbye to her, called her “Emma.” Whereupon he watched from an upstairs window as she got into a car that was occupied by her husband – whom we couldn’t really see, though he was wearing (you guessed it) a bowler hat.

Aside from the sterling work of Macnee and Rigg, I think two other key reasons for show’s success were the scripts by Brian Clemens (he seemed to write most of the episodes) and the music of Laurie Johnson. The two of them also collaborated on that eerie German song.

One thing that I have found truly amazing about “The Avengers” is how the show developed. I read many years ago that in the original version, not shown in the U.S. in the 1960s, Steed was a guy who helped a doctor avenge the death of his fiancée. After that was accomplished, the doc disappeared from the show (an extended house call, I assume) and Steed, who in those days dressed more casually, went on to fight crime with a series of partners before settling on Cathy Gale, played by Honor Blackman of “Goldfinger” fame.

I always figured these episodes would be great to see. I mean, John Steed and James Bond’s Pussy Galore? How could they miss?

It turns out that they could and they did – by several country kilometres.

Because some years ago, A&E announced it would be running the original Avengers episodes, and I eagerly awaited them.

Boy, was I disappointed.

I don’t mean that the show was awful -- it’s just that, well, it wasn’t “The Avengers.” It was typical hardboiled stuff that wasn’t helped by being shot on videotape, which meant that, given the technology of the times, you wound up with a lot more indoor scenes compared with the later, more expansive version. I couldn’t fault Macnee and Blackman, but I couldn’t get excited about their characters, either.

I don’t know what led the producers to totally make over the show, but they somehow took a run-of-the-mill thriller and turned it into something that’s at least pretty near a classic.

I suspect that most of the credit goes to Brian Clemens, who had written episodes of the original version. Maybe he saw the show’s special potential, and Macnee and Rigg were only too happy (or just needed money enough) to go along with it.

By all accounts, Macnee was as classy as his most famous character.

And I suspect he was the main reason that I was allowed to watch “The Avengers.”

Because I don’t think my mother liked Emma Peel very much. But I do think she had a little crush on Steed.

And though I’m saddened to hear about Macnee, I’m glad that for at least a few days, any young people who do a Google search for “The Avengers” might learn that marvels don’t always start with Marvel.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Always a father, but not quite a dad

The death of Dick Van Patten reminded me of an episode of “To Tell the Truth” that I saw in the early 1980s.

This was a later episode of what aficionados call “TTTT” – years after Bud Collyer and Garry Moore hosted the show. The host for this episode was a guy named Robin Ward, whom I had never heard of and don’t think I’ve seen since.

This episode included a segment featuring Tom Braden, the journalist who wrote the book on which “Eight Is Enough” was based and whom Van Patten played on TV, though the name was changed to Tom Bradford.

Braden later became the co-host of CNN’s “Crossfire,” where he sparred with Patrick Buchanan every night.

I wonder whether Braden would have been offered the job if he hadn’t been famous for “Eight Is Enough.” I say this because although I’m sure he was a capable journalist, he had all the TV charisma of a baked potato that had been left in the rain for two days. He always seemed tired and sometimes dyspeptic, like a guy who gets up in the middle of the night and wishes he hadn’t had that fourth burrito.

But Braden wasn’t the only TV host of that era who always seemed tired. Around the time that Braden was glumly holding forth on “Crossfire,” Charlie Rose was burning the 2 a.m. oil as host of “CBS News Nightwatch,” which I often watched after getting home from my late shift at the newspaper.

Rose had good guests and was an excellent interviewer. But his eyes always seemed droopy, to the point where I was sure that he wasn’t the real host of “Nightwatch” – the real host, I figured, was some guy who never showed up for work because he was sozzled or otherwise indisposed, and every night a production assistant with a key to Rose’s home would rush into Rose’s bedroom and jostle him: “Charlie1 You gotta do the show! The dirty so-and-so stiffed us again!”

And every night, after he signed off the show and the floor manager gave him the “all clear,” Charlie would collapse on the floor, and when it came time to do CBS’ morning show, folks such as Bill Kurtis, Diane Sawyer and Charles Osgood would considerately tiptoe around him until he finally woke up and quietly went home.

I can’t recall whether Tom Braden seemed sleepy on “To Tell the Truth” because the main thing I remember about that segment was one of the impostors – No. 3, to be exact.

