Saturday, March 17, 2007

The Stardust Bites the Dust

The Stardust Resort and Casino, one of the most famous casinos in Las Vegas, was no more as of March 13, 2007. On that date the building was imploded in a ceremony which included a fireworks display, as if it was reason to celebrate. It was cleared to make way for Echelon Place, a resort which will feature 5000 rooms, a shopping mall, a production theatre, and 1 million square feet of meeting space.

I have never been to Las Vegas, so I never had the chance to see the Stardust in person. But like most Americans I have seen it both on television and movies. And like many people I am aware of its history. The Stardust was conceived by Tony Cornero. Cornero was hardly anyone's definition of an honest businessman. In the days of Prohibition he was a bootlegger. And unfortunately for Cornero, he was arrested and convicted for his crimes. After his release he and his brother went to Las Vegas. After several attempts at various casinos (not all of them in Las Vegas), Cornero decided to pursue his dream of creating the largest, plushest casino in the city. Unfortunately, Cornero would die before his dream came true. He had a fatal heart attack on July 31, 1955. Regardless, Moe Dalitz, owner of the Desert Inn and a man with his own shady past, saw the Stardust through to its completion. The Stardust opened in 1958. At the time it was possibly the largest resort hotel in the world. It was also the first casino in Las Vegas to cater to the average person. Its rates and its prices for food and drink were cheaper than any other casino at the time.

In addition to being possibly the most lavish casino for its time, the Stardust also boasted some of Las Vegas's more famous architecture. Its sign featured the solar system, complete with a 16 inch model of Earth, and the name "Stardust" in electric letters. At the time it was the largest sign in the world. Its roadside sign featured the name "Stardust" in a mass of twinkling lights.

Among other things, Stardust was famous for its French themed floor show, Lido de Paris. It ran from the hotel's opening to 1992. It also featured Las Vegas's only first run drive-in theatre. Over the years it featured a number of different performers, including George Carlin, Don Rickles, The Temptations, Steve Lawrence and Edie Gorme, Harvey Korman and Tim Conway, Wayne Newton, and Siegfried and Roy.

Like many of the casinos in Las Vegas, the Stardust had a connection to organised crime for many years. Moe Dalitz had more than his share of links to the Mob. For many years the casino was under the control of the Chicago Outfit, the criminal organisation dating back to the days of Al Capone). It was in 1976 that authorities uncovered the fact that gangster Fraank Rosenthal had been secretly running the Stardust for years. Shady business dealing behind the Stardust came to further light when the casino was fined by the Nevada Gambling Comission $3 million for skimming. In March 1985 the Stardust was bought by Boyd Gaming Corporation, bringing to an end any connection the casino had to organised crime.

Unfortunately, the Stardust would eventually find itself behind the times. These days more revenue is generated in Las Vegas through hotel rooms, shows, and food than from gambling. The Stardust, where the casino was the star attraction, had become something of a dinosaur.

Regardless, the Stardust would leave its mark on American pop culture. It has appeared in movies from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to Mars Attacks. In the films Casino, Swingers, and the notoriously awful Showgirls, the Stardust had a starring role.

While Echelon Place might have more rooms and even more amenities than the Stardust, I very seriously doubt that it will have the cultural resonance which the Stardust did. With the destruction of the Stardust, it seems to me that we have seen yet another piece of American gone up in dust. The Sands and the Desert Inn were destroyed years ago. For better or worse, Las Vegas is changing. And while those in charge of the resorts and casinos might feel this is for the better, I can't help but worry the city is losing the character that made it famous. Okay, the city is better off without mobsters operating the casinos, but I don't think it is better off without the old classic casinos. Quite simply, the Echelon will never take the place of the Stardust.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Arnold Drake 1924-2007

Most of this blog's readers have probably never heard of Arnold Drake. I would even be surprised if most of this blog's readers have even heard of his creations. But Arnold Drake was one of the most innovative and influential writers in comic books. Among other things, he created both the Doom Patrol and Deadman. Drake died March 12 at the age of 83 after a bout with pneumonia.

Arnold Drake was born March 1, 1924. As a child he exhibited an interest in comic strips early. When he was 12 he contracted scarlet fever and was confined to his bed. His mother bought him bridge pads to use as drawing paper, and it was while he was sick in bed that he created his first comic strips. He soon realised that he was more interested in writing comic strips than in drawing them. Drake majored in Journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia. He later attended New York University.

While at New York University, Drake took on a variety of writing jobs, doing public relations work for AT&T, Blue Cross, IBM, and so on. He sold some text and a few stories for the smaller comic book publishers. It was while Drake was in college that he, future novelist Leslie Waller, and artist Matt Baker more or less invented the graphic novel. They had hit upon the idea of a "picture novel," essentially a novel in comic book form. The plan was that their picture novels would be more sophisticated than the average comic book of the day, written for adults rather than children. They interested publisher Archer St. John in publishing a series of picture novels in mass market paperback form. The first published picture novel (in 1950), It Rhymes with Lust, was a film noir potboiler. A second picture novel, The Case of the Winking Buddha, by writer Manning Lee Stokes and artist Charles Raab, was subsequently published. Unfortunately, neither sold well and the idea of the picture novel died on the vine.

Regardless, Drake would still find a career in the comic book industry. Batman creator Bob Kane was his brother Milton's neighbour. Kane, Drake, and Drake's brother began working together on a project, and Kane introduced Drake to DC Comics' editorial staff. His first work for DC was for House of Mystery. Drake was soon writing for such DC titles and strips as House of Mystery, Batman, Space Ranger, Tommy Tomorrow, and Mark Merlin. Drake created the comic strip Stanley and His Monster for DC's Fox and Crow magazine. He would eventually work on both the Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis comic books, as well as Little Lulu.

It was in 1963 that Arnold Drake would make his biggest mark in comic book history. Editor Murray Boltinoff asked him to create a feature for the ailing My Greatest Adventure magazine. The idea Drake and fellow writer Bob Haney developed was that of a superhero team who were more or less outcasts, led by a man in a wheelchair. If the idea sounds familiar, it is because it is more or less the same concept behind X-Men. The catch is that the Doom Patrol first appeared three months before the first issue of Uncanny X-Men! Th Doom Patrol consisted of Cliff Steele, whose brain was placed in the body of a robot following an accident, turning him into Robotman; test pilot Larry Trainor, whose body became radioactive after exposure to radiation, but who gained the ability to project himself in the form of negative energy; and Elasti-Girl, actress Rita Farr, who after being exposed to unusual volcanic gases gained the ability to shrink or grow at will. The team was led by Dr. Niles Caulder, called the Chief, who was bound to a wheelchair following an accident.

The Doom Patrol ran for 41 issues. During the series' run, Drake displayed his originality in the often bizarre villains the team faced. Among the villains the team faced was: Mr. 103, a villain who could turn himself into any of the 103 elements known in 1963; Ultimax, a sentient computer; and the alien invader Garguax. Among the Doom Patrol's deadliest opponents were the Brotherhood of Evil, led by the Brain (who was precisely that--a disembodied brain maintained through artificial life support) and featuring the intelligent and deadly ape Monsieur Mallah and the shapeshifting Madame Rouge. While the Brotherhood of Evil were deadly, they were nothing compared to the Doom Patrol's archnemesis, General Immortus, the immortal leader of a crime syndicate.

Sadly, as the Sixties wound down sales for The Doom Patrol declined. It was with the magazine's final issue that Arnold Drake took the revolutionary step of killing off the team. In final battle against Madame Rogue, the Doom Patrol sacrificed themselves to save a Maine fishing village. It was the first time that a comic magazine ended its run with the deaths of its main characters. Regardless, the Doom Patrol maintains a cult following to this day, allowing for several revivals (most notably one written by Grant Morrison). Much of their mythos (including the Brotherhood of Evil) would later be used in issues of The Teen Titans.

Drake's second most famous creation would also come about because a comic magazine was in need of a boost. Editor Jack Miller approached Drake with the idea of creating a new superhero for the failing Strange Adventures. The idea Drake developed with artist Carmine Infantino was that of Deadman. Deadman was aerialist Boston Brand, Who was murdered while performing on the trapeze. Brand's ghost was given the ability to possess any living creature by the goddess Rama Kushna so he could find his killer. In the meantime, however, Brand often found himself using his powers to aid others. In some respects, it was a precursor to the show Quantum Leap.

Perhaps unfortunately, Arnold Drake did not always get along well with his editors. His various disagreements with editors at DC would result in his dismissal, alongside many of the other longtime writers at the publisher (including Batman co-creator Bob Finger). Ironically, Drake would later go to work for Marvel on, of all things, The Uncanny X-Men, a superhero team with an uncanny resemblance to the Doom Patrol. He would eventually take up residence at Gold Key Comics, where he worked on The Twilight Zone and Star Trek. In addition to writing comic books, Arnold Drake also worked in B-movies. He wrote the screenplays for the low budget horror movie The Flesh Eaters and the low budget crime drama Who Killed Teddy Bear.

Although he was not one of the best known names in the comic book industry, Arnold Drake was undoubtedly an innovator who dared to venture where few others would. His Doom Patrol predated the more popular X-Men and he was the first writer to actually kill of his characters at the end of their run. Deadman was a revolutionary character for his era and, as pointed out earlier, was a forerunner of the same idea as that in the TV show Quantum Leap. It is perhaps a mark of Drake's influence that there are feature films based on both the Doom Patrol and Deadman are in development. And while his idea for "picture novels" never got off the ground, it foreshadowed the rise of graphic novels in the Seventies and Eighties. Growing up Doom Patrol was among my favourite titles--I read as many of the reprints as I could get my hands on. Much of this was because of Drake's sheer creativity as a writer. In the Sixties he was doing things in the pages of Doom Patrol that would make even Stan Lee and the guys at Marvel look tame. I must admit to being very sad upon hearing of his death.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Betty Hutton R.I.P.

