Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Naked Guy in Gold

Oscar telecast tomorrow night.

I'll be nested in front of the set as usual. And, owing to some long-seated sense of either commitment or stupidity, I'll hang in there for the entire broadcast, not clicking off the set until the last statuette has been awarded and the host waves his final goodbye.

My love of the movies has drawn me consistently to the Oscar telecast year after year. I distinctly remember my first; it was 1977, and Rocky won Best Picture. I wasn't old enough to be authorized by my parents to stay up for this telecast, but I did take advantage of the geography of our house to watch surreptitiously.

My bedroom was directly across the hall from my parents room, and, with both doors open, I could see their TV. Trouble was, I had to lean way out of bed get a clear view. So I spent the several hours' worth of that telecast with my torso suspended in midair, propped up by my left arm on the floor. It was very uncomfortable, but it got me through.

The following year, I had gotten permission to officially watch, and I've been a consistent viewer ever since. 

My parents -- both movie fans -- were interested in the Oscars, but Mom loved more of the people-watching. When the camera panned the glittery crowd, she rattled off the stars she could identify by sight; "That's Fred Astaire; that's Liz Taylor; that's Jimmy Stewart; that's Charleton Heston."

I admired her ability to do that, and so I went to school on the famous faces of the time until I could chant them alongside her: "That's Ellen Burstyn, that's Al Pacino, that's Chevy Chase, that's Jane Fonda." 

I liked them on a Monday night (Sunday night doesn't seem to generate the same buzz for me); there was a Super Bowl feel to that day, and friends knew not to call me that night, that I'd be camped out in front of the set, eager to hear the awkward speeches of the winners and deadpan reactions of eternal-host Johnny Carson.

My movie-going habits were much more frequent then than now, so it was the rare Best Picture winner that I hadn't seen, making the contest all the more engaging because I could root for dark horses and boo when films I considered lesser entries managed to sneak through (I'm looking at you, Unforgiven). Sad to say nowadays, I may have seen one of the nominated best pictures, if that. Kids and schedules have a way of disrupting even the most devoted and fervent cinefiles. 

Because of my interest in Classic Hollywood, I always enjoy the Honorary Awards; it was one more chance to see and hear the likes of Henry Fonda, Barbara Stanwyck, Hal Roach (with the hilarious ad libbing of host Billy Crystal), Myrna Loy, and Chuck Jones.

The technical stuff makes me yawn, but I hang in there. The best part about the Oscar telecast is never knowing when something wacky is going to happen. So although I didn't see the telecast where David Niven was interrupted by a streaker (1973) for myself, I did watch Alberto Begnini climb over the seats to get his award for Life Is Beautiful (1997). And Jack Palance's one-armed pushups (1992). And Cher, who could always be counted on to wear something memorable.

The "In Memoriam" section makes me sad, year after year, bidding goodbye to the likes of Gene Kelly, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, and Ingrid Bergman.

The broadcast has changed over the years; the producers used to stuff in a Giant Musical Production Number that would proceeded at a glacial pace somewhere in hour three of the four-hour show. This monster song-and-dance fest was my personal Wall, the toughest part of a marathon that, once overcome, means smooth sailing to the finish line. Many the year I fought droopy eyelids as a line of chorines danced a tuneful tribute to the theremin or their slick salute to the film cutter.

Yes, it's hokey. Yes, it's overblown. Yes, it's annoying. Yes, it's trite and egotistical and narcissistic and shallow and, all things considered, wholly unimportant in this era of financial struggle and war and injustice and strife and inequality...


Shh. It's starting!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Making Tracks

We were forecast on Friday to get the Storm of the Millennium, which turned out to be rather a nonevent in the Philadelphia suburbs but did pack a wallop further up the I-95 corridor.

Despite only getting a few inches, however, I was really heartened to see some tracks on a small hill near our house.

Not deer tracks. Not rabbit. Not cat or dog.


There is a retaining basin on the back end of the circle on which our house is situated, and some kids had grabbed their flying saucers, raced to the hill, and spent some time zipping down.

Sledding seems to be fading from popularity, at least as far as I have witnessed. Probably too antithetical to kids' desires these days to spend a wintry day camping out in front of cable. Or igloo-ing with their iPhones. 

I know in years past, we have taken our girls to that very hill on the retaining basin for sledding, and after about a half hour or so, they're cold and tired and have had enough.

When we were younger, sledding was an all-day activity. The best place for it was near a quadrant of baseball fields. This wide plane dropped off to a steep hill at the back end, perfect for careening down at breakneck speeds. 

Or breakarm.

Or breakleg. 

We called it Steel Field, as it was situated on Steel Road. And like thousands of sledding sites across America, it had a Killer Hill, a section that seemed steeper, faster, and more fraught with danger than the other areas.

I seem to remember one of my brothers -- was eldest Sean if I'm remembering right -- fracturing some bone or other when his sled slammed into a tree on Killer Hill.

Winter wasn't winter without at least one kid getting creamed. Liability issues be damned.

If the trees didn't get you, there was a small creek that posed the constant threat of soakage to those who couldn't stop in time. Nothing put an end to an afternoon of sledding quicker than cracking through the sheen of ice that covered this small rivulet and emerging dripping wet.

If the natural obstacles weren't enough to get your pulse pounding, there were always a few man-made thrills as well. We'd heap up snow into moguls that resulted in sufficient airtime to ensure your teeth would crack together as you landed.

Our sleds of choice were the venerable Flexible Flyers. I've since learned that Flexible Flyers were invented by a Philadelphian, who pioneered the idea that a sled might be improved upon if the darned thing could actually be steered. Steering was essential on Killer Hill; it seemed like every year the kids who sustained the most physical damage were the ones who opted for either toboggans or, worse, those round plastic saucers.

Flexible Flyers became the gold standard for us because of their hearty construction. They were virtually indestructible, evidenced by the fact that I still have mine and it is still usable (well seemingly usable; I haven't ridden it for decades, but it seems solid enough). They also offered a variety of riding styles: You could either sit upright and steer with the feet or lie down -- bellyflop style -- and grab the steering bar with both hands. The advantage to the latter technique was the ability to run toward the hill and build up a head of steam speed-wise.

On snowy afternoons, we walked to Steel Field, dragging our Flexible Flyers behind us, leashed to our mittened fingers by a hunk of clothesline. We sledded all day and, cheeks an applejack red, staggered all the way home, chilled to the bone and exhausted. It was rare that a pot of hot chocolate wasn't waiting for us, courtesy of Mom.

Never happen today. Kids don't walk anywhere, and the suggestion that they do so would be met with blank stares. At least it would from my kids. And those liability issues are now causing sledders to wear helmets.


Geez, the next thing you know, sleds will be outfitted with brakes, horns, and seat belts.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In Therapy

Our Lab Wesley opened so many doors to me, doors I would never have imagined possible when he entered our lives in the spring of 2001. His bad behavior (attributable mostly to the bad job I was doing training him) led us to enroll him in obedience school.

That first 10-week class was the beginning of some long-term friendships that I maintain to this day. It also set us on a course toward accomplishments that have been very rewarding, including American Kennel Club titles and a therapy dog certification.

The therapy dog aspect of Wesley's career evolved in the latter part of his life, when I was ready to retire him from the rigors of dog showing, an activity he never really enjoyed but that he endured for my sake. Getting authorized for therapy work involved a health screen and a test of certain behaviors, and at his age, it was a no-brainer for Wes to pass.

Several venues were open to us, and we chose to center on a program by which struggling students are paired with dog/handler teams to bolster reading skills. The theory on which this program rests is that, as a listener, a dog is extremely non-judgmental, and in an atmosphere free of reprisals for making a mistake, a child can strengthen his/her reading skills.

