Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015: The Year My Childhood Died

Today is the last day of 2015. In some respects I have to say that it was an event filled one for me, at least with regards to this blog A Shroud of Thoughts, and my life as a classic film buff. Sadly, it was also a year that once more saw the deaths of many beloved stars of classic film, television, and music.

For me probably the biggest thing to happen this year was being chosen as a Fan Favourite on Turner Classic Movies. It was in January that TCM announced in posts on Google+, Instagram, and Facebook that they were looking for four more fans for their next Fan Favourites segment. I replied to their post on Google+ and explained why the film I chose was A Hard Day's Night (1964).  Needless to say, I was chosen as one of the four for TCM's spring Fan Favourites segment. On April 11 2015 I could then be seen on Turner Classic Movies introducing A Hard Day's Night. It was a very enjoyable experience and I have to thank Noralil (who is in charge of social media at TCM), Courtney, Mardy, and Ben Mankiewicz for insuring everything went smoothly! Here I have to point out that in 2014 I was a guest on the radio show Hollywood Time Machine With Alicia Mayer on which Josh  Mankiewicz was also a guest, which makes me think that I can only be on radio or TV unless a Mankiewicz is involved....

With regards to A Shroud of Thoughts, several days ago 2015 became the year with the second most posts (the year with the most was 2010, with a grand total of 272 posts). Given the way years fall on Blogger, I am guessing I will have a total of 264 posts for 2015. Here I have to point out that as far as Blogger is concerned, 2015 did not begin for A Shroud of Thoughts until January 4 2015 and won't end until January 2 2016! Anyway, this year once more saw a good number of classic television anniversary posts in September. Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, The Wild Wild West, I Dream of Jeannie, Get Smart, and several other shows celebrated anniversaries. Fortunately, I don't think September 2016 I will be quite as busy with anniversary posts!

Sadly, I also wrote all too many eulogies for those who have died in 2015. In fact, a number of my all time favourite television stars from my childhood died this year. In fact, so many passed on that it felt as if my childhood was dying all at once. For me there was no bigger star than the great Patrick Macnee. It is no secret that The Avengers is my favourite TV show of all time and, aside from his partner Emma Peel, John Steed is my favourite TV character. While I knew Mr. Macnee was 93 and hence fairly old, I still mourned him terribly. In fact, it is still difficult for me not to cry when I think about him being gone.

Of course, Patrick Macnee was not the only member of The Avengers cast and crew to die this year. Brian Clemens, the writer and producer who largely shaped the show as we know it, also died. Brian Clemens's death also hit me hard. He not only worked on The Avengers but several other projects I love, including the classic Hammer film Kronos (1974).

Unfortunately, 2015 wasted no time when it came to the deaths of my favourite classic television stars. In fact, Donna Douglas, forever Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies, died on New Years Day of this year. As the year progressed yet more favourite TV stars from my childhood died. Leonard Nimoy, who played my favourite Star Trek  character, Mr. Spock, died in February. Martin Milner, star of one of may all time favourite shows, Route 66, as well as Adam-12, died in September. For many Baby Boomer and Gen Xer men 2015 was a year of heartbreak as their childhood crushes died. For many men Yvonne Craig, Batgirl herself, was their first crush. For others it might have been Melody Patterson, Wrangler Jane on F Troop. I must confess I always had a soft spot for Betsy Palmer, long time panellist on I've Got a Secret.

The list of classic TV stars who died this year is not a short one and I know I will miss many who died this year: Gary Owens of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In; James Best, who guest starred on many Westerns over the years (and starred on The Dukes of Hazzard); Jayne Meadows, star of television, stage, and screen; Dick Van Patten, a frequent guest star on Sixties and Seventies television (and star of Eight is Enough); Judy Carne of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In; Jack Larson, forever remembered as Jimmy Olsen on Superman; Al Molinaro,who was Murray the Cop on The Odd Couple and Al on Happy Days; David Canary, who played Candy on Bonanza; Nicholas Smith, the last surviving original cast member of Are You Being Served?; and Marjorie Lord of Make Room for Daddy.

The year also saw the deaths of several of my all time favourite movie stars. Among the biggest name movie stars to die was none other than Sir Christopher Lee. For me, like many others, he will always be the definitive Dracula, although he starred in many other films as well, from The Wicker Man to Lord of the Rings. In fact, according to Guinness World Records, Sir Christopher Lee holds the record for the most film and television credits of any actor ever. Sadly, Sir Christopher Lee died only a little over two weeks before his old schoolmate Patrick Macnee.

Of course, the biggest name in classic film stars to die this year was probably Maureen O'Hara. She was my mother's all time favourite actress and one of mine as well. Miss O'Hara starred in so many classic films I love that it is hard to name them all:  The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939); The Black Swan (1942); Miracle on 34th Street (1947); Rio Grande (1950); The Parent Trap (1961); and McLintock! (1963).  Aside from her sheer acting talent, Miss O'Hara was known as a feisty Irish redhead who did not suffer fools. In fact, she was the first major star to ever successfully sue a tabloid. Her lawsuit against Confidential was one of the factors that led to the decline of the magazine.

Dean Jones was not as big a name movie star as Maureen O'Hara, but he will always be fondly remembered by many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. He was the star of many Disney films in the Sixties, including That Darn Cat! (1965), The Ugly Dachshund (1966), and The Love Bug (1968). Of course, Mr. Jones made movies for more than just Disney. Among my favourites were Under the Yum Yum Tree (1963) and Any Wednesday (1966).

2015 saw the deaths of some truly big name stars. Lizabeth Scott was arguably one of the Queens of Film Noir. Among the films noirs in which she appeared were The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946),      Dead Reckoning (1947), Desert Fury (1947), Too Late for Tears (1949),  Dark City (1950), and many others. Rod Taylor starred in some truly classic films, including The Time Machine (1960), The Birds (1963), Sunday in New York (1963), Darker than Amber (1970), and many others. Colleen Gray was a beautiful and versatile star who appeared in such films as Kiss of Death (1947), Nightmare Alley (1947), Red River (1948), and Kansas City Confidential (1952).  For many Louis Jourdan will always be the personification of charm. He starred in such classics as The Paradine Case (1947), Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Three Coins in the Fountain (1953), and The V.I.P.s (1963). Omar Sharif was a true legend who starred in such films as Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), The Night of the Generals (1967), and Top Secret (1984). Nova Pilbeam starred in such classic films as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Young and Innocent (1937).  Ron Moody was actually a star of film, TV, and the stage. He starred in such films as The Mouse on the Moon (1963), played Fagin on stage in Oliver!, and appeared frequently on television. Other stars who died this year included Theodore Bikel, Joan Leslie, Wally Cassell, Movita Castaneda, and Setsuko Hara.

Of course, when it came to classic film it was not simply stars who died this year. For many the loss of director Wes Craven was heartbreaking. The quiet spoken, friendly Wes Craven was responsible for transforming the horror genre more than once with such films as The Last House on the Left (1972), The Hills Have Eyes (1977), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and Scream (1996). Haskell Wexler was widely regarded as one of the greatest cinematographers of all time. He won the very last  last Academy Award for Best Cinematography (Black & White)  for his work on Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He worked on such films as The Loved One (1965), In the Heat of the Night (1967), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Bound for Glory (1976). Screenwriter  Don Mankiewicz, producer Samuel Goldwyn Jr., and movie critic Richard Corliss also died this year.

The year also saw the deaths of many major music stars. The one that had the most impact on me was the songbird Monica Lewis. This was not simply because Monica was an extraordinarily talented and extremely beautiful singer, but she was also one of the few famous people with whom I have ever interacted online. Monica Lewis was one of the sweetest people I have ever interacted with online and also one of the funniest. She had a wonderful, often self-deprecating sense of humour. In fact, I suspect most classic film buffs were just a little bit in love with her. Monica Lewis was a true multimedia star. She appeared in films, on television, and was the original voice of Chiquita Banana in animated commercials.

Lemmy was another major music star who died this year. One time bassist for Hawkwind and the founder, leader, and bassist of Motörhead, Lemmy transformed rock music. He would have an impact on such genres as punk, speed metal, and thrash metal, even though Lemmy insisted that he simply performed "rock and roll". Legendary blues artist B. B. King would have even a bigger impact on music, his influence being felt on whole genres (blues, rock 'n' roll, and rhythm and blues). He had an extraordinarily long career, performing his last concerts this year.

Lesley Gore was one of the biggest female pop stars of the mid-Sixties. Her song "It's My Party" would be a major hit, followed by such hits as "She's a Fool", "You Don't Own Me", and "California Nights". Cilla Black was one of the biggest female singers in Britain in the Sixties. She had several hits and was friends with The Beatles. Ben E. King had an extraordinary career, first with The Drifters and then solo. His song "Stand By Me" remains a standard. Chris Squire was a founding member of Yes and one of the leaders in the subgenre of progressive rock. Percy Sledge was a legendary R&B singer whose "When a Man Loves a Woman" remains a standard. With The Enemys and then Three Dog Night, Cory Wells became one of the best loved vocalists in rock music. Trevor "Dozy" Ward-Davies was the bassist for the highly successful British band Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick & Tich. Stevie Wright was the lead vocalist for The Easybeats, the first Australian band to achieve international stardom.

2015 also saw the death of beloved British author Sir Terry Pratchett. Well known for his Discworld series, he was extremely prolific. P. D. James was perhaps best known for her series of mysteries centred on Detective Chief Inspector Adam Dalgliesh. Fantasy author Tanith Lee was known for The Birthgrave Trilogy as well as her "Flat Earth" series. George Clayton Johnson wrote episode of The Twilight Zone, co-wrote the novel Logan's Run, and wrote many short stories. With regards to comic books, 2015 marked the end of an era. Irwin Hasen was known as the co-creator of the comic strip Dondi, but before that he had a career in comic books, working extensively on Green Lantern and co-created the superhero Wildcat. It is believed that he was the last surviving DC Comics artist from the Golden Age.

Of those who died in 2015, Stan Freberg was in a class all his own. He was a comedian, satirist, radio personality, voice artist, and advertising man. His career lasted seventy years and throughout it he did so many things that it is impossible to put him in one single category. One could call him "a jack of all trades", but he seemed to be a master of all of them. I figure he was a true renaissance man if ever there was one.

In some respects 2015 was a drab year with regards to popular culture. Once again theatres will filled with sequels and reboots. That is not to say that weren't a few things I would liked to have seen in theatres. Kingsman: The Secret Service looked to be an interesting take on the superspy genre. The Man From U.N.C..L.E. looked to be superior to most feature film remakes of TV shows. SPECTRE saw James Bond facing his old enemies once again (the first time since Diamonds Are Forever). I guess I don't have to mention that there is also a new Star Wars film out. The Force Awakens looks as if it is on course to become the highest grossing film of all time when not adjusted for inflation.

Television saw the end of two of my favourite shows of late. Mad Men is one of my favourite shows of all time. It is also widely considered one of the greatest shows of all time, with 16 Emmys to its name. It ended its run in a very good fashion (and fittingly with an iconic commercial). Downton Abbey also ended is run, although being in the U.S. I have yet to see it.

Of course, the big news in television may be the continued rise of streaming services. Netflix had several hit shows in the year, including Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Amazon Prime achieved its highest viewed original series with their adaptation of Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle. While I think it is far too soon to sound the death knell of broadcast television (in fact, I think it will take decades to die off), streaming television is certainly now a force to be reckoned with.

Right now it is impossible to say what 2016 will hold in store. I am certainly hoping Death will take a  holiday with regards to classic film and TV stars! I don't make resolutions myself (it seems to me resolutions are made to be broken), but I do make plans. Right now I plan to get my next book out early next year (with any luck). I also plan to post even more in this blog, if that's possible. And, of course, 2016 marks the centennial anniversary of actress Margaret Lockwood's birth. I have big plans for that. To all of you reading, then, "Happy New Year!"

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

In Memoriam 2015

This year marks the first time ever that I was seriously disappointed in Turner Classic Movies' "TCM Remembers" segment. The problem was not simply that they left out some people who died this year--it was that they left out some of the people whose deaths had the most impact on me and several others I know. Patrick Macnee, Martin Milner, and Monica Lewis were notably missing from this year's "TCM Remembers", for reasons I cannot fathom. Patrick Macnee was best known as John Steed on The Avengers (my favourite TV show of all time), but he did appear in his fair share of movies (notably the 1951 adaptation of A Christmas Carol in which he played a young Jacob Marley). Before Martin Milner went onto star on the TV shows Route 66 and Adam-12, he had some significant roles in movies, including Sweet Smell of Success (1957) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958), among many others. Monica Lewis was best known as a singer and the voice of  Chiquita Banana, but she made at least as many movies as some of those included.

Given my disappointment with this year's "TCM Remembers", it occurred to me that I could make my own "In Memoriam" video. I had wanted to use scenes from the various movies and TV shows of those who died, but I figured out that if I did that it would take literally days (maybe weeks) to complete (keep in mind my only editing software is Windows Movie Maker). The format of the video is then that of a slideshow, with photos of those who have died. Since A Shroud of Thoughts is dedicated to pop culture in general, I also included comedians, singers, musicians, and writers as well as actors. My one regret is that I did not include a lot of those people who worked behind the scenes in the movie industry, such as Samuel Goldwyn Jr., but then time really did not permit me to include everyone. The order is chronological for the most part, although I saved my absolute favourites for the very end. There was a practical reason for this, as I did not want to start crying midway through making the video!

As to the song, it is "I Will Follow You Into the Dark" by Death Cab for Cutie.  Given the song's subject matter, it only seemed fitting.

Here then is my first ever "In Memoriam" video.

In Memoriam 2015 from Terence Towles Canote on Vimeo.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Late Great Lemmy

Lemmy, the legendary leader and bassist of Motörhead, who also played with Hawkwind and other bands, died yesterday, December 28 2015, at the age of 70. On December 26 2015 he had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive cancer.

Lemmy was born Ian Fraser Kilmister in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire on Christmas Eve, 1945. He was only three months old when his parents separated. He, his mother, and grandmother then moved to Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire and then Madeley, Staffordshire. Lemmy was ten years old when his mother married former footballer George Willis, who had played for the clubs Wolverhampton Wanderers, Brighton & Hove Albion, Plymouth Argyle, Exeter City, and Taunton Town. The family moved to Benllech,  Isle of Anglesey, Gwynedd. He attended Sir Thomas Jones' School in Amlwch on the Isle of Anglesey, where he earned the nickname "Lemmy". While there he developed an interest in rock 'n' roll. The family moved yet again to Conwy, Clwyd in Wales.

At age 17 he followed a girlfriend to Stockport in Greater Manchester. It was there that he joined such bands as The Rainmakers and The Motown Sect. It was in 1965 that he joined The Rockin' Vickers, playing guitar in the band. The Rockin' Vickers released the singles "Stella", "Dandy", and "It's Alright" while Lemmy was with the band. They were also reportedly the first British bands to perform in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Lemmy left The Rockin' Vickers in 1967 and moved to London. In 1968 he joined the band  Sam Gopal. With Sam Gopal he recorded the album Escalator, on which he was billed as Ian Willis. In 1969 he joined the band Opal Butterfly. He only recorded one single with the band, "Groupie Girl", before Opal Butterfly broke up.

It was in August 1971 that Lemmy joined Hawkwind. Even though he had spent his career up to that time as a rhythm guitarist, he became the band's bassist. Because of his experience with rhythm guitar, Lemmy would develop a distinct style as a bassist. Rather than playing single notes as most bassists, he instead utilised chords and double stops. Lemmy's bass was then one of the factors that contributed to the unique sound of Hawkwind.

Arguably Lemmy was with Hawkwind at the height of their success. He contributed songs to their albums Doremi Fasol Latido (1972), Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974), and Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975). In addition to playing bass he also occasionally sang lead vocals. In fact, he sang lead vocals on Hawkwind's highest charting single, "Silver Machine".

It was in 1975 that Lemmy was arrested at the border between Canada and the United States for possession of a powder. Authorities thought the powder was cocaine, but it was actually amphetamine. After five days in jail in Windsor, Ontario, Lemmy was released as he had been charged with cocaine possession rather than possession of an amphetamine. Regardless, the arrest led to his dismissal from Hawkwind.

Afterwards Lemmy formed a new band with guitarist Larry Wallis (formerly of The Pink Fairies) and drummer Lucas Fox called Bastard. When Lemmy was informed that the name Bastard would never get the band on Top of the Pops, he renamed it Motörhead. Lemmy's wanted Motörhead's music to be fast and loud, to be "fast and vicious just like the MC5." Lucas Fox soon proved unreliable as a drummer and was replaced by  Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor.  "Fast" Eddie Clarke was hired as an additional guitarist. It was not long afterwards that Larry Wallis rejoined a reformed Pink Fairies. The classic  Motörhead line-up was then in place.

Motörhead's head self-titled, first album was released in 1977. It peaked at no. 43 on the UK album chart. Motörhead saw even more success with their next album, Overkill, released in 1979. It peaked at no. 24. Motörhead were at the height of their success with the albums Bomber (1979), Ace of Spades (1980), and Iron Fist (1982). Their 1981 live album, No Sleep 'til Hammersmith, went to no. 1 on the UK album chart and became their most successful album over all.

The line-up would change following Iron Fist, with Fast Eddie Clarke leaving the band. Phil Taylor left the band following the album Another Perfect Day (1983). Regardless, Motörhead would continue to be successful with their albums ranking in the top 25 into the early Nineties. Through it all Lemmy remained the band's lead vocalist, bassist, and leader.

The album March ör Die, from 1992, signalled an end to Motörhead's chart success for a time. The band's next four albums did not chart, and for the rest of the Nineties their highest charting album was We Are Motörhead, which peaked at 91. Fortunately the Naughts would be a kinder decade to Motörhead. Inferno from 2004 went to no. 95. Their next two albums, Kiss of Death (2006) and Motörizer (2008) performed even better. This year would see Motörhead return to their earlier success. Bad Magic peaked at no. 10 on the UK single chart. This is perhaps fitting, given it is the band's final album.

Motörhead's final live performance (and hence Lemmy's as well) was on December 11 2015 in Berlin.

In addition to his work with Motörhead, Lemmy also collaborated with Ozzy Osbourne.  On Ozzy Osbourne's album No More Tears. he contributed to the songs "I Don't Want to Change the World",  "Mama, I'm Coming Home",  "Desire", and "Hellraiser". He also played with fellow former Hawkwind member Robert Calvert, including on Mr. Calvert's 1974 concept album satire Captain Lockheed and the Starfighters. He played and recorded with the rockabilly band The Head Cat as well. In 2005 he worked on an unreleased solo album Lemmy and Friends.

Over the years Lemmy made several appearance in various films, including Hardware (1990) and Airheads (1994). He appeared in several Troma Entertainment films, including Tromeo and Juliet (1996). In 2010 the documentary Lemmy, about the legendary rock star, was released.

Lemmy was the archetypal rock star. He was well known for his love of Jack Daniels and having had sex with reportedly thousands of women. He wore leather and had enormous mutton chop whiskers. He was known to be charming in person, gifted with a self-deprecating sense of humour. Regardless, he was one of the greatest bassists in the history of rock 'n' roll, as well as a true innovator. His bass style was singular. He played chords rather than single notes and, more often than not, he played very fast. And while Motörhead was often referred to as "heavy metal", the band's inspiration drew upon such rock 'n roll classics as Gene Vincent and Elvis Presley, while at the same time drawing upon MC5. Before The Ramones or The Sex Pistols, Motörhead were playing hard, fast, loud, and very straight forward rock music. There were absolutely no frills in Motörhead's songs, although there was often a good deal of humour.

Ultimately Lemmy and Motörhead would prove to be very influential. Just as MC5 had been an influence on Motörhead, so too would Motörhead be an influence on punk rock. And while Lemmy eschewed the label "heavy metal" (he preferred to think of Motörhead as plain old rock and  roll), Motörhead would be pivotal in the development of the subgenres of thrash metal and speed metal. 

The term "legend" is often bandied about, but in the case of Lemmy it is perhaps the best description. He never set out to be a pioneer or innovator. He never set out to do anything but play straight forward, fast, and vicious rock and roll. In doing so he changed rock music forever. Lemmy was never one to take himself too seriously, and he was one who never took his fans for granted. It should be no wonder that he will be missed.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Late Great Meadowlark Lemon

Meadlowlark Lemon, possibly the most well-known of the Harlem Globetrotters, died yesterday, December 27 2015, at the age of 83.

Meadowlark Lemon was born George Meadow Lemon III on April 25 1932 in  Lexington County, North Carolina. It was in 1938 that his family moved to Wilmington, North Carolina. Mr. Lemon learned to play basketball at a local boys club. Unable to afford an actual basketball hoop and ball, as a boy he made his own hoop from an onion sack and used a Carnation milk can for a ball. He attended Williston Industrial School and then Florida A&M University before he was drafted into the United States Army. He served for two years in the military and was stationed in Austria. When the Globetrotters toured Europe he played a few games with them. He impressed them enough to get a try out after he was demobilised. He was assigned to the Kansas City Stars, the Globetrotters' developmental team, before officially joining the Globetrotters in 1954.

With the Harlem Globetrotters Meadowlark Lemon filled the role played earlier by Goose Tatum, who combined comedy antics with basketball. Mr. Tatum left the team about the time that Meadowlark Lemon joined the Globetrotters. It was not long before Meadowlark Lemon assumed Goose Tatum's title as the "Clown Prince of Basketball". He was known for such routines (or "reams" as the team calls them) as imitating a baseball batter and mimicking a baseball game with the other players; doing funny walks; dribbling above his head; and threatening both audiences and referees with buckets of confetti (and sometimes water). Meadowlark Lemon was not simply a clown, however, but he was also a skilled athlete. He was well known for his hook shots from half-court, as well as his incredible passing ability. Like all of the Globetrotters he was skilled in basketball legerdemain, doing tricks with the ball that even some NBA players would find challenging.

Arguably Meadowlark Lemon was with the Harlem Globetrotters at the height of their fame in the Sixties and Seventies. Not surprisingly he and the team appeared frequently on television. He appeared as a mystery guest on the panel show What's My Line in 1956. He appeared on the 1970 Saturday morning cartoon Harlem Globe Trotters. With the rest of the team he was a regular on the variety show The Harlem Globetrotters Popcorn Machine.

After 22 years with the Globetrotters Meadowlark Lemon was dismissed from the team in 1978 due to a salary dispute. He starred in the geography educational film Meadowlark Lemon Presents the World in 1979 and that same year joined the cast of the sitcom Hello, Larry, on which he played himself. He also guest starred on Diff'rent Strokes, The Hollywood Squares, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, Here's Boomer, and Alice. He played Rev. Grady Jackson in The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh (1979).

In 1980 Meadowlark Lemon formed his own touring basketball team, the Bucketeers. He later played with the Shooting Stars and Meadowlark Lemon's Harlem All Stars. In 1994 he rejoined the Harlem Globetrotters and played several games with them. In 1986 Meadowlark Lemon became an ordained minister. 

The Harlem Globetrotters occupy a unique place in popular culture. They are a basketball team beloved by many who would never dream of watching an NBA game. They are as much superb entertainers as they are superb athletes. This was truer of none more so than Meadowlark Lemon. Charismatic and gifted with impeccable comic timing, Meadowlark Lemon was always guaranteed to put on a good show. Indeed, so great was he at keeping crowds enthralled that it seems likely that had he not become a basketball player he might have become a comedian.

That is not to say that Meadowlark Lemon was not a great athlete. He may have been the Clown Prince of Baketball, but he could play better than most professional players. His half-court hook shots were incredible, and would be difficult for even the best players. His passing ability was unmatched by all but the very best. In 1999 when Wilt Chamberlain, who played with the Globetrotters and Mr. Lemon before joining the NBA, was asked who the greatest basketball player of all time was, he replied, "For me it would be Meadowlark Lemon." Ultimately Meadowlark Lemon did what few sports figures ever have. He transcended the popularity of his sport to become a universally beloved entertainer.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Godspeed George Clayton Johnson

George Clayton Johnson, who co-wrote the novel Logan's Run and wrote classic episodes  of The Twilight Zone, died on December 25 2015 at the age of 86. The cause was cancer.

George Clayton Johnson was born on July 10 1929 outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. His parents separated when he was young and as a result much of his childhood was spent with other relatives. He left school when he was in the eighth grade. From 1946 to 1949 he served in the United States Army as a telegrapher and later a draughtsman. He studied architecture at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University) and worked for a time as a draughtsman.

In the early Fifties Mr. Johnson moved to Los Angeles. His first work in television was the episode of "I'll Take Care of You" for Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It aired in 1959. With John Golden Russell he developed the story for the film Ocean's 11 (1960). His short story "All of Us Are Dying" was adapted by Rod Serling as the Twilight Zone episode "The Four of Us Are Dying". Rod Serling adapted another one of George Clayton Johnson's short stories as the episode "Execution" for the the show. Mr. Johnson would go on to write four episodes of The Twilight Zone himself, including the classic "Kick the Can".

In the Sixties George Clayton Johnson also wrote episodes of the shows Route 66, The Law and Mr. Jones, Mr. Novak, Honey West, and Star Trek (the first episode of the show aired on NBC, in fact). He co-wrote the 1962 animated short "Icarus Montgolfier Wright" with Ray Bradbury, based on Mr. Bradbury's short story of the same name.  He wrote several short stories during the decade, and co-wrote the novel Logan's Run with William F. Nolan.

In the Seventies Mr. Johnson wrote an episode of Kung Fu, as well as several more short stories.  He co-wrote the short film "The Jungle of Jules Levine" (2015).

George Clayton Johnson also appeared in front of the camera. In 1961 he guest starred on the TV show Sea Hunt. He appeared in the films The Intruder (1962), The Boneyard Collection (2008), Crustacean (2009), and Saint Bernard (2013).

George Clayton Johnson was a talented writer and certainly one with considerable range. While he was often counted as a science fiction writer, it must be pointed out that he also wrote non-genre material, including the story for Ocean's 11 and episodes of Route 66 and Mr. Novak. His work often had depth, with philosophical underpinnings. He also tended to often address mortality in his work. This was seen not only in Logan's Run, but in the Twilight Zone episodes "Kick the Can" and "Nothing in the Dark". More than anything else, however, Mr. Johnson was capable of creating characters of considerable depth. His stories and TV episodes were always driven more by character than plot. It is for that reason he will be remembered as a writer.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

When To Take Down Christmas Decorations?

In our household there has always been a bit of a disagreement as to when to take down our Yuletide decorations. My sister would just as soon that they came down on the day after Christmas (Boxing Day in many English speaking countries). My brother and I prefer taking them down on New Year's Day, although we have waited until January 2. Of course, in all honesty I would just as soon leave them up until January 5.

In the 21st Century United States, just as there is a good deal of variation in when people put up their decorations, there is also a good deal of variation in when they take them down. Many will have taken their Christmas decorations today (in fact, our neighbours appear to have done so). Others, like us, will wait until January 1 to do so. Less common are those who take them down sometime between December 26 and January 1.

Of course, it wasn't always this way. As a child I remember our family always kept our Christmas decorations up until January 1. We never considered taking them down earlier. What is more, all of our neighbours were the same way. It seems to me in the late Sixties and in the Seventies, at least in mid-Missouri, it was unknown for people to take down their Christmas decorations prior to New Year's Day. In fact, I think some even kept them up until January 2. The custom of keeping one's decorations up until New Year's Day is even seen in movies. The bulk of the plot of Ocean's 11 (1960) takes place on New Year's Eve, yet the casinos in the movie still have their decorations up. In fact, Ocean's 11 was shot from January 26 to February 16 1960, so the filmmakers had to persuade the casinos to keep their Christmas decorations up longer than normal so that it would look like, well, New Year's Eve!

While taking down one's holiday decorations on January 1 seems to have been the norm forty to fifty years ago, there was a time people kept them up even longer. When the Twelve Days of Christmas were observed, decorations were often kept up until Twelfth Night (either January 5 or January 6, depending upon which church calendar one observed).  It was considered unlucky to keep them up any longer. Even earlier, during the Elizabethan Era, Christmas decorations were kept up until Candlemas (February 2 or modern day Groundhog Day in the U.S.) and it was considered unlucky to keep them up after that.

Given at one time Christmas decorations were kept up much longer, the question is, "Why do so many take them down as early as December 26?" I have no idea how the date for taking down Christmas decorations shifted from Candlemas to Twelfth Night, but I think I know how the date for taking down decorations shifted from Twelfth Night to New Year's Day and now December 26 in the United States. Quite simply, the American holiday shopping season is to blame. As early as the 1900s the day after Thanksgiving (now known as Black Friday) was established as the first day of the Christmas shopping season. Quite naturally, stores insisted on promoting their holiday shopping sales with Christmas imagery. This is why the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade (which was originally the Macy's Christmas Parade, even though it took place on Thanksgiving) always ends with the arrival of Santa Claus. As time wore on, people conflated the holiday season with the holiday shopping season. The traditional Twelve Days of Christmas had already been losing ground in the United States in the 19th Century. The 20th Century Christmas shopping season nearly obliterated any observance of them.

With the Twelve Days of Christmas no longer observed, people began taking down their decorations on New Year's Day instead of Twelfth Night. In the late 20th Century this would be complicated by the phenomenon called "Christmas creep", whereby stores started putting out holiday wares and using holiday themed advertising at earlier and earlier dates. In the mid-20th Century one did not see any Christmas advertising until after Thanksgiving. By the 1990s it was often sometime in mid-November. By the Naughts it seemed as if November 1 was the day that Christmas advertising began. This being the case, many Americans may have started thinking of the holiday season as beginning on November 1 or at least sometime before Thanksgiving. The end result is that while people might put up their decorations on Thanksgiving or Black Friday, they take them down on December 26.

Traditionalist that I am, I find this sad. For me it is not a simple case that my parents never took down our decorations before January 1. It's a case that I have always thought the traditional Yuletide, the Twelve Days of Christmas, is superior to the "holiday shopping season". At least in the United States, the imagery of our secular Christmas season is linked to winter. When one thinks of Christmas, one thinks of snow and snowmen and wintry weather. Even Santa Claus is said to drive a sleigh. On November 1 it is still autumn across the northern hemisphere, including the United States, and snow is highly unlikely on that date except for a very few places in North America. Given the imagery of Christmas is all geared towards winter and the fact that traditionally it is a winter holiday (indeed, the winter holiday), it makes more sense to celebrate it from December 25 to January 5. It makes no sense to celebrate it from November 1 (before it is even Thanksgiving) to December 25. As to returning to the Twelve Days of Christmas, it would actually be advantageous for stores to do so. Think about it--instead of one big day for gift giving (December 25), they would have twelve whole days for which they could encourage people to buy gifts!

Regardless, we will be taking our Yuletide decorations down on New Year's Day as we always do. To me the holiday season is far from over and I really do not like to see decorations taken down any earlier. Of course, I do hope one day that I can talk my brother into agreeing to taking them down on January 5....

Friday, December 25, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015

As is usual here at A Shroud of Thoughts, I offer you some vintage Yuletide pinups for your holiday!

First up is actress and singer Anna Maria Alberghetti, who is waiting for Santa!

Next up is Shirley Jones, who is basking among her presents (from her many admirers, no doubt).

Next is Dorlores Dorn, who is apparently pitch hitting for Santa when it comes to delivering presents!

Miss Jeff Donnell is relaxing in the snow with her presents!

Cyd Charisse has worked her telephone cord into a holiday greeting!

The lovely Ann Miller and her Christmas stocking!

And one more shot of Ann Miller, because one can never have enough Ann Miller on Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

"Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade

Among the most popular Christmas songs of all time in the United Kingdom is "Merry Xmas Everybody" by Slade. It is most probably Slade's biggest hit of all time and one of the biggest selling Christmas singles in Britain. It also sold well elsewhere in the world. While it did not chart in the United States, over the years it has become much more familiar to Americans (particularly due to its repeated use on Doctor Who) and hence more popular Stateside as well.

In 1973 Slade was one of the most successful bands in the United Kingdom. They already had an impressive five number one records ("Coz I Luv You", "Take Me Bak 'Ome", "Mama Weer All Crazee Now", "Cum On Feel the Noize", and "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me"). They had many more singles that reached the top twenty. With such success, the band, as well as their label (Polydor Records) decided that they should record a Christmas single.

The song ultimately emerged from a melody that bassist Jim Lea had come up with earlier, as well as a song that lead vocalist Noddy Holder had written in 1967 ("Buy Me a Rocking Chair"). Ultimately Jim Lea's melody would be used for the verses, while Noddy Holder's old song would provide the basis for the chorus. Slade decided that they wanted the song to be about a typical British family Christmas. With the British economy in a poor state, Noddy Holder said of the song later, "I think people wanted something to cheer them up – and so did I." Ultimately the lyrics would reflect this, with lines such as "Are you hanging up a stocking on your wall?" and "Are you waiting for the family to arrive?"

While "Merry Xmas Everybody" portrayed a typical British family Christmas, it was actually recorded in the United States, where Slade was on tour. It was in the late summer of 1973 that Slade recorded the song at the Record Plant in New York City. The initial recording took five days to complete, but the band did not like the finished product. As a result they rerecorded the whole song.

