Saturday, November 28, 2009

Logan's Run

Great article about one of my favorite novels, Logan's Run, over here. Lots of information about the movie, TV show and comic book, too.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Four Days

I'm about to have four days off and I need it. After a week of graphing on the coordinate plane, using myriad examples of how two things relate at the same time, my students bombed a quiz last Friday. I had used Black Friday sales to illustrate the rising costs of a single DVD player and multiple DVD's purchased as an example. I used purchasing two differently-priced kinds of meat for a barbecue to show the ways that increasing the amount puchased of one necessarily leads to a decrease in the amount purchased of the other given a set budget. I had them each plot their own points in the relationships on the dry-erase board with magnets to ensure that no one was just sitting back not paying attention.

After the quiz I spent two more days talking about it and most did exactly the same today if not worse. I reached a few who doubled their scores, but for the most part, my extra effort went for nothing. When I reprinted the quiz, I changed the numbers and that was all the modifications I made. A kid turned his in and said, "When can I re-take that first quiz?"

And the next time I point to a horizontal or vertical line and ask what kind of line it is, and I get the answer, "Straight," I'm going nuclear. No Child Left Behind can kiss mine. That isn't my fault. How in blazes can 13- and 14-year olds not know what vertical and horizontal mean, especially after a week of instruction???

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Star Trek, Part 1

One of my earliest memories is of watching the "Operation: Annihilate!" episode of Star Trek--what people now call Star Trek the Original Series. Since it was broadcast on April 13, 1967, I was only two and a half years old. The show was very appealing to a young child such as myself because there were lots of garish colors, both in the uniforms and the sets. I remember my mother babysitting for a pair of twins named Matt and Mark, and they had shirts with traffic lights on their left breasts. I used to call them their Star Trek shirts. I had one with a bear on the left breast, but the shirt was black so it didn't qualify.

In the 1970s, Star Trek made a big comeback in syndication. Daily reruns allowed those of us in Mrs. Burkholder's third grade class to discover Star Trek's imaginitive adventure and to recreate it in pretend play. We used to take the cardboard backs of our notebooks and draw phasers and communicators on them. Then we would cut them out with scissors and use them as props on the playground at recess. We were even more excited when the cartoon began that fall, as if it had given us license to create our own Star Trek adventures. We loved the fights, the ray guns, and the action of Star Trek. We didn't get that the point of science fiction was to create allegory and parables from which to learn, but the show gave us plenty of excitement nonetheless.

My brother and I, on one of our trips to our grandparents' house, received matching Mego action figures of Kirk and Spock, and together we had many adventures on distant planets. I don't know how many times we re-enacted "Amok Time," but it counted in the hundreds. We also got one of the first trade paperbacks when we found the Enterprise Logs in a bookstore. The trade reprinted the old Gold Key Star Trek series. We read that thing dog-eared.

For Christmas in 1976, Jeff and I got matching phaser pistols from our father. They were the coolest toys for the time. When you pressed the trigger, it made a chirping sound, which was more like a communicator than a phaser, but we didn't care. The phasers were also projectors that, using a cutout that you slid over the lens, projected a picture of a ship on the wall. I remember they took a nine-volt battery in the handles for the sound, and two double A's in the back for the light. My dad probably regretted getting us noise-making toys for Christmas, but the phaser remains one of my favorite toys of childhood. When I moved in with him a month later, Star Trek was still in reruns and I was lucky enough to find a book from the library, called The Making of Star Trek, by Stephen Whitfield. My dog ate the cover of the paperback so we had to buy the book, but I sure didn't regret it. I was able to check off all the episodes of Star Trek that I had yet to see. We only had a black and white TV, but it didn't matter. I knew what color everybody wore! In my spare time, I created my own starship based on some of the production drawings in the book. I crewed the ship with superheroes, so that made for some interesting daydreams, to be sure. It wasn't until later that I started to get the deeper meaning behind the show, but that time would come. And that understanding only reinforced my love for this show.

More to come.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Old Time Radio, Part 2

My interest in old-time radio and radio dramas waned in my college years. There just wasn't anything going on in my world. But when the Batman craze of 1989 came along, a couple of different items came to my attention and sparked my imagination. First, there were some cassette tapes adapting comic book stories that came out. The associated comic books came with them, and the tapes served to add an audio soundtrack. The first one I bought was an adaptation of the Untold Legends of the Batman. It was like the old Power Records, but there was no album cover.

As the next decade progressed, DC, Marvel, and even Disney kept putting out audio dramas. Stories like "Superman Lives!" as well as the "Complete Knightfall Saga," along with the Rocketeer were all adapted to audio dramas. Later on, we would even see one for "Kingdom Come." But the real fun came in 1994, when the theatrical version of "The Shadow" was released.

As I wrote about here and here, I loved the Shadow, on radio, in the movies, and in the pulps. But when the Alec Baldwin version came out, the radio shows made a huge comeback. A company called Radio Spirits started releasing audio cassettes and CDs of the old radio shows and I bought several sets of them. Then with the advent of the mp3 file format and the Internet, old-time radio was everywhere. Streaming sites popped up, and suddenly the world of old-time radio was no longer restricted to small gatherings with tape exchanges. Suddenly you could buy hundreds of episodes of long-forgotten shows on CD for pennies and listen to them on a computer.

