April 12th, 2014 | No Comments »

Mickey Rooney

Mickey Rooney

With the recent news that Mickey Rooney—-NOT Andy Rooney as erroneously reported by many news sources—had died at the ripe old age of 93 (and with only $18,000 in worldly wealth), I thought I would share my “brush with greatness” involving Mickey Rooney. (NOT Andy Rooney).

I was in Washington, D.C., at a poetry conference. Keynote celebrities were Maya Angelou, a young boy with a terminal illness named “Mattie” (if I remember correctly) who wrote poetry, and Mickey Rooney. It was an odd group, true, but it was an odd conference. I mainly went because it was being held in the very same hotel where Reagan was shot on the exit from the parking garage. (That area has been remodeled subsequently, but you could still go outside and see the exact spot where Reagan took a bullet, at that time).

Anyway, at one point, while wandering around, I got in an elevator and an extremely short man got in the elevator with me briefly. I noticed he only came up to about my shoulder, and I’m only 5′ 2 and 3/4″ tall. No sooner had the door begun to close than a blonde lady grabbed the short man and said, “MICKEY! You’re on the wrong elevator!” It turns out that this was our “keynote” entertainer on his way to the stage.

I continued to my seat and Mickey and his then-wife Jan came out onstage. Mickey said a few words and then turned the microphone over to Jan, who sang. Mickey went and sat in a chair at the back of the stage. I seem to remember it was sort of a Robert Louis Stevenson wicker-type fancy chair, but the entire performance was odd, since The Man of the Hour (i.e., Mickey Rooney, Big Box Office Star of the forties…and possibly the thirties, for all I know) really just sat there while his wife sang. (She had a lovely voice; at the time of Mickey’s death, they were “estranged.”)

So, that was my brush with Mickey Rooney, which is exceeded in weirdness only by the time I was following the guy carrying the drink with a pink umbrella in it up a staircase, which turned out to be Christopher Hitchens on his way to the stage at the BEA. (Yet another wrong turn by Yours Truly).

So, that’s my Mickey Rooney story, such as it is. Sad to think he died nearly broke.

On the other hand, the Ultimate Warrior died the same day at the age of 54, which means that Mickey Rooney lived almost 40 years longer than THAT guy….and I think he was married about 7 times, to boot, which says something.

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April 4th, 2014 | No Comments »

HarryConnickJrOn ‘American Idol’ results night on Thursday, April 3, 2014, Judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick, Jr., and Keith Urban used the one save they have per season to save Bradenton, Florida native Sam Woolf.
Confetti descended from the ceiling and his teammates hoisted him on their shoulders. For a minute, I thought I was watching a Jewish wedding.

Those in jeopardy of being eliminated, besides Sam, were Malaya Watson and C.J. Harris. It is nearly unbelievable that Malaya—who gave arguably one of the top two performances of the night—was rated so poorly by the audience in television land, but C.J. Harris should have been gone the second or third night that he sang sharp—(which was many shows ago).

As the evening opened, Jennifer Lopez came out wearing a hot pink outfit that was so short I hoped it was a skort and not a skirt. It was so noteworthy that Ryan Seacrest even commented. It was that kind of night.

Keith Urban
looked as though his stylist had worked overtime on his hair, to give it that casual look (lots of product, I’m thinking) and Harry Connick, Jr., wore a suit and tie to give the panel the air of gravitas and hold down his role as the Grand Old Man of judging. (He is also arguably the most knowledgeable musician sitting at the judges’ panel and a welcome addition after last year’s Nicki Minaj/Mariah Carey year).

There was an odd segment where Randy Jackson was pictured sitting so close to Ryan Seacrest on a blue couch that you wondered why “the Dawg” didn’t move over to the right and give poor Ryan a seat. On the other hand, Randy has been almost non-existent this season, and it has been the best season for judges ever, if not for contestants.

The very first contestant announced as safe (Dexter) was wearing a baseball cap backwards. I read a remark recently that went something like this: “Dude, unless you’re directing a major motion picture, lose the baseball cap.”

Others declared safe, in order, were Jena, Caleb, Jessica and Alex. Then the lowest three (Sam, Malaya and C.J.) suffered through the final moments before Sam—who reminds of a young Ricky Nelson—sang for his life and was given the save for this season. When the judges announced they were going to use the save on Sam, confetti fell from the ceiling. (I wondered if this confetti is rigged each and every week, for whatever contestant might have the save used to keep him in the competition, or if the judges were told the results in advance).

The other notable appearance of the night was former contestant Chris Daughtry. Ryan Seacrest reminisced about the look on Chris Daughtry’s face when he was cut from “American Idol.” I remember it well: a look of complete astonishment and dismay. I guess the final joke is on “American Idol” when non-winners like Jennifer >Hudson and Chris Daughtry go on to greater stardom, while winners like Ruben Stoddard and Chris Allen (who beat Adam Lambert!) are barely heard from again.

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March 27th, 2014 | No Comments »

Majesty RoseThe seemingly inevitable happened on March 27, 2014 “American Idol” elimination night. The talented Majesty Rose was eliminated. Meanwhile, the always-sharp (as in off-key) C.J. Harris sailed on into further competition, despite his inability to sing on-key.

