“Best of the Britcoms” turns 20!

Yes indeed, this week marks exactly twenty years since publishing my first book, Best of the Britcoms, the first real accomplishment of my gloriously mediocre writing career.

I’ve told the story many times of how the book came about: having become a delirious fan of Monty Python’s Flying Circus upon finding it by accident on PBS in 1975, I enjoyed the flood of British sitcoms that soon came to PBS–first Fawlty Towers, and then dozens of other comedies that have come and gone from American TV screens in the decades since. I began videotaping all of them, most of which became the 3-hour prime time schedule on WLIW (Long Island, NY) every Friday night for years.

I taped them for fear that they might be suddenly yanked off the air without notice, leaving me with no means to continue watching them on a regular basis. Over 300 hours of Britcoms later, all recorded and numbered on videocassettes that encroached on my living space, I decided that there must be something constructive that I could do with all of this British comedy. I appreciated how creative, even daring, many of those programs were, especially compared with most American sitcoms of the same time period. I was also certain that there were other fans out there across the country who loved Britcoms as much as I did, but who, in those pre-Internet years, hadn’t any real way of learning more about them.

One night in 1995, while munching on a snack with my future wife Karen at our favorite diner, I hit upon the idea of writing a book, much like a viewer’s companion, of the Britcoms that were being shown in the U.S.–not just the well-known series, but the more obscure gems as well. I decided I would devote a chapter to each program, packed with as much information as I could find (if only every meal I had at that diner produced the same inspiration). I assigned myself the task of spreading the word, and the information, about British sitcoms, via the book.

I then realized that the first thing I needed to do was begin contacting people at the BBC and other U.K. broadcasters and production companies (the vast majority of the Britcoms to air on PBS were BBC productions). I had never even placed an overseas phone call before, but I somehow found the main number of “the Beeb” in London, and kept asking for whoever might be able and/or willing to help me.

I found the head of the BBC Press & Publicity Department, Jenny Secombe, who happened to be the daughter of legendary comedian Harry Secombe, co-star of the classic and influential 1950s radio series The Goon Show with Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers. I wondered if I had been one of the few people requesting to speak to her about something other than her father.  I sent her a fax (remember those?) to explain the goal of my book.  Jenny was the first person to say, basically, “Yes, we’ll help you.” I was ecstatic.

From that point on, I began contacting agents who represented the sitcom writers , directors, and producers, and just about all of them gladly arranged for me to interview their clients by phone. Before I knew it, I was speaking to people who were unknown in the U.S., but who were celebrities to me, having seen their names on the credits of my favorite Britcoms for years. Interviewing the actors was a thrill as well, after watching them perform and making me laugh week after week. I was thrilled, and genuinely surprised, by the level of cooperation I received. After all, I was just some unknown American attempting to write his first book, but everyone I interviewed–including those “big shots” of British television–was polite, talkative, and encouraging.

Richard Briers and his co-star on “The Good Life,” Felicity Kendal.

The late Richard Briers, who had a long and celebrated career on television, and is probably most associated with the late-1970s Britcom The Good Life (known in the U.S. as Good Neighbors) was one of the stars I spoke with, and he was also kind enough to agree to write the

foreword for the book. He sent me a little note after I sent him a copy of the book after its publication.

The person who was perhaps most helpful to me during my research was a girl named Eva de Romarate, who was working as an assistant at the BBC Press & Publicity Office. Despite her own busy workload, Eva never failed to obtain materials, phone numbers, and countless miscellaneous bits of information for me. We e-mailed constantly, and she even sent bulky packages of promotional materials via snail mail. Once, when a package I had been expecting from her was weeks overdue, I sadly concluded that it was lost

somewhere in the world. Eva then gathered duplicates of what I had asked for, and sent them all to me again. Not long after receiving it, the original package arrived. I was mortified.  But she took it in stride. When Karen and I visited London as part of our honeymoon in 1997, we met with Eva for a while to chat at her favorite pub.

Then came the chore of finding a literary agent to represent me in my quest for a publisher. I didn’t find one until August of 1998. At the same time, I contacted PBS affiliates across the country that had already been airing Britcoms regularly. My strategy was to interest them in the book, and have them respond with letters agreeing that it could be used as a gift item for their periodic on-air fundraisers. Enough letters would, hopefully, convince some publisher that this would be a winning proposition.

To my amazement (and giddiness), it worked. The letters came. My agent found Taylor Trade Publishing in Dallas, which became my publisher.

Once I got the interviews, photos, and everything else organized the way I wanted, there followed months of checking and proofreading galleys, and planning a promotional strategy with Taylor’s publicist. Finally, on the last week of August, 1999, I received the e-mail, “We’ve got books!”

A number of press interviews and reviews (including an A+ from Entertainment Weekly) followed. It felt good, I have to admit.

Ten years later, I decided it was time to revise and make additions to the book, so I added seven more chapters, and updated most of the others.  The revised edition of Best

of the Britcoms arrived in early 2010 (but, unfortunately, without most of the original photos, as the BBC prices for licensing photos had skyrocketed in that intervening decade).

So goes the (long) story of my first steps into the world of pop culture “expertise.” And there’s a brand new book on the way, so stay tuned!

Woodstock, my Teacher, and Me

The 50th anniversary of Woodstock–the legendary, three-day concert, happening, and community mud bath–is upon us. I personally have always had only a casual interest in the event and its music. Most films and photos depict a scene of scraggily-haired, unwashed, barefoot, drugged-out hippies (and those were just the musicians on the stage).

Just kidding. I like hippies! I was a hippie wanna-be when I was a kid. But I was never a big fan of most of the musicians and bands in the Woodstock

line-up. I do appreciate the historic significance of the event, though. And, my barely existent connection to it all is the fact that I once knew one of the Woodstock organizers. His name was Elliot Tiber, and, for a time in the

mid-1980s, I was a student of his in his comedy writing classes at the New School in New York.

Tiber’s parents were owners of the struggling, run-down El Monaco Motel in Bethel, N.Y., when he caught wind of plans for a rock concert to take place in the area. The promoters, Woodstock Ventures, Inc., were attempting to find a suitable venue, but were denied a permit in Wallkill. Tiber secured his own permit for a music festival on the land adjacent to the El Monaco, and offered it to Woodstock Ventures, but they declined the offer, citing that the land was too swampy. Tiber then asked his milk supplier, Max Yasgur, if he would be interested in offering his dairy farm as the site. Yasgur had already allowed Tiber the use of his barn for the local Earthlight Theatre group,

so the concept of hosting a larger event of some kind must have appealed to him (I am not a Woodstock historian, so I’m sure the story has a number of differing versions). To say that “the rest is history” is both an understatement and an annoying cliché. But it’ll do for now.

Elliot Tiber (left), and his collaborator, Andre Ernotte.

Tiber also became active in the gay rights movement, following the landmark 1969 Stonewall Inn riots in New York.  Up to that point, he had been in the closet, even afraid to come out to his parents. The incident sparked the activist streak in him, while his creative talents became far-reaching, as a writer, actor, director, and designer, both in the U.S. and Europe.

Jumping ahead to 1986…

I was 25 at the time, commuting on the bus each day into New York from the Jersey suburbs, to write for Advertising Trade Publications. At the same time, I was busy trying to improve my comedy writing skills. I wrote sketches, short stories, even (bad) screenplays in my spare time, mostly for my own enjoyment, but holding out a slight hope that someone might actually pay me for my creative efforts someday (I’m masochistic enough to have saved just about all of those writings).

