Saturday, August 12, 2006

The Late Great Mike Douglas

Talk show host and television pesonality Mike Douglas died yesterday. It was his 81st birthday. For 21 years Douglas was the host of The Mike Douglas Show, one of the most popular talk shows in the history of television.

Mike Douglas was born Michael Delaney Dowd, Jr. on August 11, 1925 in Chicago. During the latter part of World War II he served in the Navy. Afterwards he was a "staff singer" for Chicago station WMAQ-TV. He went onto become a singer for Kay Kyser's big band. It was Kyser who gave him his stage name, "Mike Douglas." After Kyser retired in 1951, Douglas continued singing in night clubs and on the road.

It was in 1961 that Cleveland TV station WKYC hired Douglas as an afternoon talk show host. The programme was a winner in the ratings and in 1963 it went into national syndication. In 1965 the show would move with the station to Philadelphia. The format of The Mike Douglas Show was simple. Douglas would interview various guests, usually interspersed with songs sung by Douglas himself (he often claimed his show was not a talk show, but a music show with interviews in between the numbers). A unique feature of The Mike Douglas Show is that he would sometimes feature weeklong guest co-hosts. Among the co-hosts for the show were Fred Astaire, Jim Nabors, and, perhaps the most famous co-hosts of them all, John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

On his show Douglas interviewed everyone from entertainers to politicians. His guests included Gene Kelly, Burt Reynolds, Muhammed Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., and Richard Nixon. The Mike Douglas Show could also boast several firsts. The show featured early appearances by Barbara Streisand. It featured the first interviews with rock group KISS. It also featured the first television appearance of Tiger Woods, showing off his golf swing at age 2.

At its height The Mike Douglas Show reached around 6 million viewers a day. It won five Emmy Awards. The show moved to Los Angeles in 1978. It left the air in 1981.

Mike Douglas also did the singing for Prince Charming in the Disney animated classic Cinderella. In 1953 he was one of the singers on The Music Show. He also made various appearances on television shows throughout his career.

For me Mike Douglas is a bit of a fond childhood memory. The Mike Douglas Show aired the entirety of my childhood (I was 18 when it finally left the air). Much of the appeal of the show was not knowing precisely what to expect in the way of guests. Rock groups such as The Rolling Stones and Jefferson Airplane might be on one moment, while an important figure such as Richard Nixon could be on the next. Douglas sang at least one song on nearly every show and the show also featured comedy skits from time to time. In many respects Mike Douglas was right in saying that people were mistaken in thinking his show was a talk show. In truth, it was probably best described as an afternoon variety show. Of course, the show itself would not have been a success without Douglas. A talented singer, Douglas was the perfect talk show host--affable, gracious, and always wanting to make his guests look as good as possible. Very talk shows have matched Douglas's skill as a host. And for that reason very few have matched his success either. There certainly won't be another like him.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Nowhere Man

Nowhere Man

With UPN and the WB soon to be extinct (the two are merging to form the new network CW), I thought it might be a good idea to write about a series from the early days of UPN. Many of you might remember that when UPN first began, its focus was on hour long action series with the goal of attracting a young male audience. In its first few months such series as Star Trek: Voyager, Legend, and Marker aired on the young network. Most of those series were forgettable, with two exceptions. One was Star Trek: Voyager. The other was a series called Nowhere Man. Although only running one season, it would go onto become a bit of a cult series. The complete series was released on DVD December 26, 2005, giving me a chance to see it again nearly ten years after it originally aired.

For those of you who never saw Nowhere Man (which I am taking for granted is most of you), Nowhere Man starred Bruce Greenwood as Thomas Veil. Veil was a documentary photographer who abruptly finds his entire life "erased." His friends and family (even his wife) don't recognise him. The keys to his home and his studio will no longer open any doors in those places. His ATM and credit cards no longer work. In fact, any record of his existence is gone. Veil does not know precisely why this happened, but he suspects that it might have to do with a photograph he took in South America. It seems some secret organisation, a conspiracy with people in high places, want the negatives to that photograph. And they will do anything to get it from him. As a result, Veil must flee for his life, travelling from place to place in an effort to uncover the truth about the conspiracy and why his life was erased. Effectively, it was a cross between The Fugitive and The Prisoner.

Nowhere Man was created by Lawerence Hertzog, a TV writer with credits including Stingray and Hart to Hart. He would later work on the USA Network's La Femme Nikita. The series came about after UPN executive Michael Sullivan appraoched Hertzog about creating a series for the new network. With literally on a few months before the nework debuted, Hertzog was under pressure to deliver a quality series to the network on time. Hertzog apparently worked well under pressure, as Nowhere Man was easily the best show on UPN besides Star Trek: Voyager. Indeed, the series was well received by critics, even getting a sterling review from no less than The New York Times.

In its short run (only 25 episodes were ever made) Nowhere Man produced some of the most remarkable episodes in Nineties series television. In "Something About Her" the Organisation (as the conspiracy was called in many episodes of the show) created virtual memories of a romance that never happened in Veil's mind in an attempt to get information out of him. In "The Spider Webb" Veil finds out that his life after it had been erased is serving as the basis for a cheap, public access TV series. "You Really Got a Hold of Me" featured another man (played by Dean Stockwell) whose life had been erased and had been on the run for 25 years. "Forever Young" featured a nursing home which was conducting experiments in the restoration of youth to the elderly. "Stay Tuned (one of two episodes that could be seen as homages to The Prisoner)" centred on a small town where nearly every single resident is entralled with a local politician and his TV show. "Through a Lens Darkly" saw Veil return to Missouri and an old house where he is tormented by memories of his childhood sweetheart.

While much of the quality of Nowhere Man was due to its writing, the series was also helped by the qualtiy of its guest stars. Many of them were well established actors. In the pilot Michael Tucker (of L. A. Law) played a psychiatrist. In "You Really Got a Hold on Me" Dean Stockwell played the man who had been on the run from the Organisation for 25 years. In "Father" Dean Jones played Veil's father. Dwight Schultz, of A-Team and Star Trek: the Next Generation fame, guest starred in the episode "Hidden Agenda." The final episode, "Gemini Man," featured Hal Linden (of Barney Miller fame) as a United States senator. The series also featured actors who would later become stars. Carrie Moss (later to become famous for The Matrix trilogy) guest starred in "Something About Her." Maria Bello was featured in the episode "An Enemy Within." Nowhere Man also benefited from some of the most talented directors in the business. Film director Tobe Hooper directed the pilot and the second episode, while veteran TV directors James Whitmore Jr., Stephen Stafford, and Ian Toynton all directed episodes.

None of this is to say that Nowhere Man was a perfect TV show. While it produced some truly great episodes and the majority of its run was good at best, it did produce some truly awful episodes as well. "A Rough Whimper of Insanity" attempted to capitalise on both the Internet and Virtual Realtiy (both fads at the time) and failed in doing either. "It's Not Such a Wonderful Life" featured a Chrismtas reunion with Veil's wife with the expected results. "Heart of Darkness" is a fairly pedestrian episode dealing with a paramilitary organisation. Fortunately, such episodes were generally few and far between.

As mentioned previously, Nowhere Man received fairly good reviews. It also did well in the ratings given that it was on a brand new and very small network (at least when compared to such major players as NBC and CBS). Sadly, good ratings would not be enough for the show to survive. During is first season on the air UPN saw changes which would result in a decision to focus on urban comedies instead of action series as it originally intended. There were many in the upper eschelons at UPN who simply did not like Nowhere Man to begin with. With the series out of favour with many network heads and not exactly reflecting the new direction UPN chose to take (it was hardly an urban comedy), Nowhere Man was cancelled at the end of its first and only season. The bitter irony is that Nowhere Man and many of the other action series which aired on the network in its first year received higher ratings than the urban comedies it would later air. In fact, I have to wonder if much of the failure of UPN (the ultimate result of which was its merger with the WB) was due to its decision to change directions in its first season.

Fortunately, Nowhere Man would not be forgotten and has remained a cult series ever since it first aired. This would, of course, result in the relatively recent release of its entire run on DVD. The DVD set is remarkable for a TV show, especially one that run only one season. The set features several extras. Many of the episodes have audio commentaries, and sometimes video commentaries as well. There are several featurettes on various aspects of the making of the series. There is even a short featurette on purported CIA mind control techniques on the last disc of the set entitled "Fact or Fiction (I personally found this a bit far fetched, if interesting--conspiracy theorists may feel free to disagree with me)." Among the best part of the extras are the scripts for every single episode of Nowhere Man, which one can download to his or her computer.

Although it had its share of bad episodes, Nowhere Man was a remarkable series for its time. In fact, in some ways it was a bit of ahead of its time. First, since Nowhere Man first aired there have been several successful, cerebral action series. The USA Network had La Femme Nikita (which Lawrence Hertzog himself would work on). ABC has had Alias and Lost. F/X has The Shield. Nowhere Man would fit in perfectly with all these series. In fact, I rather suspect that had it aired just a few years later, it may have found a home on one of the various cable channels. Second, when Nowhere Man first aired, identity theft was relatively rare. In the ten years since the show originally aired, identity theft has increased dramatically, making the series even more pertinent than it once was. Its questons regarding the nature of identity and the tension between the individual and the group remain as relevant as ever. While it is regrettable that Nowhere Man only lasted one season, it remains one of the most fascinating series of the Nineties and probably will not soon be forgotten.

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

Arthur Lee R.I.P.

Arthur Lee, best known as frontman and guitarist for Sixties rock group Love, died August 3 at the age of 61 from acute myeloid leukaemia.

Arthur Lee was born in Memphis on March 7, 1945. While he was still young, Lee's family moved to Los Angeles. It was in the early Sixties that he formed his first band, an instrumental group called Arthur Lee and the LAGs. They released one single, "The Ninth Wave," on Capitol Records in 1963. It would be Arthur Lee who would hire guitarist Jimi Hendrix for his first recording session. Producing "My Diary (a song which Lee also wrote)" for Rosa Lee Brooks, he hired the young Hendrix to play guitar on the record. Lee also wrote songs for Ronnie And The Pomona Casuals ("The Slow Jerk") "I've Been Tryin'" for Little Ray.

Drawn to the folk rock sound of The Byrds and the British Invasion bands (such as The Beatles), Lee formed a band called The Grass Roots with drummer Don Conka, guitarist Johnny Echols, and bassist Johnny Fleckenstein. Bryan MacLean, who had been a road manager for The Byrds, would be asked to join as vocalist and another songwriter. It was not long before the band as to change their name (there was already another Los Angeles band called The Grassroots). Considering such names as "Summer's Children" and "Dr. Strangelove," they eventually settled on the name "Love." Their self titled first album was released in 1966 and featured an early version of the song "Hey, Joe." At this point Love sounded liked The Byrds crossed with a garage band. Later in the year they would release their only top forty hit, "7 and 7 Is," which went to number 33 on the Billboard pop charts.

Love would only release two more albums with anything close to its original lineup. Da Capo appeared in January 1967. Besides featuring the single "7 and 7 Is," it also featured such songs as "She Comes in Colours" and "Stephanie Knows Who." The album spanned musical styles from garage rock ("7 and 7 Is" and "Stephanie Knows Who") to more melodic ("She Comes in Colours"). Their third and final album, Forever Changes, was released in November 1967. The album was a mix of Love's expected garage rock, sweeter sounds produced with violins, and outright psychedelia. Although the album did well in the UK, it bombed in the U.S. What is more, by this time the group was falling apart. Eventually, everyone left the band except Lee. Lee would form new bands called "Love" well into the late Seventies.

In addition to his work with Love, Lee released three solo albums (Vindicator in 1972, Black Beauty in 1973, and Arthur Lee in 1981. He eventually dropped out of sight entirely before reemerging with Arthur Lee & Love and the album of the same name in 1992. Sadly in 1996 he was convicted of owning an illegal firearm under California statutes and sentenced to 12 years. He would serve only five, being released in 2001. In 2002 he would start touring with a reconstituted Arthur Lee and Love.

Arthur Lee was an influence on such asrtists as Pink Floyd (in fact, he has been compared to Syd Barrett), Led Zeppelin, and Echo and the Bunnymen. Lee and his band Love lacked any one sound, as their albums often cut across such genres as garage rock, psychedelia, and blues. Although very few people today probably recognise the names "Arthur Lee" or "Love," they have had a lasting influence on rock music.

Sunday, August 6, 2006

Midnight Movies

Those of you who are in your Thirties or Forties may well remember, after a busy Friday or Saturday night, going to the midnight Movie. For those of you who are too young too remember, midnight movies were a weekend ritual which originated in the early Seventies and persisted in some form or another until the late Eighties. Currently there only a few threatres across the country (most located in urban areas) which still show midnight movies.

While midnight movies are generally considered to have originated in the Seventies, in some respects they were nothing new. The spook shows of the Twenties and Thirties could well be considered their predecessors. spook shows were a peculiar form of entertainment usually consisting of one or two horror movies, a magic show (often containing Grand Guignol special effects, hypnosis routines, and spiritualistic routines, and often costumed monsters and ghosts). Often they were hosted by characters one would later find on late night horror movie television shows (in the spook shows they were often called "ghostmasters"). Spook shows were themesevles descended from the Spiritualist Movement. With the popularity of the Spiritualist Movement in the late 19th Century many magicians would incorporate seance routines into their acts. Most of these magicians made it clear that they were not contacting the dead and that their seances were for entertainment purposes only. Regardless, they often called their midnight shows "spook nights." With the introduction of motion pictures, these spook nights became spook shows. Spook shows continued in popularity until the Sixties and Seventies, when television and other home entertainment media took their toll.

Discounting the spook shows (which did not occur on a regular schedule), the first true midnight movie is generally considered El Topo. An underground film made in 1970 by director Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo is a bizarre and violent blend of spagetti Western, Eastern philosophy, Christian symbolism, ultraviolence, and surrealistic imagery. The film opened in 1968 in Mexico to immdediate controversy. It would not be released in the United States until December 18, 1970 and might not have been seen at all had it not been because of Ben Barenholtz, owner of New York City's Elgin Theatre. Barenholtz caught the film at a prviate screening at the Museum of Modern Art. Barenholtz was struck by the film and succeeded in persuading the film's distributor(music producer Alan Douglas) to allow him to show the film midnights at the Elgin. It was Barenholtz's thoughts that the midnight showings would attract the hip crowd to whom the movie would mostly likely appeal. He turned out to be right. El Topo made its debut at the Elgin on December 18, 1970, running until June 1971. With virtually no advertising, it became a smash hit at the theatre.

With the success of midnight movies at the Elgin, other theatres would eventually follow suit. In fact, for much of the Seventies, at least in large metropolitan areas, it would be hard to find a theatre which did not have midnight movies on its bill. Among the theatres best known for their midnight movies were the Elgin in New York City (where it all started), the Oriental Theatre in Milwaukee, and the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While midnight movies proved popular, however, there seems to have been no consistency in what would make for a successful midnight movie. El Topo was an art film, albeit a strange and violent one. A few art films would be successful on the midnight movie circuit. Indeed, director David Lynch's first movie would turn out to be one of the most successful midnight movies of all time. Eraserhead is a surreal film in which dream sequences intermix with a decidely strange reality. What it is ulitmately about is anyone's guess (my best friend has the theory that it is about the horror of being a young parent in modern industrialised society, but he could be wrong....). It would run at the Elgin for years.

Of course, only a few midnight movies would actually qualify as art films. Sometimes they could best be described as "trash." This might well be the best description for Pink Flamingos, the first successful film from director Roger Waters. Pink Flamingos has been described by Waters himself as "an exercise in bad taste," and that is perhaps the best possible description for it. There is something guaranteed to shock, offend, or sicken nearly eveyrone (the climax alone will proably make most people sick). The movie's sheer shock value led to it becoming one of the more sucessful midnight movies of all time.

The power to shock may also lie behind the success of what may be the quintessential midnight movie, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Based on the stage musical The Rocky Horror Show and released in the United States in the United States on September 25, 1975, it was a colossal failure in its first run. This was perhaps with good reasons. For one thing, the movie covered ground where the typical viewing audience feared to tread; transvestitism, bisexuality, incest, voyeurism, and even cannibalism all appear in the film. For another, The Rocky Horror Picture Show was an odd blend of sci-fi/horror spoof and musical, with references to everything from Forbidden Planet to Lili St. Cyr. Having been a failure in its first run, Twentieth Century Fox decided to give the movie a new life as a midnight movie. On April 1, 1976, The Rocky Horror Picture Show made its debut as a midnight movie at the Waverly in Greenwich Village. The movie proved to be a hit at the Waverly and was soon showing up at other theatres. With the movie's success there also developed a strange relationship between the film and its fans. Starting out with fans simply talking back to the screen, eventually there would evolve a full fledged ritual in which fans would dress as their favourite characters, dance the Time Warp, and even recite lines of dialogue. Quite simply, The Rocky Horror Picture Show became what could be considered the first audience participation movie! Showing at some theatres for literally decades, it is arguably the biggest midnight movie of all time.

