Saturday, December 30, 2006

The 1992-1993 CBS Monday Night Schedule

In the history of television I can think of very few perfect nights when it comes to American network broadcasting, nights when every single show on a given night and on a particular network was good. In my opinion one of the few times this occurred was during the 1992-1993 season, when CBS had a perfect Monday night lineup.

In some respects it does not surprise me that CBS would have a perfect Monday night lineup that season. While they aired some bad shows on Monday night throughout the Eighties and early Nineties (does anyone out there remember My Sister Sam or Major Dad?), for the most part CBS had been on a roll when it came to that night for some time. Throughout the Eighties Monday night on CBS had been home to M*A*S*H, Newhart, and Designing Women. Indeed, the making of CBS's perfect Monday night lineup during the 1992-1993 season can be traced back to the 1988-1989 season, when Murphy Brown debuted. During the 1992-1993 season, Murphy Brown was the oldest TV show on CBS's Monday night lineup. It was also still very much in its prime.

CBS's Monday night lineup during the 1992-1993 season opened with Evening Shade. The series had debuted during the 1990 season on Friday night, but eventually moved to Monday night where it spent the rest of its run. On the surface Evening Shade had everything going for it. It was created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. who had also created Designing Women. Its cast featured several big names. Set in Evening Shade, Arkansas, it featured movie star Burt Reynolds as a former pro football player who had returned home to coach high school football. His wife was played by Taxi veteran Marilu Henner. The cast was filled out by movie stars Hal Holbrook, Ossie Davis (whose character narrated the series), and Charles Durning, as well as character actor Michael Jeter. Not only did the show have a great cast, but Evening Shade also boasted some of the best scripts of any sitcom on at the time. Quite frankly, it was one of the funniest shows of its time.

Unfortunately, despite its big name cast and stellar scripts, Evening Shade did not meet with a good deal of success. Its rating, although hardly bottom of the barrel, did not make it one of television's biggest hits. The series ended its run after only four years and has only been seen in reruns sporadically ever since. I find this sad, as it is a show that deserves to be seen by as many people as possible.

Following Evening Shade on Monday night during the 1992-1993 season was another creation of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The series featured John Ritter and Markie Post as a married couple who also happen to be a senator's aide and a political reporter respectively. The cast was rounded out by Billy Bob Thornton (before he became famous) and Ed Asner. The series was a combination of romantic comedy (the relationship between Ritter and Post's characters being central to its premise) and a satire on current, political affairs. Like Evening Shade, it featured some of the best writing on television at the time. Sadly, it was never a huge hit. The series lasted only three years before going off the air. It hasn't been seen very much in reruns since then, although it is now available on DVD.

As mentioned earlier, Murphy Brown was the oldest of the shows on CBS's 1992-1993 Monday night lineup. Created by Diane English and debuting in the fall of 1988, the series focused on the title character played by Candace Bergen. Murphy was an outspoken anchor and investigative reporter for the fictional news magazine FYI. Set in Washington D.C., the show was well known for taking potshots at both the American political scene and American television. In 1992 the series was both at the height of its success and the height of its notoriety. During the 1991-1992 season, Murphy, unmarried at the time, discovered that she was pregnant. During the 1992 [residential campaign, then vice president Dan Quayle attacked the series in a speech given that May as "...mocking the importance of fathers..." If Quayle's intention was to persuade Americans not to watch the series, he failed miserably. Even more viewers tuned into the series. I might also add, the series seemed to get even better after it had been singled out by the Vice President--it produced some of its funniest episodes during this season. At any rate, Murphy Brown ran another six years (for a total of ten years on the air) and went onto a healthy afterlife in reruns and on DVD.

Following Murphy Brown was a new sitcom, Love and War. Created by Diane English, the series focused on a restaurant owner (played by Susan Dey) who has an off again, on again relationship with a self centred sports writer (played by Jay Thomas). Arguably, its first season was also its worst season--I've always thought Susan Dey had all the charisma of a block of a wood. That having been said, Jay Thomas and the patrons of the restaurant (including the hilarious Joel Murray as Ray) were fantastic. The series improved greatly when Dey left and the talented Annie Potts joined the cast with the 1993-1994 season, but even in its first season it was a good show. Unfortunately, it only lasted three years.

CBS's Monday night during the 1992-1993 season was closed by Northern Exposure. The show debuted as a summer replacement series in July of 1990, garnering such a following that it made its way onto CBS's 1990-1991 fall schedule. It was one of the few summer replacement shows in the history of television to have actually been picked up for the fall. At any rate, it had a distinguished lineage. Its creators, Joshua Brand and John Falsey, had been producers on St. Elsewhere. The series centred around New York lawyer Joel Fleischman, who finds himself in the small town of Cicely, Alaska as a means to pay for his medical education. Fleischman is not only a fish out of water in this new environment (Cicely not only being a small town, but a very eccentric one at that), but finds himself romantically drawn to pilot Maggie O'Connell (played by Janine Turner), who is in many ways his polar opposite. While Fleischman would appear to be the central character on the show, Northern Exposure was largely an ensemble series, with one of the best ensembles on television. There was Ed (Darren E. Burrows), the young, aspiring Native American filmmaker, Marilyn (Elaine Miles), Fleischman's unusually quiet receptionist, Chris Stevens (John Corbett), the philosophical radio personality and ex-con, Holling Vincouer (John Collum), the owner of the local eatery (The Brick), and too many others to name. Northern Exposure was essentially an intellectual show with elements of both comedy and drama. It often explored existential themes and even employed fantasy and dream sequences, and there were even episodes which flashed back to Cicely's past. Its influences ranged from psychologist Carl Jung to Native American culture to mythologist Joseph Campbell to the TV series Twin Peaks to the works of Kafka and Dostoevsky. Not only did the show receive fairly good ratings for much of its run, but it also received many awards, including Emmys and Golden Globes. The show ran for five years before going onto a successful afterlife in rerun and on DVD.

Sadly, this lineup would not last. With the 1993-1994 season, the inferior Dave's World would take the place of Hearts Afire on Monday night. By the 1994-1995 season Evening Shade would be off the air. Indeed, while I obviously consider all of these shows good, it is worth noting that only Murphy Brown had a long run. Northern Exposure had the second longest run, at around five and a half seasons. Sadly, the rest ran at most three to four years. Worse yet, only Murphy Brown and Northern Exposure would see any success in syndication. The rest simply disappeared from the television landscape. Unfortunately, the quality of a show does not always guarantee its longevity. And at least three out of the five series are on DVD: Hearts Afire, Murphy Brown, and Northern Exposure. Perhaps eventually Love and War and Evening Shade will find their way on DVD as well.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band (the Movie, NOT the Album)

Tonight, in the interest of history, my best friend and I finally broke down and watched Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. Both of us being die hard Beatles fans, we had actively boycotted the movie ever since it debuted in 1978. Of course, as pop culture historians, we both realised that sooner or later we would have watch to the film.

For those of you who have, fortunately, never heard of the film, Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band stars Peter Frampton and The Bee Gees as the band of the title. On paper I suppose the project sounded like a good idea. Both Frampton and The Bee Gees were at the height of their careers, and the music of The Beatles was, as always, hugely popular. That having been said, it soon became apparent that what seemed like a good idea on paper was not so good an idea in reality. Indeed, producer Robert Stigwood fired the original director, Chris Bearde (a comedy writer best known for his work on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour and hired Michael Schulz (best known for Car Wash). Even The Bee Gees begged to be released from the project, to no avail.

None of this boded well for the film. When it was released in 1978, it was to universally bad reviews and an indifferent audience. Despite the continued popularity of The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton, it bombed at the box office. And there is no wonder it failed. Quite frankly, even though I had heard the movie was bad over the years and even expected it to be so, nothing prepared me for this. It is much worse than I ever expected. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has only a shoestring of a plot, which is at times incomprehensible as well as nearly nonexistent. Worse yet, the characters speak no dialogue...the plot is largely conveyed through the narration of George Burns as Mr. Kite. Of course, this is probably just as well. While Frampton and The Bee Gees speak no dialouge, it is still readily apparent that they lack acting talent. Frampton is incapable of even so much as convincingly looking soulful and The Bee Gees are wooden.

Of course, all of this would be forgivable if the music was actually good. One would think that with the great George Martin, The Beatles' producer, who arranged the songs, that the music would at least be acceptable. Sadly, it is not. The Beatles songs as performed by The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton effectively have the life sucked out of them to the point that they are bubblegum rather than rock 'n' roll. Indeed, they turn "Nowhere Man," one of The Beatles very best songs in my opinion, into an adult contemporary tune! And while The Bee Gees are perhaps best known for their vocal ability, it seems to me that this movie makes it readily apparent that John Lennon and Paul McCartney were actually the better singers. The Bee Gees' vocals are a far cry from the originals. While The Bee Gees and Peter Frampton hardly do The Beatles' songs justice, at least they are not nearly as bad as some of the other performers. "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is turned into a disco song (who would have even thought it possible...) by a group called Stargard, who were unknown at the time and have remained so ever since. "You Never Give Me Your Money" is also ruined by Diane Steinberg of Stargard and a total unknown, Paul Nicholas, whose film career never quite got off the ground before or after this film. "When I'm 64" is turned into a novelty number with British comedian Frankie Howard (who plays the villainous Mr. Mustard) singing the vocals--the only problem is that it isn't so much funny as painful. One would have hoped that the music in this movie would have been its saving grace. Unfortunately, it is not. In fact, it could be the worst thing about the whole film.

That is not to say that the movie doesn't have its good points. The movie's highpoint is Aerosmith's classic rendition of "Come Together." Ironically, not only does Aerosmith give the movie's best performance (they bring out the sleaze in "Come Together" in a way that Lennon never did), but they also put the viewer in the dubious position of rooting for the bad guys! Another highpoint is Steve Martin's performance of "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a rather bizarre Busby Berkley sequence in the evil Dr. Edison's clinic and one of the few funny moments in the film. Earth, Wind, and Fire's version of "Got to Get You into My Life" is also great--they bring out the soul in a song that is basically soul to begin with. Finally, Billy Preston--the only one of the musical performers to actually work with The Beatles--delivers a show stopping version of "Get Back." Individually, the sequences featuring Aerosmith, Steve Martin, Earth, Wind, and Fire, and Billy Preston are great. Sadly, they do not make up for a movie that is abysmal at best.

