Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year!

The way I look at it, if Sports Illustrated can have their own swimsuit issue, we can have one of our own to ring in the New Year!

Debra Paget
Sari Maritza
Frances Drake rings in the new year of 1935.
Virginia Dale
Guess Who?

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Holidays in Hollywood

Hollywood Studios enjoyed having their contract players pose for Christmas pictures. Such photos would later appear in trade magazines, Christmas cards, calendars and much more. Here's a few of those rarely-seen starlets for the holidays!

Alice White  1930

Anita Page 1930

Joan Crawford 1929

Gina Lollobrigada  (date unknown)

Ida Lupino  1939

Sally Phipps  1927

Murial Evans  1933

Virginia Grey 1935

Monday, December 19, 2016


"That was so 20 days ago," I told a friend last week when he phoned to tell me that he just learned of the dates of a convention being held in July.

"Where did you hear about those dates?" he asked. "I just found out about them yesterday."

I told him of a newsgroup that I subscribe to. Someone posted the dates of the convention to the newsgroup just 20 days prior. My friend does not subscribe to any newsgroups so with every phone call I find myself filling him in on the latest news of the hobby: who died, what new discoveries were made, critical complaints about the latest movies, a film or two coming up on TCM that he might want to catch, and so on. 

So what is a "newsgroup"? It is a free service for subscribers who share a common interest. Submissions come from the subscribers and everyone can comment. (Most newsgroups require subscription else a free-for-all open to the public would be an open invitation to spam.) It's kind of like a daily e-mail consisting of submissions from the subscribers with news, tips, trivia, etc. Imagine 2,000 subscribers who like Perry Mason all contributing trivia they observed while watching episodes on MeTV, or providing release dates for the DVD sets, or observations in the book reprints, and so on. There are tons of newsgroups on the Internet. (For clarity, a "message board" is kind of the same thing except that the board is public for anyone to read and only requires subscribing if you want to submit or comment to a specific thread.) 

Newsgroups have been around for more than two decades and thanks to these groups I was able to stay informed of eBay auctions, DVD release dates, alerts of special screenings on Turner Classic Movies, reviews of conventions I was unable to attend, the dates of up-coming conventions, the contents of the latest issue of my favorite magazines, historical and archeological discoveries of old movies and radio programs, and so on. But the era of e-mail newsgroups is coming to an end and the primary cause is Facebook. 

Facebook came along at the right time and if it was not Facebook, something else would have taken its place. (MySpace almost succeeded.) Today, news travels faster on Facebook than the major networks can provide daily. The evening news on television decides what to report based on what is trending on social media. Morning and afternoon talk shows now feature celebrities sipping cups of coffee and discussing the events of the day rather than reporting it. Mark Zuckerberg insists his ultimate goal is to put a computer into everyone's lap and have everyone in the world using Facebook. He may just accomplish that.

Example of the news reported hourly on Facebook.

For those who are not signed up for Facebook yet, you may want to consider doing so. Regardless of the general consensus from non-Facebook users, Facebook is not just a platform for people to share funny cat videos and exchange political views. Right now you can video-stream seminars from conventions to the masses... for free. You can call your friends for free as long as your friends have Facebook. (No doubt Verizon or Sprint will eventually take notice and try to put a stop to that citing some technical telecommunications law.) Goodbye calling plans, Verizon. 

Later next month Facebook is introducing a free service for group video conferencing. 

If you have a Facebook account, you can receive news of a celebrity passing, read a movie review and get the latest news minute-by-minute as it happens. I practically stopped watching the evening news because I get all I want to know within one minute of looking at my smartphone using the Facebook App.

Facebook offers many other services, all of them free. But you have to be a Facebook user to take advantage of these services. Next month I will be video streaming the seminars at SPERDVAC, an annual convention now held in Las Vegas. Anyone with Facebook can watch the videos for free. Not that I want to discourage people from going to SPERDVAC but if you cannot afford the airfare, hotel, travel expenses and admission fees to attend the convention, visit the SPERDVAC Convention Facebook page on January 20 and 21 and you will be able to watch the slide show seminars and staged re-enactments for free from your computer.

Whether you enjoy old movies or old-time radio, Facebook has now evolved into something "essential." Case in point: Just within the past week, through a number of Facebook groups, I learned of "lost" old-time radio programs discovered (The Adventures of Superman), read a review about a new Kay Kyser book, received the dates of SPERDVAC's convention in Las Vegas in January, used a promo on Facebook to get 50 percent off breakfast on Saturday morning at a local diner, and bought an external 6TB hard-drive that was on sale for "one hour only" for $35 postpaid (regular price $180 when on sale). If you do not have a Facebook account, take a moment to check out the screen captures below to see a few of the recent postings all made within a three-day time period.

Facebook offers thousands of "Facebook Groups" and this is where e-mail newsgroups are becoming obsolete. For example, I enjoy old movies so I signed up for the "Turner Classic Movies Facebook Page." There I learn about events happening in the world of black and white. New restorations of old motion-pictures, release dates of BluRay titles, special screenings on TCM, and so on. I enjoy listening to old-time radio so I signed up for all three "Old-Time Radio Facebook Pages." The "Old Time Radio Lovers Facebook Page" has almost 6,000 subscribers and the postings listed above came from that group alone. So you can understand why during the past few months I discovered most (if not all) of the recent news items came through Facebook -- not e-mail newsgroups. Yes, newsgroups are a thing of the past. If you do not have a Facebook account, considering signing up today. It is free. After all, this is the 21st Century.

For Those Who Do Have Facebook... How to Declutter Your Newsfeed
When was the last time you looked at your Facebook feed and liked everything you saw? Perhaps the most common complaint from Facebook users is the endless clutter on their newsfeed. This is usually the result of friending too many people or signing up for too many Facebook accounts. Taking a few minutes to tweak your newsfeed and unsubscribe from meaningless content will resolve that problem. As an example, if the majority of the contributions on a Facebook Group consists of photos people pluck off Google images and/or generic responses such as "I love Jack Benny" or catch-phrases from popular movies and programs, I start weighing the option whether to unsubscribe or unfollow that group. Facebook is only as useful as you allow it to be.

Here is where you can turn off the notifications
(a.k.a. "unfollow" the postings) or see only postings in
the group submitted by your Facebook friends, or
the important ones.

Compare this to the love-hate relationship. You know those postings people make on Facebook (angry political rants or music videos you care not to see)? Rather than unfriend those who post meaningless content and stir emotions, "unfollow" them so they won't know you are not seeing their postings. You remain Facebook friends but you no longer see their postings. The option to "unfollow" is pure genius. Rather than get angry or upset over what they post, remember you have a choice. "It's not you, it's me."

A friend of mine once told me he was a member of more than 500 Facebook Groups and had difficulty following all of the postings. Once he started to decipher which groups were more valuable than others, he began unsubscribing from the ones not providing meaningful content. This allows you to be a better guardian of the valuable minutes you have in a day. I provide this tidbit of those who already have a Facebook account and have yet to figure out how to make the most out of something extremely valuable.

This blog post is not designed to encourage people from un-subscribing from existing newsgroups they are presently signed up with. This brief write-up is to help guide hobbyists into something extremely beneficial and how to take advantage of those benefits.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

HBO's Westworld Makes A Grand Comeback

When the Emmy Awards come around in a few months the executives at HBO can be certain of going home with a additional trophies for their latest offering, Westworld, a thought-provoking and addictive science-fiction venture adapted from the 1973 motion-picture of the same name. As a kid I fondly enjoyed the premise of Westworld and was surprised to learn HBO was going to televise a weekly series adapted from the motion-picture. Could they pull it off? They did -- and in spades.

Westworld is an inter-active theme park played out by advanced robotics for tourists who are willing to pay big money to role play as a gunslinger, sheriff, bounty hunter or simply spend the afternoon screwing the whores in the town saloon. Customers/tourists (known as "the guests") dress in costume and play out a fantasy of their own choosing... many of whom want to get their money's worth. With proprietary software, the storylines in the million-acre landscape continue to change and adapt according to the responses of the tourists. 

Every night when the tourists go to sleep, the staff of Westworld sneak into the park, pick up the pieces, repair the robots (known as "the hosts") and wipe the memory banks clean. The sun rises in the East and the storylines play out again through a repeated cycle for the next day's tourists. But when some of the robots in the park start developing anomalies and independent thought process, artificial intelligence is born. Pity for the tourists who wanted to play cowboy for a day and it comes as no surprise that the robots will ultimately take over.

Westworld is based on a story idea conceived by Michael Crichton, who later recycled his concept with dinosaurs instead of robots for Jurassic Park (and yes, there is a verbal tip-of-the-hat to Jurassic Park in one episode). The scenario unfolds in a series of ten hour-long episodes in what is now known as Season One. (HBO has since renewed Westworld for an additional season.) Direction is top-notch, writing is both academic and witty, and the special effects are the best I have seen in years for any television program (or movie, for that matter). Westworld is a complex, intriguing and fascinating series worth binge watching if you can find an afternoon free from all distractions.