Majesty Rose ended up in the bottom three with Sam Woolf (as I predicted in a piece posted earlier in the day). She then had to sing for the “save” and it was a song about how happy she was. Not good. The judges chose not to save the talented-but-always-in-the-bottom-three Majesty Rose.

As the program began, the first 2 to be told they were “safe” were Jena Irene and Malaya Watson—which was predictable, based on their Thursday performances.

Then a break occurred so that Janelle Monae could sing her new song “What Is Love?” from the Rio soundtrack. A brief plug for the new sit-com “Saving Jack” with Christopher Meloni and Rachael Harris occurred, as they were seated in the audience. The new comedy follows “American Idol.”

The next performers told they were “safe” were Alex Preston, Jessica Meuse, Caleb Johnson and Dexter Roberts. That left only 3 performers onstage: Majesty Rose, C.J. Harris and Sam Woolf. This was roughly what I predicted would occur earlier in the day.

At this point, Ryan Seacrest asked for some remarks from Jennifer Lopez but Harry Connick, Jr. answered, “I think America is really smart this season. It’s all about what you did the night before.”

Following those words of wisdom, Majesty Rose had the unenviable task of singing a song about happiness while no doubt, feeling very sad. It was nice to see Malaya Watson give Majesty a big hug as the program ended. I also enjoyed the brief portion of the program when they returned from commercial and Ryan Seacrest’s sound was turned off.
There were no purple gummy bears or shoe thefts, as occurred on Wednesday night’s program, as the mood was considerably more somber. The field is now down to eight, and the cream is rising to the top. If you wonder which performers seem to be on the rise, which are falling, and which are simply marching in place, read my earlier post.
And then there’s C.J. Harris, who just keeps on keeping on, no matter how off-key he may be.

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March 25th, 2014 | No Comments »

Jason Bateman is a veteran character actor, familiar to audiences for his work on television’s “Arrested Development,” playing Michael Bluth, straight man to a cast of eccentrics. Bateman attributes much of his success to how he approached that role, saying, “It was a show the industry watched, as opposed to America. The people who hand out jobs watched it.”

And Bateman has been handed a lot of jobs since “Arrested Development.”

To be accurate, young Jason was acting long before that, starting at the age of 12 in 1981 with a recurring role on “Little House on the Prairie,” as well as with roles as varied as some on “Silver Spoons,” “Knight Rider” and “The Hogan Family.”

It was the latter series that gave him his first directorial experience at the age of 18, making him the youngest director in Directors’ Guild history and, also, allowing him to follow in his father’s footsteps. (His father was a director, actor and writer.) Jason’s older sister, Justine, was a regular on the Michael J. Fox sit-com “Family Ties” and he has been married (since 2001) to one of Paul Anka’s daughters, Amanda, (with whom he has two daughters). She plays the role of the National Public Television narrator in the film.

In “Bad Words,” Jason has the opportunity to return to directing
. His work is informed by such dead-pan black comedies as “Being John Malkovich” and “King of Comedy.” Bateman told Michael Phillips of the Chicago “Tribune,” “The comedy I’m most drawn to is a little tougher to market. Even though I’ve been involved with some high concept studio fare (think “Juno,” “Identity Thief,” and “Horrible Bosses”), I’m drawn to something a little more tamped down. A film like ‘Being John Malkovich,’ there’s no pie in the face. We used that one as a tonal example—a tonal and aesthetic example…I knew that because we weren’t spending a lot of money we wouldn’t be asked to wink a lot or to rewrite the script so there’d be some big set pieces they could cut a trailer with. I didn’t want them thinking we’d even have a shot at recouping on the first weekend, because the movie looked glossy or super-commercial.” So, right away, the theater-goer should realize that they’re in for a quirky sort of comedic turn, like Billy Bob Thornton’s “Bad Santa.”

The super-funny “Bad Words” features Bateman as a 40-year-old malcontent who never graduated from 8th grade and has spent the past 40 years “making bad decisions” and proofreading warranties for a living. A lot of his problems stem from childhood issues originating with his father. He has now found a loophole for entry into The Golden Quill Spelling Bee that will allow him to annoy the hell out of Grand Poo Bah Dr. Bowman (Philip Baker Hall) and the woman in charge, aka, the Queen Bee, Dr. Bernice Deagan, played by Allison Janney. [Janney is a well-known face from her work on "The West Wing" and is pitch-perfect in her role of someone just a little bit too fond of rules and regulations. Barbara Bush would say she is a "rhymes with witch" but Bateman/Dodge would just come right out and say she is a colossal bitch].

Bateman’s character is the same glib trash-talking character Vince Vaughan and Billy Bob Thornton have played in countless comedies. He is truly representative of someone who just doesn’t care what other people think or say about him. He is going to have HIS say whether they like it or not.

That, in fact, might well be an accurate one-line summation of the entire plot of “Bad Words.” And many audience members will find that kind of independence and courage liberating.

Sure, there are reasons (revealed as the plot develops) why Bateman’s character Guy Trilby behaves the way he does. A follow-up article in the March 24th Tribune by Steven Zeitchik attributed all the potty-mouthed misbehavior (as well as that of predecessors like Archie Bunker and Jonah Hill) to our current climate of political correctness, where any little joke can spell doom if offense is taken by any group of any kind. It doesn’t matter whether the joke is at the expense of an ethnic group, midgets, or an inanimate object: SOMEONE is bound to take offense. Therefore, characters in films by Judd Apatow, Todd Phillips, the Farrelly brothers, Adam Sandler and others—(all the way back to W.C. Fields)—-say what they’re thinking, which so many of us no longer have the freedom to do, and that is considered subversive in today’s society. Some find it offensive. Some find it liberating and secretly are muttering, “You go, Guy.” (Pun intended)

“Bad Words” was directed by Bateman from a script by a first-timer, Andrew Dodge. Dodge told Zeitchik, “I think comedies have gotten a little vanilla. We’re so afraid of offending, so it’s a reaction to that.” He added, “That makes independent filmmakers more willing to be bold.” The spec script for “Bad Words” kicked around Hollywood for years. A studio executive said to Dodge, “This is funny, but could Guy start helping the kids in the third act?”

Dodge’s response? It’s superhard to make a character likeable enough that you still want to watch him, but hateful enough that it’s still funny.”

Steven Zeitchik postulates that the film is a “Rambo”-like rise of a new type of Superhero: the male hero jerk</strong>. I’m not as convinced that there’s anything “new” to a comic jerk in the tradition of W.C. Fields. I laughed at the clever, smarmy way Bateman pulled off eliminating the other competitors, one by one—even though his methods were underhanded and less-than-honorable. He displayed the kind of psychological warfare that allowed one team to dominate this year’s Super Bowl or allowed Muhammad Ali to defeat the likes of Sonny Liston, 50 years ago. It was strictly, “All’s fair in love and war.”

Still, when Bateman is calling his Indian opponent Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand) “Slumdog” and throwing lines at that adorable Indian boy that sound racist, it can be offputting. In telling the boy not to call a soft drink “soda pop” Guy says, “I’d just say soda. Otherwise, you’re just gonna’ get raped.” You do get the feeling that his young charge really enjoys the adult male attention and that, alone, may be enough of a reason to excuse some of Guy’s bad influence. At least he IS an influence in the lonely young scholar’s life, unlike the rigid father figure who is glimpsed coaching his kid in their own secret strategy to get rid of the competition.

When Guy is placed in a room that is actually the storage closet of the hotel, [a futile attempt to discourage him from competing] and co-star Kathryn Hahn (who plays Jenny Widgeon), the reporter who is his accomplice helping him gain access to the Golden Quill Spell-Off and with whom he occasionally gets it on (while she, all the while, screams, “Don’t look at me!”) asks about her missing underpants, Guy tells her he hasn’t seen them, noting, “I probably would have seen them. I have no sink, no closet and no bathroom.” Guy dubs his miniature admirer “a little Quaker” and, after encouraging him to let loose with some dirty words asks, “And did your soul just burst into flames?”

In other words, Guy is a horrible role model for young children, but his smirky Vince Vaughn-like delivery is hilarious to a slightly jaded and cynical older audience. This is NOT Family Friendly Fare, but the adults should give themselves a chance to feel a little naughty as they watch Guy and his young charge misbehave. Is this a good way to go through life? Probably not. On the other hand, there IS a compelling reason that Guy is the way he is, and you just know that, sooner or later, that will come into play to explain all the previous shenanigans. And maybe some of the more frequent movie-goers will find it a little bit too transparent early on. (“The Sixth Sense” this isn’t.)

The movie definitely is filled with blue language. There are many situations that any self-respecting parent will decry as setting a bad example, just as the employees of “Office Space” were not candidates for Employee of the Year but were funny as hell. For this viewer, the movie was a hoot. It was made even funnier at the Icon on Roosevelt in Chicago by a man a few rows behind me to my left whose loud laughter sounded exactly like explosive farting.

There was a lot of it from my fellow theater-goer on opening night, and even writing that line now makes me smile.

So, if you are not easily offended and enjoy making fun of stuffy, pompous events like The Golden Quill (and, Lord knows, I certainly qualify after my last post), you will find this movie hilariously entertaining. I’d put it in a comic indie category with the film “Cedar Rapids,” which featured Ed Helms and John C. Reilly and was similarly entertaining.

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March 23rd, 2014 | No Comments »

Spelling Bees have always had a special significance for me going back to 1979, when, as I completed a decade in the public schools in Silvis, Illinois at the junior high school level, a “new gun in town” swept into our district and began barking orders like a drill sergeant about how all of the English department (all 3 of us) were going to be participating in the Big Deal Spelling Bee sponsored by our local newspaper, and about how SHE was going to be attending meetings to facilitate same (while the Principal of our Junior High School covered her classes) so she could be absent from the drudgery of teaching, blah, blah, blah.

The teacher—I’ll call her Jill St. John, (although that was not her real name)—did not even have a valid 4-year teaching certificate at the time, but was working to secure it. Why, then, was she being positioned as the Queen Bee of the Spelling Bee and bossing others around, which included calling several meetings at the crack of dawn at least one hour before school was even scheduled to start? [I am happy to report that I did not attend a single early-morning meeting; I’d rather be shot at dawn than have to go to such a meeting at 7 a.m. The very thought made me sick, so that’s what I was on those days.]

Why, she was married to the Superintendent of Schools of a very small nearby community, which I will call White Cliffs, for the purpose of this rehash of my deep-seated resentment of Spelling Bee Oh-So-Proper mentality. Ultimately, Jill and her husband left town under a very dark cloud that smacks of some of the abuses of the Catholic Church. But, during that school year, the Queen Bee was riding high and riding herd.

It seemed intrinsically unfair, to me, that a teacher who had just arrived on the scene (and wasn’t even fully certified) had suddenly been named Big Cheese, with all the rest of the English department (i.e., all 2 of us) supposed to kiss the Papal ring. I had even been named one of the “Ten Most Creative Teachers in America” in a TAB Scholastic Magazine contest shortly before this.

While I had (and have) nothing against spelling bees, up to that point, and would have enjoyed participating in one when a young girl, the pages and pages of directions for procedures on HOW we were to go about selecting our contestant of choice for the entire school were ludicrous, impractical and so time-consuming as to be virtually useless.

I was already supposed to be teaching Language Arts: Literature, Grammar, Composition and, (in a separate report card grade), Spelling in one 45-minute period. I barely had time to work in FOUR separate disciplines daily, giving 10 minutes per day to each. I was very “high” on writing/composition in my classes, and I also volunteered my time to run two different speech competitions (Modern Woodmen Oratorical Contest and Optimists Oratorical Competition) after school, as well as being the school newspaper supervisor, so running interminable “spell offs” in my classroom during the ordinary classroom day, in addition to the tasks described here, was not in the cards. When I saw the “recommendations” for HOW we were to come up with our contestants, I quickly realized that my best method would be to check the highest I.Q.’s in my study hall (which was held last hour of the day) and see if the two brightest students I had at that time of day would be willing to “spell” each other during the hour, which was an hour given over to doing one’s homework and otherwise taxing the patience of the study hall supervisor. Therefore, Chris Thompson and Fred Cernetisch became my duly selected contestants, and life went on as usual, with my students, at least, receiving a balanced diet of Literature, Composition, Grammar and Spelling. We had our “contestants” and all was right with the Language Arts World in my classroom, but things were rapidly going downhill in Jill St. John’s classroom right next door.

Mrs. St. John plunged into her new-found prominence with great gusto and began doing things exactly the way the myriad sheets of directions from our local newspaper described, which meant that she had no time to actually teach anything else. It also meant that there were upsets aplenty during her “Spell offs.”

The smartest and best and most motivated students did not, like cream, rise to the top of the Spelling Bee food chain in her numerous and never-ending elimination(s). As can happen in the real deal, chance and luck played a big part, and she did not care for the contestants who ended up as the “winners” of her never-ending spelling bee preliminaries. In fact, she disliked their odds of winning anything beyond a prison sentence so much (when compared to Chris and Fred’s odds, anyway) that she ran in a ringer—a boy who had been out with a broken leg but was among the smartest in the school, who hobbled onstage with his leg in a cast, never having taken part in any of her charade of “Spell Offs.” (That student is now a physician and almost certainly was among the highest I.Q.’s in the entire school).

The budding doctor, however, was a bit of a problem child. He didn’t really care that much for sitting through classes that did not challenge his superior abilities, and he had recently been disciplined at the school picnic for bringing a giant jam box and blasting hip hop music with obscene lyrics. (All in a day’s work for the school’s budding genius.)

This student—I’ll call him “Mike”—could not be counted on to apply himself with any diligence to the task of actually studying a bunch of dry spelling words. He wasn’t of the ethnic strains that “home school” their child and do NOTHING but study spelling words for months. (Now THERE’S a well-rounded child…if all you want him or her to be able to do is spell “antidisestablishmentarianism!”)

So, during the REAL spell-off in our school gym several things happened that were unexpected.

First, all of my teaching colleagues whom I had considered good friends and with whom I had stormed the barricades to achieve recognition for our teachers’ group over a three-year period, went to work setting up chairs and helping Jill St. John out, which I considered, then and now, a real slap in the face.

Second, during the actual Spell-off to determine who would be our junior high school’s contestant, the judges, under the leadership of Jill St. John, seemed oblivious to the fact that “Mike” had just misspelled a word and eliminated himself. I was upstairs in the overlooking band balcony and actually had to stand up and yell down at the assembled PTB, “What about ‘predestination’?” (or whatever the offending word was). The judges finally had to acknowledge that Mr. Future Surgeon had missed his word and the contestant from my homeroom (Chris) was the winner of the “Spell off.”

Third: the fact that the contestant from my homeroom won and hers did not so enraged Jill St. John that she totally lost it in the hallway after school. With plenty of students within earshot, she began swearing a blue streak at me (as it turned out, Jill St. John had the vocabulary of a sailor). And let’s not forget that she had gone back on her own many and numerous “directives.” After countless hours wasted having “spell offs” in her classroom, she had adopted my strategy and simply selected her smartest study hall student to compete, rather than abiding by the rather lengthy and capricious results she obtained while following the directions of the local newspaper.

“Next year,” she screamed, “this will be televised!”

I barely managed to keep from saying Big Whoop.

I maintained my calm (just barely) and asked her if she’d mind accompanying me to the office to repeat everything she had just said (screamed, actually) for our esteemed Principal, Mr. DoNothing.

