Mister Ed

mister ed


There is a current TV series called “Wilfrid,” in which a man (played by Elijah Wood) owns a dog whom he sees as a person. The dog, Wilfrid (played by the Australian Jason Gann) is willful, and angry, and tricky. Wilfrid pretends to be Elijah’s friend, but he’s not. Wilfrid tricks Elijah repeatedly, and plots against him.

It makes me long for Mister Ed.

Mister Ed was the title character of a TV show back in the 1960s. He was a very charming horse who lived in a stable belonging to Wilbur Post (played by Alan Young), who’d bought the house / stable / horse from a previous owner. Wilbur was shocked when Mister Ed spoke to him. But Mister Ed said: “I only speak when I’m with someone I feel like speaking to.”

Mister Ed could dial an old rotary telephone (with a pencil in his mouth). When he read, he wore giant glasses! (Where did he get them, do you suppose? The Secret Talking Horse Optometrist?)

Mister Ed wasn’t stupid. He knew about most things. He did (in one episode) fall in love with another horse he’d seen in the park, but who hasn’t had that experience?

Mister Ed was a very entertaining horse.

Of course, of course.


In memoriam: Cosmo “Gus” Allegretti

cosmo allegretti


You’ve seen me write about dead relatives, and the passing of friends, and even the passing of celebrities.

 

 

Well, a celebrity passed away a few weeks ago, though many of his fans didn’t even know his real name.

 

 

He was a puppeteer / actor / dancer named Cosmo Allegretti, known to his friends as Gus. He was a regular on the “Captain Kangaroo” program that ran from the 1950s into the 1980s. But you seldom saw him – during the first ten or fifteen years, anyway. He was always in disguise.

 

 

Sometimes he was Dancing Bear, who never spoke, but who communicated through clever little softshoe routines:

 

 

 

 

Sometimes he was fussy old Grandfather Clock, who had to be awakened very gently, and who told stories and recited poems:

 

 

grandfather clock

Later in the show’s history, he was Dennis the Apprentice, always dressed in a painter’s whites, big and earnest and clumsy (though at least he didn’t have to hide his face anymore):

 

 

 

dennis

Best of all, he was Mister Moose and Bunny Rabbit. Bob Keeshan, writing about the show, said that “these two were surrogates for children, demonstrating their playful power over adults.” I loved them both: they were sneaky and dishonest without being really bad. The Captain was often frustrated with both of them, but you could tell that he loved them too, and they seemed to love him too.

 

 

Mister Moose was a practical joker. He was always tricking the Captain into saying things like “Let ‘er rip!”, at which point a couple hundred ping-pong balls would fall from the ceiling all over the Captain’s head. And then Mister Moose would go into raptures. (Personal note: whenever I do a puppet voice, it’s Mister Moose’s reedy falsetto. Why not?)

 

 

Bunny Rabbit was silent, like Dancing Bear. He was small and wore glasses. He’d get the Captain’s attention by rapping on the tabletop, and he always ended up stealing all of the Captain’s delicious carrots.

 

 

Here they are together, bamboozling the Captain one more time:

 

 

 

 

So many good memories.

 

 

Rest in peace, Gus.


 

The art of the tummler

art of the tummler


Partner and I were down on Cape Cod a few weeks ago, and we ate at our favorite restaurant, Captain Parker’s in West Yarmouth. The bar is always crowded with locals (always a good sign), and the dining room is always crowded with tourists like us (also a good sign), and the seafood is excellent.

 

 

I recognized our waiter on sight, as he’s waited on us before. He was a big cheerful guy, who worked the room like an expert; he chatted us up, wanted to know if we were golfers (which flattered us both, as we’re not golfers by a long shot); he got involved in a long conversation at a neighboring table about a recent Red Sox game; he jollied up the nearby birthday-party table by wanting to know where everyone was from, and pretended to know terrible stories about people from those towns.

 

 

He was, in short, a tummler.

 

 

From Dictionary.com:

 

 

tummler [toom-ler]: noun

  1. 1.     A male entertainer as formerly employed by resorts in the Catskill Mountains, who combined the duties of a comedian, activities director, and master of ceremonies, and whose responsibility was to keep the guests amused throughout their stay.
  2. 2.     Any lively, prankish, or mischievous man.

Origin: 1930-35 Yiddish tumler, one who makes a racket.

 

 

Many of the comedians of my childhood – Milton Berle, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye, Phil Silvers – worked as tummlers early in their careers. Most of the big Catskills resorts have closed down since those days, of course. But the personality type (see definition #2 above) will go on forever.

 

 

Our friend at Captain Parker’s is a good tummler: friendly, amiable, and with a excellent sense of when to stop.

 

 

Some tummlers, however, do not have this nice awareness of their role. They think of themselves as the lives of the party, and end up being – well – obnoxious.

 

 

I think we all know a few of these. They’re noisy, and they never let up.

 

 

We like an occasional dose of Jerry Lewis or Milton Berle. We don’t want to live with them.


 

Gerard Butler

gerard butler


Partner and I saw “Olympus Has Fallen” last weekend when we were down on Cape Cod.

Oh dear. It’s dreadful. If you really want to see it, here’s what you do: queue up “Independence Day” and “Die Hard” and “Red Dawn” one after another, and hit yourself on the head very hard with a ball peen hammer while you’re watching them.

Here’s a quick plot summary, with spoilers: North Koreans make a (very unlikely) commando attack on the White House. The North Koreans have incredible space-age weapons, and evidently all we Americans have is handguns. The American President (Aaron Eckhart) is a charming weenie who gives the North Koreans two-thirds of the computer codes they want, because “they’ll never get the third part.” Naturally, they figure out the third part on their own.

But that’s okay: a superhuman Secret Service operative, played by Gerard Butler, kills all the North Koreans and saves the President (and, incidentally, the United States of America).

Which brings us to Gerard Butler.

You might remember Gerard as King Leonidas in “300,” gigantic and bearded and powerful and angry. Well, god bless him, that’s pretty much his schtick. He’s big and dark and nicely built, and has blue eyes which range from Warm to Stern to Threatening. He’s one of those men on whom stubble looks not only good, but natural.

He’s a co-producer of this movie, so you’d expect his character to be The Hero, and you’d be right. He’s a friend of the Weenie President, and a second (and much better) father to the Weenie President’s son.

Also, he’s an unstoppable killer.

A while back, I wrote about Victor Mature, and the uses of big handsome muscular men in the movies.

“Olympus Has Fallen” establishes that nothing has changed.

We love you, Gerard, the way audiences loved Victor in the 1950s.

Now: please make better movies.

Over and out!


Radio scripts, 1939 – 1942

 


While browsing through the (unpeopled and lonely) stacks of the Providence Public Libraryrecently, I found a couple of gems: “The Best Broadcasts.” They are collections of the best radio scripts aired between 1939 and 1942.

 

 

Oh my god what nostalgia! George Burns and Gracie Allen (Gracie was running for President in 1940, as the nominee of the Surprise Party). Fred Allen, doing a spoof of Clifton Fadiman’s “Information Please” showDame May Whitty doing a grim little dramatic monologue written byW. H. Auden. Bette Davis as Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky’s sponsor / imaginary girlfriend. Clark Gable in a very funny romp about an adventurer marring a wealthy woman.

And Jack Benny!

 

 

(Now listen, Jack Benny was before my time, but he was still around in my childhood; he died when I was seventeen years old, and I remember feeling very solemn when I heard the news. I think I realized then, for the first time, that there was an older generation and a younger generation, and that one of these days I’d be promoted into the older generation. And then – uh-oh!)

The Jack Benny show had everything. He had his regulars – Don Wilson the announcer (who also read the commercials for Jell-O, which were part of the show, and are included in the script), and the young goofy singer Dennis Day, and Jack’s wife Mary Livingston, and Jack’s black butler Eddie “Rochester” Anderson, and the singer / bandleader Phil Harris, who was too cool for words (in the 1960s he was Baloo the bear in Disney’s “Jungle Book” movie).  Also Jack’s polar bear Carmichael who guarded his safe in the basement, and his ostrich Trudy in the back yard, who ate all of the bills Jack received. (Rochester: “Trudy ate so many bills yesterday that she’s laying eggs in her sister’s name.” I don’t even know what that means exactly, but it’s pretty funny.)

Hysterical, right?

Then there was a radio script about childbirth, from 1939 or so. I was a little startled that it actually mentioned having a Wassermann test (for syphilis). And there was this tender dialogue after the birth of the child:

Mary: Hank, do you care that it’s a girl?

Hank: No, Mary, that’s swell, I don’t care a bit.

Also there’s some talk in the preface to the 1939-1940 book about “the German race” and “the British race” and (get ready) “the American race.” Is there such a thing as the “American race”? If so, I don’t know of it. But, you know, I dimly remember in my 1960s childhood hearing and reading that same expression.

The most sobering volume is the 1939-1940 book, which covers a period in which Europe was at war, but America hadn’t entered the war yet. It includes an FDR speech in which he talks about the need for neutrality and pacifism, but also the need to be prepared for – hm – eventualities. (There’s a note in the book about Senator Borah of Idaho, who said that FDR was too convincing when you listened to him live; Borah insisted on reading FDR’s speeches in the paper the next day, to get them unemotionally. I know what Senator Borah meant. I don’t like to listen to political discourse; I prefer to read it. It’s less inflammatory.)

Also in the 1939-1940 book was this note about why so many comedy shows were included in the text: “It is a hard year, and it is going to get worse.”

And it did.

But there were still comedies on the air.

Coming up next: “Fibber Magee and Molly”!


Movie review: “Admission”

admission


Partner and I saw “Admission,” with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, yesterday. Tina is a Princeton admissions officer; Paul is the hipster principal of a funky New Hampshire school that teaches cow-birthing and water purification alongside other subjects. Paul has a student he thinks ought to go to Princeton, and he contacts Tina, and –

 

 

Well, if I tell you that the movie is at least sixty percent romantic comedy, you can write the rest yourself.

 

 

It’s pleasant enough. There are some funny moments, and some well-acted moments. Tina is always funny and really very pretty, and Paul is an all-purpose romantic leading man: cute without being overwhelming, cheerful, smart. There’s a nice supporting cast, including Michael Sheen (who was one of Tina’s boyfriends on “30 Rock,” and who has wonderful anti-chemistry with her), Wallace Shawn (doing his funny squinting schtick, but always welcome), and Lily Tomlin (more on her later).

 

 

But the movie goes in too many directions. Sometimes it wants to be a commentary on college admissions; there’s a running gag that, when Tina or one of her colleagues reads an application, the applicant appears in physical form before them. All of them are good kids, one way or another. How do you choose between them?

 

 

But it muddles the issue. American college and universities can’t admit every applicant, so they try to balance everything: test results, transcripts, extracurriculars, essays, recommendations. They want the kids who are most likely to succeed. The movie tries to make this point, but then lets sentimentality fudge the issue. A minor character makes an icy comment early in the movie: “In England we rely on test results. Why can’t you do that here?” (She’s supposed to be a unpleasant person, so it’s assumed that she’s heartless, and we’re supposed to disagree with her. But: why not indeed?)

 

 

Also there’s a lot of foofaraw about parentage. Tina has an ambivalent attitude toward being a parent, and maybe has a kid, and maybe not. Paul has an adopted African son and a crazy alcoholic mother who thinks lawn jockeys are cute. Tina’s mother is an unrepentant 1960s feminist, of whom Tina is not very fond.

 

 

This is supposed to be interesting and meaningful. But: meh.

 

 

Overall, this movie is a minor effort.

 

 

Now let’s talk about Lily Tomlin.

