History-making music group for UMM - morris mn

History-making music group for UMM - morris mn
The UMM men's chorus opened the Minnesota Day program at the 1962 Seattle World's Fair (Century 21 Exposition).

Monday, September 30, 2013

1962 New York Mets had their place amidst Camelot

I had a plastic Mets helmet like this.
The ways of the business world puzzle me sometimes. How can Los Angeles be without an NFL team? I remember when both the Rams and Raiders made L.A. home.
Let's look back to a previous era when New York City of all places had a void. How was that possible? So much romance surrounded the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers.
The West Coast was beckoning. The days when a trip to St. Louis was "a trip west" would begin looking quaint. Quaint, too, was the image of teams traveling by train.
Change is as irresistible as the flow of a river. Major league baseball would plant itself firmly west of the Mississippi. Two of the New York teams pulled up stakes. The New York Giants with Willie Mays got settled in San Francisco. We have heard rumors in Minnesota that those Giants almost re-located to Minnesota. Our Metropolitan Stadium got built in 1956. It wasn't until 1961 that the big leagues came here in the form of Calvin Griffith's Washington Senators. But big league baseball waited not a moment to see that Washington D.C. kept its presence. A new "Senators" franchise was created although that, too, would not be permanent.
The Giants and Dodgers headed west in the late '50s. The Dodgers who had ushered in integration of the races, settled in Los Angeles.
New York City had been the home for three big league teams for over 50 years. "The cheese stands alone," indeed, and this was with the grandiose New York Yankees franchise and "The House that Ruth Built." The movie "61+" was set in that period when the Yankees were the lone team in the Big Apple.
Los Angeles has gotten along for some time without pro football. But New York City wasn't going to tolerate its baseball void for very long. We even saw the prospect of a new league which would naturally tap into New York City. William Shea, a New York City attorney, was pushing this vision. It would be called the Continental League with teams in NYC and seven other cities. No games were ever played.
Major league baseball reached a compromise with the would-be fledgling league. Certain cities that were ready for big league ball would have their wish granted, so our Minnesota Twins were born. Calvin Griffith was the hero owner in our eyes. The young baby boomers of Minnesota would be able to grow up with not only the Twins but also the Minnesota Vikings. It all started in 1961. The people who built Metropolitan Stadium were visionaries. Could we imagine the last 50-plus years without the Twins and Vikings?
New York City was smarting with emptiness and betrayal after the Giants and Dodgers left. These were storied franchises. Jackie Robinson is an icon out of U.S. history. New York City wanted the National League back. The dream was fulfilled in 1962. It was the time of JFK and Camelot. The Peace Corps presented our vision. John Glenn orbited the Earth. 
 
Who to don the Mets' uniforms?
The 1962 New York Mets were not the kind of team that Brad Pitt (OK, Brad Pitt as Billy Beane) would have put together. Assembling an expansion team is never easy, although we learned with the birth of the NFL's Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville Jaguars that the road needn't be entirely futile. Perhaps the thinking has changed some. It's not written in stone that an expansion team must be an abject failure.
It's almost as if the fans are supposed to pay dues. "Wait your turn" (to be a contender).
The puppetmasters behind the '62 New York Mets were not carefully calculating to maximize wins, it appears. Marketing was a big aim. Or, let's say drawing fans was a big aim. This was done by stocking the roster with cast-offs and has-beens from the former Giants and Dodgers plus the Yankees. Nostalgia was tapped.
Pitcher Al Jackson would say years later: "They wanted names, especially ones that identified with New York, so fans would come out."
Of the nine starters on opening day, only one, shortstop Felix Mantilla, was under age 30. That seems utterly shocking for an expansion team. One might think that veterans would be sought to promote stability. Alas, stability was not an attribute of the 1962 New York Mets. It has been written that America could "take a joke" at the time of Camelot. The '62 Mets indeed became the butt of jokes. But history has judged that team to be charming with its futility.
Jimmy Breslin wrote a book about the team called "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" The title is a Casey Stengel quote. The fatherly, or should we say grandfatherly, Stengel was the manager of the '62 Mets. He carried himself as a promoter which was what the team needed. He bantered with fans. After a loss he said "the attendance and Mrs. Payson got robbed." The Mets owner was Joan Whitney Payson. The general manager was George Weiss. One of the radio voices was Ralph Kiner who is associated with malaprops on the air. Also at the microphone were Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy. What a spectacle these three described.
The Mets played in the old Polo Grounds in Manhattan while Shea Stadium was being built. Shea Stadium would be very close to the New York World's Fair grounds. I remember being in NYC with my family for the World's Fair in 1964, and we almost worked in a Mets game. The Mets still had their image of futility. We didn't see a game but we had a wonderful time at the Fair. My father Ralph directed the University of Minnesota-Morris men's chorus which performed on the fairgrounds. In 1962 the UMM men's chorus performed at the Seattle World's Fair.
Those 1962 New York Mets at the Polo Grounds became the poster boys for abject failure. So what? This was not a winning cast that was assembled. But they were pro players who were doing the best they could. They only won 40 times. But I'm sure there's an interesting story behind each of those 40 wins. The Mets were a way for NYC fans to enjoy the National League again.
Stengel, known as the "Old Professor," deflected attention from the futility with his antics and quotes. Supposedly he had been fired two years earlier for "being too old." America didn't have its grasp of political correctness yet. The boomer youth probably equated "old" with anyone over, say, age 45. Stengel turned age 72 during that maiden voyage of the Mets. He managed his first big league team in 1934. He led the Yankees to seven World Series titles.
He couldn't have been as absent-minded as many of his quotes suggested. Quotes like: "Good pitching will always stop good hitting and vice versa." And: "I don't know if he throws a spitball but he sure spits on the ball." Let's keep going: "If anyone wants me, tell them I'm being embalmed."
Between Stengel and Kiner, the language got abused to no small degree. Oh, it's no matter. The '62 Mets were "a lovable loser." The team reflected American optimism in the face of hurdles. Pitcher Jay Hook would say "the beauty of baseball is that it's a new game every day." This is the quote I would place front and center in connection to the 1962 New York Mets.
The team was like "The Little Engine That Could" even though success seemed stuck in the distance. But success would prove to be in the not-so-distant future. In 1969 we saw the Mets with Jerry Koosman, a player with West Central Minnesota connections, win the World Series (over the Baltimore Orioles). This is likely the most fondly remembered World Series in the minds of the boomers. The Mets! Winning it all! Those "Amazin' Mets." 
 
