Monday, December 15, 2008

Baltimore Christmas Memory: Sing It Outdoors!

It never ceases to amaze me how much can be found on "teh internets" these days! The flotsam and jetsam of a misspent youth in front of the TV or hiding in a movie theater can be easily retrieved with only a Google search. One day, the ipod in my brain shuffled up a song that I heard every holiday season when I was a kid. The song was called "Sing It Outdoors!" and it was played during the commercials for John Donnelly & Sons Advertising. It went like this.

I believe they were mainly into billboard advertising, so the title of the song had a duel meaning. It seems like they are singing about carolers, but the implication is that you can sing the praises of your company or product outdoors through billboard advertising. Get it? I was rather proud of myself that I figured that out when I was six or so.

I don't recall Donnelly & Sons running TV ads any other time of the year but Christmas, and for an advertising firm, the ads were surprisingly chintzy. The Christmas ad consisted of the aforementioned song while we were treated to abstract representational drawings of choirs, bells, and other Christmasy images. Just before the final line was sung, a syrupy announcer voice came on and would tell us how Donnelly Advertising wanted to wish us a Merry Christmas. No Happy Holidays back then. They were putting the Christ in Christmas, baby! It was fun not to be PC.

During the week between Christmas and New Year's, Donnelly & Sons ran a slightly different TV ad. As I recall, it would start off with a similar song and some more poorly rendered images of streamers and champagne bottles popping, and then the announcer would jump in with, "Rrrring out the old, rrring in the new, with all our best wishes! We at Donnelly Advertising wish you..." When he would say, "rrrring out the old," a graphic with the current year would appear, and when the announcer said, "rrrring in the new," a graphic with the next year would appear. For example, it might show "1972," and then jump to "1973." I remember one year - I think it was 1973 or 1974 - and they mistakenly put up one of the old commercials because it showed "1965" and "1966." I got a chill because I suddenly thought I had been transported back in time.

Those commercials disappeared around the mid-70s and became yet more fond holiday memories to put on the brain pile. God knows why the song popped back into my head on a warm spring day more than 30 years after I had last heard it, but my mind tends to work like that. Just for fun, I did a Google search using the song title and found this blog site. Apparently, the song on the commercial was part of a complimentary record album that Donnelly & Sons gave away to clients at Christmas time. One side had music for Christmas, the other side featured dance tunes for your New Year's Eve party. The blog author, Ernie, provides a link where you can download the Christmas songs along with some photos of the album, which I've used here, with his kind permission.

One of the coolest aspects of this album is the fact that the record itself was made out of green vinyl. Take a look:

Be sure to check out for more great, obscure Christmas music. He's currently running a 27 Days of Christmas series with a new Christmas album featured each day.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The 1/6th Scale Sushi Bar - 2008

Awhile back, I related the story of how I built a 1/6th scale sushi bar as a Christmas present to my wife. For the uninitiated, 1/6th scale refers to the size of action figures who are usually between 11 1/2- and 12-inches tall. We're talking old G.I. Joes and Barbies. Anyway, every year I add miniature Christmas decorations to the bar and, while I'm at it, I usually change the customers at the bar. In years past, we've had Christopher Lee, Dr. Evil (from Captain Action fame, not Austin Powers fame), Man of Action G.I. Joe, African-American G.I. Joe, Barbie, Pierce Brosnan, Diane Farr, Captain Jack Sparrow, and, of course, Santa Claus. Here is the new line-up for Christmas 2008:

Santa Claus has popped in again for a sushi snack before finishing his rounds. At the front of the bar, the current Doctor Who, David Tennant, is talking an Asian woman into becoming his next companion, and on the side, Indiana Jones is kicking back with a cold brewski after taking on the Lair of Witchiepoo or something.

The sushi bar sits on our living room coffee table year round, but it seems particularly festive during the holidays. It's also a great conversation piece when the plumber or the exterminator drop by.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Bell Telephone Company Presents: The Spirit of Christmas

In A Child's Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas wrote, "One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six"

As I get older, I'm beginning to have the same feelings about my own Christmas memories. Twenty years ago, I would amaze family and friends with my blow-by-blow accounts of everything that happened on this Christmas or that Christmas. My mom would sarcastically ask, "What was the weather like that year?" and I could tell her. Now, however, there have been too many holidays and the traditions are so faithfully followed each year that they start to blur together. One such tradition I could always look forward to (at least in elementary school) was the annual showing of the old 1950s television special The Spirit of Christmas.

This holiday special, first aired in 1953 and sponsored by Ma Bell, was produced by puppeteer Mabel Beaton. Ms. Beaton started out performing marionette shows for her community in a make-shift theater during the 1930s and 40s. By the late 40s, her small group of fellow puppeteers, mostly neighborhood friends, dwindled away and she decided to elevate her puppeteering career by creating filmed marionette programs. She got lucky with her first try out of the gate when she presented her half-hour Christmas special, The Spirit of Christmas, to The Bell Telephone Company. The president enthusiastically green-lit the show as their 1953 Christmas special, and it became their holiday show for the next several years during the 50s.

The special is split into two segments, the first being a presentation of Clement C. Moore's poem, 'Twas the Night Before Christmas. The second segment portrays the story of the birth of Christ. Ms. Beaton maintained that her forte was with serious material, but the Santa Claus story at the beginning of the show was her concession to the commercial appeal of secular Christmas stories. Watching the special recently with an adult set of eyes, I can understand her point. The marionettes used in the Santa Claus segment appear more crudely designed and, in the case of the children puppets, downright creepy looking as compared to the marionettes in the nativity story. Also, there seems to be more loving care put into the staging of the biblical scenes. 'Twas the Night Before Christmas relies on some physical schtick that feels clumsy and forced by comparison, but I know I enjoyed it as a child.

Before you get the wrong idea about my true age, I never saw the show when it originally aired on television. My first exposure to it was in elementary school in the late 60s/early 70s. Every year, on the last day before Christmas vacation, the teacher would drag out that clunky 16 mm projector and put on the threadbare film print of The Spirit of Christmas. Usually, the teacher would show it just before the end of the day. I would always get a little flutter of excitement in my stomach when that happened because I knew we would have no more school work until the beginning of next year!

There was something magical about watching this marionette show. I had the same feeling when I watched those old Gerry Anderson shows like Thunderbirds or Captain Scarlet. Most of the drawn animation available to kids in those days was of the Saturday morning variety and consistently pretty bad. Seeing three dimensional puppets manipulated in properly scaled dioramas was a real treat because you could sense the level of artistry involved. The Rankin-Bass stop-motion films had a similar quality and, like The Spirit of Christmas, I only got to see them once a year. This was way before the home video/on-demand world of today. You got one shot at all the Christmas shows and if you missed any one of them for some reason, you had to wait for next year. And one year to a kid may as well be a decade. That's why an impromptu shopping trip with your mom on the night The Year Without a Santa Claus aired was cause for true childhood trauma.

I can't remember exactly when they stopped showing The Spirit of Christmas at school. Maybe around the time I was 9 or 10. As I said, it's a blur. But I never forgot that program, and I thought for sure I'd never see it again. Just some vague, foggy memory shelved in the attic of my mind. Of course, with the magic of DVDs and the Internet, few things from the past are lost anymore. Last year, I discovered that The Spirit of Christmas was on DVD, complete with another Mabel Beaton film, Santa's Space Ship, and a one hour interview with Ms. Beaton videotaped in 1984. It's a wonderful package, even though the print of the film used on the DVD doesn't look much better than the print we had at Bear Creek Elementary. At least a DVD player doesn't skip and make that weird audio sound like someone wiggling his forefinger between his lips (anyone under 25 probably won't get that reference).

I'm so thrilled to have this Christmas memory back. When I watched the DVD recently, I could feel that little tingle in my tummy I used to have knowing that soon I would be out of school for 10 whole days and Santa was coming with lots of plastic goodies and my grandmother would be serving her delicious stuffing and noodle casserole and my Aunt Mildred would have that cool Chex Mix stuff and my Uncle Henry would mistakenly call Santa Claus "Kiss Kingle" and the world would be lit with multi-colored lights and glowing Santas and reindeer and all would be warmth and happiness and fun....until January 2nd.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Outer Space Men

Here's something that I came across on YouTube awhile back:

I have vague memories of these toys when I was four or five. Most of the characters were too weird for my taste, but I do recall having a Commander Comet action figure. Here is how he is described by their Web site: "From Olympus, largest of the great cloud cities of Venus, the mighty cloud ship Cumulus sets forth. Like a fiery comet it blazes through the blackness of outer space toward Earth. Its captain, Commander Comet, is a direct descendant of the mighty Zeus, leader of the historic first Venusian expedition to Earth, which landed near the Grecian Isles 3,000 years ago. Commander Comet's present mission is one of routine Earth surveillance, and once within the atmosphere of Earth, his ship will join the great fleet of Venusian craft that float like clouds above our planet night and day, watching undetected over our world."

I didn't quite understand all that when I was a kid, but I remember getting him because he looked like a super hero. I figured he was something like Thor; a mythological figure who traveled to Earth to help people in trouble. He was still a little strange looking, though, and I don't think I played with him for very long.

The creator of the toy line, Mel Birnkrant, says that the line was designed to compliment the then popular Major Matt Mason series. The thinking was that these Outer Space Men would give Matt Mason some buddies to pal around with in space other than his human astronaut friends. I guess they weren't aware that Mattel had already made some alien characters of their own for the Matt Mason line. Although the connection is obvious to me now, I never put it together as a kid. I never thought to play with both Matt Mason and Commander Comet at the same time. Perhaps other kids didn't either, because Colorform's space men never experienced the popularity that Matt Mason had. It didn't matter anyway, since interest in space exploration and space-related toys fizzled pretty quickly after NASA put a man on the moon. Here are some videos Mr. Birnkrant put together to explain the history of The Outer Space Men:

Apparently, Mr. Birnkrant is trying to revive the series as a collectible for all us Baby Boomers and slightly post-Baby Boomers who have fond memories of the toy. Currently, a new graphic novel has been released based on the characters. It never ceases to amaze me how these old toys keep resurfacing in new forms.

Monday, October 20, 2008

New 8 Inch Captain Action Figure

Within a few brief years, Captain Action Enterprises has launched a wide selection of Captain Action merchandise, from t-shirts to comics to models. Now they've teamed up with Castaway Toys to produce new Mego-style 8 inch Captain Action and Dr. Evil action figures (currently called "Dr. Eville" to avoid legal trouble with the Austin Powers people). Creating an all new figure in a different scale rather than producing replicas of the 11 1/2 inch figures was a smart move in my opinion. A decade ago, Playing Mantis produced 1/6th scale reproductions of the vintage Captain Action figures and costumes with mixed results. The phrase "close but no cigar" comes to mind. Since most of the Playing Mantis products are still easily obtained on eBay at reasonable prices, there really seemed no need to do yet another repro line. These new 8 inch figures will appeal to both the Captain Action collectors and the much larger Mego audience.

I pre-ordered the Early Bird Special Editions some months ago and, after numerous setbacks with the Chinese manufacturers, the figures were finally shipped. When I received my shipment on Saturday, I was immediately pleased to see that the blister packs in which the figures are packaged can be easily opened, so you can take out the figure and the accessories, then neatly return them to the package. Of course, I broke into the box right away and checked out the figure. Castaway Toys promised a body that would be superior to some of the current Mego-type bodies out there, and they delivered. The body feels quite sturdy for its size and mimics the shape and articulation of the vintage figure pretty effectively. I don't know if it's the vinyl they use nowadays or what, but the headsculpt bears a stronger resemblance to the Playing Mantis version than the vintage one, primarily because the new vinyl seems less opaque. Also, the tone gives Cap a darker, more olivey complexion.

While the standard figures come with the basic accessories, these special editions offer a few extras. In the case of the Captain Action figure, you get the blue belt and blue-hilted sword like the one the vintage toy came with as well as a silver-and-red belt and gold-hilted sword like the ones pictured in the vintage box artwork. While the figure comes with a head modeled on the original doll, the special edition provide an alternative headsculpt which looks a bit like the alternative Playing Mantis head covered in Fred Flinstone beard stubble. There's also a few Captain Action and Mego Museum trading cards thrown in. Not a bad deal for five extra bucks.

The Dr. Eville special edition also offers some extra goodies. The standard figure looks very much like the vintage doll. Castaway Toys has even mimicked the greenish-blue tinge on the head that didn't quite match the bright blue on the body. For the early bird package, I received an alternative headsculpt that looks like the Playing Mantis alternative head, complete with the matching skin color and more horrific paint details. I also got two versions of Dr. Eville's necklace: one with an amber stone like the vintage figure, and one with a ruby stone. The ray gun, sandals, and Dr. Ling mask are remarkably accurate reproductions of the vintage toys even though the pieces are shrunk down to smaller scale. The bad doctor's Nehru suit, however, is a much darker shade of blue than the one offered on the vintage figure and the jacket is a bit too small around the neck and shoulders. I suspect that since Playing Mantis made their suit way too baggy that perhaps Castaway Toys overcompensated and made their suit too tight. Overall, though, it's a high calibre product.

I took some pictures of the Mego-style figures next to their vintage counterparts. I also wanted to show how the alternate Captain Action accessories matched up with the box artwork:

If they had also included a silver ray gun, the match would've been perfect. I would've taken photos with the alternative headsculpts, but the instructions for swapping the heads is rather elaborate and I didn't want to risk damaging the figures. Anyway, here's Mego-style Cap next to his grandfather:

And finally, Dr. Evil meets Dr. Eville:

I know, but someone had to make the joke.

In summary, Castaway Toys hit a home run with their new Captain Action and Dr. Eville figures. They are currently offering the standard versions online, and I can't wait for their version of The Phantom based on the old Captain Action costume. Since Castaway Toys already offers accessories to customize Mego figures, I'm hoping they may come up with new costumes and parts specifically designed for customizing Cap and the Doc. I'm so glad there are people out there who won't let this old soldier fade away!

Monday, October 06, 2008

The Tornados Doin' The Robot!

This looks like one of my childhood nightmares!

For a little context, go here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Latitude Zero

A couple of months ago, I was trolling the Netflix site looking for movies to add to my queue when I came across a film I'd never heard of but thought for sure I should have known of it. The movie was Latitude Zero, a Toho production from 1969 directed by Ishiro Honda. Honda directed a truckload of Japanese monster movies, most of which I watched on Saturday or Sunday afternoons as a kid, so I was surprised that I had never heard of this one. I put it in my Netflix queue and it arrived last Friday, just in time for my weekend viewing.

The movie starts with a couple of marine biologists and an American photojournalist (Richard Jaekel) exploring the South Pacific ocean in a bathosphere. An eruption from a shaky faultline sends the bathosphere tumbling into an abyss. The men are rescued by scuba divers and taken to a futuristic submarine with jet engines. On board, they meet the mysterious Captain McKenzie, played by the ruggedly macho Joseph Cotton. Now, Mr. Cotton was always a bit effeminate, but here he comes off like a contestant from Project Runway with his open-chested, poofy shirt with gold lame' trim and striking green ascot.

Captain McKenzie explains that he is over 200 years old and that he built his submarine, The Alpha, 164 years ago, making improvements over the years. Before the dazed rescuees can process this information, the Alpha is attacked by a vicious looking sub complete with shark fins. This is the attack sub of McKenzie's arch-rival, Malick (Cesar Romero). Fresh off his turn as the Joker in the Batman TV show, Romero plays the evil Malick with gutteral laughs and an impatient swagger denoting a true sociopath. This guy would run over a box of kittens because he was late for a seal bashing contest.

McKenzie and Malick were once boyhood friends, but Makick had dreams of conquering the world, so he built a small island fortress where he plots evil with a middle-aged floosie named Lucretia, who looks like a cross between Della Street and Mrs. Roper. Also assisting him is an army of extras in furry brown costumes with bat masks and ungainly wings. With a staff like that, I can't imagine why he hasn't conquered the world by now.

Anyway, the Alpha manages to outfox the shark sub and returns to the domed city where McKenzie lives, 15 miles below the surface. The city is populated by scientists from all over the world who were plucked from their ordinary lives on the surface to build a scientific utopia under water. After showing his new friends the World's Fair-type wonders of the city, McKenzie takes them to their new living quarters in an apartment building gaily decorated with spotches of pink and lavender (McKenzie's personal design, I would imagine).

Forty-five minutes in, the story finally gets moving when Malick kidnaps a Japanese scientist who is on his way to the domed city. He apparently has invented an anti-radiation serum, and he is seeking asylum from all the nuclear-powered nations who want the serum so they can unleash atomic war while keeping their own people safe from radiation poisoning. Malick wants that serum for his own purposes, and demonstrates his evilness by subjecting the scientist and his lovely daughter to displays of grotesque organ transplants. Romero really relishes his performance as he takes the brain out of his attack sub commander's head and places it in the body of a lion, then cuts the wings off a huge bird and attaches those to the lion as well. Finally, he grabs a syringe with his blood-soaked hands and injects the beast with a growth serum, creating a do-it-yourself griffin. Yes, the whole sequence is as bizarre as it sounds! And it begs the question, if you can come up with a growth serum, why can't you also invent your own anti-radiation serum? Oh, that's right, then we wouldn't have a story!

Meanwhile, McKenzie gets wind of the kidnapping and prepares a commando crew to rescue the Japanese scientist. Along with his new pals, he enlists for the mission his sub pilot Kroiga and Dr. Anne Barton (Linda Haynes, who's clearly a student of the Ricky Nelson method of acting). After dressing his crew is stylish gold lame' jump suits and matching skullcaps, they voyage to Malick's island hideout where an all-out battle is launched. Boulders tumble, lasers fire, bat wings flutter, and griffin fur flies! I guess you can imagine who wins. Afterward, McKenzie takes his pals on a long ocean voyage to Fire Island (just kidding). Actually, they try to work in a strange "maybe it was a dream, maybe it wasn't" twist that doesn't quite work, IMO.

Still, I love crazy Japanese camp like this and can't believe I've never heard or seen this movie before. According to, "When the television syndication contracts had expired this film became unavailable, reportedly due to a dispute over the rights." So I guess it's been hiding for many years and only recently made it to DVD. It's a shame it was off the radar for so long because it is definitely one of the better made movies from the Toho studios. Best of all, even though it's a Japanese production with a half-Japanese/half-American cast, the whole film is in English. No goofy dubbing with bad lip synch. An extremely fun and watchable movie... if you're in to bat people and flying griffins.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Saturday Morning Preview Shows

I know I babbled on about this last year, but I can't help but start to feel nostalgic when we reach the first Friday after Labor Day. I'm speaking about those Saturday Morning Preview shows each network (there were only three back then) would air on the first Friday evening after Labor Day. The shows were designed to promote the new Saturday morning line up premiering the next day and would usually feature stars popular with the kiddie/pre-teen crowd. In our 24/7 cartoon world of today, where kids can watch cartoons or youth-oriented programs whenever they get near a TV, such programs are alien concepts. The few cartoons shown on Saturday morning now are merely reruns of programs already aired on cable channels like Nickelodeon or Disney. Back in the 70s, though, the only new programming kids had available to them was on Saturday morning, and the Saturday after Labor Day was always the launch date for the new season. Since I went back to school that week, it was always nice to know that I had the Friday night preview show to look forward to after those stomach churning first few days of new teachers, new classmates, and new classes.

When I made my post last year, I couldn't find any video examples of the preview shows I watched when I was a kid. There are a few examples of the shows from the 80s when VCRs became available, but I wasn't watching cartoons any longer by that time, so I get no nostalgic kick from them. Today, though, I found a clip from the 1978 ABC preview show featuring Kristy and Jimmy MacNichol. The clip showcases Donny Osmond mostly, but it gives you an idea of what these Friday preview shows were like:

I know, it seems pretty lame now, but to a kid in the 70s, it was fun to see the networks put this much effort into kids shows. I remember this episode in particular because, afterward, ABC aired At the Earth's Core. This is one of my guilty pleasures and at the time, I was reading every Edgar Rice Burroughs book I could get my hands on, so I was in hog heaven that night. Here's a little taste of the movie:

Come to think of it, if I had to watch these two programs in one night now, I'd probably consider it torture. Ah, to be young and without taste!

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Where Did the Summer Go?!!

