Friday, June 23, 2017

Brooklyn Dodgers and the Fox Film Corporation

Two new books crossed my desk in the past two weeks, delivered by the friendly neighborhood postman and the authors of these magnificent tomes. Merrill T. McCord, the former editor of the Journal of Medical Education and author of numerous academic books, frequents the good old days of Hollywood movie making with articles that have appeared in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images. His recent book, a massive hard cover totaling more than 670 pages, documents the history of the Fox Film Corporation during the silent movie-making era. William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation: A Biography and a Chronicle stands alone as the only book you will ever want to have regarding the silent era of the Fox Film Corporation. A pleasant read, indeed. 

To accomplish this task, along with documenting the first 378 films produced at Fox from 1914 to 1925, Merrill visited every film archive across the country to screen the silent classics, take notes and make sure the cast and production crew were documented extensively -- and accurately. Since only about 30 percent of silent features and presumably similar proportions of silent shorts, serials and newsreels have survived in some form, researchers studying the era of silent films and the people involved in making them have to rely substantially on information in film trade publications of that period and in whatever old studio documents that can be accessed. Merrill had to decipher the difference between studio publicity hype and the real deal.

There is a fantastic 220 page history of the Fox Film Corporation, the actors under contract, the budgets, props, staged Movietones, John Ford and many other aspects that branded the studio from the competition. Series features, movie theaters, schemes and confrontations... it is all here. I could go on for numerous pages about how fantastic this book is but I will save you the trouble and just say that every movie buff should have a copy of this book.

William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation (2016) by Merrill T. McCord was published by Alhambra Publishers, 10208 Fleming Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. Drop them a line and inquire about purchasing a copy today.

David Krell, a freelance journalist, author and attorney, a member of SABRA and the bar in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has established a high reputation for superb books about America's favorite pastime. His latest book, Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture (2015), was published through McFarland Publishing. The story of the Brooklyn Dodgers includes personal stories from fans who embraced Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella and other icons of Ebbets Field. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary press accounts and fan interviews, David chronicled the glory and demise of the team that changed baseball and America. The historical retrospective is broken down in nine chapters, referred to as innings, with statistics, comparison of the real life playbook to Hollywood movies, radio and television broadcasts, and much more.

The bibliography is a wealth of information for any fan of baseball history -- books and references that I myself have never heard of. "To be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the 1950s was to experience magic," David remarked in chapter one. He demonstrates this with more than 200 pages of fantastic prose. If you love the history of baseball, you will enjoy reading this book.


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Both Merrill and David will be guest speakers at this year's Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, September 14 to 16, 2017. For more information visit: www.MidAtlanticNostalgiaConvention.com

Friday, June 9, 2017

WILLIE WHOPPER and THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN

Two obscurities of vintage cinema have recently been released to DVD and through lesser-known independent distributors. While a few in the hobby tend to dismiss anything released under an independent label, these two offerings are proof that the best restoration jobs can be made available through the efforts of fan boys who want to see the films restored properly. The Mysterious Airman is a 1928 silent serial that was once thought to be "lost," featuring biplanes and exciting action with screen icons Walter Miller and Eugenia Gilbert. Produced by the Weiss Brothers, only the first reel of chapter nine is still considered missing, reconstructed from stills and a plot synopsis. An aircraft corporation is under attack by a band of mysterious flyers, whose leader is known as "Pilot X." It takes a hero willing to risk his life to unmask the identity of the villain, and their motives.

Few silent serials exist today and many of them are incomplete, missing segments and whole chapters. Originally part of the holdings of Kit Parker with his acquisition of Weiss Global International in 2004, Parker was approached by film archivist Jeff Joseph of SabuCat Productions, who offered to loan a near-complete original 35mm tinted nitrate print. Dr. Andrew Simpson of the Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia, produced a new piano score. A commentary track is also available on the disc from historian Richard M. Roberts. (Last month I had my DVD cover insert autographed by Richard personally.)

Of recent a number of silent serials have begun making their way to DVD for fans and collectors to purchase and view. While a number of them have been "altered," such as replacing the original dialogue cards with new ones in an effort to watermark or brand the print, purists prefer to view the films as they were meant to be seen  -- unaltered. But sometimes artist interpretation of "restoration" versus "alteration" is loosely interchanged. Thankfully the Sprocket Vault has released The Mysterious Airman to DVD as a true restoration -- the type of restoration we fanboys wish all silent films received. No alterations. You can purchase your copy here:

Willie Whopper has come to DVD and BluRay (as a combo pack) and fans of vintage animation can enjoy all 14 animated classics from UB Iwerks, produced in the 1930s, from the best surviving masters. Among the highlights are both Willie Whopper cartoons made in Cinecolor, Davy Jones' Locker and Hell's Fire, taken from the original camera negatives. Unseen for over 80 years except as black and white or faded dupes, these two cartoons are again presented in all their two-color glory. Like The Mysterious Airman, the picture quality is superb on every level. 

As if a major restoration from archival elements was not enough, both the DVD and BluRay contain a number of bonus extras such as the script for a never-produced Willie Whopper cartoon, original production art, a gallery of stills, a 12-page booklet documenting the history of the cartoon character, a few bonus cartoons and audio from the 78s (jazz recordings which were featured in the animated cartoons). 

Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean continues to work alongside film archives to digitally restore vintage animated cartoons. Most of the cartoons he put out are in the public domain which means the former owners would never consider spending thousands of dollars or man hours restoring old cartoons that -- in the minds of studio heads -- have no financial value. Here, Steve partnered with Blackhawk Films and UCLA to obtain the best materials to work with. Being UB Iwerks productions the cartoons are not brilliant gems -- but the best of the Willie Whopper cartoons warrant viewing. Steve is presently working on a restoration of every Flip the Frog cartoon ever made (from 35mm elements), along with the ComiColor series. I will be among the many to purchase a copy of each to continue showing my support. I recommend you send a thank you note to Steve for providing this service by purchasing a copy of the DVD/BluRay combo pack today. Financial support helps with future projects.

You can purchase a copy here:

Disclaimer: Unlike most products, these DVDs were not sent to me with the request of a review on my blog. I purchased these on my own accord to help support the endeavors of The Sprocket Vault and Thunderbean Animation.

   

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Move Over Lynda Carter... Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman

Move over Lynda Carter. There is a new gal in town and her name is Gal Gadot. For a generation that never grew up with the television icon, the Israeli-born actress (who was born when Wonder Woman was in reruns) will become the fanboy favorite this summer. Anyone who saw the movie trailers over the past eight months could tell this was going to be a winner and what you saw is what you get.

In dramatic fashion we have a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origin, rescuing Steve Trevor on Paradise Island (a.k.a. Themyscira), and upon learning of the pain and suffering from the War to End All Wars, suspects manipulation by the hand of Ares, the Greek God of War, her sworn enemy. Venturing into the real world Diana Prince has to adjust to a sexist society where women perform secretarial tasks and struggle for the right to vote. Along the way her stubbornness and determination to right the unjust of war-torn travesty (weeping mothers, maimed soldiers, etc.) establishes the ground rules for future superhero charisma. And along the way she learns something about herself in the process.


While the British and the Germans are discussing the terms of Armistice, Steve Trevor attempts to warn his superiors of impending doom by Ludendorff and “Dr. Poison” to create an ultimate weapon that would turn the tide in the Germans’ favor. Naturally, the British maintain a stiff upper lip and dismiss Steve’s warnings. Leave it to Wonder Woman to take control of the situation by striding onto a battlefield (known as “No Man’s Land”) and fight the good fight. Before there can be peace, there must be war.

Created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist credited for inventing the lie detector, the character of Wonder Woman established an early feminist movement representing a peaceful force in society, gender relations and sexual freedom. The recurring theme in the comics was of Wonder Woman restrained, eventually freeing herself from the bondage of her enemies, submission in the subconscious form. Interjected a number of times in the movie we see Diana respecting a newfound appreciation of matrimony, while at the same time insisting women do not have to be secretaries and champions for female independence. If Marston was alive today he would have appreciated the subtle nods within the script.

Dr. Poison, as anyone who read the comic books know, worked for a poison division of the Nazi Party during World War II, attempting to poison the U.S. Army’s water and clog the carburetors of U.S. airplanes. She is partially masked throughout the movie, suggesting one of her past experiments went horribly wrong. When she is eventually unmasked the gruesomeness was obviously toned down for the younger viewers. An early scene with Steve Trevor exiting a pool of healing water reveals nothing but a suggestive appetite between Diana and her future boyfriend, but Chris Pine, while perfectly fitting for the rogue, is a tad bit old for the role.


Which brings me to the question of why a World War I setting, rather than World War II, as initially conceived back in 1941? I get that Diana Prince is the daughter of Zeus, as conceived in DC’s New 52 series, but the Kaiser could have been referred to as Der Fuhrer, war-torn Belgium could have been referred to as France, and a change of uniforms and flags would have been all that was needed to create a World War II setting. According to one source at Warner Brothers, the second Wonder Woman movie will take place during the Second World War.

In an era when Jessica Chastain blasts the lack of female representation in Hollywood, and when Black Widow (of Marvel’s The Avengers) cannot even get her own action figure, Diana’s sacred duty to rid the world of war comes at a price. Warner backed their money with a strong promotional campaign and time will tell how large a reward.


While this may not live up to the standards of Marvel’s popcorn movies, which entertain with tongue-in-cheek mercenaries, and Warner’s attempt to differentiate their comic property from that of Marvel by employing what fanboys refer to as “DC stands for Dark Cinema,” this movie has plenty of color. War sequences and trench warfare are not overblown with glory and pride as demonstrated prior in Wings (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but rather through the lens of the dimmed hopelessness of an occupied village seeking deliverance. What they received was Wonder Woman standing up against the oppressors, insisting to man and woman alike that you either stand by and do nothing, or you take a stand.

Much of the movie is a playbook on time-period action films and with the exception of the set-up and the closer I have to admit we’ve seen this all before. Old hat while Diana Prince attempts to assimilate into normal society. Stands in the way of an automobile? Check. Loves newborn babies and thinks they were molded out of clay? Check. Walking around society with sword and shield for humor that only children will find funny? Check. But the shining moments come when Wonder Woman steps out of the trenches and takes a stand against the Germans, unrelenting fierceness while authentically seductive at the same time. We will always have Lynda Carter but Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman.

Closer
There is no post credits sequence. When the closing credits start to roll, you can leave with your empty candy wrappers and unfinished popcorn.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Death of the MP3 Format

With progression comes the inevitable. The format known as mp3, used to listen to music on iPods and iPhones, which some collectors use to store their old-time radio programs, is considered dead. That's the official statement from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the German research company that licensed the mp3 patent to software developers. There can be no dispute that the mp3 format, a form of compression for audio files, when joined with the Apple iPod, changed the way millions listened to music.

What is mp3? The simplest way to describe it without going into scientific jargon is to compress an audio file from one size down to a smaller file size and maintain as much of the original sound as possible. Storage was, for over two decades, an issue when it came to collecting record albums and compact discs. A CD could only hold 70+ minutes so for collectors of old-time radio programs only two half-hour recordings could fit onto a single CD. When compressed to mp3 format, 18 half-hour programs could fit onto a single CD. 

How does this work? The simplest way to explain this is imagine taking an five-minute audio recording and breaking it down into one million bits of info. One long string consisting of one million bits. Now take away every other bit away and play it back and you'd never notice. As a friend of mine once explained, it would be like running an old movie from a 16mm projector with one out of every ten frames removed. Considering a projector plays back a movie 24 frames a second, would you notice the difference? Probably not.


There are many rates of compression for mp3 and some are much better than others. Collectors of old-time radio programs for years used software on computers to compress recordings of radio programs into mp3 files, many unaware that they used the wrong compression causing digital artifacts to the soundtrack. As far as they were concerned, the smaller the file -- the better. In fact, most of the radio programs you download off the internet are horrible because of the terrible rate of compression. Not a month goes by someone isn't on Facebook asking where they can find better sound because what they downloaded sounds terrible. From an archival standpoint, wav format (which is what is used on standard CDs) is considered the required format. Last year at a preservation conference with more than 300 librarians across the country gathered in the same spot, it was voted unanimously that mp3 was not an archival format.

All of which led to a dispute among collectors of old-time radio. Which format is the best? Almost everyone agrees wav format is essential from an archiving standpoint but the smallest fraction in the hobby believed mp3 should be the norm. (I would like to note that supporters of mp3 were in favor because wav format took way too long to download off the internet for free, especially if they used dial-up, and they justified the horrible sound quality for the money they did not pay. As one was quoted last year of saying, "It's old, so shouldn't it sound old?")

In a statement from Fraunhofer, "there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today." As I mentioned, technology advances and what was a starting point for Steve Jobs and his revolution that 300 songs could fit on a single iPod device and thus eliminate the bulky portable cassette players, is now considered obsolete.

There are multiple new formats that collectors have been experimenting with. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is considered the successor of MP3, used for iTunes and other music-streaming services. When someone uploads a video on YouTube, the audio is also converted to AAC, to ensure a smaller audio file (thus quick download to stream), then synched with the video. Collectors of old-time radio have been re-shifting their focus on Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) but there are again a number of critics. As one remarked recently, "It is still a compressed file using less kilobytes so I cannot understand how an audio file of smaller size can maintain the high standard of wav. There still has to be something missing. After all, I can only load so much into my car before the windows break. A compressed pillow loses something after being squished in size over time."


All of this does not mean mp3 files are no longer going to work. It simply means that all the major companies that license the mp3 technology for use on their websites and products have moved on to a better format. For the few who use an mp3 player, a CD player or DVD player to listen to their audio files... sound systems that are capable of playing mp3 format may eventually vanish over time. 

Me, I prefer to maintain wav format. Not only is it archival but the fact I can have a little more than 10,000 wav files on a 3TB external hard drive the size of a VHS video cassette is a blessing because that is 5,000 CDs on my shelves that are no longer taking up room. If I want to listen to old-time radio programs I merely connect the drive to my computer and burn a copy onto a blank CD, transfer them to my smart phone to listen to whenever I want, or stream it from my computer to any device in and outside of the house. A friend last month saw my twelve external hard drives and insisted I should take the thousands of man-hours to convert the files to mp3 or FLAC so the amount of material on three drives would fit onto two. (Yeah, I don't think that is going to happen. Really? All that work to lose sound quality and save eight inches of shelf space? Nah.)

Commentary
Last week someone wanted their VHS videos of family home movies converted to DVD. I asked if they still had the Super 8 reels because transferring from those reels to DVD would be better than converting from 30-year-old VHS videos that already suffer from magnetic breakup. No, they threw the reels away after they had them transferred to VHS. I mention the futility of this story as it leads to a question I now ponder.

For the few people in the hobby who kept scolding me about not converting my recordings to mp3 like "the rest of the world," not understanding I have superior sound quality from archival masters and never entertained the thought of compressing audio files to something inferior (and now obsolete), I guess they have to reconsider the next phase of audio formats. But are they going to be working from a compressed file (mp3) or from archival transfers (wav)?  

