Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Happy Jackie Robinson Day!

Every player, manager, and coach in Major League Baseball will wear a uniform number 42 during today's games, in commemoration of the Brooklyn Dodgers' Hall of Fame infielder's breaking of baseball's racial barrier 62 years ago.

Robinson's number was permanently retired from active use by all MLB teams during the inaugural Jackie Robinson Day festivities in 2004.

For whatever reason, Jackie Robinson Day always reminds me of that classic episode of Sanford and Son, in which the always-scheming Rollo gives Fred a special birthday present: a baseball autographed by Jackie Robinson.

Upon examining his gift, Fred asks his friend, "Rollo, how do you spell 'Jackie'?"

replies a confident Rollo.

"That's right," says Fred. "That's how you spell 'Jackie.' But that's not how Jackie Robinson spelled 'Jackie...' you dummy."

The moral of this story: If someone gives you an autographed baseball for Jackie Robinson Day — or tries to sell you one on eBay — be sure you authenticate the signature.

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Monday, April 13, 2009

This Bird has flown

Another chunk of my childhood passed away today.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych has died this afternoon in an apparent accident, at the age of 54.

Fidrych was the wunderkind Detroit Tigers pitcher who took baseball by storm in the summer of 1976. Fidrych — nicknamed "The Bird" because of his striking resemblance to Big Bird, the towering Muppet from Sesame Street — became a household name as much for his antics on the mound as for his prodigious pitching prowess.

A frenetic bundle of nervous energy, Fidrych talked aloud to himself — and occasionally, to the baseball — while pitching. He would kneel on the mound between pitches and groom the dirt with his hands. He'd run over to his teammates and congratulate them with high-fives for making successful infield plays. His infectious enthusiasm made The Bird an overnight superstar.

After starting the year with a 7-1 record, the rookie phenom received the starting assignment for the American League in the 1976 All-Star Game. Fidrych finished the season with a 19-9 record and a 2.34 earned run average. Named the American League Rookie of the Year, he also came in second in the voting for the Cy Young Award.

He was never the same again.

Plagued by injuries beginning in his sophomore campaign, Fidrych would pitch sporadically with the Tigers over the next four seasons. He won only 10 more games after that legendary rookie year. He pitched his last game for the Tigers in 1980, and when Detroit released him at the end of the 1981 season, The Bird was out of the game.

He attempted an unsuccessful minor-league comeback in the Boston Red Sox organization in 1983, but he never got back to The Show.

I had the privilege of seeing The Bird best the Oakland Athletics in a game at the Coliseum during that shining Bicentennial summer. That memory remains one of my all-time favorite baseball moments.

Mark "The Bird" Fidrych was truly one of a kind.

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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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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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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Happy birthday, Supergirl!

Twenty years ago today, at precisely 5:02 p.m., my only child — a daughter — entered the world.

Where did the last two decades go?

KM — in spite of the paternal half of her genetic pool — has grown up to be an astounding young woman. She's smart — Dean's Highest Honors last semester — funny, charming, and loves horses, In 'n' Out Burger, and Shemar Moore.

She also loves the Giants and Warriors, which means that she is both discriminating and endowed with a insanely high tolerance for pain.


She is no longer my teenager.

As long-time SSTOL readers are aware, "Supergirl" is one of my nicknames for KM. (This despite the fact that, as a petite brunette, she's really more a Mary Marvel than a Supergirl.) The sobriquet stems from the fact that for several years, one of KM's favorite items of apparel was a pink hoodie with a Kryptonian shield emblazoned across the chest.

Happy 20th, Supergirl! Welcome to the Land of Beyond Teenagerness. Your mom and I love you more than all the snickerdoodles in the whole wide world.

Just don't go all Power Girl on us before your time.

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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, February 16, 2009

Super President's Day

What a joy to celebrate Presidents' Day with a President worthy of celebration!

Speaking of super Presidents...

This might be a good day to reminisce about Super President.

Super President was a short-lived animated series that aired on Saturday mornings in 1967 and '68. The show's title superhero battled the forces of evil using his power to transmute the molecular structure of his body into any substance he could imagine. (Think Metamorpho the Element Man, who debuted in DC Comics a couple of years earlier.)

In fact, Super President's morphing ability wasn't limited to forms of matter — I distinctly recall episodes in which he changed himself into things like electrical energy and radio waves.

When he wasn't fighting crime, Super President was... well... President.

You read that correctly. Super President's secret identity was James Norcross, the President of the United States.

By now, you've figured out the essential flaw in the Super President concept.

The most visible public figure on the planet becomes a costumed hero, and in order to protect his identity from supervillains, he gives himself a code name that advertises who he really is.

And no one ever figures this out.

Although he was not a DC Comics character, I always supposed that Super President must be the Chief Executive in the DC Universe, an alternate reality in which people fail to recognize that Clark Kent is Superman because Kent wears horn-rimmed spectacles, whereas Superman does not; and where no one realizes that Oliver Queen, the billionaire mayor of Star City, is Green Arrow, despite the fact that both the Emerald Archer and His Honor sport the same distinctive facial hair, and GA's only disguise is a domino mask.

Aside from the issue of its hero's pathetically obvious secret identity, the Super President series never dealt with how the Secret Service got comfortable with Norcross disappearing from the White House for hours at a time without accounting for his whereabouts. Fortunately for America, no international or domestic crisis ever arose at a moment when Super President was off adventuring, causing people to rush into the Oval Office and freak out because President Norcross was nowhere to be found.

Only the President's chief of staff, apparently a genius in a world of morons, ever sussed out who Super President really was.

Personally, I think President Obama would make a wicked cool superhero. If he was, however, I have a feeling that we'd figure it out.

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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Just another Friday the 13th

Did we really need a remake of Friday the 13th?

I mean, the past three decades have foisted umpty-zillion (okay, ten) sequels to that pitiful chapter in Kevin Bacon's résumé on the movie-going public. Now, New Line Pictures is remaking the original?

If the new flick is successful, will New Line remake each of the sequels too? Will we see fresh takes on such cinematic classics as Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter, Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, and the ever-popular Freddy vs. Jason?

Heaven help us.

Or perhaps that's the wrong phrase.

At any rate, the incessant commercials for the updated Friday the 13th put me in mind of the only facet of the Friday the 13th franchise worthy of revisiting...

Friday the 13th, The Series.

Those of you sufficiently long of tooth to have experienced the 1980s firsthand (and you know who you are) may recall this minor trifle of syndicated television history, which aired for three seasons beginning in 1987. Interestingly, Friday the 13th, The Series had nothing whatsoever to do with Jason Voorhees of hockey mask fame. Aside from the common title, the only connection between the film franchise and the TV series was the producer behind both: the semi-legendary Frank Mancuso, Jr.

When first he decided to bring his horror stylings to the idiot box, Mancuso, Jr. didn't intend to call his latest venture Friday the 13th. With partner Larry B. Williams, Mancuso developed the show under the title The 13th Hour. At some point before the series hit the airwaves, however, Mancuso decided (doubtless with a nudge from Paramount Pictures, which distributed the first several Friday the 13th movies) that it would be a shame to waste all that built-in branding, and thus Friday the 13th, The Series was born.

The show's plot revolved around the adventures of cousins Micki (erstwhile model and pop singer wannabe Louise Robey, billed only by her last name here) and Ryan (John D. LeMay, who would complete the circle by starring in Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday), who inherit their late uncle's antique shop. They soon discover that their uncle had sold his soul to the devil, and all of the objets d'art in the shop bore a Satanic curse. Micki and Ryan, aided by a magician and occultist named Jack, make it their mission to round up all of the already-sold curios before supernatural disaster befalls the people who now own these accursed items.

Needless to say, this mission often fails. Because, after all, horrific consequences are what Friday the 13th is all about.

And in truth, the events instigated by the bedeviled antiques were about as gruesome as anything on television prior to the advent of CSI and its spinoffs. With only a handful of exceptions, the people who came into contact with the haunted articles in each week's episode met grisly ends. (Because the show ran in syndication rather than on network broadcast, and was typically shown in the late-night, post-primetime hours, Mancuso and company were granted almost cable-like leeway to display graphic violence.) Even the show's protagonists were not immune: Ryan was written out of the series at the beginning of the third season, when he is de-aged into a young boy by one of the store's wares.

Although shot in Canada on a limited budget, Friday the 13th: The Series offered consistent entertainment for horror and fantasy fanatics. Familiar C-level character actors occasionally turned up as guest stars, and such talented directors as David (The Fly) Cronenberg and Atom (The Sweet Hereafter) Egoyan directed episodes.

Friday the 13th: The Series still turns up on cable and independent stations now and again, and I'm sure it's available on DVD. (These days, what isn't?) Fans of the current CW series Supernatural, which bears certain superficial resemblances, would probably enjoy checking it out.

It's got to be better than yet another Jason movie.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Dr. King on the power of love

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., addressing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta, August 16, 1967:
It is perfectly clear that a violent revolution on the part of American blacks would find no sympathy and support from the white population and very little from the majority of the Negroes themselves. This is no time for romantic illusions and empty philosophical debates about freedom. This is a time for action. What is needed is a strategy for change, a tactical program that will bring the Negro into the mainstream of American life as quickly as possible. So far, this has only been offered by the nonviolent movement. Without recognizing this we will end up with solutions that don't solve, answers that don't answer and explanations that don't explain.

And so I say to you today that I still stand by nonviolence. And I am still convinced that it is the most potent weapon available to the Negro in his struggle for justice in this country. And the other thing is that I am concerned about a better world. I'm concerned about justice. I'm concerned about brotherhood. I'm concerned about truth. And when one is concerned about these, he can never advocate violence. For through violence you may murder a murderer but you can't murder. Through violence you may murder a liar but you can't establish truth. Through violence you may murder a hater, but you can't murder hate. Darkness cannot put out darkness. Only light can do that.

And I say to you, I have also decided to stick to love. For I know that love is ultimately the only answer to mankind's problems. And I'm going to talk about it everywhere I go. I know it isn't popular to talk about it in some circles today. I'm not talking about emotional bosh when I talk about love, I'm talking about a strong, demanding love.

And I have seen too much hate. I've seen too much hate on the faces of sheriffs in the South. I've seen hate on the faces of too many Klansmen and too many White Citizens Councilors in the South to want to hate myself, because every time I see it, I know that it does something to their faces and their personalities and I say to myself that hate is too great a burden to bear.

I have decided to love. If you are seeking the highest good, I think you can find it through love. And the beautiful thing is that we are moving against wrong when we do it, because John was right, God is love. He who hates does not know God, but he who has love has the key that unlocks the door to the meaning of ultimate reality.
Thanks for the reminder, Dr. King. I wish only that you could be there in Washington tomorrow, to see in shining measure what you and so many others made possible.

Speaking of love...

Happy 24th anniversary, KJ!

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Be seeing you, Number Six

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


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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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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Wednesday, January 07, 2009

So long, Stacey's

Sad, but not shocking, news in today's Chronicle: Stacey's Bookstore, a landmark on downtown San Francisco's Market Street for 85 years, is closing its doors.

When I was an undergrad at San Francisco State a quarter-century (egads!) ago, my schedule often included large gaps between morning and late afternoon or evening classes, or between classes and my work shift at the campus convenience store. I would frequently hop the Muni Metro M-Line into downtown to pass the time. Stacey's was among my favorite hangouts. It's kind of depressing to see it go.

That leads me to another thought, however...

I don't understand how bookstores survive at all, these days.

Now, I say that as a person who's been a voracious reader for well over 40 years, and who loves books and the retailers who sell them. I've been known to while away hundreds of blissful hours merely browsing the stacks in bookstores.

But seriously, with the advent of Amazon and eBay, I rarely buy books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore anymore. Why would I, when I can get anything I can find in a local store — along with a limitless number of titles that I'd never find in a store — online, almost invariably at a price considerably less than I'd pay if I drove to the store to buy? Most of the time, I can combine a couple of purchases to get free shipping, and within a few days the books get delivered right to my door.

Does that suck for bookstores and the people who work in them? Yes, it does.

Is it my personal responsibility to keep bookstores in business? No, it isn't.

I know how that sounds, but it's economic reality. I have only so much money. Where I can save a buck or three, I have a fiscal responsibility to my family to do so. That's why I fill up at Costco instead of at a locally owned gas station that's a few blocks closer to my house, but that consistently charges about ten cents per gallon more than Costco does. Those dimes add up.

Someone may argue that there's a greater good in supporting local small businesses beyond shopping for price. That's as may be. If I had unlimited financial resources, I might be willing to shoulder that greater good. But I have a family to feed, and bills to pay, and my own small business to run. That's the only greater good about which I can afford to be concerned.

I mourn for brick-and-mortar bookstores. In any business, however — my own included — if you can't compete, you die.

If you're going to charge more for a product, you need a seductive reason — it's a talent-based product, say, and your talent is superior to (or merely better suited to the job than) someone else's. For example, a restaurant may get away with charging higher prices if its food is qualitatively better than the food at the joint down the street.

For a static commodity, the quality of which is irrelevant to the source — a book, to get back to our original point — the competition points are convenience and price. If Amazon will send it to my house, thus saving me time and fossil fuel, and simultaneously save me 20%, it's not even a question. Unless I absolutely have to read the book today, and I can't remember the last time that need arose.

It isn't pretty. But then, life rarely is.

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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Gimme dat wine

It's true — you really can find just about anything on the Internet.

Had I doubted this truism, the presence of not one, but two Web sites devoted to the cheap, alcohol-fortified wines favored by Skid Row denizens — the folks we used to call "winos" back in the day — would convince me.

Bum Wine — you really can't get less politically correct than that — focuses its attention on "the Big Five" wines targeting the habitual drunkard: Cisco, MD 20/20, Night Train, Wild Irish Rose, and the legendary Thunderbird. The site couples hilarious commentary ("If you like to smell your hand after pumping gas, look no further than Thunderbird") with the results of decidedly unscientific tests ("Some of our researchers indicated that [Night Train] gave them a NyQuil-like drowsiness, and perhaps this is why they put 'night' in the name").

Among the evaluative information to be found at Bum Wine: Thunderbird is the worst tasting of the Big Five, but Cisco (a product of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware) is to be preferred for its intoxicating qualities. MD 20/20 — or "Mad Dog," as it's known in certain circles — generates the highest degree of internal warmth for the consumer.

The writing style at Bum Wine reminds me of Las Vegas on 25 Cents a Day, a terrific place to get unvarnished information about the absolute cheapest eats, lodging, and entertainment in America's favorite vacation destination. I'm reasonably certain that the two sites are unrelated, however.

In case Bum Wine is just a mite too refined for your tastes, there's Ghetto Wine, which mostly forgoes the witty commentary in favor of a photographic record of the Big Five, as well as past and present products of similar ilk — including Fred Sanford's beloved Ripple. (Children of the '70s will recall that Fred recommended a mixture of ginger ale and Ripple, a concoction he dubbed "Champipple.")

Being a teetotaler myself, I can't attest to the veracity of the data on either of these sites. I'm also a bit incredulous that the folks most inclined toward the consumption of fortified wines conduct their market research online.

I do, however, recall a summer job during my high school days, when I was employed as a stock clerk at a gas station mini-mart. One of my chief responsibilities was replenishing the refrigerated case in which the beer and wine were displayed. Our tiny shop did a land-office business in T-Bird (along with slightly less toxic, but equally cheap, potions such as Boone's Farm Strawberry Hill and Annie Green Springs Country Cherry) that summer.

I can't shake the feeling that somewhere in the Great Beyond, Fred Sanford is raising a paper cup of Champipple in salute.

As the venerable radio jingle used to trumpet: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Praise the Lord, and pass the balut

As I write this post, I'm watching a rerun of Bizarre Foods on the Travel Channel.

In case you're unfamiliar with this delightful program, allow me to enlighten you. In every episode, chef Andrew Zimmern journeys to some foreign land (although a handful of shows have been filmed in various parts of the U.S.), finds the weirdest stuff that's being eaten by the local folk, and eats it.

And trust me, there's a lot of weird stuff being consumed on this big blue marble. Hence, Bizarre Foods.

In the episode I'm viewing, Andrew is in the Philippines. Longtime SSTOL readers will recall that I spent a chunk of my youth — two years, to be precise, from October 1973 through October 1975 — in that east Asian archipelago. Seeing this program brings back memories of places I visited, such as the cities of Manila and Pampanga, as well as the Filipino people.

And yes, things I ate.

As Andrew discovered, one of the popular cultural delicacies of the Philippines is balut, a common breakfast food and snack. Balut is a fertilized chicken or duck egg, with a partially developed embryo still inside the shell.

I know, I know. Just hang in there with me.

The eggs are boiled on the 18th day following fertilization — I'm not sure what the difference would be if you cooked one on the 17th or 19th day, but that just isn't done — then sold whole in the shell. The diner cracks open one end of the shell, slurps out the juice, then peels off the shell and consumes the baby fowl — eyes, beak, feet and all.

Now to Westerners like you and me, balut definitely sounds like the least acquirable of acquired tastes. In the Philippines, however, balut is comfort food, like your mom's meat loaf or macaroni and cheese.

When we first arrived in the country, we lived outside the confines of Clark Air Base in Angeles City. Bright and early every morning just at sunup, a fellow would come strolling down our street carrying two buckets full of steaming hot balut suspended from a stick slung across his shoulders. The neighborhood people would stream out of their homes at the call of "Ba-looooot! Ba-looooot!" Breakfast was served.

Now, I consider myself a fairly adventurous eater. I'm no Andrew Zimmern, mind you, but I'll sample almost anything once. I drew the line at balut. I feel certain that line has not moved in 30-plus years.

It's worth mentioning that balut is not characteristic of Filipino food in general, most of which is not bizarre in any respect, and is actually quite tasty. If you're serving up a banquet of sinigang, chicken adobo, pork mechado, pancit with shrimp, and fried lumpia, save me a chair.

I'll leave the balut to Andrew Zimmern.

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Maybe we're just flamboyant

I'm a huge fan of The 5th Wheel, the often-hilarious blog about barbershop singing written by Mike McGee, the original baritone of one of my favorite quartets, the recently retired Metropolis.

Yesterday, Mike posted a list of the competitors in the 2009 Barbershop Harmony Society International Chorus Contest. Because next July's International will be held at the Anaheim Convention Center, Mike jokingly assigns each chorus a "convention host" from Disneyland's cast of characters.

Who did Mike assign to my chorus, Voices in Harmony, the reigning Far Western District Chorus Champions?

"The gay parade dancer."

Seriously, is that any way to talk about northern California's premier men's a cappella chorus? I think not.

As Molly used to say... "'Tain't funny, McGee!"

(Okay, maybe it's a little funny.)

I suppose that any all-male performing organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area will occasionally get tagged with some measure of gay stereotype. After all, residents in sizable swaths of the country are convinced that everyone in the Bay Area is gay. (We, in turn, might characterize folks in those swaths as rednecks, which likewise may not be entirely accurate.) That perception may be especially strong when applied to male choral ensembles, given that one of the largest and most iconic such groups here is the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus.

Before Voices in Harmony formed, I sang with another ensemble, originally called the Pot o' Gold Chorus. Although Pot o' Gold had relocated eastward to Pleasanton by the time I joined, the chorus had been founded in the city of Dublin — hence the quasi-Irish name.

Fittingly, Pot o' Gold's insignia consisted of a rainbow streaming downward into a kettle filled with gold coins. Our stage costume was a black tuxedo accessorized with a rainbow-striped cummerbund. On many occasions, people saw a bunch of guys in stage makeup and rainbow cummerbunds, and from there leaped to a certain conclusion that you've probably already surmised.

Over time, the rainbow logo and accouterments were phased out, as was the Pot o' Gold name. The ensemble performed for several years as the Bay Area Metro Chorus before the merger that created VIH.

One of my fellow singers tells of an incident that occurred the last time BHS International took place in Anaheim, in July 1999. He was enjoying an adult beverage in the bar of the Anaheim Marriott following the chorus contest, while still clad in his Pot o' Gold tuxedo. A patron of the bar saw my comrade's cummerbund, and mistook the rainbow striping as a covert invitation to hot man-on-man monkey love. My friend — who, as it happens, is not gay — demurred.

Like the population of the Bay Area itself, Voices in Harmony is a diverse assemblage. Our membership reflects a variety of ages, ethnicities, occupations, lifestyles, and yes, sexual orientations. Different though we are, we share a common element (where have I heard that term before?) — we're men who enjoy singing and performing at a high level of musical excellence. And I'm proud to share the risers with every one of them.

If that Disneyland parade dancer can carry a tune, he's more than welcome.

Now, I'm off to rehearsal.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

The Man of Steal

The 2009 Baseball Hall of Fame ballots were mailed today to all members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America with ten or more consecutive years of service. It's the smallest HOF ballot since the current election system was instituted, with only 23 players listed as eligible.

The most notable newcomer to the list is Rickey Henderson, the longtime outfielder who owns baseball's career records for runs scored (2,295) and stolen bases, and is second all-time in walks with 2,190. Henderson played with nine teams during his 25 years in the major leagues, but is best remembered as a member of the Oakland Athletics, with whom he began his career and served four discrete tours of duty.

Rickey's a dead-solid lock for first-ballot election to the Hall, and deservedly so. He hung around far longer than he should have — he really wasn't much of a player his last four seasons, though he had as good a year as a 40-year-old guy could ask while playing for the New York Mets in 1999. But for the first dozen years of his career, Henderson was one of baseball's marquee superstars, and he was still a quality player for seven or eight years after that.

None of the rest of the incoming class of eligibles seems likely to make the cut. Power-hitting Mo Vaughn might have been a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate had his career not been shortened by injuries. Matt Williams, the Giants' best third baseman during their San Francisco tenure, had some fine years, but not enough of them to earn a ticket to Cooperstown. Mark Grace and Ron Gant were pretty good players, and 1994 American League Cy Young Award winner David Cone was a pretty good pitcher, but we aren't talking about the Hall of the Pretty Good. The remaining newbies — Jay Bell, Jesse Orosco, Dan Plesac, and Mo's cousin Greg Vaughn — net a collective "meh."

Of the holdovers from last year's ballot, Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice should score a long-overdue Cooperstown call in his final year of eligibility. Rice, the American League's best offensive player in the late 1970s and early , just missed the Hall by 16 votes last time. He deserves those last few check marks that would push him over the hump. Were I a ten-year member of the BBWAA, I'd also throw votes to slugging outfielder Andre "The Hawk" Dawson, starting pitcher Jack Morris, and reliever Lee Smith — all of whom, like Rice, should have been inducted years ago.

So, anyway, here's my funny Rickey Henderson story.

I was sitting down the left field line at an Oakland A's home game in the early '80s, when Rickey was the lone megastar on an Athletics club that didn't have much else going for it. Then, as is too often the case now, the A's didn't draw many fans, so the few of us in attendance didn't have any difficulty making our individual voices heard to the players on the field.

One loudmouth in the left field bleachers, who sounded as though he might have been keeping the beer concession in business all by himself, kept shouting, "Rickey Henderson! Rickey Henderson!" over Rickey's shoulder, at a decibel level that ensured that everyone in the Oakland Coliseum — including, I think, the security guards in the parking lot — could hear him.

Rickey studiously ignored the guy's incessant chatter for about three innings. At long last, he made the fatal error of sneaking a peek back to check out this character who seemed so enamored with his name. The instant Henderson turned around, the guy yelled, "You sissy!" and cackled like a drunken hyena.

Rickey, who always had a lively sense of humor, broke up laughing.

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Thursday, November 27, 2008

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Gratitude Times Five

I can scarcely believe this is the fifth edition of our annual alphabetical outpouring of TurkeyFest appreciation here at SSTOL. There were moments when we didn't think we'd live to see this day. But here we are, on the fourth Thursday of another cool, misty Wine Country November, celebrating the kindnesses that the good grace of the Almighty has brought us since last we tallied. Let's launch into this year's 26 nuggets of thankfulness, what say?

America's Test Kitchen
. Thanks to bow-tied Christopher Kimball and his charming, cheerful staff of foodies, I can pretend that I actually know how to cook.

Bombshells!, my gallery of Golden Age superheroines masquerading as vintage bomber nose art pinup girls. Thanks to all of the artists who created new Bombshells! for me this year: Dan Veesenmeyer, Gene Gonzales, Anthony Carpenter, Terry Beatty, Jeffrey Moy, and my friend Bob Almond.

ClubUBT, the online poker and blackjack room where I'm exercising my cardplaying muscles these days. It'll still be legal after the dimwits in Congress ban every other avenue.

Dr. Greg Lyne, the man who teaches me — and 90 of my close personal friends — how to make music every Tuesday night. You're the Man, Maestro.

Ethiopia Sidamo. That's some mighty fine coffee there, Starbucks.

Friday Night Stand-Up. There's no more hilarious way to kick off the weekend than with Comedy Central's mini-marathon of funny men and women shocking the microphone.

Girls — specifically mine, KJ and KM. They make the universe a better place just by being in it. That goes for my adopted niece Shelby, too.

My Heavenly Father, who daily provides more blessings than I can list.

International Orange, the color of the paint adorning my favorite man-made marvel, the Golden Gate Bridge. Driving across it is wicked cool, even after all these years.

Judge shows. Here's to the black-robed arbiters of justice who provide us with so much entertainment, sage wisdom, and gratis legal counsel: Judge Judy, Judge Joe Brown, Judge Marilyn Milian, Judge Alex, Judge Greg Mathis, Judge Hatchett (sorry you got canceled, Your Honor), Judge Christina, Judge Penny, Judge Karen, and Judge David Young. You all rock.

Kirkland, the house brand of Costco, the home of conspicuous consumption. I need twenty of something, and I need it right now.

LinCYcum. You're the baddest pitcher in the National League, Timmy. Don't go changing.

Meat Loaf. Because some days, nothing gets me through the madness like Marvin Lee Aday, roaring at maximum volume in all his sweaty, bombastic, Wagnerian, Jim Steinman-produced glory. What's for dinner? Meat Loaf.

Nashville, Tennessee, where Voices in Harmony and I spent a week enjoying Southern hospitality, and from which we brought home third place International bronze medals. Thanks, y'all.

Obama. That doesn't even need commentary.

Parker, Robert B. My favorite author. There's a new Spenser paperback on my desk, which I plan to dive into today.

Quantum of Solace. Not quite up to the incredible level of Casino Royale, but still pretty cool. Can it really be a bad year when we get a new Bond film?

Raley's, our local supermarket. We've shopped there for the past 20 years. We're on a first-name basis with most of the staff. We probably know the merchandise better than some of the employees.

Sushi. Tiny little rice-clouds of culinary heaven. My favorites: tako, unagi, ebi, hamachi, and good toro, when I can get it.

Time. I believe it was Augustine who said, "What is time? If no man asks me, I know; but if any man asks, clearly I know not."

United Health Care. As big a pain in the tuchus as they have been to deal with — and they have been a colossal pain — I'm glad they've paid for everything they've paid for. I don't know how we would have.

Voicetrax San Francisco (which is actually in Sausalito... but then, San Francisco International Airport is in San Bruno, so I guess it works), where I'm learning the fine art of voice acting from some of the most talented folks in the industry. Thanks to all of the coaches who hammered knowledge into my cranium this year: Chuck Kourouklis, Frank Coppola, Thom Pinto, Lisa Baney, and the amazing Samantha Paris. And a special thanks to Shirley the office manager, for figuring out why I belonged there.

Wonder Woman. Princess Diana of Themyscira rules.

Xander Berkeley, that fine American character actor who lends class to every film and TV show in which he appears. You may not recognize his name, but I guarantee that you know his face.

Yahoo! I'm glad I didn't own any of their stock, though.

Zorro. Johnston McCulley's masked hero resurfaced this year in a terrific comic book series from Dynamite Entertainment, written by Matt Wagner and drawn by Francesco Francavilla. Great read.

I'm thankful, friend reader, for your time, your attention, and your comments and e-mails throughout the year. May you and your loved ones — or someone else's loved ones if you don't have your own — find much for which to be grateful on this day of gratitude.

Slather an extra ladle of gravy on your turkey and stuffing. Tell your cardiologist that your Uncle Swan said it's okay.

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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Six degrees of me

Yesterday, I was reading the obituaries on the local newspaper's Web site. (I check the funeral notices frequently, just to be sure I'm not listed in them.) Included was mention of the passing of a man whom I did not know personally, but whose younger sister and I were in the same high school graduating class 30 years ago.

When I pointed this out to my wife, KJ told me that this man's sister-in-law works in her office.

My daughter KM, hearing our conversation, observed that the man's son is her classmate at the junior college.

What are the odds that one random individual whom none of us ever met would have a different line of direct connection to each member of my family?

Four centuries ago — give or take a decade or so — John Donne wrote:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
As well as if promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were.
Any man's death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Or, as Uncle Walt told us so many times...

It's a small world after all.

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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Drinking the Kool-Aid

Thirty years ago today, a madman named Jim Jones led 909 of his disciples — known collectively as the Peoples Temple — to mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. Nearly 300 of the dead were children.

The method of self-destruction chosen by the brainwashed masses (though not Jones himself, who put himself out of the world's misery with a bullet to the brain) lent an enduring new metaphor to the American vernacular: "Drinking the Kool-Aid."

Ironically, it wasn't Kool-Aid, but instead a similar powdered drink called Flavor-Aid, that delivered the fatal cyanide.

History makes mistakes like that sometimes.

The day before the mass suicide, Jones's personal security force, the self-styled Red Brigade, murdered U.S. Congressman Leo J. Ryan, two NBC News staff members, a photographer from the San Francisco Examiner, and a Peoples Temple member on the airstrip at Port Kaituma, Guyana. Ryan, representing California's 11th District, had led a delegation of journalists to Jonestown to investigate allegations of abuse within the Peoples Temple, whose followers had relocated from the Bay Area to Guyana in the summer of 1977. As Ryan and his party attempted to flee with 15 Peoples Temple defectors, the Red Brigade opened fire.

Ryan's assistant, 28-year-old Jackie Speier, survived the attack, along with about a dozen other members of the delegation. Speier suffered five gunshot wounds, including shattered bones in her right arm and leg. Today, Speier represents California's 12th District in Congress.

Jonestown was the biggest news story in the Bay Area since the 1906 earthquake — until ten days later, when Dan White, a former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, assassinated Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk in their offices at San Francisco City Hall.

I remember the events of what came to be known as the Jonestown massacre vividly. Because my family was both black and religious (the largest proportion of Peoples Temple members were African-American), relatives from all over the country called our house on the day the news broke, fearing that somehow we had been involved in the tragedy. Clearly, we were not.

909 other people — plus Leo Ryan and the four who died alongside him — were.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the deaths at Jonestown represented the largest single-event loss of American lives resulting from human causes.

Three decades later, the massacre remains burned with laser-like intensity into the memories of those of us who lived in the Bay Area at the time. Jonestown stands as a permanent reminder of the seductive nature of power, as well as the dangers of blind faith.

At least the Kool-Aid company recovered.

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Thursday, October 16, 2008


This won't elicit much play beyond my immediate vicinity, but what the hey... I can be provincial when I choose to be.

The man who built much of my town died today.

Jimmie Rogers was an up-and-coming real estate salesman back in the early 1960s when he persuaded the namesake family on whose one-time seed farm the city of Rohnert Park now stands to hire him as their representative. Rogers parlayed that position — and a legendary silver tongue — into a lucrative political and development career.

Rogers's talent for negotiation led to the creation of most of the residential tracts in town, including the one where I live. He was also responsible for the local community center, golf course, numerous commercial projects, and a host of parks and schools. Rogers served for nearly a decade on the city council, and when his development connections drove him out of the political arena, he continued to control the council through his proxies for decades afterward.

Having lived in Rohnert Park for most of the past 30 years, I've heard plenty of stories about Jimmie Rogers, although I met him in person only once, when I was still in high school. I don't know how many of the stories are 100% true.

Without question, Rogers cut a colorful figure around town. He liked to dress like an extra from Urban Cowboy. His hands wormed their way into plenty of pockets and his fingers probed a lot of pies. Where there were palms to be greased, Rogers was the one who gave and got the grease. Where deals were being hammered out in smoke-filled back rooms, Rogers did most of the puffing.

Rogers was frequently accused of playing fast and loose with the legalities of city business, to the point that the FBI took a hard look at him on at least one occasion. But he had as many fans as he had detractors — a friend of mine in the real estate business can't say enough good about the guy.

This much I do know...

If it weren't for Jimmie Rogers, this would be a very different community. And I wouldn't be typing under this roof.

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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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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Making love in a Subaru

You veteran dementians and dementites are now cackling with glee at the title reference.

The rest of you... at least I have your attention.

After weeks of peering through brochures, scanning countless Web sites, and fielding dozens of phone messages and e-mails from eager automotive salespeople, KJ bought her new car Monday night: a sage green 2009 Subaru Forester with all the bells and whistles, including a power moonroof, a six-CD stereo, and gray leather upholstery.

All together now: Oooooooooooh. Aaaaaaaaaaaah.

Needless to say, KJ's as giddy as a schoolgirl over her purchase. And I'm happy because she's happy. (We all know the song: "When Mama Ain't Happy, Ain't Nobody Happy.")

She negotiated the deal via e-mail. When the price was set, we trekked across the bridge to not-so-beautiful downtown Oakland, where a pleasant gentleman named Kay obtained our signatures on what seemed like reams of duplicate forms, gave us a tour of the dashboard as he fueled the car at a nearby gas station, swapped two sets of ignition keys and door remotes for the largest check KJ has ever written in her life, and sent us merrily on our way as Subaru owners.

And yes, it's a nice car. (I'm reminded of that old Peugeot commercial in which the late Fabio-tressed tennis hunk Vitas Gerulaitis chauffeured his aged father about in his snazzy new ride, only to hear the senior Mr. Gerulaitis say, "Is a nice Peugeot, Vitas. Now when you are getting a haircut?")

For those of you still mystified by the title of this post, "Making Love in a Subaru" was a novelty record popularized way back when by cult radio personality Barrett Hansen, better known as Dr. Demento. The song, recorded by the good Doctor's frequent contributor and occasional sidekick Damaskas (whose real name, I'm told, is Dan Hollombe), extols the virtues of carnal pleasure as performed in the cramped confines of a 1970s-vintage Subaru.

Back in my high school days, I enjoyed many laughs over that song, because (a) that kind of puerile humor is hilarious to teenage boys, of which I was then one, and (b) my best friend at the time drove a Subaru — an oddly boxy little white vehicle with the then-novel feature of all-wheel drive.

Did my pal ever test the Damaskas theory? That, friend reader, is a tale best left untold, on the advice of my attorney.

As for KJ and I... let's just say that we're not in high school any more.

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Saturday, July 12, 2008

Bobby Murcer (1946-2008)

I note in this evening's news that Bobby Murcer has passed away from a brain tumor.

To most baseball fans, Murcer was most closely associated with the New York Yankees, first as a player, then as a broadcaster for more than 20 years. For me, however, Murcer was part of my earliest experience as a San Francisco Giants fan.

Bobby Murcer played two years for the Giants -- the 1975 and 1976 seasons, which (purely coincidentally) happened to be the first two seasons that I followed the Giants on a regular basis.

Murcer, who came to the Giants after four All-Star seasons in New York, was still a pretty good player when he arrived at Candlestick Park. In fact, Murcer was the Giants' representative in the '75 All-Star game. He never really seemed to catch on, though, with Bay Area fans, who still thought of him mostly as a Yankee. (Murcer also had the misfortune to have been received in exchange for the popular Bobby Bonds.)

Despite two pretty good seasons wearing orange and black -- he was the Giants' MVP in 1976, when he hit 23 home runs -- not too many fans here mourned when Murcer took flight for the greener pastures of Wrigley Field, having been traded for second baseman Bill Madlock.

Ironically, the player whose career is most similar statistically to Bobby Murcer's is a guy who will long be thought of as a Giant -- Dusty Baker, who played a single season in the twilight of his career with San Francisco, and later returned to the club as a longtime coach and manager.

Murcer posted a lifetime batting average of .277, with 252 home runs and 1,043 RBI in 17 major league seasons. He led the American League in slugging percentage in 1971, and won a Gold Glove the following year.

So long, Bobby. Remember to hit 'em where they ain't.

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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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Thursday, June 19, 2008

Going to a hukilau

Among my delightful Father's Day gifts was a bag of this delectable new coffee from the Sign of the Mermaid: Starbucks Kopelani Blend.

According to the package, kopelani means "heavenly coffee" in Hawaiian. Although I've retained a fair amount of local-style pidgin from my childhood in the Islands, I can't vouch for the veracity of this translation. For all I know, kopelani means "empty your wallet" in the mother tongue.

Whatever the name means, this sure is some heavenly coffee. I'm celebrating my half-birthday with a gently steaming mug even as I type. (I believe the word is multitasking.)

Despite the Hawaiian handle, Starbucks Kopelani Blend contains only 10% Kona coffee, that savory varietal from the leeward shores of the Big Island. The balance of the beans comprise a blend of African and Latin American coffees, resulting in a tangy, fruity, slightly acidic flavor palate that's perfect for early-morning quaffing.

Kopelani Blend brews up light and aromatic, not at all overpowering. It's a pleasant accompaniment alongside your favorite breakfast fare, or just for smooth and easy sipping. It would make a nice, summery iced coffee, perhaps for serving at your next hukilau.

Now, if you'll excuse me, my ukelele awaits...

We'll throw our nets out into the sea
Where all the ama-ama come a-swimmin' to me
Oh, we're goin' to a hukilau
A huki, huki, huki, huki, hukilau.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Dance like an Egyptian

As the late, great Jim McKay might have said...

"What in The Wide World of Sports happened to my week?"

All of a sudden, it's another Comic Art Friday, and I haven't posted one doggoned thing since last Friday.

I'm falling down on my blogging responsibilities. It's a crying shame.

Oh, well. I'll do better next week.

Moving on...

Without question, nostalgia plays an essential role in comic art collecting. I know every few, if indeed any, collectors in the hobby who weren't avid comic book readers in their youth. (I know plenty of comic art collectors who are not comic readers today, which says more about the present state of the mainstream comics industry than almost anything else I can name.)

As we've seen on the two most recent Comic Art Fridays, my nostalgia for my comic-geek childhood and my fond recollections of other aspects of popular culture that I experienced during my formative years frequently intersect in my art collection.

Take, for example, my Isis gallery.

I love the classic Saturday morning TV show The Secrets of Isis — produced by Filmation, and starring the ineffably sublime JoAnna Cameron in the title role. The Secrets of Isis is the only television series for which I own all of the episodes on DVD. (And yes, I actually break down and watch a couple of eps whenever the Isis jones overtakes me.)

Isis's September 1975 premiere made her the first superheroine in TV history to headline her own weekly series — Wonder Woman debuted two months later; The Bionic Woman, the following January. You know I'm all about the superheroines. One might even say that I have a superheroine addiction.

Which creates the perfect segue into today's featured artwork.

The pencil art of Mike Vosburg graced seven of the eight issues of the Isis comic book, which DC Comics published during the TV show's tenure (1976-77). Mike has also drawn dozens of other properties during his 35-year career in comics, most notably DC's Starfire (which Mike co-created) and Marvel's She-Hulk and G.I. Joe. These days, in addition to his various illustrating projects, Mike is much sought after as a storyboard artist for motion pictures and television. He storyboarded the first film in the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and is currently at work on the third film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

I had the opportunity to meet Mike at WonderCon back in February, and found him a most congenial gentleman. We even talked a bit about Isis — how could we not? Some months later, I received an e-mail from a fellow comic art collector who's helping Mike promote his new limited-edition sketchbook — cleverly titled Heroine Addiction (now you get the connection) — and sell the original artwork featured in the book. Mike's friend, knowing my passion for all things Isis, thought I might like to own the Isis drawing Mike created for Heroine Addiction. Again, how could I not?

Mike even personalized the art for me, and included a gratis copy of his sketchbook. Isis and her dancing partners (Mike's a cat fancier, hence Isis's feline companion) are now proudly hanging on my office wall, even as I type.

If you'd like to view more of Mike Vosburg's work, and perhaps score a little Heroine Addiction for yourself, check out his Web site. You can tell Mike your Uncle Swan sent you.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

More blogging next week. Scout's honor.

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Friday, May 30, 2008


If you hang out here at SSTOL very often, you've probably heard me mention that I grew up in a military family. My father served 20 years in the U.S. Air Force, of which I was around for the last 15. Although my dad's work had nothing to do with aviation — he was a carpenter by trade, and later, a building inspector — in that environment, I couldn't help but become interested in military aircraft, and the lore and memorabilia surrounding them.

That little history lesson helps explain my boyhood fascination with nose art.

For those of you unfamiliar with this phenomenon, please be assured that nose art has nothing to do with human noses, nor any art created using or appliedthereto. Nose art refers to decorative, often fanciful designs — squadron insignia, logos, cartoon characters, pinup girls, sometimes combinations of two or more of these elements — painted on the fuselages of military aircraft. The term "nose art" derives from the fact that these designs were usually affixed to the forward part (that is, the nose) of the plane.

Although the earliest examples are as old as military planes themselves, nose art became ubiquitous in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II, and the U.S. Air Force (the separate service created from the USAAF in 1947) during the Korean conflict. In reality, the origins of nose art can be traced to the elaborate figureheads that adorned sailing ships in ancient times.

A couple of years ago, while browsing a few Web sites displaying photos of nose art, I had a brainstorm: Wouldn't it be cool if someone created a gallery of nose art-style pinups featuring comic book superheroines from the 1940s? Given my twin affections for nose art and characters from the Golden Age of comics, it seemed as though I might be just the man to spearhead such a project. I patted myself on my metaphorical back for dreaming up this brilliant concept.

Then I more or less forgot about it.

Until a few months ago, when the subject arose during an e-mail exchange with my good friend and fellow comic art collector, Damon Owens. Damon, who shares my enthusiasm for the neglected heroes and heroines of comics' past — his incredible collection of commissioned art contains countless homages to the Golden Age — thought the nose art theme had genuine merit. Our discussion reminded me of how excited I had been about the concept when first I thought of it.

So, I began considering artists I might enlist (no pun intended) for the project, which I nicknamed "Bombshells!" As fate would have it, as I was pondering, I received an e-mail from Dan Veesenmeyer, a talented "good girl" artist with a retro feel. I pitched the concept to Dan, we kicked around a few ideas, and Dan chose four Golden Age heroines for his initial creations. Bob Almond — known in Comic Art Friday circles as the man who puts the "King" in "inking" — readily agreed to embellish Dan's pencil drawings.

Thus, the first Bombshells! were born.

And what better way to kick off the Bombshells! theme than with that symbol of all that's good and female about these United States, Miss America?

Miss America — not to be confused with the beauty pageant of the same name, although Miss A. could certainly have competed — arrived on the scene in Marvel Mystery Comics #49, in late 1943.

Madeline Joyce acquired the powers of flight and superhuman strength through one of those bizarre pseudo-scientific mishaps favored by Golden Age comics writers — she was struck by lightning. What with a war on and all, Madeline donned a red costume with a star-spangled shield on the chest to become Miss America. She appeared steadily in both Marvel Mystery and her own eponymous series until 1948, by which time the initial excitement over superheroes had run its course.

Miss A. also served time as a founding member of the All-Winners Squad, Timely Comics' (which morphed into Marvel Comics by the early 1960s) first attempt at a superhero team.

Our second Bombshell! features one of the more cleverly named heroines of the Golden Age, Liberty Belle.

Liberty Belle — in civilian life, Elizabeth "Libby" Chambers — debuted in Boy Commandos #1 (cover date, Winter 1943). Her powers, which included great strength, speed, and stamina, derived — in true Golden Age fashion — from a mystical connection with the actual Liberty Bell. Whenever that venerable American icon is struck, Libby receives a rush of adrenaline that fuels her powers. (As you might suppose, this necessitated Libby hiring an operative in Philadelphia who could tap the bell whenever she needed to leap into action — presumably, without said operative being arrested for mishandling a historical landmark.)

In the modern era, Libby's daughter Jesse wears her mother's former costume and code name (after a few years of operating under the handle Jesse Quick), and has inherited her mom's powers — which she can exercise without needing a recharge from the grand old gong.

We'll look at a couple more Bombshells! next week.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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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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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Roll, Waves!

Nice to see that my old school, Pepperdine University, is once again in the hunt for the College World Series, the national championship of NCAA Division I college baseball.

The Waves will begin regional competition on Friday at Stanford University's Sunken Diamond, in a regional that also includes Arkansas (Pep's first-round opponent) and first-time tournament qualifier UC Davis. You can check out the entire tournament bracket here. The University of Miami is seeded Numero Ono in the nationwide double-elimination playoff.

Pepperdine has a long and storied baseball tradition, having won the CWS title in 1992 under Andy Lopez, now the head coach at the University of Arizona. Roughly two dozen future major leaguers have come through the Pepperdine system, including current San Francisco Giants pitcher Noah Lowry, Arizona Diamondbacks starter Dan Haren, and 1986 National League Cy Young Award winner Mike Scott.

Yours truly played a microscopic role in Pep's proud baseball history, as a member of the Waves' radio broadcast team during the 1980 and 1981 seasons. I wouldn't be surprised if there's an ancient air check tape of one of my calls gathering mildew in a desk drawer somewhere — the highlight of my otherwise inconsequential stint as a play-by-play announcer was a no-hitter thrown by a Pepperdine hurler named Bob Iezza.

Pepperdine hadn't yet developed into a baseball powerhouse in those days. However, the '80-'81 squad's star catcher, Bill Bathe, did eventually make the major leagues, playing briefly for both Oakland and San Francisco. In fact, as a backup for the Giants, Bathe hit San Francisco's only home run during the ill-fated "Earthquake World Series" of 1989.

During our Pepperdine days, Bill Bathe's car once served as my personal ambulance. My girlfriend at the time prevailed upon a mutual pal — the Waves' center fielder, and Bathe's roommate — to borrow Bill's ride and rush me to the hospital during a severe bout of food poisoning. The last I heard, Bathe was a fire department captain and paramedic in Tucson, Arizona. Perhaps his tangential connection to saving my life helped frame Bill's future career path. If so, my existence is justified.

Here's hoping that the 2008 Waves enjoy abundant success in the upcoming tournament.

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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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Friday, May 02, 2008

Amazin' armor

Tomorrow — Saturday, May 3, in case you're stumbling into the room a trifle late — is Free Comic Book Day.

Your participating local comics retailer will have on hand a selection of comic books from which you're welcome to choose, absolutely free of obligation. (If your retailer is really cool, he or she may even allow to pick up more than one.) The choices run the gamut from superheroes — the kind you've actually heard of, most likely — to kids' comics featuring Gumby or Disney characters, to Japanese manga. Such popular franchises as Superman, Archie, Transformers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and X-Men are represented in this year's offerings. You'll even find some stuff that's next to impossible to categorize. Whatever your taste in fantasy fiction or humor, you'll find something to like.

Do yourself a favor. Whether you're a long-time comics reader, or you haven't read a comic in a long time, or you've been on Earth for a long time and have never read a comic, swing by your participating local comics retailer tomorrow and snag a free comic or (if your retailer is really cool, like my local comic shop is) two. When you find one that interests you, take one more step: Ask your retailer, "If I like this, what else do you have that I might enjoy?" Then let her or him show you some options.

If you have a kid or two to accompany you, take 'em. What could it hurt? Worst case scenario: The kid gets a free book that ends up in the recycling bin. (You recycle, right?) Best case scenario: You've opened a door for a young person to experience the joys of reading, and visual storytelling, and sequential art appreciation.

Your Uncle Swan thinks that's not such a bad outcome.

Speaking of this weekend...

Tony Stark makes you feel
He's a cool exec with a heart of steel.
As Iron Man, all jets ablaze
He fights and smites with repulsor rays!
Amazing armor, he's Iron Man!
Ablaze in power, he's Iron Man!

Yes, the cinematic version of Iron Man premieres today, as you certainly know unless you've been living among the Amish for the past several months.

How excited am I about this? Excited enough to do something I never do — go to a theater on a film's opening day. Everything I've seen and heard about the film suggests that Iron Man will rank among the better cinematic representations of superheroes in recent years. The trailers have looked incredible, and Robert Downey Jr. couldn't be more perfectly cast as industrialist-slash-playboy Tony Stark, the man inside the famous red-and-gold supersuit.

As I related on a previous Comic Art Friday, Iron Man was one of my favorite Marvel heroes in my earliest days of comics reading. I still own the little hand-carved Pinewood Derby slot car, hand-painted gold with red accents, that I made nearly 40 years ago when I was a Cub Scout, that I nicknamed Iron Man.

Over the years, my enthusiasm for old Shellhead has dimmed considerably. Marvel's editorial department has seemed bent of late on destroying everything that made the character interesting and likable, in favor of portraying him as a ego-consumed, monomaniacal chump. I liked Tony a whole lot better when he lived in acute awareness of his own humanity, and didn't think he ruled the world.

Still looking forward to the movie, though!

An Iron Man film and a Free Comic Book Day... could a weekend get any better than this? Actually, it can.

My chorus, Voices in Harmony (currently ranked third internationally by the Barbershop Harmony Society) begins its annual weekend retreat — we call it an Advance, because we never "retreat" — this evening, in preparation for this year's competition cycle. Three days of grueling work, but great fun nevertheless. (Have I mentioned yet that our first concert of 2008 is only a month away, on Saturday, June 7? Great seats still available!)

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My stone gas tank runs dry

The final Train has left the station.

The 22nd Annual Soul Train Music Awards, scheduled for later this year, have been canceled due to overwhelming ennui on the part of both the public and the potential honorees.

Which should come as no surprise — Soul Train, that venerable television dance party, itself vanished from the airwaves two years ago.

Back in the day, Soul Train was, in its own hyberbolic words, "the hippest trip on television." It was a Saturday institution — impossibly limber dancers shaking what their mamas gave 'em to the latest R&B hits.

But what seemed ineffably cool in the swinging '70s had pretty much worn out its trendiness by the early '90s, even though the program chugged along on fumes for another decade or so. Train's creator and longtime host, Don Cornelius, bailed out a few years back, rendering the enterprise almost completely pointless.

In its time, though, Soul Train delivered a weekly dose of unstudied funkiness to TV sets across America. Everyone who was anyone in rhythm and blues — and its temporal offshoots soul, disco, and hip-hop — appeared on the Soul Train stage to lip-synch their latest releases. And was there a cool kid anywhere who didn't secretly long to take just one booty-swiveling boogie down the Soul Train line? Come on — you know you did.

Those days, alas, are forever gone.

Just the other day, as I was loading music onto my new mp3 player, I dug out my copy of Soul Train Hall of Fame, a three-CD box set released in 1994, encompassing 59 legendary R&B cuts made popular during the first 20 years of Soul Train's run.

A few of the track selections are questionable: Why, for example, was the Commodores' sappy ballad "Three Times a Lady" chosen, instead of the funk classic "Brick House"? Why is Prince's early career represented by the fun but lightweight "I Wanna Be Your Lover," instead of, say, any of the singles from the Purple One's most influential album, 1999? In the main, however, the collection provides a vivid, mostly danceable snapshot of the music that Soul Train pioneered.

From this abundance of musical treasures, the following are the ten that most make me want to get up off'a that thang.

1. "Cold Sweat" — James Brown. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business gets busy.

2. "Tear the Roof Off the Sucker (Give Up the Funk)" — Parliament. Could we get George Clinton to run for President, instead of the other one?

3. "Jungle Love" — Morris Day and the Time. In a word: O-E-O-E-O.

4. "Bad Girls" — Donna Summer. Say what you will about the Queen of Disco, but she could rock a groove like nobody's business.

5. "(Every Time I Turn Around) Back In Love Again" — L.T.D. One of the hottest jams ever recorded by a band named after a Ford sedan.

6. "I'm Every Woman" — Chaka Khan. Maybe not every woman, but woman enough.

7. "What's Love Got To Do With It?" — Tina Turner. Come on, Ike, answer that question.

8. "Word Up" — Cameo. Try to stand still when this one comes on. I dare you.

9. "O.P.P." — Naughty By Nature. Yeah, you know me.

10. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" — Lou Rawls. Forget side one of Led Zeppelin 4, guys. This is the track you put on when you want to impress the ladies.

Somewhere out there, Don "No Soul" Simmons is smiling.

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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... 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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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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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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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Making waves in Malibu

The announcement apparently came a week ago, but somehow, I missed it:

Tom Asbury is returning to Pepperdine as head basketball coach next season, after a 14-year absence.