No. 3 looked awfully familiar. I was sure I recognized him. But no, it can’t be, I told myself, but the resemblance is way too uncanny….

Finally the real Tom Braden, asked to “please stand up,” did so, and it was time to meet the fakers.

And it turned out that No. 3, one of the two guys pretending to be the father of eight kids, was indeed the guy I thought he was.

He was a former president of my alma mater.

And a Jesuit priest.

Translation: It would make a bomb squad weep

On Facebook this week, a friend and former colleague reported that she was awaiting the delivery of an item that, according to its description, "Ships in Certified Frustration-Free Packaging."

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Obviously a mistake -- it only felt like 104 years

Julie M. Mah, a sharp-eyed copy editor for The Wichita Eagle, was editing an AP story about the death of "Eight Is Enough" star Dick Van Patten when she came to this sentence:

"The ABC comedy-drama aired from 1877-1981."

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Yo, Hayley: Let's get together and compare gray hairs

Today marks the 54th anniversary of the release of the original version of “The Parent Trap,” starring Hayley Mills.

I found this out a few hours ago and would have written about it sooner if I had been able to do so, but you might say that I was indisposed. You might also say that the next time I go through my medicine cabinet I should make sure that the expiration date on my bottle of smelling salts is reasonably well within the current century.

As you might have gathered by now, the 1961 version of “The Parent Trap” has a special significance for me. For it marks the first time that I fell in love – or whatever passes for love when you’re 6 going on 7.

For quite some time I was fascinated by Hayley Mills, and I’m not ashamed to own up to that. And I hasten to point out that I wasn’t an obsessive fan – I didn’t keep a scrapbook, cut out pictures of her, or anything borderline creepy.

Then again, I did put my life on the line for dear Hayley. There was a song from the movie, “Let’s Get Together,” sung by the two identical Hayleys, and yes, I had the record, and yes, I played it a lot. Probably too much. More than probably too much.

Nowadays, despite my erstwhile affection for Hayley, I doubt I could stand to listen to more than a couple of bars of the thing. And when I say that I put my life on the line, I mean that no jury in the world would have jailed my parents for breaking the record – and the record player – over my silly little head. (And if a migraine-inducing arrangement isn't a mitigating factor, what is?)

Not that I blame Hayley for any of this. She was merely a marketing tool. And over the years I have retained a fond memory of her, even though we have both moved on. (Well, at least I have. I can’t speak for her. Well OK, in this case I probably can.)

And no, I have never seen, nor do I ever intend to see, the Lindsay Lohan version.

Monday, June 8, 2015

Who's the plaintiff.... What's the defendant....

Two guys enter the stage from opposite sides. One of them is carrying a suitcase.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking my case to court!”

Later, the same two guys again enter the stage, again from opposite ends. The guy who was carrying the suitcase is now carrying a ladder.

“Where are you going now?”

“I’m taking my case to a higher court!”

I was reminded of this old routine when I read the other day that the heirs of Abbott and Costello have filed a lawsuit against the producers of a Broadway play because it includes part of Bud and Lou’s most famous routine, Who’s on First? The play, “Hand to God,” was nominated for five Tonys.

I like Abbott and Costello in short doses. If I do sit through one of their features, I mainly bide my time until I come to the parts where they do a classic routine. (If you look at most of their Universal features, you’ll usually find John Grant's name among the writing credits; he had an encyclopedic memory for burlesque and vaudeville routines, and it was his job to work them into the scripts.)

Bud and Lou deserve a lot of credit for preserving these old routines, both in their movies but especially in their TV show – The Lemon Table, Pack and Unpack, The Mustard Routine, Niagara Falls and, last but certainly not least, Flugel Street – in addition to Who’s on First?

Thing is, from what I’ve read and heard over the years, these routines didn’t begin with Bud and Lou. The two of them reportedly weren’t even the first to do “Who’s on First?”

“The lawsuit is baseless; the material in question is in the public domain, and the show’s producer carefully vetted” it with the show’s lawyers, a spokesman for the production told The New York Times.

I’m no lawyer, let alone a copyright lawyer, but I do know that it’s possible for material that was in the public domain to be copyrighted again – I’m particularly thinking of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which for years was out of copyright and mainly available in crappy VHS and DVD versions that had been duped so often that when you watched them on TV you could almost see right through them to the back of your TV, your living-room wall and the house next door.

So I suppose it’s possible that the heirs could have had “Who’s on First?” copyrighted.

And I don’t mean to seem unsympathetic to the Abbott and Costello estates. I’ve often thought that when Abbott, in his later years, ran into serious tax troubles, the government should have given him a break, considering that during World War II, Bud and Lou raised millions (as much as $85 million, some sources say) for the war effort.

But as far as the current lawsuit is concerned, I can’t help thinking that their descendants may well be out of luck.

Or as Chief Brody from “Jaws” might tell them:

“You’re gonna need a bigger ladder!”

Friday, June 5, 2015

Betsy Palmer

Part of me is annoyed that many people probably remember her only as the killer in the “Friday the 13th” movie.

Then again, I suppose that if it weren’t for that slasher film, the same people wouldn’t know of her at all.

And like so many of her contemporaries, she deserves to be remembered.

I am of that generation that mainly thinks of her as one of the four panelists on “I’ve Got a Secret,” the others being Bill Cullen, Henry Morgan and Bess Myerson. And Ms. Myerson herself died last year. (I sadly remember editing many stories about her during my time on the wire desk during the 1980s. She was embroiled – as journalists like to say – in a scandal in New York City that was called “The Bess Mess.” Memo to celebs: If you want to avoid being ensnarled in a catchy phrase like “The Bess Mess,” get yourself embroiled in some other community that is far, far from Manhattan’s creative scribes – another word journalists like to use.)

I should add that before I started watching the show, the original panelists included Jayne Meadows and Faye Emerson. I’ve seen kinescopes of some of those shows, though, and Ms. Emerson often annoys me for some reason. Maybe it’s because she sometimes seems to come across as a know-it-all who is at best a know-it-some.

And I remember how, during a visit to my hometown many moons ago, Ms. Emerson very much annoyed the manager of the local summer playhouse when she insisted that he turn off the air-conditioning system during her play. To the surprise of absolutely no one who knew this producer (who many years later got away with not paying for a tetanus shot after my sister, working as an unpaid apprentice, stepped on a nail) easily prevailed.

I should also note the recent passing of Ms. Meadows, whom I did find to be charming, savvy and intelligent, even if she did sometimes seem overly appreciative of whatever her husband, Steve Allen, happened to be saying or doing. (Can't help wondering if whoever performed their marriage ceremony concluded it by saying "I now pronounce you man and laugh track.")

Betsy Palmer had a telegenic sweetness that was perfect for television, and a friend of mine who interviewed her for his radio show says that what you saw was what she was.

Yet there was a certain, infrequent slyness about her on-air naivete. She would once in a while, and seemingly inadvertently, say something that was a little risqué, apparently not realizing exactly what she had said, but I think I knew what she was doing all the time, and because she didn’t do it often, and because she wasn’t annoying about this sort of thing (memo to Carol Channing and Charo: Yes, I do mean you), I was apt to look the other way.

A few days ago I watched a segment of “I’ve Got a Secret” that involved three women. As she was questioning them on live TV, Betsy Palmer’s zipper broke, and Cullen and Morgan rushed to her aid.

This could have happened to any woman on live TV.

But what made Betsy Palmer unique was that as this on-air embarrassment was playing itself out, she thought it necessary to apologize to the three women.

That shows a genuineness, and a class, that I fear we don’t find often these days, and not just on TV.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

As Letterman takes his leave

During the 1970s I sometimes watched a syndicated game show called “Liars Club.” It featured a panel of four celebrities who would be given an unusual object and asked to explain what it was. Then three contestants would have to decide which of the four was telling the truth.

One day I missed the beginning of the show, so I had no idea who one of the panelists was. The other three were familiar: Larry Hovis (formerly of “Hogan’s Heroes”), possibly Betty White (whose husband, Allen Ludden, was hosting) and someone else whom I can’t remember but certainly recognized at the time.

But the fourth panelist was a young guy I’d never seen before. But though I didn’t know him, I did know right off the bat that he was almost effortlessly hilarious.

I listened carefully so I could catch his name. Eventually someone (probably Ludden) said it:

David Letterman.

