Thursday, April 16, 2009

Madden cruises

No news is bigger around these parts today than the surprise announcement that John Madden — a national pop culture figure, but a Bay Area icon — is retiring after 30 years as America's most recognizable pro football broadcaster.

I was just scratching the crust out of my eyelids as the story broke on KCBS, San Francisco's all-news radio station, where Madden contributes a live interview segment every weekday morning. And, like many fans around the Bay Area and nationally, I found myself stunned by Madden's announcement, broadcast live.

Although my affection for the NFL product begins and pretty much ends with the 49ers — I don't often watch a regular-season game on TV unless the Niners (or, on occasion, the Raiders) are playing — I can't help but acknowledge the impact that Madden has had on the popularity of football. Or, for that matter, on the popularity of football in general — witness the continued success of Madden NFL, by all accounts the best-selling video game ever created. The former Oakland coach's bombastic personality and easy-to-imitate shtick has become ubiquitous in American culture. (Don't you just know that Frank Caliendo is weeping into his Miller Lite today?)

Mostly, though, I've come to know Madden through his long-running daily spot on local radio. For years, Madden joined legendary morning man Frank Dill's show on KNBR — well before that station transmogrified into "The Sports Leader" — for a spot of chat, usually about sports but often just about whatever Madden felt moved to yak about. During the season, Madden would check in from wherever he happened to be, often from the famed Maddencruiser, the tricked-out bus in which the airplane-averse commentator traveled from game to game.

When Dill retired, Madden couldn't stand Steve McPartlin, the former happy-talk TV host who replaced Frank on KNBR's morning drive. So, Big John took his act across the dial to KCBS, where he interfaced with venerable news anchor Al Hart. Even after Hart stepped down from the daily grind, he'd still pop up every Wednesday to bat things around with his old pal "Coach," whose morning foils now are anchors Stan Bunger and Susan Leigh Taylor and sports reporter Steve Bitker.

The hot rumor now is that Madden will go back to work for Al Davis's Raiders, possibly as general manager or director of football operations. I'd like to think that Madden has too much sense to subject himself to Al's senile shenanigans, but the two have remained close over the years. Anything's possible.

For public consumption, Madden is saying that he just wants to spend more time with his family. He and his wife are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, and Madden's five grandchildren are at the ages where, as the Hall of Fame coach noted, they know when he's gone.

After 42 years in the NFL, and at 73 years of age (his birthday was last Friday), I think the big guy's earned the right to do whatever he pleases.

Happy trails, Coach.

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Thursday, April 09, 2009

Fallen Angel

It's a gray and gloomy day for baseball here in the Golden State.

Appropriate, given the tragic news about the death of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart, killed last night in a hit-and-run accident caused by a suspected drunken driver.

Less than 24 hours ago, 22-year-old Adenhart had the world on a string. In his fourth major league start, he pitched six innings of shutout ball against the Oakland Athletics.

Today, he's gone.

I'll say here what I've said numerous times before: There is no punishment severe enough for drunk driving.

I believe that driving under the influence should receive mandatory prison time. No probation. No suspended license. No enforced rehab. No 36 hours in the county slammer. A minimum of one year hard time in the state penitentiary. No plea bargains, no questions asked.

Second-time offenders should be sentenced to a minimum of five years. Third-timers get twenty.

Drunk drivers who kill? Automatic life sentence.

And if someone wanted to argue for making the latter a capital crime, they'd get no protest from me.

Andrew Gallo, the knucklehead who snuffed out the lives of Nick Adenhart and his two friends, Henry Pearson and Courtney Stewart — and who was himself uninjured in the crash — was driving under a suspended license due to a prior drunk driving conviction. If Gallo had been in San Quentin where he belonged — in my opinion, if not the State of California's — three young people with bright futures would be alive today.

My sincere condolences, as well as my deepest empathy as a father, go out to the families of the deceased.

I bear-hugged my daughter when she came home from her college classes today. She thought I was crazy. Perhaps I am.

But life is fragile.

Even when you're 22 years old, and have a million-dollar arm.

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Monday, April 06, 2009

10 films for the Aughts

Two of the film writers for the San Francisco Chronicle, Mick LaSalle and Peter Hartlaub, have published dueling "10 best films of the decade" lists.

To my way of thinking, it's a mite early for this. After all, the decade isn't over yet.

Then again, people get all squishy over lists, don't they? So, anytime is list time.

I use the word "dueling" above, not because Hartlaub and LaSalle hate each other (they may, but I don't think so — it's more an Ebert-Siskel rivalry), but because their lists have nothing in common. That's right: Two major film critics compiled lists of the best 10 films from the past decade, and not a single film appears on both lists.

(For your reference, here's Mick LaSalle's list, and then Peter Hartlaub's list.)

As a former professional film critic myself, I couldn't resist taking up this challenge, premature though it may be. I always preface these things with the caveat that "best" is a subjective and ultimately ridiculous concept when applied to the creative arts. So, let's call this...

My 10 Favorite Films from the "200x" Decade

1. Sideways

Funny, vulgar, touching, winsome, outrageous... I could keep stacking the adjectives, but none of them can completely express my affection for this film. Paul Giamatti's Miles is the person I would probably be if I drank. (Which is yet another good reason why I don't.) Virginia Madsen's soliloquy about the deeper meaning of wine may be the sexiest sequence in any film this decade — and she delivers it while vertical and fully dressed.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy

Peter Jackson's three-part cinematic thunderbolt may never be equaled, in terms of its sheer size, scope, and groundbreaking spectacle. As a longtime fan of Tolkien's magnum opus, I don't see how The Lord of the Rings could have been delivered to the screen any better or more faithfully — in spirit, if not in minute detail. (See: Bakshi, Ralph.) Perfect? Perhaps not. Seven levels of awesome? Heck, yeah.

3. Children of Men

No film I've seen in the past ten years moved me as powerfully as this darkly haunting slice of science fiction by Alfonso Cuarón. Children of Men strikes some of the same notes as Minority Report (another film I liked very much; surprising, since I'm not a fan of either director Steven Spielberg or star Tom Cruise), but it strikes them with more genuine emotion, and less hyperslick flash.

4. Memento

The first truly great film of the decade, Memento is noteworthy both as a dazzling achievement in cinematic storytelling (often imitated, but never approached) and as the revelation of one of the period's signature filmmakers: Christopher Nolan, who went on to direct Insomnia (an underrated flick, spoiled only by too hefty a dose of Robin Williams), Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight.

5. Spirited Away

Not only the best animated feature of the decade, but one of the finest animated films of all time. Hayao Miyazaki is sometimes referred to as "the Walt Disney of Japan," but this astounding, heart-wrenching film demonstrates just how inadequate that label is. It's not as much fun as many of Miyazaki's other pictures (it's hard to top Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service, or the masterful Princess Mononoke in that department), but not every animated film has to be fun.

6. Best in Show

The funniest comedy of the decade, hands down. Will Christopher Guest ever make another movie this good?

7. Lost in Translation

I fully expected to hate this movie. I detested Sofia Coppola's pathetic attempts at acting, and her previous directing turn (The Virgin Suicides) left me cold. Plus, Bill Murray wore out his welcome with me way back around Ghostbusters. But its existential charm won me over.

8. Pan's Labyrinth

Like Jackson's LOTR, Guillermo del Toro's film sets a new high-water mark for technical achievement. More than that, however, it's an engaging and compelling journey into a world unlike any other. Many filmmakers are content to simply repeat the tried and true. Instead, del Toro chose to reinvent the fantasy film. Pan's Labyrinth defines the word "unforgettable."

9. Inside Man

I had a choice between two Spike Lee films here, Inside Man and 25th Hour. When in doubt, choose the movie with Denzel Washington in it. Especially if Jodie Foster and Clive Owen are in it, too.

10. Ocean's Eleven

Okay, okay. I'm allowed one low-brow selection. The true testament to Ocean's Eleven's greatness is that I've watched it more frequently than any other movie on this list, with the possible exception of Best in Show. I wish Steven Soderbergh hadn't followed it with two lackluster sequels (the middle film in the trilogy flat-out reeks), but that doesn't make the first one any less cool. Vegas, baby.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

What's Up With That? #74: Why do you think they call it "dope"?

You could get more idiotic than this, but not much.

At the same time that this story is being reported:
Farrah Fawcett hospitalized; family gathers at bedside
This story is only one headline away:
Son of Ryan O'Neal arrested in LA on drug charge
In case you don't immediately tumble to the connection, Ryan O'Neal's son Redmond is also the son of Farrah Fawcett.

According to the Associated Press, the younger O'Neal — who just last week was kicked out of a rehab facility after failing a drug test — was visiting an incarcerated friend at a county jail in Castaic (northern Los Angeles County) when he admitted during a routine search that he was carrying methamphetamine. Redmond is currently being held on $25,000 bail.

Dude... your mom is in the hospital dying of cancer, and you're busted smuggling dope into a jail?

I believe Mr. T. said it best... I pity the fool.

And I hope that Ms. Fawcett, who's been battling the Big C for several years, survives this latest setback — at the very least, long enough for her son the moron to get out of the hoosegow to say goodbye.

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Monday, March 30, 2009

New sheriff in Trebekistan

I'm several days late in getting to this, but, well, life happens.

Here's a belated yet heartfelt salute to Dan Pawson, who emerged triumphant in this season's Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions. Dan pulled out a hard-fought victory over two worthy co-finalists, Larissa Kelly and Aaron Schroeder, in the 25th Anniversary ToC taped at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

I had a premonition when I first wrote in this space — more than a year ago — about Dan's Jeopardy! skills that a Tournament title might be in his future. As it turned out, I was correct. That means next to nothing, however. I am notorious lousy at sizing up the field in Jeopardy! tournaments, even after having played in three of them. (For the benefit of any new arrivals, those three were the 1988 Tournament of Champions, Super Jeopardy! in 1990, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions in 2005.) When you fill a room with top-level Jeopardy! players, anything can happen, and often does. In this instance, I believe that the strongest player came away with the grand prize.

Well played, Mr. Pawson. Congratulations also to Larissa and Aaron, who helped make this one of the most memorable two-game finals in ToC history.

Speaking of Jeopardy!, I just finished reading Bob Harris's excellent book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, in which Bob spins a hilarious, often surprisingly heart-tugging tale about his career as a Jeopardy! champion. I had the pleasure of meeting Bob during my second-round taping in the UToC, and he's every bit as charming and funny as his book would lead you to believe.

The fact that I personally relate to many of the anecdotes Bob shares added to my personal connection with the book, but it's a fun read even if you've never been a quiz show contestant. If you dig Jeopardy!, or simply enjoy a behind-the-scenes peek at the inner workings of television, I enthusiastically recommend Prisoner of Trebekistan.

Even though Bob neglected to mention me in it.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

American Idol is dead, and I'm feeling a little Taylor Hicks myself

In case you're wondering when SSTOL's traditional breakdown of the year's American Idol contestants is coming...



...don't hold your breath.

Seriously, this year's Idol class is far and away the weakest in the show's history. That's saying a lot for a series that has foisted such dubious talents as Kevin "Chicken Little" Covais, Carmen "Can't Buy a Tune" Rasmusen, Kellie "Dumb as Two Bags of Silicone" Pickler, and the infamous Sanjaya "Fauxhawk" Malakar on the American public.

Not only is there not a single performer (and I'm using that word loosely) in the AI '09 field whose CD I'd want to hear — never mind buy — but there isn't even one about whom I care enough to write an entire paragraph.

So I'm not gonna.

You're on your own, America.

SwanShadow... out!

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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A retro ride in a Superstar Limo

Last night, I experienced one of those bizarre pop cultural crossover coincidences that happens every now and again.

I was browsing some Disneyland-related sites — because you know I loves me some Disneyland, and I actually will get to spend a few days in Anaheim this summer — when I decided to check out this YouTube video showcasing one of the Disneyland Resort's former attractions, Superstar Limo. At the very moment that the late-but-unlamented ride's Audio-Animatronic version of Drew Carey appeared on my monitor, my television — tuned at the time to a 17-year-old stand-up comedy special on HBO — displayed the youthful visage of Drew Carey, from way back before anyone knew who Drew Carey was.

How weird is that?

In case you're wondering what in the name of Walter Elias Disney I'm babbling about, Superstar Limo was one of the original attractions at Disney's California Adventure, the amusement park that now occupies what used to be the main Disneyland parking lot at the corner of Harbor and Katella in Anaheim.

A so-called "dark ride" in the classic Disney park model — think Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, or others of that ilk — Superstar Limo allowed the visitor to pretend that he or she was a celebrity riding to a big Hollywood premiere in (what else) a miniaturized limousine. Along the route, one encountered Audio-Animatronic versions of a number of then-current pop culture icons, including Regis Philbin, Cindy Crawford, Whoopi Goldberg, and the aforementioned Mr. Carey, who at the time of DCA's opening was the star of a hit sitcom on ABC (the network of Disney, as you are certainly aware).

Superstar Limo was roundly panned by DCA attendees — both for its corporate-pandering concept and its lackluster execution — and closed about a year or so after the park opened. The current Monsters Inc. attraction now occupies the space its short-lived predecessor inhabited.

My memory of Superstar Limo was that it was cheesy but fun in typical Disneyland fashion. The recording of the experience on YouTube bears this out, I think. The main problem I had with the ride was that, had it survived, it would quickly have become dated. How big a star is, say, Tim Allen or Melanie Griffith today, more than a decade and a half later? It would have cost Disney megabucks to continually replace passé show-biz personalities with celebs that kids, especially, would recognize — megabucks that Disney has shown little inclination to spend in its upkeep of the Disneyland Resort.

Still, it's a kick to recall what it was like while it lasted.

Potentially fascinating historical trivia: The original concept of Superstar Limo when DCA was in the development phase called for a simulated high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Then, the Princess of Wales met her untimely demise during... well... a high-speed escape from a band of aggressive paparazzi. Disney's Imagineers retooled the ride's storyline at the last moment to avoid the grisly and unfortunate connection.

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Monday, March 02, 2009

25 years with the Razor

Today on "The Sports Leader" — San Francisco's KNBR 680 AM — afternoon drive host Ralph "The Razor" Barbieri is celebrating his 25th anniversary with the radio station.

If you know anything about the radio business, you know that 25 years in one location is a remarkable achievement.

At the risk of seriously dating myself, I recall when Ralph first joined KNBR as a commentator and host of the evening talk show, Sportsphone 68. (KNBR didn't add the terminal zero until just a few years ago.) In the beginning, I thought Ralph was an obnoxious, self-important, hypocritical jerk. That assessment hasn't changed much in the past quarter-century, but at least I've grown accustomed to him.

The late, legendary San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen first hung the moniker "Razor Voice" on Barbieri shortly after Ralph came to KNBR. At that time, the station was still pursuing a general-interest format of which sports programming was but one component. Caen helped bring Barbieri to the attention of the masses by mocking the broadcaster's raspy, decidedly unappealing vocal quality.

Thus, a career was born.

Aside from Caen's column, the best thing that happened to Ralph occurred halfway through his KNBR tenure, when he was paired with former NBA journeyman Tom Tolbert to form "The Razor and Mr. T." At first, I couldn't imagine the partnership lasting more than a few months, given the cohosts' radically different styles (Ralph the raging pseudo-journalist; Tom the laid-back surfer dude) and perspectives (Ralph is a vegetarian with an MBA from the Wharton School; Tom is a retired pro athlete who loves McDonald's hamburgers). And yet, twelve and a half years later, their show remains KNBR's most popular talkfest. Go figure.

My chief frustration with Ralph has always been that he's a dreadful interviewer — although, to his credit, he's improved slightly over time. When Ralph conducts an interview, it's never about the interview subject — it's always about Ralph and his opinions. Ralph rarely asks a question. Instead, Ralph delivers speeches that may or may not end in questions. The interview subject frequently can't get a word in edgewise.

To test my anecdotal observation, I once took a stopwatch to an interview Ralph was conducting with a member of the Giants organization. Ralph posed one "question" that droned on for nearly three minutes, after which the interviewee got less than 30 seconds of response time before Ralph began interrupting. The rest of the interview proceeded in similar fashion.

Any regular KNBR listener knows that I'm not exaggerating.

Still, the guy has lasted this long for a reason. The banter between Ralph and his long-suffering foil Tolbert is entertaining and lively, and Ralph — despite his frustrating deficiencies as an interviewer — is exactly what sports-talk radio calls for: he's opinionated, he's polarizing, and he's never at a loss for words.

Congratulations to the Razor on his quarter-century celebration.

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Monday, February 23, 2009

My awards show has a first name...

...it's O-S-C-A-R.

A few notes from last night's 81st Academy Awards ceremonies:
  • Pleasantly innocuous hosting job by Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman. The producers tailored the show to his strengths — he's a song-and-dance man, not a stand-up comedian. Jackman's style seems a better fit for the Tony Awards, which he's hosted several times, than for the Oscars, which attract a larger, more diverse audience. I doubt that the Academy Powers That Be will invite Hugh to host again, but I'm equally sure they're not sorry that they invited him this time.

  • I almost liked the smaller, more intimate set design. Having all of the nominees seated together and close to the stage worked well, especially for reaction shots when the winners were announced. The set-up did, however, give the event a confined, cramped feel. The Oscars need to be larger than life, not smaller than a breadbox.

  • Jackman's opening number with the cheesy props and Anne Hathaway — who is not a cheesy prop, despite her unsettlingly gargantuan eyes — was kind of fun. Billy Crystal has done similar openings to better effect in previous years.

  • Memo to Ms. Hathaway: If you have a preternaturally pasty complexion, a white evening gown is not your friend.

  • Memo to Nicole Kidman: Borrow Anne's memo when she's done reading it.

  • Best idea of the night: Using previous winners of the major acting awards to introduce the nominees. Some of the intros meandered on for a bit too long, and some of the choices didn't work as well as others. Overall, however, this was a gimmick worthy of repeating in future years.

  • Second-best idea: Queen Latifah singing "I'll Be Seeing You" over the traditional "Folks Who Croaked" montage. It added a touch of human warmth to an exercise that often just feels creepy and maudlin.

  • Among the winners, I was happiest for Kate Winslet, who has deserved to win at least a couple of times previously and came up empty.

  • Man, those people from Slumdog Millionaire were genuinely happy to be there.

  • Eddie Murphy seemed an out-of-left-field choice to present Jerry Lewis with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. They're both comic actors, but was there any other connection? Usually, they get someone who's a close friend of the awardee to give these special honors away. Maybe this was a sign that Lewis doesn't have any friends left in Hollywood.

  • What was up with the preponderance of dresses that looked like wedding gowns? Was someone getting married, and I missed my invitation?

  • Joaquin Phoenix is still wondering why Ben Stiller — and everyone else on the planet — is making fun of him.

  • Didn't win, but looked terrific anyway: Best Supporting Actress nominees Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson. A couple of classy ladies right there.

  • Didn't win, but frightened small children anyway: Mickey Roarke and Tilda Swinton. At least Tilda comes by her looks naturally.

  • Hey, Amy Adams: Is that a necklace, or did you string together every bauble and bead at your local craft shop? You're lucky you didn't break a clavicle with that ginormous weight around your shoulders.

  • Speaking of ginormous: Angelina, please. The green stones. They are too large.

  • After seeing how much fun John Legend had singing "Down to Earth" surrounded by all of the Bollywood festivity of the two nominated songs from Slumdog, I'll bet Peter Gabriel feels like a moron for refusing to perform. And well he should.

  • I'll bet Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed doing that bit too, had his song from The Wrestler been nominated, as it should have been.

  • Will Smith stumbled all over his TelePrompTer trying to give away the technical awards. Will, that Scientology foolishness is turning your brain into pudding.

  • Sean Penn, you are only about a third as cool as you think you are.

  • Am I the only one disappointed that Heath Ledger couldn't be bothered to show up to collect his Best Supporting Actor statuette? Hmm? He's what? Oh. Never mind.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

Birth? Day.

I've commented before about the odd coincidence of nature that resulted in my wife KJ and my now six-year-old goddaughter in Maine sharing a birthday.

Well, it's time to mention it again.

Happy birthday, girls!

And, while we're at it, happy birthday to:

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Monday, February 02, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLIII commercial post-mortem

It's been something of an SSTOL tradition to recap the best commercials from the Super Bowl.

But a weird thing happened this year...

The game was actually better than the ads.

That is in part to the credit of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, who delivered a whale of a show (congrats to Coach Mike Tomlin and his crew for the last-minute, come-from-behind victory over a team no one — including your Uncle Swan — thought could even compete with them). It's also a sad commentary on this year's Super Bowl ad crop, which was, to put it politely, lacking.

In fact, before I sat down to review the spots online this morning, only one had insinuated itself into my memory — the truly bizarre Cash4Gold.com ad featuring washed-up celebrities Ed McMahon and MC Hammer. That was memorable not for its persuasive power, but for its sheer breathless lunacy: Hammer and his "gold medallion showing me wearing a gold medallion!" and Big Ed with his gold-plated toilet.

Among the few other highlights:
  • I was entertained — and baffled — by Pepsi's testosterone-fueled spot showing manly men enduring all kinds of physical punishment with a casual "I'm good." (I confess that I don't understand the whole Pepsi Max concept: Diet cola for men? What, too much estrogen in Diet Pepsi?)

  • NBC gave us a clever house ad for its Hulu.com online video service, starring Alec Baldwin in a scenario inspired by Men in Black. (I always knew those Baldwin brothers were aliens.)

  • The most exciting ad of the bunch was Audi's slick, dialogue-free chase sequence with Jason Statham reprising his Transporter film role.

  • The "best storytelling" award goes to Cars.com's documentary-style take on the life of a nerdy young man who succeeds at everything he attempts, but who can't buy a car without the aid of a certain Web site.

  • Doritos offered a couple of decent spots: the one involving the "magic" crystal ball was funny, and another in which the protagonist's fantasies become reality every time he crunches into a Dorito (a female pedestrian's clothes disappear; an ATM spews cash) was predictable, but well-orchestrated.

  • NBA star Carlos Boozer played Big Brother to a gaggle of cute kids for Overstock.com. Not as splashy as most of the ad fodder, but warm, fuzzy, and authentically charming. Best of all, it made a solid selling point about the product — something too many of the high-ticket Super Bowl ads forget to accomplish.

  • And, though I'm not a Conan O'Brien fan, I did chuckle at the goofy Bud Light spot that featured Conan as the reluctant star of an absurd Swedish commercial.
As usual, the Budweiser Clydesdales wore out their welcome — one ad showcasing these handsome animals is fine, but four or five get old quickly. Also as usual, GoDaddy.com served up a pair of tasteless, sexist trifles designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator (arrested-adolescent males who've been swilling beer all afternoon) and rile up the feminist crusaders.

But enough about the commercials...

It's Boss Time.

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band cranked up the best Super Bowl halftime since Prince took the stage a few years back. The Boss and Company delivered a fun, upbeat, energetic set, weaving together a couple of classic favorites ("Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Born to Run") with the title track from his latest album. (Asked in a pregame interview why he had finally decided to accept the Super Bowl gig after more than a decade of refusing the NFL's invitation, Springsteen was characteristically forthright: "I've got a new record to promote.")

The production pulled out all the stops — fireworks, a five-piece horn section, and a gospel choir for the finale. All the fluff couldn't mask the raw power of Springsteen's music, nor the joy that he and his bandmates (including Clarence Clemons, who worked it out on saxophone and cowbell; guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt, looking aged and road-worn; and Bruce's wife Patti Scialfa, who stepped forward for a backing vocal spotlight on the final number) still derive from their music after 35 years.

I'd have gladly ditched all of the fancy advertisements, and just let The Boss play during the commercial breaks.

That's why they don't let me run the show.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Swan Tunes In: Trust Me

Following on the award-winning critical success of AMC's Mad Men, TNT is serving up its own spin on the daily lives of advertising executives in its new series, Trust Me. I checked out the premiere episode the other night, and I have to say that I was surprised and impressed.

Having worked as a freelance advertising copywriter for the past six-plus years, I was curious to see whether Trust Me captured what I believe to be the essential characteristic of the industry: That all advertising people are insane.

And yes, they've got that pretty well nailed down.

In its lead roles, Trust Me casts a pair of actors whose work doesn't usually interest me: Eric McCormack (formerly the gay half of Will and Grace) and Tom Cavanagh (late of Ed, which enjoyed a moderately successful run, and Love Monkey, which didn't). They're a Felix-and-Oscar team of ad creatives: McCormack's Mason McGuire is the graphic artist and the steady, level-headed one; Cavanagh's Conner (who doesn't appear to have another name — the sign on his office door reads simply "Conner") is the copywriter and the wacky, unpredictable one.

When their creative director dies suddenly, Mason is promoted to his position, threatening the delicate balance of his working partnership with Conner. The duo also encounter conflict from Sarah, a newly hired superstar copywriter brought in to shake up the firm — she's played by Monica Potter, who looks as though she'll be even more annoying here than she was on Boston Legal. (In this role, Potter's irritating quality is character-appropriate. When Sarah attempts to persuade her former boss at her previous agency to take her back, he tells her, "I think I'm going to hire someone I don't hate.")

Although I've never worked on staff at a major ad agency, Trust Me accurately reflects the dynamics of most of the agencies I've come to know. Again, that basically means that all ad creatives are nuts. Trust Me plays that angle more directly for humor than does Mad Men, which leans to the dramatic. Specifically, much of the comedy derives from Conner's foibles — he's an only-slightly more mature version of the Tom Hanks character in Big, an overgrown adolescent whose childish behavior is offset by his creative brilliance.

As noted above, I'm not a fan of either Cavanagh or McCormack, but they're well-cast — and ideally matched — here. Their supporting cast, in addition to Potter, includes Griffin Dunne, who improves anything in which he appears, just by showing up. The show's debut script displayed a deft hand, employing that over-the-top comic reality that worked so well in the early seasons of Ally McBeal. (This isn't a David E. Kelley production, but it has some of the flavor.) If the writers can sustain the quality, Trust Me could join Mad Men as a perennial award contender.

Uncle Swan gives Trust Me four tailfeathers out of five. I recommend giving it a look-see.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

POTUS 44

Marshaling my thoughts in the wake of President Obama's inauguration...
  • Ironic, in a way, that I was in my minivan returning home from taking my daughter to class at the local junior college (her car is still in the shop after she was rear-ended two weeks ago) as Obama took the oath of office. History is made... but everyday life goes on.

  • Memo to Chief Justice John Roberts: For pity's sake, man, memorize the Presidential oath. And if you can't memorize it, write it down.

  • As stately and majestic a President as Obama makes, Michelle is every inch as stately and majestic a First Lady. They both chose well.

  • Glad as I am to see Bush 43 leave office, it's a touching moment watching him and the former First Lady board that Marine helicopter for the final time. Bush was among our worst Presidents ever, but he was still our President.

  • I'd describe Obama's speech as soberingly electric. He clearly understands the gravity of his new office.

  • Obama also made clear the distinction between his incoming administration and that of his predecessor: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals." Cut to Bush squirming in his seat.

  • I love the fact that Obama didn't run from anything in his speech: not the challenges ahead, not the mistakes of the past, not the darkness of racism, not even his own middle name — which he used in taking the oath.

  • They should commission Maya Angelou to write the inaugural poem every four years. No disrespect to the writer who composed today's poem, but... she's no Maya Angelou.

  • I was surprised that Dianne Feinstein blew off the Constitutional deadline for the new President's swearing-in, in favor of Yo-Yo Ma and Yitzhak Perlman playing John Williams. But when in doubt, go to the arts.

  • How fitting that Dick Cheney gets trundled out of office in a wheelchair, given everything he's done to cripple the country while he's been Vice President.

  • I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial with tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis showing off his new car to his unimpressed father. "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas," said the elder Gerulaitis after his son finished extolling the virtues of his ride. "Now when you are getting a haircut?" In that same spirit: It's a nice inauguration, Mr. President. Now it's time to get a haircut, metaphorically speaking.

  • Yet, at the same time... what a spectacular, enthralling, glorious moment for our nation, and indeed, for our planet. America is indeed ready to lead once more.

  • You go, 44.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Does this casket come with soft Corinthian leather?

Wow, bad day for aged celebrities.

No sooner did I complete my obit of Patrick McGoohan than word arrives of the passing of Ricardo Montalbán, who, depending on your viewing preferences, was either Khan Noonien Singh of the classic Star Trek episode "Space Seed" and its sequel motion picture, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, or the dapper Mr. Roarke, the ice-cream-suited master manipulator of Fantasy Island.

We children of the '70s, of course, also recall Montalbán as the suave pitchman for the Chrysler Cordoba, famously upholstered in "soft Corinthian leather." The joke was that "Corinthian leather" was little more than some copywriter's snazzy buzzword for a product manufactured in Newark, New Jersey.

I often thought that Mr. Roarke had the most depressing job in the world. He spent all of his time and resources creating fantasies for other people — fantasies which never seemed to work out all that well for the recipients. Then, he'd cluck his tongue at the hard lessons learned when people got what they thought they wanted. Roarke was like a sadistic Santa Claus, albeit with bespoke tailoring and better weather.

To top it off, Mr. Roarke never seemed to get any of his own fantasies fulfilled. Unless his fantasies involved living on a tropical island with a lisping French dwarf. In which case, I guess he did.

My favorite episode of Fantasy Island was the one in which Mr. Roarke faced off with the devil (who, oddly enough, did not resemble Al Pacino) and emerged victorious. That storyline opened up a whole new realm of possibilities for Roarke, who prior to this had just seemed like a wealthier, more inventive Walt Disney. Was he really an angel? A sorcerer? A Highlander? (There can only be one, so probably not.)

Then again, the devil did tell Roarke at the end of the episode that he'd be back to fight again another day.

Perhaps that day was today.

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Be seeing you, Number Six

Don't tell Number Two, but Number Six has escaped.

Permanently.

Patrick McGoohan, a hero to a generation of genre TV cultists as the star of the classic espionage series Danger Man (retitled Secret Agent for American broadcast on CBS) and its even more famous "sequel" The Prisoner, has died at the age of 80.

For those of you who missed the 1960s, The Prisoner starred McGoohan (who cocreated the show with producer George Markstein) as a spy who, after submitting his resignation, is kidnapped and transported to an isolated seaside community known only as The Village. The protagonist, whose real name is never divulged, is referred to as Number Six. (Most fans suppose Number Six to be John Drake, the hero of Danger Man, even though McGoohan consistently denied this — most likely because someone else owned the rights to the earlier character.) Indeed, all residents of The Village are known only by numeric designations, including the sinister head honcho, Number Two (played by a different actor in almost every episode).

The 17-episode series revolves around Number Six's ongoing efforts to either escape — efforts often thwarted by an enormous, seemingly sentient balloon called Rover — or subvert Number Two's authority and control of The Village, or both. Number Two, in turn, engages in a constant stream of cat-and-mouse mind games, trying to learn why Number Six resigned his post (and, by implication, for whom Six might have been working).

In a memorable two-part finale, Number Six finally manages to break free of The Village's confines. Or does he?

I'm a member of that hardcore band of pop culture geeks who maintain that The Prisoner is one of the greatest series ever created for television. It's smartly written, thought-provoking, and can be interpreted in a variety of ways, depending upon one's political perspective and psychosocial worldview. Its 17 episodes span a broad range of genres — mystery, action-suspense, comic satire, even Western (the episode "Living in Harmony").

Thanks in large part to McGoohan's rigid control, the show maintained a high quality level, even though it ran longer than McGoohan originally proposed. (CBS insisted on 17 episodes, to ensure an afterlife in syndication — McGoohan conceived the show as a seven-episode cycle.) The Prisoner frequently explored themes that were considered controversial for the time: conspiracy theories, government mind control, propaganda, psychedelic drugs, anti-authority rebellion, and anti-war sentiment.

When I was studying broadcast communications at San Francisco State University, I took a course in semiotics — the study of symbols and signs as facets of the communication process — taught by one of the world's leading experts in the field, Dr. Arthur Asa Berger. Episodes of The Prisoner were among Dr. Berger's favorite teaching tools.

Ironically, Patrick McGoohan's passing comes shortly before the debut of a modernized retelling of The Prisoner, which airs later this year on American Movie Classics. The new Prisoner stars Jim Caviezel as Number Six, and Ian McKellen as his adversary, Number Two.

McGoohan continued to be much sought after as a character actor for decades following The Prisoner. He gained critical acclaim as the villainous King Edward, a.k.a. Longshanks, in Mel Gibson's Braveheart, and as the father of Billy Zane's jungle superhero in The Phantom. My favorites among his post-Prisoner roles were his frequent turns as perpetrator on Columbo (McGoohan won two Emmy Awards for his Columbo appearances, several of which he also directed), and his starring turn in the short-lived 1970s medical series Rafferty, which foreshadowed House by about 25 years.

Despite his impressive body of work, McGoohan will always be Number Six in my imagination.

"I am not a number — I am a free man!"

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Monday, January 12, 2009

One hot dog, with a side of Rice

As we predicted nearly a month and a half ago in this space, all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson was a first-ballot electee to the National Baseball Hall of Fame today.

Given Rickey's noted propensity for non sequitur interview commentary during his career, this should be an induction speech worth hearing.

Jim Rice finally made the Hall also, in his 15th and final year of ballot eligibility. I believe that's the correct call, and long overdue. Rice was the best all-around offensive player in the American League during his peak years. The fact that he was, in the estimation of some baseball writers who covered the Red Sox during Rice's tenure, an insufferable jerk, should not have kept Big Jim out of Cooperstown for as long as it did.

After all, the player who came the closest to being a unanimous selection for HOF glory, one Tyrus R. Cobb, was practically the definition of an insufferable jerk. If Cobb's well-documented jerkiness didn't disqualify him, Rice's shouldn't either.

I'm sorry that Andre Dawson — an even greater player than Rice, and possibly more likable — missed election again. Given his upward trend in the voting, however, I'm convinced that "The Hawk" will get in eventually. I say that even though this year, with only Henderson as a runaway first-ballot favorite, would have been an ideal time for the voters to show Dawson some love.

Every year, a handful of "what the heck?" votes turn up in the Hall of Fame tally. To the BBWAA's credit, there were remarkably few of these (even if I disagree, I understand the logic of the seven electors who cast a vote for Matt Williams, to cite one example) this year. Still, I'd like to know who were the two nutjobs who voted for Jay Bell.

Did Jay Bell's mom and dad get sent Hall of Fame ballots by mistake?

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Thursday, January 08, 2009

There's a new zombie in town

I'm not an especially sentimental sort — as regular visitors here will attest — but it makes me sad to see the icons of my youth fade from view.

Just moments ago, I received an e-mail announcing the passing of Bob Wilkins, the longtime host of KTVU's Creature Features. I spent many Friday and Saturday nights in the 1970s and early '80s enjoying cheesy horror and sci-fi flicks with the urbane, bespectacled Mr. Wilkins and his eventual successor in the host's rocking chair, John Stanley.

More than four years ago, I waxed nostalgic in this space about Creature Features and its profound impact on my adolescent years. Rather than reinventing the torture wheel, I'll simply invite you to check out that Halloween 2004 post.

I was privileged to meet Bob Wilkins in person a few years ago, when he made what I believe was his final guest appearance at WonderCon. Bob was obviously in ill health at that time, so I was glad that I took the opportunity to express to him my thanks for all the hours of entertainment. I'm even more glad now.

Keep that coffin lid tightly closed, Bob. You never know what might be trying to get in.

Or out.

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

It's hard in Oakland for a pimp

The Hughes Brothers speak the truth: "Oakland is a pimpin' town."

Apparently, the only people who won't acknowledge that truth are in Oakland city government.

Allen and Albert Hughes, most often referred to collectively as the Hughes Brothers (because their last name is Hughes, and they're... well... brothers), are fraternal twin filmmakers best known for their uncompromising depictions of urban street life, as portrayed in their dramatic films Menace II Society and Dead Presidents, and the documentary American Pimp. (The Hughes Brothers also masterminded the comic book adaptation From Hell, starring Johnny Depp as a 19th-century London detective stalking Jack the Ripper.)

The latest Hughes project is an upcoming HBO drama series entitled Gentlemen of Leisure, about a middle-aged pimp struggling with the responsibilities of fatherhood and family life. The series is set in Oakland, and the Hughes Brothers are eager, for the sake of verisimilitude, to film the show on location.

So far, Mayor Ron Dellums and the Oakland City Council are having none of it. The council has to date refused to approve the Hughes Brothers' permits to begin filming on the streets of Oakland. According to Mayor Dellums, a TV show about pimps doesn't fit his vision of what Oakland is.

Never mind the fact that the rest of the world — including a slew of big-name hip-hop artists from Oakland — sees the city exactly that way.

It's no secret to anyone who follows American popular culture that Oakland is one of the hubs of the hip-hop/rap scene, which has made a cottage industry out of "pimps and hos." (The hip-hop crew Three 6 Mafia won the Academy Award for Best Original Song four years ago, for the song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp.") Hyphy, an entire "brand" of hip-hop music and style, originated in Oakland and its surrounding communities. Rap pioneer Too Short, perhaps the biggest hip-hop star to arise from the East Bay scene, built his entire career explicitly proclaiming the glories of the pimping life in Oakland.

The Oakland city fathers may not like that image. It's disingenuous, however, to deny that it exists, or to stand in the way of legitimate artists documenting it.

For their part, the Hughes Brothers have stated that if the City Council won't grant them permits to lens Gentlemen of Leisure in Oakland, they'll move the production to another city, while leaving the show's fictional setting in Oakland. That means another community will benefit from the economic uplift and job creation that follows a major television production, while struggling Oakland will lose out, even as its likeness — for better or worse — is portrayed onscreen.

If you can't change perception, Mayor Dellums, you may as well pimp it out.

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Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Westlake postscript

Well, this was a sad way to end a year...

Donald E. Westlake
, one of the great mystery novelists of our time, died yesterday.

Westlake was a prolific creator who wrote in a variety of styles, from the comic caper novels he wrote under his own name, including The Hot Rock (adapted into a 1972 film starring Robert Redford), to the gritty crime novels he wrote under the nom de plume Richard Stark, most featuring the brutal criminal mastermind known only as Parker. Westlake's first Stark/Parker novel, The Hunter, was filmed twice: as Point Blank (with Lee Marvin) in 1967, and as Payback (with Mel Gibson) in 1999.

My favorite Westlake books were a series of mysteries he wrote in the late 1960s and early '70s, about a self-loathing former cop named Mitch Tobin. Mitch was a fascinating character — his partner was killed when Mitch failed to provide him backup during a bust, because at the time of the incident, Mitch was in bed with the partner's wife. Consumed by guilt and depression, Mitch withdrew from everyday life, occupying his time by building a useless brick wall in his back yard. On occasion, he would get dragged into some circumstance that compelled him to exercise his detective skills.

I believe the five Mitch Tobin books, which Westlake wrote using the pseudonym Tucker Coe — Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death; Murder Among Children; Wax Apple; A Jade in Aries; and Don't Lie to Me — have all been out of print for years. But if you stumble across one of them at a used bookstore, a garage sale, or your local library, and if you enjoy a good mystery featuring a dark yet quirky protagonist, I recommend them.

My favorite Westlake-as-Westlake book was his 1976 novel Dancing Aztecs. Like many of his stories, it's a crime caper wrapped in comedic trappings, featuring a gang of hapless crooks who can't seem to do anything right. The title refers to the book's McGuffin, a set of 16 identical statues, only one of which is the real (and valuable) McCoy. Another must-read, if you get the opportunity.

When he wasn't writing books at a phenomenal rate, Westlake also dabbled in screenplays. He received an Academy Award nomination for The Grifters, a terrific caper flick directed by Stephen Frears, the screenplay for which Westlake adapted from a Jim Thompson novel. Westlake also wrote the 1987 horror classic The Stepfather, which made a cult star out of Terry O'Quinn nearly two decades before Lost.

In addition, Westlake created the legendary TV flop Supertrain, which almost bankrupted NBC in the fall of 1979. But then, to quote the title of a 1977 Westlake novel, Nobody's Perfect.

Somewhere on my bookshelves I have an old book entitled Murder Ink, containing all manner of interesting trivia about mysteries and their authors. In that book, Westlake conducts a hilarious and informative interview as himself as well as three of his literary alter egos: Richard Stark, Tucker Coe, and Timothy J. Culver, under which name Westlake penned a political thrilled called Ex Officio. I'll have to dig that out and reread it in Westlake's honor.

Thanks for all the unforgettable stories, and especially those wonderful characters, Don. I'll miss you.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Frontier justice

I see on the news sites that Ellie Nesler died the other day.

If that name sounds vaguely familiar, it may help jog your memory if I point out that Ellie Nesler was the woman who in 1993 walked into a courtroom in the Gold Rush town of Sonora, California, and shot to death the man being tried for molesting her six-year-old son.

Ellie's initial conviction for voluntary manslaughter was overturned due to some jury shenanigans, but the pistol-packing mama later copped a plea and served three years in prison. Her sentence was actually longer than that, but she received a reduction because she was being treated for breast cancer. The whole episode was chronicled in a made-for-cable movie (USA Network, not Lifetime, but that shows you're thinking) in 1999.

The part of Ellie's story that didn't warrant a teleflick came in 2002, when she was convicted of selling methamphetamine and sent back to the slammer for another four years.

In 2004, while Ellie was cooling her heels at the women's prison in Chowchilla, her son William stomped a guy to death less than an hour after getting out of jail from a previous assault conviction. William is currently serving 25 years to life in the big house.

At the time of the incident that brought her national fame, Ellie Nesler was hailed by some as a heroine and vilified by others as a vigilante.

Now, we can just call her the late Ms. Nesler.

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Catwoman's last groove

Not to rain a bummer down on your Yuletide or anything, but...

Eartha Kitt died today.

You young whippersnappers know Ms. Kitt as the voice of Yzma in The Emperor's New Groove, one of the best Disney animated films of the past decade, and its spin-off television series, The Emperor's New School.

Those of us with a few miles on our odometers knew that the multitalented Ms. Kitt possessed many facets. She was an actress; nominated for two Tony Awards, she was a favorite of actor-director Orson Welles (on and off the set, or so the whispers tell). She was a singer; ironically, given her death on Christmas Day, her best-known musical number was the original rendition of the pop-jazz carol "Santa Baby." She was a social activist; her scathing remarks condemning the Vietnam War at a White House function reportedly reduced Lady Bird Johnson, the then-incumbent First Lady, to tears.

Eartha Kitt broke barriers in a number of ways, perhaps most memorably in 1967, when she took over the role of Catwoman in the hit Batman after Julie Newmar left the show. "Color-blind" casting is relatively common today — think of Denzel Washington in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to cite just one recent instance — but in the '60s, it was practically unheard of that an African-American actor would be cast in a role written for a Caucasian.

Kitt's turn as the Felonious Feline was all the more remarkable in that the character's race was never made an issue. No one on Batman ever seemed to notice that the new Catwoman was black. Again, unheard of in mid-20th century Hollywood.

Kitt's tradition-shattering portrayal opened possibilities for countless other actors to be chosen for roles for which they might never have been considered — such as Halle Berry in the title role in Catwoman.

Umm...

Let me think of a better example.

How about Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin in Daredevil?

Yeah, that works.

Back to Eartha Kitt...

In addition to her work behind the Disney microphone (for which she earned her second Daytime Emmy just a couple of months ago), the legendary star spent her later years performing her popular cabaret act, acting in the occasional stage production (she toured as the Fairy Godmother in the national company of Cinderella a few years back), and battling colon cancer.

She died less than one month shy of her 82nd birthday.

As the great Ms. Kitt might have said herself... meow.

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

The L. Ron Hubbard School of Mathematics

Just in case anyone still needed proof that Scientology rots the brain:

In an interview published in the December 8 issue of Newsweek, Will Smith extols the virtues of his boon companion Tom Cruise, whom the Fresh Prince of All Media describes as "one of the most open, honest and helpful people I've met in Hollywood, or really anywhere."

Reporter Allison Samuels follows up: "No one else gave you that kind of support in all your years in the business?"

To which Will responds: "Well, Eddie Murphy and Bill Cosby reached out and really helped me back in the day, but they were older. Tom is my age..."

Umm, Will...

Tom Cruise is your age, but Eddie Murphy is "older"?

Will Smith was born September 25, 1968. Save the grab for your calculator: He's 40.

Eddie Murphy was born born April 3, 1961. He's 47. Okay, so he's older than Will — not as much as Bill Cosby, who's 71, but still, a few years older.

Tom Cruise was born July 3, 1962. That makes him 46... just one year younger than the apparently ancient Eddie Murphy.

Will: Put that copy of Dianetics down now, before your skull implodes.

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Bettie turns the final Page

Back in March, we had the sad duty of reporting the death of artist Dave Stevens, creator of The Rocketeer.

In that post, we observed that Stevens's fame will be forever entwined with that of 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page, whom Stevens used as the prototype for the Rocketeer's girlfriend Betty (note the different yet referential spelling). Stevens's work revived interest in the largely forgotten cult star, returning her to the spotlight after decades of anonymity.

Now, sadly, Stevens's muse has followed him into the next life.

Bettie Page

Bettie Page suffered a heart attack last week, leaving her comatose in a Los Angeles hospital. After having been kept on life support for several days, she passed away earlier today.

Ms. Page made her fame as one of the first models to transition from the underground pornography scene of the '50s into something approaching mainstream media. She was one of Playboy's earliest centerfolds, appearing in the January 1955 issue (one month before actress Jayne Mansfield).

Prior to her debut in Hugh Hefner's bunny rag, Bettie appeared in hundreds of ribald magazines, postcards, and non-explicit short films, many with sadomasochistic or bondage themes. She also posed for a series of pictures by Bunny Yeager, one of the first female pinup photographers. It was Yeager who brought Bettie to Hefner's attention. Thanks to her increased exposure (no pun intended), Bettie rapidly became the most popular pinup model in America.

In the late '50s, after her mentor Irving Klaw was prosecuted for distributing pornography through the mail, Bettie underwent a religious conversion and retired from modeling. She later attended several Bible colleges, and reportedly did some charitable and missionary work. She remained in relative seclusion until Dave Stevens, and other artists including Greg Theakston and Jim Silke, introduced the sunny-faced brunette to a new legion of fans. A 2005 film biography, The Notorious Bettie Page, featured Gretchen Mol in the title role.



It's unfortunate that when many people think of Bettie Page, their minds will automatically snap to the word "pornography." Unlike the porn stars of today, Bettie never performed sexual acts of any kind in front of a camera — unless one considers nudity itself a sexual act. Ironically, I first became aware of Ms. Page's career when, as a broadcast journalism student at San Francisco State University in the early 1980s, I wrote a research paper on the adult film industry.

Despite this connection, I, like many of her modern-day fans, really developed an interest in Bettie only after her image began to appear in Rocketeer comic books. My comic art collection contains — at least, so far — only one Bettie-inspired drawing: this Common Elements piece by Greg LaRocque, starring Phantom Lady and the Phantom Stranger. You'll notice that Greg's depiction of Phantom Lady bears a striking resemblance to a certain dark-tressed pinup idol.



Bettie Page declined most requests from photographers in her waning years. She preferred to be remembered as she was in her heyday.

I don't think there's any question but that she will be.

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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Hot Rod in hot water

Before he was arrested this morning, I only knew three facts about Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich:
  1. He and I matriculated at the same institution of higher learning.
  2. He's the only sitting governor with a surname even more difficult to spell than "Schwarzenegger."
  3. Every time he made news that reached as far as California, it had something to do with allegations of corruption.
It doesn't appear as though that last fact is going to change anytime soon.

If Blagojevich is guilty of even a handful of the charges contained in the 78-page criminal complaint against him, he'll be enjoying the hospitality of the taxpaying public for many years to come... although not in the setting he had hoped.

Among the U.S. attorney's more startling accusations, Blagojevich:
  • Considered appointing himself to President-elect Obama's now-vacant U.S. Senate seat. Apparently, the much-maligned, much-investigated governor believed that a few years in the Senate would set him up for a White House run in 2016. (Dream on, Rod.)

  • Discussed attempting to bargain with Obama for either a Cabinet post (specifically, Health and Human Services Secretary) or an ambassadorship in exchange for choosing someone else (namely, Valerie Jarrett, co-chair of the Obama-Biden transition team) for the Senate seat. When his staff suggested that Blagojevich appoint Jarrett without expecting a quid pro quo from the President-elect, the governor was recorded as saying, "[Expletive deleted] him."

  • Reportedly had conversations with his advisers in which he suggested that at least two possible candidates for the Senate vacancy might be willing to "pay to play"; that is, contribute millions to Blagojevich and/or his pet causes in exchange for a ticket to Washington.
Don't these people ever learn? In this electronic age, anything indictable that a politician says is being captured in an audio file somewhere. Blagojevich, especially, should have been more circumspect — the FBI has been dogging his every step almost from the moment he took office. He practically dared federal prosecutors to uncover some dirt about him, much as Colorado Senator Gary Hart challenged reporters during the 1984 Presidential campaign. That challenge, you'll recall, resulted in that infamous photograph of Hart wearing his "Monkey Business" T-shirt as he dandled his mistress Donna Rice on his knee.

Blagojevich didn't even get the T-shirt.

Ironically, Blagojevich's predecessor in the Illinois state house, George Ryan, is currently serving a six-year term in federal prison following a corruption conviction.

At least Blagojevich will have someone to talk with.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's Up With That? #68: Unkempt afterwards

This struck me as a rather peculiar news item.

Sean Avery, a player with the National Hockey Association's Dallas Stars, made the following statement to a group of reporters covering the Stars' game earlier this week against the Calgary Flames:
I am really happy to be back in Calgary. I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight.
As the sporting press dutifully acknowledged, Avery's ex-girlfriend, actress (and as an ardent fan of 24, I'm using that word with extreme accommodation) Elisha Cuthbert, is dating a Flames defenseman named Dion Phaneuf.

Apparently, Avery disapproves.

But perhaps not as much as NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman disapproves of Avery's choice of metaphor. Bettman suspended Avery indefinitely for "inappropriate public comments."

Now, this seems weird to me on several levels. Allow me to elucidate.

When I first heard about Avery's indiscretion, the news account simply stated the charge, without publishing Avery's exact words. I presumed that he had used one of the two four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms for the female reproductive anatomy (let's call them the "C" word and the "T" word) in reference to Ms. Cuthbert. I was taken aback somewhat when I learned what term he'd actually used.

Is "sloppy seconds" profane? Crude, yes. Uncomplimentary, without question — though I think I may have used stronger terminology to critique Ms. Cuthbert's acting talents (or utter lack of same) on at least one or two occasions. (All right, you've got me — every week for the first three seasons of 24.)

But a chargeable offense? Seems extreme to me.

