Saturday, 20 March 2010

Davy Crockett: Television's First Fad

The death of Fess Parker brings to mind the miniseries that made him a star. "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" debuted on Disneyland on December 15, 1954 . It was followed by "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" on January 26. 1955 and "Davy Crockett at he Alamo" on February 23, 1955. The "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland received extraordinarily high ratings for the time. Some 40 million viewers were estimated to have watched the "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland. Indeed, the Nielsen ratings placed the number of viewers for the second instalment at over half of everyone watching television. Even with such success,what no one at the time, not even Walt Disney, realised, was that "Davy Crockett" would become television's first fad.

The genesis of the "Davy Crockett" miniseries on Disneyland is not particularly easy to trace. It might have started all the way back in 1939, when folklorist Richard Dorson, whose book Davy Crockett, An American Comic Legend, had recently been published, claims he approached Walt Disney about using his book as the basis for a feature film. It was at least as early as the mid-Forties that we know Disney had considered using Crockett as the basis of some type of film. A Walt Disney Productions story inventory report from 1947 included a rough outline for a Davy Crockett musical production, by famous Missouri artist Thomas Hart Benton. In 1948 Walt Disney talked to Hedda Hopper about making some sort of film about Davy Crockett, although nothing apparently came of his plans--at least until Disneyland was scheduled to debut on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) in the fall of 1954.

As originally conceived, Disneyland would air instalments based on the various sections of the soon to be opened theme park Disneyland: Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, and Tomorrowland. While the television series was in pre-production, Walt Disney encouraged the unit in charge of the Frontierland segments to develop stories based on American heroes. According to Disneyland producer Bill Walsh, the staff was unable to settle upon one hero. As a result, they simply chose a name of a hero at random. The name happened to be Davy Crockett. According to Walsh, Disney was originally a bit reticent about the "Davy Crockett" television project. His fear was that it would be "too much fighting Indians;" however, after the Frontierland unit created a treatment with storyboards, Disney gave the go ahead for the "Davy Crockett" miniseries.

For the role of Davy Crockett, Walt Disney initially considered James Arness, a young actor who had appeared in the movies The Thing (as the title creature), Big Jim McLain, and Island in the Sky. Disney went to see the movie Them, in which Arness was featured prominently, to appraise his performance. While watching the film, however, Disney's attention was drawn to another young actor, who played a nervous pilot in the film. Fess Parker then auditioned for Walt Disney, winning what would be the part of a lifetime by playing his guitar. As to James Arness, he would go onto fame as Matt Dillon on the TV series Gunsmoke.

While Disney had been initially reluctant regarding the "Davy Crockett" mini-series, once the project was underway he spared no expense. The majority of the mini-series was shot on location in Tennessee and North Carolina, in the end costing over $700,000. There was no means by which ABC could ever recoup this cost, as they had only paid $2 million for the entire first season of Disneyland.

Amazingly enough for so costly a production, Bill Walsh realised after shooting had ended that they had fallen short of the amount of footage needed for three sixty minute episodes. At first Walt Disney recommended they use the actual storyboards as an introduction for the episodes. When he looked over the storyboards, however, he thought they were a bit boring. It was then he suggested they find a song to accompany the storyboards. Bill Walsh called upon the writer Thomas W. Blackburn and composer George Bruns to write a theme song. The result was "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." Disney was impressed enough with the song that it was planned, even before the mini-series aired, to release it as a single. To this end, in August, Fess Parker,  George Bruns, and a group of musicians entered a recording studio to record "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

As mentioned above, "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" aired on December 15, 1954. While it is difficult to determine precisely when the "Davy Crockett" craze began, it seems likely that it was even as that first episode of the mini-series aired. This would explain the dramatic increase in the number of viewers from the first instalment of the mini-series to the second. As stated above, the Nielsen ratings estimated that nearly half of all television viewers tuned into "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress" on January 26, 1955. By February Hedda Hopper was already addressing children's love for Davy Crockett in her column, before the final instalment, "Davy Crockett at the Alamo," even aired.


Indeed, if the "Davy Crockett" craze did not begin with "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" in December, it might well have taken shape in February, after the success of "Davy Crockett Goes to Congress." It was on February 26, 1955 Columbia Records released "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" sung by Bill Hayes (who had been a singer on Your Show of Shows). Fess Parker's version was released on March 12, 1955. Yet another version, this one by Tennessee Ernie Ford, was released on March 19, 1955. All three versions would reach the top ten of the Billboard singles chart. Bill Hayes' version went all the way to #1, where it remained from March 26 to April 23. Fess Parker's version topped out at #6. Tennessee Ernie Ford's version peaked at #5. It was around February 26, 1955 that Walt Disney announced the three Davy Crockett episodes had been edited into a feature film. Between Hedda Hopper's column, the success of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett," and Disney's announcement of the feature film, it seems obvious that the fad must have already been underway in February and March of 1955.

