Thursday, January 29, 2009

Heckling Billy Crystal

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

In 1975, just before the time I started going to CBGB, I was an undergrad at Kingsborough Community College (KCC), out on a cold and windy peninsula in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. One of the friends I made there was a married woman named Sheryl who was a few years older than me (I was 19, she was about 26).

Sheryl had really dark hair, with some premature gray strands mixed in, which was a cool look. Her husband was not jealous of me, and rightfully so because we were not having an affair.

I was just getting into Harry Chapin (which started when I heard the song, “Sniper”), and was generally interesting in seeing some live music. I’d been to a few bigger venue concerts, like Melanie (Carnegie Hall), Roxy Music (Academy of Music), Linda Rondstadt (Heart Like a Wheel tour at the Beacon!), and Foghat/Montrose/Black Oak Arkansas (also the Beacon), and was open to new sounds (as long as it wasn’t disco or MOR rock).

The Bitter End, New York
Sheryl announced one day that one of her favorite artists, Dan Hill, was going to be playing at the… Well, honestly, I can’t remember now if it was the Bitter End or the Other End, two names for the same club at different times. I suppose I could look it up, but I’m being lazy right now. Anyway, the club was on Bleecker Street, just off LaGuardia Place.

Dan Hill, for those who don’t know, is a Canadian folk singer. I had never heard of him before that, as his one big U.S. chart reacher, “Sometimes When We Touch,” had not hit the radio just yet. As of that point, he was more of a cult singer. She asked me to go, and I wasn’t too sure I wanted to spend money on him. Then she told me that the opening act was comedian Billy Crystal.

Billy Crystal, 1970s
I knew who Crystal was. He had just been on the sit-com, "Soap," and he had appeared on a bunch of talk shows doing a stand-up routine he did back then about an old jazz musician who called him “Face” when Crystal was a child. Crystal’s dad owned a jazz record label when he was a kid, and little Billy had the opportunity to hang out with many famous musicians of the day. Since I liked Crystal, I figured what the hell. Somehow, Bernie Kugel got mixed up in this whole thing, and came along, as well.

We paid our cover (and overpriced two-drink minimum, I might add, as the drinking age back then was 18) and we sat at a table near the middle, waiting for the first set. The place wasn’t packed, but all the tables were taken, and the audience that was there was filled with mainly women who wanted to see Hill. Seemed like only the two-thirds of our table was there to see the opening act.

Billy Crystal came out, and was funny, of course. Not side splitting, but he definitely kept us entertained. He even did the “Face” bit. He did about 45 minutes and was a class act. We were happy.

Dan Hill, early 1980s
After he left, Daniel Grafton "Dan" Hill IV came on. Hill is a short guy who was a guitar-and-stool performer. He also had a pretty long, but scraggly beard. And he seemed to go on forever. His songs were kind of listless and bland, which reminded me of a review by Dorothy Parker, who once famously described the talent of Katherine Hepburn as running “the emotional gamut from A to B.” Bernie and I kept looking at our watches. Between songs, he would smile and banter, while picking at his beard and pulling out things stuck there (old food?). Not a pleasant experience.

Finally he was done, and none too soon. There was a second set, which meant another two-drink minimum, so the two of us were ready to go. But Sheryl had other plans: she wanted to see Hill play again. And, she was adamant about it. Bernie and I talked it over while she was in the bathroom, and we figured, well, at least we get to see Billy Crystal again, so it’s not a loss. The whole audience felt the same as Sheryl, so nobody left, and we all stayed to see the second set.

After what seemed like a long time, Crystal came back. Then, despite it being the same audience, he started doing the exact same material in the exact same order. Damn!

About 15 minutes into his set, he said something like, “Did you hear what happened out on Long Island?” I replied, louder than I realized, “Yeah, about two hours ago.” He turned bright red, literally threw down the mic, and stormed off the stage. He’s a big star now, but I think perhaps back then, with his career sort of plateauing pre-"Saturday Night Live," his ego was bigger than his career, and it touched a nerve. I never meant to tread; part of me is not sorry I said it, as it was true to what I was feeling, but at the same time I thought he’d at worst laugh it off or insult me, not leave in a huff.

For the rest of the night, I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting him to come out and clock me. It was my own paranoia, I know, but it was palpable. Hey, I was not a fighter, but I guess I was a heckler. I was at least that night, anyway.

Dan Hill finally finished his second set, and we got ready to leave. I kept looking around all the way out of the club, and didn’t relax until we were on the subway home. Bernie got off the stop before me, and Sheryl and I got off the same one. She didn’t speak to me for a few days after that. Bernie and I still occasionally kid about it.

Postscript: Sheryl moved out to the West Coast after graduation (if I remember correctly to follow a biker guy, or perhaps to get away from her husband…or both). Bernie went off to college in Buffalo and formed The Good, and became a cult icon in his own right [Bernie was inducted into the Buffalo Musicians Fall of Fame - RBF, 2020]. Dan Hill had one big hit in the U.S. (perhaps more in Canada), and had a funny mention in an episode of "SCTV," but essentially has disappeared from the music scene. Billy Crystal went on to do one of the best opening monologs in the history of "SNL," which he hosted before he became cast member. Now he is rightfully a star.

And every once in a while, I wonder if he remembers that night.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

How Mel Brooks Set My Mother on Fire

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Photo of Helen Rosen from RBF personal collection
Images of Mel Brooks from Internet

When World War II ended in 1945, Helen Rosen, was 19 years old, living with her family in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.

My mom was a tough girl, having dropped out of high school. She claimed it was to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yards, but I always had the suspicion it was because she hated going to an all-girls school. Helen was a looker back then, all 5 feet of her. She started smoking when she was a young teen, and stayed with her Kents until a couple of years before she passed away in 1981, while in her mid-‘50s.

Before moving to Bensonhurst in the mid-‘30s, she had lived in Williamsburg. This was, of course, way before it became the “New Greenwich Village.” Back then, it was a centralized Jewish neighborhood.

[Helen Rosen, Coney Island, early ‘40s]
To her crowd, Helen was known as Blondie, though eventually she would be called Lynn. One of her close friends was Mildred, or Millie, who she had known since her Williamsburg days, and went by the moniker of Lefty.

During the war, Lefty was in love with a pilot in the service, and waited for him to come home, by the name of Bernie Kominsky. One day, while in an air battle, Bernie’s cockpit was shot through by a bullet, and when he landed, his hands were frozen to the steering gear. They literally had to be scraped off the equipment. He had some nerve damage, and was given a disability pension. Upon his return, Lefty and Bernie decided to get married.

Lefty asked my mom to be her maid of honor, and Bernie picked his brother, Melvin, who was also just out of the service, to be his best man. Logistically, it worked out well because they were both short. From what I’ve heard, it was a lovely and lively party in 1946.

[Mel Brooks]
After the bride and groom’s first dance, as is the custom, the maid of honor and best man had their turn on the floor. Melvin, who if you haven’t guessed by now, would later change his last name to Brooks (taken from his mother’s maiden name of Brookman, but shortened to fit on the drum kit he played professionally, taught to him by his Williamsburg childhood neighbor, Buddy Rich). As they moved around the floor, the band turned the waltz into a swing number, and Mel started twirling Lynn around the floor. My mom was a great dancer (so was my father), but as he swung her around, her veil went through a candle that was on a table. You know what kind of material from which veils are made.

Next thing anyone knew, it went up in a ball of flame. I’m not sure whom the quick acting person was, or if it was even my mom or Mel, but the veil was taken off quickly, bobby pins tearing at the hair.

The end result was my mom was a bit singed around her hair and eyebrows, but was essentially unhurt. But she did come away with a great story.

As I was growing up, we’d often watch the television show Get Smart, and when the “Created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry” credit came up, my mom would smile and say, “That’s the guy that set me on fire!”

Special thanks to Alan Abramowitz for helping me with the Helen Rosen picture

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Fear of February

Text © Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

As we swing towards February, Mercury is currently in retrograde. What this means to those into astrology is that this is a bad time for making life-altering decisions and signing contracts. In fact, I know of a famous musician who is putting off a big deal until the retrograde ends, after February 1. Astrology to me is one of those things that I find cool if it works for me, but I ignore if it is negative.

It seems an irony that retrograde ends at the start of February, because that is when I start to get a little bit nervous. Early in that month seems to have an air of fear and a hint of death. After all, lets visit this period for the past few decades.

On a very early cold Midwest morning, three musicians stepped onto a plane. They were on a grinding cavalcade bus tour, and the star decided he wanted to fly ahead to wash his socks and underwear.

Though the stories are numerous about how everyone ended up being on the small chartered plane, it crashed minutes after taking off. Along the with tales of how culture changed at that defining moment, there are even songs telling of “The Day the Music Died.”

On board were the prince of rock and roll, Buddy Holly (Charles Hardin Holley), rising star Richie Valens (Richard Steven Valenzuela), and one-hit-wonder disk jockey J.P. Richardson, known nationwide as The Big Bopper. One story was that at a certain point, session guitarist Waylon Jennings was also on board, but got off, with Valens taking his place.

Ten years later, it was February 2, 1969, and a British born/Toronto raised elderly actor named William Henry Pratt passed on. He possessed one of the most imitated voices in the history of cinema, and yet, again ironically, he started his career voiceless. His first film was in 1919, a silent film called “Her Majesty’s Service.” Pratt’s roles were mostly second-string, and though he made numerous films before the advent of sound pictures, he didn’t make enough to live on, so he drove a truck to fill in the gaps.

The change came indirectly at first, in 1930 (though it was actually recorded in 1929). The film Dracula was an instant success, making the actor who played the role, Bela Lugosi, famous. He had that melodious, mysterious voice, which he considered his trademark. When the next film at Universal Studios came up later that year, to be released in 1931, he turned down the role because it was non-speaking. The person who got the role was pretty much unknown, despite his years of the craft. When the film Frankenstein came out, the actor playing the monster was listed in the credits merely as “?” No longer Bill Pratt, “?” was now monikered Boris Karloff.

