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.


The Moulin Rouge


Before we left for Paris, Partner got us tickets for the Moulin Rouge. The tickets were hard to get; the show sells out very quickly.

And now I know why.

First of all, the neighborhood is exactly what you want it to be: it’s a slightly less grubby version of the old Times Square in Manhattan, or Boston’s late lamented Combat Zone. We arrived early and had a drink in a sidewalk café, and watched a pretty young prostitute pick up a nice young man at the next table. Romance!

The show was old-fashioned burlesque: big costumes, big musical numbers, and a little dash of Cirque du Soleil. The theme was “Feerie”: Fairyland.  There were two jugglers, one serious, one very funny. There was a big “exotic” musical number that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to be Indian, or Chinese, or Japanese. There were little ballads. There was, of course, the Can-can. (We were seated at a table with two very serious Frenchwomen, who only applauded the Can-can.)

Then there were the breasts.

They were everywhere, and they gave me quite a turn. I think I must have seen seventy or eighty of them. They were (mostly) very pert. (There were lots of bare behinds too, but they made less of an impression on me, for some reason.)

There was very little beefcake. There was one very nice number with two handsome acrobatic male dancers, one shirtless and the other in a t-shirt, who did elaborate handstands and carries. I could have done with a little more of that.

Upon leaving the club, I realized I’d left my American cap behind. To hell with it! I thought. I went to a street vendor and bought a very rakish hipster hat for seven euro.

So now I take a piece of the Moulin Rouge wherever I go, and my little American cap is floating around Montmartre somewhere.

Who knows? Maybe that prostitute has it.

Vive l’amour!


Jinx Falkenburg


The Providence Public Library is full of old unhappy-looking books which haven’t seen the light of day in decades. I like to take them out into the sunshine, and wipe the dust off their covers, and sometimes even peek inside them, to see what people were reading during the Van Buren administration.

For example: I was strolling down the biography / autobiography aisle the other day when I saw the word JINX on the spine of an oldish-looking book.

I took it down, and sure enough: it was the autobiography of Jinx Falkenburg.

What? You’ve never heard of Jinx Falkenburg?

Jinx was a model in the 1930s. She was Miss Rheingold Beer, and a sort of actress, and a tennis star. She did a lot of USO work during World War II. She married a journalist, Tex McCrary, and after the war, they had a radio show which was broadcast from their very own home. Also they had a TV show for a while in the early 1950s.

She was very popular in her day. She was pretty in a Rita Hayworth way. She was a raconteur, and told endless stories at a breathless pace, one tumbling on top of the next. The book (whether she wrote it, or whether it was ghostwritten for her) tries to echo her chatty cheerfulness; now, after sixty years, it feels like cocktail conversation that wasn’t really very interesting at the time, and is definitely not very interesting nowadays.

Also, Jinx knew everyone: Rise Stevens, Bernard Baruch, Paulette Goddard, Pat O’Brien, the Ritz Brothers, the Paleys . . . .

Yes, I know. Who are these people?

It’s bad enough that Jinx was a name-dropper. It’s worse now, all these years later, when most of Jinx’s famous friends are just as forgotten as Jinx herself. This is my favorite passage along these lines: “Tex asked a whole group over to “21” for dinner – the Jack Strauses, Joanne Sayres and Tony Bliss, Carl Whimore, the Howard Twins.” I like to think I know who was who in the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, and I have no idea who she’s talking about here.

 

(But this is a lesson in ephemerality. These were celebrities, not so long ago. And now they’re gone, and forgotten: Jinx, and Tex, and Paulette Goddard, and the Howard Twins.)

Everyone gets forgotten. Even Jinx and Tex. Even you and me.

It is a lesson to us all.


 

Movie review: “It Should Happen To You”

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I caught another odd interesting movie on TCM a while back: “It Should Happen To You.”  Quick synopsis: Gladys Glover (Judy Holliday), down on her luck, meets lively interesting documentarian Pete (a young Jack Lemmon), who tries to cheer her up, and who (incidentally) finds her fascinating.  Then Gladys gets an idea: why not invest in a billboard?  It will be in Columbus Circle in Manhattan and it will just say her name: GLADYS GLOVER.  If nothing else, it will make her feel better about herself.

 

 

Things go wild.  Evan Adams III (a young and sickeningly handsome Peter Lawford) tries to buy the billboard away from her for his family’s soap company; then, of course, he falls for her.  He makes a bargain: if he can have the Columbus Circle billboard, he’ll give her six others, strategically placed throughout Manhattan. 