The New School.

One day, I found myself looking through the course catalog for The New School on 12th Street, and found a weekly night class on comedy writing, taught by Elliot Tiber. Just what I needed! I had taken script writing classes in college, and had even written my first full-length screenplay for a class, but this time, comedy was to be the main focus of the course. So, my routine was soon to include an extra drive into the city, one evening a week–kind of gutsy in a way, looking back on it, but I was excited to learn all I could, while attempting to impress my instructor with each bit of material I handed in.

Tiber in 2009.

The bearded, pudgy Tiber was nearly always dressed in black, half-heartedly explaining that it was supposedly “slimming,” and encouraged the class to go for writing outlandish, even surreal comedy pieces, if we were so inclined. I came up with an idea of a series of TV sketches about comedians throughout history; a court jester nervously attempting to make King Henry the Eighth laugh, a group of traveling minstrels accompanying Marco Polo to China, a comedy team in the Dark Ages inventing the pie-in-the-face gag, etc.

 

Much to my relief, Tiber loved my writing. His notes were glowing reviews, always accompanied with words of encouragement to just keep going, and suggesting that I submit my work to agents and producers. As you can see, I’ve kept his very generous comments, and I did indeed assemble the individual sketches into a comedy anthology script called Heroic Fools, which I had professionally typed and printed (and which I think I submitted to a handful of literary agents, before my insecurities put an end to that).

When it came to reading our material out loud to the class, I was way too self-conscious and unsure of my work to do so. Tiber volunteered to read my sketches out loud for me. He did a better job than I could have, but it didn’t produce a roomful of guffaws from my classmates, as I had hoped. Again, he made sure to tell me not to use that as a yardstick  to measure my talents.

I enjoyed the class and Tiber’s easygoing, New York-tinged humor immensely, so much so that I took a second class of his the following semester, officially titled “Absurd, Twisted Comedy Writing.” I had even come to look forward to the early-evening drive into Manhattan after dinner at home each week to attend the class.

Directly across from the parking garage I used on 12th street, just a few blocks from The New School, was a beautiful, elegant restaurant called The Gotham. It’s still there, and still beautiful. I stood across the street looking at it many times, promising myself that if I ever sold a script, I’d treat my family to dinner there. I have yet to set foot inside The Gotham.

  

And, after class each week, I’d drive 45 blocks up Avenue of the Americas, dwarfed by the towering corporate skyscrapers, and surrounded on all sides by lights, noise, people, and city life, as I listened to my jazz tapes in the car. I’d never felt so cosmopolitan!

Elliot Tiber eventually wrote a book about his life experiences titled Woodstock: A True Story of a Riot, a Concert, and a Life, on which a 2009 film was based. I wasn’t aware of either the book or film until recently, although

I had seen him as a guest on TV talk shows marking various Woodstock anniversaries through the years. He passed away in 2016, and, while he probably forgot all about me as soon as that last semester ended, I’ll always be indebted to him for encouraging me, and telling me how clever, funny, and rich my writing was. And, perhaps to my own detriment, it became the only thing I ever really wanted to do.

Until next time…

Is Your Car’s GPS Really 50 Years Old?

It’s understandable to think of your car’s GPS (or the GPS in your smartphone) as a 21st century innovation. If you do, it may come as a surprise to know that in this year of 2019, during which we celebrate a number of golden anniversaries (the Apollo 11 moon landing, Woodstock, the Miracle Mets, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, etc.), we can also include the 50th anniversary of the world’s first automobile navigation guidance system. You’ve probably never heard of it, because it didn’t get much beyond the experimental prototype stage. But it shows how even the most impressive, state-of-the-art technology we have today can often trace its lineage to a time period far earlier than some of us (like me) might have expected.

The story: In the mid-1960s, a concept called DAIR (Driver Aided Information and Routing System) was researched in the United States by General Motors, with the idea of using arrays of roadbed magnets, arranged in binary code, to communicate location to passing vehicles. After limited development and testing, DAIR was scrapped, to be replaced by what was considered to be a more practical idea.

GM, working with the U.S. Federal Highway Administration, then pursued ERGS (Experimental Route Guidance System), as a means to disperse and control various traffic patterns. Research began in 1966, and was later presented in a paper by engineers William G. Trabold (GM Research Laboratories) and Thomas A. Prewitt (GM Delco Radio Division).In September of 1968, GM released an announcement (for company personnel only) explaining the new guidance system, and, in January of 1969, the car manufacturer was ready to officially announce the new guidance system to the general public, via the print ad above, running in consumer magazines throughout the rest of the year.

Without getting bogged down in tech talk (in which I’m not especially fluent), here’s basically how ERGS was to work: Upon beginning a journey, a driver would dial in a destination code using a thumbwheel switch on a dashboard device, and would then begin heading in that general direction. A two-way antenna system secured under the road pavement at each intersection would read where the vehicle is headed. A roadside computer at the intersection would receive a radio signal from the car’s device, process the information, and then signal back a set of directions, to be displayed on the dashboard receiver console.

According to a 1988 report by the Canada Ministry of Transportation, “Although technically sound, ERGS required expensive roadside infrastructure, and the development effort was terminated by Congressional mandate in 1970 following limited testing of various equipment modules. However, similar approaches have been carried through further stages of development and testing and are still under active consideration in England, Japan and West Germany.”

Of course, none of the systems developed throughout the 1970s and ’80s used satellites or digital technology, but at least the concept of providing instant directions to a driver while en route to a given destination was being taken seriously.

It wasn’t until the 1990s when companies like Mitsubishi and Magellan began to claim their respective developments as the first GP navigation systems for cars. In 1995, Oldsmobile introduced GuideStar, the first such system available in a production car, but it would be another few years until improved GPS systems would become more widespread in the marketplace. Today, of course, it has become invaluable to most drivers entering “uncharted” territory.

So, while we have satellites to thank for getting us to unfamiliar destinations today (remember maps?), we can still nod to those innovative thinkers from fifty years ago who did the best they could with the technology they had at the time.  As for me and my own progress with using today’s navigational technology, I need to sign off for a while so I can practice with my new sextant.

Until next time…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Person to be Censored on TV

 

His name might not be familiar to the average Joe or Joan these days, but there were few stars in all of show business history bigger than Eddie Cantor. He could be described as a comedian who sang, or a singer who performed comedy. He wasn’t especially brilliant as either, but, as an overall entertainer with boundless energy, and an advocate for a number of charitable causes, he prided himself in being, as we would call it today, “family friendly.” And he wore his love of show business on his sleeve. Audiences adored him. So, it is that much more shocking that Cantor became the first entertainer ever to be censored on live television–and it happened 75 years ago this week.

Cantor’s career dated back to vaudeville and as a star in the Ziegfeld Follies in 1917. He was also one of the first comedians to appear on a sound film, in 1923. When he began his radio show in 1931, he became the first comedian to star in his own weekly program, which led to a number of hit films and further stage appearances. Cantor maintained a staggering popularity for decades, rivaled by only a handful of his fellow performers.

Not long after World War II got underway, the FCC reduced its required number of on-air hours at licensed television stations from fifteen hours per week to four hours. Only about a half-dozen stations in the country remained on the air (mostly devoted to airing war updates and civil defense content). The manufacturing of television equipment was suspended until the end of the war in August of 1945, as the research and development of television technology and manufacturing became dedicated to the war effort, especially in disciplines such as radar and communications.

