Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Hank Williams on The Lost Highway.

Did you ever hear about the death of Hank Williams, Sr., on a back highway early on the morning of January 1, 1953? I would not be born for another 20 months, yet this legendary singer/songwriter has left a lasting impression upon the world in which we live.

I don't ever recall a time of my life in which Hank Williams, Sr. has not been somewhere in the background; whether in movie, song, or his considerable influence on the music we call rock and roll. It all goes back to Hank. John Lennon used to carry the complete works with him on cassette. Bob Hope, after trying to follow him on stage during a "package tour" in the late 1940's said that he would never follow him on stage again. His songs were all about the pain of living, and the humor, locked away within that pain.

His recording career ran only 5 years, from 1948 until his death on the first day of January 1953, yet he left a catalogue of about 267 songs, many of which are still sung today.

Born September 17th, 1923, in Mt. Olive, Alabama, he would be a superstar by age 25, and dead by age 29. And in between he lived a life of physical and emotional pain. Long considered to be the Father of Country Music, he got his first guitar at age 8.

Named Hiram King Williams at birth, Hank learned to play his guitar under the direction of a local black man whom everyone called Tee Tot. Tee Tot was a street singer of the blues variety and young Hank was fascinated by the sounds he heard the old man coax from his guitar. But even more than the sound of the strings, what caught Hank's ear were the painful lyrics sung in an almost joyful manner. It was like Church, you took your pain and turned it into music. Your despair became your salvation.

Early in his teens, Hank began performing around the Greenville area of Alabama. Shortly after that, the family would move to Montgomery. In 1937 his mother opened a boarding house there, and by 1941 Hank had formed his first band, The Drifting Cowboys. They even got air time on the local radio station, WFSA. Known as "The Singing Kid", he did mostly cover versions of Roy Acuff songs and other popular numbers of the day. He would remain with WFSA for the next 9 years, even after becoming a star.

In 1943 he met his first wife, Audrey, while playing a "medicine show" near Banks, Alabama. Within a year they were married and living in his mother's boarding house. She became his manager as his status and reputation grew. But he couldn't seem to break out of Alabama and onto the national scene. This was about to change.

Traveling to Nashville, he was determined to meet Fred Rose, Roy Acuff's publishing partner. Rose was immediately taken with both Hank's guitar and voice. He arranged for Hank to record two songs for Sterling Records, "Never Again" and "Honky Tonkin'" in February 1947. On the strength of those two recordings he was signed to MGM Records and Fred Rose became his manager, as well as his producer.

"Move It On Over" was the first big hit for Hank with MGM in 1947. By 1948 he was a member of the "Louisiana Hayride", both on radio and on the road. His career was soaring. When he did a cover version of "Lovesick Blues" in 1949, he hit Number One and stayed there for 16 weeks, crossing every demographic line imaginable. When he performed the song live at The Grand Ol' Opry, he did 6 encores. I don't believe that record has ever been topped.

But, with all of the fame and success came trouble. Hank's drinking problem, which had been lurking just beneath the surface, began to rear its head again. The long separations from home while on tour; the fights when he was home; all began to take a toll on his marriage to Audrey. But the final "nail in the coffin" happened in late 1951 on Hank's farm in Tennessee, where he was hunting. He fell, re-igniting an old back injury. There was another tour coming up and so he did what so many performers have done before and since. He turned to painkillers, and finally morphine, to deal with the pain. He became almost instantly addicted to the morphine. He was also drinking heavily again.

In early 1952, Hank and Audrey separated for the last time. Yet, 1952 would be one of his most prolific and successful periods. "Honky Tonk Blues", "Half as Much", "Jambalaya", and even my favorite "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive" were written and recorded in this final year of his life. They all went to the Top Ten. But he continued drinking and doing morphine. Most of his time awake was spent drinking, drugging and playing with guns.

By August of 1952 he was fired from the Grand Ol' Opry, mainly due to his drunkenness. He was told that he could return once he was sober. The shame of it all was that no one knew how little time was left.

This infuriated Hank to the point of his becoming even more reckless; finally losing his band; as well as his friends. Still working "The Louisiana Hayride" provided him with money to live on. His royalties were being handled by an attorney as part of the divorce from Audrey. He began using local pick up bands, which further reduced the fees he could have been earning.

It was in the fall of 1952, just 90 days before his death, that he married 19 year old Billie Jean Eshlimar, a policeman's daughter. At this same time, he was expecting a child with a woman named Bobbie Jett, and signed an agreement to support the baby once it was born. By December of 1952 he was also having heart trouble, mostly due to the morphine, booze, cigarettes and life on the road. His doctor was a man named Toby Marshall.

On December 31st, 1952 Hank was scheduled to fly to Canton, Ohio to perform on New Year’s Day. The weather was bad and the flight was cancelled, leaving no other option than to travel by car. Hiring a chauffeur, he headed for Ohio in his new Cadillac. Just before leaving "Dr." Marshall gave him 2 injections for the ride. One was Vitamin B-12, the other was a large dose of morphine. Hank got in the back seat, toting a bottle of whiskey, and the chauffeur started out for Ohio.

Early on the morning of January 1st, 1953 the chauffeur was pulled over for speeding. The policeman noticed that the passenger looked more dead than alive and escorted the Cadillac to a West Virginia Hospital where he was pronounced dead at 7 AM New Year's morning. His last record was "I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive."

His recordings continued to sell after his death, and all of the new songs that had been awaiting release charted in the Top Ten throughout 1953.

For me, Hank Williams has always been there in the background, a place where I can store my pain, face it, or laugh at it. His music is the same as the blues, only the tempo is different.

Tonight is New Year's Eve. I'll go out to dinner, watch a movie, and stay up a bit later than usual. But sometime, after everyone else has gone off to sleep, I will probably still be awake, imagining that I am out there, somewhere on the Lost Highway. And if I tilt my head just right, and listen really hard, somewhere around dawn, I just might hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Year In Review - 1954

From Hydrogen Bombs to Yo-Yo's, 1954 was a pretty cool year to be born in! Here's the news reel to prove it...

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"The Shop Around The Corner" with James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan (1940)

This film is a Christmas staple at my house;

This 1940 film by Ernst Lubitsch, starring Jimmy Stewart and Magaret Sullavan is one of the most beautifully crafted films ever made, and is based on the play by Miklós László. The story is simple, in the weeks leading up to Christmas in Budapest, the department store of Matuschek and Company, is gearing up for the holiday season. The owner, Hugo Matuschek is played brilliantly by Frank Morgan, known to millions worldwide as the Wizard of Oz. His right hand man, Alfred Kralik, is played by Jimmy Stewart. The two are very close, Mr. Matuschek values the opinions of his manager. Things are going very smoothly, with Kralik expecting a promotion by Christmas. Enter Margaret Sullavan as Klara Novak, an unemployed and high strung young woman. Through a bit of trickery she lands a job at Matuschek and Company, which in turn drives a wedge between Mr. Matuschek and Kralik.

While Kralik has been exchanging letters with an unknown "friend" through the classified ads, Ms. Novak has been doing the same. Without knowing, they have been exchanging letters with one another, stretching the truth a bit where necessary. So, neither one has any idea that their co-worker is the object of their affections. In fact, the opposite is true, as they grate on one another’s nerves, and the Christmas holiday approaches. And to top it all off, they are both thinking about marriage to their prospective "pen pals", although they have never met.

At the same time, a subplot is taking place as the shops "dandy", Ferencz Vadas, played exceptionally by Joseph Schildkraut, does all he can to make life unbearable for his fellow employees.

With a cast of character actors such as Felix Bressart, who plays Kraliks friend and fellow employee Pirovitch, and William Tracy as Pepi, the stores delivery boy, this movie will easily call you back year after year for a look at Christmas in Hungary in the days before all the madness began.

The movie has at least 3 endings. By that I mean there are 3 separate times when the movie could end, leaving the audience happy, but Ernst Lubitsch, being Ernst Lubitsch, has so many tricks up his sleeve, that you will find yourself enjoying 3 endings, each one wrapping up a portion of the film that you may have forgotten about. This is the art of Ernst Lubitsch. Just when you think it's over - it's not.

One of the all-time great Christmas movies, this film was remade in the 1990's with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as "You've Got Mail." I have never been able to sit through that entire film; simply because this 1940 version by Ernst Lubitsch captured my heart so many years ago.

Here is a scene from the beginning of the film;

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Red Hot Mamma" with Betty Boop (1934)

I’m not exactly sure of what Max Fleischer had in mind when he produced this cartoon, but it’s really quite good. It seems to involve our gal Betty trying to get some sleep on a cold winter’s night. She shivers herself to sleep; dreaming that she is surrounded by fire and warmth; only to discover that she is in hell.  

But devils and demons, along with a few dancing flames, prove no match for Betty’s cold shoulder and icy stare. And you know what? Before she wakes up, hell freezes over. About the only thing missing here is the devil ice skating.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Happy Boxing Day!

Today is Boxing Day in the United Kingdom and Canada. I’m not sure about Australia and New Zealand, though, so I’ll have to look that up real quick. Boxing Day is a confusing concept for most Americans to grasp. That’s why we make silly jokes about the holiday involving the sport of Boxing; as illustrated by the photo above. So, what are the roots of the Boxing Day holiday and how is it observed today? Let’s find out, if only so that next year I can post a more appropriate photo for the occasion.

Boxing Day is observed in Canada, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and quite a few other Commonwealth nations which were former colonies of the UK. Boxing Day also falls on the holiday of St. Stephens Day, which commemorates St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

The more modern roots of the holiday are really just an extension of the Victorian Age and the Edwardian Era, when servants had to work on Christmas Day. They got the following day off and were frequently presented with “boxed” gifts, some of which contained cash, while others held gifts. Often those gifts were used garments which the master had done with, and which the servant could never afford on their own.

There is some controversy about this explanation being overly simplistic, but it is the most reasonable of all the explanations I have come across. It was also verified to me by e-mail from a reader in Canada who is originally from England.

Today, of course, the tradition is merely that; a tradition. It is, however, held up by law in several countries. Portions of Canada, and other countries where the holiday is celebrated, have penalties for not observing the holiday. In all cases the law requires holiday pay for those who do have to work. It is also a bank holiday, with provisions made for when the day falls on a Saturday or Sunday, when the following Monday is set aside; again by law; as a bank holiday.

Call it what you will; in Ireland it is the Day of the Wren; in South Africa it is referred to as the Day of Goodwill (since 1994); the holiday has as much significance as Christmas does for citizens of America. And think how lucky you would be if you came to America from one of those countries, and then continued to celebrate Boxing Day. You could take full advantage of all those after Christmas specials.

So, when you think of Boxing Day remember that there is really no difference between it and Christmas. Here is a photo of shoppers in Canada as they prepare for the Boxing Day holiday. This photo could have been taken anywhere. John Lennon once wrote “I am he as you are me as you are we and we are all together.” I think he had something there. Happy Boxing Day everybody!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

"The Night of the Meek" with Art Carney (December 23, 1960)

Art Carney shines in this contemporary Christmas story from Rod Serling. It aired on this date in 1960 and I actually watched it on TV. I was 6 years old. Although it shows a department store Santa in the raw it did nothing to shake my belief in Santa. That wouldn’t happen until a few years later.

Mr. Carney plays Henry Corwin, an alcoholic Santa who is jaded in his belief when it comes to miracles. He doesn't particularly like being a department store Santa; he knows it’s all a fake; but he needs the money to buy his liquor.

When he arrives late for the holiday crowd he is fired by the store manager, a man named Dundee. He leaves the store declaring that if he had just one wish, it would be to see the Meek inherit the Earth. When he tries returning to his place at the bar he is refused service and ridiculed as a lush by the owner.

When he finds himself in the alley behind the bar he discovers a burlap sack; not unlike the one which Santa carries. The sack has a unique quality; it produces whatever is wished for. Corwin now roams the neighborhood, giving out gifts. When the department store manager sees this he concludes that Corwin has been stealing from the store and has him arrested. But when the officer and the manager reach into the bag they only get garbage for their efforts.

Exasperated, the officer and Dundee agree that they have to let him go free; but not before Corwin gives them each a gift from his magic sack. The two are flummoxed and as he leaves they are scratching their heads in disbelief. But it’s not over until it’s over; and I won’t spoil the ending of this in case you have never seen it. Suffice to say that Corwin gets his wish for the Meek to Inherit the Earth.

Monday, December 22, 2014

"A Christmas Carol" with Alistair Sims (1951)

As we ramp our way up towards Christmas, I always take the time to pause and really enjoy this old film. I have reviewed it here before, so any other words would be superfluous on my part. Here is my review from the last few years;

This is the cream of the Christmas movie crop. The one I look forward to every year. The 1951 British version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" will stand the test of time as the penultimate version of this tale. With flawless direction by Brian Desmond Hurst, this well-known story of a miserly Counting House owner; and the effects his mean spirit have on all those around him; come alive with the incredible acting of Alistair Sim. No one comes close to portraying the mean spirited Mr. Scrooge, as well as his unbounded joy upon his redemption, as well as Mr. Sim.

Noel Langley did a wonderful job of turning one of the very best Christmas books into a faithful adaptation for the screen. The 1935 British version, as well as the later American version, both lacked that indefinable something which makes any artistic endeavor worth the effort in the first place. And the movie has been done several times since, but this is the version I would choose over any other.

Britain, at the time this movie was filmed, was still in the throes of the aftermath of the Second World War. They were still using ration books for food and sweets, as well as gasoline. Remember, the British took a hell of a hit before we joined the war in December of 1941. I mention this only as a possible explanation for the remaking of this film in the first place.

When I watch this film I tend to think of the Three Spirits as being allegories for what Britain had been before the war; what she endured during that war; and her hopes for a better future. Is that simplistic? Maybe.

I also watch this film with a copy of the book by my side. It's so loyal to the original prose, that there are whole pages where you can read along with the movie. It's then that you see, and feel, the brilliance of Mr. Sim's remarkable performance. To have the ability to act out the words, just as the author intended, is a joy to watch. I have to wonder what Charles Dickens would have thought of Mr. Sim's giddy version of Scrooge on Christmas morning. I suspect that he would deem it perfect.

Of course, no version of "A Christmas Carol" would be complete without a good Jacob Marley, and to that end this film gives us Michael Hordern as Scrooge's deceased partner. And he does a credible job as the Ghost of Marley. This scene used to scare the hell out of me when I was a kid. Now, I am more focused on what he is saying, "Mankind WAS our business!", as he shakes the shackles that bind him. Here is that scene, courtesy of good ol' You Tube;

If I had only one holiday movie to choose from, this would be it. The lessons penned by Dickens so many years ago, still resonate today, when the world is still full of Ignorance and Want, mankind’s two worst enemies. I didn't say it - Dickens did. I just happen to agree.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

"Christmas Eve" with Joan Blondell and George Raft (1947)

This is one of the all-time greatest of Christmas movies, and also one of the most overlooked. It involves a wealthy widow who lives in Manhattan during the late 1940's, which is when the film was made. Aunt Matilda Reid's nephew is seeking to have her judged incompetent in order to become the sole trustee of her wealth. 

Her three wayward adopted sons have been gone for years, with not a word from any of them. One is a bankrupt playboy (George Brent), the other a rodeo rider (Randolph Scott), and the third son (George Raft), is a very mysterious man involved with hunting Nazi war criminals in South America.

Aunt Matilda has drawn just one concession from the lawyers and judge who are administering her case; if her sons show up before midnight on Christmas Eve, she wins. If not, she becomes the ward of her greedy nephew.

The film received tepid reviews in 1947 when it was released in late October. It was eventually re-released as "Sinner's Holiday", in an effort to attract a wider audience. I first ran across this gem in 1961, or so, while watching WOR-TV, Channel 9, in New York City. All the good old movies were on that channel.

As a matter of fact, "It's A Wonderful Life", with Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, got its second life from that station. That film was originally released in 1942, at a time when we were not winning the war. The film flopped. And then, around 1960, WOR-TV was looking for something to throw on the air Christmas Eve that wouldn't cost them anything. 

So they turned to "It's A Wonderful Life", a film whose copyright had just run out, enabling them to air the film for nothing. The switchboards lit up and another classic Christmas film was "discovered."

Friday, December 19, 2014

"The Gift of the Magi" by O. Henry

O. Henry, along with the likes of Mark Twain, marked a new type of journalist; ones who became serious writers; a tradition which has continued to the present day. With such luminaries from Mark Twain on through to Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer, journalists have become, increasingly, some of the leading writers of their times. O.Henry was no exception. With his incredible feel for irony, and knowledge of human behavior, he wrote of the daily struggles which faced the generation of his time. Jim and Della are emblematic of that struggle, and the love for one another which enabled them to make it through the rough times. The irony in the story is apparent, as well as their love for one another. The illustration I have posted here is the "Adoration of the Magi" by the Italian Artist, Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510). This is a perfect Christmas story, which I have enjoyed for many years, thanks once again, to a grammar school teacher who really had a heart, and made a difference. Mrs. Denslow, this one's for you.

One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one's cheeks burned with the silent imputation of parsimony that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eighty- seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.

There was clearly nothing to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl. So Della did it. Which instigates the moral reflection that life is made up of sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating.

While the mistress of the home is gradually subsiding from the first stage to the second, take a look at the home. A furnished flat at $8 per week. It did not exactly beggar description, but it certainly had that word on the lookout for the mendicancy squad.

In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring. Also appertaining thereunto was a card bearing the name "Mr. James Dillingham Young."

The "Dillingham" had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, though, they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called "Jim" and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good.

Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. She had been saving every penny she could for months, with this result. Twenty dollars a week doesn't go far. Expenses had been greater than she had calculated. They always are. Only $1.87 to buy a present for Jim. Her Jim. Many a happy hour she had spent planning for something nice for him. Something fine and rare and sterling--something just a little bit near to being worthy of the honor of being owned by Jim.

There was a pier-glass between the windows of the room. Perhaps you have seen a pier-glass in an $8 flat. A very thin and very agile person may, by observing his reflection in a rapid sequence of longitudinal strips, obtain a fairly accurate conception of his looks. Della, being slender, had mastered the art.

Suddenly she whirled from the window and stood before the glass. her eyes were shining brilliantly, but her face had lost its color within twenty seconds. Rapidly she pulled down her hair and let it fall to its full length.

Now, there were two possessions of the James Dillingham Youngs in which they both took a mighty pride. One was Jim's gold watch that had been his father's and his grandfather's. The other was Della's hair. Had the queen of Sheba lived in the flat across the airshaft, Della would have let her hair hang out the window some day to dry just to depreciate Her Majesty's jewels and gifts. Had King Solomon been the janitor, with all his treasures piled up in the basement, Jim would have pulled out his watch every time he passed, just to see him pluck at his beard from envy.

So now Della's beautiful hair fell about her rippling and shining like a cascade of brown waters. It reached below her knee and made itself almost a garment for her. And then she did it up again nervously and quickly. Once she faltered for a minute and stood still while a tear or two splashed on the worn red carpet.

On went her old brown jacket; on went her old brown hat. With a whirl of skirts and with the brilliant sparkle still in her eyes, she fluttered out the door and down the stairs to the street.

Where she stopped the sign read: "Mne. Sofronie. Hair Goods of All Kinds." One flight up Della ran, and collected herself, panting. Madame, large, too white, chilly, hardly looked the "Sofronie."

"Will you buy my hair?" asked Della.

"I buy hair," said Madame. "Take yer hat off and let's have a sight at the looks of it."

Down rippled the brown cascade.

"Twenty dollars," said Madame, lifting the mass with a practised hand.

"Give it to me quick," said Della.

Oh, and the next two hours tripped by on rosy wings. Forget the hashed metaphor. She was ransacking the stores for Jim's present.

She found it at last. It surely had been made for Jim and no one else. There was no other like it in any of the stores, and she had turned all of them inside out. It was a platinum fob chain simple and chaste in design, properly proclaiming its value by substance alone and not by meretricious ornamentation--as all good things should do. It was even worthy of The Watch. As soon as she saw it she knew that it must be Jim's. It was like him. Quietness and value--the description applied to both. Twenty-one dollars they took from her for it, and she hurried home with the 87 cents. With that chain on his watch Jim might be properly anxious about the time in any company. Grand as the watch was, he sometimes looked at it on the sly on account of the old leather strap that he used in place of a chain.

When Della reached home her intoxication gave way a little to prudence and reason. She got out her curling irons and lighted the gas and went to work repairing the ravages made by generosity added to love. Which is always a tremendous task, dear friends--a mammoth task.

Within forty minutes her head was covered with tiny, close-lying curls that made her look wonderfully like a truant schoolboy. She looked at her reflection in the mirror long, carefully, and critically.