 

 

People start to recognize her name.  How can they not?  It’s plastered all over the city.  A cynical reporter does a story about her – just another crazy New Yorker –  but realizes quickly that the audience likes her goofy sincerity.  Soon she’s on TV, with 1950s celebs like Ilka Chase and Wendy Barrie and Constance Bennett.  Lawford’s soap company makes her their spokesmodel.  Gladys is suddenly famous, and enchanted with the idea of being famous.

 

 

Poor Jack Lemmon is sulking at the sidelines this whole time.  Finally, of course, being good-hearted, Judy realizes that her fame is based on nothing, and renounces it, and marries Jack.

 

 

Is any of this resonating with you?  Is the name “Kardashian” occurring to you, or “Paris Hilton”?

 

 

The movie works for a couple of reasons.  First: Judy Holliday.  The woman couldn’t turn in a bad performance.  She always played the same character, of course: uneducated but smart, quick, funny, deadpan.  Jack Lemmon is at his young/goofy best too (this was his first movie).  Also there’s the writing: it’s a Garson Kanin screenplay (supposedly inspired by a comment he made to his wife Ruth Gordon during a downtime in their careers, when he pointed up at a prominent Manhattan billboard and told her that her name would be up there someday), and the dialogue is very sharp.  He knew how to write for Judy Holliday (she was in both “Adam’s Rib” and “Born Yesterday”), and I would love to know how much of the dialogue came from Garson’s typewriter and how much was pure Judy.  It’s also a nostalgia romp for old-timers like me, with the black-and-white cinematography of Manhattan. (I swear there are whole streets and avenues that haven’t changed since this movie was made; at one point Partner sat up and pointed at the screen and said: “Bickford’s! I remember eating there!”)

 

 

But, for me, it was mostly about the anatomy of fame. 

 

 

Lots of old movies are about the perils of fame: “Meet John Doe,” “Nothing Sacred,” “A Face In the Crowd.”  It makes one realize that Hollywood has not changed, nor human nature, nor our appetite to be rich and famous, nor our appetite to be close to the rich and famous.

 

 

The movie has a silly squishy ending.  It also has a very mawkish song.  I’m just warning you, in case you see it.

 

 

But do see it.

 

 

It will make you laugh a couple of times, but it will also make you think.

 

 

A little.


 

The Academy Awards telecast, February 26, 2012

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Last year I did a little running commentary on the Oscar telecast with James Franco and Anne Hathaway.  This year I will attempt it again. 

8:30pm, Eastern Standard Time.  It’s Billy Crystal!  He leaps from movie to movie in a crazy montage (James and Anne did the same thing last year), kisses George Clooney, gets to muss up Tom Cruise, does one of his own lines from “Princess Bride.”  Billy looks strange; his face is pale and stretched, as if he’s wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask.  He still has a lot of flair, however; he does his little song about all the nominated films, and I suddenly realize that Billy is a tummler in the old Borscht Belt tradition, working the crowd, making them laugh.  (He also does the first of many jokes about the Kodak Theater being renamed after the company’s bankruptcy.)

“Hugo” wins two awards.  (Note to self: see “Hugo,” it actually looks sort of lovely.)

(Commercial for JC Penney, featuring Ellen DeGeneres in the Old West.  Cleverest thing on the show so far.)

J-Lo and Cameron Diaz present makeup/costume Oscars.  Seriously?  I guess these have been identified as “girly awards,” which can only be presented by girly girls.  Jim Rash, the crazy actor who plays the cross-dressing dean on “Community,” would have been ideal for these categories.

The foreign-movie Oscar goes to the Iranian movie “A Separation.”  Partner comments that the Republican Presidential candidates will no doubt be incensed by this.  I’m sure he’s right.  (And did you know that Sandra Bullock speaks German?  It’s like finding out that Jayne Mansfield played the violin.  Seriously, she did.)

Octavia Spencer wins Best Supporting Actress for “The Help.”  Good for her: it was well-deserved.  “The Help” was one of the few nominated films Partner and I saw this year.  Olivia is overcome during her acceptance speech; “I’m freaking out!” she says toward the end.  And the audience loves it. 

(Seriously: what’s with that hypercool bongo-and-electric-violin combo playing up in the balconies?  It reminds me of the cantina scene in “Star Wars.”)

We are treated to a mildly amusing sketch about a 1939 focus group tearing apart “The Wizard of Oz”: not enough monkeys, get rid of Dorothy, etc.  (Tip to Oscar directors/writers: please stop doing these sketches.  We really just want to see who wins the awards.)

(“Hugo” is quietly piling up a whole bunch of technical awards.  Hollywood loves Scorsese.)

Oh Jesus now it’s Cirque de Soleil.  It’s lovely, but – come on.

Gwyneth Paltrow (ew!) and Robert Downey Jr. come out together to present the award for best documentary.  I love him so much; he’s naturally funny, over-the-top goofy, and I don’t care that he’s wasting time, he’s a big-time actor and I’m not completely sure that he’s not off-script right now.

Chris Rock presents the award for best Animated Feature.  He is so damned funny.  I was one of the people who thought he was terrific as an Oscar host; I was watching the audience roar at his jokes, and thinking: Maybe they’ll give him another chance one of these days.  (I still remember a bit he did: he went to a regular neighborhood theater and asked people what movies they were seeing.  No one was seeing the Oscar Nominated Movies.  Everyone was seeing “Saw IV” and “Fright Night.”  I thought his bit was funny and smart.  I think the Hollywood audience thought it was rude.)

Melissa Leo, who dropped the F-bomb last year when she won for Best Supporting Actress, presents Best Supporting Actor.  She is very dignified this year, naturally.  Christopher Plummer wins, for portraying a gay man in “Beginners”!  (He says, to his Oscar: “You’re only two years older than me, darling.  Where have you been all my life?”)

(Billy throws big Jumbocam pictures up on the screen of audience members and speaks for them.  When it’s Nick Nolte, he just groans.  When it’s Uggie, the cute little dog from “The Artist,” he yells, “If I had ‘em, I’d lick ‘em!”)

Will Ferrell and Zach Galifikinakis come out, inexplicably, both with a pair of cymbals which they crash on and off, to present the award for Best Song.  “Am I A Man Or Am I A Muppet?” wins.  One of the guys from “Flight of the Conchords” wrote it, and accepts the award, charmingly.  Delightful all around.

Angelina Jolie presents.  She is all over the place, lots of flesh.  Her lips are gigantic.   They terrify me.  (The first award is for Best Adapted Screenplay.  OMG! Jim Rash (see above comment re J-Lo and Cameron Diaz) wins an award! He poses like Angelina, with his hand on his hip! The second is for Original Screenplay, and Woody Allen wins. Naturally he’s not there.)

Milla Jovovich does the summary of the technical awards. She is a very special person, and they did some nice clips. I always feel bad at this point: these guys, the technical guys, have to receive their awards off-camera, from a B-list celebrity.  But – you know what? – Milla Jovovich is kind of okay for this.

The actresses from “Bridesmaids” present the award for Short Film.  They are very funny, talking about Long and Short, and which feels better to them.  “Short’s okay, if it’s got some heft to it.” (One of the awards goes to a Pakistani film, “Saving Face,” about women in Pakistan who have acid thrown in their faces.  Once again Partner predicts that the Republicans will be pissed off, and again, I’m sure he’s right.)

Best Director: Michael Douglas presents the award.  He doesn’t look good at all; he looks hollow and ancient. And the winner is . . . Michel Hazanavicius, for “The Artist”!  Surprise, because I thought it was going to be Scorsese!  Hazanavicius makes a gracious speech.  Good for him.  (Looks good for “Artist” as Best Picture, right?)

Meryl Streep announces special awards: James Earl Jones, Dick Smith, and Oprah Winfrey.  Wha’?  (Dick Smith has done makeup since forever.  The other two recipients you probably already know.)

Now we do the Necrology.  Esperanza Spalding sings “Wonderful World,” beautifully.  Farley Granger, Whitney Houston, Michael Cacoyannis, Peter Falk, Cliff Robertson, Sidney Lumet, Sue Mengers, Steve Jobs (?), Hal Kanter, Jackie Cooper, Ben Gazzara, Elizabeth Taylor.  (Such a lot of talent we lose in any given year.  This always makes me sad.)

Natalie Portman presents the award for Best Actor.  She’s very cute!  She does long introductions for all of the nominees.  Jean Dujardin wins for “The Artist”! He’s adorable, big nose and all, and he has a great smile.  He’s cute and charming and gives a nice thank-you speech in broken English.

(The third Ellen DeGeneres commercial just aired; she’s in ancient Rome now, trying to return something.  These commercials are wonderful.)

Colin Firth is presenting the award for Best Actress.  He reminds us that he was in “Mamma Mia” with Meryl Streep.  And Meryl Streep wins!  (This is her seventeenth nomination, and only her third win!)  She’s wearing a golden sheath!  She’s charming and lovely.

Oscar for Best Picture. Tom Cruise presents.  We have to sit through nine! previews.  Mercifully, they’re very short.  Also, they’re very mixed up.  Winner: “The Artist.”  (I started typing that before it was announced.)  Uggie the dog is on the stage, and he’s adorable.  Producer is making speech, and – who cares?  Director M. Hazanavicius takes over.  He thanks Billy Wilder three times over, and I think that’s very nice.

11:38 pm, and Billy Crystal yells, “Good night, everyone!”

So I suppose that’s it for another year.

Not quite as exciting as last year’s Oscars, but . . . .


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