Saturday, 3 January 2009

Answers to the Yuletide Quiz

Here are the answers to the Yuletide quiz posted December 27.

1. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in what year?

1647

2. Who brought the custom of the Christmas tree to the United Kingdom?

Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's consort

3. In what newspaper was A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA 'Twas the Night Before Christmas) published?

The Sentinel from Troy, New York

4. A Christmas Carol was responsible not only for reviving Yuletide customs in the United Kingdom, but also the career of what writer?

Charles Dickens

5. When and where was the Christmas card invented?

In London in 1843.

6. In what year was Christmas declared a federal holiday in the United States?

1870

7. Who was the first person to light a Christmas tree with electric lights?

Edward H. Johnson in 1882

8. What was the name of George Bailey's guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life?

Clarence

9. In what year did A Charlie Brown Christmas first air?

1965

10. What was it that Ralphie wanted for Christmas in A Christmas Story?

An Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle

Since that was the last quiz of the year, I will now announce the winner. In case no one remembers, the winner gets a pop culture related key chain of his choice, costing no more than $5.00 (I can't afford platinum keychains). So the winner is...Toby! Just email through the email link and let me know what keychain you want and where to send it.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Donald E. Westlake and Bernie Hamilton Pass On

Crime fiction writer Donald E. Westlake and actor Bernie Hamilton recently passed.

Donald E. Westlake died December 31 of an apparent heart attack. He was 75 years old.

Westlake was born in Brooklyn on July 12, 1933. He grew up in Yonkers and Albany. Although he attended both Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont and Harpur College in Binghamton, New York, he never graduated. At age 19 he joined the Air Force and served in Germany. AHe sold his story to a science fiction magazine in 1953 after 204 rejections. Not yet able to make a living writing, he worked different jobs, among them being a reader at the Scott Meredith literary agency. His first mainstream novel, The Mercenaries was published in 1960. His early work tended to be gritty, dealing with organized crime. It was in 1962 that he published his first novel, The Hunter,featuring Parker, using his pseudonym Richard Stark. Parker was a totally ruthless criminal, more than willing to kill to accomplish his goals. The Hunter would be adapted to film as Point Blank in 1967 and Payback in 1999. Under the pen name of Tucker Coe he wrote novels featuring Mitch Tobin, a disillusioned ex-cop turned private eye. The first was Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, published in 1966.

Westlake's more humorous side would eventually display itself with the novel The Fugitive Pigeon. Eventually Westlake's more humorous books would even be given their own hero. John Dortmunder was a criminal genius cursed by bad luck. No matter how intricately planned Dortmunder's capers were, they always seemed to go wrong. He first appeared in The Hot Rock, in which he had to steal an expensive gem (which he and his team keep losing...). In Bank Shot he and his team try to steal an entire bank.

Several of Westlake's novels would be adapted to film. Besides the aforementioned The Hunter, The Jugger (as Made in U.S.A. in 1966), The Busy Body (in 1967), The Score (as Mise á sac in 1967), The Hot Rock (in 1972), Bank Shot (in 1974), and many others would be made into films. Westlake would also write original screenplays and teleplays. He wrote an episode of the 1962 TV series 87th Precinct (based on Ed McBain's novels), as well as an episode of Journey to the Unknown. He was one of the writers on the 1963 film Commissaire méne l'enquete. He adapted his own novel, Cops and Robbers to a film, released in 1973. Westlake also created the TV series Supertrain with Earl W. Wallace. Among other notable screenplays Westlake wrote were The Stepfather, The Grifters (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award), and Ripley Under Ground.

Donald E. Westlake was arguably one of the most prolific authors of our time. He had written over 90 books. Indeed, Westlake was so prolific he used a number of pen names simply because his output was so great. And his writing was not limited to novels, but short stories and screenplays as well. But Westlake was not simply prolific, he was possibly one of the greatest crime writers in history. It is with good reason he won three Edgar Awards. Westlake was also very versatile. He could write the extremely gritty novels as well as the farcical John Dortmunder novels and the more tragic Mitch Tobin novels. It must also be kept in mind that Westlake also wrote science fiction, thrillers, and adventure novels. He was easily one of the most talented writers of the past century.

