Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Happy Birthday, Herb

Since 1957, Herb Alpert and his trumpet have been part of the cultural scene.

Today is his 75th birthday, an appropriate time to remember that he has had five #1 hits, as well as nearly 30 albums that were certified gold or platinum, in his long career. In the 1960s, with his Tijuana Brass, Alpert began to attract attention from mainstream music fans with the group's first hit, "The Lonely Bull."

That song didn't reach the top spot on the charts, but it enjoyed more commercial success in the United States than anything else the Tijuana Brass ever recorded.

The group disbanded in 1969, but they were popular throughout that decade, appearing on numerous TV specials in what were sort of early versions of music videos. After the split, Alpert went on to enjoy many years of success as a solo artist. Not long before the breakup, he had a #1 recording — a singular effort called "This Guy's in Love With You."

The title may not be familiar to young listeners, but I'll bet the melody is.

A decade passed before Alpert reclaimed the top spot on the charts, but he did so with the recording that I've always liked the best — "Rise." The album of the same name was a huge hit, a Grammy Award winner, and the song made Alpert the first (and, to my knowledge, the only) performer to reach the top spot on the American charts with a vocal recording ("This Guy's in Love With You") and a purely instrumental recording ("Rise").

Alpert is a unique talent. In addition to his recordings, he co–founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss nearly 50 years ago. A&M is probably a familiar label to many contemporary music fans. It has released several albums by noteworthy artists, including Joe Cocker, Joan Baez, Burt Bacharach, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, The Captain and Tennille, Procol Harum, Free, Carole King, Styx, Supertramp, Sting, Sheryl Crow, Soundgarden. The list goes on and on.

And, in 1996, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recognized Alpert and Moss for their work by inducting them in the non–performer category.

Happy birthday, Herb. Thanks for all you've done.

What Might Have Been

Of all the famous people in the world, relatively few are known by their first names only.

But Selena was one of them — albeit mostly in her native Latino community.

You say you don't know who Selena was? That could well be because of what happened on this day 15 years ago.

She was born Selena Quintanilla on April 16, 1971, in a relatively small Texas town on the Gulf of Mexico. She started singing at the age of 6 and, at the age of 9, was the lead singer of a group her father organized to perform in the family's restaurant.

When she was 12, she released her first album. Four years later, she was named female vocalist of the year at the Tejano Music Awards.

In the early 1990s, her popularity took off with the success of a handful of albums, but most of her recordings were in Spanish. By the mid–1990s, she was ready to make an English–language album that would be her crossover entry into the English–speaking market. In fact, she was working on such an album when this day dawned in 1995.

But she didn't live to finish it.

On the morning of March 31, 1995, Selena confronted the president of her Texas fan club at a Days Inn in Corpus Christi about evidence that she had been embezzling from the singer's fan club. The president of the fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, pulled out a gun and shot Selena in the back. Although seriously wounded, Selena ran to the hotel lobby and identified her assailant. She died a short time later, about two weeks before she would have turned 24.

(In hindsight, what would have been Selena's 24th birthday was a significant day in my life as well. April 16, 1995, was Easter Sunday. I spent that day with my parents and some family friends. It was the last time I ever saw my mother.)

Selena's death sent shock waves through the Latino community. At the time, it occurred to me that it may have had the same kind of cultural impact as the deaths of Elvis Presley and John Lennon, but it barely made a ripple in mainstream America.

Tom Brokaw called her "the Mexican Madonna," but the name Selena didn't ring a bell with non–Spanish audiences.

How well I remember going into a convenience store to pick up a paper the day after Selena was killed. The story was on the front page, and it actually sparked a brief conversation between the clerk (a white female) and a young black woman who was behind me in line. They seemed to know each other. One of them (I don't remember which) made an observation about the killing. Neither knew who Selena had been. Their conversation quickly turned to other matters as I paid for my newspaper.

I think it is likely that more non–Hispanic people would have known who she was if she had lived to release what was intended to be her breakthrough album. Later in 1995, a posthumous album, "Dreaming of You," was released, and it included several English–language tracks that she had worked on prior to her death.

I've never been a fan of Tejano music so I can't really say much about Selena's Spanish recordings. But, based on what I have heard of her English recordings, I think Brokaw's comparison to Madonna was apt. She had Madonna's knack for both popular dance tunes and love songs, and I'm sure she would have been a big success in the predominantly English–speaking market.

But that vast potential audience was left with only hints of what might have been.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Honoring Hopper


I don't know what most people think of when they hear Dennis Hopper's name.

Perhaps it depends on how old you are.

I'm sure many people think of 1969's "Easy Rider" when they hear Hopper's name. He not only appeared in the film, he directed it, too. Others remember his role in 1979's "Apocalypse Now." Sports enthusiasts may think of his performance in "Hoosiers" from 1986. Younger moviegoers might remember him as the disabled and rather dull teacher who has an affair with one of his students in 1996's "Carried Away."

And moviegoers who are at least 65 may remember that he co–starred with the late James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" in the mid–1950s.

Personally, I think of an old Twilight Zone episode, a 60–minute program (in which Hopper played a Hitler wannabe) called "He Lives."

The 73–year–old actor has been around longer than you may think. But along with all the high points in his career have come numerous down periods as well, during which he has been well out of the range of the public's radar.

Today was a high point for Hopper. He got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, despite reports that he had one foot in his grave.

Well, not yet.

Hopper was obviously not doing well, but he seemed to be in good spirits. And there is no doubt in my mind that Hopper's career, erratic as it may have seemed at times, deserved to be honored.

I'm glad he lived long enough to see it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

'Tommy' ... On the Silver Screen

Thirty–five years ago tomorrow, a film based on the Who's 1969 rock opera "Tommy" was released in the United States.

For most people, I suppose, that isn't too significant. I mean, there have been a lot of film musicals over the years (I have a particularly vivid memory of a Thanksgiving spent with my grandmother when I was a child and being forced — in my opinion, anyway — to watch the movie "Oklahoma!" that was televised that night because my grandmother liked it).

There were even movies that were based on rock operas before "Tommy" was made ("Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" come to mind). In that sense, it can't be said to have broken any new ground — although some purists might insist that "Tommy" was different.

And, although the film was a departure of sorts for the actors in the cast, it was hardly the debut film for Ann–Margret, Oliver Reed or Jack Nicholson. I suppose the cast was adequate — Ann–Margret was even nominated for a Best Actress Oscar — but I don't remember being particularly impressed. All three had been in movie musicals before, so none could be considered a novice. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to assume that this kind of thing was their milieu.

Likewise, it may have been the first film for some of the musicians in the cast, but they must have been chosen for their popularity and/or musical talent (both, in some, but not all, cases), not for their acting. I don't think the film was the start of a new career in movies for any of them.

Even so, some of the performers — notably, Eric Clapton (singing "Eyesight to the Blind"), Tina Turner (performing "Acid Queen") and especially Elton John (playing "Pinball Wizard") — enjoyed commercial success with their contributions to the film's soundtrack.

(There is a certain irony, I guess, in the fact that the anniversary of the theatrical release of "Tommy," the story of a "deaf, dumb and blind kid," has been preceded by reports that Vatican officials, including the current pope, did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys. That priest is now deceased, but lawsuits are pending.)

I bought the movie soundtrack after I saw the movie. I liked it — but I liked a girl in school even more and I made a cassette tape of my favorite songs from the soundtrack to play for her on a portable cassette recorder when we were hanging around on the school grounds when the day was over. I knew she liked "Pinball Wizard" so I played it for her a lot — even though I preferred "Eyesight to the Blind."

That is one of the bittersweet memories of my adolescence. I felt I was making some headway with that girl that spring, but she moved away from my hometown of Conway, Ark., after school dismissed for the summer. I don't think I saw her again.

I thought about her last year when I happened to stumble across "Tommy" on a cable channel. And that struck me as odd because she and I didn't see that movie together. We just listened to that Elton John recording — and some other songs from the film — together.

Things are different in my hometown today — I'm told it has nearly quadrupled in size since I was in high school, and I'm sure it has many options for moviegoers now — but when I was a teenager, there was one multiscreen theater in town (in this case, that means two screens), and it catered to the moneymakers. The theater's management didn't seem to think there was any money to be made from showing a musical — unless it was something on the order of "The Sound of Music."

To see such a movie in those days, one had to drive to the state capital of Little Rock. It wasn't far, only about 30 miles or so, but I wasn't old enough to have my driver's license and my parents wouldn't allow me to take the car to Little Rock on a Saturday afternoon (even though I was convinced I could do it with no problem, never even considered the possibility that I might get pulled over or, worse, be involved in an accident).

As it turned out, a friend of mine named Doug wanted to see it, but he wasn't old enough to have his license, either. So his mother graciously agreed to take us to Little Rock and see the film with us.

I don't remember when we saw it, but I guess it must have been sometime that spring, not long after it was released, because the place was packed. Doug spotted three empty seats on the front row — so we made our way to the front row, where we had to look straight up at the screen for nearly two hours while the state–of–the–art sound system shredded our hearing.

Well, Doug and I were young. We could handle it.

But, now that I'm older, I am filled with admiration for what his mother did that day. She was truly a good sport to escort us to the movie and sit through it with us.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Backwards and in High Heels

Whenever I hear the name Ginger Rogers, I am instantly reminded of Ann Richards' keynote address to the Democratic National Convention in 1988.

After mentioning that she was following in Barbara Jordan's footsteps ("two women in 160 years is about par for the course"), Richards asserted that women could come through if given a chance. "After all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels."

I later learned that comic strip artist Bob Thaves originated the line several years earlier in his comic strip, Frank and Ernest. But that doesn't change the fact that I always think of Richards when I think of that line — and I always think of that line when I hear the name of Ginger Rogers.

Before Richards' speech, the mention of Ginger Rogers' name brought back memories of my film appreciation class in college. I thoroughly enjoyed that class. It met for two hours twice a week, and the instructor showed us a lot of classic movies that semester. One of those movies was the first Rogers–Astaire film I ever saw, "Top Hat," which, after having seen some other Rogers–Astaire movies since my college days, I would say is one of the two best films those two ever made (the other being "The Gay Divorcee").

I've seen some of the movies Rogers made without Astaire, and I will agree with anyone who says she was talented, an excellent dancer, an amusing comedienne. I must admit, though, that I'm not really sure why Rogers was chosen to be Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Month for this particular month. It isn't her birthday (her birthday was in July), and next month actually will be 15 years since her death.

Nevertheless, TCM has been showing her movies on Wednesdays this month, and there are some good ones on the schedule tonight. Not necessarily her best, but worth your time.
  • At 7 p.m. (Central), you can see "Vivacious Lady" from 1938. Jimmy Stewart co–starred in the romantic comedy about a botany professor who marries a nightclub singer.

  • At 8:45 p.m. (Central), you can see "Bachelor Mother" from 1939. Rogers was a department store salesgirl in that one, a single working girl who led a somewhat unassuming life until discovering a baby on her doorstep. Rogers turned in a sensitive performance at a time when an unmarried woman and a baby was a much more controversial premise for a movie than it is today.

  • Then, at 10:15 p.m. (Central), you can see "Stage Door" from 1937. It's the story of a theatrical community, and the cast features Katharine Hepburn, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. None of those actresses were nominated for an Oscar, but the film was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay.

  • Finally, at midnight (Central), you can see "Having Wonderful Time" from 1938. Rogers plays a typist who goes to a camp as a summer getaway — in part to get away from a boyfriend in whom she is no longer interested. She is paired, once again, with Ball and Arden, neither of whom has much to work with but both do what they can with what they're given. It should be an enjoyable way to finish the evening.
Those films should set the table nicely for Rogers' only Oscar–winning performance, "Kitty Foyle," which will be shown next week.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Fess Parker Turned Out to be Mortal After All

I was having an interesting conversation with some folks on Facebook tonight after word had spread that actor Fess Parker died today at the age of 85.

One person staunchly resisted the suggestion. "Impossible," she said. "He's one of those guys like Sinatra or Jimmy Stewart. He couldn't possibly die, like an ordinary mortal."

Before today, I would have agreed with that, and, although I knew better, I would have added John Wayne to the list. Fess Parker was like John Wayne in my eyes. He certainly was not an ordinary mortal, and I would have sworn to that on a stack of Bibles when I was a child. He played Daniel Boone, an authentic American hero. He could throw a hatchet and split a tree. I'd seen him do it on TV. Before that, he played Davy Crockett, another authentic American hero.

As a matter of fact, I've heard that Walt Disney chose Parker over James Arness and Buddy Ebsen when casting his Davy Crockett miniseries in the 1950s. That was a huge break for Parker, and it sparked one of the early TV–inspired marketing frenzies when Disney cashed in on the popularity of the show by licensing the sale of things like coonskin caps and bubble gum cards.

Then, for six seasons, from 1964 to 1970, Parker played Daniel Boone in the NBC series of the same name. Interestingly, Parker again wore the coonskin cap when he played Boone — even though the real Daniel Boone never wore a coonskin cap.

But I can tell you that, when I was a child, you simply couldn't be an American kid and not have a coonskin cap (although I must confess that I did know some kids who didn't have coonskin caps — and I felt bad for them, to tell you the truth). It was part of the officially sanctioned uniform for American kids.

Now that Parker is gone, I have to wonder how the other members of the cast are doing.
  • Ed Ames, who played Boone's Indian sidekick, Mingo, is now 82 and apparently remained friends with Parker until his death. Ames reportedly visited Parker regularly. They only lived about a 15–minute drive from each other.

  • Patricia Blair, who played Boone's wife, Rebecca, is 79 now. She was born and raised in the Dallas–Fort Worth area (coincidentally, Parker also was born in Fort Worth, but he grew up in the west–central Texas town of San Angelo). I kind of had a crush on her when I was 6 or 7!

  • Darby Hinton, who portrayed Boone's son, Israel, is 52 now. My understanding is that he is a filmmaker, and his current project is a TV series with the working title Hinton's Living History. In the pilot, he, his wife and their four children travel around the country, experiencing history in many ways and in many places, including Fort Boonesborough, Ky., which was founded by the real Daniel Boone 235 years ago.

