Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Happy birthday, Ned Miller!

Henry Ned Miller celebrates his 86th birthday today—and while there’s probably a few of you there asking “And what does he do when he’s not tending bar?” you may be familiar with a song he wrote and recorded entitled From a Jack to a King…a country music standard that was first released in 1957 to nearly unanimous ennui.  Five years later, Miller persuaded his label to re-release the single and watched it become a million-selling single, peaking at #2 on Billboard’s country music charts and (at a time when it wasn’t so unusual) hitting the No. 6 spot in the magazine’s Hot 100 (aka the pop music standings).

A native of Rains, Utah, Ned focused on becoming a songwriter and performer, entertaining at parties and warbling over local radio at the age of 16, only temporarily detouring his chosen career with a stint in the U.S. Marine Corps.  By 1956, he was cashing royalty checks for Dark Moon, a tune he co-wrote that charted both for singer Bonnie Guitar (her version also landed on the country charts) and TV’s My Little Margie, Gale Storm.  A year later, his song A Fallen Star was recorded by fellow country music artist Jimmy “C” Newman, who took the tune to #2 and also experienced a bit of crossover play.

But it was From a Jack to a King that opened up the doors for Miller as a country singer; he scored an additional seven Top 40 country hits from the time of Jack’s rise to the charts until 1970 including Invisible Tears and Do What You Do Well, his only other foray into the Top Ten.  Even after his chart activity slowed to a crawl Ned continued to pen hits for such artists as Faron Young, Porter Wagoner and Hank Snow—Bobby Bare, Connie Smith and even the Ray Conniff Singers all did different covers of Invisible Tears.  You can’t keep a classic country ballad down, though—From a Jack to a King resurfaced again in the 1990s when singer Ricky Van Shelton covered it and took it all the way to the No. 1 spot.  So happy birthday to you, Ned!

From a Jack to a King (Ned Miller's version)

Invisible Tears

Do What You Do Well

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Happy birthday, Dale Messick!

One hundred and five years ago on this date in South Bend, IN, Dahlia Messick was born—and from her early childhood, her interest in writing and drawing was so great that she chose to pursue both as her career path by attending Chicago’s Ray Commercial Art School.  She left the school after getting work at a greeting card company in the Windy City, but quit after her boss cut her pay.  This may not have been the smartest move to make during the Great Depression but after moving to New York City in 1933, she found work at another greeting card firm that paid her the princely sum of $50 a week.

Dahlia had a desire to become a comic strip artist—and even though there were a few female artists in that business it was for the most part an all-male preserve.  She hit upon the idea of changing her name to “Dale” in order to sneak past the editors’ bias and after a series of strips that she submitted proved unsuccessful she created one about a female newspaper reporter.  The character of “Brenda Starr,” named after a 1930s socialite (and drawn to look like silver screen siren Rita Hayworth), was a globetrotting member of the fourth estate who glamorous adventures were in no related to the real-life nine-to-five grind of women in the same ink-stained profession…something Messick dismissed by saying: “…if I made Brenda’s life like theirs, nobody would read it.”  Brenda Starr, Reporter originally started appearing in the Chicago Tribune as a comic book supplement provided in Tribune’s Sunday edition but soon graduated to regular Sunday strip status, with a daily version appearing in 1945.

Messick drew Brenda Starr for nearly forty years, finally retiring her pen in 1980 (though she continued to script the strip until 1982) to allow a number of other artists carry on with Brenda’s adventures until the Tribune retired the strip in January of this year.  At the height of its fame, Brenda Starr, Reporter appeared in nearly 250 newspapers but toward the end of the strip’s run it had dwindled down to about 35.  (The Savannah News-Press may have been one of these papers; I know that when I was still living there you could find Brenda and her cohorts in the section of the paper where people announce they’re no longer responsible for their debts and the like.)  Brenda’s creator left this world for a better one in 2005 at the age of 98; Dale had tried to start another successful strip after leaving Starr but was never able to recapture lightning in a bottle (she did do a feature entitled Granny Glamour, which appeared in a local Oakmont, CA magazine, but she surrendered that strip when she suffered a stroke in 1998 and could no longer hold a pen).

But as the saying goes: “When God closes a door, he opens a window”—Brenda Starr may have said farewell to the funny papers on January 2, 2011 but fans of the strip might be interested in checking out a new DVD release from VCI: the 1945 Columbia serial Brenda Starr, Reporter.  Considered for many years to be lost (Columbia’s rights to the character had expired and the Tribune stupidly destroyed most of the remaining prints), the chapter play’s nitrate negative turned up in the archives of the Library of Congress but was already in a state of deterioration; according to the Brenda Starr page of VCI’s blog “they were too late to save parts of chapters 3 and 4; the soundtrack is missing on half of one chapter and the picture is missing on half of the other chapter.”  Nevertheless, the company was able to salvage the remaining material and do a none-too-shabby restoration on what remains (with the help of film preservationist Fred Shay) to allow cliffhanger fans a chance to see this rarity (it was released on March 1 of this same year).  I bought a copy from DVD Pacific and I hope to be able to sit down with it when I’m not as busy, busy…busy! preoccupied with other pressing matters…but I encourage you to seek this DVD out on your own, and to help with your decision here are some enthusiastic reviews from classic movie maven Leonard Maltin and DVDTown.com’s John J. Puccio.

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Friday, April 8, 2011

Happy birthday, Bert Gordon!

I know what you’re thinking…there’s an “I” missing in there.  But today is not the 116th natal anniversary of the man who helmed such motion picture classics as The Amazing Colossal Man (1957) and Attack of the Puppet People (1958) (that would be “Mr. B.I.G.”—my pal Kliph Nesteroff explains the difference between the two Berts here); we instead observe the birthday of one Barney Gorodetsky, a perennial second banana and dialect comedian whose vaudeville double act with his brother Harry (both bros changed their last name to Gordon) soon gave way to a pairing with showgirl Jean Ford and led to his first big break on stage as one of the headliners in the 1921 production of George White’s Scandals.  For the next ten years Gordon toiled in vaudeville (often with different partners) and when that form of entertainment began to wither and die on the vine he turned to radio, landing a few gigs on The Jack Benny Show.  It was Benny’s writing staff who developed a sort of embryonic version of the Slavic screwball that would soon make regular appearances on The Eddie Cantor Program…and become known as “The Mad Russian.”

Gordon’s Russian character—who made a boisterous entrance on each Cantor broadcast with a heavily accented “How do you doooo???”—became a huge favorite with audiences, essentially serving the same function as Jerry Colonna’s “Professor” did on Bob Hope’s radio program (OTR historian John Dunning describes each man’s function as “a lunatic so addled that his presence immediately converted the boss into a straight man”).  Bert’s bread-and-butter was as a Cantor regular but he also made the rounds on the likes of programs headlined by Mel Blanc, Al Jolson and Milton Berle.  (Berle even took credit for creating Gordon’s “Russian” in his 1974 biography.)  Bert also became a cast member on radio’s Duffy’s Tavern on that show’s declining years, essentially playing the Mad Russian under another name (as the saloon’s new waiter).

Bert Gordon was primarily a radio personality but he made occasional forays into films like School for Swing (1937), Sing for Your Supper (1941), Let’s Have Fun (1943) and an oddity he made at PRC with Cantor announcer Harry Von Zell entitled How Doooo You Do? (1945; the title puts the emphasis on the wrong ‘do”).  He also made a cameo appearance in the 1943 all-star Warner Bros extravaganza featuring his boss, Thank Your Lucky Stars.  After Cantor called it quits in radio, however, employment for Bert slowed to a trickle and outside of a memorable guest appearance on an episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show (“The Return of Edwin Carp”) he was unable to reach the heights he attained as Mr. Cantor’s resident crazy man.  OTR listeners today may debate as to why so many people were tuned into Cantor’s program in the 1940s (Eddie pretty much peaked in the early-to-mid 30s and then sort of coasted afterward) but if you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing a dialect master like Bert Gordon ask “Do you min it?” it’s not too hard to figure out why.

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Thursday, April 7, 2011

Happy birthday, James Garner!

Norman, Oklahoma native James Scott Bumgarner has always maintained a formidable presence here in the House of Yesteryear, and if I had to trace the origins of James Garner’s enduring popularity it would have to be on those Friday nights long ago when my father and I would bond around a TV set watching the actor’s classic crime drama series The Rockford Files.  Nowadays The Old Man spends most of his TV time staring at programming on The History Channel or TruTV, but there was a time when he tolerated what he calls “scripted television” and never more so when he engaged himself in the weekly misadventures of a down-and-out shamus one writer once called “the Jack Benny of private eyes.”  Jim Rockford became a real hero to me—a man who often had to fall back on a reservoir of charm and wit to extricate himself from ticklish situations; a guy ballsy enough to ask the thug giving him a pummeling: “Does your mother know what you do for a living?”  He became a role model for yours truly; an individual who’d joke his way out of trouble because he really didn’t want to resort to the physical stuff (he’d do so only as a last resort…and he wasn’t above sucker-punching anyone if he thought he could get away with it).

During the commercials on Rockford Dad would reminisce about Garner’s earlier TV success on Maverick—it was, as I’ve no doubt mentioned here on the blog in the past, the only TV series he watched during the 1950s, going over to his older brother’s “crib” on Sunday evenings and settling in for an hour’s worth of entertainment while eating dinner off TV trays.  (I’ve always marveled at the irony that the popular TV oater was sponsored in its early seasons by Kaiser Aluminum…and that’s where my father ended up working for nearly a decade at the company’s plant in Ravenswood, WV.)  My father has always possessed sort of a puritanical mindset toward the boob tube, you understand, believing that viewing it in excess would rot one’s brain (though if you read this blog on occasion, there’s a good chance he may have been right about this); I joke about this sometimes when he’s engrossed in an edition of World’s Dumbest Criminals Take it in the ‘Nads but he doesn’t quite see the humor in my observations.

One of the shows that was a weekly ritual for me in my first year at college was Bret Maverick, a revival series that starred Garner in the role that made him a small screen legend (of the West, no doubt) and one that I never understood why it was pulled from NBC because the series got fairly respectable ratings (at a time when General Sarnoff’s offspring was a perennial cellar dweller in the Nielsens).  I remember watching the show’s final episode, an outing entitled “The Hidalgo Thing” in which Bret is running the con to end all cons at the expense of his friend (and bidness partner) Tom Guthrie (Ed Bruce), who’s trying to reclaim his former job as town sheriff in a hotly contested election.  As the episode winds to a close, the individual who’s supposed to be the focus of Maverick’s elaborate scheme steps off a stagecoach with Bret’s partner-in-crime Kate Hanrahan (Marj Dusay)…and is revealed to be none other than his brother Bart, played by Garner’s former Maverick co-star, Jack Kelly.  To me, it was the only way they could have ended the series, but I didn’t learn until years later that the show’s producers had actually intended to add Kelly to the cast in the second season (NBC, of course, put the kibosh on that)…so whenever I catch the episode in its current rotation on Encore Westerns it’s always sort of a bittersweet memory for me.  Years later when Mom and Dad happened to watch this particular episode (the series was rerun on NBC in the summer of 1990 due to the writers’ strike) I had Dad pay particular attention to the ending, promising that it “was a pip.”  (He wasn’t disappointed.)

I sort of have to apologize for letting this essay get away from me—it was supposed to be a birthday tribute to an actor (who turns eighty-three years old today) whose work I’ve long been a fan of and instead it’s become more about me.  But I guess there’s no getting around the fact that although he’s probably not aware of it, James Garner was at the center of many of a memorable TV and movie watching experience between my father and I; Garner’s Support Your Local Sheriff! (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) are the only two movies I don’t mind watching with Ivan, Sr. on the commercial-saturated AMC, and any time my Mom starts asking either Dad or myself if an assigned task or chore has been completed our response is invariably: “I’m workin’ on it.”  So the happiest of natal anniversaries to you, Mr. Garner…the highest compliment I can pay you is that you’ve always had a special place at the table here at Thrilling Days of Yesteryear.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

Happy birthday, Bea Benaderet…and other points of interest…

A quick glance at the calendar at the IMDb reminded me that today is the 105th natal anniversary of the incomparable actress and voice artist Bea Benaderet, a woman who left us far too soon (she passed away in 1968 from lung cancer) but who passed on such an incredible body of work in radio, film (particularly animated cartoons) and television her presence is still felt today.  The above photo is, of course, taken from Benaderet’s TV legacy—the 1963-70 sitcom Petticoat Junction…and the reason why I’m posting it is that I hope somebody from CBS DVD-Paramount will happen by the blog and say: “Hey—isn’t it about time we got cracking on a third season release of that show to DVD?”

The second photo above comes courtesy of my BBFF Stacia “Slumber is for fops and popinjays” Jones at She Blogged by Night…and I never really stopped to consider that she does, in fact, do that because she’s a regular Internets Pinkerton agency (“I never sleep”).  Parks and Recreation really doesn’t lend itself to a noir sensibility but I spit cranberry juice all over the monitor this morning when I clicked on the link for the poster over at her blog.

And while I’m on the subject of small-town life (smooth as glass, I tells ya) I thought a few of you (okay, so I’m an optimist) might be interested in this photo montage of my hometown of Ravenswood, WV since I do have a tendency to ramble on about the place from time to time (“The mosquitoes were as big as tse-tse flies…”).  Now, I don’t know why the individual who put this together decided to supplement the visuals with a jazz score because the number of after-hours jazz clubs in that burg is equal to the number of times I’ve refused a piece of Boston Cream Pie…so don’t go thinking the ‘Wood is like West Virginia’s answer to N’awlins, please.  (Mucho thanks to Facebook chum and former high school homie Valerie for directing my attention to this slice of hillbilly cinema vérité.)

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Saturday, April 2, 2011

Heaven is a girl named Emmylou…so happy birthday!

Just thought I’d check in with you for a sec and let you know that I am working on something for the blog but that I was briefly sidetracked with an essay that I agreed to contribute to honor a film’s anniversary at Edward Copeland on Film…and More tomorrow. (No fair peeking at which one it is—you’ll just have to skate over there and see for yourself.) But be sure to be back here on Monday because this ‘umble little scrap of the blogosphere is once again going to give you an opportunity to win fabulous prizes! (There is nothing sweeter than free swag, let me tell you.)

Facebook chum Paul Dionne reminded me that today is Natal Anniversary No. 64 for one of my and Jeff Overturf’s favorite pretend girlfriends, the Grammy and CMA Award-winning country music goddess Emmylou Harris. The Country Music Hall of Fame singer-songwriter’s music has long been a soundtrack of my life here at Rancho Yesteryear, with such faves as If I Could Only Win Your Love, (You Never Can Tell) C’est La Vie (a great cover of the Chuck Berry classic), To Daddy (written by Dolly Parton), Two More Bottles of Wine, Easy From Now On, Beneath Still Waters and so many more I could be here all day listing them.

But one of my favorite Emmylou songs wasn’t written or recorded by her but about her—a country-gospel group named Brush Arbor sang a musical paean to her (titled Emmylou) on an album they released in 1976 (Page One) and though it failed to make a huge amount of noise as a single (it bottomed out at #90) the Oak Ridge Boys covered it on their LP Y’all Come Back Saloon, which is where I first became familiar with the song. Took me years of searching every dingy music-sharing café on the Internets to find it, but I eventually located my personal Grail and so I thought I’d spin this one for the lady herself…

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