Asbury presided over one of Pep's best stretches during his previous tenure as head coach, from 1988 to 1994. During those six seasons, the Waves won three consecutive West Coast Conference championships, and made five postseason appearances — three in the NCAA tournament, and two in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). Before that, Asbury spent nine years on the Pepperdine bench as an assistant under the volatile Jim Harrick.

Asbury left Malibu in 1994 to take over the reigns at Kansas State, where he spent six seasons — three good, three less so. He left coaching for a few years before taking an assistant's job at Alabama, where he worked until last season.

When I was at Pep ('79-'81), Asbury was widely known as the secret of Harrick's success — an excellent recruiter, and a stable personality to balance Harrick's mercurial, fly-off-the-handle approach. If Asbury's got anything left in the tank, he could do a great deal to resurrect a program that has fallen into disarray since he left it. (Case in point: Vance Walberg, the head coach who started this season with Pepperdine, was ousted midway through the year amid allegations of player abuse reminiscent of Bob Knight.)

The Waves are currently 10-14 overall and 4-8 in the WCC, with three games left to play.

I hope Asbury pulls this off. I'd love to see the Blue and Orange back in the Big Dance some year soon.

Roll, Waves!

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Friday, February 22, 2008

I'm wandering to WonderCon

It's WonderCon time, boys and girls.

Thus, your ever-lovin' Uncle Swan is off for two fun-filled, action-packed days at San Francisco's Moscone Center, rubbing elbows with sweaty comics geeks from all over the West. We'll check out the scene, slap palms with a few old comrades, and with any luck, pick up a new artwork or two along the way.

And of course, we'll report back here next Comic Art Friday, to tell you all about it.

Meanwhile, to whet our comic art appetite, let's flash back to a few of the artistic highlights we've commissioned at WonderCons past.

From WonderCon 2005: Ron Lim rocks Captain America — may he rest in peace — and throws in the U.S. Agent for good measure. Comic Art Friday perennial Bob Almond later put the finishing touches on this one, in ink.

From WonderCon 2006: Alé Garza delivers a lovely yet powerful rendition of my favorite mutant, the weather wizardress known as Storm.

From WonderCon 2007: The delightful Paul Ryan creates an exciting splash page — literally and figuratively — featuring his heroine and mine, Wonder Woman.

What joys will WonderCon 2008 bring to our little collection of funnybook drawings? Drop around in seven days, and find out!

And that, fellow Con artists, is your Comic Art Friday.

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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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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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Friday, February 01, 2008

No time for losers, 'cause we are the Champions

Marvel Comics hates me.

First, Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada tried to ruin Spider-Man. Now, he's canceled Marvel's best new mainstream comic book in years, The Order.

It's as though Doctor Doom has seized control of the House of Ideas.

The Order, which debuted last summer, was probably the only positive development to come out of Marvel's Civil War mega-event — you know, that silly business in which Spider-Man unmasked on national television, Iron Man turned into George W. Bush, and Captain America got back-shot like Tupac?

Written by the supremely talented Matt Fraction (co-author of another of my current-favorite Marvel reads, The Immortal Iron Fist, which will probably be canceled now that I've owned up to buying it) and engagingly drawn by Barry Kitson (with whose work I fell in love during his recent stint on DC's Legion of Super-Heroes), The Order chronicles the adventures on a group of rookie superheroes, charged by the United States government as the official protectors of California. With a couple of minor exceptions, all of the heroes in the series were created especially for The Order, and Fraction and Kitson have done masterful work in making each member of the team interesting, individual, and compelling.

Heaven forfend that anything both fresh and unique should be given time to build an audience.

In truth, The Order began life with a strike against it (aside from its focus on unfamiliar characters, that is). When first announced, the series and its eponymous supergroup were supposed to be known as The Champions, a shout-out to a short-lived but fondly remembered Marvel series of the 1970s.

Beginning with The Defenders in 1971, Marvel went through a phase of cobbling together superhero teams from the most unlikely assemblages of candidates. The original Defenders lineup, for example, included Doctor Strange, the Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk — the Silver Surfer joined them in the second issue — bringing together Marvel's least cooperation-friendly characters into a single unit.

The Champions' roster was even more bizarre — the Greek demigod Hercules; the Black Widow, a former Soviet spy turned superheroine; the demonic Ghost Rider; and a couple of original X-Men, Angel and Iceman. (I always wondered whether writer Tony Isabella and editor Len Wein simply stuck pictures of every Marvel character on Len's office wall, donned blindfolds, and threw darts at random to make up the Champions.)

What made the Champions unique to Marvel, aside from their patchwork lineup, was the fact that they were based in Los Angeles — a break from the New York centrality of the rest of the company's series. (The Black Widow and Daredevil had moved to San Francisco together in the early '70s, forming Marvel's first West Coast superteam.) The 21st-century Champions, also L.A.-based, were initially named as an homage to the originals.

Unfortunately for Marvel, a company called Heroic Publishing (home of Flare and Liberty Girl) had snapped up the trademark on the comic book title Champions, Marvel having abandoned it when The Champions was canceled in 1978. When Heroic refused to relinquish the trademark in exchange for monetary considerations, Marvel retitled its new Fraction-Kitson series The Order.

Now, you can just call it defunct.

Thinking back on those disco-era Champions, though...

I always liked the Black Widow as a character. She and Daredevil, with their similar fighting styles and abilities, made a solid partnership, and the Widow's strategic leadership was one of the best features of The Champions. Plus, her simple, elegant costume design — essentially just a black bodysuit, accessorized with a gold-ring belt with a black widow's red "hourglass" on the buckle, and wrist-mounted "stingers" — is a dynamite look.

As you can judge for yourself, from this slick, retro-cool pinup by the inimitable Phil Noto.

Having dropped away from regular comics reading in the late '80s, I was until recently unaware that Marvel's modern-day Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Natalia Romanova (there was a previous, unrelated character codenamed Black Widow in the 1940s), had been temporarily supplanted for a few years by a newer, younger model named Yelena Belova. The second Widow was blonde, of all things. After four decades of the Black Widow as a redhead, that strikes me as just plain wrong... then again, Marvel doesn't care what I like anyway.

Just to show that I can be open to new ideas, however, this attractive drawing by Matt Haley shows Natasha and her youthful counterpart together.

Okay, yeah. That works for me. (Is it now a rule that young superheroines have to wear bare-midriff costumes? And if so, can we reevaluate that rule?)

Natasha has also graced our Common Elements series with her always-welcome appearance. Artist Ty Romsa pairs the Widow with mercenary-at-large Silver Sable in this commissioned drawing.

Today, the Black Widow is a mainstay of the Avengers. That's the "Mighty" Avengers, as opposed to the "New" Avengers, for those of you who have difficulty keeping the teams straight... as do I.

I'm still ticked about The Order, though.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

Happy anniversary, baby

As Pogo might have put it: "Comic Art Friday done come on Saturday this week!"

Sorry about that. As those of you who follow my Twitter log may have noticed, KJ went back into the hospital on Thursday. Don't panic: She'll be fine. She had a buildup of infection following her recent gall bladder removal, so they're draining the gunk (I love using that medical terminology) and pumping her with antibiotics to kill the nasty microbes. She'll probably come home on Tuesday if all goes well.

Unfortunately for her, this little setback means she's spending our 23rd wedding anniversary — which happens to be today — slurping clear liquids in a hospital bed, rather than dining sumptuously on haute cuisine at one of our outstanding local restaurants.

Still, we can celebrate the occasion, with some couples-focused comic art.

Batman and Catwoman — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Geof Isherwood:

Dynamo and Iron Maiden — pencils by Geof Isherwood:

Green Lantern John Stewart and Hawkgirl — pencils and inks by Wilson "Wunan" Tortosa:

Superman and Wonder Woman — pencils by the late, great Mike Wieringo, inks by Richard Case:

Spider-Man and Mary Jane — pencils by Al Rio, inks by Bob Almond:

Happy anniversary, KJ, and thanks for putting up with me for all these years. Get well soon, please.

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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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Friday, December 28, 2007

Comic Art Friday: The best of 2007

It's the final Comic Art Friday of 2007, and you know what that means: Time for our annual retrospective of our favorite comic art acquisitions of the past year.

But before we get into our "Best Of" mode, let's give a Comic Art Friday "Happy Birthday" shout-out to Stan "The Man" Lee. The longtime Marvel Comics writer-editor-publisher celebrates his 85th today.

It's safe to say that much of my love for comics began with Stan, who, in partnership with such nonpareil artistic talents as Jack "King" Kirby, Steve Ditko, John Buscema, and John Romita Sr., transformed a moribund funnybook operation into the senses-shattering House of Ideas, thereby changing American popular culture forever. I still get a charge out of reading Stan's bombastic scripts in the Marvel masterworks of the 1960s.

Excelsior, Mr. Lee, and many happy returns.

And now, a look back at my favorite additions to my ever-burgeoning comic art collection from these most recent twelve months. It was a Katharine Hepburn kind of year: We didn't add an abundance of new meat to the gallery's bones, but what we did add was choice. (Or "cherce," if you can do a good Spencer Tracy imitation. Which I can't.)

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroes Division:
"Out of Time" — pencils and inks by Bob Layton
Booster Gold and Captain America

The artist best known for his work on Iron Man shows that he can draw other heroes with equal facility. This was this first of two Common Elements commissions Bob Layton did for me this year, both of which turned out beautifully.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Heroines Division:
"Footloose" — pencils by Robb Phipps
Mantis and Gypsy

"Good girl" specialist Robb Phipps contributed this lovely pairing of barefoot heroines Mantis and Gypsy.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"In a Handbasket" — pencils and inks by Thomas Hodges
Hellboy and Hellcat

Star Wars artist Thomas Hodges delivered this preordered commission at WonderCon 2007. Hodges's angular, ink-heavy style owes a debt to Hellboy creator Mike Mignola, so I thought he'd be perfect for this assignment. As usual, I was correct.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Co-Ed Division (tie):
"Take a Giant Step" — pencils by Val Semeiks
Elasti-Girl and Goliath

In addition to his phenomenal drawing skills, Val Semeiks was a dream to work with. He brainstormed the idea of using my beloved Sonoma County wine country as the backdrop for his creation. Val is right at the top of my list of artists to commission in 2008.

Favorite "Common Elements" Commission, Special Achievement Award:
"Marvels" — pencils by Luke McDonnell
The Marvel Families

Luke McDonnell earns his own category for taking on this daunting six-character project, pitting the Marvel Family of "Shazam!" fame against the Captain Marvels who have appeared in Marvel Comics. A real challenge to design, but Luke came though like a champion. (You can click the image above to view a larger version.)

Favorite Wonder Woman:
Michael Dooney (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

Michael Dooney has contributed to every one of my theme galleries. This may just be his very best ever. Bob Almond added his inking magic to make this a Wonder Woman for the ages.

Favorite Black Panther:
Ron Adrian (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

T'Challa never looked more powerful than he does in this stunning rendition by Brazilian artist Ron Adrian. Bob Almond, who's probably best known in the industry for his three-year run on Black Panther, was the obvious choice to ink it.

Favorite Mary Marvel:
Al Rio (pencils) and Bob McLeod (inks)

Actually, only the inking was new this year, but I so love the job Bob McLeod did finishing Al Rio's rough pencil sketch that I thought it deserved another look.

Favorite Ms. Marvel:
Aaron Lopresti (pencils and inks)

Aaron Lopresti, who recently completed an outstanding run on the Ms. Marvel series, revisited Carol's original costume for this commission, which he completed at Super-Con in June.

Favorite Supergirl:
Steve Mannion (pencils)

Steve Mannion's gently detailed penciling style shines in this super-cute portrait of the Maid of Steel, clad in her '70s costume. Steve drew this beauty at home, and delivered her (appropriate) at Super-Con.

Favorite Storm:
Phil Noto (pencils and inks)

Just catching up with the always-in-demand Mr. Noto at WonderCon was a genuine coup. That he delivered this spectacular artwork was icing on the cake.

Favorite Taarna:
Mel Rubi (pencils) and Bob Almond (inks)

My Taarna gallery was a primary commission focus this year. Every new piece in this theme turned out great, but none greater than this one, penciled by Red Sonja artist Mel Rubi and inked by the dependable Bob Almond.

Favorite Isis:
Mitch Foust (pencils)

Pinup artist Mitch Foust contributed this lovely take on the '70s TV heroine, another favorite theme this year.

Favorite Non-Theme Acquisition:
Spider-Man and the Black Cat
Pencils by Jeffrey Moy, inks by W.C. Carani

With limited funds available, my collecting this year focused almost entirely on new theme commissions. I did, however, pick up a couple of nice preexisting artworks that didn't fit into any of my signature galleries. Leading the field was this terrific pinup, a 1999 collaboration by former Legion of Super-Heroes artists Jeff Moy and Cory Carani.

Favorite Inking Makeover (tie):
Spider-Man and Mary Jane
Pencils by Al Rio, finished inks by Bob Almond

Favorite Inking Makeover (tie):
Pencils by Al Rio, finished inks by Joe Rubinstein

A pair of rough sketches by the ultra-talented Al Rio, transformed into finished art by two of the best in the business, Bob Almond and Joe Rubinstein.

Which brings us to...

Comic Art Friday's 2007 Artist of the Year:
Bob Almond

"King of Ink" Bob Almond scores his second consecutive nod as our Artist of the Year. Bob is both a tremendous talent and a truly fine working partner, who bends over backward to deliver incredible results on my inking commissions. Plus, superheroines dig him.

Thanks to each of the comic artists who expanded my collection (and depleted my funds) in 2007. You all rock!

I especially want to extend my appreciation to all the artists who took time to draw for me in person, or to present a prearranged commission, at a comics convention this year: Thomas Hodges, Ron Lim, Buzz, Paul Ryan, Danny Bulanadi, Tony DeZuniga, Ernie Chan, Brent Anderson, David Williams, Phil Noto, Michael Ryan, Aaron Lopresti, Steve Mannion, Chris Giarrusso, and Alé Garza. Thank you all for being so nice to me!

And that, true believers, is another year of Comic Art Friday. As Stan Lee would say: Face front!

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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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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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Thursday, November 22, 2007

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Collector's Edition

We come once again, by the grace of the Almighty, to the fourth Thursday in yet another November. With the aroma of roast turkey and pumpkin pie wafting in the air, let's peruse our annual alphabetical analysis of the diverse things your Uncle Swan is thankful for today.

Acetylsalicylic acid — aspirin, if you please. Still one of the world's great wonder drugs after 150 years.

Back Issue, that spectacular bimonthly magazine edited by Michael Eury. It chronicles the comics of the 1970s and '80s, and the people who created them. It's like a mainline infusion of blissful nostalgia every eight weeks.

Coffee. Nothing's better — or more vital for survival — in the morning. Except maybe air.

Denzel Washington, the finest American actor working today. I'm watching Inside Man as I compose this post. Look up charisma in the cinematic dictionary, and there's Denzel's picture.

Exchange Bank. So far, they've managed never to lose a cent of my money. The drive-through tellers at the Rohnert Park branch always remember my name.

Fitz and Brooks, kicking sports talk old-school weekdays from noon until three on KNBR 680, "The Sports Leader." Bob Fitzgerald and Rod Brooks may well be brothers from different mothers. Only Rod is actually a brother, but you know what I mean.

God. He's the reason everything else exists.

Horses, my daughter's favorite animals, next to Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom.

Inkers, making comic book pencil art come alive. Thanks to Bob Almond, Joe Rubinstein, and Bob McLeod, who all did splendiferous inking commissions for me this year.

James Bond, MI6 Agent 007. Shaken, but never stirred. I'm still a Connery man after all these years, but that Daniel Craig fellow isn't half bad.

KJ and KM, my raisons d'etre.

Loco moco, the best in Hawaiian plate lunch. Sticky rice, hamburger patties, with fried eggs on top, smothered in brown gravy. I'd drive up to Ohana right now if they were open at this hour.

Mugs, chronicling the places I've been, the events I've witnessed, and things that just plain fascinate me. I need more wall space to hang them, at least until the next big quake.

Newsarama, bringing you all the comics industry news that's fit to download.

Ocean's Eleven, either the Sinatra-Dino-Sammy original or the Clooney-Pitt-Damon remake. It's Vegas, baby.

PokerStars. I'm SwanShadow. Come play with me.

Quizno's. They got a pepper bar! We love the subs, but we miss the spongmonkeys.

Reading glasses, my constant reminder that these old eyes ain't what they used to be, and they were never any great shakes to begin with.

Southwest Airlines, for not drilling me into the earth from 35,000 feet — or losing my luggage — on either of the trips I took with them this year.

Target. You need stuff, and they have it.

Underwear. I'm a briefs guy. Fruit of the Loom. Plain white. I know: Too much information. Sue me.

Voices in Harmony, my chorus. I love all 100-plus of you guys, in a strictly male bonding sort of way. We make magic every Tuesday night. Most weeks, I don't even mind the 200-mile round trip commute to rehearsal.

Wikipedia, not always accurate, but mighty handy.

Xenophilia, because I love strange things. Even you, if you're strange.

You Don't Know Jack, the funniest online trivia game ever. I look eagerly forward to a fresh dose every Monday.

Zombie Jamboree: Back to back, belly to belly; well, I don't give a damn, 'cause I'm stone dead already. Do it, Rockapella!

Enjoy your Turkey Day, friend reader. (Or your Tofurkey Day, if you happen to be a vegetarian. I think you're crazy, but that's on you.) Hug the people you love. Let them know how grateful you are for the blessings they bring to your life.

And don't make them wait until next November to hear it again.

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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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Monday, November 05, 2007

Find a line, and picket

Although I'm not a member of the Writers Guild of America (I'm a writer, but not that kind of writer), and am not especially a big fan of unionized work stoppages, I empathize with the POV of the WGA in its latest dispute with film and television producers.

Writing is the invisible magic of media. Practically everything you see on a screen, large or small, is written by someone — more often than not, someone drastically underpaid when compared to the so-called talent on camera. The wit and wisdom of the people you see actually springs from the minds of people you don't see — people who work hard at their craft and deserve their fair share of the revenue their efforts help generate.

The problem is that writing is a deceptively simple-looking talent. Everyone thinks he or she can write — why, even a chimpanzee can sit at a keyboard and bang out strings of characters. Yet very few people can write exceptionally well, with clarity and verve and energy and imagination. Producers (and trust me, this is as true in the advertising/marketing world as it is in show business) always undervalue the contributions of writers, mostly because they think "anyone can write."

In a word: Balderdash.

The current WGA walkout reminds me of my tenuous connection to the union's last major strike in 1988. The beginning of that strike coincided with the taping of my original five-game run on Jeopardy! Although there were picket lines in front of Hollywood Center Studios, where the show was then based, on the days my shows taped, Jeopardy! itself was not directly affected because the show's writing staff weren't members of the WGA.

As the contestant coordinators explained the situation to us, game show writers were considered production assistants rather than screenwriters, and thus ineligible for WGA membership. I don't know whether that's still the case 19 years later, but all of the news accounts I've read seemed to suggest that game shows and other reality programming won't be directly affected by the strike unless other trade unions honor the WGA picket lines.

I wish there could be a less divisive method of resolving the impasse between the WGA's membership and The Powers That Be in Hollywood. But here's hoping that the writers get an honest shake before it's all through.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

We didn't start the fire

I'm beaming positive energy to — and prayers for — the students, faculty, and staff at my alma mater, Pepperdine University.

The picturesque hillside campus had to be evacuated this morning due to wildfires raging through the Malibu Canyon area. The posh Malibu Colony beachfront community is also threatened by the blaze.

Sadly, the Castle Kashan, the multimillion-dollar themed residence modeled after castles in Scotland, has already been at least partially destroyed. The castle, which was completed just prior to my arrival in Malibu, has been a local landmark since the late 1970s.

Here's hoping that everyone at Pep and environs rides out the firestorm safely.

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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, September 26, 2007

And like that... he's gone

Tonight, Barry Bonds played his final home game — and, in all probability, his final game, period — as a San Francisco Giant.

After 15 seasons, I will miss the big lug.

As a Giant, Bonds won five Most Valuable Player awards (he brought two with him when he came over from Pittsburgh), and one could effectively — and, in my never-humble opinion, accurately — argue that he should have won at least two more. For most of his tenure in San Francisco, Bonds was the most dominant, most imposing, most statistically singular baseball player of his generation — perhaps of any generation. This season, he chased down and captured the most legendary record in professional sports, in that handful of games when he wasn't looking like a 43-year-old bodybuilder with gimpy knees.

I've been watching baseball with avid fascination for nearly 40 years. I never saw another player like Bonds.

Did he inflate his statistics — and his uniform — with anabolic steroids and human growth hormone? I don't know. Maybe. Probably. There's no concrete evidence that he ever failed a drug test, but yeah, if I had to guess, I'd vote for the juice. (But not The Juice. That's a whole other story.) How much did it help, if he did? Hard to say. The Bonds who joined the Giants in 1993 was already the best ballplayer I'd ever seen, and even his harshest critics grudgingly acknowledge that he was probably pharmaceutical-free then, and for at least another five or six season thereafter. How much better could he have become, really?

I guess you'd have to ask Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Sammy Sosa, and Ken Caminiti for starters. Except Caminiti's dead. I suspect you should ask Roger Clemens, Pudge Rodriguez, Vladimir Guerrero, and Albert Pujols, too. Not that there's any conclusive evidence there, either. We're just shooting the hypothetical breeze here, right?

You see, that's the reason why an inveterate baseball purist such as myself just sighs and shrugs when the discussion of Bonds, performance-enhancing drugs, and the non-existent asterisk arises. There's as much documented empirical evidence against several dozen other stars, near-stars, and wannabe-stars as there is against Bonds, and no one breathes a word about striking any of their accomplishments from the Baseball Abstract.

We all know why that is. Barry Bonds has all the personal charm of a Gila monster, at least when dealing with members of the fourth estate. Nice guys may finish last, but at least they get the benefit of the doubt. Everyone wants to take down the dude who acts like the wrong end of a horse.

I'm not Barry's apologist. He doesn't appear to want or need one — unless it's his old pal Greg Anderson — and I wouldn't accept the job if offered. But the bottom line is that if (and I believe we still have to say if, Game of Shadows notwithstanding) he used the juice, he wasn't alone. That doesn't excuse it if he did, but it means that in order to serve justice, we'd have to hunt down every Tom, Dick, and Jose who likewise did the stuff, and erase every accomplishment that every one of them ever did. That's assuming that we could prove anything against anyone at this late juncture. And that we could catch everyone who ought to get caught.

Yeah. Good luck with that.

While you're busy with the snipe hunt, I'll be over here remembering 762.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

No surprises

It really should come as no surprise that, six years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, we still haven't managed to capture Osama bin Laden.

After all, no one's found Jimmy Hoffa in 32 years, and Hoffa is presumably (a) somewhere on the North American continent, and (b) not actively eluding detection. Heck, they can't even find Steve Fossett, whom I presume would want to be found.

It's more surprising that 3,800 of America's servicemen and servicewomen have been killed in Iraq since March 2003, even though we're reasonably certain that Osama isn't hiding there.

Even more surprising is the fact that, six years later, most Americans still believe that the 9-11 attacks were an assault on our freedom. We have yet to figure out that most Islamic extremists couldn't care less about your freedom or mine. They don't care that we eat at McDonald's, or drive SUVs, or wear blue jeans and belly shirts, or vacation at Disneyland. They care about their own economics, and our government's foreign policy, and the inextricable relationship between the two. Everything else is window dressing.

Until the people running the show in Washington figure that out — or we replace them with people who already have — all you and I can do is wait for the inevitable next shoe to drop.

Which makes the tragedies of September 11, 2001 all the more tragic.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007

A final wrinkle in time

I noted with a sharp twinge of nostalgia the passing on Thursday of novelist Madeleine L'Engle, whose Newbery Award-winning classic A Wrinkle in Time was one of my favorite books in my lost-distant youth.

A Wrinkle in Time is far more than a mere children's tale, or a run-of-the-mill science fiction fantasy. It's a provocative musing on the nature of human existence in the universe, and on the power of love, and on the eternal struggle between good and evil — the latter represented in the book by the horrific Black Thing, personified by the disembodied brain known simply as IT.

I've never forgotten the impact that the strange adventures of Meg Murry and her psychically gifted little brother, Charles Wallace, had on me when I first read the book at age ten. I've also never forgotten L'Engle's detailed explanation of the word tesseract, which is, as anyone who's read the story knows, is "a wrinkle in time."

As I grew into adolescence, I read several of Ms. L'Engle's subsequent works, but never found in them the emotional resonance of A Wrinkle in Time. It's one of those effects that perhaps can only happen in that initial moment when one encounters bold new ideas. I encountered similar disappointment a few years ago when I attempted to watch Disney's made-for-television adaptation of Wrinkle, which served only to prove the point that some books can't be translated to film, no matter how hard one tries — and that sometimes not trying is better.

Ironically, I found myself leafing through a copy of A Wrinkle in Time the last time I was in Costco, perhaps a week or so ago. I wondered at the time whether the author was still living. The answer was Yes then, but No now.

I believe it was Mrs. Whatsit, or perhaps Mrs. Which, who taught me that.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

"O zephyr winds which blow on high..."

For the past week, I've been as giddy as a puppy turned loose in the Milk-Bone factory.

Why? Friend reader, I'm telling you why: The Secrets of Isis: The Complete Series landed on my doorstep via eBay, by way of UPS. I've enjoyed a fun-fulled half-hour respite each day, screening an episode of this fondly recalled Saturday morning series from those wild and crazy 1970s.

And you know what? It's all been a stone gas, honey.

I'm pleasantly surprised at how well the show holds up. I had feared that after three decades, Isis would be unwatchable. It's terribly dated, sure, both in its production values (which, let's face it, were bargain-basement cheesy even in the mid-'70s) and in its cultural approach (there's a lot of "battle of the sexes" material in the scripts that can only be described as embarrassing today), but the stories are engaging and fun, and what the performers lack in acting ability, they make up threefold in enthusiasm.

Plus, the folks at BCI did a bang-up job of restoring the prints, so that these 30-year-old episodes look as crisp and clean as they did when first aired. The cast and crew interviews are also nicely done. It's unfortunate that JoAnna Cameron declined to participate (as she also declined an interview for the excellent Isis retrospective that appeared in the most recent Back Issue magazine), but there are some nice reminiscences from the other key performers, producers, and writers. BCI also included several other enjoyable extras, including a commentary track, photo galleries, and scripts for all 22 Isis episodes.

