Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tote bag memories

TCM ran a mini-festival of gridiron movies yesterday, and while I had planned to sit down with some of them (many of them are wonderfully entertaining B-pics with casts of great character actors) the only one I really got to look at was Saturday’s Heroes (1937), a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it programmer starring a very young Van Heflin as a college football player who’s booted out of the institute of higher learning when it’s discovered that he’s been “scalping” tickets on the side. Heflin doesn’t deny what he did, but points out that colleges/universities have been using their athletic programs as cash cows to make piles of king-sized dough; all he wanted was his slice of the pie. Heroes, despite its vintage, is still pretty relevant for today’s audiences (I once joked to a friend of my sister Kat’s that the University of Georgia was “a stadium with a college attached”; she not only didn’t find it funny, she failed to recognize that I stole it from Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman [1925]) though it’s hard to stifle a snicker towards the end when a college president proclaims that his school will be the first to implement reforms and that others will follow his example.

Marian Marsh plays Heflin’s devoted girlfriend (whose father, Heflin’s coach, is played by Minor Watson) and Richard “Inspector Faraday” Lane is a supportive sportswriter. Heroes also has appearances from Frank Jenks, Willie Best, Al St. John (Roscoe Arbuckle’s nephew) and Frank Coghlan, Jr.—who’s spent four years warming the bench and gets excited when Watson shouts his name…only to learn the coach wants him to go out and buy him a bag of peanuts. Before Heroes, TCM ran a funny Robert Benchley short—How to Watch Football (1938)—that was particularly risible; while listening to a football game on the radio, Benchley reminisces about the days when he saw games in the stadium…having to deal with obnoxious fans, persistent drunks, and a girlfriend who refuses to be quiet (said tomato is played by Matt Hinrichs fave Joyce Compton).

I then switched to DVD mode to watch Welcome to Hard Times (1967), which I recorded off of TCM earlier this week; it’s an interesting Western based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow about the struggle to rebuild a one-horse frontier town when said hamlet has been burnt to a crisp by one seriously disturbed bad man (Aldo Ray). The town’s “mayor,” easygoing lawyer Henry Fonda, stays behind with dance hall gal Janice Rule (who never lets up on Fonda that his personal cowardice was responsible for the town’s destruction) and orphaned Michael Shea to pull off a Phoenix-like resurrection—aided and abetted by Keenan Wynn and a traveling whorehouse, the twin brother (John Anderson) of the general store proprietor who lit out shortly after the blaze, and an iterant no ‘count played by Warren Oates. Hard Times is an offbeat oater, and probably won’t appeal to everyone’s taste (it was written and directed by Burt Kennedy, who penned a good many of the Scott-Boetticher westerns) but Fonda and company give solid performances, and there’s a lot of familiar character/western actor on board, including Janis Paige, Edgar Buchanan, Denver Pyle, Arlene Golonka, Lon Chaney, Jr., Royal Dano, Paul Fix and Elisha Cook, Jr.

Needless to say, I was sort of movie’d out around 7:30pm, and so I checked CharredHer’s onscreen guide to see if there was anything on worthy of a look-see; my prayers were then answered when I saw that GPTV was going to show Roy Orbison and Friends: A Black and White Night at 8:00. Roy, to put it in the simplest way possible, is The Man…and this 1988 music concert is one of my all-time favorites. I remember when I was toiling away at Ball Blockbuster Video in 1989, and when the store was being readied in the mornings for the day’s opening, some of the CSR’s (Customer Service Reps) would beg for permission to put a music video on in the background while they worked (something the franchise for which we worked frowned on, by the way) and that one morning there was so much drama about who was going to choose what that I told them to put a sock in it and we listened to Black and White Night because I wanted to. (My other music of choice was an Everly Brothers concert also available on VHS at the time.) I should probably point out that it was about this time that I became sort of persona au gratin (“Look, we like Ivan—but he rarely listens to any music past 1970”), at least with anybody scheduled to help open up the store in the mornings.

I noticed that GPTV had the Orbison special slotted for ninety minutes, and though I didn’t remember it running that long when I first saw it on Showtime I thought maybe it was just faded memory…but I wasn’t twenty minutes into the darn thing when I realized why they had assigned it ninety minutes—GPTV is having another pledge drive. (Groan.) And that’s when I had a flashback into the past {{{wavy lines}}}, to a time when I was asked to become a filthy public television beggar for a day.

We must travel via WABAC machine to 1982, when I was attending Marshall University and working for “the Mighty Mule,” WMUL-FM 88, the college radio station. The news director of FM 88 asked me and a few other pigeons volunteers if we would be interested in manning the phones for a brief period in the evening and since I had no pressing engagements at that particular time I told her okay-fine. I think the only perk we got out of this was a Rax roast beef sandwich (“I’d rather Rax!”) and a big chocolate chip cookie, which can’t even compare to what they were giving the people hustling for GPTV (they were putting them up in hotels, ferchrissake). (For those unfamiliar with Rax, it was a popular fast-food chain based out of Ironton, Ohio that according to Wikipedia is still in bidness—the first Rax opened up in Wheeling, WV in 1962 in case my fellow Mountaineers are interested.)

They set us up with one of those two-tier phone stations sets, and there’s this terminally cheerful woman who’s instructing us on how to conduct ourselves (she kept stressing the importance of smiling, and she directed most of this to yours truly, Mr. Deadpan) while on the air. So, it’s the first break in and the on-air talent is making the pitch to donate to public TV, and my phone starts to ring.

I pick it up and say, “Thank you for calling WMUL Public Television—how may I help you?” There’s no answer on the other end, so I put the receiver down. The phone rings again, and I go into the spiel a second time. No answer. I hang up.

What the refugee from Up With People neglected to tell me was that they periodically ring the phones manually so as to make viewers think there’s a deluge of individuals desperate to support public television, and that what I was supposed to do was “pantomime” talking to someone. But I did not know this, and in fact I believe I turned to a friend of mine and remarked: “Somebody’s playing around with this goddam phone,” oblivious to the fact, of course, that I was saying this on live television. (As far as I know, no one from the Tri-State area heard me…no doubt because I was off-mike.) Okay, no problem—I know the deal now. (“And smile,” she tells me again for the umpteenth time.)

There were a few more breaks, and while I felt like a schmuck talking to someone who technically wasn’t there, I did get one legitimate call/pledge and the WMUL people were pretty stoked about that. There was, however, a down side to my TV appearance: back in my hometown of Ravenswood, a friend of my Mom’s called her to inform her that Ivan Is On Television! and so the whole fam sat down to watch WMUL in the hopes of seeing me again. Sadly, Mom’s friend got a gander at me just as our shift was coming to an end, so the Shreve household watched nearly three hours of public TV in the process—which may have been the longest amount of viewer-supported television ever seen in our household in one sitting.

Since GPTV has their hand out, this probably puts the kibosh on my parents’ weekly ritual of Saturday night Britcom viewing…which naturally is not going to sit well with Mom, who was complaining to me yesterday (we went on a grocery run) that my father’s viewing tastes are becoming more pedestrian by the minute.

“Do you know what I caught him watching the other day?” she asks me. Cops.”

“Could be worse…and besides, it puts a little true-life drama into his everyday routine,” I replied, trying to defend him.

“If Cops is true-life drama,” she responded, “then professional wrestling is a legitimate sport.”

I just hope my paisan Jeff Lane isn’t reading this.


Linda said...

GPTV is putting up people in hotels now? They sure didn't do that when we were shilling for Doctor Who back in the 1980s. (I still have video of us and our friends on the phones.) I think we used to get Subway.

Laura said...

I recorded SATURDAY'S HEROES the other day...thanks for the preview. Van Heflin is always interesting.

Best wishes,