Wednesday, December 31, 2008

That Was the Year That Was 2008

When it comes to pop culture, the year 2008 was much like any other year. It had its highs and lows. It had those things which made it unique among years, and those things which made it the same. In some respects, it could be considered the year when nostalgia reigned supreme in the media. In the movies there were new entries in old franchises (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Quantum of Solace, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Rambo). In music there were new releases from artists who have been around for quite a while. On television there was a revival of Knight Rider and an American adaptation of Life on Mars.

With regards to motion pictures, in some respects 2008 could be considered the Year of the Superhero. The two top grossing movies in the United States were The Dark Knight and Iron Man. Hancock came in at #3. These were not the only superhero movies released in 2008 either. There was also Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Incredible Hulk, and The Spirit. While the current superhero cycle reached its peak this year, the cycle of movies based on young adult fantasy novels continued. Most did not do too well at the box office. The Spiderwick Chronicles and City of Ember died quietly. Twilight proved to be a hit, although it would seem to appeal to girls more than boys. One films based on a young adult novel, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince was moved from a holiday 2008 release to a summer 2009 release. It was a good year for animated films. Early in the year Horton Hears a Who became the first feature film based on the works of Dr. Seuss to actually be good. Kung Fu Panda proved to be a surprise hit. Wall-E proved once more just how remarkable Pixar is.

Strangely enough given the gross made by The Dark Knight, 2008 was not a record breaking year at the box office over all. In fact, attendance was down 5% from 2007. What save Hollywood was that many theatres raised their ticket prices this year. Because of that, profits were only down less than 1% when compared to 2007. Even given this, the movies did quite well given the ongoing depression.

Perhaps the biggest news in film was the ongoing writers' strike, the longest in the history of film. NBC and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association cancelled the Golden Globe Awards ceremony and held a so-called press conference instead. The writers' strike would also have an impact on film production, delaying some films going into production.

Television saw the 2007-2008 season cut short by the longest writers' strike. Many older shows never recovered. Many new shows found their lives ended prematurely. The 2008-2009 season would be mixed bag this year. With the possible exception of CBS, the networks seemed more willing to take risks. NBC debuted two fairly original shows: My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe. ABC gambled on an American adaptation of Life on Mars. While the networks took some risks, however, they tempered these risks with a bit too much caution. NBC cut the lives of both My Own Worst Enemy and Crusoe short. ABC cancelled Pushing Daisies (the best series on network television besides 30 Rock).

The networks also debuted shows that were basically more of the same. This was especially true of CBS, which may have debuted its worst season (quality wise, anyway) in years. The Mentalist is a direct ripoff of Psych and not a very good one at that. Worst Week, while funny at times, is pretty much Meet the Parents; the Series. And while Eleventh Hour is an adaptation of an ITV series, it was not a particularly original ITV series. Both the American and British versions of Eleventh Hour would appear to rip off House, The X-Files, and CSI in equal measure. While CBS may have debuted the most derivative shows of any network this fall, the other networks debuted shows that were not particularly original as well. NBC insisted on reviving Knight Rider, even giving the show (which is as bad as the original) more of a chance than more original series such as Crusoe and My Own Worst Enemy (there really should be a moratorium on reviving Glen Larson shows...what's next, Alias Smith and Jones?). ABC offered the none too original (and not long for this world) game show Opportunity Knocks.

With regards to music, 2008 was the year of older artists. The Eagles toured to support a new album (released in 2007) that was regarded as a major disappointment. Guns N' Roses release their first single in 9 years, as well as a new album (Chinese Democracy). AC/DC released Black Ice, which was well received by many fans, even if it wasn't comparable to their classics. Perhaps the best album of the year was released by Todd Rundgren. Arena marked Rundgren's return to the genre with which he began, power pop, while still featuring a good deal of variety (everything from the guitar driven pop of "Mad" to the heavy metal of "Mercenary and Gun" to the anthem "Mountainpop." Other old rock bands reunited this year, including Stone Temple Pilots, The Specials (under the name Terry Hall and Friends--Jerry Dammers own the name "The Specials"), Face to Face, and My Bloody Valentine.

Leaving the world of rock music and entering the world of pop, the big news may have been Katy Perry. Sounding like an electropop artist circa 1981 and equipped with a little bit of humour and a lot of sex appeal, Perry had hits with the controversial "I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot N Cold." Reflecting the return of older artists to rock music, pop also saw some of its oldsters releasing new music. Madonna released her eleventh album, which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200. Mariah Carey had her 18th #1 single, putting her in reach of The Beatles' record (which was 20 #1 singles). There was also the rather unwelcome (well, for some of us) return of New Kids on the Block. A bit of good news is that rap continued its decline in 2008. With any luck, perhaps it will go extinct in 2009....

Sadly, 2008 would see many passings. Perhaps none made as much news as the death of Heath Ledger. While Ledger's death filled newspapers for weeks, 2008 might well be remembered as the year when acting legends left this earth. The year saw the deaths of Suzanne Pleshette, Roy Scheider, Richard Widmark, Mel Ferrer, and Cyd Charisse. There were perhaps no bigger names as far as deaths go this year than Charlton Heston, the controversial actor who played Ben Hur and El Cid, and Paul Newman, who played Cool Hand Luke and Hud. There were many other movie actors who passed as well, including scream queen Hazel Court and John Philip Law. Television saw its share of performers pass, including Harvey Korman, Dick Martin, Estelle Getty, and Edie Adams. One television figure was not a performer, but was as famous as any of them. Tim Russert was arguably the best host Meet the Press ever had, and will forever be identified with the show. There were various movie directors who died as well, perhaps the best known being Sydney Pollack and Jules Dassin.

The world of writing saw two of its best pass--George MacDonald Fraser, creator of rapscallion Harry Flashman, and Arthur C. Clarke. The world of comic books lost two of its biggest names, Steve Gerber, creator of Howard the Duck, and Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer. In the world of music, Mike Smith, lead singer of the Dave Clark Five, composer Earl H. Hagen, Nick Reynolds (co-founder of the Kingston Trio), rock 'n' roll pioneer Bo Didley, and singer/actress/temptress Eartha Kitt all died this year. Geekdom lost three of its icons this year: Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons, Forrest Ackerman, the most famous and influential sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fan of all time, and Bettie Page, the Queen of Pinups, all passed in 2008. Many more pop culture figures died this year, but to list them all would take several posts.

In many respects the year 2008 was nothing remarkable. If anything it might well be remembered as the year when nostalgia reigned supreme. It would seem as if this was true at least of movies and music. Whether because the decade of the Naughts is nearing its end or the ongoing economic depression, the average American appears to have wanted to watch characters familiar to him or her from old comic books and movies, and to listen to music artists whose first albums were released years ago. One has to wonder if 2009 will bring us more nostalgia or if individuals will start looking forward to the future.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

After Christmas Day

I have complained before in this blog about how Americans do not celebrate the twelve days of the Yuletide. That is, they don't seem to realise that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on the evening of December 24 and end on the day of January 6. For the past many years this has been reflected in American businesses. I remember a few years ago there was a WalMart commercial that aired after December 25 (heck, it may have started on December 25) that began with the line, "Now that the holidays are over..." Never mind that even with Americans no longer observing the whole Yuletide, most people count New Year's as part of the holidays! WalMart apparently still thinks the holidays end on Christmas Day. Just the other day I went to WalMart and noticed they had cleaned out the Christmas candy aisle and were putting up Valentine's Day candy (who on Earth would buy Valentine's candy this early?!). Of course, many average Americans take down their Christmas decorations on December 26, as if the holidays are over (here I must note that some of them put them up on the day after Thanksgiving, which is far too early to me....).

Fortunately, it seems to me that there are signs that this may be changing. I have noticed many people around here are keeping their Yule decorations up after Christmas Day, more than have in the past several years. What is more, it seems to me that the much of the media is observing Christmas past Christmas Day. To wit, it seems to me that more holiday themed commercials are being shown after Christmas Day than have in the past several years. There is a Sprint commercial that makes reference to the holidays. The classic M&Ms commercial with Santa Claus. And there is a Pampers commercial playing "Silent Night." Now a few holiday themed commercials have always hung on after Christmas Day, but it seems to me that there are more than what there used to be.

Another sign that ignoring all Twelve Days of Christmas could be changing is television programming. The Hallmark Channel has been showing Christmas movies every night, even after Christmas Day. Indeed, they are even showing a marathon of them on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day. On New Year's Eve the USA Network is showing Elf for 24 hours straight. Now, granted, I don't like the movie, but I have to admire the fact that they are showing a Christmas movie on New Year's Eve.

My own hope is that perhaps this means a shift towards the United States observing the whole Yuletide and not just part of it. It seems as if as the twentieth century wore on, the United States celebrated less and less of the Twelve Days of the holidays until they have more or less ceased to exist here. Much of it is due to the fact that I think Americans confused the Christmas shopping season (traditionally from the day after Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve) with the holiday season. Of course, that brings me to my next point. Now if only we could get American businesses and American citizens to stop putting up Yuletide decorations and playing Yuletide music before December 1....

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dale Wasserman and Hilary Waugh

Playwright Dale Wasserman and novelist Hilary Waugh recently passed.

Dale Wasserman, who wrote the play One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and the screenplay for The Vikings, passed on December 21 at the age of 94 from congestive heart failure.

Dale Wasserman was born in Rhinelander, Wisconsin on November 2, 1917. He was orphaned before he was ten years old and was sent to live with aunts and uncles. He worked a variety of jobs before becoming a lighting designer in the theatre and later a director. In 1955 he made his first sale to television, to the anthology series Mantinee Theatre. He would go on to write for Studio One, The Alcoa Theatre, Kraft Television Theatre, Climax, The Dupont Show of the Month. A 1959 episode he wrote for The Dupont Show of the Month, "I, Don Quixote," would provide the basis for The Man of La Mancha. Wasserman would also screenplays, one The Vikings and Quick Before It Melts, among other films.

In 1963 his first play to be acted on Broadway, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was staged. He would go onto write The Man of La Mancha.

Mystery writer Hilary Waugh passed on December 8 at the age of 88.

Hilary Waugh was born in New Haven, Connecticut on June 22, 1920. Waugh attended Yale University. Following graduation, he served in the Navy Air Corps. It was while he was in service that he started writing the mystery novel Madame Will Not Dine Tonight as a way of fighting boredom. It was published in 1947. In 1949 he read a book on true crime and decided to write a realistic crime novel. The end result was Last Seen Wearing..., now considered a pioneer in the police procedural.

Waugh would go onto write almost 50 mystery novels. Most were police procedurals. In fact, in the Sixties he spent time with homicide detective in New York City to learn even more about police work. One thing that would set Waugh's police procedurals apart from others is that they were often set in small towns and suburbs. It was in 1991 that his book Hillary Waugh’s Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing was published. In the book he stressed authenticity above all else.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Harold Pinter and Robert Mulligan Pass On

Two figures from the world of film recently passed. One was Harold Pinter, the playwright and screenwriter. The other was director Robert Mulligan.

Harold Pinter died December 24 at the age of 79. The cause was cancer.

Harold Pinter was born on October 10, 1930 in the East End of London. As a child in 1939, at the outset of World War II, Pinter was evacuated from London to a small city in Cornwall. Growing up, he grew to love both British war films and American gangster movies. When he was 20 his first poem was published. It was not long afterwards that he completed his first novel, The Dwarfs. He studied at the e Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the Central School of Speech and Drama. He then toured as an actor with a repertory company in Ireland.

Pinter wrote his first play, The Room, for a group of drama students. It opened in Bristol on May 15, 1957. Three years later it would open in London. His first full length play, The Birthday Party, opened in Hamersmith on May 19, 1958. It remains among his best known works. Pinter would write several more plays, including The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1964), Betrayal (1978), and Celebration.

Pinter also worked in television and film. In 1960 he wrote an episode of Armchair Theatre. He would also write four episodes of ITV Television Playhouse. His first screenplay was for The Pumpkin Eater, released in 1964. He would go onto write screenplays for The Go-Between, The Last Tycoon, The French Lieutenant's Woman, and The Handmaid's Tale.

Director Robert Mulligan died December 20 at the age of 83. He was perhaps best known for directing the screen adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird. The cause was heart disease.

Robert Mulligan was born in the Bronx on August 23, 1925. During World War II he served in the Navy. Following the war he worked in the telegraph office for The New York Times. He received a bachelor's degree from Fordham University in New York City in 1948. Mulligan got a job at CBS as a messenger and worked his way up to director. He made his directorial debut in 1951 on The Goodyear Television Playhouse. He went onto direct episodes of Suspense, The Philco Television Playhouse, Studio One, and Playhouse 90.

His first feature film was The Rat Race, released in 1960. He would go onto direct To Kill a Mockingbird, Up the Down Staircase, Inside Daisy Clover, Summer of '42, The Other, and The Man in the Moon.

His brother, Richard Mulligan, starred in the TV series Soap and Empty Nest.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

A Yuletide Quiz

As regular readers of this blog probably already know, Beth of the lovely voice laid down a challenge for me at the first of the year. The challenge was simply this: I must create and post one pop culture quiz a month in A Shroud of Thoughts. The quizzes can have a single theme or simply be a collection of random things. At the end of 2008, the reader who has accumulated the most points throughout the year will win a pop culture related prize. For those of you curious about the prize, I decided that it will be a pop culture related key chain of the winner's choice, to cost no more than $5.00 (minus sales tax). The price limit is for the simple fact that I can't afford platinum plated key chains... I'll provide the answers on January 3, 2009.

Since it is the holiday season, I thought I would dedicate this quiz to it.

1. The Puritans in England banned Christmas in what year?

2. Who brought the custom of the Christmas tree to the United Kingdom?

3. In what newspaper was A Visit from St. Nicholas (AKA 'Twas the Night Before Christmas) published?

4. A Christmas Carol was responsible not only for reviving Yuletide customs in the United Kingdom, but also the career of what writer?

5. When and where was the Christmas card invented?

6. In what year was Christmas declared a federal holiday in the United States?

7. Who was the first person to light a Christmas tree with electric lights?

8. What was the name of George Bailey's guardian angel in It's a Wonderful Life?

9. In what year did A Charlie Brown Christmas first air?

10. What was it that Ralphie wanted for Christmas in A Christmas Story?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Eartha Kitt R.I.P.

Eartha Kitt passed yesterday, December 25, at the age of 81. She had fought a long battle with colon cancer. Kitt was a star of recording, stage, and screen, perhaps best known for singing the holiday standard "Santa Baby."

Eartha Kitt was born Eartha Mae Keith on Jan. 17, 1927 in North, South Carolina. She was born outside marriage to a mother of Cherokee and African American descent and a father of German and Dutch descent. When she was eight years old she was sent to live with her Aunt Marnie Kitt in Harlem. While young she was given both piano and dance lessons. Her career in show business started on a dare, when a friend dared her to try out for the Katherine Dunham Dance Company. She passed the audition and so began her long career in entertainment. Kitt would make her debut on Broadway in Carib Song in 1945. With the Katherine Dunham Dance Company she would make her film debut in Casbah in 1948. She would also appear on Broadway in Bal Negre in 1946.

Kitt would leave New York to play in cabarets in Paris. There she first sang the songs "C'est Si Bon" and "Love for Sale," both of which would become identified with her. Upon returning from Paris she was cast in the Broadway revue New Faces of 1952. In 1953 she would have two albums released, RCA Victor Presents Eartha Kitt and Bad Eartha. That year would also include her the biggest hit of her career, "Santa Baby." When New Faces of 1952 was adapted to the screen as New Faces (released in 1954), "Santa Baby" was included along with the songs from the original Broadway revue.

It was also in 1953 that Eartha Kitt would make her debut on television, with an appearance on The Red Buttons Show. She would go onto appear on Your Show of Shows, The Colgate Comedy Hour, The Nat King Cole Show, What's My Line, The Ed Sullivan Show, Burke's Law, Ben Casey, I Spy, and Batman (on which she took over the role of Catwoman from Julie Newmar). In movies Kitt appeared in The Mark of the Hawk, St. Louis Blues, Anna Lucasta, Synanon, Friday Foster, Erik the Viking, Harriet the Spy, and Holes. She was the voice of Yzma in both the movie The Emperor's New Groove and the animated TV series The Emperor's New School.

On Broadway Eartha Kitt appeared in Mrs. Patterson, Shinbone Alley, Jolly's Progress, Timbuktu, The Wild Party, and Nine. She would also tour with The Wizard of Oz and Cinderella. More recently she would regularly appear in Manhattan cabaret. Kitt also continued recording for her whole career, released such albums as Down to Eartha, Bad But Beautiful, Thinking Jazz, and She's So Good.

Eartha Kitt was one of the last of the multimedia stars, appearing on stage, in the movies, and on television, all the while maintaining a recording career. There can be little wonder as to why. Eartha Kitt was talented as both an actress and a singer. What is more, she simply oozed with sex appeal, to the point that critics not only labelled her a "sex kitten," but Orson Welles called her 'the most exciting woman alive." Indeed, it must be pointed out that while many have covered "Santa Baby (including Kylie Minogue and Taylor Swift), no one ever matched Kitt's sultry tones. Kitt was also tireless as a performer. She continued to perform well into her Seventies. Even after she learned she had colon cancer, she opened New York City's Cafe Carlyle in 2006. In the whole of show business history Eartha Kitt was unique. It is doubtful we will ever see her like again.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Yuletide 2008

Since today is Yule Day, I thought I would dispense with doing a full entry and give you the gift of some holiday themed music videos, courtesy of YouTube.

This first video is a clip from Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, Crosby's last Christmas special. It originally aired on November 30, 1977, only about a month and a half after Crosby had died. I remember watching it when it first aired and was a bit surprised at one of Crosby's guests. In fact, it has one of the most surreal and most famous moments in the history of Christmas TV specials: Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing a duet of "The Little Drummer Boy." Although the team of Crosby and Bowie sounds strange, I have to admit that the results were very good.

This is one of my top five favourite Yuletide songs. "Happy Christmas (War is Over)" grew out of a campaign conducted by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1969, in which they placed posters and billboards in eleven cities worldwide which read "WAR IS OVER! (If You Want It) Happy Christmas from John and Yoko," as a protest against the Vietnam War. The song was released on December 6, 1971 in the United States and reached #3 on the Billboard charts. A publishing dispute would prevent it from being released in the United Kingdom until November 1972, but it would go to #4 on the British Singles Chart. This is a collection of clips of Lennon set to the song from YouTube.

While "Snoopy's Christmas" by The Royal Guardsmen was a sequel to their popular song "Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron (which went to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966)." Both were based on the comic strip Peanuts, in which Snoopy often fantasised he was a flying ace fighting the Red Baron. That having been said, "Snoopy's Christmas" also has its roots in history, being also based on the Christmas Truce of 1914 during World War I. On that day British and German soldiers, without the knowledge of their superiors, called a truce between themselves. The British and German soldiers exchanged small gifts with each other, shared pictures of their loved ones back home, and, in some locations, even reportedly engaged in friendly football matches (that's soccer to my fellow Americans). I remember this song well from my childhood, and it has remained one of my favourites ever since.

Okay, I have to confess. This is not a Christmas video. It doesn't even have anything to vaguely do with the holidays. I simply posted it here because I have a big thing for Katey Perry (she combines two of my guilty pleasures--Eighties style synthpop and overly pretty brunettes...)

Merry Yuletide to all and to all a good night!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Some Christmas Movies You May Not Have Thought Of

Come Yuletide most people will watch It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, or A Christmas Story. In truth, however, there are many more movies about the holiday beyond these classics and other classics such as Holiday Inn. There are even films that are holiday movies, but people just haven't thought of them as such. Below I have listed three films that are set at the Yuletide and make for fine Christmas viewing.

The Apartment: Directed and co-written (with I. A. L. Diamond) by the great Billy Wilder, The Apartment took the Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, and Art Direction. And there is no denying that The Apartment deserved these awards. The Apartment is, in my humble opinion, the greatest romantic comedy of all time. Set from around Thanksgiving to New Year's Eve, The Apartment centres on C. C. Baxter (played by Jack Lemmon), the employee of a major insurance company in New York who finds himself in the unenviable position of constantly lending his apartment to his superiors for their trysts. As might be expected, this is complicated by the fact that Baxter himself is in love, with elevator girl Miss Kubelik. The Apartment is not only one of the funniest movies ever made, but also one of the most touching and dramatic as well. And, short of Casablanca, in my opinion it is the most romantic.

Holiday Affair: Released in 1949, this light romantic comedy is generally only known to film buffs. That is a shame, as it is one of the most delightful Yuletide movies ever. Holiday Affair stars Robert Mitchum, in one of his few comedic roles, as Steve Mason, a veteran and drifter, who as a clerk at Crowley's Department Store meets young widow Connie Ennis (played by Janet Leigh). Connie is engaged to lawyer Carl Davis (played Wendell Corey), but that doesn't keep Steve from falling in love with her. Holiday Affair is well written and very funny (particularly in a scene featuring Harry Morgan as a Police Lieutenant). It is also very romantic, with a good deal of sexual tension between Leigh and Mitchum.

Love Actually: Love Actually is a British film released in 2003 that has somehow slipped through the cracks, even though it was made by the people responsible for Bridget Jones's Diary. With multiple plot lines, with Love Actually Richard Curtis succeeded where many before him failed, making an Altmanesque movie without being Robert Altman. And although often classed as a romantic comedy, it is actually a comedy that centres not so much on romance as it does on love in all its forms from friendship to the love between father and son to the love between siblings to romantic love. Set over a number of weeks leading up to and including Christmas, it actually has a good deal of holiday spirit, with all the trappings of the season. It is perfect holiday viewing, with one caveat--this is not a family film. There is content in the movie that is not suitable for children, so it is best viewed after they have gone to bed!

That is a short list of some Christmas movie that many may not have thought of. I will leave you now to celebrate this night and wish you a happy and joyous Yuletide!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

TV Show Christmas Episodes

When most of us think of television during the holiday season, we tend to think of the many Christmas specials that have aired through the years. And while A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer are very much a part of the holiday television traditions, they are only part of the equation. From the beginning of regularly scheduled, network broadcast television in the United States and United Kingdom, TV series have devoted entire episodes to the holiday. And many of these episodes of these TV shows now form part of our collective memory regarding the Yuletide.

In fact, it is probably impossible to know what the first, regularly scheduled television show to have a Christmas episode was. I rather suspect that it might have been one of the many variety shows that aired from the late Forties into the Seventies. It was probably much easier for the average variety show to put together a Christmas episode than any other TV show format. All that was necessary to bring on singers to sing a few carols and other holiday oriented guests. It was early as 1950 that Milton Berle, host of The Texaco Star Theatre at the time, hosted his first Uncle Miltie's Christmas Party.

Of course, there was probably no bigger variety show in the history of television than The Ed Sullivan Show. Sullivan's show would become an institution on American network television, so powerful that Sullivan could attract the biggest acts to his show. For one Christmas episode he had Bing Crosby singing the classic "White Christmas." For another he had Johnny Mathis singing "Sleigh Ride." Of course, Sullivan's regulars would appear on the Christmas shows as well. On one episode the puppet mouse Topo Gigio told what he wanted for Christmas.

While Christmas for variety shows generally meant singers with Yuletide carols, many would do their own Christmas themed skits. As might be expected, the 1953 Christmas episode of The Jackie Gleason Show featured a Honeymooners skit centred around the holiday. The skit concerned a wild Christmas party being held down the street from the Kramden episode, and is unique in that all three of Gleason's most popular characters appear in the skit: Ralph Kramden (of course), millionaire Reginald Van Gleason, and Joe the Bartender.

Another classic skit featured on a variety show was one on The Red Skelton Show. "The Cop and the Anthem" was based on an O. Henry short story and centred around Skelton's classic character Freddie the Freeloader. Desperate to find a place to sleep on a cold Christmas Eve, Freddie decides to get himself arrested. The only problem is that the cop on the beat feels sorry for Freddie and doesn't want to arrest him on Christmas Eve! It was simultaneously one of the funniest and most poignant pieces on television.

Like The Jackie Gleason Show and The Red Skelton Show, one skit in Christmas episode of The Carol Burnett Show focused on one of the star's classic characters. Eunice was ready for a merry Christmas, only to have it spoiled when her prodigal brother Larry (played by Alan Alda) came home to surprise Mama (played by Vicki Lawrence). Like most of the Eunice skits, it was among Burnett's best work.

Of course, not every Christmas episode of every variety show centred around skits with classic characters. The 1967 Christmas episode of The Dean Martin Show was quite simply about family. Indeed, it features both the Martin family (including his son Dino) and the Sinatra family (including Frank and his daughter Nancy). Dean and Frank would even perform together. For Rat Pack fans it must have been a real treat.

The other dominant genre of the Fifties was the anthology series. Most anthology series did at least one Christmas episode, and usually more. Philco Television Playhouse featured one of the more memorable episodes, "Christmas 'til Closing." Directed by Hume Cronyn, it starred he and his wife Jessica Tandy as a couple struggling with their bills. The wife takes a part time job at a department store to make a bit of extra money, much to the irritation of her husband. Playhouse 90, the creme de la creme of anthology series, broadcast a colour production of The Nutcraker on Christmas night in 1958.

More familiar to modern audiences are the Christmas episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twlight Zone. In 1955 Alfred Hitchcock Presents aired its first, "Santa Claus and the 10th Avenue Kid." As might be expected, this episode focused on crime, but unfolded much differently than most Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes. An ex-convict takes a job at a department store as part of his plan to rob that store. When he meets a troubled kid, however, the ex-convict's plans actually change.

The Twlight Zone would feature two Christmas episodes during its run. The 1960 holiday episode was "The Night of the Meek." In that episode, a derelict is fired from his job as a department store Santa on Christmas Eve. It is then that he finds a mysterious bag that gives out gifts. The derelict decides to use the bag to help the poor have a prosperous Christmas. The show's second Christmas episode, "The Changing of the Guard," aired in 1962. "The Changing of the Guard" centred on an elderly teacher forced into retirement. He then decides that he has wasted his life and plans to commit suicide on Christmas Eve. As might be expected in The Twilight Zone, a ghost of one of his former students appears to teach him a lesson he won't forget.

Christmas as a theme for episodes is probably most easily incorporated into family dramas. After all, Christmas is an annual event for many American and British families. It is perhaps for that reason that the Christmas episodes of most family dramas seem a bit forgettable. That having been said, at least one family drama actually grew out of a Christmas themed television movie. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story first aired in 1971 and centred on the Walton family as they wait anxiously for their father to make it home on a snowy Christmas Eve. The Homecoming: A Christmas Story proved so popular that The Waltons was spun off from it, with much the same cast (with Michael Lerned replacing Patricia Neal as the mother). The Waltons itself would go onto have three Christmas episodes of its own.

While Christmas episodes are very easily incorporated into family dramas, because of their very format they are much harder to incorporate into action-adventure series. Indeed, many action-adventure series, including Star Trek and Danger Man, never had Christmas episodes. That is not to say that many action-adventure shows would not have Christmas episodes. Have Gun--Will Travel had one, "The Hanging Cross," by Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In the episode Paladin found out that a rancher planned revenge on Native Americans he thought had kidnapped his son, even though it is Christmastime. The Christmas episode of Bonanza, entitled "A Christmas Story," centred on singer Andy Walker, who wants to perform at the annual Oprhan's Christmas Benefit, but runs into a problem when his uncle and manager wants 10 percent of all the money made at the benefit.

It might surprise some to hear a few of the action-adventure shows that did have Christmas episodes. Among these was The Avengers. "Too Many Christmas Trees" featured John Steed and Emma Peel going to a country estate for what should be a pleasant Christmas, only to wind up investigating mass mind control. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also had its own Christmas episode, "The Jingle Bells Affair." In the episode Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin assigned to protect a foreign leader from assassination attempts during the Yuletide. The Wild Wild West would go a step further with their Christmas episode. In "Night of the Whirring Death," James West and Artemus Gordon once more face Dr. Miguelito Loveless. This time they must save the state of California from bankruptcy while Dr. Loveless seeks to thwart them with his usual aplomb--all at Christmastime.

Even action-adventure shows of more recent vintage have done their own Christmas episodes. One of my favourite episodes of The X-Files is "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas," in which Mulder and Scully investigate a house haunted to two star crossed lovers (played delightfully by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin) who committed suicide together on Christmas Eve. Needless to say, they have some special plans for Mulder and Scully...

Of course, when it comes to Christmas episodes of TV shows, it generally the sitcoms that we seem to remember. And they have offered some of the best holiday television viewing in the past several decades. A classic is "Christmas Story" from the first season of The Andy Griffith Show. In this episode wealthy but curmudgeonly Ben Weaver insists that Andy arrests moonshiner Sam Muggins even if it is Christmas Eve. Forced with placing Sam in jail, Andy and Barney then arrange for his family toh have their Christmas Eve celebration there. Another great Christmas episode was "Alan Brady Presents" from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The staff of The Alan Brady Show simply throw out the script on which they working and instead decide to hold a Christmas revue. This episode gave viewers a chance to see the talents of Dick Van Dyke (who was a song and dance man as well as a comedian), Mary Tyler Moore (a trained dancer), Rose Marie (a veteran of vaudeville), and Morey Amsterdam (another veteran of vaudeville) as they usually did not see them on the show.

During the Sixties and Seventies most sitcoms, from The Addams Family to The Monkees, produced Christmas episodes. In fact, some produced more than one. Bewitched would have a whopping four Christmas episodes. The Beverly Hillbillies would do it two better, with six episodes. One Christmas episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, "Christmas in Hooterville," is remarkable as a crossover with both Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. The Clampetts visited Hooterville for Christmas, interacting with the folks at the Shady Rest and the citizens of Hooterville.

Are You Being Served is also notable for having multiple Christmas specials. In "Christmas Crackers" the staff of Grace Brothers learn they must dress in novelty costumes as part of a promotion. "The Father Christmas Affair" finds the staff competing to see who should play Father Christmas at the department store. At the other end of the spectrum, Blackadder would have only one Christmas episode, but it would be very remarkable. Blackadder's Christmas Carol centred on what may have been the only decent member of the Blackadder family, Ebeneezer Blackadder in Victorian England, who undergoes a transformation after ghosts of his ancestors visit him one Christmas Eve.

It was on a show usually considered a sitcom (although I would say it is more a dramedy) that my all time favourite Christmas episode aired. The episode "Death Takes a Holiday" from M*A*S*H aired on December 15, 1980. While a Christmas party was being held in the mess tent, complete with the children from the orphanage, Hawkeye, B.J., and Margaret must race against time in the operating room to save a wounded soldier, who happens to be a husband and father, from dying on Christmas. I have never been able to watch the episode without crying.

Episodic television has generated a number of holiday memories for many individuals over the years. This is merely a short list of the Christmas episodes from various shows from the past several decades. To discuss even a majority of them would take a rather large book. And to this day shows still feature Christmas episodes, from 30 Rock to NCIS. It is safe to say that the Christmas episodes of more recent shows would form part of the memories of the holidays for many in years to come.

Monday, December 22, 2008


One of my favourite things about the holiday season is eggnog. I probably drink several gallons of eggnog from late November until early January. Indeed, it is possibly one of my favourite things to drink. For those of you who don't know precisely what eggnog is, eggnog is made with milk, cream, beaten eggs, and sugar, and flavoured with cinnamon and nutmeg. In addition to these ingredients, it is also often mixed with some sort of alcoholic drink, most commonly rum although brandy or whisky can also be used (our family recipe calls for bourbon, preferably Jack Daniels).

The origins of eggnog are obscured by the mists of history, so that there is actually some debate as to when and where the drink originated. One claim is that eggnog actually originated in Colonial America as a variation on the many milk punches in existence at the time (more on that later). It was supposedly in Colonial America that rum, often called "grog," was substituted for the wine used in milk punches, and beaten eggs added to the mix as well. This drink was called "egg-and-grog," which was abbreviated to "egg 'n' grog," which then became "eggnog." Personally, I find this story a bit far fetched. First, it seems to me that eggnog is as much a British (or to be more precise, English) drink as it is an American one. Second, I find this etymology of eggnog to be a bit ridiculous. It would seem more likely to me that "egg and grog" would have been abbreviated to "egggrog" than "eggnog."

A more likely explanation is that eggnog evolved out of an earlier drink called posset. Posset was a milk punch--essentially boiled milk, which was then mixed with wine or ale. It was often given as a remedy for such things as a common cold, and people today still use it as a means to get to sleep. For posset to become eggnog, all it took was for some enterprising individual to add beaten eggs, sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. As to the etymology of the word, it apparently derives from our word egg and the Middle English word noggin. Just as it does now, noggin referred to the human head, but it was also applied to wooden mugs used in pubs to serve drinks.

Regardless of when it developed, eggnog was an exceedingly popular drink by the 18th century. President George Washington was quite a fan of the drink, and even had his own recipe that not only included whisky, but rye and sherry as well. Needless to say, it was said to be a very potent drink. British journalist Pierce Egan developed his own variation on the drink to promote his book Life in London, or The Day and Night Scenes of Jerry Hawthorn Esq. and his Elegant Friend Corinthian Tom. Called a "Tom and Jerry." It is still served today. In Black and White: A Journal of a Three Months' Tour in the United States in 1866, English Barrister Henry Latham told how Christmas was not properly observed unless eggnog was made for all visitors.

As to precisely when eggnog became associated with the Yuletide, that is a bit of a mystery. It must be pointed out that posset and other milk punches, which would include eggnog, were primarily enjoyed during the winter months. In Baltimore it was strongly associated with New Year's Day, when young men would go from house to house drinking eggnog with friends. Given that eggnog was primarily a winter drink and that drinking as always been a part of Yuletide even before Christianity found its way to northern Europe, it is perhaps natural that it should become associated with the holiday.

Many families on both sides of the Pond have their own recipes for eggnog. As I mentioned earlier, in my family's recipe whisky (preferably Jack Daniels) is used instead of rum. Still, it was perhaps eventual that eggnog would be mass produced. I am not sure when this occurred. Milk was first delivered in bottles in 1878, so I am guessing it must have been sometime after that point. At any rate, it has been around for as long as I have been alive. Of course, there are many out there who maintain that eggnog bought in the store is not really eggnog.

Eggnog has become a well established part of the Christmas tradition. Several gallons of it are sold in store from November to January in the United States alone. And who knows how many gallons of it are made across the English speaking world using family recipes. I know it remains my favourite holiday drink to this day. Especially when made with bourbon.

it could go back as far as the 17th century. At any rate, it was well established by the 19th century.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Gene Autry, the Christmas Cowboy

When it comes to singers and Christmas, today most people probably think of Bing Crosby. And there should be no wonder why this would be the case. Crosby recorded the number one Christmas song of all time, "White Christmas," which originated in a classic Yuletide film (Holiday Inn). He also recorded several Christmas albums and had his own Christmas special each year until he died. It must be pointed out, however, that Bing Crosby did not have a monopoly on Christmas. In many respects he was rivalled by Gene Autry, the Singing Cowboy who recorded the best selling Christmas song of all time besides "White Christmas ("Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer").

Today when most people think of Gene Autry, they probably think of the many B Westerns he made from 1934 to 1953. In fact, Autry was a recording artist before he ever graced the silver screen. He started performing on local radio in 1928. By 1929 he had signed a recording deal with Columbia Records. He would have his first hit, "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine," in 1932. From the early Thirties into the Fifties, Gene Autry was perhaps the top Western recording artist. Roy Rogers may have overtaken Autry when it came to B Western movies in the Forties, but no solo artist surpassed him when it came to recording Western music.

It was in 1947 that Autry began his long association with Christmas by recording "Here Comes Santa Claus," a song co-written by Autry with Oakley Haldeman. The song was inspired when Gene Autry rode in the 1946 Hollywood Christmas Parade in Los Angeles. He could hear the crowd chanting "Here comes Santa Claus (like most Christmas parades, the Hollywood Parade climaxed with the arrival of Old Saint Nick)." "Here Comes Santa Claus" would become one of Autry's biggest hits. It reached #9 on the Billboard pop charts and #5 on the country charts. It has since been covered by such diverse artists as Doris Day, Elvis Presley, and Billy Idol.

The success of "Here Comes Santa Claus" established Gene Autry who could make hits out of Christmas songs. Songwriters began to send their holiday themed compositions to him in droves. Among the songs on which he passed was one based on a Christmas character already established as a part of American pop culture. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer had been created by copywriter Robert L. May for Montgomery Ward as part of holiday giveaway in 1939. It was about 1948 that May's brother in law, songwriter Johnny Marks, adapted May's original story as the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Among the artists to whom Marks sent the song was Gene Autry. Initially Autry was none too fond of the song, feeling it did not fit his image. Fortunately, his wife Ina loved the song, seeing great appeal in its ugly ducking story. She convinced Autry to record the song, which he did on June 27, 1949. It was perhaps the wisest decision of his career, as "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was the biggest hit of his career, going all the way to #1 on the Billboard pop charts. In the end it would become the second best selling Christmas song of all time.

