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 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 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.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Kong: Skull Island is a Monster of a Movie

For those with a fondness of monster movies, especially films from of the 1930s through the 1950s, Kong: Skull Island is a loving tribute to a bygone era. For a younger generation that has never watched a Godzilla or King Kong movie, we turn to DVD to be exposed to the classics that we all agree they don't make movies like those anymore... or at least, I used to think so. Kong: Skull Island should not be classified as a horror movie, but rather a monster movie... which will be a delight to a fan base best described by Ron Adams of Monster Bash as a generation of "monster kids." 

The King Kong franchise was launched in 1933 by RKO, followed by a sequel, Son of Kong, later that year. Over the decades the giant ape inspired multiple remakes, sequels and spin-offs (such as King Kong vs. Godzilla, pictured on the right). A period piece to be sure, the depression-era world of New York City suffers from the effects of a giant monkey running across the rooftops and climbing the Empire State Building, in an effort to catch his bearings in a man-made jungle. The original is still fun after all these years and this is why my wife and I rushed out to the theaters to watch was was obviously a reboot. Produced by the same folks who brought us the cool Godzilla film a few years back, I suspected we were in for a treat. What I was curious was whether a younger generation with a distaste for black and white could find a story about a giant monkey as much fun as we recall in our youth? 

This rendition, Kong: Skull Island blends the best of both worlds, providing the retro feel of 1973 Vietnam with a classic story of beauty and the beast. Giant spider? Check. Giant lizards? Check. Isolation on an island dominated by creatures that are practically prehistoric? Check. And of course, there is Kong, the eighth wonder of the world. When a group of scientists employ the U.S. Government to guide them onto an island discovered for the first time through satellite surveillance, they discover the hard way that man is not the dominant species on the planet. A battle for survival is evident but there is a backstory that provides (no spoilers here) a reason why Kong is king... and Kong has heart.

Thanks to Industrial Light & Magic, the special effects are top-notch. The cast, including Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Hiddleston, are perfectly cast. Sure, there are moments where they pay homage to Apocalypse Now and prior Kong movies, but there was something more important during a recent screening of the film: everyone involved with the production shared a love of classic monster movies. 

During the film's final action sequences I found myself doing something I have rarely done when viewing a modern-day movie. I was practically leaning in the chair and routing for one of the monsters... just as I did in my youth when I first watched those retro monster battles on local PBS. Being released in March, Kong: Skull Island will not win much along the way of awards but this is a popcorn movie that takes every monster kid back to an era when going to the movies and routing for your favorite monster during hand-to-hand combat was fun. After all, isn't that why we go to the movies?

If you are sitting on the fence about going to see this movie, go see it. And you absolutely need to wait through the entire closing credits for a teaser that will not disappoint. It's worth waiting for.

Friday, March 17, 2017

What is a Clipping File?

Newspaper clippings and magazine articles are one of many sources historians, scholars and authors rely on for digging into our pop culture past. Often times this involves spending hundreds of hours in archives across the country. One short cut at our disposal are "clipping files," compilations of newspaper clippings and magazine articles highlighting the work of musical groups, actors, actresses, directors and other performing artists. Numerous libraries across the country have clipping files available for researchers. For the historian, clarifying which articles are fluff pieces scripted by a publicity department and which ones have meat and potatoes pose just one of many challenges. But the fact that a clipping file could contain hundreds of vintage articles on a particular subject, gathered in one location, makes such a research trip necessary.

A clipping file is exactly what you think it is. Manilla envelopes and file folders containing anywhere from a few newspaper clippings to hundreds of magazine articles. They could be zeroed copies of old articles or the actual clippings, aged and yellowed. A clipping file on Frank Sinatra, for example, could include dozens of magazine articles about his radio appearances, marriages, movie reviews, and so on.

Before the days of the Internet researchers had to travel out of state to such institutions as the Billy Rose Theater Collection in Lincoln Center in New York City, to browse such clipping files. Flipping through a card catalog listing names of stage plays, motion-pictures, radio and television programs, actors, actresses, directors and playwrights, all one had to do was find the catalog number and request a librarian to pull the files from storage. With a few dollars you could have the contents copied on a photocopier. I remember going through a clipping file on Duffy's Tavern, the radio program, and coming cross a clipping from a New York City newspaper reviewing a stage play with the radio cast reprising their roles. Up to that time a stage play based on the radio program was news to me and this provided enough leads for me to dig further elsewhere. 

Funny story: I remember paying a visit to a library once and a friend was sitting across from me at the table, reading each and every clipping, trying to determine if there was any value to having it photocopied. By the time he got to the third clipping I grabbed the file, shut it closed and handed it to him. "Go copy everything," I told him. Budget be damned. By the end of the day we had a stack of photocopies the size of two telephone books. I could take the copies home and review them on my own time. For $40 in copy fees we saved three days of reading and reviewing, and $40 was far cheaper than two additional nights in a hotel room.   

