Friday, December 31, 2010

R.I.P. 2010: the 50s

Early boomers will remember them (l to r starting at the top): Art Linkletter (TV's People Are Funny) Pernell Roberts (Bonanza), singer Eddie Fisher, Peter Graves (Fury was his first fame), singer Lena Horne, actor Kevin McCarthy (seen here in Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Mitch Miller, Patricia Neal, author J.D. Salinger, actor Tony Curtis. Not pictured here but elsewhere on this blog: Fess Parker (Davy Crockett) , Barbara Billingsley (Leave It To Beaver.) Memories of them remain. May they rest in peace. Click collage to enlarge.

R.I.P. 2010: the 60s

Early and middle boomers remember them from the 60s: Lynn Redgrave (Georgy Girl), Robert Culp (I Spy), Ted Sorenson (Special Counsel and speechwriter for JFK), director Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde), Stewart Udall (JFK's Secretary of Interior), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider), author George Leonard, operatic star Joan Sutherland. Not pictured: Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet), country singer Jimmy Dean and Walter F. Morrison, creator of the Frisbee. May they rest in peace. We remember them.

Kate R.I.P.

Kate McGarrigle in 1976, when she and her sister Ann were first achieving recognition as the McGarrigle Sisters. They really blazed the trail for so many later women singers in the contemporary folk-influenced vein. I remember being in their apartment in Manhattan once--one large room was ringed with motel keys, from their tours. Kate was born in 1946--the first year of the Baby Boom--and she died in 2010. So she also symbolizes the boomers who passed on this year, having made their contribution to the ongoing flow. Here's a nice blog tribute to her.

R.I.P.: 70s, 80s

Some of those we lost in 2010 who made the 70s and 80s brighter for Boomers: (l to r across) James MacArthur (Hawaii Five 0), Irving Kirschner (directed The Empire Strikes Back, Robocop, etc.), Stephen J. Cannell (created many TV classic series including The Rockford Files), John Forsythe (Dynasty, Charlie's Angels), Rue McClanahan (Golden Girls), Tom Bosley (Happy Days), soul singer Teddy Pendergrass, director Blake Edwards (10), actor Leslie Nielsen (Airplane, Naked Gun etc.) actor Jill Clayburgh, best known for the groundbreaking Hollywood film An Unmarried Woman. Others include Daniel Schorr who reported on Watergate for CBS, and Alexander Haig, of that Nixon administration; Gary Coleman, Dixie Burke.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Leaving "Leave It To Beaver"

Barbara Billingsley died recently, setting off a surprising number of "End of an Era" stories--surprising because she and Leave It To Beaver were singled out as symbols of the 50s. I wrote about this in context of 50s TV moms at 60s Now but since then, in my continuing effort to waste what time I have left, I watched archival interviews with Billingsley and Jerry Mathers at YouTube. A lot of the memorial recollections mentioned her appearance on this show as a mom who dressed up in pearls and high heels to do housework, as some kind of example of the 50s fantasy mom. Like somebody thought of doing that? According to her it's not true. Her clothes weren't expensive; some dresses came from J.C. Penney. She wore pearls to cover the hollow in her neck that caused problems for the camera. She wore heels only in the last years of the series, so she could still be taller than her growing boys.

She and Jerry Mathers were very thoughtful about the show. Mathers admitted that the producers were conscious of projecting a good image of an American family, once the show was being exported to more than 100 countries, and that they consciously tried to set standards, such as solving problems by calm fatherly talks, and by having the parents occasionally admit they were wrong.

Mathers said that Leave It To Beaver was the first TV sitcom to center on the children. I don't think that's true--Father Knows Best was primarily about the children, and it started three years earlier (in 1954. Beaver premiered in 1957.) He said he didn't know where the "Leave It To" came from, but there was a TV series called Leave It To Larry that lasted only a couple of months in 1952, starring Eddie Albert as a young man working for his father-in-law (Ed Begley, Sr.).

But he might be right about this: 'Beaver' was unique in its time for taking the point of view of the kids, spending a lot of time seeing the world from their point of view. And that does make the show special.

I hadn't realized that the show was revived for a surprisingly long run in the 80s, although on cable. Billingsley, Mathers, Tony Dow (Wally) returned to mostly deal with the problems of their children (or grandchildren. By then the actor who had played the Dad, Hugh Beaumont, had met a grisly fate, according to Mathers. He had strokes, Tourettes Syndrome, and then died.) None of the cast worked much after the series, until this revival. Mathers was in real estate. He lived not far from Beaumont. Then more recently, Disney did a version with a new cast.

