Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Titanic--100 Years Later

I am starting to write this blog entry at 11:40 PM (EST) on the night of April 14, 2012. It seems so strange to think that it was exactly one hundred years ago that the RMS Titanic struck the iceberg which would send it to the bottom of the Atlantic in a little over two hours. It also ensured that the Titanic would become a part of history which is still remembered a century later. There are many reasons that the story of the Titanic has endured for one hundred years and why it is still so powerful today. The most obvious reason is the simple fact that over 1,500 people died that night. It was one of the worst maritime disasters in history. But the Titanic's legend is also fueled by so many more elements that it's almost difficult to believe that it could all be true. It almost seems like it has to be a work of fiction (and a pretty unbelievable one at that). The Titanic (along with her lesser-known sisters the Olympic and the Britannic) were the largest ships ever built up to that time. Titanic was referred to as the largest moving object ever created by man. Today's super-sized cruise ships would dwarf the Titanic, but her 882 foot length was an incredible feat of engineering in 1912. It was a time of great and rapid advances in science and technology. Today we tend to judge technology's progression by how things can be improved dramatically while becoming smaller and smaller. In 1912 the trend was to make things bigger and bigger. "Bigger is Better" could very well have been the motto of the day. The different ocean liner companies were constantly trying to outdo each other by building bigger, faster and more luxurious ships. It would be interesting to see what would have happened to this trend if the Titanic has arrived safely in New York on its maiden voyage in 1912.

1912 was also at the tail end of the Edwardian era, a time of rich people living very ostentatious and lavish lifestyles. The difference in the classes that was such a part of the fabric of society in 1912 could be seen on the luxury liners that regularly crossed the Atlantic. First, Second and Third Class were separated as much as possible onboard these ships. People in First Class should never even have to see the people in steerage who were relegated to their own areas, mostly deep in the ship and far away from the upper class passengers. It has frequently been said that a First Class ticket on the Titanic cost more than what most Third Class passengers would make in wages in an entire year. Some of the richest men in the entire world were traveling on the maiden voyage of the Titanic along with many people of meager means who were hoping to come to America and start a better life. The Edwardian era was already coming to an close, but the Titanic disaster really made for a very distinct end point. Two years later World War I would start and the world would become a very different place than it had been when the Titanic set sail.

There was also the audacious belief that the Titanic was "unsinkable" because it was the very apex of modern technology and safety. I have a feeling that this aspect was played up after the Titanic sank and really became part of the legend, but it was certainly rooted in fact. She was certainly considered "practically unsinkable" and it was said at least once that God himself couldn't sink her. That arrogance and the fact that the Titanic sank so fast--and on her maiden voyage--seem like something from a work of fiction. It sounds like a perfect comeuppance that couldn't really be true. She was designed so that any four of her watertight compartments could be flooded and she could stay afloat. Five of those compartments were compromised and the ship was doomed. The fact that no one thought the Titanic was also a big part of the reason that she carried only enough lifeboats for about half the passengers. Maritime regulations hadn't kept up with the rapid increase in the size of the new luxury liners. Titanic had enough lifeboats to fulfill those regulations, and obviously there wasn't any reason to clutter up the decks by adding more.

the best thing to come out of the Titanic tragedy were the much stricter regulations that explicitly required every ship to carry enough lifeboats for every person onboard. This and many other changes made after the disaster have probably saved hundreds--or thousands--of lives in the century since the Titanic went down.

Of course all the individual stories of what people did that night are also a big part of the lore of the Titanic as well. The bravery and courage of many members of the crew--and passengers as well--are legendary. Many people went to their deaths in a very dignified manner. The band played on to try to keep the crowds calm as long as they could--and then they all went down with the ship. Many men said goodbye to their wives and children as they put them in the lifeboats--knowing full well that they would most likely never see them again. Some women, realizing the true danger of the situation, opted to remain on the ship with their husbands rather than take a seat in a lifeboat. These stories contrast with some other stories of cowardice. All kinds of human behavior were displayed that night, but the majority of them seemed to be honorable.

Yet another reason for the Titanic's legacy was that no one could find her final resting place at the bottom of the ocean for more than seventy years. It seems odd to think of it now, but up until Robert Ballard discovered the Titanic in 1985 she had been one of the greatest mysteries of the twentieth century. It seemed there was just as much unknown as there was known about the ship. There was something so powerful about the fact that the worst sea disaster in history was also one of the world's greatest mysteries.

It is now 1:00 AM on April 15th, and it seems very strange to think that in the time I've been writing this rambling piece (I type very slowly) was a time of so much drama exactly one hundred years ago. By this time everyone on board must have known that the "unsinkable" Titanic was in fact going to sink. Many Third Class passengers were still trapped below deck by locked doors and gates designed to keep them away from the First Class passengers. The crew and many passengers probably were aware by now that the vast majority of souls still aboard were not going to get off--and that no help would arrive in time to save them. By the time 2:20 AM rolls around I will probably be asleep. It was at this time that the Titanic finally slipped beneath the surface and the majority of her victims lost their lives by either being pulled under by the suction, drowning or freezing to death in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.

The story of the Titanic is repeated in print and on film so often that it can be hard to remember that this really was a true event. But it remains an amazingly tragic story even after one hundred years. This anniversary gives us a chance to think about it again and to try to comprehend just how many factors went into the story that cumulatively made it just such a monumental event in the history of mankind.


I've decided to stay up until 2:20 AM. It just seems like such an important moment to commemorate that it is worth not getting enough sleep for. Of course, while the Titanic went down at 2:20 and was never seen again until 1985, the stories many of her passengers continued. A lot of people went in the water when the Titanic sank. Those who were still alive spent at least a few more agonizing seconds or minutes in the freezing ocean waters before passing away. The lucky passengers who managed to get into lifeboats spent the remainder of the night trying to cope with what they had just witnessed and lived through, and trying to keep warm while waiting for a ship to rescue them. The RMS Carpathia didn't get there until the morning. Most of those survivors' lives were forever changed after the Titanic. As time went on and as the numbers of survivors dwindled, those who remained found themselves gaining a sort of celebrity status. People wanted to meet them and hear their stories. I remember the 90th anniversary commemorations ten years ago. At the time there were still a few Titanic survivors left (most of whom were too young in 1912 to really remember anything that had happened on that night). The last survivor, Millivina Dean, was only a couple months old when she was placed in one of the Titanic's lifeboats. She passed away just a few years ago in May of 2009. This means that this is the first major Titanic anniversary where there is no longer anyone left who was actually onboard the Titanic when she sank.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Three Stooges vs. Abbott & Costello

Today, Friday April 13, 2012, is the day that the brand new Farrelly Brothers movie "The Three Stooges" opens in theaters. This is an event that has been a long time in coming. It was a few years back when this project was first announced. That announcement was immediately met with a lot of questions, doubts and derision from Three Stooges fans around the world. There was a general belief that this movie (if it ever even came to fruition) would suck. The Farrelly Brothers have certainly made a lot of funny movies, but how would they go about bringing the Stooges to the big screen? Would they make it a standard, cookie-cutter gross-out comedy (which seems to be the flavor of the day)? Would they try to replicate the original Stooges experience in every way possible? Would they update the characters to better fit in with today's world? Hollywood is currently very "remake" "re-imagining" and "reboot" happy. The results of these unoriginal ideas tend to be disappointing much more often than not. Whatever the approach, it seemed very unlikely that the Farrellys would be able to capture the magic that made the real Three Stooges such a time-tested classic.

Then the casting choices started to be announced. Names like Jim Carrey, Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were supposedly attached to the project at various times. While Jim Carrey is a hilarious actor (when the script calls for it), the other two big names were real head-scratchers. It was certainly a bold move, but one that sent up big warning signs for fans of the Stooges. Unfortunately (or fortunately) those three actors were ultimately replaced. After a few more rounds of casting calls (where Paul Giamatti and Hank Azaria were supposedly in the mix at one time ot another) the new version of The Three Stooges was finally settled upon. The only one who was relatively well-known (to me at least) was Sean Hayes (from the TV show "Will & Grace") playing Larry. Chris Diamantopoulus and Will Sasso ("Mad TV") were to play Moe and Curly respectively (if not respectfully). I personally was heartened to see that they settled for lesser-known actors rather than established big stars. Total unknowns might have been even better, but who knows? Even with the three actors cast there was still much doubt that this movie would be anything worth seeing. It seemed like the whole thing could be a disaster of "Titanic" proportions (sorry I had to add that, with tomorrow being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking).

Then something unforeseen and surprising happened. The first photos were released of the new Stooges. And, they actually looked very much like the old Stooges. That didn't mean that the movie would be any good of course, but it was nice to see that they were putting some effort into recreating at least the appearance of the stooges rather than doing a total "re-imagination" of them.

Not a great shot, but the first image I saw of the new Three Stooges
And, finally, a number of months ago the first official trailer for the movie was released. I can only imagine that the Farrelly brothers were nervous about what the reaction would be. They simply HAD to know what was being said about this project by Stooge-o-philes ever since it was announced. Well, the trailer was pretty hilarious (in my opinion at least). I've never been a huge Three Stooges fan (see below), but this trailer gave me quite a bit of hope that this movie might actually be worth seeing.

Over the past few months I have gradually gone from being a skeptic to being cautiously optimistic about the movie. An old friend of mine (who is a bigger Stooges fan than I) and I occasionally get a chance to see a movie together. It's a much more rare event than it was back in the carefree days of our youth. It takes a lot more work and planning to pull it off now that we both have wives, kids and homes of our own. Most of the time we try to see science-fiction and horror movies that we're been eagerly anticipating. But The Three Stooges has become a must see for us. It certainly could still suck, but we're excited about going to see it to find out for ourselves.

I am writing this on Friday afternoon. The movie has already been played hundreds of times across the country. As of this moment I still have not read or heard any reviews. It's very likely that the word will get out all over the internet very soon. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it will be deemed worthy by long-time hardcore Three Stooges fans.

And now onto the real reason for this post. I grew up in the 1970s when The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello were still heavily featured on television. In the Boston area we had some great independent stations that regularly showed them. Other channels would show Abbott & Costello movies and Three Stooges movies and shorts pretty frequently, but there were two channels you could count on to get a regular fix of comedy from these guys. WSBK TV38 would air Stooges shorts on weekend mornings and WSMW Channel 27 (out of Worcester) would air A&C movies on Saturday evenings at 6:00. These were the main times I remember watching them. In one of the greatest links to old-school local TV programming, WSBK 38 actually STILL shows The Stooges on Sunday mornings! Not only that, but they also have had a long-standing tradition of running Stooges marathons every New Year's Eve. Channel 27 stopped its 6:00 Saturday screenings of A&C movies in the early 1980s when the pay-per-view Preview Channel debuted. For a while they still showed A&C films earlier in the day (before Preview Channel programming started in the late afternoon) until Preview expanded and took up most of WSMW's airtime. The channel is still around today, but is now part of the spanish language Univision network.

Here are a few TV Guide ads for Abbott & Costello movies on Channel 27
"Hold That Ghost"
March 20, 1976

"Who Done It?"
October 2, 1976

"Abbott & Costello go to Mars"
October 23, 1976

Here's an example of just how much A&C and the Stooges were all over Boston TV.  This is an ad for Abbott & Costello's "Here Come the Coeds" on WSBK TV38 on Sunday September 23, 1979 at 10:30AM--a slot usually reserved for Stooges shorts around this time

And here's some images from channel 38's New Year's Eve Stooges 2012 Marathon

Marathon hosts The Andelman brothers (from the show The Phantom Gourmet)

Thanks to TV I was exposed to both The Three Stooges and Abbott & Costello as a kid and have an appreciation for both of them. But I definitely was (and still am) more of an Abbott & Costello fan. They were both classic comedy acts that had a basis in the vaudeville tradition, but were different from each other, and both great in their own way. There were plenty of other comedy acts to choose from (Laurel & Hardy, The Marx Brothers, Wheeler & Woolsey, Martin & Lewis among them), but I always think of the Stooges and A&C as the cream of the classic comedy crop. That's probably due more to the regularity that channels 27 and 38 aired them back in the day than any actual thought out reason on my part.

Speaking of both teams' background in vaudeville and burlesque, I also feel very lucky to have grown up at a time when they were still on TV a lot.  I wasn't born until decades after vaudeville went the way of the dinosaurs, but I feel that I have some degree of appreciation for that form of entertainment--not only because I'm interested in history in general, but because of the Stooges and A&C.  They both started out doing their comedy live and moved into film, television and radio years later.  Much of their acts and many of their routines were straight from their days in vaudeville.  Since those movies and shorts were still on the air in the 1970s when I was a kid they gave me a sort of direct (or indirect) link straight back to the days of live vaudeville.  Not to sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but I'l bet most kids today have no idea what vaudeville even was.

I've exposed The Little Monster (and now her younger sister too) to both Abbott & Costello and The Three Stooges. I'll let them decide which ones they ultimately prefer (if either). The Little Monster has seen a couple Stooges movies and a few of their shorts. But I do have to admit that she's seen more of Abbott & Costello. Not only am I a bit biased toward them, but I also just happen to own the awesome "Abbott & Costello: The Complete Universal Pictures Collection" box set, which boasts all 28 movies that they made for Universal.

Image borrowed from

The Little Monsters watching "Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein" last October

I would argue that most people are either Three Stooges people or Abbott & Costello people (just like there are Elvis people and Beatles people). One can certainly have an appreciation for both, but ultimately would choose one over the other. I'm sure it could be argued that one's preference says something about them. What that might be I have no idea. Of course these days I'm sure there are a lot of kids out there who don't have any idea who these people were and have no interest in discovering them. They are relics from an ancient past that is too far in the past to be of interest, and there are simply too many other high-tech distractions to keep kids occupied today. That fact in itself might just be the best reason for the Farrelly Brothers to make a Three Stooges movie at this time. Long-time fans might have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but if it exposes a new generation to the old comedy teams of the 30s, 40s and 50s then it might not be such a bad thing. And if a few of those kids are inspired to take the time to look even further and find out more about the real Three Stooges (and maybe even some of the other acts), well then it could end up being a very good thing indeed!


Here are a couple images from channel 38's "Sunday With The Stooges" show on April 15, 2012--during the opening weekend of the new Stooges movie.  The tradition continues!

Sunday, April 8, 2012

"The Wizard of Oz", "Sanford and Son" and Lena Horne

It's the end of Easter Sunday 2012. I generally don't write about religious topics...and this will be no exception. But Easter does seem like a good time to write about something that (marginally) has to do with "The Wizard of Oz" (1939) because there was a time when the movie's annual appearance on broadcast TV occurred in the Spring around the time of Easter (and even on Easter Sunday itself at least once, in 1978).

So what do "The Wizard of Oz", the show "Sanford and Son" and famous singer Lena Horne have in common? I would suspect that people who are big fans of "Sanford and Son" might have an idea about the last two, but where "The Wizard of Oz" fits in probably seems less obvious. So let me explain...

I remember looking forward to watching "The Wizard of Oz" on TV when I was a kid. This was back in the 1970s and 80s when the airing of movies like "The Wizard of Oz", "The Sound of Music" and holiday Specials like "Rudolph: The Red-Nosed Reindeer", "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" and The Peanuts' Halloween and Christmas shows were true events. They were only put on TV once a year, and if you weren't there to see them you literally had to wait a whole year to get another chance. It was truly "must-see TV". I'm sure that idea would seem strange to a younger person growing up in this age of instant viewing gratification, but keep in mind that when I was a kid there was no such thing as a VCR. Actually, there were VCRs--but they were huge, clunky and exorbitantly expensive. Unlike today you couldn't simply buy your own copy of the movie on VHS, DVD or Blu-ray. Cable TV wasn't available in my area. And there certainly were no such things as the Internet, YouTube, DVRs TiVos or any of the multitude of other ways one can see pretty much anything they want to pretty much any time they want to today.

For all these reasons it was a special occasion when "The Wizard of Oz" would come on. I have a somewhat vague and general memory of watching it a number of times growing up. Most of the recollections of those viewings kind of run together in my mind, but one has always stood out. Because of the fact that the human memory tends to be much more faulty than one would think (our minds sometimes try to group memory bits together to make something coherent out of otherwise random moments of our past, and we are also very susceptible to the influence of suggestion on our memory), I have learned to view my own personal memories with a skeptical eye. This is the reason I've done so much painstaking and seemingly pointless research on my own past. See stories like Happy New Year 1976! and Resurrecting The Past: January 21, 1983 Part One and Part Two for more examples of my insanity.

The one "clear" memory I have always had about watching "The Wizard of Oz" wasn't really all that clear, but it had a few seemingly reliable parts to it. It seemed to come from around the very end of the 1970s or the very early 1980s. It seemed as though it was a Friday night. I remember being excited about the fact that the movie would be on that night. I don't specifically recall much about actually watching the movie itself (as that memory kind of goes along with all the generalized memories of watching it as a kid). Instead, I remember watching something else that was on before the movie while waiting for it to start later on in the evening. That something was an episode of "Sanford and Son"--though I didn't know exactly which episode it was. The other thing I clearly remember about that night was that Lena Horne was involved in some way. As well-known as Lena Horne was at the time I wasn't all that familiar with her myself. I knew the name and that she was a famous singer, but didn't really know anything about her singing. The reason I recall her having something to do with the night is that hearing her name instantly made me think of cream horns.

Lena Horne
A Cream Horn
A cream horn (for anyone not familiar with them) is a delicious, decadent, tube-shaped pastry that contains a very sweet, creamy filling inside. Even back then it was one of my favorite things to eat when I'd get the chance to lay my little hands on one. Thirty-plus years later I still consider them to be one of the greatest guilty pleasures the world has to offer.

The reason I believed that all this happened on a Friday night (besides the simple fact that my memory said so) was that I remembered "Sanford and Son" being on before the movie. I know that WLVI Channel 56 out of Boston showed episodes of "Sanford and Son" in the hour or so before the networks' prime time schedule started at 8:00 PM. I always felt that the night in question was a weekend night. Since I recall feeling the excitement of still having the weekend ahead of me it had to be either a Friday or Saturday night (as a Sunday night airing before heading back to school on Monday would have a very different feeling to it). Saturday night was pretty much ruled out too--as Channel 56 only aired episodes of old sitcoms like "Sanford and Son" in that time slot Monday through Friday.

That information was pretty much the extent of my memory up until this past week. I never actually knew if any of it was really true. Could I have imagined that I saw "Sanford and Son" before "The Wizard of Oz"? Could it have been a different night than Friday? And, what the heck did Lena Horne have to do with the whole thing? Any part of this memory (or even the whole thing itself) could have been faulty. It was time to find out the truth...

I always figured that the most likely connection between "Sanford and Son" and Lena Horne was that she had probably guest starred in an episode--and that was the episode I saw on that night. Well, a little check of quickly revealed that this was indeed the case. Ms. Horne appeared in the episode "A Visit from Lena Horne" (pretty clever title, huh?). It was the sixteenth episode of the second season of the show and originally aired on January 12, 1973.

So now I knew that my not-so-random craving for a delicious cream horn did indeed spring forth from an appearance by Lena Horne on "Sanford and Son". But how could I confirm that WLVI 56 ever aired that specific episode before one of the annual presentations of "The Wizard of Oz"? The first part of the answer came from Wikipedia. Wiki has a whole page on The Wizard of Oz on Television. A search of that article revealed a very useful listing of the dates of every broadcast showing of "The Wizard of Oz" between 1956 and 2005. While I know that Wikipedia is not an incontrovertible source of information, and that "facts" found there must be taken with a grain of salt, I had the information I needed to (hopefully) finish my research. I had to pick a year that I felt my memory was likely to have come from. 1980 sounded about right and I decided to start with that year before branching out to earlier and later years. It turns out that it was a very good guess.

Luckily my collection of old Eastern New England editions of TV Guides included the issue that contained the 1980 showing of the movie. "The Wizard of Oz" was on CBS on Friday, March 7th of that year. That means it would be in the March 1-7, 1980 issue. A look through the issue confirmed Wikipedia's information.

Here is the "This Week's Movies" section of that issue on pages A-7 and A-11

Here is the full-page ad in TV Guide for the 1980 airing of "The Wizard of Oz" from the same issue

And here is the actual listing for the movie on March 7th

Now it was time to go back just a little to see if WLVI 56 was featuring "Sanford and Son" at the time. Benny Hill was on Channel 56 at 7:30 (as can be seen in the listings above), immediately before the 8:00 start time of "The Wizard of Oz" over on CBS. A half-hour earlier, at 7:00 Channel 56 had... "Sanford and Son". Not only that, but the listing for it actually had a short description confirmed my memory once and for all: "A dream come true: Fred finagles a visit from Lena Horne."!

It's true that this really is a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but for me personally it was wonderful to know that the memory I had of that night was pretty accurate. As a bonus, I now have an exact date to put with that memory! As a final bonus, the writing of this blog gave me an excuse to go out and buy a cream horn!

That night can now be partially recreated through the magic of modern technology. I don't know exactly which commercials I might have seen that year, but a good sampling of ads from that year can be easily found on YouTube. Also, the Lena Horne episode of "Sanford and Son" can be found there. It is also available on DVD. And, of course, "The Wizard of Oz" has been available on home video for many years now (first on Beta and VHS tapes and laser disc, then later on DVD and Blu-ray). That ready availability is exactly why an airing of "The Wizard of Oz" on TV is no longer the exciting, must-see event that it once was. I love having all this stuff at my fingertips, but also really miss the old days too...

Here are some screen shots from the "A Visit from Lena Horne" episode of Sanford and Son:

Fred finds Lena Horne's dressing room while sneaking away from an NBC studio tour

And then has his first "heart attack" of the episode when Ms. Horne walks in on him checking out her room

Later, Lena visits Fred at the junkyard--inducing a second "heart attack" from him...

...As well as Lamont's very first "heart attack"!

Here's the actual episode on YouTube (in three parts):

And, here's that actual "Special Presentation" announcement that CBS made before starting "The Wizard of Oz" on March 7, 1980 (from Indianapolis rather than Boston, but still pretty great to see)

Put these together with the movie itself and a bunch of commercials from the period sprinkled throughout and you have a pretty good approximation of my memory of that night!

There's No Place Like Home!