Betty Hutton, star of stage and screen, died Sunday at age 86 of complications from colon cancer.

Hutton was born Elizabeth June Thornburg on February 26, 1921 in Battle Creek, Michigan. Her father, a railroad foreman, left the family while Hutton was still young. She entered show business while still young, singing in a speakeasy run by her family at age 3. Hutton was discovered by orchestra leader Vincent Lopez and performed with his band for a few years. She made her film debut in several Warner Brothers shorts. By 1940 she was appearing on Broadway in Two For the Show. That same year she appeared on Broadway in Panama Hattie.

It was in 1942 that she made her feature film debut in The Fleet's In. For the next several years she appeared in such films as The Miracle of Morgan Creek, Incendiary Blonde, and The Stork Club. She played Pearl White in the bio flick The Perils of Pauline in 1947. Perhaps her biggest claim to fame came when she replaced Judy Garland as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun. Hutton made the part all her own and it remains the role for which she is most famous. She appeared in the lead role in the big budget extravaganza The Greatest Show on Earth. Unfortunately for Hutton, after appearing in the film Somebody Loves Me, she insisted that her husband at the time, Charles O'Curran and Paramount refused. As a result, Hutton broke her contract and effectively ended her film career.

Hutton would return to the stage, appearing on Broadway in Betty Hutton and Her All-Star International Show in the early Fifties. In the Sixties she would appear on Broadway in Fade In, Fade Out. She would also play Miss Hannigan in Annie in the Seventies, replacing Dorothy Loudon.

Hutton also made a career for herself in television. She starred in the NBC TV special Satins and Spurs in 1954 and had her own show during the 1959-1960 season. She made guest appearances on Burke's Law, Gunsmoke, and Baretta. Following her acting career, Hutton would get a master's degree from Salve Regina, a Catholic college. She would go on to teach acting and oral interpretation at Emerson College.

I must admit that I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Betty Hutton. Beyond obviously being beautiful and blonde, she was also one of the most vivacious stars of the silver screen. Her voice was an incredible instrument, and I imagine she could be heard across a room even without a microphone. She also a natural gift for comedy, with perfect timing and a face that was very expressive. Although I've always been a fan of Judy Garland, I have to wonder if it wasn't serendipity for Paramount that she was unable to finish Annie Get Your Gun. I can certainly picture no one better in the role than Betty Hutton was. I must say that I am truly saddened by her passing.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

American Idol Is Not a Reality Show

The new season of American Idol began not long ago. As it has in the past, the show has dominated the Nielsen ratings. And, as usual, there have been numerous news stories about the talent competition. I am willing to bet in that a majority of those news stories, American Idol is described as a "reality show." It is on this point I must disagree with those news stories.

Granted, the term "reality show" is a rather broad one that has been used of a large number of different sorts of shows in the past. Candid Camera, which used hidden cameras to capture people's reactions to various pranks, was described as a reality show. So too was Art Linkletter's Kids Say the Darndest Things, in which the famous TV host simply interviewed youngster. At the same time, however, the term "reality show" has also been used of the cinema verite of Cops and the competition on Survivor.

It seems to me to determine what precisely is a reality show, then, we must look at what these shows have in common. In each case it seems to me that these shows present the relatively unscripted actions, reactions, or interactions of people to various situations, excluding sporting events, game shows, and news shows. For me, then, the emphasis in any reality show should be on the actions, reactions, or interactions of the individuals involved. This is why I do not consider game shows to be "reality shows," because the emphasis is on the game itself, not on the actions, reactions, or interactions of people. Of course, there are going to be cases in which the lines between reality shows and other genres are blurred. Given that it is essentially a competition, Survivor could be considered a game show. That having been said, it has always seemed to me that the emphasis not so much on the competition itself, but in the interactions between the competitors. In other words, Survivor is a reality show with aspects of a game show.

Now, in the case of American Idol, the emphasis of the show is entirely on the competition between the various singers. It is not on the interactions of the singers among themselves, their reactions to various situations, or their actions when they are not singing. American Idol is then not a reality show. As to what it really is, American Idol is simply a talent show. Talents shows have existed since The Original Amateur Hour debuted on radio in 1934. And they have been popular since the earliest days of television. The Original Amateur Hour made the transition to television in 1948 and lasted in some form until 1970. Star Search ran throughout the Eighties and into the Nineties, lasting a good twelve years. While it is not a reality show, American Idol is nothing new. Talent shows have been around for decades.

American Idol is as popular as ever. And I rather suspect, given the history of other talent shows, it will remain on the years for many more years. And, for better or worse, I suspect it will continue to be mislabelled a "reality show."