But Leave It To Beaver will always be special for that window into the world of kids growing up in the 50s--though almost exclusively boys. Mathers did say that the stories were based on things that really had happened, but the events as I recall them bore little resemblance to my experience. I was closer to Wally's age when I saw it, and I didn't have a brother. No, it was the guys "messing around," and trying to figure out why adults did what they did.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Heroes of the Greatest Game Ever

Today is the 50th anniversary of what some experts call the best baseball game ever (and not all of them are from Pittsburgh)--the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, won by the Pittsburgh Pirates over the New York Yankees with what is still the only home run in the bottom of the ninth to decide a Series in the 7th game, hit by the Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski. That photo of Maz floating from second to third is the basis of the statue of him that will be unveiled outside the new Pirates ballpark.

It was a vastly different baseball world. It was the last year there were just eight teams in each of the National and American leagues, as there had been for most of the previous history of major league baseball. Though baseball was the biggest sport in America, most Major League players didn't even earn a living from baseball--many if not most had other jobs in the offseason, and went back to work full time when they retired. Though there were fewer games in a season (154 instead of 162), they were worked harder. The Pirates two top starting pitchers each had 16 complete games in 1960. Today a complete game is a rarity.

The game was played at Forbes Field, in the neighborhood of Oakland. It was a storied ball park even before this Series. Babe Ruth hit his last two home runs there. The old baseball movie, Angels in the Outfield, was shot there. It was torn down as the University of Pittsburgh expanded, and the Pirates went to play at the larger Three Rivers Stadium on the North Side, where the Steelers and other local teams played. Now Three Rivers is gone, and the new Pirates park goes a long way to recreating the experience of seeing a game at Forbes Field--where I saw my first games, including this 1960 team--but it doesn't quite get it all.

I was very fortunate to be a boy so into baseball when the Pirates were putting together this team, from 1958 to 1960. The names are legend, and though I've forgotten some, I can still recite the starting lineup from memory--Billy Virdon, Dick Groat (or Ducky Schofield), Bob Skinner, Dick Stuart (or Rocky Nelson), Roberto Clemente, Smoky Burgess (or Hal Smith), Don Hoak, Bill Mazeroski. The great starting pitchers Vernon Law, Bob Friend and Harvey Haddix, and the first true closer who defined relief pitching, Roy Face.

Many of them figured in this great back and forth game besides Mazeroski. Vern Law started, Friend and Face pitched in relief, Harvey Haddix got the win in relief. Clemente got a crucial hit, Virdon drove in two, and Rocky Nelson and especially Hal Smith hit key homers.

I met some of these players then, including Roberto Clemente and Bill Virdon (as I recounted here), and others later. Oddly, even though Bill Mazeroski became a member of my childhood church and to this day lives in my hometown of Greensburg, I never met him. (He was also the Pirate whose name was closest to mine, so that was what my next-door neighbor called me--hey! it's Billy Mazeroski!--even though Maz was a right-handed second baseman and I was a lefthanded pitcher, and my model was Harvey Haddix.)

The mighty New York Yankees were a team of heroes--Mickey Mantle, Rodger Maris, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford--the list goes on. Bobby Richardson actually won the MVP for the series. I saw one of the games at Forbes Field--unfortunately, the 6th, when the Pirates got creamed--but that also means I saw all those great players, too. It was also Casey Stengel's last World Series managing the Yankees. (The Pirates manager, Danny Murtaugh, would actually come back nearly a decade later to manage another Pirates team in the World Series.)

That 7th game was full of odd events and improbable heroes, none more than Mazeroski and his home run. Maz is considered among the best fielding second basemen ever--if not the best-- but he wasn't among the Pirates best hitters or power hitters. No one expected him to hit a home run, especially since he'd already hit one in the Series (in the first game.) Fans just wanted him to get on base, and that's what he was trying to do. Power hitter Dick Stuart was on deck, pinch-hitting. Maz took the first pitch for a ball, so maybe he could work a walk. Instead he hit the next pitch into deep left field and over or near the highest place, the scoreboard clock.

Pittsburgh hadn't had a sports champion since 1925, the last time the Pirates won the Series. But in that one moment, the already magical 1960 season became one that people will be talking about today, and Pittsburgh will celebrate again.

And a wonderful bonus for this 50th year--there was no complete video recording of this game known to exist, until earlier this year when a pristine kinescope recording was discovered in the video vault of Bing Crosby, who in 1960 was an owner of the Pirates.

There's more here on Pittsburgh's and my own experience of this game.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

John Lennon would have turned 70 today. For a reminiscence, see this post at 60's Now. Click collage to enlarge.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Adventures of Superman, Baby Boomer Hero

For more than seventy years and counting, Superman has been a hero in comic books, on the radio, in animated, low-budget serial and big budget feature films, and in several incarnations on television, as reflected in this collage (click on it to enlarge.) Beginning with radio in 1946, Superman is specifically a Boomer superhero, as described in the posts below.

The first of the superheroes has been bending steel with his bare hands since 1932, in comics, animation, on radio and television and in movies. Now even as Smallville, the latest in a string of popular TV series, may be ending, another feature film is reportedly coming: a reboot by Chris Nolan, director of the successful Batman reboot.

The parents and even grandparents of Baby Boomers may have encountered Superman in comic books (his success jump-started the entire comic book industry), or in the movies (cartoons and a live-action serial) and especially on radio. Though the comic books were (and still are) going strong, middle Boomers likely first saw an animated Superman on TV, and late Boomers were introduced to the Man of Steel via the Christopher Reeve feature films.

[continued after illustrations]

But early Boomers probably started, as I did, with the George Reeves television series, The Adventures of Superman. I knew nothing about Superman or about the existence of the TV show when one afternoon several months before I started first grade, I happened to have the TV on the channel that showed the very first episode—the origin story. I was transfixed, changed forever.
Look up in the sky! It's a bird! It's a plane! It's Superman!

I made sure to watch every episode. I talked about Superman, and I thought about Superman. I also sought out the various comic books--Action Comics and the various Superman, Superboy, Jimmy Olsen, Superman’s Pal, Justice League of America, etc. issues, which I read consecutively for hours, thanks to the piles of them in the barber shop adjacent to my grandfather’s tailor shop.

This year, author Tom De Haven published a kind of tour of such adventures in their various media, in Our Hero: Superman on Earth (Yale.) He tells the story, (now familiar to fans) about how two boys from Cleveland, Joel Shuster and especially Jerry Siegel, dreamed up Superman and produced many of the first comic book stories, only to be cheated and forgotten until recent decades. (It wasn’t all bad, though. Eventually Jerry Siegel actually married Lois Lane—or the Cleveland girl they first hired to model for the character in the comics.)

De Haven explores the possible origins of Siegel’s creation—bits and pieces of characters from popular culture (especially science fiction) and popular science speculations, plus adolescent interest in muscle-building. By reversing the more common sci-fi situation (instead of human hero goes to strange alien planet, the strange alien hero comes to earth), throwing in some Flash Gordon wardrobe and a movie serial newspaper heroine (even adapting the Lois Lane name from a B-movie actress), they came up with Superman. (For one reason or another I suppose, De Haven doesn’t include this possibility of a more dramatic source for Superman— the death of his father during an armed robbery. The name L. Luthor turns up, too.)

De Haven breezes through the early comic history, dwelling for awhile on the odd attraction of the first Action Comics cover (above.) But he notes a pattern that recurs in each Super-incarnation. At first, Siegel and Shuster’s Superman was a champion of the oppressed, a crusader for tolerance and social justice.

He quotes an essay by Thomas Andrae noting that their Superman was “neither alienated from society nor a misanthropic power-obsessed nemesis but a truly messianic figure...the embodiment of society’s noblest ideals, a ‘man of tomorrow’ who foreshadows mankind’s highest potentialities and profoundest aspirations but whose tremendous power, remarkably, poses no danger to its freedom and safety.”

But as Superman became more popular, he became a commodity, a franchise, and so in the comics he became an upholder of the establishment: “He became a defender of the existing order and private property,” De Haven writes. “The brief era of the activist Superman was over.”

But even Superman as tough crime fighter faded, partly due to congressional pressure on comic book violence, partly due to Superman’s popularity with children. He became more cuddly and more comic, and even in later incarnations as writers increased his powers and his build, he was more of a fantasy figure, fighting fantasy super-villains.
This Super-arc was repeated on radio and TV. As author De Haven notes, many of the film and TV conventions and characteristics common to Superman stories arose in radio that ruled through the 1940s. There were variations on the musical theme and opening narration in the (see above) 40s Fleischer animated cartoons (with their modernist look and sexy Lois), and then again in the 50s George Reeves TV series, with the music even forming a basis for the Christopher Reeve feature films.

Radio also added the Daily Planet, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen and kryptonite. And the key characteristic that brought him to the silver screen in 1978: he is the man who flies.

But he also returned to fighting for social justice: he was “repeatedly unleashed...on religious bigots and the Klu Klux Klan during the late 1940s...” Though De Haven doesn’t note it, the famous “truth, justice and the American way” opening had additional lines on radio, describing Superman as “champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice.”

The next step was television, although producers tested the waters with a low budget feature film in 1951, Superman and the Mole Men. At its climax, Superman doesn’t battle the pathetic little aliens from deep inside the Earth, but defends them against a bloodthirsty human mob. With World War II still fresh, George Reeves in his first appearance railed against this mob for acting like “Nazi stormtroopers.”
While most of the stories in the first TV season were based on radio stories, the first to air in his second season was a recapitulation of Superman’s inaugural story in Action Comics #1, in which he saves an innocent man (or in the comics case, innocent woman) from the electric chair.

But with some variations, the first TV season—with every episode shot quickly, before any got on the air—was heavy on crime stories, and looked to be getting harder edged towards the end. But then producer Bob Maxwell was forced out, and Superman turned softer and more establishment again, until by the third season, Superman stories were more child-friendly and comic.

But it is these first season stories that I remember most vividly, as I’ve confirmed by seeing them on DVD. The cast was the same throughout: George Reeves as Superman and also a mostly crusading Clark Kent (who still got Lois Lane’s contempt for “disappearing” in a crisis), with Jack Larson as Jimmy Olsen, and John Hamilton as the quintessential Perry (“Great Caesar’s Ghost!/ Don’t Call Me Chief!”) White.

The major cast different was Phyllis Coates as the harder-edged Lois Lane in the first season, replaced by the softer Noel Neill. I remember that Coates did scare me a little, and Neill was more reassuring. But I got the undoubtedly sexist and yet eternal message: no matter how mouthy and dumb a girl gets, you’re supposed to rescue her.

Though all 6 seasons were originally broadcast in black and white beginning in 1952, the last three seasons were filmed in color. They were rerun when color TV began arriving in 1965. These episodes were a familiar sight on Saturday TV for years, though I seldom watched them then. The 3rd and 4th seasons—the last I have on DVD—are fun now mostly for the color.

There were Saturday morning cartoons, even a Broadway musical, while the comic books chugged along for the next decade or two, until the Superman feature films. Superman was the biggest film release of 1978, and the most expensive in film history to that point. I saw it at one of its New York press premieres (also attended by at least one famous director and his actress wife I happened to run into.) The theatre was so full I was in the front row, so I didn’t see it properly until later. But I do recall that the credits were revolutionary—the titles swooshing out, and then the endless credits at the end—were widely imitated, and the end-credits are now standard.

At its premiere, Superman was judged for three things: Marlon Brando, Christopher Reeve as Superman, and the flying effects. Reviews of Brando’s performance—especially his Claude Rains English accent for Jor-el—were mixed, but the flying passed with flying colors, and Christopher Reeve was obviously perfect, both as Clark Kent and Superman.

Young Clark Kent in the heartland was the most visually sumptuous and eloquent sequence expressing an important characteristic of Superman through the ages: the original illegal alien, Superman is also the greatest American superhero.

When Kent comes to Metropolis, he embodies the earnest, innocent and optimistic Depression-era American values thrust into a cynical contemporary world. Superman introduced the emotional theme of hero as alien and outcast, and the mythic ironies of the secret identity which other superheroes elaborated but never surpassed. Here it is the essence of his struggle for identity. More clearly than ever, Superman is unavoidably an American riff on the savior who is both human and all but divine, with all the resulting problems for him and others.

Director Richard Donner was hired to do both Superman and its sequel, pretty much at the same time. Though he shot material for Superman II, he didn’t complete it at that time, and eventually he was replaced by director Richard Lester for II and III. In 2006, the “Richard Donner cut” of Superman II was released on DVD with great fanfare, although Donner didn’t actually make it. I still prefer the Lester version (and here’s why.)

