Saturday, December 26, 2015

George Clayton Johnson, dead at 86

He was born in a barn, forced to repeat the sixth grade, dropped out of school during the eighth, watched his stories come to life on television and established what is probably the general rule of fantasy: "Fantasy must be about something, otherwise it's foolishness... ultimately it must be about human beings, it must be about the human condition." The man who defined THE TWILIGHT ZONE as "wisdom fiction" passed away on Christmas morning at the age of 86.
Robert Redford and George Clayton Johnson in 1960.

George Clayton Johnson was among the small handful of gifted -- and privileged -- to write teleplays for Rod Serling's classic television series, which aired over CBS from 1959 to 1964. Remember the episode about Jack Krugman and Jonathan Winters playing a game of pool... with a human life at the stakes? That was George Clayton Johnson. Remember the episode with Robert Redford as a young man harbored by an old lady, sheltered from fear of Mr. Death... only to turn out the young man was Death himself? That was George Clayton Johnson. Remember the episode about the old people who played a game of "Kick the Can" and became young again? The same story restaged for the 1983 motion picture? That was George Clayton Johnson.

The premiere episode of Star Trek: "Man Trap"
George got his start writing for THE TWILIGHT ZONE courtesy of Charles Beaumont, who taught the aspiring writer and how to script a teleplay. Beaumont did this on the sly, taking credit and pocketed some of the cash, but that did not bother George. Having THE TWILIGHT ZONE on his resume was one of the best things that could have happened to him. "He was a good friend and he inspired people to try harder," Johnson later recalled about Beaumont. In short time George was writing for HONEY WEST, KUNG FU, and what became the premiere episode of STAR TREK.

Ocean's Eleven (2001 version)
One of his stories was adapted into a motion-picture, OCEAN'S ELEVEN, starring Frank Sinatra, later remade as a hip and witty 2001 motion picture of the same name starring George Clooney. Johnson's characters would return for two additional sequels. 

Johnson and William F. Nolan collaborated for a 1967 novel, LOGAN'S RUN, which would also be adapted into a short-lived weekly TV series of the same name. He even tried his hand at acting in a Roger Corman film, THE INTRUDER (1961), and on a fourth season episode of SEA HUNT, playing the role of Lt. Hartwell. (How's that for obscure trivia?) George was so nervous during filming that he accidentally referred to his commander as captain, and confessed not wanting to appear in front of the camera again... which he avoided for a number of years.

During filming of "A Penny for Your Thoughts," one of Johnson's earliest contributions to THE TWILIGHT ZONE, he was invited to the set to watch the filming. "I introduced myself to James Sheldon. He was the director," Johnson recalled. "We talked a while and then Rod Serling comes on the set. He's leading a choir of on-lookers like a tour guide for visiting dignitaries and everyone on the set was electrified. No one dared to make a move while he was there. Then he sees me and Lola standing there, and he introduces me to the people, 'And this is George Clayton Johnson, the writer of this absolutely dandy film we are making right now.' And I am hearing my name and the praise. Then Serling introduces the director... but he introduced me first. I felt like a king."

I had the privilege of meeting and chatting with George Clayton Johnson at a convention some years back. He was impressed with some of the knowledge I had about THE TWILIGHT ZONE, based on the questions I asked him, and he ultimately agreed to write a foreword for my award-winning book about THE TWILIGHT ZONE. It was here that you could see, almost sixty years after THE TWILIGHT ZONE went off the air, that his creative juices were still flowing. His foreword was a letter addressed to the late Rod Serling, expressing his appreciation and admiration for the longevity of the television program. "What an astonishing shelf-life for a piece of television entertainment and a great testament to the timeless nature of the program and the quality production you brought to the project," George wrote to Serling.

Johnson was the second-to-last of the major contributors for THE TWILIGHT ZONE and it is with sadness that I report his passing earlier today. Earl Hamner Jr. is still with us. George Clayton Johnson is now reunited with his friends and I have no doubt that like the early sixties, he and Matheson and Beaumont and Bradbury and Serling and the rest are relaxing by the swimming pool concocting magnificent fantasies to keep us entertained for another millennia. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

It's a Christmas Tradition

For those of you hoping I would continue with the annual tradition of featuring holiday glamour photos of Hollywood eye candy, you won't be disappointed. Randomly selected from the archive.... here you go!

Anita Page

Anna May Wong

Jean Harlow

Joan Crawford

Yes, even Natalie Wood loved Christmas.

June Lang is counting down the days.

Okay, it's not a Hollywood starlet. But they're too cute to not include them.

Gloria Swanson must have been a nice girl this year.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Who's Afraid of Song of the South?

"Now this here tale didn't happen just yesterday nor the day before, it was a long time ago... the critters, they was closer to the folks, and the folks, they was closer to the critters -- and if you'll excuse me for saying so, it was better all around."
                   -- Uncle Remus in Disney's Song of the South (1946)

Disney's Song of the South (1946)
There is a new book available by Jim Korkis that is worth reading if you ever wanted to know the details behind the making of Disney's Song of the South. Just the mere name of the movie sparks heated emotions because of a sad mixture of misunderstandings and urban legends. Every time someone tells me that the movie is "racist," I calmly ask them what makes the film "racist." The response I receive is always one of two: "The movie depicts slavery" or "The movie portrays slaves happy as they work in the fields." Every time I ask if they saw the movie, the answer is always "no." You can imagine their surprise when then I inform them that at no time in the movie are people depicted working in the fields. In fact, the movie takes place after the Civil War during a period known as Reconstruction and African Americans in the movie are happy and singing because they are free men, hired hands, getting paid from a kind and generous employer. At no time is slavery ever depicted in the movie.

Here's another fun fact: Gone With the Wind (1939) does depict slavery. The Birth of a Nation (1915) not only depicts slavery, but the KKK rides to the rescue as champions of justice. If someone wants to claim Song of the South, the same movie with Uncle Remus walking down the bunny trail singing "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah," as a racist film... they need to see it first. And therein lies the problem. The Disney Corporation has retained the rights to keep the movie locked in the vaults with no hope of a commercial VHS or DVD release.

Outside Splash Mountain at The Magic Kingdom.
On Wednesday, March 23, 2011, at the Disney Annual Shareholders Meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, the final question asked of Disney CEO Bob Iger, just minutes from him concluding the meeting, was the yearly query about when the Disney Company might release the live-action/animated movie Song of the South on DVD. After all, November of that year would mark the 65th anniversary of the film's release. Although smiling, Iger seemed irritated that the same question kept coming up at every Disney shareholder meeting. His response can be summarized in a single word: no.

I have a few friends who are on the "inside" of Disney and they explained to me that every year a list of movies to be released on DVD is proposed during the executive board meetings. Song of the South is always proposed. And Bob Iger always removes the title from that list and comments how Disney will not go down that route. Yet, from my inside sources, everyone else at Disney confidently admits the movie should be released on DVD and knows it will generate a lot of sales for the company. That is why they keep sneaking it on the list every year. Today, money may not be the motive. In 1939, Walt Disney bought the screen rights to the Uncle Remus stories from the Harris family for $10,000 -- an investment that paid off. Adding to the revenue of all the books, comics, records, toys and other items associated with the film, it was estimated that the Disney Company received $300 million over the years -- not bad from a $10,000 investment.

The last time the movie was theatrically released was in 1986. The movie poster for the re-release strongly emphasized the animated sequences, downgrading the live action segments (the opposite of what the 1946 poster depicted). The movie has since been released commercially on VHS in England, which many fans resorted to buying and converting to DVD. Even today a google search of "Song of the South DVD" will generate a number of websites where you can buy the movie -- all bootlegs of course, and of varied quality (make sure you get one without the Japanese subtitles).

When Walt Disney conceived of making the movie, it was his intention that Song of the South would be his own Gone with the Wind -- complete with Atlanta premiere and long lines at the movie palaces. But instead there were small pockets of picketers in Boston and Los Angeles who made the choice to disrupt the serene locale. The New York Tribune reported that at a press conference, Walt Disney said that any real antagonism towards the film would come from radicals, "who just love stirring up trouble whenever they can." The NAACP later admitted that their initial criticism of the movie was based on faulty information. In an interview in February 1947, Hattie McDaniel (who played Aunt Tempy in the movie) defended the film: "If I had for one moment considered any part of the picture degrading or harmful to my people I would not have appeared therein." James Baskett, who played the role of Uncle Remus in the movie, remarked in the same article in The Criterion, "I believe that certain groups are doing my race more harm in seeking to create dissension than can ever possibly come out of Song of the South."

The movie has since been televised over the BBC2 in the United Kingdom, many times, with no public outcry or rioting in the streets. The film was released commercially in several European and South American countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Argentina and Brazil. 