  • Veronica Cartwright, who played Boone's daughter, Jemima, is 60 and still does some acting. Most Daniel Boone fans probably don't remember much about her. She disappeared after the second season.
As far as I know, they're all in good health.

But you never know what might happen ...

Now that we've learned that Fess Parker was mortal after all.

Abyssinia, Henry

I guess it comes as no surprise to anyone, but they did things a little differently on television 35 years ago.

For one thing, cable did exist in 1975 — but mostly to deliver network TV to remote locations so the options were limited (mostly) to the Big Three networks.

And, at some point, TV series began wrapping up their seasons in May.

But, in 1975, it was customary for a TV series to finish its season in March, even though that did not coincide with what is now regarded as a pivotal "sweeps" period for ratings purposes.

Anyway, on this date 35 years ago, CBS aired one of its most classic TV episodes — "Abyssinia, Henry," the finale of the third season of M*A*S*H. And, if you saw it, you couldn't forget it.

There were several things that made it noteworthy.

It was the final episode featuring Lt. Col. Henry Blake, played by McLean Stevenson. His time with the series was short, given that M*A*S*H ran for 11 years, and he often seems to be forgotten or overlooked, but he was a pivotal character in the first three seasons and frequently had some of the best lines.

In the storyline of the series, Henry got his discharge and the staff at the 4077th arranged to throw a going–away party for him. That was emotional enough for the series' fans, who had quite a fondness for Henry, but that was nothing compared to the final scene.

I have been told that the writers did not reveal the ending of the show to the cast until the last minute because they wanted the actors' reactions to be as genuine and unrehearsed as possible. So the cast and crew filmed the rest of the episode in the belief that, from time to time and in one way or another, Henry's character would return.

But then, when they filmed the conclusion, in which the audience learned that Henry's plane had been shot down and no one had survived, the cast learned Henry's fate. I'm told that only those who needed to know everything got all the information before the scene was shot. For the rest of the people in it, most of whom had non–speaking parts, it was a real stunner. Watch the attached clip and you will see the shock in their faces.

At one point, you can hear the clanging of a surgical instrument that was dropped off camera. That, I have been told, was entirely spontaneous, and the show's production crew decided to keep it because it gave the scene an aura of authenticity.

In hindsight, the episode marked the beginning of M*A*S*H's transition from a funny but not exactly groundbreaking ensemble sitcom to the brilliant comedy/drama it became in its later years.

At the time, it was so shocking to many viewers that they flooded the network with angry letters protesting the decision to kill off a main character in a TV series. Executive producers Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart personally wrote each aggrieved fan to tell them that they were trying to make a point about the horrors of war.

Stevenson later said that leaving the show had been a big mistake, and he regretted the fact that his character's death prevented him from being able to return later.

After Stevenson died at the age of 68, Gelbart (who, like Stevenson, was born in Illinois) observed that Stevenson had left too soon twice in one lifetime.

As good a job as Harry Morgan did playing Stevenson's replacement as commanding officer on the series, he could never take Henry's place in the hearts of the series' original fans.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Noteworthy Day for Movies

March 15 was a special day for movies in 1972.

First and foremost was the theatrical release of "The Godfather," which ranks second only to "Citizen Kane" on the American Film Institute's list of the top 100 movies of the last 100 years.

Over the years, many of Hollywood's most famous actors appeared in movies with gangster themes — Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart — but "The Godfather" and its first sequel, "The Godfather Part II," were, far and away, the best, the most realistic depictions of organized crime ever brought to the big screen. I think that is something about which you will encounter no argument.

Perhaps nothing illustrated the brutal nature of the "business" like the scene in which Michael (played by Al Pacino) kills one of his father's rivals and the rival's bodyguard, forcing him to flee the country.

In 1972, an R rating tended to mean that a film contained nudity. Violence alone did not usually lead to an R (for restricted) rating unless it was excessive and graphic. The violence in "The Godfather" was both; hence, the R rating. There was some very brief nudity in "The Godfather" — and, in 1972, that alone might have been enough to earn the R rating it received — but the nudity only amounted to a couple of seconds in a film that was nearly three hours long. I'm sure the violence and profanity in the film played greater roles.

"Slaughterhouse Five," which also was released on this day in 1972, had an anti–war theme and it did, as a result, have some violent scenes, but nothing remotely comparable to "The Godfather." In the early 1970s, "Slaughterhouse Five" was somewhat notorious for its nudity — specifically, the nudity of Valerie Perrine, who played a character named Montana Wildhack and showed her breasts and her butt in what was considered (at the time) quite daring for a mainstream movie.

On March 15, 1972, I was much too young to see either film without an adult, but I saw both of them later. I first saw "The Godfather," as I recall, when I was in college and one of the TV networks ran edited versions of "The Godfather" and "The Godfather Part II" back to back. I was impressed, even though the more graphic scenes were either cut entirely or dramatically toned down.

