Saturday, February 11, 2023

Destination Freedom

Journalist Ricahard
African Americans were not exactly invisible on Old Time Radio. Black performers regularly appeared on the variety shows of the era and African Americans were regulars on various radio shows. At the same time, there were very few shows that starred Black performers or that were centred on the Black experience. An exception was a short-lived show that aired on WMAQ in Chicago. In its early days Destination Freedom aired biographies of important African Americans, from historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver to more recent celebrities such as Lena Horne and Satchel Page.

Destination Freedom was created by Richard Durham, a Black journalist who had written for New Masses, the Chicago Defender, the Chicago Star, and the Illinois Standard, in cooperation with the Chicago Defender. Richard Durham's goal with the show was to dispel many of the stereotypes about African Americans through an accurate portrayal of Black history and the Black experience. Hugh Downs served as the announcer on the series, while Studs Terkel provided many of the voices of the characters on the show. In its early days it featured many Black peformers The show would open with the spiritual, "Oh, Freedom."

Destination Freedom debuted on June 27 1948 and aired on Sunday mornings. Its first episode dealt with Crispus Attucks, the whaler, sailor, and stevedore who was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre. Over the course of 1948 Destination Freedom dealt with such subjects as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Langston Hughes, Jackie Robinson, Duke Ellington. In 1949 it dealt with such subjects as Hazel Scott, Jesse Owens, W.E.B. Dubois, Canada Lee, Booker T. Washington, Satchel Page, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, and Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. In 1950 it dealt with such subjects as the foundation of the Chicago Urban League, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Fats Waller, and Nat King Cole.

Richard Durham regularly found himself at odds with the station's censors. An episode on Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, in August 1831, was outright rejected. The censors edited the episode on Frederick Douglass so heavily that it would not filled the entire half hour of the show, and was the cuts were restored only after protest from Richard Durham and the African American cast.

Destination Freedom received a good deal of acclaim. Both Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois, and legendary radio producer Norman Corwin praised the show. It won an award from the Institute for Education by Radio at Ohio State University. Unfortunately, such praise could not save the show. The changing times, with the nation becoming more conservative in early Fifties, led to WMAQ withdrawing their support of Richard Durham. Richard Durham, who had not made any money from Destination Freedom, took a job with Don Ameche, writing material for the performer.

This was not the end of Destination Freedom. although the show as it continued might as well have been a different show. After being off the air since July 16 1950, Destination Freedom returned on October 15 1950. Its focus was no longer on Black history and the Black experience, but now on more generalized themes dealing with freedom in America. It ultimately ended its run on June 23 1951.

Destination Freedom was not simply unique in being written by a Black journalist and featuring a largely African American cast. It dealt with events from Black history and other aspects of the Black experience at a time when it was often controversial to do so. The show certainly did not shy away from an accurate portrayal of racism in the United States, either in the past or in the present. Unfortunately, much of the United States was not ready at the time for such discussion, something that played a role in its change in format. In the end, Destination Freedom was a pioneering show that examined topics rarely, if ever, explored by other radio shows of the time.

Friday, February 10, 2023

"Dangerous Type" by The Cars

This evening I am feeling a little under the weather. The changes in our temperatures are wreaking havoc with my sinuses. For that reason, in lieu of a full post, I will leave you with a song. Although it was never released as a single, "Dangerous Type," from the album Candy-O, has long been my favourite song by The Cars. I have always suspected it was about the Mona Lisa, given the reference to "museum directors" trying to "crack your crossword smile." Even if it isn't, it is a great song.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

Cooley High (1975)

When people think of Black cinema in the Seventies, they might be inclined to think of such Blaxploitation movies as Shaft (1971), Super Fly (1972), and Coffy (1973). While Blaxploitation movies might have dominated cinemas in the early to mid-Seventies, they were not the only Black movies being made. Cooley High (1975) is a coming of age movie set in Chicago in 1964 and has more in common with American Graffiti (1973) than Black Belt Jones (1974).

Cooley High (1975) centres on Preach (Glynn Turman), a young, aspiring writer growing up in the Near-North Side of Chicago, where he attends the real-life  Edwin Gilbert Cooley Vocational High School. The movie follows the lives of Preach, his best friend Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and his other friends as they try to navigate high school and their lives in general. Beyond Preach's dream of becoming a writer, Cooley High does not have a central plot, but is instead more a collection of vignettes. As might be expected given it is set in 1964, Motown songs figure prominently in its soundtrack.

Cooley High was based on the real life experiences of screenwriter Eric Monte. Eric Monte dreamed of becoming a writer, much like Preach in the film, and grew up in the  the Cabrini–Green housing project. He dropped out of high school in his junior year and enlisted in the United States Army. Once his service had ended, he hitch-hiked to Hollywood. Arriving there in 1968, he saw no success as a writer until one of his friends, actor Mike Evans was cast in the recurring role of Lionel Jefferson on All in the Family. Mike Evans persuaded Eric Monte to write a script that would expand his role as Lionel, and the script was accepted. He also co-created the sitcom Good Times. He would eventually sue CBS, Tandem Productions, producers Norman Lear and Jerry Perenchio for misappropriating his ideas for The Jeffersons and Good Times.

It was while Eric Monte was contributing dialogue to the animated film The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat (1974) that the film's producer Steve Krantz encouraged Mr. Monte to write a screenplay based on his experiences in Chicago. In an interview with The Los Angeles Times, he said that he wrote the screenplay to dispel misconceptions about growing up in the projects.  The resulting screenplay would be picked up by American International Pictures (AIP). Michael Schultz, who had directed the movies Together for Days (1972) and Honeybaby, Honeybaby (1974), was hired as the director of Cooley High.

As might be expected of a movie produced by AIP, Cooley High was shot on a limited budget and in a brief amount of time. It was budgeted at $750,000 and its shooting schedule was 25 days. Cooley High was shot at real-life locations in Chicago, including the Cabrini-Green Public Housing Projects, Lincoln Park Zoo, and Providence-St. Mel High School.

Cooley High proved to be a success. It received largely positive reviews and made $13 million at the box office. This success would lead to ABC planning a TV show based on the movie. ABC was not happy with the pilot, and it was retooled as the sitcom What's Happening!!. While Cooley High was set in 1964, What's Happening!! was set in the present day.

Much of the success of Cooley High may have been due to a nostalgia craze that lasted for much of the Seventies. While many people associate the Seventies nostalgia craze with nostalgia for the Fifties, it actually included other eras as well, among them the Twenties (the movie The Great Waldo Pepper), the Depression (the TV show The Waltons), and the post-war years (the TV show Ellery Queen). Among these eras that the Seventies nostalgia craze included was the early to mid-Sixties. American Graffiti (1974), Cooley High, and Animal House (1978) were all set in this era.

Of course, most of the success of Cooley High may have been that it was an utterly unique movie. In the Seventies movies centred on Black families or on Black teenagers were unknown. One almost never saw a film set in the projects, let alone one that treated the projects somewhat positively. Cooley High was then a singular film in that it dealt with Black teenagers growing up in the projects in 1964 in a sensitive, non-sensationalistic fashion. It is notable that Sounder (1972), which centred on Black sharecroppers in the Thirties, also met with success. Well done films about the Black experience were nearly non-existent in the Seventies, so that when one came out it was bound to find an audience.

Cooley High is a very well done movie. Eric Monte's script captures 1964 Chicago with sympathy and thoughtfulness. Michael Schultz's direction captures the energy of both the era and its young protagonists. The cast delivers great performances throughout the film, a remarkable feat given many of them were inexperienced (for Cynthia Davis, who played Preach's love interest Brenda, Cooley High was her first and last time in front of a camera). Together the script, direction, and acting give us characters we can care about, characters we can sympathize with, and even characters one can identify with. If Cooley High was a hit upon its release and continues to be popular, it is because it gave us characters that audiences can truly love.

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Godspeed Charles Kimbrough

Charles Kimbrough, who played stuffy anchorman Jim Dial on the classic sitcom Murphy Brown, died on January 11 2023 at the age of 86.

Charles Kimbrough was born on May 23 1936 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He attended Indiana University Bloomington, majoring in theatre and drama, and then received  a Masters of Fine Arts degree at Yale University's School of Drama. In 1964 he made his television debut, appearing on the soap opera Another World. In the late Sixties and early Seventies he was part of the the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre.

Charles Kimbrough made his debut on Broadway in the production Cop Out in 1969. He also appeared on Broadway in Company from 1970 to 1972. He was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical for Company.

In the Seventies he appeared on Broadway in Candide; Love for Love; The Rules of the Game; Same Time, Next Year; Secret Service; Boy Meets Girl; The Water Engine/Mr. Happiness; and One Night Stand. He made his movie debut in 1976 in The Front. During the Seventies he appeared in the films The Sentinel (1977), The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979), Starting Over (1979), and It's My Turn (1980). He guest starred on the TV show Kojak.

It was in 1988 that he began playing Jim Dial, the staid anchor of FYI on Murphy Brown. He appeared in every episode of the series. He was nominated for the Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series in 1990. In the Eighties he also guest starred on the shows Great Performances, All My Children, Tales of the Unexpected, American Playhouse, Spenser: For Hire, and Hothouse. He appeared in the movies Switching Channels (1988) and The Good Mother (1988). He appeared on Broadway in Sunday in the Park with George and Hay Fever.

In the Nineties Charles Kimbrough continued to appear on Murphy Brown. He guest starred on the TV shows Dinosaurs, Mighty Max, Piny and the Brain, Love Boat: The Next Wave, Hercules, Recess, Family Guy, The Angry Beavers, and Batman Beyond. He was the voice of Victor on the animated featured film The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

In the Naughts Mr. Kimbrough appeared on Broadway in Accent on Youth and The Merchant of Venice. He appeared in the movies The Wedding Planner (2001) and Marci X (2003). He guest starred on the TV show Ally McBeal. In the Teens he appeared on Broadway in a revival of Harvey. It was in 2018 that he reprised his role as Jim Dial on the revival of Murphy Brown.

Charles Kimbrough consistently gave great performances as Jim Dial on Murphy Brown, and it is shocking that he was nominated only once for an Emmy for the role. He should have not only been nominated many more times, but he should have won. Of course, he played many other roles besides Jim Dial. He had a highly successful career on Broadway, and made various guest appearances on television shows. In animated projects he played everything from the gargoyle Victor The Hunchback of Notre Dame to bumbling network executive Sandy Dreckman on the Pinky and the Brain episode "You'll Never Eat Food Pellets in This Town Again!." Charles Kimbrough was wonderful actor with great deal of versatility.

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Godspeed Melinda Dillon

Melinda Dillon, who appeared in the movie A Christmas Story (1983) and received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress for Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and Absence of Malice (1981), died on January 9 2023 at the age of 83.

Melinda Dillon was born on October 12 1939 in  Hope, Arkansas. Her mother divorced her father, and later she married an Army veteran. As a result Melinda Dillon grew up on several military bases. She graduated from high school in Chicago.  She was working as hat check girl at Second City in Chicago when she had to substitute for Barbara Harris, who was sick, in a sketch. This basically began her acting career.

After graduation from the Goodman School of Drama at the Art Institute of Chicago, Melinda Dillon moved to New York City. There she made her debut on Broadway in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. In the Sixties she guest starred on the TV shows The Defenders, East Side/West Side, Bonanza, and Storefront Lawyers. She appeared in the movie April Fools (1969). She appeared on Broadway in You Know I Can't Hear You When the Water is Running, A Way of Life, and Paul Sills' Story Theatre.

It was in the Seventies that she appeared in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), for which she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She also appeared in the movies Bound for Glory (1976), Slap Shot (1977), F.I.S.T. (1978), and The Muppet Movie (1979). She guest starred on the shows The Jeffersons and Sara. She appeared on Broadway in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

In the Eighties Melinda Dillon played the mother in the holiday classic A Christmas Story (1983) and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for Absence of Malice (1981). She also appeared in the movies Songwriter (1984), Harry and the Hendersons (1987), Spontaneous Combustion (1989), Staying Together (1989), and Captain America (1990). On television she appeared in the mini-series Space. She guest starred on the TV shows The Mississippi, Insight, and The Twilight Zone.

In the Nineties she appeared in the movies The Prince of Tide (1991), Sioux City (1994), To Wong Foo Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar (1995), How to Make an American Quilt (1995), The Effects of Magic (1998), and Magnolia (1999). On television she appeared in the HBO movie State of Emergency, for which she was nominated for a CableACE award for Supporting Actress in a Movie or Miniseries. She guest starred on the TV shows The Client, Picket Fences, and Tracey Takes On.

In the Naughts she appeared in the Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation A Painted House. She guest starred on the TV shows Judging Amy, The Lyon's Den, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Heartland. She appeared in the movies Cowboy Up (2001), Debating Robert Lee (2004), Adam & Steve (2005), and Reign Over Me (2007).

Melinda Dillon was an enormous talent. I have no doubt she will probably always be best remembered for A Christmas Story. This is not merely because of the film's ongoing popularity, but because she was so very good as Ralphie's sweet, fun loving mother who was still willing to wash Ralphie's mouth out with soap for saying a word that definitely wasn't "fudge." As iconic as Miss Dillon was in A Christmas Story, it is important to keep in mind that she played many, very different roles. She was lead character Tom Wingo's (Nick Nolte) suicidal sister Savannah in The Prince of Tides. In the HBO movie State of Emergency she was a woman who was overwrought at the death of her husband following an auto accident. In Absence of Malice she played Teresa Perrone, a devout Catholic who commits suicide after a newspaper story reveals she had an abortion. In To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything, Julie Newmar Miss Dillon played Merna, the operator of a beauty parlour who befriends the drag queens. Melinda Dillon was a wonderful actress who could play a wide variety of characters, from sweet, well-adjusted women to those bordering on a nervous breakdown.