When the deluge began, I started doing research on this. My limited exposure to War of the Worlds, the Lone Ranger, the Shadow, and Superman, suddenly expanded. I started listening to Fibber McGee and Molly, Jack Benny, Abbott and Costello, The Saint, The Whistler, Yours Truly Johnny Dollar, Dragnet, Gunsmoke, The Green Hornet, and more. I found books on the subject, and read the history. The more I learned, the more I loved it. I started making connections

One of Jack Benny's supporting cast was lecherous bandleader Phil Harris, a bawdy southerner who constantly kept Benny, whom he called "Jackson," on his toes. The first time I heard the voice, I just about jumped out of my chair. It was Baloo the Bear from Disney's "The Jungle Book!" Not only was the voice the same, but the character was very much the same, a jazzy, hedonistic fun-loving guy who could sing scat. Amazing! Then, when listening to another episode, the unmistakable tones of Mel Blanc appeared in a voice similar to Speedy Gonzales. Then it hit me. The mice in "The Mouse that Jack Built," a 1959 Warner Brothers cartoon, were the characters from this same Jack Benny radio program! When I saw the cartoon as a kid, I had no idea that Jack Benny was a radio star! On the Fred Allen show, I caught Foghorn Leghorn in the form of Senator Claghorn. Then the floodgates came open. Many cartoons, whether on television or feature films, featured radio performers of old, many doing the same characters or voices that they were famous for decades before.

It wasn't only voices and characters that were brought back for cartoons. When Mr. Whoopee's closet would open on Tennessee Tuxedo and everything would fall out, I thought it was hilarious. Imagine my surprise when I was listening to Fibber McGee and Molly from decades before and heard the same thing happen!

Just this past year I was rummaging through stuff in my basement and found cassette recordings of a role-playing game session from 1988. As I thought more about it this past week, I realized just what we were doing. The gamemaster describes the action and plays the part of the characters not portrayed by the players. The players describe their action verbally and act out their characters' roles, often using voices not their own. We're not dressing up and acting things out (like LARPers do), but we are doing radio drama. There are a few static images and figures on a map to keep track of where everyone is, but otherwise everything is done by voice and description. They called radio "The Theater of the Mind." I think it's still alive and well. It's just taken a new form.

Thursday, November 12, 2009


"It's been said that an infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite amount of time would eventually recreate the works of Shakespeare. The Internet disproves that."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Old Time Radio, Part 1

When I was a kid, I spent some weekends with my mother's youngest brother Mike and his family. I still remember the first time I heard an old time radio show. My cousin Peter had a reel-to-reel recording of War of the Worlds, by the Mercury Radio Theater on the Air. I had never heard of radio drama before, so we listened to it. I remember sitting transfixed while the drama played. My mind conjured images of the Martian invaders and their three-legged war machines. After that, we listened to the Lone Ranger, who was my dad's favorite hero. The episode he played for me was the origin of the Lone Ranger, and again I was fascinated. The story of how the masked man came to be unfolded and I was hooked for life. I happened to have a cassette recorder that I had received for Christmas that year, and recorded both shows to take back home.

When I was a much younger boy, I had always enjoyed comedy albums. Bill Cosby, the Smothers Brothers, and Homer & Jethro were among my favorites. Bill Cosby, in his "Wonderfulness" album, used his old time radio experiences to great effect in his "Chicken Heart" routine. He also references the Green Hornet and Lone Ranger in the go-carts routine. Suddenly, these references began to make sense.

I soon started seeking out radio drama, but there was really nowhere to turn. There were the nighttime shorts on local radio featuring Chicken Man, the White Winged Weekend Warrior, but it was tongue-in-cheek. Once I saw that there was a Superman radio show from ads placed on the back of Kellogg's Corn Flakes for a record giveaway, I was really interested! I never had a chance of getting those records, of course, but that didn't stop me from looking longingly at it every morning during breakfast.

Then there were those great Power Records, which combined a large format comic book with an audio drama, remember those? Featured at right is a Star Trek book and record set that I used to have with cover art by Neal Adams. I used to get these whenever I could, especially when they came out with one for the Six Million Dollar Man. There's a guy who has a whole blog about just these items!
It wasn't until I was in high school that I really got a healthy dose of radio drama. That was when our local NPR station started broadcasting the Star Wars radio show. What's that? You didn't know there was such a thing? Oh, yes. I hurried home each night to listen to it on radio in 1981. It took the Star Wars story and expanded it, filling in gaps where the movie had been edited. There was the usual clumsy expository dialogue that radio has to use to paint the images in your mind, but it used the original sound effects and some actors from the movie, including Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels. The actors who replaced the originals were no slouches, either. Brock Peters took the place of James Earl Jones, for example. You'd be surprised how good it really was!
More on this subject later. This is too much fun!

Catching Up

Things have not exactly been looking up since this post. So, here I am sick at home. First, my wife Magi had minor surgery, then Sera caught H1N1, then Magi caught H1N1. Somewhere in there, I probably had it too, but with lessened symptoms. After, let's see, two trips to urgent care, one surgeon's visit, and three other trips to the doctor and pediatrician, we can look forward to all of us being healthy for the first time since the beginning of October--maybe by this weekend. I guess it's a good thing I had a lot of sick days saved up, because I've taken at least two per week for four straight weeks. And health insurance? Yeah, it's paid for itself in the past month. I can't imagine what we would have paid out for our all-too-frequent visits these past weeks, between urgent care, ordinary doctor's visits and the subsequent prescriptions. It would have been quite the kick while we were already down.

The bright side of it is that I get to drink Mountain Dew mixed with orange juice and not feel guilty about calories. I've been catching up on TV watching and DVDs that I've been saving, including the DVD set for the 1973 Star Trek cartoon, which I dearly loved as a kid but seldom got to watch. Twenty-two episodes were made, and I bet I haven't seen half of them! It was a big hit with Mrs. Burkholder's third graders in the fall of that year, and when we went out for recess I always got to play Captain Kirk. Why? For the same reason Bruce Hartman always got to be Batman when we were the Super Friends. For a reason that only third graders could invent. Because my name is Jim.