Needless to say, unless you want to do so out of historical interest, I cannot recommend watching this movie, even if some of the performances are worthwhile. If you do chose to watch Robert Stigwood's Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, be prepared to find yourself rolling your eyes and groaning a good deal, not to mention heckling some of the worst parts of the film. Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band has made some lists of the worst movies of all time, and I can honestly say that dubious honour is entirely warranted.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Sixties

With the New Year only a few days away it seems natural to engage in a bit of nostalgia. Today I find myself thinking back to the decade of the Sixties. My memories of the Sixties are very fuzzy. After all, I was born in 1963, making me only six years old when the decade ended. Much of what I know about the Sixties then stems from books I've read, TV shows I've seen, and so on. Still, I can't help but think that pop culture reached its pinnacle in that decade.

Indeed, it seems to me as if nearly medium that existed at the time was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. It was a time of fresh, original ideas, and a time of unbridled energy. Much of this seems odd to me in a way, as the Sixties was also a very tumultuous decade. It was not simply an era of long hair and love beads. By the middle of the decade the Vietnam War was well underway, as were the growing protests against it. Riots were not unheard of in the Sixties. Some were associated with race, such as those in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles and on 12th Street in Detroit. Others were associated with the politics of the day, such as the one at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I can easily understand why some might view the Sixties as a dark period in American history.

Despite this, I have to disagree that it was a dark period. As I said earlier, it seems to me as if almost every medium was going through some sort of Golden Age or Silver Age. And while the headlines in the Sixties could sometimes be bleak, it seems to me that there was a good deal of optimism in the air. The space programme was well underway and man reached the moon in 1969. And behind the various protests, there seems to me to have been the idea that one could ultimately change the world for the better. I think much of this optimism in the face of what were sometimes rough times was ultimately responsible for the high quality seen in the various media in the Sixties.

Indeed, I honestly think the heyday of American television may well have been the Sixties. There are many who identify the Golden Age of television as roughly being in the Fifties. Given the high quality of many of the dramatic anthologies (such as Playhouse 90 and Studio One), it is hard for me to argue with that. That having been said, however, I think the Golden Age of series television may well have been the Sixties. It seems to me that the decade produced more classic TV shows with continuing characters than any other. I must admit that if I were to make a list of the greatest sitcoms of all time, most of those shows on the list would have either debuted or aired during the Sixties: The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bewitched, Gilligan's Island, Get Smart, The Monkees, The Addams Family, and Batman. Of course, the Sixties was also the heyday of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and action-adventure oriented programming. It was the era of Thriller, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Wild Wild West, and Star Trek. Indeed, some of the best comedies (including some of those listed above) were also fantasies. The Sixties was also a time when the American networks would actually air some of the best British shows of all time, including The Avengers, Danger Man (once under its original title, later under the title Secret Agent, The Saint, and The Prisoner. And while most people think of spies and beautiful, blonde genies when they think of the Sixties, it did produce some quality dramas. The Defenders, Route 66, The Fugitive, and Bonanza all aired during the decade.

Indeed, I have to say that quite frankly I think even the commercials were better in the Sixties. This was the era when a shining knight would "zap" clothes clean in ads for Ajax laundry detergent. It was also the time when ads for Hai Karate asserted that the cologne made men so irresistible to women that they'd have to fight them off. It was also an era of animated ad spokesmen, from Tony the Tiger to Cap'n Crunch. I don't think commercials have been nearly so good ever since.

While I suppose some might disagree with my assessment of the Sixties as the Golden Age of Series Television, it is agreed by most fans that it was the Silver Age of Comic Books. This was the era during which DC Comics revived some of their biggest names in new forms. The Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkman, and The Atom were all revived during this time. For better or worse, the TV show Batman (a classic in its own right, but hardly representative of the original Caped Crusader) fueled new interest in the Dark Knight. And while DC Comics was creating new characters based on Golden Age ones, Marvel Comics was introducing entirely new characters and a new approach to comic books. The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Daredevil, and most of Marvel's classic line-up were introduced in the Sixties. What set Marvel Comics' characters apart from any superheroes that went before them is that they actually had personal problems. Indeed, some could be considered downright neurotic. And it must be kept in mind that DC and Marvel were not the only comic book companies who saw a resurgence in the Sixties. Charlton, Archie, and Dell all tried their hands at superheroes, sometimes even with a small degree of success.

While comic books were going through their Silver Age, I would also say that pop music was as well. Of course, much of this was due to the British. In 1964, The Beatles arrived on American shores and changed American music forever. In their wake followed several classic bands, such The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Hollies, and many others. For a time, the British literally dominated the American pop charts. This is not to say that American music was not good in the Sixties; actually, it was better than it ever was before or since. This was the heyday of Motown, with such artists as Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder. And great American music did not end with Motown in the Sixties. This decade was when the late, great James Brown was at the height of his success. The decade also marked the first stirrings of power pop, in the forms of such bands as Paul Revere and the Raiders and The Monkees. Throughout the decade, rock music would get harder and harder until the subgenre later called "heavy metal" was developed. Such artists as Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, The Move, and others were fundamental in the development of the subgenre.

The Sixites also saw the publication of several books now considered classics. This was the period when To Kill a Mockingbird, Catch-22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest were all published during the decade. And while it was published earlier, it was in the Sixties that The Lord of the Rings first attracted widespread attention. It was also a good time for children's books. Such classics as A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, and The High King by Lloyd Alexander were all published in the Sixties.

I must also that the Sixties was a good decade for fashion. Okay, the bouffant hairstyle was definite hair don't, but by mid decade fashions were the best that they would be for fifty years. It was the era of the Mod look, with button-down shirts, wide lapels, kipper ties, turtlenecks, and flared pants all the rage for a time. And, of course, the decade also brought us the mini-skirt (the greatest fashion development in the 20th Century, in my humble opinion). The Sixties was the heyday of such designers as Mary Quant and Ben Sherman, when for a brief time Kings Road and Carnaby Street were the centre of the fashion world. Of course, later in the decade fashion would go downhill again, with such hippie fashions as love beads and sandals taking over, but for a time I think fashion was at its best in the Sixties.

The one medium I honestly think was not experiencing a heyday was the movie industry. Indeed, it seems to me that at that point the major studios were stuck in a rut. I honestly think they were out of touch with their audience and, as a result, were content to try to make movies similar to previous successes. The success of the classics Mary Poppins and My Fair Lady, and of the not so classic Sound of Music (I love the songs, but hate the movie) would lead Hollywood to try a number of big budget musicals that would bomb at the box office (Dr. Doolittle comes to mind....). That is not to say that the Sixties did not produce its share of classic films. This was the Golden Age of the action movie in my mind, with such classics as The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Planet of the Apes being released during the decade. It was also a good time for comedies, particularly spoofs. This was the era of Dr. Strangelove, A Hard Days Night, The President's Analyst, Cat Ballou, and many others. The Sixties was also a time when filmmakers pushed the envelope as to what was permissible in films, to the point that the Motion Picture Association of America finally replaced their Production Code with a ratings system. It was during this period that the movies Bonnie and Clyde and The Dirty Dozen upped the ante on screen violence, that the movies Ulysses and I'll Never Forget What's His Name let slip "the big one, the queen-mother of dirty words (as it is called in A Christmas Story)," and films from The Graduate to the Bond movies were a bit more frank about sex than movies made in earlier eras were. Of course, whether all of this is a good thing or a bad thing I guess depends on one's point of view.

Quite simply, it seems to that almost every medium that existed at the time was hitting on all six cylinders in the Sixties. To me, this is when television and music were at their very best, and comic books and books were nearly so. I can't think of any other decade that was quite so productive when it came to creating high quality pop culture artefacts. Sadly, it was not to the last. As the Sixties wound down, the British Invasion came to an end, Motown started producing fewer hits, television started airing more mundane fare, and the comic book industry stopped churning out new superheroes. Eventually, the Sixties would give way to the Seventies, when it seems to me that television, music, and especially fashion were at low ebb. I guess it really is true...all good things must come to an end.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Lionel Jeffersion, the Godfather of Soul, and Dr. Stanton

I swear that this December more celebrities have died than have in a long while. And while some of them have not been that famous, others (such as Joseph Barbera and Peter Boyle) have been living legends. Recently, three more people died and as usual I feel the need to eulogise them.

Mike Evans died before Christmas, but I decided to hold off on a eulogy for him until after the holiday. For those of you wondering who Mike Evans is, he played Lionel Jefferson on both All in the Family and The Jeffersons and was the co-creator of the TV series Good Times. He died at the age of 57 from throat cancer on December 14.

Mike Evans was born in Salisbury, North Carolina on November 3, 1949. His father was a dentist, his mother a teacher. While still a child the family moved to Los Angeles. He attended Los Angeles High and was attending Los Angeles City College when he was cast as Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. The Jeffersons (except for George, played by Sherman Hemsley) first appeared on All in the Family in 1971 as the Bunkers' neighbours. The characters proved so popular that they were spun off into their own series, The Jeffersons, in 1975. The series was successful enough to run 14 seasons. Evans appeared on The Jeffersons until its second season, when his responsibilities on Good Times forced him to give up the role. Following the cancellation of that show, he returned to The Jeffersons as Lionel.

With Eric Monte, Evans created the series Good Times. Although it was not initially meant to be so, Good Times became a spinoff of Maude after Esther Rolle was cast in the lead role (she had played Maude's maid, Florida). The series debuted in 1974 and ran until 1979. It was unique in being one of the few sitcoms about a poor African American family, and it may well have been the last such show on network television.

In addition to his work on The Jeffersons and Good Times, Evans also appeared on the miniseries Rich Man, Poor Man and Love American Style.

The Jeffersons remains one of my favourite sitcoms from the Seventies, and Evans was perfectly cast as Lionel. And while my memories of Good Times are not quite so fond, I must admit that for its first few seasons it was a good show (it eventually went downhill, in my humble opinion). In both playing Lionel Jefferson and co-creating Good Times, then, Evans made some significant contributions to American television in the Seventies. I must say that it is very sad to hear that he died.

Of course, while Mike Evans is not a household name, James Brown most certainly is. In a career that lasted over 50 years, Brown was one of the most influential singers of all time, he was known as the Godfather of Soul for his impact on that particular genre. Brown died yesterday at the age of 73 from heart failure brought on by pneumonia.

Brown was born May 3, 1933 in Barnwell, South Carolina. His family moved to Augusta, Georgia while he was still young. His family was poor and as a child he both picked cotton and shined shoes to help make money. At age 16 he was convicted of armed robbery and sent to a juvenile detention facility. Following his release, Brown tried both boxing and baseball before taking up music.

Initially, he performed in a gospel group called The Gospel Starlighters, alongside the sister of Bobby Byrd, perhaps most famous as Brown's co-vocalist and sideman, but eventually he joined the Avons. Changing from gospel to rhythm and blues, the group was renamed the Fabulous Flames. Eventually signed with King Records, their first single "Please, Please, Please," written by Brown and Johnny Terry, went to #5 on Billboard's R & B charts in 1956. Sadly, James Brown and the Fabulous Flames had trouble following up "Please, Please, Please." They were in danger of being booted from King Records when in 1957 they had their first #1 hit, "Try Me." Even Brown's earliest work showed influence from Little Richard, who helped Brown in his rise to the top, although they also showed a heavy use of rhythm and extreme vocals. Not only would Brown's songs have a huge impact on soul music, but they would also help shape the music form that would become known as "funk."

Entering the Sixties, James Brown came into his own. Not only would his song "Night Train" go to #5 on the R & B charts, it would also become a soul standard. It was also the first song that would characterise what most people consider "the James Brown sound." With the success of "Night Train," Brown would have a string of hits in the Sixites and would even see success on the pop charts. "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag," one of the songs most identified with the Godfather of Soul, was released in 1965. The song not only went to #1 on the R & B charts, but also hit the top ten on the pop charts. Brown followed up the success of "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag" with "I Got You (I Feel Good)," released the same year. Brown's success also gave him greater exposure. In 1965 he appeared in the films Ski Party and The T.A.M.I. Show. He would also appear on the TV shows Shindig, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Hollywood Palace.

As the Sixties progressed, Brown not only refined his style, but the content of his songs also became more serious. "Say It Loud--I'm Black and Proud" and "I Don't Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I'll Get It Myself)" both addressed the position of blacks in American society. Brown continued to have hits into the mid-Seventies, although by the late Seventies, his career was in decline. While Brown would continue to tour and make television appearances, he would never again see the success that he did in the mid to late Sixties.

It is hard to sum up the career of James Brown, quite simply because his influence was so great. Although called the "Godfather of Soul," his influence extends well beyond that genre of music. He also had an impact on rock and can be credited as one of the creators of funk. Indeed, as a measure of his influence, Brown hit the Billboard charts more than any other artist without hitting #1. Among the diverse artists Brown had an influence on were soul groups Booker T and the MGs, The Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, jazz musician Miles Davis, rock group The Rolling Stones, Prince, and funk artist George Clinton (of Parliament fame). Quite simply, Brown's influence transcended genres to the point that he is probably one of the most influential musical artists of the 20th century. One thing is certain, he won't soon be forgotten.

The day before James Brown died also saw another man die whose influence cannot be measured. Dr. Frank Stanton died at the age of 98 on December 24. For those who have never heard of him, Stanton was a legendary broadcaster who, alongside its founder William S. Paley, turned CBS into the most powerful American television network in the Fifties and the Sixties.

Dr. Stanton was born in Muskegon, Michigan on March 20, 1908. His father was a woodworking and mechanics teacher. The family moved to Dayton, Ohio while he was still young. While still a child, Dr. Stanton learned electronics. Going to college he meant to be a physician, but found medical school too expensive. Having received his bachelor's degree at Ohio Wesleyan, he then received a master's degree at Ohio State in psychology. While he worked on his PhD, he experimented with various way to measure audiences for radio. He developed a device that could be plugged into a radio and register which station someone was listening to. Quite simply, it was a forerunner of Nielsen's audimeter and the first device to qualitatively measure a programme's appeal. This brought him to the attention of CBS, who offered him a job in their research department (which then consisted of only two men). Having received his PhD, Stanton went to work for CBS.

Dr. Stanton's knowledge of psychology proved formidable in the field of radio. He was able to chose programmes that would not only attract audiences, but advertisers as well. He was also able to persuade affiliates to leave NBC for CBS. This knowledge helped Dr. Stanton in his career at CBS. By 1938 he became their research director and the research department now boasted 100 employees. It was also with this knowledge that Dr. Stanton created what is known as "block programming." In his research he noted that by airing similar programmes one after the other, a network could increase its ratings. Stanton then persuaded CBS to air similar programmes in blocks. The practice soon became established in radio programming and would be a part of television from the beginning.

By 1945 Dr. Stanton was vice president and general manager of CBS. By 2946 he was its president. Dr. Stanton and CBS's chairman and founder William S. Paley divided the responsibilities of running the network between themselves. Stanton would handle such things as the company's organisation and policies while Paley handled programming entertainment. Among the first things Stanton did was to reorganise CBS. He divided the network into divisions for radio, television, and research CBS Laboratories. The other networks would follow CBS' lead in using their model for organisation.

Dr. Stanton was also pivotal in the effort to bring colour to television. Alongside actor Robert Alda, actress Faye Emerson, TV personality Arthur Godfrey, columnist and TV show host Ed Sulivan, and CBS founder and chairman William S. Paley, he appeared on Premeire, a TV special introducing CBS's colour sequential system for colour television. Unfortunately for CBS, their system was incompatible with black and white sets, so the FCC ultimately chose RCA's system.

Dr. Stanton's power at CBS was such that he even helped shape the network's look. He oversaw the creation of CBS's "eye" logo, designed by graphics artist William Golden. He also oversaw the design of the company's headquarters in New York. Dr. Stanton approved or vetoed all of the designs submitted to him by Golden, then creative director for the network. Between them, Golden and Dr. Stanton were responsible for he use of Didot Bodoni as CBS's primary typeface.

While Paley handled the entertainment programming and Dr. Stanton handled mostly news programming at CBS, he did sometimes venture into the entertainment realm, and his choices were almost always correct. It was Dr. Stanton who drew comic Jackie Gleason away from DuMont on the chance that he could bring in ratings for CBS. Dr. Stanton also saw to it that Arthur Godfrey made the transition from radio to television, even though Paley disliked Godfrey. His most lasting contribution to entertainment programming may have been overseeing the legendary anthology show Playhouse 90. Among the teleplays that aired on the show were Rod Sterling's Requiem for a Heavyweight, Judgement at Nuremberg, and The Miracle Worker.

Following Edward R. Murrow's lead, Dr. Stanton also encouraged CBS to make a greater commitment to public affairs. This would result in the CBS public affairs series CBS Reports and still later the news magazine 60 Minutes. He was also responsible for the fist televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon. He persuaded the FCC to suspend Section 315 of the Communications Act of 1934 (which requires equal time for political candidates) so that they could air the debate.

Dr. Stanton would also become an unofficial spokesman for the broadcasting industry. In the Seventies, when Nixon attacked the networks for their coverage of the Vietnam War, it was Dr. Stanton who most often defended the industry. In 1971 he also faced jail time. CBS had aired a documentary, The Selling of the Pentagon, which examined huge expenditures, not all of them legal, for the United States military. Subpoenaed by the House Commerce Committee to provide research materials for the documentary, Dr. Stanton refused on the grounds that news programming deserved protection under the First Amendment. Eventually, the House sided with Dr. Stanton against the committee.

Paley had promised Dr. Stanton the position of chairman and CEO at CBS upon his retirement. Unfortunately, this was not to be. Paley went back on his promise and Dr. Stanton served as the company's vice chairman from 1967 until 1973, when he retired. During his retirement he served as chairman of the American National Red Cross, and on the boards of the Carnegie Institution, the Lincoln Centre, the Stanford Research Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation. He remained on CBS's board until 1978.

There can be no doubt that Dr. Frank Stanton was pivotal in American television broadcasting. Alongside William S. Paley, he turned CBS into the Tiffany Network, for a time the most powerful network in the United States. For better or worse, he was a pioneer in measuring audiences, working in the field long before the Nielsen ratings. He was largely responsible for the growth of CBS News and hence the networks' expansion into news and public affairs. He created the modern day organisation of most television networks. And for many years he was the unofficial spokesman for the broadcast industry. Dr. Stanton was one of a number of figures, such as William S. Paley, David Sarnoff, Pat Weaver, and Edward R. Murrow, who largely made American broadcast television what it is today. We probably won't see his like again for some time.

Monday, December 25, 2006

A Holiday of Specials and Movies

Some people might find it odd, but I have always enjoyed spending Christmas Eve watching my favourite holiday specials and movies. Indeed, specials and movies have traditionally played an important role in our observation of the holidays. Yesterday, partly through planning and partly through sheer serendipity, I was able to watch some of my favourite Yuletide specials and movies.

Yesterday morning I just happened to come upon How the Grinch Stole Christmas on the Cartoon Network through sheer luck. And I feel very lucky to have found it. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is one of my favourite Christmas specials and my favourite holiday special created using cel animation. Of course, the special is based on upon the classic Dr. Seuss book of the same name. It was produced by Dr. Seuss and his old friend Chuck Jones, who also directed. It first aired in 1966 and has been a holiday staple ever since. And there is little wonder. It bears the unmistakable style of Dr. Seuss' illustrations, while at the same time featuring Chuck Jones' unmistakable animation style. And while the special expands upon the story, it is also very faithful to the book. As an added treat, the special was narrated by Boris Karloff and the vocalist for the songs was Thurl Ravenscroft (best known as the voice of Tony the Tiger). I don't think there has ever been a cel animation TV special ever so good, not A Charlie Brown Christmas, not Frosty the Snowman.

Watching Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer yesterday was hardly an accident, as I have it on DVD. It remains my favourite holiday special of all time. Today, after 42 years on the air, we tend to take the special for granted. In fact, I rather suspect that some probably think of it as sweet natured and sentimental. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Eschewing a more traditional holiday message, like the song upon which it is based, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer emphasises the right of one not to conform to other's expectations. Rudolph leaves Christmas Town rather hide his rather unique nose. Hermey the Elf quits to pursue his dream of a dentist rather than remain and make toys. And even after repeated viewings (I have at least seen it every year since I was four or five, maybe earlier), I still find Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quite funny. Indeed, I have no doubt some of the humour goes above most kids' heads.

Seeing Miracle on 34th Street was a bit more serendipity. Until I checked the TV schedule, I didn't realise that AMC was showing a marathon of both the original black and white version and the colourised version as well. I made sure to catch the black and white original (I will spare you a tirade against colourisaton for now...). Save for It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street is widely considered the greatest holiday movie of all time. And there is little wonder why it is. Miracle on 34th Street is actually a very complex movie. In telling the tale of an old man who believes he is Santa Claus (and may just be the genuine article), Miracle on 34th Street addresses such issues as the commercialisation of Christmas, the importance of faith, the importance of being oneself, and the importance of pursuing one's dream. Miracle on 34th Street is also very, very funny--I think many forget that it is essentially a comedy. Regardless, it has been remade at least four times (three times on television, and once in that dreadful 1994 version), although none of the remakes ever captured the magic of the original (especially the horrible 1994 remake).

Of course, I knew that NBC would show It's a Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve, as they have ever since they got exclusive rights to it. There can be no doubt that It's a Wonderful Life is considered a classic--in fact, it is widely thought to be the greatest Christmas movie of all time and even counted among the greatest movies of all time. Watching again for the umpteenth time, I can say that counting it as one of the greatest movies of all time is not mere hyperbole. Not only is the movie technically well made, but it also features one of the most moving stories of any movie ever made. And it does this without being overly sentimental or preachy (an accomplishment for director Frank Capra, who could at times be guilty of both). The movie is not only a tribute to the human spirit, but also the importance of friends and family and, especially, the significance of the individual (as Clarence says, "Strange, isn't it? Each man's life touches so many other lives. When he isn't around he leaves an awful hole, doesn't he?"). I don't think there has ever been any holiday movie that has ever been quite powerful or so moving.

I must also that watching A Christmas Story last night was also part of my plan--I knew that TBS always shows a marathon of the film on Christmas Eve each year. Aside from It's a Wonderful Life, A Christmas Story is perhaps my favourite holiday movie of all time. Quite simply A Christmas Story is one of the funniest Yuletide movies of all time. Who can't help but laugh as Ralphie, wanting an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle so much he can taste it, is repeatedly told by nearly every adult in the film (I think his father is the exception), "You'll shoot your eye out." Indeed, this movie has some of the funniest set pieces in film history. And what makes it funny is that nearly every American born in the mid to late 20th century has been there before. All of us have wanted things for Christmas that we were almost certain we would never get. All of us have uttered the forbidden word and found ourselves punished for it. All of us have gotten into fights at one time or another. While I suspect that most people think that A Christmas Story lacks an "important" message such as those that Miracle on 34th Street or It's a Wonderful Life possess, I must disagree. In showing a typical boy growing up in the mid-Twentieth century (from various clues, the movie would seem to be set in December 1940), who is part of a typical American family, the movie underscores the importance of the family in our society. The Parkers may not be perfect, but ultimately they do love each other. In telling how Ralphie pursued his dream of getting a Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas, it also underscores the importance of pursuing one's dreams, no matter how impossible.

It is perhaps significant that all of the specials and movies I watched yesterday are, well, old. It's a Wonderful Life was the oldest, released in 1946. A Christmas Story is the youngest, released in 1983. I must say that when it comes to holiday movies, the old adage that "They don't make 'em like they used to" holds true. To be honest, since A Christmas Story I can think of only one holiday movie released recently that might achieve classic status. For me The Polar Express captures the spirit of Christmas, particularly as it was in the mid Twentieth Century, perfectly, while being a technical marvel. I can think of no holiday movie made recently that matches it in quality. In fact, most of the ones released lately have been pretty dreadful. In fact, some have simply been mean spirited. It seems to me that lately Hollywood's idea of a good Christmas movie is one in which people are downright cruel to each (Deck the Halls was the latest in this rather depressing trend). I rather suspect that the major studios long ago forgot the meaning of Christmas. For that reason I think that they probably needed to watch the holiday specials and movies that I saw yesterday more than I did. It seems to me that they could certainly use a dose of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and It's a Wonderful Life.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Holiday Decorations

For many this is Christmas Eve, but for me this day has another significance. It was on this day that a very dear friend of mine was born. I do hope that she has a happy Yuletide and an even happier birthday.

Anyhow, this evening being what it is, I thought I would write about a suitable subject, namely holiday decorations. I covered the Christmas tree last year and Christmas lights just a few days ago. Now I thought that I would cover the rest. Decorations are very much a part of the holidays. Holly and mistletoe are mentioned in innumerable songs. In fact, decorating for the Yuletide is the theme of the classic carol "Deck the Halls."

In fact, it seems to me that decorating for the holidays goes so far back that it most likely predates the holiday of Christmas. Many of the traditions of our modern day Christmas celebration as we know it in the English speaking world probably started as part of the midwinter celebration known in Old English as Geol (modern English Yule), in Old Norse Jol, and so on among the various Germanic peoples. We don't know too much about how they celebrated Yule, but we do know that they did decorate for it. Grettis Saga Chapter 19 refers to the mistress of the house decorating it and readying it for the Yuletide. As to how the house was decorated, it doesn't say, but it seems likely to me that the use of holly, mistletoe, ivy, and other evergreens may stem from the celebration of Yule. I suspect that much of this may have been sheer practicality--flowers and other greenery not being available at this time of year in Northern Europe--but much of it may also have been due to the significance of these plants. Of course, mistletoe plays a role in myths about the death of Baldr. As to holly, it may too have been significant to the early Germanic peoples. Maxims I refers to the burning of holly with reference to the dead. This would seem more likely a pagan, rather than Christian custom. The use of evergreens would then seem most likely to stem from the pagan celebration of Yule rather than something that developed later as a part of the Christmas celebration.

Of course, other decorations than evergreens would be developed later. Among these would be the use tinsel, the thin gold or silver metallic strips used for decorations. Tinsel appears to have been developed in Germany in the 1600s. Even then I suspect that it was mostly used for decorating tannenbaums, although its use would spread beyond the trees. Many would use tinsel in lieu of the tradition boughs of holly for sprucing their houses come Yuletide.

While tinsel was the result of technological advancements, other Yuletide decorations were borrowed from yet other holidays. This is the case of Christmas stockings. According to legend, in the 4th century a noble despondent over his wife's death spent his entire fortune, leaving his daughters without a dowry. In those days this could well mean a spinster's life for a young woman. St. Nichols (Bishop of Myra in the 4th century) heard about this and came to the girls' rescue. He rode past their house and threw three sacks of gold up the chimney. The pouches landed in the girls' stockings (they had hung them by the fireplace to dry after being washed). It became part of the celebration of the Feast of St. Nicholas (December 6) to hang stockings by the fireplace in expectations of gifts from the Saint. Because St. Nicholas' day occurred so close to the Yuletide, many of its traditions were absorbed into the celebration of Christmas.

Of course, one popular holiday decoration originates from the fact that Christmas is celebrated by Christians as the time of Jesus's birth. Nativity scenes are believed to have been invented by St. Francis of Assisi in the 12th century. The early nativity scenes were live, with real people assuming the roles of Joseph, Mary, the Magi, and so on. The Nativity scene became popular enough to spread to Germany in the 1600s and then to England. And while the first Nativity scenes were staged by live people, eventually artisans would make them out of wood, straw, and even stone and ivory. Still later they would be made of ceramics, glass, and, in the 20th century, plastic. If you're my age, you are probably familiar with those Nativity scenes in which the figures are made of plastic and lit from the inside.

At any rate, Nativity scenes are not the only figures associated with the holidays. Figurines of Father Christmas and Santa Claus date to the Victorian era. I am not sure when the lighted, plastic figures of Santa Claus, snowmen, and so on originated but it must have been before I was born (which was the Sixties, to clarify things). I remember them from when I was a small child.

Of course, the big trend in Christmas ornaments the past several years have been inflatables. Christmas inflatables were introduced in 2001 by Gemmy Industries, the same company responsible for the Bigmouth Billy Bass (the singing fish of a few years back). Starting simply with a snowman and a Santa Claus, Gemmy now makes inflatables of elves, snowglobes, and even Disney characters. Despite their popularity, the inflatables have been controversial--some think they're cute, others think they're tacky. For myself, it depends on the inflatable. Some look good. Others look, well, not so good.

Decorating for the holidays has a long history stemming back even before there was a Christmas. In those thousands of years we have progressed (if that is the operative word) from holly boughs to electric lights to inflatables. It is hard to say what future trends there will be in Yuletide decoration, but one thing is certain--people will be decorating for them for a long time to come.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Christmas Lights

If you're like me, your house is probably decked out with coloured lights right now. For that matter, your Christmas tree probably is as well. I am not sure how the tradition of decorating one's house with lights for the Yuletide got started, but it seems to have been firmly rooted well before I was born.

Many of the traditions connected with modern day Christmas in those countries which speak Germanic languages (England, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and so on) grew out of the pagan celebration called Geol (modern English Yule) in Old English, Jol in Old Norse, et. al. Decorating with holly and mistletoe, mummer's plays, and even eating ham for Christmas may well stem from Germanic paganism. But I am not so sure that Christmas lights are one of those traditions. Granted descriptions of ancient Yule are pretty sparse and we really don't have much to rely on, but it seems to me that lights may not have played a role in the holiday. About the only thing remotely related I can recall off the top of my head is the Yule log.

For the origin of holiday lights, then, it might be better to look to Christianity, where the season of Advent (the four weeks prior to Christmas) is celebrated with candles. Each Sunday a candle is lit, each symbolising a different thing. It seems possible to me that the association of candles with the holiday season could then have made its way from the church into the home, or more precisely, to the tree.

Christmas trees are first attested in Germany in the 16th century. By the 18th century there are references to wax candles being used on tannenbaums in the Rhineland. By the time the Christmas tree was introduced to the United Kingdom in the 18th century (by King George III's consort, Queen Charlotte), it apparently came complete with candles. As a child, Queen Victoria described in her journal their Christmas tree "...hung with lights and sugar ornaments..."

Of course, placing candles on Christmas trees obviously had its dangers, so it was perhaps natural that they would eventually be replaced by electric lights. The first tannenbaum illuminated by electric lights was done so by Edward H. Johnson, then vice president of Edison Electric Light Company. In 1882 he decorated his tree with electric lights. By the early 1900s, businesses were not only decorating their trees with electric lights, but their window displays as well. It would not be long before people would decorate the outside of their houses with lights. The first time that Christmas lights were used outside appear to have been in San Diego in 1904 and New York City in 1912. These lights were well beyond the budget of most families at the time--in 1903 electric Christmas tree lights would cost the equivalent of $2000 by today's standards. It is perhaps for this reason that average American families did not start decorating the exteriors of their homes with lights until the Fifties.

At any rate, holiday lights are among my fondest memories of the Yuletide as a child. I remember as a child my father would always decorate our porch in early December. The lights then were fairly large by today's standards, about the size of a small walnut. And while today you see houses decorated in lights of one colour (yellow, red, even blue), ours were always multi-coloured. To this day I prefer multi-coloured lights on both my house and my tree.

In those days the cities would go all out with lights for the Yuletide. I remember both Huntsville and Moberly would string lights along the electric wires of their downtowns. As a child it always looked impressive to me. Sadly, the custom ended with the energy crisis of the Seventies. I also remember as a child that there was a place around New Franklin that had an enormous Christmas light display. Every year would we make the drive to see it. It was incredible, with light displays in the shape of Santa in his sleigh and so on. Sadly, the energy crisis brought an end to it, too. Fortunately, though they did not start until recently, Moberly started decorating Rothwell Park (the 885 acre park here in Randolph County) with Christmas light displays. The past several I have enjoyed driving through the park this time of year for that reason. My favourite display is set on Rothwell Lake, a fisherman with his line animated by lights.

When compared to much older Yuletide traditions, decorating Christmas trees with lights is a relatively recent tradition. Decorating houses with lights is even more so. Regardless, I suspect most people today immediately think of them when they think of the holidays. I know I do. I don't think the holiday season would be the same without them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Joseph Barbera R.I.P.

The past two weeks have been one of those times when I have worried that this blog might turn into "the Death Blog." Both actor Peter Boyle and Green Lantern creator Martin Nodell have passed on. Now Joseph Barbera has died as well. He passed on of natural causes at the age of 95 on December 18. For those of you don't know, Joe Barbera was one half of a team with William Hanna (who died in 2001), the animators who brought life to Tom and Jerry and whose studio produced such cartoons as The Jetsons, Jonny Quest, and Space Ghost.

Joseph Barbera was born on March 24, 1911 in Manhattan. Born to parents of Sicilian descent, he started work early as a delivery boy for a tailor. He tried to become a cartoonist for the magazine New York Hits. In 1932, however, he found his calling as a cartoonist with the Van Beuren Studios. In 1937, after Van Beuren shut down, he joined MGM. He was hired within two days of his future partner, William Hanna. They first worked together on what would also be the first Tom and Jerry cartoon, "Puss Gets the Boot," in 1940. The animated short was nominated for the Oscar for Best Short Subject, Cartoons. Curiously, in that first cartoon, Tom was called by the name "Jasper!" Hanna and Barbera would work on the Tom and Jerry series until 1957. During that time the Tom and Jerry series won an impressive seven Academy Awards for Best Short Subject, Cartoons, more than any other animated short series. While at MGM they also worked on other series as well, most notably cartoons featuring Droopy. Among the most notable achievements that the duo had during this period was animating the sequence from the movie Achors Aweigh in which Jerry danced with Gene Kelly. Even Walt Disney was impressed.

In 1957 MGM closed their animated unit, leaving Hanna and Barbera out of work. It as then that the two founded their own studio. Initially called H-B Enterprises and quickly renamed Hanna-Barbera Productions, the studio entered the new field of creating animated cartoons for television. Their first series, The Ruff and Ready Show, was the second animated series created specifically for television (the first was Jay Ward's Crusader Rabbit). Hanna-Barbera kept their costs down by using limited animation. For that reason, while the Tom and Jerry cartoons often emphasised action, the cartoons produced by the Hanna-Barbera studio would emphasise dialogue.

The Ruff and Ready Show is largely forgotten today, but Hanna-Barbera Productions would go onto create some of the most successful animated TV series of all time. Debuting in syndication in 1958, The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of the studio's many hits. The series not only featured the title character, but also segments featuring Yogi Bear (who would go onto to get his own series, not to mention a feature film) and two mice named Pixie and Dixie. The Huckleberry Hound Show was the first of many hits for the studio.

Indeed, Hanna-Barbera would even break new ground with regards to animated TV series. In 1960, Hanna-Barbera produced The Flintstones, one of the first animated TV shows created specifically for primetime. The series would run a total of six seasons on ABC and, until The Simpsons, would be the most successful animated show to ever air in primetime. Indeed, it started a short cycle towards cartoons in primetime, a cycle which produced two other memorable Hanna-Barbera shows--The Jetsons and Top Cat.

Most of Hanna-Barbera's early output was comedic in nature, although in the Sixties they started turning out more serious cartoons as well. Among the cartoons that debuted on primetime in the wake of The Flintstones was Jonny Quest. The series centred on the adventures the title character had while travelling the world with his scientist father. It was the first action-adventure series produced by the studio, and would be followed by other Hanna-Barbera action-adventure cartoons such as Space Ghost and Birdman. Hanna-Barbera would go onto produce some of the most recognisable cartoons in American pop culture, among them The Atom Ant Show, Where Are You, Scooby-Doo, and many others.

Like many who grew up in the Sixties and Seventies, I have fond memories of watching many of the cartoons produced by William Hanna and Joe Barbera. As an adult I have to admit I am not particularly fond of the Tom and Jerry cartoons (it seems to me as if they all have the same plot--it is hard for me to believe they racked up all those Oscars) and I did not like Where Are You, Scooby Doo even as a child. And as an adult I don't find The Flintstones terribly entertaining. But then I have to admit that Hanna-Barbera produced some of the best cartoons of all time. To this day I will gladly watch Jonny Quest, The Jetsons, Space Ghost, and Hong Kong Phooey. If Hanna-Barbera was the most successful studio specialising in animated series for television, it may have been because they had a special gift for creating memorable characters. Indeed, many of their characters and their catchphrases are immediately recongisable by a majority of Americans. Yogi Bear, Fred Flintstone, Scooby, and Shaggy became an established part of American pop culture long ago. At their best, William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were matched only by a very, very few in creating memorable characters. It is sad to think they are both gone now.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Green Lantern and Pillsbury Doughboy Creator Passes On

Comic book artist and commercial art director Martin Nodell died December 9, 2006 at the age of 91. If the name doesn't sound familiar to you, I am sure the names of his creations will. With writer Bill Finger (co-creator of Batman), Nodell created the Green Lantern. With his creative team at the Leo Burnett Agency, he also developed the Pillsbury Doughboy, one of the most successful advertising icons of all time.

Martin Nodell was born November 11, 1915, in Philadelphia. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago and then attended the Pratt Institute in New York City. It was in New York, around 1938, that Nodell started freelancing for various comic book publishers. He worked on such series as The Raven and Buck Steele. Nodell found that freelancing was not particularly lucrative and decided he needed steadier work in the comic book industry. He contacted National Comics (publisher of the ever popular Superman and Batman) seeking work, but was informed that they had all the artists they could handle. Fortunately for Nodell, they put him in touch with their sister company, All-American Comics. Initially editor Sheldon Mayer did not give Nodell very much work. Nodell then decided to create a superhero for the company's flagship title, All-American Comics. He was on the subway home when the idea for the Green Lantern occurred to him. Nodell showed Mayer some preliminary sketches and the first few pages of the Green Lantern's origin which he had written. Mayer brought in Bill Finger to finish the story and flesh out the character. Green Lantern made his first appearance in All-Star Comics #16, July 1940.

The original Green Lantern was was Alan Scott, an engineer for a railroad company. Scott's company had beat out a rival company in a bid to build a bridge. Unfortunately, this cited the owner of the rival company to violence. He planted explosives under the bridge so that they would detonate when the first train travelled over the bridge. When Scott's company sent a train across the bridge, then, there was a huge explosion. Everyone aboard the train was killed, except Alan Scott. Scott's life was saved by a green train lantern made of some unknown metal. To make a long story short, the lantern told Scott to remove a bit of its metal to make a ring. By touching the ring to the lantern every 24 hours, the ring would have the power of the lantern's magic green flame. The lantern's green flame was a very potent weapon. With it, Scott could fly, create various objects using the flame, fire bursts of energy, deflect attacks, and so on. Green Lantern became one of the most successful superheroes of the Golden Age. He was a founding member of the Justice Society of America. And at the height of his popularity he appeared in three different magazines. Although his own title ended in 1949 and the Justice Society made their last appearance prior to the Silver Age in 1951, the character's popularity would result in versions of the character being created over the years.

Nodell would continue to work on various Green Lantern stories until 1947. At that point he left National Periodical Publications (the company which resulted from the merger of National Comics and All-American Comics) for Timely Comics (which would later become known as Marvel Comics). There he worked on such characters as Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner. By 1950 superheroes had seriously declined in popularity, with many of the classic characters of the Golden Age (including Captain America, the Human Torch, and Sub-Mariner) no longer being published. Nodell then left the comic book industry for the world of advertising. He was hired by the Leo Burnett agency that year as their art director.

It was in 1965 that, with his design team, Nodell created his other famous character. C.A. Pillsbury and Company wanted a stop-motion character for their commercials. Nodell and his team developed Poppin' Fresh, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Poppin' Fresh made his television debut in October, 1965. Paul Frees, the voice of Boris Badenov on The Bullwinkle Show, was the Doughboy's original voice. He proved popular enough to last 41 years and to star in over 600 commercials. He also inspired a good deal of merchandise and even parodies (the most famous of which may be the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man of Ghostbusters fame).

Martin Nodell retired in 1976. In the Eighties he did a few drawings for DC Comics (the re-christened National Periodical Publications). He also pencilled Harlan Ellison and John Ostrander's adaptation of "Gnomebody" for Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor Quarterly #1, August 1986. Having been re-discovered by fans, Martin Nodell and his wife Carrie were regulars on the comic book convention circuit. After 63 years of marriage, his wife Carried died in 2004.

I must say that I was truly saddened to read of Martin Nodell's death. As I have said in this blog before, Green Lantern is my second favourite superhero of all time (the first being Batman). And while there have been different versions of Green Lantern over the years, my favourite was always the original, Alan Scott. Nodell may not have been the best artist to have ever drawn the Emerald Crusader, but his work had an energy to it and a liveliness about it that other, better artists often did not match. Green Lantern became one of the most popular characters of the Golden Age, largely due to the life with which Nodell infused the character. The various incarnations of Green Lantern would influence such diverse artists as singer Donovan Leitch, writer Harlan Ellison, and director Francis Ford Coppola. Nodell would be worth remembering if all he had done was create Green Lantern, but he had the privilege of also being involved in the creation of another pop culture icon, the Pillsbury Doughboy. Arguably, Poppin' Fresh is one of most successful advertising icons of all time. At the very least, there aren't many that have lasted 41 years. Again, it is a tribute to Nodell's creativity.

Of course, it is not enough that Martin Nodell created two pop culture icons. From nearly every fan who met him, he and his wife Carrie were two of the friendliest, nicest, and most polite people one could ever meet. By all accounts, he was the perfect gentleman and his wife the perfect lady. Quite simply, Martin Nodell was one of those artists who truly appreciated his fans. I must say that I am truly saddened by his passing.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

TV Land's 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases

Catchphrases have probably existed almost as long as spoken language has. Of course, naturally the development of mass media has quickened the pace at which catchphrases are created. Naturally, then, television has created its own share of catchphrases. Indeed, I rather suspect that the majority of catchphrases in the late 20th century emerged on television.

As something of a student, then, I was interested in TV Land's 100 Greatest Quotes and Catchphrases. And, as might be expected, I agreed with some of their choices and disagreed with others. Naturally, the appeal of any given catchphrase is going to largely subjective. A catchphrase that one person might find witty or funny another might find downright annoying. Of course, I must also admit that there are many catchphrases and quotes that made the list to which I object on the grounds that, quite frankly, they are not TV catchphrases.

For me, a TV catchphrase is any catchphrase whose origins lie in the medium of television or whose popularity is largely due to television. If a catchphrase did not originate on television or if its popularity is not due to television, then, it is not a TV catchphrase. There are several catchphrases and quotes that made the list which are not, in my opinion, due to television. The most obvious examples of this are phrases I consider political catchphrases. Examples of this are "Read my lips! No new taxes," uttered by George Bush and "I'm not a crook," said by Richard Nixon. The former was a bit of propaganda said by Bush in a speech. It was shown on television, but also seen in person by a large audience and also disseminated through radio and newspapers as well. Its origins were then not with television, nor can one accurately say its popularity was largely due to television either. Much of the same can be said of, "I'm not a crook, uttered by Richard Nixon. These words were uttered as a bit of self defence in a speech made in the wake of the Watergate scandal. They were widely covered on radio and in newspapers as well as television. It is, then, not a TV catchphrase.

Although not a political catchphrase, I would say the same holds true for the famous words said by Neil Armstrong when setting foot on the moon, "That's one small leap for man, one giant leap for mankind (and while I'm talking about it, I disagree with those who say that the quote is grammatically incorrect....)." The lunar landing was not only covered on television, but also on radio and in newspapers as well. And while I've no doubt many first heard those words on TV, I don't think that its enduring popularity is due to television and I am sure many heard it first elsewhere (as on the radio). It is then not a TV catchphrase.

Of course, the keyword in 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases may well be the term greatest. To make this list, then, a catchphrase should be something truly special, something, well, great. Some of the catchphrases on this list I thought simply weren't that great. And there were a few that I think are simply awful. This is true of the line "Whassup!" from the infamous Budweiser ads. This line could possibly be the most annoying line from any commercial at any time. I thought it was annoying the first time I saw the commercial and it simply became even more so after hearing it for the 100th time. It certainly doesn't qualify as great.

Another catchphrase that I don't think should have made the list was the line, "Whatchoo talkin' 'bout, Willis?" This catchphrase was uttered by Arnold Drummond to his brother in the series Diff'rent Strokes whenever his brother said something Arnold thought was preposterous. Somehow it ranked at #8 on the list. Aside from the fact that, in my opinion, Diff'rent Strokes was one of the worst sitcoms of the late Seventies and early Eighties, there is also the fact that I don't think the line was ever that popular. I don't remember it being repeated by a lot of people in conversations, nor do I remember a lot of t-shirts, bumper stickers, and other paraphernalia bearing the catchphrase. Then there is the fact that, at least to me, the line was uttered, it reminded me of the speech of stereotypical blacks from movies of the Thirties and Forties. Indeed, I could see Stepin Fetchit or Amos and Andy uttering that exact same line, with the same intonation and the same facial expressions. To me this hardly qualifies it as a great catchphrase.

Of course, to me one of test of a catchphrase is whether it has passed the test of time. Catchphrases such as "Baby, you're the greatest (from The Honeymooners)" and "Would you believe... (from Get Smart are not great catchphrases because they were popular in their time, but because they have remained popular to this day. Given this, I am not sure that "Suit up (from How I Met Your Mother) should have made the list. It is simply too recent to determine if it won't be forgotten twenty years from now. The same holds true with "You're fired (from The Apprentice)." This phrase was immensely popular for a while, appearing on a good deal of merchandise. But ultimately it is of too recent vintage in my opinion to have made the list. For all we know, it and the show itself may be forgotten in twenty years. Somehow "You're fired" ranked #3 on the list.

Of course, there are also catchphrases that I think should have made the list. While "Live long and prosper" and the entire opening monologue ("Space, the final frontier..") from Star Trek made the list, I think a good argument could be made for Dr. McCoy's famous words, "He's dead, Jim," which I swear is in every other episode. And while "D'oh!" from The Simpsons made the list, I also think "Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such..." should also make the list--I'm sure I could name others from The Simpsons if I just thought about it for awhile.

Another catchphrase that, in my opinion, should have made the list is not so much connected to a show as an actor. Very few people probably recognise the name "Frank Nelson," but they'd certainly recognise his appearance (pop eyed with a moustache) and his voice. Nelson played appeared on both The Jack Benny Programme (even in its days on radio) and later played a number of roles on I Love Lucy. He appeared in many sitcoms from the Fifties to the Seventies (including The Addams Family and Sanford and Son), usually playing sarcastic, hot tempered waiters and salesmen. In nearly every appearance he made on TV (or at least it seemed that way), his back would be turned to the camera when he first appeared and then he would turn around and say his trademark, "Yyyyeeeessss." It never failed to crack me up. I could go on about other catchprases that did not make the list, but then I don't want this entry to be any longer than it has to be.

I do have to say that I think many of the catchphrases that made the list are indeed among TV's greatest. It is hard for me to argue that "Here's Johnny!" from The Tonight Show should not have been #1, and I don't think anyone would deny that "Baby, you're the greatest," from The Honeymooners should not have made the top ten. At any rate, I suspect TV Land's 100 Greatest TV Quotes and Catchphrases will be discussed by pop culture fanatics for some time to come.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Peter Boyle R.I.P.

Actor Peter Boyle died yesterday, December 12, 2006. He had been suffering from both heart disease and multiple myeloma. While many today best know Boyle as Raymond's father Frank Barone on Everybody Loves Raymond, he had a long and distinguished career that included such films as The Candidate, Young Frankenstein, and Taxi Driver.

Boyle was born in Philadelphia on October 18, 1935. His father, Peter Boyle Sr., was the host of a popular chlidren's programme (Lunch with Uncle Pete) in the Philadelphia area. Following his graduation from LaSalle University, Boyle took some time to find his place in the world. He enlisted in the Navy and after his graduation from Officer Candidate School was commissioned as an ensign. His naval career was ended by a nervous breakdown. Boyle then became a member of the De La Salle Brothers, a Catholic teaching order. He left the order to take up acting. His first screen appearance was in an uncredited part in The Group in 1966.

Boyle played in bits part and was part of the ensemble of the TV series Comedy Tonight before receiving his first starring role in the movie Joe. The film, in which Boyle played a bigoted foundry worker, typecast Boyle in rough, angry roles for much of his early career. Fortunately, his role as the campaign manager of Robert Redford in The Candidate proved he had a greater range than of irate men. His role Young Frankenstein as a new Frankenstein's monster proved once and for all that Boyle was capable of much, much more. Playing a creature who could barely talk, Boyle showed he had a gift for comedy as well as drama.

Boyle would go onto play roles in Taxi Driver, The Brink's Job, Swashbuckler, Turk 182, Malcolm X, and Monster's Ball. He also appeared on television. He hosted Saturday Night Live and starred in his own series Joe Bash, a short lived dramedy from 1986. He appeared in the TV movie Tailgunner Joe as Senator Joe McCarthy and in the mini-series From Here to Eternity. He guest starred on such shows as Midnight Caller and N.Y.P.D. Blue. He made a notable guest appearance in The X-Files episode Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose," in which he played the title character, a man cursed with the ability to foresee the future. For this role Boyle won the Emmy for Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama Series. Of course, in 1996 he was cast in the role of Frank Barone, Raymond's father on Everybody Loves Raymond. Ironically, although nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series seven years in a row, Boyle was the only member of the cast of Everybody Loves Raymond who did not win an Emmy for his role on the show.

Peter Boyle was also a close friend of John Lennon, whom he had met through his future wife Lorraine Alterman, at the time a reporter for Rolling Stone. Lennon would even be the best man at Boyle's wedding to Lorraine.

I must say that I am truly saddened by Peter Boyle's death. While many people may be mourning him as Raymond's father on Everybody Loves Raymond, I am mourning Boyle as the talented actor who played in such diverse movies as Young Frankenstein, Taxi Driver, Where the Buffalo Roam, and Honeymoon in Vegas. He was an adept actor at home in both drama and comedy. He could convincingly play a murderous bigot in a movie like Joe and then turn around and take a comic turn as Bosun Moon in the movie Yellowbeard. Boyle certainly had great talent, talent that allowed him to play a diverse array of roles in any number of different genres. I have to say that I will really miss him.

Monday, December 11, 2006

The Voice of Baby Huey and Katnip Passes On

Veteran character actor Sid Raymond died on December 1 from complications from a stroke at the age of 97. Most people probably would not recognise Raymond's name, but I am willing to bet a vast majority would recognise his name and face. Still working up until his death, Raymond appeared in many bit parts over the years. He was perhaps most famous as the voice of Famous Studios cartoon characters Baby Huey and Katnip, and as the bartender in Schlitz commercials in the Sixties.

Raymond was born Raymond Silverstein on January 21, 1909. He dropped out of New York University and became a recreation director at a Catskills resort instead. He then led the travelling show for the radio show Major Bowes's Original Amateur Hour. During World War II he was a part of a troupe that played the front lines.

Raymond broke into film through animated cartoons, as the voice of Katnip in the short "Naughty But Mice." He would go onto voice Katnip and various characters in the Popeye cartoons for many years. He first voiced Baby Huey in 1951, a year after he took over the role of the bartender Finnigan on the radio show Duffy's Tavern. He was also among the many actors who provided the voices for magpies Heckle and Jeckle on The Heckle and Jeckle Show in 1956.

Over the years Raymond also guest starred on many, many TV series. He first appeared on television in an episode of The Man Behind the Badge in 1953. He would go on to make guest appearances on The Honeymooners, Goodyear Television Playhouse, The U.S. Steel Hour, and The O.C. (his final appearance.

Raymond also appeared in many films over the years, starting with I Am a Camera in 1955. He would also appear in The Hustler, The Prize, Making Mr. Right, and Big Trouble. Raymond also had a career on stage, appearing in summer stock in The Pajama Game in the Sixties and on Broadway in Golden Rainbow. In all, Raymond's career spanned over 70 years.

Saturday, December 9, 2006

The Beatles Cartoon

While they are my favourite band of all time, I have to confess that I have no idea when I heard my first Beatles song. I may well have been in the crib when it occurred. Then again, it could well have been on The Beatles cartoon which originally aired from September 25, 1965 to September 7, 1969 on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Today The Beatles is largely forgotten except for those younger Baby Boomers and older Gen Xers who were growing up when it aired, not to mention a few younger die-hard Beatles fans, but for awhile it was among the highest rated cartoons on Saturday morning.

The origins of The Beatles cartoon can be traced back to King Features Syndicate and its head of motion picture and television development at the time, Al Brodax. Among Brodax's first accomplishments at King Features Syndicate was the production of 220 new animated shorts featuring Popeye. Brodax managed to produce these shorts inexpensively and in a short period of time simply by giving much of the work to animation studios overseas. Broadax would also be responsible for the Beetle Bailey, Krazy Kat, and Snuffy Smith cartoons that King Features Syndicate produced in the early Sixties. When Beatlemania swept American shores in 1964, a Saturday morning cartoon based around The Beatles seemed like a sure-fire hit to King Features. Brodax got the rights to do a Beatles cartoon and then set about getting financing from toy giant A. C. Gilbert Company with little more than a rough outline of the show and some preliminary artwork. It was A. C. Gilbert Company that sold ABC on the idea of a Beatles animated series.

With the series sold to ABC, Brodax had only six months to actually produce the show. Fortunately, having produced 220 Popeye cartoons in only a brief amount of time, Brodax already had the experience necessary to get the cartoon out in time. He hired Englishman Peter Sander to design the characters of The Beatles. Like the Popeye cartoons before them, the animation for The Beatles would be handled overseas. TVC (Television Cartoons) London (who later co-produced the classic animated film Yellow Submarine) and Astransa Park of Australia were largely responsible for much of the work, although animation for the series was also done in Canada and Holland. The format of the series was rather simple. Each show would feature two episodes of anywhere from four to six minutes in length, each one based on a Beatles song (which would be featured in the climax of the episode). The episodes generally featured The Beatles either trying to get away from their fans or caught in such unusual situations as facing monsters or spies. In between the episodes would be sing-a-long segments featuring various Beatles songs.

For the voices of The Beatles Brodax hired only two men: American voice actor Paul Frees (who had provided the voice of Boris Badenov for The Bullwinkle Show, among many other animated characters) to voice John and George and Englishman Lance Percival (perhaps then best known for his work on That Was the Week That Was) to voice Paul and Ringo. Brodax also made the controversial decision of not letting the actors mimic the Beatles' actual voices. Brodax thought that American children would not understand anything approaching The Beatles' natural, Liverpudlian accents and thus Frees and Percival gave The Beatles of the animated series accents that Americans think of as stereotypically English. Of the characters, only Ringo sounded even faintly Liverpudlian (and even his voice on the cartoon was far from that of the typical Scouse). The worst was perhaps the voice given John Lennon, who sounded more like Inspector Fenwick from Dudley Do-Right (no coincidence, as Frees had also voiced that character) than anyone else. It would be Brodax's unfortunate choice regarding the voices of The Beatles that would keep the cartoon off the airwaves in the United Kingdom for many, many years. Hearing the voices, no less than The Beatles' manager Brian Epstein banned the cartoon from British airwaves, fearing that most Brits would be offended by them. The cartoon would not air in the United Kingdom until years and years after it was first broadcast in the United States.

Regardless, The Beatles was a runaway hit when it debuted Saturday morning, September 25, 1965 on ABC. It received among the highest ratings of any Saturday morning cartoon up until that time, a phenomenal 52 percent of viewers. Naturally, The Beatles was renewed for a second season, with six brand new episodes featuring such songs as "Nowhere Man" and "Paperback Writer." Unfortunately, the series did not receive the phenomenal ratings it had in its first season. Much of this was due to the success of the TV show Batman in primetime. Not only had that series became an outright fad, but it spurred a cycle towards superhero cartoons on Saturday morning. Facing such stiff competition as Space Ghost on CBS, The Beatles cartoon found it more difficult to compete. Another reason for the series' decline may have been that many of The Beatles' fans were simply growing up and simply felt too mature to be watching Saturday morning cartoons. At any rate, The Beatles was renewed for a third season. The third season would see five new episodes featuring such songs as "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Tomorrow Never Knows." It would also see the series take a turn towards psychedelia. In fact, a few of the episodes actually foreshadow the work that would be done on Yellow Submarine, albeit on a smaller and cheaper scale. The Beatles would return for a fourth and final season, although it consisted entirely of reruns and was aired on Sunday morning.

While The Beatles cartoon was well received by youngsters in the United States, it was not particularly well received by The Beatles themselves. John Lennon himself complained that it made them look like "the bloody Flintstones." None of The Beatles were particularly happy with the voices given them on the cartoon. It was because of their unhappiness with the television cartoon that The Beatles would ultimately have little to do with the classic Yellow Submarine. Eventually some of The Beatles would reverse their opinions of the series. Talking to writer Roy Carr, Lennon would later say he got a blast out of watching reruns of the series. In 1999 Harrison would admit that he found the show's episodes "so bad or silly they were good..."

Regardless of The Beatles' initial feelings about the cartoon themselves, it would have a lasting impact. Indeed, it may well have been the first television cartoon to have been based on real people. It was also the first animated series to be based on a rock group. Its influence on Saturday morning cartoons would be seen well into the Seventies. Such cartoons as The Archie Show, The Brady Kids, and even Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! would incorporate popular music years after The Beatles left the air. In the Seventies even pop groups such as The Jackson Five and The Osmonds would have their own short lived, animated cartoons. It must also be pointed out The Beatles is one of the earliest examples of rock video (albeit in animated form), pre-dating even The Monkees.

A more important legacy of The Beatles cartoon may be the classic movie Yellow Submarine. Al Brodax, who produced The Beatles animated series, initially came up with the idea of producing an animated feature based on The Beatles' songs, suggesting to Brian Epstein that this could satisfy The Beatles' agreement with United Artists to do a third film (after A Hard Days Night and Help!). With the rights to do the film secured, Brodax then hired TVC London to produce the feature itself. Indeed, the film was directed by the late, great George Dunning of TVC London and Jack Stokes of TVC London served as its animation director. While Yellow Submarine would ultimately look very different from the Saturday morning cartoon, it was in many respects an outgrowth of that cartoon produced by many of the same people and two of the same companies (King Features Syndicate and TVC London).

Of course, the most lasting impact that The Beatles would have would be the creation of new Beatles fans. There can be little doubt that for many this TV series was their first introduction to the band. Indeed, I rather suspect that my first real exposure to the music of The Beatles may have been through this cartoon. At any rate, I have fond memories of watching, in reruns on St. Louis station KPLR.

