Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Happy Birthday, Bugs Bunny!

April 30, 1938 heralded the debut appearance of the rabbit that would eventually become Bugs Bunny in the cartoon, "Porky's Hare Hunt." His official debut as Bugs, and not as "Happy Rabbit" or as this unnamed rabbit co-star of Porky Pig was three more cartoons later, on July 27, 1940 in "A Wild Hare." So just like a lot of the greats of the Golden Age of Hollywood, Bugs Bunny has two birthdays!
"Porky's Hare Hunt" (1938)
When I was a kid growing up watching Saturday Morning Cartoons I absolutely LOVED Bugs Bunny and the Warner Bros cartoons. As an adult people have asked that personality question, "Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny?" To me the answer will always be Bugs Bunny. It's not that I don't love Mickey Mouse, too, but as a kid Mickey wasn't around. I wasn't around to watch the original Mickey Mouse Club and too old to watch the second version. I never even heard of the third one until recently! No, to me the cartoon legend that I watched on TV was Bugs Bunny, the one and only.

Bugs Bunny had a hugely successful Hollywood run, from his smashing debut(s) in 1938/1940 up until the post-war Fifties. By the time television was cutting into film's profits Bugs had made more than 100 cartoons. Of those he was nominated for several Academy Awards and won one. He made his last original Merrie Melody in 1964; by that time he had already made his debut on the Boob Tube. In 1960 he was the headliner on Warner Bros' new TV show, The Bugs Bunny Show. He and his pals were on TV for the next 40 years without a break!

So to celebrate the old gray hare, here's the color version of the Bugs Bunny show, a tune I have in my head after oh-so-many watchings.

And as an extra added bonus, here's Bugs' Academy Award winning short,  Knighty Knight Bugs from 1958.


So, what did you think?

Monday, April 29, 2013

Happy Birthday, Duke Ellington!

Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington was born on August 29, 1899. By the 1920s he was an accomplished composer, and by the 1930s he was an accomplished band-leader. He called his music "American Music," instead of jazz, and for his entire life he refused to be categorized.

If you have not heard any Duke Ellington music, you owe it to yourself to go to the local library or music store and get your hands on something. I can't begin to explain how great he was; you will have to hear him for yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Happy Birthday, Duke Ellington!

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Encyclopedia Brown Turns Fifty!

I first met Encyclopedia Brown when I was in elementary school. From a young age I would read anything and everything; then as now I would frequent my library on a regular basis. It was even better when I was a kid because I had a library right there in the school building! I don't remember if my school librarian Mrs. Shenberg introduced me to the Encyclopedia Brown mystery series or not, but I do remember trying to track down each of the books in the series to match my wits against his.

Each book follows the same pattern: there are ten chapters, each with its own mystery. There are a few pages of background to set the stage and to give you the important details. Then before Encyclopedia Brown can give away the solution to whatever the problem is, the omniscient narrator would interrupt and write something like, "How did Encyclopedia know?" or "What tripped up the guilty man?" Then there would be a note to read the solution on page such-as-such at the end of the book. That chapter would then be done, and a new chapter and new mystery would start.
Encyclopedia Brown (I'm gonna call him "EB" from now on to save typing effort) was really Leroy Brown, the son of the Chief of Police of the fictional town of Idaville. Leroy is not only the smartest kid in town, he is the smartest person, period. Whenever his father has a case he can't figure out, he asks his son to help. Of course, EB solves the mystery every time. He has opened a Detective Agency in his garage during the summer and charges neighborhood kids a quarter to help them in various problems. Often these problems have something to do with neighborhood bully Bugs Meany, who tries to get the best of him in every book. On EB's side is Sally Kimball, the prettiest girl in the fifth grade and the best athlete in the class. She is the junior partner of the Brown Detective Agency. She is not quite as smart as EB, but she is clever. Every-other-book or so she gets a chapter where she is able to solve the mystery before EB does.
If you have never read any EB stories, you should go to your local library or bookstore and ask for one of his books. There are atleast 25 in the series, created by Donald J. Sobol, who passed away last year. Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective was first published in 1963; this means that he is celebrating his 50th anniversary this year. I was in a bookstore recently and happened to notice His Best Cases Ever. I was so happy to see it that I literally snapped it up. "Encyclopedia Brown's greatest cases? Hell, yeah!" There is no way that I would buy all of the books, but to show my love for the character I wanted to have THIS.
Most stories were incredibly clever, based on simple observations or facts you would be expected to understand as soon as EB explained them. Sometimes they were painfully obvious, and I wondered if there was some reason why I could easily guess the culprit. Sometimes, however, the stories were simply convoluted; the mysteries based on codes and secret signals tended to be the worst of these. When I was a kid there at least ten books that I read and re-read. Let me tell you a few of my favorite solutions. 

EB meets Sally Kimball
If you don't want to know some of the solutions to these stories, skip the next paragraph.
Some plot devices that I remember to this day were: when you drive a car for several hours the hood is going to be too hot for a child to stand on; Bob, Anna, noon, radar, and level are all words that are palindromes; magicians always wear long-sleeve shirts; with your car hood up and you sitting at the wheel you cannot see if someone is doing anything to your engine; penguins are from the South Pole; a full spider-web in a doorway means nobody came through that way; and it is impossible to use your left hand to put something in your right pants' pocket. These solutions were like moments where I would say, "Eureka!" They were so dramatic to me that I have remembered them for 40-plus years after reading them.
To do research for this article I found that there are 28 different EB books; eighteen at least are back in print by Puffin with adorable painted covers by James Bernardin. He did the interior art on some of the newer books, too. The original series artist was Leonard Shortall; he was the only artist I knew until very recently. In the late Seventies he was replaced by such artists as Ib Ohlsson, Gail Owens, Eric Velasquez, Warren Chang, Robert Papp, and then James Bernardin, who was the last artist before Sobol died. For the Yearling versions, photographer Michael Frost used adorable teenage models to represent EB, Sally, and Bugs. The photographer gets a credit, but I have no idea who the models are.
Shortall's art was excellent when the series first started (that's his work at the top of the page and for the work "EB meets Sally") but by the tenth book his style had become more gritty and less refined. Bernardin is probably my next favorite; his covers are fun and his interior art is detailed but not busy. Papp is noteworthy because his EB and Sally resemble the Yearling photo models' versions!
These stories are great fun and quick ways to keep your brain "on." I don't know if they will continue now that Sobol has died; I wouldn't be surprised if they stopped, and I wouldn't be surprised if someone new stepped up and started writing them. Personally I would like to see atleast one story where EB gets a little older and maybe joined the police force. Sobol wrote in His Best Cases Ever that he had made the decision not to age EB out of the fifth grade, but it was something I would like to see, maybe for all the fans who grew up with him.
Leonard Shortall provided the covers to the earliest books' first editions,
such as these shown above and below

The Yearling versions featured these adorable models as EB, Sally, and Bugs.
Photos are by Michael Frost.


The last artist to work with Sobol was James Bernardin.
Above is another of his covers; below is some interior art.  

Here's the Brown family having dinner, as drawn
by EB artist Eric Velasquesz 
Is it just me, or does Robert Papp model his Sally and Encyclopedia
after the same models the photographer used?
EB and Sally witness an incident with Bugs in the  background.
Art by Warren Chang

If you have ever read an EB story, you'll get a kick out of this link:

Friday, April 26, 2013

Ken-Bun-Ki "Hero"

 Note: "Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki" is a series of articles I wrote for my Japanese City Hall newsletter back in 1996-97. They were articles about life in America or life in Japan as experienced by an American. This one is from May 8, 1997. 

"Who is your hero?"
This question is used often in American elementary school English class assignments. It's very popular. "Who do you respect? Why do you respect them?" This type of homework question was asked probably once every year for my twelve years of school.