Friday, May 19, 2017

Association for Recorded Sound Collections, 2017

Matthew Barton, president of ARSC
Last year ARSC (The Association for Recorded Sound Collections) celebrated their 50th anniversary and I absent-mindedly forgot to make a mention of recognition on this blog. This past weekend ARSC held their 51st annual conference so I hope to rectify that oversight with a brief review. Every year the event is held in a different city in the United States and this year's conference, May 11 to 13, was held in San Antonio, Texas. As this was an opportunity for me to see The Alamo which was located across the street from the hotel (literally), and try authentic Texas steak, I took advantage of the conference by sight-seeing as any tourist would do.

The conference plays host to more than 250 attendees, the majority are curators of special collections for recorded sound across the country. Syracuse University, Indiana University, the University of Texas and the Library of Congress are all represented, among many others. Here the casual attendee can hobnob with special collectors who conduct online auction houses, editors of national magazines and scholarly journals, and private collectors with extensive databases of warehousing. As expected when I attended the Radio Preservation Task Force last year, I was probably the only old-time radio researcher at this conference. Almost everyone was an archivist or wholesale collector. Just attending one of these events is a chance to make connections and exchange contact information with good folks who are trying to make an effort to transfer archival holdings to digital form. For the few people in this hobby who research old-time radio programs of the 1930s through the 1950s, I am shocked I am the only one in attendance. 


Many of the slideshow presentations report with status updates on the digitization efforts of major holdings in academic institutions. Very uplifting, for sure. Presentations included such subjects as "Expert Transfer Techniques: A Special Focus on Mechanical Discs," "Analysis of Audio Restoration Software Plugins and Programs" and "Modeling Metadata for Sound Archives." Geeky stuff for those who know what metadata is, but there were some fascinating subjects such as John Tefteller's presentation of long-lost Marx Brothers recordings, with samples and snippets of recently discovered "list" recordings, and Steve Smolian's recent discoveries of Victor Herbert's recording career. 

Of extreme interest, with video captured on my smartphone, was the slide show presentation by Tim Brooks who discussed the limitations and restrictions of how to deal with copyrights in the age of digital scholarship. Tim laid down the basic ABCs and rules for use of copyrighted audio materials in videos, presentations and exhibits, for digital dissemination of musical scholarship. I shared this video on a number of Facebook groups with the hope that it clarifies the misconceptions collectors have with copyrights.

Attending the conference was beneficial for a number of reasons, besides exchanging contacts (i.e. networking). Here I discovered archives I did not know existed, including what vintage radio broadcasts are housed at archives across the nation, how some libraries are using Amazon web services for streaming and storage, the question of speed is variable, conversation of scale, the recent processing of such collections as the Gloria Swanson papers/recordings and the Fulton Lewis Jr. collection, preservation assessments and intellectual value, how libraries create subclasses of performance, and (for me, at least) the acquisition of copies of a radio program titled Bill Scott, Forest Ranger (1946-1947) which I never knew existed.

(Left to Right) Tim Brooks, Sammy Jones and Bruce Epperson

I met William Robert Vanden Dries, who was kind enough to share with me his 2014 dissertation, "Collaborative Practices Employed by Collectors, Creators, Scholars and Collecting Institutions for the Benefit of Recorded Sound Collections." A superb 140-page scholarly analysis between the diversity and collaboration between collectors and archivists, a must-read for anyone who is into the hobby of old-time radio. As verified in his thesis and during one of the seminars, librarians do not look at collectors as vultures, but as custodians and are appreciative of their efforts. That said, at fan gatherings consisting primarily of collectors there seems a sense of animosity against library archives that (in the minds of collectors) are hoarding recordings and restricting access. Many collectors with large collections have at one time or another considered donating their vast holdings to a university or college library but then hesitated with the fear that such collections will gather dust for centuries. One of the slideshow presentations this weekend clarified, from a librarian's view, the necessity of a detailed inventory and cataloging system. The setback to vast holdings is the lack of proper labels or inventory needed to process the collection so they can be made available for researchers. As stated by Allison Bohm McClanahan of Indiana University, "If there is an inventory, they will be made available quickly. Your stuff will be processed efficiently."

Next year's event will be held in my back yard, Baltimore, Maryland, so I look forward to attending next year's event. For those curious to attend such a conference and cannot wait until May, there will be another Radio Preservation Task Force conference in Washington, D.C., in November. Details can be found here:

For more information about ARSC, including information about becoming a member, click here:

Friday, May 12, 2017

BLOOD 'N' THUNDER: The Final Issue

Winter/Spring 2016 issue
Over the years I probably subscribed to more than 100 fanzines and magazines, most of them now defunct as a result of an aging fanbase. I still receive subscriptions to five magazines and six club newsletters but it appears one of those magazines has closed the books. Blood 'n' Thunder, whose aim was to appeal to collectors of pulp magazines, old-time radio, cliffhanger serials, film noir and other retro pop culture just released the final issue, number 49/50, Fall 2016. Edited and managed by Ed Hulse, whose prose and skill at writing and presenting the facts is academic and pleasing to the eyes, provided fifteen years of pleasurable reading. Whether it be exploring the origins and roots of Tarzan in The All-Story magazine, or exploring a silent cliffhanger serial such as The Diamond from the Sky (1915), there was plenty in each issue to keep me reading for hours. Long flights on an airplane or a few hours to kill on the back porch... I always had an issue of Blood 'n' Thunder on hand.

2013-2014 Special Edition
In the final issue, Ed Hulse provides a fascinating story of how the magazine came to be, the good folks who invested money into the production, and the tens of thousand son hours Ed devoted to researching a subject for articles. A two-part article on Street & Smith entailed reading hundreds of issues which gobbled up his spare time for months. As Ed explained, numerous factors including a busy life prevented him from releasing the latest issue of his magazine at each of the pulp conventions, which he did routinely for years. So he decided to throw in the towel. As Gary Larson once remarked, better to quit while you are still on a roll than to run dry and thin.

I could not speak enough about Ed's magazine. While I manage to read all of the club newsletters and fanzines (average 16 pages) that come through my office every month, magazines (average 102 pages) Blood 'n' Thunder was the only magazine that I would read from cover to cover. For one magazine (which I will keep nameless because I do not want to disappoint the editor) I have two years of issues piled up and the motivation to read the articles is not strong enough for me to challenge through them. I will one day. 

Summer 2016 issue
On the plus side, many back issues are available on Amazon.com and from Ed's site, muraniapress.com, and I recommend you buy a few. The latter issues are "bookazines," which are referred to in the industry as books with multiple contributors to simulate a double and triple magazine issue. While they may cost $14.95 and $24.95, you are buying what is essentially a book. And Ed Hulse disclosed his intentions of releasing such "bookazines" in the future, each resolving under a single theme and with no steady release date like a magazine subscription. I look forward to his one proposal about the Crime Club series (a series of movies based on mystery novels).

I look forward to reading magazines and fanzines when they arrive in my mail box. That thrills has not diminished in decades. My question is this: even while clubs and organizations make the switch to offer digital copies of their newsletters and magazines, which also diminishes my need for additional bookshelves, just when will print magazines become a thing of the past? 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Actor Don Gordon, Dead at Age 90

This one almost flew below the radar. Actor Don Gordon left us on April 24, 2017, at the age of 90. A proper death notification for celebrities is usually provided by a family relative or the executor of an estate. The fact that someone has not yet come forth to provide an official statement about Gordon's untimely passing is not uncommon. At least a dozen celebrities pass away and with no one making the effort to issue a formal statement, news can take days or weeks until it catches wind. Only now word is getting out but at the time of this posting if you visit Google you will not find any obituaries in any trades. 

Don Gordon was a character actor who worked alongside Steve McQueen in a number of movies including Bullet (1968), Papillion (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974). Gordon appeared in numerous television programs ranging from The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, 77 Sunset Strip, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, Peyton Place, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, The Wild Wild West, Cannon and Barnaby Jones, among others. It was his appearance on Wanted: Dead or Alive that supposedly generated their strong friendship in the industry. His guest spot on television's The Defenders won him an Emmy nomination.

I would like to point out a factoid that hopefully will prevent an error that I can easily see occurring on the Internet. This is the same Don Gordon who played a recurring role on TV and radio's SPACE PATROL but he was not the same Don Gordon who was an announcer for radio's TOM MIX and CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

They Call It "Free Comic Book Day"

His name was Joe Field, owner of Flying Colors Comics in Concord, California, a retail store selling comic books, tee shirts and action figures. The comic book industry was suffering from a financial drop in sales during the late 1990s and, inspired by a long line of customers standing outside Baskin Robbins waiting patiently to take advantage of the "free scoop tonight" promotion, wondered if the same thing could happen with his business. Writing a monthly column for an industry trade magazine, Field proposed Free Comic Book Day.
In any business the question comes down to "How will I make money if I give away the product?" It was Field who proposed that non-comic book buyers would visit the store if they knew they could get something for free and... hopefully get hooked on an on-going storyline and pay repeat visits to the store. 
On May 4, 2002, the first event was held across the county. The new Spider-Man movie was about to be released in theaters and Marvel wanted to take advantage of the publicity by offering a free Spider-Man comic book that weekend. That tradition has been the strength of Free Comic Book Day ever since.
From Iron Man to The Avengers to Captain America: Civil War, special issues have been printed and distributed to participating comic book stores across the country as tie-ins with the major motion pictures. Always held on the first weekend of May, you can look up the name and location of your nearest comic book store and pay them a visit Saturday morning. No strings attached, no purchase necessary. Some even have free pizza and celebrity comic book artists. With Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 scheduled for release this weekend, I can see no reason why there would not be free issues of Guardians being offered.
Behind the scenes, having asked retailers what the scoop was in the fine print, comic books given away on Free Comic Book Day are not free. Retailers have to pay between 12 and 50 cents per issue, depending on the issues. But retailers hope their investment pays off. One store near me has such a large turnout that Free Comic Book Day is guaranteed profit in the bank. Action figures, trade paperbacks, Christmas ornaments and costumes are taken off the shelf and purchased so quick that staff spends a good part of the afternoon restocking the shelves. As one retailer told me, "Dude, this store does better on Free Comic Book Day than Black Friday." 
Of amusement is fans who dress up in costume for Free Comic Book Day. Cosplay has becoming the norm for comic cons and one of these cosplayers once told me, "I can gauge how good my costume is by the number of times people want to take a photo of me. If I do not get any photos taken today, I need a better costume."
If you are not a steady reader of comic books, don't sweat. But take advantage of Free Comic Book Day on Saturday morning and browse the selection of titles. You might be surprised how comic book stores do not just sell comic books these days...

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Jonny Quest Soundtrack: Really? 3,000 Units?

Cover of the La-La Land commercial 2-CD set. 
Music never sounded this good. As a fan of Jonny Quest anyone can understand my excitement when, a few weekends ago, a friend told me that the soundtrack to the television series was released commercially on CD. Using my smartphone I quickly put the set into my shopping cart and waited two days until I was home to place the order. There I was about to finalize the order when I discovered the worst case scenario: it was sold out!

In October 2016, La-La Land Records (not to be confused with the movie of similar name) released the original television score for the 1964-65 animated series, Jonny Quest, with music by William Hanna, Joseph Barbera and Hoyt Curtin. The genius of Hoyt Curtin, the same man responsible for The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, is revealed not just in the remastered soundtrack but also a 24-page booklet documenting the development of the music. Jon Burlingame, author of "The Mystery of the Music Men," did a bang-up job with the liner notes. Well worth the $34.95 retail price. And listed on the back of the CD?  "Limited to 3,000."  You read that correctly, only 3,000 CD sets were minted. And there lies the problem. With a full-color booklet, remastered tracks that sound like they were recorded yesterday in the studio and gorgeous packaging, fans of Jonny Quest may find this elusive in the coming years. Thanks to a friend on Facebook I was able to order the CD set from another website. But in the coming months you may find difficulty in seeking out this set for a bargain price. As most of you are aware... when a commercial set of anything goes out of print, the marketplace value grows. And there will certainly be a demand for this set.

A quick bit of trivia for those not aware of how soundtracks work: Every movie and television program includes dialogue, sound effects and music -- each on it own separate track. (Dialogue track, sound effects track and music track.) All three are mixed together to form what is called a composite track, which is heard on the film. This is how movie studios are able to release a music track commercially without the dialogue or sound effects. On certain DVD releases the music track is offered as a bonus, isolated from the dialogue and sound effects. We are so used to VHS, DVD, 16mm prints and other forms of viewing that we sometimes forget that archival prints of movies and television programs often have three tracks separate from the film itself. So for Jonny Quest the music tracks were carefully removed and remastered in a studio.

Seek this one out. An LP record of an additional adventure!
The jazz-infused action scoring, brimming with excitement, were also recycled for use on other Hanna-Barbera cartoons such as Birdman and the Galaxy Trio and The Herculoids. I remember an episode of Space Ghost from the mid-late sixties having the Jonny Quest theme song during an action sequence. Really? Did they not think about using any other score? Did they think young children would not recognize the Jonny Quest theme song? Regardless, all of the original music composed for 23 of the 26 episodes are enclosed on this two-CD set. (Three episodes consisted of music recycled from prior Jonny Quest episodes so there was no need for repetition.) Also included are bonus tracks such as promos, bumpers, art cards and sponsor identification. 

Yes, this is a five-star review. A direct link to the Amazon.com web page for the CD set is enclosed below but I am not sure how beneficial this will be. Unless La-La Land chooses to re-release this set again I recommend fans of Jonny Quest who want to own everything related to the program start shopping. And do not delay.




Friday, April 14, 2017

FM Radio May Become Obsolete Sooner Than You Think

About ten years ago I abandoned FM radio. With the exception of two power outages that required me to use the battery-operated radio on top of my refrigerator to stay connected to the outside world, the majority of my listening originates from Internet radio. Practically every radio station in the country is available to listen via live streaming with a push of a button. If I like the music they play over a radio station at one of the Delaware Beaches, I simply google the station and click "listen now." A radio station in San Francisco that plays 1970s classic rock offers a better selection of songs than the local station here in Pennsylvania. 

In the last few years I found myself listening to CDs so often that I failed to renew my Sirius/XM contract. I enjoyed commercial-free radio and did not mind paying for it. But the Internet offers the same with larger options. With these facts it will come as no surprise to you that the country of Norway, three months ago, did away with FM radio altogether. And according to a recent article in The Telegraph by Henry Bodkin, published April 13, the country of England may be the next to follow.

According to the article, Internet Radio use in the U.K. "is now at record levels, with 48 million adults listening to more than 1bn hours each week in the last three months of 2016, according to industry monitor Rajar. The Government has said that once that milestone is reached it will undertake a review which could result in the FM signal being switched off." Some who read this may laugh but let us be honest: we change with the times or the times change without us. 

At a crab feast this past summer, at my Uncle's house, I overheard retro jazz music playing from the speakers. I asked my Uncle what station he was listening to. He said Pandora. That is the website where you can custom your playing list based on preferences. Type "White Christmas" with Bing Crosby and you will hear multiple songs similar in nature. A cool feature retail stores have picked up on.

At a friend's house last month I observed his 14-year-old daughter listening to music with her iPhone and headphones. I asked her what she was listening to. It was not music. It seems one of her classmates has a weekly radio program on Friday nights and then puts his program on the web as a podcast. She was catching up with a recent broadcast. I asked her if she knew how many listeners he had. She flipped a screen to his home page and showed me the public stats. Her fellow classmate had more than 6,000 unique listeners. Quite a following. I questioned whether she knew how to operate an FM radio because she was a Millennial, born in an era when all communication stems from the Internet.