Some time later I saw this guy again. This time he was on Tom Snyder’s “Tomorrow” show along with two other people, one of whom was a young woman who seemed to agree that David Letterman was hilarious.

Merrill Markoe.

Of course I had no way of knowing that I was witnessing the start of a career that would prove to be almost as legendary as Johnny Carson’s. But if you had told me then that more than 30 years later David Letterman would be retiring at the top of his profession, I wouldn’t have stared at you in disbelief.

Because even back then, the guy had it.

Not too long after the “Tomorrow” appearance, Letterman, abetted by Markoe, hosted a live but short-lived daytime talk show on NBC. It aired in the late morning and included a brief newscast by Edwin Newman, who’d been doing a newscast during that time period for some time. Thing is, Newman’s newscast had followed one of the shows Letterman was replacing, and Newman had done it from a separate studio.

Now Newman was on stage with Letterman, and when Letterman introduced the newscast, the audience applauded -- something Newman wasn’t ready for (no one ever gave Walter Cronkite, the Most Trusted Man in America, an ovation), but he soldiered on with his customary deadpan grace.

I think I caught a number of Letterman’s morning shows – I worked nights and was usually up in the late morning – so I was able to witness the beginnings of the type of anti-conformist humor that Letterman would become more famous for at a later hour.

As much as I liked Letterman, I didn’t see his late-night shows often because I was usually working and didn’t care enough to tape him. But I knew he was there and knew that I could count on him to be funny if I happened to have a night off or get home early.

Of course, one problem with watching a performer’s career evolve over the years is that you evolve, too – or, to put it more plainly, you get older, too.

So that when Letterman, in response to critics who chide him for no longer doing the remote bits that he specialized in years ago, says he’s older and too tired, you almost identify with him. I suppose there are many people in their sixties who can say with no trace of a doubt that they could still do the things they did 30 years ago as well as they did them then.

I am not one of those people.

This doesn’t mean I’m willing to give Dave an unlimited pass. Having watched him more often during the last eight years now that I’m no longer in the newspaper business, I’ve been irritated by his habit of repeating (and maybe re-repeating) jokes from the night before or from several nights before. To be fair, I don’t think he’s done this lately, but I do know I could do without his penchant for making jokes that mean nothing to me at home but get whoops from the audience because they refer to someone whom Dave interacted with during the warm-up.

I won’t go so far as to say that Dave has ever phoned it in, but there have been times when his finger has hovered dangerously close to the keypad.

There’s been a lot of speculation as to whether Letterman will ever return to TV, or whether he’ll just disappear like his idol, Carson.

And it’s also been pointed out that Carson never intended to quit completely, but just never found anything else he wanted to do. (And in its own way, I think that doing nothing was, paradoxically, a brilliant career move for Carson. When I heard that he had died, one of my first thoughts was that it would no longer be possible to hope that someday, maybe, just maybe, he’d resurface somewhere, however briefly, and be just as funny. For although he had left us laughing, it was always hard for me to accept that Johnny Carson had really left.)

I’d like to think that Letterman will return in a format that suits both him and the audience – maybe something quick and easy once in a while. Something like Jerry Seinfeld’s “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.”

And as sorry as I am to see Letterman go, in a way I’m looking forward to his last show. For although he is a comedian, Letterman, like Carson, is fundamentally a broadcaster -- his powerful remarks after 9/11 prove that – and I’m sure he’ll go out with his idol’s same type of Midwestern style, with at least a few grace notes thrown in.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fun at the puzzle tournament

(SPOILER ALERT: If you are among the solvers who will be doing this year’s American Crossword Puzzle Tournament puzzles by mail, you shouldn’t read this now.)

I didn’t ask for the change of venue, but now that the proceedings are over, I have no plans to appeal.

I began competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in 2008, the first year it was held in Brooklyn. It had moved there from Stamford, Connecticut, where it had always been held, after a documentary about the event caused attendance to zoom so much that the event outgrew the hotel.

Last year, with attendance leveling off, tournament officials announced that the event would be moved back to Stamford. This meant that instead of a simple plane ride to JFK or LaGuardia and a cab to Brooklyn, I’d have to take a train to Manhattan, then catch a commuter train to Stamford.

