Friday, December 16, 2016

The Force is strong as ‘Star Wars’ returns with ‘Rogue One’

By Steve Crum
Compelling and literally action-jammed from the get-go, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story can be appreciated as a stand alone sci-fi adventure. That translates to anyone who has not seen the other seven Star Wars movies should enjoy Rogue One. However, diehard fans will enjoy Rogue at least 10 times more. Director Gareth Edwards’ faithful telling makes this film so satisfyingly successful. 
Although part of its title is A Star Wars Story, Rogue One is more aptly Stars Wars Part III.5. Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay (based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta) involves a mission to steal plans for the evil Empire’s Death Star, which is directly linked to the premise of Star Wars: Part IV - A New Hope. And which is the very first  Star Wars movie released back in 1977. 
Yes, we’ve gone from Parts IV, V and VI to I, II and III. And then to Part VII. And now this one, sandwiched between III and IV. Never have such Roman Numerals meant so much to so many…fans. 
Whew. That all said, there are plenty of stylistic touches and new characters to make Rogue One seem fresh, which also invigorates the ongoing franchise. Considering other Star Wars movies are set to be released on a yearly basis until who knows when, this is more than just a newly hopeful development. 
The major fresh ingredient here is having a female lead, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is much in the spirit of Luke Skywalker. In a preface we learn she was separated from her parents, who were doomed on their home planet by Galactic Empire storm troopers. Sounds a bit like Luke’s tragic experience regarding his aunt and uncle, eh? 
Fifteen years later, Jyn joins the Rebel Alliance and teams with a variety of beings, some human, some not. Again, there is a similarity to the Skywalker/Han Solo crew. This time, however, we get Cassian Andor (Diego Luno), as a Rebel officer;  Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen), a blind, Samurai-type warrior; and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Reluctantly joining the team is ex-Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Forest Whitaker has a featured part as Saw Gerrera, a Clone Wars veteran. There is also the movie’s heroic comic relief droid K-2SO, in the metallic vein of C-3PO, voiced by Alan Tukyk. The 7’ 1” K-2SO was originally part of the Imperial force, but has been reprogrammed as a Rebel soldier. 
Together, they seek out the technical specs on how to destroy the planet-obliterating weapon, The Death Star. Remember that in A New Hope the plot involves using those plans to actually destroy the Death Star. See how all this neatly ties together? The blend truly is seamless. 
By the time this is published, when the film opens, most of the spoilers will be known, including returning Star Wars characters. Therefore, I won’t detail their cameos, but look for R2-D2 and C-3PO, Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), and Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa. Then there is also a bit with a certain Princess Leia, featuring a CGI’d Carrie Fisher. 
Two returnees who have major speaking roles are Darth Vader (again voiced by James Earl Jones), and (the late) Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Star head honcho. Cushing died 22 years ago, but through the brilliance of CGI effects + an unnamed voice artist, he lives again. It is incredible. 
Rogue One moves along for a zapping, breakneck 133 minutes. 


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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A-

Friday, November 18, 2016

Creatures are far cuter than terrifying in fun-filled ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’

By Steve Crum
The joyful absurdities and frightful images peppering the self-described Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are reason enough to see this fun flick. There is also an engaging performance by Eddie Redmayne, who has had a run of Oscar worthy turns over the past couple of years. In 2014, he won the Best Actor for playing Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything
His role as central character Newt Scamander is not much of an acting stretch, however, since he is repeatedly prone to display wonderment and slight reserve. But that is OK, since the role demands such and little more. Fantastic Beasts, after all, is from the Harry Potter school of actors who have learned to act and react against blue screen for effects that will be added later.
Speaking of Master Potter, J. K. Rowling wrote the Fantastic Beasts screenplay as well as the book it is based upon. Need I remind anyone she is also the author of all the Harry Potter books? This is her first attempt at adapting one of her works for the screen, and she does a good job, despite stretches of dialogue—and silence—that could have been tightened. Movie pacing is different from book pacing. 
So what we get with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is a sort of prequel to the Harry Potter series, even though there is no Harry himself depicted or referenced. But there is mention of Hogwarts, Potter’s wizard academy, as well as talk of a few familiar Potter characters. The story opens in 1926 New York City, as Redmayne’s Newt arrives by ship and goes through customs. He is carrying one medium-sized suitcase, but what a suitcase it is. It moves like there is something inside. There is. (Spoiler alert.) Magically past security, Newt wanders into NYC, and soon the first of many creatures is accidentally unleashed. 
Be aware that what follows is an outbreak of unique animals and insects that are either terrorizing or burglarizing Big Apple citizenry. Thank goodness for 21st Century digital effects, which make the impossible seem so real. The “beasts” are indeed “fantastic.” I have to mention my favorite, the first to escape Newt’s grasp. He/She/It is a Niffler, a platypus-looking cutie driven to steal jewelry and coins via pickpocketing and outright store and bank break-ins. This comedy relief creature should be a merchandizing goldmine since it’s already being sold as a toy this Christmas season.
Turns out that there is a literally underground witch and wizard society in NYC, and when they get wind of Newt’s arrival, he is under severe scrutiny. He is particularly targeted by the most evil among them, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell). There is also a Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) that seeks to track and control the wizard/witch population. So enters Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), who is assigned to accompany Newt and monitor his activities during his visit as a rep of the Ministry of Magic.
Integral to the likability of Fantastic Beasts is the totally human character, Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), who crosses paths with Newt by accidentally switching suitcases with him. 
A dozen-plus characters of various degrees of humanity and outer worldliness round out the fantasy tale. Look for Jon Voight (a powerful magnate), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack the goblin gangster), and…a secret already disclosed publicly…Johnny Depp as Gellert Grinedelwald, a dark wizard. Depp is slated to have a much larger part in the next Newt Scamander film, out in two years. 
Bets are on that this will be a mega-hit since four sequels are planned with release dates of two years apart. Director David Yates, who helmed the last four Harry Potter movies, is slated to handle all of Newt’s adventures. Whether or not Rowling plans to write future screenplays in the series is unknown. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Friday, September 30, 2016

‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ is imaginative, sensory treat

By Steve Crum
Although my favorite Tim Burton-directed film remains Big Fish, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is particularly appealing…and worthwhile entertainment. It is a visual delight,  which is no surprise due to Burton’s unique genius, ranking alongside 1990’s Edward Scissorhands in terms of bizarre story as well as empathetic characters. In Scissorhands there was one otherworldly being; in Peregrine’s there are multiple strange ones. And I mean very strange. 
Based upon Ransom Rigg’s 2011 novel of the same title, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been aptly described as a “dark fantasy film.” The story involves time travel, relationships, wildly gifted characters, and (supplying the film’s central conflict) evil forces. It has a PG-13 rating that should be called “a strong PG-13” due to violent and gross sequences that include eyeball eating. How’s that for a teaser?
Like the book, Jane Goldman’s screenplay centers on 16 year-old Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) whose close relationship with his storytelling grandfather Abraham Portman (Terence Stamp) prompts Jake’s journey to a remote island. There he finds the basis for his grandfather’s fairytales. All those childhood fantasies about a home for “peculiar” children are actually true, shockingly so. 
The children, aka “Peculiars,” are housed in an old mansion on the island, and supervised by protective headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green). Her wards are children ranging in age from  7-16. Each has specific abilities.
For example, Ella Purnell portrays Emma Bloom, a Peculiar who wears leaded boots to prevent her from floating away. Emma can also control weather and create giant liquid oxygen bubbles. That’s a handy plus for underwater activity. 
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Ella Purnell listens to directions from Tim Burton during filming.
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Another Peculiar is Millard Nullings, an invisible boy. Then there is the girl Claire with an extra mouth in back of her head…and the large mouth is filled with razor sharp teeth. Yum. Not to mention the boy Hugh whose stomach is swarming with bees, and the preteen Fiona who controls plant growth. Super strength, pyrokinesis, and death resurrection are possessed by the other kiddos. Even Miss Peregrine has a  couple of special abilities: time control + transforming into a falcon. 
The Peregrine “family” is in constant fear of being annihilated by the Nazis, the Wights, and the Hollows—the latter two led by Samuel L. Jackson’s determined Mr. Barron. To make matters worse for Peregrine, the literally empty-eyed Barron can transform himself into any other being. 
Nazis? Again, the story involves time travel. So there is shifting from the present to 1943 WWII. 
Besides being overlong (2 hours, 7 minutes) and having a slapdash ending, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a sensory treat. Imaginative set design, makeup, sound, and digital effects are superb. See it in 3D if possible. 
Burton has utilized stop motion photography in previous films, notably The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), and he effectively uses it again here in a great sequence of skeletons coming alive and even sword fighting. It is obviously a homage to Ray Harryhausen’s skeleton army scene in Jason and the Argonauts (1963). 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: B