Later, I saw the unedited versions on home video. They took my breath away.

I actually saw "Slaughterhouse Five," the story of a man who comes "unstuck in time," at a theater. It was showing at an old drive–in theater, which was still clinging to life (but just barely) in my hometown when I got my driver's license, and I persuaded my best friend to see it with me.

That is a night that I doubt that I will ever forget.

Before I proceed, there is something you have to understand about my hometown in Arkansas and its movie theaters — it was not uncommon for any movie, even one that was a hit, to take a couple of years to make its appearance there. When I was growing up, there were two places to see movies in my hometown — the theater downtown (one screen, old–fashioned marquee out front, racially segregated seating) and the drive–in on the outskirts of town. Neither tended to show first–run films. If one wanted to see a first–run film, it was necessary to drive to Little Rock and see it there.

Eventually, my hometown caught up with the rest of the civilized world and a multiple–screen theater ("multiple," in this case, meaning "two") opened, bringing with it first–run films.

But, when I was a new driver and I talked my friend into going to the drive–in with me to see "Slaughterhouse Five," it had been several years since it first appeared on America's movie screens. We were a couple of teenagers who knew little about the movie, other than the fact that we had heard that Valerie Perrine could be seen naked, and we went, primarily in hopes of satisfying our budding sexual curiosities. We also went because we knew we could smoke at the drive–in so, even though it was February, we went to the drive–in on a Saturday night.

The story, in which the protagonist, named Billy Pilgrim, bounces back and forth in time and is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore, where he and Perrine exist as residents of a celestial zoo, was somewhat hard for us to follow. So we mostly smoked and chatted while we waited for the few (and brief) scenes in which portions of Perrine's anatomy could be seen.

To this day, the smell of lighter fluid instantly transports me back to that night, when we sat shivering in my old secondhand car and watched a movie that neither of us really understood.

In hindsight, the evening might have been more enjoyable if I had read the Kurt Vonnegut book upon which the movie was based. I actually did read the book years later, and I watched the film again, as an adult. Having read the book, I could appreciate the task that director George Roy Hill (who made it between "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "The Sting") had undertaken in bringing Vonnegut's black comedy to the screen.

Movie audiences saw two very different yet influential films for the first time on this day 38 years ago.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Peter Graves Dies

Actor Peter Graves was found dead in his California home today. It is being reported that he had a heart attack.

He would have been 84 on Thursday.

Graves had a long career in films and television. TV viewers knew him in his role on Mission: Impossible, which ran for seven years, and as the narrator of the Biography series. Movie fans remember his performances in "Stalag 17" and, nearly 30 years later, "Airplane!"

Graves brought a sincere quality, an earnestness, to every role he played. It was that very characteristic that made his performances in "Airplane!" and its sequel so memorable.

I don't know how many times I've seen "Airplane!" but I still laugh when Graves asks Joey, "You ever … seen a grown man naked?"

He is gone now, but we can still enjoy his performances.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

It was 40 years ago today that the Fifth Dimension received a Grammy Award for Record of the Year for "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In."

Briefly, for those who don't know the finer points of the Grammy Awards, a Record of the Year is given for the best recording of the year — not necessarily the best song (composition) or album (collection of songs), which are two other categories, although there has been some overlapping over the years. Record of the Year often seems to go to the most commercially successful recording of the year — or, at least, to the recording that is perceived to be the most commercially successful.

Performers who have won more than one Record of the Year have been somewhat rare since they started giving out Grammy Awards in 1958, but at the time that "Aquarius" was the recipient, it wasn't as unusual as it has become. Henry Mancini received two in the 1960s, and the Fifth Dimension's Record of the Year for "Aquarius" was its second in three years (the group won for "Up, Up and Away" two years earlier).

For that matter, "Aquarius" was bookended by two Simon and Garfunkel Record of the Year winners — "Mrs. Robinson" in 1969 and "Bridge Over Troubled Water" in 1971 — and Roberta Flack won back–to–back Record of the Year awards in the mid–1970s.

More recently, U2 duplicated that achievement (in 2001 and 2002), but, for the most part, Record of the Year winners have been honored only once. You might be surprised at the acts that never won Record of the Year (in spite of being nominated numerous times) — the Beatles, Elvis Presley, James Taylor. And Bob Dylan was never nominated for Record of the Year at all.

Anyway, it seems to me that "Aquarius" is often remembered as being something of an anthem for the so–called "hippies." I've always thought there were several songs for which one could make valid arguments for deserving that designation, and I have often wondered why "Aquarius" often appears to be the default winner.