But I was pleasantly surprised by how well things went. True, the Amtrak ride was a long one, but I didn’t have to go through all the fun stuff you have to do just to get to the gate – just get on, show your ticket to the conductor and settle back. Perhaps it helped that my maternal grandfather, whom I never met, was a railroad worker, and I remember my uncle telling me that he, my aunt and my mother had train passes until they were 21.

So the move back to Stamford was a good idea.

But you didn’t come hear to here about my travel travails, so on to the puzzles….

As always, the first puzzle on this Saturday is an easy warm-up: “Whom Not to Invite to the Party,” by Tracy Bennett. It has an asymmetrical grid, in the middle of which black spaces are arranged to form a frowning face.

I do well on this, though as in past years I maybe take a little too much time checking my answers as I work toward my eventual goal of beating my ranking from last year – 164, down from my best showing, 142.

Puzzle 2 is supposed to be the second most difficult, but I’m able to spot the theme right away. Joel Fagliano’s “Tearing the World Apart” splits the names of continents across several horizontal lines – so you find, for example, EURydice and antiPOPE. I seem to make fairly good time on this.

Continuing the geographical motif, Puzzle 3, by Merl Reagle, is “Our Expanding Cities.” Having done many of Reagle’s Sunday puzzles in my local paper, I’m ready for his brand of pleasingly outlandish wordplay, which includes this clue: “City that’s out of touch with the other cities in this puzzle?” Answer: DISCHENECTADY.

After the lunch break, I’m feeling pretty good, figuring I’ve nailed all three puzzles.

Then I make the mistake of asking the nice lady next to me to check my scores on her phone.

My score for Puzzle 2 is much lower than it should be.

The scans for Puzzle 2 are already online, and when she called mine up on her screen I see my error: For “River of central Germany” I have ODER instead of EDER. Because of this mistake, I miss out on more than 200 points.

So as I go into Puzzle 4, I have to work a bit to maintain my concentration and not let my ODER stink up any chances for improving my score. Fortunately, Paula Gamache’s “Odes” is fairly easy (“Ph.D. candidate’s ode?” TO A HIGHER DEGREE”), and I nail it.

Next comes the dreaded Puzzle 5, often referred to as “the bastard puzzle,” which is supposed to be the trickiest of the seven puzzles that everyone does. This year it is “Attention, Newbies!” by Jeff Chen.

Over the years I have decided that the way to handle Puzzle 5 is not to get too intimidated -- just fill in as many clues as you can and hope the theme will become clear. In this case, it takes quite a while, especially because during the first five minutes of this 30-minute puzzle I’m unable to make much of a dent in it.

But as usual in crossword land, persistence pays off, and I eventually get what’s going on: In the theme answers, one or two Bs have been added, so that the answer to “Rebounds” is not CAROMS but CAR BOMBS. (New Bs – get it?)

Maybe with 10 minutes more I might have nailed this puzzle, but as it stands I finished more of it than most of the contestants (as usual with Puzzle 5, few seemed to finish it).

Puzzle 6, the last puzzle of the day, is “Company Turnarounds” by Lynn Lempel, who does a lot of the easy Monday New York Times puzzles. (“Jewel to wear on Election Day?” TUESDAY RUBY.) I do a perfect job on this.

On Sunday morning, as I head downstairs to do Puzzle 7, my score is in the upper 150s, an improvement over last year, though not by much, though Puzzle 7 is the biggest one in terms of clues and is given the most time – 45 minutes. So if I can nail all the clues and finish well ahead of time, I have a very good chance at scoring mucho points.

On the elevator with me as I head down are several guys, one of whom is instantly familiar: Jason Keller, a former Jeopardy! champ, who is competing in the tournament. Over the years I’ve also seen a couple of other champs from the show competing. Monetarily, this seems odd; the tournament’s top prize is $5,000, which is chicken feed to any Jeopardy! champ who is good enough to make the show’s annual Tournament of Champions, as all three of these guys have done. The only thing I can figure is that to them, the crossword competition is just another Everest.

As I get ready for Puzzle 7, the seat next to me is taken by someone I’ve seen at most of the other tournaments: mystery writer Parnell Hall.

If you’ve never read any of his stuff, you should look him up. He writes mystery novels that are both cleverly plotted and funny. If you think that’s easy, try it sometime – chances are that you’ll decide to take up a less perilous pastime, like juggling chain saws.