But then the film series recapitulated earlier cycles and became comic and finally low-budget. An attempted revival in 2006 with Superman Returns didn’t seem to succeed very well. It seemed okay to me, but I did think Superman and Lois were awfully young, especially after the relative sophistication of the Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman TV series, which I liked a lot ( as above: Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher.) Though I didn’t watch it regularly when it was broadcast, I enjoyed seeing it consecutively on DVDs.

Superman’s many handlers haven’t always served him well. There’s anticipation that Nolan will darken him as he did Batman, but that’s not the character who fulfills his nature and counters his isolation when “he brings his distinctive strengths into the services of others, he takes his rightful place in the larger community.” (Mark Waid, quoted by De Haven.) Camping him up doesn’t work either.
As for the De Haven book, it’s not the most thorough history of any aspect, especially of Superman’s origins in the Depression years (told so well in Men of Tomorrow by Gerald Jones.)

There is more about the later comic book history, including the Death of Superman issue (above), which apparently was a set-up for the forthcoming Lois & Clark. The book ends as Superman Returns is released, which was also the occasion of a lot of Superman material, including a new documentary film as well as the Donner Superman II.

Our Hero: Superman on Earth does cover a lot of ground for 200 plus pages, but even though it is more or less chronological, it seems to wander. Maybe that’s De Haven’s conversational tone, and his jokey, wise-guy style which can be entertaining, but also cloying and annoying. Overall, there’s probably enough detail and gossipy surmise in this book for many inner geek appetites. There’s not a lot post 1978, so not a lot specifically for Christopher Reeve fans and fans of the late 80s Superboy series, Lois & Clark or the current Smallville (which I myself haven't seen much of, but which I look forward to seeing consecutively on DVD. Although I expect this is a different generation's Superman.)

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Mercury Falling

Ford is set to end its Mercury line, according to reports. The Mercury has been around for the Baby Boomer lifetime, but not one of the more memorable brands, so I googled some images to see what I remembered, particularly from my boyhood when my friends and I knew every model of every car by sight, and would sit by the nearby two-lane highway and name them as they passed.

The images in the above collage (click it to enlarge) are from 1949 to about 1960. Some I immediately recognized. Grilles suggested faces, and I remember that white one at bottom right in particular, a kind of shark face. Others look familiar but some look a lot like Fords, others like Buicks. Mercury was the middle brand in the Ford line, between Fords and Lincolns. Lincolns were pretty distinct, until they all started looking like each other in the 60s.

Friday, March 19, 2010

R.I.P. Fess Parker

Fess Parker, the Davy Crockett of the 50s and the Daniel Boone of the 60s, died this week. From the LA Times obit:
"Those Davy Crockett episodes really brought American history -- indeed, a Disney version of American history -- to the playground as well as to the American living room," Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University, told The Times some years ago.

"You not only could watch these programs, but you could play them, dress up like them, make the Davy Crockett aesthetic infiltrate every part of your life," he said. "And, of course, those coonskin caps: No self-respecting kid under the age of 12 could go through American life without one."

But although "you can merchandise and market and promo something like crazy," Thompson said, "I think, in the end, for something like this to succeed, you've got to have an actor who can pull it off, and Fess Parker made a great Davy Crockett."

For more here on the Crockett phenomenon, follow this link or the Davy Crockett tag. His version of the Ballad of Davy Crockett is youtubed below.

Fess Parker and the Ballad of Davy Crockett

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Boomer Sports: Billy Virdon

It was a brisk day so I put on my wool vintage 1960s-style Pittsburgh Pirates cap, and as I glanced in the mirror on my way out I saw the cap, the round glasses, and I thought, Billy Virdon. And I remembered the day at Forbes Field when kids were allowed down on the field to meet players before the game. I only remember encounters with two: I was in complete awe of Roberto Clemente, and managed to shake hands with him, but he didn't make eye contact with anyone, and didn't seem to want to be there. So I was surprised when I found myself in front of Bill Virdon, and as he shook my hand he looked me in the eye, and said, "hello, son." Son! I still get choked up thinking about it.
Bill Virdon was our center fielder--he could run down just about anything in that enormous park, and as I recall he surprised a few Yankees by doing so in the 1960 World Series. He went on to be a manager for the Pirates and the Yankees, as well as for other teams, and got several into the postseason. He stayed with baseball as a coach, and I was happy to learn that he's still working with the Pirates, as a special outfield instructor. He's probably with them in training camp right now.