Friday, September 9, 2016

‘Sully’ soars as heroic, breathtaking, truth-based story

By Steve Crum
Haven’t Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks already had their share of Oscar nominations? Regardless, it is likely they will receive another each for Sully. What a stunning, heroic story it is. The fact that Sully opens two days before the 15th anniversary of  the 9-11 attacks is undoubtedly no coincidence since this historically based story is all about human values and principles. And New York City is the backdrop. 
Based upon the non-fiction best seller Highest Duty, by Chesley Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow,  Sully (Sullenberger’s nickname) recounts the near tragic US Airways Flight 1549 flight of January 15, 2009—including its forced ditching in NYC’s Hudson River and the intensive investigation that followed. Not only have I never read the book, but knowing what happened following the incident escaped my knowledge. So I brought little to the proverbial plate as a member of the audience. That said, I know now—and you will too. Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki have done a superb job in covering the true story’s waterfront, wordplay intended. 
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Director Clint Eastwood and his star, Tom Hanks, confer off camera during filming.
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Plot spoilers do not apply much here, since a great deal of the story involves information generally known. For example, on that cold January day seven years ago, US Airways veteran pilots Captain “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) and First Officer Jeffery Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) boarded at LaGuardia Airport. The 155 passengers and crew, a full plane, buckled up for what everyone thought was a routine flight. About three minutes after takeoff, the plane encountered a large flock of birds that hit them head-on, knocking out both engines. 
Too far away from LaGuardia to return for landing, Sullenberger has 208 seconds to make a decision, choosing to set down on, and hopefully not under, the Hudson. Following the desperate call, a LaGuardia air traffic controller remarks to his fellow controller, “People don’t survive water landings.” 
The recreation of the rocky landing that occurs about an hour into the film, including the water rescue by combined military and NYC squads, is a spectacular site to behold. The intensity and terror of those minutes aboard the plane overwhelms. I found myself sobbing at one point, and that is a credit to Eastwood, the actors (particularly Hanks), Blu Murray’s effective editing, and CGI effects. Among the passengers is a baby with her parents, which would put any viewer over the emotional edge. And it all occurs in real time, abruptly and rapidly. Anyone who has ever flown undoubtedly has thought about a similar nightmare scenario. This is the most jarring sequence of an airplane emergency ever filmed. Seeing it on the IMAX screen heightens the experience. 
The final fourth of the film involves the National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into Sullenberger’s decision to water land, since computerized recreations indicate the plane could have returned to LaGuardia without any problem. Sully and Skiles hold firm on the Hudson River decision. 
Incidentally, the first part of the film focuses on Scully’s anxieties about the trial, which (hint) makes the incident itself a flashback. We also get to know his character better, including interactions with his wife Lorraine (Laura Linney) and various scenes of Scully’s history with airplanes as a young man. 
But it is the totally engrossing in-flight sequence that dominates Sully. Prepare your adrenaline. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale:A

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Enduring the Rotten Tomato of 1970: 'THE PHYNX'

By Steve Crum

I finally saw the notoriously bad 1970 "comedy," The Phynx (pronounce it like "The Finks") that TCM broadcast at 3 a.m. a few days ago. (I DVR'd it.) Having heard about this seldom shown movie for decades, I was compelled to see for myself how embarrassingly terrible it is. Tis true. It is dreadful, and both good and bad to view all the aged Hollywood stars who appear. I cannot imagine what it was like for them in the audience at the film's premiere.

Directed by a guy who should have known better, Lee H. Katzin (Le Mans, Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice?), the movie looks like a poor clone of TV’s The Monkees, but minus a much needed laugh track. Forced laughs ensue, including slapstick and misfired visual gags. Let’s also blame writers Stan Cornyn, Bob Booker and George Foster. These three had made their fame with comedy albums (Booker & Foster: The First Family, You Don’t Have to Be Jewish) and Frank Sinatra Grammy winning album liner notes (Cornyn).


Oh yes, the plot is all about rescuing elderly movie and TV stars who are held captive in Albania by Communists. The lengthy list of celebrities appearing with sparse dialogue includes: Joan Blondell, Martha Raye, Busby Berkeley, Xavier Cugat, George Jessel, Col. Harlan Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame, Huntz Hall, Leo Gorcey, Johnny Weismuller, Maureen O’Sullivan, Ruby Keeler, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, and Jay Silverheels (as Tonto). Clayton Moore was wise NOT to appear as The Lone Ranger. Instead, John Hart is the masked man, (Hart replaced Moore for one season of the TV series.) 

It's now available on Warner Archives DVD, if you must see the wretchedness for yourself.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Reimagined 'Ben-Hur' leaves one wanting, wanting to see 1959’s ‘Ben-Hur’

By Steve Crum
Let’s get the obvious question out of the way: Is the new Ben-Hur at least as good as the truly classic 1959 Ben-Hur? Answer: Nope. In fact, Ben-Hur 2016 would be a disappointment even if it were the very first version based upon the 1880 General Lew Wallace “Tale of the Christ.” It’s actually movie take five of the familiar story, including two silent Hurs produced in 1907 and 1925, and an animated version in 2003.
The oft told story involves Judah Ben-Hur, a Jewish nobleman in Jerusalem, who is falsely accused of trying to kill Roman leader Pontius Pilate. He is then imprisoned as a galley slave for many years, but eventually escapes. He then seeks revenge on his former friend, Messala, who is now a Roman soldier.  
This new and vastly unimproved Ben-Hur is not a total failure, however, since it does include most of the basics of Wallace’s original novel, which is a very compelling tale mixing religion, family values, political principles, love, action, and revenge. A person who has never seen director William Wyler’s ’59 extravaganza might find this Timur Bekmambetov directed picture somewhat interesting. The problem is Bekmambetov, whose main claim to fame is his helming of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), has infused his version with virtually zero emotional appeal. We should care greatly about the lead character Judah Ben-Hur, his strife ridden family, and—gasp—Jesus Christ. 
As both a critic and Christian, I was curious to see how, in these days of religious anxieties, the Christ character would be depicted—if at all. It turns out He has more screen time than in the 1959 film. The huge difference is Wyler portrayed Christ in a subtle but very effective manner, hardly showing his face, and with little dialogue. Bekmambetov shows Christ’s face several times, making sure each time that Christ emotes a familiar quotation from the Bible, such as “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” After a couple of these moments, which really jerk the pace and storyline of Ben-Hur out of whack, it seems like another episode of Jesus Christ’s greatest hits. His sequences end up diverting from instead of enhancing the plot. 
In the Wyler version, Christ is well characterized. In this new take, Christ is a caricature. Both Christian and non-Christian moviegoers should feel slighted at the latter. 
From all accounts, a lot of money was spent on this Ben-Hur, but it rarely shows. We seldom get to appreciate much of the elaborate, realistic looking sets and costumes since Bekmambetov tends to overuse closeups and hand-held camera shots. Hand-held cameras used in either crowded fight scenes or the touted chariot race sequence are a cheap way to suggest action and movement, avoiding precise stunt work and/or the expense of CGI effects. This is not saying there is not precision camerawork utilized in the finale’s chariot race, so why even have any distracting jiggly camera? It makes the audience aware of the technique, which detracts from the storytelling. Additionally, many scenes are shot at night, making images difficult to see.
As for the acting, Ben-Hur includes some obvious talents—one well known (Morgan Freeman as Sheik Ilderim, the horse trainer) and several lesser known, particularly Jack Huston as Judah Ben-Hur. Huston, who was fantastic on TV’s Boardwalk Empire, is part of Hollywood’s famous Huston family, his aunt being Anjelica. Toby Kebbell is credible as Messala, Ben-Hur’s childhood friend—kind of an adoptive brother—who becomes an officer in the Roman army and mortal enemy to Ben-Hur and his family. 
But alas, writers Keith Clarke and John Ridley (12 Years a Slave) have fashioned a reimagined Ben-Hur that chops the story several ways, and opening with the otherwise finale chariot race! Then we segue into the past. Then the narrative takes sudden turns in location, omitting several subplots previously used—like the rescue of a Roman officer by Ben-Hur after the warship sinks. This kind of omission does not bother me as much as the blurring of time and sequence in the overall telling. 
In short, Ben-Hur looks less like a true movie spectacle, and more like the crop of lackluster “Christian produced” message movies that have been infrequently released over the past decade. Like them, the acting, dialogue, cinematography and score are pedestrian at best. A classier presentation would have conveyed this tale of the Christ-influenced Ben-Hur much more effectively. Ironically, this 2016 Ben-Hur has eliminated the subtitle prominent in the 1959 version, “A Tale of the Christ,” substituting “Brother Against Brother, Slave Against Empire.” Go figure.
Finally, there is a major flaw that really ruins the movie: the cornball, cliched, and unacceptable conclusion. I will not give it away, except to comment that it involves Ben-Hur and Messala…following the chariot race. It appears that when the movie was screened early on, the audience demanded a rewritten conclusion. So he, she or they were compensated with a surprise ending that looks like it was tagged on. It is dreadful. 
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: D-

Friday, August 12, 2016

Streep as operatic Florence Foster Jenkins is superb, along with entire movie

By Steve Crum
Now and then over the past 40 years or so I would hear of the legendary Florence Foster Jenkins, the self-proclaimed coloratura soprano who lived from 1868-1944. Each time during the discussion, I always said that Hollywood should make a movie of her eccentric life. Now it has finally happened, and the world is better for it. Florence only made a handful of private recordings, four of which can be accessed on YouTube. But before you go there, realize she was then, in the early part of of the 20th Century, and is now considered the worst singer, opera or otherwise, of all time. And Meryl Streep, who is padded to look frumpy, portrays her—wonderfully—in the succinctly named film, Florence Foster Jenkins
As written by Nicholas Martin and directed by Stephen Frears (Philomena, The Queen), Florence Foster Jenkins is biographical, but not all-encompassing, since it centers only on the last year of her life in 1944. By this stage in Jenkins’ life, the wealthy New York heiress felt empowered to share her life long love of opera with the world. For years she headlined her own per se music club, and dabbled in singing for club members who seemed appreciative of her musical “gift.” The fact that Jenkins was rich and a socialite no doubt influenced their tin-eared adoration. However, Florence herself was truly tone deaf, and never heard herself except as the most skilled singer of opera. 
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ABOVE: The real and imagined (Meryl Streep) Florence Foster Jenkins.
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As viewers and listeners of this film, we DO hear her voice, which Meryl Streep emulates perfectly….that is, with perfectly awful pitch. Florence had true fingernails-on-chalkboard voice talent. 
Yet, as depicted in this movie, Florence is surrounded by enablers who tell her otherwise. There is her younger husband St. Clair Bayfield, impressively played by Hugh Grant—his best role in years. Add her club members, who seem to thrive on her every musical note. Then there is the legendary conductor, Arturo Toscanini (John Kavanagh), and a suffering vocal instructor, whose loyalty and perseverance is encouraged by the extravagant fees for her lessons. 
Then a young piano accompanist is hired, Cosmé McMoon (The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg), who at first laughs out loud at Florence’s grating voice. He is set straight, however, by Florence’s husband, St. Clair. So at risk of losing his new job, Cosmé suppresses his giggles. Thus, this sweet, kind, narcissistic lady continues to live her illusion.
Half-way through Florence Foster Jenkins, the laughs end for us as well since her obsession to become a major singing star has downturns. Her vision of grandeur has propelled her into a self-financed booking at no less than Carnegie Hall. The concert, which is recreated, results in a gamut of emotions both in the audience and on stage.
Threading throughout the story is the unique (to say the least) relationship between Florence and St. Clair. While they are happily (common law) married and devoted to each other, he maintains a sexual relationship with his mistress, Kathleen Weatherly (Rebecca Ferguson). He usually kisses his wife good night, and then totters off across town to his apartment to sleep with Kathleen. It is implied that Florence's long time medical condition (syphilis) inhibits a similar relationship with her husband. 
Do you now understand why I always thought Florence’s story could make a great movie? Well, we have it here. Florence Foster Jenkins is undoubtedly the best movie of 2016 so far, and seems out of place in—as usual—a summer of comic book superheroes. Streep, Grant and Helberg are Oscar worthy. So are the direction and writing, as well as Alexandre Desplat's score.
Not to mention the potato salad in the bathtub. Er, you have to see it to believe it.
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GRADE on an A-F Scale: A

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Remembering Pete Fountain, nearly 49 years ago

When the great New Orleans clarinetist Pete Fountain headlined my Emporia, Kansas college Homecoming in 1967, I was a sophomore assigned to review the occasion for The Bulletin, student newspaper of Kansas State Teachers College (now Emporia State University).  It is republished here in response to Pete Fountain’s recent death at 86 on Aug. 6, 2016. I have included copies of the original story and photo as published Nov. 15, 1967.
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By Steve Crum
This guy, Pete Fountain, he started out with Lawrence Welk? Nothing against Mr. Welk, but really, Fountain really swings. 
Last Saturday night, Nov. 11, Pete Fountain and his band played in Emporia. It was an evening of polished New Orleans Jazz. The entire program was superbly performed. It did swing.
Pete Fountain, the New Orleans clarinetist who keeps making good, was backed by nine musicians, each having an extensive background in Southern jazz. As opposed to the Preservation Hall jazz group which played in Emporia over a month ago, the Fountain group can be best thought of as the current trend setters of Dixieland jazz. The entire presentation is updated: matching blue tuxedos (the first half of the show, and then matching red), polished instruments and arrangements, and a more rehearsed flavor through the entire show.
The songs, however, were very much the same. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “Heartaches” are but two of the seemingly endless stockpile of songs to come out of the Southland. 
The audience turned out in a rather impressive number, especially considering that My Fair Lady (at the college theater) drew a good portion of the Homecoming crowd. Those who attended the Fountain show were no less than super enthusiastic. It was a fitting reaction to the quality of the show.
In addition to music, there was comedy. A trombonist strained a rather good Louis Armstrong impression, and throughout the entire show, the xylophonist, Godfrey Hirsch (who looks remarkably like Allen Funt), offered his frequently hilarious mannerisms which served as silent commentary.
The entire group, which Fountain fondly refers to as “The Lawrence Welk Rejects,” played very well.
The Teachers College Homecoming ’67 ended on a harmonious note, with a memorable combination of Pete Fountain Dixieland and Hornet Football victory. 
And Silent Joe rang out, “A one-uh, a two-uh….”
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Note : “Silent Joe” was (and is) the school’s bell tower located at the football stadium. After each football victory, it rings. When Emporia loses, the bell remains silent.