September 20, 2020

Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett Were Not the "Brangelina" of the 70's

I've addressed a seventies TV hit known as "The Six Million Dollar Man" here previously, (catch it HERE), but it was more about the show than the actors in the series. 

Farrah Fawcett and then-husband Lee Majors
The lead actor in "The Six Million Dollar Man" series (Lee Majors) was already a TV veteran as an actor on a TV show called "The Big Valley", which was an American Western drama TV series which ran for four seasons on ABC from 1965-1969. That series was set in the mid-late 1800's on the fictional Barkley Ranch set in California's San Joaquin Valley (specifically in Stockton). Despite the series' popularity and the fact that it ran for four seasons, it never made the top 30 in the yearly ratings charts, although it was enough of a hit to outlive various time slot rivals during its run. 

But it was Lee Majors from that series' who went on to a much bigger career in television the next decade as "The Six Million Dollar Man". That show ran from 1974-1978 and was at or near the top of the ratings during its heyday. In fact, the show was so big that it also generated its own spinoff known as "The Bionic Woman" which was also briefly very popular around 1977. Both of those shows today run on NBC Universal's Cozi TV network (which I wrote about when it launched HERE). 

Hollywood Power Couple, Yes. But Nothing Like Brangelina.

The comparison is a bit misplaced, but some news outlets (specifically Britain's tabloid the Daily Mail) have referred to actor Lee Majors as half of a sort of "Brangelina" of the 1970's ("Brangelina" was stupid combo name given to the celebrity supercouple consisting of American actors Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie). The reason for the comparison is because he was married to an actress named Farrah Fawcett whose sexy image in a bathing suit was on posters in most boys' bedroom walls at the time. 

Farrah Fawcett's iconic 70's poster
Sorry, but to my knowledge, there was never a mass movement for anyone to hang posters of Angelina Jolie in a swimsuit on their walls — she's just never been much of a fantasy for many teenage boys. Lee Majors was also not equivalent of Angelina's former husband Brad Pitt — in the case of Brangelina, Brad Pitt was the better-looking half of that former couple. 

Anyway, Lee Majors married Farah Fawcett in 1973 (she was a former beauty queen from University of Texas who went to Hollywood at age 21), the same year Lee won the role of Steve Austin on "The Six Million Dollar Man". Farrah appeared on that show and Lee used his clout to try and help get her other TV roles. He said "All the lessons I had learned the hard way, I tried to use to help Farrah." The couple divorced in 1982. Still, Lee Majors and Farrah Fawcett (which she hyphenated even when she was married to Lee Majors as Farrah Fawcett-Majors, which was a pretty daring move at the time since most brides were expected to adopt the surname of their spouse at the time, showing surprising independence) were considered a Hollywood power couple of the mid-1970's.  

Her her initial claim to fame was a starring role on the hit Aaron Spelling TV series named "Charlie's Angels" as Jill Munroe on that show. But the couple still dealt with annoying press hounds throughout their brief marriage. Lee Majors told Closer magazine: "We couldn’t do anything," recalled Lee about the pressure they felt from the press. "The paps [paparazzi] always found out where we were." 

"Jiggle TV"

Farrah Fawcett's "Charlie's Angels" role was during a period which came to be known as "Jiggle TV". Ms. Fawcett's famous poster arguably helped her get cast in the role on "Charlie's Angels", and poster sales went hand-in-hand with ratings for the show. NBC exec Paul Klein is the person who coined the term "Jiggle Television" to criticize ABC's television production and marketing strategy under former chief Fred Silverman. The term was used to describe dramatic TV series (mostly from Aaron Spelling and former Screen Gems' top TV exec Leonard Goldberg) including "The Love Boat", "Fantasy Island", and later "Beverly Hills 90210", "Melrose Place" and others. "Jiggle TV" was seen as trashy and escapist entertainment. Programs or female performers were frequently judged by their "jiggle factor". "Jiggle TV" was also called "Tits & Ass Television" or "T&A TV" for short and in the 1970's, the amount of sex on television increased, as did its ratings. Farrah Fawcett certainly fit into that categorization. 

Farrah Fawcett herself went on the record when she told an interviewer "When the show was number three, I figured it was our acting. When it got to be number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra." 

Fawcett Redeemed Her Acting Credentials With "The Burning Bed"

Although Farrah Fawcett was not considered a great actress when she began acting (then again, neither is Angelina Jolie), she left "Charlie's Angels" which made her a household name after just one season. And, to her credit, she really did redeem her acting credentials with a dramatic role in a made-for-TV movie which aired on NBC called "The Burning Bed" in 1984 which was very good and gained her needed respect for her ability as an actress. Over her career, she became a four-time Emmy Award nominee (although she never won), but her career came to a sudden halt when she fell sick and passed away from anal cancer in 2009 — she was just age 62 when she died (see her obituary HERE). 

Former husband Lee Majors told the UK tabloid Daily Mail: "People tell me we were the Brad [Pitt] and Angelina [Jolie] of our time. Sadly, that didn't work out too good, either." 

But in spite of their parting ways, Lee Majors (age 81 years old in 2020) looks back at his marriage to Farrah Fawcett fondly. Although their separation was mutual and was never hostile, because they had no children together, there also was not much of an ongoing relationship between the couple following their divorce. 

Majors and Fawcett stayed in touch until Farrah fell in love with Ryan O'Neal, who had been Lee's friend until O'Neil hooked up with Farrah. "They got serious and I couldn't believe it," Lee Majors previously recalled to People. So once they parted, they basically left one another's lives and went their separate ways.  

Silence fell between Lee and Farrah continued until he heard about her battle with anal cancer. However, Lee Majors is very happy that he reconnected with his ex before she died. In 2009, Lee called his ex-wife to wish her a happy 62nd birthday. 

"They had a 40-minute conversation about her life and the cancer," said an insider. "They joked and they got a little bit emotional." They even spoke about working together again — sadly it wasn't meant to be. Farrah died just four months later. She was "one of a kind," Lee said. "I was always 110% behind her and proud of her." 

See also the Closer weekly magazine coverage at: 

December 31, 2019

CB Radio Fad of the Mid 1970's

In the mid-1970's, mobile phones weren't even invented yet. The few who actually had "car phones" at the time had special, analog radio phones, but those were so large they had to be hard-wired into the car and so power-hungry they needed access to the car’s alternator for power. Mobile service was controlled by the Ma Bell monopoly and the cost was prohibitively expensive. Plus, no one was carrying them around in their pockets. But, there was kind of an analog alternative: the Citizens Band Radio, better known by the acronym CB radio. Originally started in the 1940's and used by truckers, these inexpensive radios also made various forms of chatter over the public airwaves possible. CB radio communication wasn’t private, but neither were old party line telephones which had only been phased-out in the last parts of the country just a decade earlier.

Partly because of the 1973 oil crisis caused by the OPEC Oil Embargo of that year, and a new, nationwide 55 mph speed limit meant to save U.S. fuel consumption, the use of CB radios served a genuine need. Truckers found their CB’s to be very valuable in to help organize blockades and convoys in protest to the newly-imposed 55 mph speed limit. CB’s helped truck drivers locate service stations that actually had fuel available for sale, and also to warn other drivers of speed traps ahead. Remember: GPS was unavailable outside of the U.S. military at the time. But CB's were really enabled by the advent of solid state electronics technology which emerged and became commonplace starting in the early 1970's, which also enabled prices of the radios themselves to plummet and made them feasible as a mass market item which was not possible previously.


CB radios also enabled drivers to alert and/or seek assistance in case of an emergency. Ordinary people soon discovered that CB radios were also a great way to find where to get the cheapest gas, plus communicating and cooperating with other drivers on the road. They were adopted by the masses as part of a temporary (but big) fad during that period of time. In fact, they had become so popular that more than 2 million CB radio licenses were issued in 1974 alone. Eventually, there were so many idiots clogging the CB airwaves that more channels were needed, so 40 channel models were released instead of just 23.

Along with this technology came adoption of common user protocols, most notably the use of the relevant lingo or slang that existing CB radio users were already accustomed to using. Virtually all of this originated with truck drivers. "Breaker 19" was a way to introduce yourself to the people tuned into channel 19, whereas "That’s a 10-4" meant everything was OK and you understood, and "What's your 10-20?" meant someone was asking what your location on the road was. A much longer list of CB radio slang is currently available online at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CB_slang or at http://www.cbgazette.com/slang.html if you're interested in reading more.

But as the CB radio technology became more widespread, soon the unique vernacular made it made its way into pop culture, including in broadcast radio, movies, television, news and even pop music.

Handles were what people called themselves over the airwaves without giving out their real names. Anonymity made it easier to evade police enforcement for telling others about police speed enforcement locations. Handles were akin to what screen names were in the era of internet chat rooms which are also now history. In fact, even former First Lady Betty Ford got into the act back in the day, admitting to using the handle "First Mama," while voice actor Mel Blanc (known as the voices in many original Warner Brothers and later, Hanna Barbera cartoons) talked over the airwaves using the guise of Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck!

In 1975, the country music singer Merle Haggard released a song called "Movin' On" about truck-drivers who put CB radios and the lingo associated with CB's into wider use. Also in 1975, a novelty, one-hit-wonder song performed by C.W. McCall (a pseudonym of Bill Fries) became a #1 song on both the country and pop charts in the U.S. That song was "Convoy".

A brief snippet of the song "Convoy" can be listened to below, or at http://www.madmusic.com/song_details.aspx?SongID=2829 — because of byzantine copyright laws, only a short segment of the song is available. YouTube has a licensed copy of the original track from the Mike Douglas Show at https://youtu.be/j3VN54M1OXA if you want something more.


Convoys were essentially huge lines of trucks that traveled together down the nation's highways (often at higher than the posted speed limits), usually in protest to the new slower speed limits and police enforcement of those new speed limits (it's tough for police to pull over and ticket dozens of trucks travelling the same high speed simultaneously, hence they were pretty effective). They were most prevalent along the vast, empty stretches of highway so prevalent in Western states, "Convoy" was also the theme song for an eponymous movie released under the same name. That song was, in fact, written by C.W. McCall and Chip Davis who were a couple of ad guys from Omaha, Nebraska — their song "Convoy" was actually written initially for an ad campaign they were doing for a bread company at the time — but the single managed to land on and spent an impressive 6 weeks at number #1 on the Billboard country charts, an indication of just how big the CB fad had become.

NPR had a brief segment in 2017 about the song "Convoy" which is only about three minutes in length, but is worth listening to below, or at https://www.npr.org/2017/06/06/531749486/the-legacy-of-convoy-how-a-trucker-s-protest-anthem-became-a-70s-hit. The link above also features a video link to the song "Convoy":

On television, we saw the CB radio subculture showed up in the broadcast news, and in regular programming.  For example, a television series "Movin' On" debuted in 1974 and ran to 1976 on NBC. The 1976 "Paul Lynde Halloween Special" on ABC (which, by the way, is currently available on Netflix, catch my blog about that TV special at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2012/10/paul-lynde-1976-halloween-special.html for more) featured an entire segment about using a CB radio. In that segment, Paul Lynde was an 18-wheeled, white-pleathered rhinestone trucker. Tim Conway, best known for his comedic roles on the iconic "Carol Burnett Show" played his CB-buddy, while both of them fought over truckstop waitress Roz "Pinky Tuscadero" Kelly. She is remembered as someone who briefly starred as the Fonz's temporary girlfriend on the hit ABC sitcom "Happy Days" at the time.

By 1979, another NBC sitcom called "B.J. and the Bear" was introduced and that show ran until 1981. "B.J. and the Bear" was about a truck driver named B.J. (played by Greg Evigan) and his travelling companion, a monkey named "Bear" which featured routine CB radio usage, along with the then-popular CB lingo (catch a Retroist podcast about that particular TV series at https://archive.org/details/retroistbjandthebear for more info.). Again, CB radios were featured prominently in the show. Perhaps even bigger was the hit CBS TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard" (which also debuted 1979, running until 1985) and that also featured CB radios prominently throughout the series. CB radios were prominent throughout that show's six-season tenure as a means for the law-bending Duke brothers to avoid Sheriff Boss Hogg, Deputy Cletus Hogg, who was Boss Hogg's cousin and his dim-witted Deputy Sheriff Enos Strate. These days, due to the show's unapologetic romanticism of southern Confederacy (including a car named the General Lee) and the essential racism that drove it, that show is now rather limited in the rerun circuit, limited to a few cable stations such as CMT which has high viewership in the southern states that were home to the Confederacy.


On the big screen, there were several movies including "Smokey and the Bandit" (1977) which co-starred Burt Reynolds (he had already built a name for himself not for his acting but for being Cosmopolitan magazine's first-ever nude, male centerfold in 1972) and Sally Field plus Jackie Gleason and Jerry Reed. Of course, there was also the other big film "Convoy" (1978) which I previously noted. "Convoy" starred Kris Kristofferson — a Nashville singer-songwriter who was also, briefly, a pretty busy film star also willing to get semi-naked on screen, with one of his earlier starring roles in the award-winning film "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" (1974) which was also the basis for a subsequent TV sitcom on CBS that starred Linda Lavin known simply as "Alice". Kristofferson would also subsequently co-star in the romantic drama reboot of the movie "A Star Is Born" (1976) with Barbra Streisand, for which he received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

Like many things, the public fixation about CB Radios was definitely a genuine fad with its roots in utility. Today, the idea of CB radios seems more quaint than anything else, with mobile phones as portable, internet-connected devices being as ubiquitous and cheap as they are now. But, as noted, those simply weren’t around in those days, and car phones were prohibitively expensive and not at all portable, having to be hard-wired into the trunk of one's car and requiring a car alternator to power them, plus the service was controlled by the Ma Bell monopoly and prohibitively expensive, with metered, per-minute charges for every single call plus a hefty monthly service fee. That meant making only a few phone calls like that would exceed the prices people pay for 6 months of unlimited mobile service now, only without the internet.

I am of the opinion that even in 2020, mobile phones are still not exactly the pinnacle of modern technology (I wrote a post about how the iPhone did not kill the landline phone, the internet did, catch my post at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2017/10/iphone-didnt-kill-landline-telephones.html for more), as they are first and foremost, one-on-one communications platforms (although internet connected apps may enable group platforms, such as Google Hangouts). The real benefit of a CB radio was that someone several miles ahead of you on a particular highway could warn you of upcoming traffic conditions, police activity, accidents, and most importantly: places where fuel was available, all of which you had yet to encounter on the road ahead. Hence, CB radios served a rather unique and useful purpose among truckers, plus CB's (aside from the initial purchase price) were free to use. CB radios had a range of about 3 to 20 miles, depending on the terrain. Originally there were only 23 channels, but subsequently expanded to about 40 stations. Police and firefighters used different radio bands that were not open to the public.

For whatever reason, the brief obsession with CB radios in the United States also likely stemmed from people’s desire to indulge their weird fantasies. This was in an era following the sexual revolution of the late 1960's and women's liberation. That's not to say that society wasn't still repressive, because it remained controlled by older people who were happy with the repressive 1950's. But CB radios provided anonymity for people to act as though they were someone else, plus is coincided with a public valorization of truckers and cops and people's desires of them (for women to be romantic with them, and for men to be like them).

As the MeTV blog best put it (catch its blog post at https://www.metv.com/stories/cb-radio-was-the-social-media-of-the-1970s):

"Instead of being relegated as a fleeting trend of the 1970s, perhaps CB radios were a precursor to the use of technology to create friendships and communicate anonymously with others." In other words, it was a precursor to modern social media, only it appeared 45 years ago!

The book "Whatever Became of Pudding Pops" which partially helped spawn this blog, wrote about the CB radio fad other the late 1970's and it was pretty interesting and entertaining reading. The chapter content was essentially as follows:

"Convoy"

Breaker one-nine, you got your ears on? Kids had no idea what CB chatter meant, but it sure was fun to pretend, holding a Romper Stomper to your mouth like it was a microphone and blabbing about "putting the hammer down" and "bears in the air."

We discovered the citizen's-band phenomenon when C.W. McCall recorded the 1976 hit "Convoy." You didn't have to understand the exotic new language (what in the world was a "cab-over Pete with a reefer on"?) to immediately fall in love with the romance of the eighteen-wheel lifestyle. "Convoy" told a classic tale of fighting authority, with the truckers crashing roadblocks and flaunting toll bridges.

