Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Remembering the Captain on His Birthday

Today would have been the 85th birthday of Bob Keeshan, the man who was TV's Captain Kangaroo for decades.

The Captain Kangaroo show was on the air before I was born — in fact, my family didn't get a TV until several years after I was born — but that is the earliest memory I have of TV. Well, that and Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

At first, that was all that Mom would allow my brother and me to watch. She gradually relented on some things — like letting us watch Bozo the Clown and his cartoons in the afternoons.

I guess she knew she couldn't keep us from watching that one. We could see it at any of our friends' homes after school, and there was a TV in the school cafeteria which usually had Bozo on in the afternoons so if we were detained at school for any reason, the chances were pretty good we could see Bozo there, too.

Most mothers have to face that moment when they realize they cannot monitor their children's activities 24 hours a day. I suppose Mom knew we would be making more decisions as we got older, and she would just have to trust that she had given us the basic knowledge we would need to make the right ones.

But TV really was an emerging technology when my brother and I were little, and Mom didn't feel bound to rules on which she had been raised because there were none. She made the rules about TV viewing, and she absolutely put her foot down when it came to the Twilight Zone reruns that followed Bozo. Twilight Zone was well beyond our years, as far as she was concerned. And, with the benefit of age, I must say she was right about that.

(I do love Twilight Zone, though. A week from today, I will be doing what I have done for years — I'll be watching the Fourth of July Twilight Zone marathon on the Syfy channel.)

But Bozo was just the next step. After that, Mom gave in on The Flintstones (which was being shown in primetime in those days) and Saturday morning cartoons. It wasn't long before my brother and I had gone beyond animation, and Mom started letting us watch programs with actual humans.

Of course, that really wasn't new for my brother and me. Captain Kangaroo had humans ... and some puppets, too. It also showed some cartoons.

Well, anyway ...

As I say, Captain Kangaroo is the first TV personality of whom I have any real memory. In hindsight, the show must have been patterned after a children's radio program. The acting was really nonexistent, and most of the humor consisted of sight gags accompanied by raucous sound effects.

Mr. Moose was a good example of that.

Mr. Moose was a puppet of a — you guessed it — moose. When Mr. Moose was on the screen, I suppose it prompted the same Pavlovian effect that was achieved in the old Fibber McGee and Molly radio show. Fibber McGee and Molly wasn't a children's show, but I'm sure it inspired things on Captain Kangaroo — such as when Fibber McGee announced he was going to look for something in his hall closet.

If my parents told me about it once, they must have told me hundreds of times. When Fibber McGee opened the door to the hall closet, everything in it came crashing down around him — everyone knew that was coming — and that, essentially, was what happened with Mr. Moose.

Mr. Moose had no closet at the aptly named Captain's Place. His shtick was conniving the captain into standing where he would be in the line of fire — of a deluge of ping pong balls.

All these years later, that is what I remember best from Captain Kangaroo.

Well, that and Mr. Green Jeans.

Mr. Green Jeans was a human who wore a pair of overalls that, supposedly, were green, but you couldn't prove it by me. We had a black–and–white TV when I was a child — didn't move up to color until I was about 11 or 12, which was too old to be watching Captain Kangaroo anymore so I never did confirm whether Mr. Green Jeans really did wear green jeans.

I assumed he did, though. I mean, Captain Kangaroo wouldn't lie about a thing like that, would he?

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sir Paul Turns 70

Paul McCartney is 70 years old today, which seems incredible to me.

I don't remember much about the early days of global Beatlemania, but I do recall that McCartney was generally regarded as the attractive Beatle.

The other Beatles had their devotees, of course, but the impression I got was that most of the young women of that time had serious crushes on Paul.

I never really understood that. Paul wasn't the youngest of the Beatles (that was George Harrison) or the wittiest of the Beatles (as far as I was concerned, that was John Lennon). Maybe there was a perception that he looked more boyish than the others — but, as far as I was concerned, they all looked boyish when they burst onto the scene.

