When I was a kid I’d spend hours playing with modeling clay, creating miniature worlds and the strange creatures that inhabited them. When I was finished I’d mash them up and start over again, although what I really wanted to do was Claymation. Some magic tricks are even more impressive when you know how they’re done, and after seeing how it was done that’s how I felt about Claymation. It just fascinated me that every motion, every gesture, every change of a clay figure was produced through the slow and patient work of a pair of human hands, and not that different from what I created, then destroyed, at the kitchen table. I even created characters, wrote scripts, plotted out movements, but cameras were expensive then. Well, they still are, but most of us carry cameras around in our pockets all the time.
What I didn’t know until I recently heard about his passing was that the genius behind a lot of the Claymation I loved so much was Will Vinton. Vinton created the term Claymation. He won a 1975 Academy Award for his short Closed Mondays, which I remember seeing bits of but not in its entirety until now—thanks, YouTube—and several other projects. His studio produced, among other advertising campaigns, the California Raisins and Domino’s Noid, which has a weird and dark history. His studio also produced the Claymation Christmas Celebration which I loved even though I’d outgrown playing with clay by the time it first aired.
I never even knew his name but he was one of my childhood heroes.
Some critics complain that Neil Simon’s plays rely too much on jokes which, to me, is like complaining that Shakespeare’s plays rely too much on iambic pentameter. And Neil Simon started out as a comedy writer, along with his brother Danny, working on, among other things, Sid Caesar’s Your Show Of Shows in a writers’ room that also included Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner and I can’t begin to imagine what that was like.
His plays are generally romantic comedies, built on a style that can be traced back to ancient Greece and fairy tales–he once said his own life was “kind of a Cinderella story”–but he went beyond the traditional happy ending. Neil Simon was always interested in what happened after happily ever after. Barefoot In The Park, his second play and first big hit, picks up where most romantic comedies end, and his next and probably most famous play, The Odd Couple, centers around two divorced men. The funny thing, though, is that Oscar and Felix enter into kind of a marriage—when Oscar asks Felix to move in with him he even asks, “What do you want, a ring?” And then they end up going their separate ways, although they’ll always have the weekly poker game. Even in his later plays Simon keeps returning to the themes of divorce and how families break up or stay together. In the semi-autobiographical Lost In Yonkers it’s mostly seen from children’s perspective, reflecting how, when he was young, Simon’s father deserted the family for long periods and his mother took in boarders to pay the bills while sometimes sending her sons to live with relatives. Simon said, “The horror of those years was that I didn’t come from one broken home but five.” Escaping into comedy, starting with the films of Charlie Chaplin, was how he survived.
Even though comedies traditionally end on a happy note many of his plays, his best plays, have open or ambiguous endings. While he always affirmed the human desire to survive he also reminded us that after every ever after there’s another story, another beginning. His characters and plays realistic–only once does a character break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, in Jake’s Women–but he also wants them to find happiness and fulfillment, and they find it through laughter. He said, “I used to ask, ‘What is a funny situation?’ Now I ask, ‘What is a sad situation and how can I tell it humorously?'”
Here’s a better line, one that could be a philosophy for life: in Laughter On The 23rd Floor, a tribute to that old writers’ room, one of his characters says, “I knew then and there that if I was going to keep my job I’d have to become as totally crazy as the rest of them.”
Every time I watch The Blues Brothers and it gets to the diner scene, my favorite scene, I always think, why isn’t she in the band? And then I realize making her part of the band would be blasphemy. She could only be a solo act.
Hail to the Queen. Hail and farewell Aretha Franklin.
Maybe you have, or had, an older family member, an aunt, say, who was nice to you but whom you never thought that much about because you only saw her at family gatherings. She’d take an interest in you, give you a piece of cake and some milk, and ask about what you were up to, what you liked. And you never thought to ask her anything about herself and you only discovered later in your own life that she had a rich history, that she was intelligent and interesting and there were so many things you wish you could have asked her.
If you know that feeling then you’ll understand when I say that’s kind of how I feel when I heard about the passing of Charlotte Rae. Yes, she never took any interest in me personally—we never crossed paths, and I know it’s weird to feel that way about someone I really only knew as a television character, but I was seven when Diff’rent Strokes debuted and once a week lost myself in the goings on of the Drummond family. And even though I thought it was the kids I related to there was something about Rae’s Mrs. Garrett that was warm and familiar; there were women like her in my family, although none of them lived with us.
It’s a surprise to me now that she only spent one season on Diff’rent Strokes. I immersed myself in The Facts Of Life too–yeah, I was a kid who watched too much television–but in my memory it’s as though she lived in both the Drummond house and Eastland School simultaneously. The younger cast members may technically have been the focus of both shows but she was a vital part of both.
And it never occurred to me at the time that she had a rich history and an interesting life outside of those shows. Her memoir, The Facts Of My Life, co-written with her younger son Larry Strauss, traces her history from the pogroms of the early 20th century that drove her family out of Russia and to the United States, through her career in cabaret and television–including a stint on Car 54, Where Are You? as Al Lewis’s wife Sylvia Schnauser. The Facts Of My Life opens, though, in 1971 while Rae was working on Sesame Street as Molly The Mail Lady. Her older son Andy had been put in Bellevue Hospital for psychiatric treatment following a violent outburst just before his sixteenth birthday. It was a tough time for her and she says,
I had to be back on Sesame Street in the morning delivering mail to Oscar The Grouch and Big Bird and those bright-eyed children who would sit on my lap. They were so adorable and precious and I was in such pain. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t think I could do another scene with those beautiful children. I tried to talk myself into it: Come on, Charlotte. You’re an actress. You can love them and admire them and admire and marvel at them.
That was really only the latest in a series of difficulties and things would get a lot harder for her.
Something else I didn’t even think about until now is that Rae was also a singer, and in an odd coincidence this morning on my way to work I was shuffling through songs on my phone and “My Conviction” from the Hair soundtrack popped up. I’ve listened to that whole album countless times and yet it never occurred to me that it’s Charlotte Rae singing, that, in addition to her talents for acting and comedy, she had some serious pipes too.
For several summers in the late 1980’s Nashville tried to revive its derelict downtown with a festival called City Lights. Vendors, some local, like radio stations, others national, like insurance companies, set up booths along the sidewalks and handed out cards, pens, tote bags—the usual swag. Restaurants from around the city, since there weren’t any downtown, set up tents and sold food. It’s where I tried sushi for the first time, but that’s another story. There were also stages where local musicians performed. The whole thing was a big multi-block party and then when it was over everybody left and downtown emptied out again. It was fun, but there was one year I decided not to go. I don’t remember why exactly although I wasn’t old enough to drive and always went with my parents, so it was probably because my friends were doing something more interesting. When my parents got home that night my mother told me, “The funniest guy was there, but no one knew who he was,” and handed me a Commander USA Fan Club card. Commander USA, my hero, had been at City Lights and I missed him.
At the same time that Nashville was trying to make its defunct riverfront funct again cable TV was sweeping the neighborhoods, and that probably put a bit of a dent in City Lights because why would people go and sweat up and down the sidewalks for a cheap t-shirt when they could stay home and watch Godfather II without commercials and with all the bloody violence? And in addition to the premium movie networks there were the basic channels which were basically unregulated and, at the time, kind of a wild west of television. MTV was still all about music, Nickelodeon was struggling to fill time with content mostly ripped from other continents, and the USA Network hadn’t yet become a dumping ground for Law & Order reruns, but every Saturday and then Sunday afternoon it was time for by Commander USA’s Groovie Movies. Commander USA was a retired superhero who wore an old raincoat over his red, white, and blue costume. He had a painted on mask and was a member of the Legion of Decency, who, from his secret lair under a New Jersey shopping mall, would host old horror films and I don’t think I should have to explain why I was an immediate fan. Most of the time it didn’t matter what the movie was. I tuned in just to see Commander USA banter with a stuffed deer head he called Monroe and his pal Lefty—a face he drew on his right hand with cigar ash. And for some reason at the City Lights festival that year the USA Network had set up a booth and brought along Commander USA.
Commander USA was played by actor Jim Hendricks who, in the horror host documentary American Scary, explained that his original idea was to play the role as Uncle Willie, a character he’d created as a disc jockey. It would have been a very different take on the conventional horror host, but then so was a superhero, which was the idea the producers had instead. Most horror hosts, like Nashville’s own Sir Cecil Creape, or Elvira, Mistress Of The Dark, had darker personas, but Commander USA was easygoing and a little goofy. Some hosts are sarcastic, or just blunt, about how terrible the films they’re hosting are, but Commander USA was always positive. No matter what the movie was his “Holy cats! It’s real excitin’!” sounded completely sincere. I was a fan of old horror movies—and horror hosts—before Commander USA, but his upbeat persona assured me it was okay to like them, and his enthusiasm appealed to more than just me. My friend John’s parents were the first people in the neighborhood to get a VCR and they used cable to build up a massive movie library, some from the movie channels, but sometimes his mother would sit through network movies, her hand over the Pause button on the remote, carefully editing out the commercials. One Saturday we watched the original Little Shop Of Horrors, hosted by Commander USA, together, and about halfway through she said, “I wish I’d thought to tape him too.” The commercials may not have been worth keeping but Commander USA was.
Here’s a copy of the fan club card:
Nashville no longer has a City Lights festival—downtown is thriving, some might even say it’s doing a little too well, but every year in late summer I get a little nostalgic, and after all these years I’ve never given up the hope that Jim Hendricks and I might actually cross paths, even though I’d probably be just as starstruck and speechless as I would have been meeting him when I was young.
A few days ago I checked Wikipedia and learned that Jim Hendricks, Commander USA, passed away on March 17, 2018. I’d missed his passing, I’d missed him, again, and I won’t get another chance. And maybe it’s better that way. Aside from a few details about his career I don’t know anything about Jim Hendricks, what he was like as a person, and maybe it’s better that I missed him. One of the advantages of age is I’ve come to expect being disappointed in my heroes. Not that I want to speculate ill of the dead—maybe he was, in life as well as on screen, an all around good guy, and I’m happier thinking that he was. It may even make me a better guy. The good we imagine in our heroes reflects the good we’d like to see in ourselves. The mask matters more than who’s behind it. Now that the telepsychotronic screen heat and radiation shield has closed for the last time I’ll take his parting advice to keep my nose in the wind and my tail to myself, and remember the pledge and try to remain an All Around Good Guy. Forever.
The clock radio in our bedroom wakes up my wife and I. It’s set to NPR and for years most weekday mornings we’d be stirred out of sleep by the gentle baritone of Carl Kasell reading the morning headlines. There was something comforting about his voice, even when it was bad news, and he was as much a part of my morning routine as taking a shower, brewing coffee, taking the dogs out, and flossing my toes. Then he went away and while his successors were fine it was never quite the same. Then an odd little comedy news quiz called Wait! Wait! Don’t Tell Me! started up, hosted by the guy who wrote Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights, Peter Sagal. Every fool has to have his straight man and it was Carl Kasell who stepped in. He was as somber and professional as the show’s scorekeeper as he was when reading the headlines, although every once in a while it I’d hear a strange, low rumbling. It took a while before I could get used to the sound of Kasell laughing. Now he didn’t wake us up in the mornings but he accompanied us on errands around town and on road trips, for an hour, anyway, or until we drove out of broadcasting range.
Kasell was always honest that in its early days Wait! Wait! just wasn’t that good but, to their credit, the powers that be at NPR allowed some tweaks to the show, including the addition of a live audience, that made it great. They recognized that it had potential, or maybe they just liked the prize: lucky listeners would get Carl Kasell to record the outgoing message on their home answering machine.
Several years ago when Wait! Wait! came to Nashville and was recorded at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center my wife surprised me with tickets and we got to go. It was fun seeing the panel banter back and forth with Peter and talk to the “Not My Job” guest Vince Gill, but what made it really special was that, off to one side of the stage at his own podium, was Carl Kasell. No offense to his successor who does a fine job, but I was so glad to finally get a good look at the man who joined us in our car and came into our bedroom every morning for so many years.
Hail and farewell Carl Kasell.
In one episode of the TV show Night Court Judge Harry Stone meets a younger version of himself: a kid in a three-piece suit and a fedora who does magic tricks. Faced with this window into his past the judge moans, “Oh God, I was a geek!” And I said, what? No! Judge Harry Stone is cool!
For some of us who grew up with Night Court’s original run from early 1984 to May of 1993—because it was strategically placed right after Cheers I watched it from the very beginning—the show is part of, and even represents, a cultural change that happened during that time. The 1970’s preached non-conformity but it was really the ‘80’s that embraced it. Night Court started off more or less grounded in reality but its throwaway lines and then whole plots became increasingly surreal. Night Court made it hip to be square, or polygonal, and at its heart its stabilizing influence was the barely stable Judge Harry Stone, prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan, played by the prankster, magician, and Mel Torme fan Harry Anderson.
While his Judge Stone character was squeaky clean it tickled me when Anderson showed up occasionally on Cheers as the grifter Harry The Hat, and when he hosted Saturday Night Live and stuffed a guinea pig in his mouth and shot magician Doug Henning in the back. I liked it that he had a dark side, and that it was just as weird as his light side.
I know he did more TV after Night Court finished, but it wasn’t until I heard about his untimely passing that I thought about how much Night Court and Harry Anderson warped my adolescent mind. In 2006 he moved to Asheville, North Carolina. I have cousins there who take pride in that city being known for its weirdness and openness and being labelled a “cesspool of sin”. It seems fitting that Harry Anderson, who helped some of us embrace our own weirdness, would live in a place that embraced it right back.
In 2010 Stephen Hawking said that humans should stop sending signals out into space because we run the risk of letting aliens know we’re here. According to Hawking it could be very bad if aliens find us, and he compared it to Europeans discovering Native Americans. The Europeans did bring syphilis and smallpox, but they also brought horses, so aliens could potentially do something similar.
I really do respect Stephen Hawking and I don’t think he offered up his opinion lightly. He has a history of carefully thinking things through. When he was at Oxford-–this is absolutely true-–he was a lazy and unmotivated student but told his professors that if they gave him a first he’d leave to go study at Cambridge and if they gave him a second he’d stay at Oxford. So naturally they gave him a first.
I once did something similar: I managed to pass sixth grade math by telling the teacher that if she flunked me I’d just come back the next year, but that’s another story. Sometimes I imagine his old Oxford professors getting sloppy drunk. One of them says, “Dude, we let Stephen Hawking go.” And the other one says, “He was such a slacker then. How could we know he was gonna write bestselling books and play poker with Data and Einstein on the Enterprise holodeck? And stop calling me ‘dude’. We’re both in our nineties.”
If I could ask Stephen Hawking one question, though, it would be, “What led you to the conclusion that aliens are a threat? And show your work.” I have to include “show your work” because, even though I’m pretty sure he didn’t just leap to this conclusion I would like to know how he arrived at it. I think Hawking may be completely wrong about aliens, but it’s an interesting question to debate, and I credit Hawking with making me think about my own position.
The problem I have with the assumption that aliens are going to come and put an interstellar smackdown on us if we let them know we’re here is that, as far as I know, we really don’t know what aliens are like or what their interests are. I think Hawking was right when he said the universe is likely teeming with life, and given how diverse life is just on this planet whatever forms that life takes are likely very strange, even unrecognizable. If he’s smart enough to have figured that out, though, he should be smart enough to realize that if aliens are capable of advanced interstellar travel they’re probably already aware of us. And if they’re not aware of us they’ve probably already scanned this solar system and discovered that there’s a nice rocky little planet full of water and silicon and heavy metals and Viagra and whatever else they might need to continue their galactic cruise. And if their technology is that advanced then everything we have is theirs for the taking whether we advertise our sentience or not. That’s also why I admit that Hawking may be right. I hope someday we’ll meet aliens on friendly terms, but the universe is a cold, hostile place. Some nights when I look out and see the moon cut into pieces by the spreading branches of a tree I wonder what is out there and I am afraid.
Any time I get hooked on a show it’s because of the characters. I’m not naïve enough to think they’re real people or even that the actors are anything like the characters they play, although I do always kind of hope they are because the reason I’m devoting half an hour to a sitcom is because I think, if these people were real I’d enjoy hanging out with them. Take, for instance, Frasier. Yes, I could definitely see myself attending the theater or an art gallery with Frasier and Niles, but I also thought I’d be just as happy having a beer at Duke’s with Martin. Again I know they’re not real people but Martin was wonderfully brought to life by John Mahoney. Take, for instance, my favorite exchange from the whole series, from the season 3 episode Chess Pains:
Frasier: Oh, hi, Dad. Did you see my new chess set? Martin: Oh yeah, it’s nice. Frasier: “Nice?” Well, the inlay was made from the same Travertine marble they used at the Emperor Hadrian’s palace outside Tivoli! Martin: Really? Well, I’m gonna celebrate with a beverage brewed from the crystal-clear waters of the majestic Colorado Rockies! Frasier: Good one, Dad. Say, how about a game? Martin: Nah, I don’t think so. Frasier: Oh, come on, Dad. You know how to play, don’t you? Martin: Well, Daphne showed me once. But really, checkers is more my speed. Frasier: Oh, come on, checkers is a kid’s game. Come on, Dad! I just got it! Please? Nobody will play with me! Martin: All right, I’ll give it another shot. Those guys at the park make it look great-eating baloney sandwiches, smoking cigars, sometimes a fist-fight even breaks out! Frasier: Well, let’s just start with name-calling and see where it goes, all right?
It’s a funny bit but it’s really the way Mahoney and Grammer, especially Mahoney, commit to it and play off each other that makes it. Then after I got hooked on Frasier it was a real treat to go back and rewatch Moonstruck, Say Anything, and The American President, and to watch The Broken Hearts Club just to see the different characters he could be–always charming, always distinctively John Mahoney, and yet so different from role to role.
He started acting at the age of thirty-seven but Mahoney was serious and dedicated to the craft. As brilliant as he was on TV and in movies he preferred the theater, working live before an audience. In a 2014 interview he said, “The audience has a job and the actors have a job and when you both do your job and meet the result is just magical.”
He really brought the magic. Hail and farewell John Mahoney.
There’s a longstanding misconception in standup comedy that women aren’t funny. It still hangs around a few dark corners and I’m not sure why because as long as there have been women there have been funny women, and even in standup’s earliest days, when the prejudice was most prominent, there were a few real women who could be at least as funny as, if not funnier than, their male counterparts. And there was at least one fictional one: Sally Rogers, part of the trio of writers for the fictional Alan Brady Show, which was the backdrop of the real Dick Van Dyke Show. Let me make that a little clearer: at a time when it was popularly believed women weren’t funny a woman played the role of a TV comedy writer. And that woman was, of course, Rose Marie.
It’s probably too much of a stretch but I like to think Rose Marie’s very funny, and also very charming, portrayal of Sally Rogers, helped pave the way for other women, including cast member Mary Tyler Moore who was just as funny and who’d go on to be a fictional TV news show producer at a time when it was still widely believed that was a job a woman couldn’t do. Unfortunately we also lost Moore in 2017.
Of course it was an occasional joke on The Dick Van Dyke Show that Sally’s co-workers didn’t see her as a woman. This is emphasized in a season one episode, “Sally Is A Girl”, in which Rob, Buddy, and Mel get together a poker game. They won’t let Laura play because they all insist they don’t play poker with women, but are happy to have Sally join. After all she bowls, drinks brandy, and smokes cigars just like the guys. At least this was supposed to be a joke. Even as a kid, watching daily reruns of The Dick Van Dyke Show, I thought Sally was great as she was, and, in an earlier episode, “Sally And The Lab Technician”, while Rob and Laura worry she’s not being feminine enough it was no surprise to me that Sally’s date, Thomas, thinks she’s great. It’s telling that the writers and producers thought this would be a surprise, and reflects just how deeply rooted sexism was at the time. Now we can, or at least should, accept that Sally could be both one of the guys and one of the gals and that all she really had to be was happy with who she was, although there’s still progress to be made.
My real subject, though, is Rose Marie, who brought Sally to life, and who was just as sharp and fearless as the characters she played. This fearlessness went all the way back to when she first sang on stage at the age of three and almost immediately became a star. In her autobiography Hold The Roses she shares stories of other showbiz stars she met, including, early in her career, Al Jolson.
“Oh, Mr. Jolson, you were so great, you made me cry!”
He looked at me and said, “You were great too, ya little runt.”
Nice man! However every time we would appear together at benefits, like the Milk Fund at Madison Square Garden, he would spot me with my father, come over and say, “Hi, ya little runt. You gonna go out and kill the people?”
I would look up at him and say, “I hope so.”
No need to hope, Rose Marie. You killed ’em. You were smart, talented, and, most of all, funny. Hail and farewell.