Thanks to the Internet libraries are now giving serious consideration to scanning the contents of their clipping files and posting PDFs on their websites. This would save researchers considerable expense because the costs involved are many: gas, tolls, hotel and food expenses. Libraries have been slow, however, because red tape is preventing the digitization process from going public. As it was explained to me, one library is concerned about copyright violations. Should a researcher make use of the information in a clipping file online without proper attribution, could the newspaper or magazine that retains copyright of the article file a lawsuit against the library? Another library hesitates posting clipping files on the Internet because they fear it gives patrons another reason why they should not visit the brick and mortar building. Why stay operational if no one is walking through the front doors? A third librarian explained their concern is online piracy. Who is to stop someone from downloading the PDF files and posting them on their own web page rather than provide a link to the library's website?

I know of at least a dozen libraries that have clipping files. To date, a researcher still has to travel to those libraries to browse the files (or pay someone in the local area to visit the library and copy the contents of the files). On the plus side, two archives of clipping files are housed with private collectors/historians and not state and county-funded institutions. Sadly, one of these collectors passed away last year and bestowed his mammoth collection to me. I made two trips to his widow's house (five hours travel each direction) to fetch the collection. Systematically -- and with slow progression -- I am having all of these clipping files scanned into PDF files. And to ensure they are preserved, the files are backed up on an external hard drive and a dropbox account. By the end of this calendar year the entire collection should be scanned into PDF files by subject matter (Jack Benny, Bob Hope, Musical Steelmakers, Sky King, etc.) including my own personal collection of clipping files and those of another old-time radio historian who recently "cleaned house."

This blog entry was designed for two purposes: anyone researching vintage movies, stage plays, radio or television programs may want to consider searching clipping files for additional leads. (I know of authors/historians who did not know what a clipping file was until I told them.) Second, while the scanning process at libraries has yet to commence, legal red tape starting to be regarded as a minor deterrent so we may have something cool to look forward to in the future. In the meantime, here are links for two clipping files for your amusement.

Agnes Moorehead Clipping File

Edward R. Murrow Clipping File

Friday, March 10, 2017

HAVE GUN-WILL TRAVEL Acknowledged by Oscar

Two weeks ago the Motion Picture Academy presented the 89th annual Academy Awards and for a few minutes, on national television, they honored four individuals by bestowing them with Honorary Awards for their lifetime achievements. The awards were given out during an awards dinner on November 12 but the acknowledgment on national television during the Oscars was traditional. Present in the audience to be acknowledged were the award winners: actor Jackie Chan, film editor Anne V. Coates, documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman and casting director Lynn Stalmaster. The latter of whom made history.

Lynn Stalmaster, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, went to Hollywood in 1950 to seek out a career as an actor. He played all-too-brief roles in two movies, The Steel Helmet and Flying Leathernecks, while attending UCLA, then pursued a career as a production assistant at Gross-Krasne. When the studio system restructured as a result of the growing television industry, Stalmaster, along with his wife Marion Dougherty, opened their own casting office.

Among his first projects was casting supporting roles and guest spots for television’s Gunsmoke, The Lone Wolf and Official Detective. Over the next five decades Lynn Stalmaster handled casting for more than 200 feature films and dozens of weekly television programs. In case you are wondering what a casting director does in the entertainment industry… Lynn Stalmaster was basically the man that producers turned to and said, “find me a cast for my movie” or “find me four extras who play henchmen in next week’s television episode.”

Stalmaster is credited for the careers of Richard Dreyfus, John Travolta, Christopher Reeve, Jill Clayburgh, Jeff Bridges, Scott Wilson and Jon Voight, among others. He was responsible for casting such films as In the Heat of the Night, Tootsie, The Graduate, Inherit the Wind, Pork Chop Hill, Deliverance, The Right Stuff and many others.

Casting directors, believe it or not, is the only position in Hollywood that appears during the opening credits of motion-pictures and has yet to receive acknowledgement by the Academy with an Oscar category of its own. So for Lynn Stalmaster this award meant something more.

As a fan of television’s Have Gun- Will Travel I found it amusing that, among Stalmaster’s achievements featured in a brief montage on the screen during the Oscar ceremony, was the television Western by name. Amusing when you consider the fact that the Motion Picture Academy honors motion-pictures, not television.

So for fans of a television Western that premiered almost sixty years ago and never conceived of the notion that it would – even for a brief glimpse – be acknowledged during the annual Oscar awards… well, it happened!