Their effort appears to have been worth it, as "Merry Xmas Everybody" sold half a million in advance copies. It entered the UK singles chart at number one, becoming the third such song by Slade to do so (the other two were "Cum On Feel the Noize" amd "Skweeze Me, Pleeze Me"). So great was the demand that Polydor had to use their French pressing plant to make more copies. Needless to say, "Merry Xmas Everybody" was the Christmas number one for 1973, beating out , "I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday" by Wizzard (which peaked at number 3). Curiously, "Merry Xmas Everybody" remained on the charts well past Christmas. It remained in the number one slot until mid-January and remained on the chart into February.

"Merry Xmas Everybody" also did well outside of Britain. It went to no. 1 in the Republic of Ireland, and hit the top ten in Belgium, Germany, and Norway. It did not chart in the United States, where for whatever reason Slade never was particularly successful. 

What is more, "Merry Xmas Everybody" has repeatedly re-entered the UK singles chart. It re-entered the chart every year in the first half of the Eighties. It once more re-entered the chart in 1998. Since 2006 it has re-entered the chart every year. Not surprisingly, it was certified platinum in 1980.

Despite the success of "Merry Xmas Everybody", the song would be the last number one record for Slade. The band still regularly hit the top ten into 1975 and the top twenty into 1976, but found their fortunes turn for the worse in the late Seventies when most of their new singles failed to chart at all.

"Merry Xmas Everybody" has been covered several times through the years. In 1990 The Mission recorded a version under the name "The Metal Gurus". R.E.M. covered the song in 2007. In 2012 power pop band Sloan released a cover of the song as a free digital download. This year Train recorded a version of the song.

Here it should be pointed out that "Merry Xmas Everybody" has featured in five Doctor Who episodes, including "The Christmas Invasion", "The Runaway Bride", "Turn Left", "The Power of Three", and "Last Christmas".

"Merry Xmas Everybody" remains popular and shows no sign of declining in popularity. It is arguably one of the most successful Christmas rock songs of all time. Indeed, in a a 2007 poll carried out by MSN Music, it was voted the most popular British Christmas song. Noddy Holder has even jokingly referred to "Merry Xmas Everybody" as his pension plan due to the amount of royalties he receives from it.

Without further ado, here it is, "Merry Xmas Everybody".

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Animated Christmas TV Specials of the Sixties

For most people the holiday season means hearing their favourite Christmas songs and watching their favourite Christmas movies. For younger Baby Boomers as well as the entirety of Generation X and Generation Y in the United States, the Yuletide also meant watching their favourite animated Christmas TV specials. From the Sixties into the Eighties several animated Christmas specials were produced, to the point that for many youngsters they became one of the most anticipated parts of the holiday season. Sadly, they would decline in the late Eighties, so that many Millennials would not experience them, at least not in the numbers that younger Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Gen Yers knew them.

Today it must seem to members of Generations X and Y as if there had always been animated Christmas specials. While regular network television broadcasts in the United States commenced in 1946, however, it would not be until 1962 that the first animated Christmas special would emerge. In 1962 Mr. Magoo was a phenomenally popular cartoon character. Unfortunately, theatrical animated shorts had gone into a steep decline in the Fifties. This meant that despite Mr. Magoo's popularity, UPA, the studio that had produced the Mr. Magoo shorts from 1949 to 1959, was not doing particularly well financially in the late Fifties and early Sixties. UPA turned to television to help increase its revenue, producing The Gerald McBoing Boing Show for CBS in 1956 and The Mr. Magoo Show for syndication in 1960. It should prove as no surprise, then, that Lee Orgel (then UPA's Director of Programme Development) struck upon the idea of Qunicy Magoo playing Scrooge in an animated production of A Christmas Carol.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol did not play as a straight adaptation of A Christmas Carol, but instead as if Quincy Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge in a Broadway musical.  In fact, the opening featured Mr. Magoo arriving at the theatre where the production of A Christmas Carol took place, while the closing featured Mr. Magoo and the other players taking their bows (the near sighted Mr. Magoo destroying the sets in the process). Regardless, it was a somewhat faithful retelling of Dickens's tale, complete with songs by composer Jule Styne and  lyricist Bob Merrill.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol debuted on NBC on December 18 1962. The special proved to be a rousing success. It not only received over all positive reviews from critics, but it also did very well in the ratings. In fact, it did so well in the ratings that it led to the short-lived primetime series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, with Mr. Magoo playing various characters from literature. The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo lasted only a single season, from 1964 to 1965. Perhaps more importantly, Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would lead to more animated Christmas specials produced in the Sixties, many of which have become classics.

It would be two years before another animated Christmas special would debut, but arguably it would be the most popular animated Christmas special of all time. Rankin/Bass's Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted in 1964 and has been aired every year on broadcast network television ever since, sometimes multiple times a year. It was in 1955 that Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass founded Videocraft International, later renamed Rankin/Bass. Videocraft International  specialised in stop-motion animation, producing television commercials as well as the stop-motion animation TV series The New Adventures of Pinocchio and the cel animated TV series Tales of the Wizard of Oz.

Arthur Rankin Jr. just happened to be neighbours with Johnny Marks, the composer of the phenomenally successful Christmas song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer". Mr. Rankin suggested to Mr. Marks  that the song could be adapted as a TV special produced using stop motion animation. Johnny Marks was reluctant, fearing that the special could endanger the success of his biggest hit song, but eventually Arthur Rankin Jr. won him over. In fact, Marks even wrote new songs for the special, including the now classic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Silver and Gold." The script, written by Romeo Muller, drew upon Marks's song for inspiration, expanding on the story considerably.

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer debuted on NBC under the umbrella title The General Electric Fantasy Hour on December 3 1964. It proved to be an incredible success in the ratings. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer continued to air on NBC until 1972, when it moved to CBS. It has remained a Christmas tradition at CBS ever since. Not only has it aired every single year, but sometimes it has been aired multiple times. The success of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer would not only guarantee that there would be more animated Christmas specials over the next few years. It also guaranteed that Rankin/Bass would become the leader in classic holiday specials. Over the next two decades Rankin/Bass would produce several more Christmas specials, some of which would prove to have lasting success like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Given the success of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, more animated Christmas specials would arrive almost immediately. What is more, the next two holiday specials would be classics nearly on the level of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Arguably the years 1964 to 1969 marked some sort of Golden Age of Animated Christmas Specials, with several of the classics debuting in that time frame.

In fact, the next animated Christmas special has aired on broadcast network television every year since its debut, one of the very few to do so. By the late Fifties and early Sixties Peanuts was not only phenomenally popular, it was the most popular comic strip in the world. The Peanuts gang made their television debut in commercials for the Ford Falcon in 1959, appearing in introductions for The Tennessee Ernie Ford Show (which Ford Motor Company sponsored). The spots were animated by Bill Melendez. Bill Meléndez later provided animation for the unfinished documentary on Peanuts and its creator Charles M. Schulz titled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, produced by Lee Mendelson.

While Lee Mendelson found himself unable to sell the documentary, he did receive a call from John Allen of the McCann Erickson Agency proposing a half-hour Peanuts Christmas special. Lee Mendelson agreed to the proposal in hopes of selling his documentary. The proposed special was set to be sponsored by Coca-Cola. The animation was provided by Bill Melendez. Production lasted for six months, with the last four months dedicated to creating the animation. In fact, A Charlie Brown Christmas was not completed until ten days before it was set to broadcast.

In many respects, it might have been fortunate that A Charlie Brown Christmas was completed late. CBS executives hated the special and criticised very nearly every aspect of it. Producer Lee Mendelson was honestly convinced that if it had not been scheduled to broadcast the very next week, CBS would have decided against airing it. Fortunately, A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on December 9 1965 to high praise from critics. It also proved to be the second highest rated programme of the week, beaten out only by the juggernaut that was Bonanza. The success of  A Charlie Brown Christmas would lead to over 35 more Peanuts specials. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on CBS annually until 2000, when it moved to ABC. It has aired on that network ever since.

The following year yet another classic animated Christmas special often ranked among the greatest ever made debuted. Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas was based on the highly successful 1957 book  How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (the pen name of Theodor Geisel). During World War II Theodor Geisel served in the animation department of the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Forces. It was while  he was in the Army that he became friends with legendary animator Chuck Jones. Together the two of them worked on the series of "Private Snafu" Army instructional cartoons. Given the success of the book and the success of animated Christmas specials on American broadcast network television, it should then come as no surprise that Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones decided to produce a TV special based on the book.

Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas debuted on December 18 1966 on CBS. It proved very successful. It received fairly good reviews upon its debut. It also did very well in the ratings. CBS aired Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas annually until 1986. In 1988 cable channel TNT began airing the special annually. In 1996 Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas finally returned to broadcast network television, airing on The WB. It remained there until 2006 when it moved to ABC. As of 2015 it now airs on NBC.

While the years between 1964 and 1966 saw the debuts of three of the most successful animated Christmas specials of all time, 1967 would not. That is not to say that an animated Christmas special did not debut in 1967. Cricket on Hearth was Rankin/Bass's second animated Christmas special. It was very loosely based on the Charles Dickens novella of the same name. It also happened to be very different from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in several ways. First, it featured a live-action introduction and closing with actor and comedian Danny Thomas. Second, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion. Third, Cricket on the Hearth also featured a fairly big name voice cast. Danny Thomas, his daughter Marlo Thomas, Hans Conried, Paul Frees, and Roddy McDowall all provided voices for the special. The animation on Cricket on the Hearth was handled by the Japanese animation studio TCJ, who also produced the classic anime series Gigantor, 8th Man, and Prince Planet. It marked the only time Rankin/Bass and TCJ worked together.

Sadly, despite the talent involved Cricket on the Hearth would not be a success. While Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would go on to annual airings for literally decades, Cricket on the Hearth would disappear quickly and would soon be nearly forgotten by all but Rankin/Bass fans.

This would not be the case for the Rankin/Bass Christmas special that debuted the following year. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy was a stop-motion animated special based on a popular song. The Little Drummer Boy was written by Romeo Muller, who had previously written Rankin/Bass's specials Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Cricket on the Hearth. It also boasted a fairly big name cast. Greer Garson served as the narrator. Jose Ferrer voiced the villain Ben Haramad, and Paul Frees provided the voices of all three Magi. Child actor Teddy Eccles provided the voice of the lead character--Aaron, the little drummer boy. The Little Drummer Boy was sponsored by the American Gas Association and debuted on NBC on December 19 1968.

The Little Drummer Boy did well in the ratings upon its debut in 1968. It continued to do phenomenally well in the ratings throughout the Seventies. In fact, it may well have been the most popular Rankin/Bass stop motion animated Christmas special aside from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer for much of the decade. It aired on NBC annually until 1984. In 1985 it moved to CBS, who aired until 1988. ABC began airing it the following  year and did so until 2006. The Little Drummer Boy then moved to the cable channel ABC Family, where it has aired ever since.

The following year Rankin/Bass would have another hit animated Christmas special on their hands. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Frosty the Snowman was based on a popular song. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, it utilised cel animation rather than stop motion animation (here it must be noted that contrary to popular belief it was not the first Rankin/Bass Christmas special to do so--as noted above Cricket on the Hearth also used cel animation). The animation was handled by the Japanese animation studio Mushi Production. Even in 1969 Mushi Production had an impressive history. It was founded by none other than Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. Indeed, the studio had already produced the anime shows Astro Boy, The Amazing 3, Kimba the White Lion, and Princess Knight, among others.

Frosty the Snowman featured a fairly well known voice cast. Jimmy Durante served as the narrator on the special. June Foray, the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel among many other cartoon characters, provided the voice of Karen, many of the children, and the schoolteacher. Character actor Billy De Wolfe voiced  Professor Hinkle the magician. Paul Frees voiced Santa Claus and other characters. Comedian Jackie Vernon, who voiced Frosty the Snowman, may have been the only member of the cast who was not well known at the time.

Frosty the Snowman debuted on CBS on December 7 1969. It did phenomenally well in the ratings upon its debut. In fact, it was the number one show for the week. Frosty the Snowman has continued to do well in the ratings over the decades. Along with Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas it has aired annually on a broadcast network without interruption ever since its debut. Unlike Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas, Frosty the Snowman has never aired on any network other than the one on which it debuted. For the past 46 years it has only aired on CBS.

With the continued success of animated Christmas specials, it should come as no surprise that 1970 saw three new animated Christmas specials, although two of them emerged from countries other than the United States. The first to debut was The Night the Animals Talked. The Night the Animals Talked was a cel animated special based on a story by Peter Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez may be best known for his voice work on Speed Racer, but he also wrote the English version of Mothra (1961), as well as episodes of Astro-Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Marine Boy. Reportedly Mr. Fernandez had first created the story as a script for an MGM Records children's record. It was directed by legendary animator Shamus Culhane, who had worked over the years with Walter Lantz, Fleischer Studios, Walt Disney Productions, and Warner Brothers. The Night the Animals Talked featured three songs by lyricist Sammy Cahn and composer Jule Styne. It was produced by Italian company Gamma Film.

The Night the Animals Talked was based on the legend of how the animals talked when Jesus Christ was born. It debuted on ABC on December 9 1970. Despite the talent involved,  The Night the Animals Talked  would not see the success that earlier animated specials of the Sixties saw. It only aired three more times on an American broadcast network, last airing on ABC in 1973.

The second animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 emerged from Australia. Air Programs International (API for short) had produced  the television series Arthur! And the Square Knights of the Round Table in 1966. It was in the late Sixties that API embarked on a series called Family Classic Tales, the first of which was an adaptation of A Christmas Carol. It debuted in Australia in 1969.

API's adaptation of A Christmas Carol came to the United States via Jack Thinnes, Media Director at Sive Advertising in Cincinnati, Ohio. He saw a two minute demo of  the special and it occurred to him that a series of animated specials that adapted literary classics might suit his client, toy manufacturer Kenner. This resulted in s Famous Classic Tales, a series of specials that aired on CBS. API's A Christmas Carol then became the very first television special aired on under the Famous Classic Tales title in the United States. It debuted in the United States on December 13 1970.

API's A Christmas Carol did very well in the ratings on CBS, so much so that it would air annually on the network for fifteen years. Following API's A Christmas Carol, other entries in API's Family Classic Tales aired as part of Famous Classic Tales in the United States as well.

The third animated Christmas special to debut in 1970 was another product of Rankin/Bass. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, and Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town was based on a popular song. Like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and The Little Drummer Boy, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town utilised stop-motion animation. As might be expected, it was written by Romeo Muller and directed by Jules Bass.and Arthur Rankin Jr.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town featured some of the most impressive voice talent to ever work on a Rankin/Bass production. Fred Astaire voiced S.D. "Special Delivery" Kluger, a postman who narrates the special. Mickey Rooney voiced Kris Kringle/Santa Claus. Keenan Wynn voiced the Winter Warlock. Paul Frees not only voiced Burgermeister Meisterburger, but several other characters.

Santa Claus is Comin' to Town proved to be fairly popular, but initially it did not prove to have the lasting power of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, or even The Little Drummer Boy. ABC aired it annually until 1981, after which Santa Claus is Comin' to Town disappeared from prime time network television for many, many years. It would later air as part of the cable channel's ABC Family's "25 Days of Christmas" December programming block. At last in 2005 Santa Claus is Comin' to Town returned to ABC, where it once more airs annually. It also continues to air on ABC Family as well.

If anything animated Christmas specials would become even more common in the Seventies. At least one animated Christmas special, sometimes more, would debut each year during the decade. Despite the sheer number of animated Christmas specials that debuted in the Seventies, none of them would see the success of such specials from the Sixties as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, or Frosty the Snowman. Even Rankin/Bass could not quite repeat their earlier success, although such specials as The Year Without a Santa Claus proved fairly popular.

Sadly, as the Seventies became the Eighties time took its toll on the animated Christmas specials. Even many of the old standbys would fall by the wayside. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town ceased airing on ABC after 1981. Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would also leave broadcast network television in the early Eighties. Even Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas would stop airing on network television after 1986. Ultimately only Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman would continue to air annually uninterrupted on network television.

Fortunately many of the specials would find new life on cable. TNT began running Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1988. Eventually it returned to network programming. Santa Claus is Comin' to Town would find a home on ABC Family, only to return eventually to ABC itself. Currently of the Christmas specials that emerged in the Sixties, six are once again airing annually on broadcast network television (Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown ChristmasDr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Frosty the Snowman, and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town). That is more than any other decade. It would seem that it is true the classics never quite go out of style.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Twelve Greatest Christmas TV Episodes I've Seen

If the brightly coloured lights, decorated trees, holly, and mistletoe were not enough to let one know it is the Yuletide, then watching television would certainly alert him or her to it. In both the United States and United Kingdom television shows have had a long tradition of airing Christmas themed episodes during the holiday season. In the United States these holiday episodes have always aired during the regular runs of shows sometime in December. In the United Kingdom they more often than not take the form of "Christmas specials", often airing on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Either way there have been many great Christmas episodes of various shows on both sides of the Pond.