Another summer is winding down and once again I'm wondering where the time went. I seldom wonder where the winter goes; I'm just glad it's going. With summer, though, there is a child-like sense of anticipation as Memorial Day approaches and a sense of melancholy as Labor Day disappears (although my wife would disagree with that). Anyway, the sunny, sweaty months have past and I've barely touched this blog. Frankly, I just haven't been much into the past-times that I usually discuss here: action figures, childhood toys, and model building. My preoccupation with various writing projects have left me with little interest in customizing, and my limited resources have not allowed me to indulge in frantic eBay bidding. I did pick up a few things during the summer that I guess I should mention.

After being completely knocked over by the Iron Man movie, I picked up a 12" Iron Man action figure during a trip to Target. This is not the really cool one with the removable mask, but it still has some nice features like the variety of jet exhaust noises it makes as you pretend to fly him through the air and the orange plastic blobs that he can shoot from a rocket launcher in his sleeve. The figure is also really sturdy and a nice rendering of the movie version of the suit. Once upon a time, I plotted to make a Captain Action-style costume of a 60s version Iron Man, but I could never get around how to construct a proper mask. I've made masks from Poly-vinyl clay before, like my Hawkman and Dr. Fate customs, but I was intimidated by Iron Man for some reason. I may get around to it sometime.

Another action figure I picked up during that same Target trip was a talking Indiana Jones. Indy was another character I long hoped to make a custom figure of, but other projects took precedence. Since the latest movie initiated a series of 12" figures, I decided to just buy one of the ready made dolls and scratch that character off my list. I bought the talking version mainly because I liked the head sculpt better than the non-talking version, and the talking one came with more accessories. It still doesn't look much Harrison Ford, however, and the talking feature is a bit creepy.

When you stick your finger in his stomach, his mouth opens in an expression of sheer agony. Then the recorded sayings are played, all lifted from previous Indiana Jones movies (e.g., "Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?"). If the mouth moved up and down like a ventriloquist dummy, the effect might work, but because the mouth just hangs open in that painful look of indigestion, Indy appears to be possessed by some ancient Mayan god who is talking through him.

"Burritos! Why did it have to be burritos?!!"

My wife Kathy and I have become hooked on the new Dr. Who series, especially since David Tennant took over the role. One day, Kathy surprised me with a David Tennant-version Dr. Who action figure. I had seen the smaller, molded plastic versions on eBay, but this is a 12" figure with cloth clothing. The accessories are pretty skimpy with just the sonic screwdriver, but the tight-fitting suit is spot on. I'm in the process of designing a 1/6th scale TARDIS to go with the figure, but I have to find some time to use my brother's workshop to put it together.

Finally, I was sad to see that my local hobby shop closed this summer. When I was single and living in Dundalk, one of the few advantages of living in my neighborhood was being able to walk to this nifty hobby shop to pick up models and model-building supplies whenever I needed them. Just before I got married, I moved to a house in Towson and was relieved to discover a similar hobby shop within walking distance. If I happened to be working on a model or action figure and discovered I needed glue or a particular color of paint, I could just wander down to the hobby shop and pick it up. Well, the owners decided to retire and I will now have to get in the car and expel carbon gases into the atmosphere to get to my nearest hobby store. Before the store closed, I went in to see what they had on sale. Sadly, all the model kits I was interested in had already been sold, so I settled for a kit of the U.S.A.F. Bell X-1 Rocket. I'm not really interested in building it as a complete model, but I thought I would use it for parts on some other custom project (whatever that may be).

As I bought the kit, I had hoped to find some pithy thing to say to the owners on my final visit to the store. The woman at the register thanked me for my years of patronage, and I thanked them as well and left. No big speech or teary farewell. I wish I wasn't so afraid of expressing my feelings in such moments. I always let them slip away and regret it later. I will miss that little shop, though.

Well, that was my summer. I hope to get more into the swing of things in the coming months and post more frequently. The crisp Fall weather always gives me a jolt of adrenalin, so I'm eager to make use of it.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

My First Time With James Bond

With the new James Bond movie Quantum of Solace about to be released in the fall, I decided to read some of the old James Bond novels that I didn’t get around to reading during my James Bond obsession in college. Back then, I was more interested in the action, so I started in the middle of the series with Dr. No and worked my way through Goldfinger, Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, You Only Live Twice, and Man with the Golden Gun. Later on I read Casino Royale (the first Bond novel), For Your Eyes Only, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Moonraker. Now, I feel the need to complete the series, so I started this summer with From Russia With Love and then Live and Let Die.

Mind you, I bought all the Ian Fleming Bond books back in college, picking up different editions from various second-hand bookstores. The copy of Live and Let Die that I have is a movie tie-in from 1973. When I dusted off the old paperback and looked at that cover with the movie poster artwork, I was immediately transported to a summer 35 years earlier and my heart ached a bit from a sharp twinge of nostalgia. You see, Live and Let Die was the first James Bond movie I ever saw.

My family and I were in Wildwood, NJ that summer, as we had been for so many summers before and for several summers afterward. Ocean City, MD was closer to our home, but Wildwood, NJ had so much more to offer. I haven’t been there for many years, but the boardwalk in Wildwood seemed like a city unto itself when I was a kid. It went on for miles and featured pier after pier of rides and arcades. The boardwalk itself was studded with all manner of attractions, including nice sit-down restaurants and grand old one-screen movie theatres with giant marquees outside. It was in one of these theatres that I saw Live and Let Die.

This was a big moment for me because, not only was this the first James Bond film I had ever seen, this was the first grown-up action movie I had ever seen. For years, my brother Craig had been coming home from really cool movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The French Connection and telling me how exciting they were, describing in careful detail all the action set pieces. Deep down I knew that this sort of action was so much better than the feeble, low-budget fare I got to watch on television. And in the days before cable and home video, you had to wait at least two years before a theatrical film hit television, and even then it was heavily edited. I really cursed the fact that I was too young to see these films.

But now it was the summer of 1973 and I was only one month away from turning nine years old. The glowing marquee on the boardwalk called out to me. I was well aware of James Bond, having listened the summer before as Craig described the exploits of the suave James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. I also remembered seeing the Corgi version of that Moon Buggy from the film and knew that it had to have been one exciting flick. Now there was this new Bond film and I was determined to talk my parents into letting me see it. I knew my brother would help in the cajoling department, and the fact that we were on vacation in Wildwood always had a softening effect on my parents’ resolve. They decided it wasn’t such a bad way to spend the evening.

I can’t emphasize enough how much better the movie-going experience was back when you had large single-screen theatres as compared to the multiplexes of today. Since they only had one movie to show, the theatre made every effort to create an aura of excitement about the movie you were about to see. The multiplexes have every movie available in one place, so they put no effort into promoting anything. The lobbies all look the same and rather rinky-dink at that. Movie posters and standees are scattered haphazardly around where there is space. Their main interest is funneling you to the refreshment counter. Not so in the old days.