Actor Bernie Hamilston died December 30 at the age of 80. The cause was a heart attack.

Hamilton was born in East Los Angeles, California on June 12, 1928. He ran away from home while a teenager and attended Oakland Technical High School. It was there that he became interested in acting. He made his film debut in 1950, playing a baseball player in The Jackie Robinson Story. He made his television debut in an episode of Ramar of the Jungle in 1953. For the next several years Hamilton would play bit parts in such movies as Carmen Jones, Kismet, and Up Periscope, as well as guest shots on shows such as General Electric Theatre and Jungle Jim. In 1960 he received his big break, playing a lead role in the low budget movie The Young One. He also started appearing more often on television, making guest appearances on Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone, Cain's Hundred, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Virginian, The Name of the Game, and Hec Ramsey.

Hamilton also had a good film career. He played the lead role in the low budget, but critically acclaimed One Potato, Two Potato in 1964, Synanon, The Swimmer, The Lost Man, Hammer, and Scream, Blacula, Scream. He was perhaps best known for his regular role as the police captain on Starsky and Hutch. He did little acting afterwards, spending many years producing R&B and gospel record. During the Sixties he ran a night club/art gallery called Citadel d'Haiti.

In some ways I think it sad that Bernie Hamilton was best known for his work on Starsky and Hutch. He was an extremely talented actor who played a large variety of roles. He played everything from a jazz musician who was fleeing a lynch mob in The Young One to the mysterious Ragman in Scream, Blacula, Scream. Sadly, Hamilton never really received the recognition he so richly deserved.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Day

I have written in this blog before about how I don't particularly like New Year's Day. As I see it, it has always been a rather drab day. In American society we tend to celebrate the New Year for the most part on New Year's Eve. When New Year's Day itself arrives, then, there is little more to do than to recover from hangovers, watch college football, or watch one of the many marathons on one of the cable channels. This does not impress me as a good way to start the New Year.

Too, I must admit that I also dislike New Year's Day as, in American society, it is definitely the end of the holidays. As I have often complained in this blog, many end the Yuletide with December 25. The vast majority of those who continue to observe the holidays after Christmas Day will end them with New Year's Day. This would not be so bad if it wasn't for the fact that it seems to me that the holidays end with a whimper rather than a bang. After all, as I pointed out,there is very little celebrating done on New Year's Day.

Of course, in the days when the Twelve Days of Christmas were still observed, New Year's Day was very much a part of the Yuletide. In fact, until the thirteenth century the New Year was considered to begin on December 25, Christmas Day, in England and Germany. There can be no doubt that this was simply a continuation of the New Year's celebration among the Germanic peoples, the pagan festival called Geol (modern English Yule) among the Anglo-Saxons and Jól among the Old Norse speakers being considered the start of the New Year. In fact, the Venerable Bede states that the Anglo-Saxons observed it as such in his De Temporum Ratione. It is from the Anglo-Saxon festival of Geol that we draw many of our Christmas traditions. Even after January 1 was established as the beginning of the New Year, it was very much a part of the Christmas season, which lasted from the evening of December 24 to the day of January 6. Among some Europeans it was even observed as the Feast of Christ's Circumcision.

It is for this reason that New Year's Day had actual traditions linked to it in many European countries. In Scotland the evening of December 31 marked the beginning of Hoganmay, which continues until January 1 or sometimes even January 2. As might be expected, Hoganmay does involve the drinking generally associated with New Year's Eve celebrations, although it also involves other customs as well. On New Year's Eve many parts of Scotland observe New Year's Eve with various customs involving fire. In Stonehaven in Kincardineshire New Year's Eve is observed with fireball swinging. When the Old Town House bell marks the New Year, the fireball swingers walk down the High Street and back. On January 11 (the first day of the year according to the old Julian calendar) in Burghead in Moray they observe the burning of the clavie. The clavie is essentially a bonfire made from casks which have been split in two.