Kids weren't the only ones who loved it. Adults started buying CBs for their Dodge Darts at such a frantic pace, the FCC doubled the number of available channels. Of course, no one knew any real CB lingo outside of the song lyrics, so real truckers had to suffer through listening to kids, desk jockeys, and housewives calling them "good buddy" until we grew sick of the craze and moved on to the next fad.

Today, the closest kids come to talking to truckers is when they pull an imaginary cord to try and get passing drivers to honk their horns. Still awesome? That's a big 10-4.

X-TINCTION RATING:
Gone for good.

REPLACED BY:
Cell phones made it much easier — if more dangerous — to communicate while driving, and personal radar detectors help modern drivers stay alert for smokeys.

FUN FACT:
C. W. McCall was the creation of a couple of ad guys from Omaha. Bill Fries and Chip Davis (who went on to launch electronic-music group Mannheim Steamroller) concocted the character and named him after McCall's magazine. The C. W. stood for country and western.

October 24, 2019

An Ode to Christopher Cross: Musician Who's Also One of Yacht Rock's Best Crooners

For today's post, it's necessary to properly set the scene: I'll begin in the 1970's. During early-to-late 1970's, disco dominated much of the U.S. popular music scene. At the time, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor were all at the top of the charts. In 1978, the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack was named Album of the Year. An event that has the been inaccurately referred to as the "death of disco" better known as the Disco Demolition which took place in Chicago's Comiskey Park, in reality, the story was always more nuanced than that. Steve Dahl, was then a 24-year-old DJ who was involved with that Disco Demolition event in Comiskey Park, was pissed off about being fired from a radio station that he worked for when it changed formats to all-disco. But even he disputes the importance of the Comiskey Park event, calling those who suggest that event was the official death of disco revisionist history. However, the Chicago Disco Demolition event was also understood to be a not-so-subtle attack against disco's earliest adopters: blacks, Latinos and gays, and each group faced fairly widespread discrimination anyway.

Disco Demolition at Chicago's Comiskey Park Marked a Time of Transition

The Comiskey Park event wasn't the death of disco so much as it was a marker of a period of musical transition.

Think about it: around 1977 when "Saturday Night Fever" finally hit the box office, a group of Baby Boomers were in their mid-to-late twenties, and they still wanted to go out and party. They patronized dance clubs and disco music was one of their favorite genres. But they'd already been doing that for a good number of years, and Hollywood was late to the game when "Saturday Night Fever" was even released. By the end of the decade, going out all night, boozing it up at discos and looking for one-night-stands/hookups was already starting to fall out of favor. Many Boomers were simply getting older, and they now they had families to support. It was hardly a coordinated, nationwide effort to destroy a musical genre. By 1979, disco and funk were starting to fade. At the same time, the Baby Boomers who just a few years earlier were key were also becoming less important to record sales. Their era of dominating popular music was reaching its natural end.

As noted, a shift in musical tastes was happening. Consider the Grammy Award winners in the years before (during) and after. It was never all-disco, before or after. For example, in 1977, Debbie Boone won two Grammys as Best New Artist of the Year, and for Song of the Year for the sappy song "You Light Up My Life". She was joined by Barbra Streisand for the "Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)" that year. Neither artist resembled disco (although Streisand's record label would later push her into disco with several collaborations with Barry Gibb including "Guilty", "What Kind of Fool", the Gibb-written solo "Woman in Love", and another duette with disco diva Donna Summer "No More Tears". Ms. Streisand has gone on the record saying that none of those tracks are ones she is particularly fond of and she rarely performs them in concert, although they were all big [money-making] chart-toppers for her at the time). Beyond those, The Eagles' "Hotel California" won Record of the Year in 1977, while Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" took home the Grammy for 1977 Album of the Year. The following year, Billy Joel won the Grammy for Record of the Year, and he also won several more next year, too. Some, although certainly not all, of these winners could arguably fall into the musical genre now known as Yacht Rock.

What is Yacht Rock?
If you are unfamiliar with the term, the term "Yacht Rock" is a type of soft rock that supposedly emanated from Southern California between 1976 and 1984. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, musical artists like Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Toto, Hall and Oates, and dozens of others regularly popped up on each other's records, creating a golden era of smooth-music collaboration.

On June 26, 2005, an internet phenomenon was born. In 12 short but memorable episodes — first via the the short-film series Channel 101 and then online — JD Ryznar, Hunter Stair, Dave Lyons, Lane Farnham and their friends redefined an era and coined a term for the sultry croonings of McDonald, Fagen, et al.: "Yacht Rock." http://www.yachtrock.com/ -- now known as the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast.

As "Hollywood" Steve might say, these guys docked a fleet of remarkable hits. This is the story of Yacht Rock, told from stem to stern — a reimagining of a bygone soft-rock renaissance, courtesy of hipsters with fake mustaches, impeccable record collections and a love of smoothness. Long may it sail.

A very short NPR story about Yacht Rock can be listened to below, or by visiting https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2017/03/15/520254333/that-70s-week-yacht-rock.

The term Yacht Rock was coined to suggest a kind of smooth, mellow "soft rock" music that early yuppies likely enjoyed while sipping champagne and snorting cocaine on their yachts at the time. They have several criteria used for a song classified as such, although the label is more tongue-in-cheek than reality, but it was also a term for a genre which existed but was largely undefined, yet was still taking over the radio airwaves at the time. In my mind (and has been acknowledged by many others, including those guys), perhaps no one is a better representative of that musical genre than Christopher Cross.

Christopher Cross Swept the 1980 Grammy Awards


Christopher Cross in 2014
In 1978, a musician, singer/songwriter from San Antonio, Texas landed a solo contract with Warner Bros. Records. (These days, he calls the funky Texas capital city Austin home). A self-described "Army brat", Cross is the son of a U.S. Army pediatrician stationed at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC in the mid-1950's, acting as physician for President Dwight Eisenhower's grandchildren.

The young Mr. Cross managed to land a record with Warner Brothers in 1978. In 1979, Christopher Cross (whose birth name was Christopher Charles Geppert) released his first, self-named solo album. The following year, Cross was nominated for six awards and he walked away with a stunning five (5) Grammy Awards, including each of the "Big Four" awards: album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. He was the first person (and so far, ever) to win so many awards in a single evening.

Despite his quest during the 1970's to be signed with a major record label, Christopher Cross began with rather modest ambitions. He hoped his first album would sell 50,000 copies, enough for Warner Bros. to let him make a second album.

"I was hoping, maybe three albums down the stream, I could get something on the radio," Cross said. "So, when all that Grammy stuff happened, it took everybody by surprise."

Catching a Wave

Christopher Cross says that he caught a wave of change in pop music at the perfect time. Lightning struck again for him the following year, in 1981. Cross' bittersweet theme song for the hit movie "Arthur" reached No 1. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" (from the movie "Arthur" which starred the late British actor Dudley Moore) also won an Oscar and a Golden Globe that year. Cross deserved all of the awards, too.

Although not by design, Christopher Cross arguably embodied (and pioneered) a musical genre now popularly referred to as Yacht Rock, and he and his music was decidedly not disco. But it was very popular and was a very refreshing change from the types of music that dominated the airwaves just a few years earlier, so people bought it -- lots of it. But, not surprisingly, it didn't last forever. It seldom does.

As The Advocate (see HERE) wrote about him (I should acknowledge that Christopher Cross is definitely not gay, but his music attracted a very widespread audience, including many gays and lesbians), he thought he had good odds of winning one Grammy.

He said: "I'd been told that I had a good shot at winning best new artist," Cross said. "Harry Belafonte and Herb Alpert presented that award to me. That was surreal. I went back to my seat, feeling content for the evening, ready to watch the show. And then, bang."

Cross won four more Grammys that night, including song of the year and album of the year.

"It was an out-of-body experience," he said. "We never imagined beating Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra and all these big artists."

Billboard magazine suggested (see the article at https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/awards/8527732/christopher-cross-grammy-sweep-billie-eilish for more) that his 1980 sweep at the Grammys may have triggered a backlash. Billboard wrote:

"It just may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Cross. If he had just won one or two awards, few would have paid much notice. If he'd won best new artist, he would have beaten critics' faves Pretenders, but critics were used to having their favorites lose in that category. Elvis Costello had lost to A Taste of Honey two years earlier. John Prine and Eagles lost to America in 1972. Elton John lost to Carpenters in 1970.

But Cross' undoing won everything. His eponymous debut album beat Pink Floyd's The Wall and Barbra Streisand's Guilty for album of the year. His serene ballad "Sailing" beat Frank Sinatra's "Theme from New York New York" in three categories -- record and song of the year and best arrangement accompanying vocalist(s).

The sweep practically invited people to say, "Oh, he's not that good." Instead of bringing people to his side, the sweep turned many people off. Cross was a talented pop artist -- not a groundbreaking artist, but a skilled hit-maker, the kind who might have had a solid, five-year run of hits.

The Grammy sweep may have actually shortened his [music] career. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do," which he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen, topped the Hot 100 eight months after the Grammy sweep. It won an Oscar and brought Cross three more Grammy nominations (but no wins). Cross had two more top 20 hits, "All Right" and "Think of Laura," from his sophomore album, Another Page. But even a reunion with Bacharach and Sager to co-write the song "A Chance for Heaven," the swimming theme from the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A., didn't reverse his flagging momentum. He hasn't appeared on the Hot 100 since 1985.

On August 31, 2014, CBS Sunday Morning (see https://www.cbsnews.com/news/christopher-cross-sails-back-with-a-new-album/ for more) offered this about Christopher Cross:

Remember Christopher Cross? In the early 1980's, his brand of silky-soft rock sailed up the charts. His songs were unavoidable on FM radio (as a side note: that soft-rock genre was commonly played in dentists' offices, and I vividly recall hearing it under the influence of nitrous oxide) -- and then as quickly as he burst on the scene, he seemed to vanish from it.

CBS Sunday Morning also let him share a funny story about an interaction he had with a TSA agent.

"I was going through TSA -- this has been a year, or maybe two years ago," Cross recalled. "And a woman took my boarding pass. And she said, 'Oh, Christopher Cross, there used to be a singer named that! He passed away! But he was a great singer.'

You can catch that entertaining video interview below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/aeEe9W8wayw:



In the end, and with the benefit of hindsight, there's nothing Christopher Cross would do differently. He's continued to release music since 1980, and while none have swept the Grammy's since then, he still believes he's been very lucky.

Christopher Cross credits a lot of his incredible success to timing.

"There were many great artists back then who didn’t get a chance to be heard," he said. "I worked hard and I was talented, but I also was lucky. People were ready for some pop music. It was a perfect storm."

He also seems very humble, and not bitter he did not enjoy decades more commercial success in music. Now at age 68, he is content. As noted, today he lives in the eclectic capital city of Texas, Austin. Just as the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird" to promote small businesses in Austin, Mr. Cross has no regrets about how his career has gone. Instead, he seems grateful he's had the opportunity. If that perspective doesn't deserve to enjoy sailing on a yacht, perhaps nothing does!

Christopher Cross' own website has a Spotify playlist of his hits which can be listened to at https://www.christophercross.com/ -- I won't try to embed it here, since it seems to come and go, but the link to the Spotify playlist can be visited at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7y60oSM7fpOM1zLeO6upo6. His classic, Grammy-winning song "Sailing" can be listened to here, or by visiting https://youtu.be/MEO6gYCFbr0:

 

September 9, 2019

HGTV Premiers "A Very Brady Renovation" on Mon., Sep. 9, 2019

Among U.S. TV sitcoms of the 1970's, few left as big an impression as Sherwood Schwartz's "The Brady Bunch". Thanks to relentless, seemingly un-ending re-runs in syndication, as well as numerous specials, spinoffs and even a few reboots (including a successful 1995 movie which starred a different cast, which was followed by a second movie), it ranks among the most prolific shows of that particular time period.

Its worth acknowledging that while "The Brady Bunch" is usually called a seventies TV show, it actually began in 1969 when it first aired on ABC broadcast television's fall season. But the constant reruns in syndication, specials, spinoffs (who remembers "The Brady Brides"?) and other things all happened in the seventies.

Although the last of the show's regular adult cast have now passed, the child cast is still very much alive as of 2019. Actress Florence Henderson, who played mother Carol Brady passed away [of heart failure] on November 24, 2016 at age 82 was the last adult cast member to pass, She was preceded by actor Robert Reed who played father Mike Brady, and actress Ann B. Davis who played the live-in housekeeper Alice Nelson on "The Brady Bunch" (as well as characters on several other sitcoms), plus actor Allan Melvin who played Sam the Butcher and Alice's boyfriend on the show all preceded Henderson. Many of those actors had successful acting careers before (and after) "The Brady Bunch".

For a window of time following the death of the show's iconic producer Sherwood Schwartz in 2011 (even though his son Lloyd carried the torch for a while), there was some thought within show biz circles that the world had finally seen the last of the iconic Brady's on television, at least outside of continued reruns. But it turned out that declaration was premature as well. Actress Maureen McCormick re-emerged (briefy) on TV to promote a new autobiography she called "Here's the Story" (named after the first line in the theme song of "The Brady Bunch") in 2009, but it was mostly just book launch promos, but nothing sustained.

But the presumption of the end of the Brady's was turned upside down on July 18, 2018, when the Los Angeles Times reported (see the news HERE for more) that the iconic house which was used for outdoor representations of the television Brady family's residence, including the show's opening and closing scenes as well as numerous interludes to denote the time of day was for sale.

This became known as the Brady house, located at: 11222 Dilling St, Los Angeles
The actual house that came to become known as the Brady house was located in Studio City near the Colfax Meadows neighborhood in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles (the official address is 11222 Dilling Street, Los Angeles, CA 91604), and was listed for sale for $1.885 million on July 18, 2018. George and Violet McCallister bought the two-bedroom, three-bathroom house in 1973 for $61,000, county real estate records show.

The listing was the first time that the house was for sale in 50 years. The house was actually built in 1959. Although the house was well-maintained and was on a large piece of property, the house's interior was very dated, which made it ripe for a buyer that might level it for the large lot and build a new house in its place. However, at the onset, there were expectations that due to the house's iconic celebrity status, there could be some competitive bidding for it.

Actress Maureen McCormick, who played oldest sister Marcia Brady on the show — shared that she would have loved to have bought the house for herself. But she ultimately knew there would be fierce competition given its celebrity status. She was right about that.

Indeed, immediately following the listing for the house, there were reports that former N'Sync band member Lance Bass had placed a bid for the house. But the sellers were very pleasantly pleased with the outcome of the sale of their deceased grandmother's house. It sold in August 2018 for $3.5 million -- nearly twice (86% more than the asking price) the house's original asking price.

Following the news that the iconic "Brady house" was sold, there was speculation on the actual buyer. That speculation would end before too long. But behind-the-scenes, the buyer had some very interesting plans for the house.

The buyer of the Brady house was later revealed to be the cable television network HGTV (the initials initially stood for Home & Garden Television). The surprise was that the channel planned  to remodel the house to look just as it did on "The Brady Bunch". It was no small undertaking given that the house was single story while the television home on "The Brady Bunch" was depicted as a two-story house. Although the house had a lot of property, the actual TV show's interior scenes were filmed on a set in Stage 5 at Paramount Studios. The set looked almost nothing like the actual house did.

Actress Susan Olsen, who played youngest sister Cindy Brady in the original series, admits she felt a little bit of resentment about the Brady house because as a child, she asked the producers why they chose that particular house for the exterior shots, and they told her: "I'll have you know that if you walk into that house, it looks exactly like this set." As it turns out, that was a very big lie made to a very little girl!

Beyond Maureen McCormick and Susan Olsen, actress Eve Plumb, who played the beleaguered middle sister Jan Brady on the show, made some real estate headlines of her own in 2016 when she sold her oceanfront Malibu beach house. An 11-year-old Eve Plumb, with the help of her parents, bought the oceanfront property in 1969 for just $55,300. At the time, Eve Plumb was already a veteran child actor with the western TV series "Gunsmoke" and "The Big Valley" on her resume. She later sold that beach house, best described as an 850-square foot cottage located at the south end of Escondido Beach, for $3.9 million after decades of her ownership. (see HERE for more on that). Even adjusting for inflation, that was still more than a ten-fold return on her initial investment.