Paradoxically, Karloff had a much more varied and popular career than Lugosi, probably because the former was able to remove himself from his roles, where as the latter had too much of his life mixed with his mythos. Karloff used his roles to pursue the things that interested him, such as art collecting; Lugosi merely wanted the fame, the dames, and the intoxication. Because Karloff was such a kind man, he actually made a sideline of being totally against type, by recording albums of children’s stories (I possess one of them), and even playing the narrator and main character of the animated How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

Towards the end of his career, he made one phenomenal film, Targets, essentially playing himself in an early film directed by Peter Bogdanovich, before Boris drifting off into grade C Mexican horror films while confined to a wheelchair due to an extremely advanced case of arthritis. He died on February 2, 1969.

Ten years later, it goes back to a short, flashy life in music. Or, some people may argue, around music, considering the talent of the artist. There have been many interpretations and tales about the death of John Simon Ritchie, or as he’s commonly known, Sid Vicious. Or, just Sid, even though he was Sidney (or SID-nay) to John Lydon. I share the same birthday as Sid, May 10.

But first I must digress: I saw Sid once. In ’78, was at a crappy little club that lasted for two minutes near the old Bleecker Bob’s, when it was on MacDougal Street, near the Christian Science Reading Room. The show was over, and I turned the corner onto 8th Street, going toward the subway, and there was Sid, definitely wobbly with a bottle in his hand, kicking some unconscious drunken guy who was lying on the sidewalk near the curb and a pile of trash waiting for the garbage truck. Needless to say, I did not stop to chitchat.

Without saying whether it is true or not, here is the story that I heard about Sid’s death. After getting out on bail, he wanted to, well, let’s just say return to some old habits. He had his mother, who was in New York, head over to a dealer he knew in the then truly seedy Union Square Park. He told her, “Make sure it’s good stuff.” When his mom made the purchase, she asked the dealer what condition the condition was in, and he told her, “For Sid, I only give excellent. Just make sure he cuts it.” For those who don’t know (and as someone who has never tried the crap, I’m not even sure how I know), it means it’s pure and needs to have something added into it to dilute the potency.

When dear ol’ mum brought it back, Sid asked, “Is the stuff good? What did the guy say?” She told him, “He said something about it being cut.” Sid took this to mean that it had already been cut, and he OD’d.

That story may be pure fiction, I don’t know, I’m just the reteller of what I heard. Either way, he died on February 2, 1979.

In case the reader has not noticed, this was the first few days of February in three 10-year intervals: 1959, ’69, and ‘79. As far as I know, there was no cultural death-shift in 1989 or 1999, but I am still aware every first few days of that month. Perhaps I am going to be especially aware as it comes around this year, 2009.

POSTSCRIPT FEB 2009: Looks like this year proved to be another in the list, as Cramps front(wolf)man Lux Interior passed away on Feb 4, 2009. My blog about him is dated Feb 5.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Catwomen I Have Known

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos

The recent passing of Eartha Mae Keith, better known as Eartha Kitt, reminds me that, to date, I have met quite a number of Catwomen in my life.

The first one was in May of 1997, at a toy promotion convention called the Syndicate Promotions Toy, Music & Horror Expo, held at the Garden State Exhibit Center, in Somerset, NJ. At the time, Bernie Kugel, his wife Tink, and then very young son Ben (now graduating college, fer krissake), would go to many of these kinds of gathering to check out the merchandise (comics, records, memorabilia), meet the actors of either grade-B-thru-Z films or those on their way up or down, and maybe run into people who were also attending like Johnny Ramone (who we often saw at these jamborees of the bizarre).

Along with a bunch of wrestlers (Taz, Kimberly, and Diamond Dallas Page), actors (the angry Candy Clark, whose career rightfully should have been bigger than this), and generally cool merch, we met a number of the participants in the ‘60s version of television’s Batman.

[Julie Newmar]
One of the people I was most excited to meet there was Julie Newmar (Julia Chalene Newmeyer), the original Catwoman on the show. Hell, I had quite a memory of her growing up, in films like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (one of my mom’s favorite film, which we’d watch it on TV), Ii’l Abner (in one of her defining roles as Stupefyin’ Jones), and Mackenna’s Gold, but especially in television appearances on just about everything, like Get Smart, Star Trek, The Monkees, F-Troop and The Beverly Hillbillies. However, it was Catwoman that was the defining role for us at PS 128. She was a stunning woman with a voice like syrup. Statuesque, a strong intellect and a very sharp timing for comedy that was overlooked due to her appearance, many of us pre-pubescent boys put her up there with the likes of Inger Stevens, Elizabeth Montgomery, Barbara Eden, Yvonne Craig, and Marta Kristen. By the time of this Syndicate Promotions show, she was in the range of nearing Social Security. She seemed to have had a number of “procedures,” and possessed what we now know as a “Cher” face. I must say, she was very sweet to all who came to say hello, and there were plenty of people on line to meet her, especially us men.

[Burt Ward]
At the next table was Robin, himself, Burt Ward (Bert John Gervis, Jr). He came across as totally cool in his Hawaiian shirt and easy manner. While the role of Robin both made and broke his career, he seemed kind of breezy, and was definitely more attentive to the women who were dropping by (and there were many middle aged giggly women there on line to get him to sign something). From what I know of his autobiography, Boy Wonder: My Life In Tights getting women excited was not something he either had a problem with or turned away from. Still, his multiple charity work and convention signings seems to have worked out for him. Mostly, he seemed to be having a lot of fun, and I totally respect that.

