Friday, December 21, 2007


"It's the Dean Martin Christmas Show! Tonight's special guest - Joey Heatherton! Also on tonight's show - Dom DeLuise and The Golddiggers!"

"Ho, ho, ho, this is your ol' pal Dino wishing you all a very merry Christmas. Later on, we'll have the beautiful Golddiggers out here to help me perform some of your favorite Christmas songs. But first, let's see who our mystery guest is behind our special Christmas go-go bead curtain!"

"Why it's Mr. Sean Connery! C'mon over Sean, and I'll mix you a vodka martini - shaken not stirred."

"Ya' know Sean, you and I are in the same line
of work now. In my latest picture, I play a suave,
hard-livin', hard-lovin' super spy like yourself."

"With all due respect Dean, I think James Bond
kick your alcoholic as - say, I think there's
someone under this bar."

"It's the Men from U.N.C.L.E.!"

"Open channel D - we've just uncovered a spy ring.
There's two more coming through
the window right now!"

"Holy quadruple agent! Be careful, Batman,
they have more gadgets than you do!"

"Never fear, old chum. I'll fend them
off with my Explosive Christmas Bat-balls!"

"Hey, you two get outta here! You're not even on this network! In fact, everyone clear out! This bar is getting too crowded!"

"I'm sorry, ladies and gentlemen, things got a little outta hand for a moment. Let's slow things back down with some nice Christmas carols, sung with my good friend, Miss Joey Heatherton. Say, where is Miss Heatherton anyway?"

"She's down here with me. Say Dean,
where are you hiding the scotch?"

"Frank, you're not supposed to be
on this show until next week! I think
we need to take a commercial break!"


Monday, December 17, 2007


"Jingle bells, Batman smells, Ro - oh hi, Dr. Evil here. Just putting up some Christmas decorations around the ol' Evil Sanctuary."

"I know, people think I've mellowed over the years. Why, just the other day, my neighbor Clive Arno said, 'Ev, why don't you unleash earthquakes or bring monsters to Earth through dimensional gateways like you used to?'"

"Well sir, I have to confess that I've found a new way to channel my sinister urges while also reconnecting with my inner child."


Friday, December 14, 2007


This is the last of the Christmas Coca-Cola ads that I managed to save from a bunch of old National Geographics my father donated to the Goodwill. This one I found almost a little disturbing in its composition. On the bottom, you have well-scrubbed, toe-headed children in their footy pajamas diving into a pile of Christmas gifts. The girl, perhaps more thoughtful than the avaricious male, looks up worshipfully at the God-like apparition of Santa hovering overhead. She is clearly offering her thanks to the almighty gift-giver. In a subliminal way, Santa is a golden idol to which children pray for their material desires.

Don't get me wrong; I love the idea of Santa as this jolly old man who generously gives toys to all the good girls and boys. I just find his omnipotent positioning in the ad a little strange. It's especially weird when he, in this exalted position, is selling us Coca-Cola. It's like, "God said you must drink Coke!"

Having said all that, this ad is still a great example of an idyllic Christmas image specially designed to elicit the warm fuzzies. I think it's a real shame that magazine advertising nowadays doesn't use more artwork rather than just photos. Perhaps advertisers are worried about truth in advertising laws, or maybe it's simply cheaper to use photographs than hire commercial artists, but beautifully painted images can evoke so much more than a photograph ever can. And if you Photoshop an image to heighten its dramatic effect, everyone knows it's been altered. With paintings and drawings, you allow the artist the creative license to seduce you. I missing seeing ads like this.

I'll probably be offering up more old ads in future posts. I know I've drifted away from the toy theme a bit, but don't worry, I'll have my action figure friends back in the next post.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Another Christmas Coca-Cola ad from the back of an old National Geographic, dated December 1951. It still amazes me how cleverly Coca-Cola inserted their product into our collective unconscious as a symbol of Christmas. Here you have an iconic version of Santa Claus, sitting at his desk with his book of all the boys and girls who've been naughty and nice. Although the book only says, "Good Boys and Girls," we all know exactly what this means. Santa also has a globe nearby, so we know he's cross-checking the list with their locations (GPS hadn't been invented yet).

It's a classic Christmas concept, and inserted in the middle of this traditional image, we see Santa gripping that tantalizing Coke bottle. I mentioned in my previous post about how seductive gripping those 6 oz. bottles is. The effect must still work because I saw six-packs on sale at my local Target just the other day. The whole concept is tied together with the catch phrase: "Drink about being good!" Just incredible. I'll take this kind of advertising over hip-hop dancers in Santa hats any day. Never fails to make me feel that warm, Christmas glow, even in the middle of July.

Next time...Christmas 1952.

