Wednesday, January 28, 2009

John Updike R.I.P.

Writer John Updike passed on January 27 at the age of 76. The cause was cancer.

John Updike was born on March 18, 1932 in Reading, Pennsylvania. He grew up in Shillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley Updike, was a junior high math teacher. His mother Linda Hoyer Updike later wrote fiction for The New Yorker and other magazines. When Updike was thirteen years old his family moved to an 80 acre farm near Plowville, Pennsylvania. As a youngster he read voraciously and wanted to grow up to either be a magazine cartoonist or an animator for the Walt Disney studio. While growing up he was a copyboy for The Reading Eagle, for which he wrote a few articles.

Updike attended Harvard College on a scholarship, where he wrote for and edited The Harvard Lampoon. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in English, then attended the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Arts in Oxford on a Knox Fellowship. It was that same year, 1954, that Updike made his first sale, a short story to The New Yorker. Upon his return to the United States, Updike started writing "Talk of the Town" bits for The New Yorker. It was in 1959 that Updike published his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, and his first collection of stories, The Same Door. He had already published collections of poetry.

Nineteen sixty would see the publication of his first novel about Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom, Rabbit, Run. Angstrom started out as a 26 year old former high school basketball player selling kitchen gadgets. John Updike would write four more novels centred on Rabbit (Rabbit Redux, Rabbit Is Rich, Rabbit at Rest, and Rabbit Remembered). The novels followed Rabbit as he struggled with the problem of being a middle class American male in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Updike also wrote about a character named Henry Bech. Bech was a Jewish writer who enjoyed the literary high life, even though he was not particularly prolific. He even won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bech first appeared in the short story collection Bech: a Book and would appear in two more (Bech is Back and Bech at Bay).

Among Updike's other novels were Of the Farm, Couples, The Witches of Eastwick, Memories of the Ford Administration, and Villages. Updike ultimately published nine collections of poetry, fourteen short story collections, and ten nonfiction books on subjects ranging from golf to art.

A few of John Updike's works were adapted for the big screen, including Rabbit, Run, A & P, and The Witches of Eastwick. The telefilms The Music School, Too Far to Go, The Roommate, and Pigeon Feathers were all based on his works.

If John Updike became among the most famous of American writers of his time, it is perhaps because he was so good at making pointed observations about small town life in the United States. He once said in an interview with Life that his subject was "...the American Protestant small-town middle class." He wrote about the American Protestant, small town, middle class with loving attention to detail and not a little humour. His prose itself was very lyrical, so that while writing about the problems of the American middle class at the same time it was as if he was writing poetry. No other writer could capture the middle class quite so well and certainly not so poetically. It was an even greater testament to Updike's talent that he was prolific, writing a novel a year for much of his career. He was a writer matched by only a very few. He will certainly be remembered.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"The Pied Piper" by Crispian St Peters

One of the songs I can remember from my very early childhood is "The Pied Piper" by Crispian St. Peters. I remember that we had the single, which I assume my sister had bought (my sister was 17 years old when I was born). Given that it was one of the few singles we had, we played it quite often.

"The Pied Piper" was written by Steve Duboff and Artie Kornfeld, who performed together as The Changin' Times (Kornfield would later to be one of the men who would plan and produce the Woodstock Rock Festival in 1969. The Changin' Times recorded "The Pied Piper" in 1965. Sadly, they did not have a hit with the song. It would take English pop performer Crispian St. Peters to turn the song into a hit.

Crispian St. Peters was born Robin Peter Smith. He had played with a number of obscure bands in England. He struck out on his own in 1965, signing with Decca Records. It was in 1965 that he recorded "You Were On My Mind," which was first recorded by Canadians Ian and Sylvia in 1964. His version would hit #2 in the United Kingdom. He released his version of "The Pied Piper" in 1966. It became a major hit on both sides of the Pond. It reached #4 in the United States and #5 in the United Kingdom.

Of course, the song owes its title to the legend of The Pied Piper of Hamelin. The legend tells how the town of Hamelin was infested by rats in 1284. A man dressed in multicolour clothes (hence the descriptive "pied") showed up one day in town claiming to be rat catcher. He told the townsmen he would rid their town of rats. In turn the townsmen of Hamelin promised to pay him. The man accepted the deal and then set forth playing his pipe. The rats followed the Piper, who led them into the Weser River. Although the Pied Piper had rid their town of rats, the townsmen of Hamelin would not pay him.

The Pied Piper was naturally angry and then set about taking his revenge. While the townsfolk were in church on Saint John and Paul's Day, the Pied Piper began playing his pipe again, this time drawing the children of Hamelin to him. He then led all of the children save one or two (the legend varies on this point) into a cave where they were never seen again. According to the legend, one of the children was lame and could not follow the Piper, while the other was deaf and could not hear the music. There are a more sinister version of the legend, in which the Pied Piper led the children into the Weser River to drown like the rats. There is also a kinder, gentler version of the legend in which the Piper returned the children after the townsfolk paid him.

