Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Late Great James Karen

Character actor James Karen was not exactly a household name, but anyone who had ever watched a few American TV shows or movies would immediately recognise his face. He was one of the most prolific and talented character actors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, with a career that spanned seventy years and included stints in film, television, and on Broadway. For the classic film community he was something even more than a great character actor. Mr. Karen had been a close personal friend of the great Buster Keaton and had a wealth of memories about the legendary actor and director. Despite his talent, his many credits, and his friendship with Mr. Keaton, James Karen was wholly unassuming. If one did not already know it, he or she might not realise that James Karen was a famous character actor. He was a kind and generous man who called many in the classic film community friends. For his thoughtfulness and his kindness he was among most the most beloved figures in the classic film community. Sadly, James Karen died on October 23 at the age of 94.

James Karen was born Jacob Karnofsky on November 28 1923 in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. He was the son of Russian born Jewish immigrants. His father never learned to read, so the elder Mr. Karnofsky took young Jacob to silent movies to read the titles for him. As a youth, he was walking home from Union Street School, past the Little Theatre, when he was stopped by Congressman Daniel J. Flood, who was an amateur actor, who asked if he was a Boy Scout. Young Jacob said that he was and Congressman Flood gave him a part in a comedy playing at the theatre. He enjoyed the experience so much that he stayed with the theatre for quite some time and decided to pursue acting as a career.

In 1940 he left home for New York City to pursue a career in acting. It was at that point that he adopted the stage name "James Karen". He studied under acting teacher Sanford Meisner and appeared at the Neighbourhood Theatre there. Upon the United States' entry into World War II in 1941 he enlisted in the United States Army Air Forces. For part of the war he served as a cryptographer in Alaska. Following the war he returned to New York to return to acting. He was at the Actors Studio for a time and was Karl Malden's understudy in the original Broadway production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He made his debut on the Broadway stage in 1948 in Six O'Clock Theatre. From 1950 to 1951 he appeared on Broadway in An Enemy of the People. He made his television debut in an episode of The Philco Television Playhouse.

In the Fifties James Karen appeared on Broadway in An Enemy of the People and Third Best Sport. He guest starred on Lux Video Theatre. It was in 1956 that James Karen met Buster Keaton. He worked with Mr. Keaton in touring productions of the comedy Merton of the Movies.

In the Sixties he made his film debut in Frankenstein Meets the Spacemonster (1965). He appeared in the films Hercules in New York (1970) and I Never Sang for My Father (1970). He guest starred on the shows Car 54, Where Are You?; The Defenders; and Directions. He had stints on the soap operas As the World Turns and All My Children.  He appeared on Broadway in A Cook for Mr. General, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Tiny Alice, Cactus Flower, The Birthday Party, The Only Game in Town, and The Engagement Baby. In 1965 he appeared alongside his friend Buster Keaton in the short simply titled "Film".

In the Seventies he appeared in the TV mini-series Blind Ambition. He had a recurring role on the show Eight is Enough. He guest starred on the shows The Invisible Man, Starsky and Hutch, The Waltons, The Streets of San Francisco, The Bionic Woman, Hawaii Five-O, McMillan & Wife, Police Woman, Executive Suite, Serpico, Delvecchio, The Blue Knight, The Kallikaks, Rafferty, Family, Lucan, Lou Grant, One Day at a Time, and The Rockford Files. He appeared in the movies Rivals (1972), Amazing Grace (1974), All the President's Men (1976), Capricorn One (1977), Opening Night (1977), F.I.S.T. (1978), The China Syndrome (1979), and The Jazz Singer (1990). On Broadway he appeared in The Country Girl and A Moon for the Misbegotten. He was a standby for the role of George in a revival of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

In the Eighties Mr. Karen had a regular role on the TV show The Powers of Matthew Star. He guest starred on such shows as The Jeffersons, Knots Landing, Dallas, M*A*S*H, Quincy M.E., Simon & Simon, Trapper John M.D., Hardcastle and McCormick, Family Ties, The Paper Chase, Dynasty, Cheers, Moonlighting, 227, Melba, Amazing Stories, Magnum P.I., Sledge Hammer!, The Golden Girls, MacGyver, Murphy Brown, Highway to Heaven, and Charles in Charge. He appeared in such films as Take This Job and Shove It (1981), Poltergeist (1982), Time Walker (1982), Frances (1982), Sam's Son (1984), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Jagged Edge (1985), Invaders from Mars (1986), Wall Street (1987), Return of the Living Dead: Part II (1988), and The Closer (1990). He appeared in the short "The Roommate".

In the Nineties James Karen had a recurring role on The Larry Sanders Show and a regular role on Ned and Stacey. He guest starred on such TV shows as Matlock, L. A. Law, Designing Women, Coach, Melrose Place, Hearts Afire, The Commish, Touched by an Angel, Dark Skies, Seinfeld, and The Practice. He appeared in such films as The Unborn (1991), Stone Soup (1993), Congo (1995), Piranha (1995), Nixon (1995), Behind Enemy Lines (1997), Joyride (1997), Girl (1998), Fly Boy (1999), and Thirteen Days (2000). He appeared in the short Tick, Tick, Tick (2000).

In the Naughts Mr. Karen had a regular role on the TV show First Monday. He guest starred on the shows The Nightmare Room, JAG, Judging Amy, Unscripted, and Cold Case. He appeared in such films as Mulholland Dr. (2001), Outlaw Trail: The Treasure of Butch Cassidy (2006), The Pursuit of Happyness (2007), Trail of the Screaming Forehead (2007), Dark and Stormy Night (2009), Jack and the Beanstalk (2009), and Sympathy for Delicious (2010). He appeared in the shorts "Jane Bond", "Flickering Blue", "Office Court", and "Heart Medicine".

In the Teens James Karen appeared in the films The Butterfly Room (2012), Dark Canyon (2012), America's Most Haunted (2013), Rain from Stars (2013), Bender (2016), Confessions of a Teenage Jesus Jerk (2017), and Cynthia (2018). He appeared in the shorts "Pride" (2011) and "Humanity" (2016).  He was a guest voice on the animated TV series The Cleveland Show and American Dad!.

In the Northereastern United States, Mr. Karen appeared in commercials for Pathmark supermarkets for nearly three decades. He was known by many in New England as "the Pathmark Man” or “Mr. Pathmark".

James Karen was certainly a prolific actor. He appeared in a large number of TV shows and movies over the years, as well as making several appearances on Broadway. He was also certainly versatile. He was best known for playing authority figures, both good and evil, but he could play other roles as well. Indeed, among his best known movie roles was that of smarmy real estate agent Mr. Teague in Poltergeist  and doomed medical warehouse manager Frank in Return of the Living Dead. Over the years he played doctors on shows ranging from Family to Quincy M.E. His roles over the years ranged from judges to lawyers to politicians to clergy. Quite simply, James Karen could play anything.

I never had the honour of meeting James Karen, but for me he was most definitely a friend of friends. He regularly attended both the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and the Buster Keaton Celebration in  Iola, Kansas. Many of my fellow film buffs knew him and counted him as a dear friend. In many ways, James Karen seemed less to me like a famous character actor than a beloved uncle of many of my friends whom I had never met. He was friendly, cheerful, warm-hearted, and kind. He had a great sense of humour and was always eager to share his memories of the great Buster Keaton. If James Karen ever met a fellow classic film fan he didn't like, I never heard of it. James Karen was more than a great character actor to members of the classic film community. He was a beloved friend, a wealth of memories, and a true gentleman.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Happy Halloween 2018

When people think of Halloween, they naturally think of trick or treating and the candy that comes with that activity. Here at A Shroud of Thoughts the chosen treat is a bit of cheesecake. Here, then, is this year's batch of classic Halloween pinups.

First up is model WWI era model Dusty Anderson, who is the cat's meow!

 Next up is Lillian Wells, who is relaxing a bale of hay!

Here is Nan Grey relaxing beside a jack o' lantern!

Eleanor Todd has her broom ready!

Clara Bow and a giant jack o' lantern!

 And it wouldn't be Halloween without Ann Miller!


Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The 80th Anniversary of The Mercury Theatre on Air's War of the Worlds Broadcast

The Daily News, one of the news outlets that
exaggerated the panic.
It was 80 years ago today that The Mercury Theatre on Air broadcast what may be the single most famous (or perhaps "infamous" would be a better word) single episode of a radio show. It was an adaptation of H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds updated to 1938 and executed as if it was a live newscast of a Martian invasion. While the panic caused by the broadcast was greatly exaggerated by the news media at the time, leading to urban legends that have persisted to this day, The Mercury Theatre on the Air's "War of the Worlds" broadcast did convince some people, if only for a short time, that the United States was being invaded by Mars. One thing is certain. Orson Welles pulled off one of the biggest Halloween pranks of all time.

Ten years ago I wrote a blog post on the occasion of the seventieth anniversary of "The War of the Worlds". Rather than revisit something I have already written about, I will then direct you to my post from 2008. You can read it here.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Few Vintage Halloween Candy Ads

Halloween was brought to the United States by Scottish immigrants in the 19th Century. By the 1880s and 1890s the holiday had begun to go mainstream, with Halloween parties held across the country. Even in the early days sweets were a part of the celebration, although they were home-rather than candy manufactured en masse. Trick or treating originated in Canada in the 1920s and would gradually spread throughout the United States during the 1930s. It would not take long before candy manufacturers started taking advantage of Halloween in general and the new custom of trick or treating in specific. Here are a few vintage candy ads that capitalised on the  American celebration of Halloween.

A Baby Ruthy trade ad from 1947 portraying a Halloween party.

A Milky Way ad from 1954, complete with a trick or treat bag.

A Curtiss ad from 1962.

A Ludens trade ad from 1970.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

Halloween on Television 1952-1982

Halloween episodes of television shows have a long history going back to the Fifties. To a large degree this can be traced back to radio, where a lot of the old radio shows also had Halloween episodes. The Jack Benny Programme, The Baby Snooks Show, Father Knows Best, and many other radio programmes did Halloween episodes. Indeed, the most famous Halloween episode of all time may not belong to a television show, but to a radio show instead. The October 30 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast of The Mercury Theatre remains remembered to this day.

Given the popularity of Halloween episodes on radio, it should be little wonder that many television shows would follow suit with their own Halloween episodes. Airing in October or, at the latest, on November 1, these episodes did not always have Halloween as a theme. Some shows simply elected for episodes about haunted houses, ghosts, or other spooky subject matter suitable to the holiday. Regardless, since the Sixties viewers have been able to look forward to special Halloween episodes of their favourite shows every October.

Regularly scheduled network television broadcasts began in the United States in 1946. Given the nature of these early broadcasts, it would be difficult to say with any certainty what the very first Halloween episode of a television show was. Certainly one of the earliest was "Halloween Party", an episode of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet that aired on Halloween in 1952. Ozzie and Harriet Nelson had also done a Halloween episode on their radio show. In "Halloween Party" Ozzie and his friend Thorny (Don DeFore) plan a Halloween party. Being The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, naturally it does not go as planned.

The Honeymooners would spend only one season as its own show, existing for most of its history as a series of sketches on The Jackie Gleason Show. It was on The Jackie Gleason Show that The Honeymoners first dealt with Halloween. "Question Mark" (also known as "Masquerade" and "Halloween Party") aired on the October 25 1952 episode of The Jackie Gleason Show and featured the Kramdens and Nortons dressing up in costume for a Halloween Party. Another Halloween themed Honeymooners sketch would air the following year. On "Halloween Party" Ralph ruins the tuxedo he planned to wear for the bus company's Halloween party, not realising it is not a costume party anyway.

When subject of Halloween comes up, the TV show Lassie is probably not the first television programme to come mind. That having been said, Lassie featured two Halloween themed episodes in the Fifties. "The Witch" aired on October 30 1955. On the show Jeff (played by Tommy Rettig) and Porky (played by Donald Keeler) are convinced that an eccentric old lady is a witch. Halloween plays a role in the Lassie episode "Trapped", which aired on October 26 1958. In the episode Timmy (played by Jon Provost) and Boomer (played by Todd Ferrell) are searching for foxfire to smear on their faces for a Halloween party when they fall through the floor of an old house and become trapped there. Lassie would have one last Halloween episode late in its run. "Wings of the Ghost" aired in syndication around October 28 1971. In the episode Lassie, Ron (played by Robert Burton), and Dale (played by Larry Wilcox) stay in a barn that may be haunted.

Being set in California in the early 19th Century where Halloween was unknown, the TV series Zorro never dealt with the holiday itself, but it had a Halloween episode nonetheless. "The Ghost of the Mission" aired on Halloween in 1957. In the episode Capt. Monastario plots to take over a mission that is rumoured to be haunted. To thwart Monastario's plans, Zorro comes up with his own plan: convincing Monastario's men that the mission actually is haunted by a ghost.

The Phil Silvers Show episode "Bilko's Vampire"aired on October 1 1958, but it given its subject matter and its relative proximity to the holiday, it could be considered a Halloween episode. In the episode Sgt. Ritzik (played by Joe E. Ross) not only becomes addicted to watching old horror movies on television, but eventually becomes convinced that he is a vampire.

While Halloween episodes of TV shows were not particularly common in the Fifties, they would become much, much more prevalent during the Sixties. In fact, during many seasons there might be several different Halloween episodes on various shows. With the 1961-1962 season there would be Halloween episodes of two classic sitcoms. The Donna Reed Show episode "The Monster" aired on October 12 1961. When the family discover tracks belonging to a large animal and keep hearing noises during the night, they become convinced some sort of monster is about. In the Dennis the Menace episode "Haunted House", which aired on October 29 1961, Dennis's father Henry and their neighbour Mr. Wilson buy a house only to learn that it is allegedly haunted.

If there was ever a banner year for Halloween episodes on television, it might well have been 1962. The 1962-1963 season would feature more Halloween episodes of TV shows than many previous seasons combined. What is more, it was not simply sitcoms in 1962 that featured Halloween episodes, but dramas as well. What is more, some of the Halloween episodes airing in 1962 are now regarded as among the very best.

What might have been the earliest Halloween episode to air in the 1962-1963 season was "Haunted House", the October 7 1962 episode of The Andy Griffith Show. The episode begins when Opie (played by Ron Howard) and his friend Arnold (played by Ronnie Dapo) accidentally hit a baseball into a house they think is haunted, they are too scared to retrieve it. Barney (played by Don Knotts) thinks Andy (played by Andy Griffith) should make the boys get the baseball themselves, but is no braver than the boys when it comes to retrieving the ball. As it turns out, while there are some strange goings on  in the house, everything is not as it seems.

The My Three Sons episode "The Ghost Next Door", which aired on October 25 1962 , is set on Halloween and even features Chip (played by Stanley Livingston) and his friend Sudsy (played by Ricky Allen) trick-or-treating. Of course, while doing so they notice someone carrying a candle in the house next door. While they are convinced it was a ghost, no one else believes them.

The following night, October 26 1962, there aired one of the Halloween episodes on a drama that season. The Route 66 episode "Lizard's Leg and Owlet's Wing" reunited horror stars Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and Peter Lorre, who play themselves in the episode. The three masters of horror have met to debate whether the old horrors are still scary at a hotel at which Tod (played by Martin Milner) and Buz (played by George Maharis) are working. It would be the last time that Boris Karloff would appear in the classic Frankenstein's monster makeup and the last time Lon Chaney Jr. appeared in the Wolfman makeup.

What was the number one show of the 1962-1963 season was a brand new show, The Beverly Hillbillies. Its very first season it featured a Halloween episode, "Trick or Treat". Granny (played by Irene Ryan) is missing the hills and complaining that none of their neighbours in Beverly Hills come to visit the way they did back home. Jed (played by Buddy Ebsen) suggests to Granny that they visit their neighbours. Of course, it just happens to be Halloween. The episode is historic as it features the first reference to Hooterville, later the setting of fellow sitcoms Petticoat Junction and Green Acres. Of course, here it must be pointed out that given the number of Scots who settled the hills in the South (and the Scots having brought Halloween to America), chances are good that the Clampetts would be familiar with Halloween. That having been said, as in the episode, they probably would not be familiar with trick-or-treating, which only came about in the 20th Century.

The Beverly Hillbillies would have only one other Halloween episode. "The Ghost of Clampett Castle" was part of a story arc in which the Clampetts inherited an English castle and visited England. In the episode, in an effort to get them to go back to California. Mr. Drysdale (played by Raymond Bailey) makes up a story about the ghost of Lady Clementine, whose husband was murdered in the castle by her own grandmother. "The Ghost of Clampett Castle" aired on October 23 1968.

The final Halloween episode of the 1962-1963 season actually aired on November 1 1962, All Saints' Day. The Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Dodging Domino" begins with a murder on Halloween and trick-or-treating actually plays a pivotal role in the plot.

The TV show that might be all the time champion when it comes to Halloween episodes debuted in the 1964-1965 season. Of course, given Bewitched was about a witch (Samantha, played by Elizabeth Montgomery) who married a mortal (Darrin, played by Dick York), it should perhaps not be surprising that the show would feature several Halloween episodes. Indeed, for a time the show did one Halloween episode a year.

The first of the Halloween episodes of Bewitched was "The Witches Are Out", which aired on October 29 1964. In "The Witches Are Out" Darrin, at his advertising agency, creates a Halloween campaign featuring a witch as an old crone. Samantha and her relatives take offence and accuse Darrin of stereotyping witches. The episode is notable as featuring the first appearance of Aunt Clara (played by Marion Lorne), who would become of the show's most prominent characters. The next year's Halloween episode, "Trick or Treat", would also deal with the stereotyping of witches. Darrin's boss Larry Tate (played by David White) sends Samantha some typical Halloween decorations for their small, Halloween, dinner party. Unfortunately, among them are ones that portray witches as old crones. Samantha's mother, Endora (played by Agnes Moorhead), is angered by this and naturally takes her anger out on Darrin by turning him into a werewolf.

The third Halloween episode of Bewitched, "Twitch or Treat", centred on a disagreement between Endora and Samantha's Uncle Arthur (played by Paul Lynde) that comes to a head at Endora's Halloween party. It was the show's third Halloween episode in as many years. Bewitched would have a Halloween episode the following year as well. In "A Safe and Sane Halloween" Samantha and Darrin's daughter Tabitha (played by Erin Murphy) brings to life a gremlin, a goblin, and Jack O'Lantern from a storybook who then go trick or treating with her. Samantha then has to convince Tabitha to return the characters to the storybook from which they came.

For the first time in its existence Bewitched would not have a Halloween episode during the 1968-1969 season. The show would have one last Halloween episode in the 1969-1970 episode. The episode once more touches upon the stereotyping of witches, with Endora turning Darrin into a stereotypical old crone. It also includes the trick-or-treat for UNICEF fundraising campaign.

 Like Bewitched, it should not be surprising that The Addams Family featured Halloween episode given the show centred on a rather macabre family. The first episode, "Halloween with the Addams Family", aired on October 30 1964. In the episode, after their getaway car runs out of gas, two hold-up men take refuge in the Addams Family mansion where the Addamses, quite naturally, are celebrating Halloween. The second episode of The Addams Family, " Halloween - Addams Style", aired on October 29 1965. In the episode a neighbour tells little Wednesday (played by Lisa Loring) that there are no real witches or goblins. This upsets Wednesday, so the rest of the family must convince her that witches and goblins are real.

So far I have discussed sitcoms and dramas, but variety shows and music shows sometimes had Halloween editions as well. One of the more famous examples of this was the October 30 1965 edition of Shindig. It featured horror legend and guest host Boris Karloff performing "The Peppermint Twist" and "Monster Mash", Ted Cassidy as Lurch from The Addams Family performing the novelty song "The Lurch", and various other performers.

In the 1966-1967 season Jackie Gleason revived The Jackie Gleason Show. As a result, The Honeymooners was also revived. It was on October 29 1966 that one last Halloween sketch of The Honeymooners aired. In "The Curse of the Kramdens", Ralph Kramden (played by Jackie Gleason) and Ed Norton (played by Art Carney) have to spend the night in Kramden castle, which is allegedly haunted.

As hard as it might be to believe, the classic science fiction series Star Trek also had a Halloween episode. "Catspaw" was written by horror writer Robert Bloch and aired on October 27 1967. It is notable as the first episode filmed featuring Walter Koenig as Ensign Chekov, although it was held back so as to air around Halloween. Other episodes featuring the character then aired before it. "Catspaw" finds the crew of the Enterprise encountering witches, a medieval castle, and a sorcerer on a planet. Of course, nothing is as it appears to be.

The sitcom Nanny and the Professor had a vaguely supernatural premise, with Juliet Mills playing Nanny, who may or may not have paranormal abilities. In "Nanny and Her Witch's Brew", a classmate's mother becomes convinced Nanny is a witch. The episode aired on November 1 1971. For much of its run Nanny and the Professor aired on Friday nights on ABC alongside The Brady Bunch. The following year The Brady Bunch did its own Halloween episode. In "Fright Night" the Brady boys try scaring the girls with a "ghost". In turn the girls retaliate with their own scare for the boys. "Fright Night" aired on October 27 1972.

For a fairly straight forward sitcom set in the Fifties, it might seem a bit surprising that Happy Days has multiple Halloween episodes. The first, "Haunted", aired on October 29 1974. In the episode Richie Cunningham (played by Ron Howard) dismisses his little sister Joanie's (played by Erin Moran) claims that a house is haunted, but then he sees a ghostly figure in a window. The second Halloween episode of Happy Days aired a few years later, on October 25 1977. "Fonsillectomy" finds Fonzie (played by Henry Winkler) in the hospital for a tonsillectomy and worried about whom his girlfriend might be with at a Halloween party. The last Halloween episode of Happy Days, "Evil Eye", saw Al (played by Al Molinaro) convinced a spell from an old witch with the evil eye has cursed his right arm to do her bidding.

The police officers on the sitcom Barney Miller encountered more than their fair share of unusual characters. In "Werewolf", which aired on October 28 1976, they encountered a man convinced he was a werewolf. As a sitcom it should come as no surprise that Barney Miller would have a Halloween episode. What might come as a surprise is that family period drama The Waltons did. "The Changeling" aired on October 26 1978. In the episode, as Elizabeth (played by Kami Cotler) nears her 13th birthday, strange things begin to happen, such as a vase moving and then falling to break. The Waltons' cousin Corabeth (played by Ronnie Claire Edwards) suggested that Elizabeth might be haunted by a poltergeist.

The sitcom The Jeffersons would part ways with most sitcoms in that it actually did a two part Halloween episode. In part one of "Now You See It, Now You Don't:" it is Halloween and Louise Jefferson (played by Isabel Sanford) witness someone being killed by a man in a rabbit costume. The second part saw Louise confronting the man in the rabbit costume in the Jeffersons' apartment while everyone else was in a bar getting ready for a costume contest. Part One aired on October 21 1979. Part Two aired on October 28 1979.

Most long running shows do a Halloween episode at one point or another. This is no less true of M*A*S*H, which did one in its eleventh an final season. "Trick or Treatment" aired on November 1 1982. The episode sees the 4077th celebrating Halloween with their annual party. Unfortunately the party is interrupted by arriving wounded. While working on the wounded the doctors exchange ghost stories.

The Halloween episodes addressed so far were by no means the only Halloween episodes of shows that aired from the Fifties to the early Eighties. There were yet others, enough that one could probably fill an entire book with them. If anything else, Halloween episodes have perhaps become even more prevalent since the Eighties. While sitcoms have traditionally done at least one Halloween episode during their run, in the past several years shows ranging from ER to NCIS have done multiple Halloween episodes. The tradition of Halloween episodes that began on radio in the early 20 Century seems to show no signs of slowing on television in the early 21st Century. As long as there are TV shows, it seems likely there will be Halloween episodes.