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 blow, 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?!

August 8, 2013

The Love Boat Reaches Its Final Destination, Captain Stubing Writes About His Voyage

There's news that the vessel featured in the seventies TV show "The Love Boat" arrived at a scrapyard off the Turkish coast in early August 2013.  A ship recycling company in Turkey bought the old cruise liner for a little more than $3 million and will strip it for its parts and metal (news can be seen at http://usat.ly/1cMBA3u).  NPR featured a nice, short audio story entitled "Love Boat Reaches Its Final Destination" about the ship's run which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://n.pr/1eulObv:

Although taking a cruise on a ship like the one being discarded was viewed as the pinnacle of luxury nearly 40 years ago, these days, even Princess Cruises, Inc., the ship's original owner, much like the rest of the cruise industry, has moved on to what could best be described as floating resort hotels.  Cruising is a huge industry today (and "The Love Boat" sitcom arguably helped to make that happen), and cruise ships nowadays are unfathomable in size compared to the almost quaint-size of the original ships used back in the seventies, which were more akin to cruise liners like the Titanic than the floating high-rises that exist today.

Truth be told, although some scenes from "The Love Boat" were recorded on the ships or at their destinations, much of the show was filmed on sets in California — 20th Century Fox Studios for seasons one through five, and Warner Hollywood Studios for the remainder of the original series.  That certainly explains why the cabin sizes featured on the show looked more like hotel rooms than real-life cruise ship cabins actually did, especially during that era, although with the newer ships, the cabin sizes have expanded, too.

Much has been written about what was arguably one of Aaron Spelling's biggest hits in the 1970s (it shared a back-to-back timeslot on ABC's Saturday night lineup with another show that Aaron Spelling produced, that one being "Fantasy Island", catch my earlier post on that show at http://goo.gl/si7Fph).  Those two shows borrowed directly from the playbook of a prior ABC show which ran from 1969-1974 known as "Love, American Style", which became known in Hollywood as a place where struggling, unemployed (some of them older) actors could find temporary employment.  But the nonstop parade of familiar faces on the show was a key to its success, although the small, permanent cast who played the ship's crew was also popular with viewers.

The original concept for "The Love Boat" began as an original, made-for-TV movie which aired in 1976.  That was based on a non-fiction book, which was entitled "The Love Boats" written by Jeraldine Saunders, who was once a real-life cruise director.  Two more TV movies would follow before the series began.

As Ellen Seiter eloquently wrote, "No one takes The Love Boat to get anywhere, exactly. Usually the voyage serves to put things — especially personal relationships — back where they started.  What takes place on board is personal life: emotions removed from the everyday cares of work money, homes, cars, neighbors, even, for the most part, children. The work that the crew of The Love Boat performs is that of vigilant friends patrolling the ship night and day in search of passengers who need 'someone to talk to.'"

For the record, "The Love Boat" has been off the television rerun circuit for a while, and only the first two seasons of the series has yet to emerge in digital format (released in March 2008), although there is news that Me-TV will begin showing it in the Autumn of 2013 as part of its "Fall for Me-TV" fall 2013 schedule which will begin starting Monday, September 2, 2013 (see http://goo.gl/MSTRSK for details).  In truth, many fans of the show thought CBS/Paramount Home Video would have digitized the content much, much faster since its an opportunity to make money on something collecting dust in a company vault.  To date, only the first two seasons have been released (and CBS made the greedy decision to split each season into two separate volumes, thereby doubling the cost).  Some are hoping Shout! Factory will step in to pick up the pace, much as they did when Sony stopped after it released Season 1 of "Fantasy Island".  Regardless, fans were glad to see the show again, and the guest list is incredible, with everyone from comedy and stage legends like George Burns, Milton Berle, and Ethel Merman to TV staples ranging from Florence Henderson, Robert Reed and Maureen McCormick, John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and Audra Lindley to Dick Sargent, Bonnie Franklin, Meredith Baxter, to kid stars including Kristy McNichol, and Scott Baio.

At this point, while its sad to see "The Love Boat" vessel go to the scrap heap, its fair to say this show helped popularize cruising as a vacation for millions of Americans who might not have ever considered it.  Prior to "The Love Boat", cruise vacations was something that affluent, older people did.  Pastimes on the ships consisted of lectures, shuffleboard and fine dining, but casual sex hookups or rekindling of romances were seldom seen as an onboard activity.  "The Love Boat" changed all that, and helped pave the way for companies like Carnival to become the largest in the industry, best known for being "the fun ships".

Beyond the actual vessel heading to the junkyard, the actor who played Captain Merrill Stubing has already started promoting a new biographical memoir entitled "This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life" due to be released October 22, 2013, published by Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins.   According to actor Gavin McLeod, he's coming clean about his long career in show business.

Historically, biographies tended to be written by third-party authors, partly because writing was left to authors with a track-record in the publishing industry.  However, we've seen a shift towards more self-written biographies, and more recently, the publishing industry has tended to favor memoirs over lengthy biographies.  Also, life spans are longer today, making it possible for people to write about their own lives much longer than in the past.

Nevertheless, in the last few months, there have been some pop culture memoirs from celebrities who were big in the 1970s and 1980s.  Actress Valerie Harper ("The Mary Tyler Moore Show") published hers at the beginning of 2013, and got a lot of attention since she also announced she had terminal cancer.  More recently, Academy Award winner (and star of TV's "The Partridge Family", catch my post on that at http://goo.gl/yuqQN) Shirley Jones came out with a new memoir in which she revealed having threesomes for her ex-husband Jack Cassidy (see http://goo.gl/uVxDi for a post I did on her).  Now, there's news of another memoir from the man who was best known on television for his roles as Murray Slaughter on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and perhaps even better known for his role as Captain Merrill Stubing on "The Love Boat".  That man is 82-year-old Gavin MacLeod.

In an upcoming autobiography entitled "This Is Your Captain Speaking: My Fantastic Voyage Through Hollywood, Faith & Life" to be released October 22, 2013 by published by Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, he's coming clean about his long career in show business.

As far as readability, this one might be fair, although as the title suggests, Mr. McLeod seems to prosthelytize a bit when writes about how he brought longtime friend, fellow "Mary Tyler Moore Show" co-star Ted Knight (who was also known for his role on "Too Close for Comfort" back in the 1980s) to Christ just before he died in 1986.  Whether Gavin McLeod deserves credit for this is unclear (after all, Mr. Knight was dying), but Gavin McLeod is taking credit for it.

Beyond that, there's a dose of all the usual Hollywood stuff: battles with depression and near-suicide while working on "McHale's Navy", as well as his other health issues including two heart attacks and a quintuple bypass, as well as his alcoholism which led to his quitting cold turkey in back in 1974 (he says he's now been sober for 39 years).  He also writes about his audition for the original role of Archie Bunker in "All in the Family", and of course, his divorce from his first wife, his second marriage, divorce and subsequent re-marriage to his second wife, actress/dancer Patti Steele.

He also writes about his encounters with some of the world's biggest stars, including Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan (an actor before he became California governor or U.S. President), Steve McQueen, Bette Davis and Robert Redford and others.

MacLeod writes "My life has taken one incredible turn after another. I've gotten to do what I wanted to do. I've been a captain! I've been given this incredible gift of life and now I want to use it to give back. That's why I'm sharing my story here, the fun parts and even some not-so-fun parts, in the hopes that maybe someone will take a nice walk down memory lane with me - and maybe I'll even give someone a little bit of hope."

To be sure, the book might be interesting reading, but its kind of late.  Still, for anyone who wants Captain Stubing's perspective on life on "The Love Boat" set, this might be a way to, as Jack Jones sang in the show's memorable theme song "Set a course for adventure, your mind on a new romance ..."

August 3, 2013

Revisiting Atari 2600

Roughly one year ago, I featured a post entitled "Atari Celebrates 40th Anniversary!?!" (or by visiting http://goo.gl/fngU0n) which was prompted by the fact that the end of June 2012 happened to be the 40th anniversary of Atari Corp.  Today, Atari still exists as a company that sells digital games and licensing, including mobile games which has proven to be an attractive business for the company.  However, in January 2013 (if you read the P.S. at the end of the aforementioned post, you'll see more details), the company went through a separation with the company based in France which owned Atari.

In hindsight, the post was informative and timely, but lacked much in the way of interactive content that I try to include in most of the posts at Harvest Gold Memories.  Although I noted some links (some of which can still be found in the right margin of this blog under the heading of "Links I Like") which still exist, there are a few excellent videos (each is only a few minutes in length) about the original Atari Video Computer System which was subsequently branded as the Atari 2600.  I suspect that consumers of today that went back to play the Atari 2600 would be shocked at how rudimentary it was (although, as noted in my post on "Preservation and Resurrection of Classic Handheld Electronic Games", visit http://goo.gl/0f16ee for that post), has found a bit of resurrection as the original target market (Generation X) for the product becomes middle-aged.  Retro has always had a market, and will likely still have it 50 years from now (although the retro products at that time will be for people who are children in 2013).

In any event, as I already noted, there are a few YouTube videos which I really recommend watching.  The first one is a nice (and informative) overview of the Atari 2600 video game console.  The video is below, or you may visit http://youtu.be/MXbl-DeUBZ0:

That video discusses the long-running Atari 2600 video game system (which, for the record, remains one of the longest-selling video games in history), but doesn't provide much perspective on the actual games for that.  In my mind, there were really two games for Atari 2600 that ruled: the first one is Activision's Pitfall! created by David Crane.  That was probably one of the best video games ever created for Atari (or any other system, for that matter).  Sure, its simple, but can entertain players for hours, which is what makes it such a classic.

For the record, The Retroist [http://www.retroist.com/] which is best known for its podcasts although they have a slick website and professional-looking videos they create themselves (you will also note that I've borrowed their Pac-Man image and added it to the design for Harvest Gold Memories), has a phenomenal overview of the original Pitfall! for the Atari 2600.  The YouTube video can be watched below, or by visiting http://youtu.be/C75o8uMJZv4:

Beyond Pitfall, which was from a third-party (not Atari) known as Activision, Atari had a video game that in my opinion, deserves a place as one of the best.  That title is Ms. Pac-Man (Pac-Man for Atari 2600 really sucked; not only was it not a very good game port, but the graphics even for Atari 2600 were terrible, there were no intermissions and the maze never changed.  In short, in spite of paying a fortune to have Pac-Man, I ended up a bit disappointed with it).  However, Ms. Pac-Man enabled Atari to redeem itself in my eyes, although I would later "graduate" to a ColecoVision game console and put my Atari 2600 into the attic.

Catch a thoughtful and well-done post from The Retroist on Ms. Pac-Man for Atari 2600 below, or on YouTube by visiting http://youtu.be/Oy7hmCFmGXQ:

In recognition of what's now the 41st anniversary of Atari, I'll sign off.  I hope this post was entertaining!

July 26, 2013

Bert and Ernie: America's Same-Sex Couple

On the front cover of the July 8 & 15, 2013 issue of The New Yorker magazine, the artwork featured something that looked a lot like Sesame Street's Bert and Ernie, the famous, fuzzy Muppets.  The artwork caused some controversy, because it appeared that Bert's arm was wrapped around Ernie, and Ernie's head nestled against what appears to be Bert's shoulder against the glow of a black and white TV set as they watch the Supreme Court overturn the Defense of Marriage Act (a.k.a. "DOMA", a photo of the U.S. Supreme court justices is featured on their TV in The New Yorker magazine cover, depicted below) and allow the lower courts' ruling that California's Proposition 8 is unconstitutional to stand because the defenders lacked appropriate legal standing, restoring same-gender marriage to the biggest U.S. state.

The New Yorker's controversial cover (2013)
The New Yorker's cover, entitled "Moment Of Joy," was not officially licensed by Sesame Workshop, but it also took a great deal of creative license, because the image did not technically feature the puppets' faces, it was merely a shadowed outline of something that looked a lot like the back of their puppet heads (in orange and yellow felt).  Still, it seems unlikely there's very much legal basis to challenge the artwork based on the illusion of an "familar-looking" image.  Indeed, Generation Xers who enjoyed Topps Wacky Packages (I'll probably cover that in a different post) as kids learned that challenges to Wacky Packages did not stand up in court even if the parody stickers actually looked a lot like real products already on the market.

NBC's Today show featured a short clip on the cover which can be seen below, or by visiting http://on.today.com/1alNgKK.

Visit NBCNews.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

The cover was sourced from, of all places, the Internet.  Jack Hunter, the artist behind the cover, originally submitted his image, unsolicited, to Tumblr.  The New Yorker version was modified slightly (the original Tumblr image featured President Obama's image on the television, rather than the U.S. Supreme Court justices), but the net impact was much greater since it was published in a major magazine that sells millions of copies, coming out right on the heels of two Supreme Court rulings in same-sex marriage which overturned section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act ("DOMA") although it left untouched Section 2, which allows states to deny recognition to other states' marriages which is another lawsuit waiting to happen (indeed, as I write this, lawsuits filed by the ACLU have already been filed in Pennsylvania and Virginia), and another which allowed a lower court ruling which found California Proposition 8 (which outlawed same-gender marriage in that state) to be unconstitutional to stand.

The characters of Bert and Ernie (and most of the main Sesame Street characters) were created more than four decades ago by the late Jim Henson (see a related post I did featuring Mr. Henson at http://goo.gl/KYjpqH), who created both "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show".  The Bert and Ernie characters were screen-tested to a number of families in July 1969, (the year I was born), and later premiered on PBS stations starting on November 10, 1969.

Cover of "Love", a 1980 album
In recent years, the question of whether Bert and Ernie "are" or "are not" [a gay couple] has emerged, fueled by the fact that the two puppets share a bedroom, although they sleep in separate, single beds.  One has a curious obsession with his rubber ducky.  Neither has a girlfriend (by comparison, other Sesame Street characters including Oscar the Grouch, has a lady friend named Grundgetta, and the Count has the Countess), and they behave a little bit like television's "The Odd Couple".  Indeed, this sexual ambiguity was the basis for two characters in the Broadway musical "Avenue Q" in which two puppets, not too dissimilar to Bert and Ernie, discuss the possibility of one of them being gay.  A song entitled "If You Were Gay" is featured on the soundtrack, which can be listened to below, or downloaded from Amazon.com at http://amzn.to/148HElL:

Public speculation about their sexuality (or lack thereof) has existed for many years according to ABC News (see http://abcn.ws/1brSXZ4), which reported that in 1993, TV Guide had received dozens of letters railing against Sesame Street for "condoning a homosexual relationship", and shortly after, a North Carolina preacher began a failed campaign on his radio show to try and ban the puppets for their supposed "immorality".  In truth, the separate beds issue was true for other TV sitcoms prior to that same era.  In fact, the first live-action TV couple to regularly share a bed on television (who were not already married in real life), were Darrin and Samantha Stephens on "Bewitched", in the October 22, 1964 episode "Little Pitchers Have Big Fears".  Prior to that, TV couples generally were depicted as sleeping in separate, twin beds like Bert and Ernie (think of "I Love Lucy" as the best example).  However, many people, especially the Gen Xers who grew up when these characters were first created, do believe them to be one of the most famous gay couples in pop culture.  As adults raising their own children in 2013, many in the generation seem to believe Bert and Ernie are indeed gay, and the subject has become a topic of great interest as the nation struggles with the issues related to legal recognition of same-gender relationships.

As I write this in July 2013, thirteen U.S. states plus the District of Columbia officially license same-gender marriages (I would remind my readers that the U.S. began as thirteen colonies, but expanded to fifty states).On June 28, 2013, WNYC's "On the Media" radio show recently featured a segment which looked at same-gender marriage, particularly the messaging that both advocates and opponents have used in recent political battles and how messaging has evolved from both sides.  To listen, visit http://wny.cc/19IMBAa.  Outside the U.S., Canada has permitted same-gender marriages nationwide since 2005, and a variety of other countries including the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Argentina and Sweden all do the same, so the issue has emerged on a worldwide basis.  In 2013, legislation passed in Uruguay, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, which means the list of places around the world which permit it has grown considerably, with more to be added in 2014 based on different implementation schedules in different jurisdictions.

Legal recognition of these civil marriages remains controversial among some segments of the U.S. population, particularly for conservative religious groups, although most states that permit same-gender marriages also exempt religious organizations from any obligation of facilitating same-gender marriages if they prefer (civil servants are not exempt, so if these employees object, they've chosen the wrong career to work in!).  Nevertheless, societal change on the issue has occurred rapidly.

For example, when Gallup first polled the U.S. public about same-gender marriage in 1996, only 27% of Americans favored legal same-gender unions.  But in less than two decades, support for same-gender marriage rights has more than doubled.  A demographic landslide of youth voters who overwhelmingly favor marriage equality (and this group remains the least religiously-affiliated generation in history according to researchers at UC Berkeley and Duke University) and will soon dominate politics everywhere is really driving this change.

A majority of U.S. businesses were opposed to DOMA because they have historically handled the matter that an employee is either married or isn't, yet DOMA required a cumbersome and unnecessary human resources record-keeping in order to separate out legally married, same-gender couples from other married couples.  DOMA forced them create a third category which could not be recognized by Federal law, yet must be recognized under state laws, creating a government regulatory headache for a constituency that has historically supported the Republican party which put DOMA into law, and businesses didn't like DOMA.

Nationally, nearly 300 companies and business groups signed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down the DOMA, saying it forced them to discriminate against legally-married gay employees and cost them money to comply.  Signers included Google Inc. and Apple Inc., Goldman Sachs Group, Walt Disney Co., General Mills Corp., Marriott, Nike and Pfizer.  A major swath of corporate America stood up to argue that treating married employees differently based on whether they are gay or straight was unfair to them and imposed an unnecessary a cost burden which harms U.S. economic interests.

"The federal law forced an employer to put its employees in two different castes," said Sabin Willett, a partner with the Boston law firm Bingham McCutchen, which wrote the brief.  "DOMA was bad for business."

Separately, a March 2013 survey of young voters undertaken by the College Republicans National Committee, found that the party should back off its opposition to same-gender marriage.  The survey found, perhaps not surprisingly, that most young voters believe that jobs and the economy are the most important issues.  But there is little appetite from this generation to see U.S. lawmakers crusade against same-gender marriage.  For example, among voters under age 30, many said they would not vote for a Republican candidate if they opposed same-gender marriage, even if they agreed with the candidate on a range of other issues.  About two out of five young voters (39%) said that a candidate’s opposition to same-gender marriage would make them less likely to vote for them.

A March 2013 article featured on the front cover of Time magazine entitled "How Gay Marriage Won" (see http://ti.me/14xRXOU) posited that a variety of factors have helped the gay and lesbian community go from protests at the Stonewall Inn in NYC to the altar in two generations.  Among the factors cited were the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s to genetic engineering taking place in labs at U.S. companies like Genentech (now Roche) and Monsanto, to test-tube babies, all with the encouragement of U.S. Federal lawmakers, really helped put same-gender marriage on the national agenda today.

Back to Bert and Ernie.

Sesame Workshop has officially denied that Bert and Ernie are anything more than friends.  For example, when the subject first emerged in 1993 as Generation X came of age, the Children's Television Workshop (now known as Sesame Workshop) had to issue this press release:

"Bert and Ernie, who've been on Sesame Street for 25 years, do not portray a gay couple, and there are no plans for them to do so in the future. They are puppets, not humans. Like all the Muppets created for Sesame Street, they were designed to help educate preschoolers. Bert and Ernie are characters who help demonstrate to children that despite their differences, they can be good friends."

More recently, in 2007, Gary Knell, then-president of Sesame Workshop, hoped to put the issue to rest with the following statement:

"They are not gay, they are not straight, they are puppets.  They do not exist below the waist."

All of that may be true, but the official responses have hardly put the issue to rest.

Photo from a 2005 rally for same-sex marriage
The issue was revisited yet again in 2011, when the New York Daily News felt the issue was significant enough to address in an editorial, at which point, Sesame Workshop (which is based in New York) issued a slightly longer statement, stating:

"[Bert and Ernie] were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves," the statement said. "Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics (as most Sesame Street Muppets do), they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."

The issue is likely to continue for at least a few more years, as part of DOMA still remains in effect, and different states treat such marriages differently, which may prove to be an economic differentiator (see http://bit.ly/12TmwNc for an interesting Marketplace.org story on the subject).

Indeed, there are already moves to legalize same-sex marriage (including reversing constitutional bans in at least a few) in states including Michigan, Oregon, New Jersey, Nevada and Hawaii in the name of economic development.  A June 2010 study conducted by UCLA's Williams Institute found that same-sex couples would spend between $4.2 and $9.5 million on their wedding celebrations, if allowed to marry in Hawaii, while out-of-state guests for those weddings would spend an additional $17.8 to $40.3 million dollars, all of which would in turn create up to 333 new jobs in Hawaii primarily in the events and travel industries.  However, with a ban, the dollars go elsewhere, especially to California.  The figures in the study are estimated based on a 4-year period).

The only difference today is that more and more U.S. voters might seem to agree with the logic of the Williams Institute and, if the elections in 2012 are any indication, will vote to legalize it.  Even conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh agrees.