Knowing that this DVD package was nearing release, I commissioned a couple of new additions to my Isis art gallery. First up is this lovely panel featuring Isis in flight, drawn by animator and illustrator Dan Veesenmeyer.

I love the lightness and movement in Dan's figure drawing here. I also like the fact that he dispensed with the clunky boots Isis wore in both the TV series and its DC Comics counterpart, and provided her with more character-appropriate footwear. (I'm relatively certain that high heels had not yet reached the height of fashion in ancient Egypt.)

Next comes this traditionally styled portrait by one of my favorite pinup artists, Mitch Foust.

I own several of Mitch's artworks, but this was the first I commissioned from him directly. Mitch's eye for costuming detail is impeccable, and I always admire the gentle grace of his linework.

Our third peek at our elemental heroine comes to us courtesy of artist Jay Fife. Jay created this piece for his own amusement, and I have long admired it in his online art gallery at Comic Art Fans. When I discovered that it was for sale by his art representative, I couldn't resist bringing it home.

Jay's tonal pencils derive much more from portraiture than from comic book art, so this piece adds a distinctive fine art quality to my Isis tribute.

I'm told that JoAnna Cameron, who retired from acting not long after her Isis adventures, is now a successful executive in the hospitality industry in Hawaii. I wonder whether she ever catches a strong trade wind and utters her trademark command: "O zephyr winds which blow on high, lift me now so I can fly!"

I'd pay good money to see that.

And that's your Comic Art Friday.

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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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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Hero of the Day: The Big Kahuna

In the midst of a dismal season for the Giants, a moment of class and brilliance shone like a beacon in last night's game at The House That Barry Built.

During a break in the action, a camera operator for Fox Sports Bay Area trained his lens on a young man in the stands, who was busy with a laptop, scorebook, and headset microphone. It was obvious to any observer the kid was calling his own play-by-play and recording it into his computer.

In the next half-inning, the camera's eye found the young man again. This time, Jon Miller — the Giants' lead announcer — was seated next to him. When the duo appeared again a short time afterward, Miller and the boy were ensconced in the press box, with the kid nestled between Miller and his broadcast teammate Dave Flemming as they called the game.

This incident resonated with me, recalling my long-ago days as an aspiring sportscaster, sitting in the upper deck at Candlestick Park and pretending I was Hank Greenwald. At the time, I would have traded my most prized possession for a chance to have one of my announcing heroes take notice of me and invite me up to the booth.

I'm sure Jon Miller remembered times when his present dream job had seemed like a distant, nearly impossible fantasy, as it perhaps does to this young fellow. He certainly gave that kid a memory he'll never forget as long as he lives. It cost Jon nothing but a few minutes of his time.

In a sports world fraught with scandal and scuttlebutt, it's a joy to see a sports professional taking time just to do something nice for a fan. I know these moments happen much more often than we ever hear reported, but it affirms one's humanity when we catch a glimpse of such a case as it happens.

Good on ya, Big Kahuna.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Bright college days

I have officially become an obsolete parent:

My only child started college today.

KM is a freshman at our local junior college, a fine institution of higher education with a Starbucks across the street and a Taco Bell on the nearest corner. (Hey, she might get hungry.) She's taking four classes #151; English, psychology, art history, and her fifth year of Spanish.

Since KM is only just beginning to drive, Dad's taxi service will shuttle her to and from campus for the time being, giving the old man a daily opportunity to bask in the reflected glow of academia and pine for lost youth.

I recall my own first day of college as though it were only 28 years ago. (Which, not entirely coincidentally, it was.) That first evening, with the summer waves lapping at the distant Malibu shore, our resident assistant gathered everyone in our dormitory's main living room. He passed around a roll of toilet paper, telling each student to take as many sheets as he felt he needed. Once the roll had circled the room, the RA announced that, for every sheet of TP one had taken, he had to reveal a fact about himself. (The first sheet counted for name, hometown, and major.)

Being no one's fool, even at the callow age of 17, I had taken a mere five sheets — hardly sufficient to peel back the veneer of mystery with which I prefer to enshroud myself. One of my fellow dormies, conversely, unspooled so many squares of tissue that he was compelled to expose knowledge to which none of the rest of us really needed to be privy, such as his favorite sexual position (I'll give you a hint: it's a two-digit number) and his preference in pubic grooming (I'll give you a hint: Gillette).

Living at home, KM will escape such torture. At least for this academic year.

In the immortal words of the legendary Tom Lehrer:
Bright college days — oh, carefree days that fly,
To thee we sing with our glasses raised on high.
Let's drink a toast as each of us recalls
Ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls.

Turn on the spigot,
Pour the beer and swig it,
And gaudeamus igit-tur.

Here's to parties we tossed;
To the games that we lost —
We shall claim that we won them someday.
To the girls, young and sweet;
To the spacious back seat
Of our roommate's beat-up Chevrolet.
To the beer and Benzedrine;
To the way that the dean
Tried so hard to be pals with us all.
To excuses we fibbed,
To the papers we cribbed
From the genius who lived down the hall.

To the tables down at Mory's
(Wherever that may be),
Let us drink a toast to all we love the best.
We will sleep through all the lectures,
And cheat on the exams,
And we'll pass, and be forgotten with the rest.

Soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.
But as we go our sordid separate ways,
We shall ne'er forget thee, thou golden college days.

Hearts full of youth,
Hearts full of truth,
Six parts gin to one part vermouth.
For the record, the first college punk who shows up at my house to pick up my daughter in a beat-up Chevrolet will be invited to admire my knife collection.

Up close.

[UPDATE: Now there's an odd coincidence. After I posted this article, I took my daily stroll through my blogroll. Two of my favorite bloggers, Mark Evanier and The Ferrett, both riffed on Tom Lehrer in their posts today. Great minds really do think alike. That, or my tinfoil hat has stopped working, and aliens have infested my brain.]

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

I'll take Deceased Game Show Creators for $2000, Alex

I never had the pleasure of meeting Merv Griffin. But it's fair to say that Merv — who died this morning at the age of 82 following a battle with prostate cancer — had as direct and as profound an impact on my life as anyone else whom I never met.

He was, after all, responsible for the 15 minutes of fame that have been my calling card for nearly 20 years.

As has been widely chronicled, Merv Griffin created America's favorite quiz show, Jeopardy! in the 1960s. It's the modern version of the show, which began airing in 1984 and continues as a syndication juggernaut today, where I made my national television debut in 1988. Thanks to Merv's forward-thinking genius, an incredulous, fresh-faced kid got the chance to steal a soupçon of celebrity that has proven surprisingly difficult to escape.

Even though my Jeopardy! journey has returned me briefly to the spotlight four times since my original five-game run — the 1988 Tournament of Champions, ABC's Super Jeopardy! tournament in the summer of 1990, a special called Jeopardy! Battle of the Bay Area Brains in 1998, and the Ultimate Tournament of Champions two years ago — I never found myself face to face with the man who started it all. The closest my ship and Merv's ever came to passing in the night was during the Super Jeopardy! taping, when the contestants were domiciled at the Beverly Hilton, which Merv had recently purchased. The place was a cacophony of renovation at the time — hordes of construction workers surrounded me at every turn, but not the elusive Mr. Griffin.

Merv sold Jeopardy! and its lowest-common-denominator companion property, Wheel of Fortune, to the Sony Pictures empire in the mid-'90s. Still, his stamp remained on the quiz show that helped build his legend, in the form of the oft-imitated theme music, which Merv composed.

I still have the letter, on Merv Griffin Enterprises stationery emblazoned with Merv's familiar namesake mythological creature logo, which first heralded my entry into game show history. I just wish I'd had the opportunity, just once, to shake the man's hand and let him know how much I've loved being a minuscule cog in his entertainment wheel.

That, and the $103K.

So long, Merv. Thanks for all the fun. (And for all the checks.) Wherever you are, be sure you phrase your responses in the form of a question.

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Monday, July 16, 2007

My date with the Mitchell Brothers

Someone said to me recently, "The older I get, the more dead people I know."

Although it would be a stretch to say that I knew the notorious Mitchell Brothers, Jim and Artie, I did meet them once.

Now that Jim has joined his brother in the Great Beyond — Jim having sent Artie to his demise with a rifle bullet back in 1991, then passing away himself this past weekend, just a few miles from my house — I can regale you with my sordid tale.

Actually, the tale itself isn't all that sordid.

In 1983, when I was a student in the Broadcast Communication Arts Department at San Francisco State University, I once interviewed the Mitchell Brothers in their native habitat, the world-famous O'Farrell Theater.

Here's how it all went down. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

When I was assigned to write a term paper on alternative media, I thought it might be interesting to do a piece on the pornography industry. Since the Mitchell Brothers were headquartered right across town, this intrepid budding journalist called the O'Farrell and asked whether Jim and/or Artie would be willing to give a college kid a few minutes of their time to further his... umm... education. (What could it hurt, right? All they could say was "No.")

Not only were the brothers willing, they invited me over to their digs to chat with them live and in person. So, I hopped the Muni Metro "M" line to downtown San Francisco, and hiked the few blocks up to the O'Farrell. True to their word, Jim and Artie had given my name to the guardian of the front door, and I was directed upstairs to their office. I didn't even have to pay the cover charge.

For two pillars of the smut business, Jim and Artie Mitchell seemed astonishingly normal — two regular Joes from the East Bay who had made themselves a modicum of fame (and, I suppose, a few bucks, though they were reluctant to discuss the actual finances of their empire) producing sex films and running their glorified strip joint. (Although there were porno movies on view in the main screening room, the majority of the O'Farrell's clientele appeared to be more interested in the various live nude performances available.)

Jim did most of the talking during our interview session, Artie being more intent upon chatting up (and quaffing brewskis with) the constant stream of scantily garbed female employees who wandered in and out of the office during my visit. Since my paper was about media, our conversation focused on the Mitchell Brothers' film career, hallmarked by the infamous Behind the Green Door, starring former Ivory Snow cover girl Marilyn Chambers. (Sadly, Ms. Chambers — with whose softcore oeuvre I was intimately familiar, from late-night cable TV viewing — was not on the premises at the time.)

I was surprised to learn from Jim that the Mitchells had produced what was at the time the most expensive porn film on record — a magnum opus entitled Sodom and Gomorrah, which, according to Jim (no relation to the much-later sitcom starring John Belushi's little brother), had cost upward of a million dollars. I couldn't understand then how one could spend a million bucks shooting a cheap sex flick, but I'm just reporting what the man told me.

What struck me most about the Mitchells (Jim Mitchell, at least) was that they seemed to fancy themselves true cinematic pioneers. Make no mistake, they understood that their bread and butter was in showcasing nekkid people doing various permutations of the procreative act, but they considered their works legitimate art. At least that was their story, and they stuck pretty closely to it.

I chatted with Jim and the semi-present Artie for roughly 45 minutes — taking copious notes as rapidly as my fevered hand would scribble — before taking my leave. They graciously offered me the run of the O'Farrell's entertainment offerings for the rest of the afternoon, but I begged off. (At least that's my story, and I'm sticking to that, too.) I then ducked out into the cold gray San Francisco daylight and scrambled back to the nearest Metro station before anyone I knew could see me.

What happened between the Mitchell Brothers several years later has been well chronicled in the press, as well as in a 2000 film entitled Rated X, starring real-life Hollywood siblings Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen as Jim and Artie.

I, of course, saw no hint of discord during my brief interface with Jim and Artie. All I saw was a couple of guys who seemed to be serious about their chosen profession... and who appeared to be having tons of fun surrounding themselves with unclad women. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) They were unfailingly pleasant and polite to the nervous, goggle-eyed college kid who stumbled into their establishment one breezy afternoon.

And now, I suppose, they're reunited.

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Friday, June 08, 2007

We'll remember always, Graduation Day... and Super-Con '07

This week's Comic Art Friday is proudly dedicated to my daughter KM, who graduates from my high school alma mater today.

The second half of KM's senior year has been an emotional challenge, what with her mother's rediagnosis with cancer and repeated hospital stays compounding all of the "What do I want to be when I grow up?" turmoil that always accompanies this time in a young person's life. KM has managed to keep her spirits — and her grades — up, for the most part, through all of the adverse circumstances. She's a good kid, and I'm a lucky dad.

You go, Supergirl!

Speaking of Supergirl, this charming rendition of the Maid of Steel sprang from the pencil of Steve Mannion, whom I met at long last at Super-Con in San Jose last weekend. Steve, who lives in New Jersey, has done a couple of other commission projects for me, including the Mary Marvel pinup seen in this space a week ago today. Distance being what it is, I'd never had the opportunity to meet him and personally thank him for the wonderful art he's added to my collection. As befits a man who creates such exquisite pictures, Steve turns out to be a delightful fellow who recalled in fond detail the other commissions he's drawn for me. He was even kind enough to pose with his latest masterwork.

Super-Con was, as always, an enjoyable, well-run event — more intimate and friendly than the Bay Area's other major comics event, the massive WonderCon. I wasn't impressed with the new venue at the San Jose Convention Center, where amenities were sorely lacking. The guest list, however, was stellar, and con directors Steve Morger and Steve Wyatt bustled about making certain that a great time was had by all.

For me, the highlight of the event was a panel on the art of inking. Before the con, superstar artist Frank Cho surrendered the pencil rough of his upcoming Jungle Girl #1 cover to a host of talented inking specialists, each of whom brought a unique perspective to the finished work. (You can see some of the iterations, as well as Cho's original pencil art, in Steve Morger's gallery at Comic Art Fans.) On Saturday, several of the inkers gathered to talk about their specialty.

Seen in the photo above, from left to right:
  • The artist known as Buzz, best known for his work on such series as JSA and Vampirella.

  • Michael Bair, noted for his collaboration with penciler Rags Morales on DC's Identity Crisis.

  • Tony DeZuniga, cocreator of the Western hero Jonah Hex; an industry legend who shepherded the comic art careers of many of his fellow Filipino immigrants in the 1970s.

  • Frank Cho, creator of the Liberty Meadows newspaper strip, and currently the penciler of Marvel's Mighty Avengers.

  • Bill Morrison, cofounder of Matt Groening's Bongo Comics and illustrator of the comic book adventures of The Simpsons.

  • Danny Bulanadi, a prolific inker for Marvel Comics who drew everything from Captain America to the Micronauts.

  • (obscured) Alex Niño, an innovative stylist who was the second and final artist on one of my all-time favorite comic series, Thriller.

  • Ernie Chan, revered for his work on Marvel's Conan series of the '70s and '80s, both as inker over the great John Buscema, and later as primary penciler.

Just seeing this assemblage of talent — perhaps 300 years of professional comic art experience between these gentlemen — was an indescribable treat. Even better? Coming home with some of their art.

Tony DeZuniga, to whom Michael Bair referred as "the master draftsman," created this evocative addition to my Black Panther gallery. Tony's technique rivals that of any artist whose work I've seen up close. He uses light, shadow, and line the way Mozart used notes. Tony and his wife Tina are also two of the sweetest people I've ever met at a convention.

Acquiring another commission from the amazing Buzz is always a thrill, and the one-named wonder came through yet again for me. Here's Buzz, diligently working away at my Storm pinup...

...and proudly displaying his finished creation.

Let's see... what else did I get? Ah, yes — Alé Garza, currently the regular penciler on the Supergirl monthly series, delivered this dynamic rendition of Taarna, my Heavy Metal heroine.

And last, but by no means least, Ms. Marvel penciler Aaron Lopresti drew his current assignee in her original — and still best — costume from the '70s. Aaron added a splash of colored marker to really make Carol's classic uniform stand out.

As previously noted, Super-Con offered a great time to everyone who attended. I certainly had a blast, and am looking forward to next year's event.

I'm off to graduation. That's your Comic Art Friday.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

A golden anniversary

Happy 70th birthday to my favorite piece of steel that I can't clip inside my pocket: the Bay Area's most magnificent manmade landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.

After 30 years of living here — and despite the fact that, during my last two years of college, I crossed the span five days per week — I still gasp a little every time I exit the Waldo Tunnel southbound and the Golden Gate Bridge rises into my view. It's a truly awe-inspiring work of engineering mastery combined with unparalleled artistic majesty.

People have designed and built plenty of cool things all over this planet, but the 'Gate is assuredly near the top of the "cool list."

My most dramatic memory involving the GGB: Ten years ago this August, my family and I were northbound on the 'Gate (we'd just left a performance of the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus at the Cow Palace) when we learned via a radio news report of the death of Princess Diana. Because Diana was KJ's personal heroine — she remains Diana-obsessed to this very day — the bulletin struck our car with an overwhelming tsunami of emotion. I can't imagine a more powerful place to hear such tragic news.

May the local paper-shufflers never mar the aesthetic grace of this incredible structure by installing an anti-suicide barrier.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Doing our part to keep doctors in BMWs

We'll return you to our usual pop cultural frivolity in a moment, but first, this medical update.

Thanks to all of you who've e-mailed to wish KJ well in her latest battle with The Big C. I'd assemble you all for a group hug if it were technically feasible. She and I both appreciate your kind thoughts and prayers more than we can say.

Today at 3:30 p.m. PDT, KJ will be undergoing a surgical procedure intended to stabilize her fractured thighbone where the tumor has weakened it. A very fine orthopedic surgeon will bolt a steel rod to the femur as a brace, with screws through the fracture to hold the bone together. This will help prevent further breaking, eliminate the intense pain she's been experiencing, and provide a sound platform for healing as the tumor itself is treated with radiation and chemotherapy.

As always, KJ's attitude going into the surgery is positive and strong. We have great confidence in her medical team, and know that she'll come through this first step in her treatment with flying colors.

To complete the picture, KJ's recent full-body scans didn't turn up any additional cancer sites aside from the main tumor on her upper femur, and a couple of smaller loci on her pelvis of which we'd already been made aware. So that's the good news.

I'll keep you posted.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

The way of the wind

Life can be described as a roller coaster ride between joy and heartache. We’ve experienced that ride acutely at our house in the past few days.

First, the joy.

Our only child became a legal adult yesterday. Happy 18th, KM.

Although my memory for events is spotty at best and practically nonexistent at worst, I can recall vividly the moments surrounding my daughter's birth on the Saturday before Easter 1989:
  • My wife's doctor, summoned urgently to the hospital from a supermarket errand — she literally left a cart filled with Easter dinner fixings stranded in the aisle at Safeway — thrusting her head into the delivery room to ask whether she had time to change clothes, only to be told by the attending nurse, "Just barely."

  • The seemingly eternal seconds as the doctor labored to free the umbilical cord that had looped around the baby's neck as she made her way toward daylight.

  • All of the sights, sounds, and smells of the delivery room, from KM's first cry, to the eerie flesh-cutting noise the scissors made in my hand as they dug into and through her umbilical cord.
I can scarcely believe that 18 years have flown past. And even though I realize that this squirming infant whose tiny hand clutched the edge of the scale as she weighed in for the first time has now blossomed into a lovely, intelligent, funny, and curious young woman, it baffles me how it could have happened so quickly.

KJ and I have shared many laughs with — and many tears — for our daughter. We have watched with fascination and trepidation as she has grown and matured. And we could hardly be more proud of the person she has become.

And then, the heartbreak.

On Thursday afternoon, a call from the oncologist confirmed our fears — that the leg pain KJ has suffered for the past few weeks is the result of a metastasis, located in her left hipbone, of the breast cancer for which she was treated six and a half years ago.

As clearly as I recall our daughter’s birth, I remember with equal vividness that day in the fall of 2000 when we first learned that my wife had cancer.

I remember the horror on her face as the surgeon broke the news to her over the telephone.

I remember the blood pounding behind my eardrums as the doctor repeated the diagnosis to me.

And I remember:
  • The two surgeries: first the biopsy, then the radical mastectomy.

  • The numerous physician visits during which I scribbled furiously in my little brown notebook words that I hoped would make sense later.

  • The interminably long hours at the infusion center while KJ received her chemotherapy treatments.

  • Leafing through countless magazines in endless waiting rooms.

  • The terror of a dire present and an inscrutable future.
A very long time ago, a wise king summarized human existence with these words:
In the morning sow your seed, and in the evening do not withhold your hand; for you do not know which will prosper, either this or that, or whether both alike will be good. Truly the light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to behold the sun; but if a man lives many years and rejoices in them all, yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they will be many. (Ecclesiastes 11:6-8)
The abridged version: Life is uncertain, kid. You've gotta accept the bad with the good.

As a father, I have expansive hopes for my newly adult daughter. I hope that the Lord grants her a long, healthy, and happy life. I hope that she someday finds a great love with a worthy man. I hope that she finds joy and inspiration in all of her pursuits. I hope that she chooses to serve the God who made her faithfully all the days of her life.

Likewise, as a husband, I have expansive hopes for my wife. I hope that she triumphs over this dreaded disease again, even as she did — by God's grace — six years ago. I hope that she, too, will enjoy yet many joyful years of life. I hope that she will live to see all of our hopes for our beloved daughter realized.

Whether any of my hopes for my wife and daughter will be realized, I do not know:
As you do not know what is the way of the wind, or how the bones grow in the womb of her who is with child, so you do not know the works of God who makes everything. (Ecclesiastes 11:5)
All I can do is pray.

Thanks for listening, friend reader. I promise you something less serious tomorrow.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jeopardy! — like kissing your twin sisters

Since I always get inundated with queries after any major event occurs on Jeopardy!, I presume that some of you are wondering about my take on the show's unprecedented three-player tie game last night.

Wonder no more.

First, let's catch up the latecomers in the group. On the Jeopardy! episode that aired Friday, March 16, defending champion Scott Weiss (I'll wait a moment for the Rocky Horror fans to stop hissing) led going into the Final Jeopardy round with a score of $13,400. Each of Scott's opponents, Jamey Kirby and Anders Martinson, had exactly $8,000. Both Jamey and Anders risked their entire bankrolls on the Final Jeopardy clue, answered correctly, and doubled their scores to $16,000. After Scott's correct response was revealed, we discovered that he had wagered $2,600, upping his score to $16,000 and creating the first three-winner game in Jeopardy! history.

Now, suppose I had found myself in Scott's position. Would I have bet for the tie?

Simple answer: No. For three reasons:
  1. I always played Jeopardy! to win (even in the two games — in Super Jeopardy! and Round Two of the Ultimate Tournament of Champions — in which victory had become increasingly unlikely by the time Final Jeopardy arrived), and would again if I had another opportunity. To do otherwise makes a mockery of the game, in my opinion. (Try to imagine a Super Bowl coach playing for a tie.) Nothing frustrates me as a viewer more than seeing a front-running J! contestant lose a game or end up in a tie situation for no other reason than a failure to bet adequately — an embarrassment that occurs all too often on the show.

  2. As a defending champion, I would much rather play my next game against two first-time players than against two opponents with an entire game's worth of stage confidence and buzzer practice. That's the main reason why the Jeopardy! contestant staff always counsels players never to play for the tie. If you've earned the champion's advantage with a prior victory or two, why would you want to minimize that edge?

  3. Frankly, it would never have occurred to me. My statistical analysis skills suck. (For my money, today's players think way too much about wagering strategies. But that's just me.)
None of this is intended to be critical of Scott, who seems like a decent fellow who saw an opportunity to make a little game show history and seized it. (He explains this himself over on the Jeopardy! discussion forums.) It's just not the way I would have played it.

If either Jamey or Anders wins Monday's game, Scott may rethink his decision.

Or he may not.

(Point of order: Last night's show was not, as has been widely reported, the first three-way tie in modern Jeopardy! history. On September 11, 1984, during the first week of the Alex Trebek era, there was a game in which all three contestants finished with zero scores. Weiss-Kirby-Martinson I was the first game with a positive three-way tie, and thus three cochampions.)

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Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Swan Tunes In: Open All Night

Anyone familiar with my television viewing habits knows that I'm not much of a sitcom fan. I don't believe I've watched a situation comedy with any regularity since The Cosby Show was in its heyday. Even then, I didn't watch often.

There is, however, one sitcom that retains a cherished corner in my recollection, more than 25 years after it last aired. Even then, the fond memories are due more to the show's theme song — which still echoes in my cranium a quarter-century later — than to the program itself.

The show in question was Open All Night, a short-lived laffer from the early 1980s. As one might surmise from the title, Open All Night took place in a 24-hour convenience market (called "the 364 Store" because it was open every day except Christmas).

George Dzundza — later Detective Max Greevey in the debut season of Law & Order — starred as hapless Gordon Feester, the cranky yet lovable shlub who managed the store. Indie film goddess Susan Tyrrell played Gordon's airhead wife Gretchen, while talented character actor Sam Whipple (who passed away from cancer a few years ago, at the too-young age of 41) often stole the show with dry humor as Gretchen's slacker son Terry. Ex-NFL star Bubba Smith — then a hot TV property thanks to a popular series of Miller Lite beer commercials that paired him with Dick Butkus — played Robin, Gordon's assistant manager who ran the graveyard shift.

Open All Night derived most of its comedy from the motley assortment of folks who wandered into the 264 Store during the wee hours. If you've ever found yourself in a 7-11 after the local taverns lock down, you'll get the idea. David Letterman (as himself) dropped by during one memorable episode, to promote his new late night talk show. Even Cassandra Peterson — today admired by millions of horny fanboys as horror film hostess Elvira — showed up, albeit without sporting either her vampire queen drag or her bountiful cleavage. Where better for the future Mistress of the Dark to make a guest appearance than on a show called Open All Night?

As I recall, the show started off well with several hilarious early episodes, then began to peter out toward the end of its only season. But then, as I noted previously, there was that theme song. (Remember theme songs? They used to be my favorite feature of television. When I was a kid, I used to tape theme music straight from the TV speakers with my little reel-to-reel recorder, then splice in clips of myself in Casey Kasem mode introducing each selection.)

Many series back in the day attempted to summarize the gist of the show in the opening montage. None accomplished the feat as completely or as cleverly as Open All Night, which combined a catchy, piano-driven 1940s-style vocal hook with lyrics that burrowed into the human consciousness like deer ticks, never to be dislodged. Imagine the Andrews Sisters mated with Shel Silverstein, after guzzling a tankful of espresso.