[Frank Gorshin]
The last Batman-related star at this convention (no, the future mayor of Quahog was not present) was Frank Gorshin. I think I was more excited to meet him any the other two. While his Joker was one of the characters most associated with him, I was a fan of his other projects, as well, especially his comic mimic work on The Kopycats, part of the ABC Comedy Hour in the early ‘70s. Along with the likes of powerhouses Rich Little, Charlie Callas, and the lovely Marilyn Michaels (I still have her LP), Frank stood out for his pure manic energy. People like Jim Carey owe him a huge debt, much as Robin Williams does (and acknowledges so) Jonathan Winters. Every week the players would do comedy sketches while mimicking famous actors (Frank would often do, for example, Kirk Douglas). But he was also strong as a dramatic actor, such as on the classic “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” episode of Star Trek, which focused on race relations. He was one the humanoid black & white cookies, Bele, giving that great, memorable line “It is obvious to the most simpleminded that Lokai is of an inferior breed…I am black on the right side…Lokai is white on the right side. All of his people are white on the right side. “ But even before that, he had appeared in a bunch of grade D films that I remember watching on television growing up, like Hot Rod Girl, Dragstrip Girl, The Delicate Delinquent (Jerry Lewis’s first post-Dean solo endeavor) and especially, Invasion of the Saucer Men. He had a pretty lively career until his death in 2005. In 1997, he was totally accessible, and looked more like a family uncle than a movie star. I took a picture, and then he looked at me and smiled as I snapped the second. I was nervous and my hand was shaky, so the picture is a bit blurry.

[Lee Meri-weather]
In November that same year, at the Halloween edition of the Chiller Theatre gathering in Secaucus, NJ, I had the chance to run into the third woman to play Catwoman, Lee Ann Meriweather. I remembered her as much for playing the film (1966) version of Catwoman, as I had for her cinematic roles like in 4D Man, and in multitude of television shows like Star Trek. Even before that, she had been one of the original members of the Today Show and elected Miss America the year I was born. Later, should would become popular again for roles in the likes of Barnaby Jones, All My Children, and for reprising the character of Lily in the mind-numbing The Munsters Today. While I always found her to be the blandest of the Catwomen (until Michelle Pfeiffer – despite the leather outfit – whom I have not met), my opinion of her changed when our paths crossed. Anyone who has been to these kinds of shows knows that most of the artists attending are there, basically, to sell their signatures or photos, to the point of greed (I believe stemming from the anger that their career was at the point where they needed to be doing this rather being able to get jobs acting). I have had many people glare at me for taking photos of them. Not Lee; rather she put on the biggest, sincerest smile and melted my heart. She came off as incredibly genuine. After I took the picture, someone walked over and started talking to her about earlier roles. Her complete attention was directed at this individual, and she answered openly and in a non-rushed manner. From that moment on, she had and has my total respect.

The last Catwoman I came across was by sheer accident, and I did not get a photo, even though I had my camera in my hand. Thanks to connections, in May 1998, Bernie managed to wrangle two tickets to see Ringo Starr and his All Star Band play at the Bottom Line in a pre-tour tryout. It was, of course, a great show. We sat over to the right side (at a table next to Michael Moore). When I had the chance, with camera in hand, I went over to the center of the room to squat in front of one of the pillars to get a picture of the band. Between shots, I looked at the table to my left, and there was someone who looked familiar, despite the darkness through the red lights. At first, I thought, “Is that Eartha Kitt?” as I squinted. She saw me looking (pretty sure not seeing me squinting, and thinking I was staring), and gave a small smile and did a cat claw motion with her hand at me. Smiling, I took some more pictures of Ringo, and went off back to my seat, and to tell Bernie. The reason I didn’t take the picture is because it was too dark, even for 400 ASA; there announced that taking flash pictures was forbidden, and cameras would be confiscated if a flash was exploded. Eartha Kitt was a legend beyond the Catwoman role (which I’m sure she got because more because of her famous growl), but having someone of color in that role at that time broke more barriers than she (or the producers) is given credit. After all, the sexual tension with the very lily white Adam West was even more palpable than between Uhura and Kirk. Kitt was the natural progression starting from Josephine Baker, and fitting somewhere between Lena Horne and Diahann Carroll as the African-American woman white men fantasized about.

There were two other Batman related actors I have seen that I can think of, but am only mentioning them in passing due to the circumstances in which I met them. Vincent Price played the villain Egghead in the television series, but I saw him portray Oscar Wilde on Broadway in his one-man show, Diversions and Delights, in 1977. Similarly, I actually got to shake hands with the second Joker, Jack Nicholson, at a press screening of the film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975. His Joker, which was meant to be so much more like Heath Ledger’s, came out closer to Frank Gorshin’s, and to date, I feel his was the worst because so much more was expected. We got a load of him, indeed.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Film: I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

All text and photos © Robert Barry Francos (except film poster)

Every once in a while, I get the opportunity to interview or hang out with some people who are relatively unknown, but turn out to be famous. This has been happening since I was Arts Editor of my college paper, The Scepter at Kingsborough Community College, in Brooklyn.

During the glory days of the mid-‘70s, I was going to film previews, plays, and seeing music. I jumped at almost any opportunity I could. One such occasion was the press preview screening for the film, I Wanna Hold Your Hand.

