Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Miss Universe.

Source: BeverlyCleary.com

I can’t remember how many Beverly Cleary books I read as a kid. There must have been at least half a dozen on my bookshelves, not counting the ones I got from the library. I’m pretty sure a battered hand-me-down copy of Ribsy was the first full-length non-picture book I read by myself, and there were several Cleary books I went back to again and again. It wasn’t just that she wrote about childhood in a way that was really appealing—in Henry And The Paper Route, one of the ones I owned, one of Henry Huggins’ newspaper customers is a woman who’s nice but mistakenly calls him “Harry Higgins”, and Henry is too shy to correct her. He’s also bothered on his paper route by his friend Beezus’s younger sister Ramona. It’s not high drama but I could relate to it. And Cleary could get into some heavy topics. The book Ramona And Her Father dealt with unemployment: Ramona’s father loses his job, her parents argue, and even the family cat becomes a point of contention as the family tries to save money but Ramona’s father still spends money on cigarettes. And yet the heaviness is balanced out with lighter drama, like when Ramona builds a crown out of cockleburs and then puts it on her head. Her father has to carefully cut out the ones that get stuck in her hair. And Ramona Quimby, Age 8 would do a similar job of balancing the heavy and the light as Ramona’s father goes to college, her mother keeps working, and Ramona is left in the care of the Kemp family after school. Ramona’s expected to be nice to their daughter Willa Jean, who’s younger and who annoys Ramona. And, in a memorable scene, Ramona’s parents are late picking her up and the Kemps eat dinner in awkward silence while Ramona sits in the corner of the room. I’d had that same experience once. I think lots of kids have. And even if you haven’t had that specific experience I think we can all relate to learning that adults are fallible.

As a kid I didn’t appreciate how revolutionary Cleary’s books were for their time—how they were really a new kind of children’s books. Sometimes they looked at adult problems from a child’s perspective but more often they dealt with how the world of childhood can be strange and baffling—how matters that are, from an adult’s perspective, minor or even inconsequential, can seem like, well, heavy drama to a child who lacks an adult’s experience. Even as an adult Beverly Cleary remembered how it felt to be a kid.

There was something else, though, something I haven’t read in any reviews of Cleary’s work, ever. Maybe you remember it too, or maybe you’ve spotted it while reading this. She didn’t write fantasy or science fiction like Madeleine L’Engle or even Tolkien—aside from the Mouse And The Motorcycle series—but her books were sequential, following a single character’s life over years, but while Ramona is a character in the Henry Huggins books she’d go on to get her own series. Like many science fiction and fantasy authors Beverly Cleary created a shared universe. It just happened to be one we, the readers, were also part of.

Hail and farewell, Beverly Cleary.

It Could Happen.

Source: Sitcoms Online

Certain corners of the internet are exploding with the news that the new streaming service Blitz will launch with a reboot of the classic sitcom My Mother The Car. The show’s premise was typical of the ‘60’s, and perhaps even less ridiculous sounding now: attorney David Crabtree, played by Jerry Van Dyke, buys an antique car, specifically a 1926 Reichenbach, only to discover that it’s inhabited by the ghost of his deceased mother. She talks to him through the car’s radio and only he can hear her. She helps him through various difficulties with his wife and career as he evades the unscrupulous Captain Manzini, who’s determined to acquire the valuable antique car.

With its moody lighting, lack of a laughtrack, and muted performances My Mother The Car continues to be widely acclaimed as the worst sitcom of all time but still managed to develop a loyal cult following. It even spawned a series of comics published by DC with Crabtree and Mother becoming crime fighting quasi-superheroes.

Most attempts to bring back My Mother The Car since its 1966 cancellation have failed. Perhaps the most notable was Steven Spielberg’s 1986 big screen adaptation. Because of the film’s raunchy humor, including a subplot of Mother working for an escort service, it barely got by with a PG-13 rating and posters of Mother sporting an oversized cigar under her hood were quickly pulled from theater lobbies. Fans who continued to hold occasional “car-ventions” at Jerry Van Dyke’s Ice Cream Soda Shoppes around the country lamented the steady decline of their beloved franchise.