 

 

Manohla Dargis in the New York Times pointed out that Tina Fey has a knack for being clear-eyed about what it means to be a feminist, both the positives and the pitfalls. On “30 Rock,” Tina created a comedy writer (played by Carrie Fisher) who was way ahead of her time, but who was now living nearly-penniless in a filthy apartment and was still writing 1970s-style comedy.

 

 

Lily Tomlin, playing Tina’s mother in “Admission,” is the ultimate 1960s feminist. When Tina walks into her mother’s house, the first thing you see is a poster of a fish riding a bicycle. (If this doesn’t immediately suggest anything to you, just Google “fish bicycle woman.”) Lily’s dogs are named Gloria and Betty. She has a tattoo with the word “Bella” on it. Just to show that some things never change, she has an “Occupy Wall Street” poster framed on the wall. Lily has a double mastectomy without thinking about it too much, and without telling her daughter Tina. “They said it was aggressive,” Lily says. “I’m aggressive too. So I got rid of it.”

 

 

I was paying attention to every moment Lily was onscreen. She made the movie worthwhile to me.

 

 

It’s not a great movie. But if you like Tina Fey, or Lily Tomlin, you should see this movie.

 

 

Because sisterhood is powerful.


 

Foxwoods

foxwoods


I wrote yesterday about Partner and I getting comped with an ultra-cheap vacation at Foxwoods, the big Connecticut resort.

This was at Christmastime, incidentally. We checked into the MGM Grand Hotel on the afternoon of December 25, and stayed until the morning of the 27th.

Are we pagans? Are we Satanists? Not exactly. (Although I did point out to Partner that one of the Foxwoods slogans is SATISFY YOUR CRAVINGS, which is probably not the most Christian / Christmassy slogan ever written. Also I won $66.60 at one point, which means that Satan has his eye on me.)

Partner and I had a good time, at any rate. We gambled, and ate, and wandered around, and relaxed in our very comfortable hotel room, which (we both agreed) was easily the nicest $44.50/night hotel room we’d ever stayed in.

Gamblers, and the gambling lifestyle, have always fascinated me. I like wandering around the casino and watching people. There are the “hitters” – the people who punch and kick and rub and cajole the slot-machines, to make them produce. (Sometimes it works! Most of the time it doesn’t!) There are the ultra-serious groups of people playing table games, who almost never look like they’ve fun, until – rarely – someone gets on a winning streak, and they start whooping like maniacs.

Foxwoods has for the past few years run a new series of commercials and advertisements, using images of idealized patrons and gamblers. The KING is the mature man, who gambles and then has a steak dinner. The QUEEN plays slots (she “knows how to push buttons,” according to one of their ads) and goes shopping (Foxwoods has lots of shopping). The JACK is a young man who’s out with his friends. The ACE is usually a young woman, very sure of herself.

And the JOKER is – gee, I think they kind of got rid of JOKER advertising over the past year. Probably somebody realized that the Joker wasn’t just a card, but also a Batman villain.

Foxwoods was packed at Christmastime, but I didn’t see many who resembled the people in the Foxwoods ads. I saw a few groups of older men, who probably thought they were Kings. I saw lots of tooth-impaired women with bad hair and bad skin, some of them on scooters, who might have imagined themselves Queens. I saw lots of younger skinny/overweight guys in sweatshirts who surely imagined themselves Jacks. I saw no Aces at all. (I saw lots of Jokers, though I don’t think they realized they were jokers.)

What part did Partner and I play? I’m sure we were Kings. We gambled, and we ate. We’re both over fifty.

But we were probably Jokers after all.

Bwa ha ha!



Mama is a slot jockey

slot jockey


In an old episode of “The Simpsons,” Marge develops a gambling addiction. “Don’t worry,” Homer tells the kids. “Your mom just has a new occupation. She’s a slot jockey.”

Well, kids, I think I’ve discovered my new career. I’m a slot jockey too!

Partner and I got a couldn’t-refuse offer from Foxwoods recently: two nights at the MGM Grand Hotel for $89, total. Nice room, king-sized bed, etc. Loverly!

But you know why they do this. They want you to spend money. Restaurants. Services. And, um, gambling.

I have never been much of a gambler. Partner and I have patronized all the local casinos at one time or another, but I get a little panicky when I gamble, watching the money melt away like snow in the rain.

But, on this last trip to Foxwoods, everything changed magically.

Firstly there was this new slot machine: LORD OF THE RINGS – LAND OF MORDOR. You have to see it to believe it! The Eye of Sauron glowers down at you from above, shimmering evilly. You play for a while, and if you’re lucky enough to hit three bonus symbols – three Eyes of Sauron, or three Rings of Power – suddenly the world changes around you. Your chair begins to vibrate. Dramatic music (piped into you via bone conduction, through the chair) thunders into your body. The voice of Galadriel (probably not Cate Blanchett, however) speaks: “Look upward! Look at your destiny!”

And you look up at the glowering Eye of Sauron, and it shows you a special bonus: the Hands of Saruman, or Gollum’s Precious Prize, or Frodo’s Ring Bonus, or something equally bizarre.

A bonus comes up once every ten spins or so. It’s wonderful. I played that machine for about an hour, and I was thrilled every time the bonus came up. The vibrating seat was as good as any Brookstone shiatsu-massage chair I’ve ever experienced. And you get a monetary reward at the same time!

Talk about positive feedback!

Okay. So, after a bit, I realized that the Land of Mordor wasn’t paying off all that well, vibrating chair or no vibrating chair. I wandered for a while, and found a machine called GOLDEN CHARIOTS. I took the money I’d parlayed from the Land of Mordor – I’d turned $20 into $25 – and fed it into GOLDEN CHARIOTS.

In no time at all, $25 had turned into $100.

People were hovering around me, grinning at me, giving me thumbs-up. (They were also hoping that I’d get up soon and leave this hot machine, so that they could play it.)

Honestly, who can figure slot-machines out? There’s an algorithm controlling the machines: it makes the payouts more or less frequent, and/or more or less large, depending on the time of day, and the number of players, and lots of other factors.

Also, the machines know who I am. Whenever I sit down at a machine, I insert my Foxwoods Rewards card, so that I can earn points and money from the casino. But also, the casino can track me and see what I’m playing, and how much I’m betting. I’m sure the slot machines’ algorithm is sophisticated enough to learn something about what makes me tick.

In a few slot-machine sessions, I earned a hundred dollars over and above what I’d played.

Then Partner and I had dinner.

Then I went back to the casino and played other machines, and I ended up giving my winnings back to the management (all but a bit).

Foolish? I know.

But entertaining.

During the in-between time, when I was still ahead a bit, I bought a GREEN CORN POWWOW hat from the Native American store with my lucky winnings

I should have worn it that evening. But I wore my French hipster hat instead, and lost.

Maybe I can blame it all on the Eye of Sauron.


Networking


Not long ago I received an email entitled “The ABC Insider,” with news and views about ABC’s programming season. I glanced through their schedule, and their ads, and their promos, and I found myself thinking: Yeah, it looks like ABC.

And then I stopped and wondered: what did I mean by that?

When I was a kid in the 1960s and early 1970s, we pretty much subsisted on programming from the Big Three: ABC, CBS, and NBC.  Somehow, each network managed to have a personality (we call it “branding” nowadays). I never really thought about it at the time, but I think about it now, and it was real then, and it’s real now.

I managed to put myself into a kind of memory trance to dredge up recollections of programs I watched in those days, and I tried also to remember what network they were on. It was surprisingly easy. (I went through later, using that new invention “The Internet,” to verify my recollections, and I was right in every instance.)  I then looked for a thread that ran through the programming in each network’s case, and in each case I didn’t have to look very hard.

NBC was in those days the sophisticated network: “Laugh-In.” “The Tonight Show.” Later, “Julia” (“brought to you with pride . . . by Jello”). NBC was urban in a kind of wink-wink Playboy Club way, or in a dignified dinner-party way. It was For Grownups, or For Those Who Wanted To Believe They Were Grownups.