Friday, December 07, 2007


Here's another wonderful Coca-Cola ad that I swiped off the back of a National Geographic from 1950. As I mentioned in my last post, an old uncle dumped a bunch of National Geographic magazines on my family in the 1970s and they sat neglected in our basement for years. I used to read through them, but I mainly loved to look at the advertisements. By the time I was 14, I had gotten into the habit of taking household junk to the flea market and selling it for extra cash. My dad said I could take the Nat. Geo.'s to the flea market, but a friend told me that those things were so plentiful, no one would give me a penny for them. Finally, my father decided to drop them off at the Goodwill. Before he piled them in the trunk of his car, however, I ripped the back covers off about a dozen or so of the mags so I could save those amazing Coca-Cola ads. As you can see, I still have them to this day.

While this is not one of my absolute favorites, it does have the essential elements that makes one of these holiday ads so attractive. Of course, you have the iconic image of Santa looming at the top of the page, holding another icon of American marketing: the six-ounce glass Coca-Cola bottle. What has made those bottles so attractive over the decades is the feel of that scalloped bottle in your hand, the curves perfectly designed to provide maximum grip. Santa holding the bottle is a subliminal come-on.

Beneath the God-like image of Santa, we see to children excitedly loading up the refrigerator with colas to quench the thirst of our traveling gift-giver and possibly bribe him out of more presents. Taking the well-known tradition of kids leaving cookies and milk for Santa into leaving Coca-Colas is a brilliant twist. In this post-war world of rising consumerism, Coca-Cola insinuates itself into the collective unconscious of holiday traditions. The image speaks to everything Americans aspired to in 1950: two healthy, well-scrubbed and thoughtful children, modern conveniences like the refrigerator, and the ability to afford all the comforts a family would ice cold Coca-Cola in the easy-to-carry six-pack container. Even though the country was not fully on the road to prosperity, and a nasty conflict in Korea had just begun, Americans kept their eyes on that future they had dreamed of since the Depression, and it was very nearly at hand.

As a pre-teen boy sitting on the floor of his basement in a very different world over 25 years later, I wanted to experience that dream as well. I wanted to live in that world that really only existed in a Coca-Cola ad. Fortunately, I was too naive to know that then.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


I've finally found some time to create a post for this blog!

I know it looks like Frankenstein and Dracula dragged me off to some horrible fate, but I actually was tied up all month participating in this year's November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short). Just like last year, participants attempt to write at least 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. By the end of the month, you must upload your manuscript to their site for an official word counting. If you meet the required word count by midnight November 30th, you win! Not that you really win anything other than bragging rights, but it's a great form of motivation if you are having writer's block and an opportunity to network with other writers who are struggling with a shared challenge.

For the second year in a row, I am proud to say I succeeded in banging out over 50,000 words during the previous month and winning my little icon, displayed to the right. I think I also have created the rough workings for a new novel, so that's pretty good too. Sooner or later, I'm bound to stumble onto something a publisher might like.

Anyway, it's now December and I'm scrambling to take care of all the little details I neglected over the past month (e.g., taking the car in for an oil change, getting my annual physical, etc.) along with Christmas shopping and other preparations for the coming holiday season. I'm also preparing a special action figure-related Christmas post which I hope will come out as well as I imagine it will. So in the meantime, I thought I'd share some images over the next couple weeks that always gave me that warm Christmas feeling as a kid.

In the early 70s, one of my uncles unloaded a huge pile of National Geographics on us, most of them dated from the late 40s and early 50s. I don't know why my Dad accepted them because they took up valuable storage space in our 3 bedroom row home, but I enjoyed occasionally flipping through them on dreary, rainy days when I couldn't play outside. I know what you're thinking, but the pictures of the topless African tribeswomen were not an attraction for me. What I really loved were the advertisements! These full page, glossy ads were so meticulously painted, evoking a world more lovely and exciting than reality. I especially loved the Coca-Cola ads on the back covers, and none were better at eliciting a sense of heightened fantasy and wonder than the Christmas ads. Here's one from 1948:

These ads, created by commercial artist Haddon Sundblom, were so strongly associated with our modern concept of Santa Claus that he was often incorrectly credited with inventing the 20th century Santa look. While he may not have invented the red suit and jolly appearance, he certainly rendered it in such a realistic way that one develops a sense that this figure is the definitive article. This particular ad also features a pixie character that appeared in other, non-holiday Coca-Cola ads. I assume he's supposed to represent Jack Frost, as in a frosty, cold Coca-Cola, but he's especially effective in these commercials for the holiday season of the solstice.

What I loved about these ads as a kid was the pristine rendering of everything in the picture. All the items in the refrigerator are so neatly arranged and the packaging wondrously bright and colorful. The toys in Santa's bag look so inviting. And, of course, the curvaceous Coca-Cola bottles glisten invitingly. You can just taste that cold, sweet liquid by gazing at those fluid soldiers standing at attention on the refrigerator rack.

Reality in the 70s was sloppy: everyone's hair was long; clothes were loud with big, floppy lapels and collars; crime and drug abuse was rampant; and polite behavior and common courtesy were considered passe'. Even as a grader schooler, I sensed that we had lost something from the era before my birth. These images from the past made that all too clear. Sure, the world wasn't as perfect as the artist portrayed it. But the mere fact that commercial illustrators aspired to present us with an immaculate reality showed a certain virtue in itself, I think.

Next time I'll post the Christmas 1950 ad and offer more of my pointless pontificating. I hope these images provide some holiday cheer!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007


Halloween has always held a special place in my heart. Even as a middle-aged man with no children, I still get a kick out of the decorations and the costumes and the horror movies on TV. I feel sorry for those who shun the holiday as promoting devil worship and such nonsense. To me, Halloween is a celebration of that dreaded emotion: fear. I say celebration because we have to recognize that we as human beings all fear something at one time or another. Overcoming fear is a challenge we all face, so having a holiday that revels in the emotion and, in a way, belittles it is one way of breaking its hold over us. Besides, it’s all great fun!

I always feel creative right before Halloween. When I was little, I loved creating costumes, carving pumpkins, and decorating the front yard with scarecrows and ghoulish stuff. One year, my brother Craig, the electronics geek, rigged up a speaker device in our pumpkin. He situated himself in the basement so he could look out the small window next to our front steps. With the cord from the pumpkin hidden under a towel, Craig could talk through his mic and his voice would come out of the pumpkin. Since Craig couldn’t see much from his vantage point, I would whisper to him which kid was coming up the walk, and he could greet them by name. One kid in the neighborhood really believed the pumpkin was alive and kept coming back to talk to him. It was only after the blanket slipped and the wire became visible that he finally realized what was going on.

This year, the holiday had snuck up on me and by Sunday, I realized I hadn’t done anything creative this year. As I sullenly watched the football game, I remembered that I had some old action figures that I had always wanted to do something with, but they had some really ugly headsculpts. I then thought about the old monster action figures that Mego put out in the mid-70s, and I got an idea. In a burst of activity, I repainted one of the figures to look like Frankenstein and the other one I transformed into Dracula (he already had a widow's peak). Scrounging around my boxes of doll clothes, I put together a gray-and-black outfit for Frank and I used one of my James Bond tuxedos for Dracula. I also remembered that my wonderful wife had given me a cool action figure cape for Christmas, so Dracula was complete. Frank just needed a couple of bits of plastic glued to his neck to create the electrodes.

The next day, I went to the crafts store and bought a Styrofoam platform to use as a diorama for my figures. The graveyard decorations from last year came in handy, along with the mulch and sand I had from another diorama project. Now I have a little display for the porch while I sit outside and distribute candy!

Happy Halloween Everybody!

Monday, October 15, 2007


Thursday, October 18th is National Meatloaf Appreciation Day, according to the people at While this blog is usually devoted to memories related to pop culture items like toys, comics, movies, and TV, I think food memories can be just as important in forming our perceptions (good or bad) of the past. Personally, I have plenty of powerful memories regarding my mom’s cooking, and I was particularly enamored of her meatloaf.

My mom’s meatloaf was not fancy; more along the lines of the fast-easy-feed-my-family-something-nutritious-on-a-budget variety. Still, I’ve never been able to duplicate its unique flavor. From what I can remember, she used all ground beef and mixed it with 2 eggs, Italian bread crumbs, and Spatini spaghetti sauce mix. She molded the resulting mix into a dome on a baking sheet covered with aluminum foil, then baked it. She must’ve had some other seasonings, though, because I’ve tried to duplicate the taste, and I’ve never quite gotten it right. The outside of the meat dome was crispy and the inside was firm but tender. Served with a baked potato and French-cut string beans, I was in childhood heaven. One evening when I was nine, I got so carried away, I ate half of the meatloaf by myself! Little did I realize then how much trouble my hearty appetite would get me into.

Traditionally, meatloaf is made with a three-way blend of ground beef, pork, and veal. Ground pork and veal were not readily available to my mom in the 70s, but supermarkets today often sell all three ground meats of equally measured portions in one package, ready for instant meatloaf making. God bless America! With this ground meat, I usually follow the basic meatloaf recipe provided in The Joy of Cooking (a must-own cookbook for anyone who cooks at home on a regular basis). While it’s a fool-proof recipe, I sometimes make adjustments depending on what I have in the pantry or how creative I feel. The rest of this post is devoted to my latest meat loaf creation:


9.6 oz. ground beef

9.6 oz. ground veal

9.6 oz. ground pork

11/2 cup chopped onion

2 cloves garlic (mashed)

2/3 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon ground thyme (I usually crush it in my palm)

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

2/3 cup ketchup

1 cup plain breadcrumbs

3 large eggs

½ cup of your favorite cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While the oven preheats, prep your ingredients. Then combine all the ingredients, except the cheese, in a large bowl.

Gently fold the mess into a blended blob. Don’t mix too aggressively or the mixture will become tough. Take two thirds of the mixture and spread it out on a baking tray covered with aluminum foil. The mound should look roughly like a small loaf of bread.Using your fingers, form a trench down the center of the mound, being careful not to poke all the way through to the bottom. Fill the trench with whatever cheese you like.

Cap the trench with the remaining meat mixture and blend it so that the trench is sealed.

Pop the finished loaf into the oven and cook for 1 hour. During this time, you can prepare your sides and clean up. For this particular meal, I roasted some baby red bliss potatoes. The potatoes were sliced and coated with extra virgin olive oil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. I nuked them in the microwave for several minutes to get them started, and then I put them in an aluminum-foil-covered baking tin and cooked them in the oven along with the meat loaf.

With all this prep work on the meatloaf and potatoes, I went the easy route with the vegetable and used microwaveable broccoli in cheese sauce.

Once the hour is up, pull the meatloaf from the oven and allow it time to rest (about 10 minutes). This will let all the juices and gooey cheese settle into place.

Then you are ready to slice it up and plate.

To me, meatloaf is one of the all-time great comfort foods. It’s really worth making the time to create a meatloaf every once in a while just to experience that comforting sense of satisfaction that it brings.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Time-Life, Inc. has recently announced that they are releasing the entire run of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. episodes on DVD starting November 27th. I guess that’s as good an excuse as any to post pictures of my custom Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin action figures!

Seriously, I’ve been waiting for these shows to be put out on DVD for some time, but it’s a bit of a good news/bad news arrangement. Since Time-Life was so successful in releasing the Get Smart! series through a phone-and-Web-site exclusive offer, they’ve decided to do the same thing with MFU (that’s a rather rude acronym, now that I look at it). In other words, you have to buy all 105 episodes at once, through their Web site or by phone, and pay five “low” payments of $49.99. That's $249.95 altogether! And since it’s sold exclusively through them, there's no chance of getting a discount through Amazon or some other DVD retailer. As much as I want to see those episodes again, uncut and digitally remastered, I think $250 is a bit dear for the set.

I wish they had released them the way CBS-Paramount is currently releasing the Mission: Impossible and Hawaii 5-0 series. That is, put out one season every six months or so and sell them through regular retailers. Slap a retail price of $49.99 or $59.99 on them, but let the retailer offer a discount. That way you have the chance of getting a full season for about $35.00. If that were the case with MFU, you could get the whole series for about $100 less. It’ll take 2 years, but it’s cheaper. Time-Life, Inc. hinted that it may be available through retailers in a year, so I hope the set will then be discounted.

The frustrating part is that this series has been held up for years because of legal wranglings over the copyrights. Now that it will soon be released, I may have to be patient for another year in order to pay the price I want to pay. I could even be taking a risk because the set may never be offered at a discount, and I might have to pay even more if it’s discontinued. I’m sure this is some dastardly Thrush plot! Here's your next mission, men: The Overpriced DVD Box Set Affair!

Friday, October 05, 2007


Kathy and I will have been married for seven years on October 7th. I said this last year and I still mean it: where did the time go?!! It’s been nine years since we started dating and it seems like last week. Of course, if I really flog my brain to recall what I was like back then, it can feel like ages ago.

In 1998, I was a pretty up-tight, closed-off workaholic who’d rather have a root canal than go on a date. My last date had occurred six years earlier and that was a blind one at that. I can honestly say I was a complete gentleman and did nothing that could be viewed as an offense to the woman. Still, she never returned my phone calls. It was fine with me if she didn’t want to see me again, but I was really hurt that she didn’t think I even deserved to be told that over the phone. Pretending I didn’t exist put a major wound on my fragile self-esteem and I plunged into a deep depression for about six months (there were other factors leading to this emotional collapse, but I won’t go into them now). Anyway, once I had pulled myself together, I swore off dating and preoccupied myself completely with work. Not such a great plan since I hated my job almost as much as dating. After six years of long hours and virtually no social life, I was a pretty miserable soul. God knows what Kathy could’ve seen in me then, but thankfully she saw something and prodded me into a first date.

Looking back, that first date was kind of a mini-tour of Baltimore kitschiness. We actually double-dated with the couple who introduced us, which was great for me since I was completely at a loss as to what to do. Kathy kindly set the itinerary. First, we had dinner at the Paper Moon Diner on 29th Street. Situated in a converted house, the Paper Moon Diner is painted in garish colors and decorated with funky odds and ends (the front yard sports a naked mannequin in a bear-claw tub and a toilet with flowers growing out of the bowl). Inside, the walls and ceiling are speckled with action figures and toy planes. The primary colors continue throughout and the furnishings are a mixed bag, from 50s-style diner tables to rickety wooden ones that have seen better days.

The current menu looks to be pared down to diner favorites, but back then they had some more adventurous offerings. Although I really wanted the meat loaf, I tried to show my versatility by ordering the veggie quesadilla. Kathy thought it was an odd choice and my style of eating was even odder. I was so nervous on that date, I was terrified that sour cream would dribble down my chin or a chunk of artichoke would fly from my mouth. As a result, I practically buried my face in my plate while I ate. Kathy later said she felt sorry for me. I guess I did seem kinda pathetic, although I had no idea how stupid I looked at the time.

After dinner, we went to The Senator Theatre to see John Waters’ Pecker. I mean to say his motion picture titled Pecker. For those who don’t know, The Senator is the only functioning single screen theatre in Baltimore; a throwback to a time when movie houses were palaces of fantasy and escapism. For anyone who has never experienced such a movie theatre, it’s hard to explain how special it feels to walk up to such a place on a busy city street, step under the glowing, neon marquee, pay for your tickets at the outdoor ticket booth (you don’t even have to specify which movie since there’s only one), and step through the glass doors into the round art-deco lobby. The rest rooms have furnished waiting areas, and the interior of the theatre is aglow with spears of colorful, indirect lighting emanating from the walls and ceiling. Before each show, the theatre’s owner, Tom Kiefaber, provides a pre-recorded lecture on the theatre and its upcoming attractions. Most of the speech is the same, so regulars can recite key sections of it like a sing-a-long.

That night, we saw the latest John Waters movie. I even learned a new term: tea bagging. I won’t go into its meaning here. John Waters, of course, is a Baltimore fixture and the city’s documentarian of all that is quirky, seedy, and crass about Baltimore (I mean that in a good way). He’s also someone you will most likely spot somewhere if you live here long enough. His house was only a block or so away from where Kathy lived back then. It may sound silly, but it feels kinda special to have such an internationally known celebrity in your midst, especially someone who’s made a living out of celebrating your hometown.

After the movie, we went back to Kathy’s house where our friends departed. I was pretty wiped from painting my kitchen earlier in the day, but I didn’t want the date to end. I was so grateful when Kathy made me a rich, strong cup of coffee that fortified me so we could talk into the wee hours of the morning. I was amazed at how easy the date was. We had so much in common and what we didn’t have in common, we found fascinating in each other. Given how little I had dated, the odds of hitting the jackpot so quickly were astronomical. Somebody upstairs must’ve taken a shine to me.

I don’t have any coherent way of tying this together. I’m reminded of a line from Our Town that was spoken by Dr. Gibbs to his wife prior to their son getting married. I say I’m reminded of it, but I can’t remember the exact words and I don’t have a copy of the play handy. Anyhow, in effect he said that, on their first date together, he was so nervous because he thought they wouldn’t have anything to talk about. Still, they dated and got married and stayed married for many years and the whole time, they were never at a loss for conversation. When Kathy and I sit across from each other after dinner every evening and chat about the day’s events and politics and gossip and pop culture, I think about how incredible it is that we’re never at a loss for things to say and we’ve never lost interest in each other. I look forward to many more years of conversation.

Happy anniversary sweetie!

Monday, September 24, 2007


I recently returned from a trip to New Mexico. This is the second time I’ve been there (the first was on my honeymoon), but I’ve been dreaming about the Land of Enchantment for 17 years, thanks to that All-American Super-Spy Matt Helm.

In 1990, I decided to pick up a second-hand paperback copy of The Silencers, primarily to see how different the literary Matt Helm was from the celluloid one. I knew the novels couldn’t be as absurd as the movies, but I wondered if any of the plot from the book was retained for the movie. As it turned out, quite a bit of the story was carried over to the movie, but it was twisted, pretzel-like, so that it resembled a James Bond spoof rather than a hard-boiled spy thriller. I was so impressed with the novel’s gritty realism, I suddenly felt sad that the movie series was such a lost opportunity. However, I was glad that I read the book and was particularly taken with the book’s setting: New Mexico.

The author, Donald Hamilton, followed the writer’s adage of “write what you know” and based Matt Helm in Santa Fe, Hamilton’s hometown at the time. Although Helm would later become something of a globe-trotter, early novels like The Silencers remained rooted mostly in the Southwest. I was immediately captivated by Hamilton’s descriptions of the quaint town and the stunning high desert which surrounded it. Of course, these desolate stretches were perfect backdrops for high speed chases and tense shootouts. No witnesses and little chance of police interference. These open expanses of brush-dotted desert also forced Helm to be a bit of an outdoorsman, something Donald Hamilton was in real life. By the time I finished reading The Silencers, I was convinced that New Mexico was a place I wanted to move to one day. Thankfully, after meeting my wife, I was able to talk her into my dream as well, and this latest visit to the state was a chance to make a serious assessment of our future home.

As we drove around those deserts and mountains, I couldn’t help but think about those harrowing battles Matt Helm fought under the blazing sun, with little cover and no hope of reinforcements. When my wife and I got caught in a heavy thunderstorm on our way to Bandelier National Monument and were forced to pull off the road, I was reminded of the scene in The Silencers when Helm and his witness were forced to spend the night in his truck after getting caught in a snow storm. Coming from a congested state like Maryland, I’m always struck by the wide open nature of New Mexico. There’s a real sense that you could get stuck out there and have to contend with rattlesnakes, heat stroke, or vicious storms. It’s a little scary, but exhilarating at the same time.

When we visited the town center of Santa Fe on a bright, warm Saturday afternoon, I was reminded of the opening of The Retaliators, when Matt Helm visits “the gleaming, modern lobby of the New Mexico National Bank.” The bank’s probably been remodeled since 1976, but it’s still there. I also thought about the following passage from later in the book:

Formerly, leaving Santa Fe southwards, you were out in coyote-and-prairie-dog country almost immediately; nowadays, the town peters out gradually through a dismal twilight zone of gas stations and drive-ins and housing developments that no self-respecting wild canine or rodent would tolerate. The desert is still out there, however; you just have to drive a little farther to find it.

If Mr. Hamilton could only see it now! Santa Fe, from any direction, is now surrounded by the kind of suburban sprawl that infects every city and town in America. I would only update his statement to say “Targets and Starbucks.” Just in the seven years since I was there last, the growth is astounding. There are housing developments on the west side of I-25 that didn’t exist seven years prior. I just hope that by the time my wife and I can move there, downtown Santa Fe doesn’t look like Baltimore!

Fortunately, growth in New Mexico is limited by the presence of Native American Reservations and National Parks. There are still vast stretches of breathtaking desert and mountains. Along with the sunshine and dry climate, you can’t help but feel happy every time you look out the window anywhere in New Mexico. I’m really grateful that Donald Hamilton, through his paperback thrillers, opened my eyes to a whole new world.

Monday, September 10, 2007


I’ve been watching the third season of the new Dr. Who series on the Sci-Fi Channel, and I’m surprised to find that I’m really enjoying it. I watched the first season (or series as they say in Britain), and although the production values were way above the original show, I couldn’t quite accept Christopher Eccleston as The Doctor. He was too serious and testy for my taste. David Tennant, on the other hand, has the friendly, quirky quality I associate more with The Doctor, and he embodies a certain vulnerability that no other actor has ever brought to the role. I’m really glad that the BBC found a way to resurrect such a great character and make him relevant to the 21st century.

As an American kid in the 70s, Dr. Who was one of those mysterious legends that I read scant bits about but could never see. I knew that it was a long-running British science fiction show, but that was about it. The confusion only grew when I would see pictures of different actors listed as The Doctor. Were these misprints? How could the character get younger over time rather than older? I was really dying to see this show, but for some strange reason, it was never syndicated in the U.S.? We could have Monty Python; why not Dr. Who?

My interest was further heightened when I stumbled across a book called The Making of Dr. Who at my local comic/used book store in the fall of ‘77. Although it was a slim volume aimed at the pre-teen market Dr. Who primarily served, I found it a well-spring of valuable knowledge on this mysterious TV show from across the pond. The book explained the whole production history, from its roots as an educational show on history and science to its transformation into a monster-filled adventure show for all ages. The book also explained how The Doctor had the ability to change his physical form whenever he became seriously ill. This was a great excuse when they had to hire a new actor to fill the role, but it also allowed producers the opportunity to re-invent the character and the very nature of the show every few years, keeping it fresh and adapting to changing tastes.

At the time, Tom Baker was playing Dr. Who in his fourth incarnation. Baker would become the most famous Doctor, with his trademark floppy hat and flowing scarf standing as icons for the series. While he was certainly the most unique of the Doctors, I was more interested in his predecessor, Jon Pertwee. Although primarily a comedic actor, Pertwee was a dashing figure with an elegant pile of curly silver locks and an athletic stride. He chose to play The Doctor as an eccentric James Bond, wearing smoking jackets and frilly shirts while beating up bad guys with his Venusian Akito. Further solidifying his Bondian mystique was the fact that he spent most of his adventures on Earth, working for a group called U.N.I.T. (United Nations Intelligence Taskforce). This group fought aliens bent on taking over the planet. Who knew so many aliens would choose to start their wars in quarries near Sussex? As a 13 year old, I could ignore the silly premise. I was fascinated by this flamboyant dandy of a hero and his family of soldiers and scientists with whom he worked. My pubescent hormones also liked his young, pretty assistants which I learned of from the picture section of the book.

Now I was dying to see this program. I wrote to my local independent TV station WBFF-TV Channel 45, but they informed me the show was not available in syndication. My next best bet was to acquire the novelizations based on the TV serials, but since they were published in England, they were almost as hard to find as the show itself. My initial books were purchased at science fiction conventions, then the book store I mentioned earlier would get some in and set them aside for me. These short, easy-to-read novels only piqued my interest even more. I would learn later that reading the books without prior knowledge of the show was an asset, since I could make the stories as elaborate as I wanted in my mind, free from the limitations of a miniscule BBC budget. One perfect example of this was in the book titled Terror of the Autons. On the cover and in the novel itself, the Autons appear in the form of this huge, bizarre Chimeras-type creature with body parts that don’t seem to belong to the same creature. In the book, the fight to destroy this horrible monster was exciting. A decade later, when I was finally able to see the show, the monster appeared completely off-screen, presumably because the BBC was too cheap to pay for the special effects. What a let down!