The film was never meant to be a political statement, not a malicious attempt to depict foolish stereotyping of any race, but rather an attempt to show that children of all races and different social statuses could play together as friends, learn important moral lessons from the stories, and survive times of trouble (in this case a combination of separated parents and bullies who want to murder a puppy) by finding a place to laugh and momentarily forget the hardships. 

A new book was published documenting the making of Song of the South, providing a detail level regarding the controversy surrounding former Disney employees that either quit or were fired, who in turn attempted to suppress the movie by stirring up trouble when it was released in 1946. Who's Afraid of the Song of the South? and Other Forbidden Disney Stories, written by Jim Korkis, is worth reading. The same book also documents how a Disney live action comedy caused the FBI to spy on Walt Disney, why Walt Disney once suggested Mickey Mouse commit suicide, and other true stories. You can buy a copy from here:

Some of the information on this blog post originates from Jim's book, which only adds to the validity of this statement: If you are looking for something cool to give a friend this holiday season, or for their birthday, this book makes a great gift. Buy one for yourself as well.

In the meantime, the only thing the Disney Corporation has created is a situation where the only way you can see and study this historic film is to support piracy... and a controversy that exists only in the minds of those who have never seen it but tell of legends and stories that are less to be believed... I for one prefer the story Uncle Remus tells of "The Laughing Place," versus the misconceptions people insist time and time again. Disney accomplished a charming movie and it is a treasure to behold.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Value of Antique Toy Shows

With Christmas soon upon us and an overabundance of Star Wars merchandise set to outrun the multimillion-dollar Frozen juggernaut, and with predictions that the sale of the movie merchandise will quadruple in the countdown to Christmas, I thought it would be cool to take a moment and visit an aspect of toy collecting that has proven value, time and time again. Those hidden treasures at antique toy shows. There might be one in you own backyard and you never knew about it. Read on to understand why.

The original Lost in Space robot with original packaging.

The secret of success with Star Wars is its reach across a broad range of retail segments, including toys, kids apparel, homeware, stationery and adult apparel. Perhaps the first to figure this out was William Boyd who, during the 1950s, mass-marketed Hopalong Cassidy in a means that was unprecedented at the time. Hopalong Cassidy wind-up toys, shooting galleries, wristwatches, holster sets, comic books and other merchandise made William Boyd a very wealthy man. Wealthy enough to convince Life magazine to put Hopalong Cassidy, complete in costume and black hat, on the cover of a 1950 issue. That same year, Time magazine reported a shortage of black dye as a result of all the Hoppy merchandise produced. Historically, though smaller by comparison, Walt Disney was the next person to succeed in mass production with the Davy Crockett coonskin caps.

Today, the collecting market has changed. The old joke among collectors was that in the days of old, for every 100 toys sold in the stores, one was saved and 99 was played with. By the late seventies and early eighties, with understanding that the value of an item was based on scarcity and condition, for every 100 toys sold in the stores, one was played with and 99 were saved.

Scarcity has become obsolete as a result of the internet. What used to be difficult to find is now a dime a dozen on eBay and other internet auction houses. eBay has changed the values in price guides. The value of an item is still dependent on the overall condition and the purchase price is relative -- based on an agreement set between the buyer and seller. But the internet is not the only venue to seek old collectibles and I encourage others to seek out Antique Toy Shows. There are treasures galore at these venues that remain virtually unscathed by serious collectors.

My mother told me she used to have one of these when she was a child.

If you buy off the internet, you are buying blind. Regardless of the item description, your idea of the condition may vary from that of the seller. What you feel is near mint, the seller may consider mint condition. Being able to review the item first-hand helps avoid such misunderstanding. Last week at an Antique Toy Show I purchased a Hopalong Cassidy coloring book for $5.00. The seller wanted $15.00. I looked inside and pointed out how the coloring book was partially used. The cover was not in mint condition and faded by sunlight (the back of the book was the exact same image as the front, but the color was darker on the back). She asked if I felt $5.00 was sufficient. I agreed and went home with my prize. Note that it was she who counter-offered with a price one-third of her original asking! Why buy a vintage coloring book partially used? The left page of each two-page spread was print colored with text below to describe the action. The same image was on the right page but in black and white so the child could attempt to reproduce the colors in crayon. The former owner never applied crayons on any of the left pages. This means I can scan the colored illustrations on the left side and use them for illustrating any future write-up about Hopalong Cassidy... illustrations most people have never seen. Well worth my $5.00 investment. ($15 for 18 illustrations would have been worth it, too, but hey, I saved $10.)

My wife accompanied my recent sojourn and, the tomboy that she was, observed a vendor selling old Hess trucks. She's bought Hess trucks for her father in past years, but never knew what the value was for pre-1970 Hess trucks. She took 20 minutes and talked to the vendor, learning just which years have more value, mis-prints that were quickly corrected, how to tell the difference from reproductions and originals based on packaging, and what the usual price is for a 1966 Hess Voyager Tanker Ship with and without the original packaging. Now if she ever sees a Hess Voyager Tanker Ship at a flea market, she will not make the mistake of paying too much without understanding the real value. For this education, she agreed that the admission price to the venue was worth every dollar. One of many reasons why visiting antique toy shows is necessary for anyone who wants an education regarding values and grading.

An old woman at the toy show had two tables of comic books for sale. "Estate Sale, Must Go!" Curious as I was since many of the comic books were from the 1970s, I asked her what the prices were. She told me $80 per issue and if I paid cash, $75 per issue. I asked her how she came to that conclusion. "My nephew passed away last month and I have these comic books which obviously have lots of value." I did not have the heart to tell her that the comics had little value at all -- at least the ones she was trying to sell. I could buy them at comic shows for a buck a piece. This happens more often than reported: someone hears about an Action Comics #1 (June 1938) selling for more than $1 million and believes that all comic books have extreme value. Half a dozen times in the past few years I witnessed people with overestimated expectations: "It is old, therefore it is valuable."

One of the vendors had a table with signs plastered all over: "Everything on this table is $4.00" People were skimming through boxes of magazines, VHS videos, plastic toys and other collectibles. I also observed a number of people who saw the sign and made a turnabout. It was if those signs and those prices were shouting: "Junk for sale." What they were looking for was not valued at $4.00. Sure, there might stocking stuffers worth a few bucks but they were looking for some items of REAL value. 

When I used to attend an annual convention in Newark, New Jersey, one acquaintance attending the show would only buy dollar items. Privately, he used to ridicule people who spent large sums of money on books, posters and other collectibles at the convention. More than once I tried to explain to him the value of financial support, for the authors of those books, the historians who prefer encouragement. I also explained how certain vendors will make an effort throughout the year to find articles of interest; such friendship among vendors forms a strong bond.

The best way to price vintage toys. Post-It Notes prevent damage upon removal.

Want to know the real value of an item? Fifteen years ago a friend of mine spent $3,000 on a movie poster. To him, not only was the poster extremely rare (one of four known to exist), but the color was lavish; the art was magnificent. As a vendor who buys and sells movie posters and lobby cards, he should know. He can tell you what time period certain movie studios offered the best art. That poster is hanging in his living room, professionally framed with museum glass. He sees that poster every day. Fifteen years times 365 days = 5,475 days. Take that and divide it by $3,000 and that poster cost him 54 cents a day to look at. To him, that poster is worth 54 cents a day. And that value will be cut in half 15 years from now. 

Another friend of mine has a Clerks movie poster hanging on the wall in his apartment, a giveaway at his local movie theater on opening day of the same movie. Yes, this is the same poster you can buy at trade shows for a buck. He keeps his poster on display in a cheap Wal-Mart frame. That poster is not autographed by the cast. He admits it is not his favorite movie. So why does he have it on display in his apartment? 

I find you can tell a lot about someone based on the books they have on their bookshelf and the collectibles that adorn the walls and shelves of their house. My in-laws' next-door neighbor is 95 years old and ballroom dancing, and his shelves contain dozens of books about herbs and medicinal organics. This tells me he took time to live a healthy life. He is self-educated. He is self-motivated. He is a man to aspire. For my friend with the Clerks poster on the wall... well, what does that tell you? As for my friend who spent $3,000 on that rare movie poster? It tells me he has taste, he has style, he knows the history behind the scarcity of the poster, and the condition of the surviving posters in collector hands. His treasure, displayed with pride, comes with a story... proving what I have said for years. How much someone has or how much they spent on an item does not impress me. Where they found the item and how they came into receivership may impress me.

At the antique toy show, I was set up as a vendor and offering a Hopalong Cassidy movie poster for $150. The condition of the poster was great. An attendee at the show asked about the purchase price and his response? "I can buy a replica of the same poster for $20 on the internet."

"You are correct," I explained. "But reproductions go for as little as a buck to as much as $20. And there is a reason for that pricing structure. No one can sell a reproduction of a Hopalong Cassidy movie poster for more than $20 on the internet or at events like this one. I don't know about you, but if I gave a tour of my house and pointed out a reproduction, framed, hanging on the wall, they would pretty much do what I would in their position. Shrug shoulders and say, 'Oh, that's cool.' But I would only be speaking polite. Now, having an original -- not a reproduction -- hanging on the wall, linen baked, framed in museum glass has something of value." 

The customer asked why I was selling the poster. "I have three different Hopalong Cassidy posters hanging on my wall and this is the least quality of the three," I explained. "And it's my least favorite of the 66 Hoppy movies." He counter-offered with $30 and I assured him that even with cash we would be speaking three-digit figures. The asking price was firm based on much I originally paid for the poster, and it cost me to have it linen backed. This alone, I explained to him, was an exceptional value of an asking price.) He walked away muttering to himself that he would never spend more than $20 for a movie poster and never consider spending that kind of money to have it framed. What was he telling me? He had no true appreciation for the value of Hopalong Cassidy. Tens of thousands of people know who Hopalong Cassidy is... but only a fraction have a real application for Hopalong Cassidy to buy Hoppy comics, toys and movie posters.

By the way... I never sold the poster at the toy show but wo days later I sold the poster. Purchase price was $200. The fact that he traveled to my house to check out the poster meant he was a serious buyer and knew how much it cost to have a movie poster linen backed and professionally framed. That poster has since been replaced with a different Hoppy poster for (the same price, $200) and happens to be my favorite of the movie series. The color and condition is beautiful. I do plan to have it framed. And the purchaser, who came to my house to check it out first-hand, went home a happy customer. That poster has a good home with someone who will take care of it because they appreciate what they bought. 

My wife and I booked a trip for a ride in a hot air balloon. It was one of those things we always wanted to do. The cost was $280 per person for a 90 minute flight. When I told my mother of our plans, she questioned whether $280 was cheap or expensive for such a trip. "I don't know" I replied. "But it is something we only plan to do once in our life, and the experience will probably turn out to be something so cool we will be recommending it to others for months following and you cannot put a price tag on something like that."

Of the 130 plus vendors at the Antique Toy Show, one of them earned my admiration. I was immersed in the vast collection of high-quality vintage toys on display and I asked for gloves to inspect a couple of them. Asking for gloves provided the seller with the understanding that I had an appreciation for the items on display and he gladly let me inspect them. (You have no idea how many idiots are quick to handle items priced in three and four-digit figures and then put them back on a table with careless regard for the way they manhandled the item. If you do not have enough money to afford purchasing the item, do not handle it. "You break it, you buy it" still applies.) Lots of vendors at the show had old cowboys and horses, Lincoln Logs in metal containers, circus programs from the 1950s, and toy cars. You almost wanted to shop around before making purchase because they all varied in quality and price. But what this vendor had was strictly top-notch quality that put everyone else to shame. Not an item on his table was priced less than $100. He was not catering to a clientele that wanted just any toy. He had what I would refer to as museum quality.

The photographs below are from his table. The item I was really impressed with was the metal Tom Corbett, Space Cadet rocket ship with practically no rust and near-mint condition. I did not have $1,000 to spend but I did get the seller's business card.

Make an effort to find an Antique Toy Show near you. They vary in size from a couple dozen vendors to hundreds of vendors. Many of those vendors do not have the internet and are unaware that they could be selling the same merchandise for larger sums of money -- an advantage you have compared to shopping online. I often ask if they have a website or sell online and when they say they do not... well, that provides me with the advantage. (Some of these shows fall below the radar, by the way, and do not have a website to promote their event. Check out the calendar of events for the county fairgrounds near you. Those are the shows that have hidden treasures.) During negotiations, after talking the seller down from his initial asking price, ask "I'm willing to pay cash, not credit card or check. What's the best you can do?" You will be surprised how the price will be knocked down again in your favor. (If they do not accept credit cards, this will not be leverage. Ask in advance early on if they accept credit cards.) And most important: make the most out of your admission. Most vendors are willing to provide a few minutes of instruction regarding the items they have for sale. It's both geeky and cool to find out when Lincoln Logs went from metal tins to cardboard containers, the few toys never released to market and leaked into collector hands (thus very rare to acquire), what items are prototypes, etc. Remember my wife who learned a few things about vintage Hess trucks? The value of an antique toy show is the educational aspect. Worth the price of any admission.