Friday, April 20, 2012

Notes in and on passing

There has simply been too much going on in my life the past few weeks. Our beloved Community Radio Station, WVEW-lp rose like the proverbial phoenix from the water logged ashes of downtown Brattleboro's Brooks House, which was nearly destroyed by fire a year ago.

When a radio station goes off the air due to such circumstances, it has exactly one year to return to broadcasting or lose its license. On Tuesday evening, April 10th, at just about 8:10pm, I used a computer at the station's new studio to log into the transmitter and turn it on. I used You Tube to play the Hallelujah Chorus. I had also used the same piece a few days previous on the first broadcast test of the new set up. The choice was corny, but we had just saved the license, with six days to spare so I make no apologies.

As the transmitter was turned on. Left to right, Dan Lefkowitz, Scott Brown (in green), myself (at the computer), Rolf Parker-Houghton, Stephen Frankel, and Lauren Reedy - some of the members of the WVEW-lp Board.

I also threw the switches that originally put the station on the air back in 2006. In those days, I played the Ramones "We Want the Airwaves", which was the song I used when I threw the switches a couple of times for our former community station, radio free brattleboro. All of this is a very long story, which will hopefully be told one day, but today is not that day.

Today, I wanted to note the passing of another icon of my youth. A few days ago, we lost Dick Clark. Forget the "America's Oldest Living Teenager" nickname. Forget the New Year's Eve shows from Times Square (sorry, New Year's Eve will always have Guy Lombardo playing in my mental soundtrack). Forget the cheesy tv specials. Back when I was a kid, there was "Bandstand". It was a show out of nearby Philadelphia, and was on everyday at, oh, was it 3 or 4pm on WFIL, the fledgling ABC network on broadcast channel 6. It was an hour and a half long in those days. You have to understand something here. My first record player, a children's toy, played 78 rpm records. Music when I was old enough to have some idea of what I was listening to was still by and large the music of the big band era. The first movie I can remember seeing, shortly before my fifth birthday, had a song in it which became a huge hit: "Rock Around the Clock". I was a child of the birth of rock and roll. And Bandstand brought rock and roll into my living room. And Dick Clark hosted and produced that show. I never watched it a lot - but I certainly watched the guest stars like Bobby Rydell (a Philadelphia boy!) and to see the teenagers dancing.

Dick Clark interviewing Bobby Rydell (a big star back in the day) on American Bandstand.

 I was especially fond of the summer version, as on Saturdays it would broadcast from the World Famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I don't know how a logo for a tv station in St. Louis got in here, but much of this clip is from one of those summer shows:

There were frequent camera shots of the ocean, and the famous diving horse. I can't recall just when the program changed its name to "American Bandstand", but I think it was around the end of the 1950s. In those days, the average wage was $ 5,000 dollars a year. A car cost over $2,000 dollars, and you ordered it with the extras (like a radio) you wanted and then waited for it to be made in Detroit and delivered to your local dealership. A jar of peanut butter cost 29 cents. I lost interest in the show after my early teen years, and besides, the show had moved to Los Angeles and wasn't local anymore. But it, and Dick Clark (bless him) live on in my memory. Thank You, Mr. Clark, for helping usher in an era, and showing it to me.

Levon Helm also passed away this week. He was the drummer and a lead vocalist for The Band. I was a fan. Back when I used to help run the Purple Dragon Coffeehouse in Ocean City, we also had a coffeehouse in Somers Point, across the bay, called The Fish Market - because that's what the building had been. It was next door to a club called Tony Mart's. The Band used to play there under a couple of different names before they became The Band. I've been aware of them for a very long time. I treasure my copy of "Music From Big Pink", one of the graetest rock albums ever released. I saw them live, when they backed Bob Dylan at the Madison Square Garden when Dylan finally returned to live performing years after his motorcycle accident.

Here's Levon Helm's vocal leading off one of my favorite songs from the Big Pink album.

The above clip is from the movie "The Last Waltz", a film of the final performance of the Band. When I was working in the movie business in NYC, my friend John Chiafalo and his brother were rehabbing an old brownstone they had bought in Brooklyn. As they near completion, they held a party to celebrate. I got them a 16mm print of "The Last Waltz" which we showed in one of the larger rooms. Needless to say, it was a popular stop on the house party tour.

Mr. Helm had his ups and downs, and over the last few years had re-emerged into the public eye - and discovered that he had an audience who fondly remembered him. He lost his battle with cancer yesterday. The final number the Band ever performed together seems like a fitting send off. You don't get a chance to see much of Mr. Helm in this clip, and his distinctive voice blends in with and many of his (and The Band's) friends. The Weight has finally been lifted, and Levon Helm has been released. Rest well, sir. Rest well.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Jonathon Frid

I just saw the news on the internet. A part of my youth, one of the last remnants of myself from a different time, has passed away. Jonathon Frid died last Friday, the 13th, at the age of 87.

In 1976, a strange little soap opera debuted on the ABC network. It concerned the odd goings on at the old Collins estate by the sea in Collinsport, Maine. A former movie star, Joan Bennett, played the mistress of Collinwood. For whatever reason, Elizabeth Collins Stoddard had not left her home for 18 years... At first, the soap didn't really develop well or catch on. There were occasional mentions of ghosts being seen around an old, no longer used wing of the sprawling house. Then, one day, close to a year after the show debuted, two lowlifes showed up in Collinsport, intent on blackmailing Mrs. Stoddard for (possibly) killing her husband 17 years earlier. One of the men, Willie Loomis, started poking around the estate's mausoleum looking for valuables allegedly buried with a former family member.
He found Jonathon Frid.

Frid was introduced to the show, called Dark Shadows, as Barnabas Collins, a vampire accidentally set loose by Willie Loomis. Barnabas convinced Mrs. Stoddard that he was a member of the Collins family's English branch, and took up residence in the old house on the estate. And he does bear an uncanny resemblance  to a portrait of the American family's founder, also named Barnabas...

Dark Shadows aired weekday afternoons at 4pm. At first, it was broadcast and taped live. Sets and walls would shake. Stagehands would occasionally wander into view. And it had a vampire as a major character. Needless to say, I loved it, and I was hooked. Before the run ended, there were major plot-lines involving ghosts, spurned lover witches, werewolves, parallel universes, zombies, and time travel.

Frid had been a Shakespearean actor in his native Canada. He took the role of Barnabas when told it wouldn't be a lengthy assignment - he wanted to earn enough money to move to California where he intended to start an acting school. His character ended up making the show hugely popular, and he stayed until the end in 1971. His Barnabas was a sympathetic character - which I think was a first for a vampire role. Certainly, a vampire had never been the hero of a show before. Frid set the precedent - and created a character which was at once both sympathetic and menacing.

Next month, a new Tim Burton movie based on Dark Shadows will open in movie theaters around the world. It stars Johnny Depp as Barnabas. Jonathan Frid appears in a cameo with other former stars of the tv show. The movie, based on the footage seen so far in the film's trailer, appears to be attempting to become a  camp classic. It will be very different than the tv show. Perhaps it is fitting, then, that before the movie opens, the real Barnabas has found peace and rest at last.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Do Me Do Day

Two particular entertainers who have give me great pleasure have birthdays today.

First the Empress of the Blues, Miss Bessie Smith. Born to a part time Baptist minister, by the age of nine she had lost both parents and a brother - she was raised by an older sister. As a child, she helped support her family by singing in front of the White Elephant Saloon in Chattanooga. She married, but she and her husband never divorced - he never got used to her affairs with women, and she left him over one of his affairs. She later shared her life with Lionel Hampton's uncle. Columbia records signed her in 1923; her first recordings were considered "A" list, and she was the initial star attraction of their new "race records" division. She quickly became the most popular (and highest paid) black performer in the world. In 1929, she was the star of an early sound film short, "St. Louis Blues". Recording promoter John Hammond claimed to have found her working in obscurity in 1933 (not true, she was still a headliner just performing less in the Depression) and recorded her last four songs. Hammond also invented a story about her death; she died in an auto accident at the age of 43. Hammond claimed that she was refused entry to a white hospital, a story which has been discredited. Her husband regularly pocketed money raised for her tombstone. Her resting place was finally marked by a memorial paid for by Janis Joplin.

Today is also the birthday of Hans Conried. An occasional Broadway and radio performer, he was a well known character actor in movies, and  a regular voice performer for Disney. He achieved early television fame as Uncle Tanoose on the Danny Thomas show. The excerpt below is from his performance in an odd cult favorite move from 1953, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. the only movie whose story, script, and song lyrics were written by Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Suess. Conried played an insane music teacher who chained children to their pianos as they learned his method of playing:

Thank You both, and Happy Birthday!

P.S. Today is also the birthday of an old (and I stress the word "old") friend, Miss Magnolia Thunderpussy.
Happy Birthday, Mags! The following is her favorite song, and may have been based on her life: