Friday, March 29, 2019

Jack Benny Ultimate DVD Collection

Time Life recently released their “Ultimate Jack Benny Collection,” an exclusive available only through Time Life’s website for a retail price of $99.95. Regrettably, the set is anything but ultimate. 

Jack Benny may have been a cheapskate, a mediocre violinist, and 39 years old no matter the year, but above all he was a master of comedy. His character was fiction, of course, and the running jokes kept fans laughing for over 50 years on radio, stage, screen and television. By 1965, Jack Benny was well-acquainted with hour-long color television specials. His first experience with color television came in 1955, when the program for March 6 was pre-recorded at George Burns’ McCadden Studios. Ten years later he hosted and starred in a series of ten television specials, almost one every calendar year until 1974. Celebrity guests included Bob Hope, Lucille Ball, Nancy Sinatra, The Beach Boys, Dennis Day, Red Skelton, Gregory Peck, Elke Sommer, Walt Disney, Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, Dinah Shore, John Wayne, Redd Foxx, Don Rickles, Jack Webb, Dean Martin, Phyllis Diller, Johnny Carson, Ann-Margret, Dan Blocker, Lawrence Welk and many others. 

The five-disc set issued through Time Life is a gem. Picture and sound quality is superior. Teasers and bumpers included, you can feel confident these are uncut and unedited. Also included in the February 5, 1981 special, “A Love Letter to Jack Benny,” hosted by George Burns, a loving tribute to a comedian who passed away a short time prior.

Regrettably, the five-disc set falls short of the $99.95 price tag. Advertised on Time Life’s website is a 12-disc set containing over 60 half-hour episodes of The Jack Benny Program, which is contained in two box sets with the remaining seven DVDs. Imagine my surprise when these two box sets are not from Time Life, but prior DVD releases from Mill Creek and Shout! Factory. Yes, the 2013 Shout! Factory DVD release with 18 half-hour episodes is included, along with the four-disc 2011 Mill Creek release containing 39 half-hour episodes. The latter of which retails $3.99 and was found in the bargain bins at Wal-Mart for $5 last year. The Shout! Factory box set retailed $29.95 when commercially released in 2013, not retailing an average of $19.95 (and less if you shop around).

Specifically what arrived in my mail box.
This is what Time Life should be revealing on their website.

For anyone puzzled over what this all means… Time Life has a sturdy reputation for licensing and commercially packaging classic television programs, unavailable elsewhere at the time of their release. Usually loaded with bonus features, fans of The Six Million Dollar ManThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.Get Smart, Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show, among other classics, knew that while the price tag was a bit steep, the product was always top-notch. For this Jack Benny DVD set, inferior quality public domain prints from the Mill Creek set is vastly inferior compared to prior Time Life holdings.

Careful examination of the Time Life website verifies what fans are complaining about on social media as “deceptive advertising” and “misleading." (Direct quotes from fans of Jack Benny.) Nowhere does the product description indicate Mill Creek or Shout! Factory sets, suggesting the product sold is exclusive from Time Life as with all prior DVD releases. The photo image of the product only portrays the five-disc set of NBC Television Specials. One fan on social media claimed to have contacted Time Life to inform them that the photo of all three box sets were not accurate, suggesting all three sets were produced by Time Life, with different cover art. The company quickly changed the product photo to just the five-disc set. That fan also provided screen captures of the before and after to prove the initial deception in packaging, reprinted below.
(Above) This is what Time Life promoted months ago.
(Above) This is what Time Life is now promoting as a 12-disc set.

Even with a 24-page booklet inserted between the three box sets, bundled and shrunk wrapped together as a single set, the $99.95 price tag is a major disappointment. Time Life, in my opinion, should have just offered the five-disc set at a price tag of $39.95 or $49.95... just as an option for a separate purchase. It appears that Time Life wanted to make a minimum of $99.95 for a single purchase and not having a DVD set worthy of the price tag, simply grabbed wholesale discounts of two prior DVD sets and bundled them together to justify the price tag. Failure to disclose two box sets released by other companies more than five years ago as part of this 12-disc “exclusive” is indeed misleading. 

Officials at Time Life have been asked by multiple people to explain why the product on their website is deceptive and to date, everyone who told me they asked for an explanation received dead silence.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Batman Returns to Television

Holy show-ups! Batman is making a return to prime time television!

The villainous Bane complete with costume.
In 2013, producer Bruno Heller, along with Danny Cannon, created a weekly detective series based on the DC Comics run of Batman. The premise, summed up briefly, is a weekly prime-time soap opera (with each episode picking up where the last left off) populated by a cast of characters who, each with various reasons, slowly progress into the villains that are common stance of Batman comics. Here, Bruce Wayne is a young man and many years away from the crime-fighting exploits that we would come to know. Therefore, the events that unfold happen years before Bruce Wayne decides to become Batman. Hence why the program is titled Gotham. It is gritty, violent and loaded with enough mystery for Detective Gordon to investigate the weird motives that he eventually writes off numerous times as "That doesn't surprise me. This is Gotham."

On the program we watch as Oswald Cobblepot develops political ambitions, Edward Nygma losing his job as a forensics scientist at the Gotham City Police Department and becoming a wanted criminal, and Selena Kyle applying cat burglar skills as she slowly develops feelings for young Bruce. Along the way there is a triangle love with Detective Gordon, who eventually gets promoted to Commissioner Gordon, and who happens to be the investigative lead on the program.

Jeremiah Valeska, a.k.a. The Joker 

Gotham premiered in September of 2014 with a few legal stipulations: the words "Batman," "The Joker" and "Harley Quinn" could not be used on the program, along with The Joker's trademarked green hair. Fox Entertainment President David Madden said that the show's production team "have masterfully honored the mythology of Gotham and brought it to life with depth, emotion and memorable high drama."

The Mad Hatter and his close associates. 
To be honest, I was not impressed with the first season, but I understood the concept and what the producers were shooting for. With each passing season, as the characters became more villainous, the program in my opinion got better and better... proving that in the Batman universe, it is the villains that we cheer on -- not the Caped Crusader. There was a smile on my face when Mad Hatter hypnotized an innocent couple and then smashed them flat with a wrecking ball. Crystal Reed was eye candy as Sofia Falcone. The actor playing Zsasz hits the mark without having to take off his jacket to reveal the scars we know all too well. It is rare that a television program gets better with each season and Gotham succeeded. But after four years it seems the ratings are less than half of what they were when the program premiered and Fox would not renew for a fifth season.

Producer Heller quickly begged the network for one final season. Everything leading to Bruce Wayne's decision to dress in cape and cowl was leading to the fifth and final season. Executives at Fox eventually relented and a partial half-season was commissioned. Twelve episodes instead of the usual 22. And this season we have seen the birth of Bane, Arthur Penn (a.k.a. The Ventriloquist), Ivy Pepper's acceptance of the power to control plants as Poison Ivy, and the origin of Magpie, Jane Doe and other lesser-known Batman villains. But here lies the big surprise that leaked a few weeks ago: the five-year on-going story arc will finish with episode 11, to be televised April 18. The final episode of the program, on the evening of April 25, will be a one-episode stand-alone adventure that takes place ten years later. Complete with cape and cowl, we will see the first live-action Batman on prime-time television since Adam West in 1966. Yep, The Joker, The Riddler, Scarecrow, Cat Woman, The Penguin and the entire gang will be facing off against the Caped Crusader.

So even if you have not watched Gotham over the past five years, set your DVRs to record Gotham on the evening of April 25 on Fox. To quote Harley Quinn, "This is gonna be fun, Puddin'..."

Thursday, March 14, 2019


Reno Rides the Range was a short-lived radio western during the summer of 1949, starring Reno Browne, an equestrian who also had a brief career in Hollywood alongside Whip Wilson and Johnny Mack Brown. One of only two cowgirls to have her own comic book series (the other was Dale Evans), Browne produced this short-lived radio program with her own money in an attempt to replicate the success of such screen cowboys as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.

The program lasted 13 half-hour episodes and was syndicated across the country starting in 1949, shortly before the premiere of Haunted Trails, starring Whip Wilson and Reno Browne. One transcription disc was recently found and collector Randy Riddle transferred the recordings (the second half of episodes three and four). They may not be complete episodes but something is better than nothing. This also offers us a tease of what we now know exists.

It seems every year a vintage children's western radio program momentarily receives a spotlight... not for being found, but because it was relatively unknown with very little documentation in reference books. Reno Rides the Range is not listed in any of the books in my vast reference library. So you can understand my personal fascination with this one.  