As it would later be revealed, HGTV had interesting plans for the iconic Brady house. The network secretly recruited all of the original castmembers who are still alive, including Barry Williams (Greg Brady), Maureen McCormick (Marcia Brady), Christopher Knight (Peter Brady), Eve Plumb (Jan Brady), Mike Lookinland (Bobby Brady) and Susan Olsen (Cindy Brady) along with several of the cable network's own stars, including "Property Brothers" Drew and Jonathan Scott, "Good Bones'" Mina Starsiak and Karen Laine, "Restored by the Fords'" Leanne and Steve Ford, "Hidden Potentials'" Jasmine Roth and "Flea Market Flip's" Lara Spencer to renovate the iconic Brady house to look exactly as the original Paramount studio set for the show looked on the sitcom. They were able to recruit all of them (while other specials and reboots had to find at least a few replacement cast members) because this project was so fundamentally different from most prior Brady reunions and specials. The cast were able to roll up their sleeves and use sledgehammers, nail guns and saws -- which never happened in any of the earlier reunions of "The Brady Bunch".


Tonight, on September 9, 2019 HGTV will finally premiere its highly-anticipated TV series, which follows America's the iconic Brady family (the children, at least) working alongside several HGTV stars to renovate the iconic house. HGTV has been busy promoting the show on social media and elsewhere for the limited-run  series. Obviously, upon completion of the renovations, the series will be done. But HGTV expects expects to draw record audiences for the new, limited-duration series. If you miss the premier on cable (or you're a cord-cutter without cable), you can catch clips from the show on the website dedicated to "A Very Brady Renovation" at https://www.hgtv.com/shows/a-very-brady-renovation.

Below is a brief YouTube playlist I created which contains some of the promotional and/or news clips on today's "Very Brady Renovation" which airs this evening on HGTV. You can watch below, or by visiting https://bit.ly/2lKTAcw.

   

July 17, 2019

How The Golden Girls Evaded Network Censorship With Dialogue About Mr. September's Manaconda

I know its July, but last week I saw a calendar which made me think of a Golden Girls episode. I explain how in just a minute. I've blogged about "The Golden Girls" already, and in particular how the layout of the house (which was really just a set in a television studio) presents some inconsistencies. Catch that post HERE.

A memorable but incredibly funny part of the holiday-themed episode of "The Golden Girls" (Season 2, Episode 11 entitled "T'was the Nightmare Before Christmas") was during their gift exchange with one another. A bit more on that in just a second.

Anyway, to set this up, in this particular episode of the classic sitcom, Blanche opens the episode by having a gentleman caller named Ed who's dressed in a Santa suit. When Dorothy arrives, she says that the crowds in the stores had made her Christmas shopping a nightmare. She also discovered that her mother, Sophia, had been using her credit cards to buy expensive gifts from Neiman Marcus that she cannot afford. She concludes that Christmas doesn't mean anything anymore because it has become too commercial.

In response, Rose suggests to the girls that they have an old-fashioned Christmas kind of like they do in her hometown of St. Olaf, Minnesota before they return home. Upon the suggestion, Dorothy was very quick to respond that she had absolutely no intention of drinking eggnog while wearing a cast-iron brassiere. Rose responds humorously by saying "We don't do that at Christmas! We do that at Easter."

Although the each of the Golden Girls are planning to spend Christmas day with their respective families, before they each go home to their families, they want to have a Christmas gift exchange with one another. But they agree with Rose and decide to return the expensive gifts and instead give each other homemade gifts (except for Sophia, who sticks with her Neiman Marcus gifts paid for by Dorothy).

The gift-exchange between the four Golden Girls was perhaps one of the sitcom's more memorable moments, not only for the episode and the show, but for holiday-themed TV episodes overall, many of which follow a well-rehearsed script of the sort outlined in the book the now out-of-print book "Christmas on Television" by Diane Werts (ISBN 9780275983314).

As for The Golden Girls "T'was the Nightmare Before Christmas" episode, R. J. McBowlan, who was the Head Writer for that particular episode said in an interview (see https://thegoldengirlsreviewedby.com/2014/01/30/season-2-episode-11-twas-the-nightmare-before-christmas-as-told-by-an-oral-history-from-the-writers-room/ for more):

"We wanted to do a Christmas episode that wasn't like any others. We had thought about doing a 'Christmas Carol' version with the ghosts of the pasts of all the ladies, but then I thought, let's go edgier! Let's add some really scandalous moments. The result was a holiday episode of "The Golden Girls" that was one of television's better scripts, and it was acted exquisitely by the Emmy-winning cast.

Crispin Daly, the Story Editor said: "I thought, how would Blanche react to Christmas? Just like she always does, by acting like a sex-crazed maniac! It was just so simple. And you know what they say in comedy: double-down. So Blanche gives the other gals a calendar called 'The Men of Blanche's Boudoir'. Because she's such a slut! It's hilarious that such an old lady can be a slut. Can you imagine?"

McBowlan added "Yea, I really didn't think NBC would go for it, but they did."

When the girls' celebration arrives; Rose's gift to Dorothy is a whittled maple syrup spout.


But Blanche gives her roommates a calendar which she titles "The Men of Blanche's Boudoir", and she gives the same gift to each girl saying how she thought it was such a cute idea.

Dorothy opens the gift from Blanche, and she says "Oh, Blanche. Oh, honey, this is so thoughtful ... whoa!”

To which Blanch responds "September?"

Dorothy responds by saying: "Yep."

Sophia's line was really ground-breaking, because immediately after Dorothy says yes, she adds: "I'm surprised you were able to walk in October."

A YouTube excerpt can be see (for the time being, anyway) below, or at https://youtu.be/KqUxbTd8DKo.



The viewer is really left to presume that Blanche's Mr. September is really gifted with what might be called (in urban slang) a "manaconda" between his legs. (the term "manaconda" is a contraction of the two words "man" and "anacanda" which is the longest snake in the world). Draw your own conclusion.

Anyway, following Rue McClanahan's death in 2010, it became known that Rue had a LOT of memorabilia saved from her work in television; in fact she had saved so much that she ended up renting several storage units to save it all. She also had a provision written into her contract for "The Golden Girls" whereby she was permitted to keep all of the clothes that were worn by the character Blanche in the show. They were all custom-made outfits for each actress/actor in the show.

Rue also had kept the supposed "gift" from that episode: 'The Men of Blanche's Boudoir' calendar. In an auction following Rue's death, we learned that there was a little more to 'The Men of Blanche's Boudoir' than racy photos of naked men that television viewers never got to see. Some actual photos of that particular prop taken from an auction (the price was $4,000) of her vast collection. The actual 'The Men of Blanche's Boudoir' calendar measured 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 and was signed to her from the guys in the prop department for the show. The website for Rue's the estate sale can still be viewed at http://estateofrue.com/catalog/original-the-men-of-blanches-boudoir-calendar-sold/.



For the record, Rue's copy of that prop, rather than containing photos of completely naked men (which Rue very likely would have liked), the sale revealed that the cut-up duo who ran the props department for the show had loaded the mockup with real photographs of various crew members in compromising positions. When presented with the prop during a taped rehearsal, the ladies' reactions quickly brought the scene to a halt! For the record, not all of the items from the Rue's estate sale have sold and some can still be purchased, but this one was one of the items on the "sold" list!


Regardless, it is worth noting that "The Golden Girls" being a top-rated sitcom that starred older women were able to get away with risque jokes that did not fly in other sitcoms of that era. Hence, jokes about Mr. September's manaconda were approved when the fifty-something Golden Girls said them, whereas sitcoms with younger actresses would find the network censors cutting similar lines. Indeed, NPR's Terri Gross asked Bea Arthur about that in an April 2007 interview, although Bea Arthur's response was merely "I guess so".

The relevant dialogue was as follows:

Terri GROSS: That's an episode of "The Golden Girls," with my guest, Bea Arthur, along with Rue McClanahan and Betty White. Were you able to get away with a lot of sex jokes on "The Golden Girls" because it was about older women?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ARTHUR: I guess so, I guess so. Yes, the first time you saw women - I hate that expression - of a certain age well-groomed and having active sex lives and great earrings, I remember.

The interview can be listened to below, or by visiting https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9847148.

Still, we can thank "The Golden Girls" for pushing the proverbial envelope on jokes that a generation earlier would have been banned completely.

May 26, 2019

Elton John Biopic Movie "Rocketman" Opens Worldwide

You don't have to be a fan of Elton John to know his music; even the most pop culture-oblivious person knows songs including "Bennie and the Jets," "I'm Still Standing", "Crocodile Rock" and of course, "Rocket Man". That's why the biopic movie "Rocketman" which opens this week is so anticipated.

Of course, Elton John is the public half of a genuine creative duo, with the other half being his longtime lyricist Bernie Taupin (actor Jamie Bell plays Bernie Taupin in the movie). The duo collaborated on more than thirty albums, even if the Rocketman was arguably the public persona. A great deal is riding on the film "Rocketman's" success.


As the New York Times observed (see its review at https://nyti.ms/2EfoGj5 for details): "Multiple movie studios passed on the opportunity to make "Rocketman," which is an R-rated musical biopic about music legend Elton John. They said it was too gay. Too expensive. Too reliant on an unproven star.

But one film company, the down-on-its-luck Paramount Pictures, saw the audacious project as a chance to prove something to both Hollywood and Wall Street — namely that, to borrow a reference from Sir Elton, it's still standing.

Now comes the moment of truth."

The New York Times adds that "Rocketman" arrives in theaters on May 31, 2019 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood's summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40% of annual ticket sales and relies overwhelmingly on franchises. "Rocketman" stars Taron Egerton and the movie cost an estimated $120 million to make and market worldwide. "Rocketman" trails glitter — a million Swarovski crystals adorn the costumes and eyewear — and even depicts gay sex, a first for a major movie studio.

Taron Egerton, 29, stars as Elton John and is perhaps best known for his role in the "Kingsman" action comedies, but he did all of his own singing, reinterpreting classics like "The Bitch Is Back." There is also intricate choreography (one stylized scene finds an entire London neighborhood dancing in formation) and an orgy musical number set to "Bennie and the Jets." Aside from Egerton playing the Rocketman himself and Bell playing Bernie Taupin, actor Richard Madden plays Elton John's one-time manager and lover.

It was very well-documented that virtually all gay imagery was downplayed in "Bohemian Rhapsody," (catch my review for that movie HERE) sometimes to the dismay of many people eager for Hollywood to prove it is less timid about the topic of homosexuality. Homophobes baselessly assert that exclusion of all reference to Freddie Mercury's sexual orientation was the main reason the film succeeded.

In reality, his sexual orientation was irrelevant. The timing was right for "Bohemian Rhapsody" and the same thing can be said for "Rocketman". The band Queen still resonated with a significant audience (making it relevant to Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and even some younger audiences who have heard of these artists on the radio and on popular TV shows like "Glee"), and more than a few of whom are still old enough to remember when they were still topping the Billboard charts. "Bohemian Rhapsody" became last year's blockbuster Queen biopic, which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture last year among others, and actually won four Oscars. But the gay part in that movie was largely unaddressed.

Freddie Mercury was undeniably gay; in fact, he died from AIDS in 1991 which he'd contracted from unprotected male-on-male sex. But Freddie Mercury was not a solo act like Elton John was; he was merely the front-man for a band. Much of the downplaying of Mercury's sexuality was simply attributed to the existing Queen band members' desire to focus on a story more about the band as a whole, rather than being exclusively about the band's flamboyant front-man.

But unlike Freddie Mercury, Elton John (who is also gay) is still very much alive today and he is also one of "Rocketman's" executive producers, therefore he has been very influential in this movie's story, casting and direction among other things. That said, although a few fear that any depiction of same-sex relationships in "Rocketman" could potentially limit interest in more conservative parts of the U.S., most believe those concerns are vastly overblown, even though the contemporary romantic comedy "Love, Simon" did struggle more than rival films to reach theatrical coverage parts of the country in 2018 because it ventured a kiss between teenage boys.

But Elton John told The Mirror "I'm proud Rocketman is the first major studio film with a gay love sex scene in it. He says the scene was a very, very important part of his personal life. He added "I was a virgin until then [age 23]. I was desperate to be loved and desperate to have a tactile relationship," adding that if they were going to tell his story in the film that it had "to be honest."

He also added "If I'd left it out, I'd have felt I was cheating people. I'm so glad it's in there because I am a gay man and I didn't want to airbrush it under the carpet. If they don't like it, I understand, but it's part of who I am."

However, because the target audience for most movies skews heavily twenty-somethings anyway, many of whom have little issue with LGBT people and ask what the big deal is, it's likely a bit over-simplistic to suggest "Rocketman" won't find audiences even in red-state America. Elton John is not closeted. And national theater chains aren't as afraid of showing such movies as independent theaters once were, and the latter have largely fallen by the wayside in favor of chains. Financially, outside the U.S., "Rocketman" is expected to generate enormous ticket sales in countries like the UK and most of the English-speaking world as well as Western Europe, even though the film will likely not even make it past Chinese censors without severe sanitization, something that executive producer Elton John is likely to deem a nonstarter.

It's worth reminding people that "Bohemian Rhapsody" actually had the seal of approval from all of the surviving members of Queen. Although that film switched producers and lead actors several times before its ultimate release, in the end, the Queen band members all approved. Actor Rami Malek was ultimately selected as the actor, and he is credited with helping to make that film a success.

"Rocketman" has a similar blessing from Elton John. The movie "Rocketman" is also directed by Dexter Fletcher, who also took over the reigns for "Bohemian Rhapsody" once Bryan Singer left. The story for "Rocketman" — developed by the rocket man himself — but very much like "Bohemian Rhapsody" has gone through a number of directors (Michael Gracey) and lead actors (including both Justin Timberlake and Tom Hardy) since it was first announced in 2012.

John and Taupin at the 27th Annual Elton John Aids Foundation Academy Awards viewing party, West Hollywood. Photograph: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for EJAF
Beyond Elton John's sex life, however, perhaps the biggest focus is his downfall into substance abuse, and his recovery from that. Indeed, the movie opens and closes with Elton John speaking from rehab. His subsequent re-emergence as a successful artist is really the central story of "Rocketman". That element is arguably a by-the-numbers biopic focus, although many other biopics feature a tragic downfall without a benefit of recovery and resurrection, which is a somewhat unique perspective for "Rocketman". That recovery and resurrection is what Elton John himself wishes to focus on for "Rocketman".

However, the biggest question is whether the formula used for "Bohemian Rhapsody" by choosing a relatively less-known actor to lead and use of the same director will lead to similar success for "Rocketman"? Paramount certainly hopes so, and the friendship developed between Elton John and actor Taron Egerton who will play him in the movie suggests that "Rocketman" could see similar commercial success (even if the critical reception by the Academy is highly dependent on what else is running in cinemas during the year).

The trailer, as well as two brief interviews with actor appears below, or by visiting https://bit.ly/2Xg5Orq.



See also:

https://ew.com/movie-reviews/2019/05/23/rocketman-movie-review/

https://www.advocate.com/film/2019/5/22/elton-john-proud-rocketmans-landmark-gay-sex-scenes

April 23, 2019

Murder, They Wrote

Before there was a television show known as "Murder, She Wrote" (the long-running CBS TV show that starred Angela Lansbury for a now-unimaginable 12 seasons) on U.S. broadcast television which was created by Richard Levinson (who unexpectedly passed away at age 52 in 1987) and William Link, there was at least one prior trial effort.

A one-season TV show known as "Ellery Queen" which ran on NBC from 1975-1976 was that trial, although there were some relevant lessons learned which the duo used to help make "Murder, She Wrote" much more successful than their first whodunnit effort. In some respects, "Ellery Queen" itself was a reboot. The long-defunct old DuMont Television Network ran a series for three seasons from 1950-1952 called "The Adventures of Ellery Queen". But the 1975 NBC reboot was more recent, and the original filmed recordings managed to make the migration to digitization (albeit, just barely), whereas the entire original 1950's series did not (at least not it its entirety, although apparently some clips exist on YouTube https://youtu.be/hRfv-cK4jI4 and its possible that old celluloid copies of those may still exist someplace, although quality tends to deteriorate over time so exactly what condition those might be in is anyone's guess).

The air time for "Murder, She Wrote" also contributed to its success: it aired on Sundays at at 8:00 PM (immediately following the ever-popular news magazine program "60 Minutes") since its inception in 1984, with only the final season (airing in 1996) being mysteriously moved to Thursdays to go head-to-head against "Mad About You" and "Friends" which ran on rival network NBC, and at that point, Ms. Lansbury opted to resign. She had worked the series for more than twelve years, and her close personal friend Bea Arthur had recently quit "The Golden Girls" so the time felt right for her to leave the show.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, during the twelfth and final season of "Murder, She Wrote", there was an episode titled "Murder Among Friends," where a TV producer is killed in her office after planning to get rid of a member of the cast of a fictional television show called 'Buds'. Complete with a coffee shop setting remarkably similar to the one featured on the sitcom "Friends" and snarky repartee, 'Buds' was a not-so-subtle stab at "Friends", coming at a time when "Murder, She Wrote" was placed right against the then-hip ratings juggernaut.

Critics were not especially kind to "Ellery Queen" when it was released. Richard Schickel, reviewing the series at its premiere in September 1975, called it "a garage-sale period piece"; he said "the presence of Guy Lombardo, some ancient autos and the oldest of detective story conventions (all suspects are assembled in one room to await the results of the detective's ratiocinations) are supposed to evoke nostalgia. They do not—and the format's stasis is numbing."'

NBC, which ran the original "Ellery Queen" on television evidently agreed, and cancelled the series after its one-season run.

Following the cancellation of the original TV show "Ellery Queen", Levinson and Link wanted to rework the Ellery Queen concept, so they collaborated with Peter S. Fischer, one of the original producers of the "Ellery Queen" show, which resulted in "Murder, She Wrote", which went on to became one of the most successful television mystery series ever produced.


Like the character Jessica (Beatrice) ("J.B.") Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote", the character of "Ellery Queen" was also a mystery writer and amateur detective loosely based upon a long-running book series and magazine of the same name, only that series was set in New York City in the years after World War II ended (specifically, 1946). The series starred Jim Hutton as the titular character, and David Wayne as his father, Inspector Richard Queen.


Angela Lansbury accepted the role of J.B. Fletcher on "Murder, She Wrote" in part, because she felt the series was appropriate for an accomplished actress of her age. She was in her fifties at the time, but had a very long and successful acting career on Broadway (she co-starred with Bea Arthur in the show "Mame" and both actresses won Tony Awards for their performances as Mame Dennis and Vera Charles, respectively, the start of a life-long friendship), and did a fair number of movies, including a combination live-action and animated Disney movie named "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" (she would do the voice of a character in the animated movie "Beauty and the Beast" for Disney years later).

Among the other notable similarities of the two murder mystery series' was regular guest stars. In some respects, due to the longevity of "Murder, She Wrote", there were nearly as many guest stars as shows like Aaron Spelling's "The Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island", though not the same number in every episode. The predecessor "Ellery Queen", for example, featured: Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, George Burns, Troy Donohue, Eva Gabor, Roddy McDowell, Ed McMahon, Sal Mineo, Donald O'Connor, Vincent Price, Cesar Romero, Walter Pidgeon, and Barbara Rush as guest stars. In fact, most of those guest stars are now gone as well, which only adds to the sense of going back in time with each episode of "Ellery Queen". "Murder, She Wrote" featured even more guest stars given its 12-season run on TV.

While "Murder, She Wrote" and "Ellery Queen" shared more than a few similarities, "Murder, She Wrote" was still  a rather creative re-imagining of the central character of Ellery Queen as a small-town female, the now much-loved character of Jessica Fletcher. The character Mrs. Fletcher was a retired high school English teacher turned mystery-writer brilliantly portrayed by Angela Lansbury, who was also in her fifties at the time the show aired, and she was able to more effectively translate Levinson's and Link's vision better than a dominant male detective really could, which was a key reason for its success.

Another was setting "Murder, She Wrote" in modern times in the fictional town of Cabot Cove, Maine (in reality, the external scenes of the show were shot in the town of Mendocino, in northern California, even though the vast majority of the show was actually shot in a Southern California television studio; the house Jessica Fletcher supposedly lived in is a bed and breakfast where guests can actually stay known as Blair House) and rather than a retrospective look-back in time as "Ellery Queen" was, the "Murder, She Wrote" series was supposed to be set in modern times, which also made the series somewhat more relevant to television audiences.

Aside from changing the gender of the main character, another key change was to have the central character to explain the outcome to viewers, rather than to challenge to the viewer to try and solve the murder themselves. In many ways, passive entertainment was far more relevant for television than in print. People most frequently watch television to wind-down, and they want the lead characters to do the work, not do the work themselves, although for the few viewers who are sleuths, all relevant clues must be provided in the script to enable them to solve the crime at home if they wish.

That said, although I am slightly more fond of the Angela Lansbury portrayal as J.B. Fletcher in "Murder, She Wrote" than I am of Jim Hutton's portrayal as Ellery Queen (I definitely enjoyed David Wayne's portrayal of his father, Inspector Richard Queen), Mr. Hutton's acting was fine, but I think the retro-staging of the show was a more limiting factor. Its not that Mr. Hutton or Mr. Wayne didn't live up to the characters, but the era they were playing in simply wasn't as entertaining or credible as the more modern take of Ms. Lansbury's were. All of the actors and actresses (including the many guest stars) in both shows were quite good; some even better than great.

Now, although the entire twelve-seasons of "Murder, She Wrote" has been long digitized and sold on DVD and various other streaming platforms, it also continues to air on cable television as I write this, while "Ellery Queen" almost never made it to digitization (almost being the word to note). The series has occasionally run on cable including on TV Land, but the limited number of episodes (26 to be precise) made it somewhat more difficult for network programmers to schedule because some alternative needs to exist once all the "Ellery Queen" episodes have run.

But in September 2010, the "Ellery Queen" series was finally released on DVD by the Canadian company E1 Entertainment, and became available to U.S. viewers after a very long television hiatus. The original content is still owned by NBC Universal, but it had less interest in commercializing an old property so it sat in its vaults. Although "Murder, She Wrote" remains a popular mainstay on the cable network Hallmark Movies & Mysteries, as well as on Chicago-based super-station WGN and even on other cable networks and a few independent television stations, currently, none are airing the "Ellery Queen" Mysteries from 1975. But while the DVD release is still available, some public libraries also have the set in their collections for borrowers to watch. But, I also see that its available on streaming services including Amazon and TVGuide.com, so the content owners are definitely taking advantage of its more recent digitization, so its worth investigating those, too.

As noted, you can see some very obvious overlaps between the two shows, including in the show's introductions. Both include old typewriters to symbolize the lead characters' occupation as mystery writers (although in later episodes of "Murder, She Wrote", we do see Mrs. Fletcher migrating to a word-processor (for an unrelated post I did on vintage typewriters and modern keyboard attempts to simulate the user experience of those, visit HERE). But, apparently the overlap did not end there.

Rather than bore my followers with all that, I created a short playlist which includes the advertisement created for the DVD release of both "Ellery Queen" and one done for the eighth season of "Murder, She Wrote" followed by an interview with co-creator of both shows William Link discussing "Ellery Queen" and another discussing "Murder, She Wrote". That playlist can be viewed below, or by visiting  the link to the playlist I created at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLfSNYYNU6TvG3GoE--sqrPS-ia_pVMt4v:


See also:
http://mentalfloss.com/article/503317/9-mysterious-facts-about-murder-she-wrote

April 4, 2019

The New Zoo Revue

As the National Geographic Channel's television special "Generation X" from a few years ago noted in its opening segment of the series, to get to the world that shaped Generation X as a group of people, you kind of have to step back to the late 1960's when Baby Boomers were being drafted to fight a war in Vietnam.  The result was widespread war protests among young Boomers, while people like me were at home, watching it happen on television (in between content better suited for kids, such as cartoons).

Among the shows we watched was the long-running CBS children's show "Captain Kangaroo" which ran from 1955 until 1984. That show was conceived and the title character was played by Bob Keeshan, who based the show on "the warm relationship between grandparents and children". Aside from Captain Kangaroo, I've already written about a local show called "The Magic Garden" which I watched and enjoyed. Some kids of that era also watched a syndicated children's show called "Romper Room". "Romper Room" was never a show I watched; I felt it was condescendingly stupid for children, and my attention went elsewhere.

About the only other dedicated children's show of that time was another syndicated television program called "New Zoo Revue". Doug Momary began working as the creator of what became an award-winning syndicated, half-hour children's television show that ran from 1972-1977. Aside from being writer/producer, Doug was also one of the show's human hosts. Indeed, he reportedly wrote over 600 songs for 195 different episodes. His co-host was a woman by the name of Emmy Jo (Emily) Peden, who was described in the show's theme song as Doug's "helper" but not his girlfriend or wife.
In reality, Doug and Emmy Jo were young newlyweds at the time (back in 1972; many kids [like me!] didn't even realize they were married). In fact, young viewers of the show had little reason to suspect there was any romantic involvement between the two, since I don't recall them ever acknowledging that fact or showing any overt affection for one another on camera; instead, the show aimed to teach kids such basic principles of getting along with others, respecting the community and oneself, and doing the right thing. Aside from the two human co-hosts, the show featured costumed full-bodied puppet characters, primarily a shy, female hippopotamus with a Southern accent named Henrietta Hippo, a wise if cranky old male owl named Charlie the Owl , and a fun-loving male frog named Freddy the Frog whose behavior most resembled that of a child's. There were also a handful of human guests, among them Mr. Dingle, who was played by Chuck Woolery, a man perhaps better known as a Hollywood game-show host ("Love Connection" anyone?!). The series also hosted several celebrity guest stars during its run including Henry Mancini (a musician), Jim Backus (a well-known actor, perhaps known best as the man who played millionaire Thurston Howell III on "Gilligan's Island" due to incessant re-runs) and JoAnn Worley (perhaps most famously as a cast member on "Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In" from 1968-1973, but also appeared in many other movies and television shows over the years).

Freddie the Frog was voiced by Joni Robbins, Henrietta Hippo was voiced by Larri Thomas, and Charlie the Owl was voiced by Bob Holt. Other characters included Frieda the Frog, Mr. Dingle (Chuck Woolery), an elderly postman, storekeeper and jack-of-all-trades, and Mrs. Goodbody (Fran Ryan), a nosy neighbor who serves as an advice columnist for The All New Zoo Gazette.
The woman known as Emmy Jo was basically a personification of a young, hippy woman, not too dissimilar from Nancy Sinatra who gained fame for the 1966 hit single "These Boots Are Made For Walkin'" ... she was attractive, and she wore very short mini-skirts that continued to be in fashion well into the early 1970's -- often with high go-go boots (a style of women's knee-high, square-toed fashion boots with block heels that were very popular in the 1960's and continued into the 1970's).

Meanwhile Doug, who was really the creative talent behind the series, was kind of a dork with a bushy, porn-star looking mustache (which was the Baby Boomer version of Millennial hipster men's fascination with beards) and unfashionable clothing that were made of polyester in plaid or other ugly colors, such as the faintly mournful "autumn" color palette - dark orange, oxblood, copper, brown, harvest gold, avocado green of that era. He was kind of a dork, even if the show was the product of his personal creative genius. Since "New Zoo Revue", Doug has gone on to become the founder and CEO of a company called Laguna Productions now based in Las Vegas, NV which produces video content (TV commercials, and/or other video content for clients). When the business began, it was based in California.

Doug began working as the creator and co-star of what became an award-winning children's hit series "The New Zoo Revue". Doug married Emmy Jo (Emily) Peden in 1972, just a few weeks before they got the go ahead for the show. "The New Zoo Revue" was actually filmed in Hollywood during the early 1970's (1972-1975; reruns ran in syndication until 1977), and Doug was the sole writer of over 190 episodes and some 600 songs.  All told, the show reached over 3 million children every day.  Doug and his wife Emily starred in the series singing and dancing along with three giant animal characters, with the idea of teaching children positive messages in an entertaining fashion.

Of note is the fact that Doug and Emmy Jo have (impressively) been married since 1972, which means they will celebrate their 47th wedding anniversary in 2019. That's really quite impressive given how many other people in the children's entertainment space of that era ended up divorced. Indeed, Gen X kids were scarred by widespread divorce of their parents, leaving many to become "latch-key" kids who had no parents at home when they finished school, unlike the Baby Boomers who typically came home to stay-at-home mothers.

The couple's company Laguna Productions maintains an account on Vimeo, and they include episodes of the "New Zoo Review", one of which can be watched below, or by visiting https://vimeo.com/317029596:

Optimism from Laguna Productions on Vimeo.

Now, I should note that when home videos started to emerge in the 1980's, a more colorful outtake from this show surfaced. While clowning around on the set, Freddie the Frog and Charlie the Owl were filmed dropping the F bomb and displaying acts of un-edited crudity while the off screen cast and crew laughed it up.

Before watching the YouTube clip below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/G9ySgnifxeQ, be forewarned that frog and owl use some pretty vulgar language. It definitely paints a different, NOT made-for-TV image for those of us who grew up watching the show as kids, proving that real, human actors were in those animal costumers (as if there was even a question about that?)!



As noted, after "The New Zoo Revue" ended its run, the couple left Hollywood where the original show was filmed and they moved to the Sacramento area (you know, the unglamorous capital of California, which although a mere 45 minutes from the Bay Area, is about 7 hours from Los Angeles, but Sacramento shares more in common culturally with the Central Valley town of Fresno than it does with San Francisco, except that as the seat of the California state government, it's much more affluent than Fresno is -- the area is also home to the university U.C. Davis).

As noted, the couple began a film and video production company called Laguna Productions around 1984 or 1985, which handles everything from concept to completion on a contractual basis, and the business has proven itself to be quite successful, enduring when many similar firms close shop in a few years. The couple relocated their family and business from Sacramento to Las Vegas around the turn of the new century.  Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Emily went back to school and earned her master's degree in marriage and family counseling.  She did that for a while, but she now works as Laguna's VP of Finance.  Although the couple is certainly now eligible to retire (Doug is age 72 and Emmy Jo is age 75 as of 2019 -- who realized she was 3 years older than Doug? She certainly looked much younger than he did!), their company enables periodic breaks from work, and they have a staff who does many of the day-to-day operations now.

That said, the series "The New Zoo Revue" operated in a big space that was pretty devoid of much genuine competition back in 1972.  Children's programs -- or those that were called children's programming, but were really just re-purposed adult programming, such as old movie-house cartoons like the black and white Max Fleischer versions of Popeye the Sailor Man, or Felix the Cat (both of which ran in early morning hours back in those days); Warner's ever-popular Looney Tunes ran for a slightly older audience in the afternoon; those were popular because they were in color, whereas many episodes of Popeye and Felix the Cat were not). Others included cartoons such as Total Television's battery of cartoons (including Underdog, Klondike Kat, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, Go Go Gophers, Commander McBragg and others), as well as The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, Tom and Jerry, and the Walter Lantz Productions such as Woody Woodpecker, Terrytoons as well as MANY others from the Hannah-Barbera Productions which are now folded into Warner Brothers following the deaths of the two founders in the early 2000's.

Anyway, "The New Zoo Revue" was very successful back in the day.  It filled a need for educational/non-violent programming as new legislation required, and it also entertained children with its odd, giant animal characters.  They weren't quite the old puppets found on other children's series (think of Mister Rogers Neighborhood as one such example), but many of their characters were definitely child-like (Freddie, for example).

The hosts Doug and Emmy Jo served a role as the "adults" in the village, and they kept peace among the animal cast and taught viewers the lesson of the day.  Each show had songs and the cast of puppet-like animal characters to impart lessons on patience, manners, courtesy, dealing with others, and other topics that remain as relevant today as when originally broadcast. That said, I don't see re-runs of "The New Zoo Revue" on cable these days, possibly because on-demand has changed how kids are entertained. But for its time, "New Zoo Revue" filled an important role, and as an adult who grew up with the show, I look back at it rather fondly today.

For the record, although the series has left the broadcast airwaves years ago, in 2004 there was news (see archive on the old TVShowsonDVD.com) that Season 1 containing 59 episodes of the show was released on DVD. The company that released the set known as BCI Eclipse was closed down by its parent company, but there's always eBay and Amazon sellers, so you can probably still buy it, although it may cost you due to scarcity value. Another option: try visiting your local, public library which may have it to borrow (you have to bring it back, but really: do you want to OWN this?). Its unclear whether they have since migrated it to streaming platforms (although Laguna Productions has already published a fair number on the Vimeo platform), but one never knows!

See also:
http://dontparade.blogspot.com/2006/01/new-zoo-revue-goes-blue.html

http://mrcollinsgrindhousemovieblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/new-zoo-revue.html

http://www.retrospace.org/2008/12/ode-to-emmy-jo.html

http://www.retrospace.org/2008/11/new-zoo-revue-for-mature-audiences-only.html