I remember standing in front of the theatre as my father stood in line to buy tickets. Not only did the flashing marquee scream that this was “the best Bond ever,” two huge, beautifully painted movie posters stood on either side of the box office. We’re talking boats crashing into cars, cars crashing into boats, boats crashing into boats, an alligator regurgitating a boat, guns, explosions, voodoo priests, sexy women in bikinis, and standing in the midst of all the mayhem was 007 himself, holding a really big gun! Of course, my brother made a point of lamenting the fact that Sean Connery was not playing James Bond anymore. It was now that prissy Saint guy, Roger Moore. This made no never mind to me, since I had never seen Sean Connery before. I liked The Saint. I even liked his show with Tony Curtis: The Persuaders. Roger Moore was okay with me. Plus, I liked how the poster artist incorporated the two “O’s” in Roger Moore’s name to spell out “007.” I thought perhaps the producers had hired Mr. Moore solely for that reason.

After getting the tickets, we walked inside and down a long hallway plastered with Bond posters and lobby cards. Seeing this hall of stills from the movie really got me jazzed. I was bursting at the seams before the movie started. Right away I was amazed at the fast-paced teaser, followed by the Paul McCartney theme song. Then we finally see Roger Moore himself in bed with a hot Italian chick. Cool! When he checked his digital watch (a very new invention in 1973), there was an audible gasp in the crowd. Little did we know that within one year we would all be wearing one (including me).

By this time, the Bond films had developed a formula of their own very different from the formula of the novels. The movies had to have at least two Bond girls (the novels usually only had one), there had to be a plethora of chrome-shiny gadgets (the novels had few if any), and there had to be a long series of superfluous action set pieces to keep the audience entertained until Bond finally ended up at the villains hideout and commenced to blowing the place up. Because the producers were so compelled to stick with a proven formula, there’s very little in these later movies that relate to the books other than some characters, locales, and maybe a few actual scenes. In the case of Live and Let Die, the similarities include a Harlem crime boss named Mr. Big who uses his Haitian roots and voodoo as a weapon of intimidation, a smuggling pipeline running from Harlem to a state in the Deep South to a Caribbean island, and an exotic fortune teller named Solitaire. Other than that, the movie is a completely different story and one that is unnecessarily more complicated, in my opinion.

I was surprised to discover that the scene in the movie where Bond is in a Harlem nightclub and his table sinks through a trapdoor in the floor into Mr. Big’s office was taken directly from the book. It seemed like the kind of cheesy thing that would only happen in a movie, but Ian Fleming always liked to push the credulity envelope (remember Pussy Galore?).

Anyway, the movie was a real thrill ride for an eight-year-old. I was surprised at how familiar the situations felt, since by this time the silliness of the action set pieces in Bond films were not far from similar scenes in Disney movies. Also, the use of a Black Mafia felt similar to the Black Exploitation movies of the day, like Shaft and Superfly. As a white kid in the ‘burbs, I was fascinated by the previews for those films shown during episodes of Soul Train. They had the exotic allure of the forbidden. I could never go downtown to see movies like that, but with Live and Let Die, I felt like I was getting a taste of them.

The rest of the summer, I was obsessed with James Bond. The theme song was a hit on AM radio all through those summer months. I ran around the neighborhood playing James Bond. I even wrote secret agent stories about my own made up spy whose name escapes me. My brother and I stayed up at night debating who was a better Bond, Connery or Moore. I was arguing for Moore simply because he was the only Bond I knew. Craig felt that Live and Let Die was a big step down from Diamonds are Forever. Looking at those movies today, I would have to say they are pretty similar since they both follow the rigid formula of 70s Bond movies. Actually, I would give Live and Let Die the edge if only because Moore’s performance seems more energetic than Connery’s, who was weary of the role at that point.

I’ve had an on-again, off-again relationship with James Bond ever since. My disappointment with Man with the Golden Gun caused me to miss The Spy Who Loved Me. I gave Bond another shot with Moonraker, and had my heart broken. For Your Eyes Only restored my faith in him, and even the goofy Octopussy hooked me on a reading spree of the old novels. I’ve seen every Bond movie in the theatre ever since, but their quality has been generally mediocre and, by the 90s, I wondered if there was any place for a character like Bond in our modern pop culture. Casino Royale proved to me that Bond could be revamped for the 21st century, and I’m back to reading Bond books again.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Project Pegasus Saga

Last summer, as I sat through the interminably long and overdone Spider-Man 3, I couldn't help but think that these Marvel blockbusters had gone horribly far afield from what made Marvel Comics great. I'm primarily a DC guy, but I did read quite a few Marvel titles in the late 70s and early 80s, and I read plenty of back issues to familiarize myself with the Marvel Universe. I couldn't understand why the movies placed so much emphasis on the name brand of a single character rather than delving into the mythology of old Marvel story arcs. After all, the second Fantastic Four movie based its story line on the original Silver Surfer story arc, leading to what I thought was a fun, action-packed film in keeping with the Fantastic Four style.

As my wife and I were driving home from the theater after Spider-Man 3, I related my feelings to her. "These sequels all fall flat because, after they've told the origin in the first movie, they don't seem to have anywhere to go. Why don't they use some of the old stories like Project Pegasus?"

Since my wife read a lot of Marvel comics in her youth, I assumed I could speak in such short-hand and she would immediately know what I was talking about. I forgot she didn't get int
o comics until the 80s and missed The Project Pegasus Saga by a couple of years. When she questioned me about it, I had to admit I didn't remember too much about it myself. I only recalled that it took place in Marvel Two-In-One, which was The Thing's version of Batman's The Brave and the Bold, and that it had to do with a top secret, underground project to investigate alternative fuel sources. The premise alone could be timely once again.

Fast forward one year and I suddenly find myself giddy over the terrific Iron Man movie and the big plans Marvel Studios have to get their movie projects on track again. With the tantalizing prospects of having Iron Man and the Hulk come together in an Avengers movie, I started thinking about the old Project Pegasus story again and sought to find the old comics on eBay (Marvel Two-In-One issues #53-58). As luck would have it, Marvel put out the whole story in a trade paperback about 20 years ago and I found a slightly beat up copy on eBay for cheap, so I snagged it.

In a nutshell, Pegasus stands for Potential Energy
Group/Alternate Sources/United States. It was a "mammoth research facility of the U.S. Department of Energy located in Mount Athena in upstate New York." The Thing is called in to help with security in the facility, which is headed by an eager young superhero named Quasar. Turns out, Pegasus is investigating every possible new source of energy including the energy produced by strange supervillains and aliens. One of the beings under study is Thing's old friend, Wundarr. Wundarr has some kind of energy-absorbing abilities, but a recent experiment has put him into a coma. Meanwhile, one of the scientists on staff, Dr. Lightner, is up to no good, and the cyborg villain Deathlok shows up to do some sabotage.

More super people show up, including Thundarr and Giant Man, and the radioactive villain Nuklo is unleashed from his cage to wreak havoc. In usual Marvel fashion, there's lots of fighting and destruction over the six-issue story line, but it basically comes down to Dr. Lightner getting hold of a device called the Nth Projector which turns him into a human black hole, sucking in everything around him. Along the way, Wundarr comes out of his coma as a much stronger being known as Aquarian. Fortunately, he arrives just in time to help confront the mutated Dr. Lightner, who is now calling himself the Nth Man. Giant Man is the first to confront the human black hole and gets sucked into another dimension. Aquarian decides he's the only one powerful enough to take on the creature, so he allows himself to be sucked in. Once he finds Giant Man, Aquarian expands his entropy enducing field, causing Nth Man to collapse in on himself like a dying star. Once destroyed, Aquarian and Giant Man are returned to reality.

Of course, I'm condensing this story a great deal. There's a whole lot more that goes on, but I wanted to give you a sense of the action. When I read this series in 1978, I was completely overwhelmed by the suspense and excitement this story generated. I became a regular reader of Marvel Two-In-One after that, but none of the stories lived up to the scope of Project Pegasus.

I think Marvel Studios should seriously consider doing an updated, live action version of this story. Get Michael Chiklis back as The Thing and bring in an ensemble cast of not-so-well-known actors to play the various third-string superheroes and villains. What you lack in big name superhero recognition you make up for in number and variety. Also, the focus should be on the story rather than the character. As the Batman movies from the 90s proved, having a recognizable superhero in the film doesn't mean much if you don't have anything meaningful for him to do. With Project Pegasus, there's enough action for a team of superheroes, and the mystery of Dr. Lightner's mission is pretty intriguing.

Using memorable stories from Marvel's mythology is the only way I can see Marvel Studios succeeding with a new generation who love the characters but aren't much into reading comic books. I mean, we're already down to the second-stringers with Iron Man and Captain America, and there were even plans to do a movie based on Ant-Man, for God's sake! Stick with what you do best, Marvel, and go with team ups!

Monday, June 23, 2008

Then Voyager

During my trip to Red Bank, NJ, a few weeks ago, I managed to find the new Voyager model kit from Moebius Models. Not to be confused with the Star Trek series, this Voyager is the vehicle used in the animated version of Fantastic Voyage. As you may recall, the Fantastic Voyage motion picture used a miniaturized submarine called the Proteus to travel through the veins and arteries of the human body. For the animated spin-off, the crew needed a more versatile means of transport which could take them anywhere their tiny hearts desired, hence the snazzy aircraft. You can watch a full episode from the series here.

As a kid, I loved both the movie and the TV series and always wanted model versions of both the Proteus and the Voyager. Unfortunately, unless I'm mistaken, no one ever made any. I did find a resin model of the Proteus online a few years ago, but when it arrived at my house, some of the brittle resin parts had already broken and it just seemed to heavy and fragile for me to build without some major cursing. It's still unassembled. Recently, however, this new plastic kit of the Voyager was released, and I'm thrilled to report that the kit is a wonderful rendering of the flying machine.

Immediately, I was excited to discover that the ship's interior is recreated in exact detail including all four crew members: Commander Johnathan Kidd, Pilot Busby Birdwell, Indian Mystic Dr. Guru, and resident hot babe Erica Lane. I had a lot of fun painting those tiny figures, right down to Kidd's eye patch and Birdwell's spectacles. I was worried that all my painstaking efforts would disappear once the kit was assembled, but the front windshield and overhead dome provide ample portholes through which to see the interior.

The outer body is relatively paint free since the ship on the series was plain white. I decided to paint the motor intakes a bronze color to make them appear more realistic and provide a pop of color to the front. For the back, I painted an orange glow effect inside each of the exhaust ports. Otherwise, I stayed true to the basic white look from the animated series.

In keeping with Moebius's attempt to mimic the Aurora model kits of old, the air craft comes with a stand which holds the Voyager aloft in a flying position. The stand even has the obligatory decal of the vehicle's logo. Every time I built one of these Aurora-esque models, I get a twinge of excitement like I'm 8 years old all over again. Moebius provides assembly instructions that look just like the old Aurora instruction sheets. The box art, while still trying to look Aurora, is a bit low rent with a spray painted styrofoam ball with nails stuck in it hanging in the background like some crude atomic particle or something. Oh well, the kit is still nice.

I've enjoyed just staring at this new model. I keep dreaming of how much fun it would've been to have this kit when I was young. What adventures we would've had... until I accidentally smashed it against a wall or dropped it down a stairwell.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Things That Went Clunk in the Night

If you were a kid during the period between the late 50s and the early 80s, you probably spent at least a few Saturday nights staying up late to watch horror movies. Every television market had a local horror movie show and in Baltimore, that show was Ghost Host on WBFF Channel 45. The Ghost Host himself was played by George Lewis, whose day job was showing cartoons and Three Stooges shorts to kids after school as Captain Chesapeake. But whereas Captain Chesapeake was a live show, the Ghost Host segments were pre-taped and reused every week for years. Let me explain:

The introduction would start with a blurry graphic of an old house over which the words "Ghost Host" would appear in a typical horror-movie-style font. The graphic would dissolve to George Lewis, the Ghost Host, dressed in some Gothic mad scientist get-up in a cheesy laboratory set. He would bob around and move his lips. That was the standard prerecorded segment which ran every week. Over top of that, they would dub in a new audio track which started with, "Good evening, this is your Ghost Host, inviting you to watch...if you daa-aare..." and then he would say whatever that night's movie would be. Here's an example:

About mid-way through the film, the Ghost Host would return in another stock sequence, this time walking around a graveyard set, complete with cardboard headstones and some straw tossed around on the floor. This is where they would dub in a new audio track each week announcing next week's film. This is how that looked:

When the movie finally ended around 1:30 a.m. and you could barely keep your eyes open, the creepy Ghost Host would return with the stock closing sequence. This one never changed. He would always utter the same words that have stuck with me for decades. He would say...well, let the man do it himself:


I don't know what scared me more: the grainy black-and-white Universal monster movie or the Ghost Host's Tai-Chi movements and out-of-sync lips. Somehow, we felt rebellious staying up and watching Ghost Host. It seems absurd now, but you got to do two things you didn't normally get to do during the week. One, you got to stay up late and two, you got to watch something that might be a tad more grown up and disturbing than The Brady Bunch. Parents usually played along, having already seen these movies as kids and knowing that there wasn't anything all that bad about them. We could feel out of control in a safe, restrained sort of way. Plus, the movies were just plain fun.

Shows like Ghost Host disappeared in the 1980s as home video became the preferred method of watching horror films. Who needs commercials to take you out of the movie just as they got to the really juicy part? Unfortunately, we also lost those wonderful local hosts who tried so hard to add a little extra fright on such a teeny budget. They are missed.

Friday, May 23, 2008


A couple of weeks ago, my brother Craig sent me an e-mail with the subject line, “Let me know if this is a crazy idea.” He had included a series of links to sites about writer/director Kevin Smith and locations he used in some of his movies. Craig wanted to check out some of these places, including Kevin Smith’s comic store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, in Red Bank, NJ. Craig asked if I would be willing to play navigator on his little quest. Always up for a long road trip in search of places I’ve never been to before, I said sure.

