February 11, 2015

Rhinestone Cowboy Takes on Alzheimer's Disease

Anyone old enough to remember the late 1960s and early '70s is probably old enough to remember Glen (Travis) Campbell.  His radio hits included such famous melodies as "Rhinestone Cowboy", "Southern Nights," and the "Wichita Lineman" to name just a few.  His roots, of course, are in country music.  Yet he was also one of the first artists to crossover from country to pop, landing hits on both Billboard charts.  As of 2015, Glen Campbell was 78 going on 79 years old, and he’s still alive as I write this, but he has completely left public life and he’s also left the recording industry which made him famous.

Glen Campbell, circa 1970
Its perhaps no small irony that in the 2015 Grammy Awards, Glen Campbell also won a sixth (and in all likelihood, final) Grammy of his career, as he was honored with Best Country Song at the 2015 Grammy Awards Premiere Ceremony, which is the presentation of the off-camera categories not included in the  regular broadcast. "I'm Not Gonna Miss You," is a bittersweet tune he co-wrote with Julian Raymond for a 2014 documentary called “Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me”, and his new song managed to trump songs by Kenny Chesney, Eric Church, Miranda Lambert and Tim McGraw with Faith Hill.

What happened to Mr. Campbell may well be his most enduring contribution to pop culture.  Before I get to that, some basics on who this man is or was may be relevant.

Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Glen Campbell was relatively good-looking, being both clean-shaven and clean cut (the antithesis to where popular culture was in those days, and especially among fellow country artists at the time), perhaps a comparison could be made to someone like today's country star Luke Bryan.  Campbell was native of Arkansas, so could make a legitimate claim that he had country bona fides, plus he was also a high school dropout, not uncommon among country music artists of that era.  But he left Arkansas (and more than 10 brothers and sisters) at age 16, staying for a time in New Mexico before settling in Los Angeles, where he struck it big in the music business.  Note that I previously addressed country crossover artists in a post I did on Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton which you can catch at http://goo.gl/9Lstp.

Remember, this was in the days before country had gone mainstream.

Before Kenny Rogers.

Before Tim McGraw.

Before Keith Urban.

Before Blake Shelton.

Aside from Patsy Cline, who became more famous posthumously than she ever did when she was alive, hardly anyone in country had even considered going mainstream.  Only a handful achieved crossover success (and usually by accident), including Johnny Cash.  It was kind of an unspoken rule of Nashville music producers (and record labels went along -- as long as artists were selling records) that crossing over was not something the country music industry saw as appropriate or supported.

But Glen Campbell didn't let any of country's traditional taboos stop him.  In the process, he won five (now six) Grammy awards, seven Academy of Country Music awards, and three American Music awards, and sold over 50 million records worldwide.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2005.  He may well be one of the first crossover artists, and was unapologetic about that, unlike some country "purists".  He even once had a TV show "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour", in which he used his commercial clout and down-home Arkansas charm to give face-time to lesser known artists he personally admired, such as Willie Nelson, who was best known for his scrappy beard and generally unkempt appearance.

As part of his crossover appeal, Mr. Campbell once toured with The Beach Boys, and even acted in a few movies – including 'True Grit' with screen legend John Wayne.  But over the years, his story was more one of tabloid fodder, including multiple failed marriages.  In fact, in the late 1970’s, Campbell and rising teen country singer Tanya Tucker began a tumultuous affair which did not end happily if the tabloids were correct.

But in 1982 Campbell married Kim Woolen, who helped lead him to sobriety and stability, though he suffered a relapse in 2004 when he was arrested for drunk driving and sentenced to ten days in jail. His problems with alcohol and drugs became headlines for tabloids like the National Enquirer back in the day, but ultimately, he found a spouse who got him to clean up his act.  Supposedly, that also caused him to find God, whatever that means - "finding God" has become a true cliché that many celebrities use, so its unclear what that means.

A Diagnosis With Alzheimer's Disease

In 2011,  in the liner notes to his then-new album, entitled "Ghost on the Canvas", Glen Campbell wrote that this is "the last studio record of new songs I ever plan to make."  At the time, some industry observers noted that listeners could tell his voice really wasn't what it used to be, and that he was showing signs of age.  But they were missing an important part of the story.

When he did his national farewell tour, Mr. Campbell had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, therefore he fully expected he'd be unable to record or perform his music ever again.  Today, Glenn Campbell is living in a Nashville long-term care facility that has people on staff who can care for him around the clock.  Like all Alzheimer's patients, he likely has brief periods of recall, followed by long periods where he doesn't remember anyone or anything at all.  Most famously, former President Ronald Reagan also had Alzheimer's at the end of his life.  In 2004, wife Nancy Reagan said famously at a dinner sponsored by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF):

"Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. Because of this, I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this."

Mrs. Reagan was, of course, speaking about embryonic stem cell research, something both she and the JDRF both supported.  The term "embryonic" is a misnomer; it involves blastocysts that are created in-vitro (in a laboratory), many created for the sole purpose of reproduction, but which are ultimately discarded as medical waste, usually because the fertilization procedure was successful, although some owners may choose to donate them for the explicit purpose of research.

Mrs. Reagan was extremely critical of then-President George W. Bush's decision to limit Federally-funded stem cell to a only a dozen or so stem cell lines, some of which proved to be unusable, created by the arbitrary date that he announced the policy, but he and his advisor Karl Rove was eager to make a key voting constituency happy.  That type of restriction was championed by social conservatives, yet it retarded a promising scientific avenue.  (California voters took matters into their own hands by starting the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine [CIRM] http://www.cirm.ca.gov/ which is not dependent on the vicissitudes of Federal policy driven by political ideology, but is funded by the State of California, which ranks as the world's seventh largest economy in its own right).  Those initial research restrictions placed on cell lines President Bush were subsequently expanded a bit after President Barack Obama took office, but because this type of research remains controversial in the eyes of some, it remains in a precarious situation because of politics, not because of the science.  For the record, I don't believe Mr. Campbell ever went on record as to what his view on the issue of stem cell actually were.

Back to Glenn Campbell's Alzheimer's diagnosis ....

Glenn Campbell was not shy in acknowledging his new reality, so he felt his farewell tour was bittersweet, both for him and his fans.  Knowing his diagnosis, in his farewell tour, Mr. Campbell allowed cameras to follow him throughout the tour, including behind the scenes.  The result became a feature-length movie called "Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me" [http://glencampbellmovie.com/] which opened on October 24, 2014.  The trailer can be viewed below, or at

Interestingly, I suspect Mr. Campbell's (and his family’s) transparency about his diagnosis with Alzheimer's could be an even more enduring societal contribution.

During his final tour, he agreed to let cameras follow him to show how Alzheimer's was impacting his day-to-day life, the result being a movie which was released in late 2014.  For example, during that tour, the lyrics were put on a teleprompter so he didn't have to worry about forgetting them.  The movie was created by filmmaker James Keach, with his and his family's permission, and aims to use Glen's illness as a platform to campaign for more and better Alzheimer's research.  While the movie is meant to be a biography of sorts, it spends a great deal of time discussing his new reality which includes Alzheimer's Disease.

In 2012, the Federal Government announced several plans to try and address Alzheimer's, including a move by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to launch a broader BRAIN Initiative, which is a large-scale effort to equip researchers with fundamental insights necessary for treating a wide variety of brain disorders including Alzheimer's, as well as autism, epilepsy, schizophrenia, and traumatic brain injury.  Its not limited to Alzheimer's, but that is an important part of it.

Under the program, four federal agencies — NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Food and Drug Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — stepped up to a "grand challenge" and committed more than $110 million to the Initiative for fiscal year 2014. Planning for the NIH component of the BRAIN initiative is guided by the long-term scientific plan, "BRAIN 2025: A Scientific Vision" [http://www.braininitiative.nih.gov/2025/index.htm] that details seven high-priority research areas.

Keep in mind that none of this is likely to help Glen Campbell himself, who has been checked into a long-term care facility in Nashville where his family is still able to visit him regularly but is cared for around the clock, but the publicity and the attention this has brought to Alzheimer's Disease may help people in the future, much as Mr. and Mrs. Reagan's public disclosure did a number of years ago.

For their part, Mr. Campbell and his family seem to be taking things in stride and are not allowing the diagnosis to bring them down too much.  Although Mr. Campbell is now living in a care facility that has people on staff to care for him all the time, the movie, which launched on October 24, 2014, could well do for Alzheimer's what other celebrities including Melissa Etheridge did for breast cancer.

February 3, 2015

Helen Reddy, Who Gave Modern Feminism the Anthem "I Am Woman", On Her Own Legacy

Around 1972 or so, a pop song turned feminist anthem propelled a singer/songwriter, who already had a string of hits behind her, into super star category. That person was Helen Reddy, an Australian singer who hit it big in the U.S. and elsewhere with her song "I Am Woman" as well as other songs like "Leave Me Alone", "Delta Dawn" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar". Ms. Reddy was the first Australian to win a Grammy Award, paving the way for others such as Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue and others to do the same. She also performed on Broadway and in London's West End.  Here is her classic performance of "I Am Woman" (see http://youtu.be/Gpu_PV3BTfI for the video):

During the height of her celebrity, Ms. Reddy appeared on TV as a guest star on the then-popular "Carol Burnett Show", but she also guest starred on another popular show of the day known as "The Muppet Show" where she arguably co-starred with a feminist of another sort named Miss Piggy (see a clip at http://youtu.be/lWHnz46VVA4). Both guest appearances are available on DVD for each of those respective TV shows, although the Carol Burnett episodes were sold by Guthy-Renker and are sometimes harder to come by. She also appeared in movies, including roles in Disney's movie "Pete's Dragon", the Beatles' movie "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Airport 1975".

However, like many musical stars, Ms. Reddy grew tired of singing the same few songs over-and-over-and-over, ad nauseum. She told CBS News:

"I have very wide-ranging interests," she said. "So, singing 'Leave Me Alone' 43 times per song lost its charm a long time ago."

In fact, it was her biggest song "I Am Woman" that ultimately inspired her to retire. Its not that Ms. Reddy disappeared - exactly. But she only decided to return to performing after being buoyed by the warm reception she got when she sang at her sister's birthday party. Ms. Reddy, who had cataract surgery in 2012, said she was in a "very good place" at the time.

She basically returned to her native Australia and retired, living relatively modestly compared to others who lived extravagantly, only to lose everything when their fifteen minutes of fame was over. In 2002, the singer-songwriter gave up on show business and started her new life in Australia. She got her degree in clinical hypnotherapy, and for the last decade, she's lived modestly in Sydney. Ms. Reddy is now approaching age 73, and she only recently ventured back into public singing again, but she did so on her own terms.

For example, in 2012, she returned to the U.S. do some singing before a live audience again in San Diego and another performance in Los Angeles. But unlike during her heyday, Ms. Reddy didn't want her performances to be yet another a greatest hits collection singing a handful of songs repeatedly, rather she chose to perform some some of the songs that she originally recorded and loved but just never managed to get much airplay back in the 1970s. She did an interview with an Australian TV show several years ago that is worth watching (see http://youtu.be/1xhVxpx7aCQ):


One of the reasons that I'm coming back to singing is because I'm not doing the greatest hits," Reddy explained. "I'm doing the songs that I always loved. So many are album cuts that never got any airplay, and they're gorgeous songs." In the end, while her song "I Am Woman" endures as a feminist anthem, Ms. Reddy prefers to let a new generation do covers of her old song. She's content to look back at her life in the spotlight and her own unique role in the history of feminism. "That was one of the reasons that I stopped singing, was when I was shown a modern American history high-school textbook, and a whole chapter on feminism -- and my name and my lyrics (were) in the book," she recalled. "And I thought, 'Well, I'm part of history now. And how do I top that? I can't top that.' So, it was an easy withdrawal."

Don't expect Ms. Reddy to want to doing any big tours or performances or even do any recordings again, rather she's been very selective about how much she is willing to do or even wants to do. She says:

"I'm still very active, physically. I walk four miles a day. And I love the fact that I don't care so much about things -- things that were so terribly important when you're younger, they don't matter when you get older," she said. "And it's such a sense of freedom."

In 2006, she published the autobiography, "The Woman I Am." Still, for a brief window of what the United States (and a good part of the developed world) looked like some 34 years ago, have a look at Ms. Reddy's original and most widely-played performance of her song "I Am Woman" (see above).

In the end, Ms. Reddy says "I don't care if I'm remembered or not.  The important thing is that any good that I've done lives on."

September 9, 2014

From "Nine to Five" to "Grace and Frankie"

A few months ago, on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I was home channel surfing and I ended up watching a (relatively) modern classic movie on TV, which was the 1980 film "Nine to Five" starring Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, Dabney Coleman and Dolly Parton.

I actually saw "Nine to Five" on the big screen at a movie theater back in the day.  I was only like 11 or 12 years old at the time, so maybe that gives you an idea of my true age!  I also saw "Nine to Five" on Broadway a few years ago, and was sorry to see that show had closed on Broadway, although I believe that show saw new life in touring the U.S. if I'm not mistaken, so it may have left Broadway, but the show is still around.

A Modern Classic Movie

The basic story of the film ("Nine to Five") was a work-related friendship that develops between three working women.  In 1980, when the film premiered, even though women were certainly no strangers to the workplace, they still tended to work primarily in administrative jobs (after all, they still used typewriters back then), and many women struggled with overtly chauvinist attitudes from fellow male employees and/or superiors in the workplace.  "Nine to Five" was about three women who worked in the office of a large American corporation known as Consolidated Industries.  It was a classic big corporation with offices around the country and around the world, as the script suggests.  The boss was Franklin Hart Jr. (played by Dabney Coleman) who was a chauvinistic, sleazebag boss (who hits on his female staff, makes them get coffee for him, has his administrative assistant spy in the restroom on his staff, and also embezzles money from his big employer, Consolidated Industries).

The original cast of "Nine to Five"
Newcomer Judy leaves the office when a colleague is fired for a seemingly minor infraction (discussing her salary), so Judy looks for her supervisor Violet at the neighborhood gin joint "Charley's", who is there commiserating with another Consolidated employee, Doralee.  The three spend the afternoon drinking cocktails and complaining about what a jerk their boss is.

Jane Fonda played Judy Bernley, a naive, new-to-the-employment world new-hire at Consolidated, and a recent divorcee whose husband left her for his secretary.  Violet Newstead (Lily Tomlin) is a widowed woman working to support her four children on her own who has worked for Consolidated for over 12 years.  She also deals with her oldest child, a 15-year-old boy, whom she catches with marijuana and confiscates the joint from him, but without thought, she keeps it in her purse.  Violet is the supervisor of a department at Consolidated, and she happens to be a longtime employee who knows more about what's going on than nearly anyone else at the company.  The other main character is Doralee Rhodes, a busty, bleached-blonde Southern belle who is Mr. Hart's personal secretary.  Mr. Hart is lying to his colleagues, claiming that he's been sleeping with Doralee (even though she's continued to say no to his advances, telling him that she's a married woman), consequently, the women in the office treat Doralee like a pariah because they think she's such a tramp for "banging the boss".

However, things change one day when Mr. Hart passes over Violet yet again for an important promotion, even though her ideas are good enough for him to pass one off as his own and take all the praise for it.  She protests to Hart that he passed her over for another promotion because she's a woman, and Hart bluntly tells her that the company would rather have a man in the position, so Violet becomes enraged, storming off on her own (to the bar across the street), but not before revealing to Doralee that her supposed "affair" with Mr. Hart is common knowledge around the office.  Doralee, who's been confused and upset about the way she's been treated by her co-workers, snaps and also rages at Hart, threatening to use her gun on him the next time he makes an indecent proposal.  Newcomer Judy witnesses a fellow secretary lose her job over a minor infraction and she, too, becomes enraged.

The three women storm out to a bar near the Consolidated office to drown their sorrows, and the three of them later return to Doralee's house and smoke the marijuana cigarette that Violet realizes is still in her purse, prompting each of them to have a detailed fantasy about how they'd kill Mr. Hart if they had the chance.  The meeting proves to be a bonding experience for the three women.  But things take a sudden bizarre turn the next day when each of the women's fantasies comes true in some way.

An Unexpected Hit Among Many Demographic Groups

“Nine to Five” was a box office hit not only with working women of the day, but as the producers later learned, several other demographic segments (notably teenagers and kids), each of whom liked the movie for different reasons.  One reason for the film's popularity with teens was the infamous "pot" scene, in which the 3 women share their fantasies for killing the boss, Mr. Hart.  In any event, the fantasy scene featured some really humorous examples of the women turning the tables on their "sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical" boss, Mr. Hart.