We marched down to the office, me determined to have all the wrongs I had suffered for months set right, but the Principal (Mr. Do-Nothing, as opposed to Dr. DoLittle) did his usual straddling of the fence. He ushered me, solo, into his office, keeping the salty-tongued Jill in his outer office.

I remember asking him, “Just exactly who IS the Chairman of the English department? I’ve been here 10 years and have a Master’s degree plus 30 hours. Why is this woman bossing everyone around, calling early morning meetings, and swearing at me in the halls, to boot?”

Mr. Do-Nothing answered that we didn’t HAVE “Chairmen” of our departments, [which was a crock], and ushered me out a side door that exited outside, suggesting that I leave early for the day. I was pissed and likely to remain so, since I still am, 34 years later. He then ushered Jill St. John into his office where they, no doubt, commiserated on how difficult Mrs. Wilson was and how wonderful her behavior had been, because, after all, SHE was married to the Superintendent of White Cliff School District, [which he would soon leave under a very black cloud].

However, the “right” student won (and, later, went to work for me at Sylvan for 15 years) but, as luck would have it, her grandparents offered her a trip to Hawaii that was to take place at exactly the same time as the aforementioned Spelling Bee Finals, which were to be held at Augustana College during Easter break.

So, “Mike”—as runner-up—-with his cast now off his leg—is shown in the official school yearbook front and center with the TRUE winner (Chris) stuck somewhere in the back of the photo. I was never issued an apology by the woman who swore a blue streak at me in the halls, and, at the end of that school year, I took one entire year off from teaching to ponder a school district that valued my efforts so little and kissed ass so much.

Did I quit?

No, I did not. I returned after one year away (spent looking for work at a higher level) and taught 5 more years before quitting for good. to take a job writing for Performance Learning Systems, Inc.

But now you have the background of my disdain for Spelling Bees, with which I preface a review of “Bad Words” to follow.
While I think Spelling Bees can be fun and useful, I don’t think that staying home and doing NOTHING but studying spelling words has much to recommend it as being the best possible educational course of action, and I still remember the injustice(s) of the first one held at my school in school year 1979-1980.

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March 22nd, 2014 | No Comments »


Guillermo del Toro, with Ron Perlman in background.

Guillermo del Toro, with Ron Perlman in background.

Kurt Vonnegut
Russell Crowe.

Russell Crowe.

In reading today’s March 21st Chicago Tribune, an interview caught my eye, with comments from television’s Giuliana Rancic. She relates that when she was conducting red carpet interviews and was fairly new at her job she encountered Russell Crowe.

Says Rancic: “Russell Crowe was so mean to me. I had been at ‘E!’ for a year, and I thought, ‘I’m going to go easy because he’s pretty tough.’” (Giuilana might have been referencing the telephone-throwing incident that has haunted Crowe since a New York City hotel stay.)

“Are you excited to be here? Your big movie premiere!”

Crowe: “I’m contractually obligated to be here. What’s your next question?”

Rancic: “OK—um—isn’t it so wonderful to see all the fans?”

: “’That’s your second question? One, two, you’re through.’ And then he walked away, says Rancic.

The retelling of a bad interview brought back memories of some, good and bad, that I’ve conducted over the years. Perhaps among the worst was the interview of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., I conducted when a college sophomore at the University of Iowa.

I needed 2 more hours to transfer from Iowa to Berkeley and it was too late in the semester to sign up for an additional class, so I talked my instructor in “American Humor & Satire” into allowing me to do a special paper interviewing the notoriously crotchety author, who was then teaching on campus at the Writers’ Workshop. I had to get at least a “B” in order to transfer to Berkeley from Iowa. That didn’t happen when the interview subject clammed up and became monosyllabic.

I had been interviewing adults since I was ten, so I had 8 or 9 years of experience interviewing others, but I had never interviewed a celebrity as prominent as Vonnegut.

Nor, as it turns out, as difficult as Kurt Vonnegut turned out to be.

Many years later, I was told that he hated, on sight, “little blonde girls from Minnesota.”

I wasn’t from Minnesota, but I qualified on the other counts.

I had read every book Vonnegut had ever written and was a huge fan. I was also immersed in the writing of other humorists and satirists as part of my “American Humor & Satire” class. We had just completed discussing “Catch 22” by Joseph Heller.

When I asked Vonnegut how he would compare his worldview with Heller he looked very irritated. It was late on a cold, wintry night. At that time, writing classes met in Quonset huts left over from World War II. He looked tired, haggard, cold, impatient, and like he’d rather be anywhere than where he currently found himself. Still, he had agreed to the interview, and I was trying to be properly respectful and had done my research on the Great Man.

Vonnegut fixed me with a tired, baleful glare and said, “There is no basis for any comparison.”

Welllllllllll. If you know anything about the work(s) of these two men, you might say that, at the very least, they deserve comparison because they were of the school of humorists then being dubbed “the black humorists” and were contemporaries.

After that, the interview quickly descended into Vonnegut acting like a bad guest on an old Johnny Carson show, and me beating a hasty retreat to try to make a paper out of few, if any, quotes. No longer could I plug in the author’s Words of Wisdom to the paper I had been working on for weeks, because he had offered no usable quotes of any kind.