Incidentally, the one trend I prefer to avoid is politics. Talk radio can be addictive and it is estimated more than half of the factoids expressed over Internet talk radio is inaccurate, giving Snopes.com a run for their money. No greater threat was evident than the recent Presidential election when more than half of the postings on Facebook regarding today's politics were inaccurate. "You don't listen to talk radio?" a friend asked me a few months ago. "Nope," was my response. "Because it's all talk." What I do listen to are comic book geeks discussing their favorite moments of the latest big screen adaptation, with commentary that is often thought-provoking. Walden Hughes has a program on Saturday night focusing on old-time radio. I listen as often as I can over YesterdayUSA.com. To add, last week I was pulling garden weeds while my iPhone was playing Seeds of Awakening, a collection of yoga-themed music someone posted on Soundcloud. 

Which leads me to the thought of the week: statistically the digital revolution is embraced with open arms in growing numbers. But whether you want to listen to Roy Rogers serenade cowgirls, old-time radio programs or Broadway/movie soundtracks, consider exploring your Internet options now. In a few years the United States Government may consider switching off FM signals. A situation considered unthinkable a few years ago will eventually become a reality. Just give it a few years.

Friday, April 7, 2017

New Books, Old Subjects: Book Reviews

Don't you hate it when good books fall under the radar and we almost miss a good thing? That happened last month when I picked up two books about passionate subjects of mine: The Shadow and silver screen cowboys. With today's technology print-on-demand opens the door for good reads that might otherwise be rejected by major publishing houses. The con here is that publicity is trimmed down to a point that one has to shoot a cannon in a crowded street to promote a book. With that in mind I would like to light the fuse and bring to your attention two good books that warrant mention -- books that otherwise might have gone overlooked. 

Ed Hulse, editor and publisher of the award-winning Blood 'n' Thunder magazine, wrote a book extensively covering the cinematic world of The Shadow, a.k.a. Kent Allard, a.k.a. Lamont Cranston. After a thorough retrospective of the pulp rendition, The Shadow Magazine, Ed explores every film short, television pilot and movie rendition of The Shadow. Starting with the Universal film shorts of 1931 and progressing to the 1994 Alec Baldwin movie, the various incarnations of The Shadow are explored: the haunting voice of conscience that doubled as a horror host, the radio announcer who turned detective, the cloaked figure from the 1940 Columbia Pictures cliffhanger serial, the often-comedic rendition from Monogram, the two television pilots (invisible crime fighter and mystic mind-clouder) and plot summaries from un-produced screenplays from the 1980s.

If Ed Hulse was delivering a slide show about the history of The Shadow in cinema, Flickering Shadows: How the Master of Darkness Brightened the Silver Screen would be a transcription from his presentation. Ed provides commentary and opinion about each of the films, trivia regarding budgets and production dates, and sprinkles his work with photographs from promotional posters, press books and glossies.

While there have been books published on the subject of The Shadow, pulps and old-time radio, which incorporated briefs about the motion-pictures, it was great to see a book devoted solely to the motion-pictures under one cover, even if the book comes just under 100 pages. 

You can purchase a copy of the book here:


For many people, the mention of names like Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy and The Lone Ranger bring to mind images of good-guy cowboys of TV's Old West, riding famous horses to chase bad guys across a small black-and-white TV screen. Those same western heroes are also remembered for their iconic status as role models -- heroes who embodied a sense of fair play and standing up for what it right as they championed the cause of the oppressed. As a friend of mine once described, "We had real heroes then. People to look up to and aspire, and every story taught a moral."

Matthew McKenzie wrote Creeds, Codes and Cowboy Commandments, exploring the moral compass that assisted our heroes and icons, which paved the way for a generation of baby boomers who today still live out the values of decent living. As with organizations like the Boy Scouts of America, cowboy heroes established safety clubs that were approved by Parent-Teachers Associations. There was the Roy Rogers Safety Club, for example, with such codes as "Study hard and learn all you can," "Always obey your parents" and "Love God and go to Sunday School regularly." Roy himself, in those film shorts syndicated to theater chains, reminded children that the best members were those who lived up to the values on the back of their membership card. Roy opened those film shorts with a quick prayer to the Lord.

"Roy never passed up an opportunity to do good work," author Bobby Copeland once remarked. "He visited children's hospitals whenever he could, he gave money to lots of charities; he didn't like to talk about it though, he just did these things. He was very concerned about being a good model for kids."

It seemed every cowboy hero had their set of creeds and codes from Buck Jones, The Lone Ranger and Bobby Benson. Such creeds were carefully selected to represent passages of the Holy Bible, pleasing to any concerned parent looking over the shoulder of their little one. Wild Bill Hickok (Guy Madison) had nine rules in The Wild Bill Hickok Deputy Marshal's Code of Conduct, from "I will be neat and clean at all times" to "I will protect the weak and help them." God and country were also included: "I will respect my flag and my country" and "I will attend my place of worship regularly." 

Anyone who took the time to revisit those old telecasts of Howdy Doody know what I am talking about. How many times did Buffalo Bob close the broadcast reminding children: "Don't forget church and Sunday School."