Players of limited skills
If the Mets were a poster child on a team basis, Marv Throneberry was probably the individual. The first baseman was called "Marvelous." It was wishful thinking. He had been a backup with the Yankees. He hit 16 home runs with the '62 Mets but committed 17 errors in 116 games. He once hit a drive into the gap, extra bases for sure, but he was declared out despite arriving at third with no tag attempted. Alas, he had failed to touch either first or second bases! The legend grew. Eventually "Marvelous Marv" could make a beer commercial.
Such episodes weave an image that seemed to invite fondness and not scorn. The Mets were "a flawed but embraceable option to the imperial New York Yankees," Mike Tomasik wrote.
Gil Hodges was Throneberry's backup at first base. Former Dodger Hodges was 38 years old. Hodges would become manager for the Mets' 1969 World Series run. The braintrust of the original Mets felt veterans like Hodges would give the team a patina of respectability. Richie Ashburn was a former "Whiz Kid" with the Philadelphia Phillies. But he was a kid no more. He played in 135 games with the '62 Mets and batted a quite fine .306, but this season would be his last.
Ashburn played outfield in the vast Polo Grounds where the center field fence was over 500 feet away! And to think that our Metrodome would be decried as the "homer dome" (i.e. flawed). It's harder to impress when you're in the Midwest. Defects in East Coast stadiums exude charm, whereas here they demonstrate we're bush (but not so much anymore).
Frank Thomas joined Ashburn in the Mets' outfield. He'd have his last good year in 1962, homering 34 times and driving in 94 runs. Jim Hickman was the other main outfielder and he lasted with the Mets until 1967. He had an aberrational year with the 1970 Chicago Cubs, when he drove in 115 runs. His previous high was 57 and his next best total after 1970 was 64.
The three outfielders had 22 errors among them. Alas, the infield didn't offer any relief. There was the "Marvelous" man at first. At second we had Charlie Neal and Rod Kanehl booting the ball around (35 errors between them). At shortstop there was Elio Chacon, a good name for a shortstop I might add, doing the best he could but committing 22 errors while batting .236. Neal was the backup at short and struggled similarly.
The former Milwaukee Brave Felix Mantilla pulled his weight pretty well at third, supplying offense with his .275 average, eleven home runs and nearly 60 RBIs. Former Dodger Don Zimmer, a future manager of note, was a backup and offered no relief defensively.
Catcher Chris Cannizzaro was homerless in 59 games. Choo Choo Coleman offered a neat name at catcher, where he plied the glove for 44 games.
Pitchers paid their dues with this kind of backdrop. Roger Craig, one of those former Dodgers, is jokingly described as the staff "ace" and he did win ten games. But alas, ol' Rodg lost 24! Four Mets pitchers lost 17 or more games. Craig hung in there, going on to post a 5-22 record with the '63 version of the Mets.
I have heard it said "it takes a pretty good pitcher to lose 20 games." What's meant, I guess, is that you have to show the tools in order to be sent out to the mound so often. You have to be a gamer. Roger Craig had 13 complete games among his 33 starts in '62.
The staff ERA was 5.04. Al Jackson had an 8-20 record and would eventually end his career in a timely way, one loss shy of a hundred. Jay Hook went 8-19. Bob Miller hung in there through a 1-12 record. Reliever Craig Anderson lost 17 games but somehow managed to pick up four saves.
The Mets' team batting average was .240. They were able to out-homer four other National League squads. But the record shows these Mets were in the shackles of futility, posting a 40-120 record and finishing in tenth and last, 60 1/2 games behind the champion Giants, and 18 games behind the ninth place Cubs.
It was the Cubs who the Mets chased down and surpassed in the 1969 divisional race, in the first year of East/West divisions. Leo Durocher managed the collapsing Chicago Cubs of 1969. Us boomers sat mesmerized as the Mets ascended to the top of baseball in '69, boosted in no small way by our Mr. Koosman, a graduate of the West Central School of Agriculture in Morris. Koosman was the big lefty, complementing the righty Tom Seaver. Seaver was the celebrity and Koosman the big, stable quiet man.
Hodges was the skipper in '69, probably looking on in wide-eyed fashion, perhaps wanting to pinch himself once in a while. Hodges had the success but Stengel had his niche carved out as the first, guiding his team of guys who were either on the way down or (possibly) on the way up - the classic state of affairs for expansion teams.
Stengel understood the role of failure in setting the stage for ultimate success. He once said: "You have to go broke three times to learn how to make a living."
"Make a living" the Mets did. The rest is history. It all started during Camelot.
In closing:
"The secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided."
- Casey Stengel
 
