Monday, August 30, 2010

Happy New Year 1976!

I recently solved a long-time mystery. Sorry, this has nothing to do with the meaning of life or anything as groundbreaking as all that. No, this is a rather mundane mystery, but solving it meant a lot to me personally. Please bear with me...

I come from a rather large family, and am the youngest of nine children. I have seven sisters and one brother. By the time I came along my family already had many long-standing traditions. One of these was a big New Year's Eve party at my parents house. There probably hasn't been an "official" New Year's Eve party there in over twenty-five years (due to children growing up, leaving the house, starting their own families, and starting their own traditions...) but they were still going on strong when I was a young lad. Beyond the obvious celebration of the end/beginning of the old/new year these parties were best known as feasts of interesting and odd foods. My father enjoyed supplying a number of delicacies that we wouldn't normally see or eat that he would discover and share with us. To be honest I don't remember what many of them were (or didn't comprehend them at my youthful age), but I'm sure my fondness for the idea (if not the actual practice) of heating Vienna sausages over a can of Sterno (not unlike how we'd heat up items from our Pu-Pu platters at the China Pacific--our local Chinese restaurant) came from these parties. And I've also heard that one year featured chocolate-covered ants or grasshoppers.

Back to the mystery. For as long as I can remember I've had some rather specific memories of one of these New Year's Eve parties, but could never be sure how accurate my mind was remembering it. Could it have been bits and pieces from several different parties? Could part of what I remembered been from an event that had nothing at all to do with New Year's Eve? Could I have been imagining it all together? Sadly, because of the way the mind works (see the various studies suggesting that eyewitness testimony is very unreliable in court cases) all of that could have been the case.

So what exactly were these memories? This may have been too great of a build-up, as the memories are actually pretty simple. I mostly just recall being pretty young and enjoying the food and games that were part of that particular New Year's Eve party. The main thing that stood out was that we settled in late at night to watch a horror/monster movie of some type. Of course, this detail would be very important to a person who would eventually be calling himself "Monster Dad". I remember sitting on our old green couch with my mother and being pretty scared as this late-night movie spooled out. The only details of it I recall (imagined?) concerned some people from a boat walking through the jungles and rocky ledges of a small island and encountering a large white ape or gorilla. Not a heck of a lot to go by when trying to figure out what movie it was. It seemed very likely that the movie was in black & white (though I'm pretty sure that the TV we would have been watching it on at the time was a B&W set). I also always remembered the movie having something to do with King Kong for some reason. This was the aspect that seemed the most likely part of my memory to be faulty. As a little kid I probably would have associated any movie with a large ape or gorilla in it with King Kong.

Those fragments of memory weren't much, but it has always been a pleasant thing to remember that party and the little details that I thought I remembered from that night. I never really thought about doing any kind of research to see if my memory had been realistic or faulty. If I had thought about it, it might have seemed like a good idea to leave well enough alone and to just enjoy the memories I had. Then last fall while my father was undergoing his first round of treatments for cancer I found myself thinking about that party once again. Fall always makes me feel a bit nostalgic and even sad about the past; The weather changing and moving away from summer toward winter. The leaves changing color and ultimately falling and making a brown blanket over the rapidly cooling ground. The days getting shorter and shorter, and darkness arriving earlier every day. Returning to school for another year and all the stress that went along with that... Anyway, I got to thinking about that party and felt like I wanted to know if it had actually happened as I remembered it. But where to start? The only thing I really had that was quantifiable in any way was the bits and pieces of the movie I thought I remembered. So I figured I'd try to figure out what that movie was.

I didn't know what year this particular New Year's Eve party took place. I knew I had been pretty young--but just how young? The one thing I did know for sure was the date of the party--December 31st. If I was indeed remembering a New Year's Eve party then that's the only possible date it could have taken place on. The Worcester (MA) Public Library has microfilm of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette newspapers. These were the main newspapers we got our news (and TV listings) from when I was growing up (along with the Woonsocket Call and the Milford Daily News). I was very familiar with the Telegram microfilm because I had been working in the Worcester Public Library at the time and had looked up literally hundreds of obituaries for genealogists over the past eight years. I also used the T&G microfilm for my own research into the old Boston channel 56 (WLVI) show Creature Double Feature, but that's a different story for a different blog...

I had a date and only needed to read the TV listings for a few (I hoped) New Year's Eves until I found the right year. I started out going through the late 1970s and into the early 1980s when I would have been between eight- and 12-years-old or so. Nothing seemed to match up. I went back a year at a time: 1979, 1978, 1977. Just about to give up I tried 1976, which would have made me only seven-years-old. Nothing. Then I decided to try just one more year. I checked the listings for December 31, 1975 (when I would have been only six-years-old) and struck gold! At 9:30 that New Year's Eve WLVI channel 56 ran the movie "Son of Kong" (1933)--the lesser-known sequel to 1931's "King Kong"--as the second part of a double feature with "Gog" (1954)--a movie occasionally aired on Creature Double Feature. Now, I had remembered watching the movie in question very late at night (like just before, or more likely after, the stroke of midnight). 9:30 seemed a little early until I realized the movie didn't end until 11:00 PM. And, more importantly, to a six-year-old boy, 9:30 PM would have felt very late indeed, even if it really wasn't.