For the next year and a half, Dr. Who books were my only access to the show. Once the guy who ran the book store knew I was into Dr. Who, he even found some collectibles for me, including the original Dr. Who novel from 1964 and several annuals (the Brits were big on doing annuals of popular children’s programs). I loved all this stuff, but I wanted to see the real thing. Finally, in September 1979, the first four seasons of the Tom Baker era were syndicated in the U.S., and my friends at WBFF-TV were nice enough to carry it (I’d like to think because I tipped them off to it). It was great fun to see the show at long last, but my enthusiasm was tempered by the poor production values. In the first Tom Baker serial, there was a forced-perspective shot with an obviously plastic, toy tank in the foreground masquerading as the real thing. I laughed heartily at this pathetic special effect, but I was also pained by how bad this show was. The special effects and production values only got worse with each subsequent episode that aired. I learned later that the BBC was having severe budgetary problems during the late 70s and Dr. Who was one of the shows that suffered most from the cuts. At the time, though, I was just plain disappointed.

I still held the show in great affection during the 80s and was thrilled when Maryland Public Television started showing the old Dr. Who serials commercial free, as they were intended to be aired. By the late 80s, I was even able to see the shows with my favorite Doctor: Jon Pertwee. Ironically, while the 80s saw a spike in Dr. Who’s popularity in the states, the show was struggling for survival in Britain. They were showing the new shows here on public television along with the reruns, and I too was disappointed by the strange turn they were taking. Although the production values improved, the producer seemed fixated on modeling the show after Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams even served as a story editor for a time). While I suspect Douglas Adams was inspired by Dr. Who when he created Hitchhiker’s, I don’t believe Dr. Who was ever meant to be an absurd comedy. I think many viewers felt the same way since Dr. Who was canceled in 1989.

Fox attempted a pilot for a new Dr. Who show in the mid-90s. It wasn’t bad, and it even bore some resemblance in style to the current show, but it was just a little bland. A regular series was never made. After being such a fixture of British television for so long, it seemed strange that The Doctor would be forever gone. Then in 2005, the BBC found a way to make the old hero work in a new century, and I’m mighty glad they did.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the Baltimore area, many children went back to school this week. When I was a lad, school began after Labor Day, which seems a more appropriate starting point since many see Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer. It’s also in September, the first month of fall. Starting in August is psychological cruelty, as far as I’m concerned, but I guess the local governments believe they can prove their commitment to education by making the school year a week longer. Anyway, I’m in no position to debate the state of public education. What I can do is babble on about what “back to school” meant to me.

The first week of school was a period of trade-offs. On the plus side, you had some spiffy new clothes to wear, a shiny new lunch box featuring the latest, most popular toy or TV show, and the prospect of a school year that just might not suck as badly as the previous year. On the downside, you had to get up early, start using your brain for something other than imagining, and jockey through the childhood power struggle as each kid tried to assert his or her dominance in the bloodsport of playground pecking order.

And let’s not forget the new teachers. We were usually told who our teacher would be on the last day of the previous school year. If you got one who had a bad reputation, you had the entire summer to fret over the misery that awaited you. Your only hope was to pray that this scourge of academia would be transferred, get pregnant and quit, or be hit by a bus. An unknown replacement had to be better than the known terror. Upon reflection, the teachers I feared the most turned out to be some of the best, and the ones I did not dread usually turned out to be the worst. So much for relying on gossip.

Even if you were fortunate enough to get in with a class of kids that you got along with and the teacher turned out to be pretty cool, going back to school was always just a bit sad. Your nine-month sentence had just begun. At age six or seven or eight, nine months was a lifetime, and they would prove to be quite active months. Who was ever the same person in June as one was the previous September? Changes are daily at that age, and life moves very slowly.

During those first few days, as I sat in that non-air conditioned classroom, smelling the formaldehyde on my newly purchased school clothes mix with my nervous perspiration, all I could dream of was Friday. The first Friday after Labor Day - the first Friday of the school year - provided the magical rewards that made the entire week of stress and suffering worthwhile. The first of those magical rewards awaited me as I dashed home from school. Sitting on the front steps, in all their red and green glory, were the Wards and Sears Christmas catalogs. In those days long before the World Wide Web, catalogs were your only home connection with the wonderful universe of toys yet purchased. I would scoop those welcome parcels up and spread them out on the living room floor, perusing them with intense scrutiny. Despite their enormous density, my interest lay with those handful of pages buried in the center of the book: boy’s toys. Ah, G.I. Joe, Action Jackson, Johnny West. Ooooh, Ward’s has an exclusive figure called Hombre! Gotta write that down.

The “Wish Books” were a wonderful escape where you could see every toy you ever coveted laid out all in one place. And for one time of the year, you could dream that you owned all of them. I knew, for example, that I could never ask for one of those motorized cars that you could actually climb into and drive around in. Those were way too expensive, and our tiny backyard hardly afforded much room for cruising, but with the catalog, I could stare and dream. December 25th seemed like a lifetime away.

An afternoon of catalog browsing nearly pushed away all memories of the hideous week at school, but the best memory blocker came in prime time. That’s when the three major networks (as opposed to the five or six medium-sized networks we have today) would present their sneak previews of the Saturday morning lineups. Usually hosted by the stars of their live action kid shows, these previews would introduce you to the new schedule of cartoons and live action shows aimed specifically at me. (Apparently, these specials continued into the 80s, but I was oblivious by then.)

Children today, who are used to having their pick of kid-oriented cable channels spewing out specialized entertainment 24/7, can’t imagine how major these little half-hour preview shows were. Saturday mornings offered the only period of new programming aimed at children, so we needed to study these Friday night specials to figure out exactly which shows we had to watch and which shows we could skip. On NBC, when Johnny Whitaker discussed with Jimmy Osmond the virtues of tuning into Sigmund and the Sea Monsters, I took heed. Of course, when he also told me to stay tuned for Land of the Lost, I was torn because the preview on CBS already told me to watch The Shazam/Isis Hour. I could lose sleep over these decisions.

I remember in 1973, after seeing the sneak peek at Super Friends, I had a dream that I was watching the show. I envisioned the show looking like the Justice League of America comics that I had been reading. Then the next morning, I was hopelessly deflated as I saw those uber-dorks Wendy and Marvin, along with that dumbass dog, following the World’s Greatest Superheroes around and generally goofing things up. All I could think was, “Hanna-Barbera screws up another one. Why couldn’t Filmations have done this?”

After watching the new cartoon shows on Saturday morning, it was outside to play and discuss with my friends the new toys in the Christmas catalogs. Usually, the Saturday morning shows had been amply sprinkled with commercials featuring these new toys, so we now had additional fuel to fire our avarice. Of course, the first week of school was a long lost memory and the equilibrium set in. By Monday morning, we were back into the swing of things. The air cooled, the leaves changed color, and we started dreaming about our Halloween costumes.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


When Hasbro announced in 2005 that they would no longer produce the 11 ½ “ G.I. Joes, I was crestfallen. As a 1/6th scale action figure addict, I loved checking out the toy stores and the toy departments of my local discount stores to see what new creations they had come up with. That would now be at an end. I also knew that, as went Hasbro, so would go the rest of the industry. Just as they had reintroduced the 1/6th scale action figure to the market in the early 90s, Hasbro would send the signal to all the other toymakers that figures of that size were no longer hip. And I was right.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was perusing some photos online that someone had taken at the latest San Diego Comic Con and, amid all the new Transformers and Marvel superheroes, there stood new repro versions of the G.I. Joe Adventure Team with the legendary Kung Fu Grip. Not only were they reasonable facsimiles of the old figures, but they were packaged in the old, oblong boxes with the painted covers (known as coffin boxes to collectors). I nearly fell off my chair when I saw them! I wasn’t sure, however, when they would be made available or if they were only limited editions sold at ridiculous prices.

Although the Hasbro Website says that they are sold exclusively at Hot Topic and Urban Outfitters, posters on the Yahoo! Captain Action list said that they bought these new throwback Joes at their local Walmarts. Despite my aversion to that particular drearily lit, narrow-aisled discount chain, I went on a hunt for these new Joes. Unfortunately, the first couple Walmarts I visited had hopelessly understocked toy departments. They reminded me of those old Soviet GUM stores where gray peasant women fought over the last pair of pantyhose on the huge expanse of empty shelving. I finally found a Walmart that, not only had amply stocked shelves like a good capitalistic institution, but had a healthy stock of Kung Fu Grip G.I. Joes. The store had all five versions of the Joe in stock and they were reasonably priced at only $9.95 per unit. Since I already owned a vintage Land Adventurer (the guy with the brunette hair and beard), I decided to buy the other four: Air Adventurer (blonde), Sea Adventurer (redhead), Man of Action (brunette sans beard), and G.I. Joe Adventurer (African-American).

The boxes are amazing recreations of those wonderful coffin boxes I remember from my youth. They even advertise the old adventure sets they used to sell (although there is a disclaimer on these boxes which states that the sets are no longer available). I really bought these figures for the boxes, but I still wanted to see how accurate the repro figures were, so I sliced the tape holding the lids on (no shrink wrap on these retro babies) and peered inside:

I was a little disappointed that Hasbro used a clear plastic form to hold the figure in place rather than the old cardboard stays they used to use, but I understand their desire to keep the product secure. The costumes were exactly the same, and the headsculpts are pretty close to the originals. The flocking for the hair and beards seems softer and longer, and the distribution of flocking is more controlled, creating a more neatly groomed appearance.

The old figures were pretty skimpy on accessories, and these new figures are exactly the same. In addition to their unique outfits, each figure came with a shoulder holster and pistol. At first I was dismayed to see that these figures came with revolvers. I was certain that my Land Adventurer from 1971 had an automatic, in keeping with the standard military side arm. After checking with my G.I. Joe reference book, I discovered that the old Adventure Team figures did in fact come with that chintzy looking revolver. I’ve set my vintage Land Adventurer (left) next to the new Air Adventurer for comparison. Although the automatic pictured with the original Joe is not vintage, it’s a close facsimile of the pistol I recall from childhood:

While no Hasbro reproductions have ever been spot on, owing to changes in toy making practices and newer safety considerations, these Kung Fu Grip Joes come the closest in my mind to recreating the look and feel of the originals. I also appreciate that they didn’t tack on a hefty price for the nostalgia buzz. At $9.95 per Joe, you get quite a flashback for your money.