Okay, a brief rundown of the classic cult film, for those who don’t know (or too lazy to look it up on IMDB). The 1978 film directed by Robert Zemeckis, starts in suburban Maplewood, New Jersey, and follows a bunch of friends (and rivals) who are excited to hear that their favorite band, the Beatles, are going to be appearing for the first time on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they are determined to see the show despite not only not having tickets, but with practically no means to get them. This all takes place in the 24 hours before and during February 9, 1964.

The film opens with Sullivan impersonator Will Jordan talking to his ushers, warning them about the chaos that’s bound to occur in the theater around the appearance. When the title song started playing, I was truly impressed, because the song just boomed. I’d always remembered it as being kind of tinny (more because of the equipment I was hearing it on, I’m sure), but this (remixed?) one rocked.

The film was non-stop fun from beginning to end, and many Beatles scholars were impressed by how the Sullivan appearance was presented. The viewer never see the faces of the actors portraying the Beatles throughout the film (mostly their legs), so in an exact mock up of the Sullivan set, you see the performance from behind the camera where the camera blocks the top portion of the actors playing them, who at the exact time are mirroring the actual performance seen in the television camera’s eyepiece. It was done brilliantly.

The screening for college press I attended was followed by an interview session with some of the actors, most of who were pretty unknown at the time. Not many people showed up for the preview, so rather than standing in front of the room, the performers actually stood among us, and in my case, in the row directly in front of me. It was early in the day, and they all seemed quite exhausted, but were pretty much having fun being with us, though the distinct impression was that they also would be happy sleeping rather than talking to college press, and I didn’t blame them at all!

My camera had no flash in the dark theater, and they were THISCLOSE, so I was sure the pictures would not turn out. But surprisingly, what follows is the result. Unfortunately, the only scans I have are low rez, but you get the idea.

Nancy Allen was probably the best known of the actors that day. She had just come off as the main villain in Carrie (spilling the pig blood and dying in a car with John Travolta). She would also star in a number of A-list films, like Steven Spielberg’s 1941, the RoboCop series, and her then-husband Brian DePalma’s Dressed to Kill and Blow-Out (again with Travolta). Her career has sort of waned since the ‘90s, but she still works here and there. I was blown away by how beautiful she was in person, the film certainly not doing her justice. Her laugh was easy, and she was open to the number of questions about Carrie, though I get the feeling that many there asked her about it because they wanted to be talking to her.

This was Bobby DiCicco first film, but everyone there I talked to afterwards was sure he was going to be a star. He had the looks and the personality. He was the perfect for playing either the James Dean type of rebel, or the “Joey” sort of cliché of Friends. In the beginning his talent showed in major features like Ron Howard’s Night Shift and Splash, the gritty war drama The Big Red One, and he even costarred with Nancy Allen in 1941 and The Philadelphia Experiment. Though the ‘80s and into the early ‘90s, Bobby hit his peak, and then he slowly geared into grade B films, and eventually into straight-to-video hell like Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence and Ghoulies IV. He sort of disappeared off the scene in the mid ‘90s. He came across as serious and focused during the interview.

From my neighborhood in Brooklyn, this was also Theresa Saldana’s first film. Her career was strongly on the rise two years later after appearing in Raging Bull, but her trajectory was definitely sidetracked when she was knifed by a lunatic at her front door. After a lengthy recovery she still acted, but most of her devotion (and rightfully so) was to a charitable organization she famously formed called “Victims For Victims” (Theresa played herself in the 1984 television film Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story. Her career became more television oriented with strong guest star roles in shows like The Bernie Mac Show, All My Children, The Commish, and many during the ‘80s. Since the mid ‘00s, she has not appeared in much. She was on her own turf during the press conference, and seemed to be enjoying the moment and the chance to be “home.”

Wendie Jo Sperber was the America Ferrera of the ‘80s. After this, her first film, she would gyrate more towards television, where she co-starred with Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies, and was a regular in a number of other series, such as Private Benjamin, Babes, Hearts Afire, and Eight Simple Rules. Her early films in the ‘80s were sometimes lowest common denominator fare like Bachelor Party (again with Hanks), Moving Violations, and Stewardess School. She was very sweet and giggly when I met her, and I always felt Wendie should have been a much bigger star, but she slowed down a bit after she was diagnosed with cancer, and she passed away in 2005.

Another actor that should have been bigger than he was, since Eddie Deezen started out strong with appearances in 1941, Grease and Grease II, and the classic WarGames. His specialty was nerds, but because of his typecasting as a young Jerry Lewis, his career eventually stalled for a bit into goofy Grade Z films like Assault of the Killer Bimbos, Polish Vampire in Burbank, Beverley Hills Vamp, and as the lead in the scarily bad Mob Boss. His career in television as a semi-regular in a number of shows brought him back somewhat with Punky Brewster and The Weird Al Show, but his star has risen again as an animated voice in numerous animated vehicles, including regular stints on Darkwing Duck, Duckman, and even recently with Dexter’s Laboratory, What’s New Scooby-Doo, and Kim Possible. His distinctive voice makes him perfect for animation, and I am happy his career is solid. At the interview, he was sometimes goofy and over the top, but one could also see that he was taking his career seriously.