Then in 2018 interest was renewed with the cinematic release of the four and a half hour superhero epic Justice League: Quantum Fracture, which pulled together a vast range of DC characters, including David Crabtree and Mother. Although Jerry Van Dyke, who sadly passed away before the film’s release, was too ill to appear as himself he did record the dialogue and the onscreen David was played by a digitally enhanced Andy Serkis, who also provided Mother’s voice.  

The new series features a cast of largely unknown actors and, while the producers say they want to remain faithful to the original, will feature greater diversity and much less reliance on mother-in-law jokes. They also describe the new series as “a mashup of Herbie The Love Bug, Knight Rider, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Speed Racer, Wonderbug, The Magic School Bus, Speed Buggy, and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman”.

Environmental concerns will be addressed too. Reichenbachs of that era operated entirely on whale oil, an issue that will be dealt with both in the series itself and through the Blitz service’s new sponsored conservation program My Mother The Narwhal.

I’ve now watched the three screener episodes Blitz provided to critics, social media influencers, members of the official My Mother The Car Fan Club, and pretty much anyone who asked and I think it’s safe to say it will be universally acclaimed as not too bad.

It’s All Connected.

Source: Wikipedia

So a bomb blew up in downtown Nashville early on Christmas morning, near the AT&T building that’s also known as “The Batman Building” because, well, if you see it you’ll understand. It’s a feature of the Nashville skyline and although I can’t see it from where the building where I work–or rather where I worked until last March when everything shut down, and where I’ll eventually go back to work sometime in the coming year–I could go to the roof of the parking garage next door to where I work and see The Batman Building from there. For all that Nashville has grown and is still growing it’s still got a fairly compact downtown area, easy to get to and, in normal times, easy to walk around in if you don’t mind the crowds. Needless to say these aren’t normal times and when the bomb went off a lot of people just sighed resignedly and said, “Thanks for one more thing, 2020.”
Although why the bomb in an RV was sent off downtown is still a mystery at least it went off early on Christmas morning when not many people were out and about–and it even made an announcement that it was a bomb and that people should get out of the area. For all the damage it did to the surrounding businesses, and as much as it would have been better if it hadn’t gone off at all, at least there’s a bright side.
It’s also interesting to me that Nashville made it to the front of The New York Times, which we still get in actual print, delivered to our driveway, on the weekends, the day after Christmas because of the bombing and also on Christmas Day because photographer Ruth Fremson made a trip across the United States to document the way various cities around the country were celebrating the season in these not so normal times.

The New York Times, December 25th, 2020. Nashville is the city with the Grinch.

The New York Times, December 26th, 2020. Below the fold but still on the front page.

That reminded me of when I was a kid and I’d been with my parents to the Tennessee Performing Arts Center downtown to see, of all things, CATS. As we were coming out we heard a woman say, “You know, this town reminds me of New York thirty years ago.” My mother groaned and said, “Oh please no,” and about twenty-five years later when my father retired my parents moved to Florida which is the most New York thing they could possibly do, but that’s another story.
One of the down sides of the bombing is because it affected the AT&T building it’s left a lot of people not just in Nashville but even in Tennessee and Kentucky without internet access. It’s left a lot of people, in other words, disconnected at a time when they want and need to be connected. It’s only temporary but here’s hoping it can all be restored before the end of the month–here’s hoping people will have a chance to say, thanks for bringing us back together, 2020.

Think About It.

Source: USA Today

Unlike most other game shows, especially those that proliferated in the 1970’s, Jeopardy! is beautifully simple, almost minimalist. Sixteen categories—or seventeen if you count the final round—and one hundred and twenty-eight questions—or one hundred and twenty-nine if you count the final round—and the only real strategy is be quick with your buzzer and stick to what you hopefully know. Oh yeah, and don’t forget the final round—if you’re far enough ahead you won’t have to do any complicated math for your final wager.

It’s the game’s simplicity that made Alex Trebek the ideal host. I don’t mean he was a simple guy, but he knew that when hosting Jeopardy! less is more and he was perfectly understated and kept the same even tone throughout everything. Yes, I laughed at the SNL parodies, but, with all due respect to Will Ferrell, I don’t think he ever really got Alex Trebek. If Sean Connery—who, sadly, also left us recently because, well, 2020–really had been a competitor on Celebrity Jeopardy! first of all I think he would have been too classy to make crude jokes about Trebek’s mother or draw pictures of him having sex with a horse, but if he had I think Alex Trebek would have chuckled politely, given a sardonic look to the audience, and moved on.

With that in mind I’m reposting this as my way of saying, or rather asking, what is hail and farewell, Alex Trebek?

[Jeopardy! theme music plays. Alex Trebek stands center stage.]

ALEX TREBEK: And we’re back to this very special episode of Jeopardy! Let’s take a moment to talk to today’s contestants.

[He crosses over to the contestants.]

ALEX TREBEK: Count Dracula, you’re an undead Romanian prince. I understand you can assume the forms of a bat, a wolf, and a white mist, and you travel extensively. Tell us a little about the charity you’re playing for today.

COUNT DRACULA: Is blood.

ALEX TREBEK: Can you elaborate on that?

COUNT DRACULA: Of course. Is great need for blood in Romania. I bring people of all kinds to castle in Wallachia. I take blood and dr—uh, give…give to those who need blood.

ALEX TREBEK: That sounds like a great cause. Moving on, Frankenstein’s Monster, you’re an assemblage of body parts from different corpses. Some people call you “Frankenstein” but that was in fact the name of the doctor who first animated you.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GAKH!

ALEX TREBEK: Okay then. Tell us about what charity you’re playing for.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GRRRRGH! HANNNN! GARGH!!!

ALEX TREBEK: Yes, the Firefighters’ Association is a noble cause. All right, and our third contestant was going to be The Invisible Man but we couldn’t find him.

VOICE FROM AN EMPTY SEAT IN THE AUDIENCE: I’m right here!

COUNT DRACULA: Children of the night, what music they make.

ALEX TREBEK: We were very lucky to get as a replacement the Creature From The Black Lagoon. Creature, I’ve been admiring your suit.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: Thank you, Alex, it’s specially designed to pump water through my gills and keep my skin moist. It’s made by Armani. But I’d really like to talk about my charity.

ALEX TREBEK: Go ahead then.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: It’s called River Run, an organization that purchases, preserves, and reclaims large parts of the Amazon rainforest. Once we lose biodiversity it’s impossible to get it back.

ALEX TREBEK: Well okay. Maybe later we can talk more about that suit. I get a little dry under these lights myself.

[Trebek crosses back to his podium.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, we have one two-thousand dollar clue left in the Double Jeopardy round under the category Sci-Fi Food, and the clue is: Revenge is a dish best served cold, but this Klingon dish should be warm and wriggling.

FRANKESTEIN’S MONSTER: GAGH!

ALEX TREBEK: That’s correct! I have to remind you again that we ask contestants to phrase responses in the form of a question, but since we’re playing for charity we’ll bend the rules again. Frankestein’s Monster, that brings your total up to seven dollars.

And now for final Jeopardy! The subject today is Renaissance Artists. Take a moment to think about that while you make your wagers.

And here’s the clue: this Italian artist was both a painter and a sculptor, known for both the Sistine Chapel ceiling and a statue of David, and he made a mean Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Thirty seconds, contestants.

[Think! music plays.]

ALEX TREBEK: All right, let’s see your answers. Count Dracula, we come to you first. You had $200 and you wrote down…“is blood”.

COUNT DRACULA: Is answer to everything.

ALEX TREBEK: And you wagered two-hundred dollars, so I’m afraid that leaves you with nothing. Next we come to Frankenstein’s Monster. You wrote down “Abby Someone”. Interesting, but incorrect. What did you wager? Nothing.

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: GARGHHHH!

ALEX TREBEK: So you still have seven dollars. Finally we come to the Creature From The Black Lagoon who looked like he couldn’t be caught with a score of fifty-four thousand, seven-hundred dollars. Uh oh, you’re shaking your head. It looks like you wrote “Michelangelo” then crossed it out and replaced it with “Donatello”. I’m sorry, that’s incorrect. And what was your wager?

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON: I figured go big or go home, Alex.

ALEX TREBEK: You bet it all. Well, that means Frankenstein’s Monster is today’s champion. Congratulations!

FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER: TREBEK GOOD!

Public And Private.

Source: Boston Globe

Public tributes to Chadwick Boseman, like the one in Graffiti Alley in Cambridge, Massachusetts, are a reminder that he was a public and very prominent figure. And yet he kept his cancer diagnosis private so that many of us who are fans were shocked by his death. I know some have criticized him for not speaking up, saying he missed an opportunity to educate the public about colorectal cancer and its changing demographics. It’s rising among younger people and Black people. I won’t repeat or even link to the critics but at the same time I will acknowledge them. He didn’t choose to get cancer, but he could choose how he responded to it. I don’t know why he chose not to talk about it but I know when I was diagnosed with cancer I didn’t want to talk about it, and didn’t tell anyone outside of a few people for three weeks. And when I did talk about it I joked about it because it was hard for me to admit even to myself, even after I’d started chemotherapy, that it was really happening.

There are a lot of reasons my own fight with cancer is different: I had a different, and much more treatable, cancer, and my own treatment was probably a lot easier than his. And yet I remember days when I didn’t even feel like getting out of bed. I was out of work for six months because my immune system crashed. He kept working, filming and co-producing Marshall, Black Panther, and two Avengers films. He was even confident he could finish Black Panther 2.

Also consider four major roles that help define his career, a career that was cut too short: Jackie Robinson, James Brown, Thurgood Marshall, and T’Challa, the Black Panther. There was some luck involved—in art and in life none of us can control everything—but he chose to portray four people, three real and one fictional, who are all legendary. He chose roles that contributed to discussions about race in the United States.

Respect his choices.

Hail and farewell Chadwick Boseman.

 

Past And Present.

Source: Nashville Scene

The Nashville Scene is featuring three paintings of George Floyd. They’re really extraordinary, at least in pictures, and I wonder how long they’ll be up. Hopefully they’ll be around long enough for me to see them in person. I’m not leaving the house much these days, and even when I do it’s only for short trips for necessities, and while I do think art, especially seeing art in person, is a necessity, it’s not one I can justify right now.

That got me thinking about George Floyd and how, as far as I know, he never came to Nashville. He did spend much of his life in the south—he was born in North Carolina, and lived in Texas before moving to Minneapolis in 2014. And his murder, as we know, sparked outrage around the world, and has intensified discussions of race and history in the United States. Some say “prompted” but, really, race has been an issue here even before the United States was a country.

The public portraits, painted by local artists Wayne Brezinka (whose painting is available as a free download), Paul Collins, and Ashley Doggett, are a visual reminder of what will hopefully be a continuing conversation. George Floyd didn’t ask to be a martyr, and he is, unfortunately, one of far too many who deserve to be remembered. Many of their names are included in Wayne Brezinka’s portrait.

I thought too about the civil rights leader John Lewis, whose recent passing comes at such a difficult time. Lewis’s own life is another reminder of just how long and difficult that conversation has been. He lived in Nashville and was a student and activist here before he’d lead the famous march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama on March 7th, 1965, which we now know as Bloody Sunday. Lewis was attacked for asking for the right to vote, a right that’s supposed to be granted freely to every citizen.

The bridge Lewis crossed, which was built in 1940, is named for a Confederate brigadier general and Ku Klux Klan leader. There have been calls to rename the bridge for years, and it would be more than fitting to rename it after Congressman Lewis who not only crossed it but worked so hard to build metaphorical bridges between people throughout his lifetime.

The bridge’s current namesake is part of a very powerful recent essay by another Nashville native, Caroline Randall Williams. You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is A Confederate Monument is a powerful statement about history and its influence on the present. Despite claims to the contrary changing the name of a bridge, or a military base, won’t erase the past. We can’t change the past either. We can, however, change how we let the past inform the present.

Here’s Williams reading her essay.

The Never Ending Performer.

