Sunday, May 22, 2016

A Caribbean Cliffhanger

As the eighth season of Frasier drew to a close on this night in 2001 with the episode "Cranes Go Caribbean," Frasier was finally dating the girl of his dreams, Claire (Patricia Clarkson), after being set up with her by his high school heartthrob, Lana (Jean Smart), in exchange for tutoring Lana's son to a good grade in history and was planning a weekend getaway in Belize.

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) and Daphne (Jane Leeves) were going to mark one year of being a couple, and Niles had plans involving a bathtub filled with champagne in his apartment, but Daphne overheard Niles and Frasier talking about Frasier's planned trip to Belize, and she got the idea they were really talking about a trip for Daphne and Niles.

As a result, Niles felt obligated to take her to Belize, too. Martin (John Mahoney), as it turned out, was also going — to do some fishing.

Thus, the entire Crane household would be together in Belize, where Frasier had intended to have some alone time with Claire.

Getting there was not an easy accomplishment, either. Frasier nearly missed his flight because Lana, who had given him a ride to the airport, was involved in an accident en route. His flight was delayed, and his reservation was given to someone else so the room he and Claire had been expecting was not available for them when they finally arrived.

On top of that Frasier had temporarily lost his hearing because of the pressure. Until his ears finally popped, he had to yell in order to hear himself.

Things went from bad to worse from there. At dinner, Frasier continued to pick. The restaurant was out of fresh fish. Frasier found it ironic that they could be seated only feet from the ocean but could not eat fresh fish.

Claire returned to their room, and Frasier, fearing she would cut her trip short and return to Seattle, followed her, hoping to convince her to stay.

As it turned out, Claire hadn't intended to leave. She just wasn't obsessing about a perfect weekend the way Frasier had been. Every minute didn't have to be perfect. All she wanted was for the two of them to have fun.

That night Frasier dreamed he had told Claire that he was happy — only to discover it was not Claire but Lana in his bed — and to whom he had just said he was happy.

Frasier began to wonder which woman he truly wanted — so he went downstairs to place a phone call to someone who he thought could help clarify things for him — his ex–wife Lilith (Bebe Neuwirth).

Nothing was really resolved, other than the already apparent fact that Frasier liked a challenge, and viewers were left to ponder which one Frasier would pursue when the next season began.

Lana or Claire?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

If He Had Known Then What He Knew Now ...

"Abe Lincoln had a brighter future when he picked up his tickets at the box office."

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer)

In the episode that concluded the third season of Frasier on this night in 1996, "You Can Go Home Again," Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) tried to do the thing that, I suppose, most people try to do at some time — and in some way. Go home.

I guess it is almost always expressed in a figurative sense — except for those people who are truly saying that they are going home, back to the place where they grew up, perhaps because their parents still live there. That's how it was for my mother. Her parents lived in the same house where she grew up until the ends of their days, and my parents moved into that house and lived there until my mother died. "Going home" was almost certainly more than a figurative expression for her.

But it is largely figurative for most of us, I guess.

Frasier's wasn't quite as figurative. He was marking three years on the air, and he and Roz (Peri Gilpin) exchanged gifts to mark the occasion. Roz's gift to Frasier was a cassette tape of his first radio show.

Frasier intended to listen to it when he got home, but when he did get home, he found Daphne (Jane Leeves) on the phone with her mother in England, making excuses why she couldn't come home during her upcoming vacation. Daphne's position was that she only had one vacation a year, and she wanted to go somewhere fun like Acapulco. Going home, she told Frasier, was boring. So she wanted her mother to believe that she was the victim of her employer's tyranny.

Frasier played along, making comments that were just loud enough for Daphne's mother to hear.

When the conversation was over, Daphne asked Frasier, "Why is it so easy to love our families yet so hard to like them?"

"Well, Daphne," Frasier replied, "that is one of those questions that makes life so rich, and psychiatrists richer."

After that conversation, Frasier settled in to listen to the tape — and began remembering that first show and how Roz became his producer.

Things didn't get off to a great start, and hearing that first show almost certainly gave Frasier that feeling of if I knew then what I know now. That is certainly a big part of the desire to go home, isn't it? To change an event armed with knowledge you didn't have at the time?

We all have decisions like that in our pasts, don't we? And it is because of those experiences that we understand things we didn't understand at the time. Some things you just have to learn the hard way.

Take, for example, Frasier't first visit with his father (John Mahoney) since returning to Seattle. He was inclined to keep putting it off, but Niles (David Hyde Pierce) talked him into going with him. Frasier said his father was "Seattle's reigning sourpuss," and he was too emotionally vulnerable for that. Niles insisted that Martin was a changed man since being shot.