CBS churned out variety shows: Red Skelton, Gary Moore, Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason. They were the home of all those hick comedies like “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres” and “Petticoat Junction.” And, of course, they were the home of Lucille Ball. CBS was almostvaudeville. I remember when I went to college in Spokane in 1974, the local CBS affiliate’s office still had the old mid-60s network slogan on its facade, “The Stars’ Address.” CBS was all about personalities: familiar names, proven talent. And not just Entertainment, but FamilyEntertainment. No grin-grin wink-wink here; everything was broad and obvious. This was the network that churned out “Hee Haw” a few years later.

ABC was all over the map. “Hollywood Palace.”  “Peyton Place.”  “Garrison’s Gorillas.”  “Alias Smith and Jones.”  “Batman.”  “Bewitched.”  “That Girl.”  With very few exceptions, they were half-hour shows, brittle and jokey, or broad and soapy. ABC was almost the 1960s equivalent of the Fox Network. Most of all, ABC skewed young: bright new faces, chirpy comedies.

All these decades later, it continues. I look at a show like “The Ghost Whisperer,” earnest and cute and mock-dramatic, and I think: yeah, CBS. And I look at something kooky and snapping-fingers hip like “Lost,” and I think: yeah, probably ABC.

But now there’s a channel for everything. (I have a fond memory of the episode of “Married with Children” when they first got cable: “What’s this?” “The Japanese Channel.” Click. “What’s this?” “The Stained Glass Network.”) But a network/channel like that isn’t really the same thing. It’s like a store that sells only Scotch Tape. The three big networks in the 1960s were like full-range department stores, each with a slightly different feel: upscale, midrange, family-friendly, bargain-basement.

(But the deepest mystery of all is this: what in the world is going on inside the brain of a fifty-five-year-old man who has to concentrate hard to remember today’s date, but who can still remember what network “Garrison’s Gorillas” was on, forty-five years later?)


Morning TV


On “30 Rock” a few seasons ago, Tracy Morgan came charging in and asked Tina Fey: “Liz Lemon, who’s crazier: me or Ann Curry?”

Well, Ann Curry is gone now, crazy or not. She giggled a little too much, and she was definitely a lightweight. But she was definitely a morning-show person, god bless her, no matter how crazy she might have been.

Morning-show people always seem to become part of the family.  While I’m in the bathroom on weekday mornings, getting ready for work, I can hear Partner laughing at George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts and Sam Champion on “Good Morning America” in the bedroom.

Before George, of course, there was big ugly/handsome Chris Cuomo (brother of the current Governor of New York), who mostly seemed to enjoy getting into ticklefights with Sam Champion.

Then there was the gorgeous CBS weekend host Chris Wragge, big and blond, like your handsome athletic cousin. He actually hosted the CBS weekday morning show for a while, but left this past January. He won’t be soon forgotten hereabouts.

Even the local hosts are interesting.  Partner and I used to enjoy the oddball pairing of Mark Zinniand Michelle Muscatello on Providence’s Channel 12: they were always making each other laugh, and often came within inches of saying inappropriate things, which was exhilarating.  Michelle is still with us in Providence, but Mark is back in Cleveland, his home town.  I miss him.

Then there was the monstrous Vince DeMentri, who used to be the local Fox morning host.  He was big and blocky and handsome, but he gave off a kind of DANGER signal, like the abusive husband in a Lifetime movie.  The show had a meek little co-host named Sean Tempesta, who seemed to make Vince furious; after a while, Vince wouldn’t even share the set with Tempesta.

Then, suddenly, DeMentri disappeared.  I did a little research – wonderful place for research, the Internet! – and found that Vince had been a very bad boy in Pennsylvania before coming to Providence; he’d had an affair with another anchor, started doing stupid things (he hid her blow-dryer!), etc.  After he left Providence he went to New York City, where a few years ago he slapped the Bahamian ambassador’s driver for getting in his way.  Vince was acquitted, but lost his job in NYC. God knows where he is now.

I love morning television.  It’s like a box of chocolates.  You never know what you’re going to get.


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