A Couple of Film Classics For Summer

This is my 40th blog post since my very first entry this time last year. Simple math will tell you that my aim to post a fresh blog each week has fallen a bit short. It isn’t an easy task, although I do acknowledge that many bloggers, journalists, and columnists manage to do so each day, and I’d tip my hat to them, if I had a hat.

I’ve attempted to bring interesting and/or little known facts about entertainment history and pop culture to each of my entries, and I intend to continue doing so, but after a brief break to recharge my mental batteries. I’m also busy with other projects that will hopefully prove more generous to my wallet, if my patience pays off.

Just so I don’t take my break without leaving at least a few recommendations…

Two of my all-time favorite films happened to air on two different movie channels this past weekend. They couldn’t be further apart, no matter how you look at them, but they each stand out as stellar examples of their respective genres.

The first, 12 Angry Men, was written by Reginald Rose for the live drama series Studio One, airing on September 20, 1954. Henry Fonda was so impressed with the production that he bought the rights in order to adapt it to film, using his own money, and hiring some of the television cast to repeat their roles (Bob Cummings, known mostly for light comedic roles, played Fonda’s part in the TV production). The film was released in April of 1957.

Taking place almost entirely in a jury room, the story opens as the jurors in a New York City murder trial begin their debate as to the guilt or innocence of a young Hispanic man, probably not even out of his teens. There doesn’t seem to be much debate necessary, as it looks like an open and shut case, pointing to the young man’s guilt. In their initial vote, eleven of the twelve men vote for conviction, with a lone holdout (Henry Fonda), dissenting, arguing that the accused deserves a decent debate before being sentenced

to the electric chair. He resists pressure from the others to change his vote, and instead slowly begins to cast doubt about the circumstantial evidence in the case.  Locked in a spare, hot room on a rainy day, tempers flare, personal prejudices reveal themselves, and reasonable doubt grows stronger among the men. Eventually, one lone juror (Lee J. Cobb) finds himself alone as he continues to insist on the boy’s guilt.

Rose’s writing is brilliant in its verbal economics, allowing us to learn just enough about each juror to understand why he has voted for conviction in the beginning, and then why he changes his vote as the deliberation proceeds. The cast, of course, consists of many of the finest actors of the 20th century, all of whom achieve sheer perfection here, and nothing less. The closing minutes in the jury room, and the brief final scene outside on the courthouse steps, are especially memorable. When my wife Karen asked me “Why are we watching this for the thousandth time?”  I simply answered, “Because it’s magnificent.”

If you happen to be among the disadvantaged few who have yet to immerse themselves in this lesson in truly great writing and acting, please don’t delay! Seek out this film!

Now, which film might be considered to be the cinematic polar opposite of  such a powerful drama? I submit my choice as the funniest comedy film ever made, The Return of the Pink Panther, which also graced one of the movie channels this past weekend. It is the third film in the Pink Panther series; the original, released in 1964 and starring, of course, Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau (and David Niven as the jewel thief Sir Charles Lytton), led to the sequel A Shot in the Dark, released later in ’64, and bringing Sellers front & center, rather than as more of a supporting character in the original.

Clouseau accosts a street beggar (John Bluthal).

A decade later, the often tempestuous working relationship between Sellers and writer/director Blake Edwards found them reuniting for  1975’s The Return of the Pink Panther, with Christopher Plummer as the supposedly retired Sir Charles.

For anyone inclined to dismiss any of these films as little more than indulgences in silly slapstick, look a little more carefully. Edwards’ comedy techniques are easily identifiable, from having a character fall completely out of frame (instead of having us watch him fall), to bringing back a gag just when the viewer had nearly forgotten it (most brilliantly used in a sequence involving two

Catherine Schell caught laughing on camera in this scene. It was the only usable take after she had broken up so many times at Sellers’ antics.

small delivery trucks), to using slow-motion, instead of the more commonly used fast-motion, for another gag. And, of course, there is Sellers himself, the greatest and most versatile comic actor who ever lived, playing Clouseau as an earnest law enforcement agent who never doubts his own skills, even when he is wreaking havoc and destruction all around him.

Sellers is helped by a hilarious supporting cast including Herbert Lom as Clouseau’s boss, Chief Inspector Dreyfuss, Burt Kwouk as his servant Cato, and Graham Stark (another Edwards’ stalwart) as Pepe, a sniveling underling of a Sidney Greenstreet-style crime boss. The story meanders through France, Gstaad, and the fictional Middle-Eastern nation of Lugash, as Clouseau searches for his prime suspect.

Enough summarizing. This is a film created by masters of comedy, whose purpose was solely to entertain via hilarious characters, situations, dialogue, and unforgettable sight gags. Find this film, sit back, and laugh, as I’ve been doing since seeing it upon its premiere, with a theatre full of hysterical movie-goers, waaaay back when.

So, now begins my summer break, but please feel free to check out any or all of my previous blog postings, thanks to our newly-added button on my web site’s home page. It’s not too late to leave a comment or two, either!

Until next time…

 

Remembering the Birth of the Jet Age

Not long ago, I wrote about the sad passing of the 747, a magnificent airliner first flown for the public in 1970, whose manufacture has come to an end among all U.S. airlines. I haven’t been on a plane (747 or otherwise) in many years, but I still remember the excitement of taking a flight to a new destination, when getting there was half the fun. I do know that flying today isn’t what it used to be. In addition to extra fees for services that used to be free, seemingly excessive security probes, and smaller, more cramped seats for those on a budget, we hear stories almost daily about in-flight incidents with angry passengers, angry flight attendants, angry pets, and who knows what else. No doubt my rose-tinted memories will get a smack of reality the next time I fly.

But there was a time when it was all new, exciting, and life-changing. And it began sixty years ago, in 1958. The eventful arrival of passenger jets forever changed how we travel by air, by drastically cutting flight times–in effect shrinking the planet–and by offering more frills to a greater number of passengers on each flight.

It should come as little surprise that the jet engine—a faster, more powerful successor to the piston engine driving propeller planes—was first developed for Air Force use in the years immediately following the end of World War II.

The first commercial jet put into service by a civilian airline was the Comet 1, a 36-seat plane flown by British Overseas Airways (BOAC). It flew for the first time on July 27, 1949. Three years later, BOAC instituted a jet route from London to Johannesburg, South Africa, which included stops in Rome, Beirut, and several African cities. The most striking

aspect of the plane was its speed. While the common DC-3 prop plane achieved a cruising speed of about 180 mph, the Comet reached 480 mph, but was also quieter and relatively vibration free. However, after a series of accidents, the Comet was grounded, only two years after it began the London-Johannesburg route.

In the United States, a genuine competition between the two biggest aircraft manufacturers, Douglas and Boeing, resulted in both companies moving steadily closer to getting their respective first jets in the air. By the landmark year 1958, a new “first” in jet aviation occurred every few months:

May 31 — The Douglas DC-8 maiden flight (without passengers) took off from Long Beach, California and successfully landed at Edwards Air Force base.

August 24 –Pan Am’s Boeing 707 made its first test flight from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City.
October 4 — BOAC instituted the first transatlantic service from London to New York.

 

Juan Trippe’s second “Time” magazine cover, 1949

October 26 — Pan Am, under leadership of its founder and commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, made the first transatlantic flight from New York to Paris (with a stop in Newfoundland for refueling), with a record 111 passengers. Pilot Samuel Miller became a celebrity.
December 10 — National Airlines was the first to offer domestic jet service, with leased 707s.
January 25, 1959 — American Airlines began domestic jet service, using its own aircraft.

August 26, 1959 — Flying a new Boeing 707-320, with a greater fuel capacity, Pan Am made the first non-stop New York – London flight, solidifying Pan Am as the American leader of international passenger jet flight. The airline had purchased jets both from Boeing and Douglas, although some airlines, such as United and Delta, opted for the Douglas DC-8.

The arrival and immediate popularity of jet service changed the world in countless ways. Long distance travel for tourists and business professionals had been made not only practical, but desirable.

Pan Am may have been the first American airline to offer 707 jets to the flying public, but it was TWA that was the first to treat passengers to in-flight movies. On July 19, 1961, after testing the feature earlier in the year to favorable responses from passengers, movies became standard on the airline’s New York-Los Angeles and New York-San Francisco routes, followed by their addition to international flights the following month.  Alas, only first class passengers were given the option to view movies at the time, which were shown on a screen suspended from the cabin ceiling, from a special lightweight 16mm projector set up further back in the first class section.  Audio was provided via individual headsets, which also became the standard.

The first film to be shown was the United Artists drama By Love Possessed, starring Lana Turner and Ephram Zimbalist, Jr.

But the first account of an in-flight movie can be traced back to April of 1925, as described in the British magazine Flight:  “An interesting experiment was carried out on April 7, when a Handley Page aeroplane ascended from Croydon aerodrome, with 12 passengers, and during a half-an-hour’s flight the film version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World was shown on a screen fitted up in the cabin of the machine.”

The TWA system remained the standard for in-flight entertainment for a quarter-century, until the mid-1980s, when wide body planes first offered seat-back video monitors, giving each passenger an individual screen with a multiple channel selections. Alas, with laptops, phones, and tablets now providing passengers with much of their own private means of entertainment throughout a flight, even seat-back screens are becoming a dying feature, and no newly-constructed airliners will be including them (not good news for those who own none of the above devices).

I’d better get back on a plane soon, before I feel like Rip van Winkle.

Until next time…

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” 10th Anniversary

This month marks ten years since the release of my book “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” (Santa Monica Press). It’s an oral history of Beatlemania, as told by over forty fans from across the country whom I had the pleasure to interview, and hear their stories. I’ve always felt a little odd referring to myself as the “author” of this book, since most of the words are those of the interviewees, who told me of their first-hand experiences as teens during the Beatlemania era and the years beyond. They are the true stars of the book.

It’s not easy to come to grips with the fact that our collective, personal memories of the Beatles have surpassed the fifty-year mark. Ringo joined the group in 1962, Beatlemania hit the U.S. in early ’64, and the group’s astonishing evolution took place over the next six years. We’re even fast-approaching the 50th anniversary of Apple, the Beatles’ own recording label and studio. The famous address at 3 Savile Row in London  attracted loyal fans known as “Apple scruffs,” who lingered on the steps of the building to await the Beatles’ arrivals and departures–and who have been immortalized in a song by George.

I managed to find the contributors to “We’re Going to See the Beatles!” through a variety of means, and had a wonderful time hearing them relate their memories of what it was like to be young and delirious with excitement over the Beatles at that time. Some told me about the record parties they held in their basements, others recalled going to great lengths just to catch a glimpse of the group at airport terminals, hotel lobbies, or press conferences, or remembering they were and what they were doing when they heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the radio.  And, of course, there were stories of the concerts themselves that Beatles performed across the country between 1964 and ’66. Those young fans, who were lucky enough to attend a Beatles concert, still consider it a highlight of their lives to this day.

The book was born out of an article I wrote for Beatlefan magazine in 2005, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the legendary Shea Stadium concert in New York. After finding a few attendees of that historic event in music history, I decided to keep going, with the hope of turning this into some sort of book, and I continued my search for others who had similar memories of being Beatles fans throughout the group’s existence. It wouldn’t have been possible without the Internet, that’s for sure. Web sites and message boards about the Beatles led me to many fascinating stories.

Displaying the scrapbook on TV for the CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, 2014.

I also found people by examining original newspaper articles from the height of Beatlemania, and managed to track down some the very same people who were who were interviewed and/or pictured at the time. I also have a “famous” scrapbook, kept by a teenage girl in the Boston area throughout the Beatlemania years. She managed cut and paste (the old-fashioned way) just about every newspaper and magazine clipping about the Beatles from the Boston and New York newspapers, and lovingly set them onto black construction paper pages. Sometime in the 1980s, my parents bought the scrapbook in an antique store in New York State, or Massachusetts, and brought it home.

Discussing the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

As I searched through the pages and pages of articles, I noticed that, in many instances, the stories in which the fans were interviewed actually included their full names and home addresses! I’ll never forget having the scrapbook sitting open on my lap, with the online white pages on my computer screen. More than once, I entered in the family name and address mentioned in the article, and found the same name at the same address in an online white pages listing, forty years after the fact. I sent out letters, asking the whereabouts of the person in the article, and managed to get in touch with one or two that way.

With hours and hours of phone interviews recorded, I transcribed each conversation virtually intact, and assembled them in the chronological order of the events and stories each participant had related to me.  The finished work, then, tells the story of the Beatles from the fans’ point of view, beginning with the first word about them reaching America, to their break-up, and the years afterward. Many of the participants sent me photos of themselves as teens, in the stands at the concerts, and/or beside their own beloved Beatles collections. Those are, of course, included in the book.

“We’re Going to See the Beatles!” had its debut of sorts at the 2008 Beatlefest in March of that year. I also arranged, with Fest promoter Mark Lapidos, to invite the contributors to the book to attend and take part in panel discussions, during which they could tell their stories in person to an audience. About a dozen of the contributors were able to make the journey from near and far, and took part

in two panels throughout the weekend. Even though they hadn’t met each other before, their common love for the Beatles, and the accompanying memories of the Fab Four, made them fast friends. And, a decade later, I still keep in touch with several of them fairly regularly.

There have been times in the past ten years when I’d try to think of a possible new book I might be able to write about the Beatles, only to see an ongoing flow of Beatles-related books continuing to land on the bookstore shelves and online retailers, focusing on just about every possible aspect of the group’s existence, no matter how narrow the topic as it might relate to their career. Obviously, the well has yet to run dry, but to me, it’s getting pretty close. I’m glad I managed to find the right approach to the Beatles’ unique career in a way that suited me, and, it seems, a good number of their lifelong fans.

If you’d like a chance to win a signed copy of We’re Going to See the Beatles! just leave your favorite Beatles memory in the comment section here. One entry per person. Contest ends at 11:59 p.m. on March 11. Winners will be announced in next Monday’s blog!

The 747: When Getting There Was Half The Fun

This week’s blog isn’t really to do with entertainment, but if we consider “popular culture” to include nearly anything that most of us have experienced–either often, or seldom–as part of our normal lives, then perhaps this topic makes the cut.

An item that didn’t get much attention last week, with so many news stories covering natural disasters and political chaos, reported that the very last Boeing 747 jumbo jet owned by a domestic airline has been retired. Delta Airlines flight 9771 from Atlanta to Pinal Airpark in Arizona, with 48 people onboard (including a couple who got married mid-flight), marked the final flight of a 747 for any U.S. airline. Several European-based airlines, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic, and Luftansa, still have hundreds of 747s in service, but the future of the huge, majestic plane may not be bright.

The news made my heart sink a little. And, though I’ve tried to make this blog more history-based than personal, my past few entries have failed to maintain that delineation. This one, to be honest, continues that trend. My apologies.

I was about nine years old when Pan Am’s first 747 began regular service in 1970. I had seen TV commercials and magazine ads leading the hype up to that event, and I was fascinated. The sheer size of the plane, unlike anything we had seen before then, was unbelievable. To this day, I remember its vital statistics, which quickly became ingrained in my mind as a kid: the plane was 231 feet long, with a 195-foot wingspan, seating for 430 passengers, 12 restrooms,

two aisles, 9 seats across, 8-foot high ceilings, and most mind blowing of all:  a spiral staircase in first-class leading to a 2nd floor lounge! On an airplane! My 9-year-old mind nearly exploded at the concept (only decades later would I learn that earlier passenger propeller-driven planes included lounges, and some even included a 2nd deck). Most 747s even had a piano in first class. I became obsessed, always searching for the “hump” in a plane’s front end whenever I saw one passing overhead.

Adding to my excitement that same year was the news that my family would be visiting my brother, who was in London for a semester in college, that April, in time for my birthday. Naturally, it was to be a Pan Am flight (back when Pan Am, which brought us the first passenger jet in 1959, was still the airline to take for international flights), and, best of all, we would be traveling on a 747!

I remember those first steps inside the plane at the boarding gate–the famous spiral staircase to the left, and countless rows of seats in economy class, stretching back almost as far as the eye could see. My mother’s first words were, “I don’t believe it.” My own first words were probably squeals of delight rather than anything intelligible.  Once the flight was underway, I took as many opportunities as I could to roam the spacious plane, walking to the very rear and its maze of restrooms, returning up the opposite aisle to the very front tip of economy class, and crossing through the galley to the other aisle, and finally back to my seat.

No, not my photo, but an appealing representation.

A totally unexpected delight came when the chief steward of the flight arrived at my seat (as per a previously-arranged request my father had made for my birthday), and offered to take me on a tour of the plane. I was both excited and hesitant, being quite shy, but my family cheerfully sent me off with him (what was he going to do, kidnap me on a plane?) He escorted me not only into first-class, but up the spiral staircase and into the lounge. He then opened the door to the cockpit and let me take a peek, and say hello to the pilots. Wow!

I returned to my seat fairly overwhelmed, and thankful to my parents for having arranged the tour. It was already a great trip, and we hadn’t even arrived in London yet.

I’ve enjoyed many other flights on 747s since then–to and from London several more times, to Israel and back, California, and perhaps a few that have slipped my mind. There was People Express in the 1980s with its budget-friendly fares and picnic baskets used to serve meals, and Virgin Atlantic in the ’90s with new, seat-back TV screens (also a discontinued accoutrement for new aircraft models, thanks to the takeover of smartphones, laptops, and other personal devices). I’ve even been on a

These lucky passengers got orange juice!

flight with Virgin owner Richard Branson onboard; he strolled the aisles serving water to whoever wanted to quench their thirst. I took him up on the offer and said, “Nice little airline you’ve got here.”

The 747 interior, as designed for different airlines around the world to their own specifications, later offered a variety of seat configurations, sleeper-seats, and lounge designs, some quite elaborate

and luxurious. But in recent decades, most ordinary people, regardless of which kind of plane they’ve flown on, have endured increasingly cramped planes, resembling sardine cans rather than the airy, comfortable transports the 747 once offered everyone, even those in coach class. In many cases, the lounges have been simply replaced with more seats on the elongated upper deck, in order to cram as many passengers into the available space as possible. I haven’t flown for quite a few years now, but I hope that before too long I’ll be bound across an ocean to an exciting locale, again aboard a 747 (perhaps Virgin Atlantic to London, for old time’s sake?)

It’s often difficult to know ahead of time when something that has been so familiar to us will cease to be, so it’s equally difficult to express appreciation before it’s too late. But getting sentimental over an airplane? Why not? The gradual passing of the 747 can evoke memories of happy, exciting times traveling the country or the world. Sentimentality has a way of creeping up on us when we least expect it, especially when a source of those memories is gone, or nearly gone, completely.

Until next week…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, Laugh-In!

I can hardly believe I just typed “50th birthday” and “Laugh-In” in the same sentence. But it’s true. After airing a pilot episode in September of 1967, NBC placed Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In on its regular schedule in January of 1968, replacing The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (sorry, Bill Parisho).

To those television viewers who were comfortable with the more genteel, moderately-paced variety shows and sitcoms at the time, Laugh-In shocked them with an onslaught of one-liners, blackout gags, songs, sketches, and a lot more, all coming at breakneck speed and psychedelic colors. The cast of versatile, genuinely funny cast members during that first year included Artie Johnson, Joanne Worley, Ruth Buzzi, Goldie Hawn, Henry Gibson, and Alan Sues–with plenty of celebrity cameo appearances thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, hosting the madness in their distinguished tuxedoes were Dan Rowan and Dick Martin, both 46 at the time, and who had already been performing as a comedy team for the previous decade.

Laugh-In was the result of the duo’s collaboration with producer George Schlatter, who found himself on the same creative wavelength as Rowan & Martin, and who oversaw the writing, editing, and overall tone of the show. As explosive as the show was in 1968, with its breakneck pacing and topical humor about politics, the Vietnam War, pollution, and Women’s Lib, it did have its predecessors. Earlier satirical comedy programs, such as the 1964 American version of the British hit That Was The Week That Was, and The Smothers Brothers Hour, which debuted in 1967, laid the conceptual foundation for the outspoken and often risque nature of the show. This in turn led to many a challenge by NBC censors to a good deal of material. The show quickly acquired the

George Schlatter.

reputation as pushing the envelope of acceptable, prime-time network comedy, in part because just about everything that had come before it had been so very bland and inoffensive.

In 1968, Time magazine called it “the smartest, freshest show on television…it has an artful spontaneity, a kind of controlled insanity, emerging from a cascade of crazy cartoon ideas.” Actually, the show was aimed most directly at teenage audiences, who promptly lapped it up, yet who could still watch it and enjoy it with their adult parents. The jokes were often in the style of the vaudeville era (or earlier), the sight gags ranged from a cast

member–usually Judy Carne–or guest getting splashed with a bucket of water, to quite clever gags, dance numbers, and news reports presenting “news of the future, twenty years from now…”Bikini-clad girls, covered in graffiti consisting of puns and one-liners, shimmied against psychedelic backgrounds. It was all presented in good, silly fun. In addition

to a first-rate cast of comedians, the show continued to attract an impressive range of A-list celebrity guests, who didn’t always completely grasp what was going on during the energetic, even chaotic tapings. I won’t even go into the countless characters and their catchphrases that emerged from the program, and that quickly found their way into daily conversation.

 

As a kid in elementary school in the late ’60s and early ’70s, I lived for Monday nights and Laugh-In. So did my friends. We spent long hours reciting jokes and re-enacting gags we had instantly memorized while taking in each episode. One of my friends and I even attempted to create our own Laugh-In episode on my ever-present cassette tape recorder. When our own 6th grade standard of material ran out, we turned to a few of the most recent Mad magazine issues, and read them into the microphone within the Laugh-In format (believe it or not, I actually still have those very tapes today).

Throughout its five-season history, the show’s cast went through a number of changes, with only Rowan, Martin, Ruth Buzzi, and announcer Gary Owens appearing in every episode. The last episode aired in May of 1973, by which time the flower-power/hippie era that pervaded much of popular culture at the show’s birth had faded, with Watergate becoming the defining issue of the early ’70s. But thanks to nightly syndication on the Decades network, we can enjoy seeing some cast members before they moved on to still bigger accomplishments in their careers. Who would have

 

thought that the young, giggling Goldie Hawn would one day become an Academy Award winner, or that Lily Tomlin would win several Emmys, and a Tony Award for her one-woman Broadway show?

For all of its goofy silliness and hit-or-miss approach to gags, Laugh-In remains a classic, fifty years after taking the nation by storm. Times have definitely changed, and some examples of the show’s comedy wear better than others when we watch it today; it was a program of its time, of course, but the sheer cleverness and energy that permeates each episode is undeniable, and it can still give us a strong sense of what was going on in our culture, and our world, during a unique era in our history.

So, Happy Birthday, Laugh-In! Thanks for the laughs, and the memories!

Until next week…

Nostalgia in the New Year

In this New Year, I’ve just been looking back on the blog posts I’ve done in 2017, and I look forward to writing more in 2018. Yes, my blogs are really quite all over the place, not emphasizing any one aspect of pop culture history over another, because my own interests tend to be quite varied.

This might be working against me in a way; unlike other bloggers who specialize in one field or another, I’m not often thought of as the go-to guy for any specific knowledge. I just like to do my research, absorb information, pick out a few choice facts or stories that aren’t well known by the general public, and offer it to you in an entertaining and (hopefully) concise way.

People like me, who sometimes like to get pretentious by calling ourselves “pop culture historians,” are susceptible to being accused of living in the past, and indulging in movies, music, television, and social fads of long ago that the majority of people today don’t take much time to think about.

 

Indeed, when I was only about 14 years old, I was listening to big band music of the 1940s, and enjoying movies and listening to recordings of radio shows from decades going even further back. In a way, I was living in the past– not my own past, but that didn’t matter to me.  Of course, I had my favorites among the current TV shows at that time, too, and I listened to the Top 40 hits on the radio, but I also felt drawn to entertainment of earlier eras that wasn’t as familiar to me. What can I say…I liked it!

I am selective, however. I’m not the kind to say that everything today is “junk,” and everything back in the good ol’ days–even the days before I was born– was wonderful. But I like teaching myself about how everything today grew from that which came before. And I enjoy my meager attempts to shed some light on entertainers, films, music, TV shows–from both past and present–that you may not have been aware of, or have had the chance to learn much about.

So, for those few of you who have been gracious enough to follow this weekly blog in 2017, I have a few ideas lined up for 2018 that I hope you’ll enjoy, and might even learn a thing or two, in a fun way, requiring about 1,000 words or less (that’s where my dubious skills as a self-editor come in).

Have a happy New Year!

 

 

Happy 50th Birthday, “Magical Mystery Tour”!

Photo by David Magnus / Rex Features The Beatles at Abbey Road Studios for the ‘Our World’ live television broadcast, London, Britain – 1967

Earlier this year, on  June 1, Beatles fans around the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, arguably the Fab Four’s masterpiece. The album created a seismic shake-up in the music world, and its release day is credited for launching the “Summer of Love,” highlighted by the live worldwide TV special “Our World” on July 25th, for which the Beatles premiered yet another instant classic “All You Need Is Love.”

Brian Epstein and Paul in the studio.

But that summer ended in tragedy for the group. On August 27, their legendary manager, Brian Epstein, died of what was determined to be an accidental drug overdose. He was only thirty-two years old. His main duties as their manager had been arranging their countless personal appearances and concert tours around the world, but in August of ’66 the group decided to end touring forever. Epstein’s responsibilities were drastically diminished, but he was not out of the picture. Even before Sgt. Pepper was released, Paul came to him with an idea for the group, by which they would create and direct their own film, exactly as they wished, without outside interference from a film studio. Paul had become interested in the current trend of  avant-garde filmmaking by somewhat pretentious young artistes, and was dabbling in making short films himself at the time.

He presented his vague film idea of a magical mystery tour to Epstein. Such coach tours were common then, promising a fun, event-filled day or two for the passengers, without giving too much away as to the destinations on the itinerary. Paul’s film version would, of course, allow for several musical sequences, presenting a new batch of songs for the fans. Contrary to a common assumption that Epstein probably wouldn’t have approved of the film, especially had he lived to see its final form, he encouraged Paul to pursue it, and had other top Beatles employees, such as Alastair Taylor and publicist Tony Barrow, lend a hand with the logistics.

George and John speak shortly after hearing of Epstein’s death.

Upon Epstein’s sudden death in August, the Beatles found themselves shocked, confused, and fairly directionless. Paul in particular felt a sense of panic accompanying his grief, fearing the others might begin to drift and eventually dissolve the group altogether. It was then that he stepped up the effort to get the filming underway, even as Epstein’s death was still so fresh on their minds.

So, in mid-September, with a couple of busloads of friends, assistants, music hall entertainers, and other assorted individuals–plus a small film crew–the “Magical Mystery Tour” began filming, mostly in Devon and Cornwall. Any ideas to produce it with little notice from the general public were quickly foiled, as large crowds followed the coach busses to and from each filming locale. Many who were present never really knew if a particular stop was simply to have a meal, film a scene, or both. It was, by all accounts (including those by the Beatles themselves), a mostly

 

unplanned two-week excursion. There was some preparation involved, for costumes, signs, and building the few makeshift sets needed for certain scenes, filmed at the decommissioned West Malling military airfield.

“Your Mother Should Know” and other indoor scenes were filmed in this West Malling hangar.

After filming, the Beatles spent the next several weeks taking turns editing the footage–sometimes undoing each other’s editing decisions from the previous day–and the one-hour Magical Mystery Tour aired on BBC-1 on Boxing Day (the day after Christmas). However, at that point in BBC history, only the lesser-watched BBC-2 had begun broadcasting in color. So, the British public first saw the Beatles’ new, splashy, colorful film broadcast in drab black & white, severely hurting the overall effect (Tony Barrow still argues that the initial, black & white airing hurt its impact greatly, from which it never recovered). Plus, the thin, disjointed plot–not really a plot at all–made little sense. The dialogue was mostly improvised, and mostly not very good. The saving grace for Beatles fans, however, were the six new songs themselves:

“I Am The Walrus.”

“Magical Mystery Tour,” “Fool on the Hill,” “Flying,” “Blue Jay Way,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “Your Mother Should Know.” But even most these self-contained musical sequences were somewhat surreal in nature, no doubt catching a great many viewers off-guard.

After its first broadcast on Boxing Day, the film was widely criticized in the press. It was re-broadcast later on the color BBC-2 channel, which didn’t help. The six new songs were released as a double EP in the U.K. (an EP,

or Extra-Play record, is a 45 single with either one or two songs on each side). In the U.S., Capital Records released the film’s songs in late November, with additional Beatles songs from earlier in the  year: “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Penny Lane,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “All You Need Is Love,” and “Baby You’re A Rich Man.”

The film, to this very day, has never been broadcast in its entirety on a major American TV network. The American album version was released with a 16-page booklet of stills from the movie, but Americans could make no sense of them, without having seen the film itself.

Magical Mystery Tour has suffered for decades as the most glaring of the Beatles’ few creative failures, but it can be argued that it has also received a bad rap. For its day, it was very much in keeping with the sensibilities of a great many young, creative musicians and filmmakers. Psychedelia was in, remember?

I first saw Magical Mystery Tour at the Beatlefest convention many years ago, and I hated it too–loved the songs, hated everything in between.           It was always saved as the last item on the convention schedule, usually shown at 10:00 p.m. on Sunday night, presumably to clear out the last remaining attendees. Few people stayed to watch it all the way through,  and it felt like a depressing end to an otherwise festive weekend.

But my opinion has changed greatly since then. I now see it as a strange, nonsensical, goofy, but fun film with classic songs. In case you’ve ever seen it and hated it, your opinion might change too. Why not give Magical Mystery Tour another chance sometime? Fifty years is long enough to hold a grudge, especially where the Beatles are concerned!

Until next time…

The Rise and Fall and Rise of the LP — Part 2

As we continue our look at the current revival of vinyl LP records, a brief review…

The many formats with which the public has listened to music have gone through a fascinating progression in the past century. Edison’s popular wax cylinders eventually gave way to the 78 rpm record platters, which in turn led to 33 1/3 LPs, and 45 singles (in addition to reel-to-reel, 8-track, and cassette tapes). Between 1948 and 1958–the year stereo recordings were first ready for mass consumption–sales of records increased 20 to 25 per cent every year. Not least among the factors was the rock & roll revolution, which led millions of teenagers to seek out their favorite songs in record stores, after hearing the latest hits on radio.

However, it took a full decade for stereo records to secure their place in the recording world, before surpassing mono (except for classical music, 90 per cent of which was being recorded in stereo by 1967). Not every consumer was willing to run out and purchase a new stereo system to replace their trusty hi-fi set. And, not every recording artist placed a priority on stereo recording right away. The Beatles famously mixed their landmark 1967 Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in mono first, taking great care in doing so, along with their producer George Martin. But when it came time to work on the stereo version, the group wasn’t as interested, leaving that work to Martin, who devoted to it a fraction of the time he had to the stereo mix.

Interestingly, in an August, 1967 issue of Saturday Review, George R. Marek predicted the arrival of a new medium for playing music, in a piece he wrote regarding what records might be like in 1987: “The physical characteristics of a record may be further improved…It may be possible to stamp them from material which cannot be scratched or warped. An electronic device or a laser beam may scan the grooves to assure listeners of getting records without any ‘typographical errors,’ meaning ticks and pops…Perhaps there will be no needle, no mechanical contact of any kind, the sound being picked up by a light beam.”

In hindsight, Marek’s accuracy was astounding, especially considering that research and development of the CD didn’t even begin in earnest until the mid-1970s, when audio engineers for both the Philips Corporation in the Netherlands, and Sony in Japan, began designing working prototypes for a laser-read audio disk.  In 1979, the companies joined forces, pooling their respective resources and advances in development of the technology, and arrived at a standardized set of specifications, including disk size, which were initially approved by the International Electrotechnical Commission in 1980 (and, at some point during the birth of the CD, the spelling of “disk” mysteriously became “disc”).

Meanwhile, audiophiles continued searching for still greater improvements to the sonic quality of their vinyl records. In America, imported pressings and premium Original Master recordings issued on high-quality vinyl had mavens salivating. As for stereo equipment, a myriad of high-end turntables, speakers, equalizers, and other components, when used in the right combination, did the best they could to heighten the aural experience for those seeking perfection.

But the hype, interest, and genuine excitement preceding the arrival of CDs in American music retail stores gained momentum leading to the first releases. The first test CD, pressed at the world’s first CD pressing plant (owned by Polydor at the time) near Hannover, Germany, was Richard Strauss’s Enie Alpensinfonie (An Alpine Symphony), performed by the Berlin Philharmonic.

In August of 1982, the factory was ready to begin mass production. The first CD to be manufactured there was the 1981 ABBA album The Visitors. However, the first album to be commercially released on CD was Billy Joel’s 52nd Street. It was released–initially in Japan only–on October 1, 1982.

 

Of course, a CD would be useless without something to play it on. Accompanying the release of 52nd Street was Sony’s CDP-101 player, as unveiled for the public in this ad. Six months later, on March 2, 1983, CBS records released 16 titles on CD in the U.S. and elsewhere, essentially opening the floodgates for the new format. By the end of the year, over a thousand different titles were available.

 

In the next few years, improved availability across all musical genres allowed CD prices to drop. The first to sell one million copies was the Dire Straits album Brothers In Arms, while another major event took place in 1987, with the release of the Beatles’ catalogue of albums.

What did this mean for the LP? The vinyl platter wasn’t in danger of obsolescence just yet, but record stores had already been clearing room in their bins, originally designed for 12″ albums, to make way for CDs (conveniently enough, the packaging for discs in those days was deliberately sized so that 2 units could fit neatly across a bin already sized for LPs).

The pristine sound of the CD proved too-tough competition for vinyl records, which had always been susceptible to scratches, ticks, pops, and skipping needles. There were diehards, however, who preferred what was often described as the “warmer” sound of LPs, and who resisted the cold perfection of the CD sound.

In recent years, even the CD has shown to be vulnerable, in the digital age of downloading and streaming music from various ethereal sources online. Still, the satisfaction of actually holding an artist’s creative work, complete with cover art and liner notes, has persisted among many listeners throughout the past few decades (myself included).

Which brings us to 2017. This past June, Sony Music Entertainment announced that it will begin pressing vinyl records again in March 2018, for the first time in nearly three decades. A factory near Tokyo is being fitted with new record-cutting and pressing machines. CNN reports that this is a direct reaction to the growing demand for LPs, from both older and younger generations–some of whom have grown up never having used records. Vinyl now comprises about 18% of all “physical music revenue,” which might not sound like much, but the number is growing.

So, feel free to indulge here in any number of clichés…Past is present, everything old is new again, Viva la Vinyl, etc.!

Until next time…

 

Little-known Britcoms Worth Seeking Out

Anyone who knows me is familiar with my fondness for British sitcoms. The genre inspired me to write Best of the Britcoms, which was originally published in 1999. Several years later, I updated portions of the text and added seven new chapters, covering programs I had discovered since the original edition hit the bookstore shelves. The revised edition was published in 2010.

There have been still more terrific sitcoms to cross the Atlantic since then, so I’d like to offer a new list of favorites that I’ve discovered since that revised edition (plus one or two that I found just before it went to print). Unfortunately, the flow of high-quality Britcoms on PBS and cable networks has slowed to a trickle in recent years, so I’d advise seeking out these shows on YouTube, Netflix, or any number of other sources–not to mention a good ol’ DVD box set. You may not even need to purchase it–check your local library, which just might have several series on disc waiting for you.

l. to r. : Dougal, Ted, Mrs. Doyle, Father Jack (who can walk, but is usually too inebriated to do so, and prefers being pushed around in a wheelchair).

Father Ted (1995-1998)- A daringly irreverent sitcom by American standards (it was literally “banned in Boston” by the local PBS station, due to protests by Catholic groups), Father Ted features a trio of Irish priests: Father Ted Crilly (Dermot Morgan), his cheerfully imbecilic young colleague Father Dougal McGuire (Ardal O’Hanlon), and the elderly, perpetually inebriated, foul-mouthed Father Jack Hackett (Frank Kelly). They have been exiled to remote Craggy Island, but where they have a knack for indulging in various schemes that can be decidedly less than holy, and which tend to result in the priests inadvertently humiliating themselves in front of their parishoners.

Dougal and Ted rehearse their awful song, “My Lovely Horse,” for entry in the Eurovision Song Contest.

They also have an accident-prone housekeeper, Mrs. Doyle (Pauline McLynn) whose personal mission in life is to serve tea to the residents and their visitors at every opportunity, even after their repeated refusals. The series boasts surreal blackout gags, ludicrous dialogue, and an anything-goes comic sensibility that treats many sacred institutions as fair game. But the comedy here is too absurd to cause real offense to anyone with a sense of humor.

The Kumars at No. 42 (2001-2006)- A brilliantly inventive combination of sitcom and talk show, each episode opens in the suburban home of the (fictional) wealthy Indian immigrant Kumar family. The parents have had a full-size TV studio built in their backyard to accommodate adult son Sanjeev’s desire to host his own talk show. In a typical episode, a real-life

Mr. and Mrs. Kumar, Sanjeev, and feisty grandmother Ummi.

British or American celebrity enters the front door of the house, meets the family, and chats for a while before being whisked into the adjoining studio, where an audience of 300 awaits the talk show to begin (guests have included Minnie Driver, Chevy Chase, Donny Osmond, Twiggy, Daniel Radcliffe, and Boy George).

With guest Tom Jones.

The episode continues with Sanjeev interviewing the guest as the Kumar family sits on the studio sofa, peppering the guest with off-the-wall questions, while occasionally tossing casual insults at Sanjeev. This show is a hoot!

Outnumbered (2007-2014)- This series, a sort of Modern Family before Modern Family, follows the day-to-day life of an average married couple, Pete and Sue Brockman (Hugh Dennis, Claire Skinner) and their young children. It is a single-camera, fly-on-the-wall comedy of amazing realism, due mostly to the fact that the child actors were encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, rather than follow the script word for word. The three kids, Jake (Tyger Drew-Honey), Ben (Daniel Roche), and Karen (scene-stealer Ramona Marquez), range in ages 6-12 as the series opens, and keep their chronically exhausted parents forever on their toes with an onslaught of embarrassing or hard-to-answer questions, and frequent refusals to eat their dinner. Their rapport with each other is so natural, you’d swear that you’re eavesdropping on a real (and very funny) family.

This sequential series of cast photos (left to right) shows how the children grew into young adults in the seven years between the series first season and its last. There was sometimes a gap of two years in between seasons (punctuated by Christmas specials), and some fans of the show were shocked, and not especially pleased, to see the precocious kids all grown up in the later seasons.

The IT Crowd (2006-2010)- Just as The Big Bang Theory in the U.S. made science geeks lovable, The IT Crowd did so in the U.K. But the members of this tech support team, whose office is relegated to the basement of a large London corporate headquarters, spend as little time troubleshooting computer problems as possible.

Katherine Parkinson, Richard Ayoade, Chris O’Dowd.

Roy (Chris O’Dowd) answers most phone inquiries with his standard reply, “Did you try turning the computer on and off again?” in hopes of dismissing confused office workers. Moss (Richard Ayoade) has a twisted sense of logic that can be interpreted as either brilliance or stupidity (usually stupidity).  Jen (Katherine Parkinson) is their boss, but spends more time trying to avert or solve crises among them and the rest of the employees, as well as dealing with the company’s insane CEO.

Moss somehow fails to notice an office fire.

And when they do try to solve problems, things always go from bad to worse, proving that they’re not nearly as brilliant as their job description implies. Graham Linehan, co-creator of Father Ted, again gives us characters who manage to get themselves deeper and deeper into absurd situations–both at work and elsewhere–that never end well.

Miranda (2009-2013)- Comedian Miranda Hart plays a more socially and physically awkward version of herself in this daffy sitcom, which she created and co-wrote. She runs a gift shop cluttered with novelty items

l. to r.: Sarah Hadland, Patricia Hodge, Miranda Hart, Tom Ellis.

that amuse her to no end, even if most of her customers leave empty-handed. Her best friend/employee, Stevie (Sarah Hadland), is a petite blonde who shares the same warped, childlike wavelength as Miranda, and, despite their frequent spats, the two remain loyal to each other above all else.

Mother is not known for her subtlety.

Miranda’s meddlesome mother (Patricia Hodge) is forever trying to find her a potential husband, even though Miranda has a hopeless crush on Gary (Tom Ellis), the owner of the restaurant next door. In time, their friendship blossoms into a romantic relationship. In each Miranda episode, Hart breaks the “fourth wall” (a topic of one of my earlier blogs) to speak directly to us, nearly as much as she speaks to the other characters within the scene.  And, best of all, her propensity for taking pratfalls and indulging in other bits of physical comedy–including untold instances in which she embarrasses herself in public at the worst possible moment– keep the show energetic and hilariously funny.

So, do yourself a favor and look for these programs. You won’t be disappointed.

Until next week…

The Father of Television

The new TV season is finally here. Once again, it’s time to welcome new episodes of returning favorites, and mercilessly judge the worthiness of new programs scrambling for our attention. In my mind, it’s also a good time to honor the Father of Television, Scotsman John Logie Baird.

While several key individuals can be credited for contributing their genius to help make TV a reality, Baird was the first to successfully send live, recognizable images through the air from a transmitter to a receiver. He gave the first of his public demonstrations in March and April of 1925, in London’s Selfridges department store. The images were merely moving silhouettes (generated mechanically by what was known as a Nipkow disk, the technical details of which we won’t get into here), but they captivated the public and made headlines around the world.

A few months later, as Baird continued his experiments, using ventriloquist dummies (his favorite was named Stooky Bill) to act as his subjects in front of his “televisor,” he decided that he wanted to see a live person’s image on the receiver. Working in an upstairs loft on Frith Street in the Soho section of London, he stopped downstairs to ask a young office clerk, William Taynton, to take part in the experiment. Taynton readily agreed, and, sitting at the televisor, became the first person ever to appear on a TV screen–even though his image only traveled the length of Baird’s laboratory.

Baird’s business partner, Oliver Hutchinson, in the first-known photo of a televised moving image.

By early 1926, word of Baird’s successful experiments spread around the world. In January of that year, the New York Times announced, “John L. Baird, who has perfected television after years of research, has been giving practical demonstrations here [in London].” A few days later, he demonstrated his apparatus for members of the Royal Institution, and for the press.

Baird continued with his work, even as others, mostly in the U.S. and Germany, did the same to improve on the basic workings of the Nipkow disk. For every advancement achieved by others, Baird raised the stakes still higher.

Secretary of Commerce (and future President) Herbert Hoover takes part in the famous experiment.

A landmark television transmission via telephone lines between Washington, D.C. and New York on April 27, 1927, covered a 230-mile distance. Only a month later, Baird successfully sent a television signal (also via phone lines) from London to Glasgow, Scotland, a distance of 438 miles.  In February of 1928, Baird even set up and successfully achieved the world’s first overseas television transmission, from the London area to Hartsdale, New York, with several witnesses and reporters present on both sides of the Atlantic. The images were fuzzy, of course, but the experiment was nonetheless a success, thirty-four years before the launch of the Telstar communications satellite.

Baird’s achievements continued. In July of 1928, he unveiled perhaps the most astounding of his many innovations of the time, when he demonstrated what we would today refer to as a video disc. His creation involved creating a double groove in a phonograph record; one to reproduce sound, and another to carry moving images in synchronization with that sound. He dubbed the invention “phonovision,” but didn’t pursue it to any great degree at the time. Some fifty years later, video discs became commercially available and actually played in a manner similar to phonograph records, before laser technology made compact discs and digital video discs possible.

Meanwhile, American inventor Philo Farnsworth demonstrated his own apparatus for the public in 1928, which incorporated an electronic means of transmitting TV images. He continued refining it and eliminating the  motor generator, thus creating the first all-electronic TV camera. This would eventually render the Nipkow disc, even with ongoing modifications, obsolete.

In 1936, the BBC, after several rounds of comparison between an electronic system developed by EMI, and Baird’s mechanical system, chose the advanced EMI system. The same year, Germany debuted its own electronic TV system in time for the notorious Berlin Olympic Games.

There’s more to Baird’s story, of course, and it’s worth exploring further. You can read more details about Baird’s “firsts” in my book For the First Time on Television, available on Amazon.com.

Enjoy the new TV season!