Monday, December 5, 2016

Van Williams, star of THE GREEN HORNET television series, dead at 82

Sad news to report tonight. The passing of actor Van Williams, who played the title role of television's THE GREEN HORNET. Produced by William Dozier, the same man responsible for that campy 1960s television program, BATMAN, THE GREEN HORNET was played straight with less camp and more James Bond-style gadgets. 

Reruns of THE GREEN HORNET program have become a staple on most networks specializing in retro television but Van Williams was overshadowed by his "faithful sidekick," Kato, who was played by Bruce Lee. (If you ask any youngster today under the age of 16 who was the star of THE GREEN HORNET television program, they usually answer Bruce Lee, not Van Williams).

Van Williams and Bruce Lee
Born on February 27, 1934 as Van Zandt Jarvis Williams, he was the son of a cattle rancher. He majored in animal husbandry and business at Texas Christian University but moved to Hawaii which changed the course of his life. While operating a salvage company and a skin-diving school during the mid-1950s, he was approached by Elizabeth Taylor and husband/producer Mike Todd, who were filming there. Encouraged by Todd to try his luck, Van arrived in Hollywood with no experience. Todd perished in a plane crash before he was able to help Van, but the young hopeful ventured on anyway, taking some acting/voice lessons, and was almost immediately cast in dramatic TV roles.

Warner Brothers had a keen eye for this type of photogenic hunk and smartly signed Van. Fitting in perfectly, he was soon showing just how irresistible he was as a clean-cut private eye on the series BOURBON STREET BEAT from 1959 to 1960. Although the show lasted only one season, Warners carried his Kenny Madison character into the more popular adventure drama SURFSIDE SIX (1960 to 1962) opposite fellow pin-up / blond beefcake bookend Troy Donahue. Van told me personally that he did not like the studio system at Warners, how they operated and their disregard for the actors who were treated like cattle. "Most of us at the studio were working twelve hours a day, six days in a row, to complete an hour-long episode of SURFSIDE 6. I complained once but there was no compensation." After his contract expired at Warners, Van left the studio and freelanced. It was soon after that he conducted a screen test at 20th Century-Fox for what became the one role he is best-remembered for: the emerald-suited masked vigilante, THE GREEN HORNET. Bruce Lee was hired (at one-third of the salary Williams received) to play the role of Kato and while Williams was paid far more than his faithful sidekick, it was Bruce Lee who went on to cement a legacy, and become a screen icon. Ask any youngster under the age of 16 today who was the star of THE GREEN HORNET and the answer will usually be "Bruce Lee." 

Yes, The Green Hornet and Kato did make a cross-over appearance in a two-part BATMAN episode but that was not to cross-promote THE GREEN HORNET program (regardless of what you read on the internet). THE GREEN HORNET was originally signed for 17 half-hour episodes and renewed for an additional nine, for a total of 26. The network (ABC) expected instant high ratings as BATMAN incurred but this was not to be. George W. Trendle, the owner of THE GREEN HORNET property, had creative control over almost aspects of the program -- including the selection of stories -- and it was Trendle who personally selected Van Williams as The Green Hornet. Trendle wanted to avoid the campy BATMAN style and this proved to be the series' downfall while fans today agree with Trendle: THE GREEN HORNET was better when played straight. Only towards the very end of the program when ABC decided not to renew the program for additional episodes did Trendle beg producer Dozier to do anything -- including adding camp -- to keep the program on the air. The solution was to feature The Green Hornet and Kato as a crossover on BATMAN. The intention was to lure thousands of letters to the network from viewers begging to bring The Green Hornet back on the air. But the total number of letters totaled four.

Van Williams did a number of movies and other television guest appearances but he eventually left Hollywood and moved out to the Midwest where he owned and operated a number of business ventures in telecommunications, real estate and for a while law enforcement as a reserve deputy. (Imagine being pulled over for speeding by The Green Hornet himself!) Williams even contributed a number of stories for THE GREEN HORNET comic books in the early 1990s.

Al Hodge (left) as Britt Reid, alias The Green Hornet
When I co-wrote the book on the history of THE GREEN HORNET, I had the good fortune to chat with Van Williams multiple times over the phone. He was very generous of his time and I remember him calling me on the phone a few weeks after the book was published. He was not only thanking me for the two complimentary copies of the book, but asked for a few extras for family relatives as gifts. He offered to pay for them but there was no way I could charge him for extras. Without Van Williams there could be no visual image of THE GREEN HORNET when I listen to those radio programs from the 1940s and 1950s. Yes, I know AL Hodge and other actors played the role on radio but it is the iconic image of Van Williams that I envision when I hear this nostalgic broadcasts.

In his later years, Van Williams retired to Idaho and focused on family and maintaining his health. He was offered a cameo in the horrible Seth Rogen vehicle, THE GREEN HORNET. Van's health kept him from committing and after seeing the movie a couple years later remarked, "That is not The Green Hornet at all. The character was treated like a buffoon. I am glad I turned them down to appear in the movie." 

Van Williams was the last surviving series regular on THE GREEN HORNET. He passed away on November 28 at the age of 82. 

Friday, December 2, 2016

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much TV?

Last week someone criticized me for having never watched an episode of television's M*A*S*H* and was even more shocked to discover that I have only seen two episodes of Seinfeld and Everyone Loves Raymond. Why? Comedy is not my forté and personally I find most of today's comedies generally consist of insults, not wit. I do not find myself laughing at or with the characters on today's situation comedies.

And yet I proudly boasted that I have watched almost every episode of The Jack Benny Program, George Burns and Gracie Allen and Rocky and Bullwinkle. These latter programs are not as mainstream to a modern day public... but are my viewing habits reflective of a geek? No. I am proud to say that I enjoy watching old black and white movies, listening to old-time radio and reading old novels. And I can decipher the difference between actress Paulette Goddard and Claudette Colbert... whereas the mainstream crowd of today could only guess. Proof that the adage applies here: "Each to their own taste."

All of which brings me to the factoid of the day. The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times and Variety have, over the past two years, reported a growing trend: an alarming number of scripted television programs being produced as a result of additional streaming platforms. The number practically doubled in the past two years and is expected to double again in the next two. I am not referring to "reality programs," just those that are scripted. Netflix has produced some wonderful programs such as Stranger Things and Daredevil (the latter of which I highly recommend). You may have noticed how not only produces The Man in High Castle, but was also the recipient of numerous Emmy Awards. Hulu produced the eerie mini-series, 11.22.63 (Stephen King's story of a man who travels back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK). Showtime gave us Entourage and Dexter; HBO gave us The Newsroom and The Leftovers. 

According to one source, if you were to sit on a sofa and watch every scripted television program produced last year alone, back to back, without bathroom breaks or sleep, it would take you 185 days to watch every episode of every program. Here are a few links for you to take a couple minutes and check out.

Episodic television is nothing new. The cliffhanger began during the silent era. But the power of the cliffhanger certain gives credence to "binge watching." When I have loads of archival materials to scan on a scanner, I multi-task while catching up with the latest episodes of some really great programming.

At a silent film festival last year, where hundreds of film buffs with a strong appreciation for old silent movies (pre-1929 to be exact), we do not spend lunch and dinner breaks discussing the rare gems we watched on the big screen. We chat about the recent chapters in the episodic Walking Dead. I may enjoy watching old movies and old TV shows but I still enjoy The Flash, Daredevil, Game of Thrones,  Lost, The Walking Dead. So if your friends at work are shocked that you have not yet watched Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead, because you choose to spend your time reading pulp novels of your favorite detectives, or relax at home with a cup of hot tea and an old black and white Preston Sturges movie, remember that there is no physical way you can watch every TV show ever produced, or watch every old black and white movie ever made, or read every novel ever written.

So enjoy what gives you simple pleasure and do not make the opinions of others personal. You have taste and consider yourself a connoisseur. There is nothing wrong with that.

Friday, November 18, 2016

My Christmas Gift to You

Any flat disc record, made between (circa) 1898 and 1959 and playing at a speed around 78 revolutions per minute is referred to today by collectors as a "78." The materials of which these discs were made and with which they were coated were also various; shellac eventually became the most common of materials. Generally 78s are made of a brittle material which uses a shellac resin (which is why collectors also refer to them as shellac records). During and after World War II when shellac supplies were extremely limited (used for the war cause), many 78 rpm records were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac.

In 1948, Columbia Records unveiled the 33 1/3 RPM long playing record. It played for about 20 minutes per side. Then came the battle of the speeds. RCA in 1949 began offering records (and record players) that played at 45 revolutions per minute.

If asked how much these discs are worth, there really is no set guide to determine the value. Anyone with the correct record player can play these recordings and they are a dime a dozen at antique fairs and eBay.

After two months of cataloging more than 3,000 of the old 33s, 45s and 78s to CD format, and separating those with a holiday theme, I loaded more than 300 Christmas songs onto a streaming playlist for you to enjoy. In the spirit of of mixtape from years gone by, I found a modern way to bring these songs to the masses for the holiday season, without having to burn hundreds of CDs. 

If you are like me, every holiday you tune to a local radio station that traditionally plays the same Christmas songs over and over and over... and yeah, it gets tedious hearing the same recordings every year. Christmas is a time to establish a fond look back through nostalgic vocals and my frustration grows knowing that Gene Autry's rendition of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Bing Crosby's White Christmas is going to play on rotation... again and again.

What you will hear on this streaming radio station (accessible with a simple click of a button on your computer, iPad, tablet, iPhone, etc.) are vintage Christmas offerings all dated pre-1960 and chances are you haven't heard these renditions. Examples include:

I Want Eddie Fisher for Christmas (1954, Betty Johnson)
Frosty the Snowman (1950, Guy Lombaro and his Orchestra)
Santa and the Doodle-Li-Boop (1954, Art Carney)
I Want You for Christmas (1937, Mae Questel as Betty Boop)
All Around the Christmas Tree (1940, Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra)
Barnyard Christmas (1952, Spike Jones and The Bell Sisters)
The Birthday of a King (1949, Judy Garland)
Jingle Bells (1935, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra)
It Happened in Sun Valley (1941, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra)
Christmas in Killarney (1950, Dennis Day with The Mellowmen)
The First Noel (1942, Nelson Eddy and Robert Armbruster's Orchestra)
Let's Start the New Year Right (1942, Bing Crosby)
Hello, Mr. Kringle (1939, Kay Kyser)
Jingle Bells (1934, Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra, and Harriet Hilliard)
All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth (1949, Danny Kaye and Patty Andrews)
Yah, Das Ist Ein Christmas Tree (1953, Mel Blanc)
Silent Night (1921, Florence Easton)
Silver Bells (1938, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys)
Christmas on the Plains (1949, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans)
The Night Before Christmas (1952, Gene Autry and Rosemary Clooney)
O Come, All Ye Faithful (1938, Frances Langford)
Boogie Woogie Santa Claus (1950, Patti Page)
Happy Little Christmas Friend (1953, Rosemary Clooney)
Ol' Saint Nicholas (1949, Doris Day)
A Ride in Santa's Sleigh (1953, Judy Valentine)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1934, Harry Reser)
Santa Claus is on His Way (1941, Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra)
Silent Night (1940, Kate Smith)
Suzy Snowflake (1951, Rosemary Clooney)
Auld Lang Syne (1939, Erwin Bendel with Tiny Till and his Orchestra)
Baby, It's Cold Outside (1949, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan)
Christmas Day (1952, Eddie Fisher)
Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (1941, Dick Roberston)
Merry Christmas Polka (1949, Guy Lombardo and The Andrews Sisters)
I'll Be Home for Christmas (1947, Eddy Howard)
Five Pound Box of Money (1959, Pearl Bailey)
The Man with the Whiskers (1938, Hoosier Hot Shots)
March of the Toys (1939, Tommy Dorsey)
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (1938, Kenny Baker)
I Want You for Christmas (1937, Russ Morgan)
The Kissing Bridge (1953, The Fontane Sisters and Perry Como)
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952, Molly Bee)
Here Comes Santa Claus (1949, Doris Day)
I Believe in Santa Claus (1955, The Mills Brothers)
Little Sandy Sleighfoot (1957, Jimmy Dean)
The Man with the Bag (1950, Kay Starr)
Merry Christmas Waltz (1949, Gordon MacRae)
Christmas Alphabet (1954, The McGuire Sisters)
Let It Snow, Let It Snow (1946, Bob Crosby)
I Saw Mommy do the Mombo (1954, Jimmy Boyd)
The Mistletoe Kiss (1948, Primo Scala and The Keynotes)
My Christmas Song for You (1945, Hoagy Carmichael and Martha Mears)
Christmas Night in Harlem (1934, Todd Rollins and his Orchestra)

Among the highlights you will hear "I Want a Television Christmas" by Mindy Carson (which happens to be a 1949 RCA sales promo), the 1953 Christmas Dragnet spoof with Daws Butler and Stan Freberg, a 1953 commercial recording of Amos and Andy's popular "The Lord's Prayer," Basil Rathbone narrating a musical rendition of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (1942), Bing Crosby's 1942 version of "White Christmas" (not the 1947 re-recording you commonly hear on radio today), Jerry Colonna's 1953 take on "Too Fat for the Chimney," the 1934 version of "Winter Wonderland" performed by Richard Himber (the first recording ever made of that song), and other rarities.

