Friday, April 22, 2011

Easter Weekend 40 Years Ago

With Easter approaching, I've become nostalgic over my favorite Easter weekend which occurred 40 years ago. In fact, Easter 1971 is the only Easter I can remember with any clarity. Many Christmases are emblazoned on my cranium, but for some reason, I don't remember much about Easters past except one.

The holiday break from school that year started on Good Friday. I was in first grade and not yet familiar with the predictable ebb and flow of school vacations, so this 10-day escape from reading and arithmetic was a real treat. I was also jazzed because this would be the day I got my new kitty cat. Our last cat, a ginger tabby named Sassy, had been hit by a car a couple months earlier and, since our dog Patty was not the most exciting pet in the world, I was eager to get a new cat. A lady around the corner had a female cat who had just delivered a litter, but we had to wait six weeks for the kittens to be weened. To a six-year-old, that's like a decade. Almost everyday, I nagged my mother about getting the new cat, but she patiently told me we had to wait. Well, Good Friday was the day!

When we got to the lady's house, she had her cat and the kittens out on the front lawn. Several kids and their mothers were already there to nab a kitten for themselves. They were all gray tabbies, which meant they all looked basically alike. I noticed, however, that one of the females had some orange running through its fur and an orange streak across her belly. She was special, so that was the one I chose.

She was such a tiny thing, I marveled at how dwarfed she was by the furniture as she scampered across the living room carpet. My mom was more concerned about how the cat and the dog would get along, but the little kitten walked right up to Patty who was snoozing in the kitchen and rubbed herself against the dog's muzzle. Patty looked up at us as if to say, "Do I have to put up with this?" Yes, she did.

Since the kitten was born in March, my mom said we should call her "Windy." Of course, that eventually evolved into Wendy, and she lived for over 18 years. I  was well into adulthood before the old girl finally had had enough.

The weekend also stood out in my mind because it was the premiere weekend for the first independent television channel in Baltimore, WBFF-TV 45. It's hard to believe that there was once a time when you only had three or four TV channels to choose from. In 1971, Baltimore had the three network affiliates and a public television station. An independent channel opened up a whole new world of television options, mainly syndicated kid shows and old black-and-white movies, but that was pretty exciting in 1971.

The main attraction for me, of course, were the kid shows. Suddenly, I was exposed to all manner of Japanese fare (Astro Boy, Marine Boy, Ultra-Man, and Speed Racer), along with the Supermarionation fun from Gerry Anderson's Century 21 Productions (Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet). There was also a lot of old stuff I had never seen before like The Three Stooges, The Little Rascals, and Ruff and Reddy (I still have the theme song stuck in my head). All this juvenile goodness was brought to us courtesy of Channel 45's new kiddie show host, Captain Chesapeake. Here was his intro:

After running teaser shows Friday and Saturday, WBFF-TV officially began broadcasting on Easter morning. I remember turning the TV on first thing so I could watch the new (to me) programming while I dug into my Easter basket. And this year was really special because, in addition to the candy and eggs that we had dyed a few days earlier with Paas egg dyes, my mom included some small toys for my brother and I. The ones that stand out the most in my mind were the Wizzer tops from Mattel. Wizzer tops had been around for a couple of years by then, but these new tops were shaped like soda cans. I got the Seven-Up can version while my brother got the Coca-Cola can. Below is a picture of the box it came in:

As you can see by the picture on the box, what made Wizzer tops special was that, unlike a regular top where you had to wind a string around it and pull the string off really fast to get the top to spin, Wizzer tops had a rubber tip on the bottom that you rolled along the ground really fast to get the tip spinning. Then you set it on the floor and let it fly. Great stuff for a six-year-old.

Of course, all good things must come to an end (at least temporarily), and we had to go to church for Easter service. Mom crammed me into one of my brother's hand-me-down suits, snapped the clip-on tie to my collar, and off we went. Church was always dead boring for me, so I just studied everyone in the church, wondering how old they were or how much they weighed or if that sinister looking guy was a criminal. Fortunately, it was only an hour and I could get back home to my half-eaten bunny and my top.