The legend appears to have some antiquity. The earliest reference to The Pied Piper may have been a stained glass window in the Church of Hamelin. The window was described in accounts as early as the 14th century and as late as the 17th century. Constructed around 1300, the window depicted The Pied Piper and several children dressed in white. The earliest written version of the legend appears in the Luenberg manuscript from around 1440–1450. Jobus Fincelius mentioned the lgend in De miraculis sui temporis in which he identifies the Piper with Satan. The legend is mentioned fairly regularly from that time forward. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a poem based on the legend in 1803. The Brothers Grimm published the legend in their book Deutsche Sagen. It was in 1842 that Robert Browning wrote a poem based on the legend.

While the legend centres on the Pied Piper luring children away, the song appears to deal more with the relationship between a man and a woman. The woman appears to be afraid of making a commitment due to the way in which she views the world ("...always contemplating what to do...," "It's your mind/and that's all that's trickin' you."). The man addressing the woman in the song proclaims himself to be The Pied Piper, although he is not using the term to mean that he intends to mislead, but rather to open her eyes. From the point of view of the song, then, The Pied Piper was not someone who misled the children of Hamelin, but someone who opened their eyes to other possibilities.

For those who have never heard the song, here is a television clip of Crispian St. Peters from the Finnish television show Ohimennen, courtesy of YouTube.

As to Crispian St. Peters, he was never able to follow up the success of "The Pied Piper." Having no more hits, he was dropped by Decca Records in 1970. Since then his output has been sporadic. While he had only two hits, he will forever be remembered as the man who sang the song "The Pied Piper."

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Death of Analogue Television

Unless someone in the United States has not watched television, listened to the radio, read newspapers, or surfed the internet of late, it is impossible that he or she has not heard of the transition to digital television set to take place on February 17 of this year. And while there has been a lot of news on the transition to digital television, not much has said or written about the flip side of the story. Namely, the transition to digital television means the death of analogue television.

Since the very invention of television, the medium has depended on an analogue signal. I won't define what an analogue signal is here, as I am not sure I understand it myself, but I do know that analogue signals have a distinct disadvantage over digital signals. Quite simply, analogue signals will inevitably have "noise" or random variations. These variations will increase over distance. In other words, this is why one can pick up one's favourite television station (on an antenna, at least--it makes no difference by cable) better the closer one is to it.

I do know that television itself works on principles similar to that of motion pictures. Images are sent through analogue signals one frame at a time Each image is made of a number of lines of information ("raster lines"). Quite naturally, different systems for encoding analogue television would be developed, based around the number of lines composing each image and the number of frames transmitted per second. Here in the United States the system used is NTSC short for National Television System Committee). In 1940 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) established the National Television System Committee to set for a standard television system for use across the United States. Originally, NTSC called for 525 lines of information in each image and a standard 30 frames per second. The system was developed based upon a recommendation made by the Radio Manufacturers Association in 1936, as well as a compromise between RCA and Philco's desires. At the time RCA already used a 441 line standard at NBC-TV. Philco wanted to increase this from 605 to 800 lines. When the NTSC system was developed it made no provision for colour television. When colour was developed it would have to be adjusted slightly.

Other parts of the world would develop their own analogue television systems. PAL (Phase Alternating Line) was developed in Germany in 1963 with the development of colour television. It had been discovered that the NTSC system for transmitting colour television simply would not fit the power grid of Western Europe, so that another system would have to be developed. It is used in Western Europe, South America, and parts of Asia and Africa). Another system is SECAM ("Séquentiel couleur a mémoir"--in English "Sequential Colour with Memory"). SECAM was developed in France as an alternative to NTSC in 1956. Curiously, it never caught on in Western Europe. It is used only in France, Eastern Europe, Asia, and part of Africa. Much of this may be because it cannot be easily edited when it is in analogue form and has transmission problems that neither NTSC nor PAL ever had. Even France, where it was developed, plans to abandon SECAM broadcasts by 2011.

Of course, here I should point out to those who grew up with cable television or satellite television that there was a time when most of us picked up our TV channels through the airwaves, just like using a radio. This meant one needed an antenna to pick up the signal (here I should point out that this is true of digital television as well). Antennas were used as far back as Thomas Edison in 1885 (for radio transmission) and Heinrich Hertz in 1888 (for picking up electromagnetic waves). The term appears to have been coined by Guglielmo Marconi in 1895, where he referred to the device as l'antenna, "the pole." Antennas are also called aerials as well (particularly in the United Kingdom and parts of the United States), although technically an antenna is a metal structure while an aerial relies on wires (like many FM radio antennas).

