Thursday, March 29, 2018

A 72-Hour Odyssey in Spanish Harlem

Daniel Madigan (Richard Widmark): I'm in love with Julia.

Jonesy (Sheree North): Who's asking for love?

The book on which "Madigan," which premiered on this day in 1968, was based primarily focused on the character of the police commissioner (played by Henry Fonda) — but the decision was made to emphasize a detective on the street (Richard Widmark).

Thus, the movie began with a small–timer getting the drop on Widmark and his partner, relieving them of their weapons when they became momentarily distracted by the small–timer's naked girlfriend and escaping after trapping them on the roof of his building. That small–timer became the chief suspect in a homicide.

That kicked off a 72–hour odyssey for Widmark and his partner, and catching this small–timer was only part of it. The commissioner gave them 72 hours to round up the small–timer, but Widmark had other things to deal with during that time frame as well.

The cinematography of the movie is important. While some portions were filmed in Hollywood backlots, many were filmed with the New York City of 1967 as its backdrop — which was appropriate, since most of the action took place in Spanish Harlem. Consequently the movie absorbed much of the look and feel of New York in the '60s, which became, as backdrops often do, a character in the story.

Madigan had problems with the commissioner, who didn't trust him, and his wife (Inger Stevens). The commissioner had his own problems. He had been looking forward to delivering a commencement address to graduates of the police academy, but this matter with Madigan demanded his attention, as did the case of an inspector (James Whitmore) shaking down a bar owner and complaints from a black minister that his son had been harassed by police when he was picked up for questioning in a rape case. On top of that, the commissioner's married mistress had made the decision to end their relationship.

It was a gritty movie with a lot of twists and turns. I'm not usually a fan of police movies, and this one is a little dated, but it has a first-rate cast — including a rather brief appearance by Sheree North as a sexually frustrated nightclub singer with whom Madigan had once been involved. She didn't try to conceal her continuing attraction to Madigan. Madigan, though, was direct with her, saying that he was in love with Stevens — whose character was also sexually frustrated by Madigan's job and his frequent absences.

But North wasn't interested in love.

A pivotal absence occurred when Madigan took his wife to a dress ball that included a night in a fancy hotel. That appeased her until she realized that he was going to skip out early to go back to work on bringing in the small–timer. He left her in the care of a colleague, who tried to get her drunk and seduce her. He nearly succeeded, too.

That's the kind of thing that you don't have to be in law enforcement to see — although I have no doubt that being the spouse of a detective is a lonely and stressful way of life — and Stevens portrayed it well, especially in her final scene. That was in the hospital where Widmark had been taken after being shot and where he ultimately died.

In my newspaper career, I saw many people who either never married or had their marriages destroyed by their work. Spouses make sacrifices that others don't see — and sometimes those sacrifices are simply too great.

With that in mind, I thought it may have been Stevens' best performance — even if it was in a supporting role.

In the end, Stevens grieved Widmark's death in the execution (so to speak) of his job, but I got the feeling that the others, while sorry that Widmark was gone, didn't feel the loss as deeply as she did. They knew it was the risk they all took.

I've heard some people say they were bored by the story. Perhaps it was too tame for audiences accustomed to more modern treatments of crime and punishment.

I've heard others say the story is engaging, even after half a century.

I'm somewhere in the middle, I suppose. The movie could benefit from what they call reimagining these days. If that doesn't happen, though, "Madigan" stands the test of time — provided you keep it in the context of when it was made.

Monday, March 26, 2018

The Best Live Album of Its Era

I have never been too keen on Little Feat's studio albums. Little Feat was a live band, and the two–record live album that was released this month in 1978, "Waiting for Columbus," proved that beyond the shadow of a doubt.

There is also no doubt that, as Stephen Thomas Erlewine of observed, "the group had entered its decline" when the album was recorded — but "Little Feat in its decline was still pretty great."

Even if Little Feat was in its decline, as Erlewine wrote, "Waiting for Columbus" was still the best live album of its era.

Little Feat's studio albums never had the energy that their live performances had. Until I heard "Waiting for Columbus," I had never experienced Little Feat live completely, only in bits and pieces. "Waiting for Columbus," to put it bluntly, knocked my socks off.

It has been one of my favorite albums for a long time.

I was hooked from the first track, "Fat Man in the Bathtub."

That was one of the band's early songs, and years of playing it live really came through on the recording. It had a polish that most of the other songs lacked.

I guess an enduring favorite from Little Feat's repertoire was always "Dixie Chicken," and the live recording of that song was truly filled with energy.

But I always favored "Spanish Moon" and the contributions of the Tower of Power horn section.

I have never grown tired of "Waiting for Columbus," but the CD, which was expanded to include 10 previously unreleased tracks, was a new experience.

Those unreleased tracks were the initial attraction for me; the first time I heard them, I could understand why they were left off the original album, but the additional space afforded by the CD format meant there was no reason not to release them. They were good, just not up to the same standards as the ones included on the original album.

Of the 10, my preference was "Cold, Cold, Cold," which was one of the band's early songs. I didn't think it had the polish that "Fat Man in the Bathtub" had, but it could have been included on the original release of "Waiting for Columbus."

It was a little late in the game for Little Feat to be releasing a live album, though. Leader and founding member Lowell George, the band's heart and soul, died a little over a year later of a heart attack brought on by an accidental cocaine overdose.

Better late than never.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

The Seemingly Fruitless Search for a Flaw

Niles (David Hyde Pierce): How's it going?

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer): Well, let me see, what have you missed? Clint told us about how he learned to fly a plane, and then he recited a sonnet and, oh yes, he fixed my ice machine and he invented a new drink — the "Pink Webber." I've got Daphne drawing a bath right now; in case the party starts to lag, we can invite him to walk on water, liven things up a bit.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) was an elitist snob who was not accustomed to being second banana to anyone.