The weather was unusually warm for Baltimore in April, and I recall us going to a nearby park in the afternoon. I enjoyed being in the warm sun and swinging on the swings, but I really wanted to get back home so I could watch Ultra-Man. The next day, I woke up and turned on WBFF-TV right away to see what they were showing. Unfortunately, it was a test pattern. They wouldn't start their weekday programming until three in the afternoon when Captain Chesapeake would begin. Oh well, can't all be gravy.
At least my mom got us some new breakfast cereal we had seen on TV: Count Chocula and Frankenberry. The commercials were so much fun, the cereal had to taste great, right? Nope. Even to my underdeveloped palate, the fake chocolate flavoring on the Count Chocula was really horrible, like stale Nestle's Quik. The strawberry flavor on the Frankenberry was better, but there was just something crappy about it. I kinda regretted asking for it. Now I was stuck eating both boxes or risk the ire of my mom.

Despite the cereal fiasco, the rest of the week was so much fun. Easter break was a new experience for me, so I guess the newness of it made it so special. Once I was back in school, I could see light at the end of the tunnel. First grade would be over in about eight weeks. That wasn't much longer than the time it took to get a new kitty cat. If I could survive that wait, I could make it to summer. The rhythms of life were beginning to dawn on me.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Elisabeth Sladen Dies at 63

I was crushed to read the news this morning that Elisabeth Sladen, best known as Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who, has died at age 63. Doctor Who became a favorite of mine even before the show was aired in the United States. In 1977, I found a copy of  The Making of Doctor Who in my local comic book store and read about this remarkable show which was a pop culture fixture in the UK but barely known about in the states. Since Elisabeth Sladen was the Doctor's companion at the time the book was written, it was full of photographs and references to Sarah Jane Smith. My little 13-year-old heart was instantly captivated by the brunette with the the big smile.

Intrigued by this initial taste of Dr. Who, I told the comic store owner to be on the look out for any more Dr. Who material he might come across. I also scoured comic shows for the numerous novel adaptations of the show. Soon, I had a pile of Dr. Who novels, magazines, and annuals before I ever watched a single episode of the show, and I was particularly interested in anything related to Sarah Jane.

In the fall of 1979, the first four seasons of the Tom Baker era were broadcast in the United States and most of those episodes featured Elisabeth Sladen as his companion. Now I was really smitten. She had a certain playfulness which worked well with Tom Baker's naughty boy approach to the Doctor. It was as if she was the understanding elementary school teacher to her precocious student. Most of the other Dr. Who companions were simply there to follow orders and ask the questions that the audience might be thinking as the story unfolded. Sarah Jane seemed to have a more equal partnership with Tom Baker's Doctor, at least on an emotional level. She was the first companion, in my opinion, whom you actually thought could have a serious relationship with him.

I was sad to see her run on the show end. None of the companions after her measured up. I also found it interesting to see her first season on the show with Jon Pertwee when those older episodes were made available in the late 80s. The previous companion, Jo Grant (played by Katy Manning), was perfectly suited to Jon Pertwee's style while Sladen's Sarah Jane was far too independent and cheeky to mesh with the fatherly Pertwee. They didn't have any chemistry at all. It's a good thing Pertwee left after her first season or I suspect Sarah Jane would not have hung around the Tardis for quite as long.

My crush on Elisabeth Sladen was long forgotten when I saw her appear once again as Sarah Jane in the new Dr. Who. It didn't take long, however, for those fond feelings to return. I thought the new team did a wonderful job of fleshing out Sarah Jane's character and exploring all those emotional bonds she had with the Doctor which the original series never dared touch on. It was a great episode and I thought how fun it would be to see her come back in a new series. Apparently, the BBC felt the same way and introduced The Sarah Jane Adventures the following year. Aimed primarily at children, I was less than thrilled with the results, but it was nice to see her back on TV.

Just a few days ago, I watched Genesis of the Daleks on DVD and listened to the audio commentary featuring Tom Baker, director David Maloney, and Elisabeth Sladen. I couldn't help but laugh at her child-like enthusiasm for everything that was happening in the story. While Tom Baker said very little, only chiming in occasion to make a well-timed witticism, Sladen rattled off constant details about the production and seemed to be able to name everyone, including the extras. It was so much fun to have her in my home, so to speak. And now she's gone. I lament that I will never hear her cry out "Doctor! Doctor!" ever again.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Space Race that Never Was

The other day, I was watching Gerry Anderson's 1969 movie Journey to the Far Side of the Sun, and I found myself dozing off during the middle part of the film. It starts off well enough with some spy plot which is never fully explained, and the last third of the movie introduces an intriguing concept, but the middle is totally devoted to the development of a manned space flight to a planet on the other side of the sun. We see astronauts training, a giant rocket being built, and pudgy, sweating bureaucrats huffing about the cost and international politics. It's painfully slow and could never be done in a modern movie, but it illustrates how strong the fascination was with space exploration during the 1960s.

Having just missed space-mania (I turned 5 years old when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon), I was always fascinated by the residual artifacts of this period which were still around during the 1970s. One of the names that surfaces fairly frequently was Willy Ley (1906-1969). Ley spent much of his adult life popularizing the idea of space exploration. He wrote several books on rocketry and outer space, first in Germany and later in the U.S. It was during the 50s and 60s, when he teamed with such people as Wernher Von Braun and artist Chesley Bonestell on books about space, that a popular public image of space travel was created.

The spaceships that these men envisioned were sometimes sleek and aerodynamic, other times clunky and utilitarian, but all were imaginative and fun. During the late 50s, Ley worked with the Monogram model company to create a series of conceptual space vehicle models. I was not aware of these models until they were re-released by Monogram in the late 1990s. Just getting back into model building after a long hiatus, the sight of these model kits on the hobby shop shelves took me back to those days of my childhood when I was teased by the images in Ley's books.

The first of these models that I built was the Space Taxi. I assume the purpose of the vehicle was to shuttle people and provisions to space stations or even the moon. It's an awkward sort of thing, but it has a certain charm. My favorite part of the design was having the wire tethers for the astronauts so they appear to be hanging in freefall.

The second Willy Ley model I built was called the Passenger Rocket. I don't have it anymore because it was destroyed when I moved from my old house to my current home, but it was a chunky red ship similar to Thunderbird 2 from the show Thunderbirds. A smaller, streamlined ship looking like a 50s-style jet fighter rides piggyback on top of the larger craft. According to the illustration on the box, the larger ship was designed to carry the smaller ship out of Earth's atmosphere and launch it once it was in space.

The variety of designs showed that Willy Ley put a great deal of thought into what an extraterrestrial society would need to function, and the fantasy that such a thriving community could exist within our solar system is exciting to ponder. I'm sure in the 1950s, with the start of the space program, it also seemed within reach.

As a teenager, long before I even knew of the Willy Ley models, I stumbled onto a spaceship model called Mars Probe. It's origins are unclear to me. It certainly was not tied into any merchandising campaign for a movie or TV show. However, the look of the craft is reminiscent of the ships Willy Ley and Chesley Bonestell envisioned. Based on what we know about the requirements for a manned flight to Mars, this rocket looks completely impractical, but it looks way cooler than the Lunar Module or the Space Shuttle.

More recently, while browsing through a hobby shop, I came across a curiosity called Apollo 27. Put out by Pegasus Hobbies, the model appears to be a fantasy vision of where NASA could have gone had they not stopped with Apollo 17. The copy on the side of the model box conjures up the hyperbolic language of the early space race: Blast off into the unknown and explore the furthest reaches of the Cosmos with the new Apollo 27 Rocket! Designed to safely transport its two man crew to wherever their mission takes them, it also provides then with an all around view was never been available to the other astronauts who traveled before them. Hyper-dynamo-tension rocket engines give the Apollo 27 an acceleration rate that staggers the mind, and yet completely protects the crew from the massive amount of G's that would normally crush them! This makes far journeys possible in just a few short months, not decades. Mars is just a hop away now!
I get a chill from that sort of thing! It's the kind of "why not?" enthusiasm that faded away after the Apollo astronauts hit a couple of golf balls around the lunar surface. With the end of the Apollo program and the appearance of Star Wars a few years later, space adventure shifted from what could actually happen to pure fantasy in a galaxy far, far away. The general public doesn't cares about making it a reality anymore. In a way,  space exploration seems just as distant to us now as it did to the early readers of science fiction pulps almost a century ago. It makes me sad.