Other Hoganmay customs focus as much on New Year's Day as they do New Year's Eve. Featsts of steak pie or stew, involving drinking, singing, dancing, and storytelling begin on New Year's Eve and last into New Year's Day. Another custom observed on New Year's Day was that of first footing. This is a custom whereby the first person to enter a home brings gifts (usually salt, coal, shortbread, whisky, and fruit cake to those living there. The first-foot must be a dark haired male for the coming year to be lucky, and must not be a resident of the house or a guest who was present there at the stroke of midnight.

For centuries gift giving also formed a part of English New Year customs. Oranges, pins, gloves, and even money were given as gifts on New Year's Day in England for centuries, only declining with the 20th century. At one time on New Year's Day children in England would go from house to house singing songs (carolling, I guess one would say) and would be rewarded with candy, apples, mince pies, and even money.

Sadly, such customs are not found here in the United States, although we are not without New Year's Day customs. Here in the South it is traditional to eat black eyed peas on New Year's Day for luck in the coming year. Often the black eyed peas are served with greens and cornbread. For many Southerners ham is the meat best eaten with black eyed peas. Beyond the Southern customs of eating black eyed peas on New Year's Day, there is also the custom of making New Year resolutions, also found throughout Europe. Some trace the custom back to Babylon, although I can't see an ancient, Middle Eastern country having that much impact on Northern Europe. Instead, I think the custom of New Year's resolutions is another tradition taken from the ancient Germanic festival of Geol, as the Anglo-Saxons called it. According to Heimskringla, at Jól the sacrificial boar was brought out and the men would make oaths while touching him. Afterward the boar was slaughtered as part of the Jól feast. It seems more likely to me that the custom of resolutions stems from the custom of making oaths at Geol or Jól, than from some ancient and distant Babylonian custom.

Regardless, looking at the various customs observed on New Year's Day at different times and different places, it seems to me that New Year's Day is a bit of a disappointment when it comes to the holiday season. At one time, New Year's Day fell in the middle of the Twelve Day's of Christmas. Because of this it was part and parcel of the Christmas celebration. Even if one regards New Year's Day as the end of the holidays, this would be an argument for observing it with a bit more celebration. The holidays have always been my favourite time of year, and I must admit I have always thought we ended them with a bit of a whimper than a bang. The holidays should go out on a high note. Rather than celebrating it recovering from hangovers and watching college football, perhaps it should be celebrated with a bit more panache.

Wednesday, 31 December 2008

That Was the Year That Was 2008

When it comes to pop culture, the year 2008 was much like any other year. It had its highs and lows. It had those things which made it unique among years, and those things which made it the same. In some respects, it could be considered the year when nostalgia reigned supreme in the media. In the movies there were new entries in old franchises (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Quantum of Solace, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Rambo). In music there were new releases from artists who have been around for quite a while. On television there was a revival of Knight Rider and an American adaptation of Life on Mars.

With regards to motion pictures, in some respects 2008 could be considered the Year of the Superhero. The two top grossing movies in the United States were The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Hancock came in at #3. These were not the only superhero movies released in 2008 either. There was also Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Incredible Hulk, and The Spirit. While the current superhero cycle reached its peak this year, the cycle of movies based on young adult fantasy novels continued. Most did not do too well at the box office. The Spiderwick Chronicles and City of Ember died quietly. Twilight proved to be a hit, although it would seem to appeal to girls more than boys. One films based on a young adult novel, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was moved from a holiday 2008 release to a summer 2009 release. It was a good year for animated films. Early in the year Horton Hears a Who became the first feature film based on the works of Dr. Seuss to actually be good. Kung Fu Panda proved to be a surprise hit. Wall-E proved once more just how remarkable Pixar is.