Source: The Forward

I don’t know where to begin with Carl Reiner.

There’s a story that a fifteen-year old Albert Brooks got his start in show business when he did a backyard bit for a friend’s uncle. The bit was about Houdini who was supposed to make a big entrance but he couldn’t get the door open, and it was so funny the uncle literally fell out of his chair laughing.

The uncle was none other than Carl Reiner who, at the time, was already a comedy legend, having worked on Your Show Of Shows, where he met his lifelong friend Mel Brooks (no relation to Albert), and he would be in his second or third year of The Dick Van Dyke Show, as well as one or two years after a role in Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Technically that’s not a story about Carl Reiner think it’s just one example of how Reiner was a magnet for funny and talented people, and not just a magnet—he made them, and everything he was part of, funnier and better. Except, maybe, Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

He was an incredible presence. Like a lot of people I know reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show were a daily fact of life for me, whether midday in the summer or after school in the winter, and I’m kind of surprised to find he only appeared in thirty-two episodes because some of those episodes are the ones that I remember best.

And then there’s The Two Thousand Year Old Man which I still listen to regularly—the last time was just a few months ago, which I had on an album and then a cassette and then a CD and I think it will last so long it’ll go through two thousand formats, but that’s another story—and while the first hundred or so times I listened to it I laughed at Mel Brooks I began to also pay attention to Reiner, and just how perfectly and deliberately he’d set up each bit. Carl Reiner could be a really funny guy himself but he also knew exactly when to step aside and let someone else have the spotlight. In fact he was, metaphorically, the one holding the spotlight, illuminating others, unseen but nevertheless vital. See also: just thirty two episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show.

So it’s no surprise he seemed to be working right up until the very end, probably because he was working right up until the very end. I’m surprised that the episode of Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee he and Mel did was released eight years ago. It seems more recent than that, maybe because I’ve watched it more recently than that, but also because he was so brilliant and so hard working and had such a legendary career that I don’t even know how to end except to say that there is no end to Carl Reiner.

Hail and farewell.

Just Tryin’ To Have Me Some Fun.

Source: Bandcamp

I’ve been trying to come up with something to say about the recent passing of two legends, some way to tie them together, but I can’t. So here are two unrelated stories.

Living in Nashville means I’m even less than the usual six degrees of separation from some famous musicians, and I was reminded of that one day when I was talking to a coworker from Ireland. Her husband is a drummer, and while not technically famous he did teach the guy who played the drummer in the film The Commitments, which I’d seen way back during its initial release in 1991, when I was in Cork, Ireland. That is the best place in the world to see that film but even if you’re not in Ireland I still highly recommend it, but that’s another story. Anyway the coworker and I got onto the subject of snooker and she said her husband played snooker all the time.  Since it requires a special table, one that’s not usually found in Nashville pool halls, I asked, “Where does he go to play snooker?”

“Oh, he goes to John Prine’s house,” she said casually. And I got a bit sarcastic and said, “Oh, well, we’ve all been to John Prine’s house.”

And then I immediately felt like a schmuck because she wasn’t deliberately name-dropping. And Prine, I believe, is the sort of super cool guy who never let fame go to his head and who, if we’d had the chance to meet, probably wouldn’t hesitate to invite me to his house. He was a very funny guy, too, as anyone who’s heard his songs Illegal Smile, Dear Abby, or, especially poignant after his passing, Please Don’t Bury Me, knows. And, as much as I love his music, somehow it just made John Prine even more cool to me knowing that he played snooker.

Hail and farewell John Prine.

And then I was taken back to 1982 and the release of The Empire Strikes Back. Like, well, pretty much my entire generation, I was an enormous Star Wars fan, and loved Empire. And then, making it even better, MAD Magazine hit the stands with The Empire Strikes Out. And it was hilarious. More than that, though, it was a piece of Star Wars that was tangible, that I could enjoy outside the theater. This was before VCRs, even before Star Wars would be screened on cable, so the MAD Magazine parody was as close as I could get to watching Empire again and again, at least as long as I was at a friend’s house, since I couldn’t have my own copy, but that’s another story.