In the fall of 1994, two movies came out that completely blew me away. One was Pulp Fiction; the other was Clerks. To me, both represented new visions from writer/directors who were of my generation. Pulp Fiction incorporated a visual style that reflected the comic books, low-budget exploitation films, and Hong Kong cinema that permeated the consciousness of many a geek who grew up in the 70s and 80s. Clerks was the stark, indie film showing what everyday life was like for middle-class young adults with no particular direction. The Look Back in Anger for the Gen-X crowd, only with a lot more dick jokes. I was really exhilarated to see both films, which to me were ushering in a new era of films aimed at my own sensibilities rather than my parents. For the rest of the 90s, I dutifully trudged out to see every Kevin Smith film, even finding Mallrats to have a certain charm.

By the 21st century, however, I have to say I cooled on Mr. Smith. My biggest issue with his movies was that, as he grew as a writer and attempted to tackle more challenging material, he was unwilling to let go of the sophomoric humor. Within the context of a Clerks or Mallrats, that sort of scatological and sexual material was hilarious, but in more serious films, it just got in the way. I would’ve loved Dogma so much more if Jay and Silent Bob had sat that one out, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, despite the fact that I’m am less of a Kevin Smith fan than Craig, I was still interested in joining his quest. So we set out from Baltimore on a long drive up the Jersey Turnpike. The day was one of those perfect spring days with temperatures in the low 60s, cool breezes, blue skies, and cotton-candy clouds. That is, except for the pop up storms that hit every half hour or so. You can see in the picture above how blue skies were in view even as we were getting pounded with rain.

After about three and a half hours of driving, we finally found our first stop: the Quik Stop Groceries store made famous in Clerks. Although the RST Video store is closed, the sign is still up and the videos sit neglected inside. My brother was downright giddy to see the place and hurried in while I took some pictures outside.

Shortly after taking this shot, some guy who looked like Jay came out of the store and got into that Camaro.

I took some shots inside to show how small the place is. I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to film in those cramped confines. We asked the guy behind the counter if we could take these pictures and he said, “Sure. Fine.” He must get dopey tourists like us all the time.

After our quick stop at the Quik Stop, we took a short drive down to Red Bank. The town was actually more picturesque than it seemed in Chasing Amy. I took a shot of Jack’s Music Shop which was used in Chasing Amy not only as a music store, but as the entrance to the main characters’ studio and apartment.

Across the street is Smith’s comic store, Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. I hadn’t set foot in a comic store in about three years, so it was fun to reconnect with my old passion and marvel (no pun intended) at how much the comic scene has changed. I bought a copy of The
Invincible Iron Man #1, which appears to be a reboot of the series in light of the new movie. This book was a much more sophisticated production than the old Iron Man comics I remember, and the story was quite good. To soothe my culture shock, I purchased a trade paperback collection of old Avengers stories and a World’s Finest Comic from 1979. Craig bought some Kevin Smith movie memorabilia and later said that he saw the manager and Smith cast regular, Walter Flanagan, behind the counter. Somehow
, I only saw the guy who rang me up.

Our next stop was at the Broadway Diner on Monmouth Street to grab a late lunch and visit the restrooms. This was a true, actual, old fashioned diner that the North East is well known for. Most of the diners in Baltimore are newly built with modern fixtures intended to remind you of the 30s, 40s, or 50s, but actually remind you of nothing in particular. They’re a mish-mash of chrome and formica. The Broadway Diner in Red Bank retains its original look, which was created with a carefully planned design. This is the real deal. The food is good, honest diner fare as well.

Happily sated, we continued to wander around town, and I was quickly drawn toward the Hobby Masters building (their sign apparently came off, but the Toy Masters sign next door is still intact). This was a huge, two-story space filled with all manner of hobby gear. Since my main interest is in plastic models, I had to check out their large selection. I was thrilled to discover a model I’ve been searching for: The Voyager by Moebius. I’ve waiting most of my life for someone to put out a model based on the aircraft from the Fantastic Voyage animated series, and now I have one in my stubby fingers.

The afternoon was fading when Craig and I set out for home. My poor navigational skills sent us on a meandering trip back to the Garden State Parkway and eventually to the New Jersey Turnpike, but it gave us plenty of time to talk and unwind. Craig even had time to educate me on the virtue of Kevin Smith’s movies. With my interest piqued, I plan to take a second look at the movies I’ve already seen and catch up on some of his later films.

We made it back to Baltimore around 8:30. Despite the hours of driving, both of us were pretty energized. I snatched one last photo of Craig excitedly displaying his Mooby the Golden Calf hat.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Just as my adult self has searched for the perfect single malt scotch, my childhood self searched for the ideal chocolate milk. It wasn’t a quest I was consciously aware of as a kid, but looking back on it, chocolate milk was just as much a preoccupation as G.I. Joes or The Three Stooges.

Since my mom discouraged us from eating sugary snacks and seldom kept any in the house, chocolate milk was one sweet treat that was readily available when I needed a quick sugar fix. Unfortunately, the only chocolate additive we had in the house was a sad, neglected can of Hershey’s chocolate syrup which sat in the back of the refrigerator covered in hardened brown drizzles. Before the nifty plastic squeezy bottles, the only way chocolate syrup could be purchased was in tin cans that you had to open with a can opener. Once those triangular holes were punched into the top, the syrup was exposed to all manner of odors and bacteria. My mom was clever enough to put one of those generic plastic lids on it that she found at the supermarket, so we weren’t subjected to hints of onion in our chocolate syrup, but no one every bothered to wipe off the gooey overflow after they were done with the can, so six months in, the once proud Hershey’s label was oozing with cocoa dribbles resembling a Hershey Park mascot with a head wound. Having to wrestle with that can and get sticky globs of chocolate on my fingers was sometimes not worth the effort for a lousy glass of chocolate milk.

Not to mention the fact that the stuff never dissolved properly. No matter how vigorously you stirred, the first few sips were mostly milk flavored, the last few sips were violently chocolatey, and half the syrup still clung tenaciously to the bottom of the glass. Not cool.

On the other hand, Nestles’ Quick powder looked invitingly clean and simple. You put a spoonful in the milk, you stirred a few times, and the powder dissolved completely. That looked like a great solution, plus they had that clever rabbit mascot imploring you to drink it slow, but then sucking it down in one gulp. That had to be terrific! My mom wasn’t so convinced, however. I just think she preferred Hershey’s chocolate over Nestles’. Both tasted fine to me. I was grading on neatness and efficiency.