One of Mr. Hall’s series stars a woman who is famous for making crossword puzzles -- – which are really constructed by her niece – and for solving murders. He and I have a chat about the mystery business, and like most of the mystery writers I’ve met since I began to sell some of my stuff, he’s very nice and treats me as a fellow professional, though I’m sure not yet at the point where I deserve that title.

Our conversation is so enjoyable that I almost forget I’m there to do a puzzle, in this case “I’d Sooner Spooner” by the often tricky Patrick Berry. I know I’m in my element, because I know that a spoonerism is a familiar phrase in which a couple of beginning letters have been switched, so that “Merchandise at an Indian grocery?” is CURRIES AND WARES (instead of Worries and Cares).

We have 45 minutes to do this big puzzle, and I’m finished with 26 minutes left on the clock, with the grid filled in perfectly.

The last puzzle, by Byron Walden, is done only by the finalists, a group that – surprise! – doesn’t include me. The big showdown involves (in alphabetical order) Howard Barkin, Dan Feyer and Tyler Hinman, and this finish is about as exciting as you can get, and you can see it here.

As for me, I finish in 154th place out of about 560 – an acceptable improvement over last year, but were it not for the ODER/EDER screw-up, I probably would have been 133rd.

But there’s always next year’s tournament, which begins on April Fools’ Day.

Sure hope that’s not an omen.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Across and down to Stamford

This weekend I'll be once again competing in the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament.

I began going to this competition seven years ago, when it was being held in Brooklyn.

This year the tournament is returning to Stamford, Conn., which is where it started in the 1970s.

As in past years, I'll be reporting on the tournament -- and on how I did.

So feel free to bate your respective breaths. (As for me, I'm nervous enough about switching trains in Manhattan....)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Ms. Sutkus, can you ever forgive me?

I learned to type while I was in high school, more than 40 years ago.

I learned to type on a manual typewriter, under the tutelage of a very nice – and very young and attractive – woman whom I will call Ms. Sutkus, which seems like a reasonably good idea, considering that her name really was Ms. Sutkus. (And yes, you smart-alecks out there, she did have an actual first name, but I’m going to honor her privacy and not reveal it – it’s the least I can do, considering what I have done to her.)

There were maybe 25 students in the class, and every day we would type exercises out of a book, usually to the tune of some classical music. I can’t remember what most of those tunes were, but there is one that I’ve always remembered, and on the rare occasion when I’ve heard it – I still don’t know the name or composer – I always think of that typing class, and Ms. Sutkus, and what I have done to her.

From the get-go I was quite good at typing, probably because I had taken piano lessons for five years, and my skills on a musical keyboard seemed to translate well to an Underwood or Smith-Corona or whatever we used in class.

So after I completed that yearlong class I felt that I was a fairly good typist, though not perfect, of course. Who is?

Several months after I finished my college years – during which I dutifully typed all my papers on the portable Smith-Corona my uncle gave our family (and which now sits a few feet away for me, kept for sentimental purposes) – I walked into the newsroom of my local newspaper, asked to be considered for an opening I’d heard about, and took an editing test.

After reviewing my test, the managing editor gave it back to me and told me to type it up on one of the newsroom typewriters.

An electric typewriter.

I had never before used an electric typewriter, but I wasn’t about to tell the M.E. that.

And in retrospect, I probably didn’t really have to tell him that.

He probably figured it out after it took me one hour to type the test, which was maybe three pages of double-spaced text.

But he hired me anyway, and thus began a career that spanned more than 30 years.

During which I became more accomplished in the use of an electric typewriter.

Then the computers came in, and I adjusted to those keyboards, too.

But in recent years I think I might have adjusted all too well.

Because computers are, to an extent, forgiving. If you mistype something, chances are it will auto-correct it for you. (It did just that a moment ago, as I was mistyping “mistype.”)

And because you don’t have to stop and erase something, or use that smelly white stuff to cover it up (and it usually looks cheesy later and doesn’t fool anybody, does it?), well, you can get lazy.

I know this has happened to me. If I had a dime for every time I mistyped something while in a hurry on a computer – on the job or not – it still wouldn’t repay Ms. Sutkus, who is God knows where right now, for all the shame that I, once a star pupil, have caused her.

And this late in life I know I will never be able to make it up to her.