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.