Source: The Star Wars Unofficial Parody Site

I couldn’t articulate it at the time but I sensed that whoever had done the artwork for The Empire Strikes Out loved Star Wars as much as I did. I also didn’t know at the time that the artist was Mort Drucker, who passed away recently, or that Drucker’s work, being so close to the mark, caused a minor kerfuffle. This is from his Wikipedia page:

When the magazine’s parody of The Empire Strikes Back was published in 1980, drawn by Drucker, the magazine received a cease and desist letter from George Lucas‘ lawyers demanding that the issue be pulled from sale, and that Mad destroy the printing plates, surrender the original art, and turn over all profits from the issue. Unbeknownst to them, George Lucas had just sent Mad an effusive letter praising the parody, and declaring, “Special Oscars should be awarded to Drucker and DeBartolo, the George Bernard Shaw and Leonardo da Vinci of comic satire.” Publisher Gaines mailed a copy of the letter to Lucas’ lawyers with a handwritten message across the top: “That’s funny, George liked it!”  There was no further communication on the matter.

That’s almost as funny as the parody itself.

Hail and farewell, Mort Drucker.

They may be buried but neither one will be forgotten.

A Minute Of Silence, Please.

Source: BBC Radio 4

I used to listen to BBC Radio 4 a lot. And by “a lot” I mean at least four or five hours a day at work, usually while working on mundane tasks. Sometimes it was just background noise but when I heard Chopin’s Minute Waltz I turned my full attention to the radio because that meant it was time for Just A Minute. Just A Minute, if you’ve never heard of it, or heard it, is a quiz show with a four-person panel. A panel member would be given a topic and would have to speak on it for a full minute without hesitation, repetition, or deviation. If they do any of these another panel member can challenge. The challenger can then get the subject for the remainder of the minute—even if it’s just a second. Points are awarded for successful challenges and for speaking when the timer goes off.
Hesitation and repetition are easy but the definition of “deviation” has deviated over the years. Originally it was deviation from the subject but it’s been applied to deviations from “English as she is spoke”, from the facts, or even from logic. When Sir Clement Freud mentioned that his son had just given birth to a grandson Paul Merton challenged, saying that so far no one’s son has given birth.
The host from the show’s start, when it was called A Minute Please, and for the more than four decades it ran was Sir Nicholas Parsons. Friendly, subtly witty, and never seeking the spotlight himself Parsons was the perfect host. He also hosted the TV version of Just A Minute. A friend of mine who grew up in Britain tells me he also hosted a TV game show called Sale Of The Century, which I’ve never seen, and which my friend says “was an awful game show, but when you only have three channels…” And he added that Parsons himself was always a classy but warm and friendly host. On Just A Minute he was a funny, kind, and always fair arbiter, the sort of guy you’d want refereeing any competition. His old-fashioned gentility is probably why another British friend made fun of me for liking him so much. “You and my gran,” she said, “could have a nice cuppa and sit together and listen to that.” That was part of the fun, though: it really was a show for all ages. Maybe this is where I confess that one of my life goals was to be a panelist on Just A Minute.

Just A Minute ran for fifty-two years and some of its panelists include Eddie Izzard, Rob Brydon, David Tennant, Sandi Toksvig, and Miriam Margolyes. Graham Norton was a regular panelist, stepping out of his usual host role, and while he rarely got challenged for hesitation he had a hilarious way of drawing out syllables, obviously playing for time.

The length of the show’s run meant that Parsons was still hosting at the age of ninety-six, and in all those years only missed one show, due to illness. He also had a fascination with clocks–he tinkered with watches as a hobby, and in 2016 hosted the documentary The Incredible Story of Marie Antoinette’s Watch. Maybe this is where I confess that one of my life goals wasn’t just to be a panelist on Just A Minute but also wear one of my pocket watches and talk to Parsons about why they never should have gone out of fashion, but that’s another story.

Hail and farewell Sir Nicholas Parsons. I won’t hesitate to say your charm will never be repeated, and no one will accuse me of deviation for saying so.

And, seriously, here’s an episode of Just A Minute. Take a listen and you’ll be amazed how the time flies by.

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