In the late 60s and early 70s, PDQ Chocolate Mix was also heavily promoted. The cool part of PDQ was the fact that it came as little, coarse pellets that dissolved in milk. I really lobbied hard for this stuff, but Mom was again reluctant, this time because it was made by Ovaltine. At the time, I wasn’t sure what she had against Ovaltine, but I wanted to try this PDQ stuff. Eventually, she broke down and got me some. I can’t remember what it tasted like, but I really liked it, which made it all the more frustrating when I had to beg my mom for a new jar every time we ran out. She would usually say, “But we have Hershey’s syrup in the fridge.” Ugh.

By the time I was eight or nine, I became fascinated with old radio shows. My parents would often wax nostalgic about them, and we had an LP record with dozens of radio show intros on them. I really got excited when a local radio station started playing some of the shows, like The Shadow and The Lone Ranger, on Friday evenings, and I also discovered that my local library had some available on cassette. One radio serial I really loved was Captain Midnight, and he was sponsored by Ovaltine. The commercials for Ovaltine were so effective, I drooled for the stuff every time, even though I had never tasted it.

Finally, I asked my parents if we could get some. Their faces went gray as if I had suggested that we take up human sacrifice as a hobby. “Ooohh, I never liked that stuff as a kid,” my dad warned ominously. My mom readily agreed, “It sorta tasted like malted milk, but…” Her voice trailed off with a wince. Still, I had to find out for myself. Heck, Ovaltine made PDQ, right? With even greater reluctance than the PDQ purchases, my mom put a jar of Ovaltine in the shopping cart, immediately regretting this waste of her meager food budget. I was not deterred, however, and excitedly made myself a glass of Ovaltine before Mom had finished unbagging the groceries. Always listen to your parents, kids! It did taste like malt, but malt that was processed in an oil refinery. I can’t quite describe the odd chemical flavor it had, but I surely didn’t want to ever drink it again. Mom looked at me knowingly, and I accepted my guilt. I had made her waste money on a jar of Ovaltine that would sit in our pantry until my freshman year of college.

Although my parents were willing to keep powders and syrups around the house, they seldom wasted money on sugary drinks like bottled soda or Hi-C Fruit Drink. That’s why I was secretly jealous of the kids that could get Yoo-Hoo. I was mainly attracted to the bottle. Currently, they come in 9 oz. bottles, but my memory from the 70s was a shapelier 6 oz. bottle. Anyway, I really wanted to hold one of those sweaty little bottles in my hand and partake of its chocolately goodness. When I started receiving an allowance, I blew some of my precious coin on a Yoo-Hoo. My disappointment did not quite match the Ovaltine fiasco, but I was not pleased. My first reaction was that it tasted watered down, but it was more than that. I knew this was not real milk. This was some sort of non-dairy representation of milk, feebly flavored with an uninteresting chocolate-like substance. I still drank it on occasion, though, mainly so I could hold that sweaty bottle.

I guess it was all these chocolate milk disasters which led me to go cold turkey as a teenager. I can’t tell you the last time I tasted chocolate milk, and as much as I like chocolate, the thought of it does not appeal to me. Now single malt scotch, that’s another story…

Thursday, May 01, 2008


In the words of the Talking Heads, “I was born in a house with the television always on.” At least, that’s the way it felt to me. I awoke to cartoons, my mom watched games shows and “her stories” during the day while she did house work, I watched cartoons and Gilligan’s Island until my dad came home and we had dinner, and I finished up the day with prime time shows like Mod Squad, Laugh-In, and the Partridge Family. Television was my window to the world beyond my street in the boring suburbs. I even gleaned bits of information from the nightly news, like Viet Nam and Watergate. In 1973, Saturday morning cartoons were interrupted by the signing of the Paris Peace Accord which ended the Viet Nam War (sort of). Television was not merely entertainment for me; it was hardwired into my very being.

Small wonder that my normal play activities were conceptualized through a television perspective. I spent an awful lot of time playing alone as a kid, and I usually pretended to be performing a television show. It had to start at a specific time and run for an allotted period (usually 30 minutes since my short attention span rarely afforded me the ability to launch a 60-minute storyline). During the day, I acted out my shows in my front or back yard. The front yard was especially good because we had a tree there where I could act out my high-flying stunts. I could imagine myself as a pirate swinging from the mast of a creaky ship, or a maverick cop chasing a bad guy over the girders of an unfinished office building.

Not that all my shows were action dramas. I did sitcoms as well, often enlisting my puppets as comic foils with me playing the straight man. I had a show with Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, then switched to a different series with Charlie McCarthy, and eventually worked with my Will E. Talk ventriloquist dummy who I considered a close friend when I was 10 years old (but that’s for another session, Doctor).

One of my favorite early evening reruns during the 70s was Get Smart, so I created my own version of the sitcom and acted it out at 7 o’clock, right after WBFF- TV Channel 45 aired Get Smart at 6:30. There was a bumbling secret agent of course, but instead of having a female partner, my show had a young, hip sidekick. Eventually, I became so enamored with the cooler side kick that he ended up doing more on the show than the main character. Think of Fonzie on Happy Days. I finally gave in to my obsession and created a spin-off show for him; however, I quickly realized that he worked better as a side kick than as a front man. Think Fish after he spun off from Barney Miller. Since I couldn’t think of a way to bring him back to the original series, I lost interest in both and I stopped acting them out in my front yard. This was my version of cancellation.

As I grew older, the television fantasy took on more shape and texture. I named my fictional TV network the Intercontinental Broadcasting Company (IBC), which I swiped from Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. All my shows were simply reworkings of programs that I was currently interested in. My fascination with Columbo and Banacek morphed into a hybrid I called Banzo (don’t ask). When I read about this odd science fiction show in England called Dr. Who, I created a sort of rip-off called The Captain. My interest is Star Trek and M*A*S*H became a science fiction dramedy called Aurora. Basically, I merged the premise of a starship roaming around the galaxy with crew members modeled after Hawkeye, Radar, etc. I even envisioned a new Batman TV show reflecting the darker, more gritty version of the Dark Knight appearing in 70s comic books.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that this fantasy play acting of mine continued until I was 14 years old. Of course, as I hit puberty, I could no longer run around outside acting goofy, so I limited my activities to the basement, or maybe in other parts of the house when family members weren’t around. I convinced myself that I was merely acting stories out which I would later write down. By age 12, I was convinced my only true skill was writing, so this play acting allowed me to work out stories before actually writing them down. Both The Captain and Aurora ended up as novels which I wrote at age 13 and 14 respectively.

A few months into my 15th year, I had to admit that my TV fantasy had to be put to an end like the rest of my childhood. The Intercontinental Broadcasting Company quietly went out of business around December 1978. I was no longer acting out shows, but my brain continued to think in terms of visual stories. In high school, I started writing screenplays. I still have some of those old handwritten manuscripts and cringe at the writing, but I am impressed that I was so obsessed with writing at such a young age. Now when I struggle to write even a simple blog entry, agonizing over every word, I yearn for a time when I could write so freely simply for the sheer enjoyment of creating stories. Just as I became self-conscious of my play acting as a teenager, I am now self-conscious about my writing as a middle-aged man.