In the spirit of the holiday I thought I would list the twelve greatest Christmas episodes I have ever seen. I chose twelve because it is a number inextricably linked to the holiday. I've specified that they are episodes I have seen because I could not very well include episodes of shows I have not seen (contrary to popular belief I have not seen every show ever made). It was hard for me to decide on a favourite, much less list them from best to least best, so I've elected to list them in alphabetical order by the title of the show.

1. Alfred Hitchcock Presents "Together": What is the holiday season without a little murder? Joseph Cotten plays Tony Gould, who finds himself with a bit of a problem at the office Christmas party when his mistress calls him and tells him that he must divorce his wife and marry her. When his mistress confronts him at the office, he kills her. Unfortunately for Tony, that's when his real problems begin. Joseph Cotten gives one of his best television performances ever, while the direction by Robert Altman foreshadows his work in film.

Here it must be pointed out that Alfred Hitchcock Presents featured other Christmas episodes also worthy of inclusion on any best list, including " Santa Claus and the Tenth Avenue Kid" and "Back for Christmas" (directed by Hitchcock himself),

2. The Avengers "Too Many Christmas Trees": The only Yuletide episode of The Avengers is also one of its strangest. John Steed is having terrible nightmares that seem to be coming true. Its climax takes place at a Christmas party held by a man who collects all things Dickensian. This episode features some of the best interplay between John Steed and Emma Peel, and even an in-joke involving a reference to Steed's former partner, Mrs. Cathy Gale. We even get to see Emma dressed up as Oliver Twist.  Sadly, "Too Many Christmas Trees" was the only Yuletide episode of The Avengers.

3. The Andy Griffith Show "A Christmas Story": Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry is willing to let moonshiner Jim Muggins spend the holidays with his family rather than in jail. Unfortunately, Mayberry's resident Scrooge, wealthy department store owner Ben Weaver demands that Andy keep Sam in jail even if it is Christmas. Fortunately Andy is able to come up with a solution that will keep everyone happy. With "A Christmas Story" The Andy Griffith Show accomplished something very few American sitcoms could with their holiday episodes. It is sweet without being overly sappy, yet at the same time hilariously funny. Sadly, The Andy Griffith Show never had another Christmas episode.

4. Blackadder "Blackadder's Christmas Carol": In between the series Blackadder The Third and Blackadder Goes Forth there was this Christmas special set in the Victorian Era. As might be expected from the title, "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is a pastiche of Dickens's novella. The twist is that its protagonist is not a mean and stingy miser like Scrooge, but instead the only truly decent person in the long line of Blackadders, Ebenezer Blackadder. Ebenezer is the kindest man in England, so much so that others take advantage of his generosity. "Blackadder's Christmas Carol" is one of the best episodes of Blackadder ever made and one of the best send-ups of A Christmas Carol.

5. Community "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas": Of all the sitcoms ever aired, Community is one of the very few that could get away with a stop-motion animated Christmas episode. The episode begins with Abed viewing the world as if it was a stop-motion animated special in the style of the old Rankin/Bass specials. This convinces him that this will be the most important Christmas ever. To this end he draws his friends into a quest to find the meaning of Christmas. "Abed's Uncontrollable Christmas" is a remarkable achievement not only for capturing the look of the old Rankin/Bass specials, but even the feel of those specials, right down to the songs. What is more, better than most Christmas episodes of other sitcoms, it captures the meaning behind the Yuletide in a way that is profound.

6. The Dick Van Dyke Show "The Alan Brady Show Presents": The Dick Van Dyke Show only featured one Christmas episode, and it did not appear until the show's third season. Fortunately it was well worth the wait. In "The Alan Brady Show Presents", the fictional star of The Alan Brady Show decides that instead of using the script his writers (Rob Petrie, Sally Rogers, and Buddy Sorrell) wrote for his Christmas show, he will simply hand the show over to the writers themselves. Rob, Sally, and Buddy, along with Buddy's life Laura, then find themselves in front of the camera performing what is essentially a Christmas variety show. For any other sitcom this might be disastrous, but The Dick Van Dyke Show had one of the most talented casts of all time. Dick Van Dyke (Rob Petrie) is one of the greatest song and dance men of all time. Mary Tyler Moore (Laurie Petrie) is a trained dancer. Rose Marie (Sally Rogers) is a singer and comedian whose career goes back to when she was three. Morey Amsterdam had been a comedian since the days of vaudeville. "Alan Brady Presents" then turned out to be the best Christmas episodes of any TV show ever.

7. Doctor Who "The Next Doctor": It is perhaps because of Charles Dickens's novel A Christmas Carol that Christmas and the Victorian Era are so intertwined in the minds of English speakers. Then what could be better than a Doctor Who Christmas special set in Victorian London? "The Next Doctor" finds the Tenth Doctor (David Tennant) arriving in London on Christmas Eve in 1851. It is not long before he encounters a man who thinks he is The Doctor (Morrissey). What is worse is that there are Cybermen about as well. "The Next Doctor" is easily the best of the Doctor Who Christmas specials. Not only does Morrissey give a great performance as "The Doctor" (I'd always hoped they do a spin-off series with him), but the whole special has a nice steampunk feel to it.

8. Father Ted "A Christmassy Ted": Father Ted simply wants a quiet, run-of-the-mill Christmas. Unfortunately, given Father Ted's usual luck, his Christmas turns out to be anything but run-of-the-mill. Quite simply, things keep happening to keep Father Ted from having the perfectly ordinary Christmas he wants, until it is clear that this Christmas will be nothing but ordinary. Father Ted only had one Christmas episode, which is a shame. "A Christmassy Ted" is easily one of the best episodes of a show that produced a number of remarkable episodes.

9. The Jack Benny Program  "Christmas Shopping Show: "Christmas Shopping Show", wasn't exactly a new idea when it first aired on December 18 1957. Episodes in which perpetual skinflint Jack Benny tried to do his Christmas shopping all in one day had been done a few times before on his radio show. That having been said, "Christmas Shopping Show" might be the best permutation of the idea. Much of the reason the episode is so good is that it features many of Jack Benny's regular performers. Mel Blanc plays a poor store clerk with the misfortune of having to serve Mr. Benny.  Jack has the misfortune of crossing a floorwalker played by Frank Nelson (the "Yeeeeeeeeesssss? man"). There are also appearances by Richard Deacon, Benny Rubin, and, of course, Eddie Anderson as Rochester. "Christmas Shopping Show" is easily one of the funniest Christmas episodes of a TV show ever made.

10. The Mary Tyler Moore Show "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II": "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" deals with an experience all too many have had in real life. Mary not only has to work Christmas Day, but Christmas Eve as well. She had been planning to spend Christmas Day with her parents in her hometown, but has to cancel when she learns that she is working Christmas Day. She then decides to spend Christmas Eve with her best friend and neighbour Rhoda, only to agree to work Christmas Eve in place of a fellow employee at the TV station who hasn't gotten to spend Christmas with his family in years. "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid II" is not only extremely funny, but also very touching as well. By the way, the episode's title is a reference to the 1966 That Girl episode "Christmas and the Hard-Luck Kid", which was also written by James L. Brooks (co-creator of The Mary Tyler Moore Show).

11. WKRP in Cincinnati "Jennifer's Home for Christmas": WKRP in Cincinnati produced what what is considered by many to be the greatest Thanksgiving episode of all time, "Turkeys Away", but the show also produced one of the best Christmas episodes as well. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" deals with a problem common at the Yuletide. Quite simply, everyone seems to have Christmas plans except for Jennifer, who has no family to spend the holiday with. "Jennifer's Home for Christmas" is not only a very funny episode, but also a very touching one as well. It gives new life to a premise that was fairly old by the time WKRP in Cincinnati got to it. WKRP in Cincinnati also did one other Christmas episode, "Bah, Humbug", which is also highly recommended.

