Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Breathing celebrity air with...FORREST J. ACKERMAN

By Steve Crum

I made Forry Ackerman laugh. Forrest J. Ackerman aka Forry aka The Ackermonster was a special guest at the fun Area 51 Festival held June 15-21, 2001 in Independence, Mo. He spoke on stage between screenings of classic science fiction movies The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing From Another World. Forry watched the films as an audience member too--films he had undoubtedly seen a hundred times since his 1916 birth. 

Actors Billy Gray and Robert Cornthwaite were also there in person. As a child actor, Gray secured his place in movie martyrdom in 1951's The Day the Earth Stood Still. Cornthwaite's portrayal of the driven lead scientist in The Thing has immortalized him to sci-fi buffs. 

Incidentally, it is Forry Ackerman who created the phrase "sci-fi," repeatedly used in his classic, influential magazine, "Famous Monsters of Filmland." Ackerman, who died on Dec. 4, 2008, was a major cultural influence by legitimizing horror and sci-fi movies to the masses. He shared his passion for being awed by fantasy and terror with the world, a love geeks like yours truly have maintained. In fact, we are no longer considered geeks. 

That is, unless one dresses up like a superhero or creature outside of Halloween. That is pretty geeky. 

During a lengthy break in the Area 51 festivities, Ackerman sat behind a table, signing photos of himself for fans. I stood in the long line to meet and greet the man, and get a signed pic. He had brought stacks of 8x10's with him in various poses. There was one of him with Vincent Price, one with Boris Karloff, and one by himself. I chose the one with Price. 

Before he signed, however, he asked for the $5 fee. I proceeded to pull a five inch wide $5 bill facsimile out of my wallet, adding, "I'm sorry, I just brought a little money with me." It was a guaranteed groaner I have pulled on friends for years. 

Forry Ackerman laughed. Big time. In fact, he guffawed. 

This is the man known for writing excruciatingly bad (which means good) puns in his magazines for decades. 

He checked over my fake bill as he kept laughing. Then I traded it for a real five spot. He signed the photo for me, and I thanked him. He was still laughing when the next in line approached.
Let's take a personally guided tour of The Ackermansion with none other than Forrest J. Ackerman:

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Carrot Top gives audience what they apparently want, sad to say

(This review of comedian Carrot Top’s performance in Kansas City, Kansas was published in The Kansas City Kansan on June 23, 1995.)

By Steve Crum

Opening amidst smoke, strobe lights, The Little Rascals’ theme music and an M-80 explosion, wildly orange-red-haired comedy-propster Carrot Top (Scott Thompson) treated the obviously delighted 1,000-plus at Memorial Hall Saturday night to an hour and 45 minutes of sometimes goofy, too often vulgar, and frequently inventive laughs. 

Labeled his “Junk in a Trunk Tour,” representing Carrot Top’s stage setting of numerous trunks (he pulled humorous inventions from five of them), the evening showcased the Carrot-man’s talent for visual, topical humor. A “Mark Fuhrman tool belt” had a half dozen bloody gloves Velcroed around it. Showing some versatility, CT cleverly excerpted about 15 rock stars in the finale. 

So why then does Carrot Top resort to using the “f” word so frequently? Why are so many jokes built around sexual and bathroom humor (he uses a dozen toilet seats in his act) as well as ethnic putdowns of Vietnamese and Middle Easterners? My answer is The Carrot is no different from too many currently popular funny men in using what used to be considered (and I still do) offensive humor. 

He gives his people what they want. The 20-ish audience certainly wanted it. In fact, throughout the evening, several fans shouted obscenities to Carrot Top. Only once was he momentarily stunned at what cannot be printed here. 

Undoubtedly, the loose attitude of the audience was encouraged by the permissible beer drinking that occurred within the auditorium all evening. The drinking, as well as widespread cigarette smoking, was irritating and distracting. However, Carrot Top used the drinking to his advantage, borrowing a front rower’s plastic glass of suds and chug-a-lugging it to his sound man’s cue-up of the Cheers theme. The audience ate…er, drank it up. 

Just a quick thanks to Memorial Hall’s crack security team for their polite harassment of yours truly. Right after the warm-up comedian began (a funny 15-minute spin by Patrick Simpson), security interrupted me as I sat in the audience and asked for my ticket, signature, and address. Embarrassing enough. Minutes later the same guy appeared, and ordered me to accompany him out of the auditorium and to the security room. Behind a closed door, I shared my ticket and press pass with three security guys. After 10 minutes, a honcho said he thought he knew the problem, so I was told “sorry” and permitted to return to my seat. Never was I told what the problem was and my supposed part in it. Mistaken identity, evidently. But hey, being treated like a criminal is always a great way to make friends and influence critics.

The end of Carrot Top’s showtime (a standing ovation) seemed to justify the means, which included latex sexual props, and a far too long demonstration of how men (including John Bobbitt) and women urinate in the snow. 

Calling Carrot Top a roadshow Gallagher (another prop comic) is an injustice. Gallagher’s watermelon bashing act has less crass and more class. 
Carrot Top in action on The Arsenio Hall Show:

Romantic films worth seeking out for Valentine’s Day

[Note: Published on February 10, 1995 in The Kansas City Kansan, this article references movie titles from 19+ years ago. It has been somewhat edited since VHS has since given way to DVDs. This affected my original introduction and conclusion. I realize there have been many Valentine-appropriate flicks since then, but not addressed here.] 

By Steve Crum

“Where do I begin…” asks the musical question in the 1970 hit song, “Theme from Love Story,” and with that romantic day in February just a few roses away, a loving look at Valentine’s Day movies is appropriate. So add a couple of logs in the fireplace, snuggle up, and tenderly watch a film at least partially devoted to love. Most if not all these titles are available on DVD—or via stream, cable, satellite, pay-per-view, Red Box, pony express rider….
THE ABYSS (1989)
On the surface, so to speak, it might not seem to be a love story. But one fathoms it truly is after Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio is forced to die, trusting her husband (Ed Harris) to bring her back to life. She does, and he does.

The love story between Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn is the strength of this film, sweetheart. 

One o fthe great love stories, this animated musical version is also a Broadway hit. Check out the non-musical versions from ’46 and ’63. Also see the very stretched interpretations from 1933 and 1976: King Kong. (Don’t forget the former’s closing line: “Twas beauty that killed the beast.”)

Two Generation-Xers meet on a train in Europe and decide to spend the night walking around Vienna together, and talk and talk and talk. If watching two people trying to put the make on each other for two hours is entertainment, be sure to see it. This critic left the theater before sundown. A better bet is the vastly superior inspiration, 1945’s Brief Encounter.

Makes the list just for its hit theme song, “Moon River,” if nothing else. But Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard make it that something else.

Well, at least Boris Karloff’s monster falls madly in love with his stitched-up soul mate. Sadly, it is unrequited love; Frankenstein’s womanster screams her borrowed guts out when she first sees him. 

The best screwball comedy ever made is also one of the funniest love stories. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant are the duo. “Baby” is a leopard. (Note that Cary does not say, “Judy, Judy, Judy” in this or any of his films.) The remake, What’s Up Doc?, is just as zany.

Albert Brooks wrote this romantic fantasy-comedy about life and love in the hereafter. Meryl Streep co-stars. 

The king of all love stories for many, perhaps because of King Clark Gable as Rhett and Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett. 

Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable each eventually fall in love with the man instead of the money in this sophisticated comedy.

Seldom seen Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine comedy directed by Billy Wilder centers on a Parisian cop and his hilarious devotion to a prostitute girlfriend. 

An extremely romantic fantasy-adventure about two lovers cursed to spend alternating hours with each other as a hawk and a wolf. No, this is not a dog. 

Lucy and Desi star in the best of the two features they made together. 

Take notes on this one. The 1937 version with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunn spawned the 1994 remake with Warren Beatty and Annette Bening. In between there was the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr ’57 version (An Affair to Remember) which was a more direct inspiration for the ’93 Sleepless in Seattle. Got it? You’ll be tested. 

Sure it is sappy and maudlin, and sure it was the apex of Ryan O’Neal’s career. But it sure made a lot of people cry buckets of cash at the box office.

Probably 90 percent of musicals have a love story as the central theme. Some of the most musically romantic are 1967’s Camelot, 1951’s An American in Paris, 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain, 1982’s Victor/Victoria, and My Fair Lady (1964). Add to this list the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical library and the Astaire-Rogers set. Factor in 1953’s Calamity Jane, 1956’s High Society, 1982’s Gigi, and Grease (1982). Need we mention the Elvis lineup? 

John Candy shines as a lonely guy just trying to fall in love in spite of mother Maureen O’Hara’s control.

Of the Preston Sturges written-directed comedies, this one and 1941’s The Lady Eve are sophisticated gems dealing with gotten and misbegotten relationships.

PICNIC (1953)
A love story set and shot in Kansas, and one of the most hotly romantic. The film that asks us to pull for Kim Novak to catch up with William Holden on the departing train.

ROMEO AND JULIET (1936, ’66, ’68)
Hollywoodized Shakespeare is still super romantic with two young lovers willing to live and literally die for each other. 

Purely romantic vehicle of two who work in the same store, unknowingly writing pen-pal letters to each other. Remade as the musical In the Good Old Summertime with Judy Garland nine years later. 

A weeper with a tearful ending, starring Christian Slater as a loner with a baboon’s heart (for real—“untamed”!) who becomes the love interest of waitress Marisa Tomei. 

And remember that love means to kindly rewind. (This was my original videotape-referenced tag line.) 
My favorite date flick, Camelot:

Jerry Lewis’ genius continues in 'Damn Yankees’

[Note: This review originally appeared in The Kansas City Kansan on Nov. 10, 1995. The KC performance was part of a world tour that began when the Broadway run ended.]

By Steve Crum

There is good reason why the name Jerry Lewis is listed above the title in the revival of Damn Yankees, playing at Kansas City, Missouri’s Midland through Sunday. As good a production as it is, and this Broadway beaut is superb, it is star Lewis we anticipate. The star delivers. 

From his puffed-smoke entrance 10 minutes into Act 1 (as Applegate, the devil) to the rousing curtain call finale, King Clown reigns. Even at 69. Even though there is at times just the suggestion of that wiry, frenetic Borscht Circuit comic kid. Even when he is not on stage. If only Charisma by Jerry Lewis could be bottled.

Lewis is complemented by a polished cast and company, helmed by director Jack O’Brien, many who were part of the original Broadway revival troupe. Together they musically tell the story of a middle-aged Joe Boyd (a solidly heartwarming turn by Dennis Kelly) who trades his soul to the devil in return for a chance to be a young  baseball home runner with the Washington Senators. As young Joe, David Elder is exceptional, particularly in the “A Man Doesn’t Know" number.

Valerie Wright’s Lola, who is showcased in the originally Bob Fosse choreographed “Whatever Lola Wants” and the always fun to see “Who’s Got the Pain” number, is electric. Rob Marshall’s adapted choreography throughout, in fact, is clever and precise. Note the nifty “Blooper Ballet.” 

Susan Bigelow’s Meg (Joe’s loving, lonely wife) and Linda Gabler’s sports reporter, Gloria Thorpe, give energetic, fine work. The 1955 score by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross has never sounded fresher, even after repetitions of “Heart,” the play’s most enduring tune. 

But it comes back to Lewis’ Applegate to clearly steal the show. It happens during an Act 2 point in the devil’s solo, “Those Were the Good Old Days,” when it becomes Lewis’ Lewis. That is when he interpolates the tried and true Jerry Lewis cane catching routine. 

It is a clown trick we always enjoy seeing, especially when the clown is Jerry Lewis. 
The story behind the feud between Jerry Lewis and Bing Crosby:

Saturday, February 8, 2014


At 123 long, long minutes, The Eddy Duchin Story (1956) remains an incongruous musical biography centering on 1930’s-‘40s society pianist-bandleader Eddy Duchin, impressively portrayed by Tyrone Power. The script meanders through bouts of mental and physical illness sandwiched between great interpretations of a dozen or so tunes from the Great American Songbook. That said, this is arguably the darkest movie musical ever produced…outside the death-themed All That Jazz (1979).

However, there are two magical scenes that have made me watch The Eddy Duchin Story at least a dozen times. One is set during WWII when Duchin is stationed on a Pacific island. At this stage in the story, Duchin is wallowing in depression, having given up playing the piano due to tragic circumstances back home. 

While in a native village, he stumbles upon a dilapidated upright in a shack, and starts noodling “Chopsticks.” A local boy enters and encourages Duchin to play more. Duchin has the kid bang some keys in accompaniment as he goes full force into the old standard. An appreciative crowd immediately gathers amongst the surrounding bomb rubble in what turns out to be a joyful, energizing sequence.

The other memorable moment is the film’s celebrated tearjerker finale, wherein Duchin and his young son Peter (Rex Thompson) sit down at twin, facing grand pianos to duo-play the film’s theme song, “To Love Again” (adapted from “Chopin’s Nocturne Op. 9 in E Flat Major”). By this time, Eddy’s imminent death (due to leukemia, but never said in the film) is known by his son and others, so it is an emotional wallop when a closeup shows his hands convulse and move out of view. The camera then pulls back, revealing an empty seat where Eddy was sitting. His son is still playing—now solo. Music segues into a full orchestra conclusion. Just try to swallow and hide the tears when “The End” appears on screen. 
Now, 58 years later, Eddy’s son Peter is an elderly, semi-retired pianist who has had a fine career himself. 

Incidentally, Tyrone Powers’ piano playing was dubbed by Carmen Cavallero. It is his hands we see playing in closeups, but Powers is totally convincing in his body language. 

Eddy Duchin died of acute myelogenous leukemia at age 41, five years before The Eddy Duchin Story opened. 
Enjoy the great "Chopsticks" sequence:

Writing soundtrack music with David Raksin

By Steve Crum

No fooling, I spent April 1, 1989 with David Raksin, “The Grandfather of Film Music.” That is, he was my teacher for the day in a Saturday class held in Overland Park, Kansas via a seminar series produced and moderated by Prof. John Graves of Central Missouri State University. Having the esteemed composer Raksin as guest instructor was a highlight of the class. 

Best known as the composer of Laura (1944), Raksin composed over 100 films and over 300 TV scores. His credentials date back to orchestrating Modern Times (1936) in collaboration with Charlie Chaplin. Lecturing to our class was undoubtedly familiar to Raksin since he was then a full time instructor-lecturer at the University of Southern California. He flew in to do this KC gig, and then returned to the West Coast. 

I spoke to him during a break, and found him to be very comfortable and personable. Like during his presentation, he talked of working with Gershwin and Chaplin, and his philosophy of composing. “I’m not so elaborate in theories,” he said. “I just sit down and write a few notes.” Those “few notes” translated into the likes of scores for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) and Forever Amber (1947). 

To illustrate his point of film being “an art of components,” Raksin showed the class a clip of Laura without music, and then with the score added. He also included the same scene with annotated timing marks used in the scoring process—fascinating stuff I had never seen before. 

He spoke of Alfred Newman’s butting creative heads with director George Stevens over the scoring of The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965); and of his own disappointment that much of his music was cut from the TV movie, The Day After (1983). Nicholas Meyer, the director, thought “the use of too much music would manipulate the audience.”

Raksin also conflicted with director Nicholas Rey on Bigger Than Life (1956). While Rey wanted a bombastic musical effect at one point, Raksin objected, eventually winning his point for a more inert, moody feel. “Music has to say something,” Raksin said, “to assert itself.” 

The first time I heard the term “Mickey Mousing” was through David Raksin at this seminar. The phrase refers to the sound-effecting of music to directly fit with the film’s action. Cartoons use this technique virtually all the time, which is the origin of the term. 

Referencing Laura, his signature film score, Raksin said director Otto Preminger wanted him to write hardcore detective music, but “I saw it as a picture about love.” His choice won out, and fabulously so. It is unimaginable to think of Laura without that haunting theme.

Working with the Gershwins as orchestrator on The Goldwyn Follies (1938) had particular challenges like “doing six weeks work in two weeks” of orchestrating the ballet sequence. Then there was Forever Amber, a major test for Raksin since it required “114 minutes of music.” 

Some of Raksin’s then current favorite film composers were Dave Grusin, Jerry Goldsmith, and John Williams. On that topic, he talked with disdain about the trend away from original film music to the use of pop music. (He would no doubt be livid about rap’s prevalence in movies.) Using electronics in scoring is “a choice by the studio based on money, and not necessarily art.” 

“Today we have A&R people making decisions as to what’s good for the recording subsidiary, and not what’s good for the movie,” Raksin said. “I don’t go to movies to listen to a record album.” Raksin emphasized he is not interested in writing rock music scores.

To be a successful film composer takes “guts, a gift, and the ability to educate oneself.”  
David Raksin was one of several guest lecturers John Graves arranged for his Creative Complex in Film and Television seminars which featured nationally noted film and television professionals. Earlier in his career, Graves served as producer and executive with three TV networks. Medical Center and The Courtship of Eddie’s Father were among his producing credentials. When he moved from mainstream Hollywood to a professorship in mass communications at Warrensburg, Mo., he benefited from his California contacts. So did his students. Thanks to Graves, an array of celebrities flew to the Midwest to participate in his seminars. I enrolled in three of his classes, thoroughly enjoying every minute. 

Assisting Graves was Michael Sevareid, an adjunct lecturer in mass media at SMSU and former Hollywood producer, writer, and actor. His father was the acclaimed Eric Sevareid of CBS News.

John Graves has long since retired from teaching, and David Raksin died in 2004. 
David Raksin plays his most famous composition, "Laura": 

Thursday, February 6, 2014


There should be a reality TV show of outtakes from public TV’s Antiques Roadshow, including pricey vases, ceramics, porcelains, paintings, etc. that were accidentally dropped, chipped, ripped or shattered by either the expert or owner during a taping. Call it Jackass Antiques Roadshow.
Enjoy this cute parody of an Antiques Roadshow segment:

Movie Asides: 'MUD' (2013)

About 40 minutes into what I consider Matthew McConaughey's true breakout film, Mud, I thought, "Here's a McConaughey movie, and for the first time he has not taken off his shirt." Honest to God, a minute later there was a cut to him shirtless.

Here is the trailer to Mud:

Monday, February 3, 2014

The World's Greatest Entertainer & The Perfect Fool...

A seldom seen photo of two showbiz greats, Al Jolson and Ed Wynn, sharing a laugh at the Friars Club Testimonial for Ronald Reagan, April 2, 1950. Six months later, after returning from entertaining our troops in Korea, Jolie died.
Check out this rarely seen footage of Ed Wynn rehearsing his 1950 TV show: