Bear with me this week, friends. Every so often I just lose the zeal to write, but not the need. The results are usually flat and damp, like cement poured a few hours ago on a humid afternoon. The culprit could be contentment and general satisfaction. I hope not. That'll ruin everything.
Dang! Tommy Newsom died. I remember him as everyone does: a small serene fellow who looked like Don Rickles after electroshock therapy, standing before the Tonight Show orchestra, compact and self-contained, smiling up at the lights, letting the zingers ping off his imperturbable persona. For some reason I was always happier to see him than Doc, because it meant different jokes. And also it meant that things would seem back to normal when Doc returned.
I was 16. Such things seemed to matter. Anyway, I've learned that he was an exceptional musician, which isn't surprising. I never heard a note and rarely heard a word, and was saddened to hear he'd died. You could say that's television, but I suspect it had more to do with Mr. Newsom.
As noted elsewhere, I’ve been reworking the Minneapolis site. Rescanning, reshooting, the usual contrusions. I find all sorts of details that don’t make the site, but seem worthy of note somewhere. Here’s a restaurant sign from the 1920s, magnified about six billion times. The sign says "Eat Shop #4." Damn, that's a hard sell. Those guys knew how to move the horsemeat, no? Eat Shop #4. Visiting Soviet commissars probably blanched at that.
At least it reminds us what signage used to look like - the letters were illuminated by the bulbs that ran around the periphery. And pity the fellow who lived in the apartment above Eat Shop #4; no sleep until they closed down and killed the sign.
Yesterday I posted this shapely vendor of Nuclear Cigars (I used the term “smoke pole,” and I should have known better; that was actually old gangster slang for a gun. I know because I have a dictionary of Underworld Slang from the 40s and 50s. It contains entries for such words as hemorroids. Those colorful Runyonesque characters had names for everything.) (“The grapes,” in case you’re interested. Apparently the condition was so prominent among the criminal class that they not only had a word for it, but a word that was generally known and used frequently in conversation. I tells you, Louie, I’m about ready to spiv a double-saw to any gink what’ll take a smoke-pole to my grapes.) Where did I get this?
Disney. It’s from a DVD of High Frontier space movies, made to edumacate the general public about the challenges and opportunities that awaited mankind on our inevitable push into the inky beyond. It’s a little too jokey for my tastes, and for some reason I just don’t dig the modern jazz Disney played in the post-war era. I don’t know if their hearts weren’t in it, but it just doesn’t seem right; it’s like watching Frank Lloyd Wright doing the jitterbug on a Quonset Hut roof. This image caught my eye:
It has the lines, which had become the symbol of Modernity. The lines, diminishing off into an empty surreal expanse. Note the monster’s footgear. We’ve seen that before. Gossamer wore tennis shoes.
The DVD was sold in a limited edition, possibly so they can sell it again in seven years. It’s no longer available, which is a great pity. The animation is historically interesting, at least, and the depictions of our march into space are fascinating and more than a little depressing. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat my repeating, but the national boredom with space in the 70s is one of the more telling aspects of the American decline; we began the space race determined to hang the flag on the moon and jump off to Mars, and by 1979 we were listening to disco songs about a space station falling on our head.
Not to say we’re not doing nothing – we are. (And I like the fact that the ship’s class will be Constellation. There are still Trekkies in NASA, it seems, although the Connie was [sorry, will be] one buttacularly ugly ship; why not the Constitution Class for the next generation of rockets? Possibly because it would lead to jibes about the ERA and the Marriage Amendment. So let's just skip right ahead to the Excelsior Class, shall we? Best design ever.)
I’ve been getting many books to review lately. From now on, Wednesday won’t just be Bleat Radio Theater, but the Books section. Why not? Many major papers are canning their book reviews, or trimming back the coverage. A mistake, I think – although I suspect part of the problem might be the tendency among some editors to champion the small over the medium. They already ignore the big guns. In my early days of newspapering, I wrote book reviews about Big Popular Authors for the Strib, but I don’t think papers nowadays bother to review King or Straub or Clancy or any other author who sells a billion copies even if his latest consists entirely of expired OSHA regulations written in binary code. The small books are often small for a reason. It’s the midlisters that deserve champions, though, and that’s what a good book section can do.
Did I mention this? It’s a novel about an academic who loses his family and immerses himself in the films of an obscure silent comedian who disappeared after making a dozen films. I read a review in our paper, and thought: that’s for me. Then I put it on the shelf and didn’t get around to it for a few years, but once I began I was fascinated. The chapters that detail the films of Hector Mann justify the entire book, frankly; we all dream of discovering some magnificent talent who summed up everything we love about a genre, only to be rebuked by Dame Fortune or her scuttling minions.
But that’s not the book I’m reviewing. It’s this: William Bennett’s second volume of his American History series. If you know your 20th century, you know all this, so it’s a brisk refresher course. At its least, which isn’t often, it has the feel of the Simpsons newsreel: it was the 20s, and Al Capone danced the Jitterbug on a flagpole! But that’s rare, and inevitable; it’s hard to write a popular history this broad without extreme compression. What makes the book a pleasure are the throwaway details, the footnotes, the odd quote you’d never heard, and the reminder that there is a consistent narrative at work in the American Experiment, and not just a series of happy accidents. It’s not a hagiography; all the warts are arrayed in full view, from the Klan to Henry Ford’s poisonous anti-Semitism to the lasting consequences of Wilson’s obdurate intellectual vanity.
I’d like my daughter to attend a high school that used this as a text for American History. The title may put some off – last best hope, yeah, sure, right. But I think we have a better claim to the title than Belgium. Pride in America is not a partisan matter, and Bennett doesn't make it one.
Now: Bleat Radio Theater! If you don’t give a fig about this, there’s a new 11 page money section. I wrote it this morning while still waking up, so it’s lame, but there wasn’t that much I could do. Still, it’s something. And of course, Quirkage.
This week’s example may not appeal to everyone. I’m not a Western fan, myself; I love “Deadwood” and “High Plains Drifter” – your basic existential Western ghost story – but I never watched “Gunsmoke” while growing up. Probably for silly reasons – the world of wood and whiskey and ten-toothed cowpokes did nothing for me, and it was always the same. The Cochise were rising, the settlers were havin’ a feud with the ranchers, someone needed hangin’, revolvers on Main at noon.
But. Many years ago I listened to Gunsmoke on the public radio station in Washington DC, and I loved it. Having never seen the TV show, I can’t compare. But the radio version is wonderful drama. If you know old radio, it seems awfully familiar; like 63% of all shows, it stars Parley Baer and Dicky Beals. (He was a man who did kids voices, and he shows up all over the radio shows and commercials. The first 365 Days Project found his demo reel, which can be heard here.) Doc was played by Howard McNear, who went on to greater fame as Floyd the Barber on the Andy Griffith show. But it’s William Conrad who makes the show. Yes, Cannon. The Fatman.
This is the first Gunsmoke show. Everything’s in place from the start. Doc is oily and somewhat contemptible; there’s some interesting scenes with the local newspaperman, who only cares about sensational news. Marshall Dillon is the moral anchor of the town, of course, but Conrad gives him an extra quality I never got from Arness. He’s a sad, solitary, tragic figure, capable of volcanic fury. He knew what had to be suppressed, because he suppressed it himself. Except when he didn’t – and that’s what makes this first episode so good.