Saturday, December 17, 2011

Another Gloomy Biopic with Leonardo

Yet another depressing biopic about a tortured soul from the early 20th century graces the screens this winter, "J. Edgar" and one hopes there will be a sequel wherein we will learn about his discovery of the vacuum cleaner.
Quite reminiscent of Leonardo Decaprio's staring role in the "Aviator" about Howard Hughes is this Hoover yarn. Armand Hammer (a Gossip Girl hunk) is outstanding as Hoover's soul mate Clyde. In fact the scene where they brawl over Hoover's announcement that he had sex with movie star Dorothy Lamour is the high point of the movie. (One cringes at the thought of Dotty bobbing under the obese J. Edgar and where were Bob and Bing while all this was going on).
Muted color bordering on back and white set the scene about a hateful creature who is of little interest to most moviegoers. There's a very telling gay scene where Hoover and Clyde are in a mean spirited chat about style and a woman at the restaurant with flowers growing out of her head. Quite amusing.

Republican Sex? Scandal Rocks St. Paul

Given the current Republican scandal involving Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch (married with children), the question on many minds is: Will the Republicans' antigay constitutional amendment on the next ballot be amended to define marriage as existing between "a man, woman and male legislative aide." Seems fair to me.
The hypocrisy of the entire antigay lesbian marriage amendment is raised by Doug Grow on and what a wonderful Chanukah gift for the DFL and the gay and lesbian communities. The super religious antigovernment, anti-tax Tea Party Republicans took the Capitol by storm and accomplished a record long government shutdown and continuation of skyrocketing property taxes.
Also they got an antigay marriage amendment on the ballot for next November. They might recoup their losses with the Christian right by proposing legislation to make adultery a capital offense punishable by stoning on the Capitol Mall. Hello Amy! Makes sense to me.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

"Rocky King", "Bundle of Joy" Recall 50s

Thanks to Oldies.Com, suddenly it’s the 50s again with the revival of “Rocky King Detective” and “Bundle of Joy.”
Before there was Charlie Sheen there was the Bishop Sheen Show and Rocky King on the DuMount TV Network, favorites in the Zarkin household on KXLY-TV in the early 50s. Rocky carried on annoying conversations with his wife Mabel who was off camera and when the actor playing Rocky (Roscoe Carnes) was sick his sidekick substituted that week. The sponsor was a breath freshener. Unfortunately, the DVD does not include the commercials and the DuMont logo. Amazingly Rocky has survived given the fact that ABC dumped most of the DuMount kinescopes in the East River -- a criminal travesty. Many of the original DuMont stations are now owned by the Fox Network, including KMSP in Minneapolis.
America’s two cutest marrieds, Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, are the headliners in RKO’s 1956 “Bundle of Joy,” which has been remastered from its original RKOScope, released by Warner Archives and is available on DVD for the fist time. Luckily, RKO got the cuties on the studio lot before Eddie became distracted by Liz Taylor.
“The Little Bastard” would have been a better title for “Bundle of Joy” but the censors would not have been amused. The plot deals with a child born out of wedlock who is found on the steps of an orphanage by the Debbie character who falls in love with the handsome Eddie character. Before the RKO logo appears at the end of the movie, the Eddie character admits he is the father of the boy. And Debbie and the censors are okay with that startling revelation.
Tommy Noonan appears as the horny department store coworker of the Debbie character and Adolph Menjou is the Eddie character's daddy which is an odd bit of casting. Menjou appeared in Republic’s “Timberline” where he appeared to be reading his lines off the back of Vera Ralston’s wig.
Also now available (maybe for the first time) is the 1940s Universal serial “Green Hornet Strikes Again” with game show host Warren Hull as the green guy and Keye Luke as his pidgin speaking Asian sidekick Kato. Although not HD, this is a remarkable transfer. A TV series of the same name ran in the 60s. Hull was the MC on “Strike it Rich” on CBS in the 50s when unfortunates told their sad stories and got a chance to get help from benefactors who called the “heart line”. A wiseacre in high school Spanish class chirped “heartline ringing” when the phone distracted Mrs. Black from her lecture. Hull also appeared with the East Side Kids as a cop in “Bowery Blitzkrieg” and used a lot of Brylcream or Vitalis.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Pedicord, Where Dad and Grandparents Stayed