Actually, he wasn't a changed man.

But Niles' ploy got Frasier there, and they sat down for an uncomfortable conversation, the kind with which most people probably can relate.

After listening to the tape, Frasier agreed to go out for a celebratory dinner with his father and brother, but, before they left, he sat down to talk with Daphne about her dilemma.

"I've decided to give you an extra week off," Frasier told her. That way she could visit her family in Manchester and go to Acapulco.

"You must really think I should go home," she said.

"I've just realized that being part of a family is really worth the effort," he told her. "And very often the effort means you will need a week in Acapulco so ..."

Another valuable life lesson from Frasier.

Reflecting on a Personal Milestone

A father–daughter dance prompted Raymond (Ray Romano) to reminisce about the birth of his oldest child, Ally (Madylin Sweeten), on the episode of Everybody Loves Raymond that first aired on this night in 2001.

My guess is that is a common thing for parents to do — to remember, usually on a special occasion, when a child was born and reflect on how far they have all come since that time. In this episode, which first aired on this night in 2001, Ray remembered how difficult it had been to conceive a child.

Then, after the child was conceived, Ray and Debra (Patricia Heaton) spent a lot of time with Ray's parents. In her typical way, Marie (Doris Roberts) was producing tons of food and insisting that pregnant women should eat. Even if she didn't want to eat, Debra complied.

And then there was a rather harrowing moment on the Long Island Expressway when everyone thought Debra was in labor — turned out to be a false alarm — and their drive to the hospital was slowed considerably by traffic.

At one point, the three of them were convinced the baby was about to be born right there on the expressway, and Robert (Brad Garrett) tried to make use of his training in emergency deliveries, but he told Raymond that something was wrong.

"I don't think I'm seeing what I should be seeing," Robert said.

Ray, whose mind was always on a single track, replied, "You're seeing everything! What else are you supposed to see?"

"A head!" Robert responded.

At that point, Debra concluded that the contractions were easing, but that didn't make the drive back to Frank and Marie's any less uncomfortable.

Then, when Ally was finally born, the family gathered in Debra's hospital room to greet the newest Barone.

All that was on Ray's mind as he watched his 9–year–old daughter on the dance floor.

Then a slow song came on. It happened to be Stevie Wonder's "Sunshine of My Life," one of the calming songs Debra wanted to hear during her false labor.

And Ray asked Ally if she would dance with him. She did.

Now, I'm sure this episode had a lot of sentimental relevance for anyone who has ever been a parent. But even for such as I, it was a touching episode. Most of my friends have been parents. One of my friends even made me the godfather of his daughter, and I feel about her as I would of a child of my own.

It ended that season on a good note.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Putting Bowie's Best on a Single Album

David Bowie, who died earlier this year, was an extraordinary talent, and I really liked many of his songs.

Strangely, though, I think I have owned only two of his albums in my life — "Diamond Dogs," of which I wrote a couple of years ago, and "Changesonebowie," a compilation of Bowie's 11 best recordings from 1969 to 1976 that was released 40 years ago today.

In case you're wondering, there was a "Changestwobowie," which hit the music stores five years later, but I never owned a copy. There just weren't enough songs on it that interested me.

But I liked "Changesonebowie." As I have mentioned here before, I always did prefer Bowie's early stuff — and "Changesonebowie" was the first time that "John, I'm Only Dancing," which was released as a single four years earlier, appeared on an LP.

That alone made "Changesonebowie" worth having, as far as I was concerned.

Two of the songs on the album — "Ziggy Stardust" and "Suffragette City" — hadn't been released as singles when "Changesonebowie" hit the stores.

Both were on the 1972 album, "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars."

Ziggy Stardust was Bowie's alter ego, a rock star/extraterrestrial messenger. Rolling Stone ranked the song #282 on its list of the top 500 recordings of all time.

The two "Changes" LPs were eventually combined to form a CD that was released in 1990. It's been in my CD collection all these years.

It's the CD I listened to the day I learned of Bowie's death. It had all the Bowie songs I wanted to hear.

It still does.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Peter Gabriel's Breakthrough

Peter Gabriel's "So," which hit the music stores 30 years ago today, was not his first solo album. I'm not even sure you could call it his best solo album — although many would.

But it was his true breakthrough album as a solo performer — and I have reasons to believe that other than the fact that, even 30 years later, "So" is his best–selling solo effort.