But even before the war’s official end, new TV programming slowly began to appear, and the sales of sets gradually increased. And, even during this period of stalled progress among manufacturers, technicians, and program producers, it was becoming evident that television would inevitably demand an enormous amount of material to broadcast once the war was over, and the industry’s growth could resume.

Nora Martin and Cantor.

 

On May 25, 1944, Cantor took part in a NBC music variety broadcast, seen on the first direct hook-up between WNBT in New York and its Philadelphia affiliate. He was scheduled to perform the song “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me” from his 1941 Broadway show Banjo Eyes. The telecast was to be aired as a special feature at an event honoring Philco executive J.H. Carmine. According to Cantor, he and his singing partner Nora Martin were originally led to believe that the song selection would be fine for the broadcast. But just forty minutes before air time, NBC executives declared some of the lyrics unsuitable. The most troublesome passage was the following, which wasn’t part of the actual, written lyrics, but rather spoken as a break in the song:

Girl:  Thanks to you, life is bright.  You’ve brought me joy beyond measure.

Boy: Don’t thank me. Quite all right. Honestly, it was a pleasure.

Girl: Just think, it’s my first one.

Boy: The next one’s on me.

When Cantor heard of NBC’s intention to delete certain parts of the lyrics, he erupted with rage, and threatened to cancel the program.  With no time to rehearse another number, he and Martin performed the song on the broadcast without making any changes or deletions of their own. During the troublesome spoken exchange in the performance, however, NBC vice president in charge of programs, Clarence Manser, had Cantor’s audio cut off, and the camera focus was deliberately blurred to obscure his hand gestures and hula-like dance for comic effect.

After the broadcast, Cantor declared, “I’m blazing mad at the fellows who tell you it’s all right and then sneak around and cut you off. Of course, NBC has the right to say we don’t use the lyrics, but when little Hitlers tell you you can’t do it just as you’re going on, that’s tough.”

Manser explained that the portion of the song was censored due to “the obligation of NBC to the public to make certain that its facilities do not bring into American homes material which the audience would find objectionable.” Just what exactly was supposed to have been objectionable about the song and/or Cantor’s rendition remains a mystery.

Manser added that Cantor had been previously reigned-in by network censors, but the comedian claimed no recollection of any previous incident. He was also offended on a personal level by the notion that he had done or said anything in poor taste, considering the pride he took in using only clean material. “No man can be in the business for thirty-five years and do any vulgarity and last,” he said. “I’ve been at it longer than NBC or television.”

Less than a week later, Cantor and Martin repeated their duet on a Hall of Fame radio-TV simulcast, which included Al Jolson and bandleaders Paul Whiteman and Benny Goodman. NBC did not censor the song a second time, but the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, aware of the controversy, did.

Cantor and Menser had another run-in over material shortly thereafter, during rehearsals for Cantor’s regular “Time to Smile” radio program.  With comedian Joe Besser (future member of the Three Stooges) as a guest, Menser ordered a number of Besser’s lines changed or deleted. Besser, whose “swishy,” somewhat effeminate inflections went unchallenged on Fred Allen’s CBS program, reluctantly agreed to rehearse some last-minute changes in the script. He and Cantor deemed the replacement material inferior, but Menser ordered them to be read anyway. Besser abruptly walked out, with Cantor’s backing. Cantor sang a song to fill the time on the air.

At least Cantor decided not to hold a grudge with NBC forever, or he may not have agreed to become one of the original rotating hosts of the network’s Colgate Comedy Hour TV comedy/variety series in 1950.

Ironically, in a 1952 episode of I Love Lucy, the news of Lucy Ricardo’s pregnancy prompted husband Ricky to serenade her with “We’re Having a Baby, My Baby and Me.” But while the song finally had its first uncensored televised performance, the word “pregnant” was not allowed to be said on the air at the time.

You can read about other television “firsts”(over 100 of them) in my book “For the First Time on Television,” available at Amazon.com. It’s swell.

Until next week…

 

Happy 50th Birthday, Monty Python!

It seems 2019 is a year for a several big anniversaries, especially those at the 50-year mark: The first moon landing, Woodstock, the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, and more. But it especially behooves us to remember and celebrate 50 years of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, which remains, to me, the most brilliant comedy program ever to air on television, on either side of the Atlantic. I’ll probably write about Python again for this blog later in the year, but for now, here’s a brief history, plus a few modest but heartfelt few words of appreciation:

An early shot of the Pythons (without Terry Gilliam).

In a nutshell, the group was officially formed in May of 1969. They had already been familiar with each other’s work on stage and television. Eric Idle, John Cleese and Graham Chapman had attended Cambridge University, and Michael Palin and Terry Jones were Oxford grads. All had performed in their respective schools’ performing clubs, the Footlights at Cambridge, and the Oxford Revue (American Terry Gilliam, an L.A.-based cartoonist, moved to England in 1968). All had achieved enough early success to land writing jobs at a number of BBC comedy sketch programs, including The Frost Report (with host David Frost), before earning their own programs.  At Last the 1948 Show starred Cleese and Chapman (along with Marty Feldman), while Palin and Jones created and starred in an afternoon children’s show,  Do Not Adjust Your Set, featuring Gilliam’s animation.

Admirers of each other’s work, the two groups decided to join forces and present their ideas for a new comedy sketch show to the BBC. The executive in charge of Light Entertainment (i.e. comedy and variety) at the time was Michael Mills. When the group met with him to pitch their idea for the show, they soon realized that they hadn’t come up with anything to pitch, or how to describe what they wanted to do. They knew they didn’t want to do a traditional sketch show, in which each sketch would have a beginning, middle, and end with a snappy punchline. Other than that, Cleese has said,”At that moment, we had no idea what we were going to do.” When Mills pressed them for more of a description, the exchange became awkward, even embarrassing for the group, since the Pythons hadn’t really discussed it amongst themselves yet. Would there be anyone else in the show? “Well, we don’t really know.”  Any music? “We might, maybe.” Filmed segments? “Oh, yes!” After more silence, Mills said, “Well, okay, but I’m only going to give you thirteen shows.”

From there, the group was left alone to do basically whatever they came up with, sans interference from the BBC, or pre-approval of their scripts. It was a surprising but welcome turn of events. “That’s all you need to succeed in comedy,” Idle says. Part of the lackadaisical attitude on behalf of the Beeb was due to the program’s graveyard timeslot, late on Sunday nights (when few viewers were paying attention).

The Goons (left to right: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe.

The Pythons’ comedy influences were many, ranging from American comedians like Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Jack Benny, and Phil Silvers, to British greats Peter Sellers, the comedy group “The Fringe” (which included Peter Cook and Dudley Moore), and The Goons radio show, written by Spike Milligan and co-starring Sellers.

When Milligan first aired his comedy show Q5, featuring surreal gags and blackout sketches–often abandoned in mid-sketch– the Pythons were still preparing their first episodes. Upon seeing Q5, Cleese and Terry Jones spoke to each other on the phone and said, “Isn’t that what we’ve been planning to do?”

