Wednesday, March 26, 2008

R.I.P., Richard Widmark

I just learned from Laughing Gravy that Richard Widmark has passed on at the age of 93, according to CNN.

Well, this day is already turning out to be a real pisser. I'll update this when I get more info.

Back from hiatus

Gosh, it seems like weeks have passed since I updated the ol’ blog…and as it turns out, it has been—two, to be precise. I apologize for being so negligent, but it’s been a veritable hive of activity around here.

To start off, the house has now been officially listed as up for sale. (The curious can see Rancho Yesteryear in all its inside and outside glory here—see if you can locate the wall clock, Pam!) Notice that there are no snaps of my bedroom (the Hazmat people still haven’t given the real estate agent the okay, ha ha) but if you look at picture #4 you’ll see the sun room and a large stack of clutter that I’ll only be too happy to claim as my own. This Saturday (March 29) we’re holding a Moving Day sale, so if anyone who regularly reads my scribbling is in the vicinity, feel free to stop by and say hidy.

During my hiatus, two notables from the world of show business went to their rich rewards—the first being Ivan Dixon, recognizable to us Hogan’s Heroes fans as the actor who played Sgt. James “Kinch” Kinchloe on the long-running sitcom from 1965-70. (He left the show in its fifth year, and was replaced by Kenneth Washington as Sgt. Richard Baker for the final season.) While Dixon—according to this obituary—never had a problem with being recognized for his work on Heroes, he felt the need to break ties with the series in order to concentrate on directing…which he did on shows like The Waltons, The Rockford Files and In the Heat of the Night. (He also did a pair of theatrical films: 1972’s Trouble Man and The Spook Who Sat By the Door, released in 1973.) Dixon passed away at the age of 76, and if you’re only familiar with his work on Heroes, you owe it to yourself to check out some of his other performances. I highly recommend his role in 1964’s Nothing But a Man and a great Twilight Zone episode, “The Big Tall Wish.” Rest in peace, Mr. Dixon…you will be missed.

Actor Paul Scofield—an Oscar winner for Best Actor in A Man For All Seasons (1966)—has also shuffled off this mortal coil at the age of 86. Scofield’s film career wasn’t really all that prolific—which is why some people question why he won the Best Actor trophy in the first place—but it’s sort of hard to argue that he wasn’t sensational in every film role he did undertake. My personal preference is Scofield’s turn as Mark Van Doren, father to Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Van Doren in Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994), a drama based on the TV quiz show scandals in the late 1950s. I watched a documentary on the subject and when they showed a picture of the real Mark Van Doren, I couldn’t believe how much Scofield resembled him, it was positively uncanny. (Scofield received a Best Supporting Actor nom for his performance, by the way.) Scofield did some marvelous work in films: the erudite (and ruthless) Col. Von Waldheim in John Frankenheimer’s The Train (1964) and the sinister Judge Thomas Danforth of The Crucible (1996) are the two that instantly come to mind. R.I.P. to an incredible actor.

There’s some encouraging news coming from the TV-on-DVD front: CBS-Paramount will be finish out the sophomore season of the classic crime drama The Untouchables with a Season 2: Volume 2 set to be released August 26th, and the first half of the second season of The Streets of San Francisco will also see disc action on July 1. But what really has me pumped is the news that William Conrad’s classic detective drama Cannon is coming to DVD July 8th…though, sadly, it will be with still another split season set. (Conrad’s other TV hit, Jake and the Fatman, will also be released via split season on the same day.) also has a strong rumor about the release of one of my favorite sitcoms, Dave’s World, whose debut season comes to disc August 12th.

