Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Archival Revival (Minneapolis TV Edition)



(It's been almost a week since my last post, and if I were to go through Ed Asner's long and impressive list of acting achievements, as well as the equally long, and, from my point of view on the political spectrum, equally impressive list of social causes he was involved in, it would be another week before this blog had any new posts, and I can't let it sit dark for THAT long. So instead I'm going to replay a section of a 2017 tribute to Mary Tyler Moore, which I somewhat ghoulishly used to talk about her famous sitcom in general. As I HOPE you know, Asner played WMJ news producer Lou Grant on that series. When the show ended it seven-year run, he continued playing the same character in an eponymous non-sitcom spinoff. I like both the comedic and dramatic versions of the Lou Grant, but have a slight preference for the early, funny take on the character, and it's that take I went into at length back in '17.)

The gruff boss with a heart of gold. It's obvious to everyone that when he gives Mary a hard time, starting with her job interview, that he's merely having fun with her. In fact, it soon becomes fairly obvious to Mary herself, though she can't quite help but get nervous anyway. In the one episode where Lou actually does have to admonish her (she and her best friend, under the influence of bit too much wine, write some comical obituaries that accidentally go out on the air) he in fact seems less gruff than usual. Despite that, Mary's offended enough by what she regards as rough treatment to quit her job.  When she realizes she's made a mistake, comes back but finds she's already been replaced, Lou plays up the gruffness, but helps ease her way back into her old job anyway. He must have realized he made a mistake, too.

Lou Grant comes across as a basically self-assured individual, but look again. The series kind of danced around the subject, and never said so for certain, but Lou may have been--and I don't use this term lightly--an alcoholic. He keeps a bottle of scotch in his desk drawer, and offers Mary a drink during her job interview. Now, this was back in 1970. It may just be there was more drinking going on in the workplace back then. Except that, on the very same day Lou hires Mary, he later shows up at her apartment drunk! Quite a debut for a sitcom character, wouldn't you say? True, his drinking never reaches such bizarre proportions again, but it keeps reasserting itself throughout the run of the series. When he's (temporarily, as it turns out) promoted upstairs, his swanky office actually comes equipped with a liquor cabinet. But it's all the way across the room, not close enough for Lou, and as his new desk, essentially a glass table, lacks a drawer, he uses the wastepaper basket to store his bottle instead! In another episode Lou gets drunk before going on the air to report the news during a TV strike, but ends up giving a flawless performance, so at least he's a functional alcoholic. In interviews he gave after the series had ended, Asner occasionally bemoaned having played a drunk for laughs. But at least it was a different kind of drunk than Dean Martin, Foster Brooks, or Otis on The Andy Griffith Show. Like that other top-rated 1970s sitcom, All in the Family, The Mary Tyler Moore Show dealt with serious topics from time to time, but in a less sensationalist manner. Or to put it this way, on Family a serious topic was depicted as a disruption of the ordinary, whereas on TMTMS the serious topic didn't disrupt so much as quietly, almost gently, subvert the ordinary. So it was with Lou's drinking. But why was he like that? His marriage breaks up halfway through the show's run, but alcohol doesn't seem to be the cause of the problem. Rather, wife Edie (Priscilla Morrill), in the parlance of the times, wants to "find herself". And anyway, even back when Lou mistakenly thought his marriage was a happy one, he drinks to excess. In fact, in that episode where he shows up at Mary's place drunk, he writes a love letter to his wife! The arc of Lou's journalistic career, which is gradually revealed throughout the years, might have something to do with it. Lou was once an up-and-coming reporter who worked alongside Walter Cronkite when they were both war correspondents during World War II. But Cronkite ended up at CBS, Lou at WJM. I suspect disappointment that his once-promising career had lost its promise was behind his drinking. Lou eventually goes back to print journalism, but that's another TV show.

(In the above clip, you may have noticed an actor by the name of...


...Gavin MacLeod, who played WJM news writer Murray Slaughter. MacLeod died just this past May and I was going to write a tribute then, except when it came time to type the name of his other series, The Love Boat, a sudden paralysis struck my right hand. I was rushed to the hospital and spent three days in ICU with my fingers hooked to a catheter. After my knuckles received an injection of a massive amounts of interferon, I was released from the hospital with a warning from the resident on duty that I never again type the name The Love Boat [in case you're wondering how I'm able to do it with this post, I asked the retired IBM keypunch operator who lives down the hall if she would type it in for me, which she agreed to do as long as I sampled some of her homemade Fig Newtons.] Fortunately, The Mary Tyler Moore Show poses no such threat to my health and here's what I wrote about Murray four years ago.) 

Mary Richards co-worker, and in some ways her confidant, at least at the office. He was also the personification of quiet desperation, the character who had the hardest time hiding his inferiority complex. Again, looking at it objectively, he didn't really seem to have all that much to complain about. After all, he was married to the attractive, charming Marie (Joyce Bulifant) and had what I would imagine was a fairly interesting job writing the evening news. Even if that particular line of work is overrated, it still beats cleaning rest rooms. But Murray clearly wanted more out of life. He also wanted Mary. This becomes evident as early as the first season when he stares dreamily at her as she relates some bit of business involving Lou or Rhoda or whoever. Murray eventually reveals his feelings to her, and she lets him down in as bighearted, if somewhat self-embarrassed, a way as possible, and they're able to remain friends. Murray may seem like a rather depressing person to be around, but, fortunately, he has a highly mitigating sense of humor, which actually makes him a bit of a trip at times, and, in his asides to Mary, often acts as a wisecracking Greek chorus to the goings-ons in the newsroom.

(Surviving members of The Mary Tyler Moore Show include the aforementioned Joyce Bulifant, Lisa Gerritsen, who played Phyllis Lindstrom's precocious young daughter Bess, John Amos, who played WMJ weatherman Gordy Howard, and, of course, Betty White, so memorable as Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens--Kirk)

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Quips and Quotations (His Work Glimmers for Itself Edition)



I never filled the stereotype of a rock star. Back in the '70s, [former Rolling Stones bassist] Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted.

--Charlie Watts 


Monday, August 23, 2021

Bye Bye Love


Country acts aren't generally referred to as cool kats, so maybe that's why brothers (in order of appearance in the above photograph and not age or importance) Phil and Don Everly did the next best hip thing and segued into rock 'n' roll. Even by 1950s standards, their brand of rock was on the soft side, but that didn't make it any less listenable, and the two handsome siblings had a string of hits including "Bye Bye Love", "All I Have to Do Is Dream", and the shotgun wedding lament "Wake Up, Little Suzie." Then came the '60s, where their signature harmonizing is said to have influenced three of the most successful pop acts of the era: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and Simon and Garfunkel. Unfortunately, the brothers themselves met with less success as the decade wore on. Drug and alcohol abuse as well as the fact that Phil and Don got kind sick of each other after spending so many years in the recording studio and on the road together also took its toll. In 1973, they decided to perform one last time at Knott's Berry Farm amusement park in California's Orange County. I don't know why they picked that place to end their careers, but according to French academic Caroline Rolland-Diamond, who has apparently taken a scholarly interest in how we Americans spend our leisure time, in the late 1960s and early '70s, Knott's Berry Farm  "...appealed to conservative Americans, young and old, because the idealized representation of a past devoid of social and racial tensions that it offered stood in sharp contrast with the political and social upheavals affecting California since the Free Speech Movement erupted at the University of California at Berkeley in 1964." Be that as it may, when Don showed up intoxicated, Phil (himself hardly a choir boy) smashed his guitar on stage and stormed off, leaving his older brother to finish the show by himself. While I doubt it topped what happened at Berkeley in '64, it must have been shocking to all those young and old conservative Americans in the audience expecting an idealized representation. With the exception of a few words exchanged at their father's funeral, the two brothers didn't talk to each other for a whole ten years. Meanwhile, their solo careers went nowhere. They finally reunited at London's Royal Albert Hall, and a short time afterwards released the Paul McCartney-penned "On the Wings of a Nightingale", a mild hit. The two remained a popular touring attraction right up to Phil's death in 2014 at age 74. As for Don, he died just yesterday at age 84.


Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Quips and Quotations (Silk Roadblock Edition)


So, our empire has once again lost another war. We won our last one 76 years ago this past Sunday. At some point, don’t they relegate us out of the Premier League or sell us off to Yahoo?

--Michael Moore

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Vital Viewing (That's All There Is, There Isn't Any More Edition)


Actress Ethel Barrymore, sister to Lionel and John, great-aunt to Drew, was born on this day in 1879 (she died in 1959, her life having spanned the horse-and-buggy to Cadillac-with-tailfins.) Dubbed "The First Lady of the American Theatre", she had been a star for just about the entirety of the 20th century up to that point when, in 1936 at age 56, she decided to call it quits: 

If you're curious about that civil war, Ernest Hemingway turned it into a novel. Getting back to Ethel Barrymore, that retirement was a short-lived one, so short that it's not even mentioned on her Wikipedia page, her IMDb page, her Turner Classic Movies page, her Find a Grave page, or any of a half a dozen websites devoted to celebrity horoscopes. Finally, I found mention of it in her New York Times obituary. The retirement lasted a year. More like an extended leave of absence. Before giving notice, Ethel had appeared in at least 55 stage productions. After she came out of retirement, she starred in six more plays, including what turned out to be her greatest success, The Corn is Green, which ran on Broadway in three different theaters between 1940 and 1942 for a total of 477 performances. A year later, she returned to the role of Welsh schoolteacher Miss Moffat for an additional 56 performances. After that crowning achievement, there was one more Broadway production, Embezzled Heaven (sounds like The Donald Trump Story) which ran for 52 performances. By the time it ended, Ethel was almost 65. Though she was now the right age for retirement, she chose to keep on working. Unlike when she first went on stage at about age 15 in the final decade of the 19th century, there was now more options available to an actress, as long as one was reconciled to the fact that cameras don't give applause, which the reportedly no-nonsense Ethel didn't seem to mind.

Odd thing about those Barrymore siblings. We're told they dominated the Broadway stage for the first few decades of the 20th century, but that doesn't do those of us ensconced in the first few decades of the 21st much good. It's not like we can readily hop on a horse-drawn streetcar to the Garrick Theater and watch Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines. As with Sarah Siddons and Edwin Booth, we have to take it on the word of contemporary critics that Lionel's, Ethel's, and John's stage performances were all that they were cracked up to be. However, unlike Siddons, who died in 1831, or Booth, who departed this life, somewhat embarrassed by his brother's antics, in 1893, the Barrymores lived well into the 20th century, which means of course that we have their later films to give us some idea of their past glories. Actually, the stage glories and the movie glories sometimes ran parallel to each other, especially in the case of John. The youngest of the three, he became a bona fide movie star just a few years after becoming a bona fide Broadway star (by playing Hamlet.) Though his stardom came last, he was really the only one to achieve equal and simultaneous success on both stage and screen (to celebrate, he broke open the champagne, and anything else he could find in the liquor cabinet.) Lionel's film stardom is a bit more qualified. He was never quite the leading man in movies, at least not in talkies, as he had been earlier on stage. Quite handsome when he was young, he got increasingly craggier with age. If a voice can be called craggy, Lionel had that, too. Certainly it was one of the most recognizable in talkies, and that arguably made him the preeminent character actor of his day. If brother John played a dashing jewel thief in Grand Hotel and a dashing former silent screen star in Dinner at Eight, then Lionel was nonetheless was put to good use as a dying accountant in the former and a dying industrialist in the latter. Ironically, his characters are still alive at the end of each movie while John's characters are not! Lionel does die in A Free Soul (which also happened to be Clark Gable's breakthrough film), netting him an Oscar, a prize that eluded John. At awards time, it's sometimes better to have a craggy face than a great profile. So in demand was Lionel for character parts, usually supporting roles, that eventually wheelchairs were written into screenplays to accommodate his increasingly crippling arthritis.   