Of course, pivotal in the success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show may well have been its music. Music would be central to the success of many midnight movies. In fact, one of the earliest successes on the midnight movie circuit was The Harder They Come, a 1972 Jamaican movie starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliff. Among other things it helped popularise reggae in the United States. Another successful midnight movie to feature music was more in The Rocky Horror Picture Show mould. Directed by Brian Palma and featuring songs by Paul Williams, Phantom of the Paradise was a spoof combinging The Phantom of the Opera with the Faust legend. Like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, The Phantom of the Paradise failed in its initial release, but recieved a new life as a midnight movie. It remains a cult film to this day. Forbidden Zone was another sci-fi/fantasy spoof that was also a musical. Released in 1980, it featured an early appearance by Danny Elfman and his band Oingo Boingo.

Other midnight movies centred upon the music of popular rock groups. Quadrophenia was a 1979 film based on The Who album of the same name. Pink Floyd: The Wall was based on the Pink Floyd album of that name. In some respects, Pink Floyd: The Wall may have been the ideal midnight movie. It was a surrealistic art film with shocking imagery and rock music.

Of course, not all midnight movies were fairly recent releases (independent movies like Eraserhead or failed pictures from major studios like The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Older movies wound up on the midnight movie circuit as well. George Romero's classic Night of the Living Dead received a new life as a midnight movie. Its sequels would follow in its footsteps. Another older film to be a hit as a midnight movie was 1936 film entitled Tell Your Children. It was originally released as a serious drama about the evils of marijuana. It would later be bought by exploitation maven Dwain Esper, who rechristened the film Reefer Madness and spiced it up with some more salacious inserts. Rediscovered in 1971, with its poor production values and wild overacting (not to mention some pretty inaccurate demonstratons of the effects of pot), Reefer Madness became something of a camp classic as a midnight movie.

As I said earlier, there seems to have been no consistency with regards to what would make a successful midnight movie. Indeed, it perhaps should not surprise me that films produced by the Hollywood studios that did fairly well at the box office would have afterlives as midnight movies. The Goonies was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Richard Donner. Released in 1985, it placed among the top ten grossing movies of that year. Surprisingly it would later become a hit as a midnight movie, perhaps largely due to the children of the Eighties. It is perhaps one of the few instances in which a family film has also become a midnight movie. Stand By Me, the 1986 Rob Reiner film based on a Stephen King novella, is another example of a film successful in its original run that later became a hit midnight movie.

It was in the late Seventies that midnight movies began to go into decline. In the Eighties they would go into an even sharper decline. The enormous growth of cable in the late Seventies and early Eighties and the advent of the VCR were perhaps responsible for midnight movies fading in popularity. Eventually, even such famous midnight movie venues as the Elgin and the Orson Welles would close their doors. Today only a few theatres in a few large cities still have regular midnight showings of movies. The era of midnight movies would be remembered on various cable channels. From 1981 to 1988, the USA Network aired Night Flight, a TV series that not only showed music videos and film shorts, but many midnight movies as well (I remember them showing Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains). More recently premium channel Encore has had midnight movie marathons and even produced a documentary based on the book Midnight Movies: From the Margin to the Mainstream.

Given that midnight movies are a fond memory of my youth, I find it sad that they are no longer as common as they once were. I never regularly attended midnight movies, as the theatres here in Randolph County never showed them. But I did get to see a good many midnight movies at the Kennedy, a beautiful old theatre done in Colonial Revival design that was once in Kirksville. Unlike theatres in larger cities, it generally did not show specific midnight movies for weeks or months (let alone years) at a time. One Friday and Saturday one might be able to watch Quadrophenia; the next weekend the midnight show might be Black Christmas. Of course, there were midnight movies that had many return engagements at the Kennedy--most notably The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Quadrophenia. More often than not, many members of the audience would be drunk (I must confess, I was one of those--I was in college, okay...) or worse. I remember one weekend in December when my brother, our friends, and myself had been awake for over 72 hours. That Friday we went to the Kennedy to watch a midnight double feature of A Boy and His Dog and Scanners. We returned the second night to watch the same double feature because our friend Carol (the only one of us who had gotten some sleep) had been drunk the night before and couldn't remember the movies. As it turned out, all of us fell asleep during A Boy and His Dog (except Carol--he was wide awake) and had the misfortune to wake up during the expoding brain portion of Scanners--not the first thing you want to see in that twilight between sleep and wakefulness! Regardless, I did enjoy watching the midnight movies at the Kennedy. And many films that were hits as midnight movies rank among my favourite films (Phantom of the Paradise, Pink Floyd: The Wall, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and so on). I do think it is a shame that only a few theatres now show midnight movies. Quite honestly, I think they offered an experience that no VCR, DVD player, or cable channel ever can.