The success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" would bring another hit song to Gene Autry, and would create yet another character that has become a part of American pop culture. Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson had written "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," which had become an Eastertime hit for Autry. Taking note of the success of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," they decided to write their own children's Christmas song. After considering a number of ideas for a few months, they finally settled on the tale of snowman comes to life thanks to a magic hat. Rollins wrote the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman," while Nelson then provided the music. They sent the song to Gene Autry in hopes that he would repeat the success he had with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Recorded on June 12, 1950, "Frosty the Snowman" was not quite the success that "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was, but it was a bona fide hit. "Frosty the Snowman" went to #7 on the Billboard pop charts and #4 on the country charts.

Over the next few years Gene Autry would record several Christmas songs. In 1953 he recorded nine alone. Among the songs which he recorded were "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Up On the House Top," "'Twas the Night Before Christmas (with Rosemary Clooney)," "Jingle Bells," and others. Autry would also write other Yuletide songs following "Here Comes Santa Claus." He wrote co-wrote "Nine Little Reindeer" with Merle Travis and Johnny Marks (of Rudolph fame). He also co-wrote his last Yuletide hit, "Sleigh Bells," with Michael Carr. Released in 1957, "Sleigh Bells" was not the success that "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," or "Frosty the Snowman" were, although it did do quite well. In 1957 Gene Autry released a Christmas album: Gene Autry Sings Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Other Christmas Favourites. The album contained twelve of the Christmas songs performed by Gene Autry, which was not nearly all of them. In all, Gene Autry would record twenty six different Christmas songs in his career.

Having been the first artist to record three of the most successful Christmas songs of all time ("Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," and "Frosty the Snowman"), one of them the second most successful Christmas song of all time, Gene Autry occupies a position among music artists that only Bing Crosby can match. Although many today do not identify Gene Autry with the season, there is every reason he should be so identified. Regardless, I am willing to be that for most individuals the holiday season would not be the same without hearing Gene Autry's renditions of various Christmas songs throughout the season.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Frosty the Snowman

Frosty the Snowman is one of the more memorable characters associated with the holiday season. He is as much a part of the Yuletide as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. While Rudolph can trace his origins back to 1939, Frosty is of more recent vintage. In fact, Frosty largely owes his existence to Rudolph.

It was in 1939 Montgomery Ward asked copywriter Robert L. May to develop a Christmas story that they could give away as a promotional item to their customers. The story that May developed was that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The Christmas giveaway would prove to be a hit and would continue for literal years. Rudolph was even merchandised. It was around 1948 that May's brother-in-law, Johnny Marks wrote the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Gene Autry recorded the song in 1949 and it became his biggest hit.

This was not lost on songwriters Walter "Jack" Rollins and Steve Nelson. The two had already written the song "Here Comes Peter Cottontail," now an Easter standard. The two then set their mind to writing their own Christmas song which would appeal to children and adults alike. After several months of tossing around various ideas, they finally settled upon one in which a snowman comes to life thanks to a magic hat. Rollins wrote the lyrics to "Frosty the Snowman," while Nelson then provided the music. The two then sent the song to Gene Autry, hoping he could repeat the success he had with "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Autry loved the song and recorded it with The Cass County Boys Orchestra on June 12, 1950. Released in time for the holiday season of that year, "Frosty the Snowman" went to #7 on the Billboard pop charts and #4 on the country charts.

Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty then became a pop culture phenomenon. In 1951 Western Printing and Publishing published a Little Golden Book adapting the song. That same year Frosty the Snowman was featured in Dell Comics' Four Color Comics #359. Frosty would appear annually in Four Color Comics, just in time for the holiday season, until the winter of 1961 and 1962. It was in 1954 that UPA issued an animated short titled "Frosty the Snowman," adapting the song. It was directed by Robert Cannon, who also directed the classics "Gerald McBoing-Boing" and "Madeline" for UPA.

In the meantime the song "Frosty the Snowman" would be covered several times over. Among the remakes were ones by The Ronettes (on the classic album A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector), Nat King Cole, The Beach Boys, Leon Redbone, and many others. To this day "Frosty the Snowman" remains on ASCAP's list of the Top 25 most performed holiday songs.

While Frosty continued to be adapted to other media and the song remained popular, arguably it would be Rankin/Bass who would guarantee his immortality. Having had huge success with their adaptation of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," it was perhaps inevitable that they would also adapt "Frosty the Snowman." While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was made using the stop motion animation technique called Animagic, Frosty the Snowman would be done using cel animation. Arthur Rankin Jr. wanted the Christmas special to have the look of an old time Christmas card, so he hired greeting card artist Paul Coker Jr. as the project's character designer. Robert Muller, who had written the teleplay for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, provided the script for the special. It was narrated by Jimmy Durante. The special Frosty the Snowman proved to be a hit, so much so that it has aired every year ever since.

Indeed, the special would result in three sequels. The first, Frosty's Winter Wonderland, debuted in 1976. Robert Muller again wrote the teleplay, while Andy Griffith assumed the role of narrator. The next sequel was a theatrical film which featured both Rudolph and Frosty. Rudolph and Frosty's Christmas in July was released to theatres on July 1, 1979. Featuring characters associated with Christmastime and released in the middle of the summer, it swiftly failed at the box office. It would find a new life on television, where it has aired during the holiday season. Regardless, the movie was historic in being the first and only time Frosty was animated using Rankin/Bass' animagic technique. The last sequel, The Legend of Frosty, was a straight to DVD release. In fact, it was not actually made by Rankin/Bass, but by Classic Media, who now own the rights to the Rankin/Bass library. Released in 2005, it has aired on both the CBC and the Cartoon Network.

Another animated special, Frosty Returns, had no connection with the Rankin/Bass specials beyond sharing the same source material. Frosty Returns debuted in 1992 and was made by Broadway Video, who then owned the rights to Rankin/Bass's original holiday special. It was directed by Bill Melendez, best known for the many Charlie Brown specials. Not only does the Frosty of Frosty Returns look different from the Frosty of the Rankin/Bass specials, but it clearly has no continuity with the Rankin/Bass specials either. A prime example of this is that Frosty continues to be alive even if he removes his hat, whereas in the Rankin/Bass specials he became an ordinary snowman any time his hat was removed. Unlike the Rankin/Bass specials, it has not been aired regularly come the holiday season.

Arguably the Rankin/Bass specials did for Frosty the Snowman what Johnny Marks' song did for "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." They not only insured that Frosty would become a permanent fixture in Anglo-American pop culture, but a part of holiday folklore. Today it is perhaps as unimaginable having a Yuletide without Frosty as it once was having one without Rudolph and still earlier one without Santa Claus. Quite simply, Frosty has gone from being a character in a song inspired by "Rudloph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to a holiday tradition.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Paul Benedict and Majel Barrett

Two actors I remember fondly from television of my childhood have passed. The first was Paul Benedict, perhaps best remembered as Harry Bentley from The Jeffersons. The second was Majel Barrett, remembered as both Nurse Chapel from Star Trek and the wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.

Paul Benedict passed on December 1 at the age of 70.

Benedict was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He decided he wanted to be an actor after the first time he went to the movies, when he was all of five years old. He attended Suffolk University there and started acting in the Theatre Company of Boston, along with Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman.

Benedict made his film debut in 1965 in the movie The Double-Barrelled Detective Story. He would continue with small parts in Cold Turkey, They Might Be Giants, and Jeremiah Johnson. In 1972 he appeared as The Mad Painter on Sesame Street. Although he would only make ten segments for the show, they have been repeated ever since. He also made guest appearances on Harry O and Kojak. It was in 1975 that he was cast as the Jefferson's British neighbour Harry Bentley on The Jeffersons. He played the role for ten years.

Even while playing Bentley, Benedict continued to appear in movies. He appeared in The Goodbye Girl, This is Spinal Tap, The Freshman, The Addams Family, and A Mighty Wind. He would also appear on the shows Seinfeld and The Drew Carey Show. On Broadway he appeared in Bad Habits, Any Given Day, Hughie, and a revival of The Music Man.

Paul Benedict was one of the funniest actors I remember from television in the Seventies. Overly talkative, George Jefferson would often shut the door on him in mid-sentence. He played other roles that were equally funny, often quite different from that of Bentley. He was great as the director in The Goodbye Girl who wanted to portray Richard III in the Shakespeare play of the same name as openly gay. He was also quite funny as the unfortunate desk clerk who must check Spinal Tap into a hotel in This is Spinal Tap Although best known as Harry Bentley, he was one of the best character actors in television of his time.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry died Thursday at the age of 76. She had long been fighting leukaemia.

Majel Barrett Roddenberry was born Majel Leigh Hudec on February 23, 1932 in Columbus, Ohio. As a child she took acting classes. She studied drama at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida. She appeared in a number of roles on stage before breaking into television in a small guest shot on the syndicated series Whirlybirds. She made small appearances in various movies, including Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter (in the hair spray ad in the film), As Young as We Are, and The Buccaneer. Her future was in television, however, as she guest starred in The Untouchables, Leave It to Beaver, Pete and Gladys, Cain's Hundred, The Lucy Show, and Bonanza. It was on one of these guest appearances, on The Lieutenant, that she met the man who would be her future employer and her future husband, Gene Roddenberry. The two soon started having an affair.

It was because of her ties to Gene Roddenberry that Majel Barrett was cast in the original Star Trek pilot "The Cage." Barrett played Number One, Captain Christopher Pike's first officer on the starship Enterprise. Unfortunately, the idea of a woman in such a position of authority did not go over well in 1964, and as a result the character of Number One was cut from the show. Majel Barrett would still have a role on Star Trek, but it would be that of the subordinate Nurse Chapel (best known for her love for Mr. Spock) and often as the voice of the ship's computer. While still appearing on Star Trek she would guest star on such shows as Please Don't Eat the Daisies and Here Come the Brides. After Star Trek was cancelled Barrett and Roddenberry married in 1969.

Barrett would go onto appear in the movie Westworld, the television movie Genesis II, the Star Trek animated series (as the voice of Nurse Chapel), The Domino Principle, and the TV movie Spectre. She would continue to be a part of the Star Trek universe, playing Nurse Chapel in Star Trek: the Motion Picture and Star Trek IV; the Voyage Home. On Star Trek: the Next Generation she not only provided the voice of the ship's computer, but played the mother of Deanna Troi, Lwaxana Troi. Lwaxana Troi proved to be a popular character, appearing on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine as well. She continued to provide the voice of the computer in Star Trek: Voyager.

Majel Barrett was often not given her due as an actress. This was perhaps largely because of her relationship with Gene Roddenberry and because the role of Nurse Chapel was none too demanding. That having been said, Majel Barrett was actually quite talented. Ambassador Lwaxana Troi was one of the things that made Star Trek: the Next Generation enjoyable. Lwaxana Troi was flamboyant, iconoclastic, and strong willed. She was easily one of my favourite characters on the show. Barrett would display such talents in other appearances as well, such as the housekeeper/witch Lilith in Spectre and as Lady Morella on Babylon 5. Barrett was very good at what she did, and should be remembered for more than playing Nurse Chapel and marrying Gene Roddenberry.

Thursday, December 18, 2008


Everyone knows that Santa's helpers are elves. Given the different perceptions of elves, however, that is not saying a whole lot. Elves have ranged from tall, god like beings to short, sprite like creatures. Legolas from Lord of the Rings is an elf, but then so is Hermey from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. As to how two such different characters can both be considered elves, one must look at the history of elves themselves.

Elves were originally a part of the pre-Christian religion of the Germanic peoples. In the days before Christianity arrived in Northern Europe, the elves were actually worshipped. In Heimskringla King Olaf's skald Sigvatr Þóðarson is turned away from a farm house because the people there were preoccupied with the Álfablót, the sacrifice to the elves. In Kormáks Saga a wise woman told a wounded man to go to a mound in which elves lived and to offer a bull's blood and flesh to them in order to be healed. Sadly, while sacrifices to the elves are mentioned, their precise nature in the ancient Germanic religion is never clear.

What we do know for certain about beliefs among the ancient Germanic peoples is actually very little. As mentioned above, we know sacrifices are made to them and, from Kormáks Saga and other sources, they appear to have been associated with hills or mounds. We also know that they were believed to cause diseases as borne out by an Old English charm against elves and beliefs found among the Germanic peoples in elfshot (an arrow or bolt from the elves believed to cause illness). They were apparently believed to be very beautiful, as the Old English word ælfsciene, "beautiful as an elf," bears out. In Old Norse sources they are often named alongside the gods, the phrase Æsir ok Álfar occurring in the Poetic Edda and elsewhere. They are also mentioned in the Old English charm in close proximity to the gods--"if hit wære esa gescot/oððe hit wære ylfa gescot...," "if it was shot from the gods/or it was elfshot." In Old Norse sources we are told that the god Freyr of the Vanir is the ruler of Álfheimr, the realm of the elves.

Beyond these things we know next to nothing of how the ancient Germanic peoples regarded the elves. A common theory expressed has been that the elves were the spirits of the dead, an example being from Beowulf & Grendel: The Truth Behind England's Oldest Myth by John Grigsby. This could be born out by the fact that the elves were regarded as living in mounds and at least one dead king bore the title of "elf"--Olaf Geístaðálfr. That having been said, it seems possible that the elves were regarded as something more powerful than ancestral spirits. In Old Norse sources the elves are constantly named together with the gods--"Æsir ok Álfar." And we are told that Freyr, a god generally identified as one of the Vanir (one of the two tribes of gods--the other was the Æsir, a term also used of the gods in general). This has led some to believe that the Vanir and the elves are one and the same. This is the view expressed by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall in his thesis ]The Meanings of Elf and Elves in Medieval England.

Here it must be pointed out that it would not be unusual for entities regarded as gods in ancient times to now be reduced to characters such as Hermey the Misfit Elf. A similar phenomenon can be seen in Ireland with regards to the Tuatha Dé Danann. Appearing in euhemerised form in early Irish texts, the Tuatha Dé Danann are quite clearly the old Irish gods. And yet they would be identified with the people of the sidhe (mounds or hills), "The Fair Folk," "The Gentry"--quite simply, fairies.

Regardless, looking at Middle English sources, the elves may well have been gods rather than the spirits of the dead, for it is in those sources that they maintain part of their former glory. Indeed, they seem to be regarded as a powerful, human sized people living in a paradise like otherworld. In the medieval ballad "True Thomas," Thomas the Rhymer gets to visit Elfland and still return to Scotland. Thomas the Rhymer, also called Thomas of Erceldoune, was a legendary, 13th century Scottish figure known for his gift of prophecy. He was often found under the Eildon Tree, from where he would deliver people his wisdom. In "True Thomas," he meets the queen of Elfland, who wants him to serve her there for seven years. Thomas consents and travels with her to Elfland. There she tries to give him an apple from one of the trees from Elfland; however, Thomas knows that if a mortal eats anything from Elfland, then he or she won't be able to return to the mortal world. Thomas refuses the apple and returns to Scotland after his seven years of service are over. In other ballads the elves outright abduct human beings. In "The Queen of Elfland's Nourice," in which a mortal woman is tricked into going to Elfland to be the wet nurse for the Queen of Elfland's child. Childe Rowland and Lady Isabel and the Elf-Knight are even more sinister. In both a woman is abducted by an elf (the King of Elfland in the former, the Elf-Knight of the latter) for presumably nefarious purposes.

While many medieval ballads preserve memories of the elves in their former glory, as time went by they came to be regarded as mere fairy folk. William Shakespeare used the terms "fairy" and "elf" interchangeably, to the point that in A Midsummer Night's Dream he regards them as only a little bigger than the common insect. English poet Michael Drayton followed Shakespeare's lead in making elves diminutive. Still, memories of the elves as something more survived, as can be seen in Edmund Spencer's Faerie Queene. For centuries, the idea that elves were equivalent to fairies and rather small at that would be the most common one.

It was then with the view of elves as short creatures in place that they became associated with Santa Claus in the 19th century. Louisa May Alcott, the author of Little Women, was the first person to refer to elves as Santa's helpers, in the unpublished story "Christmas Elves" from 1856. Another reference to elves as Santa's helpers occurs in an anonymous poem titled "The Wonders of Santa Claus," first published in 1857 in Harper's Weekly. By the late 19th century, elves were firmly established as Santa's work force. While elves, once worshipped and given sacrifices, were reduced to menial labour by the 19th century, the 20th century would see them regain their former glory with a vengeance.

It would be Lord Dunsany who would take the first tentative steps in this process. In The King of Elfland's Daughter, elves are human sized and immensely powerful--powerful enough to wield magic over entire kingdoms. J. R. R. Tolkien would complete the process started by Dunsany in his novel The Hobbit. In The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the elves are immortal and god like. And like Dunsany's elves, they are immensely powerful. Tolkien's influence has been so great that there are many people who tend to think of the god like Galdriel and Elrond rather than Hermey when they think of elves. This is not to say that Tolkien did not regard elves as helpers of Father Christmas. In The Father Christmas Letters it is the Snow Elves who assist Father Christmas at the North Pole. Even then, however, it is doubtful Tolkien regarded them as diminutive little sprites--in fact, it is in The Father Christmas Letters that Tengwar, a script of the elves appearing in The Lord of the Rings, makes its first appearances. Dunsany and Tolkien's ideas on elves have been extremely influential, so much so that the elves of most fantasy novels written since owe them tribute.

Today the idea of elves as diminutive, magical beings and the idea of elves as god-like beings co-exist. This holiday season many will watch the movie Elf, in which Santa's helpers are once more portrayed as rather small. At the same time, however, others will watch Hellboy II: The Golden Army on DVD, in which elves are not only human sized, but some of them aren't even particularly nice (Prince Nuada would probably slaughter Santa rather than help him build toys....). Elves have gone from being gods to fairies back to being god like beings in the past thousand years. Regardless of how they are viewed, it is safe to say they will be around for a long time to come.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Holiday Greetings

More greetings probably exist for the Yuletide than any other holiday. One can say, "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" or any number of other ways. The variety of greetings for Christmas most likely exist because of the antiquity of the holiday and its importance to Northern Europe and later North America as well.

Sources from the era do not preserve the holiday greetings which may have existed in Old English. In fact, the word Christmas is not even preserved in Old English as we know it. It occurs only as a compound, Cristes mæsse "Christ's mass." More often than not, Christmas was simply referred to as Geol, our modern word Yule. Of course, Geol was originally the name of the pre-Christian, midwinter celebration observed by the ancient Germanic peoples, from which Christmas may take many of its trappings (the Yule log, holly, eating ham for the holiday, et. al.). It was called in Old Norse by essentially the same name--Jól. If we are to look for what Christmas greetings were in Old English, then perhaps we should look to the other Germanic languages for a clue. Looking at Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic, the greeting is very nearly the same. It is Gl&aeligdelig Jul in Danish, Gledelig Jul in Norwegian, and Gleðileg Jól in Old Icelandic. In Old Norse, then, the typical Yuletide greeting may have been Glaðligr Jól. Glaðligr was an Old Norse word meaning, "happy, cheerful, bright;" it is a cognate to our modern English word glad. In Old English, then, the typical Yuletide greeting may have simply been Glæd Geol--literally, "Glad Yule."

Of course, "Merry Christmas" is the most common holiday greeting in the United States and Canada, and is still heard frequently in the United Kingdom as well. Despite this, the phrase "Merry Christmas" is not terribly old. Although the word merry goes all the way back to Old English, the words merry and Christmas do not appear to have been used in combination until the 16th century, when it appears in the traditional carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." Its first use in prose would not be until 1699, in an informal letter written by Admiral Francis Hosier of Deptford, England. The phrase would not catch on until the 19th century, however, when it became very popular. It was used in the very first Christmas card in 1843 and also appears in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, first published that same year. Late in the 19th century the phrase "Happy Christmas," which appears in "A Visit from St. Nicholas" from 1823, would make a bit of comeback in the United Kingdom. It is for this reason that while "Merry Christmas" seems to be the dominant phrase in the United States, in the United Kingdom one will hear "Happy Christmas" nearly as often, if not more so.

In person English speakers might wish each other "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Christmas," but if they send a card it might well say, "Season's Greetings." Perhaps to avoid repetition, Victorian Christmas cards bore a variety of greetings, among them "Christmas Greetings," "Yuletide Greetings," and "Compliments of the Season." Eventually the phrase "Seasons greetings" developed late in the 19th century as a typical holiday greeting on Christmas cards.

While "Seasons Greetings" is typically reserved to Christmas cards, the phrase "Happy Holidays" is one with which people might greet each other. Contrary to what some might think, "Happy Holidays" is not a phrase which developed recently. I am not sure when the phrase "Happy Holidays" originated, but it was in common usage by the 20th century. By 1940 the phrase was common enough that it was used for the title of a Yuletide themed Columbia animated short. And, of course, "Happy Holiday" is an Irving Berlin song from the classic Holiday Inn. Indeed, at least by the mid-20th century the phrase "Happy Holidays" was being used on Christmas cards. I am not sure why or how the phrase "Happy Holidays" developed, but it may well have been due to a desire for a greeting that would include both Christmas and New Year's Day. Of course, today it has become a common greeting in various stores and other services, who might not always know the religious persuasion of their customers. This has led to controversy in some quarters, with certain individuals concocting a whole "War on Christmas."

While holiday greetings have changed over the years and have been the source of controversy among some, they will always exist in some form as long as the holiday does. In fact, holiday greetings would appear to be an important part of the season. They are a means of individuals, even total strangers, sharing the holiday with each other.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Van Johnson Passes On

Van Johnson, movie actor and Hollywood heartthrob during the Forties, passed yesterday, December 12, at the age of 92.

Johnson was born on 25 August 1916 in Newport, Rhode Island. Following graduation from high school he moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. He toured New England with an acting troupe for a time before making his Broadway debut in New Faces of 1936. He went onto appear on Broadway in Too Many Girls and not only had a small part in Pal Joey, but was also Gene Kelly's understudy.

Johnson made his film debut in an uncredited part in Too Many Girls in 1940. Signed to a contract with Warner Brothers, he was cast in Murder in the Big House opposite Faye Emerson. Unfortunately, Warner Brothers only kept Johnson for six months. Fortunately, he was signed to MGM where his fortunes would improve. Appearing in such films as Dr. Gillespie's New Assistant (part of the Dr. Kildare series) and Pilot #5, he had his first break with A Guy Named Joe, released in 1943. He was cast in his first dramatic role in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, released in 1944. Johnson also appeared in the films Week-End at the Waldorf and The White Cliffs of Dover. MGM built him up as "the boy next door" and by 1945 he was tied with Bing Crosby as the top box office star chosen by theatre owners.

Unfortunately, Johnson's career faded after World War II, as stars with bigger names returned home from the war. He appeared in such films as Three Guys Named Mike and Plymouth Adventure. Perhaps most significantly, he also appeared in Brigadoon with Gene Kelly and as Lt. Maryk in The Caine Mutiny. Regardless, he was released from his contract with MGM in 1954. Johnson continued to appear in films, but also started doing television as well. He played himself in a 1955 episode of I Love Lucy and a 1957 episode of The Jack Benny Programme, and also appeared on The Loretta Young Show and Zane Grey Theatre.

In 1962 Johnson returned to Broadway in the play Come on Strong. Later in the decade he would appear in the plays On a Clear Day You Can See Forever and Mating Dance. He also continued to make guest appearances on television, on The Virginian, Ben Casey, Batman, and The Danny Thomas Hour. He appeared in the films Where Angels Go Trouble Follows, Divorce American Style, and Yours, Mine, and Ours, as well as the TV movie Doomsday Flight.

By the Seventies most of Johnson's roles were on television. He appeared in several television movies and guest starred on such shows as McCloud, One Day at a Time, Quincy M.E., Love Boat, Fantasy Island, and the 1988 version of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He had a small role in Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo. He also appeared on Broadway again in the Eighties, playing Georges in La Cage aux Folles. He also spent many of his later years playing in dinner theatre and summer stock.

If Van Johnson was the boy next door for most of his early career, it was perhaps because he played the part so well. Despite a difficult childhood (his family was exceedingly poor), Johnson was able to play the happy go lucky, charming, average American boy in several roles. This is not to say Johnson could not play other roles. He shed his boy next door image for The End of the Affair, in which he played an adulterer, and Lt. Maryk, the executive officer of the Caine who finally decides he must relieve Commander Queeg (Humphrey Bogart) of duty. Johnson's versatility could also be seen in many of his television roles, in which he sometimes played characters who weren't exactly the boy next door. Although he only topped the box office for a short time, Van Johnson was indeed at talented actor.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bettie Page R.I.P.

(WARNING If you are a bit uncomfortable with content that is rated at least PG-13, you might want to pass this blog entry by....)

Bettie Page, possibly the most photographed woman of all time and the undisputed Queen of Pin-Ups, died last night at the age of 85. She had been in intensive care in hospital following a heart attack she suffered on December 2.

Bettie Mae Page was born in Nashville on April 22, 1923. She was the eldest daughter of six children. Her parents divorced in 1933, and as the eldest daughter of six children Bettie often found herself caring for her siblings. While a teenager she and her sisters experimented with different fashions and make up, often imitating their favourite actresses. Learning to sew, Bettie then made much of what she wore even after she became a professional model. She attended Hume-Fogg High School in Nashville, graduating as salutatorian of her class. The following year she attended George Peadbody College for Teachers, with the intention of becoming a teacher, although she also studied acting. She received her bachelor's degree in 1944, but found she couldn't control her students. As a result she took up secretarial work. She worked in San Francisco, Haiti, and finally New York.

It was in 1950, when Bettie was on the Coney Island beach, that she was noticed by police officer and amateur photographer Jerry Tibbs. Tibbs not only put together her first modelling portfolio, but introduced her to camera clubs, clubs meant to promote photography as an art. Bettie became very popular as a model very quickly. By 1951 her picture was featured in such men's magazines as Bold, Titter, and Wink. In 1952 she would meet photographers Irving and Paula Klaw. Klaw ran Movie Star News, a mail order business which had originally specialised in pictures of movie stars. In time Irving Klaw learned that many of his clients had rather outré tastes, leading him to start creating bondage and fetish photos for sale. Despite the subject matter, Irving and Paula Klaw took measures to prevent their photos from being considered obscene. Not only did they never feature nudity, let alone explicit sexual content, but the Klaws had their models wear two pairs of underwear so that absolutely nothing would show. Furthermore, Irving Klaw never touched any of his models, Paula making any adjustments to costumes that was necessary. Irving and Paula Klaw also made 8 millimetre loops such as Striporama, Varietease, and Teaserama (all of which featured Bettie). Bettie also appeared on The Jackie Gleason Show and The U. S. Steel Hour, as well as the off-Broadway plays Time is a Thief and Sunday Costs Five Pesos. Her acting career never took off, however, reportedly because she refused to submit to the casting couch.

It was in 1954 that Bettie met photographer Bunny Yeager in Florida. Yeager would also take some of the most famous photographs of Bettie Page, including the famous Jungle Bettie series. Yeager sent Bettie's photograph to Hugh Hefner, and Bettie became the Playboy Playmate of the Month for the January 1955 issue of Playboy. Sadly, at the height of her career, Bettie would find herself the target of moral watchdogs. In 1955, even though the Federal Bureau of Investigation had ruled that the photographs produced by the Klaws were not pornographic, Senator Estes Kefauver and his Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce investigated Irving Klaw on charges of obscenity. Kefauver and his committee would go so far as trying to convince Bettie to testify against Klaw that he was producing pornography (she refused on the grounds that he was not) and trying to link the death of a Boy Scout through autoerotic strangulation to Klaw's photos (even though there was not a shred of evidence that the boy had ever seen even one of Klaw's pictures). In the end Irving Klaw would win his case, although the publicity it engendered would make him notorious. In the end he had to stop selling cheesecake and fetish photographs, although Movie Star News survives to this day.

For reasons that are still unclear to this day, Bettie Page ended her career in 1957 at the age of 35. After another failed marriage, she converted to Christianity in 1959, eventually serving as a counsellor in the Billy Graham Crusade. Over the years Bettie would marry again (ending once more in divorce) and would spend several years in a mental institution. In the meantime, however, Bettie Page began to grow in popularity. It started in 1976 when Eros Publishing published A Nostalgic Look at Bettie Page, a collection of photos from the Fifties. In the late Seventies Belier Press published Betty Page: Private Peeks, which featured photos from her camera club sessions. In the late Seventies artist Robert Blue began painting photorealistic pictures of Bettie. Around the same time Olivia De Berardinis began painting Bettie in various fantasy situations. The artist who would bring Bettie to the mainstream, however, was comic book creator Dave Stevens. It was in 1982 that his series The Rocketeer first appeared, featuring Jenny, a love interest who looked remarkably like Bettie Page. Stevens would eventually meet Bettie and the two would become so close that he would even assist her financially from time to time and drive her to cash her Social Security cheques. He even helped Bettie set up a licensing business so she could profit from her image. Eventually she would sign with the agency CMG Worldwide.

Today, over fifty years after the last professional photographs of Bettie were taken, she is perhaps the most legendary model of all time. She may well be the most photographed woman of all time (even more so that Princess Diana), with an estimated 20,000 pictures of her having been taken. Today her image graces such diverse items as comic books, magnets, playing cards, Zippo lighers, and assorted other things. Two movies based on the life of Bettie Page (The Notorious Bettie Page and Bettie Page: Dark Angel) have been made. And she has had an impact on pop culture, ranging from rock music to comic books to movies and television, that simply cannot be estimated.

If Bettie Page was and will always be the Queen of the Pin-Ups, it is perhaps because of her incredible appeal. It is true that Bettie Page helped usher in the Sexual Revolution. She brought a sexual freedom to her photographs unknown until that time, but without seeming obscene or pornographic in doing so. Bettie's image was not that of the dominitrix or bad girl, but that of an ordinary girl having fun while play acting. While Bettie once said, "I was never the girl next door," her image was certainly that of the girl next door. She displayed the innocence and integrity of the girl next door, but not the wholesomeness often wrongly attributed to the archetype (the girl next door was never Donna Reed). For many American males the ideal girl next door is a girl comfortable with her own body who enjoys having fun, but without being smutty or promiscuous in doing so--she is the sort of girl who has no problems with her sexuality, but does not sleep around. Bettie Page filled this fantasy perfectly, in a way no other woman ever has. That is the reason why her passing is more notable than that of a mere model or any other celebrity. She was truly an icon.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Actress Beverly Garland Passes On

Actress Beverly Garland, who was a regular or semi-regular on shows ranging from Decoy to 7th Heaven, passed Friday at the age of 82.

Garland was born on October 17, 1926 in Santa Cruz, California as Beverly Lucy Fessenden. She was raised in Glendale, California. She studied drama under Anita Arliss, sister of movie star George Arliss. She made her acting debut in in local theatre in Glendale. After her family moved to Arizona, she also acted on stage in Phoenix.

Garland made her screen debut under the name Beverly Campbell in the film noir D.O.A.. She made her television debut that same year as a regular on the short lived series Mama Rosa (1950). After marrying actor Richard Garland in 1951, she became "Beverly Garland," the stage name she used for the rest of her career, even though she and Garland divorced in 1953. Except for a guest appearance on The Lone Ranger, Garland spent the next several years playing in B-movies and exploitation movies. She appeared in Problem Girls, The Rocket Man, Killer Leopard, and Swamp Women. With 1955 she began appearing more often on television, starting with guest shots on the series The Lone Wolf and Medic. She guested on such series as Damon Runyon Theatre, Lux Video Theatre, Studio 57, Science Fiction Theatre, Climax, and Yancy Derringer. She also starred in such films as Swamp Women, New Orleans Uncensored, Gunslinger, and the classic It Conquered the World.

In 1957 Garland debuted in her breakthrough role as a regular on the series Decoy (1957 to 1959), as female detective Casey Jones. This began her long career in television. Through the late Fifties and Sixties she guested on such shows as The Twilight Zone, Perry Mason, Wanted Dead or Alive, Thriller, Dr. Kildare, Rawhide, The Fugitive, The Wild Wild West, Gunsmoke, and Then Came Bronson. In 1969 she was cast in the recurring role of Steve Douglas's second wife on My Three Sons. She appeared on the series until its demise in 1972.

The Seventies saw Garland continue to make appearances on television. She guested on such shows as Mannix, Cannon, Ironside, Kung Fu, and Mary Tyler Moore. She was a regular on Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman. She also appeared in the films Where the Red Fern Grows, Airport 1975, and Sixth and Main. Garland's career on TV continued unabated in the Eighties, during which she guested on such shows as Remington Steele, Hotel, and Crazy Like a Fox. She was a regular on the series The Scarecrow and Mrs. King from 1983 to 1987. The Nineties and Naughts saw Garland appear on the shows Friends and Diagnosis Murder. She was a recurring character on both Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and 7th Heaven (her last appearance on screen).

Beverly Garland had an extraordinarily long career, working nearly until her death. She was also a fairly talented actress, playing everything from hard as nails female convicts to female sheriffs in the old West to rather strong willed mothers. She had a gift for comedy, able to deliver her lines with a timing and panache that few other TV actresses possessed. Although best perhaps best remembered for her role on My Three Sons, she did so much more.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Love Bites

I've worked overtime all week and worked five hours a day, so I feel a bit tired. Rather than do a full fledged blog post then, I thought I would leave you tonight with a video courtesy of YouTube. In this case, it is "Love Bites" performed live by Judas Priest. It was one of the singles from their album Defenders of the Faith, and I suspect the most popular song from that album. It is also the only Judas Priest song of which I can think which deals with vampirism.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Sci-Fi and Horror Fan Forrest Ackerman R.I.P.

I have some very sad new for my fellow geeks. Our leader has passed on. Forrest Ackerman, who was one of the earliest fans of the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres, a leader in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fandom, and the founder and publisher of Famous Monsters of Filmland, passed yesterday at the age of 92. The cause was heart failure.

Forrest J. Ackerman, "Uncle Forry" to the many younger fans he inspired, was born November 24, 1916 in Los Angeles, California. His obsession with science fiction began when he was only nine years old and bought a copy of the magazine Amazing Stories at a drug store in Los Angeles. In 1930 he founded the Boys' Scientifiction Club (female fans being exceedingly rare in those days before Star Trek and Star Wars). He was contributor to the two pf the first science fiction fanzine, The Time Traveller and Science Fiction (published by Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, who would go on to create Superman). By 1933 he had 127 pen pals, among them such individuals as soon to be legendary fantasist Ray Bradbury. At the first World Science Fiction Convention Forrest Ackerman he wore the first science fiction costume designed by a fan. In 1939 he founded the fanzine Futuria Fantasia. He co-founded both the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society and the National Fantasy Fan Federation.

During World War II Ackerman edited the military newspaper at Fort MacArthur in San Pedro, California. Following the war Ackerman served as a literary agent for writers ranging from Isaac Asimov to A. E. Van Vogt to Ray Cummings. By 1951 Forrest Ackerman was already well know for his massive collection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror memorabilia, housed in what he called the "Ackermansion." It was that year that a Texas couple stopped by his house to see the collection. Thereafter Ackerman held informal tours of his collection every Saturday. Three years later in 1954, while listening to the radio and hearing the word "hi fi" mentioned, that he coined the term "sci-fi" as short for "science fiction." Although not the favourite term of every fan, it has stuck to the genre ever since.

It was in 1958 that Forrest Ackerman founded Famous Monsters of Filmland, the premiere magazine dedicated to horror movies. It was published by James Warren of Warren Publishing. It was initially conceived as a one shot publication, but was such a hit that it would be published until 1983. The magazine would be a major influence on such artists as Alice Cooper, Stephen King, Joe Dante, and Rick Baker, among others. In the Sixties, Ackerman was responsible for the publication of English translations of the German Perry Rhodan series. He also created the superheroine Vampirella for Warren Publishing in 1969.

Forrest Ackerman wrote over 2000 short stories and articles, sometimes using pseudonyms such as Claire Voyant and, perhaps most famously, Dr. Acula. He edited or co-edited a large number of books, including including 365 Science Fiction Short Stories and A Book of Weird Tales. He wrote what is believed to be the first lesbian science fiction story ("World of Loneliness") and as Laurajean Ermayne wrote lesbian romances for Vice Versa magazine in the Forties. He also aided the Daughters of Bilitis, the first lesbian rights organisation in the United States, in their early publishing efforts. The Daughters of Bilitis even named him an "honorary lesbian" for his help. He also made cameos in numerous movies, including Equinox, Schlock, The Howling, and Brain Dead (AKA Dead Alive. He was a producer on the telefilm based on the character he created, Vampirella.

Forrest Ackerman was perhaps the most legendary fan of all time, a fan who was famous not for being a writer, an artist, director, or musician, but simply famous for being a fan. He perhaps did more than any one person to ever live to promote the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genres. His magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland would influence multiple generations of fans, some of who would become famous in their own rights. He gathered together the largest known collection of science fiction, fantasy, and horror memorabilia, preserving the history of these three related genres. He was also one of the kindest and most gracious gentlemen in fandom. At a horror movie convention in New York City, over a three day period, he once signed more than 10,000 autographs. He always had time for younger fans and became close friends with many of them. Although Forry Ackerman and his wife had no children, he left behind an exceedingly large number of young fans on whom he left his indelible imprint. The genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror are much poorer now for his passing.