Friday, May 25, 2012

The Debut of Star Wars

Most people probably don't remember what movies were like before the "Star Wars" franchise was born on this date in 1977.

I do, but, in all honesty, I don't remember the "Star Wars" premiere. There was no fuss about it that I can recall.

It was definitely a "summer blockbuster" — it was made for $11 million and wound up earning nearly half a billion dollars — but the concept of the summer blockbuster was still new. Hollywood has turned it into a marketing art form, but it was still a bit primitive in 1977, and, to be candid, "Star Wars" caught nearly everyone by surprise.

Today, it isn't uncommon for movies to spend a month or so at theaters — if that — before being yanked and prepared for cable and home video markets, but, in 1977, cable represented an extremely small share of the market, and home video was still in its infancy.

Thirty–five years ago, movies often spent months showing at theaters, many of which were still single–screen facilities, and then went on to drive–ins, where the objective was to squeeze a few more dollars in revenue, after which they were relegated to commercial television.

In 1977, successful movies spent months at theaters. It was the flops that were gone in a matter of weeks, seldom to be heard from again.

And there were some movies that got quite a bit of fanfare upon their release — but "Star Wars" wasn't one of them, and such fanfare could accompany just about any movie at just about any time of year.

It probably seems remarkable today, but movie promoters seemed to be oblivious, at least until 35 years ago, to the fact that there were huge potential audiences out there — teenagers — who had time on their hands and money in their pockets.

But nothing about "Star Wars" seemed designed to appeal to a mass audience.

With the exception of Alec Guinness, I suppose nearly everyone in the movie was an unknown to the moviegoing audience, and the book upon which "Star Wars" was based was familiar to sci–fi fans — but few others. James Earl Jones, of course, was familiar in both face and voice, but only his voice was used in the role of Darth Vader.

I was working on a maintenance crew that summer, and one of my co–workers — Brad — told me under the least glamorous conditions imaginable — while we we stood knee–deep in fresh manure and shoveled it into flower beds — about the movie he had just seen.

Now, Brad was a sci–fi fan, and he had read the book. He raved about the movie, and I promised him I would go to see it — probably figuring that I never would.

But I did, about three months later. It was a group excursion from my hometown of Conway, Ark., to the nearby state capital of Little Rock to see the movie.

"Star Wars" had been causing quite a stir by then. Promoters of that time hadn't done the things that promoters would do in years to come, and they had to play catch–up as first the movie and then the double album soundtrack made buckets of money.

I was dating my first serious girlfriend — Karen — at the time, and she wanted to see the movie. So did her parents and her younger brother and sister — and the foreign exchange student who was living with them. And so did my mother.

So all eight of us piled into her parents' Volvo station wagon — four of us in the rear area — and drove to Little Rock one hot August night.

Karen and her family had only moved to Conway a year earlier. They had lived in northern California and Indiana before they moved to Arkansas, and the car they drove did not have air conditioning. I remember how grateful I was when we arrived at the theater, and I felt that wonderful cold air on my sweaty skin when we walked inside.

I was even more grateful when I got a cold drink and felt that icy liquid go down my parched throat.

But I felt no real sense of excited anticipation before the movie began.

For that matter, I had no real sense that I had seen the first installment in a series of movies that would define the art of filmmaking for the next three decades. I enjoyed it, but, if someone had asked me, I would have said I thought it was a one–shot deal, an entertaining movie but with very limited long–term appeal.

In fact, I remember vividly being somewhat surprised when I heard Karen and her siblings speculating about what the sequel would reveal. Until that moment, I had not even thought about the possibility of a sequel.

With whom would Princess Leia end up — the rakish smuggler Han Solo or the still naive Luke Skywalker who was training to be a warrior? That was at the heart of their discussion.

As I say, I enjoyed the movie, but I thought little of the notion of a sequel. I didn't think there would be one.

History has shown that I seriously underestimated the market's appetite for the story.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Johnny's Farewell

"I am one of the lucky people in the world; I found something I always wanted to do, and I have enjoyed every single minute of it."

Johnny Carson
May 22, 1992

Was that really two whole decades ago?

Twenty years ago tonight, Johnny Carson appeared in his final Tonight Show.

As I mentioned yesterday, his final show was unlike any of the others he had done from 1962 to 1992. The audience included only family and friends — his and the rest of the crew's — and there were no guests, only clips of memorable moments on the Tonight Show.

In the course of that evening, viewers saw clips of great comedians and great musicians who had appeared on the Tonight Show over the years. They saw the famous and the powerful, politicians who became president and who sought to be president.

And they saw people they had never heard of before they were given a few minutes of national exposure, thanks to Carson.

Carson was kind of his generation's Ed Sullivan — but he did it five nights a week (except when he took his annual vacation to the Wimbledon tennis tournament), not one.

Twenty years ago tonight, the audience applauded when particularly beloved (and, often, departed) guests, like Lucille Ball and Judy Garland, were shown in those highlight clips.

The memories were thick that night, whether they were actually shown or were only in the viewers' memory banks.

I thought of many moments when I watched that last show. Most people probably did. Johnny Carson was unique in entertainment. Even 20 years later, after so many have tried so hard to duplicate what he seemed to do so effortlessly, I can say that.

He was always a reflection of the times, whether it was through jokes he made in his monologue or his recurring routines as Carnac the Magnificent or Aunt Blabby or Floyd R. Turbo, American.

For awhile, at least some of the Tonight Show's commercials were done by Carson or his sidekick Ed McMahon, and there were times when they had to bail each other out in some way.

A memorable example was the time when McMahon was trying to do an advertisement for Alpo, but the dog who was supposed to scarf up the dog food didn't cooperate — and it fell to Carson to take his place.

And everyone in America was moved when Carson made his parting remarks:

When he was finished, the cameras panned the applauding audience, and the band played one of Carson's favorite tunes, "I'll Be Seeing You." It seemed appropriate.

Like most people, I figured we would get to see him again. But, even though he spoke, in those final remarks, of perhaps returning to TV when he had a project of some kind that he wanted to share with the viewers, he only made one more TV appearance of which I am aware — a very brief (and wordless) one on David Letterman's show.

It was over.

And now, it's been 20 years since his last Tonight Show.

My heart tells me it can't possibly have been that long ... but my head tells me that, yes, it is true.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Carson's Last Night Before a Studio Audience

Twenty years ago tomorrow, Johnny Carson made his final appearance as the host of the Tonight Show.

But the show that aired 20 years ago tonight was really the last one.

That's because, on the final night, Carson had no guests and no studio audience — at least not like the ones who had attended his shows for 30 years. It was strictly family and friends — both his and his crew's — who were there by invitation. It was a very nostalgic occasion with clips of folks who appeared on the show in the three decades that Carson was its host, punctuated by nostalgic conversations with Ed McMahon and Doc Severinsen and a memorable farewell.

Twenty years ago tonight, though, it was still business as usual.

Everyone knew that Carson was only hours away from his farewell program. TV viewers had been hearing about it — and most had been dreading it — for months.

But, on this night in 1992, it was still possible to watch the Tonight Show and almost persuade yourself that it all wasn't about to end.

Sort of.

From the opening monologue, it was clear the show would be the usual madcap, no–holds–barred kind of entertainment that fans were accustomed to getting from Carson. As Carson wrapped up his monologue, he advised viewers that he had two "quiet, laid–back" guests in the house — Robin Williams and Bette Midler.

Williams, of course, was his usual manic self, and the recent riots in Los Angeles following the verdict in the Rodney King beating case were grist for his mill.

He had one–liners about everyone and everything. As always, then–Vice President Dan Quayle was worth a few laughs, most of which he had brought on himself by that time. Like anyone else in the public eye, he was unfairly targeted by some jokes, but Williams' humor managed to combine the reputation Quayle had for being a dunce with recent news events — his very public misspelling of the word potato, for example.

Business as usual.

Well, not for Midler, who was clearly emotional at the thought of Carson leaving. She sang an impromptu duet with Carson that must have brought tears to the eyes of anyone who saw it, and she wrapped things up with "One More For the Road."

A truly touching finale.

Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

Rigby Reardon (Steve Martin): When I arrived in Carlotta, I thought of the words Marlowe had said to me over 15 years ago: Dead men don't wear plaid. Huh. Dead men don't wear plaid. I still don't know what it means.

In 1982, if you were a fan of old movies, especially film noir and detective stories, "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" was made for you.

Steve Martin and Carl Reiner created a spoof that featured clips of stars of the '40s like Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Barbara Stanwyck, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis and others. Dialogue was written around some of their classic — and not so classic — movie lines.

It was a silly movie, really, but it was clever, too, sort of stories within stories. It was all a rather flimsy excuse for taking a bunch of unrelated movie lines and writing dialogue around them.

Like, for example, when Martin's character had a conversation with Grant (via a film Grant made 40 years earlier). In the 1982 story, Grant insisted he had to give up his seat because the smoking of his companions bothered him:

"You don't smoke, do you?" Grant asked.

"No, I have tuberculosis," Martin replied.

"Oh, thank heaven for that," Grant said.

And there were — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — exchanges between Martin and co–star Rachel Ward that did a lot more than hint at sexual fireworks.

Early in the film, for example, Ward came to Martin's office and fainted. Martin placed her on a couch and started feeling her upper torso. She came to and said, "What are you doing?"

"Adjusting your breasts," Martin replied. "You fainted and they ... shifted all outta whack."

"Thank you," Ward said.

"You're welcome," Martin answered.

At the end of the movie, Ward returned the favor. She and Martin were locked in an ardent embrace after all the loose ends had been tied together, and she slipped her hand out of sight of the camera.

"What are you doing?" Martin asked.

"Adjusting your willie," Ward replied. "When you fell through the window, it shifted out of whack."

I didn't see the movie when it was at the theaters. I had just finished college, and I was busy setting up my new home in a new town. It was probably a year or two later, when it was showing on TV, that I saw it for the first time.

Being a lifelong fan of B&W movies, as well as many of the stars who appeared in them, I was already familiar with some of the lines around which jokes in the movie were written — and I could see many of them coming.

I didn't laugh any less just because I knew what was coming. It was sort of like the humor in "Murder By Death," which poked fun at the famous film detectives but didn't use actual clips from classic movies. I have seen "Murder By Death" many times, and I always laugh at the same parts. It's the same with "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid."

Or any well done parody.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Class Clown's 75th Birthday

I first became aware of George Carlin when I was about 12 years old, and I heard the "Class Clown" album for the first time.

Most people will probably tell you that the thing they remember most from that album is Carlin's brilliant routine on language, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

There was great humor to be found in that routine — on many levels. I have often mused about how Carlin would respond if he could come back sometime in the (near?) future and discover that the seven words he was prohibited from saying on television were so commonplace that they evoked no response at all.

He might find that the brilliance of his routine had no relevance, anymore. If that routine, which evoked such outrage in some corners and such amusement in others during Carlin's life, had been reduced to quaint, I think Carlin would be pleased.

And make no mistake. It was brilliant — and timeless, even if, at some point in the future, it is regarded as quaint.

But so was the stuff he said about children and the class show–offs they encounter in school. Sometimes, I was the class clown in my small–town Southern school. Other times, it was someone else. We must have had some sort of unspoken agreement. We each had our special talents, and we each shared them with our classmates at different times.

Most of the time, I guess it really was as simple as Carlin said it was: "You'd be bored and, you'd figure, well, why not deprive someone else of their education? And you would set about disrupting the class by ATTRACTING ATTENTION TO YOURSELF! That is the name of this job, you know? It's called, DIG ME!"

So I could relate to the things he said about classmates who could "belch at will" or turn their upper eyelids inside out. (Frankly, I didn't really get most of the rest of the humor on the album until I was older.)

George Carlin provided me with lots of laughs over the years. It's hard to believe, but, if he was still with us, the Class Clown would be 75 years old today. I've missed him since he died nearly four years ago. I had grown accustomed to a new album every other year or so and fresh, new nuggets of Carlin's humor to enjoy.

The old stuff is still good, but, regrettably, it is all we have now.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Maurice Sendak Dies

"Certainly we want to protect our children from new and painful experiences that are beyond their emotional comprehension and that intensify anxiety; and to a point we can prevent premature exposure to such experiences. That is obvious. But what is just as obvious — and what is too often overlooked — is the fact that from their earliest years children live on familiar terms with disrupting emotions, fear and anxiety are an intrinsic part of their everyday lives, they continually cope with frustrations as best they can. And it is through fantasy that children achieve catharsis. It is the best means they have for taming Wild Things."

Maurice Sendak

Both of my parents — but especially my mother — encouraged me to read when I was a child.

And I did. I read many books by many writers, and I will always be grateful to my parents for opening that world to me by reading to me before I could read on my own.

I don't remember most of the authors' names now. They've been pushed from the top spots in my memory bank by authors whose works I discovered as I got older.

But there are a few writers from my childhood whose names I will never forget. The most noteworthy, I suppose, are Dr. Seuss (born Theodor Seuss Geisel) and Maurice Sendak.

I guess nearly everyone remembers something by Dr. Seuss whenever his name is mentioned, whether it is green eggs and ham or Horton hearing a Who or the Grinch who stole Christmas. But Sendak's name may not be as familiar.

Sendak wrote and illustrated "Where the Wild Things Are," a book that most of the people from my generation — and succeeding generations — knew and loved. And so did the adults who introduced them to it. That's what I remember more than anything else about that book. My parents got such a kick out of reading it to me — so did my grandmothers — and the pleasure was infectious.

"A 7–year–old hearing this story couldn't have more fun than a 70–year–old reading it," said Bill Moyers in 2004. "Where the Wild Things Are is ageless and timeless."

Indeed it is — but not so Sendak. He suffered a stroke last week and died today from its complications. He was 83.

Sendak's death stands in stark contrast with the message of his most famous book, which was that, no matter how scary the obstacles in one's life may be, there is always a way to overcome them — a way to tame the wild things.

But you can't sugarcoat everything for children. You can't shield them indefinitely from the unpleasant parts of life.

"Grownups always say they protect their children," Sendak once said, "but they're really protecting themselves.

"Besides, you can't protect children. They know everything."

Maybe that would be Sendak's parting advice. Somehow, the Wild Things will eventually prevail — for isn't the fear of death (more than the fear of pain) at the center of one's anxieties? Accept that fact, and live your life.

Don't fear the reaper, the wildest thing of all. You can't escape him.

Even if you live to be 83.

Sunday, May 06, 2012

Goodbye, Goober

My family got a TV in time for me to see some of the Andy Griffith Show episodes when they were still in prime time.

But I have had to watch most of the episodes in syndicated reruns.

That's OK because, really, like any truly good TV show, the stories are timeless. The fact that I didn't see most of the episodes when they first aired takes nothing away from them.

I still laugh when I see Don Knotts doing his side–splitting physical comedy as Deputy Barney Fife. And I marvel at the realistic portrayals of Andy's relationships with his son and Aunt Bee.

And I appreciate the presentations of the folks in Mayberry — Floyd the barber, Gomer and Goober Pyle. They could have been inspired by real people I knew when I was growing up in a small Southern town that probably had a lot in common with Mayberry.

Certainly, I knew one or two folks who were a lot like Goober Pyle, played by George Lindsey, who died early this morning at the age of 83.

Lindsey actually had a fairly lengthy career, and much of what he did on the Andy Griffith Show really was inspired by people he observed growing up in rural Alabama.

Before landing the role of Goober, he appeared on such TV shows as Twilight Zone and The Rifleman. When Andy Griffith ended its run, he continued the role on Mayberry R.F.D., then spent a couple of decades on Hee Haw.

I have a friend with whom I speak Goober. Independently of each other, we noticed how Goober would often say "Say it again" to someone who said something to him that had one or more multi–syllabic words.

And we both laughed whenever he did his Cary Grant impression — "Judy! Judy! Judy!"

Even though he was mostly a supporting character, Lindsey played a key role in daily life in Mayberry, and, even though he was something of a simpleton, Goober had some admirable qualities that one doesn't often find in TV characters anymore.

He was honest, sincere, even a bit naive (but that was OK). He didn't think he knew it all, and he didn't pretend to know things when he didn't (except for once rather late in the series when Goober, who had struggled to speak up in an adult education class he had been taking with his Mayberry friends, returned from a hunting trip with a new but still full beard that gave him the confidence to dominate conversations).

Sounds like he had those qualities in his everyday life.

He will be missed.