That leaves Ethel. Of the three she had the biggest Broadway career over a longer stretch of time. By her late 40s she was already considered enough of a legend to have a theater on the Great White Way named after her (it's still there today.) Yet when it comes to film she kind of lagged behind John and Lionel, partly because she didn't care all that much about being a movie star, always holding Hollywood a bit in disdain. Not that she boycotted motion pictures altogether. Her first film, now believed lost, was 1914's The Nightingale. Thirteen more full-length movies followed, all made in the 1910s. With the exception of a single short, Camille, Ethel didn't appear on screen at all in the 1920s. Finally, in 1932, she starred with her two brothers in Rasputin and the Empress (which I wrote about way back when.) This was the second and last movie the three siblings appeared in together (the first, 1917's National Red Cross Pageant, a World War I morale booster, is believed lost.) After that, Ethel stayed away from moving picture cameras for another twelve years. After which it seemed like she couldn't get enough of them. I don't know what changed exactly. Maybe the Broadway workload was a bit much for a woman closing in on 70. Ethel moved to Hollywood, a place she once compared to a "Sixth Avenue peepshow", worked in Hollywood, and eventually died in Hollywood. The first film she made after moving to the West Coast was 1944's None But the Lonely Heart, starring Cary Grant, which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She also received Academy Award nominations for The Spiral Staircase, The Paradine Case, and Pinky. She wasn't nominated for anything, but I strongly suggest you see her in Portrait of Jennie. She's excellent as a self-described "old maid" who seems to have an unconsumated crush on a much younger Joseph Cotten (who himself has a crush on a ghost he meets in Central Park.) These movies and one or two others are Ethel's film career highlights. She also appeared in many lesser films, as money was thrown at her by producers hoping her presence in a movie would give the thing a touch of class. It was always money well-thrown. In the last fifteen years of her life, Ethel made 21 pictures.

By the late 1950s, Ethel Barrymore had survived both her brothers, and was still around to watch a nephew of hers take his own stab at stardom. Oh, well...

...these things sometimes skip a generation.

Here's Ethel and Bogie:

 Now you know why she came out of retirement.


Saturday, August 7, 2021

Photo Finish (Street Musicians Edition)


I'm sure a good many of you can identify the above photo. Obviously, it's the famous cover of the Beatles 1969 album Abbey Road, the last they ever recorded as a quartet (though not the last released; Let It Be, recorded earlier, made its debut in 1970, and, of course, there's been dozens of anthology albums, including a boxed set titled Anthology.) But look at the cover closely. Nowhere does it say the name of the album or the name of the band that made the album. How do you know it's the Beatles? Weren't you paying attention? Because it's FAMOUS, that's why! Even if you were paying attention, do you know how this cover came to be? I'm here to tell you.

Let's start with Abbey Road itself. Just so happens to be the location of EMI Studios in London. The idea of naming the album but not naming the album after the thoroughfare came from John Kosh, a man not connected to EMI but the Beatles themselves through what was originally intended as a tax shelter by their recently deceased manager Brian Epstein, the now-famous (if never all that particularly productive) Apple Records, itself a division of the larger tax shelter, Apple Corps. LTD. Kosh was Apple's creative director, but he didn't take the photo. That was a man by the name of Iain Macmillan, pictured above. Ironically, given the mood of reconciliation that surrounded the recording of the new album, Macmillan entered the Beatles world through a connection that in the very near future would come to be seen, perhaps unfairly, as the main cause of the iconic music group's eventual breakup: Yoko Ono. In 1966, Yoko had commissioned Macmillan to photograph an exhibition of her art at London's counterculture Indica Gallery. Paul McCartney was a friend of the gallery's owners, did his best to promote the gallery, and encouraged John Lennon to pay a visit, which he did just as it was showing the aforementioned exhibition by the young Japanese avant-garde artist. Little did McCartney know that John and Yoko would hit it off. If he had known, he probably would not...Hmm, this post was meant to be about Abbey Road's cover art, and now it's veering into something else. Let me get back to my original intent. Yoko eventually introduced Lennon to Macmillan, and the two of them also hit it off, if not in quite the same way. Three years later, Lennon asked Macmillan to photograph the album cover.

On August 8, 1969 at about 11:30 am, Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr arrived at EMI records and took their walk across the street. There were actually six walks across the street, as nobody was quite sure what they wanted, while Macmillan sat on top a ten-foot stepladder with his camera, a policeman directing traffic behind him. Since there's some squinting involved, I'll do my best to describe them. Clockwise, the first photo has John, followed, left to right, by Ringo, Paul (in sandals), and George. The second photo has John, followed, right to left, by Ringo, Paul (in sandals), and George. The third photo is John, followed again left to right, by Ringo, Paul (barefoot!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) and George. There's some traffic buildup (HONK! HONK! "%#@^&*+%# longhaired freaks! Don't they know it's almost lunch time?!") If you know the physics of repeatedly crossing the street, then you'll have by now figured out that photo number four is right to left, led by John, same order. Paul's sandals are back on. Most of the traffic is now gone, though one of those London double-decker buses has stuck around to watch. Photo number five, again left to right, this time in formation, rather than everyone walking whatever the hell way they please. Paul has a cigarette dangling from his hand (I do hope a hot ash doesn't fall on his once-again bare foot.) The sixth and final photo is one last right to left, the double-decker bus now headed in the opposite direction.

It had been Paul's idea that they should all cross the street, so he got to be the one to choose which of the six photos to use. As you saw, he chose, going clockwise, photo number five. It was a fateful decision. Partly because quite a few people took it to be a fatal decision, as Paul's bare feet was taken as a sign that he had died! I've never understood this. If was Paul was laying collapsed on the road all green and bloated with bits of bone poking through decomposing flesh, then, yeah, I could see where an intelligent person might conclude he had died. But bare feet? Since when is that alone a sign of rigor mortis? Am I now to assume all those people I see on the beach this time of year are zombies? If the Abbey Road cover wasn't enough, the back cover of the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album of two years earlier retroactively was added to the Paul-is-dead rumor since his head is turned away as John, George, and Ringo face forward. Then there are those who think the whole thing was a publicity stunt, that McCartney just wanted people to think he was dead to sell more albums, as if that was ever much of a problem for the Beatles. Such a stunt, which I don't think it was, would have been doomed to fail. From sometime early in 1964 to the present day there's always been paparazzi waiting to snap a picture of Paul, thereby proving his continued existence. It's not like he's Andy Kaufman.


Aside from Paul McCartney's bare feet, there are a few other details about the cover I'd like to point out. Since the photo was taken in a public place, some members of the public inevitably ended up in the photo, such as those three little dudes just above Paul's head. Of course, that's all a matter of perspective. The three were in fact normal-sized and standing some distance away from Paul. They're Alan Flanagan, Steve Millwood, and Derek Seagrove, three interior decorators out on a lunch break. Across the street, not quite as far away but far enough, a man appears to be to the left (but in fact is to the right) of John Lennon's head. That's 57-year-old American tourist Paul Cole. Bored with museums at that point, he told his wife to go in one alone while he wandered about outside, and that wandering led him to the photo shoot. Now, it's not just people who ended up in this picture, but, as you might expect since it is a roadway, automobiles as well. In particular, a Volkswagen Beetle parked not too far from where George Harrison takes his stroll. I don't think you can quite make it out in the pictures I provide here, but had you had the album in your hand--remember, it's a vinyl LP--the license plate is clearly marked LMW 281F. Clear enough to be seen that the plate was repeatedly stolen from the car after the album was released. Oh, well, at least the hubcaps were left untouched. 

Finally, I said at the beginning of this post that the cover says neither the name of the band nor the name of the album. Well, it doesn't say those things on the front cover. Flip it over and the information is readily available. After John, Ringo, Paul, and George were finished with their multiple road crossings, Iain Macmillan set about looking for a street sign. He found one on an old wall. The Beatles name was cleverly superimposed at a later date (a crack on the wall runs through the S), but I understand that it really did say Abbey Road. However, if you happen to be in London, don't go looking for it, as the wall has since been demolished. But it was there for Macmillan's purposes. He stood in front of that wall, made sure his camera was loaded and snapped the picture, only to look up and find...

...somebody had gotten in the way! This is said to have pissed off Macmillan greatly, and he went on to take another picture, but, as you can see, the botched photo ended up being used anyway. Probably someone at EMI or Apple figured that if a photo shoot must be disrupted, there are worse disruptions than a young woman in a minidress. Her identity remains unknown.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Vital Viewing (Mammon Mechanics Edition)

Today we again take up technology. Not the kind that you find in your home, but the machines out in the public sphere that just like any store or shop asks to be paid for services rendered, only there's no salesclerk, just you and a button, or a few buttons. Increasingly these machines accept plastic or paper money, but traditionally took coinage. So check your pockets for any loose change and lets see what it will buy us. 

Lets start with that most ubiquitous of coin-operated mechanical devices, the vending machine. How do one work? According to the following video, better than ever:

Well, that was certainly an upbeat look at the latest technology, wasn't it? So, you no longer have to deal with sticking your hard-earned nickel and dimes into a snack machine only to have that bag of Doritos or Nestle Crunch bar get tantalizingly lodged between the glass and the spirally thing? That's a relief!

Must be one of the older models. And that guy better be careful, or he could end up like...

...this unfortunate chap.

Ever fantasize about having a claw? Thanks to coin-operated technology, you can have the next best thing: 

Nice, and just think, unlike Freddy's claw, no teenagers were killed in the making of this video. Heck, the stuffed rabbit wasn't even damaged.

Though there were precursors, some going all the way back to the Roman Empire, the coin-operated machine era basically begins in the early 1880s, when London railway stations introduced devices that for a small price dispensed postcards and envelopes. This was the same decade that saw the invention of the electric light bulb, but the first vending machines were more like traditional clocks, relying on gears and levers and springs for the exchange of goods and services. Eventually, the technology evolved to the point where you had to plug them into a wall, but there are still a few that do things the old-fashioned way, such as those quite-common machines that dispense unwrapped gum and candy:

Since this video was first posted on YouTube in 2015, it's received an astonishing 98,167 views. In case you were thinking of making a purchase yourself, I'm sorry to say one or more of those 98,167 viewers have beaten you to it, and the machines are no longer up for sale.

Back to the big coin-operated boys, such as washers and dryers, which have a building all their own. Often a kind of a seedy-looking building. I don't think it's age. I think laundromats are built seedy-looking. It's in the blueprints. But that just gives them a kind of transient charm. Just the thing for transient relationships:

Well, I'm not going to take my laundry there. With all that singing, I wouldn't hear that little beep that tells me the load is finished!

Machines attaining human-like emotions has been a staple of science-fiction for what seems like forever. And usually those machines with human-like emotions end up wreaking havoc on humans with human-like emotions. Really, it's much better to build a machine with dog-like emotions. Those machines would be loyal and never turn on their human masters, as long as you kept them well-fed. Still, I can't help but wonder if the machines-wreaking-havoc-on-humanity genre is really what would happen if machines had hearts. Especially, coin-operated machines. Pay phones obviously can't feel, or else they all would have ganged up and beat the hell out of a cell tower by now. And anyway, when we humans experience heartbreak, we don't always take it out on others. We only do that 90%, maybe 91%, of the time. After that, we usually take it out on ourselves. And so too, I think, would a machine:

Many of you, maybe even most of you, will recognize the late Dom DeLuise, whose birthday falls today. But what about that talking weight machine? Whose voice was that?  

That coin-operated machine didn't say "Rosebud" before it ceased operation, but it could have.