Archive - December 2003
December 31st, 2003
It's been a year already. Yup, a year ago today, just a couple of hours shy of midnight, Hembeck.com went on line for the very first time. And here it is, a whole year later. Like I said, wow...
And not that anybody's counting or anything, but during that 365 day period, we've posted something new on 209 of those days. That would include 159 entries in our weblog, "Fred Sez", several of which were short, a few of which were long, but most of which were of medium length. We've shared 63 "Classic Cover Redos" with you, always accompanied by an essay, some of which were (repeat after me) short, some long, but most medium. Got that Goldilocks?...
We've posted 28 "Dateline:@#$%" cartoons, and several special strips over at the miscellaneous "More" section. There were two tell-all tales originally ensconced in the "Life Story" area. We've supplied you with just about all the extant "Petey" material (save for a few peripherally related pieces that we plan to post fairly soon), hoisted all four episodes--ten fabulous pages--of the never-before-seen "Little Freddy" strip, and showcased 68 all-new pages of "KIDZ".
You got to read the one and only episode of both the truncated adventures of "The Dog" and "Mr. Mumbo Jumbo". And for those of you anxious to pull aside the facade and peer at the machinations of the man standing behind the curtain, we provided you with a thorough essay AND about two dozen rejected pages of the infamous "Fred Hembeck Destroys the Marvel Universe"!
But, y'know, somehow, I never DID get around to cobbling together a "Checklist" of my work like we promised!?!...
Well, gotta have goals left for Year Two, right? And the long rumored checklist is right there--stuck somewhere smack dab in the middle! Oh, it'll happen, at least in some perfunctory form, but there are several other things I hope to accomplish first. Like, for instance, revamping my "Links" listing.
My initial plan was to spotlight an extensive array of pop-culture related web-destinations with a personally written, hopefully witty, blurb, but THAT idea ran out of steam, and fast! I'll most likely keep the write-ups I already have, sort of as an addendum, but basically, I'll just divide my links into specific categories and list 'em. You nice people who have so kindly attached yourself to me like electronic sausages (links, get it? Gee whiz, but I LOVE that allusion...) will finally see your good will returned! (And if, once the listings ARE in place, it turns out that I've missed someone, please just let me know, okay? We'll fix things.) This overhaul is still a few weeks off, but its coming--promise!!
In the last couple of days, we've reorganized some material. You may not have noticed, but we (and I keep saying "we" because dear sweet Lynn is helping me every step of the way, especially on anything more complicated than scanning in a piece of art, so all kudos to her, say I!!...) took the appended "Dateline:@#$%" area from it's temporary home in "More" and gave it it's very own page, replete with a freshly written introductory essay. Similarly, we trolled through those 158 previous "Fred Sez" installments, and duplicated seven cherry-picked tales and gave 'em a higher profile in the "Life Story" section. Likewise, we rounded up some of our more elaborate and/or notable four-color musings and made them a part of a brand new page erected mere hours ago, "Words About Pictures". The main purpose of these moves was to rescue worthy material from oblivion-- which is also known as "scrolling through the archives, tediously" (which, of course, we don't by any means want to discourage, but since not everyone might have the time nor the patience for that, well...).
In the future, anything that promises to be of an extensive nature will go directly into this new area--such as the special Ditko piece I have planned for the hopefully near future--but "Fred Sez" will still be the main repository for most of my comics commentary. The good stuff'll get moved later. The bad stuff? Keep scrolling, oh ye masochists--you'll be able to stumble across it all too soon, that I guarantee!...
That's one of the things that surprised me the most about our first year--all the writing I wound up doing! I still don't profess to know how to type properly--yes, I have to look down at the keyboard as I concurrently dream up these imperishable passages--but I have gotten a WHOLE lot faster pecking away, believe it! And prior to this little web experiment, 99.9% of everything I'd ever written was done in long-hand and accompanied by my artwork (or in a few rare cases, someone else's'). But you know what? I LIKE writing! It's fun--and on the computer, you can fiddle and reshape things to your ever-lovin' hearts content before you post it, a quirk I certainly took advantage of happily time and again! More often than not, I've attempted to compose my blogs as potential stand alone pieces, as opposed to the more standard diary approach. That's a perfectly valid way to go, no doubt about it, but I wanted to try and make most everything I wrote accessible to the first time surfer--though whether I wiped out or rode that curl isn't for me to say. That's your call...
While I was pleased with the amount of words I was able to churn out for all the world to see (or, at least, the couple of dozen of you who check in here on a bi-monthly basis...), I can't say I was similarly thrilled by the tepid amount of pictures I wound up producing to post. Oh, I provided you folks with plenty of art all right, but a vast majority of it had been drawn LONG before we ever cranked up the ol' site, nigh upon a year ago now. Not enough NEW material was produced, y'see, and that was a personal disappointment. My beloved--but terminally wrong-headed--"KIDZ" apparently failed to catch on, and five pencilled pages still lie, untended, near my drawing board, uninked, since way, way back in May. I have a couple hundred pages more of layouts (REALLY), but currently neither the stamina nor the inspiration to take this Quixotic project to its illogical conclusion anytime in the near future. Too bad. As I always like to tell people, it REALLY starts getting good around page 150!...
There WILL be more new art, though--and in a more concise format, this I vow! AND in color, as I'm finally beginning to learn that semi-complicated process, freeing up the missus to help Julie with HER homework, and not just mine! Soon, soon, soon.
The "Classic Cover Redos" will continue appearing on their regular irregular basis. And I promise to post at least a FEW of those neglected gems (coff coff) I've been teasing you with since our debut over at the end of the "More" intro piece! And we may even share with you a selection of (gasp!) photos from the Hembeck Family album before year two is out! You've been sufficiently warned!...
There's a lot of folks I'd like to thank, and just like those self-absorbed actors who get up at the podium after winning some self-congratulatory award or another, I'm sure to forget some essential personage, so if you happen to feel slighted by omission, my humblest apologies, all right? Okay now, deep breath:
Thanks, first off, to Neil Polowin for keeping the Hembeck fires burning on the Internet prior to my belated arrival. And to Mark Evanier, who's not only provided inspiration, but who has been a vocal supporter of Hembeck.com since day one, offering up a perpetual link from his highly popular News From ME page, as well as a half dozen specific plugs over the past 12 months--thanks mucho Mark! Rich Johnson's "Lying In the Gutters" plugs, and Dirk Deppey's mentions and permanent link over at "Journalista", have done wonders to improve my web profile as well, and I thank them both sincerely. In fact, I appreciate EVERYONE who's linked to me--Bill Sherman, Jay Zilber, Johnny Bacardi, and all the other bloggers out there whose names momentarily escape me! And it's never too late to hook up with us, either--John Byrne, of all people, just discovered the site about three days ago, and I'm happy to say we now have us a link over from his ever-popular Forum! Ah, just think--links from both The Comics Journal AND John Byrne!?! It makes me feel warm from head to toe, because like the man once said, why can't we all just get along?...
Then there were the friendships, old and new, that grew out of this site. Special mention should go to the always irrepressible Jim Salicrup for his salient anecdotes and amusing asides. Tom Brevoort, Batton Lash, Joe Staton, Ron Marz, Joe Chiodo, Paul Abrams, Jim Engel, Joe Rubenstein and Scott Shaw! were also welcome correspondents. Rocco Nigro's consul helped mightily, as did Bill Alger's--danke, guys! Hearing from my old college buddy, Charlie Johnson, was a definite highlight, as was renewing friendships with pals Shinaan and Beezy! And fans like Vinnie, Scott, Randall, Arthur, John, and any number of others who I'm unfortunately forgetting made checking my email each and every day always a joy! Thanks, fellas--and keep in touch!
Of course, the biggest and best thanks goes directly to my family. Julie gets kudos for providing me with so much priceless material, and Lynn of course gets my deepest appreciation for all her advice, guidance, and willingness to do a large percentage of the grunt work with only a minimal amount of grunting! Hembeck.com would be nothing without you, babe--you're the best!! (How'd you ever wind up stuck with ME?...)
Lastly, and way down at the bottom of this seemingly endless morass of navel-gazing we present, should anybody still be reading, a few corrections and clarifications. First off, Jim Wiseman wrote to inform me that, yes indeed, it WAS his father who did all that magnificent lettering in those old "Dennis the Menace" comics he illustrated. Al Wiseman developed this talent while working as an architect back in the forties, it seems. Before sending it over to the "Words About Pictures" area, I've amended my Wiseman/Toole tribute piece to reflect this new information (and I'd like to thank everyone for their kind words regarding it, as it clearly garnered more reaction than anything else I wrote this past year!) (Although the tale of Jim Starlin and the Halloween goose got more hits--go figure!!...)
And as for the "Christmas Carol Two" recap, in yet another eerie instance of their two minds working unknowingly in concert, yet providing me with separate bits of info, both Jim Salicrup and Tom Brevoort weighed in on the topic--and were, in fact, the ONLY ones to do so! Jim recalls that when Marley's ghost shows up again at the end, ol' Eb growls, "Is this going to be an annual event?", and Tom points out the other three ghosts make a well-timed cameo as well during the finale, proving that you just can't do a take-off on that Dickens chestnut without some spirits!
Speaking of which--as the hour of midnight crawls ever closer, there are double the number of toasts to be made here this year, folks! Because, you see, it's not only New Year's Eve we're celebrating, it's our Anniversary as well!! Happy happy, then, to us all, and to you all, and please keep reading! After all, I haven't even told you about the big recipe section we've got planned for 2005!!...
(And oh yeah, Lynn asked me to remind everyone--Donations accepted! Happily, I'll add!...)
December 28th, 2003
Today's pretty special, birthday-wise, round about these here parts!
Yup, Julie's good pal--and next door neighbor--Christina turns 11 today! Congrats, Tina--and to your sister, Elizabeth, as well. Liz, you see, turned 12 on December 26th, meaning that, for a grand total of 48 hours each and every year, she's two whole years older than her younger sibling! But then the 28th swiftly rolls around, and Chris is right back to being but a single digit behind her big sis yet again!
They're swell kids, and we Hembecks wish them only the best!
And besides that, well, gosh, there seems to some OTHER reason today's distinctive date is definitely lodged deep in the ol' cerebellum. Hmm--now, if only I could recall just exactly WHY?..
Wait! I know! In fact, I knew all along, I was just having some fun with you (and cordially tipping my hat to the girls next door)--today is ALSO Stan Lee's birthday! Some of you readers may have heard of him, yes? The Mighty Marvel Maven is facing off with a cake hosting an impressive 81 candles on it, though knowing Stan, I'm sure he feels more like those digits should be reversed! Ah, friends, don't we all?...
|For me, it all started with a case of scarlet fever. Oh, it was a mild case to be sure, but it kept me essentially quarantined for several long weeks, with the only time out of the house for me being off on a visit to the doctor. Yes, I've told this story time and time again--in an illustrated format, even--but hey look, this is MY web-site, it turned out to be a surprisingly pivotal event in my life, and it IS Stan's Big Day, so howsabout humoring me if I run through it one more time, okay? Thanks...|
|Anyway, there I was, missing my already beloved
comics, week after week, when my mom and
I came up with an equitable solution: I'd
stay in the car, parked at the curb, while
she held up various issues at the conveniently
located window adjacent to the generously
supplied comics rack, for which I'd to either
nod a positive yea or a negative nay to.
Simple, but effective. After giving the go-ahead
to several of my favorite regular DC titles--and
maybe an Archie or two, as well--she held
up this oddly titled book whose logo looked
for all the world to be torn straight off
a circus poster and certainly not befitting
an adventure series. I hesitated for the
slightest of seconds, not sure if it was
one of those sickly shaded Atlas titles I'd
always made it my policy previously to avoid,
and then made the life-altering snap-decision
to throw caution to the wind and give this
strange looking thing the proverbial thumbs
That book was FANTASTIC FOUR #4, gang. My scarlet fever faded away soon after, but wouldn't you know it--THAT was the very day I became infected with an incurable case of Marvel-itis!...
Yup, and it wasn't long before I became to think of this Stan Lee fellow, and his whole batty Bullpen, as extended--if merely honorary--members of my own, decidedly tiny family. As an only child, one whose sole grandparent passed away when I was 13, there weren't many relatives to deal with during my youth. And while I was lucky enough to have plenty of pals my own age nearby to enjoy my Wonder Years with, my evenings were generally spent with my friends in the funnybooks. As much as I enjoyed the antics of the characters in the brightly colored outfits, it was those OTHER characters--the artists, writers, and even letterers Stan continually talked up--that became the TRUE focus of the inordinate amount of attention I found myself giving the oft-denigrated comic book medium. Blame Stan--he made it all sound like so much FUN!...
Stan was the uncle I never had, but always wished for. The one adult who seemed to know--to care, even--what us kids were thinking and feeling. The one adult who could actually TALK to us. Believe me, that was no easy feat. Despite my love for Marvel Comics, I read pretty much everything that was available on the spinner rack in those halcyon days, and when OTHER editors attempted to speak to their readers on what they may've imagined was an equal basis, trust me when I report back that the results were rarely pretty. We KNEW who was keeping it real and who was putting it on, and there was NO question as to which camp good ol' Unca Stan fell into!...
Which is not to say, as the years marched on and Marvel's success grew ever larger, Stan didn't up his own unique brand of hyperbolic discourse a ratchet or two. He most certainly DID, true believer! But like any good entertainer--and Stan WAS good--we knew it to be all part of the act, and readily accepted it because there was just no denying the innate sincerity Stan had built this somewhat bombastic persona of his upon. The more outrageous the claims Stan spouted, the more likely the trained observer was to spot the ever-present self-depreciating wink, whether it surfaced in his voice, in his words, or maybe even just south of his trendy trademark shades!
|Of course, after a while, the seemingly repetitive nature of Stan's over-the-top boasting tends to wear on the long-time listener, and we all then go through our "Stan Lee is full of @#$%" phase. Sorry, Stan, but it's true. It even happened to me--yes, ME!--during the seventies. I was in my twenties, away from home, off to college, and watching as the comics field struggled to grow up, if only just a smidgen. Stan wasn't actively writing any of the now-firmly established regular series at the time, but his ever-smilin' mug could be seen all throughout the line in various advertisements, prestigious book jackets, and even on calendars prepared specially for the fanatic faithful! And while he may've left the fate of Spidey and the FF to others to chart, "Stan's Soapbox" was a monthly fixture in virtually every publication issued by Marvel in their second decade, save perhaps that special magazine devoted entirely to Hitler released in the mid-seventies (WHAT were they thinking?...)|
|The seventies. The Beatles dream had dissolved
in utter ugliness. Nixon had flagrantly broken
trust with the American people. The moon
landing had all been an elaborate hoax by
NASA (okay, okay--maybe we're waiting for
further confirmation on THAT one, but still...).
Given this muddled atmosphere, why SHOULDN"T
we question this ever-irrepressible gent,
happily hawking his suddenly suspicious Marvel
Comics? Why shouldn't we wonder, "Is
this Stan Lee guy on the level, or is he
full of @#$%?" It was, I must reiterate
to you younger readers in a deep and solemn
voice, a cynical age, both for me and for
But time, as they say, heals all wounds, real or imagined. After all, even Nixon started looking good to some folks as the years wore on! Not to me of course, but I had OTHER concerns--my own specialized brand of cartooning, begun towards decades end, forced me to go back to the beginning of my life-long love affair with comics, and examine the origins of my deep-seated appreciation. I soon realized WHO was primarily responsible for my maintaining my ever abiding interest in the field for as long as I had--Stan Lee. Oh sure, you can't ever forget Jack Kirby or Steve Ditko--or Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Al Wiseman, Bob Bolling, Kurt Schaffenberger, John Stanley, Gil Kane, Julie Schwartz, or even Mort Weisinger, either--but clearly, Stan was the Ringmaster, the fellow who kept all these talented plates spinning, the man who juggled these Hall of Fame pencil-pushers so adroitly. Stan was, simply, The Man. I'd reached a conclusion, one I'd already arrived at years earlier--Stan Lee made comics (yes, I'll say it again) FUN!...
Of course, then if you go and actually MEET the guy, well...
It happened somewhere in the vicinity of 1980. I had been invited to come up to the Marvel offices by Rick Marschall in his not-long-to-last capacity as the editor of their forthcoming, brand-new, creator-friendly, copyright-assigning anthology publication, "Epic Magazine". As a then-current flavor-of-the-month (one whose influence, I hardly need to add, has long since, um, melted away...), he sought to enlist me as a contributor. Well, THAT never happened (for no clear cut reason that I can recall), but what DID happen was a moment I'll long remember: while showing me around the offices, Rick paused briefly, looked over my shoulder with a Cheshire Cat-like grin, and grandly announced, "..and coming up behind you, Fred, is a true comics legend." I swiftly turned and was greeted by the perpetually sunny visage of none other than--okay, okay, you guessed it already! That's right--Stan Lee!!
|I was struck dumb. My mouth lost all function. I had just naturally assumed that Marvel's head honcho was out on the West Coast, sealing deals for Saturday morning Son of Satan cartoons and such like, so I was understandably stunned to see instead that he was standing mere inches away from my now-trembling body. And he'd snuck up on me, too! Usually, y'see, when meeting the various comics greats of my misbegotten youth over the ensuing years, I had the opportunity to steel myself for these sometimes nerve-wracking experiences, but not this time. Uh uh. Before I'd even had a chance to consider the implications of what it would mean to me on a deep personal level to be encountering this Titan of Titans, BOOM--there he was! Yipes. Geez, you could WARN a guy, y'know...|
|He was, of course, suitably genial. I don't
recall the specifics of our brief conversation,
but he did seem to be truly aware of my then
fairly-new work, and professed to enjoy it
as well. While I certainly appreciated his
sentiments, I figured his lofty opinion of
my modest little cartoons might well have
something to do with the somewhat relentless
praise within my squiggle-filled panels that
I'd showered upon his seminal earlier work,
but hey, that's as good a reason as any,
right? I managed to mumble out a few, not
altogether embarrassing words to weakly hold
up my end of this tete a tete. And then,
as quickly as he had descended upon me and
those nearby, he was gone. Gone to no doubt
spread his special brand of good cheer and
exuberance to others, others who might also
benefit being blessed with a word or two
from The Man!!
About ten years went by after that before the next significant event in what I'll refer to as, lacking for a better term, our relationship. We exchanged some Christmas cards, maybe a few short notes in the intervening decade. Then, one ordinary day in June of 1990, the phone rings. Home alone, I naturally answer it. "Hello, is Fred Hembeck there? This is Stan Lee calling..." I slip into total Ralph Kramden mode--homina homina homina--but eventually I regain enough composure to inquire as to exactly what it is he wants to speak with me about. Well, by golly, it seems as if, in the then-initial wake of "The Simpsons" surprising success, he and a partner had developed a concept for a potential prime time cartoon show they were eager to sell one of the other, now cartoon-starved, networks--and Stan wanted ME to design the characters!! That's right--me!
If you're at all lucky, you'll have a moment or two in your life when something so outlandishly amazing happens, you simply can't believe it's actually occurring. This was MY moment. Here was Stan Lee--STAN LEE!!--the guy who masterminded all those great Marvel Comics that had made for me such childhood happiness asking me--ME!!--to be his partner on a prospective television program! Well, I gotta tell ya, that was QUITE the moment, quite the moment!..
|And if anything, it was actually eclipsed maybe a week or so later. I'd been talking back and forth with Stan--and with his partner--and I eventually came up with an acceptable artistic look for this family of comedic cartoon super-powered characters they'd conceived. Now it was time to take the presentation up to the next level. I'll always remember that particular night. Lynn was maybe two months away from delivering Julie, and since pregnant women do get hungry, we were just on our way out the door to dine at the local Chinese restaurant when, once again, the phone rang. It was Stan. We needed to come up with a series of gag illustrations demonstrating each characters unique powers and divergent personalities, and we needed to do it soon. Lynn sat down, got some Ritz crackers from the cupboard, and settled in, as she figured this might take awhile...|
|The amazing thing was, it really didn't.
We had us five or six idiosyncratic individuals
to illustratively illuminate for prospective
patrons, and Stan would toss out a quick
description of each one, while I in turn
would run with his directions and elaborate
on his basic premise as best I could, shaping
the gag into a final form for me to draw.
Almost from the outset, there was a tremendous
give and take going on between us, a very
real crackling burst of collaborative creative
energy, as one idea would inevitably spark
another even better one--and this magic was
coming from BOTH quarters! This, to me, seemed
unprecedented for any number of reasons...
Y'see, I've always been somewhat uncomfortable with folks who are a fair amount older than myself. (Sorry, Stan, but you DO have a few years on me...) This primarily has to do with the fact that I was raised by parents who were 50 and 39 when I was born, and while they certainly did their best by me, they were nonetheless never particularly skilled in the amorphous art of communication. As a result, I've always had some not-always-small difficulty relating to members of a clearly older generation. Beyond that personality quirk, though, I should've been intimidated in any case to even OPEN my mouth and attempt to work with the fellow on the other end of the line as what I can only laughingly refer to as an equal because, fer gosh sakes, that was STAN LEE!?! How am I supposed to bring anything to the table when THAT'S the chef in the kitchen? And yet, there I was, blissfully collaborating away like mad with my childhood idol as if he were just one of my no-good pals from down the street! THAT, people, is Stan. (No, NOT the "no-good" part--the "completely puts you at ease" part! Sheesh--do I have to explain EVERYTHING??...)
In my career, I've only rarely collaborated with other creators, and to say THIS little endeavor tops any and all other attempts would be a little like saying I enjoyed last years Paul McCartney concert a WEE bit more than the New Riders of the Purple Sage set I attended back in my college days! Stan and I were really cooking that night, I gotta tell ya, and lo, these many years on, it remains one of my most cherished memories. And then, after an ever ephemeral 20 minutes, it was all over. Done. Finished. Lynn and I then went out for our Fin Fang Foo--er, I mean, our Moo Goo Gai Pan--which I quickly shoveled down so as to better be able to rush right back to my drawing board. I wanted to get our mutually masterminded concepts down on paper while they were still freshly resonating in my gleefully spinning cranium...
Here's the punch-line to the story--or maybe, the kick in the pants. Stan never did manage to sell the show. Oh, there was some subsequent talk of me doing a one-shot featuring the cast for Marvel as an attempt to drum up interest in the property, but that never happened either. Fact is, after that madcap brainstorming session, there wasn't much anything more for Stan or I to do, either separately or together, save wait. And wait. And wait some more. Months slipped by, and soon, the product of my collaboration with Lynn--Julie--burst forth (um, so to speak...), but the titanic team of Lee and Hembeck, well, THEIR progeny wasn't quite so lucky. Eventually, all parties concerned surrendered to the obvious, and went our separate ways. My cup of coffee with Stan Lee (metamorphical lingo-ese, that) never quite made it into the press anywhere, nor into any of the now seemingly multiplying tomes frantically focusing on the iconic Mr. Lee, but hey, that's okay. Our collaboration may not have made me either rich OR famous, but more than a dozen years later, I can unabashedly confess that it sure did make me, yup, HAPPY!!...
Earlier this year, I took a pretty thorough look at Stan's autobiography here at Hembeck.com, and when I was finished, I sent Stan a copy of my findings. Gracious and gregarious as always, he emailed me a typically good-humored reply, with an entertaining follow-up to MY subsequent reply. Same ol' Stan--thank Odin! And now there's ANOTHER book out there telling the story of both Stan's life and of the field his efforts so intrinsically influenced, "Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book" by Jordan Raphael and Tom Spurgeon, a tome I only finished reading yesterday (which, I suppose, means that when I think back on the literature of 2003, I'll primarily remember it as the year I read not one, but TWO books on Stan Lee!!...).
|Like a lot of other folks, I had some concerns going in that perhaps this was going to be somewhat of a hatchet job, given that one of the authors was once employed in a high editorial position by the never-Stan-centric COMICS JOURNAL, but no, that's hardly the case. The book's subject comes off as pretty much the same truly likable effervescent human being as he did in his OWN book--and that's gotta tell you SOMETHING! Oh sure, there are details concerning opportunities missed, aspirations unfulfilled, and some dubious choices made, but hey, you open YOUR life to a pair of crusading journalists and you'd be lucky to come out looking half--no, make that a QUARTER--as good as Stan does in their ever investigatin' hands! Hey, even lovable ol' Mother Theresa turned in a library book late now and again, y'know!...|
|I was particularly taken by the authors'
theory behind Stan's initial success with
the nascent, not yet named, Marvel line.
Pointing out an obvious fact that had nonetheless
never actually occurred to me--Stan had extremely
little experience writing super-heroes at
the time, and wasn't especially well suited
to do so in any event, at least as they were
constituted back in 1961--so he instead combined
divergent strengths garnered from several
unlikely genres he HAD mastered--soap opera
characterization from his romance comics,
snappy dialog from his humor titles, and
expansive fantasy and scope from the then-recently
developed giant monster comics--and mixed
them up with a panache to produce a captivating
take on a tired and heretofore cliche ridden
genre. His keen editorial management style--from
both before 1961 and after it--is rightly
hailed as perhaps Stan Lee's greatest hidden
accomplishment by the scribes. He knew how
to get the best out of the people he worked
with, whether it was A-listers like Ditko
and Kirby, or some other, more disreputable
artist-- like, y'know, ME?...
It's a good book, well considered, and though its unflinching view of the comic mediums steady and seemingly unstoppable decline will depress some readers not scanning the text whilst wearing their special rose-colored glasses, one that's hard to argue with. Hey, read 'em BOTH--you can never get enough Stan Lee, folks!!
Fact is, I found this out again recently on--of all nights--Christmas Eve! Realizing his birthday was soon approaching, I thought I'd shoot him off a humorously worded note wishing him the best in this season of all seasons, when we can celebrate not only Christmas, Hanukah, and Kwanza, but perhaps most importantly (and please, fine people, I'm only joshing--I don't pine to get in any John Lennon-like trouble here, understand...), HIS birthday!! Well, before Santa could even get near my chimney, Stan had replied with an enthusiastically worded missive congratulating me on doing something no other member of his otherwise happy little family could accomplish--namely, remember his birthday!! He then went on to say a few more nice things about my kooky cartoons, which modesty--AND the reader's no doubt rapidly ebbing tolerance level for my self-aggrandizing anecdotes--prohibits me from expounding any further upon at this time. But, folks, there IS one thing I'd like the share with you all--the note's introductory salutation:
|That's right, he called me Hemby. Hemby!
NO one has EVER called me Hemby! It's never
even occurred to me that my name might ever
be twisted into such a...unique form. But
by golly gosh, if Stan Lee wants to call
me Hemby, then by all means, I hope he continues
to do so! I just don't want anybody ELSE
to call me that, dig?
Except maybe little Christina next door. After all, it's HER birthday, too...
|(By the way, to illustrate this rambling
entry, I thought it might be cute to utilize
the series of photos found in Stan's December
28th date-boxes as seen in each of the official
Marvel Comics calendars sold in bookstores
all across the nation from 1974 right on
up into the eighties. What you see before
you is not only each of Stan's appearances
from 1975 on up through 1980 in sequential
order (with one very special one saved for
last), but if you examine things even closer,
you'll get a crystal clear picture of Stan's
bountifully generous nature at work. Because,
folks, take a gander at what happened in
1978--the two fellows who put this otherwise
fine product together, David Anthony Kraft
and Jim Salicrup (..now, where have I heard
THAT name before?...) got the Big Boss's
birthday WRONG!! Wrong! They assigned the
Presenter of All Things Marvel a birth date
a day premature, and turned the 28th over
to the then-neophyte Ralph Macchio instead!!
Hang heads, unbelievers--it really happened.
Yes, I think it speaks well of Stan that
these two not only continued to work at Marvel
after that egregious error, but would even
eventually thrive!! However, apparently old
habits do indeed die hard, as I also received
a note from Jim Salicrup (oh, THAT'S where
I heard the name...) on Christmas Eve, and
he closed it with a comment that seemed to
clearly indicate that he thought Stan had
ALREADY had his 81st!! Don't rush him, Jim,
don't rush him!!...)
(Oh, and by the way, best felicitations of the day to Mr. Macchio. It sure ain't easy sharing a birthday with so lustrous a legend--OR the girl next door!...)
December 26th, 2003
Well, unless you're a particularly avid admirer of the wondrous works of Carl Barks--and hey, around here, who ISN'T?--Scrooge time has come a close for yet another year. Ebenezer, that is, not McDuck. Except perhaps for one long-forgotten unique twist on Charles Dickens' venerable seasonal parable, "A Christmas Carol", a version in which the action actually COMMENCES on this very day, December 26th!...
Back in 1985, CBS premiered a comedy anthology program hosted by the equally venerable George Burns (89 at the time). The indispensable "Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows" identifies this short-lived enterprise as "George Burns Comedy Week", but my memory has it labelled with the far more illuminating title of "The George Burns Half-hour Comedy Hour". Whichever it was, the various episodes featured such high voltage laugh-getters as Don Rickles, Don Knotts, Robert Klein, Harvey Korman, Laraine Newman, Martin Mull, Fannie Flagg, and even (when wattage was being conserved) Joe Piscopo! Starting in September of '85, this ratings bereft endeavor graced the nation's televisions screens for the very last time on Christmas Day three months later. Intrigued by the malleable format, I counted myself as a loyal viewer, apparently one of the very few. I have absolutely no recollection of any of the other playful little playlets, save one--"A Christmas Carol--The Sequel"...
Broadcast in the ill-fated program's waning weeks--if not on the final night--this elaboration on Dickens original concept was such a cleverly conceived conceit that it's stayed with me ever since. We all know how Chuck ended his tale, right? The miserly, nasty, and generally rotten Ebenezer Scrooge turns over a totally new leaf, and vows to keep the joy and good will of Christmas in his heart every day of the year, blah blah blah, and all those around him--as well as the gentle reader--are sincerely touched at his unlikely transformation. The story thus ends on an undeniably happy note. But, our clever little teleplay asks, what exactly happens THEN?...
With James Whitmore in the role of the reformed Scrooge, and the participation of Ed Begley, Jr. in the cast as well (perhaps as nephew Fred?... ), we witness what MIGHT'VE happened had ol' Eb clung stubbornly to his Spirit-induced (as opposed to spirits-induced) vow. Specifically, once the various denizens of ye olde England get wind of the jaw-dropping fact that one of the richest men in the whole of the British Isles is doling out his vast fortune willy-nilly, with only the slightest of reasons necessary to merit ye opportunist/requester a VERY generous payout, well, sir--YOU guess what happens! Fraud, double-dealing, and raw naked greed overcome the myriad of sleazy individuals intent on helping their by-now-balmy benefactor keep Christmas in his heart all year around--AND the old ringle-tingle in THEIR pockets for a similar period of time, and lots longer if at all possible!!
The details are hazy to me all these years later, but I do recall that as events proceeded, Scrooge became more and more aware of how his (apparently) ill-advised good will is being perniciously perverted for the good of a select group of no-goods, and NOT for the still suffering masses. Yup, as the months wore on, our man Scrooge began to slowly wise up, with the punch-line to this tale coming as the following Christmas Eve beckoned. After twelve months of being trodden all over in his uncomfortable guise as a philanthropist, Scrooge snaps, casting aside all the parasitic paramours his money's fluid disposal had gained him in the past year, and his personality reverts right back to the dark, dingy place it had been a mere 365 days earlier. And, you know what? The moral of the story would have us believe that the old guy was all the happier for it!...
That was the end. Funny thing is, I don't remember any Ghosts being involved--which surely would've been a first for a re-telling of this Dickens classic--but I could be wrong. I just always loved the notion that, y'know, maybe old Scrooge's conversion might not've been such a good thing, after all, dig?
It was a great episode of a long-forgotten show, but that should probably come as no surprise when you consider the circumstances. They did after all have George Burns on board, and rumor has it, shortly before he met wife Gracie and went into vaudeville together with her, he served as Dickens model for poor old Bob Cratchit, so hey, if nothing else, this production certainly had authenticity going for it!!...
December 25th, 2003
|December 21st, 2003
Generally, this is the time of the year when we all once again hear the familiar tale of the Three Wise Men. Well, no disrespect meant, but you won't be hearing their story from me here today. Instead, as part of my own modest celebration of the season, I'd like to instead share a little with you about ANOTHER, unfairly neglected wise man--namely, master cartoonist, Al Wiseman!
|You've all heard of "Dennis the Menace",
right? When Hank Ketcham's syndicated gag
panel debuted in the nation's newspapers
back in 1951, it was the very definition
of an overnight success story. The mischievous--and
perennial--five year old's immense popularity
soon demanded that a comic book series be
developed, so to produce the words and pictures
for this new enterprise, Ketcham enlisted
the aid of writer Fred Toole and artist Wiseman,
luring both old friends away from lucrative
jobs in the advertising field. When, as legend
has it (as well as the text feature found
on the inside back cover of the May, 1960
issue of DENNIS THE MENACE--number 42-- that
is not only my primary source for this information,
but the two photos included over yonder as
well), at a time when top titles sold somewhere
between 50 and 60 percent of their total
copies printed, the very first Dennis comic
in 1953 sold out almost it's entire print
run!! Yup, you read that right--an almost
astonishing 100 percent sell-through! No
wonder Fred and Al left their jobs at the
agency soon after the sales figures came
in, and devoted most of the following decade
towards making the regular DENNIS THE MENACE
title--and it's various spin-offs--among
the very best comic books ever produced,
That's ME talking now, not a paraphrase of the rosy colored picture painted by that undoubtedly biased promo page from 1960. I've long felt Toole and Wiseman's long tenure on the popular title measures up to just about anything else produced in the field's first quarter century. But while John Stanley and Irving Tripp's LITTLE LULU has long had a vocal core of influential admirers--and I wholeheartedly count myself in that thriving number, except for maybe the "influential" part--and the reputation of another of my all-time favorites, Bob Bolling's LITTLE ARCHIE, is gaining momentum with critics every day, the equally wonderful--but subtlety different--work of the DENNIS THE MENACE team continues to be mostly overlooked. Why is this?
|Well, perhaps in the case of Lulu, I'd venture it has something to do with the long, long ago cessation of the gag panel produced by creator Marge Henderson Buell, and as that inexorably faded from the culture's collective memory, the superior--and more accessible--comic book stuck in the public's mind in it's stead. As for Little Archie--a concept that, ironically, owes it's very existence to Dennis's initial massive success--I believe it was Bolling's uniquely idiosyncratic take on the almost generic Archie cast of characters that has made his fine work worthy of remembering some five decades after the fact.|
|But Toole and Wiseman's Dennis? Unlike the other two great kid strips mentioned above, the core character's creator didn't quietly fade into the background as the years wore on. In fact, if anything, Hank Ketcham seemed to gleefully court the celebrity his pint-sized pest bestowed upon him, as he skillfully guided his brain-child through various media configurations--television, cartoons, live-action films, books, all sorts of merchandise--while still maintaining a noteworthy presence in the cartoon pages of an impressive number of the nation's newspapers. To the public, then, Hank Ketcham IS Dennis the Menace--even now, several years after his death. And it's my additional theory that, with such a glut of Dennis product spewing out over the past five decades, the comics cognoscenti have deemed any property THAT successful--especially one dealing with kids and clearly aimed at the middle class--to be unworthy of their elite attention, and have given scant consideration to the comics, now long gone, wrongfully assuming them to be just another small piece of a past marketing phenomenon. But they'd be wrong, because these really ARE brilliantly produced comics...|
|I trust you're all familiar with the basic premise--a five year old's innocent yet non-stop rambunctious behavior makes life for his harried parents one never-ending bout of embarrassment, alternating with exhaustion. Works beautifully for a single panel gag, but just try hanging story after story on that concept and making it work. Well, Toole and Wiseman did--and repeatedly. As with all good comics, the exemplary art--which we'll get to later--had tremendously strong underpinnings provided by Fred Toole's farcical yet still realistic scripts. While the writing started out in a rather broad manner in the earliest issues, as time went on, it quickly came to adhere to a far more recognizable reality than any other found contemporaneously in the field. Unlike both Tubby and Little Archie, there were no friendly Martians visiting Dennis and his young pals. Everything that happened in a Dennis story could actually happen to the reader. Oh sure, any number of unlikely coincidences would have to occur to bring certain more outlandish tales to fruition in a real-life setting, but Toole made certain that Dennis's exploits were never completely out of the realm of possibility!|
|And while the primary focus was always on the tiny tornado, parents Henry and Alice Mitchell were never simply portrayed as cardboard foils for the stars lovable antics. Father Henry in particular was oft times effectively used as a top-notch straight man for the little tyke, finding himself in jams that were every bit as laugh-provoking as anything found throughout the entire run of the series! And Henry, try as he might, found himself constantly exasperated by his progeny's well-intentioned--but usually disastrous--escapades. He was always justthisclose to losing his temper big time--and more than once, folks, he actually DID!! Reading these tales as a child, I saw Dennis' dad as a purely comic presence--NOW, after 13 years with my girl Julie, I see him as one of the great sympathetic figures in the history of comics. That poor, poor man--what he had to endure...|
|All this and more came through in Toole's
witty and inventive scripting. He could take
the smallest, the slightest, the most incredibly
mundane of concepts to hang a plot on, and
still make it sing. I'll give you an example
from one of the Christmas specials that I'm
planning to eventually get around to discussing
(Yay! We're ALMOST there!). Coming up with
fresh ideas, year after year, to fill up
nearly a hundred pages with tales revolving
around a single theme couldn't've been easy,
but this underrated scribe somehow managed.
By 1964, you'd've thought all possible angles
would've been exhausted, but not if you read
a nine page gem entitled "Window Wonderland"...
Henry comes home from the office with a specially drawn design done for him by an associate, a design that spells out the word "Noel" in fancy Olde English-like lettering. Alice has to clear out, but Dennis eagerly jumps in to help his dad as Henry carefully endeavors to cut out each letter in a different colored piece of bright cellophane, with the plan thereafter being to adhere each letter to the window with black tape (in reverse), finally spraying some artificial snow around it as a finishing touch. Now, this sounds incredibly dry, but the amazing thing is, the story not only works as a sufficiently detailed set of step-by-step how-to instructions (aided, of course, by Wiseman's expertly drawn pictures), but he also manages to wring more than a modicum of truth-based humor out of that simple scenario...
|After all, what parent at one time or another hasn't sat down with their small child, intent on doing a mildly complicated craft project together, only to soon regret the notion when it becomes crystal clear that their potential helper hasn't nearly the patience necessary to complete the deal, instead continuously getting recklessly ahead of things, much to the everlasting chagrin of the adult? Well, that's this story in a nutshell, but it's the manner in which Toole fills his pages with gag after gag that makes such a slight premise so richly entertaining.|
|Of course, aided by anything less than stellar art, these scripts would lose a fair amount of their impact, but with Al Wiseman as his creative partner, Fred Toole most assuredly didn't have to worry about that. Their combined talents caught the essence of the "modern" fifties far better than any other series published during that transitional era, and compared favorably with the very best of the family-oriented sitcoms broadcast during television's first decades. The meticulously precise linework of Wiseman was responsible for a large portion of this success. While naturally attempting to match Ketcham's stylistic nuances, as the year's wore on, more and more of Wiseman's individuality crept through. Comparing a story from 1953 to one drawn a decade later easily proves this point--the art is still identifiable as the work of the same person, but one whose natural inclination towards a more controlled line has gradually eased out the more fluid strokes associated with the strip's originator.|
|This is by no means a bad thing, mind you,
because, despite a more exacting style, Wiseman
always manages to imbue his characters with
a zestful animation that gracefully sells
each and every one of Toole's cleverly conceived
comedic conceits. And as much as he may've
excelled at bringing the central cast to
life on the page, his unparalleled ability
to create a thoroughly believable environment
for them to frantically frolic in should
in no way be overlooked. According to the
aforementioned 1960 promo page, Wiseman drew
EVERYTHING from life (or failing that, a
really good reference photograph). Every
last detail in a Dennis story looked exactly
right, and I daresay, NO ONE in the world
of post-Code comics drew incidental background
material with the convincing authority Wiseman
did. Quite a few Dennis stories took place
inside their typically furnished suburban
home, and every item--kitchen appliances,
couches, chairs, even TV sets--accurately
reflected those currently being used in actual
homes all across the land.
And when Wiseman was called upon to illustrate the Mitchell clans' periodic vacation treks--to Mexico, Washington D.C., Hollywood, and Hawaii--he outdid even himself and produced some of the most authentically gorgeous art EVER--yes, you read that right! I said "ever"--to find it's way into a "lowly" comic book. For these giant specials alone, Toole and Wiseman should be enshrined in some Funnybook Hall of Fame, as their stories wonderfully realized sense of place is unequaled in comics history.
|Which brings us to these Christmas specials. Each one a treasure, they all featured a loosely connected series of sequentially arranged short stories, always culminating with the final episode focusing on Dennis enthusiastically awakening early--usually, VERY early--on Christmas morning. Despite the necessarily formulaic nature of this arrangement, Toole and Wiseman never repeat themselves. Certainly, there are variations on favorite themes--shopping, too many Santas, tree decorating, hiding gifts--but somehow, a fresh angle is always unearthed by this talented pair to make each and every Christmas special, well, SPECIAL!|
|And in keeping with the realistic slant favored by the creators, Santa, despite making numerous appearances over the years, is never even hinted at as being genuine--not even in that corny, "end of story, wink-wink, nudge-nudge, is he or isn't he REALLY the one" manner so familiar to anybody who's ever seen a very special Christmas episode of some generic sitcom over the years. Nope, Santa is ALWAYS either dad, a relative, a store employee, a rich fellow with a beard, Mr. Wilson, or maybe even a cop! This is not to say any of the adults ever come right out and dash the dreams of small children all across the world by stating definitively that there is indeed no Santa (and to any small children reading this right now--what are the odds?--please understand, I'M not saying that either. Honest!), but clearly, the knowledge that ol' St. Nick has a passel of red-suited stand-ins was understood by all save the youngest members of the cast. That, in addition to the occasional nod towards the generally avoided (at least, in comics) religious aspect of this widely celebrated holiday, separated the Dennis Christmas specials from the rest of the pack. (And you might even find our star going off to the little boys room from time to time, ANOTHER function of day-to-day existence generally avoided by, oh, I'd say a good 99.99 percent of the remainder of the books on the stands, if not more...)|
|For years and years, I'd contentedly read and reread these delightful collections during the waning weeks of December, with the likes of the great Nat King Cole crooning "The Christmas Song", blissfully providing appropriate background music. But unlike the similarly treasured Little Lulu Halloween giants I enthused about a few months back, I did not actually own ANY of the holiday specials pictured hereabouts while I was growing up. Sure, I had plenty of the OTHER Dennis specials released during the early sixties in my possession--the aforementioned vacation issues, whole books co-starring Joey, Margaret, Ruff, and Mr. Wilson, several based on the Jay North television series--but the only Christmas special I ever owned back in the sixties was one drawn by Owen Fitzgerald.|
|Time for a digression within a digression. My earliest copies of DENNIS THE MENACE were supplied in the legendary gratis box of kiddie comics passed on to my dad by a co-worker, undoubtedly the most significant off-hand gift bestowed upon me in my entire misbegotten life, a story I've told time and again, even once in illustrated form. Several issues containing Wiseman art were included--such as the winter-themed number 41--and once I soon after started buying my own comics, I made sure to include every available Dennis publication in amongst my, ahem, "more mature" super-hero-type purchases. But with so many triple-sized editions being released as the success of the TV show apparently upped the demand for Dennis product to an all-time high, something had to give, and that something was, sadly, Al Wiseman's exclusive and total reign over the Dennis comics. Happily, he continued to handle the majority of the ever more frequently issued giants, but suddenly, the regular Dennis title was being drawn by--and pardon me for saying this--a TERRIBLE artist!! Arrgh!|
|Ranking right up there--or should I say,
DOWN there?--with Ross Andru taking over
for Carmine Infantino on THE FLASH and John
Romita stepping in for Steve Ditko on AMAZING
SPIDER-MAN, I was similarly aghast at this
radically new artistic approach. Whereas
Wiseman was precise and controlled, this
new guy's drawings seemed sloppy and dashed
off with little thought as to the very quality
of the linework. It was only the still enjoyable
writing of Toole, as well an ingrained fondness
for the characters, that kept me coming back.
I somehow missed the handful of Wiseman Christmas
giants issued during the mid-sixties, winding
up with only a single one drawn by this scourge
with a fast and loose brush. At the time,
it was like a getting a piece of coal in
For years and years, I had absolutely NO idea who the perpetrator was who had come in and all but ruined Dennis for me. It wasn't until I read something somewhere by the estimable Mark Evanier, championing the work of a long-time cartoonist named Owen Fitzgerald, including the Dennis assignment on a long, impressive list of accomplishments, that I suddenly came to realize just whose work I'd vilified in the remote recesses of my mind for all those years. Subsequently, getting an opportunity to more closely examine a lot of the work he did during the fifties for other publishers, particularly on DC titles like BOB HOPE and other girlie-centric titles, I finally began to appreciate his not-insubstantial talents. Just as I eventually came around to Romita on Spidey, and Andru on most everything else, I came to realize I'd judged Fitzgerald unfairly. He was NOT a horrible artist--anything but. But WAS he the ideal choice to fill in and provide some breathing room for Wiseman? I still don't think so, as their stylistic approaches were just too far apart to be anything but jarring when seen in quick succession. But I DID form a new appreciation for his Alice Mitchell--rorwff!...
|It was while perusing the colorful-yet-slowly-decaying
wares found in the dealer's room at a mid-seventies
New York City Comicon that I accidentally
stumbled across these five golden things.
In fact, there was also a handful of other
giant editions I'd never seen before--including
several generic vacation issues that predated
the wildly successful single destination
tomes of later years--as well as a healthy
run of the standard sized Dennis title too.
AND they were all reasonably priced! Well,
never one to spend overmuch for back issues,
I was reluctant to commit all my available
cash to the whole kit and kaboodle, ultimately
choosing instead to buy just the dozen or
so giants that I'd never encountered before,
leaving the rest in their sales boxes. It's
a decision that, yes, has haunted me for
many years--but hey, I was just out of college,
okay, and didn't have the ready finances,
dig? Still, I shoulda grabbed 'em all--y'see,
reading my brand new purchases renewed my
then-latent enthusiasm for the work of Toole
and Wiseman, and I wound up spending the
next several years relentlessly poring over
tiny ads in CBG, searching out as many of
the early Dennis issues as I could find at
fairly cheap prices (including number 30
from 1958, featuring a story where Dennis,
in a manner of speaking, meets his maker(s),
several key panels of which you'll find nearby...).
I never did quite complete my collection,
but I probably wound up with at least two-thirds
of the Wiseman illoed issues (and there's
at least one other Christmas book drawn by
Al that I don't own, though my good friend
and fellow Wiseman fan, Terry Austin, once
lent me his copy to read, which brightened
that particular holiday season immensely,
believe you me!...)
The funny thing is, I was deep into my twenties when I picked up these books, already hooked up with my dear wife-to-be, Lynn, and yet I'm as fond of these five publications as I am of anything I read at the impressionable age of eight. Now, that either says a lot about the power of the material contained therein--or about my blatantly stunted maturity!?! Hey, maybe it's a little of both, y'know? But as I casually indicated above, I'm hardly alone in my appreciation of the DENNIS THE MENACE comics team. Besides Terry, I know for a fact such top-notch artists and creators as Bret Blevins, Bill Alger, Walt Simonson, Jim Shooter, Bill Wray, and the Hernandez Brothers hold this work in the highest of esteem as well (and, hey, let's add my old pal Rocco to that list while we're at it, too...).
I believe the only thing that's keeping this series from getting the sort of respect it so richly deserves is a vocal and unrelenting champion. I'm not saying I'm that person, but if this heartfelt tribute does anything to nudge things in that direction, I'd be extremely pleased. Too often, aficionados, overly steeped in the fantasy aspect of comics, indiscriminately turn their noses up at material aimed at a younger audience as being essentially worthless, but I'd happily match the Toole/Wiseman material up against the more famous adventure-oriented titles of the period, and save for a few isolated stories here and there, feel confident Dennis would triumph if handed to a non-biased third party to examine. Because, friends, the books really WERE that good!...
|A few words about the lettering. It's perhaps the most expressive ever seen in a comic book. Period. Al Wiseman proved to be as superb a calligrapher as he was a cartoonist. The imaginative use of upper case, lower case, and brightly colored display lettering, all within the context of a characters single word balloon, allows for us to "hear" the dialog far more effectively than is possible when merely utilizing a standard approach. The comedy is only intensified when one gets a truer sense of a gags proper line-reading, and the exasperation that comes through when poor put-upon Henry's words blurt out in large, red letters-- contained in a suitably jagged word balloon--can be palpable, and thus, truly hilarious. To paraphrase my soul-mate on "The Simpsons", best lettering ever...|
|As a special holiday treat for you all, I've
happily scanned in a story from the 1964
edition called "Self Service Santa" over at the aptly titled "Stuff I Had
NOTHING To Do With" section of this
very site. It was a tough chore choosing
but one story out of the many fine ones available
to share with you folks, but ultimately,
this is the one I picked. Admittedly, there
were several self-imposed restrictions I
found myself laboring under. First off, I
wanted to showcase some of Wiseman's later,
more meticulous work, as opposed to his earlier,
more Ketcham-like (but still marvelous) material.
Then there was the matter of the actual scanning
Gang, I love ya, one and all, but not quite enough to completely destroy these wonderful comics! Y'see, they all have square-spines, making it all but impossible to get every last detail of a mid-issue tale properly into the scanner without completely squashing the binding flat. So I was pretty much limited to either the first or last story in any given issue, and since the last story, like Christmas morning itself, always boarders on being anti-climactic, I instead elected to go with their opening salvo for '64, featuring a memorable visit to a flummoxed department store Santa. Look especially for the big laugh at Henry's expense at the end of page 5, and his entirely realistic reaction to it atop the very next page. Also, notice how convincing Wiseman makes his setting, always without an excessive usage of meaningless lines. And marvel how the creative use of lettering in "Santa's" balloon in the second to last panel on the next to last page ups that moments humor quotient all that much more. While this tale ends on an atypically happy note for the Mitchell family, those of you unfamiliar with the work of these two talented gentlemen will hopefully nevertheless get a sense of why I'm so sincerely enthusiastic about their work.
A final note. One of the thrills of putting yourself out on the Internet is that you just don't know from day to day who might turn up. Well, several days ago, while periodically checking for any fresh entries in my Guest Book, I was surprised--AND extremely excited--to see that, of all people, the late Al Wiseman's son, Jim, had checked in! He had a few gracious words to say about "Petey", my meager--yet personally extremely satisfying--attempt to blend Lee and Ditko's pre-Spider-Man Peter Parker with the vastly attractive style employed by his father on the Dennis comics. As I informed him in a return note--in addition to thanking him for his good wishes--I had just the day before dug out his dad's Christmas classics with the full intention of doing this particular write-up. So, I went on, wait just a bit--I'll tell you exactly what your father's art meant to me over on my web-site! And I'm gonna let everybody else know, too! Well, here it is, Jim. I think by now you can clearly gather that your dad's work meant a whole heckuva lot to me, and I hope I've done him a small measure of justice in my muddled attempts to explain his lasting appeal to those out there who weren't lucky enough to grow up like I did, reading comics featuring his expressive drawings, rendered with that impeccable steady line of his!
So, to end things with the words Dennis repeated on the last page of several of these Christmas extravaganzas (mirroring a particularly famous Ketcham cartoon) as he sits among a massive pile of presents, now bereft of their hastily torn off gift-wrapping:
|"Is this ALL?"
Yup! At least for now...
Merry Christmas everyone!
December 17th, 2003
Does anybody know how I can get ahold of Al Gore?
Y'see, I've been having a little problem with my email lately, and I just figured, who better to help me get things straightened out than the guy who invented the Internet?
It's true, though--I've been sending out replies to my adoring fans, and shockingly, people haven't been receiving my imperishable words!?! Oh, the horror, the horror. Why, good ol' Rocco missed several of my extremely important missives, and his silence caused me grave concern! Bill Alger also failed to get some of my noteworthy notes. And what really alerted me to the fact that we had us a situation here were the experiences of my fellow volleyball players...
Y'see, about a year and a half back, during the lightly attended summer months, I took it upon myself to send out a weekly note to the folks on our roster--an even dozen--to check their availability for that particular evening's contest. If we didn't have enough to make up a decent game, that day's activities would be summarily canceled. Since I had the furthest to drive, it was in my best interest to find out if my long trip to the field would be made in vain or not. So I've gotten into the habit of zapping off an inquiring note the day before we play to assess the situation. Hey, if nothing else, it allows me to think up groan-inducing subject lines ("Volley of the Dolls", "Good Volley Miss Molly", and this week's seasonally-appropriate "Have A Holly Jolly Volley--It's The Best Time Of The Week!" are among the ones that come immediately to mind--sorry...). My first clue there was trouble in email-land came last week...
Apparently, while my emails had been in fact getting through to one of our players, his responses hadn't been getting back to me! And I further learned this very week that another player--who'd been absent the past two times--hadn't received any of my notes for three weeks running! So I checked with some other people, and though they indeed got my notes these last two days, many--but not all--missed stuff I had sent out during the last few weeks! Bummer.
So here's the deal: I've answered pretty much all my recent mail, save for a followup to my pal "rr". If you didn't get that reply from me you've been sitting breathlessly on the edge of your seat eagerly awaiting, let me know, and I'll dig it out of the ol' filing cabinet and resend my original epistle, comprende?
Sorry this had to happen, but hey, direct your complaints to that Gore fellow, okay? I just use the equipment...
On a related note, be advised that at the end of December, our lease on the Post Office Box as found over in the Sales section of this site will be expiring, and we have no plans to renew it. DO NOT SEND ANYTHING TO THAT ADDRESS ANY LONGER!! We initially lined that up as some sort of pre-emptive protection against weirdos on the Internet--but inasmuch as weirdos on the Internet make up a majority of our most rabid customers, we figured we really didn't need it anymore!?! (I keed, I keed...)
In reality, the local Post Office is a 15 minute drive, one way, and stopping by constantly looking for mail got to be a bit of a hassle. Eventually, we started giving out our address to interested parties on a need to know basis, and that's the policy we'll continue with in the year ahead. Wanna send me something? Commission something? Buy something? Contact us by email, and we'll proceed from there, okay?
Assuming the @#$%ing email starts working properly again, that is...
December 16th, 2003
Crazy Christmas mix-tapes! Silent movies starring Greta Garbo! Old black and white sitcoms! One dead Beatle after another! And--don't it beat all--GINGERBREAD HOUSES!
"What about the comics, Fred?", some of you surely are wondering by now, "What...about ...the...COMICS??..."
|Well, we certainly got us some comics commentary here at Hembeck.com--you just have to know WHERE to look for it. (You can always find out the subject of our very latest posting at "New On Site", please be advised...) Very recently, we went just a little bit Batty, and followed up our essay concerning one of the last of the "Old Look " classics, "Robin Dies At Dawn", with a lengthy examination of the first four issues of the legendary Julie Schwartz/Carmine Infantino led 1964 overhaul of DETECTIVE COMICS known to one and all as the Caped Crusader's "New Look" over in our "Classic Cover Redo" section.|
|Plus, you'll find three Bat-themed strips
recently added to our "Best of Dateline:@#$%!" sub-section over in "More"--and
keeping with the season, we've designated
them as shades of Batman past, present, and
future! Gotham bless them, every one!
The motivation for all this focus on the Dark Knight stemmed from the publication earlier this year of "Dynamic Duo Archives Volume One", which preserves the initial issues of the "New Look " Batman for all to enjoy, even those of us who still have the yellowing originals buried deep somewhere in our basements. Actually, I was pretty excited when this project was announced, because I mistakenly let myself believe only the bi-monthly contributions of Carmine Infantino were going to be preserved for posterity. However, as it turns out, not only did they include the alternating issues of DETECTIVE featuring the art of "Bob Kane", but they also added entire issues of BATMAN to the menu, thus sadly decreasing the percentage of exemplary Infantino art in the overall package. Still, it was fun reading those stories again, despite the overriding presence of "Bob Kane"...
And this is what I clearly DON'T get--why the insistence on the contents page that Batman creator Bob Kane actually DREW all those stories that Carmine didn't? EVERYBODY knows it was Sheldon Moldoff, his "Old Look" ghost, working with a new inker (Joe Giella, as opposed to the deposed Charles Paris)?? Look at any of the Archives reprinting forties material, and the folks who wrote up the contents page weren't the least bit shy about assigning credit to either Jerry Robinson, Dick Sprang, Jack Burnley--or even, on a RARE occasion, Kane himself--as penciller of any given story? And those Batman in the fifties and sixties compilations aren't hiding the fact that Win Mortimer, Lew Schwartz, and Moldoff himself ghosted the pencils for Bob--WHY do they expect us to believe all of a sudden that in 1964, Kane got the hankering to sit behind a drawing board again all day and actually do all the work with his name plastered on it? I don't get it...
One other note: the first issue "New Look " issue of BATMAN, number 164, proudly announces on the cover that this premiere tale guest-stars "The Hootenanny Hotshots"--as if that actually MEANT something!?! I remember being intrigued from seeing the house ads back before the book came out, wondering just WHO these characters were that merited a debut in such an important issue. Turns out, they were just editor Schwartz's attempt to keep current by including the latest musical craze in his newest book, as a sort of watered down traditional Folk music was, ever so briefly, popular with the nation's youth back in 1963 or so. But you know what they say about the best laid plans and all, right? Just weeks before the Not-So-Hot Hotshots made their one and only funnybook appearance, four OTHER hotshots from Liverpool took the stage on the "Ed Sullivan Show", and after THAT, people, only your Granny wanted to Hootenanny!!
(Yup, ANOTHER Beatles reference! And while we're at it, no we DIDN'T get the biggest gingerbread house; in fact we got the smallest. Julie saw only about five tickets in it's chance box, and correctly figured the odds would be on her side. Happily, the two houses have a protective covering, so the sneezing of Mall patrons won't stop us from eventually ingesting our prizes. And did I mention that Lon Chaney comes up empty in the gal department yet again in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"? More news as it develops...)
December 14th, 2003
Yesterday, with the height of the shopping season in full throttle, Julie induced me to take her to the Poughkeepsie Galleria so that she might get several small Christmas gifts for a few of her friends. The place was wall-to-wall people, as you might well imagine, but things seemed to go smoothly enough, and towards the end of our stay, I spied our pal Santa, and suggested we mosey on up to his makeshift workshop, if only for old times sake. (The days of happily sitting in Kris Kringle's lap had passed a few years back for this newly-sophisticated teenager ...)
Nearing the line of excited children anxiously waiting to take their turn smiling with Santa, as Mrs. Claus and her shutterbug elves milk their holiday snap-shot racket for all it's worth, an adjoining exhibit suddenly caught Julie's eye. There, displayed on a large rectangular formation of desks, were several dozen elaborate home-made gingerbread houses. She asked if we could look, and I thought, hey, why not--we're not gonna get that close to good Old Saint Nick anyway...
We began to take a closer look at the carefully constructed confections, and as we did, several senior citizens--both behind and in front of the tables--began to smilingly give us the hard sell. Seems this was all part of a charity auction for the local branch of Habitat For Humanity, and for a buck, we could buy a chance at winning the gingerbread house of our choice. Better yet, slip 'em a Lincoln, and we'd be entitled to six opportunities to win! Well, I'm generally not one to give in to such tactics, but it WAS for a good cause, Julie DID seem genuinely excited about the prospect, and, by golly, it WAS the Christmas Season, so...
I quickly wrote Julie's name and phone number on each of the tickets. She then took four of 'em, leaving the remaining pair for me. There was an extremely large gingerbread house that actually had lights inside it, easily dwarfing all the rest, and Julie dropped two chances in that particularly popular one. We spread the remaining four tickets about, sticking them in the little boxes out front of our favorites amongst the delicious domiciles that remained. Word was that the drawings would be at 9 pm that evening, and we'd be contacted soon after if we were lucky enough to win us a gingerbread house. We thanked them, and went home.
There was a Girl Scout meeting at our house that evening, and troop member Lisa was scheduled to sleep over when the things came to a conclusion at--yes!--nine. About an hour afterwards, it finally occurred to me that the phone hadn't rung, so I naturally assumed we hadn't won a confectionery condominium. Oh well--the money went to a good cause. And that, pretty much, was the last thought any of us gave to the matter...
The next day, Lynn, Julie, Lisa and I braved the beginnings of yet another weekend winter storm here in the Northeast to drive out and get our Christmas tree. Soon after, when we were back home safely, the phone rang, and Lynn answered it. A man asked if she was Julie Hembeck, and Lynn replied no, she was her mother. The man on the other end said that that was too bad, as that meant Julie was probably too young to go to Las Vegas and play the slots--it turns out she hadn't won just one gingerbread house, she had won TWO gingerbread houses!?! Wow! What were the odds two of our six tickets would come up as winners? Lynn got off the phone, and called us all in to relay the good news. Julie and I were both stunned at our good fortune, and now await her prizes imminent arrival, as they promised home delivery of our goodies tomorrow. Then we'll find out just WHICH houses we won, and folks, if one of 'em turns out to be that enormous edible edifice, by gumdrops, I'll be even MORE impressed!...
As the initial thrill of Lady Luck's fickle embrace begins to fade even as I type this account for the ages, I suddenly find myself with a new query--what exactly does one DO with two gingerbread houses anyway? The easy answer is eat it--but Lynn countered that appealing notion with this wet-blanketing rebuke: "Yeah, sure--after everybody at the Mall has been coughing on them for the last few weeks! Enjoy!" That woman and her health concerns--always taking the fun out of everything!
Well, we'll just see what happens. Hopefully, I'll be able to take some photos and post 'em here in the next few days, further boring you all with additional information on this idiosyncratic topic. Hey, the dice doesn't land like this everyday at the Hembeck household--c'mon and indulge me, all you Grinches, okay?...
So in conclusion, let's look at the final score for Saturday, December 13th, 2003:
The big winner: Julie Hembeck
The big loser: Saddam Hussein
...and folks, I wouldn't have it any other way...
December 11th, 2003
Kids today. Hmmpf.
Julie was home from school yesterday. Oh, it was nothing major, just feeling a little under the weather. As the day wore on, and she had begun to run out of ways to avoid doing her homework (provided oh-so-thoughtfully by today's modern educator via the Internet), she turned to me, complaining that she was bored. I stopped what I was doing, decided I could afford to take a short break, and figured this would be the perfect time to spring something on my thirteen year old that I'd been wanting to do for several weeks now:
It was time for us to watch "The Honeymooners"!!
Since the near simultaneous release of the classic 39 episodes on DVD and the sad passing of co-star Art Carney, this program--which I'd long taken for granted--had been on my mind often. It struck me that, although I literally grew up watching these same 39 episodes over and over and over for years on end, my little girl may've NEVER actually seen even a single episode, even though they're still being run--albeit during the wee small hours of the night--by WPIX, Channel 11 here in New York!?! After I procured a set of the DVDs and watched the first few shows--shows I hadn't seen in nearly 25 years but still practically knew by heart, line for line--I decided I HAD to at least expose my daughter to this important cultural artifact.
As a backup, I ALSO had on hand the brand-spanking new "Dick Van Dyke Show" DVDs, another TV classic I viewed endlessly during those long-ago pre-VCR days of my youth--and also a show I'd neglected in recent times due to my hitting a saturation point several decades back. Having made my way through the first two discs worth of episodes, I don't know how I could've ever turned my back on this program for as long as I did, since it's flat out brilliant--smart, silly, verbal, visual, well-plotted, well-constructed, sexy even! The initial pair of shows on disc one weren't quite up to the legend, and I began to worry that a misbegotten nostalgia may have gotten in the way of my memories' well-honed critical facilities (such as they are), but no, from the third one on, they've more than lived up to their billing. Here too, I realized, was a piece of television history Julie had never seen. So, naturally, I felt it was in her very best interests for me to take advantage of her weakened state and foist on her these sitcoms from seasons past!...
Not that she was a willing accomplice to my plans. When I announced my intentions, she let out with the typical teen-aged whine, and groused even further when she found out they were both filmed in (gasp!) BLACK AND WHITE!! Heavens! The ONLY good black and white show according to her--and the only show that seems to easily transcend generations according to me--was "I Love Lucy", and she wasn't in the mood to watch THAT right now, either! Why couldn't we tune in to something good, like "The Cosby Show" or "Full House", she asked?
That's right folks, she wanted to bail on Dick Van Dyke to watch "Full House" instead!?! Now, while I was never a loyal viewer, I realize Bill Cosby's sitcom has some definite cachet, but "Full House"?? From what little I've seen of it over the years, it seems to be nothing more than your typical cookie-cutter family comedy, the sort that's become so prevalent in recent years, and is mostly distinguished from the rest of the pack only for spawning the Olsen twins. The key to the popularity of these two programs with my daughter can be summed up in three words: location, location, location. Y'see, they've recently both been added to the Nick At Night lineup, and Julie watches Nickelodeon the way I used to watch "The Honeymooners": fervently and repeatedly! If only Rob and Laura hadn't been banished to the early morning hours when they took there rotation on Nick at Night, my clueless kid might've developed some affection for something actually worthy of it!!...
I eventually convinced her to join me in front of the tube. I looked over the available storylines, and settled for the one where Ralph and Ed get on a train headed off for a week of fun and frolic at the Raccoon convention--and then proceed to handcuff themselves to one another before having to settle in for the night in a pair of upper and lower sleeping berths! I figured the emphasis on broad physical comedy--and less on Kramden's proclivity to threaten his spouse with bodily harm--might make this a good choice. I knew Art Carney had some juicy bits in this particular scenario, and as I've said before, he may be second-billed, but to me, he IS "The Honeymooners"!
So we watched. I smiled, I chuckled, I even laughed out loud (when Norton gives Ralph a marshmallow to eat, hoping to distract him from their stuck together situation--while both apparently having forgotten that the marshmallows are merely gags, made of rubber!...). From Julie, nothing. When it was over, her reaction was summed up thusly--it was boring, and it was stupid. Okay, then, on to the DVD DVD...
I knew I was losing her, so I had to pick just the right episode, but I didn't want to watch one of the 12 I'd already seen. I had to rely on my memory when scanning the packaging for a particularly funny one. When I saw "Where Did I Come From?" on the play list, I knew that would be the one to hook her in. Being at a somewhat curious age, I fudged the facts just a bit to peak her interest by telling her that this was the very first sitcom to deal with the so-called facts of life on television. Well, that did it, so we sat down and cued up the first scene...
Turns out Ritchie just wonders which state he was born in, and the couple's initial uncomfortableness at his query soon dissipates, but it gives the Petries an opening to tell the convoluted story of the events surrounding his birth. Dick Van Dyke's performance as a hyper husband is magnificent, and the way Carl Reiner constructed his script is nothing short of brilliant. The scenes shift back and forth from the family sitting on the couch in the present, and then to the antics Rob and Laura are sharing with their son from the past. I was particularly struck by the way Reiner actually gives away his punch-lines before they happen, and in so doing, makes them all the more hilarious, given the audience's delicious anticipation for what's about to unfold. I'm thinking specifically about how Rob tells Ritchie that he wound up taking him to the hospital with a black-eye and without his pants! And when we just HOW these outlandish events actually occur, we somehow laugh all the harder knowing that they're coming! The frantic finale, as the flustered father-to-be rushes in, holding up Buddy's much too-large and far too-short substitute pants up with one hand and overly concerned with keeping his hat on with the other hand, was genuinely hysterical! How could anyone not find that funny, I ask you?
Well, it was better than "The Honeymooners", THAT much Julie would allow. Fact is, I think she liked it, but so far, there have been no calls to cue up a second episode as of yet. But when I see another opening, I think I'll persuade her to try another fun-filled farce with the staff of The Alan Brady Show!!