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, September 23, 2013

1953 "War of the Worlds" (George Pal) the real deal

Boomers sat transfixed watching the 1953 "War of the Worlds" movie. We sat transfixed not in theater seats but in our families' living rooms. The heralded movie turned up on TV during that medium's first major decade of existence: the 1960s, when color got ushered in.
The '60s were also when my generation by sheer force of numbers began shaping entertainment tastes. Our parents didn't really eat up sci-fi. We did. Sci-fi movies that had already had their run on the big screen got a whole new lifespan. Once boomers discovered this fare, it became timeless. It made such a stamp, re-makes were considered a must years later when boomers were in middle (or much older) age.
We started coming into the world in 1946. So the oldest boomers were a mere seven years old when George Pal's "The War of the Worlds" came out. Television is where we really discovered this gem. Same for "The Day the Earth Stood Still" (1951) and "The Time Machine" (1960).
Television gave us its own sci-fi fare, "Star Trek" atop the list. Remember the sound of the "photon torpedoes?" That sound might have seemed familiar. It's the same sound we heard when the Martian war machines in "War of the Worlds" fired the "green ray" from wingtips. It was created by striking a high-tension cable with a hammer.
The 2005 re-make of "War of the Worlds" has not seemed to have staying power. I remember looking forward to that movie, traveling to Alexandria to see it, and not being much moved. The 1953 George Pal version is the one continuing to stick in our minds. It had inspiration, first of all as an unabashedly Christian movie, not that I say this as some sort of Pat Robertson. I don't, but the tone of the movie reflected conviction, not merely an assemblage of Hollywood ideas to try to garner box office.
I admire conviction. A church is a true sanctuary at the end of the movie. The weak and the hurt are comforted. Humanity finds a new wellspring of hope.
George Pal was the producer of the cinema classic. Lest there by an doubt about its staying power, it was chosen for the National Film Registry in 2011. The movie was inspired as a reflection of the apocalyptic paranoia of the atomic age. Here you are probably instantly reminded of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" also.
The world was still in the recovery spasms from World War Two. The forces of good had to crush the menacing Axis powers. Was the conflict truly behind us for the foreseeable future? We couldn't be sure. The Cold War meant that evil was still hovering over us. We weren't sure of the true nature of our enemies. The paranoia set the stage for the incredibly horrible and unnecessary Viet Nam War.
"War of the Worlds" showed us how a foreboding and mysterious enemy could surface. It was the Martians. The template would have been useful for other enemy entities. How about the "Klingons" from "Star Trek?" In real life, were our "enemies" really as sinister and threatening as the popular conception suggested? I mean, we learned that the "domino theory" that propelled the Viet Nam conflict was empty. We learned that Communists in Hollywood were a weird sort of boogeyman, convenient as some sort of political dart board used by the political right. Communism imploded on its own.
The Martians on the screen were done in by bacteria, not by military might. The military could do nothing vs. the Martian war machines. Was Hollywood trying to tell us something? The military was impotent in "The Day the Earth Stood Still." And in the comedic "Mars Attacks!" we see the invading Martians done in by yodeling! Again the U.S. military was impotent.
The military hasn't had the solution for lots of things. What if we took all the money we've spent on military intervention in Afghanistan, and spent it instead on lifting the standard of living and education in that country? Ignorance as opposed to education probably caused a lot of problems we had in the Deep South up through Jim Crow. Ignorance and poverty.
 
Conflict resolution minus guns
"War of the Worlds" projected hope and triumph without the strong arm of the military playing a role. We see the U.S. Air Force "Flying Wing" take flight in Pal's movie, dropping an atomic bomb. We admire the technology. The atomic bomb might have helped end WWII early, or was it dropped as a warning shot to the Russians?
The bomb did nothing to the Martians in the movie. Those war machines had protective "blisters." We learn the Martians can conquer the Earth within six more days. So, someone responds by making a comparison to how long it took God to create it! The religious tone prevails, not in a hectoring way but with a purposeful vision.
The Martians are extremely weak and anemic. Their machines cannot overtake us. People emerge out of the church as quiet takes over. The "crawling hand" of the dying Martian is a signature scene.
 
"H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds"
The movie is considered a "loose adaptation" of the classic novel by H.G. Wells. Wells was truly a genius ahead of his time. Both this movie and "The Time Machine" were promoted in many instances with H.G. Wells' name at the beginning, e.g. "H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds."
The movie departs from the book in that Wells was a secularist. A divine presence was not part of his construction. Wells gave us a 19th Century journalist who journeys through Victorian London during the attack. Eventually the journo is reunited with his wife. The story is set in 1898.
Roger Ebert in his review of the 2005 movie said the "tripods" (war machines) were "state of the art" for Martian technology in 1898. Trying to revive those images for a contemporary movie doesn't necessarily work well, Ebert continued. He talked about "clumsy retro design."
I might suggest as one solution to have the movie actually set in 1898. I read this same suggestion in connection with the movie "The Lost World" based on a long-ago novel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A remote plateau with dinosaurs might have been believable for Sir Arthur's time, not so much for 1960 when the movie was made.
So, should sci-fi classics be left in the time when they were written? The late Ebert certainly made us think, as he always did. Ebert's "gut reaction" to the 2005 movie (with Tom Cruise): "I do not like the tripods."
Three legs as opposed to four (or any number divisible by two) certainly seem a defective proposition, based on rudimentary engineering. The 1953 movie did not present the three legs in such direct form. Let's credit Pal for how he avoided this bothersome detail or at least shrouded it. His war machines essentially "floated in the air" on three invisible legs.
Steven Spielberg gave us the 2005 movie. Ebert described it as "big and clunky, lacking the zest and joyous energy we expect from Spielberg." Was Tom Cruise the best he could do? The actor brings baggage. He's shallow in the movie, an immature, divorced hotshot who has custody of the kids for the weekend.
The Martian invasion in the Cruise version is nothing but "malevolent, destructive and pointless" (Ebert's words).
In the 1953 release we at least appreciate the metaphors with the Cold War, and the wellspring of hope that humanity finds with Christianity. I wouldn't care if the wellspring had been Muslim, if it at least painted a picture of optimism vs. mysterious adversaries. We still hadn't gotten the Nazis out of our head. We still hadn't moved beyond that spectre when "Indiana Jones" resurrected it.
The military saved us in the 1940s. We call it "the good war" in a perverse sort of way. The scenario since then has been more foggy. It's how us boomers got disillusioned. 
 
Showcase for Barry and Robinson
We watched Gene Barry and Ann Robinson act in the George Pal movie. The movie's director was Byron Haskin. The Martians scrutinize our lush, green and blue Earth. Their preparation is meticulous in all versions of the story. Somehow they miss the bacteria. 
The setting is southern California in the early 1950s. Gene Barry plays "Dr. Clayton Forrester," and Ann Robinson is "Sylvia Van Buren."
A large object crash lands near a town called Linda Rosa. Dr. Forrester, a scientist, is out fishing at the time. He meets Sylvia at the crash site. Also present is Sylvia's clergy uncle, "Pastor Matthew Collins." The religious tone gets stamped.
Pastor Collins eventually recites Psalm 23 in the face of advancing war machines and is vaporized in a riveting scene.
Dr. Forrester waits in town overnight as the fallen object cools. The movie gets scary for kids when late that night, a hatch on top unscrews and falls away, and we see a pulsating mechanical cobra-shaped head piece emerge. Three volunteer "night guards" approach with a white flag in a scene that I remember my father laughing at. Dad probably figured the three were just volunteering to be toast. Indeed, these forlorn guys meet the Martian "heat ray." They're goners.
Three of the manta ray-shaped war machines rise from the gully and advance. Reports come forth from around the world. Our civilization is imperiled. Forrester and Van Buren, undaunted, take to the air in a spotter plane. The plane crash lands, the two heroic characters emerge unhurt and end up in a farmhouse, a scene reflected in the 2005 movie's much-derided (and long) "basement scene."
The 1953 movie has suspense in the farmhouse scene, the kind that might have kids getting nightmares. It works. We get our only real glimpse, fleeting, of a Martian. So, much is still left to the imagination.
Forrester and Van Buren get separated amidst all the panic as the story nears conclusion. They're in Los Angeles now, surrounded by ruins. Forrester remembers something Van Buren told him and realizes she might be found in a church sanctuary. There we find huddled refugees looking as though they were plucked right out of Europe at the end of WWII. The ruins are similarly haunting.
A war machine crashes just as the church seems about to come down. Viruses and bacteria have vanquished the Martians - "the smallest creatures that God in his wisdom put on this Earth," an unseen narrator tells us.
Disturbing as the Cold War was, the movie reminds us that man is an instinctively optimistic creature.
Spielberg's 2005 movie had a $135 million budget and didn't seem as interesting. Plausibility is an issue. The 2005 movie has Martian machines buried in many places including big cities. How could they have gone undetected? Tentacles suck our blood. "To what purpose?" Ebert asked.
Another review felt the Spielberg movie had potential but was "ruined by the 'I'm a bad father' subplot." And still another makes the cogent point: "Spielberg blew it by once again making the meat and potatoes of the film take a back seat to some sort of dysfunctional family crisis reunion."
I have hardly given another thought to the 2005 movie since seeing it. It was just a nice excuse to visit Alexandria where of course many Morris residents go to spend money without feeling any shame.
The 1953 George Pal movie is deservedly in the ranks of classic sci-fi films, filmed with genuine inspiration and not just with an eye toward opening weekend box office "pop."
They don't movies like they used to. Boomers know this full well.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Monday, September 16, 2013

Another dino hideout: "The Valley of Gwangi" (1969)

The blending of cowboys and dinosaurs was an idea waiting to happen. Fantasies involving dinosaurs had been irresistible for a long time.
You would think special effects would have to advance a long way before dinos on the screen would be workable. It's fascinating that in the 1933 "King Kong," various dinos including a flying one, came off on screen as good as you would want. We have Willis O'Brien to thank for that.
O'Brien became a mentor for Ray Harryhausen. Basically that relationship was a passing of the torch. The two gave us "stop-motion" special effects. "King Kong" does not need to be viewed in the context of archival movies, where we expect the craftsmanship to come off as primitive. It leaps off the screen at you. When that stegosaurus tail does its swipe as the creature is dying, we flinch in our seats.
Harryhausen gave us dinosaurs in "The Valley of Gwangi." His genius comes through in the roping scene. That signature scene was labor-intensive even by the standards of "stop-motion."
I have written before about two movies that had to scrap stop-motion because of its cost. One was "The Lost World," a 1960 release that ended up using real modern reptiles as dinos, filmed so that they might seem large. The other is "Mars Attacks!" which should need no introduction, but I'll note that CGI came to the rescue for that one.
In "King Kong" it was beauty that killed the beast. In "Mars Attacks!" it was yodeling that killed the invaders.
 
"Gwangi" in cultural/historical context
"The Valley of Gwangi" came out in 1969. America at that time was getting weary of the kind of monster movie that had become standard fare. I should emphasize that America was getting tired of lots of things in 1969. Our society was in flux. We certainly had become tired of "robes and sandals" movies typified by "Cleopatra" (with Liz Taylor).
Our society was in tumult in many ways. It's sad that "The Valley of Gwangi" came out when our appetite for this entertainment had diminished.
The movie had been conceived years earlier. As with many Hollywood projects, bumps in the road had to be navigated. O'Brien drew up this movie idea, decades earlier in fact, inspired by the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle book "The Lost World." That book led to the movie of the same name in 1960 (with Claude Rains). The premise of that book was one that could be mined further of course. It was mined for the comic book series "Turok, Son of Stone." Prehistoric creatures continue to live in some remote section of the Earth. It might be a "lost valley" or in the case of the 1960 "The Lost World," an elevated plateau in South America. (I'm not sure how the dinos could stay totally confined in such places.)
Willis O'Brien envisioned a movie called "Valley of the Mists." Who knows why it couldn't get a thumbs-up for making. O'Brien passed away in 1962. I'm not sure to what extent "The Valley of Gwangi" followed O'Brien's conception. But the 1969 American western fantasy is considered to be the fruit of that conception.
The public taste for such a movie was at a diminished level, and adding to the problem was a change in management at Warner Brothers and Seven Arts. The powers-that-be didn't have their hearts in this cinema. So, "The Valley of Gwangi" was released with little promotional effort on a double bill with a biker film! It thus missed its target audience and was not as successful as other Harryhausen efforts.
You'll remember that ol' Ray gave us the seven swordfighting skeletons. Who can forget that scream as the skeletons began their attack! America may not have been fired up about a movie like "Gwangi" in 1969. Little did we know that such movies would make a spectacular comeback! There is a scene in "Gwangi" that appears to have inspired a scene in the celebrated "Jurassic Park." The big dino in "Gwangi" appears from behind a hill and snatches a fleeing ornithominus in his jaw. Steven Spielberg gave us a scene almost exactly like this. Was he paying homage? It's possible because after all, he used the actual "time machine" from the 1960 movie in one of his "Gremlin" movies. 
"The Valley of Gwangi" with its unheralded release might have ended up in the dustbin. Except that it emerged in subsequent years drawing on its obvious appeal for sci-fi buffs or people who just like reasonably good action/horror movies. Because, "Gwangi" certainly delivers on these grounds.
Remember the 1980s TV series "Scarecrow and Mrs. King?" Any time a TV screen is shown in the series, "The Valley of Gwangi" is playing. An inside joke? Someone's attempt to pay more homage?
Let's give a tip of the hat to "The Valley of Gwangi" which is what they might call "a good popcorn movie."
Spielberg gave us the T-Rex as his headlining menacing creature - an obvious choice. What's interesting about "Gwangi" is that even though the star monster is like a T-Rex, it's not actually a T-Rex. I'm not sure why they bothered making this minor deviation. "Gwangi" is an allosaurus, which to the uninitiated would be considered a tyrannosaurus (T-Rex).
 
The story: rodeo is the backdrop
"The Valley of Gwangi" takes place in Mexico at the turn of the century. A cowgirl hosts a rodeo which isn't doing particularly well. She has a former love interest played by James Franciscus, an actor who we might say became famous for not being Charlton Heston in "Beneath the Planet of the Apes." Franciscus is a quite fine actor who for some reason - lacking intangibles? - got a 'B' movie tag. Hollywood bestows fame in mysterious ways.
Franciscus works in his character of "Tuck" in "The Valley of Gwangi." He's charming as a roguish individual. Actually, everyone in this movie seems to have venal goals. Perhaps that tone was a reflection of the times in which "Gwangi" was filmed. America was brimming with cynicism. It was easy to envision less than laudable motives on the part of everyone.
I have written before about the 1969 release "The Bridge at Remagen," a WWII flick that has cynicism stamped all over it. A reviewer has said of "Remagen" that "every character is pissed off all the time." Also, the military people give "lip" to their superiors constantly. Movies reflect the cultural tone and priorities of the time in which they were made. So, the tone of "Gwangi" can't be expected to be real uplifting. There's no uplifting feeling of the human character in triumph. The venal tone doesn't get impaled like it would in a contemporary movie.
I have written before about "Almost Famous," that movie set in the 1960s that has a happy ending for all of the sympathetic characters. Such optimism was the norm for when the movie was made (in 2000). I wrote that in the real-life '60s, happy endings were hardly frequent or to be expected.
"The Valley of Gwangi" doesn't have the uplifting qualities but it has action and horror attributes to guarantee its audience. We see the allosaurus fighting men on horses. We have gypsies who know all about the valley and its mysteries, and are superstitious about this.
Cowboys vs. dinosaurs is really great, a plot line waiting to happen. Cowboys vs. their ex-girlfriends wasn't quite as engaging.
There's a paleontologist in the movie just like in "Jurassic Park." "Bromley" the paleontologist shows "Tuck" fossilized horse tracks. Ergo, such a horse actually exists in the flesh in the traveling circus which is run by the seductive "T.J."
Bromley declares this little creature to in fact be an eohippus. It has a name: "El Diablo."
A gypsy named "Tia" claims the horse is cursed. The gypsies feel it needs to be released back into "the forbidden valley." Bromley learns of these intentions and feels it's just fine, as he can then follow them to find more such creatures. Tuck sets off after Bromley. Still others follow, including T.J., and eventually they all meet up.
A flying dinosaur swoops down at them. They follow a small dino which is then seized and eaten by "Gwangi," the star of the movie - that allosaurus (slightly smaller than a T-Rex). A styracosaurus appears and chases Gwangi away. The "sty" has horns that can fend off the largest predators.
Gwangi later pursues the humans back to their base camp. The cowboys try to rope him but he breaks free when the "sty" reappears. Gwangi with the help of a circus employee named "Carlos" finally disposes of the "sty." But Gwangi also dispatches poor ol' Carlos. Gwangi gets "knocked out" as it attempts to pursue the other humans as they exit the valley. Thus the humans can capture the dino, dollar signs in their eyes for sure.
The idea now is to have the dino in T.J.'s show. The gypsies still feel uncomfortable with the beast outside of its valley. So, a gypsy dwarf sneaks around and tries to free Gwangi from its cage. Gwangi breaks free and eats the gypsy. Bummer.
The crowd flees as Gwangi goes on your basic monster rampage. The crowd seeks refuge in a cathedral (inspired by "War of the Worlds?").
Gwangi is able to break in. Many of the people flee through a back exit. "Tuck" has a torch and starts an interior fire which eventually kills the dino. There's your plot synopsis.
Gina Golan plays the beautiful T.J. if you'll permit me to make a sexist observation.
A critic has written of "The Valley of Gwangi" that it's "a disposable piece of fluff, and yet there's something wholly appealing about it anyway." I have also read the following: "It's gratifying to see a movie that doesn't want to be more than it is."
And: "(It's the) kind of tossed-off ephemera that does right by the eight-year-old hiding inside all of us."
I think of "The Valley of Gwangi" as the kind of movie that was typical for the weekly "Taconite Theater" - I think that was its name - us Minnesota boomers watched when young. We also watched "Zulu" (Michael Caine) which eventually came out on VHS tape in a series called "Fun Time." That was a hoot: "Zulu" as part of a "Fun Time" video series! Ah, the movies. They aren't what they used to be. And that's a compliment for what they used to be.
"The Valley of Gwangi" gets plenty of barbs from the highbrow crowd, but I encourage a tip of the hat for such imaginative sci-fi. Now we need to get "Turok, Son of Stone" on the big screen. "Jurassic Park III" was an ambitious movie but it came off odd, like it couldn't make up its mind whether it was serious or somewhat farcical. It was schizophrenic. Such movies ought to be totally serious. Even if all the humans have venal motives.
"The Valley of Gwangi" passes muster by my standards. Even on a double billing with a biker movie.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Let's take "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea"

The 1960s were a time for certain actors to get roles that would define them and endear them to a generation. William Shatner was "Captain Kirk." Lorne Greene was "Ben Cartwright."
These actors already had solid resumes. We might catch Shatner on an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
Television really felt its oats in the 1960s. It took on color. And most importantly, my generation - the boomers - was teeming in numbers, impressionable and a big target for marketers!
Richard Basehart became synonymous with a high-tech submarine. Irwin Allen, who crafted entertainment right in line with the boomers' tastes, gave us "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." It was a sci-fi series that grew out of a 1961 big-screen release of the same name. Allen was the creative mind behind both.
The movie's sets were used in the series. "Voyage" was the first of four sci-fi TV series given us by Allen. Comic books grew out of these ventures too.
The submarine "Seaview" had a stated mission of undersea marine research. Of course, the series wouldn't have lasted more than a few episodes if that were its only mission. The secret mission of this nuclear-powered vessel was to defend the Earth from all worldly and extraterrestrial threats. The story was set in the future, the future being the 1970s at that time! (Why couldn't the Seaview have saved us from disco, or the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies, or "Cannonball Run?" Rimshot.)
The underwater world is not as "sexy" as outer space. Therefore, "Star Trek" has left a more enduring impression than "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea." Shatner become recognizable to everyone in the U.S., whereas Basehart, who died in 1984, never seemed to reach that level. Basehart played "Admiral Harriman Nelson" in the "Voyage" series. The series was satirized in Mad Magazine as "Voyage to See What's on the Bottom." I felt it was one of the magazine's better satires.
Yes, "Voyage" hasn't had the staying power in our memories like "Star Trek" (with Shatner). But a tip of the hat is certainly in order for the submarine series, based on how it lasted for 110 episodes. It lasted so long, its futuristic timeline had to be shifted to the 1980s (the last two seasons). "Star Trek" is on its pedestal, rightfully so, but "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" which ran from 1964 to 1968, was the decade's longest-running U.S. sci-fi TV series with continuing characters. Kudos!
Maybe we should see a contemporary movie "franchise" get launched from it. The formula certainly worked before. And, Hollywood likes nothing better than a proven formula these days.
"Voyage" was one of those '60s TV series that changed over from black and white to color. It's odd how the mere use of color could change the fundamental atmosphere of some of these series. Many critics say there's something to be said for black and white. The movie "The Longest Day" about the D-Day invasion was made in B&W long after color had become the norm. Oh, and let's acknowledge "Young Frankenstein" the same way. "Young Frankenstein" epitomized the kind of irreverent fare boomers really ate up when they were young and foolish.
I remember two other TV series that "morphed" into color: "My Three Sons" (Fred MacMurray) and "Combat!" (Vic Morrow). I always liked "My Three Sons" best when William Frawley was on it.
I recently wrote about the 1960 movie "The Lost World." Irwin Allen was director and had David Hedison in his cast. Allen enlisted Hedison again for the "Voyage" TV series, to play Basehart's right hand man. Hedison played Commander Lee Crane on the Seaview.
Hedison was one of those stable, clean-cut Aryan men who could play a reliable leadership figure. I'm prompted to use the word "Aryan" because of a book I once read that described TV sitcoms of the 1950s as "benevolent Aryan melodramas."
America wasn't ready for the top officer of the Seaview or the Starship Enterprise being anything but a white male. "Star Trek" pushed the envelope for that time - perhaps one reason it was canceled prematurely - by having several characters outside that mold in key positions, characters who were non-white, female or alien! "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" may have explored perilous depths in the ocean, but didn't venture into the same diverse casting as did "Star Trek." Basehart and Hedison were as "white bread" as Robert Young in "Father Knows Best."
Basehart was the killer in the 1948 film noir classic "He Walked by Night." He played Ishmael in the 1956 "Moby Dick." In 1980 he narrated a mini-series written by Peter Arnett on the Viet Nam War.
 
Basehart in role "above" the water
"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" had completed its run before I became familiar with Basehart's role in the 1953 "Titanic." He was part of a cast that was headed by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. I was very impressed by Basehart's portrayal of a character inspired by the real-life Father Thomas Byles.
Fr. Byles was an English Catholic priest who remained on the ship as it sank, hearing confessions and giving absolution. He was a convert to Catholicism. Fr. Byles was on board the Titanic en route to officiate at the wedding of his younger brother William. He said mass for the second and third class passengers on the morning of the sinking. His sermon was on the need for a spiritual lifeboat in the shape of prayer and the sacraments, when in danger of spiritual shipwreck in times of temptation.
Fr. Byles was on the upper deck praying his breviary when the ship hit the iceberg. He assisted many third class passengers up to the boat deck, to the lifeboats. He twice refused a place on a boat. Toward the end, he recited the rosary and handled confessions/absolution to 100-plus who remained trapped on the stern after all the lifeboats were gone. His body, if it was ever found, was never ID'd.
The 1953 movie "Titanic" took artistic license with how it presented lots of things, including Fr. Byles. Nothing wrong with that as long as you realize it. The Basehart character is in a mood of despondency, with alcoholism which has gotten him suspended as a priest. He prepares a wireless message informing family of this unfortunate news. It isn't sent. A crewmember who needs to send an urgent message sees the scrap of paper with this unsent message, and in a mood of emergency, flips it over and begins scribbling on the other side.
The Basehart character has the name "George S. Healey." His character is spared any further humiliation from being defrocked. Instead he remembers his most inspired mission in life, and he refuses possible rescue to go to a boiler room and comfort trapped crewmen.
The movie was never intended as any sort of documentary. It's one of those movies that is "inspired by" a real event rather than attempting to present it in wholly authentic terms. But the Basehart character was clearly drawn up to reflect the real-life Fr. Thomas Byles. Bless the memory of both Fr. Byles and Basehart.
 
Cold War influences for TV
The pilot episode of TV's "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" was filmed in color but shown in black and white. The first season had Cold War themes (pervasive, unfortunately) and the near-future speculative fiction that came to define the series. Espionage blended with sci-fi.
The Cold War shaped a lot of entertainment in a way that made a lot of us boomers paranoid, I feel.
The Seaview had a diving bell and mini-sub. Space aliens, sea monsters and even dinosaurs loomed. Hedison might have thought he was back on that South American plateau from "The Lost World" (a movie he hated, incidentally, with monitor lizards presented as dinosaurs, although he couldn't have hated acting next to the 19-year-old Jill St. John.)
The main villains in "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" were hostile foreign governments. The Cold War truly gave a grim dimension to life in the U.S. in the 1960s. "The Man from Uncle" sought to have fun with that. Robert Vaughn found his career-defining role in that series.
"Admiral Harriman Nelson" is promoted from three-star to four-star admiral during the first season of "Voyage." The Seaview is a key part of the U.S. military. We see this vividly in the episode "Doomsday."
We got a ghost story in season #2. The ABC network wanted a lighter tone for the second season. We got the sea monsters. The flying sub was introduced in season #2: a two-man mini-sub armed with a laser gun, capable of becoming an aircraft.
Season #2 included "The Sky's on Fire" which was a redux of the storyline from the 1961 big-screen release which starred Walter Pidgeon as the admiral.
The third season of "Voyage" ran simultaneously with two other Allen-produced TV series: the campy and disgusting (in my view) "Lost in Space," in its second season; and "The Time Tunnel" in its premiere season.
"Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" became quite imaginative for its season #3, giving us an evil disembodied brain from outer space and some Nazis who thought the war was still on. The final two seasons saw a shift toward paranormal storylines. Such fare would be quite appealing today. On the scene came mummies, werewolves, talking puppets and an evil leprechaun. Oh, and there were fossil men, flame men, frost men and lobster men. (Remember the movie "Lobster Man from Mars?" Maybe you don't. I still have that movie, starring Tony Curtis, on VHS tape.)
Season No. 4 of this series with staying power began with a five centuries-old alchemist. There were three unrelated stories of extraterrestrial invasion. We get into time travel for two episodes. There was a trip back in time to the U.S. Revolution.
All good things came to an end in 1960s television. The cancellation of "Star Trek" was parodied in a memorable "Saturday Night Live" skit with Elliott Gould as the bad guy TV executive. The skit ended with the Shatner character uttering a line that wouldn't mean anything to nearly everyone today, as it was a take-off on a margarine commercial at the time, with Shatner: "Promise."
It's amazing a series like "Star Trek" would be cancelled given the wave of retro interest that continues to this day, not to mention the movies. We must remember that in the 1960s, the generation that really took to shows like "Star Trek" and "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" was very young and without a lot of money or influence. The influential generation of that time liked watching Lawrence Welk or Mitch Miller.
Today the big names of the '60s who are still around can go to casinos, perform and make tons of money from the boomers who are now the ones with money and influence! However, maybe it's time for the Rolling Stones to finally retire. Maybe even "Sir Paul" McCartney.
 
Big-screen "Voyage" had "Floyd the Barber!"
The original movie of "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea" still shows up on cable TV. I found it odd that a crooner like Frankie Avalon would sing the theme song for this serious sci-fi movie. It was a 20th Century Fox production. The admiral character had the same name as on TV: "Harriman Nelson."
We see the Seaview under the Arctic ice cap. The ice begins to crack and melt as there's a fire in the sky. My goodness, a meteor shower has pierced the Van Allen radiation belt! Heat builds up all over the Earth. The Seaview prepares to fire a nuclear missile at the burning belt. But a Vienna-based scientist says no, arguing the fire will burn itself out and the missile has risks. There's your conflict.
Walter Pidgeon as Admiral Nelson positions his sub above the trench in the Marianas. There's a saboteur on board. There's also a minefield and a near-mutiny. I was distracted when I noticed the actor who would go on to play "Floyd the Barber" in "Andy of Mayberry."
A giant squid confronts the Seaview - a scene that could have come right out of the subsequent TV series. Blobs and monsters of various kinds were a nemesis for that sub. A character at the end of the Mad Magazine satire remarks: "Oh boy, I'll never eat another bowl of Jello."
The movie ends with the Seaview, naturally, saving the world thanks to the missile. Because of that good fortune, we could all go on to watch those Frankie Avalon beach movies with Annette Funicello. Maybe the fire should have gotten us after all.
Seriously, Allen's creations were a source of bountiful entertainment in the boomers' youth. "Voyage" has gotten overshadowed by "Star Trek" (not an Allen creation) in the post-Cold War years, but it deserves its place in the pantheon of sci-fi.
Richard Basehart, RIP. God loves you for helping us remember Father Thomas Byles.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Offering plates drying up? Why?

The church my mom and I attend: First Lutheran, Morris. (B.W. photo)
We get too soon reminded how our churches need more money. The church I attend is going through that routine. I'm not sure it's necessary for a big demonstration on the subject to be made in front of the rather thin turnout on Sunday. After all, we're the ones interested enough to at least be in church.
The nagging (by insinuation) should be directed at the people are aren't in church.
OK so what are the issues? One impulse tells me that the so-called "main street economy," translated as us rubes out across the U.S. who aren't connected to the East Coast power corridor, isn't in as good a shape as the national media (with ties to that East Coast elite) are telling us.
You know what I think we need? I think we need to go back to a system where you can go to your local bank, set up a savings account or CD and get paid some interest. Like in the old days. The controversial TARP legislation had the effect of pushing interest rates to a negligible level over a long period of time.
The stock market isn't the answer. Now, with the Federal Reserve backing off on its manipulation that elevated the stock market bubble, we ought to all be whistling in the graveyard. People who exited stock funds in favor of bond funds have hardly gotten a windfall. There also may be growing cynicism across the U.S.
We have accepted a system in which profits rule. That's what happens when we decide the stock market is going to have primacy in our lives. Anyone who was alive during the Great Depression will likely tell you "Don't trust the stock market." In the end, it's always the big operators with inside connections who come away with the windfall.
Money corrupts. All the naive common folks who got sucked into mutual funds and 401Ks are not going to be reaping any windfall. Not if history is any indicator. When I was a kid, I had it pounded into my head (by parents who were young for the Depression) that the stock market was a mysterious and foreboding place, not really to be trusted, certainly not by middle class folks.
Starting in about the mid-1980s, popular notions about this seemed to change. "Financial services professionals" started opening their offices on main streets across America. It seemed a revival plan for an otherwise blighted main street America. We had the "Main Street" program in Morris, overseen by government, as evidence that even we needed help. My assessment of "Main Street?" It was sheep dip. It was an example of the overreach of government.
Many experts see a big stock market "correction" coming, as early as this fall. It's more than the usual warnings. You might get ahold of David Stockman's book, "The Great Deformation."
I have been aghast observing how the whole nation thinks Ben Bernanke can lead us along like he's some sort of savior. We'll all eventually realize that he was just buying some time. His actions may be found to be counterproductive in the long run. We send representatives to Washington D.C. from all over the country, and there they blather and demonstrate, seeking attention, when in fact an unelected person like Bernanke seems to hold all the cards. The chairman of the Federal Reserve is supposed to responsibly manage the money supply. That's all he is supposed to do. He is not supposed to try to solve the problems that we elect politicians to solve.
The day of reckoning hasn't quite come yet. While predicting the future with certainty is never guaranteed, the signals are most ominous. One doomsaying economist said: "I'm not saying I can't be wrong; what I'm saying is if I'm wrong, it will mean everything I was taught about economics is wrong."
So, people aren't giving enough money in church. The primary point I'm making is that maybe the economy for common folks - us rubes out here in the Great Plains - isn't as solid as we're led to think. People feel less generous. 
 
At the micro level: two ELCA churches?
Focusing on Morris specifically, I think we have trouble supporting two ELCA Lutheran churches in town. I have written before that the creation of the Good Shepherd Church north of town might drain support from existing churches. I'm not sure to what extent this has happened. This theory might be overblown.
Our two ELCA Lutheran churches are on opposite sides of town, on "opposite sides of the tracks." The street out in front of First Lutheran Church (our church) is in horrendous shape. You'll thump-thump-thump over it.
Of more serious concern is how First Lutheran was designed. There are stairs to negotiate all over the place. It's like our old school that was recently torn down. What's the first thing you saw when you entered the main doors of the 1914 building of our old school complex? You saw a substantial flight of stairs headed up. What's the first thing you see when you go through the doors at the front of First Lutheran? Steps going upward. Oh, and steps go downward to the fellowship hall too. You had to choose.
When the time came for First Lutheran to install an elevator, leaders had no choice, given logistics, but to locate that elevator a long ways from the sanctuary. What a difference from the Catholic Church in Morris. When you step out of the elevator at Assumption (Catholic) Church, you are basically "in the sanctuary!" In fact, you're closest to the front pews, which are the hardest to get filled anyway (in our modest Minnesota culture).
The ELCA Lutheran Church on the west side of the tracks is the complete opposite, architecturally, from First Lutheran. Faith Lutheran in west Morris has everything on one level. There aren't even any steps leading to the entrance! Given how our population is aging (and how older people tend to have more money), Faith Lutheran seems far more advantageous. That's sad for First Lutheran whose leaders have of course always meant well.
Given the financial shortcomings for First Lutheran now, I wonder if a full-fledged consolidation might be coming. To date we have seen some small steps toward consolidation - more sharing of resources and more combined events. But I wonder if those small steps might actually have been counterproductive. You see, these steps may be reducing the sense of identity the respective congregations have. It might be best to "get it over with" and consolidate.
Let's be blunt: Faith Lutheran has been handicapped by a reputation of quite unpleasant conflict among parishioners and/or clergy. I have heard some bizarre stories about parishioners' behavior there. I know of at least two families that have left Faith for First, for this reason. I have been told that some of the more "edgy" parishioners at Faith have gone out to Good Shepherd (what a friend and I refer to as "the dog kennel church" since it's next to Dan Sayles' place). Consider that a rumor.
I have always been bothered about how Morris public school employees seem under pressure to join Faith, as if it's part of the package of working for the school. I don't see why people can't just be left alone in their private lives. Once in a while a free spirit like Wanda Dagen, band director, will come along and just join First. 
 
Broader forces at work too?
Are the financial struggles of churches a reflection of broader social trends? Let's not sneeze at this. The "information age" means we can connect with people of common interests, thus we become part of these new "online communities," and we're less dependent on communities that are defined geographically. Instead of defining ourselves by living in Morris or West Central Minnesota, or by belonging to a certain church, we connect with people in a virtual way who are like us.
The epitome of the old model was "Peyton Place." It was a place where people got bored. I think we overlook how in our contemporary society, thanks to the tech explosion, we have conquered boredom. We have crushed it. So much so, distracted driving has become a major problem and issue. We can hardly keep up with all we're trying to cram into our heads.
A friend tells me that today's younger generation doesn't seem to need to affirm faith by "going to a building." It's a different attitude or lifestyle.
I still go to church at First Lutheran but I don't like taking communion. I have sort of a phobia about it - always have. I'm scared I'll get to the front of the sanctuary and not know quite what to do. Or that I'll trip or something, or - horrors - I'll forget where to sit back down when I'm done. Leave a trail of bread crumbs?
First Lutheran is a venerable old institution in Morris. We'll just have to see what happens. Pastor Paul Erdal is as articulate as they come. He could be a successful "TV pastor."
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com