Infinity Entertainment is announcing that the second season (perhaps I should say second split season) of the cult classic series Route 66 will hit the road (pardon the pun) May 20th, and on that very same day they’ll combine the first two split seasons of Year 1 to re-sell as Route 66: The Complete First Season. I purchased Season 1, Volume 1 of Route when it came out even though there was a tremendous outcry from the Vintage TV section of the Home Theater Forum about how crappy it looked (apparently the source material came from 16mm prints) but when I learned that Volume 2 had been completely f**ked up because some doofus lopped off heads and chins in “remastering” the episodes for widescreen TVs, I gave up on any further purchases until Infinity gets its collective shit together. (I went ahead and bought the entire series run from a “root pegger” for about 20 bucks, and I can be happy with that until Infinity learns to do Route 66 properly.) I suppose there’s an explanation for the unevenness of Infinity’s releases (I think their Suspense sets and their Man With a Camera set were extremely well-done, for example) and I welcome anybody who can offer one.

In the meantime, Timeless Media Group has four releases scheduled for a May 6 release that the potential vintage TV-on-DVD buyer might want to scrutinize before plunking down any cash on the counter. Timeless is announcing a 2-DVD tin of The Jack Benny Show that will retail for $12.98 but in looking at the guest stars announced in this TVShowsOnDVD release, it would appear that the content of the set consists of the same public domain telecasts that you can find much cheaper elsewhere (the Mill Creek Entertainment set, The Best of Jack Benny, immediately springs to mind). They’ve also plans for a Sergeant Preston of the Yukon tin (again, with 2 DVDs) and one entitled Here’s...The Johnny Carson Show; the Carson compilation looks to be a repackaging of an earlier release and while the Sergeant Preston tin might be okay for someone just casually interested in the famous Mountie and his faithful husky dog King you can get all three seasons of the show at Deep in far better condition (provided, of course, you’re into the series). The last of this Timeless quartet are two 2-disc tins entitled Red Skelton: America’s Crown Prince and Red Skelton: America’s Crown Prince Returns. Timeless has released so many Skelton compilations (to their credit, the material comes from the late comedian's family) that it’s difficult to tell if this is new material or just recycled stuff.

As usual, I’ve saved the best for last. Resident HTF curmudgeon Hank Dearborn reports that two vintage television series are soon due to be released by Timeless: the 1959-63 western Laramie and one of the shows I put on my “I’d Buy That For a Dollar” wish list, the 1957-60 crime drama M Squad (starring Lee Marvin!). There’s been no official announcement (release date, specs, etc.) on these two shows but Hank knows people who know people and I’m inclined to trust his sources (particularly since he broke the news about the upcoming DVD release of Mannix). I have to admit, I was both surprised and pleased as punch to hear the news about Laramie and Squad; apparently it’s going to be the same type of deal as with other releases leased to TMG from NBC/Universal (Arrest and Trial, Checkmate, Laredo, etc.). I can’t wait!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

“It would sure do me good/to do you good/let me help…”

Yesterday, I prepared all the items sold in my recent eBay auction so that they could be shipped today, and also arranged for the postal carrier to pick them up at my front door because…well, I don’t want to go another ten rounds with my evil nemesis Smock Lady—because I might end up doing something I’ll later regret. I had all the packages sitting on the bench on our front porch, and I specified when arranging for pickup that the items would be on the front porch.

For reasons unknown, I just happened to glance out the window a few minutes after 12:00pm…just in time to see the postal truck go skating by our mailbox. The truck then stops at our neighbor’s box, and I managed in that nanosecond to not only grab a piece of paper with the pickup confirmation number but find my flip-flops and yell out the front door: “Hey! You in the truck!

The truck turned around, and as it turns out, it’s not our regular postal guy but a part-time gal, whom I helped in carrying the packages down. This, by the way, is the reason why I started taking the packages to the Post Office in the first place; so I wouldn’t have to rely on these individuals who apparently have the attention span of a six-year-old. (Believe me, as an auditor I’ve watched people who do not have the common sense that the Good Lord gave a billy goat, and I know you have to think two steps ahead of them.) In a nutshell, not only am I inconvenienced because I can’t put these packages in the Post Office bin…but now I’m inconvenienced because I have to peek out the front window like Gladys Kravitz to make sure these yahoos are doing their job.

And people wonder why I’m cranky.