Click the image below, and you can sing along yourself:

This is the story of Gordon Feester
Born in Ohio the day before Easter
Had a normal childhood, did okay in school
Graduated from Columbus High in 1962
Now he's open all night, open all night

Went away to college but he didn't do that good
So the Army drafted him and he got sent to Fort Hood
Served a two-year hitch, never went overseas
Spent a year peeling potatoes and a year copping Z's
Now he's open all night, open all night

Then old Gordon sort of drifted this way and that
At times he had some money, other times he was flat
He always seemed to manage, though he never saved a cent
Sure, it was a struggle, but he always paid the rent
Now he's open all night (yeah!), open all night

That takes us up to 1974
And now old Gordon runs a grocery store
With a wife named Gretchen who hangs around the house
And her son named Terry by a previous spouse
Gordon sits behind the counter, in hock up to his nose
In a dither, in a pickle, in a store that's never closed
And he's open all night, open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...
Open all night...

I wonder what George Dzundza's up to these days. Or nights, as the case may be.

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Friday, March 09, 2007

Dazed and WonderConfused

I haven't yet seen any official attendance figures for last week's WonderCon, but take it from a guy who was there for the first two days of the three-day event: A veritable sea of humanity (and perhaps other lifeforms as well) poured into San Francisco's Moscone Center South for the Bay Area's largest annual geekfest.

My WonderCon weekend began on Friday at 9 a.m. deep in the bowels of the convention center, where I spent two hours preshow as a WonderCon volunteer. My assignment: stuffing plastic swag bags to be handed out to attendees upon arrival. In truth, there wasn't much actual stuffing. Only two items went into each bag: (1) a pin advertising the science fiction movie The Last Mimzy (coming soon to a multiplex near you); and (2) a postcard-sized flier advertising an indie flick entitled Yesterday Was a Lie (probably coming direct on DVD to a Best Buy near you).

I was supposed to be on stuffing detail for three hours, but we ran out of bags and stuffing paraphernalia around 11 a.m. My responsibilities thus fulfilled, I gratefully accepted my complimentary admission badge, then spent the remaining hour before the convention opened waiting for my insanely hot cup of Peet's coffee to cool to potable temperature.

At last the doors opened, and I joined the throng that flooded onto the main floor. I made a beeline — as least, as much of a beeline as a middle-aged fat guy can make in the midst of a whelming crowd — to Artists' Alley.

With a handful of previous con experiences under my belt, I knew in advance that the best approach for success in acquiring new art at a comic con is a carefully crafted battle plan. Before the event, I reviewed the roster of attending artists, and developed a prioritized shopping list of artists from whom I wanted to commission drawings, along with the character I wanted each to draw. Of course, the Robert Burns rule came into effect immediately, as neither of the first two artists on my list had yet arrived by the time I reached their tables. So, I dashed about lining up other commissions while keeping an eye peeled for the latecomers. Both soon turned up, and by the time I headed off to my first panel at 2 p.m., the first several items on my list were checked off.

I spent three delightful hours listening to panel discussions moderated by the redoubtable Mark Evanier, a prolific writer for both comics and television. (Mark is also one of my blogging heroes; if you're not reading his News From ME, your life is seriously lacking.) Mark missed WonderCon last year due to a sudden illness, but he was back in form this year. Actually, he appeared in significantly smaller form this year, having recently shed 110 pounds by way of gastric bypass surgery.

I thoroughly enjoyed Mark's chats with comic writer and historian Gerard Jones (whose panel I attended at last year's WonderCon, and was kind enough to autograph my well-thumbed copies of his books The Comic Book Heroes and Men of Tomorrow), cartoonist extraordinaire Sergio Aragonés of MAD Magazine fame (one of the most personable human beings you'll ever run across), and longtime MAD editor Al Feldstein, whose Friday panel focused on his pre-MAD years as artist, writer, and editor for the notorious EC Comics of the 1950s.

By the end of Friday's festivities, I had three and one-half commissions in hand (I'll explain in a minute) and still more on waiting lists for Saturday. Friday's haul included...

* Delivery of the Hellboy/Hellcat Common Elements artwork that Tom Hodges completed in advance of the con.

It was a treat to meet Tom and his wife (that's her elbow and purple sneaker at left) in person. I had hoped to catch Tom's panel on Star Wars art, but I was still frantically lining up commissions when the discussion kicked off at 1 p.m. Friday.

* A new Common Elements commission penciled by Ron Lim, featuring Spider-Man and the Manhattan Guardian. (The common element: Both characters worked for newspapers in civilian life: Spidey/Peter Parker at the Daily Bugle; Guardian/Jake Jordan at — not coincidentally — the Manhattan Guardian.)

I'd never attempted a CE at a con before, given the time constraints. I knew that Ron could pull it off, given that he drew another two-character (Captain America and the U.S. Agent) sketch for me two years ago at WonderCon.

Getting Ron's terrific pencil art done was only half the battle, though. On Saturday, I hoped to ask inker Danny Bulanadi (a no-show on Friday, but his representative Frank assured me Danny would be at his table all day Saturday) to finish the piece.

By the way, Ron and his wife recently welcomed a new baby to their family. Congratulations, Lims!

* This jaw-dropping depiction of Taarna by the artist known as Buzz.

I'm always delighted to see Buzz at a con, not only because I love his art — one of the most distinctive stylists of his generation, in my never-humble opinion — but also because he's one of my favorite artists to talk with. Buzz (who I'm certain has an actual name, though I have no idea what it is) has a point of view about everything under the sun, and isn't shy about sharing his thoughts about the comic industry, his fellow artists, and even world events.

Buzz's eyes lit up when I handed him the reference scan of Taarna. This was his first opportunity to draw her for a commission — he admitted having drawn her a time or two for his own amusement — and he poured his heart and soul into this artwork. This was the only piece Buzz worked on all day Friday, and the result is stunning.

* A dramatic pencil sketch of Wonder Woman, by the criminally underrated Paul Ryan.

I knew from reading his Web site before the con that Paul — who's best probably known for his work on Fantastic Four — enjoys drawing our favorite Amazon. Thus, this assignment was a natural fit. I watched him start this piece several times before he finally hit on the concept he wanted to finish. It turned out beautifully. I'm always thrilled when an artist shows a character doing something visually interesting, rather than the familiar stock poses.

Paul, his charming wife Linda, and their daughter Heather were as nice as pie, to use a hoary cliché — lovely people, gracious and extremely accommodating to Paul's many fans. This picture of Paul, by the way, was taken by Heather, who just may have a budding career in photography.

So that was Friday.

Saturday — a day when seemingly half the population of the Bay Area crammed into Moscone South — found me making numerous surreptitious checks on the progress of my remaining commissions (at least, I hope the artists thought they were surreptitious), and browsing the numerous vendor stalls on the convention floor. I broke up the day with a two-block stroll over to the Westfield Center's food court for lunch — silly me for thinking a Saturday afternoon would be any less congested at San Francisco's newest and largest mall — and by catching a few excellent panels.

The two highlights among the latter were a MAD Magazine showcase with Mark Evanier hosting Al Feldstein and Sergio Aragonés...

...and a fascinating discussion of the process of translating comics to television animation. This informative and fast-paced chatfest featured the insights of one of my writing heroes, Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock, Justice League Unlimited), along with fellow scribes Adam Beechen (Teen Titans), Stan Berkowitz (Legion of Super-Heroes), Greg Weisman (Gargoyles, the upcoming reimagining of the animated Spider-Man), and moderator Shannon Muir (Extreme Ghostbusters).

But what really counts is the art, yes? Saturday's pickups included...

* Danny Bulanadi's embellishment in ink of Ron Lim's Spider-Man / Manhattan Guardian commission.

Danny did a bang-up job inking over Ron's pencils. I took the finished piece back to Ron for his approval, and he, too, was pleased with Danny's work. (Ron also re-signed the piece in ink, so his signature would match the rest of the finished art.) Both Danny and his representative Frank were quite friendly, and lots of fun to chat with.

* Taarna, take two: This time, by the wily veteran Tony DeZuniga.

Tony's table was immediately adjacent to Buzz's. Throughout the time Buzz was working on his Taarna masterpiece on Friday, I kept glancing over at the sketches Tony was drawing, and thinking, "I'll bet Tony would do an awesome Taarna, too." And of course, he did.

The above photo was taken by Tony's lovely wife Tina, who insisted on letting some no-talent clown sneak in next to Tony for the money shot.

* A spectacular Storm by the great Phil Noto.

As luck would have it, though, my opening moments frenzy on Friday took me past a table where sat the talented — and always popular — Phil Noto sat, drawing board in hand. Noto hadn't been scheduled to appear at WonderCon, which was the only reason he didn't already have a massive line at his table the instant the doors opened, as he usually does. In fact, there was no one even within spitting distance of Phil's table. (Not that you'd want to spit. It's just an expression.)

I asked Phil if he was taking a commission list. When he answered in the affirmative, I could scarcely restrain my giddiness as I put in my request. On Saturday, Phil came through with a beauty.

* Aaron Lopresti's gorgeous Supergirl, wearing her hip, trendy disco-era costume from the 1970s.

This was, I think, the third con I've attended at which Aaron was a participant. I'd never before been lucky enough to even get on his sketch list, much less actually score a commission from him. As it was, this was the very last piece he finished on Saturday evening, and I was ecstatic that he got it done.

When I asked to take his photo with the art, Aaron laughed and asked, "Should I be holding the money, too?" We mutually agreed that we could do the "money shot" without the actual cash in view. Funny guy, that Mr. Lopresti.

* A cute and vibrant Ms. Marvel, courtesy of Runaways artist Michael Ryan.

I loved Michael's recently concluded run on New Excalibur, so having him draw this piece for me gave me goosebumps. (Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it was pretty cool nonetheless.) Michael's style reminds me a lot of Mike Weiringo, another contemporary artist whose work I admire. I enjoy Scot Eaton, the artist who replaced Michael on New Excalibur (and about whose work Michael was graciously complimentary), but since I don't read Runaways, I've missed Michael's art of late. Now I won't have to.

To Michael's immense credit, he kept plugging away at this drawing even as the rest of Artists' Alley was packing up for the night all around him. When he finished, he seemed concerned that he'd drawn Carol too young-looking (in the comics, she's a woman in her early-to-mid-30s). I assured him she looked just fine to me. He shrugged and said, "I tend to draw every character young, I guess. Or at least, that's what people keep telling me."

With my portfolio bursting with fresh art, and my mind reeling with fond memories of associations new and renewed, I wearily concluded my two-day junket into the dark heart of WonderCon.

My feet still hurt.

One non-comic-related highlight of the convention: I got to meet one of my favorite character actors — Ernie Hudson, who'll forever be remembered as Winston Zeddemore in Ghostbusters. We chatted briefly about roles of his that I especially enjoyed; in particular, Hawk in the 2001 TV movie Walking Shadow, based on a Spenser novel by Robert B. Parker. I told Ernie that, as much as I enjoyed Avery Brooks's familiar portrayal on Spenser: For Hire, his Hawk more closely fit my mental image of the character from Parker's books. Ernie confessed that Parker had expressed a similar opinion. Great minds think alike.

Oh, yeah — I overheard someone saying that 300, which premiered at WonderCon, is the greatest movie ever made. I'm guessing that person has never seen Citizen Kane. Or Casablanca. Or even Dark City.

And that, at long last concluded, is your Comic Art Friday.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Lights out, DJ

I was both surprised and saddened to learn this afternoon about the sudden death earlier today of former NBA star Dennis Johnson, at the age of 52.

Apparently, DJ had just concluded a practice with the Austin Toros, the team he coached in the NBA's D-League, when he collapsed. Paramedics worked for 23 minutes to revive him, but were unsuccessful.

I never met Dennis Johnson, but we attended the same university three years apart. I certainly heard a great deal about DJ during my years at Pepperdine. When I arrived in Malibu in the fall of 1979, Johnson had already been a star with the Seattle SuperSonics for three seasons, having just led the Sonics to the NBA Championship against the Washington Bullets in the spring of that year. But at Pepperdine, he was still "our guy."

As the biggest major-sports athlete Pep had produced to that point, DJ's name was still whispered in reverent tones around campus whenever Pepperdine basketball came up for discussion. After only one season at the 'Bu, he'd left an impression as one heck of a hoopster, taking Pep two rounds deep into March Madness in '76. When the Pepperdine Athletics Hall of Fame was unveiled at Firestone Fieldhouse in the early '80s, DJ was in its sophomore group of inductees. Not a bad feat for a guy who opted for the pro draft after only one year.

When I think about DJ as a player, I think of him primarily for his tenacious defense. Many were the guards who credited Dennis as the toughest guy they had to face off against. But he could also put the ball up when he needed to, and he dished the rock with the best of them. He was only the 11th player in NBA history to score 15,000 points and tally 5,000 assists in a career. Larry Bird considered DJ the best guard he ever played with, which is saying something.

My condolences to DJ's family and numerous friends.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bow before my intellectual superiority!

How smart are you?

Unfortunately, I am still not as smart as Mark Lowenthal, Bob Blake, or Grace Veach.

But then, you probably aren't, either.

Unless you're Eugene Finerman. Then you probably are.

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Friday, January 26, 2007

Selena's grace, Hippolyta's strength

Comic Art Friday reminds you that this coming Wednesday, January 31, is National Gorilla Suit Day. It's time to bust out that monkey drag and bust a move. You know you want to.

Not long ago, someone browsing my themed comic art galleries e-mailed me the question, "Why Mary Marvel?" I get that query quite often, actually, when people look through my art collection. No one ever asks why I collect Wonder Woman images. I've yet to have anyone inquire as to why I have themed galleries dedicated to Ms. Marvel (though some think it's peculiar that I prefer her original costume to her current one... don't you, Bob Almond?) or the Scarlet Witch, or even Supergirl (the latter of which is dedicated to my daughter, as I've explained previously). I suppose there's a subtle yet obvious reason why I collect art featuring the Black Panther or Storm, so I never get asked about those, either.

My Mary Marvel collection, on the other hand, always seems to have people scratching their heads.

The answer is simple. To my mind, Mary Marvel represents everything that used to be great about superhero comics, and is now largely lost. Despite her enormous power, Mary remains kindhearted and innocent — as were the comics of my youth, for the most part. Mary recalls to me the wonder of superhero fantasy that I first experienced when I picked up my very first comic book — a secondhand copy of Fantastic Four Annual #3 — in those long-distant and halcyon mid-1960s: The idea that an average, otherwise unremarkable person could be endowed with superhuman abilities, and would dedicate those abilities to championing good and helping those in need.

Most superheroes embodied that fantasy, back in the day. Many lost their way in recent decades, becoming as dark-tempered and brutal as the evildoers they're supposed to be fighting. But every time I look at a picture of Mary Marvel, I remember the superhero universe as it was, and as I hope (without much reason for optimism) that some aspects of it might be again someday. Even if I have to write those stories myself.

Besides which, artist Marc Swayze's original concept of Mary Marvel — a gently feminine twist on C.C. Beck's classic Captain Marvel costume — remains one of the most elegantly simple character designs in the history of superhero comics.

Mitch Foust, one of my favorite pinup artists of the present day, does a nice job here of capturing Mary's sweetness and light — along with a soupçon of girlish flirtation — in this drawing.

One of the qualities I enjoy in Mitch's work — aside from the grace and fluidity of his pencil line — is that his women are undeniably sensual, but generally in a manner appropriate to the character. I'm pleased that his rendition of Mary retains a youthful, coquettish air that steers clear of blatant cheesecake.

Completely different in style from Mitch's piece, but no less striking, is this sketch Bay Area artist Nathan Gilmer created at a recent "Starving Artist Saturday" event at my local comic shop, Comic Book Box.

Nathan's poetic naturalism made him an excellent choice to add another Mary to my gallery. I like the fact that his Mary possesses the anatomical proportions of a genuine teenager, rather than of a Hawaiian Tropic swimsuit model. I also like the subtle touch of drama and power Nathan lent to his depiction here. The kid's got talent.

And that's your Comic Art Friday. Don't forget: Wednesday is National Gorilla Suit Day!

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Saturday, January 20, 2007

We built this City on rock and roll

It being our anniversary and all, KJ and I spent yesterday hanging out in The World's Coolest City. (You do know that's San Francisco, right? Who would go to Honolulu just for a day trip?) We cruised Pier 39, strolled Fisherman's Wharf, then headed downtown to see the new Westfield Centre and Union Square. As you can tell, unlike many locals, we've never been too snobbish to trek through all of the touristy stuff now and again, because, what the hey, we like the touristy stuff now and again.

So in case you're contemplating a visit to Baghdad by the Bay (it used to be a nifty nickname when the late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined it decades ago, but of course Herb had no idea how that whole Baghdad thing would turn out) sometime in your immediate future — or you're a Bay Area resident who's amenable to climbing down off the old high horse once in a blue moon — herewith follow a few random notes on our little excursion.
  • Yesterday, Pier 39 celebrated the 17th anniversary of the unexpectedly permanent arrival of the sea lion pod that has inhabited the pier ever since. The sea lions appeared to be observing the auspicious occasion by napping in the sun. Which is, so far as I can determine, pretty much what the sea lions at Pier 39 do every day, tourist attraction or no.

  • We ate lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose San Francisco branch is virtually indistiguishable from any of the other branches of the chain. The Hard Rock relocated to Pier 39 a while ago from a truly miserable location on busy Van Ness Avenue, a spot far distant from most of The City's major tourist venues and parking-challenged to boot. Coolest memorabilia item at the SFHRC: the black fedora Michael Jackson wore in his "Smooth Criminal" video. Who knew then that the whole "smooth criminal" thing wasn't just a song title?

  • Pier 39 is home to a collectible cutlery shop humorously dubbed We Be Knives. This dingy, poorly lighted hole in the wall is home to a dazzling array of sharp steel objects capable of sending a connoisseur like myself into paroxysms of envy. I was surprised to see that the place sells balisongs (Filipino butterfly knives), given that such items are legal to own in California, but illegal to carry on one's person. I wonder whether a knowledgeable police officer could write you a ticket the moment you stepped out of the store after purchasing one.

  • Sad observation: The quality of the resident street performers at Pier 39 has either deteriorated over time, or we just happened to catch the comedy juggler on a bad day.

  • Delicious irony: The odd juxtaposition of chain restaurants Hooters and In-N-Out Burger on Fisherman's Wharf. Of course, just being able to write a sentence that contains both "Hooters" and "In-N-Out" is amusing in itself. But the irony derives from the fact that Hooters prides itself on being a testosterone-fueled bastion of lustful objectification, while In-N-Out is a family-owned outfit famed as much for its squeaky-clean image and the proselytizing of its devoutly religious owners as for the quality of its hamburgers. In-N-Out is the only chain restaurant of which I'm aware that prints Bible references on its packaging materials (sandwich wrappers, soft drink cups, etc.). You've gotta know that the In-N-Out people passed a kidney stone when they learned that a Hooters was moving in next door to one of their burger joints.

  • The Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, which oversees the preservation of Alcatraz Island, is apparently mounting a major fund-raising push to restore the long-decommissioned prison and current sightseeing location. I did my civic duty by purchasing an overpriced "Save the Rock" coffee mug. Al Capone and Robert Stroud thank me.

  • I also bought a new pair of sneakers at the Wharf's Payless Shoe Source. My feet thank me.

  • Given the eerily identical selections of merchandise in most of the souvenir shops along the Wharf, I would not be at all surprised to discover that the same guy owns all of them.

  • Westfield Centre, the new shopping mall on Market Street, lives up to its advance billing as one of the spiffiest commercial spaces on the planet. It's also one of the most confusing to navigate.

  • The men's rooms at the Westfield Bloomingdale's are much nicer than those at Macy's in Union Square. Just in case you happen to be downtown, and need a pit stop. In fact, I'm going to call the place Bathroomingdale's from now on. (I'd imagine that the facilities at Neiman Marcus are nicer than either Bloomie's or Macy's, but I didn't have to go while we were in there.)

  • From what I can tell, Mayor Gavin Newsom's highly touted efforts at getting the homeless folks off downtown streets are having zero effect.

  • We dined, as we usually do when we're in the neighborhood, at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant atop Macy's. The Jamaican black pepper shrimp was excellent, as was the vanilla bean cheesecake. You can ask for Amy's table, and tell her your Uncle Swan sent you.

  • Every time we eat at the Cheesecake Factory, I find myself at some point mesmerized by the neon sign of Harry Denton's Starlight Room nightclub across Union Square. I have no idea what the attraction is, but that darned thing commands my attention like a candle flame draws moths.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Unca Lloyd

Most of the people who merit eulogizing in this space are celebrities of one sort or another — whether famous or infamous — and usually significant in my memory or experience in some way.

Today, I memorialize someone who, though not a celebrity in the usual sense of that word, and not particularly famous outside a rather narrowly specific sphere, was by virtue of a few brief interactions significant in my experience, and will remain so in my memory as long as I live.

In the fraternity of barbershop singers, we called him Unca Lloyd.

I knew of Lloyd Steinkamp for several years before I actually met him. He fit that oft-repeated cliché as a person of whom everyone who spoke, spoke fondly. Few people I've known deserved the accolades more. He was a tireless promoter of the hobby he loved, both as an official Barbershop Harmony Society representative for many years, and as an enthusiastic coach and instructor — especially of young people — for many more.

When I at last met the legendary Unca Lloyd, I was astounded that so immense a reputation could fit a man at least a head shorter than I. A boisterous little fireplug of a guy, Unca Lloyd immediately filled any room he entered with his boundless joie de vivre. At any barbershop event he attended, he was always surrounded by folks renewing acquaintances, seeking his advice, or both. Thus, I could hardly believe it when, after a competition in which my chorus had just competed, he buttonholed me and introduced himself.

"I love watching you perform," he said.

Now, I've been praised often on my performing ability. I've been on stage in one form or another all of my life. More than once, judges evaluating my chorus in competition have singled me out for commendation.

But I was never more thunderstruck by a compliment as I was in that moment.

"Do you sing in a quartet?" Lloyd asked me.

"No, sir" I replied.

"Well, you ought to," he said, his eyes never leaving mine. "You've got talent in desperate need of more exposure."

I thanked him profusely, and walked on air for the rest of the day.

A year or two later, I was singing lead in my then-new quartet. Following one of our typically mediocre showings in a contest, Unca Lloyd caught up with me again. "I'm so happy to see you singing in a quartet," he said. "Now you need to be in a better one."

Again, I thanked him, and acknowledged — with absolute sincerity — that I often felt that it was my fellow quartet members who deserved a better lead vocalist. Lloyd would have none of it.

"I see everyone in this Society perform — everyone," he told me. "You're as good onstage as anyone we have right now."

Again, I thanked him. And again, I walked on air for the rest of the day.

That conversation, in one form or another, was repeated at least three times over the next couple of contest cycles. Whenever my quartet competed, I could always count on Unca Lloyd seeking me out to compliment me, and offer a helpful hint or two.

I tell this story, not to flatter myself, but as a reflection of the kind of man Lloyd Steinkamp was. Lloyd knew, coached, and was eagerly sought after by the very best talents in our musical genre. He was an immense fish in our little pond. I, conversely, am an unknown in a Society of around 30,000 singers. I was one face, one tuxedo among a few dozen on a crowded stand of risers; the lead singer in a C-level quartet with no realistic aspirations for greatness. As the pond goes, I hardly qualify as a minnow. It gained Unca Lloyd nothing to single me out for ego-boo, when hundreds of guys with grand reputations and musical gifts dwarfing mine wanted to chat him up.

But he did it anyway.

And I'll bet I was one of several thousand for whom he did.

Lloyd Steinkamp died today after a tough battle with lung cancer. Word of his passing probably won't appear on your evening news, or make the morning edition of your local paper. But it deserves mention here.

I'll miss you, Unca Lloyd.

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Today's Final Jeopardy! category is... Five More Years

Okay, so I have good news and bad news.

The good news first: Jeopardy! — America's favorite quiz show® (due in no small part to the substantial sums of cash they've slipped into my pocket over the past 19 years) — has been renewed for another five seasons by its syndicator, King World Productions, an arm of CBS Television Distribution.

Now the bad news: J!'s companion program Wheel of Fortune, one of the most inane game shows ever devised (come on, people — it's "Hangman," for crying out loud!), has also been renewed for five more seasons.

That sound you just heard was Alex, Pat, and Vanna together shouting, "Cha-CHING!"

In all seriousness, when I made my first J! appearances way back in 1988 (and yes, kids, we had color TV by then — indoor plumbing, too), none of us involved with the show would have dared imagine it would still be on the air — never mind the third-most successful program in syndication — after 23 seasons. Today, it's guaranteed to survive at least through its twenty-eighth campaign, by which time my close personal friend Alex Trebek will be measuring his age in geologic time.

Congratulations to all of the nice folks on the Jeopardy! production staff, who now have many more paychecks to look forward to.

Should they ever decide to pitch another one my way, I'd be a fool to say no.

Not that that's a hint, or anything.

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Monday, December 25, 2006

The Godfather has Souled out

We interrupt your Christmas revelry for this bit of unfortunate news:

The one and only James Brown, also variously known as...
  • The Godfather of Soul...
  • Mister Dynamite...
  • The Hardest-Working Man in Show Business...
  • Soul Brother Number One...
  • The Night Train...
  • Butane James...
  • The Father of Funk...
  • Mister Please Please Please...
  • The Original Disco Man...
  • Universal James...
  • The Sex Machine...
  • and His Bad Self...
...passed away this morning at the age of 73.

Tonight, the world is a less funky place.

It's a hoary cliché to say that someone's influence cannot be overestimated, but when it comes to American popular music, James Brown is the perfect exemplar of that statement. Every rock, soul, funk, and R&B performer of the last 40 years owes an incalculable debt to the Godfather. Without James Brown, you have no Michael Jackson, no Mick Jagger, no Janis Joplin, no Aretha Franklin, no Bono, no Prince. Hip-hop? Forget about it. Without James Brown, there is no hip-hop; he's the most sampled artist who ever laid a track on wax.

In short, the man had a zillion hyperbolic nicknames, but he earned every one.

I enjoyed the privilege of attending one of the Godfather's legendary performances nearly a quarter-century ago. Brown was in his late forties then, and some of his "get up offa that thing" had already got up and gone, but Butane James still threw down an incendiary 90-minute set that would have put many younger performers to shame. Heck, I was a hale, hearty twentysomething college kid, and the man wore me out just watching him work up a sweat.

