Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Eve

Let's all say goodbye to 1957 as CBS newsman Robert Trout and Guy Lombardo usher in 1958!


Dinner last night:  Turkey reuben at Blue Plate.

Friday, December 30, 2011

If I Tweeted - December 2011

I don't, you know.  But, if I did, here's what I might have tweeted this month.

@LenSpeaks  Sixth Avenue in Manhattan has become Hollywood Boulevard.  Cartoon characters on every corner, all available to pose for a photo...if you tip them.

@LenSpeaks  Oh, look, Minnie Mouse is yelling at somebody in Spanish!

@LenSpeaks  Thanks to Smart Phones and text messages, there are all sorts of new ways in which you can accidentally walk into people in midtown Manhattan.

@LenSpeaks  Merry Christmas and look alive, Stupid!

@LenSpeaks  Ever wonder why the White House never makes a public comment about people beating the shit out of each other over $180 Air Jordan sneakers?

@LenSpeaks  Yeah, you know the answer to that question.  It's just polite to say it because, well, it's considered racist.

@LenSpeaks  Look at the pictures of those riots and you'll have the answer.

@LenSpeaks  I bet Nike sent the President complimentary pairs of those shoes for the entire family.  Because you know we don't want a world leader camping out on line and getting his ass kicked.

@LenSpeaks  After being in Manhattan for a week, I realized that, if I had still lived there, I would be dead today.

@LenSpeaks  In the mens room prior to my second visit at "How to Succeed," the guy next to me is peeing and singing...yank my doodle if I'm dandy.

@LenSpeaks  My health care plan is changing for 2012 and getting much more expensive.  But, at least, I'm happy that some welfare slob can get free care for their kid who's got the sniffles.

@LenSpeaks  Who knew Kim Jong was Ill?

@LenSpeaks  My mail usually shows up at 4PM every day.  So, how come, on Christmas Eve, they can manage to deliver it by 11AM?

@LenSpeaks   There were so many reaction shots of the Obamas during the Kennedy Center honors that I'm wondering when they're changing the name on the outside of the building.

@LenSpeaks  Meanwhile, the First Family's Hawaii vacation is costing taxpayers four million dollars.   Can we please get them the Priceline link?

@LenSpeaks   My new pet peeve during the holidays: Christmas cards with all those little crystal particles.   Hello, folks, these are now all over my sweaters and my rugs.

@LenSpeaks   How many shoplifting days till Kwanzaa?

@LenSpeaks  My holiday week off project?  Watching the Harry Potter movies.  Three down, 157 to go.

Dinner last night:  Ham sandwich.


 




 

Thursday, December 29, 2011

No Holiday for Cynics

Enjoy this snapshot of my church altar on Christmas Eve.  Beautiful and peaceful.  Befitting the evening.

Yet, somehow, on this very special and holy night, the world got past the front door.  Even when you look for solace and calm that one evening a year, you can still get slapped in the kisser by reality.  

So much for peace on Earth and good will toward men.

Now, I'm going to come off here as the ultimate cynic, but I am thinking that there may be one or two of you out there who will read what I write and understand what I feel.  It's not that complicated.

I have very special memories of church on a Christmas Eve.  Back to the days when I ventured down to 219th Street in the Bronx for the 8PM service.  Sometimes, my parents joined in.  Usually, it was just me and my dad's cousin, Aunt Ollie, who has graced these cyberpages before.  Nevertheless, nothing ever got in the way of this night which would be the most intimate spiritual touchstone I would have all year.

I left churchgoing for many years, only to return when I moved to Los Angeles.  And, conveniently, Christmas Eve service was right where I left it.  And it still held the same glory for me that it did decades before.  There wasn't a single carol out of place.

Until this year...

Backtracking a second, I must tell you that my church has become more of an interfaith center for the community.  In an effort to pay our bills, we rent out space to a temple, a mosque, several AA groups, a few Al Anon folks, and even some food and sex addicts, who may or may not be meeting separately.  Truth be told, I'm cool with this all.  I'm the church treasurer and I don't care where the cash comes from as long as it shows up once a month.  Whether it be Allah, Johnny Walker Red, or a Snickers Bar, I'm fine with whatever hits your worship needle.  

As long as it stays away from mine...

Easier said than done.  Especially when the Jewish Journal (yes, there is such a publication) features a cover story that extols the virtues of all these religions coming together under one roof, complete with my pastor's kisser planted firmly on page one.  The article itself is a little visit to Fantasyland as it talks about joint worship events that never happened.  At the same time, I don't worry since the circulation of the Jewish Journal is mainly the free publication rack at the local car wash, which is where I found my copy.

So, despite being a cynic straight out of Frank Capra's Pottersville, I'm cool with all this.  Frankly, I don't believe that three female congregation leaders on the west side of Los Angeles are going to achieve world peace simply by joining hands, but I suppose you have to start someplace.  

As long as it stays away from mine...

On Christmas Eve, it didn't.  Oh, the music during the service was terrific and the best in years.  But, the specter of that Jewish Journal article hovered over us all like mistletoe.  It was the primary focus of our pastor's sermon.  And, then, almost inexplicably, she invited the temple rabbi up to say a few words as well.

Huh?

The rabbi stated that, for the first time in her life, she was attending a Christmas Eve service.  Okay, I admire the courage.  Except that it really didn't have to be stated.  Or brought up in front of a congregation, many of whom were visitors.  It all sounded wrong.  

On that one evening where I wanted to be alone with my faith, I wasn't.  Even the most holiest of nights had become another in a long series of now never ending "kumbaya" moments.

When does this stop?

But, wait, as God might have said on the fourth day of creation, there's more.

The world intruded in yet another way.

Prior to the service, I was standing at the door and greeting folks as they entered.  A couple approached and I noticed their attire.  Sweat pants and shirts.  Thanks for dressing, I thought.  Even I've got a tie on for the first time this year.  The male of the visiting equation mentioned that he and his wife often walked past the church and wanted to see what our service was all about.   And, oh, by the way, we live in a tent up the block.

Huh again?

As they passed by, I wondered about their back story.  Were they perma-campers?  Down on their luck with an upside down mortgage?  Or perhaps they were part of a protest against those crafty one-percenters who live in Bel Air?  I wasn't happy that I took the most cynical approach, but I couldn't help myself.

Especially when I noticed them telling their story to whoever would listen inside. 

I thought whether I would do the same thing.  Advertise to the world that I was forced to live in a tent?  Would anybody do that?

Hello, Cynicism all over again.

Naturally, their saga swept through what was supposed to be a Protestant Christmas Eve service faster than that night when Jesus himself was found in a manger.  This couple became renowned without the use of a mega-star in the sky.

After the service, my pastor ran in and scooped up a lot of the loose cash that was in the offering plates.  She chased after Mr. and Mrs. Ragamuffin and gave them their own Christmas miracle.  I envisoned these two slothes going up the mountain and telling all their friends---for a free handout, head on down to the Village Church.

Later on, someone did vouch for these two who apparently are living in a tent somewhere in the hills near the church.  Okay, the ultimate Christmas thing to do. 

And, yet, I thought about them.  What were the circumstances that led to their new and exclusively outdoor dwelling?  While I'm totally aware that times are tough and the economy has been a killer for many of us, was that truly the case here?  Were these folks really meeting bad luck at all turns?  Or perhaps they are suffering now because they lived and spent way beyond their means?  When did their problem become our problem?  And how legit was it all?

I didn't feel good thinking about any of this.  But, sadly, this is the state of our world today.  Poverty, squallor, and pain.  As well as theft, scams, and a myriad of ways to beat the system.

Unfortunately, I couldn't help myself.  On a single night where I really wanted to think about what Christmas means to my faith, I had to think about everybody else.

And, to think that all I wanted to do was hear "O Come, All Ye Faithful."

I'll answer my own question---the one I asked several paragraphs ago.

It never does stop.

Dinner last night:  A wonderful holiday dinner at good friends---ribeye steaks, potatoes au gratin, and asparagus.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

This Date in History - December 28

Happy birthday, Charlie Weaver.  Hopefully, somebody gives you a new tie for the occasion.

1065:  WESTMINSTER ABBEY IS CONSECRATED.

When did they do the same for Winchester Cathedral?

1612:  GALILEO GALILEI BECOMES THE FIRST ASTRONOMER TO OBSERVE THE PLANET NEPTUNE, ALTHOUGH HE MISTAKENLY CATALOGUED IT AS A FIXED STAR.

A common mistake I make all the time.

1795:  CONSTRUCTION OF YONGE STREET, FORMERLY RECOGNIZED AS THE LONGEST STREET IN THE WORLD, BEGINS IN YORK, CANADA.

Galileo mistakenly thought it was an avenue.

1832:  JOHN C. CALHOUN BECOMES THE FIRST VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES TO RESIGN.

And you all thought it was Spiro Agnew.

1836:  SPAIN RECOGNIZES THE INDEPENDENCE OF MEXICO.

Funny because I don't.

1846:  IOWA IS ADMITTED AT THE 29TH US STATE.

If we hadn't, where would we be holding those caucuses?

1856:  28TH PRESIDENT WOODROW WILSON IS BORN.

The only President to have a stroke in office.  At least the only one they told us about.

1867:  THE UNITED STATES CLAIMS MIDWAY ATOLL, THE FIRST TERRITORY ANNEXED OUTSIDE CONTINENTAL LIMITS.

No wonder why they defended it so much during World War II.

1895:  THE LUMIERE BROTHERS PERFORM FOR THEIR FIRST PAYING AT THE GRAND CAFE, MARKING THE DEBUT OF THE CINEMA.

And who was the very first movie patron to stick gum on the bottom of a seat?

1895:  WILHELM RONTGEN PUBLISHES A PAPER DETAILING HIS DISCOVERY OF A NEW TYPE OF RADIATION, WHICH LATER WILL BE KNOWN AS X-RAYS.

Before x-rays, physicians would simply guess...

1905:  ACTOR CLIFF ARQUETTE IS BORN.

This is Charlie Weaver.  Pay attention, gang.

1912:  THE FIRST STREETCARS TAKE TO THE STREETS OF SAN FRANCISCO.

Invented because they needed a place to put all the Rice-A-Roni advertisements.

1915:  POPS STAPLES, DAD OF THE STAPLES SINGERS, IS BORN.

And the man was never in need of paper clips.

1934:  ACTRESS MAGGIE SMITH IS BORN.

There is nothing like this Dame...

1944:  MAURICE "ROCKET" RICHARD BECOMES THE FIRST PLAYER TO SCORE EIGHT POINTS IN ONE NHL HOCKEY GAME.

Ironically, he was nicknamed "Rocket" by his wife.

1945:  THE UNITED STATES CONGRESS OFFICIALLY RECOGNIZES THE PLEDGE OF ALLEGIANCE.

Unless, of course, if you 're in a public school the last ten years.

1954:  GAYLE KING IS BORN.

I couldn't find a good adjective to add to her name.  Actress?  Personality?  TV Host?  She's really nothing.  Oh, wait, how about "Oprah Bedmate?"

1954:  ACTOR DENZEL WASHINGTON IS BORN.

I've got a good adjective for him.  Professional Shithead.  

1958:  IN THE GREATEST FOOTBALL GAME EVER PLAYED, THE BALTIMORE COLTS DEFEAT THE NEW YORK GIANTS IN THE FIRST NFL SUDDEN DEATH OVERTIME GAME.

Eleven years later, the Jets will avenge the Giants' loss for all of New York.  

1971:  FILM COMPOSER MAX STEINER DIES.

Now, Corpse.

1973:  THE ENDANGERED SPECIES ACT IS PASSED IN THE UNITED STATES.

If they had done this two years before, this would have included Max Steiner.

1983:  ACTOR WILLIAM DEMAREST DIES.

Uncle Charlie!!!!

1983:  GOLFER JIMMY DEMERET DIES.

How weird is that to happen on the same day?  Two names that were probably confused all the time.

1983:  BEACH BOY DENNIS WILSON DIES.

Well, it was nice while it lasted.

1984:  DIRECTOR SAM PECKINPAH DIES.

Riding off into the sunset.

1992:  BASEBALL PITCHER SAL MAGLIE DIES.

The Barber shaves his last customer.

1999:  ACTOR CLAYTON MOORE DIES.

Instant poll: The Lone Ranger was buried with or without the mask?

2000:  RETAIL GIANT MONTGOMERY WARD GOES OUT OF BUSINESS.

So much for those Christmas returns in 2000.

2004:  ACTOR JERRY ORBACH DIES.

Law and Order: Special Funeral Unit.

Dinner last night:  Cervalet sandwich.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Harry Potter and the Holiday Week Off of Len

I can be strange.

Ever since college, I have taken off the week beginning Christmas and New Year's Eve.  It is one of my annual and traditional vacations.  A perfect time to do nothing but check up on those things you have put off for a year or maybe more.

So, in December 2011, I am...

...cleaning out a walk-in closet.

...paring down several dresser drawers.

...and, as a result, making several drop-offs at Goodwill.

...seeing my dentist about getting Invisalign to straighten my lower teeth which are getting a little squished together.  This, however, wound up in a repair of a cracked tooth.

---having my annual physical, which is my holiday gift of health to myself.

And, for some mystical reason known only to me and other wizards, I am going to try and dive into the Harry Potter film series.

Yes, I know.  Where have I been?

Let's flip the calendar pages back to when Harry Potter first showed up on the shelves at Barnes & Noble.  Those bygone days where there were actually book stores you could browse and maybe even purchase the damn things.  I got sucked into, like many other folks, the very first installment of Master Potter.  I joined the frenzy that swept the nation.

Except it didn't exactly sweep me in. 

I read the first book on a flight from Los Angeles to New York.  And I was thoroughly underwhelmed.  To me, the whole plot was nothing but the onset of a migraine headache.  And, with all the made-up words, everything looked to me like J.K. Rowling needed to run the galleys through Spell Check. 

Okay, so then I went to see the first movie.  Maybe a visual look at the tale would explain it all to me.  And I could finally find out how some of those big words were actually pronounced.

Uh huh.  And I was thoroughly underwhelmed.

Which explains why my life the past ten years has been relatively Potter-less.  While people clamored to get on line to be the first to read the new pages or see the new movies, I sat on the sidelines with a broom that didn't get an inch off the ground.  Miraculously, I survived the decade without Harry Potter being a part of my existence.

Okay, so the saga is now over and all the movies are already available in one complete boxset of DVDs and/or BluRays.  And I'm still disconnected. 

Except, in 2011, I became a fan of star Daniel Radcliffe, having seen him twice in a tour de force performance starring as J. Pierpont Finch in the latest Broadway revival of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."  This is now in my history books as one of the best musicals I've seen.  And I marveled at the talent of the once-bespectacled Radcliffe.  The kid can sing, dance, act, and perhaps move a mountain from the Rockies to the Adirondacks.

Yours truly is now wondering why I missed with all that Harry Potter business.

So, courtesy of a Netflix queue as well as Direct TV video on demand, I decided to go back and see what all the Hogwarts fuss was about.  Don't look for reviews as I tackle the films one at a time in succession.  It would be useless for me to comment on a movie that everybody except maybe me and Kim Jong Il I saw ten years ago.  Just know that it is possible.  It might take me a while, but Len can still catch up to the rest of the universe.

Wish me luck.  Or, however, it's spelled in the world of Harry Potter.

Dinner last night:  Leftover ham sandwich, potato salad, and cole slaw.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Monday Morning Video Laugh - December 26, 2011

You got Christmas leftovers?  So do I in the video department.

Please be kind to that retail clerk behind the counter when you're doing your Christmas exchanging.  A classic scene with Jack Benny and Mel Blanc.


Dinner last night:  Christmas dinner---ham, potatoes, veggies, yams, and cranberries.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Sunday Memory Drawer - Christmas Trees, Traditions and Other Oddities of the Day

Here's a snapshot of this year's edition of the Los Angeles Christmas tree.  By including it here, I am tipping my Santa cap one more time to my Dad.  For a period of five years when he loved to play with his Argus Technicolor family, he ran around taking pictures of everybody's trees.  Like this one...


Or this one at my cousin's house...
Or this one downstairs at Grandma and Grandpa's.  They went for the table model.
Even though they got talked into a bigger one...
If there was a flash bulb and a Christmas tree, you could count on my dad being nearby.

In our house, when you weren't being blinded by a camera, Christmas presents were opened in the morning.  I'd run into the living room and immediately assess my haul for the year.
Like the year when my parents apparently hoped that I would turn into either Liberace or a Disney Studios employee.  Neither has materialized.
Or the year when the message was in the bi-polar opposite direction.  A Zorro play set and an Army tank.

My inventory didn't take long.  I was then told to go downstairs and see what Santa left at Grandma's.

It was always easy.  A crisp ten dollar bill in an envelope.  When it came to what Santa left me on the first floor, it was always ATM-centric.  Or whatever passed for a cash machine back then.

I was done collecting it all in an hour.  And then, basking in a sea of new toys, there were those years where my mom would give me the ultimate buzz kill.

"Get dressed.  We're going to spend the day at Aunt Helen's."

Or Aunt Anne's.  Or Aunt Midge's.  No kid wants to spend Christmas Day being immediately separated from all the wonderfulness that came as a result of a year's worth of good behavior.

Damn those years.

So, you can see that our traditions were pretty straight forward and simple.   Perhaps not unlike yours.   But, inexplicably, there were two years that my mother tried to establish a new one.  She would read me to sleep on Christmas Eve.  With a well-done recitation of "Twas The Night Before Christmas."  This didn't last more than two years and I don't know why she stopped.  Maybe a lack of interest on my part.

Nevertheless, that memory came back to me several years back.  And I revisited the poem in its totality.  And I waxed comically on the verses.

Okay, I'm a day late.  Yesterday was techinically "the night before Christmas."  But, with all the goofiness in this Clement Moore poem, are you really going to quibble with me?

So, just imagine us in front of a warm Christmas Eve fireplace. Snug as bugs in rugs. And I open this book to read it aloud to all assembled. How utterly delightful! How comforting! How could I possibly get through the whole thing without making a bunch of snarky comments? 

Back to Len Speaks of 2009, we go...

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

Okay, it's me now. An ignoble start to this Christmas chestnut, because right from the get-go, you find out they've got rodents in this place.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.

Giving rise to another horrible childhood nightmare when Monte, my "alleged friend" up the block who liked to spew a lot of Catholic hate my way, told me that St. Nicholas was obviously Catholic and didn't visit Protestant homes.

The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;

I have never dreamt of fruit. Even once.

And Mamma in her 'kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter's nap,

Bedtime headwear? The only person I ever saw in a nightcap was Fred Mertz. And what's with the nonsense about a nap? When you go to bed at nighttime, it's not a nap. It's called "going to sleep!"

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

If there ever was commotion in our neighborhood, we didn't immediately think it was Santa Claus. It was probably Vicki's mom next door coming home drunk from the local gin mill. Once, she fell right through my grandmother's lilac bush.

Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutter and threw up the sash.

"Threw up the sash?" You never should have tried to eat it in the first place. 

The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave the luster of mid-day to objects below,

If I was reading this as a kid, I would have started to giggle at the mention of "breast" and probably not get through the rest of the poem. I'm just saying...

When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,

This is one of the only Christmas passages that gave you any perspective on the size of the reindeer. Were they babies? And, if so, is this not animal cruelty? Making these things run all over the world in one night??

With a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.

Had we no prior experience with Christmas, would we immediately know it was St. Nick? On any street corner in December, there are tons of imposters. There are myriad ways that a scam artist could bilk thousands of unsuspecting children on Christmas Eve. After all, nobody is awake to demand proper identification.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and he whistled and shouted and called them by name; "Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!"

Okay, no mention of Rudolph. When does he get invented? And perhaps he was nothing more than a urban legend designed to get Gene Autry a couple of Gold albums. And don't you wonder just a little about Vixen? With a name like that, I wonder which of the other reindeer she was doing. The smart money is on Dasher.

To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall! Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!

I typed that just as Clement Moore wrote it originally. What's with the inability to capitalize properly?

As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;

Dry leaves? How do these turn up in a winter poem? My guess is that Moore started writing this in September or October and simply got sidetracked during the process. I know just how deadly writer's block can be. Who knows? Maybe this was supposed to be "Twas The Night Before Halloween."

So up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.

So is this proof that Santa only brought toys? That runs contrary to some other images we have. Of Mr. Claus riding a Norelco razor up and down some snowdrifts. And Santa was prominently displayed on that carton of Kent cigarettes my mother always got as well as the box of Canadian Club my dad got from his friends around the corner.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof the prancing and pawing of each little hoof.

The way our roof was arched, there was absolutely no way that the sleigh and reindeer could have kept their balance. At least, three of those suckers would have tumbled off. Right into Grandma's lilac bush, lying next to Vicki's drunken mother.

As I drew in my head, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.

You see, this always presented a major problem in our house. There was one chimney fireplace. In Grandma's dining room. And it was sealed with cement. I once asked her how Santa Claus could get in. She told me not to ask a lot of stupid question.

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soots;

Dressed in fur? Are we absolutely 100% sure that there was a Mrs. Claus? Because the image I'm getting is Liberace. Except no gay guy allows himself to get this dirty ever.

A bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

You see a sprightly old gentleman? I'm seeing a homeless bum down in Santa Monica.

His eyes---how they twinkled! his dimples how merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!

Possibly warning signs of rosacea or even high blood pressure.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;

One verse later, we have our medical diagnosis. "Mouth drawn up like a bow." He's had a mild stroke.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;

A stroke brought on by heavy smoking.

He had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.

I never understood. Do me a favor. Take a jar of jelly and empty it into a bowl. It doesn't shake. It just lies there. Inert. Now, if Moore had known about Jell-O at the time, this reference would have worked. But, then, you have the rhyme problem. Jell-O, bellow, hello, mellow. The whole poem falls off the proverbial map.

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;

Another misnomer. Fat people are not always happy. Most are depressed, having eaten themselves into a coma for deep seeded psychological reasons.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;

Or maybe I did. An old guy winking and making overt gestures. Hello, Pedophile.

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

Head twisting. Body jerking. I'm thinking Parkinson's. What about you?

And laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;

Once again, I'd ask my grandmother how Santa could get out with a sealed up chimney in our house. Once again, I'd hear, "You ask too many stupid questions."

He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle,

I never knew what a thistle was, let alone how much down you got from one. And, how about the noise this bunch generates as they leave? For what purpose? Aren't they simply going to fly over to the house next door?

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

Yeah! Me, too!

AND A MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL OF YOU AS WELL!!!

Dinner last night:  German salami sandwich and side salad.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Classic Movie Trailer of the Month - December 2011

An underrated Christmas classic.  Worth a look when it shows up on TCM this holiday season.  I watch it every year.


Dinner last night:  BLT sandwich at Blue Plate.

Friday, December 23, 2011

We Wish You an Awkward Christmas

Must be a photo from England.  Obviously, it's Boxing Day.
Happy Holidays from Lenscrafters!
Bad wallpaper doesn't necessarily translate to bad pajamas.
I'd like to return them, please.
Santa's planning a home invasion robbery.
She's outsourced her husband.
Obviously, there was nothing he really wanted.
The dog is the brightest thing in this picture.
The Birth of Chucky...and Christmas.
If somebody was in need of one of those Christmas shavers from Norelco...

Dinner last night:  Hamburger at Mr. Marcel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Five Christmas Movies I Must Watch Every Year

There is nothing more refreshing than that moment when you have finished your holiday preparations.  You sit down with your favorite adult beverage and dive into one of those Christmas movies you watch year after year.  The perennials.

Yet, as the years go by, they start to get a bit, well, overplayed.  While most of them are terrific, the repeated air plays start to get as heavy as rancid egg nog.

For instance, about twenty years ago, somebody discovered that "It's A Wonderful Life" fell into public domain. So, it got played by television stations and networks everywhere. I swear I saw it once dubbed on Korean television. And some of the prints were just awful. More blemishes than Joan Van Ark on the day before her next Botox treatment. I also got personally bored with the Frank Capra saga about six years ago after I produced and directed a live stage production of the script. After two weeks of living and breathing the dialogue, I was ready to shove that bell down Zuzu's throat.

The overkill factor also goes into effect for "Miracle on 34th Street." It's shown in color. It's shown in black and white. It's shown and shown and shown.  If only Natalie Wood had surfaced as much...

The TNT Channel has also done a terrific job in sucking the life out of "A Christmas Story." Now, this is a marvelous holiday movie that should be seen on a big screen. But, TNT loves to play these marathons where the film is shown on a loop. For two days running. Their programmer is the one who truly needs to have his eye poked out. 

So, my suggestion is that movies like those mentioned above should be rested for a few years.  Give them a breather.  If you skip them for, say, five years, they will still work just as well when you pop them back in your DVD once again.  And guess what?  George Bailey won't jump off that bridge.  Edmund Gwenn will get bubble gum all over his beard.  And that stupid kid will still get his tongue stuck on that frozen metal pole.

That said, there are five Christmas movies that I never ever will skip.  Must-sees that get my holiday season just right.  Luckily, in Los Angeles, there are even opportunities to see them on a big screen during the Yuletide festivities.  Some are choices you have heard of.  Others are not even considered "Christmas" fare.  But, this week, I will be watching...

Christmas in Connecticut: This is a mid-40s classic from the Warner Brothers back lot. In fact, they don't even get off a soundstage. For a movie from that era, it is still surprisingly modern. Because star Barbara Stanwyck plays a character very similar to Martha Stewart. A magazine writer who specializes in being an expert on hearth and home. And supposedly the greatest cook on the planet.

Her publisher hits on a publicity stunt where Stanwyck will provide a home-cooked Christmas meal for an injured soldier. Except nobody knows the woman can't cook and hasn't got one single domestic talent. The plot spins out into several directions from there, but it is all delicious screwball-y fun. And any movie that features S.Z "Cuddles" Sakall is okay in my book. This is a perfect film to watch while wrapping gifts on Christmas Eve day.

Love Actually: Forget "Fred Claus," and any other Yuletide crap that Hollywood has passed off the last few years. The best Christmas movie to be produced in the last ten years is "Love Actually." It's one of those ultra-episodic scripts where about 15 characters have different storylines that may or may not be connected. It's a little confusing at first, as you meet practically the entire London phone book. But, hang on and you will get a wonderful present. 

Sure, there are about five characters and three storylines too many. But, they will scoot by quickly and you can revel in the more compelling tales. Laura Linney as a secretary who can't commit to any romance. Liam Neeson who is trying to be a parent to his young stepson as they both experience their first Noel without the recently-died Mom. The shaky marriage between Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson, who breaks your heart as she listens to a Joni Mitchell CD version of "Both Sides Now." I even liked Hugh Grant as a Tony Blair-like British Prime Minister. And there is a rendition of "All I Want for Christmas is You" that gives you goose bumps. If you've ever wanted to spend Christmas in London, this is the ideal virtual way to do so.

The Man Who Came to Dinner: This is technically not a Christmas movie, but it should be, since all the action happens around the holidays. This 1941 movie is another one that never leaves a Warner Brothers soundstage, but it really doesn't have to. You may know that this was originally a big hit on Broadway as written by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman. And two members of that cast, Monty Wooley and Mary Wickes, reprise their roles in the movie, which features the most razor sharp dialogue ever captured on celluloid. 

There's not one unclever moment in the entire six reels. Who can't identify with the holiday guest who just won't leave? In this case, it's renowed critic and lecturer Sheridan Whiteside, who sprains his ankle and then sets up camp in somebody else's house for the holidays. As portrayed by Wooley, Whiteside is loosely based on Alexander Woolcott and he has one great barb after another. He's described this way: "He would have his mother burned at the stake if that was the only way he could light his cigarette." I wish people talked like these characters in real life. 

When Whiteside's nurse (Mary Wickes) forbids him from eating some candy, he retorts, "My great Aunt Jennifer ate a box of candy every day of her life. She lived to be one hundred and two, and when she had been dead for three days, she looked better than you do now." If that's not enough, throw in the fact that this is the only movie in history that co-starred Bette Davis and Jimmy Durante! Grab a box of your own candy and savor this great Christmas treat.
Since You Went Away:  Yeah, yeah, you've never heard of it.  I did list it as #25 on my list of Top 25 Favorite Films of All Time, but perhaps you missed that entry.  And you say it's not a Christmas movie??

Oh, pish and tosh.  The film opens and ends on Christmas day one year later.  Good enough for me.  And it embodies everything that Christmas is all about.  As I have written before...

"Since You Went Away" came out in 1944 and it is 100% devoted to the homefront during WWII. For what "Mrs. Miniver" and "Hope and Glory" did for the London bombings (and I have a good friend who lived through that), "Since You Went Away" wonderfully depicts life in the United States when most men were overseas someplace and completely out of touch with their family and loved ones. David O. Selznick produced it and hoped to do for World War II what his earlier effort "Gone With the Wind" did for the Civil War. Yes, it's almost three hours long, but it sails by and, for me, is a big screen version of the best macaroni and cheese you can ever eat.

Claudette Colbert plays the mother of Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple (here, she's a teenager and Bill Robinson-less). The family is semi-well-to-do and lives in Everytown, USA. Hattie McDaniel, who was obviously highlighted in Selznick's phone book for all servant roles, is their housekeeper and there is not a single stereotypical note to her performance. You never see the father as he has just left for active duty on Christmas Eve as the film opens. What follows is a year in the life of the Hilton family with Dad gone.

You visit USO dances. You experience food rationing and scrap metal drives. You watch as neighbors lose loved ones in battle and then sense the uneasiness as others in the community grapple to find the right words to comfort them. It is probably the truest picture of life in our country as that war raged on in Europe and the South Pacific. The courage. The resiliency. The dread. It is all here in this terrific slice of Americana.

The tearful railroad goodbye scene between real-life lovers Robert Walker and Jennifer Jones is still referenced by film historians today. And Claudette Colbert was so warm and inviting that I wished I was part of the family. And, in a way, I was.

I came to see this movie for the first time about 15 years ago. I've probably seen it once a year ever since and always during Christmas week.  For me, it is a annual reminder of my grandmother, who was a mother during World War II. And she shared virtually all of the stories that are portrayed on screen. On cold winter Sunday afternoons, I would sit in her living room and hear about rationing and community dances and the fear that wrapped around you when a letter from the government arrived in the mail. She lost a son in France in 1945---I was named after him. This movie gives me more than a history lesson. It gives me back my grandmother one more time.

"Since You Went Away" turns up on Turner Classic Movies. It is worth three hours of your time. I defy you not to well up at the end of Act 1 or just prior to the finale. I double defy you.
White Christmas:  Sadly, "White Christmas" is starting to fall in that category which I was grousing about in the opening of this entry.  The Christmas movie that is starting to look like your tree on January 15.  Dried out and ready for the dumpster.  You can thank some cable networks like the woefully annoying AMC for playing it over and over and over.  Last week, I caught them showing it three times in succession.

Gee, thanks, idiots.  Because you're destroying another movie that landed on the list of my Top 25 Favorite Films of All Time at slot #23.  Sure, after repeated viewings, this film starts to look like "Off White Christmas."  But, still, it holds a special place in my heart and I've even gotten to see it on a big screen here in Los Angeles where the Vistavision sings almost as well as Rosemary Clooney.

Yeppers, here comes another flashback.  As I have written before...

Those of you who get Christmas cards from me may recognize that I have been sending a card with the poster to the right for several years. I think I still have a few boxes left, so don't be surprised if it turns up again in your mailbox sometime this December. Besides, they were on sale.

Here's another movie I came to later than most. From a distance, it always looked a little plastic. And it stars Danny Kaye, an actor and comedian whom I have never understood. Add to that my general ambivalence to Bing Crosby, who I consider, when he is sans Bob, rather Hope-less. For the longest time, I listened to all the critics, who said that, if you're looking to hear Bing sing "White Christmas" in a movie, you should go to "Holiday Inn" from 1943. And I did. "White Christmas" just never looked to be my cup of egg nog.

And, then, about 20 Christmases ago, I saw it.

Maybe it was a direct result of some things going on in my life at the time. Perhaps, it was a serendipitous moment in that particular holiday season. But, it hit me like a thunderbolt. Now, I could never envision going through the annual Christmas traditions without watching it. Last year, I got to see it for the first time on a big screen in a packed theater with an exurberant audience. And it roped me in all over again. Right from the moment that Paramount's Vistavision logo exploded onto the screen to the last frames of the movie when the Pine Tree Lodge is celebrating a snowy Christmas Eve. 

One more time. I was moved to tears.

I can certainly understand why the critics always scoffed. The plot is so tired that even a Vitamin B-12 injection couldn't revive it. Bing and Danny are two Vegas-like performers who wind up, for a bunch of silly reasons, camped out at some heat wave-plagued Vermont ski lodge and pursuing this singing sister act, played by Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. Rosie plays the older sister, despite being younger than Vera-Ellen, but who cares? The women steal the picture right out from under Bing and Danny. The two actresses add such incredible vitality as soon as they come onto the screen you would think the reels were suddenly infused with a double shot of caffeine at your local Starbucks. 

With supporting players Dean Jagger and Mary Wickes adding, respectively, some choice poignant and comedic moments, you suddenly find yourself standing in front of a tray of the most delicious cinematic Christmas cookies. 

You sit for two hours watching everybody put on one of those Mickey-and-Judy barn musicals while they all wait for the inevitable Christmas Eve snowfall. And it all blends together perfectly, as if somebody finally got you just the right tie to match a new shirt.

Songwriter Irving Berlin obviously emptied out the bottom of his lyric trunk to come up with 11 or 12 songs for the movie. But, besides the title song, ditties like "Sisters," "Count Your Blessings," and "Love, You Didn't Do Right By Me" are so warm and inviting, the producers of the film should have marketed a complimentary blanket for home viewing. 

Watch for up-and-coming George Chakiris, years before "West Side Story," among the dancers. His wordless close-up during one number apparently had women across the nation swooning and they subsequently flooded the Paramount fan letter office. And how Rosie Clooney fills out a black velvet cocktail dress should be shown in Webster's Dictionary as the official illustration for the definition of "eye candy."

If it all sounds a bit hackneyed, so be it. I'm not alone. I understand that "White Christmas" was the highest grossing film of 1954 and that says something for a movie that came out at the end of the year.

Once again, my initial appreciation might be jaded. I was ripe for the comforting arm of a good movie. I had both my parents housed in separate hospitals with illnesses. Unfortunately, my dad was in the final stages of his cancer and this year would be his last Christmas. My mom was sequestered elsewhere dealing with one more smoke-provoked bronchial episode. I spent the holiday season shuttling between semi-private rooms located on opposite ends of Westchester. And I felt incredibly alone.

"White Christmas" gave me a little bit of hope and brightness for some darker days that would come. And it still shines for me every year.

Watch these five movies this weekend and your life will be better for it.  My Christmas gift to you.

Dinner last night:  Cervelat sandwich and side salad.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This Date in History - December 21

Happy birthday, Winch.  And you're not just putting words in my mouth.

1140:  CONRAD III OF GERMANY BESIEGED WEINSBERG.

That Germans vs. Jews stuff started earlier than we thought.

1620:  WILLIAM BRADFORD AND THE MAYFLOWER PILGRIMS LAND ON WHAT IS NOW KNOWN AS PLYMOUTH ROCK, MASSACHUSETTS.

And immediately went to Target for the day-after sale.

1832:  EGYPTIAN FORCES DECISIVELY DEFEAT OTTOMAN TROOPS AT THE BATTLE OF KONYA.

The Battle of Konya.  Now that's one that never shows up as a category on Jeopardy.

1861:  PUBLIC RESOLUTION 82, CONTAINING A PROVISION FOR A NAVY MEDAL OF VALOR, IS SIGNED INTO LAW BY PRESIDENT ABRAHAM LINCOLN.

Even then, this brilliant President had the foresight to know that, years later, John F. Kennedy would need to get some award for PT 109.

1872:  HMS CHALLENGER, COMMANDED BY CAPTAIN GEORGE NARES, SAILS FROM PORTSMOUTH.

Hopefully, this Challenger fared better than the one in the second half of the next century.

1879:  THE WORLD PREMIERE OF HENRIK IBSEN'S "A DOLL'S HOUSE" IS HELD IN COPENHAGEN.

The mark-up on Stubhub was ridiculous.

1913:  THE FIRST CROSSWORD PUZZLE IS PUBLISHED IN THE NEW YORK TIMES.

If it was a Sunday, you can bet it was hard.

1922:  VENTRILOQUIST PAUL WINCHELL IS BORN.

Oddly enough, Jerry Mahoney was born one year earlier.

1926:  FOOTBALL COACH JOE PATERNO IS BORN.

He think this was his birthday.  He never really told us.

1935:  TV HOST PHIL DONAHUE IS BORN.

Still, to this day, the best interviewer ever.  Yes, folks, even better than Larry King.

1937:  "SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS," THE WORLD'S FIRST FULL-LENGTH CARTOON, PREMIERES AT THE CARTHAY CIRCLE THEATER IN LOS ANGELES.

This was allegedly one of the grandest movie palaces ever built.  It's now an office complex.

1937:  ACTRESS JANE FONDA IS BORN.  

Could have been the eighth dwarf born the same day.  "Hippie."

1940:  MUSICIAN FRANK ZAPPA IS BORN.

Speaking of hippies.  The hell with his musical legacy.  This kook actually named his kids Moon Unit and Dweezil.

1940:  WRITER F. SCOTT FITZGERALD DIES.

Any guesses on the alcohol content in his autopsy?

1948:  ACTOR SAMUEL L. JACKSON IS BORN.

And speaking of bad actors.  No, wait, we weren't.

1954:  TENNIS STAR CHRIS EVERT IS BORN.

Back in the day, I would string her racket if she asked.

1957:  COMEDIAN RAY ROMANO IS BORN.

Everybody, including me, loves Raymond.

1960:  NEW YORK MET PITCHER ROGER MCDOWELL IS BORN.

While he didn't exactly set the baseball world on fire, he did ignite his foot once.

1967:  LOUIS WASHKANSKY, THE FIRST MAN TO UNDERGO A HEART TRANSPLANT, DIES IN CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA, AFTER LIVING FOR 18 DAYS AFTER THE TRANSPLANT.

If he had lasted any longer, the bills alone would have killed him.

1968:  APOLLO 8, THE FIRST MANNED MISSION TO THE MOON, IS LAUNCHED FROM FLORIDA.

These astronauts found a neat way to avoid their families during the Christmas holidays.

1969:  THE GAY ACTIVISTS ALLIANCE IS FORMED IN NEW YORK CITY.

Just in time for the holidays.  God rest ye merry gentlemen.

1969:  THE UNITED NATIONS ADOPTS THE CONVENTION ON THE ELIMINATION OF ALL FORMS OF RACIAL DISCRIMINATION.

As opposed to taking on discrimination one race at a time.

1974:  ACTOR RICHARD LONG DIES.

Nanny's Professor no longer has office hours.

1988:  A BOMB EXPLODES ON BOARD PAN AM FLIGHT 103 OVER LOCKERBIE, SCOTLAND, KILLING 270.

The very first valid reason for blowing up the Middle East.

2001:  SPORTSWRITER DICK SCHAAP DIES.

Deaad.

2009:  NORTHWEST AIRLINES FLIGHT 253 WAS ALMOST BOMBED BY AL QAIDA---THE CHRISTMAS DAY BOMBING ATTEMPT.

The 125th valid reason for blowing up the Middle East.

Dinner last night:   Leftover bratwurst and red cabbage.