Gabriel, who was the original lead singer for Genesis, had other hits before "So" — which was, after all, his fifth solo album — but "So" had four hit singles. "Sledgehammer" was the biggest hit, climbing to No. 1. The others didn't make it that far, which was probably a good thing for them. "Sledgehammer" became something of a social phenomenon in the summer of 1986. It would have been difficult to live up to it.

Do you think I am kidding? I'm not. It set a record at the MTV Awards, winning nine. Its video was a big hit, too. It is still the most played music video in MTV history. "Sledgehammer" was every freaking where.

Anyway, I got kind of tired of it at the time. Enough time has passed that I can listen to it and enjoy it today, but I went through a period when I simply could not listen to it. I would change the radio station if it came on.

Not so with the album's other singles — "Big Time," "Red Rain" and "In Your Eyes." A fifth single, "Don't Give Up," was more popular in the U.K. than it was in the U.S.

I am tempted to dismiss that as being because Kate Bush was featured on the track. It was a good song, but it never really did anything for me.

Of those, I guess "Big Time" was the most recognizable hit, and I could have gotten tired of it — had it not been for "Sledgehammer."

"Big Time" cracked Billboard's Top Ten but never quite got to No. 1.

I liked it better than "Sledgehammer" at the time.

I'm not really sure how I feel about them now, but I must say that I always found a certain amount of personal relevance in the lyrics "The place where I come from/Is a small town/They think so small/They use small words/But not me/I'm smarter than that/I worked it out/I'll be stretching my mouth/To let those big words come right out."

At that time, I thought it perfectly described my hometown — which is not such a small town anymore, at least according to my friends who still live there.

Yes, I preferred "Big Time" to "Sledgehammer" — but, of the singles from "So" that hit the airwaves, I guess my favorite was "Red Rain."

It reached No. 3 on Billboard's Top Ten, but it never struck me as being as commercial as those other two songs, especially "Sledgehammer."

I've heard it described as an anthem — and perhaps that is what attracted me to it.

Neither Purely History Nor Purely Mystery

"Nobody hates history. They hate their own histories."

Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks)

I kind of had an unfair advantage over many people who saw "The Da Vinci Code" after it premiered on this day in 2006.

Less than two months earlier, I was laid up for a couple of weeks after shoulder surgery. That's kind of a long story, and I really only mention it because, during my convalescence, I read Dan Brown's "preposterous" (in Roger Ebert's words) novel on which the movie was based.

The novel was published three years earlier, which is probably when most people read it — it was outsold only by the latest in the Harry Potter series — but I didn't read it then. I was busy with other things. Then, when I found myself with time on my hands in early 2006, I read a secondhand paperback copy of that novel.

That worked in my favor when the movie came out, though, because the plot was fresh in my mind. The people I knew who read it when the book was a best–seller in hardback had forgotten some of the finer points of the story, and I am sure they weren't alone.

(I'll bet dollars to doughnuts that it was considerably more challenging for moviegoers to follow the plot if they hadn't read the book. I mean, you at least had to be aware of about 2,000 years' worth of religious rumor and innuendo — as well as history. Lawrence Toppman of The Charlotte [N.C.] Observer wrote that "unlike most Hollywood blockbusters, this one assumes audience members will be smart." I worked for newspapers long enough to know that was probably a mistake.)

But I was fortunate to have the father I had. Dad was a religion professor when I was growing up so I got a lot of exposure to things about which most of my friends knew little, if anything — at least when it came to religion. Dad was a great resource for me when I was reading Brown's novel.

But he was a good resource in another way. Dad has always been an avid fan of mystery novels. As such, he was invaluable in helping me to differentiate between elements of genuine religious and historical significance and elements of good mystery writing. In such a novel, they are bound to overlap; without his help, it would have been easy for me to confuse the two.

On top of that, I saw the movie with Dad. We saw it on Father's Day that year — about a month after its premiere. We figured the crowds wouldn't be as great after a month. Boy, were we wrong. Around the time we saw it, "The Da Vinci Code" became the second film of 2006 to exceed $200 million in the United States.

It was still packing 'em in.

Ron Howard's movies always pack 'em in, though, and they are almost always good so that was understandable. What's more he had two–time Oscar winner Tom Hanks in the leading role and two–time Oscar nominee Ian McKellen in a supporting role. French actress Audrey Tatou, who was largely unfamiliar to American movie audiences at the time, co–starred with Hanks. How could Howard go wrong?

Well, apparently, he did.

The response to the movie was, at best, mixed. I think most people recognized the controversial nature of the subject matter — as well as the fact that considerable resistance could be expected from the Roman Catholic Church. More than a dozen countries censored the film — if they didn't ban it outright.

So there were some headwinds facing the movie when it made its debut. But that didn't seem to dampen audience enthusiasm. As mentioned earlier, it was the second–highest grossing film that year. Anyone looking for evidence that critical endorsements' have little effect on consumer behavior need look no further than "The Da Vinci Code."

Still, the critics could be harsh, and Howard said he found their responses "frustrating."

And I guess they were.

But that is to be expected, I suppose, when a movie challenges people's religious beliefs, and that is precisely what "The Da Vinci Code" did. How could anyone think otherwise? Hanks' character was a professor of religious iconography and symbology involved in a quest for the Holy Grail.

What was not expected — at least, by me — was the negative reaction to Howard. After all, who didn't like Opie? Or, depending on your age, Richie Cunningham? Getting rough with Ron Howard is like getting rough with the Easter bunny.

Ebert wrote that the movie was "preposterously entertaining." That was probably a good way to put it.

I agreed with his assertion that the book on which the movie was based was "preposterous" — and with that stuff about the movie being preposterously entertaining.

If you haven't read the book or seen the movie, I encourage you to do so.

Just remember that it is neither purely history nor purely mystery. Perhaps a little of both.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Paul and Linda McCartney's Only Album

"Ram," which hit the music stores on this day in 1971, was not Paul McCartney's first post–Beatles album.

That distinction belonged to an album that was simply called "McCartney." It was released a year earlier, and — in my opinion, at least, but also in the opinions of many others — it was an inferior product even though it did give McCartney what was, technically, his first solo hit, "Maybe I'm Amazed."

(While "Maybe I'm Amazed" received ample praise and airplay in 1970, the studio recording from "McCartney" was never released as a single. It wasn't until 1977 that the live recording from "Wings Over America" became a Top 10 hit.)

"Ram" was the only album credited to both Paul and Linda McCartney; even though Linda was a member of her husband's post–Beatles band, Wings, and recorded several albums with him before her death, her only listed credits on those other efforts were her contributions to the band musically and/or lyrically.

She seemed largely content to play a supporting role to her husband. I guess that's a pretty easy choice to make if you're married to an ex–Beatle.

I have come to believe that the breakup of a band is very similar to the breakup of a marriage. The more idyllic such a partnership seems to be, the harder it is for others to accept its end, which may account in part for the lukewarm reaction to "McCartney."

At first, fans and critics weren't exactly wild about "Ram," either. Perhaps, like many children of divorce, those fans and critics resisted anything that made it more likely the change was permanent, desperately believing a reunion was possible.

To be fair, sometimes couples do reunite — Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor come to mind — but those truly are the exceptions, and the ones that succeed are even more exceptional. In the world of music, reunions seem to be even rarer occurrences, perhaps because they involve not just a couple but four or five people, possibly more. When they happen in music, they tend to be one–shot deals for special events, not long–term arrangements.

What is more likely is that an ex–band member, like an ex–spouse, will find a new love and move on. A tepid response from friends and relatives may be all that is necessary to crush a blossoming relationship.

But sometimes the new loves of divorced parents win over the children — perhaps not entirely but sufficiently. So it seems to have been with Linda McCartney and diehard Beatles fans, at least in the 1970s. The dream of a Beatles reunion persisted for 10 years but died when John Lennon died in 1980; after that, it always seemed to me, Paul McCartney was more widely accepted as a solo performer, although he and Linda achieved considerable success with Wings in the 1970s.

That success, it seemed to me, truly began with "Ram."

And I have always felt that "Uncle Albert" was the first of McCartney's post–Beatles hits, some with Wings (which disbanded in 1981), most under McCartney's name alone.

"Ram" spawned other singles, too, but they didn't have the commercial success that "Uncle Albert" had. Wings formed after "Ram" was released, but it, too, received poor reactions from fans and critics after its first two albums, "Wild Life" and "Red Rose Speedway."

(In hindsight, much of that reaction may have been the result of the perception of McCartney's role in the Beatles' breakup. In most fractured relationships, one of the partners is perceived to have been responsible for the breakup — or, at least, more responsible than the other. Fairly or unfairly, McCartney was long believed by many Beatles fans to have been the reason the band broke up.)

It wasn't until 1973's "Band on the Run" that McCartney and Wings started to enjoy regular commercial success.

And the course of popular music was changed forever.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Decade Without the West Wing

Bartlet (Martin Sheen): How's the speech?

Santos (Jimmy Smits): It's OK. A couple of good lines. There's no 'Ask not what your country can do for you ...'

Bartlet: JFK really screwed us with that one, didn't he?

There are some milestones that seem to be about right, and some milestones that don't seem right.