Indeed, it would seem by March the Davy Crockett merchandising boom had begun. A display ad from the March 7, 1955 issue of The Chicago Tribune advertised "Davy Crockett Style: Suede Leather Jackets." By April there would be ads for coonskin caps, such as one in the April 28 issue of The Milwaukee Journal, which read: "Davy Crockett coonskin cap with real tail." By late spring, the Davy Crockett merchandising bonanza was well underway.

Even by today's standards, the amount of money spent on Davy Crockett merchandise in 1955 is staggering. Not only did Bill Hayes' version of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" spend an astounding thirteen weeks on the Billboard charts, but in all of its  versions the song sold over 10 million copies. Over ten million coonskin caps were sold. There were over 5.5 million books on Davy Crockett sold. As far as other merchandise, in the end over $100 million worth of Davy Crocket towels, pyjamas, toothbrushes, lunchboxes, costumes, and so on, were sold. Released on May 25, 1955, Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier, the feature film compiled from the three episodes of the mini-series, brought Davy Crockett to children who did not have television sets and only fueled the craze even more. Even though many had already seen the "Davy Crockett" episodes on television, the movie ultimately earned $2.5 million at the box office.

Walt Disney did not expect the demand for Davy Crockett merchandise at all. Worse yet, he had no legal means by which he could prevent simply anyone from producing such merchandise.  As Davy Crockett was a historical figure, he was technically in the public domain. This fact probably made the Davy Crockett merchandising boom even bigger than it might have otherwise been. This is not to say that Walt Disney did not make a good deal of money from Davy Crockett merchandise. Disney licensed goods under the heading "Walt Disney's Davy Crockett," the packaging often featuring a picture of Fess Parker as the frontiersman. Davy Crockett may have been in the public domain. Fess Parker was not.

Ultimately, the success of the "Davy Crockett" episodes of Disneyland would result in two more "Davy Crockett" episodes being made. It was around Mach 21, 1955 that Walt Disney announced the man in the coonskin cap would return to Disneyland. The two new episodes would team Davy Crockett up with another American legend, Mike Fink. "Davy Crockett's Keelboat Race" aired November 16, 1955. "Davy Crockett an the River Pirates" aired December 14, 1955. Unfortunately, by the time the new "Davy Crockett" episodes aired, the craze was nearly over. Regardless, these episodes would also be edited together as a feature film, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates, released on July 18, 1956.

As mentioned above, the "Davy Crockett" craze appears to have begun in early 1955. It grew steadily during the next several months, until by May it was nearly unavoidable. Reaching its peak in the summer months of June, July, and August, it slowly declined as 1955 progressed. By November and December, when the final two "Davy Crockett" episodes aired, the fad was a mere shadow of itself. By January 1956, the fad was officially over. By March 7, 1956, a United Press article reported that toy manufacturers considered the Davy Crockett fad to be dead.

While the Davy Crockett fad ended, the "Davy Crockett" mini-series would have a lasting influence. This would immediately be felt upon the TV series Disneyland. Eager to repeat even some of the success of the "Davy Crockett" mini-series, Disneyland would regularly feature similar frontier, Western, and adventure mini-series through the rest of the Fifties into the Sixties, even as the series' title changed from Disneyland to Walt Disney Presents to Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. Over the years there would be mini-series featuring Andy Burnett (hero of a series of novels by Stewart Edward White), historical figures such as Elfego Baca, John Slaughter, Daniel Boone (not to be confused with the Sixties TV series), and Francis Marion (AKA "the Swamp Fox"), as well as Dr. Syn (the hero of novels by Russell Thorndike). The TV series Zorro starring Guy Williams, produced by Disney, may have also been the result of the success of the "Davy Crockett" mini-series.

In 1956 TV Guide even asserted that the Davy Crockett craze may have been responsible for the adult Western cycle on television in the late Fifties, which was then only beginning. While the "Davy Crockett" mini-series did have a huge impact, to count it as responsible for the adult Western cycle of the Fifties may be overestimating that impact. The adult Western cycle began in 1955 when three such series debuted: Cheyenne, Gunsmoke, and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp. Even in the Fifties the amount of preparation for a filmed series could be considerable, so that Cheyenne and The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp were probably already in the planning stages as "Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter" debuted. As to Gunsmoke, plans to bring the popular radio show to television were already underway even as Disneyland debuted. It would be the success of these three series, rather than the Davy Crockett craze, that would lead to the adult Western cycle which would last until 1960.

That having been said, the "Davy Crockett" mini-series would have some impact on the Western cycle of the Fifties. Some of the shows which debuted may have drawn upon the "Davy Crockett" mini-series for inspiration. Indeed, in 1956 a TV show debuted on ABC which featured as its protagonist one of Davy Crockett's fellow combatants at the Alamo: The Adventures of Jim Bowie. Centred on Bowie's adventures in Louisiana in the 1830s, the series featured several historical figures, including Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and, of course, Davy Crockett. Another series that may have been inspired by the Davy Crockett craze was produced in Canada. Hawkeye and the Last of the Mohicans was based on a figure very similar to Davy Crockett, the fictional Natty Bumpo or "Hawkeye" who was the hero of James Fenimore's "Leatherstocking Tales." The series debuted in 1957 and aired in syndication in the United States.

The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was directly responsible for a frontier drama which debuted in 1964. It was in 1963 that the "Davy Crockett" mini-series was rerun on Disney's Wonderful World of Colour. It was while he was on tour with the musical Oklahoma that Fess Parker noticed an increase in the number of autograph seekers and found out that the mini-series had been rerun. Seeking to capitalise on the new found popularity of Davy Crockett, Parker approached producer Aaron Rosenberg about a new Davy Crockett series. The two sought permission from Disney to use the "Davy Crockett" name, but he refused. Realising that as a historical figure Davy Crockett was in the public domain, they sought to go ahead with the series anyhow. Unfortunately, neither Lloyds of London nor Fireman's Fund would insure them against lawsuits from Disney. It was then that they decided to base their new show around another historical frontiersman, Daniel Boone. Daniel Boone, starring Fess Parker in the title role, debuted in 1964 and ran for six years.

The Davy Crockett fad was an unprecedented event in the history of American television. Not even Walt Disney had expected the phenomenon. As to the underlying causes behind the craze, that is perhaps anyone's guess. It may have been the simple fact that in some ways there had been nothing quite like the "Davy Crockett" mini-series on television before. True, there were several juvenile Westerns on at the time, including The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, and The Roy Rogers Show; however, without exception these shows were produced on low budgets. The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was produced on a budget that was massive for television at the time, and it showed on the screen. Furthermore, the mini-series was created by veterans of feature films. Director Norman Foster's credits had included Think Fast, Mr. Moto and several Charlie Chan films. Cinematographer Charles Boyle and editor Charles Schaeffer also had considerable film credits. The "Davy Crockett" mini-series was no B production, but very much a first class affair all the way. This was probably not lost on the children of the early Fifties.

Another factor behind the Davy Crockett craze may have been the character of Davy Crockett in the mini-series itself. As portrayed in the mini-series, Davy Crockett is brave, strong, intelligent, adventurous, and even patriotic. He is a man with a sense of honour and a willingness to help others. At the same time, however, Davy has a sense of fun about him and a healthy defiance of authority. Essentially, Davy Crockett in the mini-series is a potent combination of father figure and perpetual adolescent. Children could look up to him and identify with him at the same time.

As to the sheer size and scope of the Davy Crockett fad, much of this may have been due to the fact that there were simply more children in the United States than at any point up to that time. The Baby Boom had begun in 1945, so that the oldest members of that generation were nine years old when the first "Davy Crockett" segment aired on Disneyland. The sheer number of Baby Boomers then made the Davy Crockett craze much larger than previous juvenile fads, to the point that it seemed to have permeated all of American pop culture at the time.

While it is difficult to explain why the Davy Crockett fad took place, it is not so difficult to explain why it ended. In the book Fads, Follies, and Delusions of the American People by Paul Sann, it is noted that often the more intensely a fad is adopted, the shorter its duration will be. The Davy Crockett craze took the country by storm in the early months of 1955 and had reached its peak by the middle of the year. The sheer intensity of the Davy Crockett fad then dictated that it would not last long. In simpler terms, it can be be said that children just grew tired of Davy Crockett and moved onto other things.