Matt dedicated one chapter for each of the major cowboy heroes, documenting not just the safety clubs, Cowboy Code of Honor and the rules, but also reprinted the collectibles that children received in the mail after writing to the stations and networks. Biblical connections that were the initial inspiration for many of the creeds and codes is unraveled, along with storylines and dialogue from selected episodes. Matt did a great job reminding us that our favorite cowboy stars lived their lives setting a good example. As William Boyd (Hopalong Cassidy) said in an issue of TV-Radio Mirror,  he never drank or smoked because "I'll never willingly disillusion one person who believes in Hoppy."

Matt's book can be purchased here:

Friday, March 31, 2017

BLACK MIRROR: A Modern Day Outer Limits

Never heard of the television series Black Mirror? You should. Many reviewers are quick to praise this bold new television anthology as a modern-day Twilight Zone but the series is more like a modern-day Outer Limits. Each episode contains a completely different story, with different cast, centred around dark and satirical themes that examine modern society, particularly with regard to the unanticipated consequences of new technologies. As executive producer Charlie Brooker best describes it, "They're all about the way we live now – and the way we might be living in 10 minutes' time if we're clumsy."

In the episode "Nosedive," for example, friends and strangers can rate one's social interactions from one to five stars, using their smartphones. The overall approval rating affects social standing, which in turn dictates rent costs and promotions at work. Anything below four stars would not qualify for an apartment in a safe environment such as a residential suburb. When a young socialite attempts to be someone she is not, in an effort to boost her star status, she finds herself rebelling against the consequences established and approved by a society that chooses to judge everyone. (Which ponders the question of how close are we to this dystopian universe? When you apply for a job today, does your potential employer not review your Facebook account to verify good standing?)

Jon Hamm in the superbly-scripted Christmas episode.
In the episode "Men Against Fire," a U.S. Army militant named Stripe accepts a neural implant that helps him identify and sweep out "roaches" -- people who are contaminated and have physically become mutants. During a routine mission, an experimental device sends a shockwave through his brain and he quickly discovers that the "roaches" he and his men have been hunting down are ordinary people. The U.S. Government, in an effort to purge the world of people with genetic differentiation (higher rates of cancer, muscular dystrophy, etc.), brainwashed their soldiers into believing otherwise. Or was the shockwave device manipulating him to into believing "roaches" don't exist when, in fact, they do? The solution to the mystery is revealed at the conclusion but the episode explores something deeper in the end: who specifically has this power of choice?

The basic principal of Black Mirror is that today's technology is a drug and Black Mirror explores the side effects. The difference between delight and discomfort are exemplified in each episode. The episode "Play Test" explores what is real and what is artificially generated when a young man volunteers for an experimental video game that combines the latest in virtual reality. Would suspension of disbelief no longer exist in a world that is too realistic? "Play Test" offers a horrifying look into the future that may become a concern for those hoping to escape into a fantasy world of video games. (My wife was frightened through the entire second half of this episode.)

Three episodes were initially produced in early 2011 and telecast in late 2011 over Channel 4 in England. Having received high ratings and rave reviews from critics, Black Mirror went into production for an additional three episodes, produced in late 2012 for a second season, followed by an extra-length Christmas special telecast in December 2014. Soon after, Netflix picked up the series with six additional episodes for a third season. All 13 episodes are now available for streaming on Netflix.

I would like to mention that the six additional episodes produced by Netflix rose the bar. Netflix executives may have had involvement with story selection this time around. The best of the series are the six produced exclusively for Netflix. (The Christmas episode with Jon Hamm in a guest role was delightful and rewarding.) 

Two time travelers are best of friends in "San Junipero."
My personal favorite is "San Junipero," concerning two female time travelers who meet up in the California-like San Junipero, in 1987. The vibrant nightlife of the locale adds to the attraction and mystery regarding who exactly these women are, where they come from and how they manage to travel through time. Listen carefully as they make verbal references that are almost oblivious and remain unexplained until the final moments. There is a kink in their armor and their existence is threatened not by technology -- but by Mother Nature. The resolution not only exemplifies the best of human nature but is also storytelling at its best. This episode deserves a Hugo Award for "Best Science Fiction of the Year" and it better darn receive a nomination.

A new video game using virtual reality in "Play Test."
Black Mirror may not be generating the "buzz" like Stranger Things and Daredevil, but the program now has a loyal fanbase and has attracted the attention of the Hollywood elite. Bryce Dallas Howard stars in the episode "Nosedive." Hayley Atwell plays the lead in an episode where a woman revives her dead boyfriend by using his social-media history to rebuild his personality inside a synthetic clone. Robert Downey Jr. optioned the episode, "The Entire History of You," for a potential big screen movie adaptation. Jodie Foster is presently directing Rosemarie Dewitt for a fourth season episode, set to debut later this calendar year.


Interesting, it has been reported that Netflix is taking a financial loss every year with their streaming programs, no doubt as a result of the expensive production costs of original programming.  It seems the $9.99 monthly subscription for unlimited streaming is not cost effective. But to remain competitive in a growing landscape of streaming services, Netflix cannot afford to raise their subscription price. With such delights as DaredevilStranger Things and Black Mirror, programs the are more enjoyable than what the major networks provide, streaming subscribers like myself have a difficult time finding an excuse to unsubscribe.