Television antennas have always come in an array of shapes and sizes. Among the most common from the beginning have been those using one rod or two rods (those using two rods being called "rabbit ears"). These antennas are sometimes built into the television, but can come separately from the TV so that they must be hooked up to the set. Of course, there are also larger, outdoor antennas which stand on a pole attached to one's house. Growing up my family relied on such an antenna for television reception in the living room, while the TVs in the bedrooms used "rabbit ears." Curiously, we always called the big, outdoor antenna an aerial, while the "rabbit ears" were merely "antennas."

Of course, I am guessing the "cable generation" is wondering how the big, outdoor antennas could be moved to improve reception, as they are too large to move manually like rabbit ears. Big, outdoor antennas or aerials use a device called a rotator. The rotator is a little box (in the old days they had dials--I don't know what they use these days). Here I must point out that aerials can be rotated manual as well, although it is a hassle to do so. When a tornado severed the connection to our rotator and the aerial, we used a big pipe wrench to rotate it. Needless to say, the rotator was much preferable!

Here I should point out that receiving analogue television with an aerial had its advantages and disadvantages. With the large, outdoor aerial we could pick up television stations as far away as St. Louis and Kansas City. Growing up I was then able to watch shows not seen in the Columbia/Jefferson City market, such as The Avengers and F Troop. The problem was that severe weather, such as a heavy rain or particularly a thunderstorm could make picking up even the local stations problematic. While on good days we could pick up KPLR out of St. Louis, on stormy days we might have problems receiving KOMU out of Columbia.

This does not mean that there were not other means of receiving analogue television in the old days. Cable television has existed since nearly the beginning of regular television broadcasts in the United States. It was originally called "community antenna television" or CATV for short. It was invented in 1948 by John Walson and Margaret Walson of the Service Electric Company, which sold General Electric appliances including television sets in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania. The problem was that many of the residents of the Mahanoy City area either had no reception or very poor reception on their TV sets due to the mountainous terrain. John Walson then erected a huge aerial on top of one of the mountains and connected it by cable to the Service Electric Company store in town. Soon many of his customers would be connected to the gigantic antenna by cable as well.

John and Margaret Walson offered their cable service for free, but it would not be long before the first cable subscription service would be started. In 1950 Robert Tarlton and television set retailers in Lansford, Pennsylvania began offering television signals transmitted over a cable for a subscription price. Tarlton's success was noticed by Milton Shapp, then president of Jerrold Electronics. He swiftly reorganised the company so that it manufactured equipment for cable systems. Tarlton would later go to work for Jerrold Electronics.

Despite the rapid development of cable television in the late Forties and early Fifties, it would remain stymied for many years by FCC regulations. Throughout the Fifties and much of the Sixties it was available only in inaccessible or remote areas. As time passed the FCC would relax many of these regulations. By the early Seventies, then, even not so remote areas like here in Randolph County would have cable television. In 1972 the FCC lifted rules which kept cable television out of large cities. Original programming for cable developed in 1972 with the rise of Home Box Office (HBO). Cable television would grow dramatically in the Eighties. It is safe to say that by the Naughts the vast majority of Americans would receive their television by cable or satellite.

With the development of digital television in the late Nineties, the death warrant for analogue television was signed. Digital television is both more efficient and more pliant than analogue television. With simply an old fashioned antenna one can receive many more channels. It is also supposed to have better sound and better image than analogue television. In 2006 the Netherlands became the first nation to convert entirely to digital television. Canada will follow the United States in 2011, while the United Kingdom will do so in 2012. Here in the United States it was in 1996 that a bill was passed to make the transition to digital television by December 2006. By 2004, however, not enough people had digital television sets for the transition to really be feasible. The deadline for the transition was then extended in 2005 so that the transition would take place by February 17, 2009. Currently there is a bill to delay the transition once again, as at least three million homes are still on the waiting list for government coupons for digital television converters.

Even if the transition to digital television is delayed once more in the United States, it is safe to say that it is inevitable. And while I realise that digital television is superior to analogue television and have enjoyed cable television most of my adult life (the cable company switched to digital long ago), I cannot help but feel a bit of remorse for the death of analogue television. Like such obsolete technologies as the telegraph and the phonograph, analogue television revolutionised American life. A large part of my life as spent watching analogue television received through an aerial. It was how I first watched The Avengers, The Monkees, Star Trek, and most of the other classic TV shows. For old times' sake, then, I might just hook up the rabbit ears one night for one last bit of viewing of good, old fashioned analogue TV.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Producer Charles H. Schneer and Model Jim Horne Pass On

Producer Charles H. Schneer, who worked with stop motion legend Ray Harryhausen on the majority of his classic films, passed on January 21 at the age 88.

Charles H. Schneer was born in Norfolk, Virginia on May 5, 1920. Much of his youth was spent in Mount Vernon, New York. He graduated from Columbia University. He began his career at Columbia Pictures. During World War II he served in the United States Army Signal Corps producing training films.

Schneer served as associate producer on his first film, The 49th Man, in 1953. His first work with Ray Harryhausen came when he served as producer on his first film It Came from Beneath the Sea in 1955. The idea came to Schneer when he thought of an image of a giant octopus pulling down the Golden Gate Bridge. Schneer and Harryhausen would make two more science fiction films together (Earth vs. the Flying Saucers and 20 Million Miles to Earth) before making a conscious shift to fantasy. Together Schneer and Harryhausen would make such classic fantasy films as The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The 3 Worlds of Gulliver (1960), Mysterious Island (1961), and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). They would also make First Men in the Moon (1964), The Valley of Gwangi (1969), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977), and Clash of the Titans (1981) together.

Schneer also produced movies without Harryhausen. He produced the Ronald Reagan camp classic Hellcats of the Navy, the film noir The Case Against Brooklyn, the Western Good Day for a Hanging (1959), the biopic Werener von Braun (AKA I Aim for the Stars), and the musical Half a Sixpence.

Unlike many producers, Charles H. Schneer did not simply handle the money, but also played a part in the creative process. Besides coming up with the idea for It Came from Beneath the Sea, he also came up with the idea for Earth vs. the Flying Saucers after reading about UFOs in newspapers. Of the films he and Ray Harryhausen made together, he considered Jason and the Argonauts to be the best.

I cannot deny that Charles H. Schneer had an enormous impact on my life. The first movie I remember watching as a child was Jason and the Argonauts. As a producer he was arguably responsible for more hours of the finest fantasy films than any other. In the hands of another producer, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and Jason and the Argonauts may not be the classics we now know and love. He and Harryhausen made a formidable team.

While most people probably don't recognise his name, most people probably recognise the face of Jim Horne. Starting in the late Forties, he became the most photographed male model of all time. He passed on December 29 at the age of 91.

Jim Horne was born James Wesley Horne Jr. on March 28, 1917 in Glendale, California. His father was director James W. Horne, who directed many silent films, as well as Laurel and Hardy in Way Out West and The Bohemian Girl among other films, Charlie Chase in various comedy shorts, and such serials as The Spider's Web and The Shadow. His mother was silent movie actress Cleo Ridgely, well known for beauty (she played Beauty in a 1912 version of Beauty and the Beast). Jim Horne's twin sister, June, appeared in bit parts in movies and married actor Jackie Cooper. His sister Victoria Horne was an actress who appeared in such films as Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Claw, Secret Agent X-9, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Harvey.

Given his family's career, Horne appeared in uncredited roles in movies from Gunga Din to A Place in the Sun. He had tried out for the role of Joe Bonaparte in the 1939 adaptation of Golden Boy, but the role would go to William Holden. William Holden would later be his bunkmate when the two went through basic training for the United States Army during World War II. Horne served as a combat photographer in the Army. He received the Bronze Star twice.

After the war Horne would try his hand at acting in movies again, making little progress. In the late Forties he also became a male model. His image appeared in magazine and newspaper advertisements, on billboards, in catalogues, and even industrial brochures. With the advent of television on a wide scale in the Fifties, he began appearing in television commercials. Horne's appearance proved extremely adaptable. He could be a businessman, a doting father, a sharp dressed man, a ladies' man, a wealthy sophisticate, and, closest to Horne in reality, the rugged outdoorsman. Over the years he appeared in ads for Budweiser, Chrysler, Lucky Strike, Marlboro (in the days before the Marlboro Man), Macy's, Remington, and The Saturday Evening Post. He appeared on covers of such magazines as Gentleman's Quarterly (now known as GQ). Horne would continue modelling into the Sixties, when he appeared in ads directed at mature men. In the end, Jim Horne would be the most photographed male model in history. When his modelling career ended, Horne became a salesman and spokesman for an apparel company. He later founded his own company, manufacturing leather belts.

Jim Horne appeared in literally thousands of ads from the late Forties to early Sixties. Curiously the one shot of him that has persisted is the one shown here, in which he has a worrisome look as if he has a headache. The photograph has been used repeatedly since it was taken in 1953, in ads for aspirin, stress relievers, hangover remedies, and even tax services. For many today it may be familiar in the internet from a famous meme, in which the photograph is accompanied by the legend "Aw jeez, not this s*** again!" or more simply "Ah jeez!"

Sadly for many of we younger folk (and I use the term relatively here), Jim Horne may be best remembered as the "Aw jeez" guy. But there was a time when his image was ubiquitous. In the Fifties there was probably no escaping Jim Horne. His image was on magazines, in newspapers, on television, in catalogues. At the time he was probably one of the most famous faces around, even though no one outside of the advertising world recognised his name. In this respect he made a very real contribution to American pop culture. It is perhaps for this he should be remembered.