Tonight is the 10th anniversary of the final episode of the West Wing. In my mind, that event ranks as one of the latter. I can't believe it has been a decade since that show went off the air.

For a long time, it was the only TV show that I watched regularly — and I do mean regularly. I almost never missed it.

And the episode that aired on this night in 2006 was a lot like the ones that preceded it. It told what would have been a linear story — if it was telling an actual story. It was the last chapter in the story of the Bartlet administration, the perfect way to finish the series.

As I mentioned last week, I would have liked for there to have been one more season, kind of a postscript to the story that told the viewers what each of the characters had been doing.

That was not done, but there were a few surprises in store for viewers. Toby (Richard Schiff) received a presidential pardon — I think most West Wing viewers suspected that would happen, but the outgoing president (Martin Sheen) dragged out his decision.

And the incoming president picked a one–time rival for the party nomination to be his vice president since his running mate in the series (John Spencer) died of a heart attack on Election Day.

Before the curtain fell on the series, though, the West Wing audience was treated to one last round of the show's snappy dialogue.

One of my favorite exchanges came about midway through when the president–elect (Jimmy Smits) and his wife (Teri Polo) were on their way to the inaugural festivities.

"Nine inaugural balls," the soon–to–be first lady said. "You think I'm supposed to wear nine gowns?"

"Do you have nine gowns?" the soon–to–be president asked.

"No," she replied.

"Well, then, probably not," he said.

(Actually, it seems to me that Inaugural Day is a little late to be sweating that kind of detail.)

I always liked the snappy dialogue, but, I must admit, I wondered something when I heard Mr. and Mrs. Santos speaking in the West Wing manner. Had they really morphed into President and Mrs. Bartlet?

I mean, I always thought that one of the benefits of democracy was getting different personalities with a change of administrations.

Still, I would recommend watching this episode before the next president takes the oath of office in January. The West Wing did an excellent job of showing viewers what happens on Inaugural Day — the behind–the–scenes stuff. While the new president is taking the oath and delivering the Inaugural Address — and then watching the Inaugural Parade — an army of workers descends upon the White House and moves the first family's belongings out and the new first family's belongings in.

I've heard that their work is so thorough that, when the new first family returns to the White House later on Inaugural Day, it is as if all their possessions had been magically transported to precisely where they were expected to be in the residence portion of the White House. That is especially important if the new president has children, who will want to easily find their favorite toys when they return to their new residence.

I guess the thinking is that a new first family's lives will be disrupted enough by their new positions in American life. Their private lives should offer some continuity and sanctuary from the outside world.

The two people between whom Americans will likely have to select the next president have no young children who would be moving in to the White House with them. They do have grandchildren — those grandchildren most likely would not be moving in with them, but they could be expected to be visitors from time to time.

How frequently they would visit might determine whether those workers would need to prepare special rooms for them.

A gentle reminder that, when Americans elect a president, they get that president's family in the bargain.

Saturday, May 07, 2016

An Administrative Change of Life

On this night 10 years ago, the West Wing was winding down its seven–year run. A new president was about to take over, and Martin Sheen's crew was making post–administration plans, both personal and professional.

I was in the midst of my own transition, as most West Wing fans were, I suppose. I was wondering what I would do with myself after the series went off the air. What I saw on this night in 2006 made me wish there was going to be another season so I could see what happened with those characters after they finished what C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) called "the first line of my obituary."

We sort of got a peek into that in the final episode — but I will write about that next Saturday on the 10th anniversary of the West Wing's series finale.

The viewers were getting set up for that with the episode that aired 10 years ago tonight, "Institutional Memory." As I say, everyone in Martin Sheen's administration was preparing to vacate for Jimmy Smits' incoming administration.

But not entirely. Some folks from the Bartlet (Sheen) administration were being asked to stay on — chief among them being C.J., who started the series as press secretary and ended it as chief of staff. Now the Santos (Smits) administration wanted to make use of her experience.

The trouble was so did a wealthy mogul — a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates sort of character — who wanted to use his wealth to benefit people and offered to give C.J. $10 billion to "fix" whatever she thought was the greatest problem of her time.

That was the offer that appealed to her, but Smits had given her the "your president needs you" speech — OK, it was a Reader's Digest condensed version, but that took away none of its impact — especially on the relationship between C.J. and Danny the reporter (Timothy Busfield), whose intriguing interaction through the run of the series was finally beginning to blossom in the final episodes.

Understandably, though, C.J. was conflicted by her professional life, and Danny had to make her understand that he would be supportive of whatever she wanted to do. He just wanted to be part of the conversation.

Of course, as a presidential administration winds down, there are many conversations going on, not the least of which concerns the subject of presidential pardons.

Being the history buff that I am, one of the things I always liked about the West Wing was the way it educated its viewers while entertaining them. Sometimes the education was rather blunt, but it was subtle in this episode of the West Wing. Outgoing presidents routinely issue pardons, and the subject of a pardon for former White House speechwriter Toby (Richard Schiff), who was fired after he leaked classified information to save the lives of some astronauts, was the subject of conversation. Toby's ex–wife Andie (Kathleen York) was one of those who lobbied C.J. for a pardon.

When he discussed the subject of pardons with C.J. — and after confirming that Toby's name did not appear on the list of applicants for presidential pardons — Charlie (Dule Hill) casually remarked that the president "could do whatever he wants to in this area," including adding his own names to the list of pardons.

Sometimes in our modern political climate it is hard to remember just how prescient the West Wing often was. Toby's national defense leak was only one example. More than one writer has observed how closely the election that put Barack Obama in the White House mirrored the election of Jed Bartlet's successor in the series' final season.

C.J. went to visit Toby, who confirmed in a rather awkward exchange that he had not applied for a pardon, and then they had the kind of conversation that flows easily between friends — and, as Andie pointed out to C.J., they had been friends for a long time, long before the leak.

C.J. and Danny were friends before they were lovers. The challenge they faced in the episode that aired a decade ago tonight suggested, as the final credits began to roll, that they taking tentative steps toward being a mutually supportive couple.

Maybe one day the West Wing will have a reunion show, and we can find out more about what became of those characters after the next week's season finale.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

The Quest for What's Next

"When I was very young, my little brother died. I couldn't fully comprehend it at the time. But for months after the ... accident, I was unable to pass his room without this ... nameless fear. I would get this, uh, tingling sensation in my chest and my arms. And then yesterday, when I found out that I indeed had come close, very close, to death myself, that sensation returned."

Charles (David Ogden Stiers)

I am reasonably certain that just about everyone, at some time in his or her life, wonders what happens when we die. The more spiritual among us probably muse about it more often than the rest of us — and more intensely when they do.

I always suspected that M*A*S*H's Charles Emerson Winchester (David Ogden Stiers) was a spiritual person. He was pompous, to be sure, but I always sensed that his character was very spiritual as well. His predecessor at the 4077th, Frank Burns, wore his faith on his sleeve; he always seemed phony to me, and that was almost certainly intentional. But Winchester, while the same as Burns in some ways, was quite different in others.

And that is the way life is, isn't it? Whenever there is an opening at your workplace, it is never filled with a clone of the person who worked there before, is it? The replacement may have some things in common with the person he/she replaces, but the new person is a unique individual. That's the way it always was on M*A*S*H whenever a character had to be replaced — and I can think of at least four of the original cast members who left the show.

Winchester's personal quest for the truths of life always seemed genuine — and I thought that was clear to see in the episode of M*A*S*H that aired on this night in 1981, "The Life You Save."

Charles had a near–death experience when a sniper's bullet pierced the cap he was wearing, apparently missing his skull by centimeters at best. It prompted him to embark on an earnest but painful — and, ultimately, futile — journey to find out what really waits for us after death. There have been few scenes on TV as gripping as the one in which Charles badgered a patient who had been clinically dead for a few minutes to tell him what he had seen, what he had felt.

That proved to be unsatisfying, and Charles continued on his quest, which took him in some unexpected directions.

For example, while in charge of the motor pool, Charles instructed Rizzo (G.W. Bailey), the smarmy sergeant from Louisiana, to take a vehicle apart.

"Major, I don't understand; why am I taking this Jeep apart?" Rizzo asked. "It was working just fine!"

"Don't you understand the power you have here?" Charles asked. "You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk, and whenever you want — at a whim — you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life. If only we could do that with human beings. They wouldn't die."

None of Charles' efforts paid off, though, so he went to Battalion Aid to witness — and participate in — the treatment of the freshly wounded. No doubt he would encounter some soldiers who were mortally wounded, and he could ask them what they were experiencing.

Once he was at Battalion Aid, Charles had a telephone conversation with Col. Potter (Harry Morgan), who asked him, "Are you aware that you could get killed up there?"

"Actually no, that thought hadn't occurred to me," Charles replied. "That would be interesting, wouldn't it?" At that point, he went off in search of a dying soldier.

And, indeed, he did encounter a dying soldier, and he tried to find out what the soldier was feeling, seeing, experiencing — but, although the soldier was aware of the fact that he was dying, he could not feel Charles holding his hand, and the only thing he could say to Charles was "I smell bread."