While there can be no doubt that The Beatles cartoon had a lasting impact, the question of whether it was actually good or not is a different matter. Even those who saw The Beatles in its original have had little opportunity to do so since it first aired. Television station KPLR in St. Louis re-ran the cartoon from the Seventies well into the Eighties. In 1986 and 1987 MTV reran the series. More recently several episodes, as well as the third season opening (featuring "And Your Bird Can Sing"),  have become available on YouTube and other video sharing sites. Having watched many of episodes on YouTube, I can honestly say that as Saturday morning cartoons go, it was actually pretty good. The animation does leave something to be desired (let's face it, we are not talking a feature film here), but, comparatively speaking, it is actually quite good for a Saturday morning cartoon of its time (let it not be said that the folks at TVC London did not have a talent for making do with a little of nothing). As to the episodes themselves, they are both funny and imaginative. As to the musical sequences, they vary in quality, but many are very well done. Seen today, forty one years after its debut, The Beatles seems both fresh and innovative.

That having been said, my one caveat with the series are the voices of The Beatles themselves. As a Beatles fan I have heard The Beatles many times over the years and the voices of the cartoon characters sound nothing like them. In fact, I find the "Inspector Fenwick" voice foisted on Lennon particularly annoying. I have to say that I think Brodax made a big mistake in insisting that the characters of The Beatles did not mimic the real life voices of The Beatles. Beyond the fact that even at that time any Beatle fan would realise the cartoon characters sounded nothing like the originals, there is the simple fact that I think even in 1965 the average American had no problem understanding the way The Beatles spoke. Both A Hard Days Night and Help! featured The Beatles with their accents intact and both were hugely successful. On Yellow Submarine (apparently against Brodax's wishes in the beginning) the decision was made that the actors would mimic The Beatles' voices--they were so successful that to this day many do not realise that The Beatles did not provide their own voices in the film. Yet, Yellow Submarine was initially more successful in America than it was in Britain! I then think that the characters of The Beatles on the cartoon could have easily spoken with Liverpudlian accents without affecting American children's understanding of what they were saying or the cartoon's success. In fact, I think Brodax's decision may have impeded the cartoon's success over all. Let's face it, would Brian Epstein have banned the cartoon in the United Kingdom if the characters had sounded more like the actual Beatles?

Since it left ABC in 1969 very little has been seen of The Beatles in the United States. Only a few TV stations in America would rerun the cartoon, among them KPLR in ST. Louis and WSNS in Chicago. And as stated earlier, MTV reran The Beatles in 1986 and 1987. In the Nineties Apple Corps Ltd. bought the rights to the cartoon. Since then very little has been seen of them, save for the few that have surfaced on YouTube, other video sharing sites, and a few bootleg DVDs. Given its significance in the history of American animation and the history of The Beatles (at least here in America), I am personally hoping that Apple Corps Ltd. will one day release the series on DVD. Of course, if they do, I also hope they re-dub the voices with something more appropriately Liverpudlian....

Friday, December 8, 2006

It Was 26 Years Ago Today...

It is strange sometimes the days that human beings choose to observe. A nation's government can declare a day a "national holiday" and, yet, no one will celebrate it (for example, Columbus Day). At the same time, however, there are traditional holidays that nearly everyone celebrates and, yet, somehow they have never been granted them the status of national holidays (for example, Halloween and Valentine's Day). And then there are those days we choose to observe as individuals ourselves. These are days when something important occurred in our lives--when someone was born, when someone died, when someone got married, and so on. This is one of those days for me. The difference is that today it was not someone I knew personally who died, yet someone who had an enormous impact on my life regardless.

It was 26 years ago today that John Lennon was murdered in front of the Dakota in New York City. Every year I observe the day by listening to several Beatles songs and John Lennon songs, and usually watching one of The Beatles movies (this year it will probably be Yellow Submarine). If I could, I would probably even take the day off from work. And I'm not the only one who observes this day. Every year in New York City, Lennon fans gather in the area of Central Park known as Strawberry Fields. Music is banned there all year around with the exception of one day--the day of Lennon's death. On this day every year fans will be allowed to sing and play Lennon's songs there. I'm sure that there are mass observances elsewhere, particularly in his hometown of Liverpool. Neither the United Kingdom nor the United States have ever declared the day of Lennon's death a national holiday. I doubt it will ever be declared a day of mass mourning. And yet I suspect many, many more people observe it than Labour Day.

The reasons for this are very simple. Often times nations will arbitrarily decide to declare a holiday in the name of an idea. An example of this is Labour Day. Unfortunately, what governments don't realise is that people simply aren't that thrilled about celebrating ideas. Other times they will declare a national holiday in honour of some event or someone who actually had little impact on people's lives and hence seems distant and important to them. An example of this is Columbus Day. Given that people already lived in the Americas, the idea that Columbus "discovered" the Americas is debatable. For that matter, he was never even close to North America and Leif Ericson crossed the Atlantic long before Columbus. But the day of John Lennon's death is different. Lennon had an enormous impact on individual's lives. His music is still popular after over forty years. Arguably, of all the composers of the 20th century, Lennon and McCartney may well have had the biggest influence on popular music, more so than even Berlin, the Gershwins, and Porter. It is for that reason that over 5000 people gathered outside the Dakota the day of his death to mourn him. And for that reason that people still mourn him. And while I doubt the day of his death will ever be declared a national holiday, it really won't matter. People will still be observing the day of his death a century from now.

Sunday, December 3, 2006

Holiday Books for Kids

With the Yuletide and Hanukkah only a few weeks away, I thought it might be a good idea to discuss a topic suitable for the season--namely, children's books that make good reading over the holidays.

Of course, the most famous children's story for the holidays may well be the poem originally published as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," but now better known as "The Night Before Chirstmas." Commonly thought to have been written by Clement Clarke Moore (although some have argued for Henry Livingston Jr. as the author) and first published in the New York Sentinel on December 23, 1823. it established much of the mythos surrounding Santa Claus here in America. Among the concepts it introduced were the general appearance of St. Nick (as a fat, jolly old man who wears fur and boots), his use of reindeer to pull his sleigh, and the names of his reindeer. Given that the poem established much of the Santa Claus myth here in America, children can still relate to the poem even 183 years after its first appearance (about the only question I've ever received is why the poem doesn't mention Rudolph, to which the answer is that he wasn't born yet...).

If there is a holiday story as famous as "A Visit from St. Nicholas," it is probably A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Of course, A Christmas Carol is not a children's story, but a novella written for adults. That having been said, older children and teenagers can easily appreciate the classic tale. Today we tend to take the story for granted, particularly after the numerous dramatic, movie, and television adaptations that have been made, not to mention the many parodies. But A Christmas Carol was very influential on its first appearance. When first published in 1843, the old Yuletide traditions in England were dying out. The success of A Christmas Carol helped revive interest in these ancient customs. Ultimately, the novella would become Dickens' most famous work and one of the most famous holiday stories of all time.

Not nearly as famous as either "A Visit from St. Nicholoas" or A Christmas Carol is The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by L. Frank Baum, most famous for his series of Oz books. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus essentially tells how Santa Claus became, well, Santa Claus. The novel is filled with the usual imagination and originality with which Baum filled his Oz books. And there may even be a link to the Oz books. The villain of the book is the Gnome King, perhaps a variation on the Nome King, the recurring archnemesis of Baum's heroes in his Oz books... Any child who enjoys Baum's Oz books will probably appreciate The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus as well.

Of course, for many of us born in the late 20th century, the classic holiday story is "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" by Dr. Seuss. First published in 1957, it has become perhaps his most famous work and arguably his most successful. Indeed, like "Scrooge" before it, "Grinch" has become a slang term for anyone who despises the holidays. The book was adapted into the classic, animated TV special in 1966, directed by Seuss's old friend and animation giant Chuck Jones. It has become a perennial part of the holiday ever since. It was also adapted into a wretched major motion picture in 2000. Forget the movie. Read the book and then watch the classic TV special instead....

Dr. Seuss was not the only great author of the 20th century to indulge himself in the holidays. J. R. R. Tolkien did so as well in letters he wrote to his children as Father Christmas. Tolkien wrote these letters to his children between 1920 and 1942. And in the course of the letters he creates his own mythos for Father Christmas, quite different from that created in "A Visit From St. Nicholas." Indeed, the elvan script called Tengwar makes its first appearance in print in these letters, well before the publication of The Hobbit! The letters were eventually published in 1976 as The Father Christmas Letters, then republished and retitled Letters From Father Christmas in 2004. They are well worth reading not only for Tolkien enthusiasts, but for anyone who wants to read something imaginative to their children for the holidays.

A Christmas Carol and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are regarded as Yuletide classics. And many of us grew up reading them. A more recent entry in this list is "The Polar Express." This book was first published in 1985 and tells the tale of a young boy, whose belief in Santa Claus is slipping. The boy is then taken to the North Pole on the Polar Express to see Ol' St. Nick himself. The book is fairly short--it can be read in three minutes--but conveys the meaning of the holidays perfectly. It was adapted into an animated movie in 2004 by director Robert Zemeckis, which greatly expanded on the book without losing the general spirit or moral of the book. I rather suspect the film will become a holiday classic as well.

Of course, Christian parents may well wish to entertain and educate their children over the holidays by reading them the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus over Christmas.

Not being Christian myself, I am well aware that other holidays fall in December besides Christmas and I don't think it would be right to leave them out. I don't know of too many children's books dedicated to Hanukkah, but there are a few out there. Jewish parents may be interested in "I Have a Little Dreidel" by Maxie Baum. It is an adaptation of the traditional "Dreidel Song" associated with Hanukkah. Another fine book about the holiday is The Stone Lamp: Eight Stories of Hanukkah Through History. The book tells eight different tales surrounding the holiday throughout history. It is written for older children, but I think younger children could appreciate it as well.

For many of us the holidays are a very important time of year. And many of us have fond memories of our parents or other adults important in our life reading various holiday classics to us. Personally, I can think of no better way to celebrate the Yuletide, Christmas, or Hanukkah than reading about the holidays to the children in one's life. Not only does reading such material to children help entertain them, but it can endow in them the true meaning behind the holidays and continue those traditions passed down from old.