"If Jim doesn't kill me," she said to herself, "before he takes a second look at me, he'll say I look like a Coney Island chorus girl. But what could I do--oh! what could I do with a dollar and eighty- seven cents?"

At 7 o'clock the coffee was made and the frying-pan was on the back of the stove hot and ready to cook the chops.

Jim was never late. Della doubled the fob chain in her hand and sat on the corner of the table near the door that he always entered. Then she heard his step on the stair away down on the first flight, and she turned white for just a moment. She had a habit for saying little silent prayer about the simplest everyday things, and now she whispered: "Please God, make him think I am still pretty."

The door opened and Jim stepped in and closed it. He looked thin and very serious. Poor fellow, he was only twenty-two--and to be burdened with a family! He needed a new overcoat and he was without gloves.

Jim stopped inside the door, as immovable as a setter at the scent of quail. His eyes were fixed upon Della, and there was an expression in them that she could not read, and it terrified her. It was not anger, nor surprise, nor disapproval, nor horror, nor any of the sentiments that she had been prepared for. He simply stared at her fixedly with that peculiar expression on his face.

Della wriggled off the table and went for him.

"Jim, darling," she cried, "don't look at me that way. I had my hair cut off and sold because I couldn't have lived through Christmas without giving you a present. It'll grow out again--you won't mind, will you? I just had to do it. My hair grows awfully fast. Say `Merry Christmas!' Jim, and let's be happy. You don't know what a nice-- what a beautiful, nice gift I've got for you."

"You've cut off your hair?" asked Jim, laboriously, as if he had not arrived at that patent fact yet even after the hardest mental labor.

"Cut it off and sold it," said Della. "Don't you like me just as well, anyhow? I'm me without my hair, ain't I?"

Jim looked about the room curiously.

"You say your hair is gone?" he said, with an air almost of idiocy.

"You needn't look for it," said Della. "It's sold, I tell you--sold and gone, too. It's Christmas Eve, boy. Be good to me, for it went for you. Maybe the hairs of my head were numbered," she went on with sudden serious sweetness, "but nobody could ever count my love for you. Shall I put the chops on, Jim?"

Out of his trance Jim seemed quickly to wake. He enfolded his Della. For ten seconds let us regard with discreet scrutiny some inconsequential object in the other direction. Eight dollars a week or a million a year--what is the difference? A mathematician or a wit would give you the wrong answer. The magi brought valuable gifts, but that was not among them. This dark assertion will be illuminated later on.

Jim drew a package from his overcoat pocket and threw it upon the table.

"Don't make any mistake, Dell," he said, "about me. I don't think there's anything in the way of a haircut or a shave or a shampoo that could make me like my girl any less. But if you'll unwrap that package you may see why you had me going a while at first."

White fingers and nimble tore at the string and paper. And then an ecstatic scream of joy; and then, alas! a quick feminine change to hysterical tears and wails, necessitating the immediate employment of all the comforting powers of the lord of the flat.

For there lay The Combs--the set of combs, side and back, that Della had worshipped long in a Broadway window. Beautiful combs, pure tortoise shell, with jewelled rims--just the shade to wear in the beautiful vanished hair. They were expensive combs, she knew, and her heart had simply craved and yearned over them without the least hope of possession. And now, they were hers, but the tresses that should have adorned the coveted adornments were gone.

But she hugged them to her bosom, and at length she was able to look up with dim eyes and a smile and say: "My hair grows so fast, Jim!"

And them Della leaped up like a little singed cat and cried, "Oh, oh!"

Jim had not yet seen his beautiful present. She held it out to him eagerly upon her open palm. The dull precious metal seemed to flash with a reflection of her bright and ardent spirit.

"Isn't it a dandy, Jim? I hunted all over town to find it. You'll have to look at the time a hundred times a day now. Give me your watch. I want to see how it looks on it."

Instead of obeying, Jim tumbled down on the couch and put his hands under the back of his head and smiled.

"Dell," said he, "let's put our Christmas presents away and keep 'em a while. They're too nice to use just at present. I sold the watch to get the money to buy your combs. And now suppose you put the chops on."

The magi, as you know, were wise men--wonderfully wise men--who brought gifts to the Babe in the manger. They invented the art of giving Christmas presents. Being wise, their gifts were no doubt wise ones, possibly bearing the privilege of exchange in case of duplication. And here I have lamely related to you the uneventful chronicle of two foolish children in a flat who most unwisely sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. O all who give and receive gifts, such as they are wisest. Everywhere they are wisest. They are the magi.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

"Christmas Comes But Once a Year" - Max Fleischer (1936)

This is one of those old cartoons that you watch as a kid and never forget. When the children at the orphanage wake up on Christmas morning they are thrilled with the store bought gifts which await them. But that joy gives way to disappointment as the toys break one by one. As a result they are inconsolable.

As their wailing reaches epic proportions Professor Grampy happens to be passing by on his self-propelled sled; he is an inventor. When he ascertains the cause of the children’s trouble he takes only a few seconds to come up with a solution. He’ll build newer and better toys, using the wreckage of the toys they have and some assorted things from around the house.

The Christmas miracle he performs isn’t so much about the material things in life as it is about what we do to help one another in our times of need. Well, that sounds nice. But in reality; at least in the case of this cartoon; it really was all about the toys!

Beautifully animated with all the fluidity you expect from these classic Fleischer cartoons, this is a Christmas classic that will always stand the test of time.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Happy Chanukah!

Happy Chanukah! Tonight is the first of eight nights of celebration commemorating the Miracle of the Lights. Literally, Chanukah means a re-dedication. This always takes place on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. The story behind the holiday is, of course, like Christmas, biblical in its origins. The actual events took place over 2,000 years ago in Judea amongst the Hebrew people of the time.(The photo above is from last year.)

The Jews were the first mono-theists, that is, they were the first to believe in one God. To honor him they built a temple on Mt. Moriah in Jerusalem. Inside were the scrolls of the Torah, which were housed in an Ark. That Ark stood on an Altar which also held a lamp of oil burning in God's honor. This was a symbol of the special relationship the Jews felt with their Creator.

At the same time as the Hebrew people were worshiping their God, Alexander the Great was busy conquering the entire Persian Empire, an area that includes present day Iran, Iraq and the surrounding states. Wherever Alexander the Great went he erected huge statues of the Greek idols. He also placed statues of himself in every important place to show that these countries were under his rule.

At first Alexander allowed the Jews to worship their God with little interference, but that soon came to an end. When the Jews were ordered to place a statue of Alexander the Great on Mt. Moriah, they were horrified! Alexander understood this and allowed the Jews an exemption to this rule, and grateful Jews everywhere named their first born sons Alexander in his honor.

When Alexander died, Antiochus came into power. He was an unforgiving and determined man, hell bent on putting the Jews in their place. He forbid the Jews to worship in their own way and outlawed the Sabbath. Things might have gone on in this way for a while longer had Antiochus not made one crucial mistake.