It's impossible to distill the musical accomplishments of a seminal artist like Brown to just a few greatest hits, but just off the top of my head, here are my baker's dozen all-time favorite James Brown cuts:
  • "Please, Please, Please": The hit that set the standard for all that was to come.
  • "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag": And it was filled with nothing but stone cold soul.
  • "I Got You (I Feel Good)": Yes, my beloved Giants wore the grooves off this one when they used it for several seasons as their theme song, but there's a reason why it worked.
  • "Cold Sweat": Ripped from the deepest recesses of a man's libido, and survived to tell the tale.
  • "Licking Stick": Mama, come here quick, indeed.
  • "Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud": The anthem of a generation of socially aware African Americans. Not to mention a bunch of freckle-faced Irish kids from Dublin.
  • "Let a Man Come In and Do the Popcorn": Ladies, even if you weren't exactly sure what "doing the popcorn" meant, you knew you wanted James to come in and do it.
  • "Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine": I'll buy that for a dollar.
  • "Hot Pants": She's got to use what she's got to get what she wants.
  • "Get On the Good Foot": Just try to listen to this number and not want to shake what your mama gave you. Go ahead. Try.
  • "Talking Loud and Saying Nothing": In which Mr. Brown gets all sociopolitical on your butt.
  • "Papa Don't Take No Mess": Don't even think about starting anything. The Godfather will take you down.
  • "Get Up Offa That Thing": Words to live by.
I'm sad to think that Papa and his brand new bag have left the building permanently. We'll never see his like again.

One last thought, of a personal nature: About 20 years ago, I worked with a very pleasant fellow whose name just happened to be James Brown. I used to refer to him playfully as "the Godfather of Soul," despite the fact that he was as terminally Caucasian an individual as one could find. James, on the other hand, relished the association. He even asked me to record a message for his answering machine in which I imitated the real James Brown's stage announcer's stentorian oratory:
James Brown — the Godfather of Soul, the Hardest-Working Man in Show Business, Soul Brother Number One, the Sex Machine — cannot take your call right now. But leave a message at the beep, and he'll get back to you.
I hope the other James Brown is still alive and well.

We now return you to your mistletoe and eggnog.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Yabba dabbo doo times

In memory of animation pioneer and producer Joseph Barbera, who passed away on Tuesday at the Methuselahesque age of 95 (some sources suggest he was actually 97), here are my fifteen all-time favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoon series. They're listed in alphabetical order, because it's just too difficult to rank them otherwise.

The Flintstones. They're the modern Stone Age family. The current generation may not remember Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, on which The Flintstones was modeled, but everyone knows Fred, Wilma, Barney, and Betty. Yes, the incessant "rock" and "stone" puns and anachronistic sight gags wore a bit thin at times, but lest we forget, this was all fresh back in 1960 — an innocent era when you could sing, "We'll have a gay old time," and no one would snicker.

The Harlem Globetrotters. At the time (1970), a weekly animated cartoon with a largely black (and relatively stereotype-free) cast was unheard of. Heck, it's 36 years later, and there haven't been many since. I draw the line, though, at the spinoff in which the Globetrotters become superheroes. Don't mess with success.

The Herculoids. This show was awesome. A space-age Tarzan, Jane, and Boy (okay, their real names were Zandor, Tarna, and Dorno, but anyone could recognize the inspiration) living on a distant planet with their five pet monsters: Zokk, a flying dragon who fired laser beams from his eyes and tail; Igoo, a King Kong wannabe made of solid granite; Tundro, an eight-legged triceratops who spurted fireballs from his horn; and Gloop and Gleep, "the formless, fearless wonders" — essentially, bug-eyed blobs of sentient Jell-O. No one ever explained how all these creatures existed when there was only one of each kind (or two, in the case of Gloop and Gleep, but they could multiply by division at will), but the Herculoids were so cool, we didn't ask questions.

The Hillbilly Bears. This was my father's favorite television show during its original run. Essentially The Beverly Hillbillies, if the Clampetts had remained in the Ozarks, and were of the ursine persuasion. Paw Rugg muttered unintelligibly in a hilarious growl provided by an otherwise unknown actor named Henry Gordon. Hanna-Barbera never seemed to tire of characters who mumbled.

Hong Kong Phooey. Maybe the last really good idea for a series Hanna-Barbera delivered, before decades of repetitious decline. Designed to cash in on the martial arts craze, this 1974 show starred a humble police station custodian who was really a kung fu kickin' superhero. Made eminently watchable by the enthusiastic voice performance of veteran character actor Scatman Crothers in the title role.

The Jetsons. For all practical purposes, The Flintstones in outer space. Painfully dated now, but in the '60s, this was what most of us actually thought the future would look like. And you know you want to sing the song: "Meet George Jetson! His boy Elroy! Daughter Judy! Jane, his wife!" I always wondered why Jane came last. I'll wager that Jane wondered the very same thing.

Jonny Quest. Not only one of the great cartoon series, but also one of television's great adventure series, period. As I look back on it now, I suspect that Jonny's dad Professor Quest and his hunky sidekick Race Bannon might have practiced the love that dared not speak its name. Of course, in 1964, that would have been a whole other kind of show.

Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats. The Runaways in leopard print leotards. They came in three flaovrs, so whatever your taste in pussycats, either Josie, Valerie, or Melody could be your dream girl.

Secret Squirrel. At the height of the James Bond craze of the '60s came this animated espionage caper comedy. Derivative, sure —' but then, so were I Spy, Get Smart! and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. If you're going to steal, steal from the best.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Often imitated, never equaled. Hanna-Barbera would spin off dozens of riffs and thinly disguised fascimiles of Scooby and the gang, but the original series of Scooby mysteries were classic television. (The live-action film version, however, was perhaps the worst big-budget, major-studio motion picture I have ever seen. That travesty cost me brain cells that I will never regenerate.)

Sinbad Jr. Not one of Hanna-Barbera's bigger hits, but this swashbuckling adventure series was one of my favorites as a kid. When Sinbad (who was the son, I think, of the Arabian Knights legend) tugged on his belt, he bulked up like a seagoing Adonis, and gained super-strength. A young Tim Matheson provided the protagonist's voice. Too bad H-B didn't produce more adventure series like this and Jonny Quest, because when they did, they usually did them well.

Space Ghost. If The Jetsons were The Flintstones in outer space, then Space Ghost was Batman in outer space. Best known to the current generation for his self-mocking "talk show," which came decades later. A masterwork of character design by the legendary comic artist and animator Alex Toth.

Top Cat. Largely forgotten today, but this Guys and Dolls-flavored gangster parody, like The Flintstones, originally ran in network primetime. Featuring memorable voice work by the great Arnold Stang in the lead role of T.C.

Wacky Races. A show that spawned legions of imitators — many of which came from Hanna-Barbera themselves — Wacky Races was a true classic. How could you not love all of those bizarre characters and their tricked-out race cars, and try to guess who would finish first, second, and third at the end of each episode? Being something of a science geek as a kid, I always rooted for Professor Pat Pending and his Convert-a-Car. (Both of the Wacky Races spinoffs, Dastardly and Muttley and Their Flying Machines and The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, were good as well — something that can't be said for most Hanna-Barbera sequel series.)

Wait 'Til Your Father Gets Home. One of the few Hanna-Barbera series specifically targeted at adult audiences. At the time, an animated take on All in the Family (although cranky dad Harry Boyle, voiced by Tom Bosley of Happy Days fame, but in retrospect, a spiritual forerunner of The Simpsons and King of the Hill. I'm sure it would look and sound dated now, but it was surely the first TV cartoon to deal (albeit heavy-handedly) with issues like civil disobedience, pre- and postmarital sex, and workplace equality for women.

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Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Too many candles

In case you were thinking that my birth on this date in 1961 was the most important event ever to occur on December 19...'d be correct.

At least from my perspective.

Because, for me, if I'm never born, the entirety of human existence on Planet Earth doesn't amount to a bucket of warm spit. Sucks for you, I know. But there it is.

Secondary to that auspicious occasion, however, it's interesting to note that some other stuff also happened on this date in history. A few choice examples:
  • December 19, 1606: The first colonial ships leave England for what would become Jamestown, Virginia. No wonder I never get a birthday card from any of my Native American friends.

  • December 19, 1776: Thomas Paine publishes his essay American Crisis, featuring the soon-to-be-famous line, "These are the times that try men's souls." Apparently, Paine's assessment of my life was only a couple of centuries premature.

  • December 19, 1777: General George Washington sets up camp at Valley Forge. My advice, George? Bring plenty of long underwear.

  • December 19, 1843: Charles Dickens publishes A Christmas Carol. Bah, humbug.

  • December 19, 1915: German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer dies. At least I think he does. I forget. What was I talking about?

  • December 19, 1916: The French win the Battle of Verdun. It would mark the last time the French would win at anything, ever. Or even put up a decent fight, for that matter.

  • December 19, 1963: Actress Jennifer Beals, the star of Flashdance, is born. What a feeling. Jennifer: Call me. We'll do birthday lunch. Wear that sweatshirt — you know the one.

  • December 19, 1967: Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt, having gone missing while ocean swimming two days earlier, is presumed dead. Just between you and me, I think a stingray got him.

  • December 19, 1969: Actress Kristy Swanson, the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is born. Kristy: Call me. We'll do birthday dinner. I'll bring the garlic.

  • December 19, 1972: The crew of Apollo 17 — Eugene Cernan, Ronald Evans, and Harrison "Jack" Schmitt — returns home safely from the moon. If you'd told me then that no human being would go to the moon within the next 34 years, I'd have said, "You don't know Jack Schmitt."

  • December 19, 1974: Nelson Rockefeller becomes the 41st Vice President of the United States, proving once again that money can't buy love or happiness, but it does a darned fine job of nailing down political offices.

  • December 19, 1984: The United Kingdom formally agrees to return Hong Kong to the Chinese, effective in 1997. In exchange, China agrees to return rampant colonialism and inedible cuisine to the British, effective immediately.

  • December 19, 1997: The movie Titanic is released. I should probably be offended by that. (See, Donna? We do have something in common.)

  • December 19, 1998: Articles of impeachment are filed against President Bill Clinton by the U.S. House of Representatives, even though he did not have sexual relations with... well, yeah, he did.

  • December 19, 2006: I guess that's up to us, isn't it?

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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Irony infarction ahead

To borrow a phrase from my esteemed colleague Eugene Finerman, here comes your Recommended Daily Allowance of irony:

Author and stress consultant Richard Carlson, famed for his popular series of Don't Sweat the Small Stuff motivational books, died earlier this week of cardiac arrest at the youthful age of 45.

Death doesn't get more ironic than that. Unless you're Jim Fixx.

With my 45th birthday scheduled for next Tuesday, you can imagine that this news makes me sweat the small stuff just a skosh.

Carlson was on a plane headed from San Francisco to New York at the time of his untimely demise. (I'm guessing that the airline won't be seeking a testimonial from Carlson's estate.) He was in the midst of a promotional tour hawking his latest feel-good tome, Don't Get Scrooged: How to Thrive in a World Full of Obnoxious, Incompetent, Arrogant and Downright Mean-Spirited People. Or how not to, as it turns out.

Given the title of his final work, Carlson's passing away less than two weeks before Christmas may, in fact, exceed the recommended consumption of irony.

Aside from our ages, Carlson and I shared a couple of other factors in common. We both attended Pepperdine University as undergraduates in the early 1980s. (So far as I know, we never met. I transferred to San Francisco State following my sophomore year, and I believe Carlson came to Malibu as a transfer from San Jose State the year after I left.) I also have a friend and former coworker who was close friends with Carlson and his wife, and spoke of them often.

My empathies go out to Carlson's family and loved ones.

Now where's that aspirin bottle?

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Thursday, November 23, 2006

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Electric Boogaloo

As the sights and sounds of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade billow from the television, and as the enticing aromas of roast turkey and its various accoutrements filter in from the kitchen, I pause to honor a long-standing annual tradition here at SSTOL. Herewith, an alphabetical sampling of that for which I am grateful on this Thanksgiving Day 2006. (Yes, my Canadian friends, I'm aware that you all did this a month ago. Indulge your southern neighbors for a moment, won't you?)

A cappella. No instrument creates more expressive music than the unadulterated human voice. My chorus, Voices in Harmony, helps remind me of this every Tuesday night. (Incidentally, if you'd like a rousing dose of vocal excitement to kick your Christmas season into high gear, and you happen to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, join us for our holiday show at Flint Center in Cupertino on Saturday, December 2.)

Blogger Beta. As you may have noticed in recent days, I'm now able to categorize my posts. Of course, Blogger waited until I had written over 1,100 posts before they released this functionality. So far, I've categorized about one-third of the backlog. The benefit to you, friend reader, makes the effort worthwhile.

Commissioned art. Thanks to all of the talented artists who added custom creations to my comic art collection this year: Ron Lim, Ale Garza, Rags Morales, Charles Hall, Michael Dooney, Al Rio, Roy Cover, Ron Adrian, Anthony Carpenter, Buzz, James Taylor, Lan Medina, Darick Robertson, Luke McDonnell, and the redoubtable Bob Almond.

DVD Verdict. Still the Internet's finest resource for reviews of films and TV shows on DVD. Site owners Mike Jackson and Michael Stailey keep breathing new life into the venerable site.

eBay. Whatever "It" is, you'll find "It" on eBay.

52. DC Comics' weekly blockbuster is the highlight of my comic shop visit every Wednesday.

Google. Quite simply, the most valuable tool in cyberspace. Yes, they've gone all corporate now, but the important thing is -- the darn thing works.

Heavy Metal. The one movie I throw in my DVD player every few weeks, just to be reminded of how much fun it is.

Internet Movie Database. Next to Google, I love IMDb best. When you absolutely, positively need to know who appeared in or worked on a movie or TV show you're watching, and you need to know now.

Jeopardy! Still adding seconds to my fifteen minutes of fame, more than eighteen years later.

KJ and KM, my girls. A better wife and daughter, no man deserves.

Las Vegas Advisor. The definitive locus for all things Vegas, their Question of the Day teaches me something I didn't know about my second-favorite city every day of the week.

Michael the waiter at JK's. Whenever I walk into my favorite lunchtime hangout, Michael always has my Diet Coke ready.

Notepad. Perhaps the simplest program on my computer, yet one I rely on more than almost any other.

Olfactory sense. Smells evoke memories that life would be lessened without.

Popeyes Chicken and Biscuits. We finally got a franchise in my home town. Love that chicken! (The red beans and rice, and the fried crawfish with Boss Sauce, aren't half bad, either.)

Quarterflash. I heard "Harden My Heart" on the local classic rock station just the other day. I wonder what Rindy Ross is doing these days.

Rachael Ray. Because a woman who can prepare a complete repast in 30 minutes and eat three meals in any city in the world for under $40 is my kind of woman.

"Save the Cheerleader, Save the World." Until 24 returns in January, Heroes is consistently the most compelling hour on television.

TV with MeeVee. A fun and informative TV blog that helps me get in touch with my inner couch potato. Plus, they have a terrific copy editor... if I do say so myself.

United States Postal Service. Say what you will, it's still one of the world's great bargains. Donnie, the clerk in our local post office, greets every customer with a cheery "Good morning!" no matter what time of day it is.

Vixen. I was thrilled when Mari McCabe, one of comics' first African-American superheroines, made the revamped roster of Justice League of America this year. I predict she'll be making a special appearance for Comic Art Friday tomorrow.

World Series of Poker. One of these days, I'm going to play in the Main Event.

Xerographic technology. If we couldn't photocopy stuff, life would be a lot more complicated.

YouTube. The online repository of more funny, interesting, and just plain bizarre videos than you can shake a mouse at.

Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. Because someone, somewhere, ought to be thankful for Zamfir, Master of the Pan Flute. Today, I am that someone. You blow, Zamfir.

Whatever your blessings may include this day, friend reader, I hope you are genuinely and expressively grateful for each and every one. Thank you for stopping by here, and for continuing to open the Pandora's box of my mind. May you and yours have a pleasant, peaceful, and tryphophan-bombarded Thanksgiving.

(If you're interested in discovering what some of my fellow bloggers are thankful for, check out the sharefest at The Art of Getting By.)

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Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Famous Monsters of Filmland

When I was a kid, I loved monster movies.

I say that to draw a distinction from modern horror films, which are roughly divided between slasher flicks and supernatural thrillers such as The Ring. I'm not, and never really have been, a fan of those genres. For my money, Hitchcock fairly well both opened and closed the book on slasher films with Psycho — one of my dozen or so favorite movies of all time — and pyrotechnic ghost stories just aren't my cup of tea.

But back in the day, movies had monsters. Frankenstein (which properly refers to the scientist, not the monster, but I use the name accommodatively here). Dracula. The Wolf Man. The Mummy. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. King Kong. Godzilla. Gamera the giant flying turtle. The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

You know... monsters.

And because movies had monsters, monster movie fans such as my younger self had Famous Monsters of Filmland.

For monster movie fans — and fans of science fiction, horror, and fantasy films in general — Famous Monsters of Filmland (often referred to simply as FM) was the Magna Carta, the Constitution, and the Ten Commandments rolled into one sensationalistic, hyperbolic, photography-packed magazine. Everything you ever wanted to know about genre films and the people who created them found its way into the pages of FM. Before there was an Internet Movie Database or a Wikipedia, FM provided one-stop information-shopping for youthful connoisseurs of frightening film fare.

Behind Famous Monsters stood a giant of a man named Forrest J. Ackerman. "Uncle Forry," as we legions of readers called him, edited and published FM, and wrote a fair amount of the material appearing within it. Ackerman is often credited, and I believe correctly so, as the father of modern fandom. Everyone who's ever attended a Star Trek, comic book, or science fiction convention owes a debt of gratitude to Uncle Forry, who first made obsessing over such things not only respectable, but marketable.

Forry Ackerman is also the guy who coined the term "sci-fi" as a shorthand reference to science fiction. (I'll let you be the judge of whether that was a good thing. But I believe the Sci-Fi Channel people should be paying Forry royalties, if they aren't already.)

From the time that I was ten years old until I began high school, Famous Monsters of Filmland was my near-constant companion — much to the consternation of my parents, who tended to look askance at my fondness for scary movies in the same way they detested my addiction to superhero comics and Star Trek. My friends and I would pore over every issue, and discussed in animated detail what we read.

In Famous Monsters, I learned of the special effects wizardry of Ray Harryhausen and Paul Blaisdell. I discovered the makeup secrets of Lon Chaney, Senior and Junior, and the up-and-coming Rick Baker. I took peeks behind the scenes at Hammer Films and American International Pictures, two of the great horror factories of the '50s and '60s, and Toho Studios, home to all those wonderful Japanese monster films. I read about the genius of such visionary filmmakers as Roger Corman, George Pal, Samuel Z. Arkoff, Terence Fisher, and of course, Hitchcock.

When it came to monsters, Forry Ackerman not only talked the talk, he also walked the walk. His Los Angeles home, fondly designated "the Ackermansion," warehoused thousands of props, stills, and other items of memorabilia from the movies he loved. Back in the day, Uncle Forry would give tours to fans who dropped by for a visit. Next to Disneyland, the place I wanted to see more than any other on earth when I was a kid was the Ackermansion. Sad to tell, I never had the opportunity.

Though my interest in monster movies faded as I grew older — as did the monsters themselves — I am a film buff and pop culture fanatic today at least in part because of Famous Monsters of Filmland, and the movies it so lovingly chronicled.

Thanks, Uncle Forry. I hope you're having a devil of a Hallowe'en.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

They stab it with their Steely Dan, but they just can't kill the beast

I've had a Steely Dan song running through my brain nonstop for the past several days.

This is not as unusual as it sounds. I've had one Steely Dan song or another running through my brain pretty much nonstop since 1972, when I first heard "Reelin' in the Years" on the radio and knew I had found my muse.

Thus, for the past 34 years, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker — plus their supporting cast of crackerjack studio stalwarts — have been writing and performing the soundtrack of my life.

I'll show you what I mean, album by album, through the band's classic period (1972-80).

Can't Buy a Thrill (1972)
  • "Do It Again" — "You find you're back in Vegas with a handle in your hand." Anyone who knows me knows that I love Las Vegas. The handle in my hand isn't on a slot machine, though. It's the handle of a souvenir mug. I'm drinking from my Paris Las Vegas mug as I write this.

  • "Midnight Cruiser" — My wife drives a steel blue (as in Steely Dan) PT Cruiser. It's a shade lighter than midnight, but work with me here.

  • "Reelin' In the Years" — Am I really going to be 45 in two months? Egad.
Countdown to Ecstasy (1973)
  • "My Old School" — My daughter is currently a senior at the high school from which I graduated. Her graduating class will be roughly twice the size of mine.

  • "Razor Boy" — I never travel without a knife in my pocket. At this moment, it's a Spyderco Native. Manufactured in Golden, Colorado. Black fiber-reinforced nylon handle, embossed with a spiderweb pattern. 3.125 inch drop point blade in S30V stainless steel. Wicked sharp.

  • "Your Gold Teeth" — I have two; my rearmost upper molars. They went south in my early 20s, after my wisdom teeth were extracted.

  • "Show Biz Kids" — For two years, I attended Pepperdine University in Malibu. I sat next to Charlton Heston's daughter in a poli-sci class. I roomed downstairs from Jack LaLanne's son. I worked at the campus radio station with Joe Garagiola's daughter. I was in a couple of plays with a guy whose dad starred on some soap opera. Need I continue?
Pretzel Logic (1974)
  • "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" — I can't memorize numbers. Even phone numbers I call frequently, I have to write down or store in my computer or cell phone, or I'll forget them. It took me years to imprint my own phone number, which is why I retained it as my business number — I was afraid of learning a new one. I forget my home phone number all the time. I usually memorize phone numbers not by the digits, but by the pattern I punch to dial them.

  • "Night By Night" — I've always been a night owl. I rarely go to bed before midnight, and often not before 1 a.m.

  • "Any Major Dude Will Tell You" — "Any major dude with half a heart surely will tell you my friend; any minor world that breaks apart falls together again." Words to live by.

  • "Barrytown" — I've been a diehard San Francisco Giants fan (is there another kind?) since 1976. S.F. officially became Barrytown on December 8, 1992.

  • "Through With Buzz" — My comic art collection contains three original commissioned works by the artist known as Buzz: a Vixen, a Black Panther, and a Ms. Marvel.

  • "Pretzel Logic" — If you're a regular consumer of my contorted prose and wonky sensibility, this needs no explanation.
Katy Lied (1972)
  • "Bad Sneakers" — "You fella, you tearin' up the street; you wear that white tuxedo, how you gonna beat the heat?" I have sung in two barbershop choruses that at one time wore white tuxedo jackets as their performance costume. Wearing a white tux jacket, I somewhat resemble the iceberg that sank the Titanic.

  • "Dr. Wu" — My bachelor's degree from San Francisco State University is signed by the school's then-president, Dr. Chia-Wei Woo. He probably thought this song was about him.

  • "Everyone's Gone to the Movies" — I have written over 100 movie reviews for DVD Verdict. I still owe them a couple. I'll get to them, I promise.
The Royal Scam (1976)
  • "Kid Charlemagne" — "Did you realize you were a champion in their eyes?" Did you realize that I'm the 68th all-time money winner in Jeopardy! history? Of course you did.

  • "The Fez" — "That's what I am; please understand I wanna be your holy man." I've been the minister for our church for the past 19 years. I don't know that I always (often?) qualify as a holy man. But I try.

  • "Green Earrings" — "Greek medallion sparkles when you smile." I lived in Greece for two years — my fourth and fifth grade years — in the early 1970s. Specifically, on Crete. You could get two lamb shish kabobs and a mound of shoestring fries for the equivalent of 25 cents American. I bet you can't now.
Aja (1977)
  • "Aja" — I lived in Asia for two years — mostly my seventh and eighth grade years — in the mid-'70s. Specifically, in the Philippines. Did you know that a number of outstanding comic book artists either hail from or reside in the Philippines?

  • "Deacon Blues" — "This brother is free; I'll be what I want to be." If only I knew what I want to be.

  • "Josie" — One of my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Josie and the Pussycats. Long tails, and ears for hats.
Gaucho (1980)
  • "Hey Nineteen" — Nineteen has always been my lucky number, if indeed I have one. My birthday, my wife's birthday, and our anniversary all fall on the 19th of the month. (We planned the anniversary. The birthdays we didn't have much say about.) I used to have personalized license plates for my car that read "EY 9TEEN." I still have the plates, but I've never transferred them to my current vehicle.

  • "Babylon Sisters" — "Here come those Santa Ana winds again." I once fell in love with a girl on a warm Southern California evening when the Santa Anas were blowing. She was a terrific kid — smart and funny, with a heart the size of the Andromeda galaxy. We used to listen to Steely Dan together quite often, including this album. I wonder sometimes where she is, and how her life turned out. She'd had a rough go of things before I met her. I'm not sure I improved them any.

  • "Time Out of Mind" — This song contains one of the best backing vocal performances ever, by Michael McDonald. That doesn't have anything to do with anything. I'm just saying.

  • "My Rival" — "The wind was driving in my face, the smell of prickly pear..." When my family used to drive cross-country back in the day, I used to like to buy prickly pear candy from the roadside stands one used to encounter in the Southwest. Usually the stands were owned — or at least staffed — by Native American folks. Do you suppose anyone still sells prickly pear candy?
When I was a late-night DJ in my college radio days, Steely Dan's FM, from the soundtrack of the film of the same name, was my opening theme:
Worry the bottle, Mama, it's grapefruit wine
Kick off your high-heel sneakers, it's party time
The girls don't seem to care what's on
As long as it plays till dawn
Nothing but blues and Elvis
And somebody else's favorite song...
FM — no static at all.
I don't know about you, but I'm going to go put on a Steely Dan CD. After all, my entire life is in the lyrics.

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Thursday, October 12, 2006

The ink is black, the page is white

The entertainment biz has been abuzz of late with the news that Halle Berry has signed to star in the upcoming DreamWorks film Class Act. The movie is based on the real-life story of Nevada schoolteacher Tierney Cahill, who ran (unsuccessfully) for Congress in 2000 to give her sixth grade students firsthand insight into the inner workings of a political campaign.

I know, that doesn't sound like earthshattering news. The reason for all the conversation, however, is the fact that Tierney Cahill is of the Caucasian persuasion...

while Halle Berry is... well... otherwise persuaded.

In the words of Lance the Intern in Undercover Brother, it's about to get racial up in this piece.

So-called "colorblind" casting — the concept of casting the best available actor in a role, even if the actor's ethnicity differs from the character as written — is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood. A few examples that come immediately to mind:
  • Morgan Freeman as Red, a character conceived by author Stephen King as Irish-American, in The Shawshank Redemption.
  • Michael Clarke Duncan as Wilson "The Kingpin" Fisk, a character drawn as a white man throughout 40 years of comic book continuity, in Daredevil.
  • Louis Gossett Jr. playing characters originally written as Caucasian in both the film An Officer and a Gentleman and the television series Gideon Oliver.
  • Denzel Washington in the recent remake of Man On Fire — the lead character was played by Scott Glenn in the original film.
  • Will Smith reprising the role made famous by Robert Conrad in the film version of Wild Wild West.
I could cite a dozen more examples, but you get the idea.

The difference, however, in Class Act is that Tierney Cahill is an actual living person, where all of the instances noted above involve actors portraying fictional characters.

Historically, when producers and casting directors have selected actors to play recognizable real-life public figures, they've made an effort to cast people who at least passably resemble the public figures in question. (Often with an abundance of help from the makeup department.) On the other hand, when casting roles involving real-life people whose faces are less familiar to the general public, Hollywood many times throws doppelganger concerns out the window. Julia Roberts, for instance, looks nothing like the actual Erin Brockovich, nor does Tom Cruise resemble the real Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July).

The case of Tierney Cahill would seem closer to the latter examples. Had I not just turned up the above photograph of Ms. Cahill on the Internet, I wouldn't had known whether she looked more like Halle Berry, Holly Hunter, or Hilary Duff. Given that the story Class Act will tell about Cahill has nothing directly to do with her race, I doubt that the casting of Berry will make any difference in the way the movie presents its protagonist — as opposed to a film about, say, the life of Leni Riefenstahl.

Since Tierney Cahill appears to be all right with the choice, I don't suppose anyone else has standing to argue. Hey, if Hollywood wants to make a movie about my life, and they decide to cast a tall, muscular, attractive actor to portray short, portly, moon-faced me, more power to 'em. (My vote? Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Just in case they happen to be casting this week.)

But the most interesting point in the Class Act debate, at least from my perspective, has less to do with the fact that Halle Berry is playing a woman who in real life is white than with the common assumption that Berry is somehow inappropriately cast in a role that is ostensibly other than black.

Lest we forget, only one of Halle Berry's parents, her father, is of African descent. Her mother is an English-born Caucasian woman from Liverpool. Assuming half her DNA derives from either parent, isn't Halle as much white as she is black?

Not in America, she isn't.

I note this because, like Halle Berry, I am what we today fashionably call "biracial." (In case that's a new word to you, it does not have sexual implications of any kind, thank you very much.)

Although I was raised in an adoptive family by two African American parents, my biological mother was a Caucasian of predominantly German heritage, while my biological father was black. I was conceived and born in 1961, at a time in our nation's history when my biological parents committed what was by law a crime in many juridictions, in the very act that gave me life. In several of these United States, they could not have legitimized my parentage through marriage even had they been so inclined.

As I was growing up, I always identified myself as "black" — remember, kids, this was back in the day before we were "African American," and when we only just beginning to get over being "Negro" — mostly because that's what my adoptive parents were. (The story is actually much more complicated than that, but we'll tell that lengthy tale another day.) This despite the fact that my ethno-external characteristics are slightly more vaguely defined than those of Ms. Berry, leading to a lifetime of oddly personal questions and interesting ethnic misidentifications. During my 44 years, I have been presumed, at various times, to be:
  • Black.
  • Mexican.
  • Native American.
  • Asian Indian.
  • Cuban.
  • Filipino.
  • Hawaiian.
  • Puerto Rican.
  • Korean.
  • Chinese.
  • Various flavors of Central or South American.
  • Jamaican or some other flavor of Caribbean Islander.
  • Samoan.
  • Tongan.
  • Guamanian.
  • Malaysian.
  • Australian Aboriginal.
  • Eskimo.
  • "Mixed," whatever that means.
And those are just the ones people were brazen enough to voice aloud in my presence.

(True story: I actually had a buddy of mine in college get angry with me — albeit momentarily — when he discovered that I was not, in fact, Puerto Rican as was he. I think the primary reason he had befriended me was that he thought he had found a kindred soul in our lily-white university environment.)

Thankfully, my daughter — whose mother is Caucasian, but whose features and coloring are similar to her dad's — is growing to adulthood in an environment where being ethnically indeterminate is at least somewhat less the stigma it was when I was her age. Indeed, it brings a smile to my face sometimes when I drop her at school in the morning and she's greeted by her two best friends — a fair-complected European blonde and a dark-complected girl whose family came originally from India — and the three of them walk onto campus together as their own little human spectrum.

I hope that someday, all three will be able to play whatever roles they choose to play in life...

...and no one will question whether they're right for the part.

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Thursday, August 31, 2006

And now a word from RadioShack: You're fired

Yesterday, RadioShack Corporation terminated 400 employees in a cost-cutting move. Those affected by the layoffs learned their fate when they received this curt e-mail from their corporate leadership:
The work force reduction notification is currently in progress. Unfortunately, your position is one that has been eliminated.
That's Shacked up.

RadioShack might as well have sent the 400 terminees a note that simply read:
You. Door. Out.
It's just as impolite, while saving 15 words per message.

The Shack has always been a peculiar entity. I say this from experience, because for two years in my long-ago post-collegiate days, I was a Radio Shack (it was two words back then) store manager. Now, I know what you're thinking: How did this erudite, cultured man-about-town devolve into a technonerd wearing short-sleeved sport shirts, a pocket protector, and a name badge. Two words: Rent and food.

Here's the encapsulated version. With the ink on my Bachelor of Arts in Radio and Television still slightly tacky, I accepted as my first job out of college an advertising sales position with a radio station in California's Central Valley. Six weeks after my arrival, the station was sold to a new ownership group, which proceeded to downsize the staff dramatically, yours truly included.

So here I was, an unemployed kid with a useless college degree and not a farthing to my name, living in a backwater town three hours' drive from home. My survival instincts kicked in. Recalling the word "Radio" on my aforementioned sheepskin, I hied myself to the Radio Shack around the corner from my microscopic apartment and filled out an employment application. Within a week, I was hawking everything from speaker wire to flux capacitors in the local shopping mall. Within three weeks, I was an assistant manager. I later managed a succession of increasing larger Shack outlets, biding my time until my bride and I had saved up enough cash to return to civilization.

When I say that the Shack (one of the more printable shorthand phrases used by employees) was a peculiar company, I know whereof I speak. Examples of this peculiarity follow.
  • Radio Shack marketed itself as "The Technology Store" — and rightly so; the Shack sold the first line of portable computers commercially available — yet required sales tickets to be written up manually (that is, in pen, on a pad of self-copying paper) by the sales staff.

  • The retail network was rife with graft. In my two-year tenure with the company, no less than five store managers in my local district were sacked due to embezzlement, theft, or similarly nefarious doings.

  • The middle management staff was, to be kind, incompetent. I never met a single individual in district or regional management who wasn't a complete moron. All that was required for promotion to top-kick status was a cheerful smile, a shoeshine, and a willingness to suck up to the guy just above you in the food chain.

  • The company's expansion plans overreached any conceivable notion of profitability. At the time, the stated goal was to place a Radio Shack store within five minutes' drive of every urban or suburban American. This resulted in a plethora of failing outlets that existed for no better reason than to have a Radio Shack in a given neighborhood or shopping center. Whether the traffic would support a store in that location never appeared to be a consideration. (To show you how this worked: The city of Stockton, California — with a population at the time of roughly 100,000 — had no less than seven Radio Shacks, only three of which came anywhere close to turning a buck.)

  • As a consequence of the aforementioned policy, competition between stores in the same geographic area was cutthroat. Does it make sense to you to have a company's own outlets competing against one another — rather than, say, somebody else's outlets — for business? What kind of economic theory bases a business plan on cannibalism?
If you want proof of Radio Shack's misguided internal promotion policy, you need look no further than my own career with the organization. I was promoted from assistant manager to manager for two reasons that had nothing whatever to do with job performance: (1) I had shown up for work every day for several months, and had never stolen anything; and (2) I was robbed at gunpoint and did not immediately hand in my resignation.

Once a manager, I continued to be promoted to the helm of larger stores, despite the fact that (a) I was vocal about my utter lack of interest in being promoted; and (b) I was a barely competent salesman and an even less competent manager. (I can't balance my checkbook or remember my doctor's appointments, and you're going to put me in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars in inventory, and three FTEs? What kind of warped sense does that make?) However, I was honest, clean, well-spoken, and relatively likeable, therefore I was considered a real up-and-comer.

My favorite Radio Shack story actually took place outside the store environment. In one of its incessant sales-pumping gimmicks, our district divided the local stores into competing teams, with the winning team (based on sales figures compared with what each store had sold in the corresponding month of the previous year) winning a free weekend in Lake Tahoe. My team won, largely on the strength of my store's phenomenal sales increase.

(Which had nothing to do with me personally, as it happens. The previous manager of this particular Shack had been an abrasive nitwit, who had succeeded in chasing away the store's clientele with his annoying manner. When I took over the store — by coincidence, just over a month before the sales contest began — word quickly got around that the former manager had been sent packing and that a new sheriff had come to town, and the customers returned in droves. Q.E.D.)

Serendipitously, my wife and I celebrated our first wedding anniversary the same weekend as the Tahoe trip. In a twist of irony, the lodging assigned us was a palatial hotel-casino on the lake's north shore (which, for those of you not from around these parts, is the opposite end of the lake from where most of the sightseeing and casino action resides) and my wife, who was at the time under 21, couldn't enter the casino. So we had little to do for three days except...well...what newlyweds do with a free hotel room and time on their hands.

We spent a fair portion of our upright hours in the company of another young couple, one of my fellow managers and his wife — a pair of clean-cut Mormon kids who appeared ill at ease with the whole casino environment the entire trip. Their personal peccadilloes afforded us plenty of comedic fodder during our stay. At breakfast, for example, the distaff component of our companion couple ate her French toast seasoned with salt and pepper, which struck my wife and me as hilarious. The girl's logic, however, couldn't be faulted: "You put salt and pepper on eggs, right? French toast is bread with eggs on it, right? So you eat French toast with salt and pepper, right?" Well, okay.

The four of us spent one evening in the hotel's indoor hot tub, wearing barely adequate plastic-coated paper bathing suits (think Huggies, with a Huggies brassiere for the ladies) supplied by the management. That would have a fine Kodak moment. Or not.

Then again, we worked for Radio Shack. How much more ridiculous could we possibly have looked?


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I want a new drug

Mario Cipollina, the original bassist of Huey Lewis and the News, is in legal trouble again.

The tall, slender, silent Newsman — you remember, the one who always looked like Bowser from Sha Na Na — pleaded not guilty yesterday to felony drug possession charges. His probation officer turned up heroin and methamphetamine at Mario's house during a routine search, the musician having been placed on probation a couple of years back for stealing radio controlled cars from a local store. Cipollina was earlier arrested for drug possession in 1996, shortly after he left the News.

All of which makes Uncle Swan cry, because I loves me some Huey Lewis and the News.

My first exposure to the band came in the summer of 1980. A new waterslide park called Windsor Water Works held its Grand Opening one Saturday in a town just north of here, and Huey Lewis and the News were the featured entertainment. At the time, the band had just released their first album — to general disinterest on the part of the record-buying public — but some friends of mine had heard them on the local club circuit and told me, "Hey, you've gotta go check these guys out." Since the concert was free to park visitors, I made the short trip up the freeway and heard the News.

Immediately, I was hooked. I loved the News' raucous-yet-refined garage-retro sound, anchored by the smoking guitar riffs of Chris "The Kid" Hayes and the rock-steady tempos of drummer Bill Gibson. I loved the acid-washed vocals and bluesy mouth harp of frontman Lewis, surrounded by the tight harmonies of keyboardist Sean Hopper and dual-threat guitar/saxophone man Johnny Colla. I loved the fact that they dared to sing an entire number a cappella (as they later would perform the National Anthem at Candlestick Park before 49ers games). And I loved Mario, who simply stood stock-still amid the chaos — always dressed in black, his eyes always masked behind aviator sunglasses, his pompadour flawlessly coiffured — thumping out the backbeat on his Fender bass.

By the end of the hour, my list of favorite musical acts increased by one.

I next caught the News live again in 1982, while I was pretending to study broadcasting at San Francisco State University. By this time, the band had charted with their first couple of hits and were becoming household names around the Bay Area. (This time, I had to shell out a fin to get into the show. A pittance, even then. As you can see, I still have the ticket stub.)

Fame hadn't changed Huey and the boys one whit. They still looked and sounded like six guys banging out tunes in a garage after an evening of swilling beer at a bowling alley. No glitz, no glamour, just good-time, hard-rocking power pop buoyed by radio-friendly hooks.

KJ and I saw the News in concert a few times over the years. As the size of the group's venues expanded, they supplemented Huey's harmonica and Johnny's sax with the Tower of Power horn section. But they never varied much afield from the '50s-influenced sound that marked their early hits. We were among the rain-soaked masses huddled on the lawn at the Concord Pavilion on that stormy October night in 1991 when legendary concert promoter Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter accident leaving a Huey Lewis and the News show. We had seen Graham prowling the backstage area earlier in the evening, which made the news (no pun intended) of his death hours later all the more eerie.

Anyway, the News — who were never really stylish to begin with — fell out of style as time marched along. Mario Cipollina left the band a decade ago (willingly or not, who's to say?), as did Chris Hayes a few years later. (Incidentally, Chris's sister Bonnie is a whale of a talent herself. For many years, she fronted a Bay Area band known originally as Bonnie Hayes and the Wild Combo. More recently, she has written songs and played session keyboards for a variety of artists, from Billy Idol to Robert Cray.)

Although Huey and company last recorded an album five years ago, they continue to tour, mostly county fairs and casinos and such like. This summer, the News shared a skein of performance dates with the band Chicago, another act heavy on the harmonies and horns. They're probably out there somewhere in America tonight, keeping the heart of rock and roll beating.

Mario Cipollina, sad to say, will not be joining them.

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Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Money for nothing, and your chicks for free

On this date a quarter-century ago, American culture plunged headlong into the abyss.

August 1, 1981: MTV unleashed its first salvo of programming. And the collective IQ of Western civilization nosedived into double digits.

Although MTV fired up 25 years ago today — all gaudy graphics, jangling guitars, and attitude — I didn't actually have an opportunity to experience the phenomenon firsthand until many months later. Our local cable provider at the time was a primitive, patrician outfit called Storer Cable, which operated under the principle that paying customers didn't really need all of those newfangled viewing options. Folks in our neck of the woods were therefore denied the wonders of 24/7 music videos (as well as pretty much everything else on basic cable, with the exception of ESPN) until a few years later, when a different company assumed the franchise.

Thus, this mysterious MTV remained merely an enticing rumor until I ventured to Southern California to serve as best man at my best friend's wedding. While the bride and groom scurried about with last-second prenuptial tasks, I plopped myself in front of the idiot box for two days and basked nonstop in the cathode ray glow of MTV. Even now, I vividly recall the videos that were in heavy rotation at the moment: Chris DeBurgh's "Don't Pay the Ferryman," Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus," and "Der Kommissar" by After the Fire.

Ah, halcyon days.

And then, there was Martha Quinn.

Oh my ineffable goodness, Martha Quinn.

Martha Quinn was America's sweetheart. A sweet-faced gamine elf with immense dark eyes and charm to burn. If MTV personalities had baseball cards, I would have eagerly traded every Daisy Duke-clad hottie in every hair-metal video then in play on MTV — not to mention a dozen Nina Blackwoods — for just one Martha Quinn.

As time passed, the video craze faded. MTV diversified into all manner of youth-focused programming, most of it not recognizably music-related. Over the years, the network's offerings have veered from the more or less sublime (The Real World, Remote Control, Aeon Flux and many of the channel's other animated shows) to the patently ridiculous (Punk'd, Undressed) to the utterly lacking in redeeming social value (The Tom Green Show, Beavis and Butt-Head, Jackass).

Today, MTV scarcely airs music videos, except in the wee hours of the morning as an alternative to shopping channels and infomercials. Martha Quinn and the surviving members of MTV's original cast of VJs — Alan Hunter, Mark Goodman, and the aforementioned Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson having slipped the surly bonds of earth a couple of years back — now ply their talents on Sirius satellite radio.

I guess video didn't kill the radio star after all.

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Sunday, July 30, 2006

The idea of North's

A sad note from Medford, Oregon, gateway to Crater Lake and birthplace of Lisa Rinna:

The original J.J. North's has closed.

J.J. North's Grand Buffet was once a thriving chain of all-you-can-eat restaurants — the kind of place you folks of Scandinavian extraction residing in the upper Midwest call a smorgasbord. The sort of joint where you walk in, grab a tray, and proceed to pile plates high with bland-yet-filling steam-table fare until you can barely walk. Back in the day, the chain went by the name J.J. North's Chuck Wagon, before new ownership took the business — if not the dining experience — slightly more upscale under the "Grand Buffet" moniker.

Years ago, we had a J.J. North's here in Santa Rosa. It was a prime location for Sunday after-church luncheons because the price of admission was cheap, the grub was plentiful, even the pickiest child could find at least a few items to consume, and you could usually shove enough tables together to accommodate a party of almost any size. Our daughter KM loved it because of the self-serve ice-cream station, if for no other reason.

Then, one day, without advance warning, our J.J. North's closed its doors. (Much like the sudden departure of the Medford outlet, or so it seems.) We showed up one evening, our mouths watering in anticipation of crisp fried chicken and mounds of fluffy mashed potatoes, and it was gone. "Lost our lease!" proclaimed the hand-printed sign taped to the front door. We hoped that meant the management might perhaps reopen in another local venue, but they never did.

My funniest memory of J.J. North's involves the night we discovered our house had been sold. About a year earlier, our friend Tom the realtor had helped us move out of our cramped upstairs apartment into a comfortable two-story townhouse condo owned by one of his clients. On this particular evening, we arrived at North's to find Tom and his family already there. We greeted them in the usual way, but Tom barely spoke to us. Later, we discovered the reason — his client, our landlord, had only that afternoon decided to sell our townhouse. Tom was struggling to muster up the courage to tell us we had just 30 days to move.

A few J.J. North's Grand Buffets survive, scattered here and there throughout California, but the North family long ago sold the franchise to a larger company. The original Medford outlet was the last restaurant remaining under the control of old J.J.'s heirs.

In a dash of irony, one of the key factors in the Medford North's closure appears to have been competition from a nearby HomeTown Buffet — a huge chain founded by a former staff member at the Medford North's restaurant.

That's gratitude for you.

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Have I stayed too long at the Fair?

The afternoon before last, I took the girls to Opening Day of the Sonoma County Fair. This year, admission on Tuesdays is free before 3 p.m., and you know your Uncle Swan's mantra: "If it's free, it's for me."

Believing as I do that every moment of life is a potential educational experience, here's what I learned at the Fair this year:
  • Temperature is relative. As you probably know, we've had record-shattering temperatures for several days here, but Tuesday marked the beginning of a cooling trend. Where we had hit the 106-degree mark on both Saturday and Sunday, Tuesday's high was in the low 90s. Compared to the brutal heat of the preceding days, our seven hours of pounding the sun-baked fairgrounds felt like a stroll through a shady forest glade, even though it was still sweltering.

  • Those Budweiser Clydesdales sure are ginormous. And feisty, too. One of them kept trying to spit on us as we admired him. Of course, had someone forceably removed my testicles — all of the males among the famous Budweiser troupe are geldings — I'd be a mite feisty myself.

  • Some people, upon passing their friendly neighborhood tattoo parlor, should just say no. Several times. In fact, there ought to be a cutoff point for tattoo artists, like there is for bartenders: "Hey, pal, I think you've already had a few too many."

  • The most sublime cinnamon roll you'll ever consume is one baked fresh on the premises by Crown Cinnamon Rolls. KJ and I scored a couple hot out of the oven, and good googly moogly, were they tasty. Up yours, Cinnabon.

  • Any girl wearing a tank top with "Hottie" printed on it probably isn't. And if she's younger than the legal age of consent, both she and her parental units should be spanked soundly and sent to bed without their grilled turkey leg.

  • Many of the people who enter the arts and crafts competitions believing they are undiscovered talents are sadly self-deluded. Especially those who enter the poetry contests. I've read better verse on the walls of truck stop restrooms. Someone this year wrote a poem about poop. I kid you not.

  • A few of the people who judge the arts and crafts competitions are utterly bereft of taste. In the photography pavilion, we saw some gorgeous shots that didn't win anything, while some pictures that looked as though they came out of your kid nephew's throwaway Kodak had prize ribbons hanging next to them. Ditto for the drawing and painting competitions. Go figure.

  • Local celebrity restaurateur Guy Fieri recently got his trademark spiky platinum locks rebleached. Guy, winner of this year's Next Food Network Star contest and now host of Guy's Big Bite on that selfsame cable outlet, busily chatted up high rollers on his cell phone while his loyal minions doled out his famous garlic fries at one of his three food concessions. Culinary note: Major props to Guy's "pork slyder," a pulled-pork barbecue sandwich sliced into hand-sized portions roughly the size of a White Castle hamburger (aka "slider"). In the words of Ferris Bueller: "It is so choice. If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up."

  • Certain performers simply cannot pull off certain material. I had never before heard a middle-aged gentleman of the Causasian persuasion sing "We Are Family" on a public stage. I hope never to repeat the experience.

  • Would people really pay a dollar apiece to ogle "The World's Fattest Pig" or "The World's Smallest Horse"? Apparently, some would. Your Uncle Swan was not among them.

  • Teenagers with weak stomachs — or who have consumed massive quantities of alcohol — should avoid carnival rides that rotate at a high rate of speed. Actually, I came by this knowledge many years ago. But we saw at least one kid with his head in a trash barrel to whom this informational tidbit was apparently a newfound acquisition.

  • Well-intentioned rules can appear stupid if not thoughtfully implemented. Fair security stipulates that attendees cannot carry knives onto the fairgrounds. (I left in the car the substantial folding pocketknife that usually occupies my right front pocket.) However, one can purchase in the vendors' pavilion a set of kitchen knives only slightly shorter in blade than a machete, and walk around the grounds with them for the remainder of the day. Does that make sense?

  • Sheep entered in the 4-H competitions do not enjoy having their wool shorn, or their feet spray-painted black, or being keelhauled into the show ring. For that matter, I wouldn't, either.

  • As quaint and rustic as it sounds, the Sonoma County Fair is a fun way to spend a summer day and evening. But then, I already knew that.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006


Not being numerically inclined, little tidbits like this tend to slip past me. But I'd be remiss if failed to acknowledge the passing of a trio of recent milestones.

Milestone #1: SSTOL turned two years old on the 11th of this month. In the past 24 months, we've grown from an audience consisting mostly of myself and... well... myself, to a daily readership in quadruple digits. I don't know why you keep coming back, but I'm glad you do. Thanks for validating me. If you have a parking voucher, I'll be delighted to return the favor.

Milestone #2: In related news, SSTOL uploaded its 1000th post on Sunday. (It was the Rice-A-Roni that turned the trick.) Who knew when this all started that I'd have that much to say?

It's strange, but unlike many longtime bloggers — I'll include in that category anyone who's been at it for more than a year — I've never once been tempted to shut SSTOL down or take an extended hiatus from it. I look forward to the exercise of sharing something here at least five times a week. I plan to keep at it. So you might as well keep dropping around to see what I'll spew about next.

Milestone #3: KJ and I celebrate our half-anniversary today. There's no trophy or cash prize for tolerating my eccentricities in one's living space for 21 and a half years. But doggone it, there ought to be. If you want to nominate KJ for a Congressional medal, rest assured she's earned it.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

UFO sighting

You can tell that you've been hurled headlong into the abyss of middle age when random pop culture memories from your childhood blindside you out of nowhere.

Just now, for instance...

Back in the day, I loved me some UFO.

For those of you who missed the early 1970s — either because you spent those halcyon days under the influence of illicit pharmaceuticals, or because you simply hadn't been born yet — UFO was a short-lived (one 26-episode season) British television series about a near-future invasion from outer space (at that time, "near future" meant the early 1980s), and the stalwart Earthmen and Earthwomen who dedicated their lives to preventing alien creatures from eating us, or stealing our viscera, or whatever it was they had in mind. (The show never clearly defined the invaders' motivation, but it had something to do with organ harvesting.)

At the forefront of the War of the Worlds (no, wait, that was another show...) stood a top-secret paramilitary organization called SHADO — the Supreme Headquarters Alien Defence Organisation (you know those Brits; they spell everything funny). Although SHADO was based in the United Kingdom for whatever reason, its commander was an American officer named Edward Straker (played by the laconic Ed Bishop, wearing a embarrassing white hairpiece that made him look like an albino mongoose had taken up residence on his head).

Straker and his minions carried out their operations under the guise of a motion picture studio outside London. (This proved handy for hiding spacecraft, submarines, laser cannons, and other esoteric hardware in plain sight. SHADO operatives could always pretend that their toys were mere movie props.) SHADO also maintained a base on the moon — prosaically named "Moonbase" — the support staff of which was comprised almost entirely of comely women whose everyday uniforms included purple wigs. (I kid you not. As you'll see in the photos below.)

UFO sprang like Athena from the fevered brain of Gerry Anderson, previously best known as the producer of science fiction kidvid programs featuring animated puppets — the so-called "Supermarionation" shows like Thunderbirds, Fireball XL-5, and Captain Scarlet. With UFO, Anderson proved deft at employing many of the same special effects techniques he developed for Supermarionation in a live-action setting. For a low-budget independent production made in 1970, UFO actually looked pretty stylish. (Later in the same decade, Anderson would return to live-action sci-fi with the pretentious and deadly dull Space: 1999.)

As a kid who had just discovered Star Trek in syndication, UFO captivated me immediately when it arrived on American TV in the fall of 1972. (As I recall, our local affiliate ran the show on Saturday evenings, before primetime.) It was intelligent (if somewhat derivative), well-crafted (though often clumsily acted), and exciting, even though it tended to be more cerebral (okay, slow) than most TV science fiction of the period.

