Hail & Farewell.

Lest we forget.

Mad Scientists.

tungstenTwo recent losses are hitting me especially hard because they take me back to my childhood. Granted I was in college before I knew who Oliver Sacks was. Like a lot of people I was introduced to him by the film Awakenings, although when I read the book I was disturbed to find the story was a lot more complicated, and a lot uglier, than the film. That’s Hollywood for you. The first book of his I read, though, was The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which was even weirder, and funnier. I really felt a kind of kinship with Sacks when I read Uncle Tungsten. As a kid I’d had a chemistry set in my basement where, among other things, I played with mercury and melted lead and started a few fires that almost got out of control. And I was fascinated with the periodic table and bored my friends to death talking about it. Sacks had a similar experience when he was fourteen, talking to his parents about thallium on a road trip.

Sitting in the back, I was talking about thallium, rattling on and on and on about it: how it was discovered, along with indium, in the 1860s, by the brilliantly colored green line in its spectrum; how some of its salts, when dissolved, could form solutions nearly five times as dense as water; how thallium indeed was the platypus of the elements…As I babbled on, gaily, narcissistically, blindly, I did not notice that my parents, in the front seat, had fallen completely silent, their faces bored, tight, and disapproving—until after twenty minutes they could bear it no longer, and my father burst out violently: “Enough about thallium!”

That could have been me in the backseat.

About the same time that I was doing fun things like combining potassium permanganate and glycerin (try it with your kids–it’s fun!) I saw the movie Swamp Thing, which I loved. It was dark and weird and incredibly tongue-in-cheek, and I kept expecting Dr. Alec Holland to recover his human form by the end. Spoiler alert: he doesn’t. And I loved that he didn’t. I loved that science had the power to transform, to bring out the best and the worst in us, and that such transformations could be permanent. Maybe that’s why my first basement lab was an homage to Swamp Thing where I also kept jars of lichen from a vacant lot and pond scum and tiny leeches I’d collected from a creek, combining biology and chemistry. It would be several years before I’d see A Nightmare on Elm Street. I love horror films now but with my history of night terrors and sleepwalking Nightmare hit a little too close to home, but that’s another story. I didn’t realize at the time, though, that Wes Craven had also directed Swamp Thing. Craven is known as a master of horror, but let’s give the guy credit for his wicked sense of humor.

Hail and farewell Oliver Sacks and Wes Craven.


Shakespeare in the slums.

Happy birthday Danitra Vance. If you don’t recognize her name that’s not surprising, but also sad. She was the first African American cast member on Saturday Night Live, as well as the show’s first lesbian (although this wasn’t made public at the time). Her tenure on the show, and her life, were too brief. Born July 13th, 1954, we lost her to breast cancer a little after her fortieth birthday in 1994.

She did a few sketches on SNL, including some recurring characters, but it’s Shakespeare In The Slums that I remember. It was hilarious, but so tight I was afraid if I laughed I’d miss something.

Memory’s Labyrinth.

The loss of Christopher Lee is sad and would be for me even if the only thing I knew him from was that version of Dracula that gave me nightmares when I was a kid. As a teenager I appreciated it much more when I watched it again in my bedroom very late one night. It was almost as much fun as the less well-known Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors, in which Lee plays a critic menaced by…well, I won’t give it away. It’s just brilliant. If Lee’s passing is what finally prompts a proper U.S. DVD or Blu-Ray release of Doctor Terror’s House of Horrors it will be bittersweet.

I didn’t realize it was the same actor at the time but Lee also played a brilliant mad scientist in Gremlins 2, holding his own against the Brain Gremlin. If you’ve seen Gremlins 2 you know that’s no mean feat. If you haven’t seen it you should.

Hail and farewell Christopher Lee.

Less publicized is the loss of Ron Moody. Most people will recognize him as Fagin from Oliver! For me he’ll always be Rothgo, the all-powerful wizard who’s lost his powers in Into The Labyrinth, a British series that ran on Nickelodeon in the early ‘80’s. My friend Andi and I would watch it together. Into The Labyrinth was part of Nick’s “The Third Eye”, a compilation of British and New Zealand supernatural series for children. For some reason Into The Labyrinth was the only one Andi and I watched together. She loved it. From Into The Labyrinth I learned that “souvenir” is French for “memory”.

A few years later Andi would succumb to cancer at the age of twenty-five.

Into The Labyrinth remains one of my favorite souvenirs of Andi, and of Ron Moody too.

Hail and farewell Ron Moody.

A souvenir of Christopher Lee:

And Into The Labyrinth in its entirety, a souvenir of Ron Moody:

Some Of Her Best Friends Were…

Hail and farewell Anne Meara. She and Jerry Stiller were part of an early wave of performers who, through albums, brought their acts out of the nightclubs and into homes. They must have seemed like an unlikely pair which may explain why some of their funniest routines revolved around an unlikely pair finding each other. Another routine that I’ve been able to find online is Stiller and Meara playing two strangers who meet and develop a relationship when one of them calls the wrong number. It’s funny but also touching. Unlikely they may have been, but we were lucky to have them.

One Of A Kind.

Source: IMDB

Source: IMDB

With Mad Max and the Terminator back and Jurassic Park reopening, plus a slew of sequels coming to theaters this summer, it seems like everything old is new again. I often hear complaints about remakes. In fact I seem to hear the same complaint about remakes over and over, which is funny when you think about it, but that’s another story. In principle I don’t have any problem with remakes. I’ve mentioned that my favorite movie is Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, but it doesn’t bother me that I have to specify that I mean the 1956 version. There are things I like about the 1978 version, including the inside-joke-cameo by Kevin McCarthy.

The problem I have with the 2015 remake of Poltergeist isn’t that it’s a remake. The problem is the absence of Zelda Rubinstein. I’m sure Jared Harris is a fine actor, but let me be blunt: Zelda Rubinstein was perfectly cast in the original because she may have been physically small but projected being psychically strong. She carried herself with grace and strength. The original Poltergeist is full of strong women, but Rubinstein’s Tangina towers over all of them. The first time I heard her say, “This house is clean” I expected the credits to roll. I can’t imagine anyone would want to mess with her, but it seemed like anyone who did would regret it.

Maybe that’s why her work to fight AIDS in what only seemed like the disease’s early days—it had been around for years, but Rubinstein’s work began in 1984—was so powerful to me.

AIDS and HIV have only affected me indirectly. I can’t speak to, or even imagine, the horror suffered by those who lost those they loved, especially in the early days when the disease was so poorly understood. The closest I could come was someone else’s experience. A friend of mine who was a few years older lost his first longtime partner to AIDS. They had been separated for several years. It was the partner’s diagnosis and hospitalization that brought them back together briefly. One summer when I was home from college my friend told me the whole story. His partner had died only a short time before and I did what I could to help him through his grief. He never said so, but I knew from the way he described it that his time with his partner was the happiest time of his life. We’d go to restaurants and sit and he would tell me how they used to climb a hill overlooking Centennial Park and spend the night there just talking.

Even before I met him, even before I knew anyone I knew was gay the tragedy of AIDS saddened me. Kids I knew would make tasteless jokes about it and I hated them. Maybe it scared and saddened them too and that was their way of dealing with it, but I don’t want to let them off the hook. It was a scary thing to a teenage boy, even one who had almost no chance of being infected with HIV, but that doesn’t matter. Those of us who were hitting puberty during the AIDS crisis should have been able to sympathize, to know that joking about AIDS wasn’t wrong, but joking about the victims was. The subtext of every AIDS joke I heard at the time was “if you have AIDS you deserve it”. Sadly the kids who told those jokes were just repeating what they’d heard from adults, but as teenage boys we should have been smarter and more understanding. Our bodies were surging with hormones that were almost screaming at us to have sex, and the news was telling us “Sex can kill you.” The one AIDS joke that made me laugh was when a kid sitting next to me in math class leaned over and whispered, “I’m so scared of it I’m wearing a condom right now.” There was also a Bloom County strip that reflected the dating scene at the time that also tickled me.

Maybe that’s why when I thought about AIDS all I cared about is that it was a disease and it was killing people. Whom it killed didn’t matter to me. It did matter to others, though. It mattered enough that there was a stigma surrounding it that fed the fear. AIDS was popularly considered a “gay disease”, but the fear was directed at anyone who had it. When I was sixteen one of my teachers read a story to the class about a boy with hemophilia who’d gotten HIV from a blood transfusion. His neighbors drove past his house chanting “KILL HIM! KILL HIM!” This fear spread even to those who worked with or even knew anyone with AIDS.

Here’s my version of an 80’s AIDS joke: how do you find out who your real friends are? Get HIV.

It’s against that backdrop that Zelda Rubinstein took part in the LA CARES advertising campaign. I remember seeing one of the ads in a magazine and thinking, “Hey, that’s the lady from Poltergeist. She’s so cool!”

This was the ad I saw. I didn't realize it was just one in a larger campaign. Source: The Advocate

This was the ad I saw. I didn’t realize it was just one in a larger campaign.
Source: The Advocate

Hollywood, where, within a few years red ribbons would become ubiquitous, didn’t think she was so cool at the time. She didn’t work for a year after publicly speaking out about AIDS. In case you think there just might not have been any roles for her check out her IMDB page and note how much she worked, which makes the absence of any credits for 1985 very conspicuous.

Was Poltergeist about AIDS? Not intentionally, and not even unintentionally since it was released in 1982, and it’s probably a bad idea to even try to tie the two, but let me offer some thoughts. The film was called “Poltergeist”, suggesting a single entity, but the haunting is caused by a group of ghosts. We speak of a disease as a single thing but it’s the manifestation of a multitude of organisms. The Freeling family notices odd things at first, but they’re afraid to talk to their neighbors openly about it. They retreat into their home and only turn to professional help when they lose their daughter. They don’t do anything to deserve being tormented. And then there’s that tagline: “It knows what scares you.” (It’s been changed to “They know what scares you” for the remake.) Sexual contact is the most common way HIV spreads. I don’t care how casual a hookup seems. Sex is always intimate contact which makes HIV a disease shared by intimacy. It also forced people who’d kept part of themselves secret, who’d been afraid to admit to the world who they really were, to come out. And for others, like my friend, there was nothing more terrifying than losing someone he loved. So many lost their lives. So many others lost everything else.

On the other hand the Freeling family escapes in the end. People with AIDS often disappeared, but there was no escape from the disease.

Zelda Rubinstein, who worked to make the world a better place, was born May 28th, 1933. She passed away January 27th, 2010. She lived to see HIV infection become a treatable disease even if there still is no cure. There will never be another one like her.

A Laugh From Our Sponsors.

Pete Puma

Copyright: Warner Brothers

Commercials aren’t supposed to be funny. If people laugh they’re not paying attention to the product. That was the conventional thinking until Stan Freberg, who’d been writing commercial parodies, started writing real commercials that were funny. The funny commercial isn’t his only legacy, though. He was also the voice of numerous cartoon characters, including Pete Puma in the Looney Tunes cartoon Rabbit’s Kin.

He also did countless parodies and influenced a whole generation of comedians. He passed away April 7th, 2015. Hail and farewell Stan Freberg.

Turtles All The Way Down.

Hail and farewell Terry Pratchett. Born April 28th, 1948, died March 12, 2015. Libraries were made for books like his. It’s checkouts all the way down.


And here’s one more book–the back cover of my copy of Good Omens given to me by my friend James. Pratchett stands under a winged hourglass. Tempus fugit, but there’s always time for books.


Words Fail Me. (Part 2)

Sleeping late for me means staying in bed until around 8:00am, unlike when I was younger when it usually meant getting up around the crack of noon. And that’s okay, especially on Sundays, because 9:00am is when my local NPR affiliate broadcasts Says You!

If you’ve never heard it Says You! is a word game where two teams of three panelists have to “define and divine” various words or phrases and work out other wordy puzzles. They also face off against each other in the bluffing rounds, where one team gives two fake and one real definitions for an obscure word and the other team has to guess the right one.

My favorite moment from the show was when one of the bluffing round words was “bream”. I was yelling at my radio “IT’S A FISH! HOW CAN YOU NOT KNOW THAT?”bream1

At the center of it all was the host Richard Sher. Sometimes it’s startling to see someone you’ve only heard on the radio. You have an image that goes with the voice, but which turns out to be very different in reality. Sher, for me, was not one of those cases. He looked exactly like he sounded. He sounded like that favorite uncle who’s easy smile and kind eyes hide an eccentric sense of humor. He died February 9th, 2015 after a fight with colon cancer and leptomeningitis. The show will go on, but I’ll miss that voice.

Regular listeners know he ended most shows by saying it was best “when we get your comments, when we get your suggestions, but most of all when you show up.”

richardsherHail and farewell Mr. Sher. Thank you for showing up.

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