Even so, Monty Python’s Flying Circus aired the first of its 45 episodes on October 5, 1969 (other possible titles for the show included Owl Stretching Time, The Toad Elevating Moment, and A Horse, A Spoon, and a Basin). The sketches bounced back and forth from shamelessly silly sight gags to skits about philosophers, historical figures, writers, and composers–and then back again to wonderfully pointless slapstick and

silly gags, with Gilliam’s mind-bending, and hysterically funny cartoons interspersed throughout.  I won’t mention all of the sketches and catchphrases by name because, unless you’ve lived in a cave all your life, you already know them.

The lazy writers among us might say “…and the rest is history.” Being one of those lazy writers, I’ll do the same for now, saving more of my lavish praise for the show for Part 2 of this entry, in the Fall, to mark the first appearance of the program in the U.S., in 1974.

To get more of the story about Python’s beginnings, and many more fascinating and truly funny anecdotes, here is a wonderful discussion from 2014 between John Cleese and Eric Idle.

Once again, Happy Birthday, Monty Python!

Until next week…

 

Retro Review: Renaissance (the band)

Among the trends in rock music that came to the fore in the 1970s was the sub-category most often labeled “progressive rock” or “art rock.” Bands such as Yes, the Moody Blues, Jethro Tull, and several others, went for a bigger, more cinematic feel with their music, leading to songs with extended instrumental passages that would run much longer than those found on typical 45s, often with a full orchestral accompaniment, and using instruments such as harpsichords, mandolins, and harps that had rarely been incorporated into rock music.

But no band went as full-force with the sound as Renaissance. Once they hit their stride in the mid-1970s, they produced several stunning albums.

The very first time I heard Renaissance was in 1980 or ’81, while I was attending the University of Maryland. One day, I visited the music store in the student union building, and, as I approached the store at the end of a long corridor, I heard music emanating from within that made me pick up the pace, almost to a full gallop.                  I hurried in, entranced by the music being played on the store’s stereo. It struck me as nothing short of amazing. I heard a full-sized symphony orchestra backing a rock band, which in turn was playing behind a female singer with an angelic voice that made my jaw drop. Not only that, but it was a live album, which I discovered was called “Renaissance Live at Carnegie Hall,” released in 1976.  I was instantly mesmerized. Luckily, the store had a few music guides scattered around, to help customers look up artists and albums. So, I managed to learn my first few tidbits of information about Renaissance, and discovered that the woman with the angelic voice was named Annie Haslam, and my new musical journey began.

The “classic” Renaissance line-up.

The original band was actually a step-child of the blues/rock band the Yardbirds.  Band members Keith Relf and Jim McCarty, having left that group in 1968, sought to create a different sound, combining folk and classical elements, with a new band they called Renaissance. Various members came and went between 1969 and 1971. The first of the “modern day” Renaissance albums, Prologue, was released in 1972. It was the first to feature Annie Haslam, and her five-octave range, as lead singer (she had received vocal training from opera singer and vocal coach Sybil Knight). The line-up which would prove to be most successful, both creatively and commercially, included  Haslam, Michael Dunford (guitar), Jon Camp (bass), John Tout (keyboards), and Terence Sullivan (drums), finally fell into place with the 1973 album The Ashes

Annie Haslam.

Are Burning. That album featured one of their most popular numbers, Carpet of the Sun (see video below). For the next five albums, Annie and her bandmates thrived creating and playing what she prefers to label “classical rock,” in which the quintet often employed an orchestra to provide the soaring sonic textures to so many of their compositions. Many of their songs run a good ten minutes or longer, making them almost mini-symphonies.

Most of the songs throughout this period were co-written by Dunford, who would usually compose a melody and send it to poet Betty Thatcher, who would write lyrics. She had begun writing for the original incarnation of the band, having been friends with Keith Relf and his sister Jane, the original lead singer. Most of Thatcher’s lyrics, while abundant with words of peace, love, harmony, nature, and other ’70s-era “hippie” themes, could also lean towards obscure and cryptic ramblings (example: “To feel your touch across my mind, fills me only full of desire for my being.” Huh?). Some of her lyrics could also turn quite dark, too. But, not to put too fine a point on it, I’d be happy to hear Annie Haslam sing the phone book.

Renaissance enjoyed an intensely loyal following, especially in the U.S., possibly even stronger than that in their native UK, despite few FM radio hits. The albums recorded during their peak years in the mid-’70s began with Turn of the Cards, Scheherazade and Other Stories, Novella, and A Song For All Seasons.

Turn of the Cards opens with a classical piano intro, then jumps to a galloping start with “Running Hard,” as Annie leads the way, aided by backing vocals by the band, and an energetic orchestral accompaniment. The softer “Think of You” follows, offering a simpler arrangement, giving her vocals (featuring her unparalleled vibrato skills) a chance to really shine. Other numbers on the album, including “Black Flame” and Mother Russia” show the band at its most earnest and dramatic–but they’re not exactly ideal as background music for a summer picnic.

As the Beatles’ Revolver is to Sgt. Pepper, Turn of the Cards is to Scheherazade and Other Stories, widely regarded as the band’s masterpiece (and, coincidentally, recorded at Abbey Road Studios). The album begins with the classic “A Trip to the Fair,” an eerie recounting of a nightmarish visit to a fair, said to be based on Annie’s first date with former boyfriend Ron Wood. The middle instrumental section takes a jazzy turn, with piano and xylophone trading solos, before the piece leads to its rather ominous, but thrilling, musical crescendo.

What we older LP lovers used to be refer to as “side 2” of the album consists entirely of the band’s musical telling of the classic 1001 Arabian Nights story, with the band backed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The individual compositions, leading into each other to tell the complete story, were a group effort, and the results are full of imagery that, even in the instrumental passages, convey how the young girl, sentenced to death at dawn after an evening with the evil Sultan, unexpectedly mesmerizes him with stories that keep him listening until after dawn, by which time he has fallen in love with her and asks her to be his wife. Listening to this epic comes as close to watching a film in your mind’s eye as you’re ever likely to experience. It is a musical achievement of epic proportions.

“A Song for All Seasons” – as Jon Camp once said, perhaps their best album, but worst cover.

A Song For All Seasons, released in 1978, very nearly reaches the heights of Scheherazade, and many consider it the band’s best, with strong, pulsing numbers again enhanced by exciting orchestral arrangements, as well as “smaller” songs with memorable melodies, including one of their biggest hits, “Northern Lights” (see video below).

 

 

A change in record labels necessitated some downsizing of the group’s  production values. Orchestras needed to be replaced with synthesizers and more prominent electric guitars, but the trademark sound remained essentially the same.  Azure d’Or, released in 1979, continues the trend of the previous albums, again including several showcases for Annie’s remarkable vocal gifts. After its release and tour, Tout and Sullivan left the band (to be replaced with others who were never “official” members of the group) marking the end of their golden era. The arrival of

disco, punk, and New Wave, plus the declining popularity of progressive rock, nudged the pared-down Renaissance to seek a more commercial sound with Camera, Camera in 1981, and Timeline in ’83 (Timeline got poor reviews from critics and fans, but I’ve always preferred it to Camera Camera).

Annie also released a number of solo albums, and the original band occasionally reunited for new projects and tours, with mixed results. There’s much more to the story, perhaps better left for another time.  Betty Thatcher, Michael Dunford and John Tout have since passed away, but Annie, now in her early seventies, is still performing with a new version of Renaissance today.

So, if you’re in the mood to take a trip back to the “prog rock” era, featuring one amazing singer and her exceptionally talented band, please do, and let me know your impressions.