Wesley loved these sessions. Our focus was at the Royersford Public Library, where we would join a team of handlers and dogs each Saturday morning and help struggling kids for an hour. For Wes, this meant snuggling down on a comfy blanket, enjoying a flurry of pets and hugs, and listening to a young reader work through Clifford the Big Red Dog or Are You My Mother (all appropriately canine-themed, because to an eight year old reading to a dog, the natural assumption is to read a dog story!). 

There were other canine/handler teams involved in other aspects of therapy work. Several of our members went to local retirement homes to visit with the elderly.

But I shied away.

My mother was, at that time, floundering under the loss of my dad and succumbing at an alarming rate to the ravages of dementia. The last thing I wanted to do was face that kind of deterioration in what was supposed to be an enjoyable activity, in addition to watching it take Mom.

In September 2008, her body would fail her, following her memories to oblivion.

In November 2010, Wes would be lost, too, bringing my work with therapy dogs to an end.

Thankfully, the break turned out to be only a temporary pause, as Wesley gave way to Parker, our yellow boy, who joined the family in June 2011.

My goals for Parker's training were similar to mine for Wesley's: AKC titles and a therapy dog designation. He has succeeded on both fronts, achieving a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) designation, a Rally Novice AKC title, and a passing evaluation from Bright and Beautiful Therapy Dogs, Inc.

The issue for Parker and me then was to find some kind of outlet for our therapy work.

The reading program had shifted from a Saturday morning activity at the local library to a Friday morning one at the local elementary school.

When I was tossed from my job back in April, I was easily able to leash him up and help some fledgling readers each week, an activity Parker seemed to enjoy as much as Wesley did.

But with my return to full-time employment, I knew another solution had to be found. I was somewhat compelled because Bright and Beautiful requires a certain number of volunteer hours per week to maintain active status.

It was time to put on my big-boy pants and face the dementia/Alzheimer's patients that had caused my skittishness.

Last night, we took a big step: Parker and I went to a skilled nursing facility for a visit, our first-time exploring this avenue of our therapy work.  

Parker was fantastic. He was a little jazzed when we first arrived (bounce-bounce-bounce!), understandable since he'd never been there before. And a little puppy-ish with the other dogs on the team, until I explained to him that this was a work session and not a play date (although he did get to romp outside on the lawn with a German Shepherd when we were finished, much to his glee).

But in general, terrific with the elderly residents and more than happy to get lots of pets and lovins.

I knew he was well-suited to this when two things happened: he connected with an elderly gentleman who was sitting by himself, isolated, in front of a droning television set. Our interaction was only a few moments in length, but enough for the resident to scritch Parker's ear and smile a little.

The second was a big schlurpy kiss he gave an elderly woman. Thankfully, she is a long-time dog lover and accustomed to being slimed.

All in all, it was a very successful night.

For Parker.

And maybe even more for me.

Monday, February 4, 2013


Human males seem genetically wired to respond to comic idiocy. I suppose somewhere in our DNA chains are the vestiges of Caveman Oog, who laughed like a hyena when Caveman Blurg got an inadvertent hotfoot by accidentally stepping on a glowing ember from the tribal fire.

Since then, our sex has giggled, guffawed, and grinned over physical and verbal buffoonery.

While our female counterparts either stare uncomprehendingly or judge with eye-rolls of epic proportions.

And yes, that’s generalizing.

I’m sure there are women who find pratfalls and head-bonks funny. But in general, why don’t women laugh at The Three Stooges, for example?

I asked that question to Gary Lassin, founder and curator of The Stoogeum, the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving, promoting, and postulating about Moe, Larry, Curly, Shemp, Joe, and Curly Joe.

“Look at these guys,” he says. “They’re not exactly attractive to your average female. They’re goofy-looking and goofy-acting; there’s not a lot of sex appeal there. There’s not a lot of identity for women.

"Now, The Golden Girlsthat is something women find funny. It’s accessible to them.

"A bald fat guy, a frizzle-haired guy, and a thin guy with a cereal bowl haircut slapping each other? It tends to sail over women’s heads,” Lassin concludes.

