Monday, February 27, 2012

And the Winner Is....

So I watched the Oscars last night, or I should say I recorded them so I could fast-foward through the commercials and the boring acceptance speeches. The older I get the less I recognize any of the so-called celebrities walking the red carpet. This year I actually saw a couple of the films in contention for Oscars. "The Help" was a wonderful story about the struggles of African-American maids working for white folks in the deep South during the 1960s. I also enjoyed Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris", a thinly disguised, autobiographical fantasy about Woody's admiration for the artists who gathered in Paris during the 1920's.

Oh how the Oscars have changed since the 1950s when we all gathered around our black and white console TV sets busting with curiosity over who the big winners would be. It was a time when Hollywood was a fairy-tale place filled with real movies stars whose careers spanned decades, not months. Stardom was earned by staying power; it was not uncommon for actors and actresses (yes, women were called actresses then unlike today when they all refer to themselves as actors) to make two or three films a year under the old "studio" system. Major studios like MGM, Warner Brothers and RKO placed promising newcomers under contract and worked them like mules. They were told what films they had to appear in, and could not work for another studio unless they were "loaned out" like property, with the approval of the tyrannical studio heads.

Real movie stars didn't make a film or two and then disappear. They didn't come and go at the whim of audiences. They were established performers who paid their dues and were there year after year on the big screen. Not all their movies were blockbusters, but they always worked. In-between clunkers they turned out some of the most memorable films ever made. James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck...marquis names whose faces were known to movie fans around the world. And the talented, glamorous actresses who played opposite them...Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Myrna Loy, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, Liz Taylor, Katharyn Hepburn, Lauren Bacall; those gals had star power.

The Oscars were broadcast in April during the 1950s; for some reason having to do with money I'm sure, they moved up the broadcast to February a few years ago. The venue was different too. Grauman's Chinese Theater hosted the Oscars for so many years until they were moved to several different locations, the latest being the Kodak Theater, until recently when Kodak went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. I miss the old Graumann's venue since it had been so closely tied to the Oscars for so many years. The other constant was the wisecracking Bob Hope acting as Master of Ceremonies for the event. Bob made it look so easy; it was only after he was gone that the Academy learned how hard it would be to fill his shoes. Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal have done credible jobs, but nobody will ever be as good as Bob Hope.

Yes, the old Oscar telecasts went on forever and I'm glad they've taken measures to shorten the evening. The speeches used to drone on, as winners thanked everyone they'd ever met in the business. There were some unpredictable and fun moments too, like when Marlon Brando had a lovely young Native-American woman named Sacheen Littlefeather take the stage to refuse his best actor Oscar for his role in The Godfather. There was also the time when a slim young man "streaked" buck naked past the suave British actor David Niven who was onstage to make a presentation. The ever-poised Niven deadpanned, “The only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping ... and showing his shortcomings.”

The famous catch phrase of the Academy Awards show used to be: "And the winner is...." Now, because we can't have people's self-esteem bruised by the idea that they are losers, the presenters say instead: "And the Oscar goes to...." If truth be told, I'd rather look at Cary Grant and Myrna Loy than Tom Cruise and Jennifer Lopez. But hey, that's me.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

It Was the Fifties, Man

Harry Truman is out and everybody likes Ike,
The Dodgers pull out a miraculous Series win.
I trick out my black, red and chrome Shelby bike,
People are still judged by the color of their skin.
It was the Fifties, Man.

Sitting in school, first row, sixth desk back,
Forty naughty boys in white shirts and blue ties,
Step out of line, Miss Langin gives your face a smack,
Poor old lady doesn’t know, in a year, she dies.
It was the Fifties, Man.

Lying in bed dreaming young boy dreams,
Flipping baseball cards, a hundred at a time,
Block-long Cadillacs, chocolate egg creams,
Superman comics still cost only a dime.
It was the Fifties, Man.

Watch American Bandstand on black and white TV,
Justine and Bob dancing around so slow,
The Salk vaccine makes polio a bad memory
Senator McCarthy proves how low a man can go.
It was the Fifties, Man.

At Cape Canaveral we shoot ‘Explorer’ into space,
In Korea, 33,000 men die for freedom in the snow,
Rosa Parks sits down and stands up for her race,
Elvis shakes it up on the Ed Sullivan show.
It was the Fifties, Man.

Castro rules in Cuba, the Cold War rages,
Watson and Crick describe double-helix DNA,
Blondie and Dagwood rule the funny pages,
We had fags, homos and queers, but nobody was gay.
It was the Fifties, Man. 

It was good and it was bad, right and yet so wrong,
Two cars in every garage, but hatreds barely contained,
What ever it was, it was my childhood song,
And I will sing it, with joy unrestrained.
It was the Fifties, Man.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association

Saturday, February 11, 2012

It's Magic

Ed Sullivan used to have a guest on once in a while called The Great Ballantine. He was a comic magician who always cracked me up...kind of like a Henny Youngman who did corny tricks. Some dormant part of my brain kicked in this morning to remind me of how, as a kid growing up, I was fascinated with magic. Every comic book had ads in the back pages for sure fire magic tricks guaranteed to mystify your friends. Some Fifties kids (like Johnny Carson who rode this interest to a successful career) really got hooked on magic. For me it was enough to mystify my friends, who were easily mystified by the way. Here are a few favorites I remember.

Guess the Card - For novice magicians, this was a simple trick involving nothing more than a deck of cards. You would ask a friend to pick a card from the deck, look at it, and replace it face down back in the deck. Of course every magician worth his
abracadabra had a little snappy patter to distract the mark so that he would not realize you had cut the deck and looked at the card that would now be on top of his card. You then shuffled the deck and, sifting through it, told your incredulous friend that his card was the ace of spades. The trick was easy to do, and the gimmack not immediately apparent to gullible nine year-olds.

Disappearing Coin Box - This trick involved a wooden box with a pull-out tray containing a cut-out circle where a coin would fit. You would bet your mark that you could make his coin disappear and then reappear. He would put his coin into the slot and then, with a flourish, you would slide the tray back into its recess. After uttering a few magic words, you would slide the tray back out to reveal an empty space where the coin had been. Finally, to allay the look of panic on your friend's face as he saw his nickel disappear, you would slide the empty tray back in, say the magic words, and pull it out again with the precious nickel back in its place. The trick of course was that the box had two trays, but a good magician never gave away his secrets.

The Chinese Handcuffs - Of course everyone today knows the secret of this trick, but back then it was fun to watch a kid struggling to get his fingers out of what looked like an innocent little tube made of straw. The harder they pulled, the tighter the cuffs became. The beauty of this device was its brilliant assumption that when people's fingers are stuck in something, they tend to try to pull them apart to get free. Chinese handcuffs were specifically designed to get tighter the harder one tried to pull free. The trick to escape was to push the fingers together, at which point the cuffs would give and release the trapped fingers. This was an especially satisfying trick to pull on bigger, stronger kids whose solution to everything was brute force.

The Money Maker - An ingenious contraption that made it appear that the magician could spin straw into gold, or to put it more mundanely, turn blank pieces of paper into money. You would ask the mark if he could use some extra money; the answer was always yes. You would then taks a pre-cut piece of white paper, feed it through the rollers of the Money Maker, and voilĂ , out came crisp, dollar bills. A variation on this miracle was to feed one dollar bills into the rollers and have five dollar bills come out. The trick was to pre-load the miracle money into the Money Maker so that it was not visible until the crank was turned. The rollers carried the blank paper to an unseen compartment as it rolled out the pre-loaded currency. This trick was always a show stopper.

Magic has come a long way. I get e-mails today showing magic tricks that dazzle and baffle me, but then like my gullible friends of yesteryear, I'm pretty easy to baffle these days.


LOOKING FOR A WORTHY CHARITY? TRY THESE FOLKS: Children's Craniofacial Association