The only thing I can say is that later Edie Vonnegut (Kurt’s daughter) ended up in my University Lab School class, never attended, and, therefore, flunked, so maybe there is some sort of Divine Justice.

As I read of Giuiliana’s experience(s) with Russell Crowe, I thought back to other famous celebrities I’ve been placed on the Red Carpet to interview, and how they have treated me as a print interviewer.

First, the good ones: Guillermo del Toro was a dream and so was Ron Perlman, who accompanied him. When I gave del Toro a copy of my book It Came from the 70s: From The Godfather to Apocalypse Now, he actually stopped so long that his handlers had to come urge him to move along. While standing in front of me browsing the book (in which he seemed genuinely interested), he noticed that his shoe was untied and said, with a laugh, “Oh! Oh! Fat man with shoe untied! Not good.”

Ed Burns
(“The Brothers McMahon”) was also very nice, posing with people in a friendly fashion. He was very charismatic. Likewise, Gary Cole was a good guy, but his companion that night (Dennis Farina), who I thought would be friendly and welcoming to any journalist in the Chicago crowd, was not, which surprised me. I expected him to give all of us a moment of his time, but the late Farina headed straight for the TV cameras and gave everyone else short shrift. Likewise, Forest Whitaker was kind and giving (when he finally arrived—quite late).

Among the worst experiences (after Vonnegut) was that of Alan Cumming (Eli Gold on “The Good Wife”). It wasn’t so much that Mr. Cumming was actively rude but that he acted as though anyone who did not have a TV camera on their shoulder was beneath his dignity. The rest of us were invisible. His handlers were actively involved in keeping all print journalists at bay.

As for writers, I’ve yet to encounter one who was as actively rude as Vonnegut in 1965, and I’ve interviewed David Morrell, Jon Land, Joe Hill, Anne Perry, William F. Nolan and many, many others.

Maybe writers are just naturally inclined to act more like “real people” since, in a sense, they ARE real people, known to audiences only because of their fictional constructs. There may be a few who don’t fit that description, but, in general, a best-selling writer can be as much of a celebrity (or as little of one) as he or she wishes, which is one good

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March 21st, 2014 | No Comments »

The judges have spoken and M.K. Nobilette has been sent back to San Francisco, a town she loves, where a loyal female fan base kept her in the competition until March 20th, 2014. Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick, Jr., did not see fit to use their “save” for the baseball-cap wearing Bieber lookalike.

The bottom three this night, (besides M.K.) were Dexter Roberts of Fayette, Alabama, and Sam Woolf of Bradenton, Florida. I’m having trouble coming up with the reasons why the good-looking young Woolf keeps ending up in the bottom three, but perhaps his timid, non-assertiveness is the answer, since Caleb Johnson—a far less attractive youth, but a very confident and talented one—seems to be a big crowd favorite. Yes, this is a singing competition, but, in some ways, it mirrors the “Q” factor ratings that network talking heads are given for how “likeable” the audiences find them. It was a low “Q” rating that doomed Cheryl Tieg’s attempts to become one of those talking heads years ago.

The night featured Jennifer Lopez dancing in a skimpy outfit, backed up by girls half her age, singing “ILuhYaPapi.” She resurrected her “Jenny from the block” image and the song, (which was mainly a choreographed dance number), drew heavily on her Hispanic heritage. On a Yahoo “answer” blog, someone searching for the title of the song was answered by “Noneofurbusiness” with the title (I Luh Ya Papi) and the remark, “Worst song ever and the title puts us Latinos to shame, like we can’t speak English.”

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say “worst song ever,” but I do wonder how long Jennifer plans to continue with the revealing outfits and the ultra-sexy schtick. She is the mother of 6-year-old twins (Emme and Max) and has been married 3 times. On July 24th, she will turn 45. Madonna is 11 years older than Jennifer and still at it, so perhaps that is the answer.

The other performers this night were a new band from Harry Connick’s part of the world, Royal Teeth, who sang “Wild.” It consisted of a lot of confetti flying and Harry Connick, Jr., saying (just before they performed), “These guys are awesome.” Again, not going there, but they were peppy.

If I were handicapping this race, it would be a good bet that “someone from the South” will win. I say that because, of the remaining contestants—now reduced to only 9—6 of those 9 or 2/3 are Southerners. North Carolina has 2 entries (Caleb Johnson and Majesty Rose), while Alabama has 3 (C.J. Harris, Dexter Roberts and Jessica Meuse.) I’m counting Florida’s Sam Woolf in that number. That means that only Michigan (Jena Irene and Malaya Watson) has an outside chance with a Midwestern win and Alex Preston stands alone as the representative of the East coast (Mont Vernon, New Hampshire). With M.K. Nobilette gone, the west coast has no contestants remaining.

Since C.J. Harris was given a pass despite one of the most out-of-tune performances ever, and has been consistently sharp throughout the competition, he obviously has a high “Q” quotient. His fan base is motivated to keep him in the competition, even when he sang out-of-key for an entire song. I’m less certain that Majesty Rose and Sam Woolf can keep dodging the bullet of the bottom three, but Caleb Johnson certainly has to be considered a front-runner. I’d put Alex Preston in that category if he weren’t so nerdy, overall.

I, personally, would like to see Jena Irene and Malaya Watson hang in there, but they are female and, historically, the voting is done by teen-aged girls. This is not to say that a female contestant cannot win, since many have, but it is to say that perhaps in the years that a female won the competition, they might not have been competing against a powerhouse singer like Caleb.

I could live with the loud showman Caleb Johnson coming in Numero Uno and claiming the crown, but I’ll reserve judgment on who will be the next-to-last contestant standing, [whom barely anyone remembers after the final night.] (Anyone remember the name of the contestant Philip Phillips bested without looking it up? I thought not.) Those singers go on to have careers on Broadway and make a very nice living at it, thank you very much, so kudos to all. We all know that Chris Daughtry didn’t win, and neither did Jennifer Hudson, and they seem to be doing just fine.

I’d look for Jessica Meuse to be eliminated in the near future, and I’m still scratching my head over Majesty Rose and her many brushes with the axe. (Gotta’ get that ‘Q’ factor up, girl!)

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March 20th, 2014 | No Comments »

C.J. HarrisSo, who did well and who did poorly on “American Idol” on March 19, 2014?

There are 10 contestants left. Who was—far and away—the worst of the lot this night?
That one is easy to answer, since C.J. Harris singing “Invisible” by Hunter Hayes was so far off-key that it was painful to listen to. The judges all noted this—some more kindly than others. Keith Urban started off the criticism, saying, “Tonight it was really shaky with staying in tune.” He went on to try to soften the blow of his criticism by saying, “I understand it. I’d really encourage you to work on it, because you have everything else going for you.” (I’m tempted to state the obvious, “A singer who can’t sing in tune: Hmmmmmm.) Jennifer Lopez added, “This wasn’t what it should have been,” and both Urban and Lopez made mention of what a great job C.J. had done during rehearsals. This prompted Harry Connick, Jr. to reveal that that is why he never goes to rehearsals. “I want to see what happens when the red light goes on.” Harry said, “You really seem to feel the lyrics. It’s a discipline thing. You have a tendency to sing sharp. You can do it. You have the discipline to do it, but you must get the pitch thing under control.”

Uh….Hear! Hear! (Pun intended).

Most of the early singers did not set the stage on fire, with M.K.—red streaks in her newly-pouffed hair—stumbling gracelessly around the stage singing “Perfect” by Pink. Dexter followed, singing Georgia Lines’ song “Cruise”, with Connick being particularly explicit in his critique, calling it “meandering” and “bereft of joy.” Keith Urban said he liked the beginning of the song, but not the end. I agree with Harry Connick, Jr.

By the time Jena sang “Clarity” by Zed featuring Foxes, the crowd was ready for something better, and Jena delivered it. Keith pronounced it “the best performance of the night, so far” (which didn’t take much) and the light stick distributed to the crowd and Jena’s urging the crowd to wave them in time to her song was the mark of a more-polished performer than those who preceded her. Jena admitted to a love for electronic music, which caused Harry Connick to say, “I can really see you succeeding in that. I’m starting to get a really clear idea of who you are.”

Alex Preston got the most glowing reviews of the night for his rendition of “One Direction’s” song “The Story of My Life.” Usually, Harry Styles and the boys share the singing, no doubt somewhat based on range. Alex did it all and earned comments from Harry that Alex had “really hit the bull’s eye with the artistry. Really nice choices.” Keith echoed the praise, saying, “I thought that was really good, Brother,” and with Jennifer adding, “I loved it. You were very comfortable. You were like Buddy Holly, but without the glasses. You evoke greatness.” While I agree that Alex did, indeed, deliver, I question whether he has the crowd appeal of a Philip Phillips, last year’s winner.

Caleb Johnson came at some point after Alex with his loud rendition of Lady Gaga’s “The Edge of Glory.” Harry pointed out the obvious: Caleb has a powerhouse voice and few of the other contestants can match him for straight-out volume. Harry (Connick) compared the contest to David and Goliath saying, “You’re smart to do it.” He awarded Caleb an “A+” for originality, saying, “You do loud really, really well.” Keith was less impressed, finding the piece “lumbering” and Jennifer said she didn’t feel anything when Caleb sang, except that he could deliver power like no other contestant. A comment was made about the consistency with which Caleb delivers the goods.

Malaya, who had the dubious honor of immediately following Alex Preston, did a great job of selling Bruno Mars’ “When I Was Your Man.” Jennifer remarked on how Malaya sang “tenderly, beautifully, with so much feeling” and delivered the lyrics unchanged. She pronounced Malaya’s version “awesome.” Keith also praised Malaya for leaving the song alone and developing more vocal control. Harry Connick, Jr., —often the harshest critic—said, “You were completely present in every single word…The thing I liked was how sincere you were with every single word.”

So, score one for Malaya, Alex and Jena and deduct points from C.J., M.K. and Caleb.

Jessica Meuse sang “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, which sounded very country. Jennifer said, of the song, “It fell right in your wheelhouse.” Harry pronounced her rendition(s) to be “one-dimensional” and Keith felt it had a “sixties country pop beat.” Comments were made about the fact that the lyrics are bleak, but the beat is so upbeat, with Harry expecting more of the message of the song to register in Jessica’s face as she sang.