There was a good reason for that, too. They were all in their 20s.

McCartney always had a knack for writing catchy tunes — just count all the hit tunes he wrote — and there is something to be said for longevity. Lennon died at the age of 40 (he was murdered), and Harrison died of cancer when he was 58. McCartney has avoided either fate — thus far — but I'll be darned if he doesn't still look a bit boyish.

He doesn't look as boyish as he did when, in his early 50s, he appeared on Saturday Night Live and was interviewed by Chris Farley.

That's been nearly 20 years ago, and it is the first thing that comes to my mind now when I think of McCartney.

In the skit, Farley played a rather clumsy TV host who was interviewing McCartney and asking him questions like "Remember when you were with the Beatles? That was awesome!"

Farley kept chastising himself after every question, and McCartney constantly reassured him that "You're doing great."

(Perhaps my favorite part of that interview was when Farley asked McCartney about the rumor that the phrase "Paul is dead" could be heard if a Beatles record was played backward. "That was a hoax, right?" Farley asked.

(And McCartney replied, "Yeah, I wasn't really dead.")

But what started out as a lame interview (for comic purposes, of course) gained some redemption at the end when Farley asked McCartney, "Remember when you were in the Beatles? And you did that album Abbey Road, and at the very end of the song, it goes, 'And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make?' Is that true?"

McCartney replied, "In my experience, it is. I find, the more you give, the more you get."

Farley turned to the camera and mouthed the word, "AWESOME!"

And I would agree with that.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

'Lolita' Wasn't Funny

Lolita: I'm really sorry that I cheated so much. But I guess that's just the way things are.

Just about every summary that you will read of "Lolita," the film that made its theatrical debut 50 years ago today, describes it as a comedy/drama.

I've never thought of it as a comedy.

Certainly, it is a drama. And, I suppose, there is an element of comedy in the story. To be honest, though, I never found anything particularly amusing about it, not even the lines that were clearly intended to be humorous or ironic.

The characters, all of them, were more to be pitied. And there was something about each of the characters to which everyone could relate in some way.

Like the character of Humbert Humbert (played by James Mason), for example, I have been a college professor — although not of literature, which, I suppose, accounts for some of the ironies of the plot. But Humbert had had an obsession with young girls for a long time. Thus, his attraction to the underage Lolita was hardly surprising.

I've never known a male college professor yet who didn't notice the finer figures of the female students, but few ever acted on it. A few, like Humbert, yielded to the temptation, but most did not.

When I read the book (which I did before I saw the original movie), I felt a sadness for Humbert, and I continued to feel it when I saw the film. He was trapped by his obsession, and Lolita played that for all it was worth to her.

She was a conniving, manipulative woman–child who learned early, as the Eagles so aptly sang, "how to open doors with just a smile." And anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of something like that knows there is nothing remotely funny about the feeling of being a chump.

Again, most people probably knew conniving girls when they were young, but few had the audacity to act when faced with the opportunity. Lolita was an extreme exception to the rule; the readers (and, later, the movie audience) knew that Humbert and the slimy playwright Clare Quilty (played convincingly by Peter Sellers) had been among her lovers — but how many lovers the 12–year–old had had was never really clear.

I suppose that was regarded, at the time the book was published and, a few years later, when the movie made its premiere, as part of the story's erotic appeal. (But perhaps I am an exception to the rule because there is nothing about a 12–year–old — no matter how well developed she may be — that I find erotic.)

The saddest character of the story, I thought, was Shelley Winters' role as Lolita's sexually frustrated mother. She so clearly craved a man's touch, but it was denied to her while her child needed to do nothing, really, to acquire it.

She was the real victim of the story. She was the one who was betrayed. She did none of the betraying. But she paid for it.

To be sure, Lolita was a tragic figure. Sue Lyon may have been cast in the part because director Stanley Kubrick thought she would lend the proper comic element to the role and the story, but I saw in her many girls I knew when I was growing up, and it made me wonder how many of them may have been sexually abused.