Regardless, while it lasted the Davy Crockett fad was huge. It is estimated that the craze accounted for $300 million in sales that year. Three different versions of "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" made Billboard's top ten singles within weeks of each other. There were Davy Crockett books, colouring books, pyjamas, snow sleds, and many more items. And, of course, there were the ubiquitous coonskin caps. So huge was the Davy Crockett phenomenon was that it would remain unmatched in the history of television for many years. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. craze of 1965 would come close, but would ultimately fall short of the proportions of the Davy Crockett craze. In the end it would take a superhero to surpass the Davy Crockett craze in sheer intensity. In January 1966, over ten years after the Davy Crockett mini-series had first aired, Batmania swept the nation with the debut of Batman starring Adam West and Burt Ward. Curiously, the source of this new fad, this fad which would actually surpass the Davy Crockett craze in the annals of television, debuted on the very same network: the small and ever struggling ABC.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Godspeed Alex Chilton, Leader of Classic Power Pop Band Big Star

Alex Chilton, the lead singer of The Box Tops and the leader of Big Star, passed on Wednesday at the age of 59. After complaining of chest pains and shortness of breath, Mr. Chilton was taken to a New Orleans emergency. A cause had yet to be determined, although presumably he died of a heart attack.

Alex Chilton was born William Alexander Chilton in Memphis, Tennessee on December 28, 1950. His father, Sidney Chilton, was a jazz trumpeter. His mother, Mary Chilton, was a classically trained musician. Growing up Mr. Chilton was then constantly exposed to music, including jazz sessions in the Chilton home. It was not unusual when he was young for Mr. Chilton to frequent the many recording studios in Memphis.

It was after Alex Chilton performed at a talent show at Central High School in Memphis that producer Dan Penn drafted Mr. Chilton as the lead singer of The Devilles, soon to be renamed The Box Tops (another group also used the name The Devilles at the time). Mr. Chilton was only sixteen at the time. Singed to Bell, The Box Tops would have a hit with "The Letter" in July 1967, which ultimately reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. In February 1968 their song "Cry Like a Baby" reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. In all, The  Box Tops would have seven top forty hits from July 1967 to June 1969. In their original incarnation they recorded four albums.

Unfortunately for The Box Tops, the hits would not last. In March 1969 "I Shall Be Released" became the first Box Tops single not to hit the top forty of the Billboard chart. By February 1970 Alex Chilton and the other members of The Box Tops decided to disband the group. It was not long after the breakup of The Box Tops that Mr. Chilton met guitarist Chris Bell, bassist Andy Hummel, and drummer Jody Stephens. Together they formed Big Star in 1971.

Drawing up on the sound of British Invasion bands such as The Beatles, The Who, and The Kinks, and the American band The Byrds, Big Star was one of the first American power pop bands and, short of Cheap Trick, arguably the most influential. What set Big Star apart from such contemporary power pop bands as Badfinger and The Raspberries was their lyrics, which were often dark, cynical, and filled with disillusionment. In many way Big Star's lyrical content foreshadowed The Posies and other power pop bands of the Nineties.

Unfortunately, Big Star would not have success on the charts. The band singed to the legendary Stax Records, who at that time was in financial turmoil. Their first album, #1 Record, released in June 1972, received sterling reviews. Sadly, Stax was unable to provide adequate distribution for the album and it failed to chart. Sadly, the lack of success for #1 Record would result in tension within the band. Chris Bell quit the band before the second album could even be finished. In late 1972 Big Star disbanded.

It was a few months later that Mr. Chilton, Andy Hummel, and Jody Stephens decided to regroup. They resumed work on the second album, by now officially named Radio City. Radio City was released in January 1974 and, like the first album, received glowing reviews. Unfortunately, Radio City would not fare very well in sales. Stax had signed a deal with Columbia to distribute their records, and Columbia refused to process Radio City after a disagreement. As a result, Radio City did not receive proper distribution and in the end sold only 20,000 copies.

It was not long after the release of Radio City that Andy Hummel decided to leave Big Star in order to concentrate on his studies in college. Mr. Chilton and Jody Stephens forged ahead without Andy Hummel, going into the studio in September 1974 to record a third album with a variety of musicians. The resulting album was deemed too uncommercial for release. The album, eventually entitled Third/Sisters Lovers, was released in 1978. Unfortunately, Big Star had broken up in 1975.

In the wake of the break up of Big Star, Alex Chilton would only perform and record sporadically. In 1977 he moved to New York and performed as Alex Chilton and the Cossacks. In 1978 he released the single "Bangkok." In 1979 he released the album Like Flies on Sherbert, in a limited edition of only 500 copies. He produced The Cramps' first album, Song the Lord Taught Us, released in 1980. In 1979 he co-founded Tav Falco's Panter Burns. Mr. Chilton would perform with the band into the early Eighties. He also produced several of their early albums. It was in 1981 that he released the solo album Bach's Bottom and in 1982 the solo album Live in London. He released three EPs, Feudalist Tarts in 1985, No Sex in 1986, and Black List in 1989. He also released the solo album High Priest in 1987.

