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, July 25, 2016

"Hail, Caesar!" oversimplifies Cold War Hollywood

"Hail, Caesar!" was promoted in a flurry of ad clips on cable TV. Those clips were tantalizing, making so many of us consider this movie a "must see." We got the impression that the movie was wholly a gesture recognizing the Hollywood of the 1950s. What could go wrong?
The movie is on the whole captivating. Several memorable scenes do evoke the warmest possible memories of that bygone Hollywood. But there were subtle messages separate from that, impossible to put aside. The Cold War has its stamp wholly on this film. I find no nostalgia in connection with the Cold War. The aftermath of World War II set the stage for the most sobering Cold War, a time of seeing boogeymen in various places. Our schools were told to impose vigorous - I would say onerous - academic standards as a way of competing with the Soviets.
The Soviets had been an ally in WWII. How ironic that the Soviet "menace" emerged post-war. "Hail, Caesar!" trivializes the so-called Communist threat in Hollywood. The movie finds levity in this, and ultimately strives to create an air of foolishness around the extreme left-wing folks. That reflects our template of today. Hollywood always reflects the template of today. We're living in a time when, Bernie Sanders' crowds notwithstanding, "lefties" are on the defensive, when throngs admire Donald Trump who has taken the Republican course.
Plausibility problem distracts me
The George Clooney character, essentially a clueless boob, gets disabled and unconscious early in "Hail, Caesar!" Something is placed in a beverage he consumes on the movie set. A couple of low-profile actors sneaked a substance into the beverage. There's a plausibility problem here - sorry to insert such an inconvenient thing, but plausibility matters - because, how could the perpetrators know that Clooney's character would pass out when he was alone? The "bad guys" were poised to whisk him away. Clooney indeed ended up alone during a break, whereupon the bad guys take him to this nest of unsavory (but pretty harmless) communists. We see the "Trumbo" types hanging around. We get the feeling these are disgruntled souls, feeling underappreciated. We don't get the sense that ideology means everything to them. It's rather like a faculty lounge.
Clooney becomes quickly sympathetic, not that his mind is ever seriously challenged by anything. One of the commie characters defects to the Soviet Union late in the movie. There's a dramatic scene, with a little attempted humor thrown in, where the defector is rowed out to a submarine.
In real life, communist sympathizers never had any inclination to leave for the Soviet Union. Oh, Lee Harvey Oswald did. But the overwhelming impression of the real Soviet Union was that it was a dark and depressing place, not an authentic representation of how a collectivist-based society could work. Mikhail Gorbachev just shrugged about the term "communism," seeming alien to him, and said it was just evidence of "organized  crime." Whenever leaders aren't democratically elected, you could say it's like organized crime.
Hollywood is portrayed in "Hail, Caesar!" as a place especially desperate to please its audiences, due to the impending threat of the television medium. The year is 1951. Oh, that's the year that gave us "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a wonderful but Cold War-fixated movie. The desperation to please movie fans is suggested as a reason that Tinseltown turned out so much schlock. Silly rabbit, all businesses are desperate to please their customers all the time. Hollywood is "the dream factory" and we wouldn't have it any other way.
Hollywood today is incredibly risk-averse. Thus we see "franchises" of movies, like Batman, getting done over and over. I felt Batman was a stale story by the end of the 1960s (in the comics).
All hail robes and sandals
"Hail, Caesar!" is the name of a movie being made within this movie. It's an epic set in ancient Rome and stars "Baird Whitlock," the Clooney character. I have read such movies described as "robes and sandals." They had a lifespan like most genres of movies. The biggest Hollywood $ disaster of all time, "Cleopatra" with Elizabeth Taylor, was robes and sandals. Such was the disaster of "Cleopatra," movie budgets were affected for a rather long time. This is why we didn't see the expensive stop-motion effects in the the movie "The Lost World." Instead they filmed real-life contemporary lizards, (hopefully) made to look like large dinosaurs. I'll bet there was lots of breath-holding when "The Lost World" was first screened. The movie seemed to do OK (with Jill St. John who was a mere 19 years old).
The Cleopatra debacle was also the reason why the movie "State Fair" (the Bobby Darin version) was filmed on location rather than using Hollywood sets. I think that movie was just fine.
How good would the fictional "Hail, Caesar!" have been? We don't know. The Communist cell in the Coen brothers' movie is called "The Future." Members are mostly motion picture writers.
We see Hollywood gossip columnists portrayed in this movie. Were they directly inspired by the "Hedda Hopper" character from "Trumbo?" That movie gave way too much credit to Hopper and John Wayne in terms of pushing Hollywood's dark anti-Communist obsession. We like to see complicated issues simplified.
"Hail, Caesar!" gives us singing Western star "Hobie Doyle" played superbly by Alden Ehrenreich. We see a typical Western scene parodied. I smiled as I saw the old cliche of a bad guy over-exposing himself, standing up from behind a boulder, to get shot by the good guy.
"Hail, Caesar!" strives to get a big dose of humor from the Ehrenreich character getting transplanted into a period drama. Here the character has to answer to posh director "Laurence Laurentz" (Ralph Fiennes). There's some cheap and ineffective humor from attempts to pronounce the director's name correctly, remindful of the confusion over whether it was "The Judean People's Front" or "The People's Front of Judea" in Monty Python's "Life of Brian." It wasn't worth the trouble.
Doyle attends the premiere of one of his westerns with a date. This western had deliberate humor whereas I would suggest such a movie with a major star to be serious. Doyle is disappointed that his one singing scene is depicted in a comedic manner. But he ends up approving when he sees that the audience likes it.
I'm actually not that interested in the movie's major character, "Eddie Mannix" played by Josh Brolin. We're supposed to be amused by Mannix's efforts to cover up scandals for his studio.
The plot limps along with Doyle ending up at a Malibu beach house where that communist nest has its headquarters. Only Whitlock is there, because all the others are rowing out to that Soviet submarine. I much prefer how a Soviet submarine was presented in "The Russians Are Coming!"
Later, Clooney as Whitlock tries to explain his newfound and very shallow communist leanings to Brolin as Mannix. Here the moviemakers make clear an overriding message of "Hail, Caesar!" Left-wing thinking - call it communism to demonize it - is nothing more than a pathological curiosity. Mannix literally slaps up a supine Whitlock. Don't even think about analyzing views to the left of center. Just "do your job" and be thankful for it - in other words, make life easy for the rapacious capitalists, grease their agenda at all times, because by golly, this is America!
Jonah Hill and Scarlett Johansson have roles that would have been more interesting if we had seen them more.
The real plum from "Hail, Caesar!"
I absolutely loved how "Hail, Caesar!" had some vignette scenes that seemed pulled directly from 1950s cinema favorites. I loved the "singing sailors" especially, how the whole thing was choreographed with the bartender pulling the tablecloths from under the sailors dancing on tabletops. The cowboy movie scene was fine satire but it was too short.
Westerns of the 1950s were a great setup for satire. In fact, I think a full-length parody movie based on the making of a John Wayne-style western would be terrific. The western genre was satirized nicely in the 1960s Dean Martin movie "Texas Across the River." We don't see that movie anymore because of political correctness issues, I would suggest. In it, the Indians were parodied just like everyone else. I thought the movie was benign and funny. (Peter Graves was the cavalry leader.)
Thanks to our Morris Public Library for having "Hail, Caesar!" available to check out when it was still so fresh. My home is the only place where I watch movies anymore. "Hail, Caesar!" is worth watching. But let's remember that the Cold War was very serious business, very grim. Is that why I had to take algebra (LOL)?
Addendum: I give a tip of the hat to "Hail, Caesar!" for how it preserves an old phrase in our culture. It's uttered just once but it made an impression on me. That phrase is "bumming a cigarette." Smoking was once largely popular and cigarettes were cheap. You'd "bum" a cigarette from a friend (or stranger) in a casual way. Today, smoking is largely shunned and cigarettes are prohibitively expensive.
"Got a cigarette?"
It's fascinating that no one smoked in the movie "Pearl Harbor." Political correctness asserts itself.
- Brian Williams - morris mn minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Phil Linz & the notorious harmonica incident of 1964

Utility players can be underestimated. There is much to be said for having versatility among the various baseball positions. Denny Hocking of our Twins was once injured in a post-game celebration and missed the rest of the post-season. I was aghast at this. I sensed most other fans just gave a collective shrug. We lost our next series, to the Angels as I recall.
Meet Phil Linz, circa 1964
The New York Yankees had an interesting utility player in the early 1960s. He entered immortality, sort of, as the result of an off-field incident. These were the New York Yankees at the peak of the newspaper era, when the multiple papers of the Big Apple scratched and clawed for stories. This was why Roger Maris' life was made into such a hell as he chased Babe Ruth's record.
Phil Linz became a household name, sort of, in the summer of 1964. I spent part of that summer in New York City, therefore I have some affinity with the Yankees of that time. My parents and I were in New York City for the World's Fair. My father's University of Minnesota-Morris men's chorus performed there. The World's Fair was in Queens, home of the National League New York Mets. Shea Stadium was so close to the fairgrounds, it appeared on fair maps. Our hotel was in Manhattan and we could see the Empire State Building from our window.
It was the summer that brought to a close the Yankees dynasty of that time. And it wasn't easy for the Bronx crew to capture that pennant. The Yankees had aging stars who were not getting readily replaced. But hang on they did. In the hot August of '64 it was far from certain that the Yanks would succeed.
The date was August 20. The team was on their bus en route to O'Hare International Airport, Chicago.The situation seemed grim: the Yanks had been swept in a four-game series by the Chicago White Sox. The older generation of baseball players at that time felt that losing should be accompanied by a grim, panic-stricken disposition. Violating that would be sacrilege. A younger generation was coming up that believed in a more even keel: no crestfallen air. In other words, just try to stay loose and re-focus. A little levity doesn't hurt. Nor does a little music.
Linz and his instrument of choice
Music! We're focusing on a quintessential utility player here. I was nine years old at the time. The player's name will never leave my consciousness. It was Phil Linz. His musical instrument: the harmonica!
Linz was to the harmonica what Chuck Mangione was to the flugelhorn. The harmonica is an instrument that deserves a little more attention. Its compactness is a prime attribute. It produces delightful sounds. But would it come across as delightful on the team bus on that August day of 1964? The bus rumbled toward O'Hare with Linz having decided to ply his harmonica skill, albeit limited.
Linz was a bit resentful at not having played more in the disastrous Chicago series. I'll insert here that Chicago had a strongly contending team and could have wrested the pennant easily. They had in their ranks Bill "Moose" Skowron, the former Yankee first baseman in good standing, still in his prime. Skowron's home field was the non-hitter-friendly Comiskey Park. Skowron was a Yankee when Maris hit his 61 home runs in 1961.
The Yankee skipper in 1964 was Yogi Berra. The man needs no introduction. I guess Berra felt the atmosphere in the team bus ought to be like at a wake. Maybe Berra was thinking about a peculiar jinx: the Yankees had never won the pennant in a year ending with the number '4.' They had won four straight pennants. No one was rolling over for them in '64.
Our Minnesota Twins had a strange summer: we tied for sixth even though our roster was fundamentally the same as when we won the pennant the following year. Baseball can be tough for analysis. Apparently all we did different in '65 was run a little more. Oh, and Johnny Sain used his coaching genius with the pitchers. Jim Bouton of the 1964 Yankees worshiped Johnny Sain. Bouton was surely the leader of the younger generation that stayed a little more loose, maybe even irreverent, when losing.
Mickey Mantle: a man of mischief here
Berra saw Linz's harmonica playing rather as sacrilege. Mickey Mantle could have hosed down this ridiculous little confrontation. Linz initially had trouble hearing Berra's reprimand, legend has it. Linz appealed to Mantle for help discerning what Berra said. The legend continues with Mantle claiming that Berra wanted Linz to play louder. Mantle was never the totally serious team leader. Certainly his lifestyle set no example.
I remember Jim Bouton recalling the whole incident in his groundbreaking book of the time: "Ball Four." Bouton recalled that Linz didn't believe Mantle. At the same time, the utility player did not stop playing his little instrument. The Yankees were four and a half games out of first place. Berra was in his first year as manager. He had been tapped as Yankees manager so the Yanks could have their own "character" in the post to match their crosstown rival, the New York Mets with Casey Stengel. Stengel had been removed as Yankee skipper because he was too old. Ralph Houk, very capable, was considered too boring.
Let's remember that Stengel's job literally was to provide entertainment while his Mets were "lovable losers." Berra by contrast was expected to win the pennant, albeit with an aging and challenged team. The Yankees predictably did not have a rosy path. Berra came under pressure. Several players had issues with Berra and complained to Houk who was now general manager.
Houk wasn't quick to get into Berra's corner. After the final loss in that four-game sweep suffered at the hands of Chicago, the Yankee bus got stuck in a big traffic jam. Linz had recently acquired his harmonica. It came with a little booklet, of course, and in it were some simple songs for starting out, such as "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Linz decided to pull out his harmonica and "toot away."
Berra was simmering in the front seat. The press reported him saying to Linz "put that thing in your pocket." Team members had a slightly different version, with Berra suggesting that Linz put the harmonica someplace else. Mantle then made his historic quip about how Berra wanted to hear the music louder. Bouton wrote that "Linz didn't believe that, but he didn't stop playing either." Linz would later say he didn't realize that Yogi was so upset.
Berra left his seat and stormed back. "I'd never seem him that mad before," Linz said. The legend continues: Linz tossed the harmonica to Berra but Berra slapped it aside. It struck Joe Pepitone in the knee. Bouton wrote that Pepitone, a character, went into his act called "Ooooh, you hurt my little knee!" Pepitone actually fell to the floor in mock agony, shouting "corpsman, corpsman."
What a goofy group. These guys were seared into the consciousness of young boomer-age fans like yours truly and Billy Crystal. Berra stood over Linz and raised his arm. Linz feared he was about to be struck. Berra backed off and stomped back to the front. But the incident wasn't done, as Linz stood up and shouted about how he wasn't deserving of such stern discipline, as he felt he was giving 100 percent. The implication was that maybe some other Yankees were not.
The boys in the back of the bus thought this whole episode was hysterical. The irreverent Mantle suggested Linz could be third base coach and give signals on the harmonica. Coach Frank Crosetti reflected the older generation, exuding no humor at all.
It should be noted that media behavior was in flux, that silly and unbecoming incidents like this were not likely to be withheld from public knowledge anymore, not like in the old days when a drunk pitcher Ryne Duren fought with coach Ralph Houk on a train in 1958. That incident hardly saw the light of day.
Bouton rolled up his sleeves to write about incidents and peccadilloes like that. The old writers like Jim Ogle were a quickly-fading breed.
Linz and Berra dominated NYC sports sections for several days, which meant of course that the whole city became aware of this quite trivial episode. Sales of harmonicas obviously spiked. Linz got a $5000 endorsement contract from Hohner Harmonica. Houk for his part was amused by the incident. Top Yankee brass hired Berra in the first place to adjust the team's "haughty" image. Gone was the old school general manager George Weiss. A new era had set in.
Linz was fined $200 but it was no matter considering his contract with Hohner. Pepitone joked that Linz should have brought a piano on the bus - Linz could have made more money!
Think of some "winning" music!
It's more than a footnote that the Yankees began playing better right after the incident. In the five and a half weeks of the regular season that remained, they shot past the Orioles and White Sox. They won eleven straight games at one point. Hear in your head the upbeat music from the movie "The Natural."
The Yankees won the American League pennant. All because of "Mary Had a Little Lamb?" What a story. Had the clash brought the Yankees closer together? Actually, pitcher Mel Stottlemyre came on the scene in August. Reliever Pedro Ramos put on the pinstripes in September. Mantle came off the injured list. It was much more fun suggesting that Linz and his harmonica gave the boost!
The Yankees stretched out the World Series to seven games vs. St. Louis, but New York came up shy. Amazingly, Berra was fired after his one year. By 1966 the Yankees had fallen all the way to last place in the ten-team American League. Our Twins won the pennant in '65 of course.
Linz improved his harmonica technique over the years. My family was in New York City in 1964 because of music: the wonderful sounds of our UMM men's chorus. How ironic that music was the unlikely element helping make the 1964 New York Yankees so memorable. The harmonica deserved its newfound attention.
Addendum: I have personal memories of O'Hare Airport. It was 1972 and I was en route back to Minnesota, trying to use a "student standby" ticket which I discovered wasn't worth the paper it was printed on. So my parents wired me some money so I could buy a ticket upgrade. Had the situation not been remedied, I could have ended up as a skeleton in a chair there. There was a group of about five of us that were instructed to catch a shuttle bus to Midway Airport. One was a military man in full uniform, a nice guy just as anxious to keep traveling as I was. I remember that the driver of the shuttle bus was a trainee, getting side-by-side instruction from a supervisor. Finally we all ended up where we needed to go! I hope that military guy has had a nice life.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Tom Tresh: a New York Yankee worth remembering

Tom Tresh was an All-American boy. He earned nine high school letters in the high-profile sports of football, basketball and baseball. He gravitated toward baseball and played shortstop at Central Michigan University his freshman year. Central Michigan has that "Chippewas" nickname that has been on the edge of controversy. Central Michigan is who our Minnesota Gophers played in their bowl game last season. It's a Mid-American Conference school.
Athletics were instilled in Tom, the culture and all, from when he was an infant. His father Mike had been a major league catcher with the White Sox and Indians. Family home movies show a two-year-old Tom throwing a ball around.
Some multi-sport superstars in high school can be jerks, projecting an air of superiority and entitlement. Reading about Tom Tresh, I'm certain he was the opposite type.
Why am I interested in Tom Tresh? Well, I'm 62 years old. As a boy in elementary school, baseball captivated me at a time when the New York Yankees were in rarefied air. The Yankees had the most storied history of all the big league teams. Their dynasty of the late 1950s and early '60s continued a long pattern of accomplishment. The early '60s team took on a distinct air of appeal. I think it was because of my fellow boomers and I. Billy Crystal felt the love. His movie "61*" which focused on Roger Maris, was really an exhibit of reverence toward the Yankees of that time.
I'm not sure the team had more characters than they ever had. The media had burgeoned. Post-WWII prosperity enabled the broad public to take in more entertainment. Newspapers were king. They proliferated in New York City and scratched and clawed for stories. Those Yankees gave them fodder. Mickey Mantle was way up there as a superstar. So was pitcher Whitey Ford, a.k.a. "the chairman of the board." Maris had incredible, meteoric fame that would place him in the pantheon forever, even though his '61 season was rather an anomaly. It was a strange season that had Detroit Tiger Norm Cash batting .361, the most anomalous batting average of all time. Something odd was going on that summer.
The Yankees were king of the hill. Tresh was one of their non-superstar players, but he was a member of good standing. Fans all knew who he was.
Bring on 1962. Tresh achieved his dream, making the starting lineup of the American League champion Yankees. The '62 World Series was a matchup of the Yankees and San Francisco Giants. The teams were tied at two wins each for the October 10 game. Game 5 was a showdown of pitchers Jack Sanford and Ralph Terry. Sanford was a 24-game winter. He had a skein of 16 wins.
Game 5 developed into a 2-2 tie. Those were the days when major league baseball as a matter of principle felt World Series games should be played during the day, not under the lights. It's quaint to reflect. Adults coming home from work and kids coming home from school would find out who won. Some might play hooky - very tempting. Today, the baseball playoffs are played in a manner described humorously by Dave Barry, as happening "after everyone has gone to bed."
I love reflecting on baseball of the 1960s. I barely pay attention today. It's true the players didn't have enough leverage with their careers in the bygone time. Too many got injured and were forced out of the game, primarily pitchers in the age before the pitch count. We ought to regret all that. But we couldn't help but love baseball.
We loved the Yankees of the early '60s, even the reserve players whose names stay etched in our minds.
The ecstacy and the agony
Tom Tresh had a career that covered both the dynasty and post-dynasty. In '62 the Yankees were boffo. In that Game 5 World Series matchup, Tresh would shine. He came up to bat in the eighth inning after Tony Kubek and Bobby Richardson singled. There was one out. He had already doubled off Sanford in the fourth. In the eighth he achieved Fall Classic stardom with a three-run home run to right. The Yankee Stadium crowd went wild.
Keep in mind that 1962 was the peak of our concern over the Cold War. We wondered if our days might be numbered. The World Series was needed escapist entertainment. Tresh's home run produced a 5-2 lead and the final score was 5-3. The Giants were not down for the count in this Series. The Willie Mays crew won Game 6. Terry and Sanford took to the mound again for Game 7. The Yankees fought to cling to a 1-0 lead in the seventh. Mays hit a low liner to the left field corner. Tresh sped to his right and hauled in the liner with a fingertip catch. Willie McCovey then came up to bat and tripled with the bases empty. Tresh and his mates won this game at Candlestick Park, against the team that used to be known as the New York Giants. The score: 1-0.
In '62 the New York Mets were born, meaning that NYC was back to having multiple teams after a short period of monopoly for the Yankees. The Yankee dynasty of that time had its last year in '64. After that they were quite decisively knocked off their perch. It was sad to see so many of those familiar names now associated with a struggling team. The Yankees fell to pedestrian status in 1965.
World Series homer off Bob Gibson
Tresh hit two home runs in the 1964 World Series vs. the Cardinals. One was off the overpowering righthanded hurler Bob Gibson in Game 5. Yogi Berra managed the Yankees in that last year of Yankee glory, '64. Johnny Keane became the manager in '65, moving over from the Cardinals. Tresh played all three outfield positions.
Like Mantle, Tresh was a switch-hitter. Tresh was awarded a Gold Glove for his fielding. Offensively he had impact too in '65, as he batted .279 with 26 home runs and 74 RBIs. The Yankee decline wasn't all that evident in early-season. June 6 saw the Yankees thump the White Sox 12-0 as Tresh hit home runs in his first three plate appearances! The first of those blasts came right-handed, the next two lefthanded. Mantle was fading, plagued by physical problems. He needed to rest a lot.
Tresh was often called upon to bat cleanup. Tresh did fine in '65 but the Yankee luster was gone. The real knockout blow was applied by our Twins just before the All-Star break. Harmon Killebrew hit a hugely dramatic home run to send our Met Stadium crowd into a frenzy.
Injuries were a factor as the Yankees were presented with adversity. Reading about this makes me realize the frailty of so many pro athletes. As kids we didn't have adequate appreciation. We'd read about a player being out with injury for a certain period of time. We didn't realize that so many of the injuries would have long-lasting effects. Kubek had to retire because of a neck injury. His replacement, Ruben Amaro, was injured early in '66 when he and Tresh collided. Amaro was out for the season with a knee injury. Keane got the ax in mid-season which was a very unusual move for the Yankees. But the days of glory were clearly over for that generation of Yankee players.
New manager Ralph Houk moved Tresh to third base. Tresh had played shortstop when he won Rookie of the Year. Tresh showed power at the plate but languished with his average. The Yankees finished last in '66 with a record of 70-89. Then in 1967, the specter of injury loomed for Tresh. It happened in spring training: his right knee failed him. He writhed on the ground in pain, having just made a throw across his body. Initially a mere strain was diagnosed, but no, it was more serious. It was a case of loose cartilage.
Tresh tried playing with the injury. The injury became aggravated. Tresh became a shadow of his former self as a hitter. Mickey Mantle retired. The aura of the early '60s Yanks was lost in history. Tresh left the game at age 32.
Non-superstar players in those days did not get independently wealthy. So Tresh did the common type of things to stay financially solvent. He operated a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in his home state of Michigan. Later he joined his alma mater of Central Michigan as an administrator in the alumni and placement offices. He was assistant baseball coach at CMU for 14 years. He participated in Yankee fantasy camps.
Tresh left us for that baseball diamond in the sky, becoming one of those "Angels in the Outfield" in 2008. A heart attack felled him. He was survived by four children. His was a blessed life and blessed baseball career. Think back to the 1962 World Series. It doesn't get any better than that. Tom Tresh, RIP.
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com