The only thing left was to confirm that "Son of Kong" was indeed the movie I had remembered bits and pieces of for well over thirty years. Clips of it on Youtube seemed to indicate that it was the right one, but the final proof came very late (really this time) on New Year's Morning of 2010. "Son of Kong" was released on DVD at some point and Netflix had it available for rent. My wife and kids and I spent New Year's Eve with some friends. Well after everyone else had gone to sleep (around 3:00 AM) my best friend and I put in the DVD and watched "Son of Kong". It had the same feeling I remembered. It had the same island and people walking around I had remembered. And, most important of all, it had the same large white gorilla that I had remembered for the past thirty-four years!

True, I still couldn't be absolutely sure if the other memory fragments I had from that New Year's Eve party were reliable or not, but the biggest piece of the puzzle had been solved. I don't really know why it was so important for me to confirm my memory and put an exact date to it, but it was very rewarding nonetheless. To think I had watched "Son of Kong" on the night of December 31, 1975 and then never saw it again until the early morning of January 1, 2010. It was just a nice personal moment for me and gave me a bit of a feeling of...well, closure might be too strong a word, but it was a good feeling, whatever it was.

As a postscript, I just got an issue of the Eastern New England edition of TV Guide for December 27, 1975 to January 2, 1976 a couple of days ago. I've been collecting TV Guides from around this time for a while now, looking for ads for Creature Double Feature and other neat Boston-area TV stuff. When this particular issue arrived I opened it up and was initially disappointed to not find a Creature Double Feature ad. There wasn't even an ad for the Saturday 6:00 Abbott & Costello movie that Worcester's channel 27 (WSMW) used to run at the time. I was still happy to be able to read the listings themselves, but the ads would have made it that much more enjoyable. Then I flipped through the rest of the week. The date hadn't occurred to me, but that Wednesday (the 31st) was New Year's Eve of course. Scanning the pages I suddenly saw something that made the issue exremely interesting. WLVI channel 56 was running a "New Years Double Feature" and they put in an ad very similar to the ones they frequently put in TV Guide for Creature Double Feature. The movies featured that night? Well, obviously they were "Gog" and "Son of Kong"!

Here's the ad:

Here's a trailer for "Son of Kong"

And here's a poster for the movie

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Creation Convention--25 Years Later

Twenty-five years ago today (August 24, 1985) I attended what I believe was my first-ever Comic Book/Sci-Fi convention. If there had been any doubts that I was a certified geek, that day obliterated those doubts. I had read about these conventions in Starlog and other science-fiction magazines, but as a fifteen-year-old I wasn't able to actually attend any of these meccas for nerds.

All that changed when I received a brochure for the Creation Convention coming to Boston the weekend of August 24-25, 1985. This brochure came in the mail. What a quaint notion in this online-first world we're living in (especially so for comic book and science-fiction fans of today). I must have been on a mailing list because I also had a subscription to Starlog (courtesy of the meager earnings of my paper route).

I had a small group of three best friends in 1985. These same three guys remain my best friends to this very day. Two of them went to the convention with me. Actually, I should say that one friend and I accompanied the other friend. His mother drove us in to Boston so we could attend the convention. This friend pretty much HAD to go to this show, because Wendy and Richard Pini were going to be there. They were the husband and wife (or should I say wife and husband?) team that was responsible for the Elfquest comic book series (nowadays it would probably be classified as a graphic novel rather than a comic book). Elfquest was a HUGE thing with this particular friend, and he really wanted to meet his hero, and unrequited love interest, Wendy Pini--Elfquest's creator.

Two of my friends were big comic book fans. I read certain comics from time to time (Micronauts, Swamp Thing, Sgt. Rock, The Haunted Tank...), but never could really get all that into them for some reason. My big thing was movies and TV shows--especially science-fiction ones. This convention featured special guests that wouldn't seem all that "special" today, but who were pretty interesting at the time. If you had heard that there would be guests from Star Trek and Doctor Who, you might have visions of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy (or at least Nichelle Nichols and Mark Lenard) from Star Trek and Tom Baker from Doctor Who. Well, it wasn't quite that cool. The Star Trek guest was Judson Scott. Who? Well, that name doesn't mean all that much today, but at the time he was reasonably well known as Khan's right-hand man in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). I believe he was the only member of Khan's followers who spoke any lines in the movie (could be mistaken on that one though). Mr. Scott had also recently been the star of his own short-lived Sci-Fi TV show on ABC, "The Phoenix" (1981-82), and was currently featured in the series "V". He hasn't done a heck of a lot recently.

The Doctor Who "star" was less familiar to me. His name was Mark Strickson, and he played the sidekick of the Peter Davison-era Doctor Who. Thanks to PBS I was a big fan of Doctor Who--but specifically the Tom Baker-era Doctor Who. I didn't really know any of the doctors that came either before or after Tom Baker. My friends and I certainly lined up to get autographs from these guests, even if they weren't exactly what we would have considered "A-Listers". Our friend who didn't make it to the convention was the biggest Doctor Who fan of the four of us, so we decided to get Mark Strickson's autograph for him. Our friend seemed a little perplexed when we gave him the photo the next day. This was not only because of the fact that he probably wasn't exactly sure who Mark Strickson was, but also because the personalization on the photo was a bit tough to read and appeared to say: "To Kurt, Love: Mark Strickson". You know, we had a great time at that convention in general, but that little quote specifically has actually managed to become part of our lives that we still use to this very day. It's become such a tradition between us it's almost hard to believe that its origins can be traced back to that moment when Mr. Strickson scribbled that personalization on that photo in 1985. Even today, that quote, "Love: Mark Strickson", is frequently used as the sign-off when we write e-mails to each other. I guess you never know which little moments will be special and stay with you for the rest of your life!

The rest of the convention was fun too. We enjoyed watching the costumed freaks walking around (there but for the grace of God I could have easily been one of those "freaks"). The tables of merchandise were a sight to behold for a teen at his first convention. Thousands of comic books, books, novels, manuals, movie blueprints, posters, movie props, toys, action figures and very expensive VHS tapes (this was 1985 of course and DVDs were still years away). A couple of us got our own "Buckaroo Banzai" ID badges that had our photos on them. I'm sure we checked out the old Star Trek blooper reels (from the original series of course, Star Trek: The Next Generation was still two years away) that were a mainstay of these conventions. Of course we sat through the talk/Q&A session from Wendy and Richard Pini. I believe there were a couple other semi-well-known comic book artists there too. And, one of the staples of a Creation Convention back then was the big, no-minimum-bid auction. One of my most exciting moments from that day was when I got into a bidding war for a communicator prop from the original Star Trek series. I thought at the time that it was actually used in the show, but now I'm pretty sure it was just a fan-made version. It was still pretty cool. Anyway, I had limited funds (as most of my money came from my modest paper route--I wouldn't get my first "real" job until September when I started working as a bar boy at the Cocke 'n Kettle restaurant) so the rapidly escalating bids for the communicator were starting to scare me. I was just about to give up when the gavel fell and I had won the bidding war at $55.00 (a king's ransom of money for me at the time). I still have that communicator and count it among my prized possessions.

The reason I remember the date of this convention is because within the past year, while visiting my parents, I found that very same brochure for the event that I received in the mail during the summer of 1985. What a neat item to behold after so many years. It's amazing to see how much has changed since those days. The brochure is a black and white job on paper typed out on a word processor (maybe even a typewriter?) with various photos of the guests and drawings of many science-fiction and comic book characters sprinkled throughout. It's nothing fancy, glossy or even professional-looking. I haven't been to a convention like this since the mid-1990s. At that time they really hadn't changed much since my first one in 1985 (and probably long before that too), but I'll be they are a completely different animal these days. Every company, movie, actor, comic book... has it's own website now. Everyone is online and has cell phones. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks are the preferred mode of communication. DVDs have replaced VHS tapes. a LOT more neat stuff is available (at a cheaper price too) and easy to find on DVD today compared to what was around then. It's much cheaper to dupe this stuff, rip it, share it, store it on computers or iPods... I can only imagine the madhouse that is Comic-Con these days. Now instead of being merely the realm of geeks and nerds, all kinds of stars, directors and producers make appearances to promote their latest movies/projects. It's all online (which didn't exist in 1985 of course) and it's everywhere. Like the brochure for the 1985 show, the convention itself seems positively quaint compared to today's mega-events.

Interestingly enough, it appears that Creation is still around and still promoting conventions. I don't know how directly this Creation Entertainment company is related to the old one that sent me that brochure all those years ago, but it's kind of nice to see the name still around out there today!

*For more on this convention, please read my follow up blog: Creation Convention Part II: Geeks on Parade. A lot of questions raised by this entry are answered in that one after more "evidence" was uncovered.

Love: Mark Strickson

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Unemployed Munchkins

Here's Monster Dad's random thought process for the day. While we were out for a walk today The Little Monster wanted to play "Oompa Loompas"--which is her way of saying she wants to play Veruca Salt while I play either an Oompa Loompa or Willy Wonka being angry at her for stealing a goose that lays golden eggs.

Anyway, the thought occurred to me that in this politically correct and technologically advanced world we're living in we have possibly done a disservice to "Little People" (the politically correct term for dwarves, midgets and other vertically-challenged people). I've heard many stories about how badly the Munchkins were treated on the set of "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), and I'm inclined to believe them (supposedly, the dog that played Toto was paid better than the Munchkins for instance). 1939 was a different time after all and that's not exactly a surprise. On the other hand, the movie gave great opportunities to a large group of people who were marginalized (at best) or considered "freaks" (at worst). I'm sure there were movies before "The Wizard of Oz" that made use of Little People, but I'm not too familiar with them. The movie opened many doors for the former Munchkins. True, they weren't necessarily always portrayed in a positive light, but they did find pretty steady work if they looked for it. Casting calls for Little People must have been like little (no pun intended) reunions to many of these people for many years after "The Wizard of Oz".

One of the most successful of the original Munchkins would probably have to be Jerry Maren. He played the member of the Lollipop Guild who hands Dorothy the giant lollipop. He not only continues to work in Hollywood to this day, but he was also Buster Brown (from the shoe company) and Little Oscar (as in Oscar Mayer), making appearances around the country for those companies.

"The Terror of Tiny Town" (1938) was a western that featured an all-Little People cast. The movie has long been considered a cult classic. And that's not really a bad thing--at least not to a fan of odd movies like myself. Was it exploitation? Perhaps (actually, most definitely so), but also a great opportunity for many of these people to get more exposure in Hollywood. How many waiters and waitresses working in Hollywood today, looking for their big break in the business, would kill for such exposure?

"Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" (1971) gave employment to a number of Little People as Oompa Loompas. The Oompa-Loompas are now classic movie characters beloved by thousands of people who love the movie--not unlike the Munchkins of "The Wizard of Oz", just on a somewhat smaller (again, no pun intended) scale. George Lucas created another Wizard of Oz-like boon for the Little People with the original "Star Wars" (1977, 1980, 1983) trilogy in the 1970s-early 80s. The bulk of the Little People roles were for Jawas and Ewoks, but many others were sprinkled throughout those movies (the most obvious and popular being Kenny Baker's R2-D2). Lucas wasn't done with Little People after "Star Wars" either. Don't forget about "Willow" (1988), which features Warwick Davis as the title character. Other notable movies featuring Little People over the years include: "Time Bandits" (1981), "Legend" (1985), "Labyrinth" (1986) and even the Chevy Chase flick "Under the Rainbow" (1981)--which features some of the Munchkins from "The Wizard of Oz" playing actors playing Munchkins in the making of that very movie! Another hotbed of Little People activity was the Sid and Marty Krofft kid shows of the early 1970s that featured many roles for these actors ("H.R. Pufnstuf", "Lidsville", "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters"...).

More recently the roles seem to have become a bit more scarce for these people. The show "Seinfeld" featured some Little People actors in a few memorable episodes in the late 1990s. It also gave us a comical look into the community of Little People who work in show business. The movie "The Station Agent" (2002) made Peter Dinklage a star and he's gone on to quite a few other roles. But his success has been an example of the exception rather than the rule.

This is where the political correctness and technology problems come in. Because of political correctness we are not supposed to think of "Little People" as being different. While this is a noble gesture it also has an unfortunate and unforeseen side-effect. It is no longer okay to cast Little People in movies the way they used to be. Peter Dinklage has found success playing more-or-less "regular" people who just happen to be small in stature. I can't imagine a movie getting made these days which would need a casting call for a large number of Little People in the roles of Munchkins, Oompa-Loompas or anything else that might be considered a "freak". Thanks to modern technology, there's not even a need to worry about what someone might say about the less-than-politically-correct casting of Little People anymore. When a movie requires characters that are too small for "regular" actors to play, those roles can now be filled by computer generated imagery (CGI) effects--think Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" (2001, 2002, 2003) trilogy. Gollum and the hobbits of those movies were played by "normal"-sized actors, and various old and new types of special effects--from forced perspective to CGI--were used to portray them as being much smaller in stature.

A perfect example of what has changed (what has gone wrong?) for Little People is "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (2005), Tim Burton's recent remake of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory". I suppose he wouldn't consider it a remake so much as a "re-imagining" or something, but it's still a remake to me. Anyway, rather than cast a bunch of Little People as Oompa Loompas he did the politically correct thing and cast only one--Deep Roy. Then he used computer generated special effects to allow Deep Roy to play ALL 165 Oompa Loompas in the movie (there were only about eight in the original). An impressive feat, but also a lot of potential lost jobs for all the Little People looking for work in Hollywood.

Maybe I'm thinking too much...