Although each of the women's fantasies for killing the boss are funny and integral to the story, I think Violet's proved to be one of the most memorable, as a fairy tale in which she's dressed like Snow White and when Mr. Hart demands that she get him coffee, in that scene, Violet is a live character surrounded by animated, Disney-esque animal characters who support her (one reason even kids liked the movies).  At the end of this sequence, after the boss is killed by Violet, the three women are heralded by all the employees of Consolidated, as their shackles fall off and they all are thankful for Violet's fairytale end to their miseries with Mr. Hart.

The trio had very good on-screen chemistry and audiences loved it, and the film grossed over $3.9 million in its opening weekend in the U.S. (and that was back in 1980), and the total domestic gross was over  $103.3 million, ending up as the 20th highest-grossing comedy film.  It also turned Dolly Parton into a movie star, as she ended up doing more films including “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas”, “Rhinestone”, “Steel Magnolias” and more recently, “Joyful Noise” just to name a few.

The show also prompted Sherwood Schwartz (of “Gilligan’s Island” and “The Brady Bunch” fame) to produce a short-lived TV sitcom which began as a fill-in, but then ran for two more seasons on network television (I believe it ran for three seasons in total).  Although none of the original cast members was in the TV series, Ms. Parton’s own sister (who shares a very strong family resemblance) Rachel Dennison played Doralee, with Rita Moreno playing Violet and Valerie Curtin playing Judy on the series.

TV (on Netflix!) Reunion for Tomlin and Fonda (No Word on Parton)

Fans of the film have always asked for a reunion and given that all of the main cast members are still active in show business today, its not inconceivable.  As I understand it, the three female cast members remain friends, which isn't always the case.  But it looks like there might be a reunion of sorts on the small screen.  Consistent with the direction for television in recent years, this isn’t slated to air on network or cable television, but on Netflix.  Dolly Parton once commented that a new version of the film would probably need to be called 24/7 given the non-stop nature of work these days and the fact that people always have access to their email and phones thanks to mobile devices.  Periodically, talks of a new version of the film have come up, but apparently Fox hasn’t been been interested, although Ms. Parton acquired the rights to the screenplay when she prepared the Broadway musical version, so in theory, another studio could produce it if it was a good script.

But on March 19, 2014, Hollywood Reporter, Variety and various other entertainment industry trade publications reported that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin would co-star in a 13-episode series to be called "Grace and Frankie" from Skydance Productions to air on Netflix.  Tomlin and Fonda will co-star in a 13-episode series called "Grace and Frankie" from Skydance Productions.  The basic idea for the new series is about two women whose lives are turned upside down when their two husbands announce they are in love with each other and plan to get married.

The two women, to their own dismay, find that their lives are permanently intertwined.  However, to their surprise, they also find they have each other and the series focuses on their relationship.  As I understand it, big Hollywood names including Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston (playing the husbands who plan to marry one another) will be featured in the program.  The comedy, which is scheduled to debut in 2015, is created and written by "Friends" co-creator Marta Kauffman and Howard J. Morris.

Although there is no word that Dolly Parton will appear in the series, its not inconceivable that she could potentially appear in a guest role if she was asked (and interested).  Although initially planned for just 13 episodes, depending on viewership, it’s also possible that more could be added at a later date.  Having the new series delivered online means there could be different production schedules that may prove more accommodating to actresses and actors who may not be up to a typical television series production schedule (television is more demanding than movies, for the record, Ms. Tomlin is 75 years old, and Ms. Fonda is 77 years old).  The new Tomlin/Fonda Netflix series sounds entertaining enough and certainly has a lot of big names in Hollywood involved, so time will soon tell.

For Netflix, “Grace and Frankie” joins a growing list of original programming including "The Killing", "Hemlock Grove", "Lilyhammer", the critically-acclaimed "Arrested Development" and the second season of "Orange Is the New Black" which has received a number of Emmy nominations.

"Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin are among the funniest and most formidable actresses ever and it's an incredible privilege to give them the opportunity to run riot on Netflix," said Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos. "The show created for them by Marta and Howard is warm, very funny and anything but wholesome. We can't wait."

In the meantime, the original movie “Nine to Five” remains available on DVD as well as occasional television reruns (it was re-released on DVD a few years ago).  Its well worth a watch if you haven’t seen it already or want to catch up on old times.  Catch the original “Nine to Five” movie trailer and an excerpt from that movie below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/aOYDV3IIWFQ.

April 26, 2014

Cooking With Dead Celebrities

This particular blog post started by accident.  A few months ago, I bought the entire series of "Mama's Family" on DVD (I have a massive collection of classic television on DVD so I'm not dependent on cable).  Previously, only Season 1 had been released by Warner Home Video back in 2006, and that only contained the episodes from the short initial season of the program based on the skits of "The Family" that were often seen on "The Carol Burnett Show".  However, the spinoff "Mama's Family" series had an impressive six-season duration on television, although only the first two seasons were aired on network television, but the show was subsequently rebooted (and quite successfully) in syndication after that.

Regardless, episodes after Season 1 weren't available until recently.  However, StarVista/Time-Life finally acquired the original broadcast masters for the first two seasons (the NBC-aired ones, before the show went into first-run syndication) which featured Vicki Lawrence (Mama), Ken Berry (Vint), Dorothy Lyman (Naomi), Beverly Archer (Iola), and Allan Kayser (Bubba).  It included the full episodes from every season, including the later seasons which ran in syndication as well as some extras including a reunion of the cast from the syndicated seasons, and interviews with some notable guest stars including Betty White (who played Ellen Harper).  I should note that the first two seasons also featured Rue McClanahan as a cast regular (she played the uptight, spinster Aunt Fran), but both she and Betty White left the show at the end of 1983 to do a different show that went on to become a television smash hit The Golden Girls (catch my post on that at http://goo.gl/DD3pCP), so the end of Aunt Fran in Season 2 was definitely missing from DVD.  Also, Vint Harper's 2 children Buzz and Sonia were also written off the show after NBC dropped it, replaced by Eunice and Ed Higgins' delinquent son Bubba.

In any event, the DVD acquisition prompted me to visit Vicki Lawrence's personal website at http://www.vickilawrence.com/, where she shares some of her favorite recipes (see http://www.vickilawrence.com/Recipes2013.html).  She wrote about a recipe called "Meal in a Meatball Soup" which was from the late Dinah Shore.  She observed:  "I have never cooked anything of Dinah Shore's that wasn't wonderful. She was a fabulous cook and a super nice lady. I miss her."

That was interesting enough (the recipe wasn't half bad, either), but it got me to thinking that daytime talk shows with celebrities actually cooking as guest stars (Dinah Shore, Mike Douglas, Phil Donahue, etc.) during that era wasn't especially unusual.  In fact, it was kind obligatory from a PR perspective back in those days.  Remember, until the 1970s, most women in the U.S. were stay-at-home housewives who kind of really consumed celebrity recipes.  Magazines and newspapers once routinely published celebrity recipes that doting housewives could make for their families, giving their ordinary meals some Hollywood magic.

Which brings me to today's post.

Frank DeCaro, the former movie critic for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and current host of The Frank Decaro Show on Sirius XM satellite radio (just to name a few of his pop culture credentials) has released two cookbooks.  In addition to his own TV appearances, he has appeared in a few movies himself, including in the Lucky Duck Productions "Inside TV Land: Tickled Pink" produced for cable network TV Land in 2005.  But his most recent contribution to the American pop culture scene may well be his two fairly recent cookbooks.  There's a website for his books at http://www.deadcelebritycookbook.com/.

The title of Mr. DeCaro's original cookbook is "The Dead Celebrity Cookbook: A Resurrection of Recipes from More Than 145 Stars of Stage and Screen" (he followed that up with a sequel called "The Dead Celebrity Cookbook Presents Christmas in Tinseltown: Celebrity Recipes and Hollywood Memories from Six Feet Under the Mistletoe") which contains the favorite recipes of "living-impaired" Hollywood icons including Lucille Ball, Liz Taylor, Joan Crawford, Liberace, Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Rock Hudson, Dean Martin, Alfred Hitchcock, and Humphrey Bogart among others.  There's Patrick Swayze's Chicken Pot Pie, Elizabeth Taylor's Chicken With Avocado and Mushrooms, and Farrah Fawcett's Sausage and Peppers Supreme, but what really makes the book is the fact that its laced with Mr. DeCaro's pop culture insight and commentary.

Mr. DeCaro says that all of the recipes in these two books were in the public domain (sourced from old newspapers and magazines, even in manuals for microwave ovens), he's just the one to assemble them, but what makes the books so great is he adds his own pop culture insight, organizing the recipes thematically and giving some clever names).  He admits that not all of the recipes in his book were good, adding there were a few celebrity recipes he thought were just plain gross, hence he didn't even want to try making them for himself  (which makes you wonder why he included them?), and he also says he did not make or eat all of the recipes, but had definite opinions on the ones he did make.

The recipes range from gourmet to garbage, if that tells you anything.

Not all dead celebrity's recipes are worth celebrating, and he admits to having sampled only about a third of the recipes, admitting that he really had no inclination to make some of the recipes, even noting that some of them were kind of vile (which makes me wonder why he included them?  "I made a third of them before the book went to press. It's not 'Julie and Julia.'" he was quoted as saying.

"There's a recipe in the new book that's just downright creepy," Mr. DeCaro said, describing something like jelly consomme flakes in avocado.  He made a retching noise over the phone as he described the recipe.

Another recipe he wasn't fond of was Isabel Sanford's (she played Louise Jefferson on TV's "The Jeffersons") Boston Chicken.  He says:  "The recipe I always make fun of is Isabel Sanford's Boston Chicken. The recipe's sauce calls for Russian dressing, onion soup mix, pineapple and apricot jam."

He has gone on record as saying "It was vile."  He told another interviewer "We call it Chicken a la Barf."  But he later added "I feel so bad, I've been slamming her all over the place. Isabel Sanford's Boston Chicken is pretty yucky. I'm not convinced it's a good idea to spread your chicken with a combination of apricot jam, Russian dressing and onion-soup mix."  But he added that it didn't change his love for Isabel Sanford.

Other recipes that weren't exactly culinary masterpieces included one called Lucille Ball's "Chinese-y thing."  He said that just because you're a great entertainer, doesn't mean you're a great cook or culinary innovator.  Indeed, I would dare say that some of the recipes were probably just public relations released by a publicity executive, although some celebrities actually did cook ... at least occasionally.  The further you go back in time, the more likely that (cooking among celebrities) was, so some celebrities in the 1950s were often cooks at home - if we are to believe the PR created by publicity agents and studios!

The Dead Celebrity Cookbook
The recipes are cleverly organized into thematic chapters, including "Talk Chow" with dishes from now deceased talk show hosts, another called "I Lunch Lucy" with recipes by Lucille Ball, and he calls the last chapter in the non-holiday book "Thank You for Feeding a Friend" with dishes by the three deceased stars of "The Golden Girls": Bea Arthur, Estelle Getty, and Rue McClanahan (catch my previous post on that show at http://goo.gl/DD3pCP) to name a few, and Mr. DeCaro includes a short, summary of who the dead celebrity actually was, and some information about the careers that actually made them celebrities.

New York's Village Voice newspaper described it this way (see http://bit.ly/1g1fmd8 for details):

"While [today's] celebrities now get their food fixes at trendy restaurants like L.A.'s Koi or Nobu, once upon a time they actually cooked. Eartha Kitt made a mean chicken wing, Gilda Radner whipped up a sumptuous apple cake, and Johnny Cash fried okra to perfection."

Christmas in Tinseltown
Mr. DeCaro told Columbia University's The Protagonist newspaper (see http://nypress.com/the-protagonist-dead-celebrity-cookbook/) that the two dead celebrity cookbooks were more about promoting great performers than capitalizing on their deaths.  The mission is to keep the celebrities' names out there and share pop culture history.

But other recipes in the cookbooks were absolutely fabulous.

Among culinary successes was one from the late pianist Liberace, which he calls Liberace's Sticky Buns.  "They start out with crescent rolls from the refrigerator case. They end up tasting so good that you never want to go in Cinnabon again. I made 24 and I ate nine before they were cool enough to handle" said Mr. DeCaro.  (see the recipe below, or at http://www.epicurious.com/recipes/food/views/Liberaces-Sticky-Buns-368173).  Readers of this blog may recall that I blogged about the 2013 Steven Soderbergh movie about Liberace called "Behind the Candelabra", see http://goo.gl/Wjek4g for the post.

There were other good ones, too, ranging from Patrick Swayze's Chicken Pot Pie to Bea Arthur's Vegan Breakfast that not only tasted great, and were actually healthy, too.

For the record, one of the gems noted is the recipe for Liberace's Sticky Buns, which is as follows:

Liberace's Sticky Buns
Liberace Cooks

  • 1 cup golden raisins (Note: these raisins are made from dried Thompson seedless grapes rather than traditional red grapes.  They're much less common in supermarkets today than they were 25 years ago; feel free to replace them with regular raisins instead, they will taste just as good!)
  • 1/4 cup light rum
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups brown sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon cloves
  • 1/4 teaspoon ginger
  • 1 cup chopped pecans
  • 1 cup whole pecans
  • 3 tubes refrigerated unbaked crescent rolls
  • Nonstick baking spray with flour for greasing pan

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray two muffin pans with nonstick baking spray.

Combine raisins and rum in a small bowl and warm in microwave on high for 45 seconds. Set aside.

In a saucepan, melt butter and then stir in brown sugar and spices. Cook, stirring frequently, until it becomes a bubbling syrup.

Put a teaspoon of syrup and a few whole pecans in each muffin cup. Unroll one package of crescent rolls on a piece of parchment paper. Pinch seams together to form one flat piece. Drizzle a quarter of the syrup over the dough. Sprinkle a third of the raisins and a third of the chopped pecans on it. Roll it jellyroll style. Cut into 1-inch-thick pieces. Place one slice of dough, cut side up, in each muffin tin. Repeat with each package of crescent rolls.

Bake 13 to 15 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and immediately flip the buns onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper. Replace any nuts that may have stuck to the pan and serve warm.

Makes 24

Mr. DeCaro says that other recipes, such as Harriet Nelson's Chicken Casserole are also very easy to prepare.  You take rice and mix it with three kinds of cream soups: cream of chicken, cream of celery and cream of mushroom.  Then, you add cream and butter, because it's not rich enough with 3 creamy soups, and you add the chicken on top. He said "You don't need a defibrillator yet.  It's very 1950s-tasting and very comforting."

Regardless, this cookbook (indeed, both this one, as well as the holiday-themed one he released containing celebrity Christmas recipes) does accomplish what he set out to do.  Whether its fine dining, or even healthy dining, is another matter.  The real gem here is the accompanying commentary and the way he organizes the cookbook itself.  That makes it entertaining reading even if you don't make the recipes themselves.

To be sure, a number of the recipes are very much products of their era (after all, the celebs are now dead, so at least some of the recipes are more than a few years old), and for a variety of reasons, the recipes themselves haven't always stand the test of time, as Harriet Nelson's fat-laden Chicken Casserole best exemplifies (even if it tastes good).

Culinary perfection was not the point of DeCaro's book, which features more than 145 recipes from as many deceased celebrities.  Helping a new generation of pop-culture fans rediscover them and their work was his goal.  Each recipe is accompanied by a brief, cleverly written biography and a description of what distinguishes the particular featured dish.

Perhaps for the next cookbook, Mr. DeCaro will consider having a celebrity chef like Rocco DiSpirito try to modernize them, or even follow the model that popular television show "Recipe Rehab" does so they're a bit healthier than the original magazine recipes so common in 1950s and '60s magazines aimed at homemakers of the day were?

He told one reporter "One thing that's better about having recipes from dead people is, if you change them, they can't complain."

Aside from Liberace's Sticky Buns, there were a few others worth trying.  For example, a chapter called "Thank You For Feeding a Friend" is all about the Golden Girls being healthy (before taking dirt naps).  PETA supporter Bea Arthur's Vegetarian Breakfast, Rue McClanahan's Non-Dairy Cheesecake, and Estelle Getty's Baked Chicken Fingers recipes are included. So far, Betty White, who is still with us and acting on "Hot In Cleveland", isn't included since she's still above ground.  Bea's vegetarian breakfast is incredibly easy (if a bit bland), it was featured in People magazine at http://bit.ly/1i6xTtl.

Recipes, of course, are a matter of taste.  I rather liked Patrick Swayze’s Chicken Pot Pie and Eva Gabor's Hungarian Goulash was pretty darn good, too.  Its hard to believe she once routinely made completely inedible food on the sixties TV show "Green Acres"!!

These books were discussed on BlogTalkRadio and American Public Media (an NPR affiliated organization) "The Splendid Table" radio show, both can be found below.  The discussions, much like Mr. DeCaro himself, is pretty entertaining and worth listening to.  I've included the radio clips below.  The books themselves are available in hard-copy as well as Kindle editions, so you can download instantly.

January 5, 2014

Golden Girls Still Golden, 3 Decades Later

Television's "The Golden Girls" sitcom, was first introduced to the world on September 14, 1985 and ran on NBC from 1985-1992.  The show was set in a (fictitious) ranch house owned by the character Blanche Devereaux, at least until Season 7, Episode 4 ("That's For Me to Know").  In that episode (S7/E4), Blanche supposedly shared ownership of the house with her two longtime roommates (Dorothy Zbornak and Rose Nylund).  The decision to share ownership was prompted by Blanche's plans to install a hot tub, but she gets more than she bargained for when a city inspector (whom Rose notified) tells her that she either has to lose a renter or make modifications to her home which would cost more than $10,000, which she said she couldn't afford  without raising the rent.  Dorothy suggests selling her and Rose a share of the house as a way of getting around the burdensome zoning restriction.  Blanche finally agrees to make Dorothy and Rose co-owners of her house in order to skirt the law, although nothing more was made of the change of ownership beyond that.

The address for that home was supposedly 6151 Richmond Street, Miami, FL (although no such Miami address exists in the real world, hence no real-life zip code exists).  Viewers must therefore speculate on the actual Miami neighborhood where the home was supposedly located.  We know it was not in Miami Beach, because the girls decide to stay in a Miami Beach hotel as their regular home was fumigated for termites in Season 2, Episode 2 (S2/E2) in the episode entitled "Ladies of the Evening" (in which the girls are mistaken for prostitutes and arrested).

Several different episodes mention various Miami locations, including Biscayne Boulevard, arguably a major north-south avenue transversing the entire city, while another episode mentions Pompano Drive, and in yet another, Rose asks Dorothy and Blanche if they’d like to go to Coconut Grove for lunch (her treat) to celebrate their friendship.  These clues suggest a house located somewhere between Coconut Grove and the affluent suburb of Coral Gables.  However, the reality is there was never a stated area of town they live in, and the homes in the area are neither particularly grandiose, historic, nor is the neighborhood particularly ethnic (ruling out neighborhoods such as Little Havana or Little Haiti).

In real life (at least in the first season), the exterior scenes of the home were filmed at a real house located at 245 North Saltair Avenue, (West) Los Angeles, CA 90049, in the hills of Brentwood (see photo above), although the landscaping of the house is known to look a bit different today. (Its located just west of the 405 highway and just north of Sunset Blvd.)  From the second season onward, exterior shots were actually filmed at the Walt Disney World Hollywood Studios theme-park in Orlando, FL (see photo below) where they built an exact replica of the house, which also became part of the studio tour there, at least until it (the replica) was torn down in 2003 and replaced with a new attraction.

Source: Flickr Partyhare, from Disney Hollywood Studios

Tearing down theme park attractions is a fairly routine matter; Universal Studios Orlando once featured a full-scale reproduction of the "I Love Lucy" apartment set at the park.  Although the retail store still existed for my last visit, it had been downsized considerably and I believe could be removed to make room for future attractions (if it hasn't been done already).

6151 Richmond Street House Layout Subject to Some Dispute

"The Golden Girls" home layout is also the subject of some dispute, since the actual set routinely only focused on just 2 rooms: the living room and the kitchen.  Occasionally, some episodes featured a bedroom, a bathroom or even a garage, yet those rooms were never part of the show's primary set.  One thing is clear: until "The Golden Girls", the Hawaiian term "lanai" (defined as a veranda, particularly a furnished one) had never become mainstream in the American English language.  At best, people knew of "Aloha" and maybe "Mele Kalikimaka" (Merry Christmas, which was made famous by singer Bing Crosby), but thanks to "The Golden Girls", a new Hawaiian term entered the American lexicon.  Scenes from the actual lanai were relatively few but occasional appearances emerged during the show, including the first season.  But the location of the lanai is, shall we say, open to debate?

Indeed, much like the actual Miami neighborhood, the precise layout of the house was never made clear.  Now, before I get too far, I should note that the actual house layout has been the subject to considerable debate due (in part) to discrepancies observed throughout the series.  The best discussion of these inconsistencies is observed in The Golden Girls' Wiki, which can be found at http://goldengirls.wikia.com/wiki/6151_Richmond_Street.

Different people have come up with varying ideas of the floor plan based on descriptions of the house from the series itself.  Even that can be subject to debate, although people can generally agree on how the rooms looked inside.  Occasional discontinuities are more likely to happen when a show runs for so many seasons.  I've placed several layouts below, or at http://bit.ly/1appwkQ.

For example, in the opening scene (Season 2, Episode 1 [S2/E1], "End of the Curse") shows the outside of the house, and the garage and driveway are on the left side of the house, whereas in the show's intro, the garage is on the right side.  In that episode, the girls raise minks in the garage, which is accessed from the back corner of the kitchen, hence the garage is actually on the opposite side of the house.  Furthermore, the lanai seems to be surrounded on 3 sides by the house, but the hallway leading to the lanai (and the way the girls enter from the left) would put it on the very front corner, surrounded by nothing.  There were also references in the show from Blanche that she could sunbathe in the nude on the lanai without any neighbors noticing.  Among the other inconsistencies include the following:
  • The door in the kitchen that supposedly lead to the "garage" was really a passageway to the back hall (where the Girls' rooms were located) to get backstage
  • Blanche's room, if you look back at the end of the hall in some episodes, was actually a door to backstage
  • In the Pilot episode, the Lanai is located right in back of the living room and Blanche's room is back off to the left beside the lanai
  • In other episodes, the Lanai is back off to the left of the living room, and Blanche's bedroom is at the end of the hall
Inconsistencies aside, the fictitious house feels like a second home (much as Lucy & Ricky's apartment did) for an entire generation of viewers.  We know for a fact it was a Hollywood set, as the photo below shows:

Photo of the studio set for "The Golden Girls"

Now, 30 years later, the show's decor seems dated (although a search through Flickr shows that some have found similar furniture for sale, see http://www.flickr.com/photos/skinnytie/4643140232/sizes/z/ for details); it was supposed to be themed like Miami during the 1980s, although wicker was popular nationwide at that time.  In Season 1, Episode 2 (S1/E2, "Guess Who's Coming to the Wedding?"), we see our first glimpse of the lanai when Dorothy confronts her ex-husband Stanley and tears off his toupee while out on the lanai, with occasional scenes in different episodes also out on the back veranda.

2012-2013 Era: Artisians on Etsy.com Bring "The Golden Girls" Home

During the summer of 2013, a scale model (scaled at 1:72) of the main set was made available for the primary set on Etsy (see http://www.etsy.com/listing/108583630/golden-girls-house-scale-model-6151).  The producer got a lot of positive reviews, and came back with several more, which were available for sale about a month later.  The producer sold out quickly on both the original and the subsequent items, suggesting he could find it lucrative making reproductions of the house, although it also suggests that the market for commercial producers could potentially mine for gold with old TV set miniatures, although its unclear whether Disney or any toy companies have much appetite for it.  He has since started selling reproductions of Lucy & Ricky Ricardo's apartment.

Source:  http://www.etsy.com/listing/108583630/golden-girls-house-scale-model-6151

Shortly thereafter, another budding craftsman created a set of Lego people (see http://bit.ly/16Ey8Ij for the news) with the four main castmembers of "The Golden Girls" and sold in on Etsy.com complete with a wicker purse for Sophia, a coffee mug for another, and a Lego cheesecake for all of them to share.  Although the Lego Golden Girls were cute, the price was  higher than the scaled version of their ranch house in Miami, though the scale model of the house sells for more now than it did originally.

Both are selling briskly, suggesting that the market is still healthy for these items.  The point is that these are evidence the show has touched several generations and is therefore likely to remain around for a while longer.

This show, perhaps more than others of the same era ("Family Ties" comes to mind, catch my post on that show at http://goo.gl/DRmhw) seems as timely today as it did nearly 30 years ago when it premiered.  Some of the reason can be attributed to the fact that it has never left the TV airwaves.  Few shows aside from "I Love Lucy" can make such a claim.  The show's origin is attributed to former NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff, who Parade magazine said (see http://ow.ly/scb2r) got the idea for the series while visiting an elderly aunt. His aunt's neighbor was also her best friend, and he was amused at how they constantly bickered with one another, yet they always remained pals.

Origins for "The Golden Girls"

However, it was really "Soap" creator (not to mention "Benson" and a few others) Susan Harris who actually brought the idea of "The Golden Girls" to life for NBC television.  Harris was already an experienced sitcom writer who had previously written scripts for "Love, American Style", "All in the Family", and "The Partridge Family" to name a few.  She also wrote the groundbreaking abortion episode for the Bea Arthur-starring (and Rue McClanahan) series "Maude" in the 1970s which won Harris the Humanitas Prize.  She and her then-husband started a company in Los Angeles to create television programming on behalf of networks.

Ms. Harris had a reputation for being difficult to work with (and for), although her involvement was somewhat limited once the show was turned over to the network.  Susan Harris also had a reputation of creating shows and then leaving them, and she admitted to a reporter:

"It's true. I'm the first to admit that.  My [then] husband has referred to me as a creator-deserter."

However, she added some of the reasons for that.

After "Soap," for which she was constantly writing, she said "I vowed I would never do that to myself again. But it doesn't mean I just write the pilot and take off", adding "I write notes, read scripts. I'm around."

But the show's success can really be attributed to the writers and the cast.

Core Audiences for "The Golden Girls": Beyond Middle-Aged Women

Regardless of the show's origins, it drew audiences from well beyond the core, middle-aged women it was originally intended to target.  For example, a 2005 study by Simmons Market Research determined that more gays and lesbians watched "The Golden Girls" than the general population in any given week.  The show touched on homosexuality more than once: Blanche's brother came out as gay in one episode (and later came back with his soon-to-be husband in another episode), In another episode, Dorothy's college friend was a lesbian who fell for Rose.

Actresses Rue McClanahan (Blanche) and Betty White (Rose) and one of "Golden Girls" writers Marc Cherry revealed what they thought made the show so appealing to the gay community in a meeting at the Paley Center in Los Angeles several years ago (Rue McClanahan passed away on June 3, 2010).  You can catch that short video clip below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/EeW-G1vBKkY:

Taking "The Golden Girls" Off Broadway

"Thank You for Being a Friend: The Musical" was an UNauthorized musical parody inspired by the beloved TV sitcom "The Golden Girls" which premiered in New York back in 2009 and starred a cast of drag queens, but and ended up being pretty successful for an off, off, off Broadway production. (see http://goo.gl/GJmhLo for more background on the show itself).  In fact, there is news that "Thank You For Being A Friend", the unauthorized musical based on "The Golden Girls", will return to the New York stage for several weeks starting on January 8, 2014 until February 12, 2014 (see the news at http://ow.ly/sbP8I).

The parody show is/was unapologetic about the fact that it was borrowing from the original, although it took creative license which also makes it immune to most legal challenges.  For example, the characters' names were Blanchette (described as the varicose-veined vixen) instead of Blanche, Dorthea (described as the brainy ball-buster) instead of Dorothy, Roz (described as the lovable airhead) instead of Rose, and Sophie (described as the wisecracking spitfire) instead of Sophia.  They’re spending their golden years together in a Miami bungalow, and Sophie recently left a nursing home known as "Shady Oaks" (instead of Shady Pines).

The storyline goes as follows: When a closeted, gay (former) pop superstar (originally, it was Lance Bass, although the more recent version supposedly features Ricky Martin; both of whom have since come out publicly) moves next door, and his loud, outdoor sex parties keeps the quartet of cheesecake-loving retirees awake at night. The solution pits the gays against the girls at the Shady Oaks annual talent show: if the women win, then no more sex parties; if the gays garner top prize, the sassy seniors must serve as the party's clean-up crew.

The website for the show (http://www.goldengirlsthemusical.com/) has several YouTube clips, including the opening song number, which can be viewed at http://youtu.be/dTO7HkndFLk or below:

To be sure, the New York parody featuring drag queens as the Golden Girls is not the only one.  Similar shows have been produced in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and elsewhere.  Clearly, this is an audience that appreciated the show, but never got to see the reunion they were hoping for.

There have been periodic talks of rebooting the show (including a funny cartoon version featuring the Superfriends, catch my post on that at http://goo.gl/aZkMS for details), but none have yet come to fruition!  While variations of shows featuring four primary castmembers have already been very successful on TV (for example, "Sex and the City" followed the same pattern back in the 1990s), there are now talks that ABC television is looking into developing a new comedy about a few (three) older guys (e.g. retirement age) rather than girls.

The Golden Guys?

At this point, the show is still untitled, but is being developed by "The Neighbors" creator Dan Fogelman and "The George Lopez Show" co-creator Robert Borden.  It revolves around three long-lost basketball teammates who reconnect in their 60s and discover they still have a lot to learn about love and friendship.  The news was released on Deadline.com (see http://bit.ly/1iuNhjK).  My personal thought is they may need to find a fourth castmember to make it work (for whatever reason four, rather than three, castmembers seems to work best if other TV shows are reliable predictions), but that's relatively easy.  With a large number of individuals (Baby Boomers) in retirement, the audience is certainly large enough, even if Boomers aren't spending as much as their younger counterparts.

If TV Land's successful 2013 reality show "Forever Young" is any indication, not to mention the fact that "The Golden Girls" original castmember Betty White is still working at age 90+ on "Hot in Cleveland", we can expect to see more future sitcoms to include different age groups.  But it was really "The Golden Girls" that paved the way for less youth-focused sitcoms to be successful on television.

September 29, 2013

The Forces Behind Iconic PSAs in U.S. Advertising

For Gen Xers who grew up in the 1970s, most of us remember at least a few of the iconic advertising campaigns by an organization known as the Ad Council.  Indeed, the crying native American TV ads helped influence an entire generation of us.  The ads themselves received all kinds of awards from the advertising industry.  But is this a case of a Hollywood-esque awards show sponsored by the industry, giving itself various awards and forcing the country to watch as it does so?  The short answer is kind of.

Catch this iconic television ad which first aired in 1971 but continued for a number of years after, just as Generation X was growing up.  The iconic native American crying ad can be seen below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/9Dmtkxm9yQY:

The Ad Council was the creative force behind these iconic public service advertising (PSA) campaigns including the crying native American as well as versions of Smokey the Bear and others.  And while the Ad Council's creativity was behind the ads, the organization which based in New York City, began as part of the war effort in the 1940s.  But the actual organization which paid to run the ads was an organization that called itself Keep America Beautiful, which sounds innocent enough, but isn't your grassroots Sierra Club.  In reality, it is/was a a pseudo-charity funded by the packaged good manufacturers in this country.  In other words, companies like McDonald's, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Reynolds Aluminium, Nestle Waters, the American Chemistry Council — these are the companies who produce both the chemicals and the packaging material that ends up in our waste stream and in our garbage stream, and they were the ones lecturing us to pick up our waste to keep America Beautiful.  If only the ads weren't funded by the companies that created all that waste!

Book by Wendy Melillo
Wendy Melillo, an assistant professor of communications at American University is the author of a new (as of September 2013) book entitled "How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns", is interviewed by NPR about these campaigns and the organizations behind these iconic campaigns.  The interview which can be listened to below (or by visiting http://n.pr/1bMejQk) is fascinating.

I think its important to acknowledge that Ms. Melillo isn't trying to discredit the Ad Council's work.  Indeed, she claims it is a "premier organization we have in this country for public service advertising. And it does a lot of good."  She says her goal with this book is to take a look at the business model, and to recognize that there are some limitations.  She says society can work together to determine how we can improve that to make it even better, but she clearly thinks that one of the keys is making sure people know what the current business model's limitations actually are.

August 24, 2013

Can Al Jazeera America Improve Upon U.S. TV News Coverage?

Starting Tuesday, August 20, 2013, there was a new startup in the American television news front, an operation which aims to deliver 14 hours of straight, live news everyday with correspondents in oft-overlooked corners of the country.  The remainder of the day will include pre-recorded content such as what it describes as "hard-hitting" documentaries.

The New York Daily News reported (see http://nydn.us/1eTJGpg):

"Don't look for coverage of Kim Kardashian, or courthouse camp-outs during high-profile trials. Instead of following the lead of Fox News, MSNBC and CNN — which have all played up crime coverage and punditry to increase ratings — Al Jazeera sees itself more as the NPR of the tube."

On top of that, it will have fewer commercials than any other news channel (at least initially) on television.

Unlike PBS and NPR, which are also both commercial-free media outlets and only partially funded by U.S. tax dollars (often to criticism of individuals with political views who claim those networks are biased against their views, see http://wny.cc/12iVsHa for details, even though in truth, both tend to adhere to the old-style journalism that tries to stick to the center and tell both sides  and both have seen public funding decline steadily over time to the point that neither can be truly be called publicly-funded), the new player has been called by some as the most ambitious American television news venture since Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes started the Fox News Channel in 1996.

That new player is Al Jazeera America, which acquired Current television at the beginning of 2013.  Al Jazeera America has hired hundreds of U.S.-based journalists and TV production staff, and has been very open about its hopes to win over a skeptical U.S. public.  Only five of the country's biggest cable operators carried its predecessor Current, and one of them - AT&T U-Verse - dropped the channel before the switch to Al Jazeera America.  Time Warner Cable, another of the country's largest cable delivery companies, publicly dropped Current TV upon Al Jazeera's acquisition, but has since resumed talks with Al Jazeera America, which is seen as a big sign of progress (although it hasn't signed yet).

The New York Times described (see http://nyti.ms/17CoEsg) Al Jazeera America as "... the culmination of a long-held dream among the leaders of Qatar, the Middle Eastern emirate that already reaches most of the rest of the world with its Arabic- and English-language news channels. The new channel, created specifically for consumers in the United States, will join cable and satellite lineups on Tuesday afternoon."

Al Jazeera is headquartered in Doha, Qatar, and is partially financed by the former emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, although Al Jazeera has its own management team and operates with a degree of independence not seen in most other news organizations based in that part of the world.  The network did win global praise for its balanced, in-depth coverage of the Arab Spring.  However, independently, the Qatari Royal Family has also been known to use its money to support various political outcomes in the Middle East; for example.  Their support helped to fund uprisings in Syria and Libya.  According to according to Bloomberg News, they have also lent $8 billion to Egypt since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.  Yet their support has also received some criticism within the region, most recently in July 2013, when two dozen employees at Al Jazeera's network in Egypt resigned over what they characterized as the network's biased coverage of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Israel has somewhat mixed opinions of the network.  No one can deny that any kind of Arabic political discourse reflects a degree of anti-Semitism, yet any network which attempts to realistically cover the region must report that dialogue, without necessarily trying to advance a particular viewpoint.  Its also worth noting that the network is widely-watched in Israel, and not just by Arab viewers. Still, the conversation in Al Jazeera's coverage about Israel and American foreign policy is different from our discourse in the U.S., which is not necessarily a bad thing.

The channel's interim CEO, Ehab Al Shihabi spoke with APM/Marketplace's Kai Ryssdal at the Aspen Ideas Festival earlier in 2013 and said he believed that the channel's journalistic offerings would be something the American public will watch  and ultimately be willing to pay for.

That transcript for that interview may be found at http://bit.ly/1d2BtTR.

Al Shihabi told Marketplace "I am not entering the landscape of opinionated news. I am not entering the landscape of the infotainment.  I'm entering a landscape which, in my opinion, doesn't exist, or it exists, but not in the level that the American audience deserve.  So the idea here is we are entering for a market that consider underserved."

There's no denying the network's brand carries a great deal of skepticism among many Americans.  Right after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Al Jazeera made an editorial decision to broadcast messages from Osama bin Laden, which many observers felt was overtly anti-American, or at the very least, insensitive to the American audience, even if it was trying to present both sides of a major news story.  That decision may prevent some viewers from ever tuning in.

Still, Mr. Al Shihabi may well be onto something.

"Curiosity will initially drive some viewers to the network," says Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University of Charlotte who has written about Al Jazeera's impact. Enticing them to stick around with 'a hard-news, serious approach' will be its biggest challenge," he says.

However, USA Today acknowledged the network comes at an interesting time for the industry, and had this to say:  (see http://usat.ly/1cDQIBA for their coverage):

Its entry into the U.S. comes at a precarious time in the cable industry, which is grappling with massive changes in technology and viewer behavior. Beset by stiff competition, dwindling advertising budgets and an accelerating pace of 'cord-cutting' viewers ditching cable, the cable news business has been struggling to hold onto viewers. Many of them are going to streaming services, such as Netflix and Hulu, and some are getting around costly cable fees by using cheap antennas for over-the-air signals."

During the recent 2012 elections, the news coverage, even among perceived independent voices such as BBC America, was overwhelmingly partisan, leaving many Americans to wonder where all the objective news coverage had gone.  But whether the network can overcome the perception it developed as the media outlet Osama bin Laden turned to for coverage remains to be seen (although with him now dead, people’s collective memories may fade over time).

Taking a step back for a moment, its worth noting that Bob Meyers, President of the National Press Foundation, recently wrote in a blog post (see http://nationalpress.org/blogs/newsbag/new-kid-on-the-news-block/):

"I am reminded of three other news organization launches in the U.S. that were transformative.  One was the launch of CNN on June 1, 1980; the second was the launch of Bloomberg News in 1990; and the third was the launch of Politico in 2007."

Interestingly, Mr. Myers did even not mention Fox news, in part, because Fox News actually has a very small news gathering organization (indeed, the Fox News' news-gathering organization is reportedly smaller than Al Jazeera America's is, which has a staff of 900, including 400 newsroom employees) while Fox News has focused more on political commentary and opinion.

Fox News did prove to be very successful from a business standpoint, although its growth has stagnated in recent years.  In July 2013, Fox News had 1.3 million viewers in prime time according to Nielsen data.  However, co-founder Roger Ailes admitted to New York magazine (see http://nym.ag/iP5fuN) that while the strategy he developed proved brilliant from a business perspective, there were some signs that it had started to backfire in terms of the network's failure to embrace more central, mainstream perspectives, which in hindsight may have contributed to the Republican party's loss of the Presidential race in November 2012.

For example, Fox News' ratings towards the end of George W. Bush's presidency had fallen by more than 30%, as viewers began tuning out when all the news on the network was overwhelmingly doom and gloom (aimed at advancing a particular political perspective).  That part of the strategy proved to be unsuccessful, as the center held, with President Barack Obama being elected in 2008 and subsequently re-elected for a second term in 2012, while the makeup of Congress remained largely unchanged.  Meanwhile, Fox has more recently tried to move a bit more to the center, letting controversial commentators such as Glenn Beck go (having proven to be too extreme for a network that relies on mass viewers and advertisers to pay its bills), though surveys show that a vast majority Americans still view Fox news as an outlet to advance the agenda of Republican party (incidentally, they see MSNBC doing the same for the Democratic party).

The New York Times wrote (see http://nyti.ms/17CoEsg) that "Al Jazeera's approach - more time for more serious journalism - is an implicit criticism of the other options for news on television."

While Current TV, before it was sold to Al Jazeera, did have some legitimate investigative reporting of the sort that Al Jazeera found valuable, it also veered into the opinion aspect targeting the political left, which isn't necessarily the content Al Jazeera is interested in.  Examples of Current TV's coverage that is likely to continue include coverage of China's poaching of endangered tiger species around the world in order to make tiger wine, or an examination of the narcotics industry in America and elsewhere.  That’s the type of coverage Al Jazeera America expects to do more of; which seldom gets much coverage in other media outlets.

The network says it does not expect its focus to be primarily overseas coverage, which was the original plan for the network, which some see as an effort to appease skeptics, although much of the original evening’s coverage seemed very focused on current events in Syria and to a slightly lesser extent, Egypt.  I got bored hearing about that after a half hour.  The simple reality is that global coverage has much more limited appeal to an American audience, which can already get that sort of coverage from other providers like BBC (Britain), or CBC (Canada), so in order to succeed, the network must fully develop its American news content.  At the moment, Al Jazeera America's overseers are trying to emphasize how much American news it will actually cover and how many domestic bureaus it will have.

Al Jazeera America acknowledges it still has its challenges.

Gaining carriage on cable remains a huge challenge, and that was a major reason it bought Current TV in the first place.  Al Jazeera America will start in about 48 million of the country's roughly 100 million homes that subscribe to cable or satellite television.

Still, gaining carriage on cable meant making some concessions which were difficult for Al Jazeera.  Since U.S. cable distributors discourage their partners from giving programming away on the Internet, Al Jazeera will have to block American users from the live streams of its programming that tend to be popular in periods of tumult overseas, something it hasn't had to contend with in other markets where it operates.  That could also prove difficult in luring a new generation of American viewers who no longer watch even news on actual televisions, but on tablet computers, mobile phones, game consoles, etc.  However, that could evolve over time.

Journalistic integrity is reportedly part of Al Jazeera's business plan, and having an American arm (and perspective) could indeed help the organization to be slightly less centered on the Arab perspective of the news, although only time will tell.

"Viewers will see a news channel unlike the others, as our programming proves Al Jazeera America will air fact-based, unbiased and in-depth news," said Ehab Al Shihabi, the channel's acting chief executive, on a news conference call last week. He was explicit about what will be different, saying, "There will be less opinion, less yelling and fewer celebrity sightings."

Mr. Al Shihabi and other Al Jazeera reps say proprietary research supports their assertions that American viewers want a PBS-like news channel 24 hours a day.

Forbes blogged that Al Jazeera America could mean a return of more serious science, and medical TV reporting (see http://onforb.es/19LC23j for details), an area in which U.S. networks have de-volved into pseudo-science (like disputes over climate change, for example, something Fox news in particular has promoted, although other networks’ coverage of science and medicine is sorely lacking, too).

To be sure, Al Jazeera still has competition in the space.  The British Broadcasting Corporation continues to press for wider carriage of BBC World News in America, and its coverage is also more global in nature than U.S. networks' coverage generally is, although it has learned that American viewers have found limited interest in a majority of news coverage being outside the country, so BBC America's coverage has also evolved to deliver a slightly more American perspective on the news coverage than it does in its native broadcasts or elsewhere it does business.

Americans on Camera

Most of Al Jazeera's news anchors have histories at one or more of the major American television networks.  For example, Antonio Mora (a former "Good Morning America" news anchor who spent the last 10 years at local stations) will anchor a 10 p.m. talk show called "Consider This", and he said he had sensed far less commercial pressure at Al Jazeera America than at local stations where he had worked. "There's a sense here of the news being a public trust."

That perspective could be a welcome addition to an industry which has come to rely on tactics of the sort that helped Fox gain a toehold in the space, even if journalistic integrity was thrown aside for its ratings.

Other news anchors on Al Jazeera America (for its 2013 launch) include John Seigenthaler (the anchor of the weekend editions of "NBC Nightly News" until 2007), who had left the business and never expected to take another job in television until Al Jazeera came along, as well as Joie Chen (a CBS News correspondent until 2008) will be a part of the new network's team.

The NPR program "On the Media" recently covered the launch of Al Jazeera America, which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://wny.cc/157ucPH:

In the end, however, exactly what role Al Jazeera will play in the increasingly-fragmented U.S. media market will likely determine how successful it will be.  The network's aim to be a truly global news player practically requires it to have a place in the U.S. media market.  Having a seemingly limitless financing from an oil- and gas-rich government in Qatar could prove to be an advantage, as long as it steers clear of going the Fox News/MSBNC route of less focus on the news and more on the opinion as coverage.

Ratings will be a secondary concern for its Qatari backers, who have shown patience and seem to care more about prestige and influence than the bottom line says Mohammed el-Nawawy, a communications professor at Queens University of Charlotte who has written about Al Jazeera's impact. "The U.S. market has been the biggest challenge for Al Jazeera. There's national pride at stake here. And the emir (of Qatar) is taking this very seriously."

For the moment, Al Jazeera America looks like it may offer an interesting perspective, and one which has potential to provide more objective U.S. political coverage than any existing news organizations do, which many believe is sorely lacking in TV news coverage in 2013.

The new business objectives for the network has called for much more domestic coverage than Al Jazeera was originally planning.  Based on the initial evening’s broadcast, my perspective was that more is probably still needed, with less coverage of Syria and Egypt but more coverage of East Asia or South America, for example.  Whether Americans will ultimately tune-in remains to be seen, and exactly how long the Al Jazeera America network is willing to subsidize such journalism also remains to be seen, but the new owners' apparent patience could prove to be a virtue.

August 21, 2013

Nostalgia: A Cure for What Ails American Society, or a Mental Health Disorder?

Nostalgia is something that old people do a lot of, right?  At one time, nostalgia was considered a mental health illness akin to depression.  However, such diagnoses were done at a time when psychology, neurology and even medicine were all relatively new.  One of the earliest examples was when 17th-century Swiss physician first coined the term nostalgia, who attributed soldiers' mental and physical maladies to their longing to return home — nostos in Greek, and the accompanying pain, algos.  Yet the view of nostalgia being a disorder essentially became the established dogma.  No one really looked much further into the matter in spite of significant advances in the science of mental health that came in the years that followed.

As it turns out, new research has proven that contrary to the established dogma, nostalgia is not an illness at all, and it indeed serves a psychological role; it is definitely not a mental illness.  For example, new research shows that nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety.  It also makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.  Couples feel closer and look happier when they're sharing nostalgic memories.  On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.  Indeed, it provides a coping mechanism for people who experience loss of loved ones due to death as they age and helps them to prepare for their own death.

Constantine Sedikides at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom, is the man who pioneered much of this new research into nostalgia, and pioneered an area of study that today includes dozens of researchers around the world using tools developed at his social-psychology laboratory, including a questionnaire called the Southampton Nostalgia Scale.  In early July 2013, the New York Times had an excellent article on this topic (see http://nyti.ms/18INU4o for the actual article) which probed into the modern research's origins and what has come from it.

That's not to say nostalgia is without its downsides. For example, as the New York Times's observed, it's a bittersweet emotion — although the net effect is to make life seem more meaningful and helps make death less frightening.  When people speak wistfully of the past, they usually become more optimistic and inspired about the future, rather than negative about the future.

This blog is built on nostalgia, although its hardly the only thing I do, here or anywhere else.  In a small way, I've done it to provide a mechanism to take a positive view of the past, yet is firmly anchored in the future.  People don't visit this blog to watch old re-runs of "The Partridge Family" (that stuff can be found someplace else), but they do get to see what the cast of the original show is up to these days (see my posts at http://goo.gl/yuqQN and http://goo.gl/uVxDi for two examples).  My intent is to put a modern spin on the pop culture (such as it was) when I was younger.

Nowadays, the entertainment industry has something of a love affair with what it calls "reboots" which is taking a movie (or television) franchise back to its origins.  If a sequel continues an original story, a prequel tells what happened earlier, and a remake portrays the same events again (using a new cast, but without a change to the original story), then a reboot is supposed to take a franchise back to its origins and begin again with a different take — and cast, perhaps in an effort to make the idea appealing to an audience that might not enjoy the original.

Not all reboots have been good for business.

Some failed because the original upon which it was built may have been a blockbuster, but was actually built upon a weak story line, and giving it a younger and/or more attractive cast won't do much to save it.  Think of movies like the 2011 "Footloose" reboot from Paramount pictures.  The original was a film that starred Kevin Bacon (and Sarah Jessica Parker among others) that was a blockbuster for Paramount back in the 1980s.  But the 2011 "reboot" didn't do nearly as well.  Others include films like "Spiderman", and more recently, "Man of Steel" (based on "Superman").  While the reboot movies based comic books have generally been better than other movies like "Footloose", they're also based on stronger material to begin with.  Generally, to be a success, a reboot cannot be built on a weak foundation, no matter how successful the original may have been.

At the beginning of 2013, I wrote about how the Millennial generation was feeling nostalgia for a time that's barely a decade ago (see that post at http://goo.gl/quEvZ).  However, the reasons for that nostalgia are as valid as the reason an older person senses nostalgia for his or her own youth: to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety and help them be more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.  I, for one, would say that's not a bad thing, and society as a whole benefits.  Indeed, there are examples (see http://bit.ly/12psgOG for details) examples which prove this (although Detroit's recent bankruptcy show another side to it).  The key is to use nostalgia for the purpose it was intended, not to get tied up in wistfulness of a time that has passed.

Of course, all of this raises the question as to just what we as a society should be nostalgic for?

Recently, The Atlantic had an interesting clip (see http://bit.ly/1cYsvXS for details) which observed that if you're an old Republican (and many are), there's a good chance you probably want to go back to the 1950s, while Democrats and Millennials seem to love the 1990s (there weren't as many Gen Xers, so nostalgia for the 1970s-1980s isn't as strong).  It featured the following graph from The Economist and YouGov.

What makes the observations most interesting are the fact that the findings show strong generational correlations, which is hardly surprising.  However, beyond that, the political implications are interesting (and potentially troubling for the Republican party since their core voters are getting older and even though the elderly have proven to be a reliable voting block, it doesn't suggest their latest losses have taught them very much ... (see http://bit.ly/ru4nKc and http://on.msnbc.com/11ywS00) ... yet, although I would say there's still time as long as the lessons aren't simply window-dressing).

In the end, though, the biggest take-away from all of this isn't political, but the fact that nostalgia can help people adjust to new phases of life.  But, I think as some Hollywood reboots prove, if its built on a weak foundation, it can also prove to be an economic disaster.

I wonder where the dominant U.S. political parties stand on that?!