Saturday, December 30, 2017

Vital Viewing (Gregorian Calender Edition)

                                                       You are cordially invited to attend


Free Food!

Free Drinks!!

Free Lavatory!!!

 State of the art design, too!

Live Entertainment! 



(Don't worry. They take requests.)

There will be a dance floor! 

 (Management will not be to blame if your date leaves without you.)

If your birthday falls on December 31, you get in at half-price!

(Um...I already said the whole shebang is free, didn't I? Let me rephrase that...)

If your birthday falls on December 31, you get to leave and come back again!

Dress code strictly enforced!

"I don't see anything hanging out, do you? Let 'em in!"

Proper ID required!

"OK, let me see your driver's licenses...hmm...only one of them looks legit, so..."

" can stay, but the other one will have to leave."

If at the end of the night you are too inebriated to drive, management will arrange a ride home for you.

(That's the best I can do. Uber is all booked up tonight, and the taxicab companies have all gone under.)


Huh? You mean you're already here? In that case, let the festivities begin...


(Yeah, I know it's past their bedtime, but I promised them they could stay up late.)

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? But the party's winding down now...

Myself, Judy, Mel, Spanky, Alfalfa, Buckwheat, Darla, Miss Crabtree, Cyndi, Mariah, Julie, Gaga, The Honorable Mr. Mayor, Dick, Johnny, Rosey, Ray, Maureen, another Johnny, Donna, George, Henri, Julia, Fred, Rita, Gene, Cyd, Marilyn, Truman, Joan, Harry, Christopher, Michael, Guy, and a dozen or so people whose names I didn't get would like to wish you all...

                                                          A HAPPY NEW YEAR!
OK, now hurry up and get out of here, because...

...the landlady is liable to show up at any moment.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Naughty or Nice?

 I'm sure you've run into the fellow above this holiday season. I don't mean whoever is behind that fake beard, but who he represents. You've seen him on Christmas cards, sitting on to top of a pine tree, on yours or your neighbors' lawn, in advertisements, in animated TV specials, and in the flesh at the mall or department store. Santa Claus, or course. He's a familiar figure, a figure you may even have a bit of affection for...Unless you're devoutly religious, in which case you may just hate his guts. After all, Christmas is a religious holiday, a devout holiday, a sacred holiday. Or should be. How in the world did this fat buffoon in the garish outfit come to represent it? Well, whether you like Santa or hate Santa, the answer lies in the odd, contradictory nature of Christmas itself.

As the first syllable would indicate, Christmas is ostensibly a celebration of Christ's birth. Except the two New Testament writers who describe the event, Matthew and Luke, say nothing about it taking place on December 25. The other two Gospel writers, Mark and John, don't even mention it, figuring the reader is smart enough to know that in order for a man to die on a cross, he has to have been born in the first place. Paul? He sent out a lot of letters, but not one of them was a Christmas card. Nobody back then sent out Christmas cards. How could they? The holiday didn't exist and wouldn't exist for another three centuries. Before we can figure out where Santa came from, we first have to figure out where Christmas came from.

According to most scholars, there was a Christmas before Christmas, a Germanic pagan winter festival called Yule, basically designed to cheer people up during the long, dark days of December, and offer them hope that the sun would some day return. Fourth century Christians (as well as their sponsor, the newly-baptized Roman Empire) basically co-opted Yule (and, of course, the Yule log) partly to convert the many pagans still running around, and partly because the Christians themselves could use some cheering up during the long, dark days of December.

 I'm sure some of you will regard the above paragraph as so much revisionist history. Well, it wasn't secular humanist college professors ensconced in ivory towers that first expressed skepticism about the religious origins of Christmas, but Protestant reformers, particularly those we now call Puritans. Beginning in the 17th century, they downplayed, debunked, and downright dumped on Christmas. The contempt for both the holiday and the sinful practice of people letting down their hair and enjoying themselves, was transported across the Atlantic on the Mayflower to the New World, where it took root. Boy, did it take root! It was banned in New England, just as it had been earlier banned by Oliver Cromwell in Old England. Both bans had been lifted by the beginning of the 17th century, but for the next one hundred years, Christmas was treated as an embarrassment in Protestant countries. Celebrate if you must, but do it behind closed doors and don't shove your tidings-and-comfort-of-joy lifestyle down our throats! Meanwhile, the long December nights remained as dark as ever.

For party animals things began looking up in the 19th century, during, oddly enough, the Victorian Era. Charles Dickens (who I talked about in the previous post) helped popularize the expression "Merry Christmas" and it did indeed become more merry. All the festive holiday traditions were taken out of the closet and dusted off. Decorations, carols, ornaments, desserts, wrapping paper, mistletoe, the necking that took place under the mistletoe, and finally the giving of gifts all gained in popularity during this time. Christmas was well on its way to becoming the glamorous holiday it is today. Now all what was needed was a symbol. Sure, there was the Nativity, but that was best saved for religious observation. As Christmas became more fun (as well as secular) you needed a representation of that fun. A mascot, even.

There were several contenders. Chief among them was the Germanic Christkind, sometimes a cherub, sometimes a beautiful angel, who broke into people's houses in the middle of the night and delivered presents. The Brits had Father Christmas, who at first didn't deliver presents but changed his mind after he found Christkind breathing down his neck. Seeing that the eastern part of what is now the United States was once part of the British Empire, you'd think Father Christmas would be a mascot on this side of the pond, too. But not everybody in the Thirteen Colonies was English. There were German immigrants, whose Christkind ended up being Kris Kringle. And in New York City, formally called New Amsterdam, there were the Dutch...


Now, you'd think if the Dutch were to go looking for a Christmas mascot, they'd start it Holland, where there's plenty of snow and ice in December, if Hans Brinker is to be believed. But no, they went south of Holland. Way, way south of Holland, to Asia Minor, today Modern Turkey. It was there that a man named Nicholas held the religious office of bishop, and, after he died, became a saint. But there's plenty of saints. Why make this particular one the mascot for Christmas? Some say it's because miracles have been attributed to him, but that's how you become a saint in the first place! I suspect it has a lot to do with his feast day, December 6,  not quite two weeks before Christmas. The Dutch merely let him hang around for a while. Now, of course, these Dutch speak Dutch, and in their language, Saint Nicholas became Sinterklaas. Dutch immigrants brought the idea to America, where he became the aforementioned Santa Claus. The now Americanized mascot caught on pretty quickly (though he was often still referred to as Saint Nicholas.) Washington Irving mentions him in 1809 in his first book  A History of New-York from the Beginning of the World to the End of the Dutch Dynasty (written under the pseudonym "Diedrich Knickerbocker".) However, Santa got his biggest P.R. boost fourteen years later when a professor of Ancient Greek, Clement Moore, wrote a poem titled A Visit From Saint Nicholas. That's the one that begins with:

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar plums danced in their heads

(Not even a mouse? As if an unobtrusive rodent living under the same roof as humans is the exception rather than the rule? They were pretty blase about pest control in 1823.)

Here's Santa up close and personal:

He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, 
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread

Pretty vivid imagery there, and he seems much more approachable than that fellow with the halo in the picture above (people with halos are almost never approachable.)

The next person to leave his mark on Santa was Thomas Nast, an illustrator and political cartoonist best known for creating the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey (but don't blame him for the actual parties.) The picture above is from a then-new edition of Moore's poem. Physically he looks like the Santa we know, but where's the white fur trim? And what is that on his head, a nest? An adjustment was clearly in order.

Subsequent illustrators looked back across the sea at Father Christmas. Much thinner than the U.S. mascot, but he had the right wardrobe.

The Santa we know was almost complete. It was left to just one more man to put on the finishing touches.

Haddon Sundblom (1899-1976), the son of Scandinavian immigrants, took up commercial illustration and quickly rose to the top of his profession. In 1931, Sundblom was commissioned by the Coca-Cola company to do a series of Christmas-related advertisements that ran from 1931 to 1965. It was one of the most popular ad campaigns ever, and I'm sure you seen them here and there even if you were born long after 1965:

I love his style.

Sundblom did a lot of other things as well. For instance, if you've ever ate a bowl of oatmeal between 1957 and 2012 you probably remember this guy:

Ironically, the above company is now owned by Coke's arch-rival Pepsi.