Susan Newman was a bit of an enigma to me. At the press conference she was asked the most questions due to being Paul Newman’s daughter, and she gave off a feeling of superiority. I found her kind of obnoxious, actually. Yet, after only three film credits from the late ‘70s, she left acting to labor successfully with charitable organizations, including running the Newman food/non-profit empire. I totally admire the work she has done in this field, which so contradicts the impression she left with me at the screening. IMDB says she’s been making documentaries as writer and producer for the last 20 years or so, winning numerous awards, but oddly does not list any of them. Hmmm. After meeting her, I am glad that her direction turned out well.

[This blog is dedicated to Dennis Concepcion, who loves this film]

Monday, January 12, 2009

How I Almost Killed Handsome Dick Manitoba

Text and photos © Robert Barry Francos
All photos taken at the Bottom Line, 10/21/77, except as indicated

The first time I heard of The Dictators was at Bernie Kugel’s house in the spring of 1975. Go Girl Crazy had just been released, and truthfully, at first I didn’t get it. At that time, I didn’t get much. It was just before we had started going to CBGB, and my music taste was more in the Simon & Garfunkel vein than, say, Blue Oyster Cult. I hadn’t even heard the Ramones yet, and wouldn’t until June 20 when I saw them the first time I attended CBGB.

After hearing the album a few times, I was not overly impressed, but agreed to go see them at CBGB during the summer of ’75. That is what made me a believer, seeing this incredibly fun band play. Handsome Dick Manitoba (HDM) was still a guest vocalist at that time, with most of the duties falling ably to Adny Shernoff, who was still mostly on bass and the occasional keyboard, if I remember correctly.

On the way out, we ran into HDM near the door, by the pinball game. Bernie nervously introduced himself, to which HDM boomed loudly, “Hey! Kugel! Like the pudding!” They talked for a short while (though I couldn’t hear what they were saying), and then we left to go to our local White Castle before I dropped Bernie off at his place and headed home as the sun rose.

After that, I began to really enjoy the album, and could see what Bernie was talking about. Also, I had been to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City quite a few times, so my perspectives were also changing.

A couple of years past and in 1977, I was a true fan. Their second, excellent album, Manifest Destiny had been released, and I was totally blown away by it, especially “Steppin’ Out,” “Disease,” “Science Gone Too Far,” and “Young, Fast and Scientific.” To this day, I can still quote the entire intro to “Disease.” As the band’s fan club stated (no, I never did join), DFFD: Dictators Forever Forever Dictators.

I went to see them play at the Bottom Line on October 21, 1977, getting on line early enough to find a seat near the front, slightly off center (the best place since the stage was high, unless you wanted to look up the singer’s nose).

The band was the aforementioned HDM (who was now official lead vox) and Shernoff (mostly keyboards), and included founding members Scott “Top Ten” Kempner and Ross the Boss Funicello (Russell Friedman), both on guitar. Recent additions were Richie Teeter on drums and Mark “The Animal” Mendoza on bass pounding. They were a solid unit with a strong bottom and powerful strings.

The show was great, but that was no surprise. At some point in the set, they started up their opening cut from Go Girl Crazy, the wondrous “The Next Big Thing.” The rhythm of it goes Ba-da-da-da-da-DUM, Ba-da-da-da-da-DUM, with the emphasis on the last beat.

Because of the time period this occurred, there was smoking permitted in the club, so the tables had ashtrays. The Bottom Line used thick black plastic ones, which they cleaned and reused after each show. When “The Next Big Thing” started, I grabbed the (unused) ashtray, and started banging it on the table to the rhythm, including adding the emphasis. About the time of the upward key change of the song, I must have hit the ashtray just a bit too hard or at a weird angle, because a one-inch-by-two-inch piece that was half moon shape broke off and flew just a couple of inches past HDM’s head, and had enough momentum that it bounced off the wall way behind him. He must have heard the whiz of it, because he turned his head to see what it was, though he never missed a beat. I don’t believe he figured it out, though. Just a slight change in trajectory, and it might have stuck into his head like a ninja star.

I kept that broken ashtray as a souvenir for a number of years, but eventually tossed it because (a) it didn’t really have a connection to anything other than my memory, which I didn’t need it for, and (b) I don’t smoke.

Many years later, in the summer of 2006, I was giving the Detroit punk band Choking Susan a “punk rock tour” around the East Village (Trash & Vaudeville, Gem Spa, etc.), and brought them over to HDM’s bar, Manitobas. Sure enough, HDM was there behind the bar that night, and I knew the members of Choking Susan were fans, but were a bit starstruck to go over and talk to him. I walked over and introduced myself (as publisher of FFanzeen because odds are he would remember my ‘zine), and then brought him over to meet the band. It was a great moment, as HDM took them around the bar, and using a small flashlight, spent time with them telling them stories that went with the photos on the wall. He also sat with them for a while at a table. HDM is definitely a cool guy. I took the photo of Choking Susan and HDM that CS use on their MySpace site (see below).

[Choking Susan and Handsome Dick Manitoba at Manitobas, 2006]
As the band was getting ready to go and gathering their things, I walked outside and HDM was sitting on the bench out front. I sat next to him, and thanked him for his generosity. He smiled and said he was glad to do so, as we talked for the few minutes while I waited for the band to come out. I wish I had thought to ask him if he remembered something flying by him at that show at the Bottom Line, and to tell him what happened with the piece of ashtray, but truthfully, by the time I remembered, I was already blocks away.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Review: "From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books" by Arie Kaplan

Text by Robert Barry Francos
Images from the Internet

As Arie Kaplan clearly shows in his book, From Krakow to Krypton: Jews and Comic Books (The Jewish Publication Society, 2008, $25; more information below), one cannot tell the story of the Jews’ role in comic books without telling the history of comics.

From the start, Kaplan illustrates how Jews, being excluded from the general graphics design business due to their heritage, created not created a means in, but fashioned an entire industry along the way.

The first official comic, published by Max “Charlie” Gains (Ginsburg), and titled Famous Funnies, was a pasted together book of newspaper comic strips that sold independently in 1933. The depression was in full swing, and people were looking for inventive ways to make a living, which was made all the harder by prejudice, be it racial or religious. As this new idea started out, as often follows, there were imitators.

Just a few short years later as the market for reprints was waning, National Comics (which would change it’s name to DC), published the first Superman story in 1938, created by writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster, two childhood friends who had been percolating the idea since they were 12 (in their youth they were members of a Science Fiction club whose fellow clubmember and friend was the late Forrest J. Ackermann, the Jewish creator of Famous Monsters of Filmland, as Kaplan notes). It was then that comics started booming, and the era of the superhero started.

In typical Jewish fashion of the ‘30s, a time of social reform, Superman represents that idea of being a “man of the people,” and protector of the under-represented. As Kaplan also correctly points out, as his popularity rose, he became more of a symbol of the “protector of everyman,” in which he became more of a “leader of men.” [I want to acknowledge here and now that I am aware of my masculine use of the word “man” for humanity; simply, I am trying to speak in terms of the book, and the period of which I am discussing.]

In other words, if I may use the allegory of which this book is informed, Superman basically went from Golem, a symbol of protection of the weak, to rabbi, who is a representative of the entire congregation (i.e., humanity). However, due to the time period and the approaching war in Europe, Superman came across as very “Protestant,” despite his Jewish origins (such as his escape from Krypton in a Moses-like rocket/basket by a family that hoped he would be safe at the other end). This is especially true during World War II, when Superman became a symbol of Americana, to a grander purpose to protect the United States, the Allies, and the world from Nazi aggression. Despite some codified Jewish signatures, he became the icon of a (mostly) Christian nation, and the books reflected that.

The next big addition to the comics universe was by Bob Kane (Kahn) and the under-appreciated Bill Finger, the Jewish creators of my personal favorite comics character, the Bat-man (later shortened to just Batman, of course). Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and Jack Kirby (Kurtzberg) and Joe Simon’s Captain America, shortly followed. From there, it just kept exploding, including stalwarts such as Stan Lee (Leiber) and Gil Kane (Eli Katz). In fact, the field becomes so crowded with artists and writers, most of whom are from Jewish backgrounds (though excellent comic book people like Joe Orlando, obviously, are not), it is hard to tell who is Jewish and who is not, especially since so many names were changed as Jews in many fields often did up until the ‘50s. Even though there were some who sported their own birth names, such as Will Eisner, Al Jaffee, Chris Claremont (that was easy), and Joe Kubert, it was more common to have an assimilated name. By the time of the underground comix, however, it was ordinary to see names like Harvey Pekar, Trina Robbins, and Art Spiegelman.

Before the rise of comix in the late 60s, most of the “Jewishness” of the characters, Kaplan points out, are codified, such as the Superman/Moses motif mentioned earlier, or the use of the Golem, which Kaplan connects to both Superman (protector) and the Hulk (uncontrollable beast created by man), but oddly, not to Ben Grimm (Fantastic Four’s The Thing), which seems quite obvious to me (clay/stone), especially since Grimm has been “outed” as being Jewish.

One of the ironies of the whole history of the role of Jews in comics is that while the industry was essentially built by this group, it was also almost taken down by one of its own in the ‘50s, thanks to the book Seduction of the Innocent by Frederic Wertham. His was a McCarthy-istic level of attack of seeing sex in the shadows and lines of the comics (especially those put out by EC). This led to a gatekeeping intra-industry self-governance organization (similar to the Hay’s Office in film started 20 years earlier) called the Comics Code Authority, which help stifle originality and a level of social justice, turning the books more into romance and common-denominator superheroes stories. [As a sidebar: censorship is an outside influence, gatekeeping is a inter-industry watchgroup.]

Essentially, the book is broken up into three appropriate sections: The Golden Age (1933-55), The Silver Age (1956-78) and The Bronze Age (1979-present). My personal history of comics (though geek-lite; I was not as much a “collector” as a reader – and re-reader – who kept his comics) started in the Silver Age of the early ‘60s, and went through until around 2003, when my comic collecting sort of curtailed. Kaplan has pointed out much about this period that I had not only been unaware, but also not had the insight to realize. Happily, Kaplan is quite thorough on the “hidden” Jewishness of the character and plots, and about the artists who drew them. Especially enjoyable is the deeper focus on specific creators (such as Siegel and Schuster, Kane and Finger, Eisner, Kirby, Pekar, and Spiegelman).