Until next time…

Revisiting “The Commitments”

St. Patrick’s Day may have come and gone, but it’s never too late to celebrate one particular film of Dublin’s musical scene, circa 1990. The story of the fictional band known as The Commitments mirrors the history of literally thousands of real-life bands throughout the British Isles. In industrial cities especially, from Dublin to Liverpool to Glasgow, unemployment among young people was remarkably high at the time, allowing precious few dreams for them to pursue with any realistic hope of breaking out from the bleakness. But one of those dreams has come via music, which has been a compelling outlet for restless (and sometimes talented) young people on both sides of the Atlantic since the late 1950s. In the eyes of many of those unemployed and disillusioned young people, music was an equal opportunity gateway to success, albeit with no guarantees.

The Commitments is simply a laugh-out loud funny and wonderful film, directed by Alan Parker (Fame, Mississippi Burning) who vividly captures the sights, sounds, and spirit of working-class Dublin as it was at the dawn of the 1990s. He helps us understand the circumstances under which bands sprang up in hope of finding a way out. The screenplay, by Roddy Doyle (based on his 1987 novel, part of his Barrytown Trilogy) was co-written by the legendary British comedy writing team of Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais.

The story first introduces us to Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins),   a young, ambitious music aficionado determined to organize and manage a soul band, and unwilling to let anything get in his way (whenever he finds himself alone, such as taking a bath, he carries on imaginary interviews with reporters eager to hear about his path to success). Jimmy places an ad in the local paper and, in a hilarious montage, is besieged with musical hopefuls of every size, shape, and style knocking at his door for an audition. Gradually, he sifts through Dublin’s more colorful characters and finds those with the most promise. He discovers his lead singer, Deco Cuffe (Andrew Strong)

singing in a drunken stupor at a wedding reception. Deco is a coarse, obnoxious slob, but Jimmy quickly spots his natural singing talent, and even a warped sort of charisma (Strong’s singing voice, facial expressions and body language instantly bring Joe Cocker to mind, even though Strong was only sixteen when the film was shot).

A bit later in the audition process, a trumpet player, Joey “The Lips” Fagan (the late Johnny Murphy), arrives. At least twice as old as the other fledgling band members, Joey talks like a homespun evangelist, and may or may not have played alongside most of the soul greats when he was in his prime, as he often claims.

As Jimmy assembles the band, he makes clear one unwavering rule: they are to play American soul music, and only soul music. He has no use for anything else. “Soul music is the music of the working class,” he explains,adding that it is the only real music Dubliners will connect with. He even has the group study films of James Brown performing onstage, including his oft-repeated mock collapse from prostration, and being escorted off by his assistants, draped in his cape (“He’s hurt, look–they’re helping him off!”) Jimmy prods them to aspire to such lofty heights, but the task has them all shifting uncomfortably.  “Aren’t we a bit…white for that kind of thing?” comes an inquiry. “The Irish are the blacks of Europe,” Jimmy explains, “and Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the north side Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin.” He concludes by telling the bewildered band, “So say it once, and say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.”

The Commitmentettes, l. to r.: Bernie (Bronagh Gallagher),Imelda (Angeline Ball), and Natalie (Maria Doyle Kennedy).

Once Joey christens the band The Commitments (which soon includes their three fetching female singers, The Commitmentettes), Jimmy guides them through the uncertain early stages of rehearsals, in a hall above the neighborhood poolroom, as he also finds venues for them to play. As if that’s not enough, he also needs to keep peace among all ten members.

What makes this such an enjoyable film, aside from the music–classics by the likes of Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, and Wilson Pickett, as sung and performed by the cast themselves–is seeing this ragtag group of hardened, foulmouthed, but well-meaning and likeable young people working together to realize their common dream, recognizing the need to set aside personality conflicts, egos, and jealousies for the good

of the band. This is particularly evident in their attitude towards Deco, whom they detest as a person, but who has earned their respect for his abilities as a singer, and who can whip just about any crowd into a joyous frenzy.

However, the band’s drummer, Bill Mooney (Dick Massey) becomes so fed up with Deco that he quits the band, taking his drums and van (which has served as their transportation) with him. The incident rattles Jimmy, but the band carries on, replacing Bill with their “savage” roadie, Mikah, who takes his aggressions out on the drums when he’s not enjoying a good barroom brawl.

As the group gains local recognition and support, it becomes impossible for us not to pull for them and cheer them on, hoping they’ll be able to suppress their intensifying personal clashes as they continue their climb. Above all,

Maria Doyle, the most experienced singer in the cast.

the music is the thing, and the musical performances themselves are full of energy and conviction. In addition to Strong, the fabulous and beautiful Maria Doyle as Natalie shines as she takes a turn or two on lead vocals, as does Angeline Ball. Considering how most of the cast at the time were either musicians with no acting experience, or actors with no musical experience, they are all superb, and gel wonderfully together, including those in smaller, quirky roles (you might recognize Colm Meany from the Star Trek TV spinoffs as Jimmy Rabbitte’s dad, and a young Andrea Corr, of the musical group the Corrs, as his younger sister).

So, if you’ve somehow missed out on this musical treat (which concludes with a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping performance) since its release in August of 1991, its about time to discover it for yourself; or, if it’s been a

number of years since you’ve seen it, revisit these underdog characters and enjoy their victories and defeats all over again (here are two clips to whet your appetite). Either way, make the commitment to see it.

Until next time…

Retro Review: The Musical Genius of Joe Jackson

For those of us who remember the musical explosion of the 1980s, due mostly to New Wave from the U.K., the name Joe Jackson should ring a bell. It’s been 40 years since he released his first album, Look Sharp!, which spawned the singles “Sunday Papers,” and the even bigger hit, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?”

Jackson’s early musical influences and training ranged from Beethoven to Duke Ellington. From the age of 11, when he first began learning to read and write music, taking violin lessons, and learning virtually any instrument placed before him, he had a voracious appetite for music.  With that first album, he was a little too conveniently lumped into the Punk Rock category, along with “angry” singer/songwriters like Elvis Costello. “Everyone was trying to tag me this bleedin’ ‘angry young man’ on the first album,” he told Musician magazine in ’82, “and it never made sense to me. I’m not an angry young man! I get angry sometimes, like anyone else. How can I be angry all the time?” In fact, he enjoyed injecting humor and irony into his lyrics, just for fun, which often escaped listeners’ attention. For instance, Is She Really… boasts a catchy melody and terrific blend of hard rock guitars and self-deprecating lyrics, as Jackson tells us:

“Tonight’s the night when I go to all the parties down my street/ I wash my hair and I kid myself I look really smooth…”

He quickly followed up with the LP I’m the Man, which included the catchy and thoughtful role-reversal single “It’s Different For Girls.” A third album, Beat Crazy, didn’t have a hit single or fare well commercially, but Jackson was never in it for piles of money and rock star adoration. He just wanted to write, arrange, and record the best music his could, without being pigeonholed into categories. His next several albums, indeed his work throughout the ’80s, gave us music that demonstrates remarkable talent, growth, and experimentation, with each album unique in style, presentation, and recording techniques.

In 1981, after making three rock albums in quick succession, he decided to recharge his creative batteries with Joe Jackson’s Jumpin’ Jive, an homage to the swing and “jump” jazz of the 1940s, popularized by the likes of Cab Calloway and Louis Jordan. Throughout the album of novelty songs and full-out stompin’ numbers, the band of young jazz musicians maintains an often hair-raising pace, with only occasional slower-tempo tunes to provide a respite from the wonderfully upbeat, often manic nature of the others. Jackson himself seems to be having a great time romping through a genre that, in its way, laid the groundwork for modern rock & roll.

In the 1982 release of Night and Day, Jackson’s original compositions mine the musical wealth and spirit of the great songwriters who flourished during the Jazz Age, such as the Gershwins and Cole Porter. In another daring move by the  erstwhile rocker, there are no guitars on the album, which centers instead on an array of keyboards and extra percussion to provide an impressively full sound. The Grammy-nominated single “Steppin’ Out,” followed by the plaintive “Breaking Us In Two,” aired often as videos on MTV, helping to keep the album in the spotlight. But these would be the last “concept” videos Jackson would make

The band for “Night and Day,” including Jackson’s longtime bassist, Graham Maby, seated in front.

(perhaps to the detriment of his future LP sales), as he was disappointed by how videos were overtaking the music industry, at the expense of musical quality.

He continued his exploration further afield from conventional rock with his next, and perhaps most powerful album, 1984’s Body and Soul. Recorded in a Masonic lodge in Manhattan to take advantage of the acoustical qualities provided by the hall’s stonework, the album’s first track, “The Verdict,” opens with thunderous drums and a dramatic fanfare by Michael Morreale on trumpet, and Tony Aiello on saxophone, setting

the tone for a sonically intense and beautifully melodic album, mixing upbeat songs of optimism (“Go For It”), and melancholy songs of heartbreak (the breathtaking “Not Here, Not Now”) and emotional vulnerability (“Be My Number Two”). The gorgeous instrumental “Loisada” builds to a crescendo that would send chills down the spines of all but the most stubbornly unreceptive of listeners.

Always one to keep things interesting, Jackson’s next collection of new songs, in 1986, pretty much takes on the entire world.  The appropriately-titled  Big World album features songs that literally cover the globe. The title song takes us to the Far East, with all of its exotic beauty and sometimes unnerving cuisine. “Fifty Dollar Love Affair” transports us to a night in Amsterdam, against a backdrop of café patrons, prostitutes, and assorted lowlifes. In “Jet Set,” he even enjoys poking fun at obnoxious American tourists, as they trample though foreign cities with their crass ways. Jackson even takes on a few of the hot political issues of the mid-1980s, throwing sharp jabs at Ronald Reagan (“Right and Wrong”) , and The Falkland Islands war between Britain and Argentina (“Tango Atlantico”). Perhaps the most poignant song on the album is the wistful “Hometown,” in which he bemoans the clutter and stress of his adopted home of New York City, while allowing his mind to drift back to his more tranquil hometown in England (“‘Cause it’s been so long, and I’m wondering if it’s still there…”). See the video below.

Jackson recording the “Big World” album.

Jackson decided to record Big World in front of a live audience, at the Roundabout Theatre. However, while he thrived on the energy provided by performing live, he didn’t want it to sound like a concert album, so he carefully instructed the audience not to applaud at the end of each song–at least not right away, so the track could end properly without the first audible claps or hollers. The finished album also stands out for other reasons. Firstly, Jackson had recorded more songs than could fit onto a single LP, but not enough to fill out a double LP. The solution was to press two disks, leaving side 4 completely blank, with the label simply stating “There is no music on this side.” Also, to help enhance international concept of the collection, all of the songs’ lyrics are printed in six languages.

With his next album, Willpower, he returns to his roots in classical music, composing and arranging extended instrumentals as played by a full-sized symphony orchestra.

After contributing the rousing jazz soundtrack to the film Tucker: A Man and His Dream, he rounded out the 1980s by returning to more familiar, eclectic pop/rock with the albums Blaze of Glory, on which he continued to experiment with song styles and narrative techniques to great effect, and Laughter and Lust, the more conventional “rock” album of the two, packed with mini-classics including “The Obvious Song.” Both albums contain his typically clever, often sardonic,

and always fascinating reflections on life and love.

His career  didn’t end with the ’80s, of course; he’s been living and recording in Berlin, Germany for the past decade or so, after spending nearly twenty years in New York and the U.K., and he still tours to promote his new albums (the U.S. included).

Of all the great singer/songwriter/musicians who have been with us for the past forty years, Joe Jackson’s talents should have had his music omnipresent ever since 1979. In truth, though, it is necessary to seek him out, but extremely rewarding should you decide to do so.

Until next time…

The Rooftop Concert – 50 years later

Is it possible that the Beatles’ legendary rooftop concert, atop the 3 Saville Row building housing their Apple Records studio, took place 50 years ago? Somehow, it’s true. The date was January 30, 1969. Yet, 50 is only a number, considering how fresh and energetic their performance still sounds today. It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that the concert  gave us the Beatles–as a rock quartet, with no fancy studio overdubs or backwards tape loops–at the peak of their powers, even as it took place during the final stretch of their time together.

I’ve often argued–both in print and vocally–against the common label of Let It Be as the Beatles’ “swansong” as a group, and how the film documented their break-up as the cameras rolled. This is, to my eyes and ears, an exaggeration, with a number of inaccuracies. Remember Abbey Road, kids? It was recorded after the band’s supposed Let It Be “swansong,” and is arguably the greatest rock album ever made.

True, the group’s White Album sessions marked a turning point, during which they recorded over two dozen songs they’d written in India, many as basically solo tracks. They often worked independently of each other, rather than all four being present for each recording. Some tensions were growing, boredom had begun setting in, Yoko was…there.  And, the foursome was no doubt becoming mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted from all they’ve experienced in just the previous five or six years. Still, you can hear at least most Beatles playing and singing on most songs throughout the White Album. Listen for yourself.

The Twickenham soundstage.

The overall mood hadn’t improved much as the White Album sessions dovetailed into those for Let It Be. But remember: Let It Be was not conceived as an album per se. The vague idea of the group performing live before an audience once again, probably as a television special, had kick-started the rehearsal sessions we see in the film, beginning production on a soundstage at the famous Twickenham Studios. Is a brief squabble between George and Paul about how to play backing guitar for one or two of Paul’s songs supposed to be the shocking evidence of hopeless disharmony? It’s just as easy to find audio tapes of the boys having fun, helping each other write songs, and making musical suggestions during the sessions. So, which is the more accurate picture of January, 1969? Obviously, a mix of both.

After a dreary two weeks on the Twickenham soundstage, their collective mood brightened somewhat once they continued rehearsing at Apple. But the idea of “putting on a show” for TV had fallen by the wayside. Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg still needed some sort of climactic sequence to end the film (assuming a film of the sessions would still be released), so he suggested a compromise of sorts, and a different kind of live concert performance: the Beatles would play on the roof, not so much in front of an audience, but above the crowds going about their daily activities on the streets below.

January 30 was a bitter cold day, and the group, accompanied on keyboards by friend Billy Preston, stepped onto the wooden planks of the roof to see the film crew, assorted wives, friends, and Apple employees, without anyone knowing how this would all work out.

They kicked off with Paul’s “Get Back,” a rocker that, as it echoed down through the narrow streets, caused those in the area to take notice that something was going on (the group ran through some songs twice, but these are the versions included in the Let It Be film and album). No doubt most who shopped and/or worked there knew of the group’s studio on Saville Row–a street which was, and still is, home to many upscale tailor

The crowded Apple roof at mid-concert.

shops and men’s clothing boutiques. But even Apple’s conservative neighbors, who presumably tolerated the group’s well-documented comings and goings, often cheered on by their “Apple Scruffs” (fans who would linger by the studio entrance to catch a glimpse of them arriving or departing), were not prepared for such a disturbance that day.

The Beatles continued with John’s “Don’t Let Me Down,” his latest tribute to Yoko. He blew one of his lines, turning it into gibberish, with smiles from the others, and himself.

Down below, the crowds grew bigger as people strained to find the source of the live music, and traffic grew thicker, as more and more pedestrians scurried to become part of whatever Beatles event was taking place, even in that unlikeliest of places. On the upper floors of the adjoining buildings, observers looked through their windows, and took to their own roofs to catch sight of the performance.

Paul then launched into “I’ve Got a Feeling,” a slower-paced rocker (a precursor of sorts to the throat-ripping “Oh! Darling”) in which John adds his own counterpoint lyrics before the band reaches its pounding  crescendo. Most people interviewed on the street were excited about the event, but someone was not taking kindly to all of the commotion and noise, and the police were called to investigate. At the risk of being a cynic, some of the Let It Be footage of the constables knock-knock-knocking on Apple’s door, with a full-size paddy wagon at the ready, looks a tad set-up. Would the most successful rock group in the world be arrested in mid-performance, on camera, for disturbing the peace? Not very likely.

Next came what is undoubtedly the peak of the show, as the group launched into a rollicking version of “One After 909,” which John and Paul wrote as teens, and which the Beatles recorded in 1963, but did not release (Paul is heard mocking the corny lyrics earlier in the Let it Be film). On the rooftop, they went all-out on this one, singing and playing to perfection–with George hitting some screaming notes during his solo–and with a collective energy their fans hadn’t seen or heard in years.

The curious crowds fill the sidewalks of Saville Row.

Following that euphoric moment, John’s “I Dig A Pony” came next, as police and Apple staff conferred about the noise complaint, and what was to be done about it. The coppers were escorted to the roof to see for themselves, as the group played on.

Once “I Dig A Pony” was done, a bit of defiance prompted Paul and his fellow Beatles to reprise “Get Back,” as their trusted assistant Mal Evans assured the cops, standing just a few feet behind the group, that the music would soon be over. The song almost broke down at one point, as John and George stood unsure if they should continue playing. As the police left, Paul ad-libbed his warning to the song’s character Loretta, not to play on the roofs

again, or her mother’s “gonna have you arrested!” Once the song was over, John concluded the 42-minute set with his classic line, “I’d like to say thank you on behalf of the group and ourselves, and I hope we passed the audition.”

Did they ever.

The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

The Steinbergs’ First Christmas

T’was the sixth night of Hanukka, and Christmas Eve to boot. The Steinberg family’s traditional holiday get-together was well underway.  Boxes of gifts wrapped in shiny paper sat patiently on the floor off to one side of the room, with a table of New York-style Sloppy Joes and potato pancakes on the other. Richard Steinberg lived snugly (some would say smugly) in Westchester, New York, with his wife Linda and their two children, Andy and Marcy. Richard enjoyed the idea of establishing a family tradition of inviting his brother Ken and his wife Barbara (whom Ken usually brought along just to fill out the foursome).

The family gathered around their menorah to light the candles and chant the holiday prayers. The brightly lit menorah reminded Andy and Marcy that there were only two more nights of this toy-cluttered frenzy to go. As they took turns lighting the candles, they glanced back and forth to each other and to the pile of goodies beside them, awaiting their zealous ravaging.  The adults chanted the holiday prayers with a reverence intended to outshine their off-key performance.

Suddenly, just as the family was reaching a full-throated crescendo, an odd sound emanated from the bowels of the dormant fireplace.  It was a scraping, rustling sound that got progressively louder, and decidedly menacing, with each passing second. The family members abruptly halted their singing and focused on the muffled commotion from inside the fireplace. Perhaps it was a wild animal, like a raccoon, making its way down. The idea was quickly dispelled when the noises culminated in something that sounded remarkably like “Ho, ho, ho.”

The Steinbergs stood aghast as a pair of black boots and red flannel trousers clumsily lowered themselves into view, to the accompaniment of still more ho-ho-hos. The owner of the stubby legs had apparently eased his way down the chimney backwards, and displayed some difficulty crouching down and backing his ample posterior out of the fireplace and into the room. He grunted and coughed, pulling with him a large, soot-covered sack, filled with unidentified contents. The sound of broken glass and loose bits of metal suggested that few items in the sack had survived the descent undamaged. All family members stood watching as the rotund man with a bushy, white, soot-speckled beard struggled to maintain his footing. He turned around, offering a hearty:

“Ho, ho, ho!  Merry Christmas, everybody!”

His greeting met with stunned silence.  Nobody moved. Nobody spoke.  It remained so for several torturous seconds, as the family remained slack-jawed at the sight. Finally, Marcy’s wonderment broke the silence.

“It’s Santa Clause!” she squealed.

“No it isn’t,” corrected Linda, pulling Marcy against her. “Richard, call the police.”

“It is Santa Clause!” confirmed Andy.

“No, there is no Santa Clause,” admonished Richard. “And even if there is, it’s not this guy.”

Santa cleared his throat and forged ahead with his prepared text. “It’s great to see you all on this wonderful night!  I must be a bit early.  I like to leave my gifts when everyone is already asleep.  But such adorable little children!  If you’ve been good this year, I have some toys for you!”

Richard’s primal instincts had him bounding in front of the kids and spreading his arms outward in a protective, if overly dramatic, gesture.  Ken, known to have a fuse shorter than that of a trick birthday candle, was having none of this.

“Listen, pal,” he snarled, clenching his fists,  “I don’t know who you are, but I suggest you get your butt out of here before we do it for you.”

Linda took a decidedly more diplomatic tact.

“Will you two calm down?  Listen, Santa, we appreciate the sentiment, but our name is Steinberg. We’re Jewish, and we’re celebrating Hanukka tonight. We don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Santa stood glass-eyed and flummoxed. He struggled to recapture a cheery expression despite his befuddlement. His reputation, after all, demanded that he maintain an unflappable jollity at all times, without exception.  He had to think fast.  Unfortunately, thinking fast was not one of his more finely-honed attributes.

“Well, uh, we all can celebrate Christmas in our own way!” he cackled. “Ho, ho, ho!”

“Well actually, no, we can’t, Santa,” Linda said, almost apologetically, “No offense intended.  We just don’t celebrate Christmas.”

Evidently, Santa was not very well-versed in adopting the proper protocol when inadvertently dropping in on Jewish households. He fumbled for a crumpled piece of paper in his pocket and reviewed its contents, but didn’t find anything of help for this current faux pas.

Richard again felt a need to gently–but firmly–set Santa straight on a few things.

“Well Santa, ya see, Christmas is historically the commemoration of the birth of Jesus, even though he wasn’t really born at this time of year anyway. But in any case, we’re Jewish, and therefore we don’t celebrate that event. I don’t deny that it’s a nice holiday, but going strictly by the numbers, most of the world’s population doesn’t celebrate it, either. Not just us, but your Muslims, your Hindus… I’m surprised you haven’t run into this situation before.”

Santa could only shrug his shoulders.  He didn’t want to admit as much, but he had no idea Christmas was a religious holiday.

“And as for delivering toys for my kids,” Richard continued, “I like to think I’m a good provider on that score, thank you, so you can save whatever you have for them and give them to children perhaps a bit more needy. I know for a fact that Ted Thornton down the block took a bad hit on Wall Street this year…”

Linda felt a need to come to Santa’s aid. “I think Santa is attempting to represent the more secular aspect of Christmas good will. Isn’t that right. Santa?”

Richard shared his brother’s skepticism, although with considerably less aggression.  “Well, that’s all well and good, but I don’t think it’s appropriate for him to–”

“Aw, let him stay, Daddy,” pleaded Marcy. “I want more toys.”

“What did I tell you about asking for toys? Always with the toys.”

Linda was not about to be deemed a poor host, regardless of the circumstances. “At least offer him a drink. Richard.  Santa, would you like something to drink?  We have hot, cold, and maybe a Sloppy Joe? We have brisket, turkey…”

Santa wasn’t sure how to respond. Being somewhat slow-witted by nature, he resorted to his increasingly tiresome ho-ho-hos in an effort to stall. Linda pressed on.

“Come on, you look like you could use a snack.”

“Are you kidding?” cackled Ken, “Another snack and he’ll pop like a tick.”

The obese Yuletide icon felt some relief  by Linda’s unexpected glimmer of hospitality.

“Yes, a drink will be fine, thank you. And perhaps a Messy Joe.”

“Sloppy Joe.”

“Yes, thank you.”

Linda gave Richard a firm don’t-forget-your-manners nudge. He picked up on it and attempted a friendlier disposition. He turned with a weak smile to the red-clad, soot-covered, chimney-spelunking intruder.

“Might as well have a seat, Santa.  It’s probably not healthy for a guy like you to eat standing up.”

“Thank you, don’t mind if I do.”

Santa eased himself into an easy chair—Richard’s easy chair—and let out a sigh of exhaustion.

Ken wanted some answers.

“Now let me get a few things straight, pal,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to know. Just what is your name, anyway?  Is it St. Nick? Santa Clause? Father Christmas?  And do you really visit every house in the world on this one night?  How do you pull that off, anyway?”

The chubby sleigh jockey wasn’t accustomed to such an interrogation, but at least nobody was phoning the police just yet, so he managed to blurt out his safely evasive reply:

“Oh, that’s a secret.  It’s magic.”

Barbara had almost grown accustomed to the embarrassment her spouse often provoked in social settings. She spoke up, partly because she hadn’t had any lines for a while.

“Kenny, don’t be rude. The man’s obviously confused.”

“I just want to know if he’s been to, say, Belgium already this evening, or maybe New Zealand.”

Santa valiantly pressed on.  “I bring gifts for good little boys and girls everywhere. Christmas is for everyone!” he sputtered, wiping visible flop sweat from his forehead.

“This guy’s smooth enough to run for Congress,” Ken muttered.  “And all those toys are from that one sack?”

“Uh, that’s magic too, my fine young man,” stammered the flustered, reindeer-herding oaf.  Feeling a touch of dry mouth, he leaned to the side to address Linda across the room. “Say, is that soda coming along all right, dear?”

Ken took his brother aside.

“Rich, we’re in the middle of everything here, lighting the menorah, exchanging the gifts, and if he ho-ho-hos one more time I’m gonna have to belt him one.”

“I’ll try to get him out of here as soon as I can.”

Linda and Barbara presented Santa with the meal of the evening.  He graciously accepted the plate and drink and immediately began his examination of the sandwich.

“And this is…?”

“A Sloppy Joe,” Richard said. “Roast beef, corned beef, turkey, slaw, and a pickle on rye bread.  We also have it on pumpernickel, if you prefer.”

“Very interesting!” nodded the corpulent party crasher.  “No ham?”

“No ham.”

“Still, it looks delicious.”

Linda needed to shift Santa’s bag on the floor to give herself room to sit beside him.

“Here, let me help you, dear,” offered the portly, wool-suited fashion disaster.

He grabbed his sack and heaved it over his shoulder. The shifting weight threw him off balance, causing him to lose his grip on the sack, as it sailed through empty air and head-on into the lit menorah.  Santa stumbled face-first into the wall as the menorah toppled onto the stack of the gift-wrapped presents, igniting the wrapping paper from the burning holiday candles.

“Fire!” shrieked Andy.

“Throw it in the fireplace!” somebody yelled.

“No! You’ll burn yourself!” somebody else yelled.  “Get the fire extinguisher!  It’s under the kitchen sink!”

Richard hurried to the kitchen and returned with the extinguisher, as the smoke alarm on the ceiling pierced the air with its ear-splitting chirping.  In his blind panic, he opened the nozzle in the general direction of the blaze. However, Santa found himself on the receiving end of most of the foam.  It was difficult to tell where his beard ended and the foam began. The kids hurried to rescue their presents as Linda and Barbara attended to the mealy-mouthed,  jackbooted vandal.

“This guy’s a menace!” Ken growled, now with an even better case than before.

“I’d have to agree,” nodded Richard as he turned to Santa. “Come on, Gramps, out you go.”

Santa was either not on the same page as the others, or was wizened to the ways of deflecting blame. “It probably isn’t safe to allow your darling children to play with matches and candles in the house,” he offered.  “It’s an accident waiting to happen.”

Linda turned to her husband with her eyebrows down-turned, at a well-practiced, disapproving angle. “Richard, he’s stunned.  He could be hurt.”  She and Barbara continued to wipe the foam off the portly, hirsute stumblebum.

“He brought it on himself.  I don’t mean to be unsympathetic, but we didn’t ask for him to disrupt our evening.”

“No, no, he’s right,” Santa conceded.  “I’m sorry. I’ve made a dreadful mistake.”  He then noticed how comforting Linda and Barbara’s warm, soft hands felt as they wiped away the extinguisher foam from his rosacea-afflicted cheeks.  “I should be on my way.”

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“Yes, I’ll be fine. Perhaps, though, I’ll use the front door on my way out, if I may. I’ll arrange to meet with my reindeer elsewhere in town later this evening, after I’ve seen to all the good children here in your neighborhood.”

Andy had a special request on that issue.  “Please don’t go to Tommy Keegan’s house, Santa. He bit me in the head last week.”

“He really did,” Linda confirmed sadly.

Marcy, for her part, didn’t want the excitement to end, or see the cherry-nosed arsonist leave. “Let him stay!” she demanded. “He’s cool!”

“He’s not really,” snarled Richard. “And he’s here by mistake.  So come on, whoever you are, time to go.”

He helped Santa retrieve his battered, smoldering bag and showed him to the front door. “Start at that far end of the street down there, and keep going in that direction. That’ll keep ya busy.  And don’t forget Ted Thornton’s house.”

Linda brushed past her husband and escorted Santa outside into the crisp December air.  They stopped at the foot of the driveway. Once she was out of view from the others peering from the front window, she produced Santa’s share of the Sloppy Joe sandwich and slipped it into his coat pocket.

“A little something for the road tonight, Santa. Merry Christmas.”

“Thank you, young lady.  And happy Honolu—”

“Hanukka.  Don’t ask me how to spell it. There are about five different ways.”

“Yes, well, happy Hanukka to you and yours.”

And with a merry wave, Santa turned to continue his Christmas Eve mission.  Linda needed to assist him just one more time by turning him around and sending him off in the proper direction.  He smiled and was on his way again, heading toward the house he thought was Ted Thornton’s.

And to all a good night.