Let me just take a quick moment to thank everyone who bought stuff from the current and past auctions. They include such luminaries and good folk like Harlan “Low Overhead” Zinck and his faithful Indian companion Tom Brown, Linda of Yet Another Journal, Rick at Cultureshark, Bill the Splut at Thought Viper, “Federal” Operator 99 at Allure, and of course, Stacia of She Blogged by Night fame. Faithful TDOY readers like Todd, Joel, Edward, Joe, Jim, Grant and Mike offered healthy assists, as did many of the In the Balcony gang, including Laughing Gravy, Chandu, Paladin and riddlerider. If I’ve left anyone out, I profusely apologize—but I want to thank everyone not only for helping to make space to walk around in here at the House of Yesteryear but for revealing to me that there is actually a floor in my bedroom. (That little bon mot comes courtesy of my mother, who's having a ball relating it to Jay the Bug Man, the Molly Maids, etc.)

Some time back, I sold some books to a buyer and upon receipt she e-mailed me to inquire about two specific books that somehow didn’t make the trip. I searched high and low at her request, and came up with zilcho—so I e-mailed her back to let her know that the odds of my doing something truly boneheaded like mixing them up with someone else’s items were even money. I refunded her money, but the tone of her e-mail suggested that she was really disappointed I couldn’t send the books. In a rare bit of inspiration, I scouted around Alibris and found the missing books—both of which were priced a penny less than what I sold mine for…which is immaterial, because what I paid to send the doggone things was adequate penalty for being such an idiot in the first place. After completing this transaction, I then e-mailed her to let her know I tracked down the spare copies and that they would be winging her way soon. A week later, I received an e-mail from this lady (via PayPal) paying me back for the books; it would appear she never received my e-mail announcing the books' arrival and she assured me that it wasn’t really necessary—the refund would have sufficed. But she wrote something that, to my mind, justified any additional expenses I may have incurred:

Your actions speak volumes about your integrity as a seller.

Now, I’m not writing this because of an overwhelming need to demonstrate my smug superiority—I’m writing this because it’s all too rare for an individual to compliment you on what should pretty much be a given when buying and trading on eBay…or any other online site, as it were. Case in point: last year, my sister Kat purchased a discontinued game from a seller for a friend but upon receiving the item discovered that many of the game pieces were missing. She e-mailed the seller to inform him/her of this, and the seller responded with “the picture speaks for itself”—meaning that the photo promoting the item was an accurate depiction of what s/he sold. (Kat: “Not too accurate…the game has all the pieces in that photograph.”) Kat posted neutral feedback for the seller, explaining that the item sold was not an accurate representation of what she purchased (in layman’s terms, she was “ripped off”) and the seller retaliated with a big ol’ “f**k you” in a negative response.

When Kat told me this over Christmas, I asked her what steps she took to report this to eBay, and she wearily responded that it just didn’t seem worth the time and effort…if attempting to settle the situation by her own mettle didn’t work, she couldn’t see what good it would do to involve the people running the jernt. I hate to admit it, but she’s probably right. I have a situation right now in which I’m trying to decide on the proper response; I purchased some DVDs from a seller who said they couldn’t offer combined shipping because the items I’ve ordered would probably come from different warehouses and be shipped separately…and then I get an e-mail from them yesterday informing me that all items would be shipped together. I spent $28.95 to ship $5.09 worth of discs—and like the jackass I am I agreed to pay it, simply because I did buy the items and I don’t welsh on a deal. What I’ll most likely do when I receive the package is contact the seller and point out the difference between what I paid and the actual cost of the s&h and request reimbursement for the difference. If this does not happen, I will contact eBay (my understanding is that they take a dim view of this sort of practice, labeling it “fee avoidance”) for help and if that doesn’t happen, well, it’s open season for negative feedback, kiddies. I’ve honestly never had to resort to sort of tactics in the past…but then, I’ve never been ripped off in this creative a fashion before.