Of the 300 plus recordings, you will no doubt hear the same song (such as "Winter Wonderland" and "The First Noel") performed multiple times but each rendition with a different singer.  

Many familiar songs but with unfamiliar renditions from your favorite singers. (Believe me, I will have this radio station playing all day at home, and streaming through my iPhone when I travel during the holiday season.) The radio station will expire January 1 so enjoy this while it lasts. And I hope this musical yule log not only suits your palate, but many of these songs become a favorite of yours. My Christmas present to you.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Doctor Strange 2016 Movie Review

Having seen every movie produced by Marvel Studios since Iron Man, this reviewer can attest that the studio continues to follow a basic formula to avoid the cookie-cutter pitfall: "Do something different in each movie." Avoiding predictability, Marvel has made sure each of their movies provided a different type of comic book adaptation, while merging on occasion cross-over characters. 

In the Iron Man movie, for example, Tony Stark is barely Iron Man... he is Tony Stark embarking on a journey of self-discovery. Captain America: The Winter Soldier was a reboot of the franchise without gruff army commanders, German Nazis, big band music and propaganda posters, while masquerading as a political thriller. For Doctor Strange, the studio opted to make a motion picture on a grand scale while at the same time remaining small in the grand scheme of things. 

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange
While sorcerers are able to manipulate the world ala Inception (2010), providing the viewers with an acid trip (a must-see in 3-D and I personally am not a fan of 3-D), the entire world-shaping events unfold in a fraction of a second and through mirrors... the average Joe Q. Public is unaware of the forces of evil combatting against each other within a blink of an eye.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfect in the role of Stephen Strange, a prominent surgeon with an ego bigger than his heart. His foolish pride proves to be his inevitable downfall and when life spirals out of control after an auto accident (a public service announcement reminding the audience not to text and drive), he resorts to spirituality. What he seeks in Nepal turns out to be a mind-blowing out-of-body experience (literally) and promptly begs for more. A trip through the cosmos opens his eyes to new worlds and only after his training has begun does he discover there are factors of evil salivating for that brief moment to conquer the Earth. A number of fanciful wizardry and CGI marvels unfold a number of times until Doctor Strange proves a way to void bloodshed and violence... and finds it in his heart to make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save the lives of millions. It is here that the movie concludes not with a shoot 'em up battle consisting of an army of darkness like you would expect in a movie adapted from a series of comic books, but with a brilliant strategy that makes the craft of storytelling all the more enjoyable.

The acid-tripping technicolor sequence is also a brilliant not to artist Steve Ditko, one of two people credited for creating Doctor Strange. (The other credit goes to Stan Lee who, as expected, makes another gracious on-screen cameo.) There is a shot of the Avengers tower in the background in an early scene of the movie. (Blink and you will miss it.) There is a moment where off-the-side references to other Marvel characters are made such as Lodestone and Nebula, and one of Justin Hammer's henchmen from Iron Man 2. The wi-fi password handed to Strange, "Shamballa," comes from a story arc titled "Into Shamballa" from the comic books in which Strange had the opportunity to usher in a new age for mankind and choose not to accept responsibility for the offering.

Oddly, Strange went to Nepal and not Tibet to learn his new talent... possibly one of the many cultural non-acceptance policies now in effect since China purchased much of Hollywood a couple years ago. One observation, which pleased me greatly, was Marvel's avoidance of incorporating scenes in the movie that set up stories for future sequels. In Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Marvel insisted on having scenes of Thor seeking visions of things to come, setting up the stage for Thor 3, which were not essential to the continuity of the Ultron plot.

Unlike Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman, which proved to be major duds among critics and fans, Doctor Strange is great popcorn movie and if both Marvel and Disney keep up with this track record they will have a winning recipe for the faithful who line up to buy their tickets at the box office.