Majesty Rose sang “Wake Me Up” by Avicii, prompting Harry to say, “I love what you did. I think you’re really smart,” but Keith didn’t find the completely folk version to his liking and Jennifer Lopez commented that she “saw fear” for the first time, following Majesty’s falling into the bottom three last week. I liked Majesty Rose tonight and I liked her from the beginning. This is usually the Kiss of Death on a night when my alma mater lost in overtime to Tennessee for the NCAA tournament berth.

Last, but not least, Sam Woolf sang “We Are Young by Fun featuring Janelle Monae. The program was running out of time, but Jennifer said, “I loved it. You sounded so much better than last week” and the other judges urged Sam to be more “assertive” and to “Come out on the stage and own this.” Sam is the cutest boy left, so I doubt if he’ll be cut.

It will be interesting to see if the rest of America is so tone-deaf that they couldn’t hear how poorly C.J. Harris’ performance was. There was much talk of how he was making barbecue sandwiches last year at this time. I fear he may be returning to making and wrapping BBQ, if the viewers at home are honest.

However, given the politics of things, it will probably be someone who gave a superlative performance (Alex comes to mind) who will not garner the votes.

Personally, I loved Malaya’s Bruno Mars song, thought Sam (Woolf) picked a great song for such a youthful-in-appearance singer, and enjoyed Jena’s glowstick schtick. I’m also confident that Caleb will deliver (again) with a better song next time, and I hope that Majesty Rose makes the cut. As for the rest: meh.

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Posted in Music, Reviews
March 17th, 2014 | No Comments »

David Brenner

David Brenner

Just a few quick thoughts about the recent passing of comedian David Brenner, the thinking man’s comic.

We had the opportunity to see Brenner “live” on 2 occasions.

The first time, he was the lead-in act for Donna Summer in Las Vegas. I remember that he came out onstage and immediately made fun of his profile, saying he resembled the emblem on the hood of a Buick. This was probably in the seventies, and his show was very funny and less cerebral than the second time I saw him “live,” which was right here in town at the comedy club on the Davenport side of the river. (The Funny Bone?) I’m unsure of the name of the club now, but I think it was located within the “mall” that never has quite made it—the one that surrounds Bettendorf’s gambling boat.

Brenner brought out a music stand and propped up clippings from local papers and riffed for a good hour or more on ads and stories from our own local papers, poking particular fun at the multitude of ads for cars. He was funny, cerebral, timely and you didn’t get the feeling that he was giving the same show in Davenport that he gave in every other city where he played, which put him in a special class, as, when we saw Steve Martin here in town, his show as the same show he had given as the lead-in for Helen Reddy, back in the day when “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar” was big.

Brenner is being mourned by many stand-up comics who have given the man his due as a great influence on the style(s) of such comedians as Richard Lewis (whom he mentored), Jerry Seinfeld and a host of others. It has been said that he was a guest on the “Tonight” show more times than any other guest, but that same claim was made for an equally funny comic, David Steinberg, who has gone on to direct and about whom we recently watched a documentary. Steinberg, too, was a smart, witty guy who changed his act nightly, but he has more-or-less forsaken stand-up to direct such comedy shows as Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm.”

The last few times I saw David Brenner on television were on the late-night comedy show which was a sort of “round table” type show, and he was one of many.

I’m glad I got to see him twice, and it is easy to see what a great influence he was on so many other comics working today.

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March 15th, 2014 | 2 Comments »


Green beer for sale in Kelly's tent.

Green beer for sale in Kelly’s tent.

St Patrick's Party, March 15, 2014.

St Patrick’s Party, March 15, 2014.

Iowa’s biggest St. Patrick’s Day Party is underway in Davenport, Iowa through Monday and drawing participants from across the state.

Kelly’s Irish Pub at 2222 East 53rd St. in Davenport (since 2004) kicked off the St. Paddy’s day weekend at noon on Friday, March 14th. The party continues through Monday, March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. The celebration resumed at 6 a.m. on Saturday, March 15, and will start again at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, March 16th, in advance of the actual St. Patrick’s Day (Monday, March 17th).

In addition to live music, the Skydiving Leprechauns are a draw for the celebration. The 25 trained skydivers jump from 5,000 feet dressed as leprechauns, aiming for the 2 parking lots which measure 9,000 square feet and contain a 29-foot tall tent with 50 servers ready to serve beer or home-brewe whiskey and vodka from the LeClaire, Iowa Mississippi River Distillery.

The event is expected to draw up to 20,000 people to heated tents through March 17th, up from 15,000 last year. In addition to live music, the party encompasses a magician, a juggling unicyclist (Dean Franzen),Mulane Healy O’Brien Irish dancers, and, of course, green beer.

Within a 24-hour span, 2,000 pounds of slow-cooked corned beef and cabbage is prepared (along with roasted red potatoes) and 200 kegs of green beer are prepared and ready to be consumed. The band performing in the photos taken on Saturday, March 15th, Liz and the Belly Swirls, contains 2 members of the Kelly family, Leo and Bob Kelly on lead and bass guitar. Liz Treiber is the lead vocalist; the drummer is Greg Hipskind. Liz and the Belly Swirls are a local band that has been performing throughout the area for 15 years.

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