On the 25th of Kislev, he ordered his troops to bring a statue of Zeus to Mt. Moriah for placement inside of the temple. And then he did the unthinkable - he slaughtered a pig on the Altar, spraying the Torah with the blood of the animal as he did. He then set out in the countryside, erecting more statues and demanding that the people worship them. This was not to be.

A local villager named Mattathias, knocked the statues down and formed his 5 sons into a band of rebels he named the "Maccabees", which means hammer in Hebrew. Soon, more Jews joined Mattathias and his sons, attacking the soldiers and destroying the idols. Antiochus was in a full blown rage at this affront to his supremacy and gathered his army outside of Jerusalem, intent on destroying the Jews once and for all.

At dawn his troops attacked, and were ambushed by the waiting "Maccabees." The people took refuge in the Temple atop Mt. Moriah and repaired all the damage that Antiochus had done to the Altar. Three years later, on the same date, the 25th of Kislev, the Temple was re-dedicated to God. The only problem was, of course, a shortage of oil for the lamp. With a prayer, the Holy Priest poured one days oil into the lamp, and then prayed for the light to last until new oil could be obtained.

That one day's worth of oil burned for 8 days, sustaining the faith of a battered people. And that is why we commemorate this event every 25th of Kislev. There is miracle in light, as well as light in every miracle. Happy Chanukah to all!

Monday, December 15, 2014

A Christmas Tree Grows In Brooklyn - from Betty Smith

This is a repost from last year and the year before. I present it again simply because I love it that much. I hope that if you have never read this, you will now. Your life will be enriched. And, even if you have read it before, you will find that it will refresh your spirits. I include my last year’s introduction and hope to add a bit to it each year.

If you can read this portion of a chapter from Betty Smith’s “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” without choking up, then you are probably not living. One of the most poignant portions of a book filled with such moments, this is a tale that should be read each Christmas. To me it is the equivalent of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens; only shorter; as most things are.

In this brief glimpse into the lives of the Nolan family on Christmas Eve are all of the same lessons contained in Dicken’s classic holiday tale. The realities which we live are largely of our own making. And, just as Jacob Marley forged each link of his own damnation in “A Christmas Carol”, we are all capable of undoing those links as well. As you read this, remember that about the tree-seller.

There was a cruel custom in the neighborhood. It was about the trees still unsold when midnight of Christmas Eve approached. There was a saying that if you waited until then, you wouldn’t have to buy a tree; that “they’d chuck ‘em at you.” This was literally true.

At midnight on the Eve of our dear Saviour's birth, the kids gathered where there were unsold trees. The man threw each tree in turn, starting with the biggest. Kids volunteered to stand up against the throwing. If a boy didn’t fall down under the impact, the tree was his. If he fell, he forfeited his chance at winning a tree. Only the roughest boys and some of the young men elected to be hit by the big trees. The others waited shrewdly until a tree came up that they could stand against. The littlest kids waited for the tiny, foot-high trees and shrieked in delight when they won one.

On the Christmas Eve when Francie was ten and Neely nine, mama consented to let them go down and have their first try for a tree. Francie had picked out her tree earlier in the day. She had stood near it all afternoon and evening praying that no one would buy it. To her joy it was still there at midnight. It was the biggest tree in the neighborhood and its price was so high that no one could afford to buy it. It was ten feet high. Its branches were bound with new white rope and it came to a sure pure point at the top.

The man took this tree out first. Before Francie could speak up, a neighborhood bully, a boy of eighteen known as Punky Perkins, stepped forward and ordered the man to chuck the tree at him. The man hated the the way Punky was so confident. He looked around and asked;

”Anybody else wanna take a chanct on it?”

Francie stepped forward. “Me, Mister.”

A spurt of derisive laughter came from the tree man. The kids snickered. A few adults who had gathered to watch the fun, guffawed.

“Aw g’wan. You’re too little,” the tree man objected.

“Me and my brother — we’re not too little together.”

She pulled Neely forward. The man looked at them — a thin girl of ten with starveling hollows in her cheeks but with the chin still baby-round. He looked at the little boy with his fair hair and round blue eyes - Neeley Nolan, all innocence and trust.

"Two ain't fair," yelped Punky.

"Shut your lousy trap," advised the man who held all the power in that hour. “These here kids is got nerve. Stand back, the rest of youse. These kids is goin’ to have a show at this tree.”

The others made a wavering lane. Francie and Neeley stood at one end of it and the big man with the big tree at the other. It was a human funnel with Francie and her brother making the small end of it. The man flexed his great arms to throw the great tree. He noticed how tiny the children looked at the end of the short lane. For the split part of a moment, the tree thrower went through a kind of Gethsemane.

“Oh, Jesus Christ,” his soul agonized, “why don’t I just give ‘em the tree, say Merry Christmas and let ‘em go. What’s the tree to me? I can’t sell it no more this year and it won’t keep till next year." The kids watched him solemnly as he stood there in his moment of thought. "But then," he rationalized, if I did that, all the others would expect to get 'em handed to 'em. And next year nobody a-tall would buy a tree off of me. They’d all wait to get ‘em handed to ‘em on a silver plate. I ain’t a big enough man to give this tree away for nothin’. No, I ain't big enough. I ain't big enough to do a thing like that. I gotta think of myself and my own kids." He finally came to his conclusion. "Oh, what the hell! Them two kids is gotta live is this world. They got to get used to it. They got to learn to give and take punishment. And by Jesus, it ain’t give but take, take, take all the time in this God-damned world.” As he threw the tree with all his strength, his heart wailed out, “It’s a God-damned, rotten, lousy world!”

Francie saw the tree leave his hands. There was a split bit of being when time and space had no meaning. The whole world stood dark and still as something dark and monstrous came through the air. The tree came towards her blotting out all memory of her having lived. There was nothing – nothing but pungent darkness and something that grew and grew as it rushed at her. She staggered as the tree hit them. Neeley went down to his knees but she pulled him up fiercely before he could go down. There was a mighty swishing sound as the tree settled. Everything was dark, green and prickly. Then she felt a sharp pain at the side of her head where the trunk of the tree had hit her. She felt Neeley trembling.

When some of the older boys pulled the tree away, they found Francie and her brother standing upright, hand in hand. Blood was coming from scratches on Neeley’s face. He looked more like a baby than ever with his bewildered blue eyes and the fairness of his skin made more noticeable because of the clear red blood. But they were smiling. Had they not won the biggest tree in the neighborhood? Some of the boys hollered “Hooray!” A few adults clapped. The tree man eulogized them by screaming;

“And now get the hell out of here with your tree, you lousy bastards.”

Francie had heard swearing since she had heard words. Obscenity and profanity had no meaning as such among those people. They were emotional expressions of inarticulate people with small vocabularies; they made a kind of dialect. The phrases could mean many things according to the expression and tone used in saying them. So now, when Francie heard themselves called lousy bastards, she smiled tremulously at the kind man. She knew that he was really saying, Goodbye – God bless you.”

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Captains Christmas" with The Captain and the Kids (1938)

The Captain is playing Santa for the Kids, while his old nemesis Long John and his henchmen plan to rob him up and take all the presents for the boys.   But the band of would be robbers make a mess of the whole scheme.

When John does get in the house by accident he is dazed from a fall down the chimney and quickly reverts to being a big kid, playing with the toys he had intended to steal. While playing with the toys  things get out of hand and he winds up breaking them all, leaving the kids in tears.

Confronted by the heartbroken boys; as well as his conscience; he sets out to replace the gifts by singing Christmas Carols with his gang. They sing so poorly at first that people throw things at them to stop. But with a little effort they wind up singing beautifully and the people wind up throwing presents at them instead.

Gathering the gifts up in the sleigh the band of pirates then return to the scene of the “crime” in the true Christmas spirit, delighting the boys and assuaging John’s guilt. In the end all works out well and Christmas is saved.

There were only 15 Captain and the Kids cartoons made. This one was released in theaters on December 17, 1938.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"Stalag 17" with William Holden (1953)

This is a film that I associate with Christmas. It's not the warm and fuzzy type of Christmas movie you would normally expect. While I enjoy those types of films, and will be reviewing some of the classic ones as we near the holiday, I prefer the more unusual Christmas movies, the ones which explore the human condition more than the tinsel on the tree.

In this film the entire story takes place around the time of the holidays, only this time in a German POW Camp, Stalag 17. The time is less than 2 weeks before Christmas of 1944. In this 1953 film directed by Billy Wilder, fellow Director Otto Preminger plays Commandant Klink of Stalag 17, a POW Camp located somewhere in Germany. He is pure Nazi, right to the bone. They couldn't have picked a better actor. 

The film is based entirely upon the Broadway play of the same name, in which Robert Strauss and Harvey Lembeck, who play the roles of Harry Shapiro and "Animal", appeared. They are both excellent in this screen adaptation.

Someone in the barracks at Stalag 17 is a stoolie. Several men have already died attempting escapes. No one knows who it is, but everyone suspects it to be Sgt. Sefton, played by William Holden, a shrewd black market trader who has fresh eggs for breakfast while his fellow prisoners subsist on gruel. He is not very well liked. He flouts his wealth, mocking the others as "saps."

Overseeing the entire barracks is Sgt. Schultz, (if you're thinking of "Hogan's Hero's", forget it. In this film, Klink and Schultz are both real Nazi's, with no shred of honor, or humor. This is a drama.) He is a cruel and calculating man who masquerades as the men's "friend", but his real purposes are sinister and without merit.

When the men in the barracks gang up on Sefton, and beat him, thinking he is the stoolie, they set off a chain of events which leads to the discovery of the real mole, on Christmas Eve, just in time for a planned escape by several of the prisoners. With the holiday only hours away, someone is about to pay for those who have died, while others are on their way to freedom.

A real surprise twist at the end makes this an excellent film at any time of the year. But now, as Christmas approaches, the film is somehow more poignant, as we watch these men struggle with their burdens, each one bearing their individual cross, during a time of year which normally holds joy for most.

This film won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor in 1954 for William Holden, who initially refused the part. In addition it also won Nominations for Best Supporting Actor for Robert Strauss, as well as a Nomination for Best Director for Billy Wilder. If you've never seen this one, check it out. Here is a clip from one of the lighter moments in the film;

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Rooftop's Cover Story - The Other Washington Monument

This is the monument from which the masthead photo for Rooftop Reviews was taken. If you're reading this I assume that you have noticed that photo before. My only problem with it is the size. It's too big and I have thought of replacing it, but the photo has a special place in my heart. Let me tell you about it...

I was living in Baltimore in 1983 when I met my wife, Sue. I lived 2 blocks from the Washington Monument- no, not the one in Washington, D.C., but the first one, built with public lottery funds. Beginning in 1799, $100,000 was collected, and in 1815 work was begun. In 1829 the 178 foot tall Doric column with Washington standing atop, opened to the public. They thronged to ascend the 228 steps to the top of the city's highest vantage point of the time.

It is still one of the most beautiful of the many monuments in Baltimore. Sue and I used to walk and talk there in the evenings when we were first seeing one another. After a while I tricked her into marrying me and we moved out to the County to raise our family.

Fast forward to about 1994. The Monument had been closed for some years due to interior structural problems. A Citizens Committee had resolved these issues and the Monument (located on Monument and Charles Streets) was now open again. You could, for a $1 contribution, climb to the top. And so, we did. Sue took several photos looking in all directions. My favorite is this one- looking North up Charles St.

In the foreground and to the right is the Methodist Church made with green stone from local quarries. The Church sits across from the unseen Peabody Institute of Music and the Walthers Art Gallery. Looking further to the rear and in the center is the 13 story Belvedere Hotel which was also home to the Engineers Society of Maryland at the time. The whole monument sits in an oasis of a park that bisects Charles Street.

The best part of the memory associated with this photo is the actual climb up a circular stairway reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty. The brick and mortar interior was eerie and a little damp- ideal in the summertime, cool- like a cave. With several openings at different levels there were some beautiful vistas of the harbor and surrounding areas. But I always liked the view from the top best of all.

I think it's because we made the climb with me carrying our daughter most of the way. And when we were done we were so exhausted, coming out into the heat of a summer’s day. But it's something that we did together and really enjoyed. The original of this photo hangs in our bedroom. It serves as a reminder to us of all the climbs we have made together through the years.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


They're tiny and seemingly meaningless- but in their day these little babies were the gateway to the rest of the world beyond my own neighborhood. They have always held a fascination for me. The first time I saw one was on my father’s dresser with his change. I remember that I didn't need one until I was over 6. I still recall the slogan- "Little enough to ride for free- little enough to ride your knee."

As a coin collector I used to shun these little guys- but I always made sure to save one or two whenever the NYC tokens were changed. I have given them away, one by one, over the years, to friends and my kids. My wife even has one of the older little ones as a necklace. In 1967 I went by "D" train into Manhattan and shopped at Macy's on 34th Street for Christmas using one of these same tokens.

The best part of holding one of these in your hands is the unknown, untold story that each could tell. Look at the Honolulu token for instance. I see a sailor on liberty in pre-World War II Hawaii. The trolley probably took him from the docks to the bar district or maybe he even had a girlfriend. Where was this token on the morning of December 7th, 1941? Oh, how I wish these guys could talk!

The Baltimore and the South Carolina tokens are from the days of segregation and were once held in the hands of white, blue collar workers as well as the African American passengers, who, after handing over the fare had to "move to the rear of the bus." How odd that they could share the tokens but not the seats...

The Miami token recalls a time when people from New York went down to Florida for the winter. While there they used the streetcars and rode alongside the Cuban maids and hotel workers. I have a picture of my mother's family in Miami in the 1940's and can't help wonder if my mom; or even my great granddad Max; used one of these on the way to Neiman Marcus to shop. Maybe even this one!

The delicate designs, the flourishes at the edges and the delightful cutouts in the centers give these tokens all the grace of real coins. They are hallmarks to the past.

You can find these little beauties in almost any coin shop- usually in a box marked "Special" and selling for less than a buck. I like to turn them over in my hand and read the inscriptions and spin stories in my head about them, where they were and who used them. Not bad for less than a buck.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

"Flawless" with Robert DeNiro and Phillip Seymour Hoffman

In "Flawless" Robert DeNiro is out of character as a former cop who lives alone and works as a security guard. He is a bitter and homophobic man. He lives in a flophouse hotel inhabited by whores, transsexuals and drag queens. Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays the Drag Queen. He is also Robert DeNiros' worst nightmare. You might even say they hate one another.

Against the backdrop of a drug rip off gone bad, Robert DeNiro becomes involved in an incident late one night after hearing the violence coming from an apartment upstairs where his despised neighbor lives. In spite of their differences he goes to help, and suffers a stroke while doing so. (He plays the stroke victim to perfection.)

Initially unaccepting of his physical state,he tries to shut out the entire world in a bath of self pity. But his needs, as well as those of Phillip Seymour Hoffman,will not allow it. Through singing lessons by Hoffman to help him regain his speech, DeNiro's character forms an unlikely bond with Hoffman that is tempered by the fallout from both his own stroke as well as the drug rip off which has deeply affected his neighbor, whose friend was killed.

As DeNiro's character struggles through recovery he learns about himself as well as the people he always thought of as friends. His relationship with a woman dance partner also leads DeNiro to discover that love is not what it always seems to be on the surface, and that true love comes in many forms.

This film has a great supporting cast and fantastic direction. The plot is fast and the movie has deep meaning concerning what we each owe one another as fellow human beings; respect.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"The Lost Tribe of Coney Island" by Claire Prentice (2014)

Be prepared to be amazed by this remarkable book from author Claire Prentice. Carefully she introduces us to the main protagonist, Mr. Truman Hunt; a man as shrouded in mystery as he is flamboyant; and then just as quickly we are witness to his vagaries and vices, which eventually lead to his ultimate downfall.  This story takes place in the Philippines and then in the United States; notably in Coney Island at Luna Park; in 1905, just as America was advancing her interests in the Philippine Islands.

But the real story begins one year earlier when a band of assorted tribes from the northern Philippine Islands were first exhibited at the International Exposition in St. Louis. But calling it an exhibition did not allay the true purpose of the show; that is to turn a profit. The show featured the natives in a village like setting; kind of like the “natural habitats” found in zoos today, only with human beings on display rather than animals.

Truman Hunt had been an assistant governor of the Philippine Islands and was regarded by the tribe known as Igorottes to be a fair minded and intelligent man. And, at first he was. As a physician he was invaluable to the tribe; healing the sick, setting broken bones and even pulling bad teeth. His reputation was so great that at one point it became a symbol of status to have a tooth removed; if only to prove that you had been to the white man’s doctor. He was the man to whom the tribe would come with legal problems, considering him to be a very learned and compassionate man.

Having seen the Exhibition in St. Louis Dr. Hunt returned to the Philippines with the idea of bringing his own tribe of natives home to America for a tour of the fairs and amusement parks that proliferated the nation. But any exhibition would require financing and so he began to cast about for partners in his venture. He needed about $3,000 to get the Igorottes to America. It would be a long journey; beginning on foot and then crossing the Pacific Ocean to Washington State and from there by rail to Chicago and finally Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York.

By 1904 the movies were beginning to show their potential for entertaining the masses, and to that end most entrepreneurs were scrambling about for newer and bigger ways to attract audiences. In New York City that meant a new venue called the Hippodrome was being constructed. It would be a veritable palace of entertainment for decades to come. It was the Madison Square Garden of its time. Fred Thompson and Elmer Dundy, who owned an exhibit in Coney Island, were also the owners of this new venue.  They had heard of Dr. Hunt’s plans for exhibiting the Igorottes and were bidding on the rights to have them set up in Luna Park.

The story of the back dealing to get the tribe to America; as well as their reactions to things like ships and trains, which they had never seen; is a gripping story all by itself. This group of natives was planning on spending on year away from their families before returning with enough capital to start businesses and even get educations. But, after every promise made to them has been broken; and after they have been ill fed and ill clothed for over a year, never getting paid for their efforts; they would return home with only $35 apiece. However, they did get quite an education in the ways of the outside world in the time they were gone.

The cast of characters include Julio, the Igorotte who acts as the interpreter for Dr. Hunt and the tribe. He is also the most affected by Dr. Hunt’s eventual betrayal.  As the interpreter he felt personally responsible for all of the lies he has relayed to his friends and family. Even when the case comes to court he feels some guilt at betraying his master. By that time the tribe; as well as Julio; had been reduced to slave like status, following Dr. Truman wherever he led them to make a buck.
This is a story of an innocent people who think they have made bargain to ensure their future, relying on the word of the man they had come to view as somewhat of a god. This is also the story of how he abused that trust, becoming; as the money rolled in; a completely different person than the man he had been before.

It is also the story of the Unite States government and their search for Dr. Hunt on a variety of criminal charges; ranging from kidnapping to robbery and even bigamy. The book is filled with villains of every stripe; but for every villain met along the way there are heroes who pursue the case doggedly, until the Igorottes have been returned to their families.

This book is a tour de force for the author as well as the reader. Ms. Prentice has created a book which not only chronicles the case at hand, but also the climate concerning entertainment and what was acceptable as such at the time. And along the way she gives a wonderful history of Luna Park; and the fascinating men, and money which created it.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

"Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" - The Merry Macs (1942)

Today is the 73rd Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and it may not seem so special. But in a way it is. The attack took place on a Sunday morning; just like today; making it especially poignant when the occasion does fall on a Sunday every 7 years or so.

This song is probably my first real remembrance of Pearl Harbor as recent history. I’ve often said that being brought up in Brooklyn was like being brought up in the shadow of World War Two. So many of the records in our house were 78 RPM’s like the Andrew Sisters doing “Don’t Sit under the Apple Tree” and others just like it; all about sacrifice and faith. This record was a bit different and really appealed to me at the age of 5.

The story I first heard about this song; which is disputed; is a colorful one and involves Doris “Dorie” Miller, the first American to fire a shot at the Japanese in World War Two. He was an African-American steward aboard the USS West Virginia when he saw the gunner knocked out of action and took his place. It was; and still is; a thrilling story. It really fired my imagination and burned the lyrics into my mind forever.

Now that story may, or may not be true as it relates to Mr. Miller’s participation in the birth of this song; but that is of little matter. The real story of what he did was a giant leap forward for African-American sailors of the era, who were relegated to Mess duties and Laundries. He set a new example and was awarded the Navy Cross for his action manning a .50 caliber gun for about 15 minutes; untrained; until ordered to abandon ship. It is actually believed that he hit one of the planes; making it the first Japanese casualty of World War Two. That’s quite a story. And it’s true.

The other, more accredited version is of Chaplain Forgy aboard the USS New Orleans. He is actually credited; by witnesses;  as being the guy who said, “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Either story may be the truth; and the above version of the song by the Merry Macs may be the original; but here is the song as I first remember hearing it; the later Kay Keyser version. The illustration at the beginning is actually the cover of the sheet music which my mother had, along with the recording.

And here are the lyrics by Frank Loesser;

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
And we'll all stay free

Praise the Lord and swing into position
Can't afford to be a politician
Praise the Lord, we're all between perdition
And the deep blue sea

Yes, the sky pilot said it, you gotta give him credit
For a son of a gun of a gunner was he

Shouting, 'Praise the Lord, we're on a mighty mission
All aboard, we ain't a-goin' fishin'
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
And we'll all stay free'

Praise the Lord
(Praise the Lord)
And pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord
(Praise the Lord)
And pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord
(Praise the Lord)
And pass the ammunition
And we'll all stay free

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition
And we'll all stay free

Saturday, December 6, 2014

"Holiday Heart" with Ving Rhames and Alfre Woodard (2000)

If you have never seen this movie you should. We have all seen the tough guy portrayals of Ving Rhames. He's great. But after a while you wonder what else can he do? "Holiday Heart" answers that question. He can act. Man, can he act!

In this movie he plays a drag queen/transvestite named Holiday. That's right; Ving Rhames. And he does it with integrity and compassion.

The movie is also a social commentary about how we are all interwoven. Your pain is mine. Through a set of circumstances he becomes involved in the life of a young girl who lives next door and is being raised by a crack addicted mother and a father who is in and out of jail for dealing drugs.

And that's all I will tell you about this extraordinary movie. Except that, in the end, Holiday Heart proves himself to be more of a man than most. This is a very worthwhile film.

Friday, December 5, 2014

NC Music Hall of Fame Gets New Home

Yesterday the NC Music Hall of Fame observed the Grand Opening of its new home at 600 Dale Earnhardt Blvd. in Kannapolis, which also serves as home to entertainment and race car enthusiast Mike Curb’s race cars. His Curb Motorsports has been at the location for several years already, just a few blocks south of the old NC Music Hall of Fame which was housed in the old Kannapolis Jail House on West A Street. The new facility combines the world of NASCAR with the world of music; both of which are hallmarks of the state's culture.

This new location; all on one floor and Handicap accessible; will give more space and light to the museums already burgeoning chest of music memorabilia. The Hall of Fame has inducted scores of     musicians, singers and composers into the ranks since opening over 5 years ago. And with each artist inducted it has obtained more items, many of which are being displayed now for the first time. Imagine how some of the instruments feel; being freed from the confines of their cases after having travelled so far and wide with their former, storied owners. “I Saw the Light” by Hank Williams comes immediately to mind.

But, the heart and soul of this museum really belongs to 2 people in particular; Eddie Ray, who is the legendary A and R man; and his Assistant Right hand Veronica Cordle; which makes them both A and R persons. These 2 are a formidable team. He thinks stuff up and she actually makes it happen.

The Hall of Fame is financed by both a grant from Mike Curb and funding from the Arts Council of Kannapolis as well as the City. They also accept donations, as well as hold an annual 5K Race each spring and an Induction Ceremony every October.

Whether your musical tastes run to James Taylor, or Les Brown, Victoria Livengood; or even Thelonius Monk; there is something here for your enjoyment. Even Andy Griffith is here, alongside such contemporaries as Clay Aiken and Fantasia Barrino. These street signs help guide the visitors to their own particular musical tastes. The Museum is open Monday through Fridays between 10AM and 4PM; and on Saturdays in the mornings only. Group visits are welcome and are encouraged you to call ahead.

Even if you have been to the Museum at its old location, you will be amazed at the difference the new layout makes. These few photos don’t really do it justice. And to those who may be worried that the change in location might be a detriment; don’t worry. What the new building lacks in quaintness is more than compensated by the layout and abundance of new exhibits. Come see for yourself. The following links will be helpful;

For the museum go to;

And, for more about the remarkable Eddie Ray visit his Wikipedia page at;

Or, to purchase a copy of his autobiography, “Against All Odds”, go to;

This is the old Kannapolis Jail which formerly housed the NC Music Hall of Fame on West A Street.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

"Witness For The Prosecution" with Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich and Tyrone Power

This is an adaptation of the Agatha Christie play written for the screen and directed by Billy Wilder. The story is a murder trial in London at the close of the Second World War.

Charles Laughton stars as the beleaguered and aging Barrister Sir Wilfrid, who has just been released from the hospital. He is recovering from a severe heart attack and cannot take on any more important and exciting cases. A private nurse, played by Elsa Lanchester, follows him about to ensure that he takes his pills and does not smoke his favorite cigars. Much of the film has him outwitting her efforts.(Laughton and Manchester were real life husband and wife.)

Tyrone Power plays an innocent man accused of a capital crime. He meets and befriends an elderly widow who turns up dead one week after having named him heir to her estate. The only person who can provide him with an alibi is his wife, Marlene Dietrich, who plays her character with an icy coldness. She claims that her marriage to Leonard Vole (Power) was a sham and this allows her testimony to be used against her husband, much to his detriment.

Billy Wilder drew remarkable performances from both Tyrone Power and Marlene Dietrich. Charles Laughton and Elsa Lanchester are superb in their respective roles and the whole production is flawless.

Ultimately setting her husband free with false testimony and a surprise witness, the ending is explosive as the full realization of what has transpired is laid bare before your eyes. In a climactic scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder pulls off an ending in which the schemers become their own victims.

With one of the best courtroom scenes ever filmed, this is a movie not to be missed.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Sam and Me- Looking for Clues

This is the only close up photograph I have of Sam. He was my frog from July of 1966 until his untimely death due to a fungus sometime late in the summer of 1967. Sometimes I think he just didn't take to life in the city.

I have some other photos of me holding him in a coffee jar right after his capture. I look so happy with my new acquisition, with no thought of the poor frog, who must have been very upset with the jar and the smell. I can still remember that it was a Maxwell House jar.

I used to get water for him from Prospect Park on the weekends and fed him live meal worms which he seemed to be very fond of. He also liked raw chop meat, to which I would add his liquid vitamins. And when he eventually got sick I took him to the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.

It still makes me laugh to think about filling out the form for the intake process. I was alone, having taken the subway with Sam. They asked questions that simply did not apply to my particular pet, but the one Sam and I had the most fun with was when they asked for his color and I wrote "green." Man, we had our fun, Sam and I.

After a bit of initial confusion we were ushered into a Veterinarian's office overlooking the East River below the 59th Street "Feeling Groovy" Bridge. The vet came in and took a look at the two of us and wondered, almost aloud, if this was some kind of joke being played on him by his fellow vets. I assured him that we were in earnest, Sam having been sick for several weeks at this point. I had tried every homeopathic remedy known to reptiles and humans alike, all to no avail.

The vet gave him an injection which he claimed would either help him or not. I paid the $8 and left. Sam never made it home alive. The next day I rode my bicycle to the Old Mill on Avenue U in Brooklyn, and set him adrift in a fur lined cigar box hoping that the tide would carry him away. Kind of like a Viking funeral without the flames.

There's no moral here; no trauma involved. It’s just me going through my photos and memories; still looking for clues to who I was and where I've been. I’ll keep you posted.