June 15, 2018

The Magic Garden Continues

In 1972, the number of options for children on television were still limited. It's worth noting that this was definitely not the 1950's in which most Baby Boomers grew up; Howdy Doody, bobby socks, poodle skirts and greasers were assuredly not part of Generation X youth. Instead, 1972 was still in the crosshairs of the Vietnam war (which did not officially end until 1975), civil rights protests by Americans of African origin as well as LGBT Americans, women's liberation and much more all helped shape the environment in which Gen Xers were raised as children.

Hippy fashion was still very much in vogue at the time, including women's go go boots and bell bottom pants, often in autumn hues made from new synthetic fabrics like polyester. But it's also worth acknowledging that the seventies also ushered in an era of great social unrest caused by all of those seminal events. Politically, Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace following the Watergate break-in and his administration's subsequent attempt to cover up its involvement. When the burglars were caught and the conspiracy was discovered, Watergate was investigated by the United States Congress. But Richard Nixon's administration resisted its probes, which led to a constitutional crisis (not unlike the events going on in 2018 with the treasonous Trump Administration). Coinciding with all of that, U.S. imperialism along with its near-complete dependence on foreign oil would rear its ugly head with the OPEC oil embargo of 1973, which also introduced the U.S. to tremendous economic insecurity and economic stagflation which was unknown before that time.

Still, children were largely insulated from all of the chaos going on in the world outside, and broadcast television presented a picture of the world that looked different from reality. That was the lilly-white world that Donald Trump was referring to when he made the bogus promise to make America great again.

This was before cable television existed in a vast majority of American homes, and broadcast TV was limited to the three major American networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) plus PBS which was (at the time) still a quasi-government run television entity. Bigger markets may also have had one or two so-called "independent" broadcast stations that were best known for their local news coverage (often an hour earlier than their network peers), and filling the rest of their broadcast day with syndicated reruns (again, this was in the days before cable networks like TV Land or more recently, Antenna TV, Me-TV and Cozi TV came to dominate the market for reruns of old, network television programs).


In the New York City area, the nation's largest media market, there were three "independent" broadcast television stations, including WPIX (channel 11), WNET (channel 5, it would become a part of the Fox television network in 1986 becoming one of the then-new network's 5 flagship stations, although that particular station was actually part of the defunct DuMont television network from 1944-1956, and those years became part of what was known as the Metromedia era) and WNEW (Channel 9) which broadcast from Newark, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River.

In 1968, Congress passed into law called the Children's Television Act, which established an FCC requirement that a specific amount of programming had to be dedicated to children's content which was either educational and/or non-violent. To comply, all stations had to offer compliant programming; every station had to comply with the law, or risk having their broadcast license revoked.

Perhaps the biggest children's TV show at the time was "Captain Kangaroo" starring the legendary Bob Keeshan, which ran on CBS from 1955 to 1984. Another show which ran in syndication was known as the "New Zoo Revue" which ran from 1972 to 1977. I watched that show a great deal as a pre-school child. "New Zoo Review" is worthy of its own post, so I won't elaborate much further than to simply acknowledge it here.  Another syndicated show ran on rival WNEW called "Romper Room" but was actually produced by a station in Boston.  I personally disliked that show.

New York's WPIX-11, which was owned at the time by the city's favorite tabloid newspaper the New York Daily News, opted to produce its own, locally-made show, and a children's show called "The Magic Garden" was the result.  The Magic Garden, which was a highly-acclaimed and popular TV show ran on WPIX-TV (ch. 11) New York, starred Carole Demas and Paula Janis who helped create the show.

Carole Demas is perhaps best known for her critically acclaimed creation of the female lead, "Sandy", in the original Broadway blockbuster, Grease. Her colleague and co-star Paula Janis traveled widely as a musician and lead singer with a folk trio "The Wee'Uns", performing in Greenwich Village cafes, on TV and at Carnegie Hall. She holds an M.A. in Early Childhood Education from New York University. She would later became the director of Head Start programs in New York City.

As characterized by the New York Times, The Magic Garden "was a cheerful, low-budget, inadvertently psychedelic half-hour show in which Ms. Janis and Ms. Demas sat on giant toadstools, spoke to flowers, sang songs and told stories." The show was set in a colorful garden setting, where the duo brought stories, songs, games, lessons and laughter to viewers. The show also featured several puppet characters who were integral to the show, including a pink squirrel named Sherlock and a bird named Flapper. The co-stars were friends since they were students at a Brooklyn high school. During their years as teachers in the New York City School System, both Carole and Paula combined their teaching and performing talents.


The Magic Garden received citations from Action for Children's Television and Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop). Ratings for the show were equal to or exceeded those of Sesame Street and other shows of this genre (including Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, etc.). Today, WPIX-11 is no longer owned by the same company that owns and operates New York Daily News (it's now operated by Tribune Media -- but it was a different time for the broadcast media in those days -- and the station remains home to archives of its past). Indeed, several years ago, the station revealed it had discovered a long-lost Christmas episode of The Magic Garden, and now reruns that episode on Christmas morning. See the post about the discovery of the lost episode in a basement room of the station at http://pix11.com/2013/12/23/lost-christmas-episode-of-the-magic-garden-found-in-secret-pix11-basement-room/ for background.

The stars Carole Demas and Paula Janis maintain their own website at http://caroleandpaula.com/ and occasionally still tour local NYC-area venues (see https://nyti.ms/2sWdYID for more) and sometimes appear on the original station when it reruns old episodes of The Magic Garden. For example, the station announced that two episodes of the show would air on Saturday, June 16, 2018 from 2:00 to 3:00 PM.

Their own website has information about the show, as well as merchandise (DVD's and CD's from the program). It also has photos, some music and even a video clip. I am including the musical track below, or you can find it on their website (see the bottom of the page) at http://caroleandpaula.com/Ordering/index.html.


For its part, WPIX television also has some relevant video clips from The Magic Garden which can be visited on their Facebook page, and at http://pix11.com/category/11-alive/magic-garden/.

A 2013 clip provides a good overview and description of the show which can be seen below, or by visiting http://pix11.com/2013/12/24/the-story-behind-the-magic-garden/.

June 12, 2018

G&L Pulp Fiction: Effort to Document Obscure Items from U.S. Cultural History

In honor of Pride month, this post is dedicated to something that nearly became lost to history (fortunately, it hasn't been lost).  Although I've addressed the topic of how porn went mainstream (catch a previous post by visiting http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/03/documenting-porns-path-to-becoming_11.html), there's a tendency to think of porn mainly as a visual medium, hence literary porn is sometimes overlooked or forgotten.  But stories and novels depicting erotic behavior and intended to cause sexual excitement are very much part of the category.

Indeed, motion picture erotica basically hit the mainstream when "Deep Throat" premiered on June 12, 1972, but unlike a lot of porn today, there was an actual story and a script that existed in porn of that era.  Most had story lines (however weak) intended merely to introduce some sexual activity (for example, "Deep Throat's" premise was that Linda Lovelace's clitoris was located in a place other than the normal, biological location; it was discovered to be deep inside of her throat, hence the story line follows that premise), nevertheless, much of the early genre made a basic effort to have some kind of story, not simply a film of people having sex.

As a result of a series of different court cases, by the mid-1960's the U.S. Postal Service could no longer interdict books that contained homosexuality.  By the early 1970's, another legal challenge emerged to the inconsistently-applied American obscenity laws (notably Miller v. California, which was a 1973 Supreme Court decision which redefined the legal definition of obscenity from being "utterly without socially redeeming value" to that which lacks "serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value" which effectively narrowed prior restrictions used to persecute purveyors of "adult" materials not erotic in nature), and that opened the doors to erotica of all types.

As noted, although photo magazines and movies were considered the primary medium for porn, print publishing also had a presence in the form of sexually-explicit fiction novels better known as "pulps".  The term "pulp" originates from the cheap paperback books of the latter half of the 20th century which were printed on cheap "pulp" paper and published as escapist fiction for the general entertainment of mass audiences.

Sex "pulps" took that segment of the publishing industry in a rather different direction, aimed at sexual arousal of the reader.  This was before the internet made it easy for anyone to publish adult stories online.  Paperback pulp porn novels (consisting of both hetero and homo) were semi-discreetly sold in drugstores and random magazine stands back in the mid-1950's through the late-1970's.  These books were produced quickly and cheaply by sketchy imprints that were often opened just for the purpose of releasing a few titles, then dissolved before authorities could catch up with them.  The gay pulp genre, as it turns out, were dominated by a handful of paperback book publishers, many now known to have been operated by single a Chicago-based publisher which found a lucrative niche with suggestive titles and covers, even if the published content inside was unrelated to the title or cover.

Most of those G&L pulps that have been re-discovered in an effort to catalogue, archive and retain them were found in garage sales, on eBay, a few porn shops' going-out-business liquidation sales, and even old homes that were sold.  The archives that have so far been documented focus mainly on the first 16 years of publishing by the organization that was run by William Hamling known informally as vintage Greenleaf Classics. During that time, thousands of titles were published within multiple series or lines. The term "imprint" is used for those series or lines; the books had miscellaneous publisher names including Beacon, Nightstand, Companion, Corinth, French Line and others.  The number of titles published peaked during 1969 and 1972.

A relatively new, digital archive currently now catalogs some 3,500 titles in 25 different imprints.  All told, its known to have identified some 4,300 titles (also, a few titles were re-run under different titles with different cover art).  Evidently, the company had an organized numbering system which has been identified and is now understood, and most titles followed a fairly specific format in terms of book content; typically each chapter contained a vivid sex scene.

A handful of the authors and/or artists who created cover artwork for Greenleaf were also able to be identified and interviewed (before a few, unfortunately, passed away).  But the interviews with those individuals answered some important questions about the underlying business that was done largely on the "down-low" before that term even existed.  In those days, it was a necessity to avoid law-enforcement from dismantling an otherwise law-abiding publishing business serving a neglected "niche" market.

We now know that the publisher, Mr. Hamling, kept First Amendment lawyer Stanley Fleishman, busy defending the right to publish and distribute erotic fiction in the many obscenity prosecutions that were mounted to try and suppress Greenleaf Classics. The winning results in those trials helped establish the case law that Americans enjoy now, and many publishers and movie producers continue to rely on today.  They did not win every trial, but the trial record helped establish an American right to publish (and consume) such materials that many now take for granted.

Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover each had issues with sexuality that was at odds with their public face. They took it personally that Greenleaf Classics sex novels were even being published. They used their position and power to repeatedly go after the Hamling organization.  Eventually the Feds won one.  Hamling and editor Earl Kemp, were however, convicted of "obscenity" in federal court and were forced out of the business in 1974 (their convictions were for mailing a promotional brochure about a book, not for the book itself).

Gay and lesbian sex pulps were cheap, and intended to be read and discarded.  Many people did just that, so there's no telling exactly how many ended up in landfills.  However, traditionally, Greenleaf Classics books were actively suppressed by book collectors. Some thrift stores threw donated copies into the dumpster.  Many used book stores wouldn't buy them for resale.  Estates took them to the landfill before the sale.  This means that searching for these books has been more work and a rather different experience than building a collection of say, the first 500 vintage Bantam paperbacks.  The primary method of acquisition has been active book scouting in every flea market and used book store in every city ever visited.  The tricky moment in searching for vintage Greenleaf books is how to ask about sex novels without appearing too creepy.



To some extent, the assembly of a coherent cataloging of these books has involved a few very dedicated people with an interest in the project.  Many aren't even gay or lesbian, but still found the work very interesting.  Notably, publisher and film scholar, Maitland McDonagh, a straight woman, says these books themselves provide a rare glimpse in to a world that was largely kept secret out of fear and shame.

"They're not poking fun at what they're describing," she explained. "Some of them are funny and humorous but they take their subject as seriously as if they were mainstream books." Given the insight these "stroke books" provide into gay life of another era, she began to view them and their preservation as a way of honoring a past that has long been hidden to all but a select few.  Fortunately, she has found others to work with who are also interested, albeit for different reasons.

Several sites emerged to showcase the vivid artwork that graced the covers of gay pulp books.  While the book content may not have been true gay or lesbian pulp, covers featuring scantily-clad women or semi-nude men on the cover with an identifiable publisher name made them sufficient to appear on the http://www.strangesisters.com or its counterpart http://www.gayontherange.com websites.

The artwork doesn't always mean the content of the classic gay pulp books is online (yet).  But a handful of titles have since been reprinted (see http://greenleaf-classics-books.com/vintage/ for the site that's now seriously archiving these books, and the company has reprinted (using on-demand book printing technology) a few titles at http://120daysbooks.blogspot.com/2015/.  Others are taking the subject of these books to an audio podcast in which the podcasters read the contents of a gay pulp book aloud to listeners (each podcast reads a chapter from one of the Greeleaf Classics gay pulp fiction novels), visit http://gaypulp.podomatic.com for more on the podcast.

An excerpt from one these podcasts (if you're inclined to listen) can be listened to below, or by visiting Summer in Sodom, Chapter 14, "Gay Whore":


Erotic pulp novels (both straight and gay) were largely a function of the era from the mid-1950's to the early 1980's before cable television, VCR's and subsequently, DVD's and then later, broadband internet became so pervasive.  G&L pulps were part of a larger erotic narrative pulp genre that also proliferated during that era.  But because this sub-genre was very actively suppressed, its since become very lucrative to collectors.  Although no one envisions a return to the day of erotic pulp novels being sold in drugstores, supermarkets and discount stores around the country, for anyone old enough to remember seeing, buying or reading any these books, the emergence of the internet may just restore a hidden part of pop-culture (admittedly, a somewhat sleazier part of pop-culture) that until quite recently, might have been lost forever.

The full list of titles in the collection are based on the fact that most book titles were published at the back of each of these books (with headlines saying something along the lines of: "If you enjoyed reading this, you might also be interested in reading the following").  While most titles have been cataloged, the cover artwork scanned and content in the process of being digitized, the entirety of the collection is still very much a work in-process.  Notably, a few titles are identified but copies of those particular books have yet to be located.

For anyone interested in exploring this topic further, its quite interesting.  Below is a list of some relevant links (including some actual news articles from publications like Rolling Stone) to explore.

http://greenleaf-classics-books.com/

http://www.strangesisters.com

http://www.gayontherange.com

http://gaypulp.podomatic.com

http://gaycitynews.nyc/pulped/

https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/one-publisher-looks-to-save-gay-stroke-books-of-the-1970s-w491704

https://www.queerty.com/30-hilarious-gay-pulp-fiction-covers-yesterqueer-2016050

http://www.newnownext.com/scared-stiff-vintage-gay-pulp-novels-come-out-of-the-closet/10/2016/

http://www.newnownext.com/gay-pulp-novels-podcast/07/2017/

http://bookscans.com/Publishers/sleaze/sleaze25.htm

http://greenleaf-classics-books.com/vintage/

http://120daysbooks.blogspot.com/2015/

http://efanzines.com/EK/eI2/index.htm

June 6, 2018

Mister Rogers: Won't You Be My Neighbor? Opens This Week

On Friday (June 8, 2018), a new movie entitled "Mister Rogers: "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" opens nationwide (although its running mainly in art-house, indie, and/or repertory cinema venues).  This particular movie is a biopic about the late host of the long-running PBS children's show entitled "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".  The biopic will open around the fiftieth anniversary of his long-running (having run for 33 years) children's show premier in the United States, which only left the airwaves as a first-run show in 2001.

The subject of this biopic first began his television career in 1963 with a children's program that ran on Canada's CBC network.  Three years later, in Pittsburgh, he created a regional show he called "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood".  In 1968, it began its run of more than three decades (33 years' total) on PBS, where it became a gently instructive, supportive safe-harbor for several generations of children.  All told, there were about 900 episodes recorded, which is an impressive track-record.

The official trailer for the "Mister Rogers: Won't You Be My Neighbor?" movie can be viewed below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/FhwktRDG_aQ:


Fred McFeely Rogers was born in Latrobe, PA which is about 40 miles east of Pittsburgh.  Fred Rogers died in 2003 at age 74 from stomach cancer.  During his lifetime, he earned a degree in music, and was preparing to enter seminary school after graduation when he saw a television for the first time at his parents' home.  His reaction to the show was not one of thrill, but of dismay.  The show he saw featured throwing a pie in another person's face, which he saw as unnecessary violence to get a laugh at someone else's expense.  His response was "We can do better".

Fred Rogers' real calling turned out to be a kind-hearted, neighborly, nurturing connection and host to his audiences who symbolized warmth, comfort and reassurance for children on television.  Indeed, during his show's run, he addressed many tough issues including the topic of divorce which would peak in the early 1980's just as Gen X kids were growing up, as well as addressing the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986.  Those were topics that were largely ignored by most other children's shows at the time, even though they were genuine issues kids were confronting.

Mister Rogers: Internet Celebrity

In the 15 years since Fred Rogers died, he's enjoyed something of a second life as an internet celebrity.  More than a few times, usually during yet another federal government debate about budgetary priorities, someone will dig up and pass around the video of Fred Rogers' testimony before Congress about the necessity of funding PBS from May 1, 1969.  Fred Rogers testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications to argue against proposed funding cuts to PBS.  Then-Senator John O. Pastore, who was the subcommittee chairman, had clearly never even heard of the host or seen any of his shows, but after only six minutes of testimony by Fred Rogers (including one song, recited from memory, about anger management), the politician went from a gruff, dismissive foe to a lifelong fan.

The organization that honor's Fred Rogers' memory has also deftly reminded people (again, using the internet) of how Fred Rogers reassured children in the wake of any tragedy or disaster, to the point where people today almost reflexively share his simple advice to children: "look for the helpers."

"Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there," Academy award winning film producer Morgan Neville behind the most recent movie about Mister Rogers, saying "It's Mister Rogers goes to Washington. It's the perfect example of somebody speaking truth to power, and winning." (incidentally, I would remind people that Senator Pastore blocked the proposed cut.)



Fred Rogers poses with Daniel Striped Tiger
Of course, these days PBS (much like NPR) receives very little funding from U.S. taxpayers anymore.  It operates largely as a commercial entity with lucrative sponsored programming (except without the regular commerical interruptions), as well as grants from various non-profit foundations.  But in 1969, PBS was still an exception seen as advancing public interests rather than being for unencumbered commerical interests.  But the insignificant amount of remaining public support for PBS and NPR continues to be a source of anger from conservatives who believe public funding has no place in broadcasting, and the resent their more balanced news coverage since conservative media are known to promote outright falsehoods to advance their particular political agenda.

But Fred Rogers enjoyed lasting success educating and entertaining children on television.  Among numerous awards for excellence and public service, Fred Rogers won 4 daytime Emmys between 1979 and 1999, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in 1997.

By the time Fred Rogers retired from TV at the age of 73 in 2001 (as noted, he died of stomach cancer less than two years later), the show did kind of feel like a relic, a window onto simpler times in the world of children's entertainment, like the 1950's.

But Fred Rogers didn't behave like a normal guy, either — certainly not the macho ideal that trained boys to bury their emotions deep inside.  He wore pink and lavender and he told everyone — even other grown men — that he loved them.  And he hated superheroes, which he found so phonily inspirational he brought his own show back from hiatus solely to battle the influence of the late "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve. He argued that a true hero wouldn't make a kid throw punches and jump off roofs. They'd bring peace by being peaceful.  Indeed, Fred Rogers had an unshakable sense that he was always right.

While the new biopic and a recent PBS special (see below) commemorating the anniversary of his long-running TV show have been mostly accolades (many well-deserved), its worth noting that the persona known as Mister Rogers, although largely recalled with fond memories, as noted above, was not without critics -- even among the very children whom the show was meant to serve, although memories of him are mostly fond.  

Faux (Fox) News Called Mister Rogers "Evil"

In an early (shortly after the cable network began) Fox News critique of Fred Rogers, he was described as "evil" man who "ruined a generation of children" [meaning Millennials] because his message to young children - that they were special just for being who they were — which Fox News said lead to narcissism and attitudes of entitlement.  The Fox News commentator then asked if kids believe they are special, why should they work hard and try to do better?  That early Fox News commentator no longer works in broadcasting, whereas Fred Rogers worked for more than 40 years in the medium.

In fact, the term "evil" used by Fox News to describe Fred Rogers in its nascent years was an unequivocal falsehood, because Fred Rogers was trained and ordained as a Presbyterian minister, which is the very antithesis of evil.

Mister Rogers Gets a Warm Posthumous Reception Today, But Wasn't Universally Popular

I would remind everyone that even when I was a child in the 1970's, in spite of a more indifferent reception among the kids the show targeted, nearly everyone still saw the show -- at least on occasion.  (For me, it preceded or followed The Electric Company, which I watched for the Joan Rivers' narrated character Captain Letterman, catch my reference to that at http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2013/02/joan-rivers-from-adventures-with.html).  Because of that, I occasionally watched Mister Rogers as I awaited the show I was tuned in for.

Mister Rogers was also described by kids when I was growing up as gay, even though he was recognized as a very devoted family man who was married to his college sweetheart Joanne Rogers for 50 years until his death.  The couple shared two sons.

David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely on the original series, said of the couple "They were perfect together.  They were both musicians, and they had twin pianos in their living room, which they would play together."

But the term gay was never used to describe his sexual orientation, rather it was meant to be a term of derision.  But his tone of voice (calm) and his nerdy-outfits (usually with a cardigan sweater and his un-trendy sneakers) were not considered aspirational by many kids back in the day.

SNL Eddie Murphy Parody: Mister Robinson's Neighborhood

Indeed, in 1981, Eddie Murphy introduced a parody called "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" which was intended to be a ghetto version of the genuine, lilly-white Mister Rogers, premiered on the TV show "Saturday Night Live" (catch a 1983 clip at https://www.nbc.com/saturday-night-live/video/mr-robinsons-neighborhood/n9117 for reference). 

As Wikipedia notes (see HERE for detail), in the sketch, Eddie Murphy's character, named "Mister Robinson", speaks and presents the show in a similarly stilted manner, but lives in a considerably grittier venue and engages in a number of illegal and/or unethical activities for money due to his lack of a job, which he educates his young viewers about in each episode while at the same time teaching them cynical views on the government and life in general. 

For the record Fred Rogers actually took no offense to the Eddie Murphy parody (he was acknowledged to have a great sense of humor, as the new biopic movie will show).  On the contrary, he said found it amusing and affectionate.  The parody was also initially broadcast at a time of night when his own child audience was not likely to see it.

Another Movie Starring Tom Hanks, and a Book Coming Soon

I should also acknowledge that next year, another new film about the PBS children's show host starring Academy Award winner Tom Hanks entitled "You Are My Friend" will also open, although that film is focused on a reporter and [Mr. Rogers'] relationship to his life, and how [the reporter's] whole world changes when coming in contact with Fred Rogers.  That film [will be about] "one man who's in a critical point in his life — becoming a new father, having issues with his own father — and meeting Mr. Rogers to write a piece about him, thinking it's going to be a bit of a puff piece, but it ends up changing his entire life."

Separately, a book entitled "The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers" which will be the first full-length biography of Fred Rogers written by Maxwell King is set to be released by Abrams Books on September 4, 2018.

In the end, Fred Rogers' character Mister Rogers is being celebrated for the memorable contribution he made to popular culture, and to adults who tuned into his show as children.  As the recent PBS special "Mister Rogers: It's You I Like" (see https://www.pbs.org/video/mister-rogers-its-you-i-nwxrdh/ for the streaming version of that special) featured numerous celebrities including a few Gen Xers such as Sarah Silverman.  Again, while the retrospective is mostly adoration, Fred Rogers' had occasional critics for various reasons back in the day, but his underlying legacy will be the messages he taught.  His subtle message of acceptance and tolerance made a very lasting impression on children like me who weren't necessarily even watching his show because they were regular viewers.

Also visit the following links for more:









May 1, 2018

Green Goddess Salad Dressing Peaks With 1970's Era Feminism

Back in the early 1970's, the feminist movement was newly-ascendant in the U.S.  At the time, the Equal Rights Amendment, which ultimately failed to secure sufficient votes to amend the U.S. Constitution (its tough to amend the Constitution, but that was the last serious attempt to amend the Constitution as of 2018), was being advanced by women of all types, led by American feminists.  Songs such as Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman" topped the charts in 1972 (catch my post on that by visiting http://hgm.sstrumello.com/2015/02/helen-reddy-who-gave-modern-feminism.html for more).

To capitalize on the feminist trend of that era, packaged goods makers did their own part.

For example, by the late 1970's, Procter & Gamble's laundry detergent brand managers introduced a new, stain-fighting liquid laundry detergent they called "ERA" (in all caps, the name, not coincidentally, was also the acronym of the amendment being advanced by feminists at the time).  That brand continued well into the 1980's.  As of 2018, Era remains available in a limited fashion (for example, in certain bigger stores, or it can be ordered online), its no longer featured in the end-aisle displays of supermarket shelves as of 2018 (end-aisles cost money).  In 2014, the Cincinnati Enquirer (the hometown newspaper of Procter & Gamble, which calls that city home) reported that the Era brand of detergent which had become a low-cost product since its initial heyday was potentially at risk of being cut, as the company was cutting many smaller labels with flat retail sales.  Era remains around today, but could go in future brand-management decisions at the company.

Enter Green Goddess Salad Dressing as a Mass-Marketed Consumer Product

Another consumer products manufacturer, in this case salad dressing maker Seven Seas (which was subsequently acquired by Kraft in 1987 -- Kraft acquired the Seven Seas brand of salad dressings that belonged to Anderson Clayton Foods, which was acquired by Quaker Oats, but antitrust regulators made them divest Seven Seas, and Kraft was the winning acquirer) produced a bottled version of a salad dressing known as "Green Goddess" salad dressing.  It was a green colored (for which it was named), garlicky-flavored salad dressing recipe that had several strong flavors (including vinegar, cilantro, tarragon and anchovy paste).

A 1973 television advertisement for Seven Seas salad dressing starring the 1950's-era cowboy Roy Rogers and his wife Dale Evans even mentions Green Goddess dressing in the dialogue.  That ad can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/0utafzUPWq4:



The origins of Green Goddess dressings are usually attributed to the Palace Hotel in San Francisco way back in 1923, when that hotel's executive chef Philip Roemer wanted to make something to for a banquet being held at the hotel to pay tribute to actor George Arliss and his hit play, "The Green Goddess".  He then concocted this dressing, which like the play, also became a hit.  As noted, the original version of the dressing contained anchovies, scallions, parsley, tarragon, mayonnaise, vinegar, and chives.  But it is considered to be a variation of a dressing that originated in France by a chef to Louis XIII who made a sauce called "au vert" (green sauce) which was traditionally served with green eel.  In 1948, the New York Times published a recipe for Green Goddess salad dressing that also included salty Worcestershire sauce. Later versions of the recipe have also included variations such as the addition of yogurt instead of mayonnaise, avocado and/or basil (both also green in color).  One version of that recipe can be seen at  https://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/09/magazine/09Food-t-000.html if you're interested.

Kraft still occasionally sells Green Goddess dressing under the Kraft label (and sometimes even under the Seven Seas label!), but within a matter of months after its late 1960's packaged food introduction fueled by feminism of the era, other salad dressing manufacturers had pretty quickly copied the Seven Seas version.


For example, Unilever's Wish-Bone salad dressing brand (itself acquired by CPC Best Foods from a Kansas City restaurateur back in 1958), for example, offered its own version.  Today, while bottled salad dressings are no longer quite as popular as they once were, (today, home cooks regularly try home-made dressing versions inspired by cable cooking show programs which have proven how home-made salad dressings are very easy to make and often taste better), bottled dressings still sell a lot for time-constrained consumers in need of flavors to dress their salads.  But basics including Italian, French, Ranch and others dominate supermarket shelves.  Unfortunately, Green Goddess dressing isn't quite as popular as it was in the seventies when modern-day feminism really began.

Just as we have seen with many original food recipes, today, there's a much more conscious effort to rehabilitate tasty-but-fattening recipes with leaner varieties (which in this case might omit fattening mayonnaise, for example).  However, the fundamental taste of a strongly-flavored (and colored) recipe made in a blender is likely to re-emerge as cooks seek something that is out-of-the-ordinary.  With its bold flavor, Green Goddess dressing is likely to re-emerge in one form or anther.

Annie's Homegrown (which was founded as a natural foods company in 1989), best known for selling organic products was itself sold to packaged food giant General Mills for $820 million back in 2014.  Nevertheless, General Mills also sells its own version of Green Goddess salad dressing under the Annie's Homegrown brand, although the brand has since been expanded to various other "Goddess" dressing varieties.  Oddly, General Mills' Annie's Homegrown Green Goddess salad dressing is less-green than Kraft's or even home made varieties, which defies the "green" in its name, as something closer to ranch dressing, although it has strong hints of Caesar salad dressing.

April 11, 2018

Reports of the Death of U.S. Shopping Malls Are Greatly Exaggerated

The shopping mall, for better or worse, is not exclusive to the United States, although the concept arguably was first mass-marketed here, and the U.S. still has more shopping malls than most other countries.

Although there were a handful of others which preceded it, the first generally-acknowledged U.S. suburban shopping mall was the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota which opened its doors in 1956.  Victor Gruen, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Austria, envisioned the Southdale Center as a solution to suburban America's lack of public spaces.  Southdale Center still exists as a shopping mall, and as of 2018, its operated by Simon Properties, although its been remodeled and expanded from its original design.  Mr. Gruen designed the original Southdale Center as a fully-enclosed, introverted (meaning one where all of the shops face the inside), multitiered, double-anchor-tenant shopping complex with a garden court under a skylight — and today, virtually every regional shopping mall in America is a fully-enclosed, introverted, multitiered, multiple-anchor-tenant complex with a garden court under a skylight.

Victor Gruen didn't design a building; he designed an archetype that was widely copied.  Other suburban shopping malls may have more than two anchor stores (although as formerly-big department store chains have declined in number, mall operators have been forced to find new uses for large anchor stores once occupied by the likes of Montgomery Ward, Sears as well as various regional department store chains), but the basic idea originated with his concept.

But it was the Canadians (not the Americans) who arguably took the shopping mall concept to the extreme by building what was considered to be the largest enclosed shopping center when it was built known as the West Edmonton Mall [http://www.wem.ca/], and it still retains the title of the largest shopping mall in North America and the tenth largest in the world (along with The Dubai Mall, which ties it in terms of leasable space) by gross leasable area.  It is perhaps not surprising that Canada is its home, as the climate there is often inhospitable (particularly during winter months), making a climate-controlled shopping center there very appealing.  Note that the same also applies to Mall of America, which shares a great deal in common with West Edmonton Mall, including some of the developers.



West Edmonton Mall was the world's largest shopping mall from 1981 until 2004, when it lost that title after several newer shopping malls opened in Asia (including in Turkey, China, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Thailand) and elsewhere usurped the title of biggest.  The same family behind West Edmonton Mall also helped to develop the Mall of America located in Bloomington, Minnesota (in the Minneapolis-St. Paul suburbs) was involved in developing Mall of America (ironically, not very far from the Southdale Center noted above), which currently holds the distinction of being the largest enclosed shopping mall in the United States.  Like its Canadian counterpart, Mall of America also features an indoor theme park and various other attractions aside from shopping.  It also shares the distinction of having some brutally-cold winters, not unlike Edmonton, Canada.

However, this post is about shopping malls generally, so I'll skip talking about Mall of America and discuss West Edmonton Mall instead.  To give you just some idea of just how big Canada's West Edmonton Mall is, that particular shopping mall has more than 800 retail stores, restaurants and services under one roof in the compound, plus parking for more than 20,000 vehicles, and more than 24,000 people are employed at the property.  It also has the largest indoor amusement park in the world, and the largest indoor waterpark in the world all located inside the facility, as well as an indoor ice skating rink.

Alas, the concept of the American mall isn't quite as popular as it was during the mid-1950's when they first started appearing nationwide.  One of the reasons for rapid growth in shopping malls in the late 1960's into the 1970's was continued, widespread growth of the suburbs following World War II and more general prosperity of the era which fueled retail growth in the country overall.  That coincided with construction of Interstate highways across the country, enabling quick access to locales that once were time-consuming to get to.  But since the 1980's, virtually all U.S. prosperity has gone to the top income segment, hence there has been less to fuel growth as there was following World War II.

Indeed, the era of the "big-box" retail stores coincided with the rise of shopping malls (lagging by a few years).  But the same factors that led to growth in U.S. shopping malls were also criticized for decimating traditional downtown retail centers (where they existed; in other places, there were no central business districts to destroy because it was literally undeveloped land in far-out exurbs that had no town centers).  Although big-box retailers like Walmart and Home Depot are frequently criticized (and the companies certainly deserve a share of that criticism), more general suburbanization shares some of the responsibility.  During that time, concentrations of capital spilled out along new, federally-subsidized highways, covered old countryside with a new suburbia, and initially concentrated around highway interchanges.  There were the brand new shopping malls, while in gloomy old downtowns nearby, the streets often became empty and taxes rose along with crime rates.

Indeed, I believe that 1970's singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell (herself a Canadian who was transplanted to Los Angeles' famed Laurel Canyon neighborhood, which was home to many musicians of that era) popularized the idea of how suburbanization had a big downside, with a song she called "Big Yellow Taxi"  in 1971 in which she observed that "They paved paradise to put up a parking lot".  That line from her song is perhaps the most relevant observation for what was going on at the time.  Joni Mitchell maintains a website, and has the song there which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://jonimitchell.com/music/song.cfm?id=13.



At the indoor shopping mall's peak popularity (which some have estimated to be in 1990 based on both occupancy rates for for existing malls and the construction of new shopping malls), the U.S. opened 19 of them. But the U.S. hasn't cut the ribbon on a new, enclosed shopping mall since 2006.  It seems unlikely that more will come anytime soon.  According to The Atlantic, there still were about 1,200 malls in America in 2017. But the forecast is that in another decade, there might be about 900. That's not quite "the death of malls" as some have called it.  But it is a marked decline, and it seems to be inevitable.

In 2014, PBS featured an interesting segment entitled "The rise and fall of the American shopping mall" which visits a dead mall called "Rolling Acres" in the ailing city of Akron, Ohio as part of the story.  That report can be seen below, or by visiting http://www.pbs.org/video/2365378735/:



While online commerce is cited in many poorly-researched articles and in news stories as the main reason, a more important reason is there are simply far too many malls in the U.S. to remain commercially viable (at least as retail shopping centers).  The number of malls in the U.S. grew more than twice as fast as the population did between 1970 and 2015, according to Cowen and Company’s research analysts. By one measure of consumerist plentitude — shopping center "gross leasable area" — the U.S. still has 40% more shopping space per capita than Canada, five times more the the U.K., and 10 times more than Germany.  Of course, Europe has maintained its city centers, whereas in many parts of the U.S. as suburbs without existing retail centers grew more rapidly, more traditional town centers (referred to as "downtown") struggled, often due to limited space for modern retailers to operate.

While some shopping malls continue to thrive (particularly those located in convenient and/or affluent areas, or those targeting fast-growing populations such as Hispanics or Asian-Americans), the traditional model will nevertheless be impacted by the closure or downsizing of some traditional retail outlets.  Sears, Kmart, Barnes & Noble, Toys R Us, Macy’s and others are all downsizing as newer, more nimble retailers including Amazon capture more and more business.  A handful have experimented with retail outlets, including Amazon Books, but those are still fewer in number and are acknowledged to be experimental by company management.

But beyond the idea that online shopping has matured enough to kill traditional retail, the story is more complex.  Private equity, in particular, has played an enormous role in killing traditional retailers buy their purchase of many retail icons and loading these companies up with debts that simply cannot be repaid.  In 2017, Business Insider featured an article about that as did the Wall Street JournalBusiness Insider eloquently wrote: "Nearly every retail chain caught up in the brick & mortar meltdown is an LBO queen - acquired in a leveraged buyout by a private equity firm either during the LBO boom before the financial crisis or in the years of ultra-cheap money following it. During a leveraged buyout, the private equity firm uses little of its own capital.  Much of the money needed to buy the retailer comes from debt the retailer itself has to issue to fund the buyout, which leaves the retailer highly leveraged."

Other suburban malls have withered away and died, often as the communities they were located in also suffered big declines in populations and tax bases. 

These days it's very popular to declare, often with little or very limited and selective evidence, that Amazon.com and online retailing is destroying traditional retail, and as of 2017, it's no longer an anomaly to know of "dying malls".  The growth of blogs and websites with names like deadmalls.com, blogs like sickmalls and YouTube channels including the Charles Bell Dead Malls Series and similar pages all seemingly lends credibility to the notion that the suburban U.S. shopping mall and traditional retailing is rapidly disappearing.  Dying (or dead) malls exist in most every state, although they don't always remain in their dead format.  For example, in more urban parts of the country, the properties tend to be quickly leveled so something new can be built at the exact same location because the real estate is so valuable.  In less-populated areas, once-thriving malls are now sad graveyards of retailing and more prosperous times.  Some old malls have been displaced by newer, bigger malls, while others are in areas that have yet to recover economically.

The online magazine Vox.com (see https://www.vox.com/videos/2018/4/11/17220528/american-shopping-malls-death-third-place for the article) had an interesting article (and video, see below) entitled "What the decline of American shopping malls means for social space" which discusses how enclosed, suburban shopping malls occupied a "third place" used for social activity to hang out with friends or meet neighbors which was completely lacking in many newer suburbs.  The video can be watched below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/oooVC3zfDc8.



But Vox notes that malls filled a need for social spaces in vacant or new suburbs, and although social media in the online world fills some of that need today, a need for face-to-face interactions with other human beings suggests that technology including social media will never truly be able to fill that void completely.

The NPR program State of the Re:Union had an interesting discussion about internet (virtual) communities and noted that while those are seldom completely positive or completely negative, they do lack some of what make face-to-face interactions a unique part of the human experience.  And no, virtual face-to-face interactions on Apple Facetime, Google Duo or Google Hangouts, video interactions are not quite the same.  To listen to that, visit http://stateofthereunion.com/internet-communities-virtual-reality/ for more details.

While the era of continued growth in retail shopping malls is likely over, the idea that we will ever succumb to ordering everything from our computers or phones and having or orders shipped to us days later is unlikely to ever completely replace more traditional retailing.  Indeed, while Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods Market is sometimes cited as an example, the reality of food retailing is the need for local distribution.  While Amazon will tinker with how to use its purchase of Whole Foods, big chains like Kroger, Publix, Safeway or Stop & Shop aren't worried that their proverbial "bread and butter business" model faces an imminent extinction threat from Amazon anytime soon.  One could say the same for drugstore chains Walgreens and CVS.  Although mail-order pharmacies operated by pharmacy benefits managers do command a big share of sales for maintenance medicines, the imminent need for something like antibiotics or cold medicines does not enable a time-consuming week-long order and delivery cycle necessitated by mail order pharmacies.

Also, clothing buyers will often find a need to physically try outfits on to see how well a pair of pants, a shirt, blouse or pair of shoes fits before they are willing to buy those items.  Hence, Amazon has not solved that not-so-little problem with digital technology.

So, while the 1950's era of suburban shopping malls is no longer the vision of American retailing's future, it will likely remain with us for some time to come.

For reference, I have listed several relevant articles (in no particular order) on this topic below which may be of interest.

http://vizettes.com/kt/gon/index.htm

http://www.salon.com/1999/08/13/mall/

http://www.nytimes.com/1985/02/17/books/cathedrals-of-consumption.html

http://www.metv.com/lists/13-bygone-mall-stores-we-want-to-shop-at-again

http://www.alphabetcityblog.com/2008/12/malls-of-1970s-future-of-retail.html

https://www.inc.com/scott-mautz/amazon-is-killing-shopping-malls-right-no-so-fast.html

http://mallsofamerica.blogspot.com/

https://broadly.vice.com/en_us/article/ypa7jj/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-american-shopping-mall

https://www.citylab.com/design/2012/07/shopping-mall-turns-60-and-prepares-retire/2568/

http://time.com/4865957/death-and-life-shopping-mall/

http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/business/growth-development/sd-fi-retailfuture-20170921-story.html

https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2017-03-17/junk-bonds-plus-retail-plus-private-equity-equals-carnage

https://www.wsj.com/articles/vendors-landlords-target-private-equity-firms-in-retail-rubble-1501412401

http://www.businessinsider.com/brick-and-mortar-retail-private-equity-debt-financing-lbo-2017-8

April 7, 2018

Donna Summer's Colorful Life the Basis for New Broadway Musical

Born on December 31, 1948 and raised as LaDonna Adrian Gaines, the disco and pop diva known as Donna Summer grew up as one of seven children.  She was a native of Boston, specifically the Mission Hill area which is located between the much larger neighborhoods of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury Crossing.

Sadly, she passed away at age 63 at her home in Naples, Florida on May 17, 2012.  The official cause of death was lung cancer, although her family made a point to tell the press that Ms. Summer was never even a smoker.  But Donna Summer's legacy looms very large in the music business, and now its on Broadway.  NPR had a relevant clip on her passing, which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/JCSTGW:


Playbill from the Broadway musical "Summer" 
After a trial run at San Diego's La Jolla Playhouse, now "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical", which is a jukebox musical featuring her songs, has opened at Broadway's Lunt-Fontanne Theater.  Three different actresses play Ms. Summer at various points in her life, depicting her Boston upbringing, her burgeoning success with the producer Giorgio Moroder and her later years.  Similar autobiographical subjects for musical shows have followed a similar pattern.  Summer has received mixed reviews so far, although that will not necessarily limit its success (or failure).

Donna Summer began her music career back in the late 1960's, when she left home and joined a blues/rock band.  Although the band was commercially unsuccessful, her time with the band took her to New York where she made a name for herself with her vocal talents (notably, record labels did not want the band she was in, but several expressed interest in her talent as a solo singer).  Ms. Summer found work singing as a backup singer for 1970's trio Three Dog Night.

While in New York, Donna Summer auditioned for a role in the counterculture musical "Hair" (a movie version would later be released co-starring a young Beverly D'Angelo who is perhaps best known for her role as Ellen Griswold in several "Vacation" movies).  Donna Summer landed the part of Sheila in "Hair", and she agreed to take the role in the Munich production of the show, moving to Germany.

Move to Europe Changes Donna Summer's Career Trajectory

She spent several years living, acting, and singing in Europe (and she learned to speak German while there).  In 1973, she met her first husband, Austrian actor Helmut Sommer, and she gave birth to their daughter (Mimi) Natalia Pia Melanie Sommer.  During her time in Europe, she also first met European music producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, who would later loom large in her career as a singer as her fellow songwriters, producers, arrangers and managers.  Her married surname of Sommer was supposed to be the name used on her recordings, but a typo at her first record label dubbed her as Donna Summer, which is the stage name that stuck.

State's "Hit Parade" podcast had an excellent overview entitled "The Queen of Disco" worth listening to in its entirety below, or by visiting http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/hit_parade/2017/11/donna_summer_s_three_decade_chart_reign.html.



Following her successful stage role in the musical "Hair" playing in Europe, she would later land a record label contract as a solo singer.  In 1975, the record-label known as Casablanca Records signed the then-new solo artist Donna Summer and the following year, released her album entitled "Love to Love You Baby" which was certified gold.  Casablanca enjoyed a brief period of big-time success in the mid-to-late-1970's, and Donna Summer was big part of that.  The Casablanca label also featured Kiss, Cher (for a time, anyway), Player, Lipps Inc., Tony Orlando, Dusty Springfield (for a time), and Captain & Tennille (see my blog post on that duo at https://goo.gl/9WdWG5 for more), The Village People and many other hit artists during the record label's initial heyday.

Donna Summer's breakout hit song "Love to Love You Baby" was over 17 minutes long, and Casablanca released the song in its entirety as a single (a much shorter version was promoted to radio stations).  In releasing the 17-minute version as a single, Casablanca would help popularize a format that would become known as the 12-inch (the diameter of the vinyl record that contained the extended-play song).  The single became a big disco success during the era when clubs like Studio 54 dominated the time in which younger Baby Boomers' were becoming young adults, and fueling the nightlife and disco era (by going out to boogie on weekends) perhaps best typified by the 1977 hit movie (and corresponding hit movie soundtrack) "Saturday Night Fever".

22 Orgasms in the Single Love to Love You Baby

As noted, the single "Love to Love You Baby" was written by Donna Summer herself, as well as her collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.  That song featured Ms. Summer seductively moaning and groaning (as if she was having sex), and that caused the single to be banned by some American and European radio stations.  According to one tally by Time magazine, Ms. Summer could be heard having 22 orgasms in this track (the BBC's own censors reportedly counted 23, but hey, what's one more orgasm?), although she later told Rolling Stone magazine and other media outlets that those sound effects were simply acting.  We know that lines of recordings can be played repeatedly in singles as a refrain, although that mainly applies to lyrics, so its unclear exactly what an orgasmic moan qualifies as in a recorded song.  That can be listened to below or by visiting https://youtu.be/-XQR9AyWYhk.


But, as it turns out, efforts to try and ban the song for being too sexually explicit actually had the opposite effect, and helped to make it a smash hit.  The single went to #2 on the U.S. Hot 100.  Not surprisingly, around the same time, pornography was also going mainstream, with a 1973 movie release named "Deep Throat" gaining a reputation as a "must-see" movie, eventually earning more money than any film had previously (and so far, since) -- I blogged about the mainstreaming of porn at https://goo.gl/9FG5K for more on that topic.

Ms. Summer would quickly release an impressive sting of other chart-topping disco hits in the next few years including "I Feel Love", "Last Dance", "MacArthur Park", "Heaven Knows", "Hot Stuff", "Bad Girls", "Dim All the Lights", and "On the Radio".  Ms. Summer would also record a hit duet with Barbra Streisand.

All told, Donna Summer earned a total of 32 hit singles on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart in her lifetime, with 14 reaching the top ten.  She claimed a top 40 hit every year between 1975 and 1984, and from her first top ten hit in 1976, to the end of 1982, she had 12 top ten hits (10 were top five hits), more than any other act during that time period.  She returned to the Hot 100's top five in 1983, and claimed her final top ten hit in 1989 with "This Time I Know It's for Real".

Casablanca Records: Hit-Machine During Disco Era, Known for Excess


Her first record label Casablanca Records was best known for excess.  The Los Angeles-based record label was bringing in millions of dollars from a string of radio hits (including those by Donna Summer).  Casablanca Records' fall began when the 1980's began. The label was known to spend lavish amounts of money on parties, events, and promotion. There were even rumors of free-flowing cocaine at its parties and headquarters.  As a result, profit margins suffered due to the carefree spending by the label. Casablanca also spent lavish amounts of money on promoting its releases, which made its artists very happy, but not necessarily PolyGram, which later owned a 50% stake in the label.  It would eventually suffer from "accounting irregularities" leading to its eventual sale to the much bigger PolyGram record label which distributed its records anyway.  When Casablanca's lavish spending habits were realized by PolyGram, it quickly made an offer to purchase the other half of Casablanca it did not already own in 1980, but the "good old days" at Casablanca Records were effectively over.

Summer's Move to Geffen Records, And Later, to Atlantic Records

Donna Summer herself left Casablanca Records in 1980 when she signed with another startup known as Geffen Records, then a new record label started by David Geffen.  But she still released the hit single "She Works Hard For The Money" under her old contract with Casablanca.  But because Ms. Summer wanted to go into a different direction with her music; while Casablanca wanted her to keep recording disco and nothing else, she decided to find a different record label, and David Geffen made her an offer she could not refuse.  Ms. Summer also filed a 10-million-dollar suit against Casablanca; but the label counter-sued. In the end, although Ms. Summer did not receive any money, she did win the rights to her own lucrative song publishing.  Her decision to change record labels and focus away from disco proved to be a good move.  With Geffen, she would release the hit single "The Wanderer" although it was still more disco than she wanted.  By that time, she was growing tired of constant recording, touring, etc. so she was ready when to take a break from music.  She would re-emerge in at the end of the decade with a single "This Time I Know It's for Real" (which went to #3 on the U.S. Hot 100) in 1989 which was released on Atlantic Records, then a division of Warner Bros. Records.

Ms. Summer also did some minor acting roles on TV in the mid-to-late 1990's in sitcom "Family Matters" playing the role of Aunt Oona Urkel in two episodes.  However, she will likely always be remembered for her huge role in the popular disco era, with incredibly danceable tracks that were popular in their day.

Although there is no guarantee it will remain available, the Viacom-owned cable network's series "Behind the Music" ran an interesting bio of Donna Summer, which seems particularly relevant in the years since her death.  That can be viewed (for the moment) by visiting https://youtu.be/ZrXepibp22Y.

There was also an interesting interview with Donna Summer done by BBC Radio.  Although BBC Radio no longer has the interview online, another blog/ website has retained it which can be listened to below, or by visiting http://www.musiclikedirt.com/2012/05/18/donna-summer48-12/:

March 20, 2018

Queer Eye: Why A Show From 2003 Is Getting A Reboot in 2018

The focus of this blog is mainly retro pop culture from the 1970's to the 1980's, but it's worth acknowledging that those are generalities.  Perhaps the most notable is because the start dates and end dates are not always clear-cut, and with television, reruns have made moderately-successful network TV shows far bigger hits in syndication.  For example, the TV sitcom "The Brady Bunch" is generally considered to be a 1970's show (as was "Gilligan's Island").  But both Sherwood Schwartz sitcoms were actually much, much bigger in syndication than they were in their first-runs.  Also, both shows first premiered in the late 1960's, hence both shows could technically be considered sixties pop culture and therefore irrelevant to this blog using the original year of broadcast as a cutoff.

I refuse to do that.

Without getting too tied up in specifics on start and finish dates, although the 1990's and 2000's aren't a central focus for this blog, again, because some pop culture (television, movies, music, etc.) carries over from the 1960's or the 1980's, it occasionally does find a place here, too.  This is one such post.

One early 2000's cable program that is enjoying a renaissance (resurrection or reboot) is one of cable-network Bravo's earlier success stories from 2003.  The show was initially known as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" (later renamed simply "Queer Eye").  The premise of the show relied upon the stereotype of gay ("queer") men as experts in matters of fashion, style, personal grooming, interior design, and culture.

It's worth acknowledging that Bravo's own history as a cable network is relevant to this discussion.  Bravo began in 1980, and its original focus was on performing arts, drama, and independent films (indeed, Bravo originally claimed to be "the first television service dedicated to film and the performing arts" and a 1985 profile of Bravo in the New York Times observed that most of its programming at the time consisted of international, classic, and independent films).  The Bravo network was acquired in the early 2000's, and it switched its format from focusing on performing arts, drama, and independent films to being mainly focused on popular culture including reality shows, fashion/makeover shows and celebrities.  In those days, Bravo quite literally was throwing things against the proverbial wall to see what stuck, much as the Fox broadcast TV network had done just a few years earlier.  The main difference is that Bravo was done on cable, rather than on broadcast TV.

The concept for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" was created by the show's executive producers David Collins and Michael Williams along with David Metzler through their company, Scout Productions and, as noted, turned out to be a surprise hit for Bravo.

There were a variety of reasons for its success.

One reason for its success was that "Queer Eye" very much stuck to the 22-minute format (which amounted to a half-hour show with commercials) and ran at many different times throughout the day.  Given that there were no story arcs (also called a narrative arc), which are extended or continuing storylines in episodic storytelling in media such as television, with each episode following a dramatic arc.  On a TV program, for example, a story arc would unfold over a number of different episodes.  Without any arcs, there were no expiration or sequence required for airing, making it well-suited for cable.  Arcs were missing from "Queer Eye", lending it to repeated play throughout the day whenever the network needed half-hour content to run.

The original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" series starred five openly-gay men from New York who conducted a "make-over" (or "make-better") of another person, usually a hapless straight man at the request of his wife or girlfriend, with the cast helping to revamp wardrobe, redecorating, and offering advice on grooming, lifestyle, and food/wine.

Original Fab Five cast from Bravo's version of "Queer Eye"
The opening sequence introduced the gay "Fab Five", outlining each of their particular "specialties" on Manhattan's "Gay Street": Fashion Savant (Carson Kressley), Food and Wine Connoisseur (Ted Allen), Grooming Guru (Kyan Douglas), Design Doctor (Thom Filicia) and Culture Vulture (Jai Rodriguez).  The five men armed themselves with their tool of choice (including Thom Filicia holding a paintbrush, Ted Allen holding a whisk, Carson Kressley holding a shopping bag, Kyan Douglas holding a blow-dryer, and Jai Rodriguez holding a set of music headphones), all in-line with their particular specialty, then put on their sunglasses before we saw the camera turn the corner of "Gay Street" to enter "Straight St."  The opening sequence closed as the Fab Five "power walked" straight toward the camera.

The show also enabled the newly-nascent Bravo cable network to successfully transition to a completely different focus for content (and audience), and established it as a cable network willing to break away from traditional cable network dogma about what was necessary to succeed, as well as having a willingness to break from traditionally-taboo topics, including featuring genuine gay individuals on television.

The original "Queer Eye" series ran perpetually on Bravo in 2003, as it sought to fill 24-hours with new content that was anything but its original content, which was much more like what ran on PBS in those days, and also had a much more limited audience.

The series also quickly attained pretty good ratings for Bravo, peaking during September of that year with 3.34 million viewers per episode according to Nielsen.  The popularity of the series also established the original Fab Five as media celebrities in their own right, with high-profile appearances at the Emmys and a "make-better" of Jay Leno and his The Tonight Show set in August of that year.  Fab Five members parlayed their celebrity into endorsement deals, perhaps most notably Thom Filicia's becoming the spokesperson for Pier 1 Imports, and Ted Allen would later endorse cooking utensils (skillets, for example) sold at retailers.

The American press also generally complimented the series and the Fab Five.   The gay Out magazine listed the Fab Five in its "Out 100", the "greatest gay success stories" of 2003, while Instinct magazine declared Mr. Kressley one of the "Leading Men" of 2004.  The series also won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Reality Program in 2004.

Mr. Kressley knows it's impossible to disentangle his sexuality from "Queer Eye" and he made zero effort to try and do so.  2003 America was not especially kind to the LGBTQ community.  At the time, "Don't ask, don't tell" banned openly gay people from serving openly in the military, and only a few months earlier, 13 U.S. states had homosexual sodomy laws on the books while heterosexual sodomy was legal (the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated those in the Lawrence v. Texas decision in 2003).  Kressley says that by introducing America to real queer people, it allowed them to get to know members of a demographic long shut out of most other media, and he is of the opinion that was the show's real power.  His co-star Jai Rodriguez agreed, telling The Hollywood Reporter that the number one thing people told him about "Queer Eye" was that the show helped them come out to their families. "The houses and the fashion, that has never been a takeaway," he said. Though "Queer Eye" didn't have an explicit political message, that didn't matter: "In 2003, being out was political."

Mr. Rodriguez also says that "Queer Eye" also made space for friendships between straight and gay men, a bond that at the time "wasn't OK to be formed" because of homophobic fears of romantic attraction.  On the show, gay and straight men could exist, work and laugh together without strings attached.

Since 2003, the Bravo cable network has changed ownership a few times, and is now firmly in the hands of cable television giant Comcast's NBCUniversal Cable Entertainment business.  But Bravo's days in 2003 were more freewheeling, as already noted, marked by its willingness to try and see what drew in viewers.  The "Queer Eye" gamble paid off for Bravo, drawing a diverse audience far beyond a gay-only viewership, to a more mass-market success.  That also made the show relevant for a broader, American culture perspective.  The cast discusses the impact in the video playlist below.

In January 2017, internet streaming service Netflix announced that it was reviving the series with a brand new Fab Five in a season of eight episodes.  It's part of Netflix's desire to move into the unscripted space, including talk-shows hosted by Chelsea Handler, David Letterman, and soon, former President Barack Obama.

NPR's popular radio show "All Things Considered" covered the "Queer Eye" reboot which can be listened to below, or by visiting https://n.pr/2H5fMnV.

The new "Queer Eye" show is based in the southern city of Atlanta rather than New York.  Netflix does not disclose traditional Nielsen ratings performance indicators as broadcast and cable television do, but on review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, as of March 2018, the season held an approval rating of 100% based upon 13 reviews, and an average rating of 7.35/10.  The website's critical consensus read, "Queer Eye adapts for a different era without losing its style, charm, or sense of fun, proving that the show's formula remains just as sweetly addictive even after a change in location and a new group of hosts." On Metacritic, the season had a weighted average score of 73 out of 100, based on seven critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".

The new Fab Five cast on the Netflix version of "Queer Eye"
As noted, the new version of "Queer Eye" does change the locale from New York to Atlanta, and although there is no news (yet) on another season, co-creator and producer Collins said that if Netflix does order more, he hopes to find a new location for the show — and he's thinking specifically of returning to his roots.  He said "I'm from Cincinnati, Ohio, born and raised. I would like to go the tri-state region: Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky, because you can base in Cincinnati and go across the bridge to Kentucky and go up the interstate to Indiana. The corn-fed midwestern folk are where I'm from — and I love actually being from Ohio, it's a great place to be from."

Similar to the cast chemistry of the original, the new Fab Five cast for the new version of "Queer Eye" seemingly has pretty good on-screen chemistry, although some important yet relevant changes have been made.

Notably, unlike the show's first iteration, where four of the five stars were white, and all were cisgender.  But it helped open the doors to wider and more diverse queer representation, bringing the Fab Five into millions of homes around the world. That counts for something. Jai Rodriguez, a New Yorker of Puerto Rican descent, notes that his successor in the reboot, Karamo Brown, told him: "One of the biggest things for me watching the show was finally seeing a queer person of color."  Another evolution is that much of this cast comes from lower-income backgrounds, and some even have little mouths (children) to feed.

The new "Fab Five" consists of Bobby Berk (Design Expert), Antoni Porowski (Food Expert), Jonathan Van Ness (Grooming Expert), Tan France (Fashion Expert) and Karamo Brown (Culture Expert).  Of them, Tan is a gay, British-Pakistani Muslim (who happens to be married to an American Mormon cowboy), and Karamo is a gay, African-American man from the South who is also a father of two children, while cast member Bobby has been married to another man for almost fifteen years.  None of that could have been accepted, let alone watched on television, back in 2003.

Updating the original 2003 series to reflect the current social and political climate of today's America was important for Mr. Collins, given how much things have changed. For starters, it feels possible to be a bit more open about the Fab Five's personal lives: "We've evolved in a big way," Collins said. "If you think about the fact that our original Fab Five [didn't use] word 'my husband' or 'my boyfriend' or 'my kids' — America was not ready to handle that. [Now], we get to see that Karamo is a father of two, Tan's a Muslim man married to a Mormon cowboy. And Bobby's been married for almost fifteen years now."

To view a playlist consisting of the original show's intro, the new Fab Five meeting with the original Fab Five, the new show's intro and an interview with the new cast conducted by co-creator and producer David Collins which can be seen below, or by visiting the playlist I created at https://goo.gl/wV4hms:



Author P.S., March 26, 2018:  Entertainment newspaper Variety reports that the Netflix version of "Queer Eye" has been renewed for a second season.  Although a renewal for Season 2 is now confirmed, there is no word yet as to whether it will relocate from Atlanta to Cincinnati as co-creator and producer David Collins said he hoped to do.