You can click to listen to the recordings here:

Friday, March 1, 2019

Check Out Retro Fan Magazine

In an era where digital newsletters and Internet websites have dominated the newsfeeds, there is cause to cheer with the report of a new print magazine available for fans of vintage pop culture. In June of 2018, TwoMorrows Publishing released the first issue of a new quarterly magazine titled Retro Fan. Its tagline — “The Crazy, Cool Stuff We Grew Up With” — defines its subject matter, but to fine-tune that into a more specific demographic, with primary focus to pop culture of the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.

“I am also the editor-in-chief of TwoMorrows' long-running, award-nominated Back Issue magazine,” editor Michael Eury informed me, “which examines Bronze Age (1970s-1990s) comic-book history, and have written numerous books on comics and pop-culture history, the most recent being Hero-A-Go-Go: Campy Comic Books, Crimefighters, and Culture of the Swinging Sixties. Previously, I’ve been an editor at DC Comics, Dark Horse Comics, and the long-defunct Comico the Comic Company, and have written for a variety of publishers and clients including Marvel Comics, Nike, and Toys R Us.”

Retro Fan almost started back in 2012. Publisher John Morrow of TwoMorrows and Michael Eury were weighing options for a new project for in addition to Back Issue. “With Back IssueI was so enjoying exploring the behind-the-scenes aspects of the comic books from my youth that I realized another magazine that did the same type of thing for the other stuff I grew up with -- the cartoons, sitcoms, toys, fads, fashions, bubble gum pop music, monsters, trading cards, etc. -- would be a fun read that’s also historically significant.”

For the next few years, the "Retro Magazine" gnawed at the back of Eury’s head, especially when he was working on his Hero-A-Go-Go book and revisiting the camp craze of the Sixties (his elementary school years): Batmania, Bond, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.Captain Niceand Mr. Terrific, Metamorpho the Element Man, the Cowsills, The Monkees, Dell Comics' superhero Frankensteinand Dracula, and so on. The book designer, Scott Saavedra, who also grew up with the same and Eury developed a working relationship.

Soon after Hero-A-Go-Gowas published in 2017, Michael Eury proposed to John Morrow that they dust off the "Retro Magazine" concept and he agreed.

One of the toughest challenges we had was settling on a title. “Retro” websites, conventions, T-shirt companies, video game magazines, you name it, had locked in “Retro Magazine” and other similar names. “Then one day John suggested to me, with a ‘You’re not going to like this’ disclaimer, the name Retro Fan. I loved it! And it nailed the tone of the magazine.”

Having read the first three issues of Retro Fan magazine I have to say the contents contain well-researched, professionally written and smartly designed articles. But at its heart is fandom — a passion for a TV show, action figure, junk food, or singing group that made our childhoods special.

Much of the content is provided by regular columnists who have a reader following and keen knowledge about their subjects, starting with Martin Pasko, no stranger to DC Comics fans and genre-TV viewers. “Marty was actually part of this magazine before it was even officially launched,” Eury explained to me. “A few years back at a comic-con he mentioned to John Morrow his interest in writing about superhero cinema and related pop culture. John never forgot and I invited Marty to the mag. John and I talked about a number of other possibilities for columnists, and cartoonist/comics historian Scott Shaw and Hollywood-hero expert Andy Mangels were both on our lists. John was interested in Pete Von Sholly as a monster-column contributor. When I reached out to Pete, he was unavailable… but recommended Ernest Farino. And I’m glad he did. Ernie has an impressive background Hollywood visual effects—and like the other columnists started as a fan, most notably of monster and sci-fi cinema. We brought in Hero-A-Go-Go’s Scott Saavedra as designer, and off we went. Soon I brought in our designer Saavedra, a really funny writer, as a columnist, as well as pulp master Will Murray as a columnist.”

Retro Fan magazine is being distributed to comic shops and sold through the company website (either or as you’d expect of a TwoMorrows publication, but it is also available at Barnes & Noble. This is a risky venture, but a valuable one in an effort to attract a broader commercial audience than currently exists within TwoMorrows’ World. Articles include the 1960s TV series The Green Hornet, interviews with Lou Ferrigno and Mark Hamill, and much more.

For those who insist on digital PDF issues, you can buy back issues for a discount price in digital format through the TwoMorrows website, so the print magazine has evolved into both markets – including one saturated by instant demand as a result of Kindle and other eBook readers.