Friday, December 12, 2014

Christmas Comes Early in Woodland Hills

When you visit California, pop culture geeks tend to flock to two stores. Larry Edmund's Bookshop and Eddie Brandt's Saturday Matinee. The former managing to keep afloat against  internet commerce by making themselves the premiere venue for West Coast autographs when celebrities have their latest autobiography published. But there is a third venue that isn't talked about as frequent and before you visit eBay this week, asking the vendor questions, shopping for the best prices and wondering if what you are buying off the internet is represented honestly in the item descriptions... consider Dan and Scott Schwartz at Baseball Cards - Movie Collectibles, Inc. in Woodland Hills, California. I had the privilege of visiting the store, and meeting with Schwartz, a Brooklyn-born native and owner, who offered to assist me with anything my heart desired.

A vintage advertisement of The Cisco Kid on radio and television? Check. Two Big Little Books of The Lone Ranger which I did not have in my collection? Check. Looking for Hopalong Cassidy merchandise? He has an entire glass case filled with Hoppy toys and puzzles and books. From Disney's Davy Crockett to Zorro, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, press books, magazines... it is all here.

I searched his massive photograph collection to discover he had at least three thick files of photos (with press releases) from the Golden Age of Radio and it only took a few minutes to find a publicity photo of Rosemary Rice from The Adventures of Archie Andrews. If you need photographs for a magazine article, book or simply to use for mounting with a piece of Hollywood memorabilia, this is the place you want to contact. 

His phone number, before I forget, is 818-610-2273 and his e-mail is moviecollectible@aol.com 

Sure, there was sports memorabilia and sports cards on display, but while I enjoy a good baseball game, I was really there to check out the merchandise.

One of the cool things about attending conventions such as the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention is a room consisting of 200 vendor tables of merchandise ranging from celebrity autographs, movie posters, lobby cards, arcade cards, vintage toys and other collectibles. A brick and mortar store containing this kind of stuff is becoming obsolete and restricted to people's basements where they operate a business from their computer. So you can imagine my pleasure when everything I could ever want was hanging on the walls. The photo above shows an autographed photo of Loretta Young, a custom painting of Tom Mix and an original movie poster for a Roy Rogers movie.


There were a few surprises such as an autographed letter of Clara Bow, the silent screen actress, framed with two glossy photos of her on each side. Retail value is hard to determine because the cost of autographs is relative between seller and buyer. Asking price? $300. And I have never seen an authentic Clara Bow autograph before with my own eyes.


Imagine my surprise when I came across Harry Lauter's Silver Boot Award. I am sure there is a story behind this one. You don't come across these every day and they are considered among the most treasured a screen cowboy could ever receive. Sure, it was slightly damaged, but I would have bet dollars over donuts that this would have been something never found on display in a collectible store. 


Big Little Books (later renamed Better Little Books) are not easy to find in good condition. If the cover is torn off, the book is worthless. But a tight spine and covers less worn add value. Certain topics like Mickey Mouse and The Lone Ranger go for more money than you would pay for other Big Little Books. As they age, the paper becomes more brown in color so try to find ones without a brown age and you might have something of value.


Comics are also a highlight of collectibles and the more expensive issues were on display high above the ground. You needed a ladder to reach them. But expensive issues are not only an investment, but require theft protection as well -- hence the display above.





The photo above makes me long for the metal lunch box I had when I was a child, including the plastic thermos that kept my milk cool. Over the years, lunch boxes were made of plastic instead of metal. Metal rusts -- so finding lunch boxes without rust is a plus. And color fades from use and wear and the sunlight so the brighter the color, the more value the lunch box has. 




Displays of old magazines protected in plastic remind me of the conventions where these issues were very expensive. Now, if you shop around and have patience, you can get them for a few bucks a piece. But beware of who is featured on the cover... that causes the value to increase... even if there is no article about them inside the pages.



Old radios and PEZ dispensers next to each other? Never thought that would happen. 


These bookshelf albums contain lobby cards and glossy photographs. And this might be the source you want to check out. Next time you need a photograph for a magazine article, book, or simply to collect for the purpose of framing with your treasured item (remember the Clara Bow piece above?), give them a call. They know their stuff and they might surprise you!


From action figures, board games, Disney memorabilia and other cool retro pop culture collectibles... the kind of stuff you normally find in vendor rooms at conventions... this was the kind of store you expected to snap your fingers and find it magically disappear as if you lived a dream. In the 30 minutes I spent in the store, I purchased five items (three rare photographs and two Big Little Books) and I knew I had to leave quickly before I found other items I could not live without. If you have empty display cases, book shelves or simply a bare wall, consider a quick drive over to Woodland Hills and add some decor to your house. And if you don't live close enough to drive over there, remember this place and the next time you venture to the West Coast, give them a call in advance to make sure they haven't moved to a new location and stop by and browse. For those of you who cannot fly to California, the photos here should give you a guided tour of the place.








Friday, December 5, 2014

Death Valley Days: The Christmas Radio Broadcasts

The Old Ranger
Formulaic and weekly radio broadcasts often steered away from the established formula – briefly – during the holiday season. When Death Valley Days premiered in the fall of 1930, the majority of radio broadcasts consisted of musical offerings and Christmas Carols that the American public often found on street corners and the local church were now a regular staple on the airwaves.

Hoping to provide a light-hearted look of peace and forgiveness through an intrinsic part of the regular broadcast season, Death Valley Days provided some of the more touching reminders that Christmas should be reflected 365 days a week. Because the program was a Western anthology, based on true accounts reported in newspapers and published reference guides, Death Valley Days was unable to reflect current domestic issues with a touch of the festivities. Since most radio programs ultimately accomplished that goal every December, Death Valley Days provided a unique perspective of a nostalgic time gone by… and in one case sprinkled with small opera. Where horror programs provided a more Charles Dickens-style of gothic story telling, and comedic sitcoms provided annual musical tributes, with Grumpy characters displaying a soft-heart, Death Valley Days chose to offer a slice of commercialism in the form of product placement.

Of the 714 radio broadcasts under the Death Valley Days name, the official count of radio broadcasts existing in recorded form is six. Two of them were recorded for historical reasons; four exist for varied reasons that remain unknown. The reason why the remaining 708 radio broadcasts do not exist was, according to an inter-office memo with the sponsor, the Pacific Coast Borax Company, and the advertising agency, McCann-Erickson, was a business decision. Executives at PCB saw no financial benefit to recording the broadcasts, beyond production costs, billed monthly. As a result, fans of the program seeking "lost" episodes have a challenge seeking out recordings of the radio broadcasts... they probably do not exist. The service provided by executives at McCann-Erickson was considered a "throw-away" product. After the completion of each broadcast, the scripts were piled in a box near the doorway to the studio and Ruth Woodman, the scriptwriter responsible for the transition of legends and lore of Death Valley to radio, was hard at work on the next production.

Radio script of DEATH VALLEY DAYS.
Thankfully, all of the radio scripts exist, providing details for archivists and historians to consult for documentary purposes. And a recent examination of those scripts reveals much more than the entries found in encyclopedias. Cast details now provide exact dates of when each actor played the role of The Old Ranger, the narrator of each broadcast. Missing titles have been filled in from a broadcast log compiled by Ray Stanich in the eighties. Music cues verify what songs The Singing Cowboy offered each week. Verification that the first few months of broadcasts were not adaptations of stories Ruth Woodman gathered out West during her business trips, but of material contained within encyclopedias and reference books about Death Valley.

The Furnace Creek Inn was built by the Pacific Coast Borax Company (of the Twenty Mule Team fame) as a means to save their newly built Death Valley Railroad. Mines had closed and shipping transportation was no longer needed, but mining tourist pockets seemed a sure way to keep the narrow-gauge line active. The Borax company realized travelers by train would need a place to stay and wealthy visitors accustomed to comfort would be attracted to a luxury hotel.

First opened for business in 1927, the Furnace Creek Inn was an immediate success. Unfortunately for the mining company, their railroad closed forever in 1930 when it became apparent tourists preferred the freedom of arriving to Death Valley in their own cars. This was where radio came in. The McCann-Erickson Advertising Agency gained the Pacific Coast Borax Company as a client in 1925, when they began a heavy magazine and newspaper campaign. In the summer of 1930, they encouraged their client to sponsor a radio program, Death Valley Days, and each week the dramas helped promote the strive of human nature amidst the conflict of man, beast and mother nature. Beginning in late November 1930, each broadcast closed with a mention about the Furnace Creek Inn, and radio listeners could write for a free pamphlet providing all the necessary details to vacation there during the holiday.

Furnace Creek Inn
For the broadcast of December 23, 1930, “Christmas at Furnace Creek Inn” provided two, fifteen-minute stories. A dramatization of the first Christmas that was ever observed in Death Valley, in 1849, when a group of emigrants looking for a short cut to the California gold fields, stumbled into Death Valley by mistake. The party of pioneers found themselves trapped in the Valley for months but never lost their faith and courage. Then The Old Ranger participated as a cast member in a dramatization of last year’s Christmas Party at Furnace Creek Inn, 1929, with Frank Tilton (retired driver of the 20-Mule Teams), John White (a.k.a. the Lonesome Cowboy), and a crowd of holiday visitors. White sang two Christmas songs and a young man recited a Death Valley version of “The Night Before Christmas.” A Wandering Minstrel performed a couple songs, and the cast closed the broadcast with a rendition of “Silent Night.” (One wonders since The Old Ranger was a fictitious character, was this drama historically accurate?)

A story from the pages of O. Henry was recycled for the December 21, 1931 broadcast, titled “Santa Claus Visits Death Valley.” In the mining camp of Yellowhammer, a white man named Cherokee purchases a sealskin coat, a team and a red sleigh, along with hundreds of toys. Having served as the civic father of the town, leaving to strike a vein and return a wealthy man, he returns to Yellowhammer for Christmas in the regalia of a fat man from the North Pole, complete with tinsel and trees… unaware that there are no women or children in town. The youngest kid in Yellowhammer packs a .45 and a safety razor. It didn’t take long for the whole town of Yellowhammer to approve of the scheme of importing a load of kids for Cherokee’s Christmas party. Everybody who knew of families with offspring within a forty-mile radius of the camp, came forward with information. But folks didn’t think kindly to the idea of parting with their children with strangers. The only child they could round up was a ten-year-old spoiled brat named Bobby, armed with a sharp tongue and likes to smoke tobacco. His widowed mother has been too busy putting food on the table to take care of his table manners. Bobby won’t cooperate during the festivities and Santa, a.k.a. Cherokee, arrives to discover his entire Christmas is spoiled for lack of children… until he discovers that Bobby’s mother has a photo of Cherokee in her bedroom. It only takes a couple minutes for Cherokee to realize that regardless of the fact that there are no women or children about… his Christmas is best served with the family he thought he lost – Bobby is his son.

Topical subject matter of the times, this episode opens with a man and woman seeking a child for Christmas, local charity organizations, church and an orphan asylum, only to discover that the demand for youngsters at Christmas time was so much greater than the supply.

In “Death Valley Pete’s Christmas Party,” broadcast December 22, 1932, a gathering of the relatives of Death Valley Pete on Christmas Day, 1883, is dramatized. In the old mining camp of Darwin, just beyond the Panamints, Death Valley Pete is longing for his own kin… but he knows of no one alive with his own flesh and blood, named Abercrombie. Taking advice from a lawyer, he places an ad in the newspaper. Pete struck a gold claim and made a hundred thousand dollars – and now fears that fakers from all over will stake a claim on him. But Pete wants only the legit for a Christmas dinner, completely surrounded by relatives. His fiancée, Madge, won’t have anything of it until she sees the black sheep of the family – every visitor arriving in town – and how Pete acts like a real gentleman on the occasion. After all, a man can’t help the relatives he’s got but thank God he can pick his own wife! (And yes, the Furnace Creek Inn was also promoted at the conclusion of the broadcast.)

Christmas was acknowledged in “Rates on Request,” broadcast December 21, 1933, but the drama did not take place during the holiday. The December 28 broadcast took place in a snowstorm, but again, did not take place during the holiday season. A seasonal offering was provided on December 20, 1934, “While Rome Burns,” dramatizing the events of December 23, 1923. Preparing for a Christmas party in a Nevada mining camp, the Christmas celebration put on by the church used to be a real community affair and everybody in the camp was invited. It didn’t make any difference who they were. But dance hall girls, tin-horns and bartenders were no longer invited. Late that evening, a fire broke out and several buildings caught flame as a result of the wind. Everything in the business section was wiped out along Main Street. Every store and restaurant and rooming house – and both churches. Everything went up in smoke – Christmas trees, gifts and everything necessary for the festivities. When dance hall girl Goldie discovers that children will go without presents or Santa Claus, she orchestrates a Christmas that the families will never forget. In the surviving church on the hill that night, a great tree glittered. Santa Claus distributed presents to every beaming child. And the prejudice found contentment at the organ as the crowd sang Christmas carols – three religious communities acting as one again.

Arno B. Crammerer
The December 19, 1935 broadcast offered a special “National Park Program,” dramatizing multiple events when people celebrated Christmas in Death Valley. The holiday theme provided a major public service: awareness of the United States National Park Service. Mr. Arno B. Crammerer, director of the U.S. NPS, gave a speech at the conclusion of the program, reminding them that Death Valley was one of the National Park monuments and the National Park was a logical product of our democracy.

In “…Children’s Faces, Looking Up,” broadcast December 25, 1936, widow Lottie Marvin is forced to stay home after the death of her husband, in order to care for her young son, severely injured in a fire. At first she debated going back to work, but when other employees of the mining office discovered she could babysit and feed their children for a small fee, she ultimately opened up a full-fledged day nursery. On Christmas Eve, she is offered her old job with more pay and weighs the heavy burden of making an important decision. When the children she took care of paid her a late-night visit singing Christmas Carols, she agrees that her self-employment is more important and counts her blessings.

The Old Ranger invites the radio listeners to imagine opening night of “Piper’s Opera House” on the evening of December 23, 1937, which opened doros for the first time on July 2, 1863. Virginia City had more money to pay for good entertainment and actors who had avoided mining camps, offered to appear at Piper’s. Singers touring the country included Virginia City in their itinerary. Famous lecturers traveled there. The drama included excerpts from the stage productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Hamlet and Rip Van Winkle, to name a few, the highlight came on December evening: the appearance of Adah Isaacs Menken in the role of the young hero in Mazeppa – the Wild Horses of Tartary… the most breath-taking experience that Piper’s ever offered.

Furnace Creek Inn
In “The Stranger Who Sang,” broadcast December 23, 1938, The Old Ranger recounts some years ago when the Furnace Creek Inn had just been built; just enough to accommodate a handful of guests. Roads through the desert were still questionable. There was no direct telephone communication to and from the Valley. It was no wonder that the little group of guests who gathered around the big stone fireplace at the Inn on that particular Christmas Eve felt drawn together by their sheer remoteness from the rest of the world. Fresh logs blazed up on the hearth, reflecting the frosty silver of desert holly, massed in bowls around the room. Stockings were hung from the mantle place for the only two children in the place. When The Old Ranger asks the children why they made the trek from Michigan to Death Valley, young Judy explains that her mother had pneumonia and the doctor said she has to be where it was warm and dry. With mother in bed resting, Judy is upset when the tradition of having “Away in a Manger” sung to her on Christmas Eve is thrwated – even though her mother said Christmas is still Christmas no matter where they are. A stranger shows up at the Inn, seeking tobacco to smoke, and hearing the children’s dilemma, sings the song. This leads to “Silent Night,” “Good King Wencelas” and “Oh, Holy Night.” The stranger takes leave of the Inn but before he goes, he thanks the children “for helping me to find again what I thought I had lost forever.” Judy asks if he is referring to his voice and the stranger replies, “Something infinitely more precious than that. Peace on earth.” The stranger was gone before any of them had time to realize that they never caught the name of the stranger. Several months later, The Old Ranger happened to pick up a copy of a San Francisco newspaper with the headline, “Singer Returns to the Concert Stage.” It read that Eric Holden, famous baritone who had not returned for over a full year since the death of his little daughter.

John White Sheet Music
Pacific Coast Borax obviously used Death Valley Days as a thirty-minute commercial for their vacation lodge, as well as promoting the benefits of Borax for use about the house. Christmas offered many challenges for Ruth Woodman, determined to find real stories about real people, for use on the program. But one thing was certain: Christmas was still commercial.

Episode Details

Episode #13  “CHRISTMAS AT FURNACE CREEK INN”
Broadcast Date: December 23, 1930
Script completed: December 13, 1930
Plot: The episode opens with The Old Ranger meeting a couple leaving Ludlow, California, about 175 miles from Death Valley, heading home to Kansas City for Christmas. The Old Ranger mentions he is traveling on the Tonopah and Tidewater, the railroad that the Pacific Coast Borax Company built to haul Borax. This episode featured two, fifteen-minute stories. The first dramatized the first Christmas that was ever observed in Death Valley, in 1849, when a group of emigrants looking for a short cut to the California gold fields, stumbled into Death Valley by mistake. The party of pioneers found themselves trapped in the Valley for months but never lost their faith and courage. Then The Old Ranger joined in a dramatization of last year’s Christmas Party at Furnace Creek Inn, 1929, with Frank Tilton (retired driver of the 20-Mule Teams), John White (a.k.a. the Lonesome Cowboy), and a crowd of holiday visitors. White sang two Christmas songs and a young man recited a Death Valley version of “The Night Before Christmas.” A Wandering Minstrel performed a couple songs, and the cast closed the broadcast with a rendition of “Silent Night.”

Episode #65  "SANTA CLAUS VISITS DEATH VALLEY"
Broadcast Date: December 21, 1931
Script completed: December 10, 1931
Cast: Virginia Gardiner, William Shelley, John MacBryde, John White (Curley, the guitar player), John Tucker Battle, Elsie Mae Gordon, Joseph Bell, and Vernon Radcliffe.
Plot: In the mining camp of Yellowhammer, Cherokee, purchases a sealskin coat, a team and a red sleigh, along with hundreds of toys. Cherokee was a white man known for living with the Indians for a spell, and served as the civic father of the town. He left town years ago and struck gold and now wants to return to Yellowhammer for Christmas in the regalia of a fat man from the North Pole, complete with tinsel and trees… unaware that there are no women or children in town. The youngest kid in Yellowhammer packs a .45 and a safety razor. It didn’t take long for the whole town of Yellowhammer to approve of the scheme of importing a load of kids for Cherokee’s Christmas party. Everybody who knew of families with offspring within a forty-mile radius of the camp, came forward with information. But folks didn’t think kindly to the idea of parting with their children with strangers. The only child they could round up was a ten-year-old spoiled brat named Bobby who likes to smoke and speak vile words. His widowed mother has been too busy putting food on the table to take care of his table manners. Bobby won’t cooperate when the festivities start until Santa, a.k.a. Cherokee, discovers the boy recognizes him without the false Santa beard. His mother has a photo of him in her bedroom. It only takes a couple minutes for Cherokee to realize that regardless of the fact that there are no women or children about… his Christmas is best served with the family he thought he lost – Bobby is his son.

Notes: This episode opens with a man and woman seeking a child for Christmas, local charity organizations, church and an orphan asylum, only to discover that the demand for youngsters at Christmas time was so much greater than the supply.

This story was also written up in a book by O. Henry.

The Old Ranger is also a participant in this story, which he rarely does – he’s usually just the narrator.

Episode #116  "DEATH VALLEY PETE'S CHRISTMAS PARTY"
Broadcast Date: December 22, 1932
Script completed: December 19, 1932
Cast: Peggy Allenby (Cecily, a young bride / Zora Sylvester); John Tucker Battle (Limpin’ Jim); Joseph Bell (Shorty Jackson / Bob, a young bridegroom / “Snake” Abercrombie); Tim Frawley (The Old Ranger); Jean King (Madge Daley); John MacBryde (Peter Lyle Abercrombie, a.k.a. Death Valley Pete, a prospector); Vernon Radcliffe (Jake Grannan / Peter Abercrombie); and John White (Limpin’ Jim, the guitar player).
Plot: A gathering of the relatives of Death Valley Pete on Christmas Day, 1883. In the old mining camp of Darwin, just beyond the Panamints, Death Valley Pete is longing for his own kin… but he knows of no one alive with his own flesh and blood, named Abercrombie. Taking advice from a lawyer, he puts an ad in the newspaper. Pete struck a gold claim and made a hundred thousand dollars – and now fears that fakers from all over will stake a claim on him. But Pete wants only the legit for a Christmas dinner, completely surrounded by relatives. The folks of Darwin was a bit riled over the way Peter cold-shouldered them in favor of a herd of relatives he never so much as laid eyes on. Every guest that arrived on Christmas Eve was disreputable and when Madge Daley, Pete’s fiancée, witnesses the black sheep of the family coming off the stage and Pete asking like a real gentleman on the occasion, she agrees to his proposal. After all, a man can’t help the relatives he’s got but thank God he can pick his own wife!
  
Notes: The Furnace Creek Inn is again pitched during the opening commercial. As George Hicks remarks, “Out in Death Valley, as everywhere else in the world, they’re getting ready for Christmas. Preparations are in full swing at Furnace Creek Inn, Great bushes of desert holly, with its silvery leaves and crimson stockings will be hung up on Christmas Eve by all the guests. In the kitchen… well, there seems to be enough food to take care of an organized famine. The pantry shelves are laden, and the refrigerators fairly bursting with good things to eat.”

Episode #168  "RATES ON REQUEST"
Broadcast Date: December 21, 1933
Script completed: December 20, 1933
Cast: Anthony Burger (Harry, hotel guest); Peg Allenby (Dolly, Ben's sister); Tim Frawley (The Old Ranger); Millie June (Rose, hotel guest); John McBryde (Ben Brinsmade); Charles Slattery (Dusty Miller); and Edith Spencer (Madam X, a clairvoyant). 
Singer: John White
Produced by Ed Whitney.
Announcer: George Hicks
Directed by Joseph Bonime.
Plot: Like many another 49’er, Ben Brinsmade learned that rainbows are long and that chasing them is heartbreaking, back-breaking work. It was yars before he finally reached the rainbow’s end and located his own particular pot of gold. He and his partner, old Dusty Miller, sold their stakes to a big mining company at a big price, pocketed the proceeds and then looked at each other and grinned. Ben wants to invest in the hotel business – a first-class hotel for transcontinental travelers. Sure enough, The Transcontinental Hotel on the Central Pacific Railroad in Eureka County, Nevada, was established. Difficulties and disappointments led to delays and no railroad. It was only a question of time before the span would be complete. In 1864, the railroad changed the line of survey and the trains wouldn’t come within fifty miles of the hotel. The Brinsmade family in the East never understood why Ben’s letters stopped suddenly. His parents reached old age and passed on. His younger sister, Dolly, grew up and got married. One day in 1889, Dolly paid a visit to a clairvoyant who was all the rage in Washington, D.C., who told her that Ben was still alive. Dolly wrote to the District Attorney of Eureka County, Nevada, to learn that her brother was living in a hotel off in the desert, fifty miles from the railroad. She paid a visit to the stoop-shouldered, white-haired old man who lives in an empty hotel and confesses that he won’t return to the East. “I’m happier here than I’d ever be anywhere else. I’ve got things that millionaires back in New York ain’t got… sunshine, pure desert air, space, silence… and peace.”

Songs: "Villikins and Dinah," "Darling Nellie Gray" and a waltz. "Camptown Races" and "Little Brown Jug" were originally proposed for use on this episode, but never used. 

Episode #169  "SNOWBOUND"
Broadcast Date: December 28, 1933
Script completed: December 27, 1933
Cast: John Battle (Pete Bradley); Tim Frawley (The Old Ranger); John McBride (Jim Tyson); Anne Elstner (Molly, Jim's wife); Charles Slattery (a New England grocer / Harry, a prospector); Edith Spencer (the Grocer's wife); John White (the singer, "Pretty Little Pink"); and Ed Whitney (Ike Jeffries / Tom, a prospector).
Produced by Ed Whitney.
Directed by Joseph Bonime.
Announcer: George Hicks
Plot: Stuck in a snowstorm at the general store, The Old Ranger recounts an incident involving a snowstorm back in 1869. Adolph Sutro proposes to dig a tunnel through the mountain, four miles long, making working conditions in the mine at Virginia City more suitable for the local miners, who agree to invest both financially and laboriously. The Bonanza Kings won't invest, referring to the folly as "Sutro's coyote hole." Jim Tyson agrees to sponsor $100, against the wishes of his wife, Molly. In 1878, Sutra himself fired the blast that connected the tunnel with the great mines of Virginia City. On a January evening in 1895, Jim was fighting his way through the blinding snow when he arrived at the general store to discover there was no more food or supplies. The wagons could not travel to the city through the blizzard that didn't let up and increased in fury. When it occurs to Jim to use Sutro's tunnel as a means of traveling down the mountain, a few miles below the mouth of the tunnel was the town of Dayton. Molly thinks the trek is foolhardy but two days later, Jim returns with men from Dayton, carrying sacks of beans, potatoes, flour and molasses. She recalls how her husband invested $100 in the tunnel 25 years prior and admits that Adolph Sutra was a good man.

Other songs heard on this program: "Girl I Left Behind" (from The Cowboy Sings), "Cowboy's Christmas Ball," "Greer County,""Little Joe, the Wrangler," and "The Great Round-Up."

Episode #219  "WHILE ROME BURNS"
Broadcast Date: December 20, 1934
Cast: William Adrian (Charlie Bronson, camp citizen); Andy Donnelly (Bobby Hodge); Tim Frawley (The Old Ranger); Jean King (Mary Hodge); John McBryde (Steve Hodge); Katharine Pearson (Goldie, a dance-hall girl); Edith Spencer (Miss Ella Tripp, a spinster); and Emily Vaas (Millie Hodge). 
Announcer: George Hicks
Singer: John White, sings the songs because the actor playing Charlie could not.
Producer: Ed Whitney.
Plot: December 23, 1923. Preparing for a Christmas party in a Nevada mining camp, Steve Hodge questions how the ceremonies have changed over the years. The Christmas celebration put on by the church always used to be a real community affair and everybody in the camp was invited. It didn’t make any difference who they were. But dance hall girls and tin horns and bartenders are no longer invited. Late that evening, a fire breaks out and several buildings catch as a result of the wind. Everything in the business section is wiped out along main Street. Every store and restaurant and rooming house – and both churches. Everything went up in smoke – Christmas trees, gifts and everything necessary for the festivities. While the dance hall puts up as many people as they can in the back room, some of the church goers resent the hospitality. Even worse, only one church remains and some won’t accept the generosity of the clergy because they were not regulars. When dance hall girl Goldie discovers that children will go without presents or Santa Claus, she orchestrates a Christmas that the families will never forget. In the little church on the hill that night, a great tree glittered. Santa Claus distributed presents to every beaming child. Even the prejudice found contentment at the organ as the crowd sang Christmas carols.

Songs: John White sings "Howdy, The Cowboy’s Christmas Ball" from The Cowboy Sings. Also featured in this episode is "Oh Come, All Ye Faithful."
  
Episode #425  "THE STRANGER WHO SANG"
Broadcast Date: December 23, 1938
Announcer: George Hicks
Cast: Frank Butler (Mac); Norma Chambers (hostess at Furnace Creek Inn); Jackie Grimes (Jerry); Jean King (the mother in commercial / Joan); Jack MacBryde (The Old Ranger); James Meighan (a stranger); and Betty Jean Tyler (the child in commercial / Judy).
Plot: The Old Ranger recounts some years ago when the Furnace Creek Inn has just been built; just enough to accommodate a handful of guests. Roads through the desert was still questionable. There was no direct telephone communication to and from the Valley. It was no wonder that the little group of guests who gathered around the big stone fireplace at the Inn on that particular Christmas Eve felt drawn together by their sheer remoteness from the rest of the world. Fresh logs blazed up on the hearth, reflecting the frosty silver of desert holly, massed in bowls around the room. Stockings were hung from the mantle place for the only two children in the place. When The Old Ranger asks the children why they made the trek from Michigan to Death Valley, young Judy explains that her mother had pneumonia and the doctor said she has to be where it was warm and dry. With mother in bed resting, Judy is upset when the tradition of having “Away in a Manger” sung to her on Christmas Eve is thrwated – even though her mother said Christmas is still Christmas no matter where they are. A stranger shows up at the Inn, seeking tobacco to smoke, and hearing the children’s dilemma, sings the song. This leads to “Silent Night,” “Good King Wencelas” and “Oh, Holy Night.” The stranger takes leave of the Inn but before he goes, he thanks the children “for helping me to find again what I thought I had lost forever.” Judy asks if he is referring to his voice and the stranger replies, “Something infinitely more precious than that. Peace on earth.” The stranger was gone before any of them had time to realize that they never caught the name of the stranger. Several months later, The Old Ranger happened to pick up a copy of a San Francisco newspaper with the headline, “Singer Returns to the Concert Stage.” It read that Eric Holden, famous baritone who had not returned for over a full year since the death of his little daughter.

Trivia, etc. Louis Polanski plays the following on the piano: “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and “Good King Wencelas” (the last with vocals from the child actors). Benny Baker is the bugler. Harry Stockwell, Prince Charming himself from the motion-picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, doubled for the stranger when time came for him to break out in song.

Episode #475  "CHRISTMAS, 1849"
Broadcast Date: December 23, 1939         
Announcer: George Hicks
Plot: In the little California gold camp known as Wood’s Creek, consisting entirely of tents that clung somehow to the steep bank of a ravine, young Joe McCloskey bragged about the gold he found and saved until a flash flood and a broken dam caused the river to rise and wash the camp away. For three days the boys lived of a side of bacon, water and hard tack. On Christmas Day, Joe gave each of the two boys a gold nugget for Christmas and they in turn provided a gift of their own. For several hours they traveled along, keeping up the pretense that they had a swell Christmas celebration and was tickled to death with their presents. But at the day wore on, they grew more hungry and conversation began to lag. Thoughts of Christmas dinner back home in Vermont and New York made the boys homesick… until they heard “Adeste Fidelis” being sung by a church choir who stopped on route to celebrate Christmas. The seven men who sung in the choir shared the food that was cooked over the open fire and as The Old Ranger explained, “I doubt if there was a more successful meal than that Christmas dinner off in the wilderness of California in 1849.”

Songs: “Adeste Fidelis” and “Silent Night.”

Friday, November 28, 2014

FDR and the Thanksgiving Holiday

FDR preparing for one of his fireside chats.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939. The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe. On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak. So when U.S. retailers begged him to move Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed. He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar throughout the country.

As most schoolchildren know, the history of Thanksgiving began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin.

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise." For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.

FDR Changes It
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. There were five Thursdays in the month of November. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. In August 1939, Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, warned Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) could possibly have an adverse effect on retail sales. At the time, it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have "Christmas" sales before the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. In short, this is why Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every month -- not the last Thursday.

The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined. Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the President's right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. Atlantic City's mayor derogatorily called November 23 as "Franksgiving."

The plan encountered immediate opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt's Republican challenger in the preceding election, called the declaration "another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." While not all critics were political opponents of the president, most parts of New England (then a Republican stronghold relative to the rest of the nation) were among the most vocal areas. James Frasier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts (the commonly alleged location of the first Thanksgiving holiday) "heartily disapproved".

Before 1939, the president annually announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation and then governors followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, many governors did not agree with FDR's decision to change the date and refused to follow him. The country became split on which Thanksgiving they should observe. Twenty-three states followed FDR's change and declared Thanksgiving to be November 23. Twenty-three other states disagreed with FDR and kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving as November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates.
This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families, because not everyone had the same day off work.