It was in 1993 that Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens reformed Big Star with guitarist Jon Auer and bassist Ken Stringfellow of The Posies. The resurrected Big Star debuted at the University of Missouri's 1993 spring music festival. A recording of the performance was released as the album Columbia Live at the University of Missouri in 1993. A new album, Nobody Can Dance, was released in 1999. Another new album, In Space, was released in 2005. It would be the final new album featuring Alex Chilton in his lifetime.

While still performing and recording with Big Star, Alex Chilton continued with his solo career. He released the album Clich├ęs in 1994, A Man Called Destruction in 1995, Cubist Blues in 1997, Loose Shoes and Tight P***** in 1999 (titled Set in the United States), and Live in Anvers in 2004.

The impact of Alex Chilton on power pop cannot be underestimated. Although Big Star was not a success in its original incarnation, the band would develop a large cult following which would result in a lasting influence on future bands. The impact Big Star had upon Cheap Trick, the only American power pop band whose influence outstrips that of Big Star, is evident in their music. Big Star would further have a influence on such artists as Matthew Sweet, The Posies, Teeange Fanclub, and The Replacements, and even bands outside the subgenre of power pop, including R.E.M. Indeed, arguably the whole indie pop movement of the Nineties (largely comprised of power pop bands) was the direct descendent of Big Star. Given Alex Chilton's impact on modern music, it should come as no surprise that The Replacements' 1987 album Pleased to Meet Me featured a song entitled "Alex Chilton," about the leader of Big Star himself.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The Late Great Fess Parker

Fess Parker, the actor best known for playing frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, passed today at the age of 85.

Fess Parker was born in Fort Worth, Texas on August 15, 1924. He grew up on a farm outside San Angelo, Texas. During World War II Mr. Parker served in the United States during World War II. Following the war he attended the University of Texas at Austin. He graduated in 1950. It was while he in college that Mr. Parker developed an interest in acting. He moved to California in 1950 to pursue acting and got an agent not long after moving there. At the same time he enrolled at the University of California to pursue a masters in theatre history.

Fess Parker never did complete his master's degree, as his acting career soon got in the way. In 1950 he provided the voice for Leslie the Chauffeur in the classic film Harvey. In the summer of 1951 he was an extra with the national tour of Mister Roberts. In 1952 Mr. Parker had a small, uncredited role in No Room for the Groom. That same year he appeared in Untamed Frontier. The next few years saw him appear in small parts in such films as Springfield Rifle, Take Me to Town, The Kid From Left Field, Island in the Sky, Thunder over the Plains, the classic sci-fi movie Them, and The Bounty Hunter. He made his television debut on Dragnet and guest starred on Stories of the Century and Annie Oakley.

It would be Davy Crockett's small role in Them that would prove to be his big break. It was in 1954 that Walt Disney was looking for an actor to play Davy Crockett in a three part mini-series on his show Disneyland. Initially, Disney had been interested in James Arness (who would later become forever known as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke). When Disney watched Them for Arness's performance in the film, however, his attention was drawn by Fess Parker in a smaller role. Disney cast Fess Parker in the role of Davy Crockett, and when the three part mini-series aired on Disneyland in 1954, he was catapulted to stardom. The mini-series proved to be an outright phenomenon, with Davy Crockett merchandise flying off the shelves. Ultimately, it was so popular that Disney made two more Davy Crockett episodes, which aired in 1955.

Following the Davy Crockett mini-series, Fess Parker starred as another historical figure, Union spy James L. Andrews, in the film The Great Locomotive Chase, released in 1956. During the last part of the Fifties he starred in Westward Ho the Wagons, the classic Old Yeller, The Light in the Forest, The Hangman, and The Jayhawkers. He had a cameo as Davy Crockett in the Bob Hope film Alias Jesse James. He guest starred on Playhouse 90, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, and General Electric Theatre.

The Sixties saw Fess Parker appear in the television special Merman on Broadway in 1961 and guest star on Death Valley Days. In 1962 he appeared in the film Hell is for Heroes. For the 1962-1963 season Mr. Parker played the lead on the TV show Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He guest starred in the shows Destry and Burke's Law in 1964. In 1963 Mr. Parker toured with Oklahoma. It was while he was on this tour that he found himself being asked for more autographs than usual. Mr. Parker soon learned that Disney had recently rerun the Davy Crockett miniseries, creating a new generation of fans.

Thinking to capitalise on Crockett's new popularity, Fess Parker approached Aaron Rosenberg about a new series featuring the frontiersman. When Mr. Parker asked Disney for the right to use the name, however, Disney turned him down. Realising as a historical figure Crockett was in the public domain, Mr. Parker and Rosenberg decided to go ahead with the series anyway. Unfortunately, both Lloyds of London and Fireman's Fund refused to insure them against lawsuits from Disney if they proceeded with the show. It was then that they decided instead to a show starring Fess Parker as another historical frontiersman, Daniel Boone.

Daniel Boone proved highly successful. It ran from 1964 to 1970, for a total of 159 episodes. While the show was still airing on NBC, Mr. Parker appeared in the movie Smoky in 1966. Following the show he appeared in the television Climb an Angry Mountain in 1972. In 1974 he made a pilot for a new series, The Fess Parker Show, but it did not sell. The Fess Parker Show would be Fess Parker's last acting job. He afterwards retired from acting to concentrate on his business interests. He eventually opened the Fess Parker Family Winery and Vineyard, producing a number of award winning wines.

Fess Parker's career was fairly limited. Indeed, he is best known for playing two frontiersmen, Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone. These two roles were characteristic of most of the roles in which Mr. Parker appeared, most of which were in frontier dramas and Westerns. That having been said, Mr. Parker played such roles very well, with a conviction few others actor would have had. And although he played only a few other sorts of parts, Mr. Parker always did well in them. Although best known as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, he was capable of much more.

As to myself, Fess Parker was of one of the first actors of whom I was aware. I grew up watching Daniel Boone religiously. Later in my childhood I discovered he played another frontiersman, Davy Crockett, in reruns on The Wonderful World of Disney. In both cases he played the sort of characters a boy could not help but admire--brave, strong, honest, honourable. As both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, Fess Parker was very convincing. While I realise Mr. Parker was not a young man, I must confess that tonight I do find myself sad at his passing.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

I Don't Celebrate St. Patrick's Day

Today is St. Patrick's Day. There were parades in many major cities, including New York, Chicago, Boston, and several others. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans wore green today. Bars serve green beer. Chicago even dyes the Chicago River green. And while thousands of people celebrated this day, I did not.

It's not that I have anything against St. Patrick's Day or St. Patrick. That having been said, as I see it, unless one happens to be Irish, Nigerian (he is the patron saint of Nigeria), Montserratian (he is the patron saint of Montserrat), Catholic, an engineer, or a paralegal, there is not too much point in celebrating the holiday. Since I am none of those things (my mother's family made it through 400 years of living in North America without marrying any Irishmen; my father's family 300 years without marrying any), I don't see any real need to celebrate St. Patrick's Day. To me it would be no different than celebrating Songkran. Since I am not Thai or Buddhist, I don't celebrate that holiday either.

Of course, in the United States the fact that I do not celebrate St. Patrick's day does cause some problems. Here these seems to be an assumption that everyone celebrates the day, at least if they are Northern European descent. For that reason I do get asked very often why I am not wearing green (I do not get pinched--the people who know me know better than that) and if I am eating corned beef (the answer to which is, "No," I never eat corned beef). And most seem mystified as to why I show no real enthusiasm for the day. It does get tiresome explaining that as I am neither Irish nor Catholic, I see no reason to celebrate St. Patrick's Day.

Do not get me wrong. I certainly don't want to rain on anyone's parade. I know that traditions and customs are important to me, so I do want those who celebrate St. Patrick's Day to enjoy the day and have a lot of fun. I fully realise that St. Patrick's Day is very important to many and that in this country it is a de facto major holiday (I suspect that more people celebrate St. Patrick's Day rather than the legally recognised Labour Day). At the same time I do wish those who celebrate St. Patrick's Day would be a little more considerate to those of us who do not celebrate the day. Do not ask us why we are not wearing green or if we are going to eat corned beef. Do not expect us to go drinking green beer on the night of St. Patrick's Day. Simply let us go about our day as we do every day. For my part, I will not ask you why you are not wearing a leek or a daffodil come next St. David's Day.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Actor Peter Graves Passes On

Actor Peter Graves, best known for his role as Jim Phelps on the classic series Mission: Impossible, passed yesterday at the age of 83.

Peter Graves was born Peter Aurness in Minneapolis on March 18, 1926. His older brother James Arness, best known as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke, preceded him into acting. To avoid confusion with his brother, He adopted his grandfather's last name. Graves served for two years in the United States Air Force before studying drama at the University of Minnesota. He worked in summer stock before he moved to Hollywood to pursue acting there. Having appeared in an uncredtied role in Winning Your Wings, his first credited role was in Rouge River in 1951.

Peter Graves appeared in roles in such films as Up Front (1951),  Fort Defiance (1951), The Congregation (1952), and Red Planet Mars (1952). He made his television debut in Gruen Guild Playhouse in 1952. It was in 1953 that he appeared in one of his most famous roles, as Price in Stalag 17. He appeared in the films War Paint (1953) and East of Sumatra (1953). In 1953 he was a regular on the short lived show Where's Raymond, starring Ray Bolger.

For much of the Fifties Peter Graves appeared frequently on television, guest starring on such shows as Schlitz Playhouse of the Stars, The Pepsi-Cola Playhouse, Biff Baker U.S.A., Studio 57, Hallmark Hall of Fame, Fireside Theatre, Studio One, The Millionaire, Lux Video Theatre, and Climax. In 1955 Graves was cast in the role of Jim Newton on the series Fury. The show ran for five years and 116 episodes. He also appeared in such films as The Raid (1954), Black Tuesday (1954), The Long Grey Line (1955), Wichita (1955), The Court Martial of Billy Mitchell (1955), It Conquered the World (1956), and Wolf Larsen (1958). He had a significant role in the classic Night of the Hunter.

As the Sixties opened Peter Graves was cast as the lead in the short lived series Whiplash. He guest starred on such shows as Route 66, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Virginian, Branded, Run For Your Life, and Daniel Boone. In 1965 he was cast as the lead in the short lived series Court Martial. It was in 1967 that he was cast as Jim Phelps, head of the Impossible Missions Force, on the series Mission: Impossible. He replaced Steven Hill, the original lead on the show who played Impossible Missions Force leader Dan Briggs. Graves became the one constant on the series, appearing in it until its run ended in 1973. He also appeared in such films as A Rage to Live (1965), The Ballad of Josie (1967), and Sergeant Ryker (1968). He made his only appearance on Broadway in 1962 in The Captains and the Kings.

The Seventies saw Peter Graves appearing in several television movies, including The President's Plane is Missing, Scream of the Wolf, The Underground Man, Dead Man on the Run, SST: Death Flight, and The Gift of the Magi. He appeared in such  films as Sidecar Racers (1975) and The Clonus Horror (1979). In 1980 he appeared in one of his best known roles, as the pilot in the film Airplane. The Eighties saw Graves appear in the films The Guns and the Fury (1981), Savannah Smiles (1982), Airplane II: The Sequel (1982), and Number One with a Bullet (1987). On television he appeared in the mini-series The Winds of War. He guest starred on Simon & Simon, Fantasy Island, Murder She Wrote, and Life with Lucy. In 1988 he returned to the role of Jim Phelps in a revival of Mission: Impossible. It lasted until 1990. The Nineties saw Graves guest star on The Golden Girls, Burke's Law, and Diagnosis Murder. He appeared in the film Addams Family Values (1993).  The Naughts saw Peter Graves guest star on House and American Dad. He had a recurring role on the show Seventh Heaven. From 1994 to 2006 he was the host of the A&E series Biography. He had a cameo in the movie Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003).

The image most have of Peter Graves is that of the strong, straight arrow hero. And this comprised most of the roles he played in his career. But Graves could play other sorts of roles, as shown by two of his most famous films. In Stalag 17 Graves played the slightly shady barrack security chief Price. In Airplane he played the bumbling pilot Clarence Oveur, who uttered non sequiturs and one liners. Peter Graves was very good at playing the straight shooting hero, but he was capable of other roles as well. If Mission: Impossible became a hit, it was largely because of Peter Graves' talent.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

My Mother the Car

Even nearly forty five years after it debuted, My Mother the Car still tops lists of the "Worst Shows of All Time." In many reviews from when it debuted in 1965, it was even referred to as "the worst show of all time." So atrocious was My Mother the Car considered that it even provided Johnny Carson with jokes for over a decade. To this day, when individuals look for examples of atrocious television shows, My Mother the Car is often cited. Perhaps no other show has such a poor reputation.

To be honest, the show did have one of the strangest premises of all time in television. The show centred on lawyer Dave Crabtree (Jerry Van Dyke) who was shopping for a station wagon in a used car lot when he discovered his mother had been reincarnated as a 1928 Porter automobile. Dave's mother talked to him through car's radio, its dial light flashing in sequence to her words (the car was voiced by Ann Southern). Dave took the Porter to a restoration shop (the car had become dilapidated over the years), where it came to the attention of ruthless car collector Captain Manzini (Avery Schreiber). Manzini became a recurring villain on the show, developing various schemes to get his hands on the car.

Surprisingly enough for a show considered by many to be the worst show of all time, My Mother the Car was created by Allan Burns and Chris Hayward. The two had previous worked on the classics Rocky and His Friends and The Bullwinkle Show. They would go onto work as story editors on the critically acclaimed He & She and write for Get Smart. Allan Burns would eventually create The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant, both with James L. Brooks. Chris Hayward would write for Barney Miller and created the series A.E.S. Hudson Street. Among the writers on the show was none other than James L. Brooks, who would create Room 222, co-create The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Lou Grant with Allan Burns, and was one of the creators of Taxi. He has also worked in feature films (Starting Over, Terms of Endearment, and so on).

Even at the time the premise of My Mother the Car was thought preposterous by many, but given the television milieu of the Sixties it was not that unusual in some ways. After all, the Sixties had begun with a sitcom about a talking horse, Mister Ed. By 1964 there would be shows about a Martian (My Favourite Martian), a witch (Bewitched), a family of monsters (The Munsters), and a family that was just plain macabre (The Addams Family). That Allan Burns and Chris Hayward would think of a show in which one's mother was reincarnated as a car is not that strange given the scheme of things in the Sixties. And the show could have been even stranger. Originally it was to have been Crabtree's dead wife that had been reincarnated as the car, but it was decided that smacked too much of necrophilia.

The lead on the show, Jerry Van Dyke had guest starred on his brother's series, The Dick Van Dyke Show. He had also appeared in the films The Courtship of Eddie's Father, McLintock, and Palm Springs Weekend. He had been offered the role of Gilligan in Gilligan's Island, but turned it down because he thought the pilot script was bad. The fact that Gilligan's Island became a hit may or may not have influenced his decision to do My Mother the Car. Reportedly Jean Arthur and Eve Arden had been auditioned as the voice of Mother, but the role eventually went to Ann Southern. Southern was a veteran actress of Hollywood, having appeared in several feature films and starred in the "Maisie" series. She was also a veteran of television who had already starred in two series of her own: Private Secretary and The Ann Southern Show. As to why Southern took the role, it was the simple case of an easy pay cheque. She could simply record her lines and did not have to worry about makeup, wardrobe, or anything else.

As to the car itself, according to producer Rod Amateau it was named for Ann Southern's co-star from Private Secretary, Don Porter. Here I must point out, that in reality at least two different companies had manufactured cars under the Porter marque. A short lived steam powered automobile was manufactured under the Porter marque by the Porter Automobile Co. from 1900 to 1901. More conventional, gasoline powered cars were made under the Porter marque by American and British Manufacturing Corporation from 1919 to 1922. Regardless, the car in the show was not an actual 1928 Porter, but the creation of car customiser George Barris (who also designed The Munster's coach and later the Batmobile). The car was built using parts from various vintage cars including a Model T, a Maxwell, a Hudson, and a Chevrolet. Another car was also built, with removable floorboard and equipment so that someone could drive the car without being seen, for those scenes in which Mother drove herself.

Regardless of the talent involved in the show, My Mother the Car debuted to disastrous reviews. Its ratings were not much better, although it did prove popular with young viewers. In the end, My Mother the Car lasted only one season and thirty episodes. It went off the air in September, 1966. Having run only one season, it did not have enough episodes for a healthy syndication run. Since then it has rarely been seen.

It was several years ago that I had the opportunity to see a few episodes of the show when Joel Stein was a guest programmer for Trio. Since then I have watched a few episodes online (it is available at both Hulu and TV.Com). I must say that I was surprised when I first saw it. The show does not live up to its bad reputation. The quality of the episodes are sometimes hit and miss, but it is hardly the worst show of all time. Indeed, I can think of many of shows that are much, much worse (The Facts of Life and the recent CBS sitcom Yes, Dear being two of them). For me the question then becomes why critics in 1965 attacked My Mother the Car so and why has it maintained its reputation as one of the worst shows of all time.

I think the answer is that critics were simply reacting to the show's premise rather than the quality of the show itself. Let's face it, even by the standards of Sixties television, the idea of someone's mother returning from the grave as a car was very, very strange. This was complicated by the fact that critics in the Sixties could be extremely hypercritical of any show whose premise they disliked. Indeed, it must be considered that both The Beverly Hillbillies and Gilligan's Island, now considered classics by some, received some of the worst reviews of all time. What separates those two shows from My Mother the Car is that they became hits and have been rerun ever since. With a bizarre premise, receiving some of the worst reviews any show ever has, lasting only a single season, and having been rarely seen since, My Mother the Car never had the chance for reappraisal.

Of course, now My Mother the Car can be watched, in its entirety, online. It will be interesting to see if over the next several years its reputation will change. With over forty years of bad press, I am not sure it will. Regardless, while I would not consider My Mother the Car a classic, it is not the worst show of all time by any stretch of the imagination.