It was quite nice to see a nod (albeit brief) to Phil Seuling, who created both the comic con, and the comic book specialty shop (the first, opened by Seuling, was in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on the corner of 20th Avenue and 85th Street, by the way…it’s a liquor store now). He was also my high school teacher who took us to DC Comics to watch them be created, and brought some guests into the classroom like Gray Morrow and Jim Steranko. But I digress…

Another of the aspects I appreciate about From Krakow to Krypton is how Kaplan deconstructs some of the codified information about its subjects (and authors), such as the Golem connections I mentioned previously. Sometimes it felt a bit like a stretch (e.g., Spiderman having “Jewish stereotypes” of being “bespectacled, slight of build, studious, awkward”), but more often it was more of “Ohhhhhh, I get it” and “Ah-ha!” moments.

Two posits of Kaplan that I truly appreciate especially are the degree of “Jewishness” the early artists were trying to express (e.g., social justice), and how after the rise of the independent comics, mainstream characters were not only more overtly Jewish (Rory Regan in Ragman, Kitty Pryde in X-Men), but also how older characters were later revealed to be of the faith (Magneto in X-Men, Ben Grimm in The Fantastic Four). Of course, in the independents, there was more of a connection right from the start, with books like Maus, the works of Harvey Pekar, and important contributors like Will Eisner, such as the amazing A Contract With God. What I would like to see more of by Kaplan, in possible future books (or editions) is more about the writers’ and artists’ background. For example, Kaplan notes that Bill Gaines (publisher of MAD is to have been atheistic, and Eisner was secular, but I’m also interested in the religious history of the others, like Kirby, Kane, and Lee.

I do have two points of contention with the book that I must add. First, on page 107, Kaplan states that, “Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics of the 1960s were also distinct because they were written for a wider audience demographic than most comic books.” I totally disagree, in a friendly, debating kind of way. I believe that these comics were designed for a more specific and knowledgeable readership. Kaplan even states in the same paragraph that “for the first time comic books went out of their way to court high school and college students as well as young kids. Teenagers racked with adolescent neuroses and identity issues identified heavily with characters like Spider-Man and the X-Men…” Earlier comics were broad-based stories that anyone of any age could read, not just kids (this is, in my opinion, the result of the CCA, trying to make sure that everyone can be happy). The second half of the ‘60s brought back cultural relevance and social justice story lines that had been gone for a while. It had to become more focused on a specific demographic that started to be too old and too savvy, and brought them back into the fold.

My second contention is the lack of mention of one of my favorite series, Shaloman, an independent comic from the early 1990s written, drawn and produced by Al Weisner (Mark 1 Comics). It’s mostly tongue-in-cheek, but the comic also deals with the futility of in-fighting between Jewish sects (portrayed, for example, by a war between the planets Chasidiak Four and Grivenus Seven), anti-Semitism, and cultural food, all wrapped in a sharp sense of Yiddishe humor. As far as I have seen, though, the first Jewish comic book series produced by, for, and about Jews is Mendy and the Golem, created in 1982 by writer Leibel Estrin, artist Dovid Sears, and colorist Barry Grossman. Issued by publisher Yankel Pinson's Mendy Enterprises in New York City, it deals with a Chasidic family and their Golem, Sholem (whose face you never see because he's taller than the comic's frame), and tells of Ashkinaszi Jewish traditions, historical stories and scholars, and ways to live one's life. It is geared towards older children, but has a funny and corny sense of humor with liberal use of puns, and with lots of Hebrew and Yiddish thrown in (with translations, 'natch).

That being said, I want to say I also admire the format of the book. The layout is superb, with many color and black-and-white illustrations, including some full pages of stories that relate to what Kaplan has described. Even the forward, by Harvey Pekar (text) and JT Waldman (art), presented in comic form, feels right.

Russell Wolinsky, ex-singer of the seminal New York band the Sic F*cks, asked me how this book compared to Danny Fingeroth’s Disguised as Clark Kent: Jews, Comics, and the Creation of the Superhero. The answer is simple: I don’t know, as I haven’t yet read Fingeroth. Maybe another blog at another time?

An aspect about Arie Kaplan’s From Krakow to Krypton that is appealing is that while it respects the comic nerd and never talks down to him/her, this is also a cultural study that is non-exclusive, so even if one is just interested in Jewish cultural history, they can read this and not feel lost, or like an outsider. Kaplan treats all his readers equally, being that he is a mensch.

About the author (from the book jacket): Arie Kaplan is a comedian, MAD Magazine writer, and author of the new comic book miniseries Speed Racer: Chronicles of the Racer. His other comic book credits include the DC title Cartoon Network Action Pack and the Papercutz series Tales From the Crypt. Arie lectures all over the country about comic books, comedians, and popular culture. He is the author of Masters of the Comic Book Universe Revealed! And he’s also written for MTV, Cartoon Network, and PBS Kids.

About the publisher: The Jewish Publication Society is a nonprofit educational organization formed to enhance the Jewish culture by promoting the dissemination of religious and secular works, in the United States and abroad, to all individuals and institutions interested in past and contemporary Jewish life.