If Westerns are your meat and potatoes, you will be pleased to know that the dialog fits the bill. When the Deputy approaches a notorious gang of bank robbers, riding into town, the tourists who paid good money for excitement get their money's worth. "That's the sheriff's horse you got there," the deputy remarks. A bullet quickly takes the life of the deputy, killing him on the spot. "His rifle, too," remarks the villain.

"You can't play God without being acquainted with the Devil."

"Wouldn't want anything disturbing our guests from their rape and pillage."

Behind the scenes there are a number of growing conflicts. The moneymen want a boost to the theme park with new storylines. The company wants to protect its intellectual property while at the same time phase out Dr. Robert Ford, played by Anthony Hopkins, the creator of Westworld who slyly accepts the fate ultimately handed to him. Ed Harris plays the mysterious man in black who pays good money to keep returning as a guest to the theme park, operating like a standard-issue serial killer, hoping to uncover a deeper level in the game known as "The Maze," which will supposedly provide fulfillment. Evan Rachel Wood, who receives top billing on the series, plays the oldest robot in the theme park, Dolores, who is among the first to wake up from her simulated life and set out for the path of enlightenment. Her unsympathetic creators, and challenging foe (Ed Harris) will climax in the final installment that puts all the pieces of the puzzle together.

There are plot twists with almost every episode. Who is manipulating a few robots with a transmission from a hidden satellite feed? As the robots start discovering their true identities, how will they react when they face the decision to rebel? Most importantly is the overall exit strategy put into place by Dr. Ford, knowing the company wants to remove him as soon as they can excise the exact details of the proprietary technology?

It must be the policy of HBO to take a premise that can effectively be dramatized without vulgarity or sex and inject gratuitous scenes of nudity and sexual violence in practically every episode. But for this series the vulgarity and nudity works because it becomes essential to the story -- the nude figures of human-looking robots are not used for the sake of having nudity on the screen. And the motives of every major protagonist through the series is intelligent. A good thing, too, when you consider some of the best science-fiction and fantasy plays up to the intelligence of the audience and not down to us like we were four-year-olds. 

Anyone who has seen the 1974 Yul Brenner movie knows the robots will rebel and attempt to take over. They will, one-by-one, develop consciousness. But how the scenario unravels is half the fun of Westworld. In one great scene, Maeve, a female robotic who runs the whorehouse in town, wakes on the operating table to have a coherent conversation with the mechanics who are busy repairing her gears and fake flesh. It does not take long for her to discover both our strengths and our weaknesses. "At first, I thought you and the others were gods. Then I realized you're just men. And I know men. You think I'm scared of death? I've done it a million times. I'm f---ing great at it. How many times have you died? Because if you don't help me... I will kill you."

If you have seen The MatrixBladerunner, The Wild, Wild West and the recent Battlestar Galactica then the events unfolding in Westworld offers nothing new in the science-fiction genre. It is in the execution, however, that the series excels. Husband and wife team Lisa Joy Nolan and Jonathan Nolan are responsible for bringing this weekly television series to life, mapping out and storyboarding every scene. Repeat viewing will reveal just how crafty the entire story plays out from Wood getting stabbed in the same spot multiple times, props in the background that go unnoticed, and vengeance restaged with roles reversed. Just what is Robert Ford's end game? The final episode of the season will not disappoint. If gratuitous sex and violence is not taboo with your preference of binge watching, give this one a try and you will quickly discover why I say this is the best television program on the air this year

Monday, December 5, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 2, 2016

Is There Such a Thing as Too Much TV?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2016

My Christmas Gift to You

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 11, 2016

Doctor Strange 2016 Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2016

VINYL RECORDS: Pop Culture Collectibles

There has been a great deal of talk about vinyl records making a comeback. Last week my wife and I wandered through Crate and Barrel to discover they were selling a fancy record player and the latest albums of today on vinyl format. There are a large number of vinyl record album trade shows where vendors display varied price tags with their wares, based upon condition and edition. To the mainstream public who can download all of The Beatles songs from Apple iTunes, the question of why people would even bother to collect LP records stems from a misconception that everything is already available on digital format. To a generation that grew up with pops and clicks in the soundtrack, this brings back memories that hi-fidelity and 5.1 surround sound cannot provide. But I digress: there are loads of children's albums that have never been available commercially since their initial release. And for fans of old-time radio, such as myself, these records are unexplored and overlooked... and provide thousands of hours of enjoyment.

A little over a month ago I purchased an all-in-one LP-to-CD standalone (which also converts audio cassettes to CD) with relative ease. A few tweaks are permitted with the controls and after a few minutes of reading the instructions, and trial and error, I found myself converting a dozen LP records a day. The coming decade will define the digital age. With reluctance I eventually talked myself into going digital -- but with high standards of quality and assurance. Will I be able to liquidate and clear out a closet full of hundreds of children's records? Yes. Will I still be able to retain the recordings themselves to listen to any time I want? Yes. 

The transfer process has to be done at real time. If it takes 40 minutes to listen to play both sides of the vinyl, it takes 40 minutes to convert to CD. There are no speedy shortcuts. Considering the fact that I have not listened to a vinyl album for more than a decade, I was shocked to discover how much I enjoyed a little over half of the albums I was transferring. And an even bigger surprise was the discovery that many actors who made a living in radio made the transition to recording studio. Ralph Bell, Dan Ocko, Ronald Liss, Daws Butler, Jackson Beck, Paul Frees, June Foray and many others were supplying voices for dramatic readings and audio dramas. (The terms "radio drama" and "audio drama" are often used interchangeably but unless the recording was designed specifically for radio, not a vinyl album, they are considered an audio drama.)

From Batman, Superman, Star Trek, Hopalong Cassidy, Dick Tracy, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gildersleeve, The Six Million Dollar Man, Planet of the Apes, and many others made the decision to commercialize on the vinyl market. Most of these dramas were scripted for commercial use, not soundtracks excised from television or radio broadcasts. One of the most enjoyable (to my surprise) was Yogi Bear and the Three Stooges (1966). Daws Butler, who voiced Yogi Bear for the cartoons, reprises his role for this album... as well as Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Curley Joe. You can listen to the album (including the introductory Yogi Bear song) here on YouTube.

Many of the Batman albums were enjoyable and the stories were adapted from the actual comic books. I recognized Casey Kasem reprising his role as Robin, the Boy Wonder, for at least one of these albums. It was bizarre to listen to Star Trek dramas with James Doohan reprising his role as Scotty with a cast that was by no means comparison to Leonard Nimoy or DeForest Kelley... but the actor playing Captain Kirk did a superb impersonation of William Shatner. Listening to Basil Rathbone, assisted with Ian Martin and Peter Fernandez, in a dramatic version of The Lost World was better than I expected when you consider the fact that the adaptation was lifted from the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle novel, but with plenty of variations to ensure I was listening to something new. 

For those who cannot get enough of The Witch's Tales, a 1930s late-night horror radio program, I recommend Terror Tales by the Old Sea Hag. Produced in 1959 and featuring Martha Wentworth as an old witch who narrates six creepy stories ("Mice from Outer Space," "The Devil Octopus," "The Spooky Where" and "Terror Train" to name a few) was very entertaining. Not the same as listening to Old Nancy from The Witch's Tales, but a close second worth seeking out.

For those who cannot get enough Interplanetary adventure, Space Patrol, Rocky Jones and Captain Video features the original television and radio cast reprising their roles for new adventures. Walt Disney produced Davy Crockett with Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen; Guy Williams reprised his role for Zorro. If you love King Kong, you might want to seek out the 1974 Wonderland Record, adapted from the 1933 RKO motion picture. Adapted for recording by Cherney Berg, the complete story was dramatized with more emphasis on Kong's rampage through New York City, through the eyes and ears of the pilots and witnesses on the street. If you enjoy the Yukon adventures of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, you might want to seek out the 1952 Decca Records. Scripted by Fran Striker, who I would like to point out did not create the Preston series, the origin of Preston in "The Case That Made Preston a Sergeant" and the origin of King, the wonder dog in "The Case of the Orphan Dog," are essential listening.

Virtually thousands of children's records were produced from the 1950s through the 1980s, and I would imagine by this time most of them have been transferred to digital and are available online either through YouTube and various websites on the Internet. The quality of the productions vary; one of the Superman albums had terrible production values while other Superman albums were entertaining. 

Often overlooked by aficionados of old-time radio programs, today's technology of iPads and iPhones provide you with the tool to "click and listen" to many of these vinyl albums. Long commute to work every day? Explore a number of these albums.