And if her fever ever tops 103 degrees, while Lynn worriedly calls to make a doctor's appointment, that's when I'LL haul out "Chef Of The Future"!!...
December 9th, 2003
Pass the Razzleberry Dressing!
The Cartoon Network is showing "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" Wednesday, December 10th, between 8pm and 9:30 (EST). That means that, unlike most recent rebroadcasts, this holiday gem from 1962 won't have precious minutes shaved from it's original one hour length to accommodate ever-encroaching ads, but will run in it's full, festive glory! What exactly they'll pad it out with is anybody's guess, but I'm going to go set my VCR toot sweet and make sure I for one find out!
I was nine years old when I saw this glorious cartoon's initial broadcast on the peacock network--though it would be several more years before I actually managed to view this deft and affecting version of the Dickens perennial in actual color! Didn't matter--I've always loved it whatever the hues may be! The exemplary music by Robert Merrill and Jules Styne is so memorable as to shame the scores of scores of Broadway shows, and the well-conceived adaptation eschews typical cartoon hi-jinx to concentrate on a mostly straight retelling of one of the world's greatest cautionary tales. I mean, heck, I still get a lump in my throat when young Scrooge (played by Magoo) (who is in turn played by Jim Backus) (whew! Got that?...), once so happy in his role as apprentice, eventually loses his lady love and is blind to just exactly how his whole life is taking a radically different--and devastating--turn.
There weren't many full hour cartoons being shown in prime time on network TV back in 1962, and "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" could've merely been a quickly churned out novelty. As it stands, it's my very favorite Christmas special, as well as my top fave out of all the many, many diverse versions of the Dickens spookfest that have appeared over the years! If you've never seen it before, take a little time out from your shopping and check it out (and if you're at all offended by the whole near-sightedness shtick, be assured that it's played down--way, way down--save for a short bit during the intro)--and if you HAVE seen it before, consider this a tip from a fellow fan hoping to prevent the awful, awful eventuality of having to muddle through this holiday season WITHOUT eyeballing another rescreening of this beloved classic!!
(By the way--my SECOND favorite take on "A Christmas Carol"? Well, there's surely a lot of worthy competition to consider, but right now I think I'll say Joe Staton's exquisite adaptation that was issued as one of First Comics' "Classic Illustrated" editions a decade or so back. It featured some of Joe's very best work, and was extremely faithful to the original! Grab a copy if you can--it's one of the most wonderful gifts of Christmas Past! (Yes, RECENT past...))
I'll take that Razzleberry Dressing now if you don't mind!...
December 8th, 2003
|To my parents generation, December 7th will
always be considered THE day that'll live
in infamy, but with all due respect, among
those of us who grew up in the sixties, ears
glued to cheap transistor radios mass-produced
by our friends, the Japanese, eagerly listening
to the exuberantly jubilant sounds manufactured
by four young musicians hailing from an obscure
English port city, December 8th might well
better qualify for that sad sobriquet for
a fair percentage of OUR generation...
I don't follow football. Never have. For that reason, I didn't suffer the ignominy of having Howard Cosell break the tragic and shocking news of John Lennon's murder to me 23 years ago today. But that doesn't mean I can't remember exactly how I found out the terrible news, because nearly a quarter century later, yes, I do indeed recall it vividly...
We lived in Troy, N.Y. at the time. Lynn was off in the bedroom, while I was on the living room couch, reading. The book in question was the last issue in the last volume of what was then the most recent of the deluxe Russ Cochran EC Reprint sets, TWO FISTED TALES. It may well've been the very last story, too--I'm not entirely sure. I DO know it was a George Evans WW1 bi-plane epic (what else?), and, not unusually, I had the radio on. The particular station I was tuned to, Q104, had a regular feature that commenced each weeknight at 11 o'clock. They'd spin a brand new album in it's entirety, pausing only to flip the disc, maybe say a few words, and run a few commercials. Naturally, I habitually tuned in to see if I had any interest in that night's feature, and if I did, well, then let the tapes roll! Of course, if I wanted to maintain the integrity of the music, I had to be at the ready when a side was about to finish, finger ever at the ready to pause my home-made recording.
|That's where I was about 11:15 on the night
of December 8th, 1980--poised to hit the
proper button as the first side of that night's
spotlight album--the double disc, "Fleetwood
Mac Live"--came to a conclusion. I was
just about to pause when the disc jockey
suddenly came on, his voice noticeably quivering,
and instead of reading off a list of the
tracks he'd just played as per standard custom,
he emotionally delivered the devastating
news. Stunned, I immediately called out to
Lynn, and she joined me within seconds. We
both just sat there,listening, shocked and
upset--very, very upset...
I let that tape run, and somewhere in this house, in what I laughingly call the archives--but others might instead refer to as a monument to semi-organized clutter--the very words I heard that sad evening informing me of Lennon's senseless murder still exists, buried in between the sides of that Fleetwood Mac album (which the radio people kept playing--what ELSE were they going to do? After they got the initial bulletin out, words had seemed to fail them..). I may've actually listened to it one time--the very next day, I think--but I know I haven't ever since. The ending to that Evans illustrated aerial dogfight would have to wait as well, as we rushed to the TV for cold confirmation of the era-ending events that had taken place outside the Dakota only hours earlier, and with our worse fears confirmed, we both just sorta, well, broke down. And for many days afterwards, just felt empty and numb...
I never met John Lennon. He wasn't a part of my immediate family. And yeah, I know you're not supposed to get so emotional over the passing of some far-off celebrity, and, in general, that's always been the case around here. Okay, maybe you shed that single sympathy tear when you receive the news that a long-time favorite like, say, Bob Hope, has irrevocably moved on. But Lennon was so much more to the members of my generation, and his shocking death at such a comparatively young age--at the hands of a stupendously deranged admirer, yet!--was a cold bucket of water thrown in the face every one of us who had sat transfixed in front of their television sets watching the Ed Sullivan Show on a cold February night not even two decades earlier. Selfishly, we all knew at that precise instant, the possibility of a bona fide Beatles reunion was over--gone forever--but so was a talented man, a father, a husband, an artist. It may not've seemed like the best choice of words at the time, but Paul may well've said it best by simply saying, that, yup, you bet, it most surely WAS a drag...
23 years later. Whew. When you consider the four individual Beatles were only on America's collective radar from 1964 up through that awful Monday in 1980--just a couple months shy of 17 years total--and now it's been even longer since their rarefied ranks were mindlessly decimated, it's an unenviable testament as to the relentless march of time. Turns out the lads from Liverpool were only human, after all...
I know this is a patently sappy way to wrap this little tribute up--as I sit here, with the heart-rendingly ironic strains of "(Just Like) Starting Over" hauntingly emanating in the background--but in so many other ways, the Beatles have proven themselves to be truly immortal. Pausing once a year to mark this terrible anniversary is just one of the sadder ways, unfortunately...
Rock on, John! We love ya!...
December 7th, 2003
Maybe you heard--it snowed here in upstate New York yesterday. Boy, did it EVER! Just about two feet of the white stuff kept us housebound, though the good news was, there was absolutely nowhere that we had to be, so we just sat back and marveled as nature ever relentlessly covered up all those fall leaves I'd, um, neglected to rake up as of yet (go snow--GO!!...). I suppose I could've been drawing something, or writing up the next piece for my Classic Cover Redo series on Batman--all things I'd planned to do, honest--but instead I was suddenly overcome with the inspiration and need to compile another one of my Insane Christmas CDs! Fact is, I wound up making not one, not even two, but THREE of this singular series! What are they, you tentatively ask? Well, let me explain if I might. (Get comfy--this might take awhile...)
I LOVE Christmas music! Always have, always will. When I was a kid, we Hembecks only had a limited amount of moolah to spend on records, so I grew up with a small holiday cache of carols-- though of course, there was always the radio and television. I think we bought all our Christmas albums over a single holiday season, probably 1965. My dad picked out Kate Smith, Lawrence Welk, Mario Lanza, and Brenda Lee. I chose The Beach Boys, Nat King Cole, Mitch Miller, and Gene Autry. The old cowboy made the cut thanks to being the originator of the immortal "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", but otherwise, his record didn't do all that much for me. The other three, however, were spun endlessly from the outset of the Holiday season--whenever I decided it had commenced that particular year (and there were times when, yes, October seemed just about right!...) right on up to the waning hours of the Big Day itself. With the specific exception of the interminable operatic Mario Lanza disc, the rest of the family's Christmas recording managed to get their fair share of time on the ol' turntable as well.
It wasn't until 1971, after I'd belatedly become interested in the King of Rock and Roll, that my collection increased any when a friend gave me a copy of Elvis Presley's Holiday album. He gave it to me on Christmas day, however, and I clearly remember thinking, ungrateful whelp that I was, well, this is a lousy time to give someone a Christmas record, since I certainly can't play it again for at least another ten and a half months after tonight! But, as it turned out, I've gotten an awful lot of mileage out of Elvis and his rockin' carols over the years, eventually in all the many permutations the disc has morphed into during the digital era. So Tony, ol' buddy--thanks! Sorry I doubted you.
My next noteworthy tune came via the gift route as well. During our first December together, Lynn soon noticed that every time Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" came on the radio--or over the loudspeakers in a store, or on the TV, or ANYWHERE!--I'd immediately stop what I was doing, turn my full attention over to Der Bingle, and just joyfully wallow in this classic of classics. So naturally, she bought me the single as a Christmas present (college students are on a budget, understand-- otherwise I may well've gotten an entire album!) (..don't worry. I did later--and then some!) The next year, during my heavy duty Elton John phase (didn't EVERYONE have one of those?), I gleefully grabbed his "Step Into Christmas" single (with it's never-re-released B side, even-in-this-era-of demos/live cuts/rehearsals/whatever-we-can-scrape-up-to-add-as-bonus-cuts-to-the-inevitable-Elton-John-remastered-reissues from a few years back, called "Ho Ho Ho, Who Wants To Be A Turkey At Christmas?" that sounds more like a drunken celebration amongst the studio inhabitants rather than a song, but, hey, is all the more fun for that very reason!).
As the years wore on, I eventually wound up buying a more than a few more, and after the CD era had fully bloomed hereabouts, the Holiday Album avalanche soon buried every member of this household in a plethora of Religious Carols, Tin Pan Alley favorites, unforgettable--and occasionally, unforgivable--novelty numbers, and produced an annual month long musical salute to both Santa and Jesus. I'd just naturally pick myself up a few new discs each and every winter, so after a decade plus, well folks, you can't help but have yourself quite the little library! All well and good, but wasn't there more that could be done with these uplifting ditties than dutifully attempting to get through the assembled throng--the number of which is rapidly approaching the century mark at the current date--before the 25th of December has come and gone? Wouldn't you know it--when our spankin' new computer arrived two years back with a built in CD burner included, the solution to my query presented itself--the Insane Christmas CD!!
One song, one disc, 25 to 30 versions! Or however many one could fit onto an 80 minute disc. The first song to undergo this potentially mind numbing treatment? "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town". The reason for this choice had something to do with the tune's popularity, sure, but it also had a great deal to do with it's adaptability, musically speaking. Karen Carpenter sang it at a dirge-like tempo, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons turned it into a doo wop romp, Paul Anka's take dripped of Vegas, Glen Campbell used it to showcase his finger picking, and Bing and the Andrew Sisters' version embodied the very best of forties swing jazz. With an ear towards varying the tempos and approaches, one could conceivably compile a fresh-sounding musical melange while utilizing but a single composition, and that's what I'd like to think I succeeded in doing when I first layed down the tracks for "Santa Claus Just Keeps On Coming To Town...And Coming...And Coming..." several seasons back.
Since then, I'd always planned to move on to another single song celebration, and I knew just the one: "The Little Drummer Boy". I'd always loved that number, fraught as it is with a simple yet dramatic structure. It may not lend itself to the sort of melodic variety the previous tune did, but it still seemed a better choice than something like "White Christmas". There's VERY little difference in the song's intrinsic arrangement found on the many available tracks here at Hembeck's Holiday Song Stockpile, which might make such an ensuing collection boring--and maybe even insufferable! And as for "Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer", "Frosty The Snowman", and "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus", well, they're just fine sprinkled lightly into a particular set of songs, but I think even I'd go plain nutso listening to THOSE cutsie songs over and over again!?! Even I have my limit, y'know! And while "I'll Be Home For Christmas" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" are two of the most beautifully melancholic songs ever composed, Holiday connection or no, listening to them repeatedly may cause severe depression--or worse! No, I think we'll play it safe and go with that drummer boy fella...
I decided to start out with the beautifully atmospheric original version by the Harry Simeone Chorale--and followed that up directly with a raucous stab at the tune by none other than the world's most famous drummer himself, Ringo Starr! After which, and in order, (deep breath now)--the Roche sisters, Bing Crosby, Lou Rawls, the Canadian Brass Band, Peggy Lee, The Miracle Legion, Chicago, The Wilson sisters (Brian's daughters), the Lettermen, The Temptations, Burl Ives, Rick Margitza (jazz), the Tokens, the Four Tops, Johnny Mathis, the Four Seasons, Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, The Ray Coniff Singers, and, finally, we bring the proceedings to a conclusion with that infamous duet between the Old Groaner and the man who fell to earth (almost), David Bowie (which also incorporates the composition,"Peace On Earth", in to the mix). I was so pleased with myself, that I was eager to immediately amass yet ANOTHER disc--or as it turned out, TWO. But, again, which tune to concentrate on?...
My first thoughts leaned towards "Sleigh Ride", but then shifted over to "Winter Wonderland" when I realized I might be able to go double gold on this one! As it turned out, I couldn't, but I came up with an ingenious solution (well, I like to think so, anyway...): the overflow on the second disc would be filled out with the 9 new versions of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" that I've acquired in the years since that original compilation was first burned. That way, I could slip the 3 silver thingies into our 5 disc changer, and go seamlessly from "Winter Wonderland 1", onto the combined "Wonderland/Santa" disc, and THEN directly right into the first "Santa" comp, keeping the old boy a-comin'!! Hey, that makes sense, doesn't it? You don't think I'm crazy like my sweet, lovely--but sometimes doubting--wife does, do you? Do you? DO YOU???...
Um, well, in any event, here's the talent on hand: Eurythmics, Dean Martin, Leon Redbone, the Miracles, Herb Albert and the Tijuana Brass, Darlene Love via Phil Spector, Glen Campbell, Tina Robin (a mambo version), the Brain Setzer Orchestra, Elvis, a children's choir, the Roches, Chet Baker, Ringo, Louis Armstrong, Connie Francis, Tony Bennett, America, Aretha Franklin, Bing, the Platters, Peggy Lee, Mitch Miller and the Gang, Perry Como, The Canadian Brass, The Wilsons, Donny and Marie, Tony Bennett and Vanessa Williams duetting, Burl Ives, Johnny Mathis, Frank Sinatra, Brenda Lee, Paul Anka, Chet Baker (again), the Carpenters, Floyd Cramer, Natalie Cole, and Spike Jones. That's immediately followed by these late arriving Santa songsters: Soupy Sales, the Tractors, BK2, Peggy Lee, Ira Ironstrings, Perry Como, Burl Ives, and Johnny Mathis. (Just be thankful I don't have a track listing of the original CD that started all this insanity currently available--be assured, though, that many of the same suspects turn up, along with the otherwise unfortunately absent Beach Boys...)
I told Lynn I should make one more, then put the 5 in the CD machine, and hit random, but she pointed out that that sorta defeats the whole purpose. I'll give her this--she may be right. It'll be interesting to hear how they turned out when I listen to the 3 masterworks tomorrow. Y'see, that's part of the agreement--I had to wait until Julie was off to school and Lynn to work before I unleashed these holiday headaches on the world! Okay, okay--maybe these aren't for everybody, but I sorta like 'em. In the past, I happily made up some copies for a select group of friends, and the reports--when I did get 'em--were mixed. Tales of relatives running screaming out of the room mid-way through Santa's seemingly never-ending visit abounded...
I actually thought about selling these nutty little things, but soon scotched that idea. Not only would it've been unethical, y'see, but when you came right down to it, odds are, any money changing hands would most likely come from ME!?! PAYING someone to take one of my Insane Christmas CDs off my hands, don'tcha know?...
Boy, was THIS entry dum...
December 5th, 2003
|THAT has got to be the Perdue families greatest
nightmare: sentient chickens! With lawyers!!
Okay, that's actually NOT what's happening in the self-explanatorily titled "Barnyard Noir: Counterfeit Cluckers", but it IS what I choose to see, okay? All great art is open to interpretation, after all, and thanks to the magical wonder of the Internet, an awful lot of it is open for viewing, too, so if you want to see more whimsically surreal poultry portraits--as well a series starring his hairless but horned protagonist, Chester--click (or should I say, cluck?) on over to the website of Travis A. Louie!
Remember that party I was telling you about a few weeks back? That's where I met Travis. Like a lot of the artists who attend these gatherings, he'd brought along a sampling of his portfolio to elicit some appreciative "oohs" and "aahs" from the assembled crowd.
(No, I don't. Bring art, that is, Years and years ago, I did, but when I had to consistently follow the likes of a Jim Gurney, displaying the "Dinotopia" paintings that would soon make him known throughout the entire world with MY funny little black and white pictures--which really only work if you sit down and READ them--I decided it was time to retire from show and tell, and instead concentrate on the TRUE point of these events: drinking and eating!! Nowadays, anybody wants to see my art, I simply say, "Check my web-site...", as it's all there. Which, happily, my talented new pal did...)
Although I soon determined that Travis wasn't a comics fan in the current-day, ongoing sense, our conversation nonetheless revealed that he grew up enthusiastically reading Marvel's seventies output. (Yes, he's younger than I am--isn't EVERYBODY these days?...) A pleasant fellow, I was curious to see just what he had in that big old black valise of his. Believe me, the LAST thing I was expecting was chickens!! But I loved 'em right from the get-go, and I just figured that you, readers who are just quirky enough to regularly wade through this melange of media madness might share my delight at discovering Mr. Louie's farmyard fixation.
Unless, of course, you're some sort of blood relation to that late Colonel from Kentucky. Then, most likely, right about now you're crying "fowl!"...
December 3rd, 2003
Hey, why do suppose the hard-of-hearing gardener thought Greta Garbo was sweet on him?...
Simple: He THOUGHT she said, "I vant to seed my lawn!"...
Awful, awful, awful--yes, I know. Sorry, but these are the sort things that pop into my head in the shower immediately after watching a silent Garbo classic. Used to be, only my family and the few friends I've been able to hold onto--and with gags like that, it ain't easy, lemme tell ya--had to suffer these monumentally lame jokes, but folks, welcome to the one of the perks of being on the World Wide Web: sharing!
(Stop grumbling. And just how much did you PAY to get in here, I wonder?...)
Anyway, this is just my cutesie way of introducing into these ongoing monologs the topic of my latest obsession, which would be, yes, silent movies! (Geez, a couple years ago, it was Swing Band music, then last year it was transcriptions of old radio shows on MP3s, and NOW we're going even further back, nearly a century into the mists of entertainment history! At this rate, I'll probably be raving all about Buffalo Bill Cody Dime Novels NEXT year at this time!?! But, for now...)
This sudden interest came about not long ago when the Turner Classic Movies channel was added to our ever expanding cable package. Y'see, one night, Julie came into the room asking for some help with her homework, so Lynn and I stopped the tape we were watching--something like ER or "Angel", I think--leaving me to channel surf as the parent best suited to the task went off for a bit to numbers crunching. Eventually, I stumbled across the famous silent epic, "Napoleon", on TCM, so I put the remote down and watched for a bit, fascinated. Viewing a story told purely in visual terms, aided and abetted by it's all-important musical score, acted out entirely by people who are, most likely each and every one of them, dead--well, it was quite the experience!! But the missus soon returned, the tape was dutifully revved up again, and suddenly verbose, colorful, LIVE thespians were once more my primary focus. Still, the images of my tantalizing glimpse into the Ghost of Cinema Past would stick with me long after the latest emergency at Country General was tidily dealt with...
When I stopped to really think about it, for all my so-called knowledge concerning the fabled lore of the Silver Screen, I'd actually seen virtually NO silent films during my entire life!! Several Chaplin features, Keaton's "The General", some Laurel and Hardy shorts, and several of those great silent slapstick comedy compilations that were all the rage in the sixties, sure. And thanks to numerous historical overviews, I'd certainly seen Lon Chaney's Phantom unmasked time and time again--but NEVER, I suddenly realized, in the context of the entire film!?! Same with his Hunchback, and numerous other famous clips repeated over and over again, meant to give the contemporary viewer a taste--but never a feel--for what the nascent storytelling form was REALLY like towards the turn of the century (the twentieth, that is..). Beyond that, nothing. But now, thanks to TCM, I had my opportunity...
And it's a rare one, if you stop and consider things. After all, WHAT other television channel has scheduled silent movies on any sort of a regular basis in recent years? If they did, you know that they they didn't stray far away from the handful of acknowledged classics such as the paltry few I had already managed to see. While TCM hardly runs the most obscure of films--and they do rely on their share of certified classics--they do throw in some seldom seen gems more often than not, just so long as there's a marquee name leading the cast. And that's how I wound up taping most of three recent special marathons, nearly whole days devoted--one each--to a trio of Hollywood's most luminous stars of yesteryear--NONE of whose films I'd EVER seen: Harold Lloyd, Lon Chaney, and the aforementioned Ms. Garbo!
Now, understand, I haven't had a chance to wade through ALL of these ancient tinsel town artifacts yet. Four full 8 hour tapes aren't gonna be watched overnight--or even over a few months, not if I'm going to keep up with all of my regular programs (not to mention my LIFE), dig? But we're getting there. I've scoped out 7 thus far, and there's more on the upcoming menu. Sometimes I pop one in the VCR and get on the exercise bike,(been trying to shed a few pounds and build up some much-needed stamina for volleyball lately), and I'll just peddle away, transfixed as I'm sent spiraling off into the past. (Exercise AND TV--a winning combination!!) And make no mistake about it--watching a silent film lensed in 1927 is so much more of a trip into a land that is no more than viewing even the earliest of talkies, filmed as they were but mere months later. By THEN, y'see, people had learned how to speak, not like in those peculiar demonstrations of feature-length charades! Outside of whatever tale they're trying to tell, there's an odd, almost unsettling underlying sense of attempting to imagine what it must've been like when THIS form was the absolute epitome of the show biz world...
Comedy bridges the expansive gulf of silence reasonably well--it's the melodramas that seem especially otherworldly to us 21st century types. Having only taken in but a single Lloyd vehicle--1923's "Why Worry?"--it's too early for me to assess the bespeckled funny man with any real authority, but after sitting through three Chaney and Garbo pics apiece, I DO have a few thoughts about that pair!...
Here's what happens in each of the Lon Chaney flicks I've seen so far ("Ace of Hearts", 1921;"The Unknown", 1927; and "Laugh Clown Laugh", 1928): the so-called "The Man of a Thousand Faces"--who basically utilizes his own kisser in all of these particular photoplays--falls helplessly--AND hopelessly--in love with a beautiful young girl. Beautiful young girl, however, falls in love with second lead, a bland but good-looking young fellow. To insure beautiful young girl's continued happiness, dejected but noble Chaney ultimately sacrifices his life for her. The end. Now, I haven't arrived at either of his two most celebrated cinema classics on my tape yet, "The Phantom of the Opera" or "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", but I have myself a sneaking suspicion that his luck with the ladies DOESN'T take a turn for the better in either one!!
To get just a tad bit more specific, in "The Unknown", Chaney is a nasty two-armed thief who pretends to be an armless performer in a traveling circus (GREAT alibi, comprende?), eventually falling so hard for a young Joan Crawford that he has his two appendages removed (!) so that she might never discover the truth about him! Otherwise, the wedding night could prove to be a bit...of a shock for the lady. Of course, while he's away recuperating from the operation sparked on by this decidedly dubious decision of his, young Joanie instead falls ga-ga in love with another guy! Yup, wouldn't you know it? When ol' Lon finds out, he adds his cool--along with his arms--to a list of things he foolishly loses, and swiftly sets in motion events that are intended to kill his rival, but when his lady-love throws herself in harm's way, hoping to prevent her second-billed lover's fate, evil Lon turns noble, and, yes, sacrifices his life so as to save hers. Aww. You might just say he was trying to keep death at arm's length for his beloved, dig?(...Okay, YOU might not, but I most assuredly would...)
Chaney senior takes a turn at being a true sweetie in "Laugh Clown Laugh", though he's once again part of a circus wandering the countrysides of Europe. He adopts an abandoned wee waif, and when, years later, she suddenly blossoms into a young Loretta Young (14 at the time of filming, in reality), our boy is smitten! Yowsah, is he EVER! But as the film's by-now standard plot was pretty much summarized in all it's concise grandiosity up above, there's not much more to tell.
While both of the aforementioned films are pretty much superior in all ways to the earlier "Ace of Hearts" from 1921, THIS was the Chaney film that would up intriguing me the most. Mostly, it had to do with the movie's extremely peculiar story concept: members of a secret society--seven men: five old, one young, and one Chaney, plus a single beautiful young gal--meet periodically to determine just which rich capitalist is most despoiling the world, and thus deserves to DIE at the hand of their misguided little organization!?! Now, folks, THERE'S there's a plot you don't see every day!!
After eye-witness testimony is given by members who've been investigating this latest "Man Who Has Lived Too Long" (as they repeatedly refer to him), cards are dealt from a deck, and whoever draws the Ace of Hearts gets the honor of performing the deadly deed. Well, wouldn't you know it--the young, good-looking fellow who's been working undercover as a waiter at the restaurant regularly frequented by The Man Who Has Lived Too Long these past three months gets this glorious assignment! With their sole female member not in attendance (for reasons never quite made clear), the leader of this jolly little group sends stone-faced Lon and waiter-boy off to give her the good news.
She's quite the looker, wouldn't you know, though she coolly informs her blood-thirsty suitor she has absolutely no time for love--HIS love--only time for the all-important cause. This gives lonely Lon some hope, as he (surprise!) loves her too, but even that dissipates at the next meeting when a plan is formulated. Seems our anti-hero will leave a specially rigged cigar case prepared by the member most handy with disguising dynamite at the table of The Man Who...well, YOU know. One turn of the monogram on the front, and precisely five minutes later--BOOM!! Our fellow is all gung-ho in any event, but apparently overcome by the thrill of the moment, our lady freedom fighter brashly asks him is he'd be either more courageous or less were she to marry him that very night, mere hours before that Man shows up for his never-miss-gotta-have-it-9AM breakfast. His answer?To quote my 13 year old daughter yet again, "Well, DUH!..."
Of course, our pal Lon is all broken up about THIS rather rash turn of events, and goes so far as to stand outside the young newlyweds apartment window in a pouring rain the entire right, doing little more than torturing himself! What a schlemiel. Funny thing apparently happened in the wedding chambers that very evening, too--seems that when the pair awaken the following morn, they no longer have all that much desire to kill anyone, whether they've Lived Too Long or not. Still, a sense of duty propels our undercover waiter to man his post, carrying his explosive device with every intention of using it as intended. But before the nasty old money-bags can be seated, our boy notices a pair of even younger, smoochy-woochy, goo-goo eying love-birds at the adjoining table from today's target. Thus, this couple inadvertently makes his decision for him--he can't possibly set off the bomb and risk these lovers lives as well, oh no, as they clearly Haven't Lived Long Enough! This supposition sets up a flaw in the stories climax, unfortunately, but we'll get to that...
Meanwhile, the equally smitten girl has gotten Chaney to agree to help the couple out with the group should her new-found hubby for some reason not to follow through with his task. Chaney agrees, but only on the condition that, should the mister NOT arrive back at headquarters alive, she has to marry HIM!! Oh, goodness, the absolute look of delight on her face at the very prospect (that's sarcasm, folks), but eventually, she accepts his tawdry terms. When lover-boy DOES return, job unfinished, the other members demand the life of he who they consider a traitor (lower case--I'm just starting to think that way, is all...). The newlyweds quickly flee, realizing it's hopeless to try and debate with THIS bunch, though their example affords Chaney a change of heart, making him understand the merits of construction versus destruction, and so he tries.
Of course, they don't listen to him either, so it's time to deal out another deadly hand of cards. This time Lon pulls the Ace of Hearts--AND, thus, the tempting opportunity to destroy his romantic rival!! But, by golly, he gave that sweet young ex-anarchist his word, and he'll be good to it! So instead, he spies the untended cigar case sitting right there in front of him--and absolutely no one else notices it!! So, knowing full well this group would never ever give up in their pursuit of tracking down and destroying their former associates, Chaney slyly turns the triggering monogram, and then sits back in his chair, suddenly brandishing a satisfied smile--the first one seen on his face in an hour and a half--and waits for the inevitable. The leader soon takes note of his comparatively goofy demeanor, and huffily demands to know the meaning of his little joke.
"You'll all find out in about two seconds", he informs his confused cronies.
We next see the happy couple disembarking a train, where they spy a newspaper headline screaming about an explosion in the city, blowing up a building, and killing seven. Reading further, they discover that an arm was recovered (AGAIN with the dismembered arms!?!...), and curiously, it was clutching a card oh-so-tightly in it's lifeless hand. An Ace of Hearts...
And THAT, folks, is what passed for a HAPPY ending back in 1921! My only question is, had the faux waiter gone through with the plan as originally envisioned, wouldn't a few more folks than just the couple at the next table have been in for a final meal?!? I suppose the fellow who concocted the device didn't quite know what he was doing, huh? But, he soon found out...
A few words about the lovely Greta Garbo. Though I've long heard tell of her, and seen many a flattering photograph of the lady, I'll sheepishly admit, having never actually viewed any of her films, I didn't quite get it. I do now. She's stunning, and her charisma practically glows through the tube. That said, the three Garbo flicks I've taken in--"The Torrent", 1926; "Flesh and the Devil" and "Love", both 1927--are all romantic potboilers, having overmuch to do with honor, forbidden love, betrayal, and wrong choices. And Garbo dies at the end of exactly one and a half of these fabulous flicks! (Huh? Patience--you know I'll explain. Eventually...)
"Flesh and the Devil" is the best of the bunch. She plays a cold-hearted vamp who comes to a sorry end in what is nonetheless a great surprise twist at movies' end. In "The Torrent", both her and lover Ricardo Cortez manage to live to ripe old ages, only thing is, they're miserable! Ricky-boy, y'see, let his domineering mother pick out his wife for him, and, folks, it wasn't Greta!...
And then there's "Love"...
Just the notion of adapting one of Tolstoy's famous--and lengthy--Russian novels, "Anna Kournikova" (or somesuch), as an 82 minute silent film boggles the mind--trying to squeeze all those words in without any sound emanating from a single characters lips and all--but then there are several OTHER notable quirks concerning the print I viewed that demand mention. First off, there's the matter of the score. Many of these pictures gain new music, or in the very least, newly recorded music to accompany their rerelease. When, in this instance, a card up front indicated that the new score had been recorded live by a large symphony orchestra, I didn't think anything of it. I just assumed they meant there was no overdubbing or the like. Several minutes into the film, however, I realized they meant that the orchestra performed their part in front of a live studio audience that was concurrently viewing "Love" right up on what I can only hope was the big screen. I came to this conclusion, I should note, when I began to hear LAUGHTER!?!
That's right--I was watching a Greta Garbo classic with a laugh track added at no extra charge! And did I mention this WASN'T a comedy? It wasn't. But some of it, to our more, ahem, sophisticated eyes, must have surely seemed that way, as there was much tittering at what could only be called the wrong times. Like when a passionate John Gilbert attempts to smooch the standoffish Garbo for the very first time!! Nervous chuckles abounded! It was very odd, I assure you. Of course, the volume wasn't nearly that of, say, a Fox sitcom (thank the saints), but it still proved mighty distracting. When Gilbert, as the Count, spies Garbo some months later across the room at a lavish party, his repeated efforts to break free from a conversation with a clueless friend, brought forth bigger and bigger laughs each and every time he unsuccessfully attempted to pull away!! All of a sudden you'd think we were watching the Keystone Cops!
Luckily, after about 20 minutes, the folks on hand were successfully pulled into this undeniably tragic story, and their responses were totally muted--that is, right up until the very end. Y'see, Garbo elects to leave her lover for the good of his military career, slipping off to the train station unbeknownst to him while he reunites with his regiment. Three years pass, Greta's evil hubby dies, she's allowed to see her son again, and the Count tracks the kid down after seeing his name in the newspaper. Mom arrives shortly thereafter to this wonderful surprise, and is joyfully reunited with her one true love. The two clinch, the audience cheers (yup, just like when Sam and Diane first locked lips on "Cheers"!), and "The End" fills the screen...
Modern day lettering subsequently informs the viewer that they have just witnessed the ending of the American version of "Love"--here now is the version seen everywhere else in the world. The distraught Ms. Garbo is once again waiting to board a fast train out of town, but this time she suddenly decides to forgo the price of a ticket, and impetuously leaps onto the tracks in front of the departing--and onrushing--train. Again--and for sure--"The End"
And this time, no cheering.
Well, gang, this Friday morning at 7AM, TCM is running Fritz Lang's legendary "Metropolis", followed by the silent version of "M", and on Sunday night at midnight (or is that technically Monday morning? Set your VCRs accordingly), TCM is broadcasting "Der Golem". I'm looking forward to finally seeing all three of them, inasmuch as stills from each and every one of these legendary fantasy flicks have been deeply ingrained into my furry little brain ever since my FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND days, decades back.
But there was one thing dear old Forry Ackerman NEVER quite made clear in his non-stop championing of the immortal Lon Chaney--he wasn't so much "The Man Of A Thousand Faces" as he was "The Man Of A Thousand Broken Hearts"!?!
Poor guy. Garbo WANTED to be alone, but in the movies at least, seems like Chaney just WAS...
December 2nd, 2003
My dad would've been 101 today.
Of course, since he passed away several months before his birthday back in 1987, there's no cake currently in the fridge awaiting a tremendous amount of candles and the use of multiple matchbooks! But when I went in the other room to program the VCR a few minutes ago and "December 2" came up on the screen, it suddenly reminded me not only of the date's significance, but of a funny little story about my dad versus modern technology (and ME, too, for that matter!...)
After my mom died in 1983, I kept a close eye on the old fella, at least, as best I could while living a three hours drive away. I visited fairly regularly--for several days at a time each month, or every six weeks, at least--and while we never had ourselves a particularly (how shall I phrase it?...) "chatty" relationship, I put my time in dutifully so as to provide him with some much needed companionship. But what to do with all those long hours with virtually nothing to do?
Eventually, though, I tired of watching all these programs he favored--primarily cop shows and bad sit-coms--that I never would've given a second thought to if I were back home with a handful of cable channels and my trusty VCR available to me. Y'see, those were two things dad didn't believe in--well, cable was the thing he didn't believe in, VCRs he just plain didn't understand! Even when his beloved New York Mets started broadcasting a large percentage of their games on the local SportsChannel outlet, he'd have none of the unsavory idea of spending good money to watch mere TV! Better he should listen to the radio instead to follow the team. And as for those new-fangled taping machines!...
Of course, Lynn and I had one. In fact, by the mid-eighties, we had TWO! The second one was a rather light and inexpensive unit, and I somehow got the bright idea to bring it down to Long Island with me on my next visit, along with some tapes I'd made. Naturally, these tapes would emanate from the very cable arena shunned by Dad Hembeck. Specifically, they were all compiled from broadcasts beamed out from CBN--the Christian Broadcasting Network!!...
Now, before you get the idea that things have taken a surprisingly spiritual turn here, let me quickly explain. CBN--a network that I believe was originally founded by Pat Robertson as a vehicle for his "700 Club" series, and which, after numerous changes, survives today as the ABC Family Channel--filled the many hours not devoted to religious programming with a cavalcade of reruns of by then rarely seen shows from the fifties. There was "My Little Margie", "I Married Joan", "You Bet Your Like" (aka "Best of Groucho"), and, to my way of thinking, most wonderfully of all, "The Jack Benny Program"!
Despite what I may've said about others around here in the past--Bob Hope and Soupy Sales come immediately to mind--Jack Benny has always been and and will always remain my very favorite comedian. When I happily discovered that the shows that helped define my nascent comedic sensibilities--and which I hadn't seen in nearly two decades--were being piped out over the airwaves via a religious station, it didn't matter one whit to this life-long late Sunday morning sleeper! Hey, for another treasured opportunity to see that lovable skinflint again, I would've eagerly tuned in to the Al Qaida Network, if my cable deal offered it!! So, of course, I proceeded to make several tapes for posterity, carefully exorcising the unwanted commercials as I sat there, blissfully entertained by Jack and his gang each and every night. Before long, I'd accumulated a half-dozen of these priceless compilations...
(It should be noted for the record that I sampled pretty much all the ancient fare CBN had to offer--some of which, at this late date, has slipped my mind, mind you--but except for the Groucho material, most of it ranged from mediocre to simply dreadful, which was NOT the way I'd remembered it from my misbegotten childhood. (And here I'd been, long laboring under the notion that Gale Storm was a wrongly neglected Queen of Comedy!?! Oops....) As for the grand old Mr. Marx, although I once again enjoyed watching him needle and mock numerous contestants on his idiosyncratic quiz show, I just didn't feel the necessity to amass a stockpile of his repeats like I did the Benny show, which ran just before Fenniman and friend hit the air. Which as it turned out, was a decision that's at the very crux of my ever expanding anecdote...)
Dad, y'see, loved Jack Benny, too, so, as a treat for him (and let's face it--to me too), I brought the VCR along and several of my custom-made tapes. Dad had no access to this material, and I thought he'd enjoy seeing it again. Well, turns out I was right. Who coulda predicted such a thing? But there was ONE little catch...
I set up the machine as my father--born in the Germany of 1902, sailing over to this country in the late twenties--looked on with silent curiosity. I explained the concept of the VCR, how I'd made these tapes--each featuring six hours of edited, commercial free Jack Benny shows--and then proceeded to pop a tape in and sat back to enjoy the antics of Rochester, Dennis Day, Don Wilson, and the rest of Jack's comedy posse with my dad. We both laughed frequently, and all was going well, right up until the episode neared it's imminent conclusion...
A gimmick they employed at CBN in those days was that toward the end of one show, a graphic along the bottom of the screen would come on--twenty years before all the Big Networks themselves thought of it--that would serve to promo the next program up on the schedule. A comet-like projectile would hurl itself across the lower portion of the TV with words trailing it that would say (in this particular case) "Best of Groucho--Next!!" as Jack was thanking his guest star du jour and saying goodnight to both the studio and viewing audiences. When dad first saw this, he became suddenly interested, rising up off the couch and pointing at the set.
"Hey look, Freddy--Groucho is next!"
"Uh, no dad. That's just an advertisement for what the CBN channel plays after Jack Benny, but since I only chose to tape the Benny shows, well, I'm afraid there's no Groucho shows on this tape, just more of Jack..."
"Are you sure? After all, it says right there on the TV, Groucho is coming up next?..."
This discussion went on throughout all the goodnights and as the credits rolled for the episode we had just seen, and try as I might I couldn't convince the old guy I was right and he was wrong. Partially, this had to do with the fact that I don't think he EVER gave my judgment much credence, so why start now? Secondly, like I intimated earlier, he was old school, REAL old school. He wasn't an ignorant man, but all this modern technology!?! Yeesh--it was a little much for him...
Our silly argument persisted, each of us stubbornly holding on to our beliefs as to what was coming up next, with only one of us poised to be right (that'd be ME folks!..). Sure enough, another episode of Jack Benny followed, and dad had to admit it--I was right. As my 13 year-old daughter might say, "Well, DUH!..."
We watched awhile longer, but somehow, the shows just didn't seem as funny anymore. We never did make it all the way through the tape, and though I offered to compile some Groucho episodes to view during my next visit, dad didn't appear all that enthused by the notion, so it never actually happened. It was back to "Kojak" and "The Streets of San Francisco" for us, though I usually had my nose stuck in a comic book while they droned on, never an activity of mine that dad thought all that much of, but hey, that's another story...
This tale has always stayed with me, partially because of the humorous absurdity involved with insistently contradicting something so completely pre-determined as what's coming up next on a personally compiled video tape. Besides the cheap chuckles, though, it also demonstrates in some weird way what our relationship was like more often than not, sad to say...
Geez, when I impetuously got the notion to sit down and share what I've always considered little more than a cute anecdote about a older gent and his difficulties grasping the finer points of the (then) modern world--I didn't mean to go all heavy on you! Like I said, geez!...
A year ago today would've been his Centennial. I suppose it was just as well he was no longer around. I mean, could you just imagine THAT phone conversation?...
"Hello, dad? Hey, happy 100th birthday!...Uh huh...Yeah, sure....Hope all is well...Me? Oh Lynn and I are getting ready to launch my web-site!...Web-site, dad...Computers...the Internet?...No, it has NOTHING to do with real nets, dad--OR spiders...."
Oy. Better I just shut up and cut the cake!...
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