In the 1930s my Dad, Philip Zarkin, and my grandparents, Harry and Rebecca Zarkin, stayed for a short time at the Pedicord Apartments in Spokane which has been enshrined in an exhibit at the Weismann Art Gallery on the University of Minnesota Campus. I don't have any details about their stay in this grim hotel but some of the interior has been reassembled in the museum. Soundtracks provide a haunting picture of desperate lives and I hope that is only the artist's interpretation. Weismann was the son of Russian immigrants to Minneapolis, much like my Dad who died in 2004.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Glenn or Glenda? and Dressed to Kill

A Transgender Halloween
Cross-dressing director Ed Wood Jr. in 1953 gave us the ground breaking transgender movie “Glen or Glenda?”, a product of a feverish brain filled with conflict, guilt and self-doubt. G or G is worth a look since it was from a time when Christine Jorgenson’s sex change was commanding tabloid attention but Hollywood largely avoided the topic. This an independent exploitation throw away movie.
Then comes the intrepid Wood with all his transvestite baggage weighing heavy on his addled mind. So what we get are huge contradictions. A man can be more comfortable in a wig, woman’s clothes and pumps but can remain a manly man. We are reminded with stock war footage of Wood’s World War 2 service.
Wood actually uses the word “transgender” which I am sure was not part of the lexicon in 1953. Wood’s portrayal of gay life is homophobic, funny and disturbing: Two men meet in limbo and one offers to light the other’s cigarette while touching him on the hand suggestively and they exchange glances. One man recoils in horror.
Wood lets us know that this kind of behavior is not acceptable. Interspersed is Bela Lugosi in a set that could be the devil’s living room, repeating the line “pull the strings”. The narrator gives us a picture of Wood troubled by a remote father within possibly a traditional religious environment. So we get images of the devil fighting for his soul. Societal behavior codes requiring conformity are driving Wood crazy and result in heavy drinking which took his life. I think Wood needed to tell this story and we are somewhat richer for his effort.
Brian dePalma’s 1980 slasher thrilled “Dressed to Kill” is the tale of a conflicted homicidal transgender lady aroused by a sexy Angie Dickinson. What’s a girl to do? See these movies in tandem for a a fun filled transgender Halloween.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Vietnam, Practice War No More

The soldier in country in the photo is about 20 and you would like to see a photo of that boy state side before he became a hardened veteran of the Vietnam War. Carefully on his helmet he has check marked the months he has served in that crazy war. He had one month left and we hope he made it out alive. Also on the helmet is his blood type and the letters “DEA” which should be recognizable to those who served.
The photo is superimposed over a leather biker jacket with antiwar slogans and this is all you need to know about the 1968 exhibit at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul. The first thing you will see is an actual medic evacuation helicopter from the war which the history center reassembled inside the building.
A moment in time and where were you then? I was a local government reporter at the Idaho Statesman, chasing down information for articles on urban renewal, city planning and pollution in the Gem State. If you would have told me then that 1968 was the zenith of my career I would have said you were crazy. But it’s true. I wanted to get close to the action and even considered driving to the Democrat convention in Chicago but someone in Boise must have talked me out of that notion.
On a lighter side, the exhibit features styles, music, television shows and movies that we saw in 1968, such as the Beatles, princess telephones and amber glass grapes, a decorative touch
All of this might have had less of an impact had I not just seen 15 hours of Ken Burns’ excellent documentary “The War” with ghastly images of bodies of allied soldiers in about 1944 lined up on the beach being prepared for burial in France in that war of necessity. “Practice war no more” must be a line from a Marvin Gaye song from the ‘60s.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Daydreaming, playing hooky in grade school

The Roosevelt Grade School graduation memory book just arrived by email from classmate Mike Cole and it brought back lots of bittersweet memories of 1945-54 in conservative Spokane. I made some good choices in grade school -- day dreaming and leaving the building.
Trying to dodge the school yard bullies was part of the experience as well as class activities like the discussion of Easter Resurrection or choir singing Christmas carols and “Onward Christian Soldiers”. I was conflicted because of parental pressure not to sing Christian songs so I would mouth the words and the sour puss who was the music teacher would reprimand me. I couldn’t win for losing.
No, I wasn’t a student at a Catholic parochial school but enrolled almost full-time at a public school. One of the enterprising teachers passed out free New Testament bibles during recess and of course I was eager for anything free. When Dad caught sight of the bible he was not amused and it went back the next day.
The reason I say almost full-time was because, according to the memory book, “David couldn’t seem to tell time this year (1947) and used to wander home at recess time.” When you factor in the so-called “free time” and the Christian instruction, that didn’t leave much time for any meaningful education. Oh yes, Mr. Kale warned us about the radio program that satirized the Army-McCarthy hearings as being subversive. We also listened to Gen. MacArthur’s "old soldiers never die” speech on the radio and watched a lot of incredible boring Encyclopedia Brittanica instructional films. We read the Weekly Reader and if anyone has one of those I would love to see it.
I was one of a handful of Jewish or atheist students at Roosevelt and the Christian students had “free time” away at a nearby church for bible study. I was left in an almost empty class room to continue my day dreaming.
Picture 1930s actress Edna Mae Oliver and you have Miss Piendl, my first grade teacher who caught me day dreaming (once again) at the blackboard and gave me a vigorous shake. I think I cried. Miss Piendl wanted to flunk me but then I would have missed Mrs. Moran’s Easter lecture and a chance to make replicas of the Christmas manger scene the following year.
I had friends in grade school despite the anarchy including Jack Malone, a boy named Randy who I had to beat up on the play field because he wouldn’t leave me alone and George Nichols who lived up the street. One of the boys I knew in grade school, Nevin, was also a friend in high school.
My fondest grade school memory was third grade when we were rewarded for collecting newspapers with a showing of the movie “March of the Wooden Soldiers” with Laurel and Hardy. I own the movie and watch it every December.
I also remember a few birthday parties, a graduation party at Rick Judy’s home on Twin Lake and the graduation program when we played “Heart of My Heart” on comb and tissue paper. Miss Lou Eckhart, the third grade teacher, was a favorite and she married an aged wealthy former governor named Martin. I was lousy at math and luckily calculators came along in adulthood.
What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger is the applicable phrase for grade school.
In “class personality” summary for the memory book my nickname was “Dizzie”, ambition bank president, weakness day dreaming, famous for walk, pet saying “by george”, favorite food spaghetti and hobby collecting post cards. I was a crossing guard in addition to my Glee-like vocal efforts. Put your head down on the desk and tape a nap was a familiar refrain. Also, get under the desk for the "communists are coming" drill. I don't know what good the desk would have done. Try not spilling the ink in the ink well.
I was never good at conforming to behavior codes, then and now. It has served me well.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How My Sister Claudia Got Her Name

The popular 1940 novel “Claudia and David” by Rose Franken deals with episodes in a young woman’s life in the ‘40s as she searches for her voice and identity so it was somewhat subversive in a time of oppressive paternalism. On the surface it is about the trials and tribulations of modern marriage, but it also gives a frightening glimpse at the attitudes, behavior codes and prejudices of the 1940s.
I couldn’t put it down once I got into “Claudia and David” as I continue my study of ‘40s books and movies.
This was one in a series of “Claudia” books by Franken and was read by many women including my mother . It must have made a lasting impression on Mom because it was partly responsible for how my sister Claudia got her name. The book was made into a movie in 1946 and was a sequel to the original “Claudia” movie.
Claudia Naughton is the central character and the husband character, David, is never fully developed. “Like the person you love, that’s marriage, and it’s exciting,” says David. Otherwise, he is either sexy and loving or vain, rude, abusive and narrow minded reducing Claudia to tears. In brighter moments there is a bit of escapism for the average reader in that Claudia has a full-time live in maid and accompanies her successful architect husband on a transcontinental flight to Hollywood where she buys an $800 dress which women in that time could only dream about. She also drags the unwilling David to a seance which he dismisses as bunk.
Despite leading a life less ordinary, Claudia confesses that her marriage is less than ideal. She complains that she is “stagnating” and would like to be like “women who function with a job” so she could be treated like a human being. David is quite dismissive at hearing this and she never mentions it again. When the author touches on a defining moment one of the characters gets sick and the plot abruptly shifts.
One of the more disturbing interludes in the book for me is when David discovers that their six year old son Bobby can’t make an acceptable fist to defend himself . David opines that the boy has a “streak of the sissy” and this is not acceptable since he won’t be good at skating or other sports. Claudia to the rescue: She teaches the boy how to skate and he impresses Dad. The subversive sissy crisis is averted and David voices a familiar theme: “Be a man. Stand on your own two feet.”
A crisis befalls the otherwise happy Naughtons when Bertha, the German maid whose standard response is “ach”, leaves. Two weeks without a maid is hell, Claudia and David state. At this moment we are treated to prevailing racism when Claudia interviews women for the mother’s helper job. A “mammoth Negress reeking of perfume” applies, says Claudia, and the Naughtons say the job has been filled which is a lie.
Women were examining their roles in print in 1940s. In a humorous memoir, “The Egg and I”, Betty Macdonald describes her ill advised first marriage Her life as a child bide on a broken-down chicken farm in rural Washington State was made into a successful movie that spawned the Ma and Pa Kettle characters that were a cash cow for Universal-International Pictures in the 1950s. Macdonald never offers an opinion on the marriage but she steers us in the right direction.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Dogma Gone Wild: "Big Love" HBO Soap Opera

Both the TV soap operas “Madmen” and “Big Love” are riveting with common themes and characters -- power greedy buccaneer entrepreneurs who are calculating and manipulative. Both are patriarchal figures. In the foreground of “Big Love” is strict adherence to an impossible behavior code that presents challenging conflicts for the participants. (I have always resisted behavior codes in my own special way).

These series are real American stories -- Madison Avenue and the contemporary Utah religious sect.

“Big Love” was referenced in a recent article in GQ magazine about American religions with the memorable line that "atheists in Manhattan and Southern Baptists in Alabama can agree on one thing: Mormons are crazy.” In the shows I watched there was no disclaimer distinguishing LDS from the FLDS which is a separate sect pursuing polygamy.

The central character Bill in “Big Love,” an aggressive entrepreneur, has several wives simultaneously and therein lies his joy and predicament. This is a cautionary tale for those contemplating multiple marriage arrangements. They have their down side as the series “Big Love” depicts in lurid detail. I concluded that the series prompted the LDS church to air commercials on the TV networks portraying LDS members as "regular citizens" and not monsters.

Bill is caught in the spinning vortex as a result of his actions and those of his wives with different agendas that he can’t control through force of will or by citing his destiny as prescribed by The Prophet. The series with its excellent acting and writing has concluded on HBO but DVDs are available for most seasons.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Memories of Mom, 1914 to 2011

SPOKANE -- A short distance from Mt. Nebo Cemetery in Spokane is Fort George Wright where Mom took me and my sister, Claudia shopping at the Post Exchange in about 1945.
Mom was an Army wife when Dad was drafted, serving with the occupation forces in Japan post World War Two. Dad was not amused and Mom must surely have felt stressed raising two children by herself while we all lived with our grandparents and rented out our house on 29th Avenue. With the post war economy Dad tried to figure out a way to support the family, returning for a short time to a retail sales job that he disliked. Dad’s story is similar to the Dana Andrews character in the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” in that he wound up in the junk business.
We held graveside services Friday at Mt. Nebo in Spokane for Mom, Gertie Zarkin, 96, who died May 20 in a Seattle convalescent facility.
With Mom I could share my joys and some frustrations, including a byline story in the Idaho Statesman or a photo I took of Lucky Peak Reservoir in winter that I was sure was a masterpiece. I enshrined it in a frame from Grand Central that I refinished and mailed to Mom for Mother’s Day. When Mom and Dad left Spokane she gave me the photo with the card pasted to the back. Now it hangs on my living room wall.
Mom at 96 remembered as a child being on a train from Toronto to Spokane and that the soldiers returning from World War One were courteous and attentive to Mom’s family.
Recently Mom would ask: “Are you keeping busy in retirement?” So I had pleasant conversations with Mom when I visited her in Seattle. She was an avid reader and years ago subscribed to the Readers’s Digest book club. She loaned me her books including Betty Macdonald’s “The Egg and I” when I was in grade school, but she would not let me read “Marjorie Morningstar” or “Peyton Place.”
Mom loved the lake and she is pictured here at Spirit Lake, Idaho, in the late 40s where the local movie house showed “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” which she wouldn’t let us see because scary movies gave us bad dreams. (See post on “Beer Hall Babies”.) Cousins Jan and Stan got to see that movie which my son Mike showed me a couple of years ago. Memories of my Mom.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Spokane's Dark Side: Rex Adult Theater

While some prefer to remember Spokane, WA, for its beautiful parks and lovely churches, I have a 55-year-old memory of the notorious Rex Theater on Riverside Avenue. This was too real to be a dream.
To say that the Rex was a BYOB “girlie show” movie house for gentlemen of dubious distinction is being kind. But to a hormonal 15-year-old the lurid poster advertising burlesque queen Patti Waggin in the feature “Too Hot to Handle” was something I never forgot. Not that I could see the movie because it was adults only and I was working. Then again who was going to negotiate with the imposing cashier, one stout tough looking bleached blonde.
For all I knew the publisher of the Spokesman-Review and local ministers could have been Rex regulars but I imagined it was a cheap place to enjoy a bottle of muscatel and take a nap.
Mom and Dad never took us to skid row so how did I find the Rex of my youth? After classes at Lewis and Clark High School, I delivered drugs for a downtown pharmacy and deliveries took me to west Riverside Avenue where I passed by the Rex Theater and saw the lurid poster with a nearly naked Miss Waggin for ADULTS ONLY.
No one will probably ever admit to the existence of the Rex Theater but me.
I realized that this was not a dream but the Waggin movie really existed. As I opened the pages of the movie catalogue I found the movie of my lost youth under the “exploitation” listings. So 55 years later I realize a youthful dream, I buy the DVD and watch THTH. The Rex was real according to the online document, “Washington State Movie Houses,” with 350 seats open from 1949 -59 at 326 Riverside Avenue. It also operated as the New Rex and the El Ray. I was fortunate to grow up in an era where movie houses had character and were distinctive if not colorful, That era lasted about 30 years as theaters were being torn down in the 50s. and 60s.
The DVD is pristine and features comics Harry Savoy and Mannie King, much like Abbott and Costello but with a lot of nauughtiness. (“I’ve got diabetes and you’ve got a couple of lulmps yourself. I went to a gay 90s party. The men were all gay and the women were in their 90s. I’ve never seen a waitress with such big tips”. Cop: “I’ve been pounding my beat for five years.” Comic: And you look it.”
Vegas has made an attempt to revive burlesque with the Absinthe show.
For more on the Paris sensation Ms. Waggin, go to A book is available, “Fan Letters to a Stripper” by Bob Brill.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Escape to a “Cinema Paradiso” Dream World

Some of us grew up in the pre-televison era of Saturday matinees with theaters filled with screaming kids, so the 1989 Italian somewhat biographical epic “Cinema Paradiso” brings back a lot of wonderful memories. It was a great time to be a kid so here’s a movie about growing up with movies.
I was fortunate enough to attend classes this term on the power of music where fellow students introduced us to the beautiful “Cinema Paradiso” love theme with solos by James Galloway and Chris Botti from this timeless classic by director Giuseppe Tornatore.
You will need to see the movie to fully appreciate the music because it’s a touching coming of age epic, somewhat like Peter Bogdanovich’s “Last Picture” show with attractive young actors. But this is set in post war rural Italy and while it’s reminiscent of Fellini’s biographical "Armacord", “Cinema Paradiso” is more evocative for those of us who are trying to write our life stories.
There’s a good reason why Baltimore’s Little Italy festival annually features “Cinema Paradiso” because it’s a magnet for young lovers. Originally criticized for being overly sentimental, the movie found an international audience in 1990 when it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.
“Cinema Paradiso” was restored on DVD to its original full three-hour length and will delight you with everything that makes Italy so hauntingly beautiful.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Betty, Roy Neal, Arthur Godfrey and Me

In her otherwise unremarkable autobiography, “Here We Go Again,” Betty White describes co-hosting coverage of the Rose Bowl Parade (possibly in 1964) with legendary Arthur Godfrey. This was very likely at the time I was working at NBC News as an editorial assistant. White had previously co-hosted coverage of the parade with NBC newsman Roy Neal (space agency reporter). I distinctly recall Neal’s comments in the Burbank newsroom that Godfrey was very difficult or something to that effect. Godfrey could be downright subversive.
White confirms the “challenge” that Godfrey presented for the NBC crew. While the action was on the street, Godfrey was describing off camera nonsense of little interest to most viewers. Although Neal was not involved in that year’s broadcast, he had some role in arrangements involving Godfrey.
Godfrey was his own man and would tweak the nose of his sponsors on CBS, defying people to find any chicken in Lipton chicken noodle soup. Yet advertisers in the 50s made him and CBS radio and TV quite rich, I am sure. By the time he wound up at NBC covering the parade his career was in its twilight.
White’s book shows a photo of her covering the parade with Neal, who was a delightful man and treated me like a human being which is more than I can say of some others at NBC news in 1964. Neal sported a cigarette holder which gave him quite a continental look unlike the other heavy smokers in the windowless NBC newsroom. We never gave a thought to second hand smoke back in the 60s, confined in that converted RCA warehouse.
A couple of years ago I bought a “Life With Elizabeth” DVD which features White’s very early syndicated sitcom that started on LA’s KLAC-TV (now KCOP). It was the usual air head comedy but it was about all we had in the mid 50s on KHQ-TV. Also syndicated on the same channel was Liberace, with whom White enjoyed a “date.” Guess things went well with Betty and Lee, but she never dated any of the stars of Hollywood, Chicago and Texas wresting, all very popular on KHQ and KXLY in the 50s. Gorgeous George and Betty? Nah!
Also working at NBC Burbank were Jack Latham, news anchor, and an African American editorial assistant, whose name escapes me. Both are featured in the AIP movie, "Wild in the Streets," as news anchors. Latham had worked at KHQ in Spokane and was a very thoughtful, kind man. Elmer Peterson and Cecil Brown, both with long radio careers, were commentators on the KNBC nightly broadcasts. We were very old looking in '64. My big moment: When Peter Lorre died in '64 they needed movie footage and I suggested the AIP horror movie, "The Raven," so they sent me to AIP where I picked up a 35mm print of that movie. I had touched ground at nirvana-- American International Pictures. It doesn't get better than that.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Does Anyone Remember Speedy, Beanie, Cecil

It was dejavu all over again this past week on TV with the revival of little Speedy in the Alka Seltzer commercials and TV Pioneers showcased “Time for Beanie”. Does anyone remember these 50s icons?
A lad of 12 I was watching with Dad and sis every weeknight at 6:30pm on KHQ-6 Beanie, Cecil and Tear Along the Dotted Lion. Watching a clip from the show last night on the PBS TV Pioneer show brought back many fond memories of a cheesy kids show that even adults could enjoy thanks to Stan Freeberg’s sly humor (the oy ga vault). Beanie was a kinescope from Los Angeles, where it was hugely popular. Living in the Spokane TV market we missed Soupy Sales, Bozo the Clown and WCCO’s “Axel” or anything of that caliber. We had to settle for the “Salty” show on KXLY early evenings sponsored by Hillyard Furniture. Salty was a low rent puppet show, but what else was there to watch in the 50s?
Seattle’s KOMO had “The Captain Puget Show” in which I played a small part as a public relations assistant in 1962, ushering brats into the peanut gallery to watch the Captain pitch products and show cartoons. I remember one little snot who made a big deal about his father who was an executive at KAYO Radio, one of several Top 40 stations in Seattle. The Captain was a boring, cranky character and a far cry from the antics of WGN’s Bozo or most other kids shows. I believe that KTNT in Tacoma had Brakeman Bill.
The animated character Speedy in the Alka Seltzer commercials was also quite compelling as was cute Willie the Penguin who promised us kids that Kools were really the best smokes. So Speedy is back in HD but I am afraid Willie is but a foggy memory.