Perhaps it is because it was featured in the hit musical "Hair," which was controversial in its day for many reasons and was strongly linked, in the public's mind, with the counter–culture. There was a scene in the musical, which lasted only about 20 seconds, during which members of the cast were nude — and, while it would probably be regarded as tame today, it was disturbing for many at the time — and symbolic of the divide between the generations.

"Hair" was made into a film in the late 1970s. By that time, I guess, the nudity wasn't as shocking.

But I always wondered if the nudity wasn't a smokescreen concealing what was really bothering those who so strenuously objected to "Hair" in the late 1960s — its adherence to astrology and mysticism.

Many people find it hard to reconcile faith in astrology with faith in God — and, after spending several years in the newspaper business, I can understand that.

After all, whether one believes the writings of the Bible or the Torah or the Qur'an, one must concede that they never change — not really, although, at least in the case of the Bible, translations do vary. And interpretations of passages in all three can vary, depending upon who is doing the interpreting.

I guess that the late 1960s and early 1970s were the heyday, in my lifetime, of public belief in astrology and regard for the notion that the movements of the planets influence events on earth. I hadn't been in the newspaper business very long before I discovered that newspapers subscribe to different syndicated horoscope columns — and those columnists never seem to come up with the same interpretation of celestial activity. Some will tell you that Monday will be a good day for you while others will warn you not to leave the house on Monday.

So my assessment of astrology has evolved into one of skepticism, I suppose, and that probably isn't too surprising. But you probably would be surprised to learn who is not a skeptic. I remember that astrology was taken very seriously by many of the "hippies" — which is why there were guffaws a–plenty when it was revealed in the 1980s that first lady Nancy Reagan had consulted an astrologer when planning her husband's daily schedule in the White House after the attempt on his life in 1981. President Reagan, after all, had his share of run–ins with the "hippies" when he was governor of California.

Anyway, according to the New Age movement (which was the apparent inspiration for "Hair"), the world would be entering an age of love, light and humanity in the second half of the 20th century. This would be the "age of Aquarius," which would be radically different from the age that preceded it, the "age of Pisces." As I say, though, the authors of horoscopes almost never agree in their astrological interpretations so it really should come as no surprise that, while many astrologers agreed that an "age of Aquarius" really was coming, there was considerable disagreement about when. There was at least one astrologer who thought it was still seven centuries away.

I don't think there was anything particularly mystical about the song "Aquarius" — or "Let the Sunshine In," which was the second part of the medley. I'm reasonably sure the Fifth Dimension didn't think there was anything mystical about it. They knew it was one of a string of hits for them, probably their biggest.

Was it proclaiming the dawn of a new age? I guess history will need more time before rendering its verdict — unless, of course, the Mayan calendar proves to be right and the end of the world is only a couple of years away. If that is the case, the "age of Aquarius" may be over almost before anyone fully realizes it was here.

The song has certainly done its part to herald the arrival of other new ages in our culture. The "Let the Sunshine In" portion of the medley was used by Barack Obama's presidential campaign, and the song has been part of several commercial ventures in the last four decades.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Coach's Debut

"Cheerio, Cheers" was Coach's last full–episode appearance ...

Sadly, many of today's TV viewers are unfamiliar with Nicholas Colasanto.

I guess that isn't too surprising. Colasanto died more than 25 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1985, a few days after taping one of the last episodes of Cheers!' third season.

For really young TV viewers, Cheers! may not be too familiar, either. It went off the air nearly 17 years ago. But it ran for an amazing 11 years, and it did serve as the launching pad for one of the most well–known TV characters of all time — Frasier Crane, who was portrayed, first on Cheers and then on his own spin–off series, by Kelsey Grammer.

Grammer wasn't a charter member of the Cheers! cast like Colasanto. He came along in the third season, in time to work with Colasanto for a little while.

... but unused material was included in the season's final episode ...

But I think Grammer would tell you that his career wouldn't have been the same if he had been deprived of that time with Colasanto, however brief it was. Colasanto had been in the entertainment business for a quarter of a century. The role of Coach was a supporting role, but Colasanto played a variety of roles in a career that included both TV and films. He also did some directing in his life.

That career began 51 years ago on Friday with a small part in a Playhouse 90 production of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" that starred Jason Robards, Maureen Stapleton, Eli Wallach and Sydney Pollack. To put things into perspective, Grammer was barely 4 years old at the time.

Colasanto appeared on several popular TV shows in his career — My Favorite Martian, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Ben Casey, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, The Fugitive, Mannix, Mission:Impossible, Ironside, Kojak, Baretta. He almost never made more than one episode with any show until he signed on with Cheers — and it is beyond me why someone with a lengthy resume of appearances in crime dramas cast his lot with a sitcom.

But that's what he did, and anyone who watches the early Cheers! episodes in the future will be grateful. Coach was oblivious to a lot. He wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. But he had the proverbial heart of gold, and he left a void in the cast until Woody Harrelson joined the show as Woody Boyd.

... and then Sam adjusted Colasanto's picture of Geronimo in a tribute
to Coach in the last act of the series' finale in 1993.

After Colasanto's death, the cast continued to pay tribute to him on screen.

A picture of Geronimo had been hanging in his dressing room. The cast hung the picture on the set and it stayed there until the final episode eight years later.

In that final episode, Sam straightened the picture, as you can see in the attached clip. A final salute to Coach.

What relevance did Geronimo have to Nicholas Colasanto? Ultimately, not much, I guess — except that it was said the picture had special meaning for Colasanto.

I don't know what that special meaning was. But it apparently is why he kept it hanging on a wall in his dressing room.

Consequently, after Colasanto died, it had a lot of meaning for his castmates as well.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The Story of a Scandal

I'm not really sure why Turner Classic Movies chose to show "All the President's Men" tonight at 10 p.m. (Central). After all, TCM's annual "31 Days of Oscar" salute concluded yesterday.

Perhaps it was in recognition of the fact that today is March 4, which was the regularly scheduled presidential Inauguration Day for more than 130 years. But I guess that could have been accomplished with any film about a president from the 19th century. A movie about Watergate wouldn't have a lot of relevance to March 4 beyond the presidency.

But the thing is that a movie about Watergate — indeed, the very subject of Watergate — has a great deal of relevance to the presidency — well, presidential power, at least. And Watergate was the story of how one president abused his power beyond the point that most Americans would have thought possible.

That's the thing I have always found remarkable about Watergate — the fact that so many people resisted the truth about Nixon. It was almost as if the nation had not just been through the many deceptions of Lyndon Johnson and his subordinates. In the days of Watergate, even those who hated Richard Nixon — and there were many — had a hard time imagining a scoundrel like Nixon occupying the Oval Office. Perhaps it was the residual effect of being taught, as most people who grew up in America were, to trust and respect authority.

It was as if the fact that a politician had been elected president, even if by a narrow margin, transformed that person into a saintly person, above pettiness, above the messiness of grudges and personal insecurity.

At his best, Richard Nixon was not a bad president. He possessed a mind that was often capable of conceiving original, creative solutions to the nation's problems. But it was a great misfortune, for both Nixon and the country, that he was at his worst far more often than he was at his best.

In many ways, Nixon was a textbook example of what a president should not be — a paranoid introvert.

But "All the President's Men" wasn't really about Nixon. He wasn't even a supporting character. "All the President's Men" was about the crimes that were committed in his name, the men who committed the crimes — and the men who uncovered the whole ugly mess.

I have a soft spot in my heart for "All the President's Men" — both the book and the film. The story of Woodward and Bernstein (which was masterfully presented on the big screen by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) inspired me to study journalism and pursue it in my professional life.

And it taught me a lesson about the vulnerability of freedom and democracy — and the vital role that a free press plays in preserving both.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

So Far Away

Carole King is one of those musical figures who seems have been around all my life.

And, in one form or another, I guess she has.

She probably reached her peak in popularity as a performer in the 1970s, but she has been writing songs that wound up climbing to #1 on the charts for half a century, starting with "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" the song she and Gerry Goffin co–wrote for The Shirelles.

As a performer, I suppose King's signature album was "Tapestry," which was released nearly 40 years ago — in January 1971. There are several songs on that album that have achieved a certain stature with the public, like "It's Too Late," "You've Got a Friend," "I Feel The Earth Move" and "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman."

Whew! Just typing those titles gives me a flashback to the 1970s. But not the '70s of disco balls. I'm thinking about the part of the '70s that was the true heyday of popular songwriting.

Thirty–nine years ago this month, King released the single that has always epitomized her in my mind — "So Far Away." That song was on "Tapestry," too, and it was one of the reasons why the album remained on the charts for six years.

I've heard it said that "So Far Away" was symbolic of "Tapestry," but I disagree. It differed sharply from the jazzier, up–tempo songs that surrounded it. "So Far Away" was more wistful, slower, deliberate, the kind of song that seems to appeal to a person more as that person gets older and realizes how easily time slips through your fingers. In spite of its title, it's about time more than distance.

It's funny, isn't it, how your mind links songs to people, places, things? I've always linked "So Far Away" to a lost love. She isn't lost in the sense that no one knows where she is. I mean she is lost in the sense that life took her one way and it took me another.

I'm not sure if we ever listened to that song together. We might have. We dated for nearly a year, and we often listened to music late into the evening when the rest of the household had gone to bed, leaving us to enjoy some private time with the lights down low and music playing, either records I had brought with me or the radio.

I didn't have "Tapestry" in those days, but I wouldn't be surprised if it played on the radio a time or two. And there were certainly times during our relationship when the radio provided the soundtrack. Anyway, if we didn't listen to the song together, somehow the subject must have come up because I remember her making a reference to one of the lines — "doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" — although I don't remember the context of the conversation.

Actually, I guess it is that line that makes me think of her more than the song itself, if that makes sense. It seems appropriate, the kind of question you ask when you first realize, for whatever reason, that things change, places change, people change. That you can't go home again.

It's always been a song of loss for me, but it's also a reminder of a time and a place and people that will always be important to me.

And when I hear that song, they're not so far away, no matter how many years have passed.

Porky's Debut

If you're a fan of that stuttering cartoon character, Porky Pig, you might be interested to know that it was 75 years ago today that he made his debut in the animated short, "I Haven't Got a Hat."

He just went by the name Porky in those days. He didn't look like the Porky we know today, either. He was a rather shy young boy in his debut. Later on, he became the somewhat obese and verbose adult we think of when we hear Porky's name today.

That stutter, though, was authentic. The voice actor who portrayed Porky from 1935 to 1937 actually did have a stutter, but he couldn't control it, which led to excessively high production costs. Mel Blanc, who was hired to replace the actor, continued to use the stutter, but he used it to greater effect.

Incidentally, most of Blanc's fans may remember him as the voice of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck or hundreds of other animated characters. But his gravestone — per his request in his will — bears Porky's famous signature line that came at the end of nearly every Looney Tunes presentation — "That's all, folks!"

But Blanc's death wasn't the end for Porky. He continued to appear in animated productions after Blanc died in 1989.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Chopin's 200th Birthday

Today is the 200th birthday of one of the masters of romantic music — Frederic Chopin.

If you aren't a student of music, you may hear the phrase "romantic music" and think it is a reference to romantic love, which it is not. Or you may think it is a somewhat nostalgic reference to ideas that were conceived in musical periods that came before, like the classical period that immediately preceded it and included some of the best–known composers in music history (i.e., Mozart and Beethoven). Again, it is not — although it is worth mentioning that Beethoven is often regarded by students of music to be something of a transitional figure from the classical period to the romantic period. After I began to hear that, I started to notice influences from both the classical and the romantic eras in his compositions. It explained a lot about Beethoven's music, that was for sure.

But I digress.

The romantic music movement refers to the composition and theory of mostly the 19th century. And the thing about romantic music that has always appealed to me is the fact that it had more freedom of expression than the music that had come before. If you listen to music by the romantic composers — Chopin, Liszt, even Wagner — you will hear rich melodies and harmonies, more of a songlike quality than you will hear from Mozart or the earlier composers.

Orchestras continued to play key roles in the romantic period, but some composers, like Chopin, wrote quite a few instrumental pieces as well. Being a pianist, most of Chopin's instrumental compositions tended to be for the piano.

As a child, I remember hearing my parents play recordings of Chopin's music and thinking that it sounded delicate — in the way that the word icicle seemed delicate to me. I've been trying to figure out why I associate Chopin's music with icicles. Maybe there is a memory buried inside my head of the first time I heard a recording of Chopin, and that day was in winter. Perhaps there were icicles hanging from the roof outside, and that's how I made that connection.

I guess icicles are sturdier up north than they are in the central Arkansas town where I grew up — at least, they were quite fragile when I was a child. This winter seems to have been making the case that the global climate may, indeed, be changing, so perhaps the icicles in my hometown are made of sterner stuff now, thanks to temperatures that are colder longer than they were in those days, but when I was a child, the icicles that formed on the roof of our house didn't seem to be capable of standing up to a slight breeze. They were spindly things that would shatter if you touched them.

They were beautiful to look at, though. How they sparkled when the rays from the sun hit them just right. But those warming rays were too much for the icicles, and they would start to melt almost immediately. I guess that was the lesson I took from icicles — not that they were a threat to us, but that we were a threat to them.

Maybe that was the quality of icicles that my mind linked to Chopin's etudes and nocturnes. Beautiful to hear, yet fragile at the same time. I don't know if I thought the music, like the icicles, was endangered. But maybe I did. When I was a child, the music that was popular was loud, often raucous. I love those songs now, but when I was a child, I may have seen them as a threat. More people were listening to the modern stuff than to Chopin.

Well, Chopin's music was, indeed, made of sturdier stuff than I thought. I have noticed that, even today, more than 160 years after his death, his music can transfix an audience like nothing I have ever seen. Take a look at this clip from Vienna more than 20 years ago. Sure, the pianist is Vladimir Horowitz, but watch how everyone in that massive hall is spellbound by a single piano.

There are times when the notes are as delicate as the icicles I described earlier. But the people in the audience seem to be holding their breath so as not to miss a note. There are times when you can hear someone cough and one can only imagine the annoyed looks on the faces of those in the vicinity, so intent they seemed to be on hearing everything.

How extraordinary.