Did It Work?
Though the confusion caused many frustrations across the country, the question remained as to whether the extended holiday shopping season caused people to spend more, thus helping the economy in a state of depression. The answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately the same, but the distribution of the shopping was changed. For those states who celebrated the earlier Thanksgiving date, shopping was evenly distributed throughout the season. For those states that kept the traditional date, businesses experienced a bulk of shopping in the last week before Christmas.

In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday of the month. This time, 31 states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued. 
Lincoln had established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. Problem solved.

In the 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, the introduction to a segment about Thanksgiving shows the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and one a week later "for Republicans."

The competing dates for Thanksgiving are parodied in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and the inspiration for this blog post when I questioned what the joke was in reference to). Many segments of the film are preceded by shots of a calendar with a visual symbol of the given holiday. For November, an animated turkey is shown running back and forth between the third and fourth Thursdays, finally shrugging its shoulders in confusion.

In the 1940 Three Stooges comedy No Census, No Feeling, Curly makes mention of the Fourth of July being in October. When Moe questions him, Curly replies, "You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!"

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986

Thanks to David Peck and Tom Gulotta at Reelin' in the Years Productions, and MPI Home Video, a new 12 disc DVD set has been released to the commercial market. If you are looking for something to buy and treat yourself -- or for if your spouse who asks you what you want for the holiday -- you can look no further than The Merv Griffin Show, 1962-1986 DVD set. Over the course of those years, the show garnered 10 Emmy Awards and welcomed more than 5,000 guests -- including many of the most important names in the fields of entertainment, politics, music, art, sports, fashion and literature. If you love interviews with actors, Jayne Mansfield, Jane Fonda, Ingrid Bergman, Sir Laurence Olivier, Gene Wilder, Orson Welles and Sylvester Stallone are a small fraction of those included in this disc. If television is your meat, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope, Bob Crane, Betty White, Loretta Swit and Lindsay Wagner are included. History makers such as Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Rosa Parks, Dr. Timothy Leary, Alex Haley, Pres. Gerald Ford, Pres. Ronald Reagan, Col. John Glenn and Martin Luther King, Jr. are among the notables. Comedians George Carlin, Steve Martin, Moms Mabley, Andy Kaufman, Henny Youngman, Bill Cosby, Carol Burnett, Redd Foxx, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen... well, you get the idea.

When someone mentions a talk show, we generally think of today's hosts: Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, David Letterman, Jay Leno... but few can deny that today's programs are nothing more than an hour-long infomercial. Celebrities pitching their latest motion-pictures and with a strong network connection (ABC is owned by the Walt Disney Company, NBC is owned by Universal, you get the idea). Sadly, the evening news does the same if you dig deep enough into the motives for the news briefs...

Looking back at a time when television talk show hosts interviewed celebrities for the sake of engagement between the studio guests and the television audience, "legends" come to mind. Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Dick Cavett and Merv Griffin are among the notables. And while some celebrities were pitching their autobiographies, the talk show hosts also displayed a warm and casual style, with mannerisms, that are no longer the meat and potatoes of today's variety-talk shows. Every time someone replaces another late-night talk show host, viewers often comment, "They are not as good as Johnny Carson..." And that is probably the sincerest compliment a talk show host could receive.

Merv Griffin interviews Martin Luther King, Jr.
My little nephew sat with me as we watched Adam West and Burt Ward promoting the 1966 Batman motion-picture. Both he and I were disappointed that the Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder revealed little -- if anything -- and made me suspect they were tossed onto the program to help kill a few minutes on the program. My nephew Josh found Martin Luther King, Jr.'s talk about the Civil Rights Act and progress that would eventually be made in the country, fascinating. Many of King's predictions, however, fell short of what he envisioned as a perfect society in the United States. A bigger surprise to me than his discussions about his accomplishments. Talulah Bankhead, the great stage actress, told stories of the New York Stage and you could tell Griffin wanted to talk about subjects other than the Stage.

Farrah Fawcett-Majors on the Merv Griffin Show
John Wayne's hour-long guest shot was filmed in the Mid-West where he was spending the week selling cattle -- high-protein beef -- a financial investment that involved 30,000 head of cattle and enough feed stretching a quarter-mile long, piled 25 feet high... and there were four of these mammoth strips of feed! Wayne said he rarely tried to play a character -- he just played himself. He raved about Michael Curtiz, Harry Carey and John Ford and I quickly discovered "The Duke" was as human and down-to-earth as you and I... he never tried to be something he wasn't.

The April 27, 1973 telecast with Jack Benny was hilarious. It is a must-see.

Ray Bradbury dismissed the notion that he predicted future societies and the advancement of technology in his writings -- he merely dictated moral obligations of society in a world that didn't exist, but could be associated with today. He talked about his work with the Walt Disney Company (remember he created the story in the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot), and predicted how people would communicate via satellite with holograms and projections. 

Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta discuss the making of Grease, William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelly reminiscence about Star Trek for a full hour, the entire cast of Golden Girls devote an hour discussing their screen careers prior to the success of the sitcom (and sparks flew when their love lives were explored), Jim Henson and Frank Oz reveal the origins of The Muppets, and there are numerous musical performances such as Sammy Davis, Jr. performing "The Candy Man" in 1972, Merle Haggard's "Amazing Grace" in 1971, Liberace performs "Chopsticks" in 1976, Hank Williams, Jr. performs "Family Tradition" in 1981, Smokey Robinson offers a great rendition of "The Tracks of My Tears" in 1981, John Denver sings "Take Me Home, Country Roads" in 1976, Andy Williams performs "Moon River" in 1978, Isaac Hayes performs the theme from Shaft in 1972, The Everly Brother performs "Bye, Bye Love" in 1966, and Frankie Laine, Dionne Warwick, Loretta Lynn, Weird Al Yankovic, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston (two years before her first album was released), Screaming' Jay Hawkins, Freddie and the Dreamers, and many others provide great performances. Merv Griffin singing a rendition of "New York, New York" with The Muppets is also a highlight. 

Orson Welles less than a a few hours before his death.
Don Rickles and Mr. T play off each other beautifully. Sylvester Stallone and Burgess Meredith talk about Rocky III. Muhammad Ali proves he is the greatest. Orson Welles is a guest host with comedian Andy Kaufman. Bill Cosby and Jerry Seinfeld share couches. Dick Cavett switches roles to interview Merv Griffin on Griffin's own program. Eva Gabor is making a pass at Chuck Norris in 1971. Willie Mays makes an appearance on two separate interviews in this set. James Brolin is extremely young in 1971. Ingrid Berman, Shelley Winters, Bette Davis, Olivia DeHavilland, William Wyler, Hedy Lamar, Jerry Lewis, Danny Kaye and Roddy McDowall are among the Hollywood legends.

Unlike today's talk programs that serve either for political reasons or as publicity devices, The Merv Griffin Show is a refreshing example of a time when people on talk shows actually "talked." They provided stories, jokes, moments we can only laugh at, and trivia we could only relish with each chapter on the DVDs.  

David Peck and Phil Galloway
inspect the shelves in the
warehouse holding the thousands
 of tapes comprising
the Merv Griffin Show archive.
In March 2012, Reelin' In The Years Productions signed a deal with The Griffin Group to represent the rights to The Merv Griffin Show. Because the archives were rarely explored, no one seemed to know how many of the television broadcasts existed. Talk shows rarely received preservation over the years -- the medium was split between business decisions (the reuse of tape and storage fees) and preservation of the arts. Up to 1981, all of the shows were shot live onto 2-inch video tape (switched to 1-inch tape after that). Keeping in mind that the average cost of a 90-minute reel of tape was roughly $300 in the sixties and seventies, the reuse of tape was practical from a business standpoint. Additionally, hundreds of tapes of "lost" Merv Griffin's program were sitting at Sony Pictures Entertainment, when Griffin sold the rights to Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! in 1986. Some of these were better quality than the 1960s archive that were poor transfers from the master tapes does in the early 1980s on 3/4-inch Umatic tapes. The DVD box set contains 14 of these newly-transferred programs on the first three DVDs in this set. The quality on these DVDs far surpasses the quality of the original broadcast, as well as the copies of the same shows that had been released on a prior box set of Merv Griffin shows.

CBS Television had some of the missing shows from 1969 to 192. The shows featuring Dennis Hopper and Willie Mays on disc five existed only on kinescope.

An unaired version of Isaac Hayes and the great Stax artists of the day performing "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand" is included on disc five, along with the December 6, 1972 telecast that existed only on 1/2-inch open reel, filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, formerly considered a "lost" program. Two segments from the December 20, 1967, telecast with Richard M. Nixon and David Susskind is included on disc four, courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, which turned up a number of missing shows. If you know your American history well, you will enjoy Gore Vidal on the May 14, 1970 telecast, also on the same disc, calling for Nixon's impeachment on national television, ten days after the tragedy at Kent State. 

Even with all these surprises, close to 1,800 of the more than 4,500 shows have been found. Reeling' In The Years Productions are still very much on the hunt for episodes (and/or segments) that are missing from the Merv Griffin archive. If anyone has any of the "lost" episodes, regardless of format, they are asking the general public to contact them at info (at) mervgriffin.com and you can find the entire library catalogued on a searchable database located on the website, www.reelinintheyears.com

Photo of the 12-disc set so you make sure you get the correct one.

There are bonus extras on every DVD, highlights from Griffin's final show on September 5, 1986, CBS trailers and promos, and more. Mer Griffin teaches Jay Leno how to host a talk show in February of 1986 and then a few days later, Leno is a guest host with comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Leno makes a touching remembrance of Merv Griffin on July 9, 2014, also included in this set. The set also includes a 52 page book documenting the history of the television program, a brief biography of Merv Griffin, and a wonderful section titled "Producers' Notes."

Convinced yet? Treat yourself and buy your copy today.




Side Note:
With the DVD retail market being what it is today, as a result of the huge trend in "illegal downloading," and the movie studios being short-sighted in shutting down websites that provide file swapping services, the producers of this set have publicly asked for three favors. One, help spread the word about this DVD set. Two, sign up for their mailing list at www.mervgriffin.com to stay informed of future DVD releases. Three, quoting the producers: "To those who wish to share this wonderful footage with your friends by posting it on YouTube or any other online site -- please don't. Not only is it illegal, but we as a company police YouTube frequently and will have it removed. A lot of time and money went into this and we'd like to do more, so please respect our rights." This means the sales figures for this DVD set will determine future releases. This is a cause similar to donating money for preservation, and you get something to enjoy at the same time.