Unlike the "C" and "T" words, however, I'm fairly certain that you could use the expression "sloppy seconds" on primetime network television. (Not that you should. I'm just saying.) It was the title of a Dr. Hook album way back in 1972, for crying out loud. If you could put it on the cover of a pop album (not to mention the cover of the Rolling Stone) 36 years ago, I'm sure you could probably get away with it on Two and a Half Men today. (If anyone would know about "sloppy seconds," it would have to be Charlie Sheen.)

I was also puzzled by the fact that Avery tossed this remark off (no pun intended) in an interview with journalists in a locker room. (Do they call it a locker room in hockey, or is it a clubhouse? Not sure. Not caring. Moving on...) Was this really the first thing Sean could think of to say when confronted with a battery of microphones? Whatever happened to, "We've gotta play 'em one game at a time... the guys are really pulling together... that's the way the puck slides sometimes... sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes the Zamboni breaks down"? Did this man never see Bull Durham? Crash Davis to the Stars' locker room, please.

For that matter, why are there reporters in a hockey locker room, interviewing players? Does anyone care what hockey players have to say? I mean, the Sharks might be the best team in the NHL right now, and you don't hear Joe Thornton or Jonathan Cheechoo babbling inanities about their ex-girlfriends — or anything else — on the local sports talk station. We know how to keep our Canadians under control here in the Bay Area.

And one other odd thing...

There's an ice hockey team in Dallas?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Another year, another injustice

Once again, People Magazine has stubbornly refused to acknowledge my animal magnetism by naming me the Sexiest Man Alive.

Apparently, animal magnetism counts, though, because this year's honoree is Wolverine.

Excuse me while I go sharpen my claws, and work on my Australian accent.

If the folks from Sexiest Middle-Aged Fat Guy Alive call while I'm out, take a message.

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Saturday, November 15, 2008

What's Up With That? #66: Design on a Dyme

This apparently happened several months ago, but I first read about it yesterday over at Rocketship of the Mind (thanks, Sean!). So it's not really news, but if I'm just now hearing about it, it's news to me, right?

My wife KJ loves watching the endless array of home improvement programs on HGTV. One of her favorite shows there is Design on a Dime, in which teams of interior decorators reinvent rooms in people's homes using a maximum budget of $1,000. (I know, they should have entitled it Design on a Grand. Don't ask me why they didn't.)

At least, KJ used to enjoy that show until a year or two ago, when several of the featured designers were replaced with newer talent whom she didn't like as well.

Now, I've come to find out that one of Design on a Dime's former stars, one-time Disney Imagineer Lee Snijders, has embarked on a new career...

...as a purveyor of Internet pornography.

Lee and his paramour, a porn star-turned-photographer who goes by the name Jett Angel (I say "goes by the name" because I'm making the not-too-audacious leap of logic that there isn't a Mr. and Mrs. Angel somewhere in the American heartland who named their offspring Jett, thereby predestining her to a future in adult entertainment) have launched a Web portal called Goth Rock Girls, which according to a published press release, is:
an 'all-girl' punk rock porn site shot in hi-definition with a high end 'reality' format that shows the two producers as a power couple who bring these girls to life as they hold their cameras and direct the action.
Which is probably more than you wanted to know.

One can only wonder what thought process would take a guy from successful ventures in amusement park design, domicile decor, and mainstream cable television to creating... well... whatever that description was in the preceding paragraph. Fortunately, Snijders hastens to explain:
I tried to continue my relationship with HGTV by pitching them show ideas, but unfortunately they were not interested and the company did not renew my contract. I found myself auditioning for design shows with models and actors posing as designers while my competitors got their own shows on HGTV. With the housing market crash and being stereotyped as a budget designer, I stayed flexible, open minded, and moved on.
That's quite a move, all right.

I'm hoping that Lee didn't intend "flexible" as a double entendre. Then again, perhaps he did.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Maverick, meet Iceman

The incoming First Family have received their official Secret Service callsigns.

President-elect Barack Obama is known to the boys with the black suits, buttons, and bad attitudes as "Renegade." Hopefully, that's not an indication that he's a Lorenzo Lamas fan.

First Lady-elect Michelle is "Renaissance." Perhaps she enjoys anachronistic cosplay. (She'd be the first First Lady since Jackie Kennedy who could make a peasant blouse and petticoat look good.)

First Daughters-elect Malia and Sasha are "Radiance" and "Rosebud." One's a little bit Charlotte's Web; the other's a little bit Citizen Kane.

The outgoing President and First Lady depart as "Trailblazer" and "Tempo." The car names make sense, given Bush 43's petroleum industry ties and the sorry state into which American automotive corporations have plummeted during his administration. (Yes, I know that the latter is not his fault. I just enjoy kicking the guy when he's down.)

Not that it would ever be pertinent, but I've given a bit of thought to the callsign I'd want were I ever to be elected Leader of the Free World. Here are a few options I came up with:
  • Earthquake. It's where I live, and it's what I do.
  • Midnight. I'm never in bed before then.
  • Flapjacks. Have you ever seen my feet?
  • Gutshot. I'm crazy enough to draw to one when I have too few outs.
  • Snickerdoodle. Mmmm... snickerdoodles.
  • Prowler. Hobie Brown should be President, doggone it.
  • Brainiac. Unless Ken Jennings gets elected first.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Dolemite has left the scene

By way of my friend The Real Sam Johnson — the undisputed king of bloggers in Savannah, GA — comes the sad news of the death of comedian, actor, and entertainment personality Rudy Ray Moore.

That name might not trip any bells for those of you too young to have experienced the swinging '70s, but readers of a certain age (and those, to be frank, who have the complexion to make the connection) will recall Moore, first as one of the premier purveyors of what we called "party records" back in the day, and then as the lead in several blaxploitation flicks, most notably playing the outrageous pimp-slash-action hero known as Dolemite.



Moore was, first and foremost, a stand-up comic and raconteur who worked the so-called "chitlin circuit" in the 1960s. Like many African-American comics of that era, he produced inexpensive record albums featuring his down-and-dirty, profanity-and-graphic-sexuality-laden routines, targeted specifically at black audiences. (Although I've been surprised over the years to discover how many of my Caucasian acquaintances also grew up listening — mostly in secret — to these "party records," so dubbed because people often played them as entertainment at adult gatherings.) Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Pigmeat Markham, and ventriloquist Willie Tyler were among the leading practitioners of the genre.

As the blaxploitation boom was sweeping the film industry, propelled by such hit movies as Shaft and Superfly, Moore began looking for a way to cash in. His ticket into cinematic legend was Dolemite, a character that had long been a feature of Moore's stand-up act.

The on-screen Dolemite was a flamboyant cross between every stereotypical cliché about urban pimps and a hard-charging street fighter of the kind then being portrayed by Jim Kelly, Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, and other blaxploitation stars. (Think Huggy Bear, with an R-rated vocabulary.) When the 1975 film Dolemite became a cult hit, Moore reprised the character in The Human Tornado the following year. In 1978, Moore unleashed his other signature character, Petey Wheatstraw, the devil's son-in-law. (I kid you not.)

Moore's movies, made on budgets that you could probably scrape together from loose change you found beneath your sofa cushions, were not high cinematic art. Indeed, it's fair to say they're the kind of flicks that Ed Wood might have made if he had been a black comic in the 1970s. But the films connected with their intended audience, so enduringly that Moore and his Dolemite persona evolved into hip-hop icons, appearing on several popular rap recordings and in numerous videos.

They definitely don't make 'em like Rudy Ray any Moore.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behind blue eyes

I awakened this morning to the sad news that Paul Newman had passed away.

Almost immediately, I began thinking about my favorite Newman films. After considerable dithering, I narrowed the list to a baker's half-dozen.

1. The Sting. An easy selection, as it's one of my ten favorite films of all time. Newman is perfect as dissolute con artist Henry Gondorff, who teams up with tyro Johnny Hooker (about a decade too old for his youthful role) for one last big score. The scene in which a faux-drunk Gondorff fleeces mobster Doyle Lonegan (Robert Shaw) at the poker table is a classic.

2. Cool Hand Luke. One of the films of the 1960s that pioneered the antihero archetype that would become ubiquitous in the following decade. Newman's free-spirited convict with a knack for escape defined a generation of maverick leading men.

3. The Hustler / The Color of Money. Made 25 years apart, these two films chronicle the early and late stages in the career of a small-time pool shark. As "Fast Eddie" Felson, Newman compelled audiences to rethink their concept of the traditional sports hero. The return of an older, more settled, and mostly wiser Eddie won Newman his only Academy Award for acting. (He won a career retrospective Oscar in 1986, and the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1994.)

4. The Verdict. Paul Newman speaking David Mamet dialogue — what could be better? Although I rate the preceding films more highly overall, Newman's portrayal of a morally conflicted boozehound attorney is, in my opinion, the finest performance of his career. Ironically, Mamet wrote the lead role for Newman's friend and collaborator Robert Redford, who ultimately turned the part down.

5. Harper / The Drowning Pool. This pair of detective dramas are more sentimental choices than anything else. I was an avid reader of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels when I was in high school, so I never missed an opportunity to catch either of these films — based on Macdonald books, albeit with the protagonist's surname changed to reflect Newman's success in films whose titles began with "H" (i.e., The Hustler, Hud, Hombre).

6. Torn Curtain. Neither Newman nor director Alfred Hitchcock liked the way this Cold War suspense thriller turned out. I personally think it's one of Hitch's better late-period films, and Newman gives an interesting, somewhat atypical performance opposite Julie Andrews.

Yes, I know — you were waiting for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Funny thing: As much as I love The Sting, I'm not a real fan of Newman, Redford, and director George Roy Hill's earlier team-up. My preferences in '60s Westerns run toward Sergio Leone — thus, like Roger Ebert, I find Butch and Sundance too flimsy and lightweight for my taste.

In addition to being a consummate actor, Paul Newman made his mark on the world as a philanthropist, entrepreneur, sportsman, and political and social activist. He and his wife, fellow Academy Award winner Joanne Woodward, celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in January of this year — an accomplishment as noteworthy as any in Newman's amazingly full life.

The world will be dimmer without Newman's crystal blue gaze.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The grapevine is silent

Norman Whitfield, one of the songwriter/producers who defined the Motown Sound in the 1960s and '70s, died yesterday. He was 68.

In case the magnitude of this loss to the musical community doesn't strike you immediately, here's a random (and by no means comprehensive) sampling of the hits Whitfield composed, usually in partnership with lyricist Barrett Strong (of "Money: That's What I Want" fame):
  • "Ain't Too Proud to Beg"
  • "Cloud Nine"
  • "Papa Was a Rolling Stone"
  • "I'm Losing You"
  • "I Wish It Would Rain"
  • "I Can't Get Next to You"
  • "Ball of Confusion"
  • "War"
  • "Smiling Faces Sometimes"
  • "Just My Imagination"
  • "Car Wash"
Not impressed yet? How about this?
  • "I Heard It Through the Grapevine"
Yeah, I thought that would do it.

Whitfield and Strong were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2004. As you can see from the list above, they practically earned an entire wing all to themselves.

Thank you, Mr. Whitfield, for all of the legendary music, and the treasured memories that music evokes. The airwaves of my youth would have been an infinitely less interesting place without you.

And that's the name of that tune.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

One question

Have you ever said to yourself, "If only I could ask [insert name of noteworthy individual here] one question..."?

So have I. (I mean, I've said it to myself. Not to yourself. Clear? Moving on...)

A few of my burning queries follow.
  • To Larry King: Marriage — any advice?

  • To Mel Gibson: Did you skip all of the pages in the Bible that mention that Jesus was a Jew?

  • To Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis: How far will you need to run your legacy into the sewer before you destroy it forever?

  • To Shia LaBeouf: Why not Target?

  • To Tom Cruise: You do know that L. Ron Hubbard was just a hack genre writer trying to hustle a buck, and not, like, some kind of spiritual visionary... don't you?

  • To Jerry Seinfeld: Can you tell a joke that might actually make me laugh?

  • To Eddie Izzard: Cake, or death?

  • To Ellen Degeneres: Did you really think anyone was surprised when you came out? (Because, Mr. Wrong? So not convincing.)

  • To Lance Bass and Neil Patrick Harris: Any thoughts on the question I just asked Ellen?

  • To Eddie Murphy: Who are you, and what did you do with the guy who was in 48HRS and the original Beverly Hills Cop?

  • To Donald Trump: Seriously... what's up with the hair?

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Tuesday, September 02, 2008

In a world without the Movie Trailer Guy...

Shocked, stunned, and saddened I am this morning to learn of the death of voiceover superstar Don LaFontaine, better known to millions of television viewers and movie attendees as "the Movie Trailer Guy." He was 68 years old.

LaFontaine's booming, gravelly, sonorous-yet-compelling voice graced literally hundreds of motion picture trailers and advertisements during his lengthy and lucrative career. And when I say "lucrative," I'm not just tossing around random adjectives. LaFontaine was recognized by the Screen Actors Guild as the single busiest actor in the history of the union, meaning that he fulfilled more contracts for acting work — and yes, voiceovers are acting — than any other member of SAG, an organization whose membership is 90 to 95 percent unemployed at any given moment.

The guy was so huge in the industry that he was driven in a chauffeured limousine to his voiceover jobs. Now that's stardom.

LaFontaine's celebrity grew to the point that Geico Insurance recently featured him on camera in one of its quirky commercials, in which he stood at a microphone in a woman's kitchen, providing his trademark commentary behind her tale of "Geico to the rescue." It was a fitting affirmation of the ubiquity LaFontaine had achieved in 21st century American popular culture.

Around our house, we often referred to LaFontaine as "the 'In a world...' guy," because so many of his trailers began with that trademark phrase... "In a world where evil triumphs..." "In a world where man fights for survival..." "In a world where life is cheap and death is expensive..."

The irony of LaFontaine's passing at this particular moment in time is that I've been listening to his work extensively in recent months. I haven't discussed this here much (if at all), but I'm currently studying voice acting, with a view toward a new career as a voiceover artist. Because LaFontaine resided at the pinnacle of the profession, I've been reviewing his demo reels (along with those of dozens of other voice actors) to learn the subtleties of his inflection, expression, and timing.

What I soon learned is that while LaFontaine was blessed with a magnificent natural instrument — you can't just pop over to Wal-Mart or Target and buy a voice like that — it was his skills as an actor that gave him transcendence. He understood how to turn a phrase perfectly, how to lean into (or back away from) a word to enhance its meaning, how to add character or clarity to his tone at just the right time and in just the right way. At the end of a Don LaFontaine trailer, you wanted to see that movie — and getting you to buy tickets was, after all, the man's job.

A few years ago, LaFontaine teamed up with four other voiceover artists who specialize in film trailers (John Leader, Nick Tate, Al Chalk, and Mark Elliott) for a fun bit of business entitled "Five Guys in a Limo." This hilarious short film offers both a clever slice of self-parody by LaFontaine and his colleagues, and a dramatic testimonial to the evocative power of the human voice. If you've never seen it, dash over to YouTube this very second and check it out.

In a world where true talent often struggles to be heard over the cacaphony of mediocrity, Don LaFontaine was The Voice. I admired his work. And I'll miss him.

(This post is not yet rated.)

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Monday, June 23, 2008

The class clown goes down

This paean to the late, legendary George Carlin will not include any words that you can't say on television.

(Although, to be accurate, two of Carlin's infamous Seven Words are now spoken on television with relative frequency, and as august a personality as Jane Fonda pitched out the four-letter word beginning with "C" on the Today Show just a few months ago.)

The immediate irony of the news about George Carlin's death (Carlin would mock me from the grave for using a euphemism like "passing") was that Cranky George videotaped his final HBO comedy special, It's Bad for Ya, here in Santa Rosa the first weekend in March. Even though the show was being taped locally, I settled for the live cablecast, since I already pay for the subscription. Now, I'm a little sad that I didn't go and pay homage to the great humorist while he was still with us.

I first became hooked on Carlin's comedy in my junior high school days. I still have my original vinyl copies of all of his classic albums from the '70s — Class Clown; FM & AM; Occupation: Foole; Toledo Window Box; An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo; On the Road; plus 1981's A Place for My Stuff. Even now, I can rattle off many of those outrageous routines and rants verbatim. (I tend to bowdlerize them a trifle when I repeat them, but still.)

Carlin is often mentioned in the same breath with such fellow comics as Redd Foxx, Lenny Bruce, and Carlin's contemporary Richard Pryor because they all employed an abundance of profanity and risque subject matter. That is, in my view, a shallow evaluation of all four performers. Foxx's bawdy routines were "inside baseball," targeted at a specific audience that had few resources for uncensored comedy. Pryor used scatological language as a framework for sociopolitical commentary — as his two network television series demonstrated (especially the award-winning Pryor's Place, a Saturday morning kid's show), Pryor could be equally effective when he wasn't working blue. Bruce — who, in my plain-spoken opinion, wasn't the comedic equal of the others, despite his reputation as an innovator — threw out F-bombs as a way of needling the Establishment and giving voice his internal demons.

Carlin, though, liked to play with language. Profanities were his Lincoln logs, his Legos, his alphabet blocks. His "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television" riff (from Class Clown), and its sequel, "Filthy Words" (from Occupation: Foole), were less about the words themselves than the concepts and mores that cause us to judge certain words as socially acceptable while deeming others taboo. A lot of Carlin's comedy was like that — a window into the mind of a man who thought a lot about why the world was the way it was, then found funny ways to talk about it. He was as brilliant an observational humorist as Mark Twain and Will Rogers were in their eras. As a stand-up comedian, he was second only to the nonpareil Pryor.

For me, George lost some of his mojo once he qualified for AARP membership. From the early '80s on, Carlin embraced his newfound persona as the angry old man a mite too fully, and his rancorous bitterness (especially on the topics of religion and politics) often overwhelmed the charming, albeit scathing, bemusement that marked his prime years.

That said, whenever he allowed himself to transcend his curmudgeonly stage character and simply wax poetic about the absurdities of modern life, Carlin was hilarious to the end. I had tears rolling down my cheeks at one point during his final special.

Today, I might shed one or two more, realizing that old George is gone.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hey, Hulk: Smash this

Yesterday, while basking in the glow of a rare break in my midday schedule, I saw The Incredible Hulk.

I was underwhelmed.

First, you have to understand that I was one of the few comics fans who actually enjoyed Ang Lee's Hulk film of five years ago. It wasn't a perfect film by any stretch — the grand climax of the story, while innovative, simply didn't work for me. Still, I found Lee's Hulk a well-crafted and thoughtful reimagining of the venerable Marvel Comics character.

I can also understand why hardcore Hulk fans didn't care for Lee's film. That's probably the reason why we part company in our evaluation of it. Although I've been reading Marvel comics for more than 40 years, I've never really been a Hulk fan. Even though the Hulk costarred in one of my favorite comic series of the 1970s, The Defenders, the book read better (in my opinion) after the Hulk and the Sub-Mariner — another character I was never all that crazy about — departed the team in favor of C-listers like the Valkyrie, Nighthawk, and Hellcat. The fact Lee tried to do something different with the character, therefore, helped it resonate with me more than if he'd simply followed the formula of the original comics, or — heaven forfend — the execrable TV series from the '70s.

Which brings me to Louis Leterrier's movie, which wants so desperately to be both of those things. Only louder, longer, and more expensive.

Let's try a point-by-point view.

Bruce Banner: Eric Bana vs. Edward Norton. Physically, Norton has the edge in replicating the Bruce Banner of the comic books — he's lean, wiry, all rabbity intensity and nervous energy. The brawny Bana, by comparison, is practically Hulkian, without any aid from the FX department. Norton is by far the superior thespian — Bana is no slouch, mind you, but Norton is one of the four or five best film actors of his generation. Oddly, though, Norton's performance sounds too many of the same notes again and again — as much as Bana's Banner (I love the sound of that) was criticized by some as being too flat in affect, Norton's spins too far in the opposite direction. I could believe Bana as a detached, self-absorbed, hyperbrilliant scientist. Norton just seemed like a computer nerd on a caffeine jag. Winner: Bana, by a nose.

Betty Ross: Jennifer Connelly vs. Liv Tyler. That pretty well sums it up, doesn't it? You simply can't replace Connelly's warmth and vulnerability — to say nothing of her Oscar-worthy acting chops — with Tyler's dewy-eyed, Bambi-in-headlights vapidness. As Stan Lee himself would put it, 'nuff said. Winner: Connelly, in a rout.

General Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross: Sam Elliott vs. William Hurt. Neither Elliott nor Hurt much resembles, either in appearance or personality, the over-the-top Ross of the Silver Age comics. Which is a good thing, in both instances. Elliott, though, found a richness and multifaceted humanity in the role that is utterly lacking in Hurt's peculiarly downbeat take. Elliott's General Ross is perhaps too decent a man to make a compelling villain; Hurt's is just too boring to care about, one way or the other. Winner: Elliott.

Whacked-out bad guy: Nick Nolte vs. Tim Roth. Now, I like Roth's work a great deal. I believe that in his character's fleeting nanoseconds of thematic development, he does a nice job with his obsessive super-soldier turned Son of Godzilla. But the script doesn't give him anything at all to work with... much like the other actors involved. Nolte, on the other hand, took a similarly underwritten role and flat-out blew the roof off the sucker. People laughed when Nolte nabbed an Oscar nomination for his razor's edge turn in Hulk. I thought the man deserved... well, if not an Academy Award, then maybe a year in an outpatient clinic. Winner: Call this one a tie.

Director: Ang Lee vs. Louis Leterrier. Let's see... Sense and Sensibility; The Ice Storm; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain. Or... Transporter 2. If you want a film with grace, sensitivity, and psychological depth, you hire the first guy. If you want stuff blowed up real good, you get the other guy. Leterrier's not a bad action director; as the "artistic director" on the first Transporter film (he settled for a lesser credit behind lead director Corey Yuen due to since-changed Directors Guild rules), he showed a flair for hyperkinetic violence. But comparing him to Ang Lee is like comparing a talented amateur to Rembrandt. Don't even try. Winner: What are you, kidding me? It's Ang "The Fang" Lee, baby.

Special effects: Excess vs. wretched excess. This is, after all, where the purple pants hit the street, correct? For all the advancements in CGI technology over the past five years, I thought the Hulk looked more Hulk-like — that is, more in line with the depiction of the character I most remember from my Marvel fanboy youth; the Herb Trimpe-Marie Severin Hulk — in the earlier movie. The new Hulk seems strangely proportioned, with a too-small head and too-sharp features. (I realize that the CGI animators in both cases used the lead actor's face as a model for their work. I'm just saying that Eric Bana's features made for a more realistic Hulk than Edward Norton's.) The FX in Incredible Hulk also suffer from Transformers syndrome: too much frenzied motion, too much splatter, too much too-muchness. At least in Ang Lee's film, the eye could always follow the action without the brain getting left three steps behind. Still, if you dig spectacle for spectacle's sake — and that appears to be what the teeming hordes who hated Lee's Hulk wanted — Leterrier delivers what you crave, in spades. Winner: The accounting department at Marvel.

Is the new Hulk film good or bad? That depends on your tastes. If all you want from your Hulk is sound and fury, signifying major league box office, The Incredible Hulk may be just your cup of gamma-irradiated tea. If you prefer a little more meat for the cerebellum with your Hulk-smashed potatoes, you'll probably leave the theater jonesing for earplugs and a hit of antinausea medication.

Either way, if you buy a ticket, you'll have the folks at Marvel seeing green.

Personal postscript: For me, the funniest moment in The Incredible Hulk was the scene in which Edward Norton's Bruce Banner encounters a security guard played by Lou Ferrigno, the champion bodybuilder who Hulked out in a fright wig and verdant makeup in the old TV series. (Ferrigno also provided the Hulk's vocalizations for the new film's soundtrack.) When Norton and Ferrigno shook hands, I half-expected Ferrigno's manager to leap into the frame and demand that Norton pony up a Jackson for the privilege of clasping Lou's giant mitt. Anyone who's ever seen Ferrigno shilling his photos and autographs at a comics convention has witnessed that sequence of events, and knows exactly what I'm talking about.

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Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: The Next Food Network Star

Two seasons ago, local restaurant personality Guy Fieri took The Next Food Network Star by storm, winning his own cooking show — the hit Guy's Big Bite — and launching a TV career that soon made him ubiquitous on the cable channel.

Last season, a charisma-challenged field of contestants served up a tainted victor — San Diego soccer mom Amy Finley, who after being voted off returned to the show when another contestant (Joshua "JAG" Garcia) was dismissed for fabricating his culinary and military résumés. Amy's six-episode series, The Gourmet Next Star, boasted all the excitement of drying model cement, and swiftly vanished from the airwaves.

So what does this season's gang of ten tele-chef wannabes look like?
  • Aaron McCargo Jr. is the executive chef at a New Jersey hospital. I've eaten hospital food, and I've seen New Jersey. If either is any indication, I don't hold out much hope for Aaron.

  • Adam Gertler is an aspiring actor and waiter — as though that isn't redundant — who used to own a barbecue joint in Philadelphia. He strikes me as kind of goofy and annoying.

  • If Cory Kahaney's name sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because she's a stand-up comedian who made the finals of Last Comic Standing a few seasons ago. Cory's not laughing now, because she was the first contestant booted off in her latest competitive reality show challenge. Seeya, Cory.

  • Jeffrey Vaden is a caterer who, at 6'5", towers over his fellow contestants. For some reason, he reminds me a little of Geoffrey Holder, the actor from Trinidad who used to do those 7-Up commercials back in the day.

  • Jennifer Cochrane is the executive chef at a pair of restaurants in Rhode Island. Given the size of Rhode Island, those may be the only two restaurants in the entire state. She's working the "suffering single mom" angle way too hard for my taste.

  • Kelsey Nixon lost me the moment she referred to herself in her bio as "Mini Martha Stewart." She's blonde, cheerleader-chirpy, and from Utah, which I believe adds up to another redundancy. She's already had her own cooking show on local television. As far as I'm concerned, that was one Kelsey show too many. The world does not need a mini Martha Stewart. I'm not entirely sure we need the full-sized version.

  • Kevin Roberts, a chef and cookbook author from San Diego, is perhaps the most laid-back contestant in the group. Chalk at least some of that up to his experience as a culinary commentator for a radio station. I find him bland and unremarkable, but his background should help.

  • As far as I'm concerned, restaurateur and former pageant queen Lisa Garza can pack up her attitude and her Louise Brooks hairdo, and boogie on back to Dallas anytime now. She's smug, self-important, and insufferable — all of which helped land her in the bottom two. Don't let the door hit you on the way out, Miss Thing.

  • Nipa Bhatt is one of the more interesting options — her specialty is Indian food, and Food Network tends to be lacking in the ethnic cuisine department. She's smart, focused, and confident to a fault, but she might come off as a mite too serious (even grim) for weekly TV.

  • Youngster Shane Lyons — he's only 20, and already a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America — is a former child actor who costarred on Nickelodeon's All That a few years ago. Now he's a caterer in Colorado Springs. Shane broke down in tears during the first evaluation session with the judges. ("There's no crying in cooking!") He's probably had more face time on camera than any contestant except the now-departed Cory, but he'll have to man up if he wants to stick around.
It's hard to pick a single early favorite after the first episode, but if I had to bet, I'd put my money on a Jennifer/Kelsey final. They both have the kind of telegenic, upbeat (read: gratingly perky) personalities that Food Network favors. Time, as the saying goes, will tell.

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Thursday, May 29, 2008

Now go do that voodoo that you do so well

At the risk of alienating SSTOL regular Scott, who was just chiding me about all the talk of death around here...

The great Harvey Korman has passed on.



It would be impossible to discuss Harvey Korman's contributions to comedy without starting with The Carol Burnett Show, where he shone as the leading sketch comic in Burnett's repertory company. Korman paired especially well with Tim Conway — almost every week, a sketch on the Burnett show would devolve into barely restrained hilarity as the two veteran comedians cracked one another up in front of a live audience. Korman won four Emmys — and was nominated for an additional three — for his work on Carol Burnett.

For me, though, Korman will live forever as Hedy Lamarr — "That's HEDLEY!" — okay, Hedley Lamarr, the scheming villain of Mel Brooks's nonpareil Western spoof, Blazing Saddles. Korman steals pretty much every scene in which he appears, breathing joy into his over-the-top portrayal of a conniving government official hell-bent on stealing a tiny frontier hamlet out from under its residents so that he can make a killing building a railroad through the site.

As Lamarr, Korman is at turns pompous, vain, agitated, simpering, serpentine, and pure evil, but he is never not funny, not for even a millisecond of screen time. It's not the kind of acting that wins Academy Award nominations — despite Korman's plea for same during the film's denouement — but I guarantee that no one who's ever seen Blazing Saddles can hear the name "Hedy Lamarr" without hearing Korman's exasperated "That's HEDLEY!" from deep within the cerebral cortex.

Korman delivered numerous other hysterical performances, especially in Brooks-directed films. He was a masochistic psychiatrist in High Anxiety; a slick French politician, the Count de Monet, in History of the World, Part I; an asylum superintendent who becomes a reluctant vampire hunter in Dracula: Dead and Loving It.

Given that Blazing Saddles is my favorite cinematic comedy, and one of my five favorite movies of any genre, it's his role in that film that will keep Harvey Korman fondly etched in my memories.

Rest in peace, Hedy Lamarr.

"That's HEDLEY!"

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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Whistle stop

The name Earle Hagen may not ring a bell when first you hear it. But if you were watching television in the 1960s and '70s — or if you're a fan of TV Land or Nick at Nite — you're familiar with his work.

The composer of numerous TV theme songs and scores, Hagen died yesterday at the age of 88.

Hagen's theme music résumé reads like a list of Nielsen ratings all-stars from back in the day: I Spy (for which Hagen won an Emmy), That Girl, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mod Squad, Eight is Enough, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., and most memorably, The Andy Griffith Show, which featured Hagen whistling a happy tune as Andy and Opie head off to the ol' fishin' hole.

In addition to his extensive television work — it's estimated that his music appears in more than 3,000 episodes — Hagen also wrote scores for dozens of motion pictures, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He and cowriter Lionel Newman were nominated for an Academy Award in 1961 for scoring another Marilyn Monroe classic, Let's Make Love.

Even if he had never composed a note for the screen, either large or small, Hagen's place in musical history was secured when he wrote (with bandleader Ray Noble) the jazz standard "Harlem Nocturne" in 1939. Practically every jazz musician active in the past seven decades has covered Hagen's soulful, Ellingtonesque riff.

Earle Hagen's passing gets me to thinking...

Whatever happened to TV theme songs?

At one time, you couldn't have a successful TV show without a catchy theme. Sometimes, the theme music was infinitely better than the show it introduced. Everyone remembers Henry Mancini's theme from the '50s detective drama Peter Gunn, which still pops up in movie and TV show soundtracks to this day. Anyone recall the show itself? That's what I thought. (Another example: T.H.E. Cat, an otherwise forgettable mid-'60s show starring Robert Loggia as a reformed — yet conveniently named — cat burglar, had a wicked cool jazz theme by Lalo Schifrin that I can hear reverberating in my skull even now.)

When I was but a wee lad, I used to collect TV themes on my little reel-to-reel tape recorder — you whippersnappers will have to look that one up — and a cheap microphone I would hold in front of the speaker of our Zenith console set. In between songs, I'd throw in introductory patter in the mold of the AM disc jockeys I idolized — Casey Kasem and Wolfman Jack. (Look, I was an only child in a military family that moved every year or two. I learned self-entertainment skills early in life.) Who knew then that TV theme songs would one day go the way of... well... reel-to-reel audio tape?

Of course, there's a reason for the decline in the art of TV themes: It's called money. Those precious 15 or 30 seconds that would otherwise be wasted on a throwaway musical trifle can be sold to the highest-bidding advertiser, instead of offering attention-deficient viewers an opportunity to grab a snack or relieve themselves. When TV shows use themes these days, they're usually established pop hits (the CSI franchise's obsession with classics by The Who, to cite but three), not custom ditties designed to establish the program's unique mood.

Earle Hagen may have died only yesterday, but, sad to tell, the TV theme songs he loved died long before.

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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Say "Good night," Dick

Dick Martin, the goofier half of the '60s comedy team Rowan and Martin, has said his last "Good night, Dick."

For those of you too young to remember the Summer of Love, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In broke many of television's most hallowed taboos when it debuted on NBC in January 1968.

Laugh-In was the first primetime network series to leap full-bore into the world of cutting-edge political humor and sexual double entendre, and it did it all with a loosey-goosey formlessness that owed more to the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night and psychedelia than any traditional variety or comedy program that preceded it.

At the center of the insanity stood straight man Dan Rowan and his happy-go-lucky foil Dick Martin, standing about looking dapper in their tuxedos, tossing off urbane one-liners while Goldie Hawn gyrated in a bikini.

Those were the days.

After Laugh-In played out the string in the early '70s, Rowan and Martin went their separate ways. Dick Martin showed up frequently as a celebrity panelist on game shows like Hollywood Squares and Match Game — TV programs that capitalized on the new openness in bawdy humor that Laugh-In pioneered.

At the same time, Martin was building a second, less visible but no less creative, career behind the camera as a director. He helmed dozens of episodes of situation comedies, from Newhart to Sledge Hammer! and everything in between.

Early in Laugh-In's run, Rowan and Martin seized their blossoming fame and rushed out a theatrical comedy called The Maltese Bippy (after one of the innumerable catchphrases Laugh-In spawned, "You bet your sweet bippy"). Modeled on the Universal Studios horror-comedies of Abbott and Costello, the film featured Dan and Dick matching half-wits with vampires and werewolves, and chasing busty young women. (Martin eventually caught one — he married former Playboy centerfold Dolly Read.) I remember sitting with friends in the base theater at Iraklion Air Station on the Greek island of Crete one Saturday afternoon, watching the duo cavort.

Fans will recall that at the conclusion of every Laugh-In episode, Rowan (who died of cancer in 1987) would turn to his partner — who, in typical fashion, had usually just spouted some inane commentary — and utter the magic words, "Say 'Good night,' Dick." To which Martin would respond, grinning with daffy glee into the camera, "Good night, Dick."

Good night, Dick.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

Like Grant took Richmond

The Dean of Bay Area newscasters has hung up his TelePrompTer.



Last night, Dennis Richmond — the longtime anchor of KTVU-2's Ten O'Clock News — signed off for the final time. Dennis spent 40 years at KTVU (the Bay Area's FOX affiliate, and a major independent station for decades before FOX), the last 32 of which saw him anchoring the area's lone "early" newscast with gravitas and aplomb.

As news anchors go, Dennis was solidly old-school. He rarely cracked wise, offered political commentary, or indulged in tabloid fluff from the anchor chair. In the immortal words of Jack Webb, Dennis stuck with "just the facts, ma'am."

His female co-anchors — and they were always female, beginning with Barbara Simpson in the late '70s, who gave way to Elaine Corral in the mid-'80s, who in turn stepped aside for Leslie Griffith in the late '90s, before perky Julie Haener snatched the job two years ago — came and went (mostly as they crept toward middle age, because that's how the broadcasting business goes), but Dennis remained constant, every night offering his sober and elegant delivery of the day's critical stories.

I would never hope to switch on the television and hear that World War Three had erupted. But if it had, I'd have wanted Dennis Richmond to be there to break the news, in his rich, reassuring baritone.

Now, when the Big One drops, I'll have to settle for Frank Somerville. Not that there's anything wrong with Frank — he's a fine reporter and anchor in his own right. But no one is Dennis Richmond.

Heck, they already named an East Bay city after the man.

Bon chance, Mr. Richmond. Thanks for all the news, good and bad. May your retirement be long, healthy, and fulfilling.

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Monday, May 12, 2008

Time for your singout, America

Now that David Archuleta's father Jeff has been booted from the American Idol set due to his obsessive stage-motherish antics (not to mention his rearranging of one of the songs his son performed on the show, resulting in hefty royalties payouts by Idol's producers)...



...here's Uncle Swan's Top Five Additional People Who Need to Be Voted Off Idol, and Soon:

5. Randy "Not Michael's Little Brother" Jackson. I love Journey as much as the next '70s holdover, but seriously, it's time for Randy to hit the bricks. Even though "The Dawg" is the only Idol judge with legitimate musical credentials (you're not still clinging to the illusion that Paula actually sang "Straight Up" and "Cold Hearted Snake," are you?), his inane repetitions of the same tired clichés every week wore out their welcome at least three seasons ago. It ain't workin' for me any more, Dawg.

4. Ryan "I'm Too Sexy for My" Seacrest. Two words: Seacrest? Out. Get over yourself, Gel Boy.

3. The instigator of the weekly Ford Motor Company "pimpmercials." Look, I understand economics. I know that Ford blows a ginormous chunk of change every week to have the surviving Idols lip-synch and grimace to some stale pop tune. I realize that those funds are, in large measure, responsible for keeping the show on the air. But if I wanted to watch abysmal musical theater, I'd buy a ticket to a local high school production, or the nearest theme park. I don't need these camp comedies beamed into my living room. Oh, and Ford? Try making some cars you don't have to pimp.

2. Every celebrity mentor who hasn't had a Top Ten pop hit this millennium, or who can recall the Kennedy administration firsthand. Is it any wonder that young viewers are deserting Idol in droves, when the producers' idea of hip, happening musical guests includes Dolly Parton, Neil Diamond, and Andrew Lloyd Webber? How did the show turn into AARP Idol all of a sudden?

1. Paula "Putting the Coca Back in Cola" Abdul. Enough already with the insipid, rambling, pharmaceutically fueled commentary, already. If I have to endure one more outburst of Paula's torturous Amy Winehouse imitation — or another cellophane-sheer denial by Seacrest of what every American with a television set or Internet connection can see and hear with his or her own God-installed sensory apparatus — I'm going to fly to Hollywood and sniff Paula's Coke tumbler myself.

Get to stepping, the lot of you.

And take Little Archie and his dad with you.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Bring me the head of Brian Dunkleman

Has this been the most tedious American Idol season in history, or what?



When this year's Top Twelve were announced — what seems like a geological epoch ago — I commented that this field seemed like the least interesting in the show's seven-year history.

Things haven't improved since.

But at least we're down to the final three, and that's something. No more false starts by Brooke White, no more dead-fish stares from Kristy Lee Cook, and as of last night, no more agonizingly soporific performances by Jason "I'm Too Sexy for My Dreadlocks" Castro.

Not that what we're left with is all that much better.

Syesha Mercado is the surprise pick in the remaining trio. I didn't expect Syesha, who's been in the bottom tier more consistently than almost anyone else this season, to survive anywhere close to this late in the contest. For my money, she's the most listenable of the three singers left, and she's not hard to look at, either. But she's never shaken her penchant for selecting ill-fitting material to perform, nor has she developed much of an engaging stage personality. As I sit here typing, I can't recall the title of a single song Syesha has sung. That's not a good sign. She'll probably be the next to depart.

David Archuleta — "Archie," as I like to call him — was everyone's early-season favorite to be anointed American Idol #7. The kid does zip for me personally. He sings pretty well, in a high school musical sort of way, but I can't say much else in his favor. He's awkward, uncomfortable to watch, and indefinably creepy in a manner that makes me fear for his household pets. If there's a market for Archie's recordings, I can't imagine of whom that market would consist. He doesn't have boy-band sex appeal, rock star charisma, or Broadway vocal power. As I said at the beginning, though, in this tepid field, I would still not be surprised if he won.

David Cook is, to my mind, the least of the three evils left. Alt-rocker Cook, who has outlasted the other Cook and one of the two other Davids in the Top Twelve, could best be described as Chris Daughtry-lite. I'm not sure why anyone would want Daughtry-lite when the real Daughtry is alive and well and appears to be doing just fine with his career, but there you go. Cook is the most talented of the Big Three, both in vocal skill and in ability to adapt effectively to a variety of material. Were I among the teeming millions who vote each week — and I can assure you that I am not — Cook would be the one whose digits I'd dial.

Looking at and listening to Syesha and the two Davids, I'm stunned that Idol — still the most popular show on television, despite a ratings slump this season — couldn't come up with a more potent final trio. Where's the Kelly Clarkson in this group? The Fantasia Barrino? The Taylor Hicks, for that matter? (Speaking of Taylor, I believe the last time I saw his face on Idol, it was backstage, on the side of a milk carton.)

In most of the show's previous seasons, even the second- and third-place contestants would have performed dervish-like circles around any of these three. Just imagine such Idol also-rans as Clay Aiken, Kimberley Locke, Katharine McPhee, or the aforementioned Daughtry competing against this motley crew.

This snooze-inducing contest would already be over.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Death by Frigidaire

I nearly dropped my cup of Butter Pecan when I read this...

Irv Robbins, cofounder of the Baskin-Robbins ice cream chain
, has departed for that giant freezer in the sky.



Robbins launched his tongue-chilling empire in 1945, when he opened his first ice cream parlor in Glendale, California. A few years later, he teamed up with his brother-in-law Burton Baskin to start the company that bears their names. (They flipped a coin to determine whose name came first.)

Baskin-Robbins quickly became the pioneering frozen dessert franchise operation, paving the way for franchising efforts in other areas of fast-food service. That "golden arches" thing, to name but one.

When his partner Baskin died in 1967, Robbins sold the company to United Fruit Co., although he continued on the payroll for another decade or so. These days, Baskin-Robbins belongs to the parent corporation of Dunkin' Donuts — is that a match made in hypoglycemic heaven, or what? — and boasts more than 5,800 shops internationally.

Although Baskin-Robbins' trademark is "31 Flavors," they've offered over a thousand varieties of ice cream at one time or another, from the perennial vanilla and chocolate to seasonal specialties (for example, our household favorite, Baseball Nut, a vanilla-raspberry-cashew concoction that resurfaces every spring) to such promotional gimmicks as Shrek'd Out Chocolate Mint and Casper's Red, White and Boo.

Here's a sweet irony: Robbins's son John, the author of such books as Diet for a New America, The Food Revolution, and Healthy at 100, is one of the world's most prominent advocates of veganism and natural, plant-based foods.

That's right, Junior: Dad paid for three squares a day, plus clothing, shelter, and college education, by selling frozen sugar and butterfat. And the man lived to be 90. Meanwhile, you're jumping on camera with Morgan Spurlock to bad-mouth your father's legacy.

King Lear said it best: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

I'll raise a double scoop of Nutty Coconut to that.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Babbling about Brooke

This caught my attention on a slow news May Day...

In an interview scheduled to air next Tuesday, television legend Barbara Walters reveals to Oprah Winfrey that, back in the 1970s, she engaged in a long-running affair with Edward Brooke, who at the time was (a) a Republican U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, (b) married, and (c) African-American.

Brooke hasn't been (a) since 1978. I believe he's now (b) to a different woman than the one to whom he was (b) at the time that he was getting jiggy with the ABC newswoman. So far as I know, he is still (c).

When I first heard about this, my first reaction was probably the same as yours: Barbara Walters?

Senator Brooke: You were one of the 200 or so most powerful men in the United States government. You could probably have shacked up with any woman you chose — notwithstanding the far less enlightened racial climate of 30-odd years ago. And you picked Barbara Walters?

Dude, what were you thinking?

Then again, as a quick survey of the couples strolling your local shopping mall will confirm, there's no accounting for taste.

And here all this time, I just thought Ed Brooke was goofy because he was a Republican.

Setting his questionable preferences in women aside for the moment, Ed Brooke's an interesting guy, from a historical perspective. The first African-American to be popularly elected to the U.S. Senate — and the only black Senator elected for more than a quarter-century after he took office in 1967 — Brooke was a black Republican in an era when pretty much the only black Republicans anyone could name were Pearl Bailey and Ed Brooke.

As one might expect from a Massachusetts Republican, Brooke occupied the liberal wing of the GOP, to the degree that such exists. (In fact, the citizens of Massachusetts haven't elected another Republican to the Senate since Brooke was defeated for a third term by future Democratic Presidential candidate Paul Tsongas.) Brooke often butted heads with fellow elephant Richard Nixon, leading the rejection of a trio of Nixon nominations to the U.S. Supreme Court, including that of racial segregationist (and closeted homosexual, not that either Nixon or Brooke knew at the time) G. Harrold Carswell in 1970. To his credit, Brooke was one of the first Senators to publicly call for Nixon's resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

Earlier in this decade, Brooke was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy. He has since campaigned actively in support of breast cancer awareness, among men in particular. Bush 43 awarded Brooke the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004.

At the time of his defeat in 1978, many political observers blamed Brooke's loss on the nasty and highly publicized divorce he and his then-wife underwent during his second Senatorial term. Now that Barbara Walters has 'fessed up to Oprah, maybe we know what all the fuss at the Brooke house was about.

Although we may never know how Baba Wawa hooked up with a man whose surname she couldn't pronounce.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

CSI: Can't Sleep Intoxicated

CSI star Gary Dourdan got up close and personal with real-life law enforcement this morning in sunny Palm Springs.

Dourdan — recently reported to be exiting his role as crime scene investigator Warrick Brown at the end of the current season — was napping in his car when rousted by the Palm Springs gendarmerie. A search of Dourdan's vehicle turned up heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy, and various prescription drugs.

Way to go out on a high note, Gary. (Heh... "high note.")



I was sorry to hear that Dourdan was departing CSI, even though his character's screen time has been dwindling rapidly over the past few seasons. And I'm certainly sorry to hear about his current troubles, and hope the guy gets himself straightened out. He's a talented actor.

But seriously... he couldn't afford a hotel room? I know Palm Springs is a high-rent district, but Dourdan's gotta be making a chunk of change after eight years on television's top-rated drama.

I remember the first time I noticed Dourdan — costarring alongside James McCaffrey (in between stints on that classic '90s Knight Rider rip-off, Viper) in a short-lived series called Swift Justice. McCaffrey played Mac Swift, your stereotypical ex-cop, ex-Navy Seal hardcase turned private eye, while Dourdan tagged along as Mac's stereotypical streetwise police detective associate, Randall Patterson. It sounds exactly like a few dozen other shows you've seen before, but Swift Justice was a reasonably entertaining example of this well-traveled genre. McCaffrey and Dourdan shared a cool, intense Crockett-and-Tubbs sort of chemistry that made the show's handful of episodes worth watching.

Another smattering of Gary Dourdan trivia: Dourdan and his CSI costar Marg Helgenberger previously paired up in an unsold series pilot entitled Keys. The 1994 TV movie (it still turns up on cable now and again) was produced and directed by John Sacret Young, for whom Helgenberger had worked in her breakout television role, in the Vietnam drama China Beach.

Not to be confused with china white, Mr. Dourdan.

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What's Up With That? #63: So that's what they mean by "Down Under"

And we Americans think our politicians are insane.

Troy Buswell, a member of the Australian Parliament and the leader of Western Australia's Liberal Party, tearfully admitted the veracity of rumors that he smelled the chair of a female staffer shortly after she vacated it.

Apparently, Mr. Buswell did inhale.



According to The Australian, in 2005:
Mr. Buswell allegedly lifted the woman's chair and started sniffing it in front of her, and later repeated the act in front of several staff members.
The paper further notes that last year, Buswell snapped a staff member's bra strap during a "drunken escapade," and frequently made "inappropriate comments" to female colleagues.

In an emotional public statement, Buswell acknowledged that his behavior was "unacceptable." He had no ready explanation for the white cotton underpants seen dangling from his hip pocket.

So far, there is no confirmation of the report that Buswell's favorite '70s radio hit was "Driver's Seat" by Sniff 'n' the Tears.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Barry Zito: The new Steve Blass

The Giants have a fever...

...and the only prescription is less Barry Zito.



If I were Giants upper management — and I'm not — here's what I would do with my $126 million pitcher who has become incapable of getting batters out.

Zito would suddenly develop a "mysterious injury" — let's call it hypertrophic frakulation of the distal metatarsus — that would earn him a slot on the 15-day disabled list and a two-week vacation.

As Zito's hypertrophic frakulation began to resolve in mid-May, I'd send him to the Giants' Class A minor league club in San Jose, where he could work himself back into self-confidence by throwing his legendary curveball past 20-year-old kids fresh out of junior college.

At the same time, I'd bring in a couple of experienced pitching gurus from outside the Giants organization — at least one of whom could teach the knuckleball — to help Zito find a more effective way to set up his eminently hittable 84 m.p.h. "fast" ball.

Once Zito had developed some semblance of competence and a fresh optimism about major league life, I'd return him to the Giants starting rotation — not as the Number One starter, where he routinely faces the opposing team's best pitcher, but as the Number Five starter, where he would routinely face the weakest link in the opponent's rotation.

Then, I'd pray for a miracle.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

In the still of the night

I just read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News, that Ronnie I has passed on.

Ronnie I (his last name was Italiano, but I never heard anyone refer to him as anything but Ronnie I) was a legend in a cappella music circles as the world's leading proponent of old-school, 1950s-style R&B vocal harmony — the kind of music you might call doo-wop.

You didn't call it that in front of Ronnie I.

Ronnie I didn't just love vocal harmony, he actively promoted it with his heart and soul. He owned a record store in New Jersey called Clifton Music, where he sold both old and new vocal harmony recordings. Clifton Music also recorded artists who might otherwise have remained unknown and unheralded, and provided an outlet for aficionados of the style to hear them. For many years, Ronnie hosted radio shows featuring his beloved music on several New York area stations. He founded the United in Group Harmony Association (UGHA), an organization joining vintage-style vocal groups and their fans. Ronnie I and UGHA hosted frequent concerts that brought these musicians together.

I never met Ronnie I, but from all the stories I heard about him from within the a cappella community, I felt as though I knew him. He had a reputation for being crusty, hard-nosed, and single-minded. But no one doubted his passion for the music he championed.

Back in the '90s, Ronnie I was the director of the New York regional of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championship. If I recall correctly, he judged the finals, which are held at the Marin Civic Center on the first Saturday in May, on at least one occasion. (KJ and I had a 14-year streak of attending the finals broken two years ago, when she was too ill to go. I missed last year, and will miss again next Saturday, because my chorus now schedules its annual retreat on that weekend.)

My a cappella library boasts at least a couple of Clifton Music CDs, including a magnificent recording by a long-defunct quintet called Charm, whom Ronnie I considered one of the greatest R&B vocal groups in the history of the style. I'll have to dig that one out and give it a spin in Ronnie's memory.

Ronnie I succumbed following a long fight with liver cancer. His legacy will live on... because the music he loved will never die.

On a cheerier note, I understand from John Neal's blog that Sony Entertainment — my old friends via Jeopardy! — just purchased the rights to develop a reality show centered around the Harmony Sweepstakes, for which John — who has owned the Sweeps for the past dozen years or so — will be serving as a consultant. Congratulations, John!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Poker's candle in the wind

Brandi Rose Hawbaker, the Britney Spears of poker, has folded her hand. Permanently.

She was only 26 years old.

Or somewhere in that vicinity.



The tragic act occurred more than a week ago, apparently, but news is only now getting around on the poker blog circuit. Brandi's suicide draws the curtain on a roller-coaster ride that seemed bizarre and outlandish even within a milieu that attracts — and thrives on — the bizarre and outlandish.

Like most poker aficionados, I first became aware of Brandi when she led the field for the first several days of Festa al Lago V, a 2006 World Poker Tour event. Although she ended up finishing a respectable 35th in the tournament (two places ahead of Jennifer Harman, widely considered the best female poker player in the world), Brandi's run as chip leader — coupled with her photogenic appeal and exhibitionist personality — sealed her date with demi-celebrity.

Attractive young women with actual talent come along in professional poker about as often as vegans dine at the Outback Steakhouse, so Brandi's advent on the scene set testosterone-fueled tongues wagging across the Internet. Sad to tell, Brandi's newfound fame came packaged with tales of self-destructive and antisocial behavior that rivaled those of Hollywood's tabloid darlings. These stories spawned persistent whispers about untreated mental illness, supported by online testimony from people close to Brandi.

The whispers, it seems, spoke at least a modicum of truth.

Neil Young once sang, "It's better to burn out than it is to rust." I'm not certain that I agree with him. Brandi Hawbaker, whether by conscious choice or karmic twist, apparently did.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore"

Sad news for the Famous Monsters of Filmland crowd: Hazel Court has died.

Yes, for real this time.



Hazel Court was an English actress who enjoyed a lengthy, if largely unspectacular, career in motion pictures and television. In the early 1950s, Court discovered her true calling, acting in low-budget horror films. She appeared as the female half of a young couple who move into a haunted house in 1952's Ghost Ship. This led to her legendary turn in the 1954 classic Devil Girl from Mars — Court played the ingenue, not the title character, in case you were confused. She was again cast as the innocent young heroine in Hammer Films' seminal The Curse of Frankenstein in 1957, and a scream-screen star was born.

In the early 1960s, Court costarred in several films produced by Roger Corman's American International Pictures, based on the twisted works of Edgar Allan Poe: The Premature Burial, in which Court played the duplicitous lover of scholarly Ray Milland; The Raven, which paired Court with a callow Jack Nicholson (yes, that Jack Nicholson) opposite terror titans Boris Karloff, Vincent Price, and Peter Lorre; and The Masque of the Red Death, perhaps Corman's most memorably Poe-etic opus, and almost certainly the best picture in Court's filmography.

Although she wasn't, to be brutally frank, an accomplished thespian, Court was attractive in that stereotypically wan, upper-crust English sort of way. Her porcelain beauty — and impressive displays of quivering cleavage — lent a certain austere charm to the films in which she starred. Without question, her performances garnered her a minuscule yet dedicated coterie of devotees, as this comprehensive fansite demonstrates.

Some years ago, when I was writing reviews for DVD Verdict, I brandished my critical pencil at an MGM double-feature disk showcasing The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death. You can check out my review of these two Roger Corman masterworks (*ahem*) here.

In an odd touch of irony, just as I sat down to memorialize Ms. Court this afternoon, this T-shirt arrived in my mailbox, courtesy of the good folks at Woot!



I can't imagine a more fitting tribute.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

What's Up With That? #62: Ain't no party like an Uncle Sam party

Pop diva Alicia Keys opines that gangsta rap was created by the United States government as "a ploy to convince black people to kill each other."

Umm... what?

I'm trying to envision a collection of Caucasian policy wonks holed up in a bunker in Washington, D.C. writing the material for N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton. The imagery just isn't working for me.

Even if we assume, for the sake of ludicrous argument, that shadowy figures at the Justice Department did in fact concoct the idea of gangsta rap, there's an element that I still don't comprehend:

How did the government persuade the performers who ostensibly began the gangsta rap phenomenon to begin recording this stuff?

Maybe the conversation went something like this...

FBI Guy: Hello, Mr. Ice-T. Thank you for meeting with us.

Ice-T: Whatever.

FBI Guy: Mr. Ice-T — may I call you Mr. T.?

Ice-T: Naw, man, that's the brother with the Mohawk and the bling. Just call me Ice.

FBI Guy: All right, Ice. Recognizing that you are a loyal American and a decent, law-abiding citizen, your federal government would like to make you the point man on a unique public relations project.

Ice-T: I'm listening.

FBI Guy: Your government is taking note of this hip-hop — do I have the term correct? — business that's all the rage with the young African-Americans these days. We believe there's a wonderful opportunity here to accomplish something very special for this country, and for the black community in particular, utilizing this exciting medium. And we would like for you to take a leading role.

Ice-T: What do I have to do?

FBI Guy: Our crack staff — no pun intended, Ice — has been composing some funky-fresh — did I say that properly? — lyrical material for the hip-hop genre, which we want you to record. We believe that if you were to make this material popular with the African-American youth, other performers would follow suit.

Ice-T: A'ight. Lemme see what you got. (Pause.) "Six in the mornin', police at my door..." Are you kidding me, man? (Another pause.) "Cop Killer"? What the [expletive deleted] is this?

FBI Guy: We realize that some of this material may seem — how should I put it? — extreme. However, it's our position that...

Ice-T: This crap has me advocating the murder of police officers! Man, some of my best friends are cops!

FBI Guy: I know, it sounds somewhat counterintuitive. But...

Ice-T: I can't record this. It'll incite people to violence. I'm a lover, not a "cop killer."

FBI Guy: Ice, are you familiar with the concept of reverse psychology? That's what we're going for here.

Ice-T: I don't know, man. This seems like crazy talk.

FBI Guy: This isn't crazy, Ice. It's your federal government at work. Some of the brightest minds in Washington are hard at work on this project.

Ice-T: Whatever. So what's in all this for me, man?

FBI Guy: International fame and a multimillion-dollar recording career, for starters.

Ice-T: You gotta give me more than that. I'll lose all my friends in the 'hood once they find out I'm working for The Man.

FBI Guy: How would you feel about a permanent costarring role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit?

Ice-T: Dick Wolf? I'm down.

FBI Guy: You're a true patriot, Ice.

Ice-T: Whatever.

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Monday, April 07, 2008

Astronaut of the year (literally)

Just a few hours ago, NASA astronaut and biochemist Peggy Whitson achieved a noteworthy milestone:

She became the first woman in history to spend the equivalent of one full year in space.



Dr. Whitson — currently the commander of the International Space Station and its resident mission team, Expedition 16 — is nearing the conclusion of her second extended tour aboard the ISS. At this writing, she has logged slightly more than 180 days in space on her present assignment. Combining this mission with the 184 days, 22 hours, and 15 minutes Whitson spent aloft six years ago as flight engineer of ISS Expedition 5 (June 5 to December 7, 2002) gives the groundbreaking astronaut a grand spaceflight total of 365 days and change.

Whitson also holds the record for most spacewalks (Extra-Vehicular Activities, if you want to get all technical about it) by a female space traveler: six EVAs totaling 39 hours.

Last fall, when Space Shuttle Discovery's STS-120 team, under the command of U.S. Air Force Colonel Pam Melroy, visited the ISS, Dr. Whitson and Col. Melroy became the first two women to command active space missions simultaneously.

Dr. Whitson and her colleague, Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko, are scheduled to return to terra firma aboard Soyuz TMA-11 — the same craft that carried them to the ISS last October — on April 19.

We bid them a safe journey home.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008

Go down, Moses

Now that the man has shuffled off this mortal coil, I can admit this:

I'm a huge Charlton Heston fan.



Not the rhetoric-spewing, rifle-waving reactionary Heston of his later years in public life. And not even so much the more rational, compassionate Heston of earlier times, who marched alongside Dr. King and was an ardent, vocal supporter of civil rights long before it was socially acceptable. Although I did kind of admire that guy.

No, I mean the Heston of all of those classic Hollywood films. The man who stepped in front of a camera with those chiseled features, that piercing gaze, and that booming baritone, and wrestled the silver screen to the ground.

I loved that Charlton Heston.

The man had such intense, compelling presence that he, with his blond-haired, blue-eyed self, could play an endless string of Hebrews (Moses in The Ten Commandments; Judah Ben-Hur in Ben-Hur; John the Baptist in The Grestest Story Ever Told), Latins (Mexican narco agent Mike Vargas in Touch of Evil; Spanish conqueror Rodrigo Diaz in El Cid), and Italians (Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy; Marc Antony in both the 1970 edition of Julius Caesar and the Heston-directed Antony and Cleopatra in 1972), and make you believe in them.

Heston's charisma was so palpable that he could remain concrete and genuine in the midst of the most embarrassingly hackneyed disaster film (Skyjacked, Airport '75, Earthquake, the submarine-sinking Gray Lady Down) or kitschy science fiction knock-off (The Omega Man — based on the same source material as the recent Will Smith epic, I Am Legend — or the insanely off-kilter consumerism-as-cannibalism future shocker, Soylent Green), and made you believe in those, too.

I mean, the man starred in an Aaron Spelling-produced soap opera so cheesy that it was actually named after cheese — the mid-'80s Dynasty spin-off, The Colbys — and he was even imposing and awe-inspiring in that. If you can shine in an Aaron Spelling production, you've got serious chops, my friend.

Of course, my favorite Heston turn was his role as time-warped astronaut George Taylor in the first two films in what eventually became the Planet of the Apes franchise. If Heston had never done anything in his cinematic career other than break into bitter tears before the ruined shell of the Statue of Liberty — one of the most iconic scenes in the history of the movies — or blow up the entire world with his bloody hand on the detonator of a doomsday bomb, his place in popular culture would be forever sealed. But of course, he did those things, plus all of the aforementioned as well.

What a monumental career.

It would be a shame if all that people remembered about Chuck Heston was the ultra-conservative political animal he became late in life. (Unless you're a rebel-yelling, monster-truck-driving, pistol-packing gun nut yourself — in which case, I guess that will be what you remember. And to that, you're entitled. Different strokes for different folks, as Sly Stone and Gary Coleman used to say.) The man left behind a treasure trove of unforgettable screen performances, to be savored for generations. Keep your paws off my DVDs, you d--n dirty ape! (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)

Sadly, I never had the opportunity to tell Mr. Heston how much I enjoyed his cinematic oeuvre. I did, however, sit next to his daughter Holly during a course in American Political Humor at Pepperdine University one semester. (Nice girl. I lent her a ballpoint pen once. She returned it. I didn't use it again for at least a week afterward.)

Mr. Heston was 84, and had suffered from Alzheimer's disease for the past several years. I share the sorrow of his family, his friends, and his well-earned legion of fans.

(Pssst... Soylent Green is people. Pass it on.)

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Arranger, unlimited

I was saddened to read, over at John Neal's A Cappella News blog, that Gene Puerling, the legendary vocal artist, composer, and arranger, passed away last week.



Anyone who loves vocal jazz knows Gene Puerling's work. He first came to renown in the 1950s as founder, arranger, and musical director of the seminal vocal group, the Hi-Lo's. The Hi-Lo's (named for the group's top-to-bottom vocal ranges, as well as the strikingly disparate heights of its members) enjoyed enduring popularity until they parted company in the 1960s, though they reunited to record from time to time as late as the 1990s.

In 1967, Puerling formed one of the most amazing singing ensembles ever created: the Singers Unlimited. Using only four vocalists — tenor and former Hi-Lo Don Shelton, bass Len Dresslar, Puerling himself at baritone, and the incredible Bonnie Herman singing all of the female parts, sometimes as many as 30 in a single recording — pioneered multitracking at a time when almost no one in the recording industry outside of four guys from Liverpool was making music in that way. Puerling brought the Singers Unlimited together to record advertising jingles and commercials; however, the foursome also recorded a series of magnificent albums that stand as classics of vocal jazz.

The Singers Unlimited's A Cappella and Christmas are two of my favorite albums ever. You haven't fully appreciate all of the ways that human voices can be combined until you've heard the amazing harmonies of Puerling, Shelton, Dresslar, and Herman layered together on the Beatles' Michelle and Fool on the Hill.



Perhaps no other musician in the contemporary idiom lent as much to the art of vocal arranging as did Gene Puerling. Groups such as the Manhattan Transfer, New York Voices, and Take 6 owe their intricate approach to harmony to the work Puerling created for the Hi-Lo's and Singers Unlimited, as well as numerous other artists. His spectacular a cappella arrangement of "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," written for and recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, won a Grammy in 1981. Puerling received a total of 14 Grammy nominations during his five-decade career.

I had an opportunity to meet Gene Puerling a few years ago, during one of his appearances as a judge at the finals of the Harmony Sweepstakes, the national a cappella championships. It was just a fleeting moment — we actually passed one another at the entrance to the men's room. (No, we did not shake hands.)

For fans of vocal music, Puerling leaves behind a tremendous legacy. It's fair to say that the contemporary a cappella movement would not exist without his influence — not, at least, in its present form and style.

You'll find an excellent interview with Puerling here. (Scroll about halfway down the page.)

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

I watched the news today, oh boy

Television news continues to spiral down the toilet.

Yesterday, CBS initiated a cost-cutting move by firing news reporters, producers, and editors at its owned-and-operated stations nationwide. At KPIX-5 in San Francisco, the cuts involved some of the Bay Area's most honored and most respected broadcast journalists: Emmy-winning reporters Bill Schechner, Manuel Ramos, John Lobertini, and Tony Russomanno, and veteran anchor Barbara Rodgers.

All five of these newspeople built impressive careers. Schechner has worked at several Bay Area stations since arriving here in 1972; he also enjoyed national prominence for several years in the 1980s as Linda Ellerbee's coanchor on NBC News Overnight, and as a correspondent and feature reporter for NBC Nightly News. Ramos and Rodgers have each been reporting local stories at KPIX for 28 years.

Within the broadcast industry, the complaint often raised today is that people — particularly tech-savvy younger people — no longer turn to TV for news, thus making news staffs expendable. What the bean-counters fail to comprehend is that TV news, especially in local markets, has become so fluff-filled and tabloid-oriented that it's ceased to be a credible source for journalism. A couple of years ago, our in-town station, Santa Rosa's KFTY, turned its news operation entirely over to amateurs from the community. The experiment devolved into a national joke.

KPIX used to respresent a bastion of solid, dependable journalism against the piffle floated by the Bay Area's NBC and ABC affiliates. I'm sad to see that philosophy dying an agonizing death at the hands of accountants and media consultants.

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

They've killed Kinch!

Ivan Dixon, the talented actor-director best known to teleholics of a certain age as Sgt. James "Kinch" Kinchloe, the technical wizard POW on Hogan's Heroes, has died at age 76.



Dixon's Hollywood career began in the 1950s, when he served as Sidney Poitier's double and stand-in on such films as The Defiant Ones, and later as Poitier's costar in Porgy and Bess and A Raisin in the Sun. He became one of the first black actors to appear in a regular, nonstereotypical role on an American TV series when he was cast in Hogan's Heroes in 1965.

Dixon mostly set acting aside after leaving Hogan's at the end of the show's fifth season. (It remains one of TV's enduring mysteries that Hogan's Heroes stayed on the air for six years.) His two notable roles in post-Stalag 13 life were as Lonnie, the tough-yet-compassionate ex-con straw boss in the classic '70s film comedy Car Wash ("I got to have more money, Mr. B.!"), and as courageous Dr. Alan Drummond, a leader of the resistance movement in the Cold War drama Amerika.

Instead, Dixon refocused his career behind the camera, becoming one of TV's busiest directors throughout the '70s and '80s. He helmed the canvas chair for dozens of episodes of series television, most frequently on The Rockford Files (nine episodes) and Magnum P.I. (13 episodes), but also on shows as diverse as The Waltons, The Greatest American Hero, and Quantum Leap.

After retiring from directing, Dixon owned a radio station in Hawaii for a number of years. (I guess all those years as Colonel Hogan's communications guy finally paid off.)

His career honors included one Emmy nomination (Best Lead Actor in a Drama for the 1967 CBS Playhouse presentation The Final War of Olly Winter), four NAACP Image Awards, the National Black Theatre Award, and the Black American Cinema Society's Paul Robeson Pioneer Award.

As résumés go, that's a pretty darned good one.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rockets away, Dave Stevens

Most of the time, I relegate my comics-focused commentary to our Comic Art Friday feature. This week, however, so as not to cast a pall over the second half of our interview with Inkwell Awards founder Bob Almond — which you can enjoy in this space beginning tomorrow — I'm going to bend the rule just a touch, in a worthy cause.

Comic book and pinup artist Dave Stevens passed away from leukemia earlier this week, at the far-too-young age of 52.



Stevens was best known to the public and within the comics industry for two significant — and in an odd way, related — accomplishments.

First, he was the writer, artist, and creative visionary behind The Rocketeer, a groundbreaking yet wistfully nostalgic series that spawned a delightful live-action Disney film in 1991. (I understand that Stevens wasn't particularly pleased with the movie, and I respect his reasons. But I enjoyed it anyway.)



Second, Stevens was responsible for introducing 1950s pinup queen Bettie Page to a new legion of fans when he used Page's likeness as the model for the Rocketeer's girlfriend. Stevens also personally sought out and befriended Page herself, who had withdrawn from public life to the degree that many fans believed that she had died. The renewed interest in Page's career, prompted by Stevens's impeccable depiction of her in his numerous artworks, helped the former model gain some financial stability in addition to fresh admirers.

As an artist, Stevens was notorious for his meticulous approach to his work — an obsessiveness that severely limited his output. The work he did produce, though, was nothing short of incredible. No one in the business drew more flawlessly beautiful women or more lushly detailed settings. Every artist creating "good girl" art today owes a debt of influence and inspiration to Stevens, both for his synthesis of the great masters of the form and for his own technical brilliance.



Stevens also earned a well-founded reputation as an intensely private individual — although he had battled leukemia for several years, many of his fans (myself included) remained unaware of his illness until the news of his death arrived.

It's unfortunate that the relative scantiness (no pun intended) of Stevens's production volume will prevent his work from being more widely known and appreciated outside the circle of comics fans and pinup art collectors. He was as enormous a talent as this generation of artists has produced.

A few years back, I commissioned Heavy Metal artist Michael L. Peters to create a piece for my Common Elements series featuring the Rocketeer and DC Comics' interplanetary adventurer, Adam Strange. It's as close to a Stevens original as I'm ever likely to own.



Michael's drawing is the only Common Elements artwork on permanent display in my home — it hangs on the north wall of our living room. I will treasure it always as a loving homage to Stevens's creation.

For fans who wish to pay their respects in a tangible way, Stevens's family asks that donations in Dave Stevens's name be made to the Hairy Cell Leukemia Research Foundation.

Keep 'em flying, Dave.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What's Up With That? #59: Mary Ann, meet Mary Jane

Now, sit right back and you'll hear a tale
A tale of a fateful ride;
That ended with a Dawn Wells bust --
Her car had weed inside.


Who would have suspected that sweet, innocent, fresh-faced Mary Ann Summers was a midnight toker?



Gilligan's Island star Wells, today a sprightly 69-year-old, was sentenced to six months probation this week following an arrest in Idaho last October, after a deputy sheriff observed Wells driving erratically.

Upon pulling Wells over, the officer detected the unmistakable aroma of combusting cannabis wafting from the vehicle. A subsequent search turned up four partially consumed doobies, and two cases commonly used for storing marijuana. Wells also failed a field sobriety test.



In addition to the probationary stint, the television legend was slapped with a five-day jail sentence and a $400 fine. (That's the inflationary equivalent of a ticket on a three-hour Hawaiian cruise in 1965.)

Wells reportedly told the arresting officer that the marijuana had been left in her car by three anonymous hitchhikers she had picked up earlier in the evening. Following sentencing, Wells's attorney changed the story, saying that a friend of Wells had borrowed her car on the day in question, and absent-mindedly left his stoner supplies behind. (Memo to Mary Ann: The old "it's my car, but it's not my stuff" gambit played out ages ago. Ask Lindsay Lohan.)

Gilligan fans will recall that Wells's late costar Bob Denver was no stranger to the allure of tetrahydrocannabinol. Denver was busted in 1998 after a package containing marijuana was delivered to his home. At the time, Denver claimed that the package had been sent by his old friend Dawn Wells. Given recent events, that story takes on a fresh new light of relevance.

By the way...

...in the age-old "Ginger or Mary Ann?" debate, does anyone ever pick Ginger?

Perhaps now we know why Mary Ann was so popular.



At least, one of the reasons why.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Your Idol Top Twelve, America



Yeah, yeah, I know... I've usually weighed in on the season's American Idol contestants long before we get down to the Deadly Dozen.

But I've gotta be honest here.

As much as Seacrest and the Gang of Three keep pounding us every week with the proposition that this year's cast is "the most talented ever," I'm just not seeing it. Oh, there's some talent in the bunch, as we'll discuss in a moment, but seriously, this is the most charisma-challenged collection of wannabe Idols since... well... last season, when a freaky kid who couldn't sing a lick ran far deeper into the competition than he ever should have, simply because he was mildly interesting amid a tepid field.

This season, we don't even have Sanjaya to kick around any more.

In Idol's best cycles, it's had drama. Sometimes, that drama derived from a clash of similar styles — as in Season Three, when a trio of massive-voiced R&B divas (LaToya London, eventual winner Fantasia Barrino, and 2007 Academy Award honoree Jennifer Hudson) vied for the crown. At other times, the drama surrounded a coterie of equally likable contestants with disparate, but roughly equal, talents — the triumvirate of Kimberley Locke, Clay Aiken, and ultimate victor Ruben Studdard in Season Two; the four-headed popularity contest between Chris Daughtry, Elliott Yamin, Katharine McPhee, and winner Taylor Hicks in Season Five.

Alas, no drama tonight.

So far this season, it's tough to build much enthusiasm about any of the hopefuls, each of whom is bland and vanilla in her or his own bland, vanilla way. I can't imagine wanting to download a single, much less an entire album's worth of material, by any performer in the Class of '08.

But since we here at SSTOL never permit overwhelming ennui to stand in the way of blogging, we press ahead. Wiping the sleep gunk from our crusty eyelids, let's review the Top Twelve for Idol Season Seven. We'll take 'em in — oh, what the heck — reverse alphabetical order, so as not to impose upon the (yawn) suspense.

Brooke White. As exciting as her name. A perky blonde Mormon kid from Arizona — with all the thrill potential that impliezzzzz... — Brooke is one of the contestants leveraging the new-for-'08 rule permitting performers to play their own instruments onstage. We've seen her tickle the ivories during Hollywood Week, and strum her way through a downbeat cover of Pat Benatar's "Love is a Battlefield" on guitar. What we haven't seen is even a modicum of personality. Brooke can sing just fine, but man, is she boring. Her skills and the Rocky Mountain LDS voting block should keep her in contention for the top five.

Carly Smithson. Irish-born chanteuse Carly is one of several "ringers" in this year's field — contestants who've previously signed recording contracts, and, in Carly's case, recorded at least one major-label album (2001's MCA Records release Ultimate High, recorded under her maiden name Carly Hennessey). (I know — this seems antithetical to Idol's entire "discovering unknown talent" concept. But I just report the facts.) Carly, in fact, passed the Idol audition phase back in Season Five, but was unable to continue in the competition due to visa problems. Not surprisingly, Carly is the most polished performer of the finalists. She'll steamroll her way at least into the top three.

Amanda Overmyer. Perhaps the only real surprise in the Top Twelve, Amanda's a raspy-voiced rocker chick — think Janis Joplin without the heart or nuance, and with a hideous faux-Goth makeover. She really can't sing very well — her rendition of one of my favorite '70s classics, Kansas's "Carry On, Wayward Son," made my eardrums scream for mercy — and her stony-faced demeanor is off-putting, to say the least. Amanda found her niche last week, however, with an acceptable cover of Joan Jett's "I Hate Myself for Loving You." I'll be shocked if she lasts long enough to make the Idol summer tour, which traditionally features the top ten finalists.

Syesha Mercado.
In most seasons, Idol serves up a plethora of female hopefuls who appear to believe they're the next Whitney Houston. This year, there's only one diva: Syesha (it's pronounced Cy-EE-sha). She's got a decent enough voice, but has a penchant for abominable song selection — she growled a hideous version of "Tobacco Road" a couple of weeks back, and delivered an oddly gender-flipped rearrangement of Billy Paul's "Me and Mrs. Jones." Purely from an aesthetic perspective, I hope Syesha sticks around a while — she's the most attractive of the female contestants, in a year when attractiveness is in short supply — but she'll have to pick more effective material. She's a mid-round elimination at best.

Ramiele Malubay. This year's edition of Season Three's Jasmine Trias, Ramiele is a petite Asian-American girl who'll pick up a lot of what I call the "stuffed animal" vote — she's the cutest and cuddliest member of the cast, and ratchets up her adorability factor by bawling uncontrollably whenever a fellow contestant is eliminated. In her defense, however, Ramiele can also sing, with a startlingly powerful voice encased in so diminutive a package. I wouldn't be at all shocked to see her in the top half of the draw.

Michael Johns. Like Carly, Michael's another of the ringers — he was twice signed to Madonna's record label, albeit without actually releasing an album — and also like Carly, a candidate to be American Idol's first non-American-born Idol (he's an Aussie from Perth, and even bears some slight resemblance to his late homeboy, Heath Ledger). He is, if I'm not mistaken, the oldest-ever Idol finalist at age 29, and he could easily pass for a decade older. He's a talent, but after the Taylor Hicks fiasco of two seasons ago, I suspect that Idol's producers will undermine his chances at every turn. Middle of the pack, most likely.

David Hernandez. One of three Davids in the Top Twelve, David H. is this year's sex-scandal Idol. Prior to his moment in the television spotlight, he worked as a stripper and lap-dance provider at a gay bar in Phoenix — an establishment bearing the none-too-subtle moniker "Dick's Cabaret." Unlike the fabled Frenchie Davis of Season Two, who was booted from the show when news came to light that she had posed nude for a pornographic Web site, David H. has been given a free pass by Idol's producers. He won't last more than a couple of weeks, though — he's not much of a singer, and — surprisingly, given his background — he's not a very captivating performer, either.

Chikezie Eze. The only male soul singer in this season's cast, Chikezie (who, in the manner of Fantasia and Mandisa before him, appears to have deep-sixed his surname somewhere on the way to the finals) seems like a nice fellow. Unfortunately, that affability is all that he has going for him here. His vocal style approximates that of the late Luther Vandross in the later years of that legend's life, but Chikezie doesn't have Luther's ability or charisma. He'll be a candidate for the exit every week until he's gone, which will probably be soon.

Kristy Lee Cook. Yet another ringer: Kristy was signed by BMI Records in 2001. No less a celebrity than the now-notorious Britney Spears showed up for a cameo in Kristy's first music video — a video that earned the country singer from Oregon the nickname "KKKristy" in online forums, as she performs a portion of her number standing in front of a Confederate flag. The second coming of Kellie Pickler — only with even less talent, if you can imagine that's possible — Ms. Cook will likely draw some niche votes from country fans, but not enough to propel her higher than eighth or ninth.

David Cook. The field's most identity-challenged contestant, in that he shares his surname with one of his competitors and his given name with two others. I'll confess that I didn't think much of David C. the first couple of weeks of competition — to me, he sounds pretty much like a dozen other grunge rockers I could name, and a zillion more no one could name — but he impressed me last week with an arrestingly good alt-rock remake of Lionel Richie's "Hello." (I would not have thought it possible to do a listenable alt-rock cover of a Lionel Richie song, but I learn new things all the time.) If David C. can keep pulling that kind of rabbit out of his musical hat, he'll stick around for a few weeks.

Jason Castro. Dreadlocked Jason vaulted from obscurity last week with a gorgeous, sensitive rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," the most familiar cover of which was recorded by Jeff Buckley (literally hundreds of other singers have recorded the song also). As with David Cook before him, Jason needs this level of artistry to break loose every week, because before this, I was sneaking a bathroom break every time he stepped on stage.

David Archuleta. Young David A. is problematic — he's an unquestionably talented kid (he also competed, and won, on the revival of Star Search a few years back) who wouldn't appear to have much, if indeed any, potential as a popular recording artist. His is the sort of musical performance ability that would have, in an earlier generation, made him an ideal candidate for The Mickey Mouse Club alongside Britney, Justin, and the rest. But unless he's hiding some serious Timberlake in his hip pocket, he'll spend his career singing in cruise ship lounges and theme parks. (Not that that's a bad thing.) I would not be surprised if David A. survived until the final round. I would not even be shocked if he won. I just can't imagine him selling many CDs.

So there you have it, America. Vote early, and vote often. We'll check back in a few weeks to see who's still standing.

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Monday, March 10, 2008

Spitzer? I didn't even touch her!

New York Governor Eliot Spitzer just learned the danger of keeping an escort service on speed dial.

Spitzer publicly apologized today — albeit without specificity — for his involvement with a high-ticket prostitution ring targeted in a federal investigation. According to news reports, a wiretapped conversation revealed Spitzer soliciting the services of a professional companion in the employ of the ironically named Emperors Club VIP. The assignation allegedly was arranged in advance of the Governor's recent trip to the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel (possibly related to the notorious madam of similar name?) in Washington, D.C.



Can you imagine how this discovery must have played out?

I can just see some low-level FBI flunky sitting in a van wearing a Brooks Brothers suit and a set of headphones, nursing a Diet Pepsi and a bag of Cheetos, listening to the calls coming into the escort service.

Suddenly, his ears perk up. "That sounds like..."

He listens further.

"It is! That's Governor Spitzer! My career is totally made!"

And Day-Glo orange Cheeto dust goes flying everywhere.

Now here's the part that baffles me. According to the reports, Emperors Club VIP charges as much as $5,500 per hour for the services of its (ahem) staff. Call me naïve ("You're naïve!"), but seriously — what "service" could anyone possibly provide in an hour that's worth $5,500? That's practically a down payment on a house, for crying out loud.

Although, I suppose it's as that noted connoisseur of the world's oldest profession, Charlie Sheen, once remarked: "I don't pay 'em for sex — I pay 'em to go away afterward."

Unfortunately for Mr. Spitzer, he didn't pay 'em enough to use a secure phone line.

One last touch of irony: For his costly tryst, Spitzer appears to have registered at the Mayflower under the pseudonym "George Fox." Students of religious history will recall that George Fox was the founder of the Society of Friends, the sect more familiarly known as Quakers. [You can insert your own punch line here.]

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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gygax? Dygax. Bygax.

When I heard that Dungeons & Dragons cocreator Gary Gygax had died, in a flash it was 1978 all over again.

Now, you might suppose that — considering my lifelong obsession with comic books — I've been a major-league gamer geek also, as the two addictions often go hand in hand.

In thinking so, however, you would be mistaken.

I never really got into role-playing games. The only reason I ever played any D&D at all is because I had a couple of friends who were into the game for all of about five minutes, so I played the game with them just because it was the thing to do. I found the whole business arduous and more than a trifle silly. Attention-challenged as I am, I could never compel myself to slog through D&D's interminable rule books, or to grasp the myriad bits of arcane lore from which the game evolved. Plus, the multisided dice confused my prosaic, doggedly concrete sensibilities.

About the only part of the game I enjoyed was creating the characters. In fact, somewhere in my files I have shreds of an epic fantasy novel populated entirely with heroes I came up with during my momentary flirtation with D&D — sword-slinging warriors with names like Raldraxx and Pandrill and Skylodon, who teamed up to battle an evil wizard known as Traver Morninglight. It didn't take me long to figure out that I was no Robert E. Howard, much less a J.R.R. Tolkien.

I did like writing funny songs about the various forms of eldritch creatures that inhabited the D&D universe. You'd be amazed at how many hilarious, even ribald rhymes one can weave using Kobolds, Orcs, and Gelatinous Cubes.

Or perhaps you would not.

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Monday, March 03, 2008

Seeing the light at last

I was totally bummed to learn of the death yesterday of guitarist Jeff Healey.



Blinded in infancy by a rare form of retinal cancer, Healey battled the deadly disease throughout his 41 years of life.

During that time, he also made some spectacular music. His 1988 album, See the Light, combined Healey's unique guitar stylings — he played with the instrument lying flat across his lap, and strummed it sideways — with his raw, blues-edged vocals.

Viewers of late-night cable remember Healey's appearance in the B-movie classic, Road House, in which the hard-rocking musician was featured as Cody, the leader of the title establishment's house band. Healey's musical numbers were the best thing about that improbable, yet oddly compelling, little piece of cinema magic... unless you're into Patrick Swayze's sweat-sheened pecs. But that's not how I roll.

In recent years, Healey had gravitated toward jazz, releasing a string of well-received albums in that genre. (Uncle Swan's favorite: the 2006 release It's Tight Like That.) His latest recording, however, reportedly marked a return to his blues-rock roots. Mess of Blues will be released next month, and you've gotta know I'll pick up a copy.

Jeff Healey leaves behind a wife, two children, and a legion of fans, among whom I'm proud to be counted.

Rest in peace, blind man.

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Friday, February 29, 2008

WonderCon: Where comics rule, and cash disappears

Today's Comic Art Friday is dedicated to my loyal assistant Abby, who celebrated her seventh birthday yesterday.

Abby does not like it when the boss closes the office for two days to run off to some silly comic book convention thing, as he did last Friday and Saturday. So she's happy that he's back in his chair where he belongs, so that she can lie at his feet and snooze.



Speaking of that silly comic book convention thing...

WonderCon 2008 rocked.



San Francisco's Moscone Center overflowed with pop culture insanity last weekend, and your Uncle Swan splashed along with the colorful tide.

It was, I must say, quite an action-packed weekend:

I convinced a pair of Stormtroopers that I was not the droid they were looking for...



I persuaded Wonder Woman and Supergirl to pose for a photo by name-dropping my close personal friendship with Bob Almond, the King of Inking...



I avoided making the Incredible Hulk angry, because I wouldn't like him when he's angry...



I made a donation to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, battling evil censorship wherever it raises its ugly head...



...and I strolled past more fancy merchandising displays than one could shake an uru hammer at.







I attended several terrific panels. The highlight was Mark Evanier's panel debuting his new book about the life and art of Jack Kirby, Kirby: King of Comics. Mark, who broke into the comics business as Kirby's assistant in the late 1960s...



...led a discussion on the works of Jolly Jack, aided and abetted by such creative talents as Mike Royer, who was Kirby's primary inking collaborator for two decades, beginning in the early 1970s, and Darwyn Cooke, the writer/artist responsible for Justice League: The New Frontier, the film version of which debuted at WonderCon on Saturday night. (It's available now on DVD. You should run out to your local retailer as soon as you finish reading this, and buy a copy.)



Comic Relief, the big comics shop in Berkeley, managed to acquire the first 80 copies of Mark's hot-off-the-press book to sell at the convention. Both Mark and Mike Royer were kind enough to autograph my copy. (According to Mark's blog this morning, Amazon now has Kirby: King of Comics in stock. You should click over there as soon as you finish reading this, and order a copy.)

Mark also hosted an enjoyable one-on-one interview with longtime Marvel Comics artist Herb Trimpe, known for his work on The Incredible Hulk, G.I. Joe, Godzilla, and Shogun Warriors, among numerous other titles. Herb was also the first artist to draw Wolverine, later of the X-Men, in a published comic. If you had a mint-condition copy of Incredible Hulk #181 lying around, you could put your kids through college.



A few years back, I commissioned Herb to draw an entry in my Common Elements theme — a tussle between Doc Samson, a Hulk supporting character Herb co-created, and Doc Savage, the Man of Bronze. I took the piece to WonderCon with me, and Herb kindly posed for a photo with it. It was a treat to meet him and to thank him for it in person, after all this time.



Another entertaining panel featured a group of animation writers — Justice League story editor Dwayne McDuffie prominent among them — developing an outline for a hypothetical animation project using random suggestions from the audience. If you ever see an announcement about Howard the Duck vs. The Green Lantern Corps, you'll know that this panel is where the concept first germinated.



Of course you know that I didn't spend the entire weekend listening to industry stalwarts yakking. Artists' Alley beckoned, and its denizens busied themselves adding a slate of gorgeous new artworks to my collection. Let's check out the haul.

For the second consecutive WonderCon, I commissioned a new Common Elements artwork. This year, the challenge went to the legendary Tony DeZuniga, who agreed to bring together the swashbuckling Zorro and the Justice League's Vixen. I had neglected to bring a picture of Zorro — I mistakenly believed that Tony had drawn the character before — so Tony's charming wife Tina prowled the comics vendors until she found a old Gold Key Zorro comic for Tony to reference.



Here, Tony displays his completed creation.



Alex Niño, one of comics' most distinctive stylists, held court at the table next to Tony's. I took advantage of the opportunity to tell Alex that I'm probably one of maybe five people in the world who owns all twelve issues of Thriller, the fabled series from the '70s on which Alex followed Trevor Von Eeden as artist.



Alex responded with this striking drawing of Taarna, from the film Heavy Metal.



Although we always renew our acquaintance whenever we see each other at a con, it had been a while since I had commissioned a new work from the great Ernie Chan. I rectified this oversight, and Ernie delivered this terrific portrait of Doc Savage and his cousin and fellow adventurer, Pat Savage.



I never pass up a chance to have Ron Lim draw something for me. Ron seemed to enjoy creating this pinup of longtime Fantastic Four comrade-in-arms Thundra.



Last year at WonderCon, I struck gold by stumbling upon Phil Noto, who although not listed as a convention guest was setting up at a table. Could lightning strike twice in the same convention hall? Yes, indeed — once again, I lucked into a commission from the again-unannounced Mr. Noto. Here's Phil's Valkyrie as a work in progress...



...and as a finished product in the hands of the artist.



David Williams, who has contributed delightful art to Marvel's all-ages line in recent years, was the perfect choice to draw Mary Marvel. His Marilynesque take on Mary couldn't be more adorable.



I was elated last year when Aaron Lopresti took over the art chores on one of my favorite series, Ms. Marvel. Thus, when comics news sites reported recently that Aaron was leaving Marvel for DC, I was disappointed... until I learned that his first DC assignment will be as the regular penciler on Wonder Woman. This awesome Storm drawing will satisfy my Lopresti jones until Aaron's first issue of Wonder Woman hits the stands.



I had intended to commission a piece from Sidekick artist Chris Moreno. When I saw this amazing drawing of Ms. Marvel in Chris's portfolio, however, I couldn't imagine him drawing anything that I would enjoy more than this. So I bought it from him. Chris's use of negative space in this piece is stunning.



So that, friend reader, was WonderCon '08. Now you know where the money went.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Buckley stops here

Some of you — heck, perhaps all of you — will be flabbergasted to read this, but I'm going to say it anyway:

I'm going to miss William F. Buckley.

Were I going to populate a dinner table with the guests from throughout human history I believed would make the most fascinating conversation, Buckley would be near the top of the invitation list. The "godfather of American conservatism" was erudite, witty, disarmingly charming, and often hilarious. If you ever saw any of his Firing Line broadcasts — and I tuned in quite a few, over the program's 33 years on the air — you witnessed a master of the art of interlocution in action.

Buckley's gift for language was both compelling and astounding. Yes, he was perhaps overfond of his own repartee and Brobdingnagian vocabulary, but I have to confess that I learned a lot of interesting words and phrases from Buckley's talk shows and columns. The obvious relish with which Buckley wielded the tongue of Shakespeare is especially remarkable when one considers that it was his third language — he learned to speak Spanish and French in childhood, and began to study English only when he entered school at age seven.

As a political pundit, Buckley possessed the rarest of talents: the ability to engage in civil, even affectionate, discourse with people with whom he strongly disagreed. Although unquestionably opinionated, and not above using his rapier wit to belittle an opponent, Buckley managed to maintain positive relations with people at the opposite extremes of the philosophical spectrum from his own conservative-libertarian base. Many of his closest friends, such as liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, held views far removed from Buckley's. But he had that knack: even if you disagreed with him, you kind of liked the old goat. Grudgingly, perhaps, but still.

Buckley and I would not have found much common ground in a political or sociological debate. Even so, I appreciated his willingness to at least hear other sides of an issue, and to take occasional stands that set him at odds with those of like stripe, such as his often-stated position that the Bush administration's Iraq policy has been a complete failure.

Buckley also demonstrated that he could change his mind about things. Once an ardent defender of the racist, anti-Semitic John Birch Society during the 1950s, he repudiated the organization a decade later. Where Buckley once openly supported South African apartheid in the National Review, he later acknowledged that, had he been a black South African, he would have supported Nelson Mandela's African National Congress.

Did Buckley ever fully renounce his own personal racism and anti-Semitism? I don't know — I never met the man. Let's just say I probably wouldn't have wanted him to marry my daughter.

I do think that I'd have enjoyed sitting across a table from him, and kicking ideas around over coffee. We might not have concurred about much. I'd like to think, however, that we'd both have at least heard a few well-articulated opinions.

And more than a few fifty-dollar words.

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Monday, February 25, 2008

No viewers for old Oscar

I would like to tell you how enthusiastically I enjoyed last night's telecast of the 80th Academy Awards.

I would also like to tell you how closely I resemble Denzel Washington, and how my fiscal holdings almost exactly mirror those of Warren Buffett.

All of the above would be equally true.

Oscar really has turned into a snoozefest — tepid, tedious, and annoyingly time-wasting. You'd think that after 80 years, the Academy would have cooked up a formula that worked. But they haven't.

To be fair, one of the key problems with this year's show was out of the Academy's hands, as well as those of the producers of the Oscarcast. There was little, if any, suspense inherent in any of the major awards, largely because many of the films nominated weren't popular blockbusters with a built-in rooting interest, and quite a few of the actors up for the big prizes weren't household names in any households other than their own. I'll be honest, I had to hit Wikipedia and IMDB more than once to find out what other film projects a nominee had done. Embarrassing admission for a pop culture maniac such as myself, but we're all about the honesty here at SSTOL.

Jon Stewart's return as host didn't help much. In his own realm on The Daily Show, Stewart's a sharp, funny guy. But in his two stints as Oscar MC, he's seemed off his "A" game. As Chris Rock discovered a few years back, it's tough to strike that delicate balance between edgy and off-putting. Stewart appears to be taking the path of least resistance here, but that isn't really what people who enjoy his incisive brand of topical humor want to see or hear. He's certainly better than the terminally laid-back Steve Martin or the uncomfortably frenetic Ellen Degeneres, but not an awful lot better.

As I've noted in past years, I still believe that the best hosting Oscar has had in recent seasons was served up by Whoopi Goldberg in her four outings. Whoopi — who, to be frank, I prefer in small doses — exhibits all the right tools for award night success: a quick wit; a brilliant sense of timing; a willingness to push the envelope but sense enough not to push it too far; and best of all, her own personal Oscar cred as a two-time nominee and winner of one gold statue (Best Supporting Actress, 1990, Ghost). It's clear, though, that Whoopi has somehow landed on the Academy's blacklist (no pun intended) — when clips of former Oscarcast hosts appeared on last night's show, the Whoopster was mysteriously absent.

Anyway, I'd continue talking about the broadcast, but just thinking about it is hitting me like a double dose of Ambien. So let's just hope Little Gold Guy finds a little more action next year.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

What's Up With That? #58: Monica du jour

Senator John McCain says:

"I did not have sexual relations with that woman...



...is there an echo in here?"

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

I'm Karen for you, Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to everyone in SSTOL-land! May you live in romantic times.

All this hearts-and-flowers talk has me wondering, though...

Whatever happened to local girl Karen Valentine?



Born and raised just around the corner from here in Sebastopol — then nationally renowned for its apple orchards (now mostly gone, as progress would have it), and later as the one-time residence of cartoonist Charles Schulz — Karen Valentine leaped into TV prominence in 1969 on the seminal academic drama Room 222. As perky, neurotic student teacher (and eventually, full-fledged faculty member) Alice Johnson, Karen quickly became one of 222's focal points.

For those of you too callow to recall, Room 222 broke significant broadcast ground back in the day. The show, set in an inner-city Los Angeles high school, boasted one of network television's first thoroughly integrated casts, headlined by African American actors Lloyd Haynes and Denise Nicholas (who was briefly married to soul singer Bill Withers). The plotlines often dealt with topical issues, such as race relations and the Vietnam War.

But let's face it: It was Karen Valentine we tuned in to see.

After 222 ended in 1974, Karen headlined a short-lived sitcom entitled — not surprisingly — Karen. She also made frequent appearances throughout the '70s as a celebrity panelist on the popular game show Hollywood Squares, before launching a decade-long career as the heroine in a skein of maudlin made-for-TV movies.

Although her IMDB listing reflects sporadic acting credits in recent years, I don't believe I've actually seen Karen in anything in 15 years or more. Unlike the remarkably similar Sally Field, who pushed beyond her youthful roles in Gidget and The Flying Nun to become a respected, Oscar-winning film actress, Karen never quite made the on-camera jump from bubbly, fresh-faced girl to mature, sophisticated adult woman.

Too bad, really.

Wherever you are, Miss Johnson, I hope you're enjoying your Valentine's Day.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The missing Linc

It's Lincoln's Birthday today!

Oh, what a joyous occasion!

Lincoln has always been a hero of mine. He hung tough in the face of adversity and violent opposition. He stood determined in his resolve to battle injustice and hatred. Charismatic, yet possessed with a dignified cool. A champion defender of the disenfranchised, and a staunch advocate for the rights of black Americans.

Plus, his monster Afro and aviator shades were wicked cool.

What?

Oh, you meant this Lincoln...



...not this Lincoln.



Never mind, then. Carry on.

Solid!

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Monday, February 11, 2008

My dinner with George (Lucas)

Okay, full disclosure...

I didn't actually have dinner with George Lucas.

Or lunch.

Or breakfast.

I've never even met George Lucas. (I did once ride the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland with Maclean Stevenson, but that's a story for another time.)

I did, however, spend last Saturday in the mammoth soundstage recording studio at Lucas's fabled Skywalker Ranch, tucked away in the hills of bucolic western Marin County. My chorus, Voices in Harmony — northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus, just like it says on my official coffee mug — is enjoying the privilege of recording our debut CD (entitled Now and Then, and available for advance purchase, if you're so inclined) at Skywalker Sound.



Over the years, I've known a number of folks who worked at the Lucasfilm complex — none of whom are either space aliens or robots, so far as I can tell — so I was aware going in that the Skywalker Ranch experience would be nowhere near as visually amazing as the kajillion-award-winning film and recording output of the place might suggest. Just to quell a few rumors:
  • The security guard at the front gate does not wear a Stormtrooper's white armor. (I did, however, use my Jedi mental powers to persuade him that my van's passengers and I were not the droids he was looking for.)

  • The crosswalk signs do not read, "Caution: Wookiee Zone."

  • The soundstage does not resemble the Imperial Hall of Alderaan — from the exterior, it looks like a decrepit old winery — and, sad to tell, is not staffed by slave girls in gold metal bikinis. (Although it was Saturday, so the slave girls might have had the day off.)

  • Our audio engineer did not carry a lightsaber, or wear a rebreathing helmet.

  • The only Ewok in evidence was a diminutive, furry-faced fellow standing in our baritone section, and I'm pretty certain he came with us.
Prosaic accoutrement aside, our initial recording experience was still powerful and awe-inspiring. Anyone who loves the cinema couldn't help but "feel a stirring in the Force" while standing in the vast hall where so many memorable orchestral scores have been performed. Looking up at the studio's great movie screen, I could imagine our voices — like a Greek chorus of the Aristotelian period — providing dramatic background for some epic battle sequence between the defenders of truth and the purveyors of evil. (Or perhaps Spaceballs: The Musical.)

The last time I recorded with a chorus, we were 40 men crammed into a narrow bandbox of a joint tiled with carpet remnants. We were lucky to create two or three usable takes in a day's labor. On Saturday, the 85 of us — under the guiding hand of one of the world's most accomplished choral conductors — generated celestial sound that, I'm sure, had angels harmonizing along. We laid down half the tracks for a 16-song CD that would be an insane bargain at five times the cover price. (Hint, hint.)

As we departed the legendary confines of Skywalker Ranch at the end of an exhausting yet productive and enormously gratifying day — our voices weary, our lower extremities in agony, but with rapture in our hearts — I reflected upon the wonder of our communal experience. Making music with a group of talented and like-minded folks truly delivers an ineffable satisfaction to the inner being. I wish you all could have been part of it.

I wish Mr. Lucas could have been part of it, too, but I'm guessing that he was otherwise engaged. His organization is currently busy filming the third Raiders of the Lost Ark sequel. (I think it's called Indiana Jones and the Comfortable Recliner.) Had he been present, I'm certain that he would have been moved.

I know I was.

Is that a tear in my eye...

...or just the sunlight reflecting off the ice fields of Hoth?

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: Super Bowl XLII commercials

At least the game was exciting.

Since the last vestiges of the 49ers dynasty are more than a decade in the rear-view mirror, in recent years I've mostly watched the Super Bowl to check out the commercials.

It's a good thing that Super Bowl Extra-Large Plus Two turned out to be a tightly contested, down-to-the-wire funfest, because this year's Super Bowl ads? Weaker than that Vitamin Water that Shaq the jockey was hawking.

These were the most memorable of a largely forgettable collection:
  • Bud Light: Man Breathes Fire. Any commercial that involves singeing a cat scores in my book. You know how I feel about cats.

  • Tide To Go: Job Interview. For my money, this one did everything an ad is supposed to do: it caught my attention; it stuck in my memory; and most important of all, it made me want to buy the product.

  • Budweiser: Rocky the Clydesdale. Yes, it was cute and hokey, but I loved the horse who finally made the Budweiser coach-pulling team after umpteen attempts, with a little help from his friend the Dalmatian.

  • Planters Nuts: A Dab of Cashew Will Do Ya. A homely woman rocks the pheromone boost she gets from rubbing cashews into her pulse points. This one was all kinds of creepy and weird, but it worked for me.

  • Coca-Cola: Macy's Parade. Three giant balloons get into a fight over a bottle of Coke. Charlie Brown wins. I'm not sure it made me want to slug down a Coke, but it was funny and unique. Plus, it's Charlie Brown, man. Charlie Brown rules.

  • SoBe Life Water: Thriller. Naomi Campbell zombie-dancing with animated lizards to the King of Pop's venerable classic. At least Michael didn't put in an appearance.

  • T-Mobile: Charles Barkley Out-Parties Dwyane Wade. The Round Mound of Rebound still has the magic. Comedy gold.
There were, of course, far more spots that I didn't find amusing or compelling:Wake me up in time for the next Super Bowl. Or better yet, for the Iron Man movie.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Yes, I SAG, and I'm not ashamed

It would have been criminal for pop culture vultures not to watch the Screen Actors Guild Awards last night, if only because it may represent our only taste of Hollywood glitz all spring.

The SAGs received a special dispensation from the striking Writers Guild of America, eliminating picketing that would have prevented WGA-sympathetic actors (pretty much everyone in SAG) from attending, and allowing WGA members to write for the awards show without reprisal. The lack of such a waiver resulted in the cancellation of the Golden Globe ceremony earlier this month, and continues to threaten the Academy Awards.

As entertainment, the SAG Awards (called "Actors," despite the potential for ribald humor were they to be nicknamed "Saggies") usually fall somewhere between the Golden Globes and the Oscars. The SAGs lack the liquor-lubricated club atmosphere of the Globes, while being slightly less self-important and pompous than the Academy Awards. Because all of the SAG recipients are actors — no writing, directing, or technical awards here — most of the presenters and awardees are familiar faces, thus lessening the tedium somewhat. (I'm glad all of the anonymous behind-the-scenes folks get their just due at Oscar time, but I don't especially care to watch them get it.)

The SAG show always begins with several stars facing the camera and delivering brief and (supposedly) humorous summations of their careers, ending with the tagline, "I'm [STATE YOUR NAME], and I'm an actor." Some of the better riffs on this theme came this year from Sally Field ("I was in my first play when I was 12..."), Kyle MacLachlan ("I've ridden giant sandworms and tracked down Laura Palmer's killer..."), and the former Mrs. John Stamos ("I spent three films painted blue... I'm Rebecca Romijn, and I'm a model turned actor"). One of these years, I'd love to see them get a more refreshingly honest admission: "I'm Ben Affleck, and I'm stealing money pretending to be an actor."

None of the results were surprises. The cast of The Sopranos, taking their final collective bow, swept most of the TV honors. Oscar favorites Daniel Day-Lewis, Julie Christie, Javier Bardem, and Ruby Dee snagged the major film nods.

The one puzzle for me was the awarding of the Lifetime Achievement Award to Charles Durning. I mean, yes, the man has been around forever, and he's appeared in roughly half a million films and TV shows over his lengthy career. But was Durning really the most worthy possible recipient? Anyone at SAG ever heard of Nicholson, Streep, DeNiro, or Pacino? Then again, considering Durning's obviously frail condition last evening, maybe those other folks aren't close enough to death's door yet.

Speaking of death, it was nice to see that the show's producers managed to shoehorn the recently departed Heath Ledger into the annual "Everyone Who Died Since Last Year's Show" tribute montage. The Academy Awards has occasionally drawn criticism when a celebrity has passed away within a few days of the program, and the Oscar producers haven't altered the already completed memoriam, forcing the fans of the newly departed to wait an entire year to see their favorite memorialized.

For a year in which awards shows may be slim pickings, I was taken aback to see that more of the stars didn't bust out their most exciting evening wear for the SAGs. Instead, this proved to be a fairly conservative and sedate year for red carpet fashions. Viggo Mortensen outflashed most of the men in his black-with-red-pinstripes tuxedo, which, combined with his scruffy beard, gave him the air of a dissolute English pimp:



On the distaff side, Sandra Oh's strapless parachute affair, with its humongous magenta bow across the chest, probably drew the most quizzical stares:



Now let's see whether the WGA strike will resolve in time for the 80th Oscar show.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I know how to quit you, Heath Ledger

KM and I were driving KJ home from her latest hospital stint when we heard the stunning news about the death of Heath Ledger.



As sorry as I am to admit it, my first reaction when I heard the radio headline was, "I'll bet it had something to do with drugs." And indeed, the initial report by the New York Times and other media outlets indicates exactly that. A shame, a pity, and a tragic waste.

Although it was probably his least demanding role, my favorite Ledger performance was his turn as the youthful jousting wannabe in A Knight's Tale, a picture that a lot of folks disliked, but that I thoroughly enjoyed through repeated viewings. It was in that film that Ledger's natural boyish charisma really shone. I was not as impressed as some others were with his more dramatically challenging work — I found his much-acclaimed clenched-jawed acting in Brokeback Mountain, for example, excessively mannered and affected, to the point of weirdness.

When Heath was cast as the Joker in Christopher Nolan's upcoming Batman Begins sequel, The Dark Knight, I couldn't imagine for the life of me how that was going to work. Ledger seemed far too lightweight for a role with that much darkness and venom in it. The trailers, however, won me over, and I was looking forward to seeing the full impact of Ledger's portrayal. I still am, though the experience will doubtless be bittersweet now.

Another successful young talent devoured by the demons of fame and fortune, or so it appears.

And that's no joke.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Praise Bozo, and pass the Pepto-Bismol

Ladies and gentlemen, please doff your caps and raise your forks.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller has died.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking: Bozo the Clown died? Well, yes and no. The first man to wear the famous Bozo makeup and attire — cartoonist, comedian, and voice actor Pinto Colvig, best remembered as the voice of Walt Disney's Goofy and of Grumpy in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs — died in 1967. The most famous Bozos — NBC weatherman Willard Scott and entrepreneur Larry Harmon, who owns the Bozo trademark — are both very much alive at this writing.

But I digress.

Eddie "Bozo" Miller was not a clown — at least, not in the traditional sense. Instead, Bozo Miller — no relation to the greasepainted TV icon — was the first of the great modern trenchermen.

That means Bozo could eat.

A lot.

Decades before competitive food-guzzling devolved into Saturday afternoon ESPN fare, and decades before skinny Japanese guys made themselves household names by pounding endless streams of frankfurters and raw oysters down their gullets, Bozo Miller was the undisputed ruler of the independent kingdom of Gastronomy.

Miller first cracked into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1963, when he devoured 27 two-pound roast chickens in a single sitting at a Trader Vic's restaurant in the East Bay. For more than half a century, Bozo dazzled his friends with displays of prodigious consumption. The Guinness book reported that he was undefeated in eating contests between 1931 and 1981.

In his prime, Bozo packed away 25,000 calories a day. He once ate 30 pounds of elk meat loaf — I know, it turned my stomach just typing it — and on another occasion, 324 ravioli. Miller once chowed down 63 Dutch apple pies in an hour. My neighborhood supermarket doesn't even sell 63 Dutch apple pies in a week. Maybe a month.

Not a man to limit himself to a single aspect of conspicuous consuming, Bozo could drink, too. He regularly swilled a dozen martinis before lunchtime. He claimed to have drunk a lion — yes, an honest-to-Simba lion — under the table once. The lion didn't dispute the claim.

When Bozo wasn't eating — and I'm uncertain exactly when that might have been — he was a fixture at Bay Area racetracks. I would not be at all surprised to learn that horses with Bozo's money riding on them usually ran a step or two faster, for fear that Bozo would eat them if they lost. For all I know, he may have.

And here's the kicker: Brian Maxwell, marathon runner and PowerBar inventor, died at age 51; fitness guru Jim Fixx, at 52; health food promoter Euell Gibbons, at 64; low-carb diet doctor Robert Atkins, at 72.

Bozo Miller — the self-proclaimed World Champion of Gourmand Gastronomics — munched, gulped, and scarfed his way to the ripe old age of 89.

Chew on that, why don't you?

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Monday, January 07, 2008

The Swan Tunes In: American Gladiators

Last night, I caught the much-anticipated (around my desk, at least) premiere of NBC's newly revived American Gladiators.



For those of you who slept through the 1990s, the original American Gladiators (1989-1996) was a syndicated competition-reality series in which average men and women (albeit average men and women in better-than-average physical condition) pitted themselves in a variety of events against a team of colorfully nicknamed "gladiators." The male and female contestants who racked up the most points each week moved on to the next round of competition later in the season. Ultimately, the show crowned victorious champions in the final episode each season.

The 2008 version of American Gladiators — one of a spate of "unscripted" shows spawned by the Writers Guild of America strike — restores most of the elements that made the original a hit: contestants with interesting backstories (last night's competitors included a rehabilitative physician, a professional skateboarder, a New York City firefighter, and a female Iraq War veteran), events that make for rousing viewing (several of which are upgrades of staples from the old series), and of course, an all-new crew of Gladiators.

As in the previous version of the show, the Gladiators bear catchy one-word monikers (i.e., Crush, Justice, Venom). At least a couple of the names are nostalgic throwbacks (I recall a Siren and a Titan from the old days — in fact, the original Siren was played by a deaf athlete named Shelley Beattie), even though all of the personnel are new. In typical 21st-century fashion, the 2008 Gladiators tend to be bigger (all of the male Gladiators are 6'2" or taller, and I'm thinking that several members of the team — both men and women — would be hard-pressed to pass a test for anabolic steroids) and louder (Wolf and Toa, in particular, will soon wear out the welcome of their lycanthropic howls and Maori war chants, respectively) than their predecessors.

And there are at least a couple of semi-familiar faces in the bunch: Mike O'Hearn, a championship bodybuilder (a four-time Mr. Universe) and well-known male model (you'll see his muscular likeness on the covers of dozens of romance novels), plays Titan; Gina Carano, a martial artist (and daughter of former NFL quarterback Glenn Carano) who appeared as one of the trainers on Oxygen's women-boxing show Fight Girls, plays Crush.

I was pleased to see that the gameplay is as exciting as ever. Most of the old games have been given a fresh twist (Joust, in which a contestant and Gladiator attempt to knock one another off tiny pedestals with pugil sticks, is now played above a pool of water), and the new games are intriguing. I especially like Earthquake, in which the competitor and Gladiator grapple on a swinging Plexiglas platform high above the arena floor (and yet another pool of water). The end game, a torturous obstacle course called the Eliminator, has been ratcheted up to an extreme level that leaves the contestants nearly comatose from exhaustion by the time they crash through the foam-brick wall that marks the finish line.

My main problem with the revival is that the episodes feel padded, mostly with useless yammering by commentators Hulk Hogan and Laila Ali. (What's the matter, NBC? Did you lose Mike Adamle's phone number since the last Olympics?) I'm certain that the original series managed to cram more events into each show than the four we're getting here. Memo to NBC: Less yak, more smack.

The new show also seems to be trying too hard to make "personalities" out of both the competitors and the Gladiators — especially the aforementioned Wolf and Toa, and the Valkyrie-themed female Gladiator who's saddled with the amusing nickname Hellga. Back in the day, fan favorites — male Gladiators Gemini (former NFL player Michael Horton), Laser (stuntman Jim Starr, who gained additional notoriety when it was revealed that he was married to porn star Candie Evans) and Nitro (who eventually moved into the AG commentator's chair under his real name, Dan Clark), and female Gladiators Zap (bodybuilder Raye Hollitt, who enjoyed a modest mainstream acting career) and Lace (actress Marisa Paré, who parlayed her Gladiator fame into a Playboy pictorial) — just naturally evolved as the seasons progressed.

Is American Gladiators high art? Of course not. Is it schlock TV? Well, sure. Is it a half-step removed from professional wrestling? In style and tone, perhaps, although the competition is real (as are the contestants) and the outcomes are not — so far as I'm aware — scripted.

But is it entertaining enough to keep me tuning in on Monday nights, at least until something better comes along? You bet.

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Monday, December 31, 2007

Pudgy! passes

Just in time to make the list of Celebrities Who Croaked in 2007 comes word that Beverly Vines, the popular mistress of ceremonies and insult comedian known by the stage name Pudgy!, has died.

I first saw Pudgy! (always spelled with an exclamation point) on one of her several appearances on Showtime cable in the early '80s. For those of you unfamiliar with her act, imagine a female Don Rickles — or, to cite a more contemporary reference, think Lisa Lampinelli without the torrential profanity. Pudgy! specialized in off-the-cuff ripostes at members of her audience, demonstrating a nimble wit and an engaging ability to poke fun at herself as much as others. (She called herself Pudgy!... and she was.)

It's been at least 20 years since I last saw Pudgy!, but on our most recent Vegas vacation, I was pleased to see that she was still working. As she often did when playing Vegas, she was headlining a burlesque revue featuring younger, more svelte women removing their clothes. I thought it amusing that a comic who rarely worked blue frequently hooked up with raunchy strip shows, but I guess she enjoyed the hours and the paychecks.

Pudgy! was a hilariously funny lady, and from what I've heard, well-liked and respected in a tough industry. Hopefully Comedy Central will dig up some of her old tapes and air them sometime soon.

I haven't seen a cause of death cited in any of the obits, but I know that Pudgy! had a history of heart problems and underwent bypass surgery some years ago.

She'll no doubt be missed by her family, friends, and many fans.

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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Even white boys got to shout

One of KM's favorite gifts this Christmas is a wireless FM transmitter that enables her to play the output from her iPod through our car's stereo system. As we were driving home tonight, she was booming "Baby Got Back" — or, as I like to call it, "The National Anthem" — from the speakers.

It's hard to think of another hip-hop or rap single that has made as pervasive an impact on modern pop culture as Sir Mix-a-Lot's infamous paean to the female posterior. An online poll conducted by VH1 last year named "Baby Got Back" the sixth greatest song of the 1990s, and I would not have been surprised if it had landed in the top five.

Which brought to mind two questions:

First: Why is it that some men are predominantly fixated upon women's buttocks, while others are breast fanciers? And why is it that, in America at least, men of color tend to be the former, and men of the Caucasian persuasion the latter?

It's clearly cultural, not genetic, if my own experience is any gauge — my DNA hails from both western-central Africa and northern Europe, but I've always been in the Mix-a-Lot camp. Not that I'm exclusive in that regard, mind you. I love pizza, but it's not the only food I crave, if you know what I mean... and I think you do.

Clearly, additional research is in order. I'll get back to you.

Second: Am I the only human alive who waxes nostalgic about The Watcher, that weird UPN series in which Sir Mix-a-Lot starred in the mid-'90s? (Like the other newcomer networks, UPN was so desperate for programming in its early seasons that practically anything that could be filmed might turn up on its air. Remember when FOX first started, and they were throwing on stuff like Werewolf and The New Adventures of Beans Baxter? Ye gods.)

For the 300 million of my fellow Americans who didn't tune in to this bizarre little morsel of televised fare, Mix-a-Lot played a nameless cyber-voyeur who lived in the penthouse of a Las Vegas hotel-casino. The walls of the Watcher's suite were lined with monitors, through which he could access the video feed from any surveillance camera in America's most hard-wired metropolis.

The show was a dramatic anthology, a Twilight Zone rip-off with the old Mix-Master introducing a trio of strange vignettes, usually dark morality tales. Most of the stories ended with the kind of forced twists that would have ended up in the Night Gallery slush pile, or at the conclusion of an M. Night Shyamalan flick. The portly Mix-a-Lot would reappear between stories to mock the unfortunate characters in sardonic tones.

Whoever signed off on the decision to cast a one-hit-wonder rapper as a Serlingesque interlocutor was some kind of mad genius. Or perhaps just mad, period.

I seem to recall that all of the female characters on The Watcher sported remarkably prominent glutei maximi. That could just be wishful thinking on my part, though.

Some enterprising house DJ should concoct a mash-up of "Baby Got Back," Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," and Spinal Tap's "Big Bottom," and release it as a digital download. I'd snag that for my iPod.

If I had an iPod, that is.

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Monday, December 17, 2007

Yet another auld lang syne

So much for the '70s... and the early '80s, too.

Dan Fogelberg has left the planet.



I am secure enough in my masculinity to admit that I both owned and enjoyed Dan Fogelberg albums back in the day. (So did you. Admit it. Just try and convince me that you're not recalling that dusty copy of Twin Sons of Different Mothers — Fogelberg's hit collaboration with flautist Tim Weisberg, featuring the most ambiguously gay album cover ever attached to a record by two straight guys — at this very moment.)

Call me a wimpy, flaccid girly-man if you will, but I dug Fogelberg's plaintive singing and his simplistic guitar stylings. Plus, I'm a sucker for a song that tells a story, whether it's Fogelberg's "Leader of the Band" or "Another Old Lang Syne," or Young MC's "Bust a Move." I appreciate lyrics that take me somewhere and give me cause to reflect, and Fogelberg's songs did just that.

Not everything Fogelberg ever recorded was elevator music, despite the numerous wisecracks made at his expense by stand-up comics. My favorite Fogelberg song is "The Power of Gold," an uptempo riff on the seductive influence of filthy lucre:
Balance the cost of the soul you lost
With the dreams you lightly sold
Then tell me
That you're free
Of the power of gold.
"Part of the Plan," from Fogelberg's album Souvenirs — produced by rock guitar legend Joe Walsh — is a pretty tasty rocker, too.

In one of my earliest experiences in ensemble singing, I performed in a mixed octet whose repertoire mixed religious music with contemporary ballads. (We sang at a lot of weddings. Funerals, too.) When we covered Dan Fogelberg's "Longer" — a popular wedding staple back in the day — I sang the high harmonies. I can feel my Fruit of the Looms cinching up even now, as I think about it.

Dan Fogelberg has been battling prostate cancer for the past three years. His battle ended at age 56.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The category is: Cardiac Arrest

I was shocked and saddened to hear the news this morning that my old pal, Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek, has suffered a mild heart attack.



Word is that Alex is resting comfortably in a Los Angeles hospital, and is expected to be back at his podium after the holidays. I certainly hope that's the case.

For all of the ribbing Alex takes, even from his most ardent fans — and I'd count myself in that number — you don't enjoy the success he's had for nearly 25 years on the same television program unless you're awfully good at what you do. When the annals of game show history are written, Alex's name will be right there at the top.

Get well soon, Alex. And when you're back on your feet, have your people call my people. We'll do lunch.



I'll even let you pick up the check.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Thursday's blog has far to go

Autumn has finally arrived here in Wine Country. As the rain pitter-patters on the roof overhead and a William Friedkin-directed episode of CSI blares from the idiot box, let's check out the happenings in the rest of the pop culture world.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

Not good, not bad... just Evel

Another chapter of my increasingly long-ago youth has departed the premises:

Evel Knievel died yesterday.



It's a fitting testament to the unparalleled weirdness that characterized America in the 1960s and '70s that one of our most recognizable entertainment icons from that period was a guy who jumped over large objects — and, on frequent occasion, failed spectacularly in the attempt — while riding on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

To young people who've grown up in the era of ubiquitous stunt reality television from Survivor to Jackass to The X Games, it probably seems bizarre that a professional daredevil was once such a novelty that his performances would sell out football stadiums, and make front page headlines in newspapers and lead stories on network news programs. But back in the day, Robert Craig Knievel Jr. — known to the world by his nickname, Evel — was that mammoth a star.

And believe me, we ate it up.

When Evel made one of his famous jumps on ABC's Wide World of Sports — the biggest thing going in televised sports in those pre-ESPN days — ratings skyrocketed. The clip of his spectacular crash at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas is one of the most repeated snippets of film in the history of broadcasting. When Evel made his ill-fated attempt to vault Idaho's Snake River Canyon in a rocket car designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax, the world held its collective breath.

Elvis may have been the King, but Evel was the Emperor.

The youthful Uncle Swan was a major Evel Knievel fan. I owned his Ideal Toys action figure. I played dozens, maybe hundreds, of games on his Bally pinball machine. I devoured his cover story in Rolling Stone, and Shelly Saltman's unauthorized biography — the one that so incensed Evel that he assaulted Saltman with a baseball bat and spent six months in jail. I eagerly tuned in Evel's every TV appearance, even when he popped up as himself on dreadful programs I'd never have watched otherwise. A poster of Evel in his trademark white star-spangled jumpsuit adorned my bedroom wall. I paid actual money to see his self-starring 1977 biopic, Viva Knievel, and hardly cared that the man couldn't act. (The earlier Evel Knievel, starring the perpetually tan George Hamilton in the title role, was only marginally better.)

For a kid who loved comic book superheroes, Evel Knievel was as close to the real thing as one could get.

After his daredevil career ended in the early '80s, Evel Knievel's life meandered down a dark and painful road. He went bankrupt, ran repeatedly afoul of law enforcement and the Internal Revenue Service, and struggled with numerous health problems — some stemming from the world record number of broken bones Evel suffered in his infamous crashes; others, such as the hepatitis-C that necessitated a liver transplant in 1999, resulting from the numerous blood transfusions his injuries required. A lengthy history of diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis finally claimed the life of the self-proclaimed "last gladiator" at age 69.

Still, even in his final days, Evel was never far from the spotlight. Earlier this year, he found religion and was baptized on Robert Schuller's Hour of Power program in front of a nationwide TV audience. A couple of months ago, Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera premiered in Los Angeles to mostly positive reviews. Only a few days before his death, Evel settled a lawsuit against rapper Kanye West over Kanye's unauthorized use of Evel's trademarked image in one of his videos.

Despite the proliferation of self-destructive insanity in modern popular culture — and the ongoing career of Evel's son Robbie, who followed his father into the daredevil trade — we will never see the like of Evel Knievel again. He was truly an original, and unquestionably unique.

Thanks for all the thrills, Evel.

Happy landings.

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Monday, November 19, 2007

Please don't squeeze the Whipple

My next visit to the bathroom won't be quite the same...

Mr. Whipple has passed away.



If you're of a certain age, you can't help but recall those incessant commercials for Charmin toilet paper from the mid-1960s through the late '80s, in which bespectacled grocer George Whipple uttered his trademark catchphrase: "Please don't squeeze the Charmin!" Of course, once Mr. Whipple wrapped his clutching fingers around a package of that delectably pillowy bathroom tissue, he could never help getting his own squeeze on.

The actor behind the Whipple, Dick Wilson, died this morning at age 91. The British-born Riccardo DiGuglielmo grew up in Canada, and moved to the U.S. after serving in the Canadian Air Force during World War II. As an actor, he used his mother's maiden name to avoid being typecast in ethnic Italian roles.

Instead, he was typecast as a fussy merchant with a fetish for groping toilet paper. I suppose that's better, in some ways.

Wilson played numerous non-Whipple roles during his seven-decade acting career. He was a frequent guest star on Bewitched and Hogan's Heroes, and appeared in dozens of other sitcoms and TV dramas over the years. Wilson even turned up in a Cheech and Chong movie. (Rumors that he rolled a doobie out of Charmin proved to be erroneous.)

Although Procter & Gamble put Mr. Whipple out to pasture in 1985 (ads featuring Whipple continued in repeats for a few years thereafter), Wilson made a brief return to the character in 1999, when a retired Mr. Whipple returned to the supermarket to sell an upgraded version of Charmin.

Dick Wilson, I'm dedicating my next flush to you.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Curse you, Matt Damon

Well, it's happened yet again.

I've been passed over by People Magazine for the annual Sexiest Man Alive honors. This year, Matt Damon got the nod.

I'm so much sexier than Matt Damon, it's not even funny. Matt Damon looks like the dweeby kid brother of your best friend from high school. He's Good Will Hunting, for pity's sake.

That's the problem with America: No one knows real masculine pulchritude when they see it.

Anyway, here are the rest of the girly-men People thought were sexier than I was this year:

2. Patrick Dempsey (McBoring)
3. Ryan Reynolds (sounds like a Marvel Comics secret identity)
4. Brad Pitt (he's so two years ago)
5. James McAvoy (the wimpy doctor from The Last King of Scotland? really?)
6. Johnny Depp (is weird sexy?)
7. Dave Annable (I'll confess — I had to Google him; I'd never heard of the guy)
8. Will Smith (he got Jada's vote)
9. Javier Bardem (not fair; he's got that Latin Lothario thing going)
10. Shemar Moore (okay, yeah — he could play me in the SwanShadow biopic)

Ah, well. There's always next year.

Unless Clooney resurfaces.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2007

What's Up With That? #56: Jonesin' for Conan

The headline reads like a comedy bit from the subject's late-night TV show: "Priest arrested for stalking Conan O'Brien." But according to the usual news sources, it's for real.

David Ajemian, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of Boston, reportedly harassed the red-headed comic for the past year, sending O'Brien sinister e-mails and letters — on official parish stationery, no less — and threatening his parents. Ajemian referred to himself as one of Conan's "most dangerous fans."

This story is bizarre on so many levels. Of all the celebrities and semi-celebrities in the entertainment world, a guy's going to fixate on Conan O'Brien? The only person I can envision wanting to hassle Conan is Jay Leno, whose show O'Brien is scheduled to take over in a couple of years.

Besides which, at age 44, isn't Conan a trifle old to land on a priest's hit parade? I thought they mostly savored the younger flesh.

I haven't watched Conan much since he replaced David Letterman back in 1993. (Who'da thunk he'd last 14 years, much less wind up being groomed for the Tonight Show?) I've flipped past Late Night on rare occasions over the years, but Conan's style of humor still doesn't hold much appeal for me.

Apparently he's big with the seminary crowd, though.

Must be an Irish thing.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Unclear on the concept of "boys"

Here's the stupidest (yes, I know that "most stupid" is correct; sometimes, you've got to fight fire with fire) thing anyone not employed by the Bush administration has said this week, courtesy of Nick Carter of the Backstreet Boys:
We were never a boy band. We always thought of ourselves as a white vocal harmony group... Maybe things started off a little boy band-ish but after a while you shed that.
Hey, Nick: "Boy band-ish"? The name of your group is Backstreet Boys, slick. If you look up "boy band" in the Oxford English Dictionary, there's a picture of you, AJ, Brian, Howie, and Kevin in all your Tiger Beat glory.

Saying the Backstreet Boys were never a boy band is a little like saying the Supremes were never a girl group, or the Village People were never gay icons.

Now, Nick, if you said, "We were never talented," or "We were the Pat Boone of the '90s," or "People confuse us with N*SYNC," that I might believe.

Otherwise, shut up, you boy band singer, you.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What's Up With That? #54: Care to handle my wand, Mr. Potter?

Before we get started: The first one to crack a "headmaster" joke has to sit in the corner until this post is over.

My reaction to the big "Dumbledore was gay!" revelation by J.K. Rowling takes the form of an classic Chicago song (back when they were good, before Peter Cetera turned them into yawn-inducing elevator music for baby boomers):

Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody really care?

Seriously — the sexual orientation of a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels? Who's getting worked up over this?

He doesn't exist, people. Simmer down.

I'm not even sure what Rowling's purpose was in outing the ancient wizard, who was played on film by Michael Gambon and the late Richard Harris. The Harry Potter series is done; Rowling has repeatedly declared that herself. She's not going to write any more Potter books. So it's not as though Dumbledore's practice of the Love That Dares Not Speak At Hogwarts is going to impact future events in the Potter storyline, because there aren't going to be any.

If Rowling wanted to make a statement, and include a gay character in her books, why didn't she, you know, include a gay character in her books? I'm not a Potterite myself, but I understand that old Albus's sexuality never raises its head — so to speak — in the stories themselves. If it wasn't important enough for Rowling to characterize Dumbledore as gay when she was actually writing the books, what possible difference could it make now? How does it add anything to what she's written if it isn't on the page?

This whole business reminds me of the final episode of Law & Order in which Serena Southerlyn, the assistant district attorney played by Elisabeth Röhm, appeared. In her exit scene, Serena asks her soon-to-be-former boss Arthur Branch (in the guise of future GOP Presidential contender Fred Dalton Thompson) if he's firing her because she's a lesbian. (Arthur says, "No, of course not," because no Republican would ever fire anyone because he or she was homosexual. Ahem.)

In the four seasons Serena had appeared on the show, there had been not one whit of implication that she was gay; if anything, the several mentions of her previous relationships with men would have suggested that she was straight. It was as though the writers, as they wrote Serena's last line of dialogue, suddenly decided, "Hey, wouldn't it be cool if she were a lesbian?"

The French have an expression: esprit d'escalier, "the spirit of the staircase." The Germans have one like it: treppenwitz, "staircase wisdom." Both refer to that flash of genius we all experience when it's too late for it to matter; the brilliant riposte we only think to throw back at an opponent after we've already walking down the steps toward the door.

I suspect Rowling's notion about Dumbledore's preference for the fellows is, like that of the Law & Order scripters, a classic case of staircase wisdom.

Sorry, girlfriend, but Albus has already left the building.

If not the closet.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Kissin' cousins

And you thought YOU were having a bad day...

Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama just found out that he's related — albeit distantly — to Vice President Dick "Shotgun" Cheney.

The Veep's wife Lynne discovered the connection while reaching her family tree for her new autobiography. The Second Lady revealed the genealogical anomaly yesterday in an interview on MSNBC.

Although Mrs. Cheney said that her husband and Obama are eighth cousins, further investigation by the Chicago Sun-Times showed that Tricky Dick and Master O are actually ninth cousins, once removed. (If I were Obama, once would not be nearly enough removal.)

In response to the revelation, Obama's spokesperson quipped, "Every family has a black sheep."

Ain't it the truth?

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Happiness is a warm biography... or not

The hot news around these parts lately is the umbrage taken by the family of our beloved local icon, Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, at a new biography of the late artist.

Schulz's widow and children say that Schulz and Peanuts, written by David Michaelis following seven years of interviews and research (in which the Schulzes actively participated), paints Schulz in an unfairly unflattering light — as a morose, emotionally distant, morally conflicted individual whose comic strip held the failings and foibles of his personal life before a funhouse mirror.

Needless to say, the Peanuts fanatic in me can't wait to read the book, which hits stores tomorrow. The tightwad in me, however, will hold out for the paperback.

I would not be at all shocked if Michaelis's book reveals Schulz more accurately than the artist's survivors will allow. After all, that's what good biographies do.

I also would not be at all shocked if the Schulz family had a point about the book focusing somewhat more on the darker details of Schulz's life and persona than on the happier aspects. After all, that's what best-selling biographies do.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to add much of an expert perspective on the matter. Although I saw Schulz in person on several occasions — we used to frequent the same bookstore, ironically enough — the entire scope of our interaction consisted of my mustering the courage to say, "Hi, Mr. Schulz," one day as we were both browsing the stacks, and his smiling and saying, "Hi," in return. The next couple of times we passed one another in the store, we exchanged that nod of recognition that acknowledged our common memory that we had once spoken.

Schulz had no idea that I starred as Snoopy in my high school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown during my senior year. I, being me, was far too humble to mention it. (A member of our cast actually went so far as to invite Schulz to take in one of our performances. He politely declined, but wished us much success. Rumor had it that he and his wife Jean did, in fact, slip in unobtrusively one evening and observe part of the show from the back row.)

I suspect that the real Charles Schulz was like most of us — a complex individual with positive and negative attributes, and qualities that could be either negative or positive, depending on the context. I'm sure that he was as lovable as his family nostalgically recalls, with feet of clay that they would prefer remain unadvertised.

In short, I think Schulz was probably altogether human.

I would expect the man who unleashed Charlie Brown on the world to be nothing less. And nothing more.

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Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Eternal nausea of the spoiled mind

It's Wednesday already, and I haven't touched SSTOL since the work week began. High time, don't you think?

Let's take a tour of the past few days' pop culture madness. You know the drill: Uncle Swan rips, you read. Onward:
  • Pretty, maybe; sexy... meh: Esquire Magazine has pronounced Charlize Theron the Sexiest Woman Alive. She doesn't do much for me (skinny and blonde is a fatal combination in my aesthetic), but I'll agree with the divine Ms. T on one thing: Reindeer Games, in which Charlize costarred with Ben Affleck, is a bad, bad, bad movie. Just knowing that the great John Frankenheimer — whose preceding film, Ronin, is one of my all-time favorites — directed this low-rent piece of trash makes Uncle Swan cry.

  • As if Oprah didn't have enough money: Oxygen, the women's cable channel cofounded by the ubiquitous Ms. Winfrey (you know, the one not called Lifetime), is being purchased by NBC Universal for $925 million. Stedman, as usual, was unavailable for comment.

  • Hey there, people, I'm Bobby Brown: Whitney Houston's ex is recovering from what's being called a "minor heart attack." That, apparently, is the new medical term for "crack overdose."

  • From the Unclear on the Concept Department: 20th Century Fox has fired director Xavier Gens for making his upcoming film Hitman — based on the gruesome video game of the same name — too violent for the studio's taste. Umm... what did they think a video game flick called Hitman was going to be like? The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh?

  • Stop me if you've heard this one before: Tom Sizemore says he's giving up drugs for good this time. "I'm not trading my whole life for some powder," says the actor, who's inhaled more dust than an army of coalminers. Yeah, I'll believe that right up until Sizemore's next arrest. Any minute now.

  • America's Got Liquor: David Hasselhoff fell off the wagon yet again. Everyone guard your cheeseburgers.

  • 48 is 24 times two: Kiefer Sutherland accepted a sentence of 48 days in the slammer following his recent DUI arrest. The deal brokered by the 24 star's legal team allows him to serve the first 18 days of the sentence during the show's holiday break in December, then the remaining 30 after the end of the season's shooting schedule. Could be worse, I guess: Kiefer's character Jack Bauer was a heroin addict a couple of seasons ago. Or was that Tom Sizemore?

  • Like a Band-Aid on the hull of the Titanic: The San Francisco Giants, still reeling after a 90-loss campaign that ended with the team mired so deep in last place they couldn't see the rest of the National League West with the Hubble Telescope, have dismissed hitting coach Joe Lefebvre and first-base coach Willie Upshaw. Given the Giants' anemic offensive production this season, I can understand firing the hitting coach. But the first-base coach? His entire job consists of swatting players on the butt when they reach base. Darn it, Willie: I warned you not to squeeze.

  • This just in: Marion Jones is marrying O.J. Simpson. She might as well — she's been doing The Juice for years. Thank you! I'm here all week!

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Sunday, October 07, 2007

Fun couple of the year

Look up the words "creepy" and "weird" in your Funk and Wagnalls, and you'll find this story:

Natalee Holloway's mom is dating JonBenet Ramsey's dad.

I'll bet they're a barrel of laughs at parties: "Want to hear about our dead daughters?" "Oh, gee, honey... look at the time."

To each his/her own. I suppose it's okay for these two to hook up. Just as long as they don't invite Marc Klaas or John Walsh over for a ménage à trois.

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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Doctor, my eyes!

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the video store: There's a Britney Spears sex tape floating around.

The guy who allegedly costars in the alleged amateur porn romp with the alleged former Mouseketeer says he hooked up with the Britster at the Four Seasons resort on the Big Island's Kohala Coast back in June.

"It was just normal sex, we didn't do anything crazy,"
says the Ron Jeremy wannabe. Nothing crazy, except for the video camera, I suppose.

This incessant rash of celebrity porn needs to stop, before some innocent party's retinas incur irreparable damage from beholding the wrong person in flagrante delicto. (Actually, that occurred already, after the widespread release of Dustin "Screech" Diamond's videographed sexploits.)

To this end, we offer Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who Must Never, Ever, In the Name of All That's Decent, Get Caught Making a Sex Video:

10. Richard Belzer.

9. Ellen DeGeneres. Even if she kept the camera trained on Portia de Rossi the entire time.

8. Ryan Seacrest, or any of his American Idol cohorts.

7. The Geico Cavemen.

6. Donald Trump. Especially if his costar is Rosie O'Donnell.

5. Ralphie May.

4. Any member of the Osmond family.

3. Greta Van Susteren.

2. Abe Vigoda.

1. Joan and/or Melissa Rivers. (Ow! My retinas hurt just imagining that.)

BONUS LIST! Uncle Swan's Top Ten Celebrities Who, In All Likelihood, Have Already Made a Sex Video That You Really, Really Don't Want to See:

10. Danny DeVito and Rhea Perlman.

9. Roger Ebert. (Remember, he used to hang out with Russ Meyer.)

8. Sue Johanson, the Talk Sex host.

7. The Olsen twins, either separately (ugh!) or together (double ugh!).

6. Fred Thompson and his trophy wife.

5. Andy Dick.

4. Flavor Flav and Tiffany "New York" Pollard.

3. Clint Eastwood and either Sondra Locke or Frances Fisher. (Seriously, Clint: What were you thinking, man?)

2. Gallagher.

1. Vincent Gallo and Chloë Sevigny. (Oops... too late.)

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

He goes without saying

What's Up With That? #52: Here's the story of two lovely ladies

One-time teen heartthrob Maureen McCormick (I was always a Susan Dey man, but that's just how I rolled in the '70s) reportedly reveals in her upcoming autobiography that she and her Brady Bunch costar Eve Plumb shared Sapphic bliss back in the day.

The National Enquirer — and you know that if it's in the Enquirer, you can take it to the bank — quotes an unnamed source inside the publishing industry as saying that McCormick's expose, entitled Here's the Story, will blow the lid off the former Marcia Brady's struggles with drug abuse, clinical depression, and eating disorders. She also drops a dime on her girl-crush on Plumb, who played middle Brady daughter Jan:
While Maureen is not a lesbian, she reveals there were some sexual hijinks going on behind the scenes.
Sort of lends a new meaning to Jan's trademark cry, "Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!" doesn't it?

Given what we already know about the carnal goings-on behind The Brady Bunch's innocent facade — eldest Brady son Barry Williams dated both his TV sister McCormick and his on-screen stepmother Florence Henderson; Brady dad Robert Reed lived a closeted existence gayer than any of his fictional wife's Day-Glo frocks — I suppose the news that Marcia and Jan practiced the sisterly affection that dared not speak its name should come as no great shock.

I just pray that word never comes to light about the torrid backstage tryst between Alice the housekeeper and little Cousin Oliver.

My childhood nostalgia can only withstand so much.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

There's no "I" in Emmys

The Emmy Awards are, generally speaking, the least interesting — and least entertaining — of the major awards shows. I never expect much from the Emmy telecast, and it rarely disappoints.

But, hokey smoke, Bullwinkle — last night's Emmys were a snoozefest and a half. That may well have been the most interminably boring awards show I have witnessed in my four decades of TV viewing. By the third hour, I had inserted broken toothpicks under my eyelids to prop them open.

Everything about the show reeked to high heaven. As host, Ryan Seacrest couldn't have been more insipid. My opinion of Ellen Degeneres's comedic talent is well known — she's the least funny big-name comic alive, next to Jerry Seinfeld — but I'd have gladly swapped Ellen for Ry-Guy in a New York minute. Heck, I'd have sooner seen Paula Abdul babble drunkenly between awards than Seacruise attempting to be glib, and failing.

Whose ridiculous idea was the theater-in-the-round presentation setup? Every time the presenters or awardees stepped to the microphone, they had their backs to most of the audience. Not only did this look awkward for those seated in the venue, but it also completely flummoxed the people on stage, who had no idea where to focus. For his part, Seacrest wandered about like little boy lost, flop sweat beading on his brow every time the camera zoomed in on him.

Even the fashions suffered a nosedive this year. In three-plus hours, I took notice of what exactly one of the attending celebs was wearing — Ali Larter of Heroes, who could appear presentable in a burlap sack and wooden clogs, but was stylishly turned out in a sleek, strapless red gown. That's all I got. Oh, and Terry O'Quinn's wife looked nice, too. You know it's bad when you're paying more attention to family members in the crowd than to the honorees.

Of course, I couldn't have cared less about any of the shows or actors that won. The Sopranos? Watched it once, years ago, wasn't impressed. 30 Rock? I'm not a sitcom guy. James Spader does an excellent job on Boston Legal, but is he really a better actor week in, week out, than, say, Kiefer Sutherland? I dunno. And Sally Field — let's call a moratorium on awards for the Flying Nun until she figures out how not to botch the acceptance speech.

The best thing about the Emmys this year that the Television Academy won't inflict this travesty on us again for another twelve months. I'll raise a cream soda to that.

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Brett Somers is so dead you couldn't revive her with a [blank]

Game show fans and TV nostalgia addicts everywhere are mourning the passing of longtime Match Game panelist Brett Somers, who died on Saturday at the age of 83.



The sassy Somers's death closely follows that of her frequent foil, Charles Nelson Reilly, who joined previously expired Match Game host Gene Rayburn in the hereafter last May.

You can always learn something by reading celebrity obituaries. For example, I knew that Somers was married to future The Odd Couple and Quincy, M.E. star Jack Klugman in 1953, and that they went their separate ways after 20-odd years of wedded bliss (or something) in the early '70s. What I didn't know until today was that, despite their parting before disco was in fashion, Klugman and the tart-tongued comedienne were never legally divorced.

A third of a century is a long time to stay married to someone you don't plan on living with ever again.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Farley's last travel

I was deeply saddened — though not surprised — to read this morning about the death of longtime San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Phil Frank, creator of the comic strips Farley and Elderberries.

Frank had been seriously ill for several months (the Chronicle published reruns of his strips in the interim), and only a few days ago issued a public announcement of his retirement from cartooning. It was the kind of announcement that you just knew would soon be followed by an obituary.

According to the newspaper, Frank was 64, and died from the effects of a brain tumor.

Farley was always one of the best reasons to read the Chronicle, especially since the passing of veteran columnist Herb Caen. The only strictly local comic strip in the country, Farley offered a daily dose of Bay Area flavor — often political, but even more often, merely whimsical — in Frank's inimitable, warmly humorous style.

When it debuted in the mid-'70s, Frank's strip was entitled Travels With Farley, and featured its mustachioed protagonist (a self-caricature of the artist) journeying the American countryside, often employed as a park ranger. A decade later, Frank changed the focus of the strip to San Francisco and its environs, and Farley continued to grace the Chronicle's pages daily (under its truncated title, and with its lead character now working as a newspaper reporter) for another 22 years.

Although Farley wasn't specifically a political cartoon, Frank enjoyed using the strip to tweak the foibles of local politicians. One of his favorite targets was former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, as seen in this strip from August 2003 (click the image to see the strip full size):



A dedicated student of regional lore, Frank served as a local historian for his home town of Sausalito as well as western Marin County for many years. He was active in environmental causes, and often donated his original cartoons to conservationist charities, such as the Marine Mammal Center.

Phil Frank is survived by his wife, two adult children, and the legion of characters he made an indelible part of Bay Area culture. I, along with his many other fans, will miss him — and Farley — greatly.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

You wear my kufi, I'll wear your kippah

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, begins today at sunset.

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, begins at precisely the same time.

Wouldn't it be awesome if all of our Jewish and Muslim friends got together this evening for dinner (kosher/halal, of course), followed by a big ol' group hug?

Well, it would.

And while my Muslim and Jewish friends are dispensing hugs, perhaps they could all give one to this guy. I think he needs a hug.

Britney could probably use one, too.

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Monday, September 10, 2007

They tried to make me use a condom; I said, "No, no, no"

Easily the worst idea I've heard this month:

English pop star Amy Winehouse and her junkie husband are desperately trying to conceive a baby.

Call Parenting Magazine. I think I've found the cover girl for their Mother's Day issue next year.



In case your copy of Billboard got detoured in the mail, Winehouse (a namephreak of the first order — RIP, Herb Caen) is the drugged-out, booze-addled Goth songstress best known in this country for her chart-topping hit "Rehab," the lyrics of which begin:
They tried to make me go to rehab
I said, "No, no, no."
The British tabloid News of the World last week published photos of Winehouse and her partner in addiction, hubby Blake Fielder-Civil, lounging on a beach in the Caribbean sporting fresh heroin needle tracks, as well as bruises from a recent, much-publicized domestic brawl, prior to which Amy was admittedly "cutting herself and about to do drugs with a call girl."

Aren't there enough children being born into corrosive home environments without these two losers contributing to the epidemic? I'm not in favor of involuntary sterilization, generally speaking, but Amy and Blake make a pretty fair argument for the practice.

A friend of the couple — presumably one who was sober and straight at the time of the interview — told the tabloid, "[Amy] really wants a baby and thinks it will help get her life back on track."

That must be a typo. I'm sure she said "on crack."

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

He'll be the Law & Order candidate

Is he an actor, or a politician? Is he a politician, or an actor? Is he a floor wax, or a dessert topping?

Apparently, Fred Thompson is all of the above.

The erstwhile Law & Order star (and former U.S. Senator from Tennessee) made it official last night on the Tonight Show, tossing his commodious hat into the 2008 Presidential ring. Comparisons were immediately made to the late Ronald Reagan, whom Thompson resembles most in that (a) Reagan also was a conservative Republican; and (b) Reagan couldn't really act, either.

Of course, I live in a state governed by Conan the Barbarian — heck, I even voted to reelect the guy — so I'm probably not in a position to cast aspersions. (Which is okay anyway, because the elbow on my aspersion-casting arm has been giving me fits of late.) Lest we forget, however, we in this fine country have a long and storied history of electing entertainers to public office. A few examples, some of which you may recall:
  • George Murphy, a Broadway veteran and musical film star who served a term as president of the Screen Actors Guild, was a Republican Senator from California in the 1960s. Tom Lehrer even waxed poetic in song about the guy: "At last we have a Senator who can really sing and dance."

  • Fred Grandy (assistant purser Burl "Gopher" Smith on The Love Boat) was a Republican Representative from Iowa for eight years, beginning in 1986. He narrowly missed being elected Governor of the Hawkeye State in 1994.

  • Ben Jones (goofy mechanic Cooter Davenport on The Dukes of Hazzard) was a Democratic Congressman from Georgia from 1988 to 1992. He was defeated in a Virginia Congressional race in 2002.

  • Jerry Springer, later a notorious tabloid TV host and Hasselhoff foil, was the Democratic mayor of Cincinnati in the late '70s.

  • Sonny Bono, the less talented half of the popular musical/comedy team Sonny and Cher, served two terms in Congress as a Republican representing Palm Springs (after serving as the city's mayor) before a high-speed encounter with a tree on a Lake Tahoe ski slope ended both his political career and his life.

  • Professional wrestler Jesse "The Body" Ventura was elected Governor of Minnesota in 1998. (Ten years later, I still snicker when I type that.)

  • Sheila Kuehl, who as Sheila James played nerdy Zelda Gilroy on the classic '50s sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, has been a prominent California state legislator since 1994.

  • Former Green Bay Packers quarterback and TV actor Alan Autry (deputy Bubba Skinner on the long-running drama In the Heat of the Night) is currently the mayor of Fresno.

  • Film legend and Academy Award-winning director Clint Eastwood served a much-publicized term as mayor of Carmel, California, in the mid-'80s.
Just so we're clear, though: The day Britney Spears gets elected to public office, I'm buying a beach house in Greece.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Why do they call it Hump Day, when most people make love on the weekends?

So I'm rifling through the news on this sultry Wednesday morning, and here's what leaped off the screen at me...
  • Speaking of sultry, Raquel Welch is 67 today. You gentlemen of a certain age will understand what that means. You gentlemen younger than a certain age... well, you should have been there, is all I'm saying.

  • Again speaking of sultry, Halle Berry is expecting her first child at age 41. I might be going out on a limb here, but I'll bet that's going to be one good-looking baby.

  • Former FOX and MSNBC anchor Rita Cosby's new book, Blonde Ambition: The Untold Story Behind Anna Nicole Smith's Death, alleges that Anna Nicole's baby-daddy Larry Birkhead and her attorney-slash-boyfriend Howard K. Stern were gay lovers. Lawsuits will ensue. Bill Cosby — no relation to Rita — recommended that all parties involved enjoy a Jell-O Pudding Pop and have a Coke and a smile.

  • Speaking of allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the distinguished gentleman from Idaho has decided that he may want to keep his Senate seat after all. That thud you just heard was the Republican National Committee fainting en masse.

  • Speaking of way-past-allegedly gay fellows named Larry, the Wachowski brother formerly known as Larry (as in the Wachowski Brothers of The Matrix fame) is now also formerly a Wachowski brother. He's now officially a Wachowski sister named Lana. I believe Matrix star Keanu Reeves said it best: Whoa.

  • Good to hear that Paula Cole is touring and recording again (with Mandy Moore, no less), after nearly a decade away from the music business. She's a terrific talent, and I hope her comeback brings her much success. That said, if I never had to hear "I Don't Want to Wait" again in this lifetime, that would be just dandy with me. It's tough being the father of a Dawson's Creek fanatic.

  • Not so good to hear that Kelly Clarkson is attempting to jump-start her aborted tour, previously canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of ticket-buying America, by playing smaller halls. You are so over, Miss Thing. Maybe you and Justin can still hang out.

  • They still love him in France: Jerry Lewis took another stumble down the long, dark road toward oblivion during his annual Labor Day telethon for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, when he dropped the f-pejorative in a joke about a cameraman's gay family member on live TV. This is the same Jerry who, in a televised interview following the death of entertainment icon Merv Griffin, opined that Merv "deserved to die" from prostate cancer, because he didn't seek earlier and more aggressive treatment. Can you arrange to let him keep the change for his kids?

  • A friend gave the following report about Mary-Kate Olsen's recent adventures at a trendy New York nightclub: "Mary-Kate was wearing a see-through green dress. She was completely wasted, she was humping and grinding against a column with another girl. Then she was flailing all over the dance floor. Later, Mary-Kate made out with various questionable men while friends took pictures. She then fell over onto a table and proceeded to break every glass on the table before toppling over onto everyone sitting behind her." See what happens when you don't eat properly, kids? Your brain turns into Cream of Wheat.

  • This couldn't possibly be a worse casting decision: Nicolas Cage as Magnum, P.I.?

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Friday, August 31, 2007

Candle in the wind

Ten years ago today, the world lost one of its real-life heroines: Diana, Princess of Wales.



I remember vividly the moment I heard the news. The girls and I had gone to see the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. We were playing a tape in the car as we drove home, so we didn't have the radio on. Just as we arrived at the Golden Gate Bridge, the tape ended, and I switched on KCBS, the local news radio station. For the first few moments, we didn't know whose death was being reported. Then, Diana's name was mentioned, and reality sank in.

Princess Diana and I were the same age — she was a only few months (July to December) older than I. In a way, I think, her mortality serves as a continual reminder of my own. To a very real degree, we are all "candles in the wind."

In tribute to "The People's Princess," I offer a few thoughtfully chosen selections from my gallery featuring the comics' Princess Diana of Themyscira, better known to the world as Wonder Woman. Comic Art Friday regulars will have seen most of these artworks before, but all deserve another look.

A pencil and ink sketch by Amazing Spider-Man artist Ron Garney:



Diana in a pensive pinup, by Silver Age veteran Dan Adkins:



Diana in patriotic mode, rendered by longtime Green Lantern artist Darryl Banks:



Diana in battle against a fearsome foe — a scenario conceived and penciled by Brazilian legend Al Rio, and embellished in ink by Suicide Squad artist Geof Isherwood:



Diana leading an airborne assault — pencils by rising star Michael Jason Paz, with inks again contributed by the great Geof Isherwood:



Diana standing strong in a classic pose, as portrayed by Wellington "The Well" Diaz:



Diana aloft, wielding her golden lasso — Geof Isherwood pencils and inks:



Diana and her invisible airplane, rendered in Golden Age style by one of the true masters of the art form, Ernie Chan:



Diana in moonlit wonder — a unique presentation by James E. Lyle:



In the words of songsmith Bernie Taupin:
And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind...
Never fading with the sunset
When the rain set in.
And your footsteps will always fall here
Along England's greenest hills;
Your candle's burned out long before
Your legend ever will.
We still remember, Diana.



And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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