Lolita's activity could be explained as a survival mechanism. After all, she had been orphaned and left in the hands of an acknowledged pedophile. There isn't much a 12–year–old girl can do under such circumstances.

There is little — if any — humor to be found in such a situation.

And there is nothing funny about pedophiles.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Partisan Politics is Nothing New

When I was small, my mother told me, she read Allen Drury's Pulitzer Prize–winning novel about Washington politics, "Advise and Consent."

She became so engrossed in it, she admitted to me, that she sometimes left me unattended in my crib while she eagerly devoured the last pages of a given chapter.

As I have observed here before, I read that book and the others in the series at Mom's urging when I got older. Who knows? That dog–eared copy of "Advise and Consent" that my mother gave me might very well have been the one she read when I was little.

We had many conversations about that book, conversations that really lit a fire under me to see the movie that was inspired by that book. It starred Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton (in his final film), Walter Pidgeon and a host of other familiar folks — and it made its debut at the theaters 50 years ago today.

I've always been something of a political junkie, so I guess it should come as no surprise that "Advise and Consent" is, without question, one of my favorite books, and when I saw the film version it became one of my favorite movies.

Of course, there are some differences between the movie and the book. Mom pointed that out to me when I was little — probably to encourage me to read — and I have always liked to compare movies to the books on which they were based. My observation has been that, nearly always, the book is better.

Yes, I know that Drury's book was better — but, in all honesty, it's hard to beat any movie that has Fonda, Laughton and Pidgeon (not to mention Burgess Meredith and Peter Lawford).

As well as Betty White and George Grizzard, who clashed on the floor of the Senate.

Plus, the folks who adapted Drury's novel for the big screen may well have been responsible for one of my favorite lines. I don't recall reading it in the novel (it has been several years since I read it), but it was worthy of some of the lines written for the West Wing — in my opinion, the best political TV series ever made.

Fonda, who played a progressive nominee for secretary of State with an academic background, was asked during his confirmation hearing if he was what was generally known as an egghead. This was his response:
"I'm not only an egghead, I'm a premeditated egghead. I set out to become an egghead and at this moment I'm in full flower of eggheadedness. I hope to spread pollen wherever I go."

Unfortunately, modern politicians don't tend to speak that way.

But, after you have seen "Advise and Consent," I think you'll agree that politics itself hasn't changed much since Drury's day.

Monday, June 04, 2012

After 30 Years, They're Still Here

By 1982, Steven Spielberg already had done some remarkable things on film.

He had given us "Jaws," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "E.T." In the years ahead, he would give us "The Color Purple," "Empire of the Sun," "Jurassic Park," "Schindler's List" and "Saving Private Ryan," among others.

Few, if any, movie directors have had the kind of influence he has had — with so many groundbreaking filming techniques in so many genres.

Few directors have had the talent for telling a story — and telling it well, no matter how complex it might be.

And, to be sure, the movie that was released 30 years ago today, "Poltergeist," was one complicated tale. Spielberg didn't direct it, though. He produced it. "E.T." was his directorial project in 1982.

Tobe Harper actually directed it — but it definitely had a Spielberg feeling to it.

I never heard Spielberg — or anyone else — say what inspired the story — an ordinary family living in a subdivision whose lives are turned upside down by a supernatural intrusion.

The reason for the invasion remains hidden until near the end of the movie, when the family's patriarch puts two and two together and realizes that the property, which was once a cemetery, was not relocated as he had been told, that only the headstones had been moved. The bodies had been left where they were, and their souls were not at rest.

As a longtime fan of the Twilight Zone, I often thought the movie's plot was inspired by an episode about a young girl who vanishes to another dimension through a portal that appears in her room. Viewers of the Twilight Zone heard about the supernatural guests but never saw them.

Similarly, the youngest girl in "Poltergeist" was snatched away by spirits who gained access to her through the closet in her bedroom. (For the most part, they were never really seen, either.)

But I have found no evidence to support my conclusion that the show inspired the movie — other than my own suspicions.

It isn't important, I guess. A good story is a good story, whatever its inspiration may be, and "Poltergeist" was a darn good chiller for a hot summer day.

Of course, much of what makes a good story is good story telling, and there haven't been many directors in the last 35 years or so who could match Spielberg.

And, in Spielberg's hands, "Poltergeist" was more than simply a scary film. In the last three decades, it has come to be regarded as a true classic of the horror genre.

The line "They're here" — with that lilt in Heather O'Rourke's vocal delivery — is one of the most recognizable lines in movie history.

Indeed, "Poltergeist" seemed like a blessing for all who were affiliated with it. It cost less than $11 million to make and took in more than $120 million at the box office.

Those numbers were dwarfed by "E.T.," however, and, ultimately, "Poltergeist" and its series of sequels earned a reputation for being cursed. That was because some of the movie's stars died prematurely — a series of tragic coincidences that were, nevertheless, enticing for the movies' genre.

It all began 30 years ago today.

Friday, June 01, 2012

It Was 45 Years Ago Today ...

... Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play.

I don't remember the first time I heard "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

I guess it had been out for awhile. And I was really young at the time.

I can only guess it had been playing on the radio for awhile — and I figure that I must have heard it on my family's car radio because my parents almost never listened to the radio in our home in those days — and, when they did, they never listened to stations that would have played the Beatles on a regular basis.

Not that my parents had anything against the Beatles. They liked some of the popular performers of that day — but mostly stuff like Simon & Garfunkel.

But the Beatles had a way of showing up on stations that you wouldn't have expected.

For example, in my hometown of Conway, Ark., in 1967, the radio stations you heard playing when you went to a hardware store or a doughnut shop or a barber shop tended to be country music stations. Yet, I do have vivid memories of being in such an environment and hearing songs like "Act Naturally."

The Beatles had enormous crossover appeal, and, by 1967, they were creating entirely new genres, doing things and making sounds that no one else had ever done or made. They were pioneers of popular music, and nothing exemplified that better than "Sgt. Pepper."

Anyway, as I say, I don't recall precisely when I heard the title track for the first time. What I do recall is realizing, even though I was quite young (and probably couldn't have articulated it this way), that music as I knew it would never be the same.

Perhaps it was an instinctive thing. I'm sure the people who were much older than I, the ones who were in high school or college in those days, the ones who may have participated in the antiwar protests I had seen on television, would have expressed it better.

But what I remember of the first time I heard "Sgt. Pepper" — whenever that was and however old I was — is that it was new and fresh and exciting. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before.

Of course, one must remember that I was emerging from a time in my life when tunes like "I'm a Little Teapot" and "The Hokey–Pokey" were at the top of my list. I wasn't terribly sophisticated in my musical preferences.

Nevertheless, I had been exposed to a fair amount of popular music by that point in my life — enough to know that "Sgt. Pepper" was special and unique.

It still is. The whole album. How could it not be, with songs like "A Day in the Life," "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," "With a Little Help From My Friends" and so many others?

Nearly everyone who has compiled a list of the most influential rock albums of all time has included "Sgt. Pepper" — and with good reason.

Perhaps Stephen Thomas Erlewine of AllMusic Guide summarized it best:

"[T]he Beatles consciously synthesized such disparate influences as psychedelia, art–song, classical music, rock & roll, and music hall, often in the course of one song. Not once does the diversity seem forced — the genius of the record is how the vaudevillian 'When I'm 64' seems like a logical extension of 'Within You Without You' and how it provides a gateway to the chiming guitars of 'Lovely Rita.' "

I always tell people that my favorite Beatles album is "Abbey Road," and it is, but there is a special place in my heart for "Sgt. Pepper," too.