Friday, April 27, 2007

Jack Valenti R.I.P.

I doubt many of you have heard of Jack Valenti. Valenti was the long time head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) who supervised the creation of the modern day movie ratings system which replaced the outdated and overly prohibitive Hays Code. He died yesterday at age 85 after having had a stroke in March.

Valenti was born on September 5, 1921 in Houston, Texas. He served as a pilot in the Army Air Corps during World War II and flew 51 missions as the commander of a B-25 attack bomber. He received a Bachelor of Arts from Houston University and a Masters degree from Harvard. In 1952 he co-founded Weekley & Valenti, a political consulting and advertising agency.

In charge of the press during John F. Kennedy's ill fated trip to Dallas in 1963, Valenti befriended Lyndon B. Johnson and became the new president's "special assistant." It was in 1966 that MCA head Lew Wasserman (MCA then owned Universal) and entertainment lawyer and United Artists head Arthur B. Krim tapped Valenti as president of the MPAA. A movie buff his entire life (his favourite film was A Man for All Seasons, Valenti found himself facing a movie industry where the outdated Hays Code was clashing with a new permissiveness in movies in which violence, sex, and four letter words were becoming more and more common. While Valenti believed that directors had the right to make movies with the content they wanted, viewers had the right to be warned about content in films that they might find objectionable. To this end, Valenti oversaw the creation of the current motion picture ratings system.

As head of the MPAA, Valenti had his share of battles. In the Seventies and Eighties he would sometimes launch attacks on VCRs, which he feared would hurt the movie industry. Fortunately, Valenti was proven wrong. More recently, Valenti favoured the the creation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which prohibits the creation and distributions of devices to circumvent the copyright protection on DVDs and other new technologies. In this way it protects the owners of properties from copyright infringement.

Jack Valenti was a well known face in Hollywood. He appeared regularly at the Academy Awards (his speeches were a bit of a running joke with Johnny Carson), and it was not unusual for him to appear at various film festivals. He had a large circle of friends, who ranged from Kirk Douglas (well known as a liberal) to the late conservative Senator Jesse Helms. Valenti had a sense of humour about himself and over the years appeared in unexpected places. He appeared on Laugh In and an episode of Freakazoid (where he explained the ratings system in a semi-serious tone).

Arguably, Jack Valenti had more impact on Hollywood than many directors and producers. The creation of the ratings system would change movies forever. Granted, the system has always had its share of critics. There are those who think the system can be arbitrary, those who think the MPAA is stricter on independent films than they are major studio releases, and those who think the ratings are stricter on profanity and violence than they are sexual content. That having been said, the ratings do provide a means of advising viewers with regards to the content of movies without being overly restrictive in a way that the Hays code was. While it has its shortcomings, I think there can be little doubt that the ratings system was a vast improvement over the old Hays Code.

Valenti was also a powerful force in Hollywood. Besides railing against VCRs and favouring passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which, while it has its shortcomings, does serve as protection against copyright infringement), Valenti was also tireless in trying to stop movie piracy in such places as China. I think it is safe to say that Jack Valenti earned his place in Hollywood history. He won't soon be forgotten.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bobby "Boris" Pickett Dead at 69

There are those one hit wonders whose hits are quickly forgotten. They come and go and years later no one remembers them. And then there are those one hit wonders that seem as if their songs will be remembered forever. One of the latter category of one hit wonders died last night. Bobby "Boris" Pickett, whose only hit was the Halloween favourite "Monster Mash," passed on at the age of 69 after a battle with leukaemia.

Pickett was born Robert George Pickett on February 11, 1938 in Somerville, Massachusetts. Growing up Pickett's father managed a movie theatre. It was then at age 9 that Pickett discovered his gift for impersonations, particularly Boris Karloff. In the late Fifties in Hollywood, Pickett would often use his Karloff impersonation in his night club act. He would also use the impersonation in performances with his band, The Cordials. One of the members of The Cordials then suggested to Pickett that he use his Boris Karloff impersonation in a song. With his friend Lenny Capizzi, Pickett then wrote the song "Monster Mash." The song was recorded with a backing band christened "The Crypt-Kickers," whose keyboard player was a then unknown Leon Russell. The song was rejected by four different major labels before Gary Paxton (best known for the song "Alley Oop"--he would later produce songs for Tommy Roe and The Association) decided to release it on his own label. It was Paxton who billed Pickett as "Bobby 'Boris' Pickett."

Just eight weeks after it was recorded, "Monster Mash" hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart the week of October 20. It has since became a favourite with radio stations during the Halloween season. It would also hit the Billboard charts one more time; it went to #10 in 1973. The song has been covered by Mannheim Steamroller, The Misfits,The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, and even Boris Karloff himself (on a 1965 episode of Shingdig).

Unfortunately, Pickett was never able to repeat the success of "Monster Mash." A Yuletide novelty called "Monster's Holiday" was released in 1962 and hit #30 on the Billboard chart. Another song, "Graduation Day," only managed to hit #80 on the Billboard chart in 1963. Pickett released a new version of the song, "Climate Mash," in October 2005, as part of a protest against global warming.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett was also an actor. He guest starred in such series as The Lieutenant, Petticoat Junction, Bonanza, and The Beverly Hillbillies. He appeared in the movies The Baby Maker, Chrome and Hot Leather and Strange Invaders. In 1995 he appeared as Dr. Victor Frankenstein in Monster Mash: the Movie, based on the hit song.

While Bobby "Boris" Pickett only had one hit song, there can be no doubt that he will be remembered. "Monster Mash" is played repeated every Halloween. It has appeared in such shows as Cheers, The Simpsons, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. As songs produced by one hit wonders go, it is definitely one that won't be forgotten.

Monday, April 23, 2007

David Halberstam R.I.P.

Pulitzer winning author David Halberstam was arguably one of the most versatile writers of the 20th century. He was a prize winning journalist who worked for well respected newspapers, but he also managed to write two novels. Primarily, however, when not writing as a reporter, Halberstam wrote books. And he wrote them on a wide array of subjects, from the Vietnam War (The Making of a Quagmire: America and Vietnam during the Kennedy Era and The Best and the Brightest to the decade of the Fifties (The Fifties) to baseball (The Teammates: A Portrait of a Friendship). In all, he wrote about twenty different books, in addition to his many articles over the years.

Sadly, David Halberstam died earlier today in an automobile accident. He was 73 years of age.

David Halberstam was born April 10, 1934 in New York City. His father was a surgeon in the U. S. Army and the family moved frequently. Eventually they settled in Yonkers, New York. There Halberstam wrote for the school paper at Roosevelt High. He attended Harvard where he was the managing editor of the school's daily, the Harvard Crimson. He graduated in 1955 with a degree in Journalism.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s he worked at the Nashville Tennesseean, where he covered the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. He eventually took a job at the Daily Times Leader in West Point, Mississippi to be closer to events linked to Civil Rights. In 1960 he became part of the New York Times Washington bureau. It was that same year that he published his first book, The Noblest Roman. In 1962 he was reassigned by the Times to Saigon to cover the ongoing Vietnam War.

David Halberstam wrote 20 books and was working on a 21st on the Korean War. When it came to his books, Halberstam was a bit of a jack of all trades, covering a wide range of subjects. His books The Noblest Roman and One Very Hot Day were novels. His book The Best and the Brightest covered the origins of the Vietnam War. His book The Powers That Be chronicled the beginnings of modern media as a tool for political power. His book Firehouse covered Engine 40 Ladder 35 in New York City during the September 11, 2001 crisis. His book The Fifties simply covered that decade in loving detail.

Over the years David Halberstam won George Polk Award for his coverage of Vietnam and the Pulitzer for International Reporting.

I have always been a big fan of David Halberstam. I think my favourite that he wrote was The Fifties. As a pop culture buff it was a definite must read, with so much information on a variety of subjects that it would be impossible to list them briefly. He was a gifted writer, who was capable of covering complex subjects, but doing so in such a way that he did not make them sound dry and boring. I must say that I am very saddened by this death.