But on this night in 1998 — in the Frasier episode "The Perfect Guy"the perfect guy came into the radio station, and Frasier couldn't handle it.

The perfect guy was named Dr. Clint Webber (Bill Campbell), and he had just been hired to host a new program on health issues. Frasier thought he would give the new guy a boost by having him appear on Frasier's program — but it was obvious that Clint needed no one's help. It seemed there was nothing he could not do.

Initially, Frasier tried to act as if he genuinely liked Clint, but he soon gave in to his jealousy and actively looked for a weakness that he could exploit when he hosted a party to welcome Clint to the radio station.

It wasn't easy to find a weakness. Clint didn't seem to have one. Whereas Frasier went to Harvard, Clint went to Oxford — and before taking on the challenge of medical school, he got his master's in French history because he "just wanted to do something fun." He spoke fluent French — and, as the viewers learned during Frasier's party, he also spoke Mandarin.

Frasier tried to regain some of his lost status by saying that he, too, had taken some time off before beginning medical school and had spent the summer studying Italian opera. He took the opportunity to do some name dropping, suggesting that he had become acquainted with Spanish tenor Jose Carerras during that time. Clint, it turned out, was Carerras' godson.

Clint was a flawless cook, having worked his way through school as sous–chef in Paris; at Frasier's party he invented a drink that was a smash hit with the guests.

It was all very taxing on Frasier, and he complained about it to Niles (David Hyde Pierce).

"Don't let it make you crazy," Niles counseled his brother. "At some point we all run into someone who's our superior."

"Oh, it's just that I've never dealt with this sort of thing before," Frasier replied.

"Never?" Niles asked incredulously.

"I can see how that could be baffling to you," Frasier said. "As my younger brother, you've dealt with this sort of thing all your life."

"At least we know he won't outshine you in the egomania department," Niles replied.

And, although Clint didn't play chess — he claimed to have a read a book or two on the topic — he managed to spoil a game Frasier had been playing by mail with a Russian grandmaster. You see, Clint was able to anticipate the outcome after observing the chess board for only a minute or two — and the outcome wasn't going to be good for Frasier.

"Wasn't that a fun eight months?" Frasier remarked.

Frasier had just about given up on finding a weakness in Clint when one presented itself. The man couldn't sing — yet he insisted on singing to the assembled guests. Frasier agreed, then sought Niles to gloat over his discovery.

"The man is completely tone deaf," Frasier said. "He's about to launch into a rendition of 'Isn't It Romantic' that will simply peel the enamel from your teeth."

Niles tried to persuade Frasier not to let Clint embarrass himself — until he learned that Daphne (Jane Leeves) was smitten with Clint and wanted to give him her phone number. Then he was all too happy to accompany Clint on the piano.

And Frasier walked smugly through the room filled with guests, reminding them that "Nobody's perfect."

It was a satisfying conclusion for anyone who has ever been in Frasier's shoes — which means all but a select few (although usually it is a Frasier type who is the cause of the anxiety).

As Woody Allen once said, "If life were only like this."

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Roger Waters' Final Cut

Roger Waters was a co–founder of Pink Floyd, but his last album with the band, "The Final Cut," arrived in music stores on this day in 1983.

Pink Floyd went on to release three more studio albums and a double–disc live album, but Waters' days with Pink Floyd ended with "The Final Cut."

Seen from that perspective, perhaps it was appropriate that "The Final Cut" was the only Pink Floyd album in which Waters received all the songwriting credit.

"The Final Cut" was also the only Pink Floyd album that didn't include keyboardist Richard Wright.

The album was originally intended to be a soundtrack for "Pink Floyd — The Wall," but plans changed with the outbreak of war in the Falkland Islands in 1982 after Argentine forces occupied the British–held islands temporarily.

By any yardstick you may choose, "The Final Cut" was Waters' album. Not only did he write all the songs, he sang lead on all but one track — guitarist David Gilmour provided lead vocals on the other one.

And it was his statement on war, inspired primarily by the experience of losing his father in World War II but also by more contemporary factors. Waters thought British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's reaction in the Falklands had been unnecessary and aggressive. The album, originally named "Requiem for a Post–War Dream," included a track that bore a variation on that — "The Post–War Dream."

The post–war dream was what Waters believed was the reason for the sacrifices made by his father and others — sacrifices that had been betrayed.

The war theme was also reflected in the cover art. The front cover showed a Remembrance poppy and four World War II medal ribbons. Additional photographs could be found when the gatefold was opened. The album art was reproduced — on a significantly smaller scale — for the CD version of the album.

And, of course, anyone who downloads the album today is deprived of that experience altogether. It wasn't true in all cases, but album art definitely added to an album's experience — and perhaps never as much as it did on a Pink Floyd album.

Pink Floyd's cover art was always memorable, and the band enjoyed considerable success with its album sales, but it had comparatively few hit singles — mostly, I suppose, because the band's tracks didn't usually lend themselves to radio airplay.

The commercially released single from "The Final Cut" could probably be described that way. "Not Now John" managed to make it to the Top 30 in the U.K. — in a censored version. In the album track, the chorus was "Fuck all that," but in the single it was changed to the more ambiguous "Stuff all that."

I have always favored a third track from the album "The Fletcher Memorial Home." It always summarized Waters' thoughts about the world's leadership of that time better than the rest.

The song got its name from Waters' father.

It probably doesn't hold up well for modern listeners, though, many of whom would not recognize the names mentioned. I guess that hopelessly dates the song, which is too bad because it is probably my favorite track.

"This is more like a novel than a record," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine for, "requiring total concentration since shifts in dynamics, orchestration and instrumentation are used as effect."

In many ways, it lacks a true Pink Floyd sound. The music might have benefited from more input from Gilmour.

Erlewine observed that "[t]his means that while this has the texture of classic Pink Floyd, somewhere between the brooding sections of The Wall and the monolithic menace of Animals, there are no songs or hooks to make these radio favorites. The even bent of the arrangements, where the music is used as texture, not music, means that The Final Cut purposely alienates all but the dedicated listener."

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Hooked on Caviar

"It's like being kissed by a lusty mermaid!"

Niles (David Hyde Pierce) after sampling caviar

When I was growing up, I only heard the word addiction in connection with substances that weren't supposed to be good for you — and were probably (but not always) illegal to boot.

But as I got older I learned that there are all kinds of addictions to things that are not necessarily good for you but are generally not illegal, either.

At least, in most instances.

In the episode of Frasier that first aired on this night in 2003, "Roe to Perdition," the substance in question was Beluga caviar, which is the world's most expensive caviar. A couple of years before this episode aired, Beluga caviar sold for up to $4,500 a pound.

(Beluga caviar is harvested from Beluga sturgeon, which are found primarily in the Caspian Sea. Beluga sturgeon are endangered, which led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ban the importation of Beluga caviar in 2005. That made this episode somewhat prescient, I suppose.)

Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) and Niles (David Hyde Pierce) were planning a party and wanted something spiffy to serve. They spotted a display of Beluga caviar at their favorite gourmet foods store and concluded that was what they needed — until they discovered it was selling for $100 an ounce.

"Isn't that rather a lot to pay?" Frasier wanted to know.

"To you, yes," the shopkeeper replied in a heavy French accent. "To the fish who gave up her life so you could spread her unborn children on a cracker, it's not so much."

At that point, a somewhat unsavory–looking individual approached the Cranes and told them that the Russian mafia was in control of the caviar market. He further claimed that he could provide Beluga caviar for much lower prices; after sampling his product, the Cranes were in.

But Frasier, who claimed to be a good judge of character, didn't want this man to know where he lived so he arranged for Roz (Peri Gilpin) to pick up the caviar and bring it to his apartment, which she did, although she insisted that caviar wasn't anything special — until she tried the Beluga caviar.

Then she was hooked. And she was happy to act as Frasier's mule if she could get a cut.

That became an impossibility when the connection informed the Cranes that he could no longer help them. Their ever–larger orders were attracting unwanted attention. This was bad news for the Cranes, who had been sprinting up the Seattle social ladder by supplying the city's elite with Beluga caviar and needed five more pounds. The supplier gave them all he could, but it was nowhere near five pounds.

It was crushing news for Roz, but Frasier assured her that he could make one more score, having recalled the name of the ship the contact had mentioned.

When Frasier and Niles got to the ship, they were able to make a deal for five pounds of Beluga caviar, but the transaction was interrupted by a raid by U.S. Customs. Frasier and Niles tried to eat the evidence, but they barely put a dent in it before a Customs officer burst on the scene. As it turned out, though, they weren't looking for caviar. They were looking for bootleg DVDs.

Frasier always had a side story — which didn't always have anything to do with the main story. In this episode, the two had nothing in common, really, but I enjoyed the side story all the same.

It seems that Martin (John Mahoney) had some trouble with the ATM at his bank. When he tried to withdraw $20, it gave him $60 instead. He was pleased with his windfall — until Daphne (Jane Leeves) insisted that he return the money to the bank.

That was when his troubles really began.

At first, he tried to call the bank's helpline, but it was automated and kept giving him the runaround. After that, he tried to go to the bank itself. The people at the bank kept acting as if he had tried to make a deposit when he was actually trying to return excess money that had been given to him by the ATM, and they kept offering him more money. It got so bad that, at one point, Martin tried to speak a bit too forcefully to a teller, was mistaken for a robber and had a gun pulled on him by the security guard.

That led to the bank president making the same false assumption that the others had made and offered Martin a settlement in exchange for taking no legal steps. The settlement included the deposit of $10,000 in Martin's account — plus the $40 from the original mistake.

"Is there anything else we can do for you?" the bank president asked.

"Could I open an account?" Daphne wanted to know.

Harry the Hat Evens the Score

Long–time viewers of Cheers! know that the bar's rival was Gary's Old Towne Tavern. The bars competed in all kinds of things, and Gary's Old Towne Tavern always won — and on this night in 1993, Sam's bar was gearing up for what was expected to be a banner St. Patrick's Day — perhaps its best ever.

Even Sam (Ted Danson) expressed confidence that the bar would outperform Gary's on what is arguably the biggest holiday in New England. But Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) reminded him that Gary's had been the big St. Patrick's Day winner for 10 straight years.

Nevertheless, Sam was convinced that his bar could finally beat Gary because he had a strategy — banners, balloons, green beer, Irish music, Carla (Rhea Perlman) dressed as a leprechaun. When Gary (Robert Desiderio) came over, he first offered to call off the bet to save Sam's bar from humiliation. Then, when Sam wouldn't go for it, Gary suggested raising the stakes — "Make it something more interesting than the usual hundred bucks?" — Sam readily agreed, but he didn't tell the patrons of the bar what the new stakes were or what he had committed all of them to do if they lost.

Talk about humiliation.

When Gary won the bet, they all had to come to the Old Towne Tavern and sing "Getting to Know You" in the buff. Just about everyone agreed that it was a humiliating experience.

Well, except for Cliff (John Ratzenberger). He "found the whole thing quite exhilarating."

But Sam said it was the first time he had ever been naked — and not had fun.

Sam said he would call upon con man Harry the Hat (Harry Anderson) to help them get even. But Harry declined, saying they could never top Gary.

"Face it, you're a bunch of losers," Harry told them. "It's nothing to be ashamed of. It's your nature, you know? It's the way God made you. You're part of his master plan. If it weren't for you guys, how would we know who the winners were?"

Sam decided to give up competing with Gary. He said he would go over to the Old Towne Tavern the next day to make peace with his rival.

But when he did, a bulldozer came crashing through the bar's exterior. Sam could only watch helplessly.

Back at Cheers!, Gary came running into the bar, swearing to call the cops. Sam wanted to avoid that so he got on his knees to ask Gary to keep the cops out of it. The patrons who had performed naked at Gary's bar got on their knees, too, and Gary pulled out a camera and took a picture.

Gary said it was a setup. He had sold his bar to a commercial developer who had been responsible for bulldozing the bar to make room for a shopping center.

But it turned out that Harry the Hat had been behind it. He had posed as the developer.

When Sam asked if Harry had destroyed the bar, Harry said he hadn't, but Gary had. Gary arranged for the bulldozer after making the deal with Harry the Hat. Harry had been posing as a land developer — who was going to come up short of funds, as Gary discovered when he tried to cash Harry's check. It bounced, of course, and Gary's bar was in ruins.

When Sam asked Harry how he could repay him, Harry said he already had. Sam soon learned what he meant by that. Harry had taken all the money in the cash register.

To be sure, Harry was an equal opportunity swindler.

The Night MASH Almost Ended

"I'll stick with gin. Champagne is just ginger ale that knows somebody."

Hawkeye (Alan Alda)

We know that MASH was one of the most popular TV shows of all time. It lasted 11 seasons, and it was in the Top 10 — if not the Top 5 — most of the time.

But as it was nearing the end of its first season, the future was really in doubt. MASH ended the 1972–73 season ranked No. 46.

The episode that aired on this night in 1973, "Ceasefire," was written when the decision about a second season had not been made — so two scripts were written. If the show was canceled, the script in which the war ended would be used. If it was picked up for a second season, the script in which the ceasefire turned out to be a false alarm would be used.

It isn't necessary, I am sure, to say which one it was. MASH ran until 1983.

Anyway, on to the episode.

Gen. Clayton (Herb Voland) informed Henry (McLean Stevenson) that a ceasefire was imminent — but that was unofficial, he warned Henry.

Nevertheless, Henry couldn't keep news like that to himself, and before long the entire camp was celebrating. Radar (Gary Burghoff) went around the camp to get messages and signatures for a memory book. Klinger (Jamie Farr) proceeded to give away his dresses, figuring he wouldn't need them anymore, now that the war was coming to an end.

But Trapper (Wayne Rogers) didn't believe it. He said this kind of thing always happens in a war, and he bet Hawkeye $50 that the ceasefire would turn out to be a phony.

In the meantime, Hot Lips (Loretta Swit) was putting up a brave front, telling Frank (Larry Linville) that he was not to worry about her, that he was to go back to his old life and pick up where he left off. "I'm not going to make any trouble."

Hot Lips apparently wanted Frank to say something like he would leave his old life behind and stay with her. But he didn't do that. He told Hot Lips he wished she could meet his wife. "You'd like her," he said. That wasn't quite what she wanted to hear.

For the first time, Hawkeye acknowledged that he had a wife — but he did so for a different reason. He did so to avoid having to commit to all the women he had been with at MASH 4077. This caused considerable social difficulties for Hawkeye when word spread through the camp that he was married with five children.

That wasn't true, of course. Hawkeye was a bachelor. He just wanted to avoid complications. It worked beyond his wildest dreams.

While we're on the subject, this wasn't the final episode of the season for MASH, but it was the final appearance by Marcia Strassman. She was mostly considered Hawkeye's girl in that first season, but then she left the show and went on to become Mrs. Kotter on Welcome Back, Kotter a few years later.

Anyway, to celebrate the ceasefire, Gen. Clayton came to the 4077th, where a commemorative slide show was presented in Clayton's honor. It included shots of the general in his private moments — exiting the latrine and cuddling with Hot Lips.

Then the hammer came down. A communique was handed to the general informing him that the ceasefire was off.

Trapper had won his bet — and the show went on for another decade.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Frasier and the Unhappy Couple

"Just once it would be nice if we could have a family gathering where no one leaves in an ambulance. Am I right?"

Aunt Zora (Patti LuPone)

Patti LuPone will always be remembered for her extensive Broadway career, but she gave an Emmy–nominated performance on Frasier in "Beware of Greeks," the episode that first aired on this night in 1998.

LuPone played Zora, the mother of Frasier's cousin, who was about to be married. She was a Crane by marriage, having married the brother of Frasier's father Martin (John Mahoney). To her dismay, Frasier had counseled her son Nikos (Joseph Will) when he was trying to decide on his career path. Frasier told him to follow his heart so he skipped medical school (his parents' preference) to pursue his passion — street juggling.

Zora didn't like that, and she blackballed Frasier and his side of the family, a fact that bothered Martin, who desperately wanted to be reunited with his brother after an estrangement of five years. It also meant that Frasier knew nothing about Nikos' approaching nuptials.

When Frasier learned that Nikos was getting married, he decided it was the right time to mend the rift with Zora so he paid her a visit at her Greek restaurant and patched things up. Among other things, he promised never to meddle in Nikos' life again.

But when Martin was reunited with his brother, their conversation was less than stimulating:

Walt: Marty.

Martin: Walt.

Walt: What's new?

Martin: Oh, same old, same old. How's tricks?

Walt: Can't complain. They keeping you busy?

Martin: Oooh, better believe it.

Walt: Well, what are you going to do?

Martin: Tell me about it.