Strangely enough given the gross made by The Dark Knight, 2008 was not a record breaking year at the box office over all. In fact, attendance was down 5% from 2007. What save Hollywood was that many theatres raised their ticket prices this year. Because of that, profits were only down less than 1% when compared to 2007. Even given this, the movies did quite well given the ongoing depression.

Perhaps the biggest news in film was the ongoing writers' strike, the longest in the history of film. NBC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association cancelled the Golden Globe Awards ceremony and held a so-called press conference instead. The writers' strike would also have an impact on film production, delaying some films going into production.

Television saw the 2007-2008 season cut short by the longest writers' strike. Many older shows never recovered. Many new shows found their lives ended prematurely. The 2008-2009 season would be mixed bag this year. With the possible exception of CBS, the networks seemed more willing to take risks. NBC debuted two fairly original shows: My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe. ABC gambled on an American adaptation of Life on Mars. While the networks took some risks, however, they tempered these risks with a bit too much caution. NBC cut the lives of both My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe short. ABC cancelled Pushing Daisies (the best series on network television besides 30 Rock).

The networks also debuted shows that were basically more of the same. This was especially true of CBS, which may have debuted its worst season (quality wise, anyway) in years. The Mentalist is a direct ripoff of Psych and not a very good one at that. Worst Week, while funny at times, is pretty much Meet the Parents; the Series. And while Eleventh Hour is an adaptation of an ITV series, it was not a particularly original ITV series. Both the American and British versions of Eleventh Hour would appear to rip off House, The X-Files, and CSI in equal measure. While CBS may have debuted the most derivative shows of any network this fall, the other networks debuted shows that were not particularly original as well. NBC insisted on reviving Knight Rider, even giving the show (which is as bad as the original) more of a chance than more original series such as Crusoe and My Own Worst Enemy (there really should be a moratorium on reviving Glen Larson shows...what's next, Alias Smith and Jones?). ABC offered the none too original (and not long for this world) game show Opportunity Knocks.

With regards to music, 2008 was the year of older artists. The Eagles toured to support a new album (released in 2007) that was regarded as a major disappointment. Guns N' Roses release their first single in 9 years, as well as a new album (Chinese Democracy). AC/DC released Black Ice, which was well received by many fans, even if it wasn't comparable to their classics. Perhaps the best album of the year was released by Todd Rundgren. Arena marked Rundgren's return to the genre with which he began, power pop, while still featuring a good deal of variety (everything from the guitar driven pop of "Mad" to the heavy metal of "Mercenary and Gun" to the anthem "Mountainpop." Other old rock bands reunited this year, including Stone Temple Pilots, The Specials (under the name Terry Hall and Friends--Jerry Dammers own the name "The Specials"), Face to Face, and My Bloody Valentine.

Leaving the world of rock music and entering the world of pop, the big news may have been Katy Perry. Sounding like an electropop artist circa 1981 and equipped with a little bit of humour and a lot of sex appeal, Perry had hits with the controversial "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold." Reflecting the return of older artists to rock music, pop also saw some of its oldsters releasing new music. Madonna released her eleventh album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Mariah Carey had her 18th #1 single, putting her in reach of The Beatles' record (which was 20 #1 singles). There was also the rather unwelcome (well, for some of us) return of New Kids on the Block. A bit of good news is that rap continued its decline in 2008. With any luck, perhaps it will go extinct in 2009....

Sadly, 2008 would see many passings. Perhaps none made as much news as the death of Heath Ledger. While Ledger's death filled newspapers for weeks, 2008 might well be remembered as the year when acting legends left this earth. The year saw the deaths of Suzanne Pleshette, Roy Scheider, Richard Widmark, Mel Ferrer, and Cyd Charisse. There were perhaps no bigger names as far as deaths go this year than Charlton Heston, the controversial actor who played Ben Hur and El Cid, and Paul Newman, who played Cool Hand Luke and Hud. There were many other movie actors who passed as well, including scream queen Hazel Court and John Philip Law. Television saw its share of performers pass, including Harvey Korman, Dick Martin, Estelle Getty, and Edie Adams. One television figure was not a performer, but was as famous as any of them. Tim Russert was arguably the best host Meet the Press ever had, and will forever be identified with the show. There were various movie directors who died as well, perhaps the best known being Sydney Pollack and Jules Dassin.

The world of writing saw two of its best pass--George MacDonald Fraser, creator of rapscallion Harry Flashman, and Arthur C. Clarke. The world of comic books lost two of its biggest names, Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, and Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer. In the world of music, Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, composer Earl H. Hagen, Nick Reynolds (co-founder of the Kingston Trio), rock 'n' roll pioneer Bo Didley, and singer/actress/temptress Eartha Kitt all died this year. Geekdom lost three of its icons this year: Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Forrest Ackerman, the most famous and influential sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fan of all time, and Bettie Page, the Queen of Pinups, all passed in 2008. Many more pop culture figures died this year, but to list them all would take several posts.

In many respects the year 2008 was nothing remarkable. If anything it might well be remembered as the year when nostalgia reigned supreme. It would seem as if this was true at least of movies and music. Whether because the decade of the Naughts is nearing its end or the ongoing economic depression, the average American appears to have wanted to watch characters familiar to him or her from old comic books and movies, and to listen to music artists whose first albums were released years ago. One has to wonder if 2009 will bring us more nostalgia or if individuals will start looking forward to the future.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

After Christmas Day

I have complained before in this blog about how Americans do not celebrate the twelve days of the Yuletide. That is, they don't seem to realise that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the evening of December 24 and end on the day of January 6. For the past many years this has been reflected in American businesses. I remember a few years ago there was a WalMart commercial that aired after December 25 (heck, it may have started on December 25) that began with the line, "Now that the holidays are over..." Never mind that even with Americans no longer observing the whole Yuletide, most people count New Year's as part of the holidays! WalMart apparently still thinks the holidays end on Christmas Day. Just the other day I went to WalMart and noticed they had cleaned out the Christmas candy aisle and were putting up Valentine's Day candy (who on Earth would buy Valentine's candy this early?!). Of course, many average Americans take down their Christmas decorations on December 26, as if the holidays are over (here I must note that some of them put them up on the day after Thanksgiving, which is far too early to me....).

Fortunately, it seems to me that there are signs that this may be changing. I have noticed many people around here are keeping their Yule decorations up after Christmas Day, more than have in the past several years. What is more, it seems to me that the much of the media is observing Christmas past Christmas Day. To wit, it seems to me that more holiday themed commercials are being shown after Christmas Day than have in the past several years. There is a Sprint commercial that makes reference to the holidays. The classic M&Ms commercial with Santa Claus. And there is a Pampers commercial playing "Silent Night." Now a few holiday themed commercials have always hung on after Christmas Day, but it seems to me that there are more than what there used to be.

Another sign that ignoring all Twelve Days of Christmas could be changing is television programming. The Hallmark Channel has been showing Christmas movies every night, even after Christmas Day. Indeed, they are even showing a marathon of them on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve the USA Network is showing Elf for 24 hours straight. Now, granted, I don't like the movie, but I have to admire the fact that they are showing a Christmas movie on New Year's Eve.

My own hope is that perhaps this means a shift towards the United States observing the whole Yuletide and not just part of it. It seems as if as the twentieth century wore on, the United States celebrated less and less of the Twelve Days of the holidays until they have more or less ceased to exist here. Much of it is due to the fact that I think Americans confused the Christmas shopping season (traditionally from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve) with the holiday season. Of course, that brings me to my next point. Now if only we could get American businesses and American citizens to stop putting up Yuletide decorations and playing Yuletide music before December 1....

Monday, 29 December 2008

Dale Wasserman and Hilary Waugh

Playwright Dale Wasserman and novelist Hilary Waugh recently passed.

Dale Wasserman, who wrote the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the screenplay for The Vikings, passed on December 21 at the age of 94 from congestive heart failure.

Dale Wasserman was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin on November 2, 1917. He was orphaned before he was ten years old and was sent to live with aunts and uncles. He worked a variety of jobs before becoming a lighting designer in the theatre and later a director. In 1955 he made his first sale to television, to the anthology series Mantinee Theatre. He would go on to write for Studio One, The Alcoa Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, Climax, The Dupont Show of the Month. A 1959 episode he wrote for The Dupont Show of the Month, "I, Don Quixote," would provide the basis for The Man of La Mancha. Wasserman would also screenplays, one The Vikings and Quick Before It Melts, among other films.

In 1963 his first play to be acted on Broadway, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was staged. He would go onto write The Man of La Mancha.

Mystery writer Hilary Waugh passed on December 8 at the age of 88.

Hilary Waugh was born in New Haven, Connecticut on June 22, 1920. Waugh attended Yale University. Following graduation, he served in the Navy Air Corps. It was while he was in service that he started writing the mystery novel Madame Will Not Dine Tonight as a way of fighting boredom. It was published in 1947. In 1949 he read a book on true crime and decided to write a realistic crime novel. The end result was Last Seen Wearing..., now considered a pioneer in the police procedural.

Waugh would go onto write almost 50 mystery novels. Most were police procedurals. In fact, in the Sixties he spent time with homicide detective in New York City to learn even more about police work. One thing that would set Waugh's police procedurals apart from others is that they were often set in small towns and suburbs. It was in 1991 that his book Hillary Waugh’s Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing was published. In the book he stressed authenticity above all else.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Harold Pinter and Robert Mulligan Pass On

Two figures from the world of film recently passed. One was Harold Pinter, the playwright and screenwriter. The other was director Robert Mulligan.

Harold Pinter died December 24 at the age of 79. The cause was cancer.

Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 in the East End of London. As a child in 1939, at the outset of World War II, Pinter was evacuated from London to a small city in Cornwall. Growing up, he grew to love both British war films and American gangster movies. When he was 20 his first poem was published. It was not long afterwards that he completed his first novel, The Dwarfs. He studied at the e Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama. He then toured as an actor with a repertory company in Ireland.

Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, for a group of drama students. It opened in Bristol on May 15, 1957. Three years later it would open in London. His first full length play, The Birthday Party, opened in Hamersmith on May 19, 1958. It remains among his best known works. Pinter would write several more plays, including The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1964), Betrayal (1978), and Celebration.

Pinter also worked in television and film. In 1960 he wrote an episode of Armchair Theatre. He would also write four episodes of ITV Television Playhouse. His first screenplay was for The Pumpkin Eater, released in 1964. He would go onto write screenplays for The Go-Between, The Last Tycoon, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and The Handmaid's Tale.

Director Robert Mulligan died December 20 at the age of 83. He was perhaps best known for directing the screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The cause was heart disease.

Robert Mulligan was born in the Bronx on August 23, 1925. During World War II he served in the Navy. Following the war he worked in the telegraph office for The New York Times. He received a bachelor's degree from Fordham University in New York City in 1948. Mulligan got a job at CBS as a messenger and worked his way up to director. He made his directorial debut in 1951 on The Goodyear Television Playhouse. He went onto direct episodes of Suspense, The Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, and Playhouse 90.

His first feature film was The Rat Race, released in 1960. He would go onto direct To Kill a Mockingbird, Up the Down Staircase, Inside Daisy Clover, Summer of '42, The Other, and The Man in the Moon.

His brother, Richard Mulligan, starred in the TV series Soap and Empty Nest.