I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool fan of The Stooges, although I did grow up watching them, both on Sally Starr’s Popeye Theater (RIP, Sal) and on UHF, where Wee Willie Weber hosted an afternoon kids’ show. Both prominently featured Stooges shorts among the cavalcade of cartoons and in-studio contests (I remember Weber hilariously trying to get kids to whistle after they’d stuffed their cheeks with saltines).

I’m also old enough to remember Moe on The Mike Douglas Show, coaching Ted Knight on the finer art of pie-throwing. And I recall Larry Fine, post-stroke, appearing in commercials, where it was difficult for my adolescent brain to put the frail guy in the wheelchair together with the middle-button Stooge who played the violin.

The best part of the Stooge shorts back then was that they were uncut and ran in their full 12-minute timeframes. PC attitudes toward violence have since censored a lot of these gems (when we watched, safety was in the hands of Sally Starr to remind us that eye-pokes were dangerous), and revenue-producing goals now force the insertion of commercials into the hijinks.

But a full-time Stoogeaholic? Not really. Although if forced, I will claim favoritism toward “Violent is the Word for Curly” (1938), because of its bouncy "Swingin' the Alphabet".

Most of my comedy leanings came from my father, leading to another theory of an affinity toward male-oriented mayhem. We learn it from our dads. Who probably learned it from their dads.

My dad adored W.C. Fields, who was always a little too one-note for me (the misogynist drunk) too cruel to find funny. Dad also liked the shorts of Laurel & Hardy, roaring with laughter when, for example, Stan and Ollie struggled to deliver a piano up an epic flight of stairs.

I myself drifted toward the pairing of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.

A local UHF channel ran their features each Sunday, and after I roused myself from bed, delivered my route of The Sunday Bulletin, attended Mass, and returned home, I would nestle in front of the set after lunch and watch Bud & Lou.

I’m not quite sure I can explain the attraction. Maybe it was the appeal of Lou’s child-like behavior, constantly lost in a world he didn’t quite understand. Maybe it was Bud’s expert pitching as straight-man, perfecting the art of patter. Maybe it was the beginnings of my ongoing fascination with the films of the 1940s, an affinity I maintain today.

Whatever the source, I came to truly love these comedies, from the unbridled enthusiasm and patriotism apparent in “Buck Privates” (1941) to the role-reversal in “The Time of Their Lives” (1946) to the comedic chills associated with “A&C Meet Frankenstein” (1948). My favorite? “Who Done It?” (1942), a terrific period piece set in a radio station where Bud & Lou solve not only a murder but a spy ring as well. The dialog is snappy, the comedy is are bright (including a terrific self-spoof of “Who’s on first?”), the ad libs are hilarious (Lou serving a limburger cheese sandwich), and the script is smart. A sample: Alexander 22-22.

From that fertile ground, it was a natural extension for me to go toward Marxism. That is, Groucho, Harpo, Chico (and sometimes Zeppo and Gummo). The Marxes, in my mind, require a lot of attention, which is probably why I didn’t latch on to their films until my later teen years or early 20s. Groucho’s lines are delivered at breakneck speed and the insults fly almost faster than they can be caught. Chico’s malapropisms also require diligence to keep pace. And Harpo was a scene-stealer extraordinaire, involving himself in a thousand bits of stage business in the backgrounds, until he finally settled down once a picture to play the harp.

All these teams suffered from bad material as their careers advanced. Bud and Lou went to Mars, which turns out really to be Venus (ho-yawn-ho). The Stooges met Snow White. Laurel and Hardy mess with an atomic bomb. The Marxes appeared with Marilyn Monroe.

These later listless entries also signaled the end of comedy teams in the movies. Martin and Lewis were certainly big in the 1950s, but Lewis was the clown with Martin providing little more than a singing voice. Other attempts would be made to re-launch comedic paring franchises (David Spade and Chris Farley for example), but they never gained much traction.

Thankfully, DVD/Bluray technology preserves these teams at their best (and even, for completists, their not-so-best).

With their help, I’ll forever be able to settle the eternal conundrum and remember what was the name of the man playing first base?