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.