Friday, August 23, 2019

WOODSTOCK: Back to the Garden

Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the defining event of a generation and one of the most iconic moments in popular music history. Despite its enduring cultural significance, no one has ever attempted to document the historic festival as it unfolded in real time. Until now.
Limited to 1,969 individually numbered copies, representing the year 1969, WOODSTOCK - BACK TO THE GARDEN: THE DEFINITIVE 50th ANNIVERSARY ARCHIVE features 38 discs, 432 audio tracks - 267 previously unreleased - providing a near complete reconstruction of Woodstock clocking in at 36 hours, with every artist performance from the festival in chronological order. Housed in a screen-printed plywood box with canvas insert inspired by the Woodstock stage set up, the set also includes a Blu-ray copy of the Woodstock film, a replica of the original program, a guitar strap, two Woodstock posters, a reprint of a diary written by then 17-year-old Kevin Marvelle during the festival, two 8x10 prints from legendary rock photographer Henry Diltz, and essays by Andy Zax, acclaimed music scribe Jesse Jarnow, and trailblazing rock critic Ellen Sander. The archive also contains a copy of Woodstock: 3 Days of Peace & Music (Reel Art Press), a comprehensive new hardbound book about the event written by Michael Lang, one of the festival’s co-creators.
Up until now only about 14 CDs have been commercially released with music from the WOODSTOCK music festival. A few, such as Janis Joplin, Sanata, Jefferson Airplane and Johnny Winter, provided complete performances. Others included the soundtrack from the 1970 motion-pictures with a few songs from selected performers. When the movie studio came knocking in 1970 for permission to feature performances by selected artists, John Fogerty declined. He felt the band's performance was subpar, the sound was terrible through the system, and the band was tired from playing late in the evening. Fogerty later regretted not signing off for the 1970 film and granted permission for four songs in the 40th anniversary movie/director's cut.
In recognition of the 50th anniversary, two full performances were just released on CD and LP, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band, adding to the 14 CDs that were available until now. But the Rhino box set is the only way you can get an almost complete audio document of the entire three days. (Supposedly a total of six songs are missing out of the entire 38 CD set, no doubt due to rights issues, but careful review suggests it was the six songs played over the speakers from LP records to fill in time between acts.)

I spent the past two weeks listening to these CDs and never has there been a superior example of history candidly captured on recordings. So much was revealed when listening to the tracks that has yet to be documented in book form. After Canned Heat finished their encore, Chip Monck (the announcer) informed the audience that the intermission would extend an additional 15 minutes to replace the amps that Canned Heat blew out. Janis Joplin chatted with the folks in the front row of the audience between music. Tim Hardin apologized for the poor performance of one of his songs. Announcements delivered through the speaker system alerted audience members to call home, report to their car to fetch someone's medicine, and on one occasion a call out for someone to report to the back of the stage because his wife was about to deliver their baby. Even if you are not a fan of the music of that era, the historical significance cannot be denied. 
The Rhino box set retailed $799 plus postage and sales tax, was announced a month ago and has since sold out. Which goes to show you how the appeal of what might be considered the greatest music festival ever still commands top dollar. For a view of the product itself (and more importantly, a complete list of music and performers), click here:

Check out the link below!!

On the plus side, you can listen to a fascinating 52 minute documentary about the festival, loaded with tons of behind-the-scenes trivia, on NPR's ALL SONGS CONSIDERED here:
https://www.npr.org/sections/allsongs/2019/07/30/745214068/woodstock-at-50-the-unheard-recordings



Friday, August 16, 2019

WOODSTOCK: Celebrating 50 Years

This weekend marks the 50th anniversary of the Woodstock musical festival. In August 1969, nearly half a million people gathered at a farm in upstate New York to hear music. What happened over the next three days, however, was far more than a concert. It would become a legendary event, one that would define a generation and mark the end of one of the most turbulent decades in modern history. Occurring just weeks after an American set foot on the moon, the Woodstock music festival took place against a backdrop of a nation in conflict over sexual politics, civil rights and the Vietnam War. This was an example of America in transition – a handoff of the country between generations with far different values and ideals – tangibly present at what promoters billed as “An Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace and Music.” Woodstock will take center stage again in a few days as the anniversary presents a 50th anniversary concert in Bethel, New York, with Ringo Starr, Edgar Winter Band, Blood, Sweat and Tears, John Fogerty, the Doobie Brothers and others performing for an audience that can only enter the small town with permits -- ticket holders receive free traffic permits and fears that too many tourists will flood into town this coming weekend are calmed with knowledge that the state police will be checking for permits.

Woodstock, however, did not come off without a hitch: last-minute venue changes, bad weather and the hordes of attendees caused major headaches. Still, despite – or because of – a lot of sex, drugs, rock and roll and rain, Woodstock was a peaceful celebration and earned its hallowed place in pop culture history. What took place in that teaming mass of humanity – the rain-soaked, starving, tripping, half-a-million strong throng of young people – was nothing less than a miracle of teamwork, a manifestation of the “peace and love” the festival had touted, and a validation of the counter-culture’s promise to the world.


The Woodstock Music Festival was the brainchild of four men, all age 27 or younger, looking for an investment opportunity: John Roberts, Joel Rosenman, Artie Kornfeld and Michael Lang.
Lang had organized the successful Miami Music Festival in 1968 and Kornfeld was the youngest vice president at Capitol Records. Roberts and Rosenman were New York entrepreneurs involved in building a Manhattan recording studio. The four men formed Woodstock Ventures, Inc., and decided to host a music festival.
Extremely huge crowd at the Woodstock 1969 music festival.
The initial plan for Woodstock called for the event to be held at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, New York. Wallkill town officials got spooked, however, and backed out of the deal, passing a law that eliminated any possibility of holding the concert on their turf. This caused Woodstock Ventures to explore other venues, but none really panned out. Finally, just a month ahead of the concert, 49-year-old dairy farmer Max Yasgur pulled out a piece of paper and a pencil, figured out how much he would lose financially if he never grew crops that year, and offered to rent them (at the same cost he figured mathematically) part of his land in the White Lake area of Bethel, New York, surrounded by the verdant Catskill Mountains. (The name of the concert, “Woodstock,” remained while the event was truly held in Bethel.)
John Fogerty
Originally, about 50,000 people were expected to attend. But by August 13, at least that number were already camped out on location and over 100,000 tickets pre-sold.As an estimated half-a-million people descended on Woodstock, its organizers scrambled to add more facilities. Highways and local roads came to a standstill and many concert-goers simply abandoned their cars and trekked the rest of the way on foot. New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller threatened to send in National Guard troops to break up the festival when he saw how huge the crowd was. Many of the musicians had to be flown in by helicopter.

Michael Lang later recalled in his fascinating book about Woodstock that Jefferson Airplane was the first band to confirm and as expected, the most expensive was the first to sign, but giving Woodstock the credibility it needed to attract other well-known musicians, a total of 32 for the three-day weekend including Creedence Clearwater Revival, Arlo Guthrie, Joan Baez, John Sebastian, Canned Heat, The Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Joe Cocker, Blood Sweat and Tears, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix.

Grace Slick and Sally Mann of Jefferson Airplane at Woodstock.

Richie Havens was called for so many encores that he ran out of songs to sing, so he picked up his guitar and started singing “Freedom,” which was totally improvised. “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” were the lyrics of “Freedom” that has since become synonymous with Richie Havens when Woodstockbecame a big screen event one year later in movie theaters across the country.

Carlos Santana was scheduled to go on during the latter half of day two, but due to all the delays the band was forced to go on much earlier. Santana had taken a dose of mescaline and was still peaking when the band was performing. As a result, he imagined that the neck of his guitar had become a snake and was moving. Fortunately, he was still able to perform and the band’s star-making performance went off without a hitch. Santana would achieve superstardom on the basis of their appearances at both the festival and in the 1970 motion-picture. Santana was the first to sign up for the 50thanniversary, performing some of those retro classics last month in Bethel, New York.

Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin stopped momentarily during her performance to ask the audience if they had enough water to drink and enough drugs to keep them high, confessing she and her group were stoned on stage. The newly formed Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young confessed to the audience that Woodstock was the second time they ever played for a live audience. Jimi Hendrix was nervous about performing to a crowd so large that he quickly drank an entire bottle of wine before stepping onto the stage and performing what would become the legendary “Star-Spangled Banner.”Gravelly-voiced singer Joe Cocker was a new name at the time. He was an animated and impassioned front-man with a soul evocative of an old bluesman. His cover of The Beatles hit, “With a Little Help from My Friends,” was starting to pick up steam, and his performance at Woodstock was the final boost he needed to skyrocket himself to stardom. 

Joan Baez performing at Woodstock in 1969.

We could go on for pages with stories about the performers, about the funk-filled stylings of Sly & The Family Stone, of Michael Lang inviting Roy Rogers to close the festival by singing “Happy Trails” (Rogers declined), or how John Fogerty of CCR was disappointed in the timing of their performance that he chose not to allow any songs from the group to appear in the 1970 motion-picture… a business decision he later came to regret. But we will leave the history of the music festival to the historians who have taken time to research and write books about the subject.


Needless to say, cleaning up the venue was a mammoth task and required several days, many bulldozers and tens of thousands of dollars. The entire concert was filmed with a crew of enterprising individuals, with many of the acts licensed to Warner Brothers for a theatrical release in 1970.

Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock
Fans flocked to Bethel annually for the concert’s anniversary, much to the disapproval of the town census until 15 or 20 years ago when the town accepted their place in pop culture history and decided to embrace the out-of-town tourism. In 2006, the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts opened on the hill where the Woodstock Music Festival took place, along with a museum focusing on the festival. Today, it hosts outdoor concerts in its beautiful pavilion.
In 2009, for the 40thanniversary of the music festival, a director’s cut of the motion-picture was assembled and released on VHS, later DVD and BluRay, extending the film’s three-hour length to almost four hours. This included performances of Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix who were not seen in the original version of the film when it was released in 1970.
You can buy the BluRay-DVD combo set from Amazon for practically the same price as the DVD release but if you plan to revisit the music festival, you want to make sure you get the 40th anniversary director's cut. Link provided below for ease of purchase:




Friday, August 9, 2019

The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention 2019

Shirley Jones poses for the camera with a fan.
Once viewed as a disease, nostalgia is now considered to be an important resource. Revisiting cherished memories from drive-in experiences to classic television programs of the 1950s and 1960s provide feelings of social connectedness. That is why the staff of the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (MANC) provides people the opportunity to meet their childhood heroes. For three days every year in September, Hollywood celebrities are flown in to Maryland to meet and greet fans, answer questions, pose for photos and sign autographs. The celebrities at MANC, however, are not the same that attend those heavily-publicized Comic Cons. The convention itself is something altogether different. 

Next month marks the 14th year, with an average attendance of 4,000 over the three days. Over the past thirteen years, MANC has brought over 100 celebrities to Maryland including Patty Duke, Davy Jones, Shirley Jones, Robert Wagner, Stefanie Powers, Robert Conrad, Lee Majors, Robert Fuller, the cast of Lost in Space, Tony Dow (Leave it to Beaver), David Hedison (The Fly), Roy Thinnes (The Invaders) and others.
  
Chucks; Comics poses with comic books he sells at the convention.

Thousands of people attend the convention annually from all over the globe; attendees fly in from Britain, Belgium, Finland, Germany and Australia. “What I value most about MANC is the personal attention,” says Josh Michnik of Vancouver, Canada. “At comic cons we are numbers and cattle. The convention promoters make it obvious that it is all about money. They herd you in to a room to pose for a photo with the celebrity, you pose for five to ten seconds, hand you a number for your photo, and herd you out. At the nostalgia convention, we are treated like family and the celebrities take their time answering questions and sign autographs. There is a laid-back atmosphere here.” 

For many of the actors and actresses, there is no shortage of accolades from attendees. Kent McCord, co-star of television’s Adam-12, was a guest at the show a few years ago and was pleased to hear from many who were inspired to become police officers because of his portrayal on the weekly program. “There were so many fans who came from so far away that I stayed behind my table until nine in the evening to sign autographs,” recalled Robert Conrad (The Wild, Wild West). Davy Jones insisted on not charging for his autographs. Ron Ely, television’s Tarzan, spent the evening hanging out with fans while sharing drinks in the hotel bar. Mark Goddard paid a visit to the movie room to provide commentary during a screening of television’s Johnny Ringo, which he co-starred back in the late fifties. Patrick Duffy decided not to do his Q&A panel on the stage; instead choosing to stand off the stage to answer questions from fans in a more intimate setting.

Wes Shank displayed the silicone used for the movie monster, The Blob.

“Fans bring everything to be autographed from LP records, board games, lunch boxes and original art,” explained Michelle Vinje, volunteer staff. “But all of the celebrities have glossy photographs for fans to choose for free when getting an autograph. Sometimes the collectibles are more appealing – especially when the actors stop to take a close look and admire their image on a product they never even knew was produced years prior. Patrick Duffy was amazed when he saw a Man from Atlantis collectible produced in Brazil that he never knew existed.”

“Like hundreds of fans lining the red carpet during the Academy Awards, we fanboys flock to this same hotel every year in September determined to memorialize a celebrity moment,” adds Mark Gross, staff photographer. “The time-honored scrawl on a glossy photo, or vintage memorabilia, that we now consider the gold standard of that brush with greatness now warrants bragging rights to our friends.” The photo of oneself for posting on Facebook and social media has become so popular that it has added a new word to the lexicon – “selfie.” Yep, more bragging rights. “Almost since the beginning of the convention’s inception, I have been able to snap photography of fans admiring the tens of thousands of collectibles on vendor tables, fans interacting with celebrities, fans enjoying the slide show seminars upstairs. Those, to me, have become the keepsakes that exceed Hallmark excellence.”

Mark Gross poses with the cast of The Six Million Dollar Man
and The Bionic Woman.

“Among my fondest memories was bonding with Davy Jones (The Monkees) who consented to a filmed interview about his career,” Mark continued. “Afterwards, he asked me subtlety if I could please take him over to meet the great Patty Duke and introduce him to her. Turned out Davy Jones was a huge fan of hers and was just as nervous of meeting her as most of us. According to Davy Jones, that was how a gentleman meets someone of Patty Duke’s stature. An introduction from an associate. I walked him over to her and he acted like a giddy fan boy.”

In an era where Comic Cons (fan gatherings primarily focusing on comic books and superhero motion pictures) dominate social media with the latest Marvel Cinematic entries, the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention focuses on days gone by when Abbott and Costello were among the biggest box office, and where people can attend slide show seminars hosted by museum curators and historians, watch old movies in a large dark room and shop with the vendors who offer vintage toys and collectibles. “We have been blessed to have the Hunt Valley Delta Marriott in Maryland host our annual convention,” Michelle remarks. “There are very few venues in the state larger than this hotel. It is large enough to allow for more than 200 vendor booths.”

Hammer horror stars Martine Beswick and Caroline Munro take
time to chat with the local television morning show.

It remains difficult to compare the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention to comic cons across the country simply because the business model is different from other counterparts. Besides being non-profit to benefit children with treatable cancer, the attendees come first and foremost. “Fourteen years have made us realize how vital it is to continue the tradition of bringing people together who share a common interest,” adds Michelle. “This is the weekend when we learn what has been happening in the hobby during the past year, examine vintage treasures on the vendor tables, meet our heroes and icons who flew in from California to sign autographs, and hang out for lunch and dinner with friends we see once a year.”

Every weekend contains a number of memories for the attendees. Whether it be a slide show seminar offering recent historical finds that change the way we thought about a particular television program or Hollywood icon, or the screening of a recently-preserved motion-picture found in a film archive, attendees have much to return home with. “A few years ago Lee Majors, Lindsay Wagner and Richard Anderson from The Six Million Dollar Man and The Bionic Woman attended the convention,” recalled Mark Gross. “As Lindsay pointed out on stage at the beginning of the question and answer panel, this was the third time all three of them had been together for the same convention since the programs went off the air in 1978. That was history in the making; there can be no doubt that I snapped tons of photos from that event.” 

Dawn Wells (Mary Ann from Gilligan's Island) poses for the camera
with a fan, Clint Tsao.

In the grand scheme of things, fourteen years is not such a long time. Success if relative but in my view success is based on the size of the attendance. If the attendance continues to grow in size every year, then the staff and convention organizers did their job. And the attendance continues to grow every year. This year’s event will be held September 12 to 14, 2019 at the Hunt Valley Delta Marriott, in Maryland just north of Baltimore. Celebrity guests include Angie Dickinson, Richard Thomas, Maud Adams, Nancy Kwan, Loni Anderson, Tatum O’Neal and many others. 

For more information, visit www.MidAtlanticNostalgiaConvention.com


Thursday, August 1, 2019

Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood (Movie Review)

It should be noted about Quentin Tarantino's movies... every film is completely different from the others. From a heist film (Reservoir Dogs), a World War 2 movie (Inglorious Basterds), Spaghetti Western (The Hateful Eight), to a race car movie (Death Proof), it is impossible to compare one movie to another beyond the style of direction. Having followed The Hateful Eight, in what might be considered (production and visually speaking) his best film to date, Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is a feast for cinema buffs. 

Hollywood movies about Hollywood have always held a special place in the hearts of cinephiles, from Sunset Boulevard, All About Eve to Sullivan's Travels, but always appreciated for the theater attendee who has practically seen it all. For the mainstream crowd rushing to theaters this weekend to see the next Quentin Tarantino classic, billed as his ninth movie (of which Tarantino said multiple times that he would only do ten movies in his career), I suspect they may find this movie a bit of a let down... considering the fact that this movie was clearly written with cinephiles in mind.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt

That said, this qualifies in the genre of Hollywood movies about Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio plays actor Rick Dalton, a faded television actor who, in 1969, realizes he is officially a "has-been." Hoping to achieve fame and success, he agrees to star in a series of Spaghetti Westerns over in Europe, a transition many actors at the time were more than willing to make in order to pay the bills. Brad Pitt plays Dalton's stunt man, Cliff Booth, a handyman with no illusions or expectations who lives every day based on what the stars (or the Fates) dictate. Along the way (as foreshadowed in the beginning of the movie), Rick and Cliff will have a brush with members of the Charles Manson cult, providing bloodshed for those with a violent expectation level from Tarantino's movies.


The entire story could have been dramatized in less than an hour but leave it to Tarantino to create a movie that stretches two and a half hours, with multiple scenes that dramatize the inner workings of Hollywood circa 1969, and maintain your interest. While I have yet to find myself looking at the clock while watching any of Tarantino's movies, including those that stretch over three hours, this is the first film that concluded without me wishing there was an additional half hour. A number of the scenes (such as Sharon Tate's visit to the local theater to watch herself on the big screen in The Wrecking Crew) could be removed from the final print and the story would have flowed without any noticeable scenes missing that are intricate to the story. This creates a disjointed method of storytelling, unlike the style of Pulp Fiction, and requires better scripting in the plot. (Tarantino is a good writer, but even good writers learn to write a four-hour movie, throw half of the pages away, and revise the remaining material. Here, Tarantino kept scenes in that should not have been included as intent and purpose is not clearly defined.)


But make no mistake: this movie was made for cinephiles. The opening scene demonstrated a 1950s television western complete with Andrew McLaglen and John Ford technique, stock music from the CBS library, and the Wilhelm scream. (If you do not know what the Wilhelm scream is, I recommend you check this out for amusement: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wilhelm_scream). A movie poster for the 1949 Roy Rogers western, The Golden Stallion, can be seen hanging on the wall in more than one scene... a nod to Tarantino's insistence that director William Whitney was one of the best directors ever. The scene with Bruce Lee reciting his philosophy and the often-rumored "No one kicks Bruce Lee's ass" ends with a Mexican standoff is a joke only Bruce Lee fans will appreciate. Practically every 30 seconds there is a nod to vintage pop culture in the form of visuals, impersonators, references to television programs, movie posters, and billboards and music on the radio. The majority of these cultural references (such as DiCaprio insulting hippies by calling one of them Dennis Hopper) may go over the heads of most in the theater watching the movie. Cinephiles "in the know," however, will find many of these brief vignettes both hilarious and exceptional. Not as mini-movies but as scenes of cinematic brilliance.


There is not a bad performance throughout, as expected from any film directed by Quentin Tarantino. Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth and actress Margaret Qualley as Pussycat stand out above all others. Leonardo DiCaprio may have just given his best performance in a motion-picture. (DiCaprio is DiCaprio in every movie he stars in but for half of this movie you will find yourself forgetting he is DiCaprio.) The special effects to mimic 1969 Los Angeles, along with replication and alteration of retro television programs, screen tests and movie posters is top notch -- money well spent and deserving of acknowledgement. This may not be a superhero blockbuster but there should be an Oscar nomination for best special/visual effects.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee
Knowing all of this in advance before going in to see the movie will help assure your enjoyment in a movie that is a feast for cinephiles, and an entertaining romp for others. But who can hate a movie created with a passion for old movies... especially one that features Tarantino-alumni Tim Roth in the closing credits if for no other reason than to acknowledge that his scene ended up on the cutting room floor? 

Thursday, July 25, 2019

The Lion King Reigns Supreme

Superheroes aside, Disney’s live action remake of The Lion King is (to date) the best film of the year. It is pleasing to know that a film not populated with product placement can still entertain us – even if we already know the story. Director Jon Favreau no doubt used the original 1994 animated movie as the storyboard because the majority of this movie is a scene-for-scene remake.


The cinematography is gorgeous, filmed on location in Africa, with computer-generated characters so lifelike that the technicals would have been impressive if we had not seen the same special effects applied in Jungle Book (2016), also directed by Favreau. So flawless that to even seek defects in the computer animation is futile.


The story remains the same: A lion cub prince is tricked by a treacherous uncle into thinking he caused the death of his father, the king of the jungle, and flees into exile in despair. Running away from his problems and trying to forget the disastrous day proves fruitless when his past returns and in adulthood discovers the responsibilities of assuming the throne. Along the way he makes friends who were considered outcasts, finds love and seeks retribution. There are so many parables in this movie that every child can find a different moral... and that is what makes films like these worth watching.

The movie does contain a number of upgrades from Timon’s personality to the ever-familiar songs performed by today’s recording artists. A humorous tip-of-the-hat nod for Disney’s Beauty and the Beast is so obvious that you cannot miss it. The big question, however, is whether a generation that grew up with the immortal story of the Circle of Life will bring their children along and whether a new generation discovers the wonder and beauty that is The Lion King. If you never saw the original movie, I recommend you check this new rendition out before it leaves the theater.

Friday, July 19, 2019

Library of Congress Needs Your Help

Here is your chance to help the Library of Congress. For a little more than a year Cary O'Dell of the library's National Recording Preservation Board posted scans of photographs that remained unidentified. This is not an uncommon situation among many libraries and museums across the country where photographs are preserved and digitized, but lacked proper identification. 

Cary's idea was to post dozens and dozens of unidentified photographs on the library's blog and ask people to help identify people from the world of film, television and music. They had a success rate of over 50 percent but there still remain a few unidentified. The following two links have some of these photos so take a moment and see if you recognize any of the people in them. Small note, though. Make only suggestions if you are definite. There is no shame in saying you do not recognize anyone but the library really needs 110 percent identification. Guesswork will only add confusion.



Actor Paul McGrath has been identified on the right.
The woman on the left remains unidentified. 


Monday, July 8, 2019

Bill Scott, Forest Ranger

One of the more obscure radio programs of the 1940s is Bill Scott, Forest Ranger. For years I have had four episodes, each 15-minutes in length, and very little was documented to help assist in learning exactly how many episodes were recorded and broadcast, who the cast was, and other information. One thing I was certain of, however, was that I enjoyed listening to them. 

So imagine my surprise when, a few years ago at a recorded sound conference in San Antonio, Texas, a slide show seminar focused on preservation of this obscure Mark Trail-style radio program. The central hero is Ranger Bill, affectionate name of Bill Scott, ranger of the Beaver Dam National Forest. Along with his niece, June Cameron, they meet two boys named Sam Freeman and Joe McGuire who, while employed as dishwashers in a summer logging camp, get lost in the woods, fight a forest fire, and participate in many tense adventures while at the same time educate the listeners on the importance of forestry and forest conservation. 

Produced by the radio staff at WNYE and the Board of Education of the City of New York, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, and state conservation and forestry departments, a total of 16 episodes were recorded for the purpose of syndication.

The program received a special citation at the Tenth School Broadcast Conference on October 28, 1947. The contest judges commended the programs for their effective combination of "exciting" forest drama with practical conservation messages.

The programs were written by Bill Bergoffen of the U.S. Forest Service, produced by many of the student actors in the New York City's School Radio Workshop, under the skillful supervision of Van Rensselaer Brokhahane, production manager for station WNYE. 

Syndication was a means in which the episodes would be duplicated on transcription discs and then sent out to radio stations across the country to air during their convenience. Supposedly premiering over WTAW in Bryan, Texas, in April of 1947, the program was also heard over KWSC in Seattle, Washington in the summer of that year. Initially only six episodes were recorded but it quickly became apparent that the reason so few stations agreed to air the programs was because six episodes were not enough. So a year later an additional ten episodes were recorded including a four-part adventure. This second run began in January 1949 over WEBQ in Harrisburg, Illinois, and Lafayette, Louisiana; WWHG in Hornell, New York and WCMD in Denton, Maryland, in the spring of 1949; WRHP in Tallahassee, Florida in the summer of 1949, and WHA in Madison, Wisconsin; and WABE in Atlanta, Georgia, in autumn of 1949. You get the idea.

Students at Beckley College rehearsing a Bill Scott, Forest Ranger
radio drama at WCFC, circa 1947.

The Texas A&M Forest Service Radio Broadcasts Collection presently features over 27 hours of digitized wildfire prevention radio public service announcements from the late 1940s through the 1950s. The collection, spanning over sixty 16” radio transcription discs, was digitized to commemorate the 100thanniversary of the Texas A&M Forest Service in 2015.

Now you can listen to all 16 episodes of Bill Scott, Forest Ranger, from the Texas A&M website, along with other intriguing syndicated radio programs including The Singing Woodsman and the Sons of the PioneersTales of Texas and Smokey Visits the Stars. The latter program featured a number of Hollywood celebrities including Clint Walker, Bing Crosby, Dinah Shore, Dale Robertson, Hugh O’Brian, Roy Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Broderick Crawford, Ward Bond, James Arness, Danny Thomas, Dick Powell, Raymond Burr, Michael Ansara, Andy Devine, George Montgomery, James Garner and others.

You can visit the website through the link below and listen to all these programs for free. Whether you enjoy country music from the Sons of the Pioneers, stories of the Texas Rangers, children's programs such as Bill Scott, Forest Ranger or simply want to hear a bunch of vintage public service announcements with Hollywood stars (television stars to be exact), there is something for everyone to listen to. 




Monday, July 1, 2019

SERGEANT PRESTON OF THE YUKON: The Radio Program

Set against the colorful background of the Klondike gold rush, the square-jawed, straight-shooting Canadian Mountie and his “wonder dog,” Yukon King, were responsible for policing a sweeping, snowy Yukon territory. The presence of gold in the area led less-than-honest men to the kind of temptation that frequently stepped over the line of law and order. That was when young radio listeners could witness Sergeant Preston and Yukon King race into action, swiftly bringing these miscreants to justice.

Facing against limitations such as King’s primary talent of smelling an article of clothing and leading the sled dogs on the trail like any faithful bloodhound, and on occasion jumping into action to hold a criminal-at-large at bay long enough for his master to pull out his handcuffs, Yukon King did very little else but howl, growl and whine. Yet, as I listen to these radio broadcasts, I find myself rooting for the dog. But make no mistake: this Canadian Mountie program (clearly inspired by the likes of Renfew of the Mounted and Blair of the Mounted) was well-written and expertly produced.

Many mistake the program as a creation of Fran Striker, who was responsible for the creation of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, which also originated from the same radio station in Detroit, Michigan. The program was created by Tom Dougall, the same radio staffer responsible for the daytime soap opera, Ann Worth, Housewife. Though it should be noted that for the radio broadcasts of April 20 and 22, 1954, it was Fran Striker who wrote the origin story for Sergeant Preston and his wonder dog Yukon King.

Having recently listened to a few episodes in my car on the way to a film festival I came across what might be one of the best episodes of the series, “Brotherhood of Man,” broadcast February 19, 1952. Here, Sergeant Preston taught by example that anyone who accepts the Fatherhood of God should also accept the Brotherhood of Man when an Eskimo, victim of prejudice in a small mining town, risks his life to rescue the son of a mine owner. Two employees of the mine were secretly stealing gold and, upon learning a Mountie was investigating under suspicion, rig a detonation inside the cave. The young boy, however, was in the mine at the time of the explosion and while men quickly race to dig the youth free, only a small tunnel was opened. Preston climbed inside and then called out for help – lifting the beam to ensure the youth’s escape would be a two-man job. Regardless of the $10,000 bonus offered to the men by the owner of the mine, no one was willing to risk their life… except the Eskimo who insisted he does not need the money.

In the next episode, “Killers Live to Die” (broadcast February 21, 1952), a Russian named Igor Jamble had only one thing on his mind: flight to the Arctic shores. He knew that the killing of Corporal Palmer of the Mounties, who was investigating rumors of stolen furs, meant relentless pursuit by Sergeant Preston. Jamble sought haven from a seal-hunting vessel that was scheduled for departure, unaware that Preston would risk his life amongst the roaring rapids to apprehend the killer. In this episode, Preston displayed a darker side rarely exemplified on the program as the killing of a fellow Mountie was taken personal.

Racial prejudice was again the underlying them in the episode “The Missing Heir,” broadcast February 26, 1952. Ernest Demming, Lord Demming’s heir, was British by birth but raised by Eskimos after his parents, both missionaries servicing those facing an epidemic in Canada, died during quarantine. Jeffers Hooker, the boy’s crooked uncle, hires a scoundrel to seek and destroy in an effort to inherit the fortune. Sgt. Preston travels to the Forty Mile Trading Post in the hope of finding the boy before Hooker, then ventures to the village of Ka-Lock, his Eskimo guide. Ka-Lock has been courting a white woman whose father displayed disgrace upon confrontation with his daughter. Only on route does Preston discover Ka-Lock’s true parentage and prevents Hooker and his hired rogue from committing the crime. Later, the prejudicial old man is shamed when Ka-Lock’s true identity is revealed to him.

“Laurie and the New Recruits,” broadcast February 28, 1952, told the story of Lige Walker and his young friend, Bucky, who witness a murder in the snow-capped valley of the Yukon, the theft of gold and a man-made avalanche to hide the body. Racing back from the ridge of Wishbone Range, Lige reports to the Mounties who quickly makes out a warrant for the arrest of Ben Pierce for the charge of first-degree murder. Pierce is quickly taken into custody but a fire breaks out in Dawson, providing the murderer a chance to escape and flee the law, taking with him Lige Walker’s sled and sled dogs (unaware the lead sled dog is expecting). Preston once again sets out to apprehend his prisoner, now leading to a ghost town where Ben Pierce hopes to retrieve the stolen gold he hid. Thanks to the assistance of the sole occupant of the ghost town, Ben Pierce is again taken into custody… and just in time as Lige Walker’s lead sled dog, Laurie, gives birth to six new pups. 

The radio program originated from radio station WXYZ in Detroit, Michigan, produced by the same folks responsible for The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. The program premiered on the evening of January 3, 1939, as a 15-minute program aired twice weekly under the title Challenge of the Yukon. The productions of those early adventures are not as well polished as the later episodes; they come off like rehearsals with stale acting and less than stellar direction. Some might debate with me as one person told me he enjoys the 15-minute length better than the 30-minute renditions. A small number of the half-hour shows were expanded from 15-minute adventures. Fan boys like myself have also observed plots from The Lone Ranger recycled for use on Sergeant Preston. By the time the program became a half-hour entity on June 12, 1947, production had improved and I often recommend to fans of old-time radio who never heard the program to listen to the 30-minute adventures, not the 15-minute broadcasts.

Beginning November 6, 1951, the name of the program was changed from Challenge of the Yukon to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The reason for the change was through a suggestion from Raymond Meurer, legal counsel at the radio station. Meurer insisted that the radio producer, George W. Trendle, could not lay claim to ownership of a fictional Canadian Mountie, only the trademarks – hence the name of the program representing the fictional character to protect his property.ActorPaul Sutton played the title role for the majority of the run, while playing on occasion a small supporting role on other programs such as The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Sutton was replaced in the summer of 1954 by Brace Beemer, radio’s Lone Ranger and I have a difficult time listening to those later episodes without envisioning The Lone Ranger in the role as the voice of Brace Beemer is so identifiable with the masked man. The program went off the air in June of 1956 after 1,260 radio broadcasts.

By January 1952, Variety reported “Sky KingClyde Beatty and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon topped the daytime list, which would indicate that the soap operas are losing favor with the far west hausfraus and not a Godfrey in sight.” By 1954, the same magazine reported the top three children’s programs on radio wereSky KingThe Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok and Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, according to a popularity poll. Yes, it remains difficult to believe Sergeant Preston was more popular than The Lone Ranger during these years, but one has to remember this is radio and The Lone Ranger was extremely popular on television beginning in 1949.

Equally fascinating are the Quaker Oats commercials, hocking Quaker Puffed Wheat and Quaker Puffed Rice, with a commercial spokesperson attempting his best Gabby Hayes rendition with the actor’s trademark “yer durn tootin’.” From the outset one might wonder if Gabby Hayes took offense to the catch-phrase but considering Quaker Oats was a sponsor for his weekly television program (three different incarnations from 1950 to 1956, to be exact), the commercials come as no surprise.

For the last few years, Radio Spirits has been licensing the radio program from Classic Media (present copyright holders of the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon) and producing like clockwork CD box sets, each containing eight CDs with 16 half-hour adventures. The four plots above originate from the first four recordings in the Arctic Odyssey box set. These box sets are not labeled by volume number, but rather as subtitles (see photos in this blog for example). Through this licensing agreement, Radio Spirits has access to the archival DAT tapes supplied by Classic Media, which were originally produced by the Jack Wrather Corp., who transferred all of the radio programs from the 16-inch transcription discs. In the long run, they will all be made available as long as sales remain strong enough to warrant continued production. While the company continues to combat an aging fan base, sales of these box sets are more important than ever. Some might feel the $32 per box set retail is a bit pricey but when you consider the fact that the cost comes down to $4 per CD, with professional packaging, the retail price is a bargain. And Radio Spirits offers discounts with sales from time to time. So why not treat yourself to a box set (or two) from Radio Spirits to ensure continued releases? A link is provided below for ease of access.



Friday, June 21, 2019

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir

Fay Wray
Fay Wray made more than a hundred films, some with outstanding producers and directors of the era and opposite the greatest leading men: Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, William Powell and Victor Jory. She used her earnings to buy her family a home in Hollywood and support them in comfort. She had an infatuation with Cary Grant after they starred together on Broadway, a brief romance with Howard Hughes, and a serious one with the playwright Clifford Odets. The most famous of her leading men, however, was a giant ape known as King Kong and never did she have a single regret.

Robert Riskin was a playwright responsible for numerous classics that helped define American to itself and the world: Lady for a DayThe Whole Town’s TalkingIt Happened One NightMr. Deeds Goes to TownYou Can’t Take it With YouLost HorizonMeet John Doe and It Happened One Night. The latter of which was the first film to sweep the five top Academy Awards – Best Picture, Director, Writer, Actor and Actress. A record matched only twice in the three-quarters of a century since by One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Silence of the Lambs. As a result of such success, Riskin is credited for pulling Columbia Pictures out of a poverty row status, and was frequently called on by Harry Cohn to give judgments on most pictures Columbia put int production. 

Robert Riskin and Fay Wray

Both Fay Wray and Robert Riskin met at a Christmas Eve party in 1940 but it was not until two weeks after Pearl Harbor that they found each other again. They connected and a life-long relationship followed. Some of their movies (at least two of Wray’s and sections of Riskin’s Lost Horizon) remain “lost” to this day, providing film buffs something sought after both in legend and newspaper/industry trade briefs. Thankfully, their daughter, Victoria Riskin, wrote a Hollywood memoir that documents both the personal and professional careers of her parents.

I have always said that the best way to write a biography is to contact family relatives and get the scoop – including scans of family photographs, recollections passed down through generations, etc. Sadly, many today stockpile newspaper clippings and magazine articles and document the careers of Hollywood actors chronologically, providing lengthy plot summaries for motion pictures to pad their text, and reads like a standard filmography in prose form. Rarely are any of these books worthy of reading; if anything, they inspire others to fulfill the task properly. Thankfully was have Victoria Riskin, daughter of Fay Wray and Robert Riskin, to not only provide us with the much-needed background but also a passion and love for the material. 

Granted, Fay Wray wrote her own memoirs a long time ago titled On the Other Hand, but Victoria Riskin felt everyone already read the book and instead devoted most of her tome on the details never disclosed in her mother's autobiography. (Though, to be fair, a few passages in Victoria's book are reprinted from that other book, which she appropriately notes, for the importance of certain passages.)

Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir (2019, Pantheon Books) is a magnificent read. She avoids discussing King Kong behind the humorous anecdotes that Wray encountered in the years following production, and instead focuses on her career as a whole. Robert Riskin accomplished so much in Hollywood yet so few realize just what movies he was responsible for, and the direction Frank Capra took as a result of his influence. Behind-the-scenes anecdotes during production of their movies, rare never-before-published photographs and how the two participated in the war cause are reason enough to buy this book. But perhaps the biggest compliment I can give is Victoria’s description of movies I knew about (such as Lady for a Day) that were so fascinating that I was inspired to sit down and watch half a dozen. No other book has prompted me to pull off DVDs from my shelf in the living room and take time from a busy schedule to watch them. If you are looking for a book to read at the beach this summer, or planning to read only one Hollywood memoir this year, this is that book.

A link to buy a copy of the book today: