Saturday, September 25, 2010

Memories of Mayberry

I know people who will tell anyone who will listen that the Andy Griffith Show was the greatest TV show in history.

Maybe it was. But, really, who can say?

I think it's a sucker's argument, frankly — like quarreling over who was the best home run hitter, Babe Ruth or Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. They played in different eras in different ballparks and against different kinds of pitchers. If Ruth ever played night games, it was at the end of his career, but doubleheaders were more common in his day. Bonds, on the other hand, played most of his games at night, but the double dip was mostly a relic of the past when he arrived on the scene. Aaron was in between — didn't play in as many doubleheaders as Ruth, but they were still being scheduled, and he played in both day and night games.

It's like comparing apples and oranges ... and peaches.

Most baseball fans would probably agree that all three were talented. And that's probably as far as an argument over the merits of each (in relation to the others) should go.

That's kind of how I feel about TV shows. Some people came of age in the 1950s, when some very talented performers and writers and directors were pioneering this emerging technology. There were only three networks in those days, so things were more concentrated — and the viewership level that was achieved by some programs probably never will be duplicated in the fragmented modern environment of cable and satellite programming.

Were the shows better than the ones being produced today? Some were, some weren't. But the people who came of age in those days have a fierce loyalty to the programs of that time.

It was much the same way in the 1960s, when Andy Griffith made its debut. The writing was often excellent, the characters were very natural and believable (if flawed) people and many of the stories dealing with things like parenting and friendship still resonate today.

The show, in its color incarnation, was still on prime time when I was a child, but afternoon television in those days often featured reruns of the earlier black–and–white episodes. I remember watching those early episodes in the afternoons after school.

But there is no getting around the fact that much has changed in half a century. We live in an age of high–definition television and streaming video on lightweight computers and pocket–sized gadgets you can carry with you wherever you go, and the filming techniques of the 1960s, especially in the seasons before color became prevalent, may seem primitive to 21st century viewers, no matter the delivery system.

And such a series probably wouldn't have as much relevance today as it did in 1960, when a larger percentage of Americans lived in rural communities.

But that won't keep millions of Andy Griffith fans from marking the 50th anniversary of the show's debut a week from tomorrow. TVLand has been getting a jump on the festivities with its "50 Days of Andy" promotion, spotlighting the top 50 episodes in the series as chosen in online voting by the series' fans.

Perhaps the quality of the series, even if the technology was lacking by contemporary standards, was helped by the fact that it was filmed by Desilu, the production company that was formed in 1950 by Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. Gulf+Western bought the company in 1967, and it was renamed Paramount Television, where it enjoyed limited success, but Desilu seemed to have its fingers in every pie in its heyday.

Well, whether Desilu had anything to do with it, the show was quite popular, and it's hard to imagine it without its now–iconic cast, but if you watched the very first episode (see clip above), Andy's Aunt Bee — without whom the series certainly wouldn't have been the same — almost didn't pass Opie's test to replace the housekeeper he had (presumably) known all his life when she married and moved away.

But she did, and generations of Andy Griffith fans will forever be grateful.

Aunt Bee reminded me of my own childhood in central Arkansas. Did you ever notice that just about everyone in Mayberry called her Aunt Bee, even though no one — other than Andy and Opie — was actually related to her? There was a woman in my hometown who had no relatives living nearby but everyone called her "aunt."

I guess it was part of the logic of the culture of Mayberry.

Some of the original cast members were gone by the time a TV reunion was held in the form of a special movie, "Return to Mayberry," nearly 25 years ago. Frances Bavier, the actress who played Aunt Bee, was still living, but her health was not good so she did not participate in the film, and her character was said to be deceased.

And she did die more than three years later — about a week before her 87th birthday.

There were other familiar faces who were gone by the time the reunion movie aired, but more than a dozen of the show's original cast did participate. Some of them are gone now, too, like ...
  • Don Knotts, who played Barney Fife for five seasons and won Emmy Awards in three of them plus two more for guest appearances after he left the show in the mid–1960s.

    Only Candice Bergen — as "Murphy Brown" — was honored for playing the same character in the same series as many times as Knotts.

    And that was fitting, I guess. Can anyone really imagine the Andy Griffith Show without him?

    Actually, the public got a chance to see what the show was like without him. The Barney–less shows haven't been too popular with fans since the show went into reruns, but when it was part of the prime–time lineup, its ratings actually improved in those later years.

    Knotts, by the way, was 81 when he died in 2006.

  • ... or Hal Smith, who played Otis the lovable drunk.

    I always felt one of the great mistakes in the production of the reunion movie was the decision to make Otis a reformed alcoholic. Maybe it was a concession to the "Just say no" hysteria of the 1980s, but a non–alcoholic Otis lacked the comedic value of the alcoholic version.

    If you're an Andy Griffith fan, don't you owe Otis a debt of gratitude? He was responsible, after all, for one of Barney's most memorable lines — "Pipe down, Otis!" — which I have seen on bumper stickers and T–shirts decades after it was spoken.

    Smith was 77 when he died of a heart attack in 1994.

  • ... or Howard McNear, who played Floyd, the affable barber.

    I'm not sure, but McNear may have been the first Andy Griffith cast member to die. He had a stroke during the show's third season that permanently impaired his ability to walk, but he could still speak so, when he returned to the show, the writers managed to write his character seated — and he delivered his lines while seated on a bench outside his barbershop or in the chair in his shop.

    McNear had been dead for more than 15 years when the reunion film was aired, and I don't recall if he was mentioned in the movie — unlike Aunt Bee, whose absence was addressed in the story (Andy even visited her "grave").

    The thing about Floyd that caught my attention when I was a child was his tendency to give Calvin Coolidge credit for every wise saying that had ever been uttered. I was something of a student of the presidency, even at a young age, and I knew that Coolidge had a nickname, "Silent Cal," that summed up his reluctance to speak in public.

    (In fact, there is a story about Coolidge that he was seated next to a lovely and flirtatious young woman at some sort of dinner. The woman told the president that she had made a bet with someone that she could make him say more than two words. Coolidge replied, "You lose.")

    Andy seemed to be aware of that, too, because, at one point, when Floyd tried to give Coolidge credit for something that someone else had said, Andy gently scolded him and admonished him, "Calvin Coolidge didn't say everything."

    And then Floyd replied with the one thing that the history books all agree that Coolidge said: "I do not choose to run."

    Andy had to admit that Coolidge did say that.

    "I knew he must have said something," Floyd said, "or else he wouldn't have become president."
I guess that, too, was the logic of Mayberry.

Sometimes that logic made little or no sense — except in the context of the universe of the fictitious Mayberry. But Mayberry was and remains a place where life was/is more relaxed.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

John and Yoko and 'Double Fantasy'

Sometime in late September of 1980, John Lennon and Yoko Ono completed work on Lennon's comeback album — their collaborative effort, "Double Fantasy."

Lennon had been out of the public eye for five years, raising his infant son while his wife handled the family's business dealings. But, in 1980, he was ready to return.

I was in college at the time, and I remember sitting in a friend's yard one autumn afternoon and listening to the radio. Lennon's single, "(Just Like) Starting Over," came on. I had never heard the song before, and, for whatever reason, it just didn't sound like Lennon to me.

My friend smiled and nodded and made some offhand remark about Lennon's comeback, but I didn't make the connection until the song ended and the DJ said that had been Lennon's newest single.

The single was released a few weeks after Lennon's 40th birthday. The album on which it appeared was released only three weeks before Lennon was shot and killed.

After that happened, you couldn't find a copy of "Double Fantasy" anywhere. I remember searching all over town the day after Lennon was killed, trying to find a copy of the album to give as a Christmas present to the girl I had been seeing. But all I could find was an 8–track tape.

(She did have an 8–track player at the time, so that was OK.)

Actually, I was lucky to find the tape. Although CNN did exist at that time, it was still trying to find its identity and, in those essentially pre–24/7 news channel and pre–internet days, you had limited sources even for breaking news. Most Americans probably heard of Lennon's death the way I did — from Howard Cosell on Monday Night Football.

Word was slow getting out that night — certainly by contemporary standards. But it got out, and people hit the record stores as early as they could the next day and snapped up copies of "Double Fantasy" as long as they were available. And that wasn't long at all.

In hindsight, I must say that the response to Lennon's death was even more dramatic than the response I had seen a few years earlier when Elvis Presley died — or that I did see nearly 20 years later when a musical icon from another generation, Frank Sinatra, died.

In all three cases, music stores quickly ran out of albums by the dead singers. It seemed more pronounced after Lennon's death — perhaps because he was murdered — but most of the initial demand seemed to focus on his latest album.

Oddly enough, I found some copies of Lennon's older albums, a few of which I bought for my personal collection. And I was happy to get them. I preferred then — as I do now — Lennon's albums without Yoko.

Maybe it was Lennon's particular brand of marital loyalty, but, for some reason, he seemed to think that Yoko was a great singer. And he alternated tracks on the album with Yoko. When photographer Annie Leibovitz came to Lennon's home to shoot photos for Rolling Stone on the day Lennon was killed, she wanted to shoot photos of Lennon only. But Lennon insisted that Yoko be in every picture, and he made Leibovitz promise that they would both appear on the cover.

(As I got older, I found that a copy of "Double Fantasy" in one's collection was a pretty accurate litmus test for separating the true Lennon fans from the poseurs. Their copies of that album were always scratchy on the Lennon tracks — and pristine on Yoko's. I concluded that they had lifted the needle off the record when Yoko's tracks were playing and put it on Lennon's next track on that side.)

When "Double Fantasy" came out, the timing may have been right for someone like Yoko. Her style was definitely of a punk nature, and punk acts were hot in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I must confess that I have often wondered how that album might have done if Lennon had not been killed. I'm sure it would have done reasonably well with Lennon's fans, who had been waiting for several years for new material from him.

But would it have been popular with the punk fans? Surely, it wouldn't have generated the same kind of sales it did in the days after his murder. But would punk's have embraced Yoko? I honestly can't say.

Perhaps Yoko was inspired by her husband's burst of creativity in that last year of his life. Or perhaps she was infused with fresh confidence as punk acts were getting positive publicity.

Whatever it was, she seemed energized in a way she hadn't been before. She had seven songs on the album, the same number as her husband. Would she have been a punk star in the '80s if her husband hadn't died on that December night 30 years ago?

Again, I can't say.

What I can say is that it took Yoko three years after Lennon's death to finish work on the projected followup to "Double Fantasy," an album of recordings the two made for an album called "Milk and Honey." That album was released posthumously. While it followed the format of "Double Fantasy," it didn't enjoy the same commercial success.

And since its release in 1984, I don't think Yoko has made another recording.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Sounds of Silence

Forty–five years ago this month, "The Sounds of Silence" was released as a single — and the commercially successful careers of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were launched.

They had been playing clubs in New York for a few years, but "The Sounds of Silence" brought them the exposure that made them major figures in the increasingly popular folk rock movement of that time.

It was one of my mother's favorite songs. As a child, I recall that Mom had a fairly extensive collection of Simon and Garfunkel's 45–rpm singles. "The Sounds of Silence" may have been the first song of theirs that I ever heard, although I'm not completely certain of that. Mom may well have waited to buy it until she had heard more of Simon and Garfunkel's work.

So, while I remember hearing "The Sounds of Silence" around my home when I was small, it may not have been the first Simon and Garfunkel single that Mom brought into the house. That could have been "I Am A Rock" or "Scarborough Fair" or "Homeward Bound."

And, even if it wasn't, that doesn't mean I didn't hear it first somewhere else. My father was a college professor, and, when my brother and I were little, my parents often left us with his students when they went out. On one of those occasions, I might have heard "The Sounds of Silence" playing on a radio or a turntable. Although my parents were receptive to many of the artistic developments of their time, I got much of my exposure to the music of that time from those students.

Now, I'm not a student of musical genres, just a garden–variety fan who appreciates many kinds of music, and I don't think it would be accurate to call Simon and Garfunkel the innovators of what has come to be called folk rock. It probably would be more appropriate to bestow that particular title on the Byrds or Bob Dylan.

But I'm equally sure that anyone who remembers those days would agree that Simon and Garfunkel were certainly among the pioneers of that genre that blended folk music and rock music so well in the 1960s and 1970s.

And "The Sounds of Silence" was certainly a part of that popular movement. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" ultimately became their signature song, but "The Sounds of Silence" was the kind of popular breakthrough that Simon and Garfunkel craved early in their careers.

"We were looking for a song on a larger scale," Garfunkel said, "but this is more than either of us expected."

As I always heard it, the music was just about done when Simon began working on the lyrics after President Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963. He struggled with the lyrics for awhile, but everything came together by February of 1964, and Simon and Garfunkel started playing the song at clubs.

The song was well received, and, about 18 months later, it was recorded by Columbia Records. It climbed to the top of the charts by New Year's Day 1966.

For me, it has always been a song that I associated with the '60s. I enjoyed listening to it as a teenager. I still enjoy listening to it today. But I can't really say it has a "timeless" quality the way other songs do.

I can listen to some songs today that were recorded 30, 40, even 50 years ago, and they still sound fresh and new to me. But there are other songs, like "The Sounds of Silence," that always remind me of the times when they were popular.

Perhaps that is because "The Sounds of Silence" was one of the songs featured in "The Graduate," a film that actually used themes that are relevant to every generation but cast them with the general angst of the '60s as the backdrop.

So I guess it's only natural that the song is inextricably linked to that turbulent decade. It is appropriate, then, that it would have a special relevance for people who were young in the '60s — and even for such as me, who were only old enough to remember part of the '60s.

Well, maybe that is a little esoteric. But I still think the song was great — even if Blender magazine thought it was one of the 50 worst songs of all time.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kevin McCarthy Dies at 96

"We love a rose because we know it'll soon be gone. Whoever loved a stone?"

Kevin McCarthy
As Walter Jameson on The Twilight Zone

Actor Kevin McCarthy died yesterday at the age of 96.

He had quite a career in films and on TV. Dennis McLellan correctly points out in the Los Angeles Times that McCarthy is probably best known for appearing in the 1956 version of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" — and I'm sure that is true.

But, with a few exceptions, I generally have not been much of a sci–fi movie fan.

I am, however, a fan of The Twilight Zone TV series, and when I think of McCarthy, I think of an episode from the very first season of the original Rod Serling series — "Long Live Walter Jameson" — in which McCarthy played a history teacher whose lectures were so vivid you could swear he had lived through the events of which he spoke.

Now, many of us have encountered teachers like that, teachers whose passion for their subjects far exceeded that to which we were accustomed. Sometimes those teachers ignite the flames of passion for a subject within some of their students as well.

But in The Twilight Zone universe, Walter Jameson (who was played by McCarthy) actually did live in the times he lectured about. And one night, one of his colleagues confronted him about it. Jameson walked over to a bust of Plato and said, when asked how old he was, "Old enough to have known this gentleman personally."

Turned out Jameson was given the gift of eternal youth by an alchemist. Jameson submitted to his "experiments" and fell into a coma for several weeks. When he revived, the alchemist was nowhere to be found. It was only with the passage of time that Jameson realized what had happened.

By that time, he had seen his friends age and die while he remained young, and he decided he didn't want to live indefinitely. But he lacked the courage to end his life.

I always enjoy watching that episode. It's very cerebral, and it combines two things I can't resist — history and speculation about the supernatural.

As the years have gone by, though, I have reached the conclusion that I enjoy the episode for other reasons as well. For one, it addressed a fear that all men have about what happens when we die — even those who believe in an afterlife.

What lies beyond? No one knows. You may strongly believe in the existence of an afterlife, but you don't really know.

I contend that, no matter how certain one may be of the existence of God and an afterlife, there is always a portion of our brains that resists, that maintains a sliver of doubt about the unknown.

And the episode spoke some important truths about changing perceptions of death as we get older. Jameson was candid about his eagerness to obtain immortality when he was young. And he was equally candid about his wish to die, after at least 2,000 years of life, but he confessed that he was a coward.

In the end, a lover from his past (played by Estelle Winwood) did the dirty work for him.

And, at last, he was released.

In its way, I suppose, the episode is a metaphor for McCarthy's life. Winwood and the actor who played his colleague have been dead for years. The only member of the cast who is still living is the woman who played his colleague's daughter. In the episode, she was his fiancee.

She was in her 30s then; she's in her 80s. Who knew they would both live half a century after filming that episode?

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

So Long, Otho

You may not recognize the name of Glenn Shadix, but you probably saw him in at least one of the more than 70 movies he made.

He died this week after a fall in his condominium in Birmingham, Ala. According to his sister, he had been having mobility problems. He apparently had been using a wheelchair and had fallen in his kitchen, where he sustained fatal head injuries.

I distinctly remember him playing Otho in "Beetlejuice." I saw other films in which he appeared — like "Heathers" and the remake of "Planet of the Apes" — but I don't remember him in them. I guess I should go back and watch them again, as well as the episodes of popular TV shows in which he appeared — "Roseanne," "ER," "Cheers," "Night Court" and "Seinfeld."

I'm sincerely sorry things ended the way they did for Shadix. He was only 58. But I'm glad that his performances — the ones I've seen as well as the ones I hope to see someday — will be with us.