February 5, 2019

An Ode to the American Cheese Ball

Last weekend, I went to my parents' house to visit. I was there very briefly for Christmas, but we didn't have as much chance to visit since the holiday fell on a weekday, and having many other guests to spend time with, plus we had an ailing pet who unfortunately died on the 26th, it wasn't exactly the best holiday, although on the bright side, our cat didn't suffer and we weren't forced to make a painful decision, so all things considered, it wasn't as awful as it could have been. Still, we didn't really get sufficient time to visit family over the holiday as we might have otherwise.

For the holiday, my mother gave us a personalized recipe file that she had made, along with a few recipes. As I had a chance to add my own recipes and review what was already in there, and I noticed a few of my mother's recipes that really I wanted to include that I did not have her recipes for, so I was able to ask for those during my most recent visit.

One recipe I wanted to include was the quintessentially 70's hors d'oeuvre: her cheese ball recipe. I've Googled a fair number of cheese ball and cheese log (basically the same thing in a slightly different shape) recipes and learned a few things about them.

These are usually served with different commercially-baked crackers, maybe pretzels (small, thin pretzel sticks or pretzel chips/crisps) and crudites (generally small, thin vegetable sticks made from celery, peeled carrots, and green, red, yellow and/or orange bell peppers, as well as broccoli and cauliflower florets plus cherry or grape tomato varieties). In the U.S., what Americans call "cream cheese" (sold under the bestselling brand name of Philadelphia now made by Kraft-Heinz, but available commercially since 1872, its origins were not from Philly but upstate New York, see HERE for more history) is a soft, usually mild-tasting fresh cheese that's made from milk and cream. Stabilizers such as carob bean gum and carrageenan are typically added in industrial production. Cream cheese is not naturally matured and is meant to be consumed fresh, so it differs from other soft cheese varieties like Brie and Neufchâtel (the latter being the variety in which it is most similar to in terms of taste and texture, only cream cheese is richer and there's no rind). It is also comparable to Boursin and Mascarpone in terms of flavor. Frequently, Neufchâtel cheese is marketed as a lower-calorie version of products like Philadelphia cream cheese in U.S. supermarkets.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines "cream cheese" as containing at least 33% milk fat with a moisture content of not more than 55%, and a pH range of 4.4 to 4.9. Similarly, under Canadian regulations, cream cheese must contain at least 30% milk fat and a maximum of 55% moisture. In other countries, its defined differently and may need a considerably higher fat content to be called cheese. That said, whether one uses American/Canadian "cream cheese", Neufchâtel, Mascarpone or another variety, it's possible to experience what is commonly referred to as cheese balls.

Cheese balls are rooted in sharing. Like another seventies cheese fad (I wrote about one HERE) that originated from the Swiss dairy conglomerate known as the Emmi Group, which is the largest Swiss milk processor and a leading producer of specialty cheeses that Switzerland sells for export. Unlike Swiss cheese varieties marketed around the world, the American cheese ball (or cheese log) is uniquely American in origin. But, like fondue, it's also typically a socially-consumed food.

The New York Times wrote that the [American] cheese ball is "a stalwart of the Midwest cocktail party", where it can be fashioned from processed cheddar cheese and/or cream cheese with port wine or even fruit (usually rolled in some type of crunchy nuts, although sweeter versions may use oats, cereal, chocolate chips, sprinkles, etc.).

But the Midwest is a vague and vast geographic region, so the origin is most likely from the state that calls itself America's Dairyland: Wisconsin and/or its nearest neighbor (another U.S. dairy powerhouse): Minnesota, which is home to the massive Land O'Lakes dairy empire, which began as the Minnesota Cooperative Creameries Association and now ranks among the biggest in the country.

Technically, the Midwest has dozens of dairy cooperatives, many of which have grown to become among the top 100 in terms of sales. However, California produces far more dairy products than both Wisconsin and Minnesota combined. Plus, even a smaller but very innovative dairy cooperative from New England has grown into a force to be reckoned with, the dairy cooperative known as Cabot Creamery (which includes dairy farmers from across New England and upstate New York) has since since grown into a firm that has begun to rival its big Midwestern counterparts in terms of both output and more importantly: innovation, name recognition and branding.

Whether the cheese ball's origins are the Midwest or not, for whatever reason, cheese ball and cheese log recipes became massively appealing nationwide among U.S. housewives during and were suddenly all the rage in the back in the 1970's: they are an easy, tasty, and are an attractive party food for most any occasion. That suited housewives and hippies living in communes alike.

These are usually served with different crackers, maybe pretzels (small, thin sticks or chips) and crudites (generally small vegetable sticks made from celery, peeled carrots, colored bell peppers, broccoli and cauliflower florets, plus cherry or grape tomatoes). In the U.S., what's called "cream cheese" (sold under the Philadelphia brand name marketed by Kraft-Heinz) is a soft, usually mild-tasting fresh cheese that's made from milk and cream. Stabilizers such as carob bean gum and carrageenan are typically added in industrial production. Cream cheese is not naturally matured and is meant to be consumed fresh, so it differs from other soft cheese varieties such as Brie and Neufchâtel (the latter being the variety in which its most similar to in terms of taste and texture, but cream cheese is richer and there's no rind). Its also comparable to Boursin and Mascarpone in terms of flavor. Neufchâtel cheese is sometimes marketed in the U.S. as a lower-calorie version of products like Philadelphia brand cream cheese in U.S. supermarkets, or dozens of store brands of cream cheese.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines "cream cheese" as containing at least 33% milk fat with a moisture content of not more than 55%, and a pH range of 4.4 to 4.9. Similarly, under Canadian regulations, cream cheese must contain at least 30% milk fat and a maximum of 55% moisture. In other countries, its defined differently and may need a considerably higher fat content in order to be called cheese. That said, whether one uses American/Canadian "cream cheese", Neufchâtel, Mascarpone or another variety, its very possible to experience what is commonly referred to as cheese balls in the U.S.

Your Choice: Have Your Cheese Balls Savory or Sweet

While plenty of people are more fond of the sweetened variety (such as those containing fruits such as dates, raisins, pineapples or cherries) or chocolates considering that Kraft sales data show that its better selling cream cheese spreads sold are the sweet varieties such as strawberry or pumpkin spice, rather than savory varieties like Chive & Onion, or Garden Vegetable (I'm still annoyed I can't find sun-dried tomato in my local supermarket anymore!). For me, I find sweetened cheese balls kind of revolting and they definitely tend to test my gag reflex, so I won't even consider the non-savory variety (savory cream cheese spreads contain things like olives, blue cheese, shallots/scallions, sun-dried tomatoes, etc.). To each his (or her) own, I guess. I also don't eat any salads with fruit in them (my apology to the Waldorf inventor, or those who add mandarin oranges), and I'm not fond of adding fruits to meat-dishes like ham with pineapples, or sausages containing raisins -- its simply a taste preference.

But as already noted, in essence, a cheese ball is simply another form of social cheese consumption. At their core nearly all cheese balls are simply a combination cheeses, mixed in with some seasonings and rolled in crunchy nuts or other coatings.

The cheese ball may be retro, but there’s a reason that cheese balls have a hallowed place in the hors d'oeuvre hall of fame. The combination of the mildness of cream cheese and the sharpness of the grated cheddars or other cheese varieties, all amped up with a dash of Dijon or a splash of Worcestershire, make them oh-so inviting.

There are hundreds of different cheese ball recipes out there which you can find online (Philadelphia brand of cream cheese has an entire page dedicated to the topic), and I discovered that the truth is, you don't really even need a recipe at all in order to make a cheese ball. All you have to do is start with the main ingredient: a creamy cheese variety (or a combination of several). Then, mix in whatever fillings and/or flavorings you’d like, and roll it in something to give it a combined texture and flavor combination. That's about it.

Cheese Balls Are Less of a Recipe, More of a Technique

In many ways, a cheese ball isn’t even a recipe; it’s a concept with four directions. What makes a cheese ball so versatile is that you can literally change almost every element and still be good to go.
  1.  Mix room-temperature cream cheese and other cheeses and butter until smooth
  2.  Shape into a ball (or log)
  3.  Chill
  4.  Roll in crunchy stuff and serve
Aside from cheese/cheese mixture, there are 3 main categories of all cheese ball ingredients:

Mixed-In Flavorings: Most people add seasonings for flavors, which are often savory, including condiments/spices: soy sauce (or fish sauce), Worcestershire sauce, horseradish, wasabi, ginger, basil, some type of garlic: minced, fresh garlic, garlic powder or garlic salt or a combo thereof, mustard (many varieties), lemon, sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary, thyme, horseradish, hot sauce (Tabasco or other, including Sriracha), and packets of mixed herb seasonings (some like easy-to-find items Good Seasons dressing mixes, though these can be a little salty). Others on the sweeter side include: nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, instant coffee (no one wants coffee grounds!), melted chocolate, confectioners sugar, dulce de leche, and/or flavored jams.

Mixed-In Ingredients: As for mixed-in ingredients, typical savory mix-in ingredients are: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, caraway seeds, zaatar, minced dried garlic flakes, minced dried onion, crushed wasabi peas, scallions or chives, smoked paprika, parsley or dill. Sweet mix-ins include: coconut, raisins, crushed pineapple, dried fruits (such as raisins, but most any dried fruit will work), canned pumpkin, strawberries, maraschino cherries, pomegranate seeds and chocolate chips.

Rolled-In Flavor/Textures (the crunchy stuff): Savory ingredients to roll the cheese ball in include: chopped walnuts, chopped pecans, chopped pistachios, slivered almonds, or other chopped nut varieties. Sweeter ingredients to roll the cheese ball in include: pretzels, sprinkles/shots/jimmies, powdered sugar, cinnamon-sugar, shredded/sweetened coconut, Oreo cookie crumbs, graham crackers crumbs, chopped peanuts, chopped pecans, chopped chocolate/chocolate chips, caramel chips, or peanut butter chips, cookies, cocoa, granola, or even breakfast cereals.

The single trick to getting any cheese ball to work well is that every ingredient must be at room temperature. Yes, proper temperatures are a must. Soft, warmer cheeses become integrated into a single flavor, with a new texture and aroma that simply cannot occur if you start with ice-cold ingredients. Set the cream cheese and other cheeses out on the counter for about an hour before you start and you will be problem-free.

Without further delay, below is the cheese ball recipe I was looking for. I know it's probably just a recipe my mother made pretty often, but is not unique to her. My mother's cousin Janet gave her the directions/recipe initially, although very likely, I would guess that she probably got the original from someone else. Now that I know I have the freedom to experiment with different flavorings, I may add some others and see how I like them. I may also use something other than walnuts (maybe macadamia?!) as the covering. Sounds fun!

Janet's Cheese Ball Recipe
  • 1 lb. cream cheese (2 8 oz. packages)
  • 3 tbs. soft butter
  • Garlic salt
  • Pepper
  • 1/2 cup chopped black olives
  • Chopped walnuts
Blend all ingredients. Chill at least 4 hours. Roll in chopped walnuts.

See also:


February 2, 2019

"The Cher Show" on Broadway

I see a lot of shows, and many are great, others are only so-so, but I seldom write reviews on any of them. But last weekend, I saw "The Cher Show" on Broadway (its currently playing at the Neil Simon Theatre on West 52nd Street in New York).

The play is a jukebox musical biopic story about the diva in the title. The woman born as Cherilyn Sarkisian from El Centro, California, a border town in the Imperial Valley, but is much better known by the mononymous (and abbreviated) name Cher. More than a few of such jukebox musical shows have made their mark on the big white way in recent years about Carole King, Frankie Valli, Billy Joel, Gloria Estefan, Donna Summer and even Janis Joplin to name a few. Most were enjoyable for what they were, but were mostly formula-driven musical bios that followed a boring, chronological storylines (only Summer broke from that sequence) with the music shoe-horned into the story.

Being a longtime Cher fan anyway (I'm old enough to have grown up watching the original weekly TV variety show broadcast live with the Bonos and their first child, who is exactly my age -- born just a few weeks before me), the subsequent solo Cher variety show, and the duo's short-lived, post-divorce return to television variety as an on-screen couple, even if she was already married to Gregg Allman at the time (Mr. Allman died away in 2017, although Cher did not give the eulogy at his funeral as she did at Sonny Bono's in 1998), so "The Cher Show" wasn't really a difficult sell for me, yet I still went into it with low expectations given my disappointment with so many others in this theater genre so far. The genre is more like a Beatlemania performance, rather than a story like The Miracle Worker about Helen Keller.

Anyway, on that front, I was very pleasantly surprised with "The Cher Show". Sure, the jukebox biopic genre is still more about filling theater seats daily with tourists than about boundary-pushing stories or performances. But "The Cher Show" did a few things differently which I really enjoyed.

The non-linear story telling (and the music that accompanied it) was in my opinion, very refreshing, and it also wasn't a reminder that I'll be a half-century old this year (or that Cher herself will be 72). Its accomplished with three different actresses playing Cher at different points of her life, named Babe, Lady and Star respectively, yet they interact with one another throughout the show, sometimes rather humorously. Although the actresses were good at mimicking her smoky, contralto voice, I don't envision Patti Lupone is worried any of the actresses are ready to unseat her for acting just yet. They were all great singers, but they did what they could for the role they were cast; and none can ever be Cher herself.

Cher's direct, personal involvement as the producer of "The Cher Show" as well the direct involvement of her long-time friend and costume designer Bob Mackie, who has won multiple Emmy Awards of his own, both really give the show its unique edge. The show's director Jason Moore said this way: "You can't really tell the Cher story without telling the Bob Mackie part of it".

Bob Mackie's sequin-studded, feathered "nude" dress that Cher wore to the 1974 Met Gala.
Bob Mackie spoke fondly of his relationship with Cher, whom he met as a guest on "The Carol Burnett Show". He said "To be cute and pretty back then, you had to have a turned-up nose and lots of blond hair. But Cher is an amazing-looking girl. She can look like anything. She loved getting dressed up, and nothing intimidated her. By the end, people were turning on the show just to see what she was going to wear." Colors were bold, sequins were plentiful, coverage was minimal.

"Almost nothing he [Bob Mackie] ever made me did I hate," Cher said. "The minute I started getting beads, I didn't care what happened."

One of her most iconic singles was not her 2017 smash "Believe", which became the bestselling song of her musical career, but was her breakout 1971 solo single "Gypsys, Tramps & Thieves". A clip of that can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/CherGypsysTrampsThievesFromTheSonnyCherComedyHour1971:

"The Cher Show" features an impressive re-interpretation of so many of her iconic Bob Mackie costumes (reportedly over 600 costumes), which are changed with a rapid frequency that's definitely a testament to the actresses who play the 3 different Chers.

Bob Mackie himself deserves much of the credit for his role in "The Cher Show"; he is the sole costume designer for the show. He says he had the original designs and sketches for most of her original costumes, which made it less of a new creative endeavor and more of a production assignment for the show, although there were some notable modifications. Many of the original costumes that Cher wore were reportedly incredibly heavy and fragile, she reportedly tripped wearing one to the accept the Oscar that she won, dropping an earing on the way up to the podium), including the different headpieces, so Mr. Mackie creatively modified the originals for "The Cher Show", making them much lighter-weight, yet still as radiant as the originals, and also durable enough to survive the rapid pace costume changes in the show. Both Cher and Bob Mackie deserve rightful credit for their roles in bringing "The Cher Show" on Broadway to fruition and making it work.

Cher's involvement also ensured that audiences of the show don't forget her journey to becoming not only a pop star first by going to London with Sonny Bono (the show also features an appearance by someone playing legendary American sixties musical producer Phil Spector who's now in jail for murdering his wife) to becoming an Oscar-winner, or even her humiliating infomercial period (which was hilariously lampooned on SNL) or Cher's much-chronicled love-life, the subject of tabloid fodder for as long as I've been alive, isn't a central focus. Although a few of her most memorable romances (including her two husbands, and her affair with "bagel boy" Rob Camilletti who was 22 years her junior when she was living in New York to pursue a stage career) have roles, its but difficult to fit so many romances into a short biopic and its not supposed to be about her colorful love-life anyway. The show even humorously acknowledges Cher's many farewell shows.

But Cher's two children are barely acknowledged in the except as a decoration, and they use baby dolls rather than actors to fill those roles. To her credit, her oldest child is referred to as Chaz throughout the show, although as noted, her kids are hardly mentioned. The important thing to remember is: this is "The Cher Show", not the Sonny & Cher Show, the Cher and Gregg Allman Show, the Cher and Bagel Boy Show, or the Cher and her Kids Show. They are all acknowledged, but the show isn't really about any them. Perhaps that's more to respect her children's privacy than it is about ignoring them. Chaz Bono, for example, went through a painful period of gender dysphoria growing up before ultimately transitioning to become male. While Cher wasn't initially thrilled, mainly because she wasn't confided in until the decision had already been made by Chaz, she ultimately helped her child with the transition and has since willingly embraced the slightly-modified name (which went from Chastity to Chaz) that was ultimately chosen.

Although her own children are played by baby dolls in "The Cher Show", her mother plays a very significant role in "The Cher Show". Her father, John Sarkisian, on the other hand, was absent, which is largely as Cher remembered him growing up. By the time her mother Georgia Holt learned she was pregnant with Cher, she had already left Mr. Sarkisian. Cher spent very little time with her father growing up, whom she says had a gambling and heroin habit. Cher had a series of stepfathers growing up — her mother was married a total of eight times, to six different men. And yet, her mother is depicted in a way that glosses over her own many relationship failures to make her appear wise instead. Cher claims its because she mostly watched her mother survive alone.

There are even a few funny cameos in the show by the likes of an actress that portrays the late Lucille Ball who Cher says actually gave her advice as a young woman about not letting a husband run her life or her career (Lucy was spoke from her own experience).

On the musical score, most are familiar with Cher's long discography (the show includes 35 of her songs), but her willingness to abandon linear sequence of her music was a refreshing surprise which deserves acknowledgement. We start early with "All I Really Want to Do", but end up at the auto-tuned "Believe" just a few minutes later. At the same time, they had to cut things to keep the length of the show right, and the biggest omission on the musical score is the complete exclusion of Cher's duration with Casablanca Records which includes such numbers as "Hell On Wheels" that was big during the roller-disco era of the late-seventies into the early-eighties. Admittedly, her Casablanca period didn't produce any of the platinum-selling singles that her late 1990's dance tracks did, yet was still a relevant part of her lengthy yet successful musical career. Perhaps its not a critical omission, but an omission nonetheless that could have been colorful and funny.

Like all jukebox musicals, "The Cher Show" has an expiration date. People are unlikely to be watching this in another 50 years, just as no one will likely be watching shows about Billy Joel or Gloria Estefan because they are pop culture celebrities of today. It won't matter since its based on pop culture of yesterday and today, not tomorrow.

No matter, in all, I would still give "The Cher Show" two thumbs up. Its enjoyable without taking itself too seriously. The actresses that perform her are great singers, and she's still willing to be the butt of a joke that made her early TV variety hows such big hits. Its not perfect, but there's a lot to like about "The Cher Show" and was a lot more enjoyable than some others in this same genre. The costumes are great, as is the music, and its funny enough without being too serious.

January 20, 2019

Half-Hour of 1977 ABC TV Commercials

Not every post needs to contain a detailed story. Sometimes, the content pretty much speaks for itself, as is the case with this posting from Internet Archive. It contains a collection of TV commercials which aired on ABC television between January and May 1977. Some, such as those with Bill Cosby's voice-overs for Del Monte corn speak more to the particular point in time than they do any lack of oversight of Mr. Cosby's pre-#MeToo behavior.

Here's the complete list of what's included with approximate times:
  • 0:00 Oscar Mayer Bologna
  • 0:32 Oscar Mayer Hot Dogs
  • 1:02 ABC Bumper
  • 1:07 Del Monte Corn (Bill Cosby narration)
  • 1:37 Mounds/Almond Joy Candy Bars #1
  • 2:08 The Six Million Dollar Man promo (episode: Danny's Inferno)
  • 2:29 The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries promo
  • 3:00 Triscuits Crackers (with Betty Buckley)
  • 3:30 Campbell's Noodle-O's Soup
  • 4:00 The Captain and Tennille Show promo
  • 4:24 Golden Grahams Cereal
  • 4:54 The Kodak Instant Camera with a Twist
  • 5:25 AT&T Super-Switcher
  • 6:24 Happy Days/Fonzie Loves Pinkie promo
  • 6:55 McDonalds Fish
  • 7:25 Purina Cat Chow
  • 7:56 Nescafe Coffees
  • 8:27 Carefree Sugarless Gum (with Dena Deitrich)
  • 8:56 Kentucky Fried Chicken
  • 9:28 Eight is Enough promo #1
  • 9:50 Gaines-burgers Dog Food
  • 10:20 Singer Sewing Machines (with Debbie Reynolds, George Dzundza and Michael Tucci)
  • 10:50 Tickle Antiperspirant
  • 11:52 Final Net Hairspray
  • 12:21 Eight is Enough promo #2
  • 12:52 Future Cop/Three's Company promo
  • 13:16 Mounds/Almond Joy Candy Bars #2
  • 13:46 The 1977 Chevrolet (with Jerry Orbach)
  • 14:17 Playtex Support-Can-Be-Beautiful Bra
  • 14:47 Coca-Cola ("Coke adds life!")
  • 15:18 Hanes Pantyhose ("Gentlemen Prefer Hanes")
  • 15:46 Purina Puppy Chow (Sterling Holloway narration)
  • 16:19 Boy Scouts of America ("Boy Power!")
  • 16:40 Chevrolet Concours
  • 17:10 Revlon Natural Wonder Crease-proof Cream Eyeshadow
  • 17:40 Fritos Corn Chips
  • 18:11 Soft & Dri Antiperspirant (with P.J. Soles & Charlene Tilton)
  • 18:42 Log Cabin Buttered Syrup
  • 19:12 Post Raisin Bran
  • 19:43 U.S. Savings Bonds ("The Ant & the Grasshopper")
  • 20:16 Oscar Mayer Bologna
  • 20:47 Oscar Mayer Bacon
  • 21:17 Clairol Nice 'n' Easy Hair Color
  • 21:47 Pillsbury Plus Cake Mix
  • 21:18 Clorox Bleach
  • 22:49 Blansky's Beauties/Fish/Starsky & Hutch promo
  • 23:20 Kinney Shoes (with Ken Berry)
  • 23:50 Carnation Instant Milk (with Vicki Lawrence)
  • 24:20 Kool-Aid
  • 24:50 Gravy Train Dog Food (with June Lockhart)
  • 25:22 Fotomat
  • 25:52 Wheat Thins Crackers (with Sandy Duncan)
  • 26:23 The Easter Bunny Is Coming to Town promo
  • 26:45 Good Year Tires
  • 27:15 Canada Dry Ginger Ale (with Aldo Ray, Broderick Crawford & Jack Palance)
  • 27:45 Have a Pepsi Day
The video can be watched below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/1977TVCommercials.


Some, such as the promotional promo from "Captain and Tennille Show" (at 4:00) are worth revisiting since the Captain Darryl Dragon passed away just a few weeks ago, on January 2, 2019 at age 76, although as I noted in my post on the duo in April 2017, Toni Tennille was bitten by the celebrity bug, and it was more a showcase for her, with Mr. Dragon being mostly a musical backdrop for her. Another clip, this one for retailer Kinney Shoes starting at 23:20 featured actor and dancer Ken Berry, perhaps best known for his starring role as Vinton Harper on the seventies-to-eighties sitcom "Mama's Family" (catch my post on that http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2017/02/mamas-family-from-network-tv-also-ran.html for details) who passed away at age 85 on December 1, 2018.

Of course, I'm partial to the two commercials for Peter Paul Mounds/Almond Joy Candy Bars #1 which appears at 1:37 and another Peter Paul Mounds/Almond Joy Candy Bars #2 spot which appears at 13:16 because at the time, the company was still based in Connecticut where I grew up (long before being acquired by Cadbury, whose U.S. operations were later sold to Hershey). When I was growing up, class trips to the factory were always a favorite among grade school kids of that era.

Anyway, since these commercials were broadcast prior to the Copyright Act that took effect on January 1, 1978, the archivist presumes these commercials are all in public domain (most of them, at least) but he says he's certainly no copyright expert. These were included on DVD's of "The Brady Bunch Variety Hour" duped from tapes of the original broadcasts made by producers Sid & Marty Krofft which I obtained from a collector. They are broken into clips and shared them on various sites like RetroJunk over the years, but when he posted them as a complete collection on YouTube in 2013, the video quickly began averaging 1,000 hits a day. Due to the high-quality, extreme rarity and overwhelming popularity, it seemed like a no-brainer to make them available for download on The Internet Archive in full DVD quality.

December 11, 2018

Mama Mia! The Swedish Group ABBA Has Made a Lot of Money, Money Money!

Much has been written about the Swedish super group called ABBA. After all, the group has more than proven its endurance to a global audience.
The group's iconic logo was/is also a registered trademark
Songwriters and musicians Björn Ulaeus and Benny Andersson first met in 1966, and in 1969, the seeds of the soon-to-be Swedish supergroup were planted when Björn met his fiancée, Agnetha Fältskog, and Benny met his fiancée, Anni-Frid (known as Frida) Lyngstad, and the group formed in Stockholm in 1972. Ulvaeus and Andersson knew how to write contagious pop hits, but Fältskog's and Lyngstad's beautiful harmonies were integral to the global chart-topping ABBA sound. The group's name is an acronym from the first letter in each of their names. In 1974, ABBA was the contestant for Sweden in the Eurovision Song Contest, the pan-European music festival. Sweden (and ABBA) took home the prize as the winner of the Eurovision contest that year with their performance of the song "Waterloo".

Although relatively unknown outside of Scandinavia at the time, ABBA used the Eurovision song contest as a launching pad to become a global pop music sensation. While Sweden has long been one of the world's largest cultural exporters (books, music, film, television programming, etc.), likely because in Swedish public schools, the population is taught English in as a core subject (along with Swedish and mathematics) staring in grade school between the ages 7 and 9, depending on the school attended. Indeed, most Scandinavians are praised for having both fluency in English and language competency in addition to their own native tongues, hence Swedes successfully export to the broader English-speaking world.

Anyway, in 1974, in spite of competing against the likes of Olivia Newton-John who represented the UK in Eurovision that year (unfortunately, she sang a boring song entitled "Long Live Love" that year, and her outfit was similarly conservative), ABBA grabbed the top prize.  A video of the group's winning performance in the 1974 Eurovision contest can be seen below, or by visiting HERE.

Not only was the ABBA song "Waterloo" understood across Europe, but the band also wore what were considered pretty daring costumes that year, too. Their costumes were certainly eye-catching: shiny, satin, all-in-one outfits and even shinier knee-length hot-boots. The costumes were explained largely as a way to exploit a Swedish tax law. As long as their outfits were so outrageous that they could not be worn on the street, the band could claim the cost of the outfits were tax-deductible.

ABBA band member Björn Ulvaeus recalled: "In my honest opinion, we looked like nuts in those years. Nobody can have been as badly dressed on stage as we were." Björn added: "We figured with our clothes, people would remember us even if we finished ninth." Frida noted: "We chose clothes we felt comfortable in. My favorite was a body stocking with a little dress cut diagonally. I thought I was elegant and sexy in it."

But the costumes fit right into the disco era which was just emerging around the world at the time, and people remembered the band who wore such colorful (if garish) outfits. It didn't hurt that their music was universal, and the harmonies of the women's voices in the group sounded great. They took their knack for memorable (if ugly) costumes, along with catchy lyrics and dancible pop melodies and became a global superstar group whose success is in many ways, unparalleled. All told, ABBA released eight studio albums over their original 10 years together. Perhaps their most iconic single was their 1976 hit "Dancing Queen" which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/ABBADancingQueen_201811.

"Dancing Queen" was ABBA's biggest hit in the United States (going to number one), and it also topped the charts in Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, the UK, Germany and Zimbabwe. "Dancing Queen" also reached the top five in many other countries.

At their commercial zenith in the late 1970's, ABBA were reputedly second only to Volvo in their contribution to Sweden's exports. While figures vary, industry watchers agree that ABBA has sold at least than 200 million albums and singles worldwide (some unconfirmed estimates put the figure closer to 400 million, behind only The Beatles but ahead of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen), and certainly comparable to the Rolling Stones. Collectively, estimates are that ABBA has earned more than $2 billion in album and singles sales during its career.

The 1974 Eurovision-winning band was actually made up of two couples — Agnetha Fältskog and  Björn Ulvaeus, and Benny Andersson and Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. Both couples would later split as the band became most successful, and ABBA broke up as a group in 1982. ABBA was always bigger in terms of studio recordings, but decidedly less so when it came to touring and live performances. Despite some disagreements among the quartet, the four largely remained in touch and they seem fairly united in decision-making that has perpetuated their fame and fortune. The original ABBA team have proven themselves VERY adept at continuing the nurture their money-machine by carefully licensing their songs to bands and singers who have kept their songs continually playing (and selling).

For example, in 1992, they wisely licensed several of their songs to the UK pop duo Erasure (Vince Clarke and Andy Bell) which released an EP of four of ABBA's best-known hits. That EP revived ABBA's songs for a generation of young adults who grew up listening to the original ABBA songs on the radio, and was also Erasure's first and only #1 on the UK Singles Chart for the single "Take A Chance on Me", plus it got significant airplay in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

ABBA later licensed its songs to live theater productions of the show "Mama Mia" which opened in London and remained a best-seller there, replicating that successful run in New York, Toronto, Sydney and elsewhere. The stage version's worldwide gross from 49 productions exceeded $2 billion in 2015, having been seen by 500 million people. The 14-year Broadway run alone grossed more than $600 million, according to the trade group Broadway League.

In 2014, the ABBA band-members released a video they called "The Last Video" which can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/8L6T6Yj5u4k which is indicative of the continued creative work from the group members.

ABBA's West-End/Broadway success with "Mama Mia", in-turn, lead to the Hollywood movie version of "Mama Mia" that starred Meryl Streep. The "Mamma Mia" movie version of the all-ABBA musical was released by Universal and earned the band another $600 million at the box office, while the sequel (whose story was panned) still quietly earned another $280 million during just its first four weeks without even factoring in DVD and streaming sales, licensing to cable television, etc. ABBA also released (or was it really a re-release of their biggest hits?) "ABBA Gold: Greatest Hits", which has been called one of the most influential compilation albums ever released, and sparked a strong revival of ABBA's music that has endured well into the 21st century.

In 2018, one guest-star of "Mama Mia 2", herself a seventies pop icon Cher, released a whole new album of ABBA covers following her appearance in the sequel movie. She announced one of the singles "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!" via her active Twitter account.

Cher told the press (see HERE): "I've always liked ABBA and saw the original Mamma Mia musical on Broadway three times. After filming "Mamma Mia! 2: Here We Go Again", I was reminded again of what great and timeless songs they wrote and started thinking 'why not do an album of their music?' The songs were harder to sing than I imagined but I'm so happy with how the music came out. I'm really excited for people to hear it. It's a perfect time."

Meanwhile, back in Stockholm, Sweden, the ABBA The Museum is a Swedish interactive exhibition about the pop band ABBA that opened in Stockholm, Sweden in May 2013. ABBA's collected works are showcased in a contemporary, interactive setting at Djurgården, Stockholm.

ABBA also announced that the Swedish foursome had recorded several brand new songs during 2018, its first in 35 years, which will be released in early 2019. The original band members are all now in their seventies, so studio recordings are one thing, but the group has said they have no intention of doing any live performances. But there ARE plans for a TV special, and a separate digital project to recreate the four members performing as what they're branding their 'ABBAtars' using the experience gained from the ABBA Museum to further their commercial success on a global basis.

Just how much longer ABBA can perpetuate its "Money, Money, Money" tree remains to be seen. But they've proven themselves perhaps the most successful at merchandising their music in a way that few other bands have yet to replicate -- it doesn't just happen, it takes a degree of talent, intellect and work -- but perhaps could pave the way for future artists in the 21st century?

December 4, 2018

Strange Archives: Attention K-Mart Shoppers

The internet has a collection of the truly obscure! The website Plaid Stallions, with a heavy focus on toys from the 1970's, featured a 1978 newspaper flyer for K-Mart including ads for toys of that era. However, because its the holiday season, memories of shopping at cheesy, American discount stores like K-Mart is also no doubt something for which many people are familiar.

Notably, the Internet Archive is assembling a massive digital collection of miscellaneous things, some quite impressive, such as the emulator library of video games and home video game consoles as well as handheld devices which I've addressed in prior posts, including one about Speak & Spell and other items, for example. There are also video clips from different sources, and a large audio collection. Due to copyright issues, audio can be more challenging, but sometimes the work is already done by others, in this case the once-giant discount retailer K-Mart Corporation.

Shoppers of K-Mart may recall the retailer's in-store audio background music which was periodically interrupted by K-Mart product commercials which were usually introduced with the phrase "Attention K-Mart Shoppers".  A collection entitled "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" is one such collection. It even contains special audio advertisements announcing the addition of a new K-Mart pharmacy from 1974 where shoppers could fill their prescriptions.

As the archivist Mark Davis admits, this is a somewhat strange collection. In the late 1980's and early 1990's, he worked for K-Mart behind the service desk and the store played specific pre-recorded cassettes issued by corporate (before that, they were reel-to-reel tapes sent to each store location every month to keep the background music fresh). This was background music, or perhaps you could call it elevator music. Some have some recordings of musicians including the likes of Neil Diamond, for example. He saved the tapes from the trash during this period, and its built from his extensive, if odd collection, although others have since supplemented his recordings. One of these recordings date back to December 1974, evidenced by the continuous loop of Christmas music that was featured. Separately, there was also a Muzak Christmas music tape from another collection which was quite similar, except its missing the regular K-mart ads throughout. Another 1973 recording featured the company's advertising jingle used at the time about K-Mart being "your savings store". There are even some in the collection that came from vinyl recordings when the company still went by the name S.S. Kresge which date back to the 1960's. An October 1989 recording is possibly the type most people who shopped at K-Mart back in the day will remember. Most recordings are differentiated mainly by the introductory spot introducing the retailer to shoppers, as if the big red "K" and the aqua-blue "mart" wasn't enough of a tip for them to know exactly where they were.

Until around 1992, the cassettes were rotated monthly. Then, they were replaced weekly. Finally sometime around 1993, satellite programming was introduced which eliminated the need for these tapes altogether. The older tapes contain canned elevator music with instrumental renditions of songs. Then, the songs became completely mainstream around 1991. All of them have advertisements every few songs.

He notes that the monthly tapes were very, very, worn and rippled at the time they were converted to MP3 files. He says that's because they ran for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week on auto-reverse. If you do the math, assuming that each tape is 30 minutes per side, that's over 800 passes over a tape head each month.

Still, for anyone interested in this peculiar collection of background music that played in K-Mart stores during that era, this collection might be worth listening to.

Visit the full "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" collection at https://archive.org/details/attentionkmartshoppers for this rather unusual collection.

For a sample of what's contained in this collection (this one from 1973), listen to the embedded post below, or visit https://archive.org/details/Kmart1973ReelToReel for the recording.

November 30, 2018

Vintage Typewriters Never Die, They're Reincarnated

Perhaps some readers have seen re-runs of the old 1980's television hit show "Murder, She Wrote" which was broadcast for an impressive 12 seasons from 1984-1996, and won countless awards along the way. The show starred actress Angela Lansbury who played the main character Jessica Fletcher, and Mrs. Fletcher was a mystery writer.

Coincidentally, Ms. Lansbury's hit TV show emerged at roughly the same time as her very good friend Bea Arthur who also had a hit TV series called "The Golden Girls" which aired from 1985-1992 and was another show that featured more mature women as the central characters (I've addressed that show HERE). The two actresses met one another when they co-starred in the Broadway musical "Mame" in 1966 (both women won Tony Awards that year), and they remained lifelong friends until Ms. Arthur passed away in 2009.

The opening of "Murder, She Wrote" featured the character Mrs. Fletcher producing a murder-mystery manuscript on a vintage typewriter, at least until Jessica got with the times and started using a word processor during last few seasons of the show which were recorded in the 1990's.

A video showing the intro to Season 4 of that "Murder, She Wrote"  can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/gSxQXOYnGUI:

Vintage Typewriters Have Found a Robust Market in 2013 and Beyond

In any event, the idea of authors (and non-authors) using old, mechanical typewriters is hardly fiction. For example, it's been reported that actor and producer Tom Hanks is a very big collector of vintage typewriters.  In 2013, he wrote an ode to the vintage typewriter published in the New York Times (see https://nyti.ms/2Q78O5D for his piece).  On October 15, 2017, he told "CBS Sunday Morning" that a book he released entitled "Uncommon Type" was a collection of 17 short stories in which typewriters were supporting characters, and that was entirely on purpose he says. See the transcript of the segment featuring his typewriters and him at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/tom-hanks-uncommon-type/ and the video at https://www.cbs.com/shows/cbs-sunday-morning/video/MfE6Mrff_TwfGuZQmEZ3wgy9CG_3w16Z/tom-hanks-typewriter-enthusiast/ (or on YouTube at https://youtu.be/UTtDb73NkNM if you wish).

CBS Sunday Morning observed "Funny that a guy who's name is synonymous with "You've Got Mail" [the 1998 film Mr. Hanks starred in, along with Meg Ryan] loves something even more vintage than AOL itself."

Mr. Hanks' personal typewriter collection is reportedly now more than 100 vintage typewriters, most having been completely restored to beautiful, working condition and before he passed away, CBS News' Morley Safer brought his typewriter to one store Mr. Hanks frequents -- at least, so said the index card on file at Gramercy Typewriter in New York City, a business that restores and sells vintage typewriters which has seen a booming business in recent years.

The reasons for their newfound popularity are varied, but many writers say its because the machines were an integral part of the creative process. Tom Hanks said "There's a percussive quality to writing sometimes, you know?"

But Tom Hanks may be a good public persona representing what is undoubtedly a national trend.  Indeed, all across the country, many sellers of reconditioned, old typewriters are reporting a very robust business, with some like Gramercy in NYC even gaining prominent national news coverage. The trend has even spawned a new business of selling typewriter-like modern keyboards and even retrofitting old typewriters to function as a modern-day computer keyboards.

Newer Pseudo Typewriters Aim to Fill a Void Left By More Modern Computers

Its worth mentioning that the original 1874 Sholes & Glidden typewriters established the "QWERTY" layout for the letter keys and the QWERTY layout of keys has become the de facto standard for English-language typewriter and computer keyboards, including many found on touch-screen keyboards in mobile phones and tablets used even today. Other languages written in the Latin alphabet sometimes use variants of the QWERTY layouts, such as the French AZERTY, the Italian QZERTY and the German QWERTZ layouts. Hence, the lasting legacy of old typewriters remain very much with us even today.

A fair number of accomplished writers, in spite of the advent of modern-day word processing which has made manuscript revisions and corrections far easier, still had a fondness for manual typewriters. As noted, many explain it as being an integral part of their creative process. The unique feel of tapping the keys, and the sounds associated with manual typewriters are part of it, and many writers were reluctant to completely abandon that aspect of the creative process. That said, there is still no denying the unique advantages of word processing programs, such as the ability to incorporate many revisions easily and produce a perfectly printed hard-copies with said revisions in just minutes.

To address the fondness for not-so-new technology that so many rely upon, the market has responded. For example, a typewriter-inspired mechanical keyboard called the Qwerkywriter Bluetooth keyboard was an unexpected Kickstarter success story in 2015, and it has seen some commercial success. In essence, it enables the use of modern, tablet computers much like an old-fashioned, manual typewriter. Bustle featured an article on the topic at https://www.bustle.com/articles/59728-5-typewriters-and-typewriter-ish-apps-that-are-fit-for-21st-century-writers-to-compose-their-masterpieces which is worth reading.

In the original pitch, the Qwerkywriter was proposed to come with both USB and Bluetooth connections, but only the latter made it into the final version. Some early complaints about the Qwerkywriter keyboard were that the tablet dock made it kind of difficult for users to actually read what they were typing, and some Apple fans complained their home keys were blocked in the initial version (Android users had similar issues). However, most of those issues have since been successfully addressed, and users find these retro-styled keyboards pleasingly heavy, weighing several pounds so they do not slide around one's desktop, and are made from solid aluminum that's covered in a matte black powder paint, similar to many old typewriters. Apps enabling vintage typewriter sound-effects are also available (Tom Hanks had something to do with one app called Hanx Writer, too!).

A recording of the sound of typing on a Smith-Corona electric typewriter (visit HERE for the source page) can be listened to below.

Knockoffs Proliferate

Naturally, the successful idea inspired a number of knockoffs, including some significantly cheaper versions, and while the Qwerkywriter and rivals including the Azio retro classic computer keyboard, the Elretron PENNA keyboard cost several hundred dollars, some cheap knockoffs made in China, including a few models from Logitech, can be found for as little as $35, although the cheap knockoffs aren't nearly as sturdy/heavy so they don't feel as solid to use, and critics say you get what you pay for. While the manufactures promote the idea of using their keyboards with smartphones, the idea of watching a tiny screen is lost on many would-be buyers, most of whom find tablet computers far more compelling, but if kids will fork over $300 to use a typewriter keyboard with an iPhone, I guess they won't complain too much.

Meanwhile, other companies including the USB Typewriter offer conversion kits to actually retrofit old vintage typewriters to function as virtual keyboards that will work with iPad, Android, Microsoft Surface tablet computers as well as PC's and Macs, which not only address the limited Bluetooth connectivity with a USB connection (they also sell retro-fitted old typewriters as keyboards), but the conversion kits also enable trusted old typewriters that users are very comfortable with to continue functioning, only with newer capabilities. Even a startup with the old Royal Typewriter name has since gotten into the space.

In some respects, these are just different variations on the theme of retro themed landline phone services via the internet through providers like Vonage, Ooma and Google Voice/Obihai-Polycom did by enabling low-cost computer VoIP calling among households to go mainstream, no longer exclusively limited to big corporate buyers (catch my post on that topic HERE). That technology, specifically VoIP-enabled calling is far bigger than old analog PBX systems were and yes, bigger than smartphones, plus its cheaper. The reality is that the landline telephone isn't dead no matter what Apple or Samsung would have us believe, although it's no longer the central means of communications with the outside world among all households.

So are the retro-styled keyboards a genuine restoration of the creative process facilitated by older technology, or is it merely an expensive gadget for a generation unfamiliar with the older technologies? The answer is perhaps a little of both. Whether these inspire creativity the manual typewriter did for generations of writers remains to be seen.

November 1, 2018

Queen Biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" Opens

This week (on November 2, 2018), the Queen biopic movie known as "Bohemian Rhapsody" opens in the U.S. Its a story about the entire band, but the group's lead singer and front man known by the name of Freddie Mercury is really the central focus.

Freddie Mercury was actually born Farrokh Bulsara. He was of Parsi descent, which is an ethnic group in India whose origins are in what is considered present-day Iran, but the group fled religious persecution in Persia (Iran), and ended up in what is now India. His given name is Parsian in origin. However, while some of his formative years were spent in India, Freddie Mercury was actually born in what was then the British protectorate of Zanzibar in present-day Tanzania on the African continent. He lived there (as well as in India) before he, his parents, and his younger sister moved to England when he was just a teenager.

Queen was a global superstar rock group back in the 1970's into the early 1980's. The group dominated the charts across the English-speaking world, with a string of radio hits including the signature song for which this biopic film was named, as well as "We are the Champions", "Another One Bites the Dust", "Somebody to Love", "Crazy Little Thing Called Love" and others which continue to be played even today. Front man Freddie Mercury was the lead singer, and also a songwriter for the band. He was known to have a four-octave vocal range. The band Queen also enjoyed a brief U.S. resurgence in popularity following the release of the 1992 movie "Wayne's World", which featured "Bohemian Rhapsody" in its soundtrack.

The "Bohemian Rhapsody" biopic covers the years between the formation of Queen by Freddie Mercury, Brian May, Roger Taylor and John Deacon, telling the story of the beginnings of the band, up until their show-stealing performance at the LiveAid concert in 1985. The audio for the classic rock song (originally released in 1975) "Bohemian Rhapsody" can be listened to below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/BohemianRhapsody_337:

Actor Rami Malek was ultimately cast as lead singer Freddie Mercury, and most reviews suggest that he is a key reason the film worked as well as it did.

Actor Rami Malek, who portrays Freddie Mercury in the movie "Bohemian Rhapsody"
about the rock band Queen and its lead singer Freddie Mercury on October 1, 2018.
Photo credit: Paul Marotta/Getty Images for 20th Century Fox
Originally, Freddie Mercury was to be played by Sacha Baron Cohen, better known for his comedic characters Borat, Ali G, and Brüno. But in 2013, Sacha Baron Cohen dropped out of the role due to creative differences with the remaining members of Queen. Cohen reportedly wanted a more realistic, R-rated look at the band and Freddie Mercury's life, while the band preferred going for a PG tone. They reportedly parted on good terms, but the band felt that Cohen's presence would have been distracting. In 2017, Rami Malek was chosen to play Freddie Mercury. Malek is actually an American actor of Egyptian and Greek descent, but his physical characteristics made him a very credible choice for the role, and he has been credited with an excellent depiction of the singer, too. There is slightly less media focus on the other band members, although given that several of them were involved in the casting and production, we can presume most of the original Queen band-members were satisfied with their portrayals.

There has been plenty of criticism about the "Bohemian Rhapsody" including the filmmakers' largely ignoring front man Freddie Mercury's sexuality. In fact, the criticism for attempting to "straight-wash" the rock icon has merit: "Bohemian Rhapsody" devotes considerable screen time to Freddie Mercury's "romance" with Mary Austin — the woman he wrote the hit song "Love of My Life" about — before it even starts to address his many relationships with men near the halfway part of the movie.

As the Guardian's Steve Rose touched upon the subject (see the review at https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/oct/23/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-biopic-bites-the-dust for details), stating: "Unforgivably, Bohemian Rhapsody casts Mercury's wilderness years as a symptom of his gayness. We see the solo Mercury in Munich, drug-addled, shorn of his real friends and exploited by his new ones, who are mostly leather-clad, party-happy men. It reduces Mercury's homosexuality to a tutting "he's got in with the wrong crowd".

Forbes' Scott Mendelson was even less kind in his review, which had the headline "'Bohemian Rhapsody' Review: Freddie Mercury Gets Slut-Shamed In Homophobic Biopic" (see that review at
https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2018/10/24/bohemian-rhapsody-review-freddie-mercury-gets-slut-shamed-in-homophobic-biopic/ for detail), saying:

"It is a painfully by-the-numbers biopic, squeezing the narrative into a 'Walk Hard' box while struggling with the simple fact that (at least as portrayed in this film) Freddie Mercury's life wasn't all that cinematic. Just because someone makes great art and has an interesting personality doesn't mean they merit a narrative feature film based on their life and exploits. When Mercury and his bandmates are working their magic, the movie will rock you. But when its going through the biopic motions, you won't be having a good time."

Mendelsohn has a point; there are parts of the movie that are excellent (such as the performances), but there are also parts that are not as good. Whether that means the film is homophobic is probably a mischaracterization. There is no doubt Mercury was definitely a product of his era: during the '70's and '80's, in spite of being post-Stonewall, true equality in terms of socially acceptable behavior and sexual orientation were still quite different than today. The late pianist and showman Liberace (catch my post on his biopic at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/05/steven-soderberghs-newest-movie-depicts.html for more) was a product of the earlier part of that era, whereas Freddie Mercury was a product of the latter part of that era. Gay and bisexual performers, and assuredly transgendered performers (although few of the latter had very big careers in show business) were expected to, and generally did, live closeted lives.

In fact, Mercury is known to have had sex with both men and women, and the filmmakers were doing a biopic of the band Queen over a 15-year period, not a detailed expose of the front man's personal sex life. However, there's no getting around the fact that Mr. Mercury died in 1991 at age 45 due to complications from AIDS, having publicly confirmed that he'd contracted the disease just one day before his death. According to his male partner Jim Hutton, Freddie Mercury was diagnosed with AIDS in late April 1987. During his lifetime, he was also known to have frequented many gay leather bars in across Europe, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and elsewhere, so he wasn't truly closeted. The handlebar mustache he wore during the LiveAid concert (which would be one of his last public performances) was also a popular look among the gay leathermen crowd in the 1980's.

However, upon his death, Freddie Mercury did end up leaving his London home to Mary Austin in his will (which was a 28-room Georgian mansion set in a quarter-acre manicured garden surrounded by a high brick wall), which she'd picked out for him, rather than to his male partner Jim Hutton, saying to Ms. Austin, "You would have been my wife, and it would have been yours anyway."

Other criticisms include, of all things, the teeth that actor Rami Malek wore in the film. NPR's Glen Weldon had this to say (see the NPR review at https://n.pr/2zkjrv6) about those:

"They're ... something, those teeth. They distend Malek's upper lip, just as the real ones did Freddie Mercury's — more, actually; it's not so much an overbite as an überbite."

Aside from criticism of teeth (of all things), NPR acknowledged:

"Early worries that the film might elide Mercury's queerness prove unfounded, mostly. Sort of. True, his long romance with Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton) is presented as the one relationship in his life that he clings to — but that feels less like a desire to whitewash his gayness and more like an attempt to address the very believable possibility that a gay man of his time and place, with his upbringing, would find himself reluctant to abandon a relationship that represented a life he'd been brought up to expect for himself."

Regardless of his sexual orientation being bi, gay or straight, the real question becomes whether this biopic is a realistic view which can be squeezed into a two hour movie. The movie aims to chronicle the 15-year period between their formation as a band and their famous performance at LiveAid at Wembley Stadium in 1985.  That LiveAid performance can be seen below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/20180315020139:

As noted, actor Rami Malek's performance as Freddie Mercury has been praised almost universally. Mr. Malek played Elliot Alderson for a second season in USA Network's psychological drama "Mr. Robot". The actor, whose credits also include "Short Term 12" and "The Master", won an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama in 2016. In spite of those credits, he remains relatively unknown, which may be his biggest advantage. When audiences don't know what to expect from an actor, they won't be disappointed. But as noted, the reviews of his performance as Freddie Mercury have been overwhelmingly positive.

In any event, there is certainly enough in the new movie "Bohemian Rhapsody" to merit watching it. Whether its a perfect depiction will ultimately be up to the viewers. I suspect the feelings will be mixed, but Mr. Malek's performance will ensure the actor will get consideration for future movie and television roles.  The "Bohemian Rhapsody" movie preview is available below, or by visiting https://www.foxmovies.com/movies/bohemian-rhapsody or https://youtu.be/mP0VHJYFOAU:

October 23, 2018

Judy Blume Goes to Hollywood With Her Books

I blogged about author Judy Blume back in early June 2012 (catch my post HERE). At the time, she was still very interested in censorship which was a central focus of her early career. But movies and television shows of her work wasn't really on her radar.  Well, there was news in mid-October 2018 that Judy Blume is finally letting Hollywood have a crack at one of her most iconic works. That work is the book "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret". The prolific author (who has published 30 books), just turned 80 in February 2018, and has famously been opposed to screen adaptations of her works, with just two exceptions: the 1978 TV movie adaptation of "Forever", and the 2012 adaptation of "Tiger Eyes", both of which were, in the words of Vanity Fair journalist Yohana Desta "largely forgettable", which may explain her reluctance to try it again.

Photo: Getty Images
As per reporting from Deadline , the author has given director Kelly Fremon Craig and producer James L. Brooks the green light to adapt "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" about a young girl navigating puberty and the pains of growing up into a movie. Fremon Craig will write and direct the adaptation; Brooks will produce under his Gracie Films banner.

This marks the first time Judy Blume has ever granted the movie rights to her novel. But back in August 2018, the author herself Tweeted that she had a change of heart, and that she was taking meetings in Los Angeles to see which of her books could potentially be made into films or TV series.
The initial winner of a movie deal was "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" although its possible others will be coming, too -- either in movie form, or television (or some combination). The book "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" was originally published back in 1970 as a young adult novel, but it meant much more to an entire generation of preadolescent girls looking for answers and a sense they weren't alone as childhood turned into a tumultuous something else. At that time, books were available for young people, while parents were getting divorced and mothers entered the workforce en masse, leaving many kids of that era alone. The subject matter might seem tame by today's standards, but it stood alone in its time, and there were even calls over the years for it to be banned from libraries. It is also among Time's list of the top 100 fiction books written in English since 1923.

The issues addressed in "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret" were real problems girls of that era couldn't really discuss with anyone: when would they reach puberty and get their periods? Should they pad their bras, and what to do about the boys they were crushing on? Margaret is a sixth grader who moves from New York City to Farbrook, New Jersey (the character Peter Hatcher and his family from the book "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" also move to suburban Princeton, New Jersey from NYC in the sequel "Superfudge". Ms. Blume herself is from New Jersey, although she spent several years as a child living in Miami, Florida). Anyway, her character Margaret is raised by a religiously indifferent Christian mother and Jewish father, she prays to a God she imagines is watching over her. In addition to a search for faith, she is curious about upcoming changes in her own body and forms a secret club with four other girls where they discuss subjects like boys, bras, and periods.

Judy Blume, of course, wrote far more books than ones aimed exclusively at adolescent girls, even if those were among her bestsellers. As noted, her seminal book "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" spoke to young boys (about my age; I was in third grade when it was released) about the trials of living with a younger "baby" brother who sucks all of the attention and air out of a room because he's younger, cuter child proved that she could reach a range of children's ages with her works.

As far as the soon-to-be-made-into-a-movie "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret", over the years Judy Blume has offered a lot of comments (see her blog post for more) about how that particular book was updated to reflect how just months after the book was released, old sanitary belts women of that era used became obsolete when adhesive strip pads hit the market, and it was an editor in the UK who suggested that Margaret should trade in those belts and pads for the new, more friendly feminine products. Judy Blume herself never dreamed it was even possible to revise a book that had already been published to reflect changes in the market for feminine sanitary products.

She has gone on the record as saying that she does not want to see her characters age. She told NPR (see https://www.npr.org/2018/02/12/584561888/at-80-judy-blume-reflects-on-feminism-metoo-and-letting-margaret-grow-up for reference):

"I don't want to rewrite anything. My characters are who they are. For years, people have written and asked me to let Margaret go through menopause. And it's like, "Hey guys! Margaret is 12 and she is going to stay 12. That's who she is." No, I don't want to rewrite any of them."

That said, we CAN expect to see her timeless characters brought to life in movie format soon. However, I would say that Ms. Blume herself is likely applying the lessons she learned from her early experience, and now she's able to chose producers and people to produce her works (perhaps even having more of a say in casting, sets, etc.) that SHE wants to work with, which means the latest iteration of Judy Blume books-turned-films are likely to be somewhat different than her initial experiences.

While I won't necessarily be waiting for the release of "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret", I will wait until we see a "Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing" and "Superfudge" or one of the two later sequels (which I had outgrown by the time of their release; besides, instead of being about older brother Peter, they were about the younger brother Fudge) film or TV show made. Still, I wonder if now that I've had 40 more years of life behind me if my recollections and emotions with her books will be the same, or whether others will have similar experiences?  We shall find out soon enough!

See also:



October 17, 2018

Internet Archive Emulator for Atari 2600 Activision Pitfall!

As we head into the holiday season about 2 months from now, again I'm mining the digital treasure trove of the nonprofit organization Internet Archive, this time for home video game console systems and library of different games that worked with each console which first emerged in the late 1970's.

Home video game console systems continue to be produced today even if the companies selling them have changed (for example, Microsoft sells XBox consoles, and Sony sells the popular PlayStation gaming system, each in different iterations over time), plus Japan-based Nintendo continues to operate in the space, too.

Since this blog deals mainly with retro content, I won't be discussing any of the present purveyors of home video game consoles. But, I will address a few contained in the Internet Archive's Console Living Room (catch their December 2013 blog post at https://blog.archive.org/2013/12/26/a-second-christmas-morning-the-console-living-room/ for details), including companies with names like Coleco, Atari, Philips/Magnavox Odyssey 2 (the latter two were brands of the same if memory serves me correctly), and Mattel Intellivision (legal challenges from the litigious Mattel Corporation means that particular library will not be included in this collection).  Those are definitely games from my generation, and thanks to Internet Archive, even though the old hardware may now be history, their games live on -- online (FREE!), and are open to anyone with a web browser thanks to emulation.

Like the Internet Archive's Historical Software collection, its Console Living Room is in still technically in beta. Its very much a work-in-process, and new emulators are being developed all the time. At some point, we are likely to see much better cataloging of the content there, with relevant search functionality, instructions for using each game on the web, game documentation, etc. Right now, because its still in beta, most of those things are still missing.

Each home video game system console has its own history and games they were best known for. The Atari Video Computer System (or VCS) was originally released on September 11, 1977 (yes, on 9/11), but was re-named Atari 2600 in 1982.  It is credited with popularizing the use of microprocessor-based hardware and games contained on ROM cartridges. Newer home video game consoles such as Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's XBox use CD-ROM's for games which are cheaper and easier to produce, and a very lucrative secondary market for buying and selling used games exists as of 2018, which has helped perpetuate their popularity.

In any event, while creating emulators of the original home video game consoles remains a work-in-progress, a number are there now and are working very well. Recall that while Atari (under its ownership of Warner Communications in the early 1980's) made some of its own games, many of its more popular ones were "ports" from other video game manufacturers who developed them (Atari 2600 being an under-powered system is often criticized for poor graphics and sound quality; the company's later generation machine the Atari 7800 was considered a big upgrade, and the game library here reflects those improvements), but third-party software developers quickly entered the space, and some of their games are considered among the best ever released on those game platforms.

One such company is still very much in business as a gaming company today: Activision, which began in 1978, the year after Atari released its original home video game console. Its signature game has been released, re-released, released as part of collections, and included on dozens of platforms (including phones). Yet Activision has largely resisted efforts to make the original Pitfall! game online, except on very limited occasions. That said, apparently, because Internet Archive is using open-code software in its emulator models, evidently, the company isn't fighting its effort, which is good for end-users.

For its time, Pitfall! was a revolutionary and original game. It showed video game audiences that a cartridge could let you walk, run, jump, swing, and climb. Players were given an expansive area in which they could explore while avoiding dangerous obstacles. Pitfall! also gave the player a goal to collect treasure within a specific amount of time. All of these elements were new and original in 1982, and it paved the way for future video games. On top of this, Pitfall! featured impressive graphics, animation, and a unique sound system.

Pitfall! was originally conceived and designed by David Crane while at Activision, who graduated from the De Vry School of Technology in 1972. After first working at Atari, David Crane and three of his fellow game designers left to start their own company called Activision. Before too long, David found himself designing Pitfall! at his new company. "The idea took all of ten minutes," David remarked. "It was a simple idea - a man running in a jungle. But, it spawned a genre of side-scrolling games. It was the beginning of a genre. Also, I guess people just remembered it as being neat."

Once upon a time, one website had an Adobe Shockwave player version of the game online. But most old Adobe software, while functional, tended to be bug-ridden and were banned by many IT departments because it didn't always play nice with Windows or server software.  More recently, Adobe has migrated virtually all of its software library online. Regardless, the Shockwave version of the Pitfall! game itself has since been removed from the site, but there's still (for the time being) some relevant Adobe Flash-based history there, and it has some interesting background still which can be found at http://www.langleycreations.com/pitfall/ if you're interested.

Aside from that, a few other things I felt were worth sharing here.

First, an original television Commercial for Pitfall! from Internet Archive. The quality isn't great, but its one of the few out there and is worth a look. That can be viewed below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/Pitfall_1982_Activision.

AtariAge also has a lot of great documentation for the original Activision Pitfall! found online -- I find it a little bit cumbersome to navigate. For example, each page of the original manual is scanned as a separate jpg file. Format aside, the manual can be found at http://atariage.com/manual_thumbs.php?SoftwareLabelID=360 but is still worth a visit.

As for the relevant user details on playing the game, while the manual has most of those, some are a tiny bit different than the old Atari 2600 in a web browser-based environment (for example, most people don't have joystick controllers as the old Atari system had), and as noted, once its out of beta, we can expect Internet Archive will have this stuff cleaned up, documented and readily available. Right now, in Pitfall! parlance "It's a Jungle Out There!" so I've assembled the most relevant components here, followed by the game itself.

Instructions for Playing Pitfall! Online in an Internet Web Browser

The object of Pitfall! is to guide Harry through a maze of jungle scenes, jumping over or avoiding many deadly dangers, and helping Harry grab the most treasures in the shortest possible time.


1. Use of Keyboard Controls:

Although the following details have not (YET) been documented by Internet Archive (which one would expect once its no longer in beta format), but the following have been discovered by users and are worth sharing here.

  • Ctrl - To jump
  • Arrow Key Up - To move up
  • Arrow Key Down - To move down
  • Arrow Key Left - To move left
  • Arrow Key Right - To move right
  • P - To Pause Game
  • C - To cycle the game from Color to Black and White

2. Scoring. You start each adventure with 2000 points. If you fall down a hole, you will lose 100 points. Rolling logs also cause point loss; how much depends on how long contact is made with them.

Finding treasure earns you points. There are eight of each type of treasure in the game, 32 in all, worth a total of 112,000 points. Collect them all without losing any points for falling down holes or tripping on logs and you'll have earned a perfect score - 114,000!

Some misfortunes will cause a deduction of points.  Should you fall down a hole by accident, you will lose 100 points.  Rolling logs will also cause point loss depending on how long contact is made with them. Each treasure you find will add points to your score.  There are eight of each type of treasure in the entire game, 32 in all, for a total of 112,000 points.  A perfect score is 114,000 points (reached by collecting all treasures. without losing any points by falling down holes or tripping on logs).
  •  GOLD BAR = 4000 POINTS
  •  MONEY BAG = 2000 POINTS
Below is an image I took of the various "treasures" you'll likely encounter during game-play.

3. Time. You have 20 minutes to complete each adventure. Pitfall Harry begins each game with three lives (see "Perils of Pitfall" below). Game ends when time runs out or Harry loses all three lives.


Pitfall Harry's Jungle Adventure involves great danger. Some hazards slow him down, robbing you of points; others stop him cold. The "inconvenient" hazards are open holes in the ground and rolling logs (see "Scoring" above). The "catastrophic" hazards include scorpions, fires, cobras, crocodiles, swamps, quicksand and tar pits. These obstacles will not cost you any points, but they will cost Harry one of his three lives.


"As you set off on your first adventure with Harry, you'll notice two important features: The logs always roll from right to left, and the 'replacement' Harrys (after Harry loses a life) drop from trees on the left side of the screen. So, to minimize the number of rolling logs to be jumped, and the catastopic hazards to be re-tried, simply run to the left.

"Pitfall Harry's trip must be made through a maze of surface and underground passages through the jungle. To capture all 32 treasures in under twenty minutes, Harry will have to use some of the underground passages. I'd suggest that you make a map of the terrain each time you play. Knowing the jungle and planning the best route to all the treasures is the only way to ensure success time after time.

"Until you get really skilled at making Harry jump from croc to croc, you might wait until the crocodiles jaws are closed, jump to the top of the first croc's head, then wait for the jaws to open and close again before jumping to the next one. Soon, you'll be skipping across crocs like they were stepping stones in a stream.

"If you find any writing materials deep in the jungle, drop me a line. I'd love to hear how you and Harry are getting along."

David Crane

As David Crane suggested about the map, several users at the AtariAge website had a dialogue about a big map for Pitfall! that had been developed by users years earlier, and one user recommended a location where the full map of the playing area for Pitfall! is still available.  Keep in mind that while the main playing area represents a single screen of the game, by going to the lower levels, you can skip several of the main screens (sometimes a dozen at a time!), although you may also give up the ability to capture some treasures above to boost your score. There are "catastrophic" hazards found at the lower levels, so beware. Then again, if you're pressed for time (the game only runs for 20 minutes), its a way of more rapidly moving through the jungle -- just beware that some underground passageways are dead ends, which would waste your time.  Because its useful reference, I'm including the complete Pitfall! jungle map below, or you can still visit it online at http://pitfallharry.tripod.com/MapRoom/PitfallMap.html if you prefer.

So, without any other boring text, below are the emulators on file with Internet Archive's Console Living Room for the Atari 2600 (which can be accessed at  https://archive.org/details/atari_2600_library if you want to check out all of the other games for that system), and the original Activision Pitfall! emulator can be found below, or by visiting https://archive.org/details/atari_2600_pitfall_1983_cce_c-813. My biggest disappointment is that when users share the emulator content, the full-screen game play is not enabled, while it is slightly better at Internet Archive's own pages. But the game itself, like my posts for the emulators of handheld games including Texas Instruments Speak & Spell and Parker Brothers Merlin: The Electronic Wizard, the game will load up on desktop computer browsers by clicking on the image below. I'm less clear how functional (if at all) those are on mobile browsers, which are often stripped-down versions of the real thing.  Still, with the stuff above, there should be enough for users to have some fun. Try not to waste too much time!

Again, I'll list the key browser controls here:
  • Ctrl - To jump
  • Arrow Key Up - To move up
  • Arrow Key Down - To move down
  • Arrow Key Left - To move left
  • Arrow Key Right - To move right
  • P - To Pause Game
  • C - To cycle the game from Color to Black and White