But this is Christmas, and I want to leave you with one final Sundblom image from 1972, the last he ever did before he retired:

Whatever gets you through those long December nights.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Recommended Reading (Victorian Era Observational Humor Edition)

I'm sure we're all familiar by now with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The basic story, anyway. A miserly old man by the unforgettable name of Ebeneezer Scrooge who hates Christmas and says "Bah, humbug" a lot is about to turn in for the night when his sleep is continually interrupted by visits from several ghosts. First his old business partner Marley, and then ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Future (though the second spook is actually representing a future, too, just a much closer future than the third spook--I know, I know, I'm overthinking it.) When he wakes the next morning, he loves Christmas so much that he's able to help a little boy named Tiny Tim avoid dying from an unnamed disease (possibly rickets, curable in Dickens' time) that forces him to walk with a crutch when not being carried on somebody's shoulder. There's been at least 17 theatrical film versions, several direct-to-video versions, a few made-for-TV movies, and a few made-for-TV "specials" (which differ from the made-for-TV movies because, well, I guess because the networks say they do.) On top of that there's many, many stage versions--Broadway, Off-Broadway, London's West End, your local community theater, and the school Christmas pageant that you have to see because your kid's in it (like you weren't already forced to sit through the Nativity pageant from the year before.) In addition to all that, there's been several situation comedy version as well. Just off the top of my head, I recall seeing Scrooge's story retold on The Odd Couple, WKRP in Cincinnati, Family Ties, and Sanford and Son (in the latter Lamont as The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come wears an astronaut suit.) With so many versions in so many media outlets, I'm sure you've seen at least one, or ten, or a hundred.

However, I'm curious as to how many of you have actually read the original source material. It was a novel, you know. If you haven't read the book, you really should. Granted, it's the same old, arguably tired, plot (though it would have seemed quite new in 1843.) No surprises there. But Dickens actual telling of the story, i.e., his prose style, offers many unexpected delights to those not acquainted with his work. He was simply one of the most entertaining writers of his era, and can still make us smile in our own. Movie versions of A Christmas Carol can sometimes seem like they might play better on Halloween (the 1951 version with Alastair Sim in particular, though I would highly recommend it anyway. Just don't watch it with the lights turned off.) In the actual novel, however, Dickens offers a counterbalance to the ghostly doings. His third-person omniscient narrator often seems quite amused at the hell all these specters are putting Scrooge through:

Awaking in the middle of a prodigiously tough snore, and sitting up in bed to get his thoughts together, Scrooge had no occasion to be told that the bell was again upon the stroke of One. He felt that he was restored to consciousness in the right nick of time, for the especial purpose of holding a conference with the second messenger dispatched to him through Jacob Marley’s intervention. But finding that he turned uncomfortably cold when he began to wonder which of his curtains this new spectre would draw back, he put them every one aside with his own hands; and lying down again, established a sharp look-out all round the bed. For he wished to challenge the Spirit on the moment of its appearance, and did not wish to be taken by surprise, and made nervous.

Gentlemen of the free-and-easy sort, who plume themselves on being acquainted with a move or two, and being usually equal to the time-of-day, express the wide range of their capacity for adventure by observing that they are good for anything from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter; between which opposite extremes, no doubt, there lies a tolerably wide and comprehensive range of subjects. Without venturing for Scrooge quite as hardily as this, I don’t mind calling on you to believe that he was ready for a good broad field of strange appearances, and that nothing between a baby and rhinoceros would have astonished him very much.

Now I've seen many, many stage and screen versions of Dickens' story, but not in one of them is a rhinoceros mentioned. For that you have to read the book!

Don't you just love the way he's sitting in that chair? Dickens looks less the famous writer and more like a bored casting director auditioning child actors for a breakfast cereal commercial. 

As was the case with most 19th century novelists, Charles Dickens liked to digress a bit, but even those digressions can be entertaining:

The mention of Marley’s funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet’s Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot—say Saint Paul’s Churchyard for instance—literally to astonish his son’s weak mind.

See? Dickens learned the rules of exposition from the Bard himself, and like any good writing teacher, he's passing them on to us.

I'm now going to leave you with my favorite of those digressions:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Rust in Peace

Monday, December 4, 2017

Vital Viewing (Regional Cadence Edition)

Jim Nabors 1930-2017

Between 1870 and 1920, eleven million Americans moved from rural areas (villages or hamlets surrounded by countryside) to urban areas (cities surrounded by villages or hamlets, i.e., suburbs.) Additionally, the twenty-five million immigrants who arrived on these shores chose to settle in cities, so that by 1920 more Americans lived in urban than rural areas for the first time in US history. Now, this majority living in cities didn't necessarily forget about those few that had remained behind. Indeed, they took great interest in them. Or rather, they took great amusement in them. An amusement stoked by various forms of pop culture, from comic strips (Li'l Abner, Snuffy Smith), radio (Lum and Abner, Fibber McGee and Molly) movies (Ma and Pa Kettle, No Time for Sergeants), animated cartoons (Foghorn Leghorn), and, especially, television. So much television, I'm not even going to put it in parenthesis: The Real McCoys, The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, Hee Haw, The Andy Griffith Show, and Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C. It was last two TV shows that plutonium-powered Jim Nabors' pop bottle rocket-ascent into stardom.

As a comic actor, Nabors' range was pretty narrow. He could only play one character, and it wasn't all that original of a character. The simple-minded but good-hearted country bumpkin had been a comic trope since Artemas Ward, who had a great influence on Mark Twain and is sometimes described as the first standup comic. Ward (real name, Charles Farrar Browne) died is 1867, but his basic shtick, a mixture of bad grammar and wide-eyed boondocks innocence, lived on in, among others, Abner Yokum, and even early Andy Griffith, the man who gave Nabors his big break. Griffith's original claim to fame was a best-selling comedy record titled "What It Was, Was Football", and then the TV, stage, and movie version of No Time For Sergeants, in which he portrayed a Gomer Pyle-like character. More recently, on the otherwise sophisticated Cheers, Woody Harrelson did a Midwestern variation of the same comedy stereotype. However, with all dues respect to Griffith and Harrelson and anyone else with same vacant look and/or dumb smile on their face, Nabors was just plumb funnier. As Nancy Walker did with the Jewish mother, Danny DeVito with the tyrannical boss, Goldie Hawn with the dumb blond, and, to show you I keep up with the times, Jim Parsons with the high I.Q. geek, Nabors took a commonplace comedy persona and made it his own.

Especially on The Andy Griffith Show where I found him slightly funnier than when he played Gomer on his own series. Don't get me wrong. I thought he was great as a Marine (because he was so inept as a Marine), but being the protagonist instead of a secondary character meant that the TV audience occasionally had to relate to him, and they sure wouldn't relate (whether they should or not) to someone who was a complete moron. So Gomer's I.Q. was raised a notch as he became a more well-rounded person. All that was to the good, because it gave the sitcom new avenues to explore during its five years on the air, if not quite as many belly laughs. No such requirement for the Griffith Show, where Nabors could be so hilariously over-the-top he even forced Don Knotts to take on the unaccustomed role of straight man in their scenes together.

After Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C went off the air (at his own instigation) Nabors hosted a variety show that did almost as well in the ratings, was always in the Top 30, yet was canceled after only two years. Why? Well, remember that old story from childhood about the country mouse visiting the city mouse and the former deciding he should hightail it back home because of a cat? Well, that cat was nowhere as menacing as the emerging art of network demographics. It was no longer how many people were watching a show that mattered to advertisers but also their spending habits. People with disposal income willing to try new products weren't watching such otherwise highly-rated shows as The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, Mayberry RFD, Hee Haw, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, and The Jim Nabors Hour in large enough numbers, and so the shows were systematically taken off the schedule in what's become known as the Rural Purge. Or, as Pat Buttram, Mr. Haney on Green Acres, put it: "It was the year CBS canceled everything with a tree—including Lassie."

So what was with all these people with disposable incomes willing to try new products anyway? They they lose all interest in what was going on in the sticks. I don't think so, but the television's depiction of comings and goings of rural types had become dated, even anachronistic, by the 1970s. Terms such as country bumpkin, hillbilly, hick, hayseed, clodhopper, rube, and yokel, all gave way to a new term, redneck. The city slickers were still very interested, but just that they saw such a person less as a charming innocent and more willfully ignorant menace...

 ...and not all that amusing.

So what happened to Nabors after the Purge? Throughout the 1970s he was still a presence on talk shows and other people's variety shows. He appeared on The Love Boat. He and Ruth Buzzi had their own Sid and Marty Croft Saturday morning show for a while, called The Lost Saucer,  where they played robots in an out-of-control time machine. In the 1980s, Nabors appeared in a couple of Burt Reynolds movies. There was an Andy Griffith Show reunion movie where he played Gomer one final time. And then that was kind of it. I think the entire 1990s went by without me ever catching him on television, though he did do live performances for a while. As for his personal life, a friendship with Rock Hudson came to an end after the latter became spooked about a joke making the rounds ("Did you hear Rock Hudson married Jim Nabors and changed his name to Rock Pyle?") Nabors did end up marrying his longtime partner Stan Caldwaller earlier in this decade once it was legal to do so in the state of Oregon. That was the last time Nabors was in the news, I believe.

Here's Jim Nabors at this best:

Well, that's about it--Oh, wait, I almost forgot. Earlier I told you Nabors had a narrow range. I meant as an actor, as he could only play one character, but as an entertainer, it's a different story.  Jim Nabors could sing. 


Not bad for a country bumpkin. Surprise, surprise, surprise!