EBay announced in January that soon sellers will be allowed to leave only positive feedback for buyers—regardless of the experience. There might have been a time when I would have subscribed to that, but recent events have left me a bit more ambivalent. I’m not certain if I’m going to get back into the eBay thing once we make tracks for Athens (my mother is convinced I’m making money hand-over-fist, and I’ll probably have to burst that bubble at the first opportunity) but in the meantime—don’t be shy about e-mailing me if you have a problem with an item you bought. I still want to set an example, even if it seems everyone else is lukewarm to that idea.

If she can remember all this nostalgia, how come she still looks like a stone fox?

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Shotgun boogie

As many of my fellow insomniacs will attest, sometimes it’s not easy falling asleep at night. That’s why this portable DVD player I received for one of my natal anniversaries sometime back is a godsend, because what I like to do is grab, say, a disc from one of the Mill Creek 150 Western or Detective collections and stick it in the player to watch until I achieve drowsy status. I’ve done this the past couple of nights watching some public domain episodes of Shotgun Slade, an offbeat Western series generously featured on Western TV Classics.

The title character of this 1959-61 series was created by prolific pulp fictioner Frank Gruber, whose other P.I. creations included Simon Lash, Otis Beagle and Joe Peel, and Johnny Fletcher & Sam Cragg. By the time Revue/MCA-TV syndicated the series in 1959, there were so many oaters on the tube that the key to creating a successful one was in making it stand out among the competition. Slade was an intriguing blend of the private-eye and western genres (sort of Peter-Gunn-meets-Have-Gun-Will-Travel), accompanied by a jazzy 77 Sunset Strip-like musical score. (The P.I.-Western mix wasn’t completely original: Travel frequently contained gumshoe elements, and a short-lived western called The Man from Blackhawk also explored the territory, with Our Miss Brooks’ Robert Rockwell as an insurance investigator named Sam Logan.) “Shotgun” Slade also packed an intriguing method of heat, a combination shotgun described by Wikipedia:

The lower barrel fired a 12-gauge shotgun shell, while the top barrel fired a .32 caliber rifle bullet. The idea was that this weapon gave Slade the ability to fire at close and distant targets with the same amount of accuracy. Western television shows were known for featuring distinctive weapons, such as those on shows like The Rifleman, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Bat Masterson, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and The Rebel, but Slade's shotgun stood out even among the weapons of those other shows.

Finally, Slade attempted to establish a foothold in television’s big honkin’ corral through its frequently offbeat casting. The first entry of the series, “The Salted Mine,” guest stars TV icon Ernie Kovacs as a disheveled desert rat (the cast also includes “Dark City dame” Marie Windsor and Frank Ferguson). The program would also feature personalities like World War II flying ace Gregory “Pappy” Boyington (“Omar the Sign Maker”), baseball legend Sandy Koufax (“Too Smart to Live”) and football great Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch (“The Lady and the Piano”)—and the show’s creative staff really seemed to have a fondness for country-and-western stars, casting the likes of Johnny Cash (“The Stalkers”), Tex Ritter (“Missing Train”) and Jimmy Wakely (“The Safe Crackers”) as lawmen. Other episodes of the series spotlight well-known character actors and up-and-comers (Lee Van Cleef, Malcolm Atterbury, John Banner) as well as serial stalwarts like Roy Barcroft and John Hart.

In “Backtrack,” former boxer Lou Nova plays a bartender, but the episode’s real curiosities are King “Love That Bob” Donovan as an imprisoned con man in Slade’s care who’s set free by a gang of train robbers, and Connie “Mister Ed” Hines who’s in cahoots with the gang. Donovan’s character is laughably lovable, and as such the entry rates slightly higher than the usual Shotgun fare. Most of the plots in Slade are pretty predictable, but when the cast is interesting (like “Lost Gold,” a tale that finds Slade investigating corruption at a mine and features Ted de Corsia, Alan “Skipper” Hale, Jr., and Stacy Keach, Sr.) or the writing is off the beaten path the show can certainly hold its own amongst the top westerns of its day. I particularly enjoyed “The Fabulous Fiddle”: Slade prevents a Stradivarius from being stolen from a violinist/professor (Ludwig Stossel) and the suggestion that “Shotgun” sign on as a bodyguard to protect the valuable instrument is presented to our hero by insurance agent Paul Picerni…with the help of Stossel’s comely nieces (Lili Kardell, Natalie Daryll):

QUINN: …we would like to hire a guard for the Professor’s violin for as long as he remains here in Denver…
PROFESSOR (clarifying): One week…
QUINN: Will you…take the job?
SLADE: Well, I…
GRIZELLA (attaching herself to his left arm): Please, Mr. Slade...
FREDIA (attaching herself to the other): As a favor to us
PROFESSOR: Perhaps Mr. Slade has better things to do than spend a week living with us…
SLADE (with a look of interest): Now just a moment here…I’d be...uh…living with you?
FREDIA: Like one of the family!
GRIZELLA: And we’re a very close family, Mr. Slade…
QUINN: How ‘bout it?
SLADE (after eyeing the nieces again): Well…what’s it worth?
QUINN: Two hundred dollars…
SLADE: I don’t have that much on me now…but if you just give me half-an-hour, I can scrape it up real fast

Naturally, Quinn is referring to the fee Slade will receive, prompting our hero to observe: “Considering the side benefits, you could’ve driven a lot harder bargain.” Experienced mystery buffs will see the denouement to this yarn coming a mile away, but “Fiddle” has a great script courtesy of veteran scribe Dean Riesner (Dirty Harry, Play Misty for Me) and includes support from character greats Henry Brandon and Roscoe Ates (spelled “Rosco” in the closing credits). I was also impressed with “The Charcoal Bullet” (Slade enlists the help of a drunken artist [Ned Glass] to catch a murderer; Frank Ferguson is also in this one, and the part of the bartender is played by—I swear I’m not making this up—an actor named “Mickey Finn.”), “Killer’s Brand” and “The Spanish Box.” Unfortunately, many of the entries are along the lines of “The Deadly Key,” a Maltese Falcon-rip off that, derivative though it may be, does featuring some good casting in Ann Robinson, Mort Mills and Vito Scotti.

One of the Shotgun Slade episodes in this package, “A Flower for Jenny,” features the words to the show’s theme song sung over the closing credits…and they sound like they were improvised on the spot, similar to the “words” to the My Three Sons theme featured in that hysterical Nick at Nite spot. So if you know the words, join in!

Of the two barrelled gun
You're afraid that someday you'll be won
By a woman
A dreamin' woman
Schemin' woman
Maybe someone like me
Better run, Shotgun Slade
I'm the one, Shotgun Slade

When you're mine and I settle you down
You will shine like a diamond in town
As a lover
A perfect lover
Luscious lover
Of a woman like me
Don't forget, just hold still
Haven't met but we will

Shotgun Slade
Shotgun Slade
Shotgun Slade

Thank you, and I hope we passed the audition.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Ivan vs. the Post Office, Round 2

I apologize for neglecting the blog as of late, but I’ve sort of been up to my eyeballs with Operation: Clutter here at Rancho Yesteryear, and either I don’t have the time to sit down to write meaningless prather or the energy. Mostly the latter, I suppose.

I had an encounter with my arch-nemesis, Smock Lady, at the USPS office on Saturday. She has now threatened me that if I continue my dropping-packages-in-the-bin-the-way-the-Good-Lord-intended ways, they will not be mailed and she will have the packages returned to me. For one brief instant, I thought about a scenario in which I would drop the packages in the bin, have them returned, drop them again, have them returned, ad infinitum until one of us cracks…and I think it would be Smock Lady, who would retaliate by having a few of her goons come to the house and work over my parents with a baseball bat. Since I would not be able to stomach that kind of violence (I’m sure Mom would take care of her goons in very short order) I decided to throw in the towel. Smock Lady continues to insist I can have the packages picked up by our postal carrier and there will be no problems.

So, Sunday night, I box up three large packages to go out Monday morning and make arrangements (through the USPS website) to have the carrier take them back to the post office. Because this went off without a hitch, I begin to suspect that there was something seriously wrong…only I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. As it would happen, I just went down to the mailbox to mail some bills…only to discover that yesterday’s outgoing mail is still in the friggin’ box. (*wah wah wah wah*) Well, one thing you can say about the USPS…when it comes to hiring morons, they’re an equal opportunity employer.

First Generation Radio Archives rolled out another Premier Collection this past March 1st, and I’m sorry I didn’t announce it on that same date: it’s a third volume of Amos ‘n’ Andy programs from the half-hour sitcom’s early years, circa 1944 and 1945. I often refer to Amos ‘n’ Andy as “the third rail of old-time radio” due to its controversial nature but I have to admit that these early shows are very entertaining to listen to, before Messrs. Gosden and Correll (the show’s stars/writers/producers, etc.) took the “Kingfish cons Andy this week” formula and hit the program over the head with it. Two programs in this collection really stand out: the show’s traditional Christmas broadcast (12-22-44), in which once again Amos interprets the meaning of “The Lord’s Prayer” to his daughter Arbadella. This segment was a yearly staple of Amos ‘n’ Andy, but when the program switched to half-hour status in the fall of 1943, they ended up having to pad it out with an amusing subplot in which Andy gets a job as a department store Santa to obtain a doll desperately wanted by Arbadella. This subplot is a much more subdued version of the one heard in later years (1948, 1949, 1950, etc.) and works much better, I think. After the Christmas show, Gosden and Correll did a New Year’s Eve-themed broadcast the following week (12-29-44), in which Andy is convinced that he’s the only one in his social circle who’ll be invited to a swanky society soiree…and instead, turns out to be the non-invitee. A beautiful message of “casting one’s bread upon the waters” is the highlight of this episode, both funny and poignant…a real pip-a-roo.

First Generation also has three brand new Radio Legends collections to share: Night Beat, Mystery is My Hobby and Space Patrol (which I wrote the notes for). I’d strongly recommend the Night Beat volume, for it’s simply one of the best shows produced during Radio’s Golden Age, and Space Patrol’s a lot of fun for the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet lurking inside everyone. FGRA major domo Harlan “Low Overhead” Zinck also has a special deal: with any purchase from the Archives this month, you’ll receive a free CD of rare broadcasts from The Cisco Kid, chosen at random from FGRA’s two previous Cisco Kid Premier Collections.

Also on a radio note, both BobH and announce that Timeless Media Group has a collection of ten episodes of the television version of The Goldbergs due out on April 15. Premiering on radio on November 20, 1929 (as The Rise of the Goldbergs), the series would become a staple of the Blue Network/NBC/CBS’ daytime schedule for close to twenty years, and also appeared on CBS Radio in a half-hour situation comedy version (beginning in September 1949) shortly after the TV edition (also on CBS) went on the air in January of 1949. The details for this release are a bit sketchy, but if I were a gambling man I’d bet the ten episodes have been culled from the show’s syndicated run from 1955-56.

Timeless also has a few vintage TV goodies under their belt for further release, according to TVShows: they’ll finish up the first season of the comedy-western Laredo on March 25 by rolling out the remaining fifteen episodes of the show’s first season in Laredo: The Best of Season 1, Volume 2. (Laredo fans know that the program got a tryout as a pilot entitled “We’ve Lost a Train” on the NBC western series The Virginian in April 1965.) Timeless also has a 3-disc collection of the 1960-62 CBS mystery series Checkmate (Checkmate: The Best of Season 2) due out the same day, as well as a follow-up to their earlier Arrest and Trial release (The Best of Arrest and Trial, Part 2) from last October. Bob has raved so much about this series that I made up my mind to snag a copy at the same time Part 2 comes out; I figure my Mom might get a kick out of this one since it’s the progenitor (broadcast on ABC-TV in 1963-64) of the modern-day Law & Order series.

Been there, done that, bought the soundtrack