Nikos' fiancée was from an affluent family, which pleased Nikos' mother. But the fiancée's motive for marrying Nikos was to get even with her parents for personal grudges, and Frasier realized that Nikos was still in love with his ex–girlfriend, who was also a juggler. But he had promised not to interfere.

So Frasier arranged for the ex to come to the wedding rehearsal dinner, where he could let nature take its course and she could be reunited with Nikos. That, of course, made both of them very happy.

It also made the snobby parents of the now ex–fiancée happy, too. They had been decidedly glum up to that point.

But it didn't please Zora — and she knew who to blame. The reconciliation was over — and Martin and Walt knew they wouldn't see each other again for awhile.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Archie's Adventure in Education

Edith (Jean Stapleton): I'll never forget the first time I made pot roast for your father. Only he wasn't your father then; we was just keeping company. I invited him to my house for dinner, and I made him pot roast. And that was the first time he ever called me "dingbat."

Gloria (Sally Struthers): Well that's awful, even if he didn't like your cooking.

Edith: Oh, no, he loved it.

Michael (Rob Reiner): Then why'd he call you "dingbat?"

Edith: Well in them days, Archie was too shy to call me "sweetheart" or "darling" so he called me his "little dingbat." And you know what? Ever since then, no matter how mad he says "dingbat," I always hear a little "sweetheart" in it.

There have been times when I have taught college–level courses that I have had students who would be classified as nontraditional students — typically people who left school at some point and then returned after several years to pursue their degrees. I have long admired the courage it takes to do something like that. It can't be easy to be in class with colleagues — or even a teacher — young enough to be one's children.

They say one is never too old to learn, though, and Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor) proved it 45 years ago tonight on All in the Family — even if he did it for the wrong reasons — in the episode "Archie Learns His Lesson."

Archie was angling for a dispatcher's job, but he had a problem. The job required a high school diploma, and Archie had to drop out of school to help support his family. So Archie went to school at night to earn his GED.

He didn't want Mike (Rob Reiner) and Gloria (Sally Struthers) to know, though, so he swore Edith (Jean Stapleton) to secrecy. And Edith did a pretty good job of keeping the secret until Archie blew his own cover. He told Mike and Gloria that he was going bowling, then left without his bowling ball.

Mike and Gloria were very supportive of Archie when they found out, and Mike and Archie started studying together at the dining room table — leading to some of the series' most entertaining dialogue between the two.

At one memorable point, Mike told Archie, who was studying for an American history test, what manifest destiny meant. That sparked a debate of sorts between the liberal Mike and the conservative Archie, which by itself wasn't especially memorable, although it was hilarious in the context of history and politics. Then Edith helped Archie study by asking him questions.

Before they began, Mike asked if he could listen in because "I love science fiction." Archie wouldn't go for that and shooed Mike away from the table.

But Mike listened from the sofa and finally could take no more when the subject of the American government's treatment of Indians came up. Archie's logic was too much for him.

But Mike's reaction was nothing compared to Gloria's when she found her father writing the answers to the history questions on little pieces of paper.

She observed that they looked like crib notes.

"Bingo!" Archie replied. He said he would keep them in his breast pocket in case he needed them.

"Daddy!" exclaimed a shocked Gloria. "That's cheating!"

Archie explained the difference.

"Cheating is when you're supposed to give something to somebody else, and you don't give it. I'm taking a test. I'm supposed to give 'em the right answers. That's what I'm gonna give 'em!"

"But, Daddy, you're cheating yourself," Gloria insisted.

"No," Archie said. "I get a diploma out of it."

Gloria wouldn't give up. "You're not being honest with yourself."

"I certainly am," Archie replied. "I sat down and I asked myself a question. 'Can you pass this exam without them little pieces of paper?' And I gave myself an honest answer: 'No.'"

That sent Gloria screaming from the table.

Mike, who had been upstairs, came into the room as Gloria was screaming. "Been talking to your father?" he asked.

Gloria's point was rendered moot, though, when it turned out that Edith had glued Archie's notes to a board so he could study them on the subway. She was pleased with herself, but Archie was sure he was going to fail.

As it turned out, though, Archie did just fine. He was notified by mail that he had passed his test, and his family congratulated him on his achievement.

But a buddy of Archie's called with news. As Archie explained it to the family, instead of studying history, he should have studied the theory of relativity. The dispatcher's job had gone to the boss' nephew.

"And here I am," Archie said, "stuck with a high school diploma."

Friday, March 09, 2018

Sting's Best

Sting has been around for more than four decades, going back to his days with The Police, and he has been a solo act for more than three, but many people still don't know his real name. (It is Gordon Sumner.)

Likewise, many people are, sadly, unfamiliar with Geoffrey Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales," a collection of stories told by a group of 14th–century pilgrims traveling from London to Canterbury to visit St. Thomas Becket's shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. One of those pilgrims was called The Summoner.

The title of Sting's album that was released 25 years ago today, "Ten Summoner's Tales," was a somewhat strained pun on both Sting's surname and the name of that character from "The Canterbury Tales."

The music was a nice change of pace for Sting, whose previous efforts had been largely influenced by the deaths of his parents. "Ten Summoner's Tales" was more upbeat. Of course, it wouldn't have taken much, given how somber those other albums had been.

The title of the album also made it clear that it was made with no concept in mind — and, after hearing it, the listener had no choice but to concede that point — with the exception of the fact that the songs tended to affirm love and morality.

Of the six singles that were released from the album, my favorite has long been "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You," but I have never spoken of the reason for that until now.

I had heard singles from the album on the radio, but I didn't really listen to the album until two years after it hit the record stores — the summer after my mother died in a flash flood. My father was disabled in that flood. It was a devastating time for the entire family.

My mother's childhood friend, Jane, checked in on my family on a regular basis that summer, making sure we were all functioning, still putting one foot in front of the other and not forgetting to breathe, and I remember buying the CD one day, mostly on a whim.

I put it in the CD player in my car and started listening to it as I drove home. "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" was the first song that played. I had heard it before, but on that occasion all I could think of was how lost my family would have been without Jane that summer.

I suppose I will always think of her whenever I hear "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You." The song spoke the truth. If I ever lost my faith in Jane, there really would be nothing left for me to do.

The other single from the CD that I like is "Fields of Gold." While "If I Ever Lose My Faith in You" is a pop song, "Fields of Gold" is really more of a ballad.

Both songs were written by Sting and deserve to be designated as classics on an album that really didn't have many classic songs, but it was more than the sum of its parts.

It had classic contributors — most notably Eric Clapton, who didn't perform on the album but co–wrote "It's Probaby Me" with Sting.

It was the first single to be released from the album, but it was overshadowed by those other two songs.

It is probaby Sting's best album.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Vivaldi's Birthday

Today is the 340th birthday of one of my favorite composers, Antonio Vivaldi.

Vivaldi is best known for his composition "The Four Seasons," which paid homage to the seasons of the year and inspired one of my favorite movies from the '80s.

My very favorite composer is Mozart. I also like Beethoven, Grieg and Bach.

But Vivaldi is regarded as one of the greatest Baroque composers. Of those others I mentioned, I suppose Bach is the only one from the Baroque period, and while he is also regarded by many as the greatest composer of all time, much of his work was for keyboards. Vivaldi's primary emphasis was on strings.

Both were great, of course. This isn't a competition, and both gave us soothing music that has survived for centuries.

In fact, Vivaldi's compositions have fared better than he did. Vivaldi died in poverty.

Major Winchester Passes Away

Charles (David Ogden Stiers): What is that odor?

Radar (Gary Burghoff): Uh, north wind, cesspool; east wind, latrine.

Charles: The wind is from the south.

Radar: Oh, that's the kitchen.

David Ogden Stiers was not a charter member of the cast of TV's MASH. He was a midseries replacement for Larry Linville, who played the inept Frank Burns in the first five seasons of the series.

But Charles Emerson Winchester III, the character Stiers played, was far from inept. He was, in fact, a top–notch surgeon — and by the time the series ended 35 years ago (as of last Wednesday), he had long since ceased to be regarded as a replacement but a full–fledged cast member. When all was said and done, he appeared in more episodes than Linville — in fact, only seven other people appeared in more episodes than he did, and all but two (Harry Morgan and Mike Farrell) had been in the cast from the start.

Stiers died yesterday at the age of 75. He had been suffering from bladder cancer.

Stiers may always be remembered as Charles Emerson Winchester III, a role for which he earned two Emmy nominations, but he played many roles in his career, and much of his work was providing the voices for characters in film and TV projects.

He may be equally remembered for his work on Disney movies, particularly 1991's "Beauty and the Beast," after his MASH days were over.

Personally, there are a couple of his post–MASH performances that stand out in my memory. A few years after MASH ended, Stiers was Alexander Haig in a TV movie based on Woodward and Bernstein's book "The Final Days" about the end of the Nixon presidency. The other memory is his appearance on Frasier as a former research colleague of Frasier's mother who was visiting Seattle after many years living abroad.

In MASH, Stiers' character was known for his fondness for classical music. In reality, he was a talented musician who was resident conductor of the Newport Symphony in Newport, Ore., where he lived and died, and he was guest conductor for more than 70 orchestras the world over.

Few people were as versatile as Stiers, and I will always remember that versatility on MASH, but I saw him in other roles and was always impressed by his talent.

Rest in peace, Major.

The Pursuit of Perfection

Henry (McLean Stevenson): Pierce, there is a war on!

Hawkeye (Alan Alda): Nothing gets by you, Henry.

Hawkeye (Alan Alda) was a superior surgeon to Frank (Larry Linville), but he was an inferior–grade officer, and that was a source of endless frustration for Frank.

Frank wouldn't concede that Hawkeye was better at anything, but it was easier for him to complain about Hawkeye from the perspective of military discipline. As a surgeon, Hawkeye sometimes had to bail Frank out when his ham–handed techniques made a patient's condition worse, but as a military man, Hawkeye seldom wore a uniform, never saluted superior officers and generally treated the Army with disdain.

In the episode of MASH that first aired on this night in 1973, "Sticky Wicket," Hawkeye's prowess as a surgeon came into question, and Frank clearly loved it, especially since Hawkeye had just told him, "I wouldn't let you operate on me for dandruff."

But then Hawkeye had a patient who continued to have problems after a long session in the O.R.

"What went wrong, Super Surgeon?" Frank asked Hawkeye. "Operating with one hand tied behind your back again?"

Hawkeye tried to silence Frank, but it didn't work.

"Last night I was Mr. Screwup, remember?" Frank persisted.

"Dr. Screwup," Hawkeye replied, "and it still goes."

"Oh, really?" Frank continued. "Well, I haven't killed anybody this week. What about you, big shot?"

The case was really getting under Hawkeye's skin. He was obsessing about it even as life at the 4077th went on as usual.

For example, in The Swamp, Trapper (Wayne Rogers) and Radar (Gary Burghoff) were involved in a poker game. Radar bluffed Trapper out of a pot, and the two exchanged words.

Hawkeye, who had been quietly contemplating the situation with his patient, became annoyed.

"Can't you guys do that somewhere else?" Hawkeye demanded.

"Why don't you do what you're doing somewhere else?" Trapper replied.

"I'm not doing anything," Hawkeye said.

"Well, you can do that anywhere, can't you?" Trapper asked.

So Hawkeye moved from The Swamp, and everyone came by for one reason or another — including Henry (McLean Stevenson), who told Hawkeye he was losing his perspective "because one patient has gone sour. In an outfit like this, that's bad."

He told Hawkeye to put off posturing as Dr. Perfect until he went home where he could be more selective about the patients he treated.

As Hawkeye reflected on things, though, an answer came to him. He operated on the patient in the dead of night and found what was causing the problem.

"Anybody could have missed that," said Frank, who had been observing the operation.

And the rift between them was patched up — until the next time Frank screwed up.

Putting Some Jam on the Bread

Andy (Andy Griffith): They fired the gun, and the shot was so loud it was heard clear around the world.

Barney (Don Knotts): Oh, get out.

Andy: It's a fact. That's the way this country started. You read the book.

Barney: What book?

Opie (Ron Howard): Yeah, what book? Where'd you get that story, Pa?

Andy: Oh, your history book.

Coming from a family of teachers as I did (and having done some teaching myself), I always appreciated the episode of the Andy Griffith Show that first aired on this night in 1963, "Andy Discovers America."

I enjoyed it for the same reason I enjoy any segment of a TV program or a movie that demonstrates the great creativity that is required to be a successful teacher.

Most teachers don't measure success the way people in other professions do. For them success is measured by how many students absorb the knowledge they have to give, not by how much money they make.

For example, I always enjoy an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati in which disc jockey Venus Flytrap, whose background was always a little murky and who was said to have been a teacher at one time in his life, offered to talk to the son of the radio station's cleaning woman. This young man, who was making a lot of money with a street gang, was thinking of quitting school, and Venus had to convince him that education was worthwhile.

Venus concluded the young man felt that school had conquered him and that he craved the feeling he got from conquest outside the classroom. Venus' challenge was to make the young man believe he could master education. They made a deal — if Venus could convince him in two minutes that he could conquer school instead of believing it had conquered him, he wouldn't quit. Venus proceeded to explain the atom to the young man in terms he could understand, and he stayed in school.

Andy's challenge in "Andy Discovers America" wasn't exactly like Venus', but it required the same kind of outside–the–box creativity.

Opie (Ron Howard) and his buddies were rebelling against their new teacher, Old Lady Crump, and her history assignments, and Andy commiserated with them, but there was a misunderstanding. Opie and the boys thought he was giving them permission to not study history, and that led to a classroom confrontation in which Miss Crump (the first of many appearances on the show by Aneta Corsaut) doubled the boys' homework.

In retaliation they pledged not to do it.

She and Andy met for the first time when Miss Crump came to the sheriff's office to complain that his comments, however misunderstood, had set her back. When she took the job, she had found her new students to be woefully behind where they should be, and she had attempted to bring them up to speed by applying a little extra pressure. Her efforts had been showing some positive movement when this had come up.

Not long after, the boys told Andy that it appeared Miss Crump would be leaving, perhaps before the next week began.

Andy realized what he had done, and it was clear he was looking for a solution to the problem. Then it came to him. He told the boys he was glad they wouldn't have to learn "all that dull stuff about Indians and redcoats and cannons and guns and muskets and stuff."

That didn't sound like history to the boys. It sounded like adventure stories.

And Andy got the hook in them when he mentioned the gun that fired a shot heard around the world.

He got the boys back on track, to Miss Crump's great surprise when she convened what she believed would be her last class day. After the class had said the Pledge of Allegiance, she asked the boys if they ever heard those words or knew how the country began — and she was pleasantly shocked when the boys knew what to say.

And she made a return trip to the sheriff's office to express her gratitude — and to find out what he had told the boys.

Andy confessed that he didn't know what to tell them, and he didn't think what he said would hold up under scrutiny in court. He said he just told them a story and put "a little extra jam on the bread."

That, it seems to me, is the essence of great teaching — putting a little extra jam on the bread.

Those who are great teachers, like those who are great at anything, can make it look effortless. But appearances can be deceptive.

It reminds me of a story about Johnny Carson, who believed so strongly that the audience deserved fresh material each and every day that he arranged for guest hosts to take over his late–night program when he went on vacation rather than run previous programs. Few, if any, late–night hosts have had the courage to do that.

On one such occasion, Carson arranged for a new guest host to fill in for him when he was out for a day or two. During his absence, he watched the program. The new guest host had not prepared adequately, thinking it would be a breeze, and he bombed.

Afterward, Carson called the guest host and gently observed, "It ain't as easy as it looks, is it, kid?"

Teaching definitely isn't as easy as it looks, but I always thought Andy would have been a great teacher. Jam can make even stale bread taste good.

Friday, March 02, 2018

The Home Front at War

"The ending is only the beginning."

Ray Collins (Mr. Macauley)

Even when I first saw "The Human Comedy" as a child, I remember being struck by the many mythological references. My parents were educators so I got more exposure to that kind of thing when I was growing up than most of my contemporaries — even before I saw "The Human Comedy."

I didn't know all the myths, but I knew the references. I also didn't know that, while comedy in the modern sense refers to humor, the ancient Greeks knew comedy to be more dramatic, ironic in its nature — and that was how this story was told. It had its funny moments, but it was almost entirely a drama despite the apparently contradictory nature of its name.

The main character in "The Human Comedy" — which premiered 75 years ago today — was named Homer, which was also the name of the author of two epic books from ancient Greek literature, "Iliad" and "Odyssey." The story was set in the fictional town of Ithaca, California, which was based on the hometown of the author of "The Human Comedy," but the town's name was inspired by the books. Ithaca was also the name of the home of Odysseus, the hero of Homer's writing.

(There are some real Ithacas — most notably in New York — but the one in California was entirely fictional.)

Also, Homer's love interest in "The Human Comedy" was named Helen. In Greek mythology, Helen of Troy was said to be the most beautiful woman in the world — and the cause of the Trojan War. It was Helen's face that was said to have "launched a thousand ships."

Well, there is more, but I don't want to keep anyone from making those discoveries for themselves. Suffice to say there were many parallels between William Saroyan's novel and the stories from ancient Greece.

It would have been surprising if there weren't.

The book actually began as a screenplay that Saroyan wrote. Then Saroyan was fired from the film production and rushed to finish the book and get it published before the movie hit the theaters.

As I said, the story revolved around Homer (Mickey Rooney), a high school student who worked part time as a telegram delivery boy during World War II (his boss was played by Frank Morgan, who is remembered for playing Professor Marvel, the Wizard and the Gatekeeper in "The Wizard of Oz"). In that capacity, he often had to deliver news from the war to residents of the town. The narrator of the story was Homer's deceased father, played by Ray Collins.

The news was often sad — notices that people had been killed on the battlefields of Europe or in the Pacific — and it took its toll on Homer's sensitive soul.

"The Human Comedy" was a sentimental flick about the effects of war on the home front. In many ways, it was a precursor to The Waltons — if not in its setting, certainly in its affirmation of basic human values — worthy of Frank Capra.

Capra didn't direct it, though. Clarence Brown did — and he was nominated for the Best Director Oscar but didn't win.

The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Black–and–White Cinematography, and Rooney was nominated for Best Actor; all lost.

Saroyan won the Oscar for Best Original Motion Picture Story. How's that for irony?

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Pink Floyd's Pièce de Résistance

It is appropriate, I suppose, that Pink Floyd's "Dark Side of the Moon" marks its 45th anniversary today, just a couple of weeks after the school shooting in Florida — an event that is already leaving its mark on the culture.

"Dark Side of the Moon" didn't address gun violence, but it explored similarly dark themes — conflict, greed, the passage of time and mental illness. Certainly, the latter played a role in the shooting, and it may well have been fed by conflict and greed. I would rule out the influence of the passage of time — although the debate that was sparked by the shooting includes the age limit for purchasing a firearm.

Pink Floyd's musical style was always hard to pin down, but that may never have been truer than it was in "Dark Side of the Moon," which embraced jazz fusion and blues/rock in a lush tapestry of the human condition.

Some people will argue that "Dark Side of the Moon," which arrived in music stores on this day in 1973, is the greatest album ever made, and I could live with that.

Rolling Stone ranked it #43 on its list of the top 500 albums of all time. I could live with that, too. As long as it's on the list.

Every time I listen to it, I am reminded of my days on the night shift of a metropolitan newspaper. When we finished the next day's edition around midnight or so, I would drive home and put "Dark Side of the Moon" on my stereo. It was amazingly soothing, perfect for late at night when it seemed everyone else was asleep.

For obvious reasons, I particularly enjoyed the line from "Breathe" that went "Home again ... I like to be here when I can."

"Dark Side of the Moon" was a groundbreaking achievement in an era of groundbreaking achievements. There is no question that the album was — and continues to be — a hit. It was on Billboard's chart for 15 years, from 1973 to 1988, and has sold 45 million copies.

Think about that for a minute. One–third of the album's existence has been spent on Billboard's Top 200. That wouldn't be much of an accomplishment if you were talking about an album that has been available for a year or two. But "Dark Side of the Moon" has been available for 4½ decades.

Sure, part of the album's popularity was due to two singles, "Money" and "Us and Them." Of the two, I suppose I prefer the song "Us and Them." I hear it less frequently on the radio so I am not burned out on it the way I am "Money," even though the latter is probably more familiar to casual listeners.

But if I am going to be pressed on my preferences from "Dark Side of the Moon" — and I am currently on my third copy of it (my first copy was a cassette, my second was a vinyl album, and the copy in my collection today is a CD) — I would probably pick "Breathe" or "The Great Gig in the Sky."

Frankly, though, it cheapens the album to try to narrow it down to a song or two. That lumps Pink Floyd with everyone else and "Dark Side of the Moon" with every other album. That isn't fair. It isn't right. "Dark Side of the Moon" was about themes, not individual compositions, and deserves to be recognized for that.

The album took shape over a period of several months before recording sessions began in the late spring of 1972. It evolved in live performances, and the band experimented with recording methods that were new at the time, such as tape loops and multitrack recording. Pink Floyd also used synthesizers, which were not in wide use at the time but became quite popular in the years ahead.

But things were mostly piecemeal until the band put everything together at London's Abbey Road Studios.

"Dark Side of the Moon" is an experience, the culmination of all the things that combined to make it what it is. Its messages are still relevant to the human condition 45 years after it was released.

Pink Floyd released a double–CD of live music in the mid–1990s, part of which was a live performance of the "Dark Side of the Moon" album from start to finish. I liked it, but the band had rehearsed the songs so particular passages would be synchronized with the images on the screen behind them. It lacked the spontaneity of most live recordings, but the same could be said of all the other songs on the CD, not just the ones from "Dark Side of the Moon."

Having attended a couple of Pink Floyd concerts, I can say that the visuals played a big role in the band's performances, and it didn't surprise me to learn that the band rehearsed the music so tightly for its concert tour. Perhaps a videotape that completely documented the experience of a Pink Floyd concert was sold at the same time as the CD, but I honestly don't recall one. It would have been a good idea. Separated from the visuals, it almost sounded as if crowd noises had been added to the original studio recordings for the live CD.

That was a problem, really, for all of the tracks on that double CD, but it was particularly disappointing with the performance of "Dark Side of the Moon."

The surviving members of Pink Floyd are unlikely ever to release another CD or videotape, but it would be great to see and hear the band jamming and improvising on the songs from "Dark Side of the Moon," if such footage exists.