That, of course, gave Charles no insight, and he left Battalion Aid after the soldier died.

He also left his cap with the bullet hole at Battalion Aid — apparently concluding that, whatever waits for us after death, if anything does, he would find out what it was soon enough.

As I mentioned, Charles was temporarily in charge of the motor pool during this episode. That was Col. Potter's doing. Potter decided to rotate the additional duty assignments among his officers, and Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was put in charge of the mess tent. Upon taking his assignment, Hawkeye found himself responsible for dozens of missing trays — apparent cogs in Army bureaucracy.

It was an interesting side plot, and it probably had some relevance to the main story, but I have never been able to figure out what it was.

An interesting piece of trivia for you here. M*A*S*H ran for 11 seasons, Charles appeared in a little more than half of those seasons, and this was the only time Charles ever mentioned a sibling other than his sister Honoria. His younger brother was never mentioned again.

This episode was originally scheduled to air the day that Ronald Reagan was shot. Network executives figured — probably correctly — that the nation was in no mood to watch an episode about death hours after the president narrowly avoided death in an assassination attempt.

So it was delayed five weeks — and served as the season finale for M*A*S*H's ninth season, a season whose start was delayed by a three–month strike against TV and movie studios.

Sunday, May 01, 2016

The Debut of Mozart's 'The Marriage of Figaro'

If you mention "The Marriage of Figaro" to most people my age or younger, the image that probably comes to mind is of Bugs Bunny conducting a performance of the opera in a Warner Bros. cartoon.

That is an entertaining memory for me — and, probably, for many members of my generation. I grew up watching — and loving — Bugs Bunny cartoons on Saturday mornings. Most Bugs Bunny fans would probably mention the cartoons that included Yosemite Sam or the Tasmanian Devil or that weird interplanetary character as their favorites, but I always liked the takeoffs on the operas, like "The Marriage of Figaro" or "The Barber of Seville."

I owe that to my parents, I suppose. They liked other kinds of music, too, as I have mentioned here before, but they both liked classical music. Most opera was probably not their preference — they tended to like symphonies and such as that — but sometimes the music or the composers they liked overlapped in opera.

As a child I was exposed to it all — and, as a result, I tended to recognize music that was used in cartoons (and, thus, get the humor of some inside jokes that even most adults didn't get).

(When I was in college, I recall that my German professor once tried to trip up the class by asking us classical music trivia questions. I frustrated her by correctly answering all of them — and, in the process, spoiling her punchlines.)

It was as a child that I learned to love the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose opera based on the play "The Marriage of Figaro" made its debut at Vienna's Burgtheater 230 years ago today. Nearly a quarter of a millennium later, it is still one of his most loved compositions — and that really is saying something.

In keeping with the custom of the time, the composer conducted the first two performances of the opera, then Mozart handed the baton to a 20–year–old Austrian conductor.

It was a glorious achievement, one that was featured in the movie "Amadeus," which is one of my all–time favorite movies. In the movie, Salieri, Mozart's rival composer who has long been suspected of being behind Mozart's untimely death, described how the opera bestowed "perfect absolution" on all who heard it.

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

But the success or failure of a composition in the 18th century depended less upon its quality than the responses of the prominent people who heard it. And, as Salieri observed, the emperor's yawn during the premiere 230 years ago today was believed to have been the reason why the opera closed after nine performances.

That seems to be something of an urban legend. The premiere appears to have been a success with a five–number encore. There were seven encores the night of the second performance.

The original story on which the opera was based was regarded as somewhat bawdy for the sensibilities of 18th–century people. Could that have been why it closed after nine performances? Well, the emperor, who had approved the libretto before Mozart began composing any of the music, doesn't appear to have been worried about the content, but he was concerned, it seems, about the length of the performances with all these encores so he issued a directive "that no piece for more than a single voice is to be repeated."

The new policy was in effect for the third performance and was probably behind the rumors that swirled around the opera after its nine–performance run.

"The Marriage of Figaro" was not performed in Vienna in 1787 or 1788, but a revival production ran there from 1789 to 1791. In the interim it enjoyed a successful run in Prague.

Auditioning a Wedding Band

Ted (Josh Radnor): Lily, you're being a wee bit intense about this band thing.

Lily (Alyson Hannigan): Intense? I have a wedding to plan in nine weeks for 200 people! Even if a dinosaur should poke his head out of my butt and consume this coffee table, I need you to roll with it! OK?

Ted: Wow.

I have never been married, but most of my friends have been married — and I have had the experience of being around some of them when they were planning their weddings.

It wasn't pretty.

If you have never been subjected to that, you could get a pretty good idea what it is like if you have ever seen even one of the "Father of the Bride" movies — either the Spencer Tracy original or the Steve Martin remake.

Or you could watch the episode of How I Met Your Mother that first aired on this night in 2006. Lily (Alyson Hannigan) was working on the arrangements for her upcoming wedding to Marshall (Jason Segel) — and driving everyone around her crazy — in an episode titled "Best Prom Ever."

The episode began with the tale of how they had snagged the place where they wanted to have the ceremony, which was usually booked up, but it was briefly available in two months. Wedding preparations went into overdrive — if such a thing is possible.

Even when preparations aren't shifting into high gear, as they did in this episode, it seems there is always one detail that the happy couple — at least the bride (who may drag the groom with her just to have some company) — must freak out about. In Lily's case, it was the band. She didn't have one lined up.

Marshall said he had lined up the band that played at his law review party, but Lily wasn't familiar with the band. She didn't know if the band could play their song, a Violent Femmes piece called "Good Feeling," and said the band would have to audition. But Marshall said the band didn't audition. Besides, the date for the perfect place was only being held for a few days.

So Lily figured she could go listen to the band play sometime during the weekend. Marshall discovered, by checking the band's website, the band was playing at a prom in New Jersey. Lily decided she would go there and listen to the band play — but it turned out that she couldn't do that. Only high school students and their dates were allowed inside.

So Lily hatched a plan to sneak into the prom, and Robin (Cobie Smulders) volunteered to go with her. She never went to her own prom; she said she was always competing in Canadian national field hockey playoffs in the spring.

They opted not to bring any of the guys along, figuring that a large group would just raise suspicions so Ted (Josh Radnor) and Marshall decided to have a guys' night out. Barney (Neil Patrick Harris), after belittling them, told them to call him and they would meet up.

The girls dressed in their finest clothes — and Barney told them they would stick out like sore thumbs. "Have you seen how the kids are dressing these days, with the Ashlee and the Lindsay and the Paris?" he asked. "They all dress like strippers. It's so ho or go home."

So Lily and Robin tried to find slutty clothes to wear — and, as they searched the closets, Lily discovered the dress she had worn to her actual prom 10 years earlier.

And, in a flashback, the How I Met Your Mother audience first met Scooter (David Burtka), Lily's high–school boyfriend who was obsessed with her and made periodic appearances during the show's run as the guy Lily kept "on the hook." Eventually, he married her doppelganger, "Stripper Lily."

But on this night his character was merely a memory for Lily — and most of his appeal to Lily at the time appeared to be his modest resemblance to Kurt Cobain.

It had been on that night that Scooter and Lily had broken up. Scooter had resisted, but Lily insisted that there were things she still wanted to do before she settled down — travel, be an artist overseas, "maybe have a lesbian relationship." Scooter continued to obsess over Lily, going so far as to give up his dream of going to umpire school and work in the lunchroom at the school where Lily taught kindergarten.

(Kind of reminds me of my prom.)

But that was still in the future.

The subject of the future came up on the dance floor as Lily and Robin were honoring their promises of a dance to the two high school seniors who agreed to take them in to the prom. Lily, still feeling considerable stress over her wedding plans, asked her date what his plans were, then proceeded to tell him his plans would never come to pass because everything would be different than he imagined.

And Robin's date threw up on her when, after he asked her if he was getting lucky that night, she started to say, "You're a nice guy, but ..."

That led to a great exchange between Robin and Lily in the ladies' room.

"I can't believe I unloaded on a high school senior like that," Lily said.

"I can't believe a high school senior unloaded like that on me," Robin replied.

Then Robin asked Lily a question that How I Met Your Mother viewers would have considerable reason to recall in coming episodes: "Are you having second thoughts?"

And Lily acknowledged that, yes, she was. "But not about Marshall," Lily insisted. "About me." She said she kept thinking about the girl she had been at the time of her actual prom and wondering what happened to her.

I suppose that is the question most of us ask ourselves at some point. After all, the lives of few if any of the people from my senior class turned out the way they expected. I'm sure there are exceptions to that rule — but not many.

Robin pointed out that Lily could still travel and paint, just as she had hoped to do.

"And as far as your lesbian experience ..."

With that, Robin kissed Lily.

Back on the dance floor, Lily and Marshall agreed that the band was playing their song quite well and could be the band for their wedding.

By the way Burtka is Harris' real–life husband. Well, I know they are married now. Ten years ago, they may have been domestic partners, given the fact that homosexual marriage has only been legal in recent years.