12. The X-Files "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas": The X-Files was always at its best when it steered clear of its convoluted mythology and simply did "monster of the week" episodes. This is not only the best Christmas episode ever written for The X-Files (there had been two earlier Christmas episodes), but also one of the best "monster of the week" episodes ever. Quite simply, at Mulder's insistence, Mulder and Scully investigate an allegedly haunted house in which two lovers had committed suicide. As it turns out, the house is actually haunted, with the ghosts played by Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin. Not only does "How the Ghosts Stole Christmas" have all the trappings of the holiday but it is also a very effective X-Files episode, with all the thrills and chills one can expect from the very best episodes of the show. As might be expected, Ed Asner and Lily Tomlin give fantastic performances as the doomed lovers haunting the mansion.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Bing Crosby's Merrrie Olde Christmas

Aside from Gene Autry, perhaps no other celebrity has been so strongly linked to Christmas as Bing Crosby. His biggest hit was a Christmas song, "White Christmas". What is more "White Christmas" was not merely Bing's biggest hit, but remains the biggest selling single of all time seventy three years after its release. What is more he starred in some of the most popular holiday movies of all time: Holiday Inn (1942, in which "White Christmas" originated), Going My Way (1944), The Bells of St. Mary's (1945), and White Christmas (1954). As if that wasn't enough, beginning with radio he hosted Christmas specials each year for literally decades. When he filmed his final Christmas special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas in September 1977, I rather suspect very few at the time realised it would be his last.

It was in 1935 that Bing Crosby hosted his first Christmas special, although it was as a special edition of his radio show. He continued to do yearly Christmas editions of his radio show for its entire run, until it went off the air in 1954. In 1955 he began an annual tradition of Christmas specials on radio that aired under the title of A Christmas Sing with Bing. These specials on radio would last until 1962.

Strangely enough for someone who had done Christmas specials on radio for literally decades, Bing Crosby would not start doing Christmas specials on television for many years. He did appear as a guest on a Christmas edition of The Frank Sinatra Show in 1957, "Happy Holidays with Bing and Frank". That having been said, the first of his very own Christmas specials would not air until 1961. Curiously, that special, The Bing Crosby Christmas Show, was filmed on location in London. Among the performers on that special was British actor Ron Moody.  Bing Crosby would appear in a Christmas special every single year for the next sixteen years, although in 1965, 1966, 1967, and 1968 they were editions of the variety show The Hollywood Palace (which Bing often hosted).

It was in September 1977 that Bing Crosby and his family began a tour of the United Kingdom that included two weeks at the London Palladium. It was because of this tour that it was decided that Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas special would have a British theme. It was filmed at Elstree Studios in London that September. Its guests were entirely British. Ron Moody, who had appeared in Bing Crosby's first television special, played several different roles (including Charles Dickens and a parody of Bob Hope). Other guests included Twiggy, Stanley Baxter, the Trinity Boys Choir, and, most surprisingly, glam rock star David Bowie.

The concept behind Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas was fairly simple. Bing Crosby and his family are invited to spend their Christmas with a distant English relative, Sir Percy Crosby (one of the many characters played by Ron Moody). Over the course of the special two guests show up at Sir Percy's estate, David Bowie and Twiggy. Ron Moody also plays the ghost who haunts the castle, a jester of the Crosby family from centuries ago who is obviously meant to be a parody of Bob Hope.

Aside from the fact that Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas would be his last Christmas special, it is the presence of David Bowie that would ultimately make it the most famous Christmas special Bing Crosby ever did. It had been planned for David Bowie to perform "The Little Drummer Boy" as a duet with Bing Crosby. Unfortunately David Bowie refused to sing the song, even going so far as to say that he hated it. With only hours to go before filming, musical director Ian Fraser, composer Larry Grossman, and script writer Alan Kohan wrote a new song, "Peace on Earth", in only about 75 minutes. David Bowie would then sing "Peace on Earth" as a counterpoint to Bing Crosby singing "The Little Drummer Boy". The sequence was filmed on September 11 1977. For years bootlegs of  "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" by David Bowie and Bing Crosby circulated. At last, in 1982 RCA released "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" as a single. It peaked at no. 3 on the UK singles chart and has remained a staple of American radio stations ever since.

Here it must be pointed out that David Bowie's duet of "Peace On Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" was not his only appearance on the special. Later in the special Bing Crosby introduced David Bowie's video to his current single, "Heroes". While the  "Peace On Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" sequence has often been described as surreal, the insertion of a late Seventies rock video into an otherwise rather traditional Christmas variety special seems a bit odd. Still for David Bowie fans (such as myself), it is a treat.

Of course, while Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas is now famous for "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy", it featured many more sequences than it. There was also a rather long sequence in which Ron Moody and Twiggy play various characters from Charles Dickens's novels while singing a specially adapted version of "Where Would You Be Without Me?" from The Roar of the Greasepaint – The Smell of the Crowd. Twiggy and Bing Crosby also sing a duet of  “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”. Ron Moody and Bing Crosby also get to sing together as well. In character as Sir Percy, Ron Moody sings Stephen Sondheim's "Side by Side" with Bing and his wife Kathryn. Towards the end of the special there is a sing-along with Bing, his family, Ron Moody, Twiggy, and the Trinity Boys Choir.

Perhaps fittingly and most certainly poignantly given it would be his last Christmas special, Bing Crosby sings "White Christmas". What makes the sequence all the more touching is that the set seems somewhat reminiscent of the "White Christmas" sequence from Holiday Inn, right down to the Christmas tree.

Sadly, Bing Crosby would die not long after the filming of Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. On October 13 1977 Bing played eighteen holes at the La Moraleja Golf Course not far from Madrid, Spain. During the day Bing Crosby seemed happy and was obliging to photographers and fans. He lost the golf match to his partner by only one stroke. Sadly, that evening Bing Crosby collapsed not far from the clubhouse at  La Moraleja Golf Course. At age 74, Bing Crosby had died from a massive heart attack.

Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas aired five weeks later, on November 30 1977 on CBS. It would be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special.  In many ways it served as a fitting bookend to the first one from 1961. Both were filmed in London. Both featured British guests (Dame Shirley Bassey and Terry-Thomas on the first; Twiggy and David Bowie on the last). Both featured British actor Ron Moody. While it is doubtful that anyone realised it would be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special, in many ways it was fitting that it was.

Today Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas remains Bing Crosby's best remembered Christmas special, primarily because of the presence of David Bowie. That having been said, it should be remembered for much more. It's not even a simple case of it being Bing Crosby's last Christmas special. It was one of the best Christmas specials Bing ever made. Not only does it include the famous "Peace on Earth"/"Little Drummer Boy" sequence, but also some touching renditions of other Christmas songs, including one of Bing Crosby's best renditions of "White Christmas" ever.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

R. O. Blechman's CBS Season's Greetings Spot From 1966

 Today it is not unusual for the American broadcast networks air interstitials in which stars of their various shows wish the audience "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings". There was a time, however, when the broadcast networks were a bit more creative with their "Season's Greetings spots. A perfect example (and quite possibly the most famous such interstitial of them all) was one first aired by CBS in 1966. This "Season's Greetings" spot would air for years on CBS, last airing sometime in the Seventies. It remains one of the best remembered "Season's Greetings" spots in the history of television.

If CBS's 1966 "Seasons Greetings" spot is remembered today, it is perhaps because of the talent who created the spot. It was designed by R. O. Blechman, who at various points in his career was an animator, an illustrator, a cartoonist, and a children's book author. His first book, The Juggler of Our Lady, was published when he was only 23. He later went to work for Storyboard Inc., a studio specialising in special effects and commercial animation. His cartoons were published in such magazines as Harper's BazaarPunch, and Esquire. He would go on to create a well remembered animated commercial for Alka-Seltzer in 1967 and found the commercial animation studio The Ink Tank. He produced the 1977 PBS special Simple Gifts and directed the 1984 PBS special The Soldier's Tale.

The actual animation for the spot was done by the legendary Willis Pyle. Mr. Pyle began his career at Disney, working on the classic films Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Bambi. After his military service in World War II he went to work for UPA. There he worked on several classic shorts, including "Ragtime Bear" (1949--the first appearance of Mr. Magoo) and  "Gerald McBoing-Boing" (1950). He later did a good deal of work in television, including the special Halloween Is Grinch Night. He also worked on the 1977 feature Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure. Willis Pyle celebrated his 100th birthday on September 2 2014.

 R. O. Blechman's "Season's Greetings" message would be rerun for several years on CBS, running into the Seventies. It remains fondly remembered by many. Special thanks to Steve of MovieMovieBlogBlog for pointing this piece of classic animation out to me!