Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year's Eve 1957

Auld Lang Syne

Tonight all across the world, Auld Lang Syne will be played as part of the New Year's celebration. Ever stop to wonder why it's played on New Year's Eve? Or for that matter what an Auld Lang Syne is? Well, wonder no more! Today I present Mr. Mike's Guide to Auld Lang Syne:

Old lang what?
Auld Lang Syne is a poem written by the Scottish poet Robert Burns in 1788. The literal translation of the title is "old long since" but colloquially it means "long, long ago" or "days gone by".

Why New Year's Eve?
The poem was set to the tune of an old Scottish folk song and it became the custom to sing it at Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year celebration). Since the song is about looking back to times past it seems particularly apropos to sing on the last night of the year.

OK, but why does the rest of the world sing it?
The tradition of singing the song spread throughout the British Isles. Canadian-born band leader Guy Lombardo first heard the song played by Scottish immigrants in his hometown of London, Ontario. When he and his brothers formed a band, the song became part of their New Year's Eve repertoire and was played for the first time on December 31, 1929 at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians performed at the hotel every New Year's Eve until 1959. They then switched venue to the Waldorf Astoria and continued to perform there until 1978 (a year after Guy's death). The New Year's Eve performances (first over radio and then television) were a tradition for half a century. Guy's version of Auld Lang Syne is still played in Time's Square when the ball drops at midnight.

I'd love to sing along!
There are a number of verses to the song and the lyrics vary; following are the most common first verse and chorus:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
And days of auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne
We'll take a cup of kindness yet
For auld lang syne

There you have it. Everything you need to know about Auld Lang Syne.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Let's Start The New Year Right...

Today Bing Crosby asks the musical question "How can our love go wrong if we start the New Year right?"

Written by Irving Berlin for the 1942 Paramount Pictures musical, Holiday Inn (starring Bing and Fred Astaire), Let's Start The New Year Right was released as the A side of White Christmas (also featured in the film).

Countdown to 2009

I can't believe it's been a week since my last blog; to paraphrase Bob Cratchit, "I was making rather merry". The operative word being was. I hope you're all having a wonderful holiday season (I know I am). After having most of last week off, I'm back at work and things are hectic; much busier than they have the right to be the week between Christmas and New Year's. Well anyway, I couldn't bear the guilt of not posting an entry (I'm a nice Italian Boy from Long Island raised by Catholic parents - I guilt very easily) so I'm offering the above photo of the great Louis Armstrong and Mr. New Year's Eve Guy Lombardo. I'm not sure what they're doing or where/when this photo was taken, but I find it interesting.

Speaking of Guy Lombardo, here's a clip from the 1950's of Guy and His Royal Canadians performing one of their biggest hits, Boo Hoo...

I plan on posting more about Guy (a fellow - former Long Island resident) as the week progresses (depending on how you feel about long-dead big band leaders, you may want to avoid my blog until the beginning of January - you have been warned).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Merry Christmas from Perry Como

My Mother's favorite performer was the popular somnambulant singer, Perry Como. During December in the 1960's, when I wasn't playing Christmas with the Chipmunks, Mom was listening to Perry Como Sings Merry Christmas Music. To this day, it's hard for me to hear Mr. C. sing without thinking of Christmas. Today I offer a clip from Perry's 1958 Christmas Special. This one's for you, Mom.

Monday, December 22, 2008

It's A Wonderful Life...The Ending

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the effect that It's A Wonderful Life has on yours truly; no matter how often I watch this movie (and to be honest, I lost track long ago), I still get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye during the final moments. Today I present a clip of the final nine minutes of the film. I suppose you could skip ahead to the five minute mark, but it won't hurt to watch the whole thing - it might even do your soul some good.

In case you've been living in a cave and have never heard of the movie, I'll set it up for you. George Bailey, played by James Stewart, is a hard working family man who has sacrificed for others his whole life. On Christmas Eve he becomes despondent (I won't go into details but it involves the loss of $8000 through no fault of his own). He starts to think the world would be better off had he never been born. Enter the apprentice angel Clarence who shows George exactly what the world would be like had he never been in it (among the changes: his war hero brother Harry died as a child since big brother George wasn't around to save him from drowing; his four children were never born; his beloved town of Bedford Falls has become the sleezy, seedy town of Potterville). George begins to realize the effect he's had on the world around him. The clip starts at the scene where George realizes his wife Mary, played by Donna Reed, doesn't recognize him.

Yep, it happened again - I've got the sniffles and tears are rolling down my cheeks as I type this. Frank Capra really knew how to tug at the old heart strings, didn't he?

I'd just like to point out some of the many wonderful character actors in this film. That's the great Lionel Barrymore as Mr. Potter, the film's villain ("Happy New Year to you, in jail"). One of my favorites is Lillian Randolph who plays Annie ("I've been saving this money for a divorce if ever I get a hysband..."). Fans of Old Time Radio will recognize her as Birdie, the housekeeper on (my favorite OTR show) The Great Gildersleeve.

A few actors who are not in this scene are:

Henry Travers as Clarence the Angel

great Sheldon Leonard as Nick the bartender.

The ubiquitous Charles Lane (perennial grumpy old man of countless TV shows).

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas with Alvin and the Chipmunks

Back when I was a just a wee lad, I absolutely adored Alvin and the Chipmunks. I'm talking about the original version created by Ross Bagdasarian in the late 50's, not the 1980's version and not the 2007 Jason Lee live action film. I loved watching repeats of the early 1960's cartoon The Alvin Show; I had all of their albums (including The Chipmunks See Doctor Doolittle and The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles,) and my pre-adolescent Yuletide was not complete unless I listened to Christmas with the Chipmunks (Volumes 1 and 2) at least 100 times. This morning I received an early Christmas present courtesy of YouTube; a clip from the aforementioned Alvin Show featuring Alvin, Simon, Theodore and David Seville (all voiced by Bagdasarian) performing The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late), the 1958 Billboard # 1 hit (the only Christmas song to reach # 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles Chart). I, in turn, offer it to you for your Yuletide enjoyment.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Christmas Music Videos

I don't know whether it's because I'm too fickle or too lazy, but I am always hard pressed when asked to name my favorite ________ (fill in the blank - movie, song, TV show etc). I'm OK with listing favorites, as long as I don't have to rank them. Here, in no particular order, is a list of some of my favorite Christmas Music Videos of the past couple of decades:

Christmas Is The Time To Say I Love You - Bill Squire
Back in the early days of MTV, when the "M" stood for music (as opposed to mundane, moronic, miserable, mighty bad etc) the music channel would present an annual Christmas video featuring a musician performing a Christmas song with the entire MTV "family" in attendance. The performers were a diverse group including Joe "King" Carrasco, George Thorogood and The Monkees. The very first of these from 1981 featured Billy Squire. It's very low key; no special effects or fancy staging. It's basically everyone sitting around and swaying to the music as Billy Squire plays the guitar and sings. Why I like this video: It appeals to my sense of nostalgia. The original MTV VJs are there - cool J.J. Jackson, funny Alan Hunter, hip Mark Goodman, cute-as-a-button Martha Quinn and sexy Nina Blackwood. It's also a sweet song with a nice message.

Christmas In Hollis - Run-D.M.C.
I'm a big fan of old school rap (I've been known to bust out Sugar Hill Gang's Rapper's Delight at the most inappropriate times), and Run-D.M.C. is at the top of my list. Christmas In Hollis was featured in 1987's A Very Special Christmas, the first in a series of compilation albums produced to benefit The Special Olympics. Why I like this video: Mischievous elves, dogs with antlers, Santa leaving $1000,000 in cash, cheesy special effects and a cool beat courtesy of the late Jason Jam-Master Jay Mizell - what's not to love?

Wonderful Christmas Time - Paul McCartney
From 1979, another low key video featuring Paul, Linda and the band singing, dancing and generally having fun. Why I like this video - I'm a big fan of the Beatles, I like this song, and I'm a sucker for primitive special effects.

All I Want For Christmas Is You - Mariah Carey
Proving that I am one of the gayest straight men on the planet, my final video is this black and white version of Mariah's 1994 hit. Why I like this video- Mini skirts, go-go boots and a black and white retro setting - do I really need to explain further?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Happy Birthday, Dear Ludwig..."

Ludwig van Beethoven: December 16, 1770 - March 26, 1827

(click to enlarge)

Originally published Sunday, December 16, 1962

(Courtesy of Fantagraphics' excellent The Complete Peanuts 1961-1962)

How was your Beethoven Party?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

"Hey Pa, let's make a Chirstmas Album!"

Christmas with the Cartwrights

Direct from 1963 we bring you one of the most bizarre Christmas albums ever recorded; Christmas on the Ponderosa. If you're reading this blog you probably don't need an introduction to Bonanza, the the television western which ran from 1959-1973. The series was a standout during a time when Westerns predominated the television landscape and was in the top 5 rated TV programs for 9 of the 14 seasons it aired (reaching number # 1 for 3 of those seasons). It was a merchandising powerhouse that spawned Ponderosa and Bonanza steakhouses, comic books, action figures, lunch boxes, assorted toys and even a Ponderosa theme park in Lake Tahoe, NV. After the original series ended, there were three TV movies and a short-lived "prequel" series.

With dialogue intermixed with songs, this album plays like a recording of a Bonanza Christmas Variety Show (which unfortunately does not exist). Original cast members, Lorne Greene (patriarch Ben Cartwright), Dan Blocker (middle son Hoss) and Michael Landon (youngest son Little Joe), lend their voices to song and dialogue. Pernell Roberts, who played eldest son Adam. did not take part in the recording session (Ben explains that "he's in St Joe and won't be home until after New Year's") fortunately, they flashback to last year's Christmas party where Adam sang The New Born King (and insert a previously recorded song). Assorted actors playing friends and neighbors join in the party along with The Ken Darby Singers to add some professional voices to the mix (FYI Ken Darby was an Oscar and Grammy Award winning composer, arranger and conductor who wrote the Elvis Presley hit Love Me Tender).

If you're a fan of Bonanza (such as yours truly; among the traits I inherited from my Dad is a love of this show), this album is a must-have. There are some Christmas standards (Hark! The Herald Angles Sing; Deck the Halls; Oh Come, All Ye Faithful and Jingle Bells) as well as some not-so traditional tunes (Lorne Greene performs Stuck In The Chimney with a Swedish accent and Michael Landon tells how Santa Got Lost in Texas). Fortunately, it's still in circulation and a CD can be ordered from Amazon for a mere $6.98. Go out and buy it immediately.

Now, as an added blog bonus, here's a mid-60's recording of the great Johnny Cash performing the theme from Bonanza.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008


This past weekend we had the first snow of the season. It was only a dusting, but for a brief while big fat, wet flakes were falling fast and hard and it looked like we might have an early blizzard. Fortunately it didn't last long. Unfortunately, the wind and unseasonably-cold temperatures did. Yesterday, several thousand people in my little part of the world were without power for about eight hours. My wife, son and dogs went to my mother-in-law's house and I headed off to work; both locations being unaffected by the outage.

But I digress. Speaking of snow. Here's a video clip to warm your Tuesday. Irving Berlin's paean to Snow from the 1954 hit musical White Christmas starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen.

I love the movie and I love this number in particular. The song is set in the club car of an express train heading north from Florida. I've always had an inexplicable love of trains and one of the great regrets of my life is that I wasn't alive to travel by train during the golden age of passenger rail travel. I suppose it appeals to the romantic in me. Bing, Danny and the girls make snow seem so appealing, don't they? It's a sweet song, not one of Irving's best, but delivered with such sincerity that you can't help but want to run out and frolic in the snow.

Of course, life is always more fun in old Hollywood musicals. The truth of the matter is that I hate winter and snow in particular. Sure, there is great beauty in a country landscape the morning after a snowstorm; the sunshine reflecting off the snow-covered trees, branches dripping with ice cicles. And I'll admit there are a few snow-related activites that I begrudgingly enjoy (sledding, snowball fights, building snowmen and snow forts with my son). And thanks to Irving Berlin, I've been brainwashed into longing for a white Christmas. Still, if I had my way, winter would exit December 26 and take all traces of snow with it. Living in New England as I do, it's unlikely that will ever happen even with Global Warming (speaking of which - as I write this it is 7 degrees outside - damn your lies, Al Gore).

Friday, December 5, 2008

We need a little Christmas...

As cynical and sarcastic as I am 11 months of the year, when it comes to Christmas, I'm as merry as a school boy and as giddy as a drunken man (to paraphrase the post-conversion Scrooge). I love the cheesy music and the kitschy decorations and the same tired movies and television specials I've watched countless times. I love the traditions and the memories and festive yuletide cheer. Sure, the reality of the season often doesn't match the hype, and the joy is in the build up more so than the actual day, but none of that matters. Yes, it's a time of crass commercialism, but I choose to believe that people really are kinder and more caring this time of year (statistics prove that in the United States at least, the majority of annual charitable donations are made in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day).

To prove what a sentimental slob I am about the holiday, I freely and publicly admit this: I still get choked up during the closing moments of It's A Wonderful Life when Harry Bailey raises his glass and offers this toast "To my big brother George, the richest man in town" (cue assembled cast singing Auld Lang Syne). Even though I know it's coming, I still weep like a baby.

To kick off the Yuletide festivities here at the Museum, I present a bit of holiday kitsch. Here's a husky-voiced Lucille Ball performing We Need A Little Christmas from the the 1974 film version of Jerry Herman's hit musical Mame:

I am second to none in my admiration of Lucille Ball's prowess as a comedienne, and I Love Lucy is still one of my favorite all-time TV shows (and proving it's appeal is timeless, my 10 year-old son Connor loves it also). However, that performance falls in the "so bad it's good" category. And how creepy is that Santa Claus mask that Lucy wears? Still, I chose that video for it's sentiment as much as it's kitsch value (here at the Museum, we love kitsch almost as much as we love Christmas).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

She Who Must Be Obeyed

I often refer to my wife as "She Who Must Be Obeyed". I stole that particular term of endearment from one of my favorite literary characters, John Mortimer's British barrister Horace Rumpole. It's the nickname by which Horace often refers to his wife, Hilda. Horace, in turn, gets the term from British adventure novelist H. Rider Haggard's 19th century serial She: A History of Adventure. The She of the title was an immortal queen of a lost African civilization. "She" is short for "she who must be obeyed".

I bring this up because today She - I mean Kim, celebrates her birthday. I often make the obligatory married guy bashing marriage jokes, but the truth is, the married part of my life far outweighs my years of bachelorhood in terms happiness. I attribute this to Kim and not to the institution of marriage (which I still have my doubts about). I'm the first to admit that I'm not the easiest person to get along with (of course, by admitting this failing, it makes it OK). Kim, however, is the ideal partner; she tells me to shut up when I'm being a jerk (as infrequent as that may be); she's always supportive; she thinks I'm a great writer; and she is an incredible mom. Over the course of our marriage she has developed into my best friend. Obviously I love her, but equally important, I like her. She gives me a strange look whenever I tell her that, but being in love and really liking someone don't often go hand in hand. Of course we have our differences, and at times we're like The Odd Couple (I won't tell you which of us is Felix and which is Oscar - at least not today), but I'm lucky to have her for a partner.

How much do I love my wife? Well, I agreed to an addition to the menagerie; an Italian Greyhound puppy which Kim named Isabella (the perfect companion for Francesca our cat; maybe we should re-name the golden retriever Caruso instead of Casey, but it would only confuse him if we changed it now). Since Casey is very much my dog, Kim has been yearning for a pet she could call her own. For months whenever we've been near a pet store, she forced me to go in and play with the Italian Greyhound (if there was one). While I admit they're cute, they were not my idea of what constitutes a dog. Kim wanted a lap dog, but not one of those annoying yippee or foo foo dogs. Enter Isabella.

As an early birthday present I finally relented (translation -Kim caught me at a weak moment) . When we brought Isabella (Bella for short) home she was just over 3 lbs. A month later she's doubled in size to a scale-shattering 6 lbs. Her maximum weight is in the 9-15 lb range. I have to admit I've grown very fond of the little rug rat, and Casey adores her; its quite the sight to watch the two of them play. Casey is around 80 lbs and his head is the size of Bella's entire body, but he is so gentle with her it's amazing. OK, there was the time when they were playing tug of war with a stuffed animal and Casey sent Bella flying across the room, but that was an isolated incident. Even Francesca (or Frank as we gender-challenged folks like to call her) has finally gotten used to the baby (for the first week Frank kept a cautious distance; probably not sure if Bella was a member of the rodent family). Now, when she's in the mood (being a cat she is very much an independent creature), she will deign to play "tag" with her two canine siblings.

I'll admit that this has been pretty much a stream of consciousness sort of blog. I suppose the point of it is Happy Birthday, Sweetie!

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Assorted Stuff

Viral Crud, Roman Poets and Andy Williams

Lost Weekend 2008
The past six days have been a blur of sorts; hours of sleep punctuated by periods of coughing, sneezing, shivering, sweltering and just plain being miserable. Finally, under the combined weight of my wife and mother-in-law's nagging, I went to the ER where I was poked, prodded, swabbed and tested. All of the tests came back negative. The prognosis of the ER Doctor? I have some type of "viral crud". I can expect to be better in one to two weeks (talk about non-specific diagnoses). Well, I am finally feeling well enough to focus (at least temporarily). I did manage to go to work for a few hours today. The upside to all this is that I've had absolutely no appetite and have lost six pounds in a week. Mom was right - there is a sunny side to every situation.

December already.
Here is it is December 3. Can you believe it? I suppose it would be trite to remark about how time flies etc. Still, it does seem to move faster the older I get. By the way - did you know that the phrase "tempus fugit" is attributed to the Roman poet Vergil? Miss Higgins, my high school Latin teacher, would be proud of me.

Andy Williams
The laid back singer turned 81 today. Did anyone see him "perform" during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade? I suppose lip synching to a 40 year old version of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year constitutes a performance. Hell, the man is in his ninth decade on Earth and still going strong. He deserves props just for that.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving 2008

Here in New England there is an old tradition in which five kernels of corn are placed at each setting on the Thanksgiving table in remembrance of those less fortunate and as a wish for prosperity in the coming year. This tradition has its source in the struggles of the Pilgrims to survive those first long winters in the New World; at times they were forced to subsist on a daily ration of five kernels of corn. By placing the kernels at a table overflowing with abundance, we remind ourselves of those things for which we are most grateful, and that we should share our good fortune with others.

Today is the start of the month-long orgy of consumerism and over-indulgence known as The Holidays. As we rush about, shopping and eating and drinking and decorating, we should try to take a few minutes to remember what's really important - the people in our lives who are our source of strength and happiness and yes, at times aggravation (or agita as my Mom used to say).

I love a parade
Back when I was trapped in retail hell, one of the department stores I worked for was R.H. Macy's, who's annual parade is as much a part of Thanksgiving as turkey and cranberry sauce. Many of the balloon handlers, clowns and assorted costumed float characters are drawn from the ranks of Macy's employees. I'd like to say that I participated in at least one parade, but alas I didn't. Still, watching the parade has been a family tradition since I was a wee lad (and continues with my own family; as I write this Connor and Kim are watching it). Writing this it occurrs to me that I've never actually sat down and watched an entire parade from start to finish. Still it wouldn't be Thanksgiving without the background noise of this holiday event. Below is an ad from the November 27, 1924 New York Herald Tribune announcing the very first Macy's Thanksgiving Parade held exactly 84 years ago today.

Thank you, Squanto (and you too, Samoset)
History tells us that the first Thanksgiving, held during the autumn of 1621, was made possible in part through the beneficence of Tisqantum aka Squanto, the surviving member of the Pawtuxet Indians. For the Pilgrims he acted as wilderness guide, teacher and interpreter. He mediated a peace treaty with the Wampanoag Indians and his assistance helped the Pilgrims survive. Yet it was another Native American, an Abenaki Indian named Samoset, who was the first to encounter the Mayflower's passengers. Samoset spoke limited English, and it was he who introduced the Pilgrims to Squanto, who had spent several years in England and was much more fluent in their language.

Holiday for Drumsticks
Daffy Duck and Thomas Turkey starring in the 1949 Warner Brothers cartoon, Holiday for Drumsticks. Directed by Arthur Davis with voice characterizations by the great Mel Blanc (of course), here's a small Thanksgiving present from me to you. Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Viva Las Vegas!

Because nothing says "Happy Thanksgiving" like Elvis Presley and Las Vegas Showgirls...

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Happy Birthday, Lois Lane

Noel Neill turns 88 today.

Between catching up on things at work and getting ready for the holidays at home, I've been ridiculously busy this week; however, I had to take a minute to wish a happy birthday to Noel Neill, the first actress to portray Lois Lane on film. She appeared as Superman's girlfriend opposite Kirk Allyn in the Columbia serials Superman (1948) and Atom Man Vs Superman (1950) and then reprised the role opposite George Reeves in the 1950's TV classic The Adventures of Superman (beginning with the second season). To a generation of Superman fans, she was Lois Lane.

Noel Neill Fun Fact: according to Larry Thomas Ward, author of Truth, Justice, & The American Way: The Life And Times Of Noel Neill, The Original Lois Lane, the number 2 pin-up girl among WWII GIs (after Betty Grable) was Noel Neill.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Conspiracy Theories

45 years ago today, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald. Kennedy, the youngest man ever elected President, was 46. Oswald fired three bullets from a sixth floor window of the Texas School Book Depository as the President's motorcade passed through Dealy Plaza in Dallas TX. One bullet missed. A second bullet struck JFK, passed through his throat and hit Texas Governor John Connally. The third bullet was a fatal head shot.

Over the past four and a half decades, an incredible list of theories has arisen claiming that Kennedy's death was the result of some sort of conspiracy involving (among others) the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia, Cuba, USSR, the Military-Industrial Complex, the Federal Reserve, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and J. Edgar Hoover. It's a veritable smorgasbord of conspiracies; choose just about any combination and you'll find someone who adamantly believes it.

A litany of phrases associated with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories has entered into our lexicon: the Magic Bullet (sometimes called the Single Bullet), The Grassy knoll, the Three Tramps, the Second Gunman, the Lone Gunman, etc.

In his 2007 book Reclaiming History, Vincent Bugliosi, the famous prosecutor and author, looks at the entire assassination in minute detail. Almost half of the 1600 page tome is an examination and refutation of the various conspiracy theories including a look at some of the other 82 alleged assassins. It is an exhaustive and intricately researched work (including a separate CD containing end notes and source notes) and is mandatory reading for anyone with a serious interest in the subject.

Why do 75% of those surveyed believe there was some type of conspiracy behind the JFK Assassination? Aside from those suffering from Pathological Skepticism, I see three main reasons :
  1. Americans have grown suspicious of authority and jaded with government. Events over the past four decades prove that those in power will distort the truth and lie to suit their own ends. Starting with George W Bush's claim about WMDs in Iraq it is easy to draw a line of suspicion backwards to Richard Nixon and Watergate and from there further back to disbelief in the findings of the Warren Commission.

  2. If you lie with enough conviction and frequency, people will eventually believe you. Most of the conspiracy theories are based on distortions of truth, errors in analysis, sloppy research and outright lies.

  3. For many, John F. Kennedy was the symbol of a new era; call it Camelot or the New Frontier. He was young, smart, photogenic and he inspired a generation of Americans. He was a hero and we need our heroes to die in heroic ways; their deaths should have meaning. In short, we don't want them to be the random acts of lone gunmen; it doesn't fit into our perception of how things works.
We'll never know how different the World would have been had JFK lived to complete his first term and perhaps serve a second. Still, there is no doubt that the events of that sunny autumn day in Dallas affected our innocence. Some people just can't accept the utter randomness of it all.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

M-I-C-K-E-Y Mouse

I couldn't let today pass without mentioning my favorite corporate spokesmouse. As the good people at Disney measure these things, Mickey Mouse turns 80 years-old today. That's because Steamboat Willie, the first publicly released cartoon featuring the Mouse opened on this date in 1928. It was actually the third Mickey Mouse animated short . What were the first two? I'm glad you asked...

Plane Crazy -The first cartoon featuring Mickey Mouse was this silent short created in early 1928. Mickey, inspired by All-American hero and aviator Charles Lindbergh decides to build his own airplane and take Minnie for a ride. Charles Lindbergh Fun Fact: During his famous 1927 solo Trans-Atlantic flight, Lucky Lindy took along a stuffed Felix the Cat doll for company. Felix the Cat Fun Fact: The Feisty Cat actually has a cameo appearance in Mickey's debut film: he's driving a car that is hit by Mickey's plane (just goes to show you shouldn't give a pilot's license to a Mouse).

The Gallopin' Gaucho - Poor Walt couldn't find a distributor for Plane Crazy but that didn't stop him and partner Ube Iwerks from creating this second Mickey short in the summer of 1928. Like it's predecessor, it was a silent film. As the title suggests, it features Mickey and company in a South of the Border adventure.

Steamboat Willie -The third time was the charm for Disney (or perhaps it was the introduction of synchronized sound that helped make this one a success). Mickey's early nemesis, the anthropomorphic cat Pete, makes his second appearance (following Gaucho). The film's title is a parody of Steamboat Bill Jr., a 1928 silent comedy starring Buster Keaton as a steamboat captain.

Following the success of Steamboat Willie, sound was added to the first two Mickey cartoons and they were released to much fanfare. Disney's genius for marketing and distribution combined with innovative animation techniques made Mickey Mouse and friends a 20th Century phenomenon and helped create a multi-media empire. I'll leave it to others to argue the pros and cons of the Walt Disney Company, today is a celebration of the mouse who started it all (to paraphrase Walt).

Mickey has evolved since these early appearances and his modern, slick corporate shill persona is unrecognizable from his primitive beginnings. Still, one thing has remained consistent; his appeal to children. I've seen it in my own son; as a toddler, Connor's favorite toy was a stuffed Mickey Mouse. It was his constant companion in good times and bad and I know he will never part with it (he's now 10). As for this writer, the early spunky, iconoclastic version will always be my favorite.

Happy Birthday, you little bastard!

Monday, November 17, 2008

"I'm not a crook"

November 17, 1973

35 years ago today, deeply embroiled in the Watergate Scandal, President Richard Nixon appeared in a nationally televised press conference and uttered the sentence that has become his epithet.

It also provided a catch phrase for Nixon impressionists and impersonators the world over.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Bond, Jimmy Bond?

With Quantum of Solace, the latest James Bond, film opening this weekend, it seems like a good time to take a look at the character and the actors who did and didn't play him.

Hoagy Carmichael - In the very first Bond novel, Casino Royale, author Ian Fleming describes Bond as resembling this American composer, singer, pianist and actor. Bond's love interest Vesper Lynd remarks "Bond reminds me rather of Hoagy Carmichael, but there is something cold and ruthless." In his third Bond novel, Moonraker, Fleming again has a character note the resemblance describing Bond in this way: "Rather like Hoagy Carmichael in a way. That black hair falling down over the right eyebrow. Much the same bones. But there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold" Hoagy Carmichael Fun Fact: His most famous songs, Stardust and Heart and Soul are two of the most recorded American songs in history (who keeps track of this stuff?).

Barry Nelson - He is the first actor (and so far the only American) to portray Fleming's secret agent. He appeared as American agent Jimmy Bond in a 1954 adaptation of Casino Royale for the Television anthology series Climax! I own this but can't bring myself to watch it.

Sean Connery - this Scottish actor was the first to portray Bond on the big screen, and to many (including this writer), the best. However, it has recently come to light that he was not Fleming's original choice. In fact, the author had a list of seven actors who he wanted to play his hero in Dr No and Connery wasn't included. Reportedly, Connery's performance impressed Fleming and in later Bond novels he gives 007 Scottish ancestry.

Ian Fleming's top seven choices to portray James Bond on film: Let's take a look at who they were:

Cary Grant - the suave, debonair star was Fleming's top choice. He doesn't really resemble the author's description of the character though. Anyway - Grant was too big a star and too expensive.

David Niven - the equally suave British actor turned down the role because he felt he was too old (he was 51 when Dr. No began filming). He ended up playing the character in the 1967 comedy adaptation of Casino Royale.

Patrick McGoohan - this American-born actor (who spent most of his life in the UK) was currently starring in the British TV series Danger Man (known as Secret Agent here in the US) and turned down the offer to play 007. A few years later he co-created and starred in the cult classic spy-drama The Prisoner.

Musical Interlude: Speaking of Secret Agent, when it was shown in the USA, a nifty new theme song by singer-songwriter Johnny Rivers was added. Here's Rivers lip-syncing the song on some mid-60's American Bandstand clone.

Richard Burton - the British actor had just won a Tony Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of King Arthur in the musical Camelot. In 1965 he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in the film version of John Le Carre's Cold War drama The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. I wonder if Liz Taylor would have replaced Ursula Andress as Honey Ryder?

Rex Harrison - I'm second to none in admiration for this talented British actor, but Dr Doolittle or Henry Higgins as 007? It seems an odd choice today, doesn't it?

Stewart Granger - the British actor was a popular leading man at the time and had even played H. Rider Haggard's famous hero Allan Quatermain in King Solomon's Mines. He might have made a decent Bond.

There you have it the actors who might have been Bond. Sean Connery was chosen and the rest is history.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd...

Because there's something just so gosh-darn irresistible about murderous barbers and human flesh-filled meat pies...

The above clip is from the 1982 production of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the 1979 Tony Award-winning musical by Stephen Sondheim (music and lyrics) and Hugh Wheeler (book).

The character of Sweeney Todd first appeared in The String of Pearls: A Romance, a nineteenth century penny dreadful. Originally, Todd was a barber who murdered his customers for their money (his preferred method was by slitting their throats with a straight razor). In 1973 playwright Christopher Bond gave Todd a tragic back story and turned him into a somewhat sympathetic character motivated by revenge rather than greed. The Sondheim musical is based upon Bond's play.

Todd's accomplice, Mrs. Lovett, the pie shop proprietress who uses her pies to dispose of his victims (said pies being very popular with her unsuspecting customers) was there from the beginning. Later versions have her develop a crush on the barber, but she remains pretty much the same.

Since his first appearance over 160 years ago, the Demon Barber has become a multi-media phenomenon appearing on stage (drama and musical), film (at least 5 versions including 2 silents), television (3 separate productions), radio (in a 1947 CBC dramatization and as a character in an episode of The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), and dance (in a 1959 performance by The Royal Ballet Company). He even appeared in the pages of a comic book (by Neil Gaiman).

The most recent version is Tim Burton's 2007 film adaptation of the Sondheim musical starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. I finally saw this over the weekend and enjoyed it more than I expected; I'd seen the original Broadway production back when the world was young and was a bit hesitant. I had no idea that Depp could sing - and he has a surprisingly powerful voice (is there anything he can't do?). At times it over-shadowed Carter's softer voice, but both were excellent in their roles. My main complaint was that Burton removed my favorite number, The Ballad of Sweeney Todd.

Some speculate that Sweeney Todd was based on a real person, but researchers are doubtful. Even so, given the opportunity to be shaved by a barber, I've politely refused. Likewise, I find myself disinclined towards meat pies.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bugtussle: Fact or Fiction?

This afternoon Cindy, my co-worker and loyal blog reader, asked me to settle a bet she had with her significant other Paul, about where the Clampetts of Beverly Hillbillies fame originated. The answer, of course, is Bugtussle (for the record, Paul was right). To be honest, I didn't know for sure that they were from Bugtussle. I only remembered that the Clampetts often referred to a town by that name back home. Other towns mentioned include Oxford AK (remember the episode where Jethro proudly proclaimed he went to school at Oxford?), Sibley, Silver Dollar City, Eureka Springs, Hooterville and Pixley (the last two played an important role in producer Paul Henning's other rural comedies Petticoat Junction and Green Acres.

I decided to do some research and it turns out that Bugtussle (or a variation thereof) is the name of at least three real towns:

Bugtussle, Oklahoma

Bugtussle Kentucky

Bug Tussle, Alabama

Oxford, AK, Eureka Springs, AK and Sibley, MO are real too. Silver Dollar City is a theme park in Branson, MO (Paul Henning was a native of Independence, MO and apparently referenced real places in Missouri and Arkansas.). I also found a Pixley in California and Illinois. I'm pretty sure that Hooterville is not real.

This ends today's geography lesson. Cindy, you need to watch more classic television.

Monday, November 10, 2008

November 10th Birthdays


I hadn't intended on actually doing a blog about today's birthdays; confession time - birthdays are my fall back when I can't think of anything else to write about (unless of course it's the birthday of a Pop Culture Icon). Nevertheless, the shear number of famous people born today makes it impossible for me not to make note of it:

Winston Churchill - my favorite British Prime Minister

Claude Rains - Diminutive, one-eyed English actor.

Mabel Normand - Silent movie comedy star who's affair with silent movie director Mack Sennett is the stuff of legend (at least it is among silent movie buffs).

Billy May - composer, arranger and musician responsible for some of Sinatra's best recordings

Russell Johnson - Professor Roy Hinkley of Gilligan's Island fame, of course. Here's something I didn't know - Johnson is a real life war hero. As a WWII Bombardier he flew 44 combat missions, was shot down, earned a Purple Heart and an assortment of other Medals.

Richard Burton - Welsh stage and file actor. Random Richard Burton facts: He married Elizabeth Taylor twice; he was nominated 7 times for an Academy Award and never won (making him second behind Peter O'Toole in that dubious category). In 1974 he was permanently banned from BBC productions for questioning the sanity of Winston Churchill and other British leaders during WWII. He was an insomniac and alcoholic.

Roy Scheider - American actor (Jaws, The French Connection, All That Jazz).

Kyu Sakamoto - Japanese singer who's 1963 hit Sukiyaki was Number 1 on the Billboard Pop Charts for three weeks (the first and only song sung entirely in Japanese to do so).

Saxby Chambliss - current senior U.S. Senator from Georgia. Last week, he was up for re-election and since all of the candidates received less than 50% of the vote, a special run-off election is going to be held in December.

Tim Rice - Award-winning English lyricist (his work includes Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Chess, Aladdin and The Lion King).

Donna Fargo - American Country music singer best known for such sappy hits as The Happiest Girl in the Whole USA and Funny Face.

Vincent Schiavelli - American actor whose work includes the role of Mr. Vargas the science teacher from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and the Subway Spirit in Ghost.

Ann Reinking - American actress, dancer and choreographer (and one-time muse to Bob Fosse).

Sinbad - American actor and comedian, born David Adkins. He was named Worst Comedian in History by Maxim Magazine, but also was ranked 78th on Comedy Central's list of 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comedians. He also made California's list of Top 250 Delinquent Tax Payers (coming in at a whopping $2,100,000!)

Mackenzie Phillips - American actress (One Day at a Time) and daughter of Mamas and Papas founder John Phillips. Mckenzie Phillips fun fact: Scott Mackenzie who's 1967 hit San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair) became a hippie anthem in the Summer of Love, was born Philip Blondheim; he borrowed his stage name in part from Mackenzie Phillips.

Neil Gaiman - English author of comics, graphic novels, screenplays and novels (Sandman, Neverwhere, American Gods, Good Omens, Stardust...)

Tracy Morgan - American actor and comedian (SNL, The Tracy Morgan Show, 30 Rock).

Ellen Pompeo -American actress, star of the medical drama Grey's Anatomy.

Warren G - American rapper.

Brittany Murphy - American actress (Sin City; Clueless; Girl, Interrupted; Happy Feet).

Check out the list of people who died on November 10:

Norman Mailer - American novelist, essayist etc etc. I've never read any of Mailer's works from start to finish. The last time I tried was with his 1983 novel Ancient Evenings (I think it was the scene where a young girl performs fellatio on her grandfather that turned me off)

Jack Palance - Rugged, American movie actor known for his tough guy roles (and for the one-handed push ups he performed at the age of 73 as part of his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor during the 1992 Oscars).

Diana Coupland - British actress best known to fans of British comedy as Jean Abbott on Bless This House.

Ken Kesey - American author (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest), Counter Culture figure, and Merry Prankster.

Carmen McRae - Multiple Grammy-winning Jazz singer, composer, pianist and actress.

Chuck Connors - American actor and athlete best remembered for his starring role in the TV Westerns The Rifleman and Branded. My personal favorite Chuck Connors role was the appearance he made on The Adventures of Superman; he played a character named Sylvester J. Superman.

Leonid Brezhned - Leader of the USSR who helped usher in the era of detente.

Jimmy Dodd - MC of the 1950's TV Classic The Mickey Mouse Club.

J is for Julie

Julie Adams - American "B" movie and TV actress, best remembered for being the love interest of an especially horny Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Julie Andrews - What's not to love about Mary Poppins, Eliza Doolittle and Guinevere? (We'll just forget all about "The Sound of Music".)

Julie Hagerty - American stage, screen and TV actress. I especially loved her as stewardess Elaine Dickenson in Airplane! "There's no reason to become alarmed, and we hope you'll enjoy the rest of your flight. By the way, is there anyone on board who knows how to fly a plane?"

Julie Harris - Multiple (five Tonys and three Emmys) award winning stage, screen and TV actress. My favorite Julie Harris movie is The Haunting, Robert Wise's 1963 film version of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House.

Julie Kavner - American actress best known as the voice of Marge Simpson (and her sisters, mother and aunt), and as Brenda Morgenstern in the 70's spin-off comedy Rhoda.

Julie London - Sultry American singer and actress. Her version of Cry Me A River has been known to make grown men weep and turn to Jello. Don't believe me? Check out Julie's cameo in the 1956 musical-comedy The Girl Can't Help It. Poor Tom Ewell never had a chance...

Julie Madison - Bruce Wayne's (aka Batman - as if you didn't know) first comic book girlfriend made her initial appearance all the way back in 1939.

Julie Newmar - Hands down, my all time favorite Catwoman and the runner-up in the 1966 Hottest TV Actress Contest. First place goes to Diana Rigg (aka Emma Peel), of course.

Julie Schwartz - my all-time favorite comic book editor and one of the chief architects of the super-hero revival of the mid 1950s.

Jule Styne - American songwriter/composer responsible for such hits as Gypsy, Bells are Ringing, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Peter Pan, Funny Girl, and most importantly, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Albert Camus

Today's Birthday Boy...

"Those who write clearly have readers, those who write obscurely have commentators."

I wonder what he would have thought about bloggers?