UFO also featured a multiracial cast — something one rarely saw on the major networks in those days. In fact, UFO may well have been one of the first television series shown in the U.S. to portray an interracial relationship: a love affair involving a black man, SHADO pilot Mark Bradley...

...and a white woman, Moonbase commander Lieutenant Gay Ellis.

Ah, yes: Lt. Ellis. (Other characters rarely called her by her first name. I don't think that had anything to do with the fact that her first name was Gay. Although, in retrospect, maybe it did.) Played by doe-eyed Gabrielle Drake, she provided fantasy fodder for thousands of nerdy sci-fi geeks just beginning to experience the pangs of puberty. Myself included.

Generally speaking, I'm not drawn to women who look as though their skulls are being devoured by carnivorous orchids. For Lt. Ellis, I would gladly have made an exception.

Late in the show's run, Lt. Ellis's assistant, Lt. Nina Barry (played by the lovely and talented Dolores Mantez), was promoted to Moonbase commander. In the manner of her predecessor, the coolly professional Nina could work a mauve 'do and silver jumpsuit like nobody's business.

Part of the fun of UFO came from the abundance of nifty technology, much of which looked suspiciously like updated and detailed versions of equipment we'd seen in the Supermarionation shows. Straker drove a sweet gull-wing automobile — driven, oddly enough, from the left side of the passenger compartment, even though the show was set in Great Britain — that anticipated the DeLorean by nearly a decade.

SHADO's pilots did interplanetary battle with the aliens while flying one-man spacecraft called Interceptors, the stylistic forerunners of the Tie fighters that later appeared in Star Wars.

One of UFO's more poorly conceived elements, the Moonbase-launched Interceptor was a curiously limited attack vehicle. It couldn't be flown into the Earth's atmosphere as the alien ships could, meaning the enemy could easily outrun it. (Fortunately, SHADO employed a specially equipped jet called Sky One for engagement closer to home.) Also, each Interceptor only carried one offensive weapon, a missile mounted to its nose. Who would design a fighting machine that would be rendered powerless after a single missed shot?

But of course, such improbabilities — much like the show's bizarre fashion sense — only added to the enjoyment.

Brother, they don't make science fiction like that anymore.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Let freedom ring

Yesterday afternoon, the girls and I spent a couple of hours walking the Pacific coastline at Salmon Creek State Beach in Bodega Bay, about 30 miles from our front door.

We smelled the surf, listened to the roar of the waves, and combed the beach in search of mussel and limpet shells. We rescued a couple of jellyfish and a sea snail, returning them to the water.

Families were flying kites and building sand castles. Windriders were surfing with parasails. Dogs chased Frisbees and sticks of driftwood. Couples held hands as they strolled along the sand.

Then, this morning, I twice crossed the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, the second time with someone who was seeing that wonder of engineering for the very first time.

And I thought to myself...

It's pretty awesome to live where I live.

Enjoy the Fourth wherever you are, my American brothers and sisters. Remember, we can be proud of our land, our legacy, and our liberty without denigrating anyone else's.

And one more thing...

Wonder Woman loves you.

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Sunday, June 25, 2006

No mushroom, but a fun guy nonetheless

They say you never know what you've got until it's gone. These words were never more truly spoken than when it comes to the life of one Warren L. Simmons, who died over the hill in Napa last week.

Simmons is probably best known in the Bay Area for being the mastermind and motivating force behind Pier 39, one of San Francisco's premier tourist attractions. He also founded the Blue and Gold Fleet ferry service, which provides the only transportation to Alcatraz, the former federal prison located on an island in the middle of the bay.

But until I read his obituary, I had no idea that Mr. Simmons also started the Chevys restaurant chain.

I love me some Chevys.

As franchise restaurants go, Chevys is about as good as it gets in the field of Americanized Mexican cuisine. The chain's tagline is "Fresh Mex," and they live up to the slogan, serving food created with fresh ingredients actually prepared in their restaurant kitchens rather than prefabricated. ("No cans in our kitchen!" proclaims the menu.) Chevys makes its own excellent salsa, guacamole, and tortillas right on the premises. In fact, as you await your order you can watch the tortillas springing to life on a giant Rube Goldbergesque contraption called "El Machino," located smack-dab in the middle of the dining room.

You will not be served better chips and salsa in any restaurant north of the Baja Peninsula than you'll get at your local Chevys. The combination of hot, thin, lightly crispy chips and fresh, tangy salsa can be so tempting that you're likely to fill up before your entree arrives, unless you have either a bottomless gullet or willpower like a monk in a harem.

I highly recommend the fuego-seasoned shrimp fajitas. If you order some, save me a doggie bag.

Ironically, there isn't a Chevys on Pier 39. Warren Simmons sold the waterfront complex of shops and restaurants five years before he opened the first Chevys. (He later sold the restaurants too. Chevys today is owned by the Pepsi-Cola Company. Don't even think about trying to order a Coke.) There is, however, a Hard Rock Cafe, assuming you enjoy that sort of thing, as well as a Bubba Gump Shrimp Company that serves some of the most lackluster, insanely overpriced seafood on the planet. If you decide to eat at the Pier — and if you're on a budget, or just hate paying for outrageously expensive meals, I suggest you dine elsewhere — try Neptune's Palace instead. (The most consistently enjoyable and affordable restaurants Pier 39 ever housed, the quirky Alcatraz Bar and Grill and an outlet of the local Chinese eatery Yet Wah, both closed years ago, I'm sad to report.)

Thanks for all the good times, Mr. Simmons. The next time I go to visit the sea lions at Pier 39, or scarf a Super Chevys combo plate, I'll raise my Diet Pepsi to you.

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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Today's Recommended Daily Allowance of irony, courtesy of Chuck E. Cheese

A Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in Brooklyn has been shut down by health inspectors, after they discovered mouse droppings in the kitchen.

Given that Chuck E. is roughly the size of the average teenage girl, I'm glad I wasn't the one who found the droppings.

I always thought it was one of the world's most bizarre marketing faux pas to have a giant rat as the corporate mascot of a restaurant chain. It appears that I was prescient.

Truth to tell, KJ and I whiled away many hours at our local Chuck E. Cheese Pizza in our dating days in the early 1980s. Back then, though, Chuck E.'s was really more of a video game arcade — complete with animatronic singing animals — that just happened to serve pizza. (Barely edible pizza, at that.)

The original Chuck E. Cheese's Pizza Time Theatre chain was the brainchild of Nolan Bushnell, the man behind Atari Games. (Remember PONG? If you don't, you're not old enough to hang out here, kid.) Bushnell's original restaurant franchises went bankrupt as coin-operated video arcades began fading before the onslaught of Intellivision, Nintendo and other home video game consoles. The dying chain sold out to a competitor in 1984, and the new regime is the one that operates under the Chuck E. Cheese name to this day.

Our local outlet used to feature an animatronic lion called The King, who warbled bad imitations of Elvis imitations while you attempted to choke down the cardboard crust and rancid toppings of your Chuck E. Cheese pizza. We also had a character named Dolli Dimples, an Ethel Mermanesque hippo with — I kid you not — gigantic heaving bosoms that bobbed up and down as she belted out show tunes. (Now that's entertainment for the small fry!)

The old Chuck E. Cheese we frequented in downtown Santa Rosa is long since departed, but the successor chain has an outlet right here in our happy little burg. I haven't been in there since KM was a tyke.

If you've never dined at a Chuck E. Cheese Pizza, surrounded by crooning mice, dogs, chickens, and assorted other barnyard creatures, plus a hundred shrieking toddlers with pizza sauce and birthday cake smeared across their cherubic faces, you haven't lived, mon ami.

Just make sure those black olives on your combo pizza are really olives.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

Living in harmony

Saturday night, KJ and I attended — for the 14th consecutive year — the Harmony Sweepstakes National A Cappella Championships in San Rafael. (It was fourteen straight for me, anyway — as reported here at the time, KJ broke her streak last year due to a bout with the flu.)

Eight stellar vocal groups from around the country, representing a myriad of musical styles, sang their fannies off for the approval of about 2000 hopped-up a cappella-heads.

I look eagerly forward to the Sweeps every year, not only because I enjoy the music, but because it's one of the rare opportunities I have to connect with some of my longtime singing compatriots whom I don't otherwise see. I'm sorry you couldn't be there, but here's a recap of what you missed:
  • 'Round Midnight (New York region). A stylish barbershop-style male quartet, these guys delivered some of the evening's tightest harmonies. They weren't flashy, which probably cost them points with some of the judges, but they sang a wonderfully sweet set that included "Tonight," "Tin Roof Blues," and a novel arrangement of "Take the A Train." It's a distinct disadvantage to perform first at the Sweeps, though — I can't recall the last time a group that kicked off the contest actually won.

  • elmoTHUMM (Chicago region). A few years ago, the Sweeps finals would often consist almost entirely of all-male contemporary groups modeled after such legendary vocal bands as Rockapella and the House Jacks. These guys were a throwback to those not-always-thrilling days of yesteryear. I wasn't impressed with their set — their singing was ragged and raucous (their rendition of "America the Beautiful" never did come together), a couple of the individual voices were subpar, and they suffered from frequent tuning issues. They also used manual percussion instruments, which I thought (perhaps incorrectly) were disallowed in the Sweeps. But where else are you going to hear a cappella covers of the Monkees ("Last Train to Clarksville") and Bad Company ("Shooting Star") in the same 12-minute set?

  • Curious Gage (Denver region). The evening's first mixed-gender ensemble, this five-voice group (four men, one woman) mined some of the same general territory as the preceding act, but with somewhat greater success. Their female singer, Carleen Widhalm, did a nice lead vocal on "Any Way the Wind Blows," and I also liked their cover of one of my favorite Doobie Brothers tunes, "Long Train Runnin'." One of their singers, however, wandered in and out of tune almost the entire set, which distracted me from fully enjoying their performance.

  • Hi-Fidelity (Los Angeles region). When I heard that Hi-Fidelity made the finals, I knew immediately they'd be a front-runner. They're a talented barbershop quartet that specializes in comedy, and they performed their set costumed as the Addams Family (Gomez sings lead, Uncle Fester sings tenor, Cousin Itt sings baritone, and Lurch sings — what else? — bass). I've seen the act several times before — in fact, I've been the master of ceremonies on two previous shows when they've done it — but it never fails to bring down the house. All Hi-Fidelity had to do to finish in the medals was sing up to the level of their comedy. On this night, they did.

  • Regency (Mid-Atlantic region). This male quintet sings in the classic streetcorner doo-wop style, and after 20 years together, they do it awfully darn well. Regency last graced the Sweeps finals the time KJ and I attended, so it was a delight to see them again after all these years. Their energetic set included such standards as "Johnny B. Goode," "Jump, Jive and Wail" (accompanied by some fast and furious dance steps by the lead singer) and an unusual arrangement of "Only You."

  • Clockwork (Bay Area region). Local favorites Clockwork were back for their second shot at Sweeps glory — they were in the finals two years ago — with more of their customary polished vocal jazz stylings. Clockwork's five singers (four gents, plus the nonpareil Angie Doctor) are all incredibly skilled musicians, and their performance abilities have improved since I last saw them. Vocal jazz ensembles have a spotty history of success in the Sweeps, mainly because they seem a trifle staid opposite the more flamboyant pop-contemporary groups, but Clockwork acquitted themselves quite ably this year.

  • Tongue Tied A Cappella (Pacific Northwest region). Like many a cappella groups out of the Northwest, this youthful male quintet owes a stylistic debt to popular 1994 Sweeps champs the Coats (originally known as the Trenchcoats). And, like most of the Coats-inspired groups I've seen, they don't hold a candle to the original. It didn't help them any that the familiar songs they covered — "Sunglasses at Night" and "We Built This City" — are without question two of the cheesiest hit songs in pop-rock history. Entertaining enough, but not at the level of several of the other competitors.

  • Traces (Boston region). The sole returnees from last year's finals, Traces is a fine female gospel quintet, anchored by one of the most phenomenal female bass vocalists I've heard. Their set this year was tighter and smoother than I remembered them from the last contest. Like the vocal jazz groups, gospel performers tend to fare poorly at the Sweeps, but these ladies did a lovely job. (Even if KJ thought their all-white outfits were just a bit much.)
As the judges (including my good friend and vocal coach, Phil DeBar) tallied the scores, last year's champions Groove For Thought delivered a superb swan song performance. Hi-Fidelity won the Audience Favorite balloting, affording them the opportunity to sing the evening's only encore.

When the final results were announced, Hi-Fidelity emerged the victors, with Regency second and Clockwork third. Congrats to Craig (Uncle Fester), Tom (Gomez), Gregg (Cousin Itt, and Thing, too!), and Martin (Lurch) — good fellows all.

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Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Killer Queen

Having endured the indignity of listening to this season's American Idol cast butchering the songs of one of the greatest rock bands of all time — Queen, featuring the talents of guitar hero Brian May, percussionist extraordinaire Roger Taylor, bassist John Deacon, and the inimitable Freddie Mercury on lead vocals and piano — I feel the urgent need to compile my list of all-time favorites from the Queen catalogue.

Get on your bikes and ride...
  1. Fat Bottomed Girls. If I have to explain to you why I love this song, (a) you don't know me — or my predilections — very well, and (b) any explanation won't help.

  2. Keep Yourself Alive. Back in my disc jockey days, those words were my customary signoff. Queen's first single, and still one of their most enjoyable rockers. Fun, energetic vocals by Freddie.

  3. You're My Best Friend. One of several Queen hits written by bassist John Deacon, it's unusual in that it features Deacon on electric piano (an instrument keyboardist Freddie despised and refused to play).

  4. Don't Stop Me Now. If I ever got the chance to direct a motion picture about a superhero, this song would be on the soundtrack. It just has that anthemic feel.

  5. Another One Bites the Dust. The least Queen-like number in my Top Ten, but I like it anyway. Another John Deacon original. Remember Weird Al Yankovic's parody, "Another One Rides the Bus"? I thought of that before I ever heard of Weird Al.

  6. Bicycle Race. Freddie Mercury's paean to the Tour de France — only with hot naked chicks instead of Lance Armstrong. Maybe the only hit song in the history of rock to use a bicycle bell as a percussion instrument. On the single, it's the A-side to "Fat Bottomed Girls" — which strikes me as being entirely backwards.

  7. Somebody to Love. One of the most amazing choral arrangements in popular music — somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 vocal overdubs of Freddie, Brian, and Roger — as well as one of the greatest power ballads in rock history.

  8. Tie Your Mother Down. Built around one of Brian May's most distinctive guitar riffs, this was one of the highlights of Queen's live show. The title started as a joke — Brian intended to write a new lyric to replace it, but Freddie talked him into leaving it in.

  9. Seven Seas of Rhye. Queen's first UK hit, it stands as a monument to the band's straight-ahead early sound. Supposedly, Freddie wrote it about a fantasy land he made up when he was a child.

  10. I Want to Break Free. I'm not as much a fan of Queen's '80s material as I am of their songs from the '70s, but this 1984 number is as good as it gets. Even if it did end up as a Coke commercial.
I know what you're thinking: Where's "Bohemian Rhapsody"? You know me — I never take the road most traveled.

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Thursday, March 30, 2006

In search of the wild Metreon

I don't believe I've ever mentioned that, in addition to my semi-famous original comic pinup art collection — samples from which I foist upon you generous and tolerant readers every Friday — I also collect coffee mugs. Knowing as you do my slavish addiction to Mother Caffeine, this might not come as a surprise.

About 70 mugs or so hang on racks mounted on my office wall. A few dozen more take up cabinet space in our kitchen. Most are mementos of places I've been. Consequently, a lot of them comemmorate various tourist destinations and attractions. A few came from friends and family members who traveled somewhere and brought me back a mug. A handful I just spotted in a store somewhere and liked.

I keep a few favorite mugs in regular rotation for everyday use, not just for coffee, but for whatever beverage I happen to be drinking at a given moment. (I'm a teetotaler, so coffee's the strongest brew that ever touches them.) My favorites tend to be capacious, sturdy, and hold some special significance for me.

Today I'm drinking out of my Where the Wild Things Are mug. It's decorated with a familiar scene from Maurice Sendak's classic children's fantasy, with the story's boy hero Max leading a parade of monsters through the jungle of his imagination by the light of the full moon. The book's title is printed on the mug's handle. Reading Sendak's story over and over again was one of the delights of my early childhood.

Until recently, downtown San Francisco was home to a combination shopping mall/entertainment complex known as Metreon. Developed by Sony, Metreon was touted as the wave of the future when it first opened in 1999. Originally, Metreon's seven public levels housed a flashy collection of high-tech stores, including a Sony Style electronics showroom, a humongous Discovery Channel Store, and Microsoft's first (and, I believe, only) dedicated retail outlet. Cheek by jowl with the software and hardware stood an eclectic assortment of entertainment venues: a Loews Theatre multiplex; a multimedia presentation based on the educational books series The Way Things Work; a souped-up video game arcade called Airtight Garage, decorated in comic book graphics designed by the French artist Jean "Moebius" Giraud; and an entire floor devoted to a themed playground, restaurant, and gift shop based on Where the Wild Things Are. The latter was the source of my mug.

Metreon's Where the Wild Things Are attraction was a real kick. Wonderfully evocative and engaging in its interactivity, the playground offered kids (and the adults who loved them) an opportunity to step into a fantasy world and have a field day. New surprises lurked around every corner, all perfectly tied into the theme and graphic concept of the book. Even the little cafe, called In the Night Kitchen after another Sendak story, was creatively designed and fun to visit, even if the food was pricey and average in quality.

A failure almost from day one, due in large part to Sony's disinterest in marketing the concept properly, Metreon struggled along for more than six years before Sony finally gave up on the project last month. Westfield Group, a shopping center development company currently renovating the nearby San Francisco Centre, bought Metreon and plans to turn it into another multistory urban mall. Just what America needs.

It's too bad, really — Metreon was a brilliant notion that just needed to have been thought out a little better. The girls and I enjoyed several fun visits there. I'm sad that it didn't succeed.

The Where the Wild Things Are attraction, which operated only sporadically for the past couple of years, closed permanently last year.

My mug still drinks pretty well, though.

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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Lyn Nofziger

I probably would not have paid much attention to today's news that longtime Republican insider Franklyn "Lyn" Nofziger had died, were it not for the fact that his path and mine once crossed — albeit briefly — about a quarter-century ago.

In the fall of 1980, I was a sophomore journalism student at Pepperdine University. Active at the campus radio station, I acquired — more because of my constant availability than any extraordinary talent on my part — a considerable number of behind-the-scenes responsibilities in addition to my on-air work as a disc jockey and sports announcer. Among my tasks was coproducing a public affairs program hosted by a fellow student whose father had been the longtime publisher of the Sentinel, a newspaper that served the Los Angeles black community.

With the '80 national election approaching, my coproducer put together a show featuring interviews with the various Presidential candidates. Well, not the candidates themselves for the most part (although we did manage a one-on-one with the Libertarian candidate, a dull-witted chap who kept referring to our alma mater as "Peppertone"), but their designated spokespeople. Lyn Nofziger, who was Ronald Reagan's press secretary at the time, spoke with us by telephone on behalf of the Reagan campaign. Nofziger was easily the most effective speaker of the folks we interviewed — clear on his message and engaging in style. He didn't convince me to vote for Reagan — it would have taken either a pistol to my temple, or a date with Erin Gray, to pull off that feat — but he seemed like a likable guy.

Nofziger will likely be remembered as the person whose job it was to tell the White House press corps that President Reagan (see? he didn't even need my vote) had been shot by John Hinckley. Shortly after that, Nofziger left the Reagan administration and returned to the campaign scene, in later years running campaigns for right-wingers Pat Buchanan and Steve Forbes. (I said he seemed likable. I didn't say he seemed sensible.)

I'm sure that after all these years, Nofziger would not have recalled that one interview out of the hundreds he gave in the fall of 1980. But I do.

Speaking of dead Republicans, I see that Caspar Weinberger, HEW secretary under Richard Nixon and defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, also passed away today.

I'm sure that jokes about Caspar becoming a friendly ghost would be entirely inappropriate.

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Thursday, March 02, 2006

That Pufnstuf will kill you

Jack Wild, the English actor known to my generation (because, as Pete Townshend once wrote, I'm talkin' 'bout my generation) as Jimmy, the boy with the talking flute, on the seminal Saturday morning TV series H.R. Pufnstuf, has died.

That cracking sound you heard was another chunk of my childhood breaking off.

Jack Wild first came to worldwide attention in 1968, when he portrayed the young thief nicknamed the Artful Dodger in the Academy Award-winning musical Oliver! Shortly thereafter, Canadian kidvid producers Sid and Marty Krofft cast the nascent star in Pufnstuf, a show that changed the face of children's television forever.

In a world filled with tame Hanna-Barbera cartoons, Romper Room, and Captain Kangaroo, Pufnstuf struck like a smack alongside the head from a psychedelic two-by-four. The Kroffts' view of children's fantasy resembled nothing less than The Wizard of Oz on mescaline.

For the Sixties-impaired among us, I'll summarize. Wild's character Jimmy is at a riverside park one day when a talking boat offers him and his magic flute, Freddie, a short sailing trip. Little does Jimmy know that the boat belongs to the flamboyantly evil Witchiepoo, who has designs on his flute. (You know this ain't no ordinary kids' show when the central plot involves a wicked witch who's chasing after a teenaged boy's flute.) But when the boat arrives on Living Island — a fantastical realm where all of the animals and the usually-inanimate objects are alive and can converse — Jimmy is snatched from Witchiepoo's clutches by the heroic H.R. Pufnstuf, a cowboy-boot-wearing dragon who serves as Living Island's mayor and chief of police. Mayhem and hilarity ensue.

Like any number of child actors one could name, Wild's career nosedived into alcoholism and dissipation as he matured into adulthood. Still, he occasionally popped up in a small character role. He played one of Sherwood Forest's Merry Men — Much the Miller's Son — in the Kevin Costner vehicle Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But in 2000, decades of chain-smoking resulted in mouth cancer, a series of aggressive treatments for which robbed Wild of his voice. The cancer now has taken his life at the age of 53.

Let this be a lesson to you kids. Put. The Pufnstuf. Down.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

You have questions, he doesn't have answers

RadioShack's CEO, David Edmondson, quit his post in the wake of revelations that he fudged the educational background on his résumé.

Here's what I wonder:

First, when are people going to knock off the résumé-pumping? So many high-profile people in so many fields have been caught red-handed at this monkey business over the past few years that you'd think everyone would have learned by now.

Second, Edmondson has been working for the Shack since 1994. Twelve years, and they're just now getting around to vetting the guy's résumé? That doesn't speak well for the human resources department.

Of course, the story behind the story is that RadioShack is in the financial dumper — the company announced last week that it will close between 400 and 700 underperforming stores — and the board of directors needed a scapegoat. The fact that Edmondson was nailed recently on a DUI charge and is about to be dragged through the Texas legal system made him an ideal candidate, on top of the résumé fiasco.

You may be surprised to learn this, but I worked for Radio Shack (the public name was two words back then, and the corporate name at the time was Tandy Corporation) for almost two years just after college, managing retail stores in the Central California valley. I was a lousy salesman and an even worse manager — that admission, most likely, will not surprise you — but I had the good fortune to keep landing positions in stores where the previous manager was even more incompetent than I, so I looked good by comparison.

My résumé, for the record, was 100 percent accurate.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Let me call you Sweetheart

For the third consecutive Valentine's Day, the quartet and I delivered Singing Valentines in support of the local barbershop chorus. Red roses and greeting cards were dispensed. Smiles were generated. Tears were shed. Hugs were exchanged. Warm fuzzies and affirmation of the joys of romance and friendship remain.

Today's itinerary took our intrepid foursome to:
  • A veterinary hospital, where we serenaded the receptionist, and the doctor took time out from aiding animals in distress to take our photograph with the lucky lass.

  • The county administrative offices, where the grateful recipient threw open the doors so that her coworkers could hear and share the magic.

  • A luncheon for the local Rotary Club chapter, where we held the roomful of sated Rotarians and their spouses spellbound for half an hour, and even taught everyone present a few lines of barbershop harmony.

  • A local restaurant, where we reduced a lovely grandmother to a puddle of mush, and made her love it.

  • A physician's office, where we reduced a young bride to blushing embarrassment on behalf of her loving hubby.
When four average shlubs like us can bring that much joy to people just by warbling a couple of venerable and syrupy love ballads, it almost gives one hope for the future of man- and womankind. Music may be a cheap gift, but its power is undeniable.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006


My friend Jim died yesterday.

Unlike most of those who find themselves eulogized here at SSTOL, Jim was not rich, or renowned, or beautiful. At least, not in the worldly senses of those words. He was rich in faith and compassion and goodness. He was renowned and honored by every human being who knew him. And within his stocky, grizzled, and at the end, cancer-wracked body, he carried a beautiful soul, and the heart of a lion.

I knew Jim only for about the last five years of his seventy-something sojourn on earth. He was, however, one of those people who, no matter how long or short a time you knew him, made you feel as though you'd been close friends with him all your life. When he and his wife Nancy joined our little church family, it was as though they'd been there forever — even as they were making a fundamental, character-changing impact on all of us.

Jim served ably and stalwartly as one of our congregation's elders for more than three years. As a shepherd, he exuded a quiet command, and led far more by example than he ever did by executive order. He was a sound and perceptive student of the Bible, and even though we disagreed on occasion, he was as agreeable in disagreement as anyone I've ever met.

I always felt that when I was in Jim's company, I came away from each encounter a better person, and wiser for the experience. Even the last extended time we spent together, when I sat with him for several hours last Friday morning while Nancy went to a chiropractic appointment, I gained power just from observing his calm in the face of onrushing death. That morning, we watched on television — or rather, I watched as Jim mostly dozed — the films The Great Santini and The Green Berets. Jim was neither as brash and boisterous as Robert Duvall's Lt. Col. Bull Meechum, nor as mountainous and laconic as John Wayne's Col. Mike Kirby, but he was a greater hero than either.

Although clearly weakening, Jim made the journey to worship last Sunday morning. He had a handshake or hug and an encouraging word for every individual present. If you didn't know, you might not have guessed that he was so near the end of his life. That's the way Jim was — he was more concerned that others were worried for him than he was worried for himself.

Words are often cheapened by overuse. The word saint is one such. But if you turn to the "S" section in the dictionary of my mind, and trace your finger down to that word, you'll find a picture of my friend Jim.

I miss him already.