Elementary school students write about fantastic characters or heroes from their favorite stories. Boys write about characters like Batman or Tom Sawyer; girls respect characters like Nancy Drew or Cinderella. Junior high school students usually write about famous people. For example, President Lincoln or Helen Keller, or more recent choices like professional basketball players such as Michael Jordan are all popular choices to this age group. Everyone wants to grow up to become somebody like the people they respect. High school and college students write about people they actually know or people around them. For example, they write about their grandfather fighting a disease, or a friend confined to a wheelchair, or a friend who is putting himself through college because his family is too poor to send him. At this age, the people we (Americans) respect are the people we know who are working and doing their best against terrible odds.

In Japanese there are various levels of polite and honorific speech. In English there really are no special vocabulary words that automatically show respect ("Would you...?" is better and shows more respect than "Will you...?" but that type of example is about the extent of English "honorifics.") However, this doesn't mean that we do not have respect for people. Each American has his/her own heroes.

As for my heroes, all of the names mentioned in this article are my heroes. I respect those people who overcome life's adversity and live their own lives. Who is YOUR hero?

This is the last installment of Russell's Ken-Bun-Ki, which has been published for approximately one year. Were you able to understand different cultures or different ideas? It's natural that people's opinions and ways of thinking are different. "Internal relations" means looking at others as well as yourself. It begins with knowing your own country and town.

Thank you!

Well, that was the last official "Russell Ken-Bun-Ki" article. I always wrote my articles a week or two before the intended published date because the editing, type-setting, and publishing efforts took so much time. I had written this sometime at the end of March, before I had gotten the word that the Mayor or whomever had decided to "cancel" me. My editor (who was my wife, Yuko) had already prepared this one, too, and knew it was a good one. So a month after the new fiscal year had started in April, my column ended on May 8.
I never got an official word as to why it was cancelled. "We are going in another direction" was all I ever got, kind of conversationally and kind of "please don't ask me..." So I let it drop. After all, writing these things was fun, but it was work. For the rest of my time in Miyazaki (I left four years later) various people would come up to me and tell me their favorite columns or the ones they disagreed with me on or what have you. So....I'm immensely proud of them, which is why I wanted to get them out there.
By the way, I hereby reject something I wrote here sixteen years ago. In my opinion athletes are not "heroes." I think it's become much more clear over the past 15 years or so that they and actors and comedians etc are not "heroes" whatsoever.
This article is the last official column. However, next week I will present for the first time anywhere the only "Russell Ken-Bun-Ki" article to ever be censored and rejected for publication by the Assistant Mayor of my town.

Happy Birthday, Carol Burnett!

Carol Burnett is most famous for her classic television variety series, which ran from 1967-1978. However, she also appeared in several motion pictures, which means that because today is Film Friday we are going to celebrate her birthday. Today she is 80 years old.

The movie Burnett is probably most well-known for is Annie, from 1982. She plays the evil Miss Hanigan, the woman who tries to cheat young Little Orphan Annie out of her happiness. She has one of the best lines in the movie: "Why anybody would want to be an orphan is beyond me." I always thought of her portrayal as being similar to her "Eunice" character from her television show: an unhappy person who basically means well but who lashes out when cornered.

Another film that is worth seeing is Noises Off from 1992. This is a famous British comedy play about an off-off-Broadway show and the hilarity that ensues both in front of and in back of the stage curtain. The show is much funnier but the movie has many funny moments. Burnett plays the lead actress playing the house-keeper; as she begins to suspect that her husband and co-star in the play is cheating on her, things get vindictive pretty quickly.

Burnett also appeared with Alan Alda in the serious comedy, The Four Seasons (1981). I hate to say this, but I was tired of Alda by this point and did not enjoy anything with him in it (not even MASH by this point, sorry!). So I never saw this. While doing research for this article I read a description of the story and it sounds like typical Alan Alda DRAMA with a capital "d." No, thanks.

Another famous film she appeared in was her first serious role, the mother of a son killed accidentally in Friendly Fire (1979). I remember watching this either then or later and being struck by just how talented Carol Burnett was.

Carol Burnett is an awesomely talented actress/comedienne and it is my pleasure to add my wishes to her special day.

Happy Birthday, Carol Burnett!


 co-starring Michael Caine, John Ritter, Christopher Reeve,
and Denholm Elliot in his last role

 co-starring Ned Beatty and Sam Waterston

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Magnificent Seven: The Justice League of America

If an editorial edict came down mandating that only seven members could remain in the Justice League of America, who would your choices be? Personally, I am not choosing any of the all-powerful members like Superman, Martian Manhunter, and Firestorm. Why? Because in my opinion none of them need to team-up with anybody else. If you can move a planet out of its orbit or alter a nuclear bomb into a daisy, you really don't need to team-up with anyone. Also, I haven't included Batman, who as a character works well with all the other super-heroes but as a team-mate doesn't bring anything that other characters wouldn't already cover.

The Magnificent Seven Justice League of America
in order of their original joining-up

I will probably get hate mail for this one, but let's face it: Aquaman has super-strength at a reasonable level (weaker than Wonder Woman but stronger than Batman), so if we want actual team-work to occur Aquaman is our guy. In his current series it's been shown that he is nearly bullet-proof and can also leap over buildings in single bounds. Personally, I would like to see him portrayed as similar to Marvel's Captain America or Namor the Sub-Mariner: no slouches in the power department. Besides, the Earth is mostly water. When aliens attack the oceans are going to have to be involved. Aquaman is in.

Not only is The Flash fast enough to atten all meetings and fight all the bad guys and then still return to his secret identity with time to spare, Barry Allen (and then Wally West) were both fun personalities to have around. As long as he is not portrayed as extra-super-ultra fast so that he can do absolutely anything, he's a great character. And I don't know if it's just me, but I always thought The Flash was one of those characters who works better in a group than on his own.

I don't really care if it's Hal, John, Kyle, or even Guy; the Justice League needs a member of the Green Lantern Corps on its roster. They need the power and the window to all sorts of space opera that a cosmic policeman would bring to the series. As for which one to use; each of these characters brings something different to the group dynamic. I was a die-hard Hal Jordan fan for my first years, but in the past 20 years or so I've very thoroughly joined the John Stewart camp. Guy Gardner is better as an antagonist, and not really appropriate to The World's Greatest Super-Heroes.

I would include Wonder Woman in the mix for some of the same reasons I included Aquaman: she is strong but not in Superman's range, so would logically need help from time to time. Similarly to the Flash she's a very dynamic and exciting character but somehow more interesting when playing with others rather than out on her own. I want to like Wonder Woman, but I just can't read her solo series. I love her on Super Friends and in the Justice League, however.

Each group needs a bit of "personality," and as he has been portrayed for nearly 50 years Oliver Queen has personality to spare. Plus without spotlight-hog Batman around, he can also function as the "stand back and plan" tactician type guy. Because, really, an archer works best when he has his eyes on the overall situation, not leading the charge.

Black Canary is one of the first "legacy" characters: her parents were crime-fighters and she grew up being watched over by their friends the Justice Society. She is an awesome hand-to-hand combatant, and her sonic powers (when handled correctly) are formidable. The fact that she's got long blonde hair and fishnet stockings in her costume is just a bonus.

The last spot is always the hardest to fill because each of the remaining candidates bring something different to the group, changing the dynamic of the series. If I went with The Atom the series would have more of a scientific slant. If I went with The Elongated Man stories would tend more towards the comedic side. If I went with Red Tornado, his ongoing effort to come to grips with his own type of humanity would definitely be part of the series. And if I chose Zatanna then the series would have a permanent link to sorcery. Obviously, in the end I chose Hawkwoman. Shayera Thol can lead the stories into both science fiction space opera as well as straight super-heroic action, and also into mysteries and horror. And instead of her husband, who could be a supporting character if the writer was so inclined, having Hawkwoman as a member gives us three female members in the group. Plus I would like to know if her political views are as conservative as her husband's; if so, she and Green Arrow can get into the same type of arguments that he and her husband used to get into.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

HB Lee Majors & Valerie Bertinelli!

When I was a kid growing up in the Seventies I had a few favorite TV shows that I loved to watch. The stars of two of my favorites actually share a birthday today, so I want to talk a little bit about Lee Majors and Valerie Bertinelli.

The Six Million Dollar Man ran from 1973-1978 with Lee Majors as Col. Steve Austin, an astronaut who crashes during a military exercise and is given bionic legs, arm, and eye in a top-secret experimental procedure. He then becomes America's top secret agent, using his super-human abilities to fight crime and to protect US security. Sometimes the stories were hokey, but in general they were played straight, especially at the beginning. Lee Majors made Steve a likeable fellow and the series was a big hit. I think it hit its zenith when it introduced The Bionic Woman, a love interest of Steve's who also suffers a crash. However, her body or mind rejects the bionic transplants. In a desperate attempt to save her life the doctors try an experimental procedure on her nervous system. She is saved, but somehow she loses her immediate memories, including the knowledge that she was in love with Steve. So he had to let her go, and Lee Majors made the melodrama work so well that I can remember the story nearly forty years later.

Unfortunately, after the introduction of The Bionic Woman the show went downward fast. Because she was so popular (she got her own series in 1976) the producers brought in a bionic dog and even a bionic Bigfoot. At this point the series was hopeless and I stopped watching.

Only later did I come across re-runs of The Big Valley, which also featured Lee Majors. We can talk about that show at some other time.

At about the time I stopped watching The Six Million Dollar Man (by the way, do you remember when that amount was actually pretty high? Now it's a bargain!) One Day At A Time made its debut. It ran from 1975-1984 and centered around Bonnie Franklin as a divorced mother. I wasn't much of a fan of her, but I did like her 15 year-old daughter Barbara, played by Valerie Bertinelli. She was adorable! For a few years I just watched it for her (and the comic antics of Pat Harrington as Schneider the apartment superintendent).
I think my favorite years were the second or third when she had a nerdy best-friend who wasn't her boyfriend. Pretty quickly she became a hot young woman, but the show was no longer interesting to me. I was graduating from high school, going to Japan, and going to college, so I never saw Touched By An Angel or anything else with her in it. She will always be one of my early TV crushes. 

Happy Birthday Lee Majors!
Happy Birthday Valerie Bertinelli!



Monday, April 22, 2013

Happy Birthday, Eddie Albert!

Eddie Albert was a 2-time Academy Award nominated actor who did comedy and drama, but will probably be best remembered as Oliver Wendall Douglas on Green Acres from 1967-1971. His role was that of a never-satisfied always-cranky big city lawyer looking to get back to nature by running a farm. Somehow, he still managed to be a sympathetic character. Very seldom was Mr. Douglas an out-right unlikeable character, and I believe that was due in equal parts to the writers and to the acting skill of Eddie Albert.

A few years later he appeared opposite Robert Wagner in a "The Sting"-inspired show called, Switch 1975-1978 where they played cons against criminals in the pursuit of justice. Albert was again the hot-head matched with Wagner's suave debonair charm. Add in perky Sharon Gless (a few years before Cagney & Lacey brought her to fame) and you had a fun show.

Albert appeared in the Green Acres reunion special, Return To Green Acres in 1990 when he was 84 years old. Today would have been his 107th birthday. He died in 2005 when he was 99 years old.

The song "Green Acres" was written by composer Vic Mizzy, who wrote pop hits during the Thirties through the Fifties for groups like The Andrews Sisters and The Mills Brothers. This one-minute ditty, sung by Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor, is probably his best known song; it's the only one I recognized on his list of song titles, anyway. Well, except for another very famous TV theme song: Mr. Mizzy also wrote "The Addams Family" theme! 

Friday, April 19, 2013

National Library Week: Friday Film Books

To mark National Library Week, this week I am writing about some of my favorite books in my chosen topics: Monday Music, TV Tuesday, Wednesday Comics, and Film Fridays. Today being Friday, it's time to wrap this week up with some talk about Hollywood!  
TARZAN of the Movies by Gabe Essoe
I remember reading this book back in the 70s when I was confused as to whether Tarzan was "really" Johnny Weismuller or Ron Ely. Since that time, even with all of the additional Tarzans (most famously one from Walt Disney; who thought *that* would ever happen?), this book still seems to be the best explanation of how & why Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation made it to the screen.
And you gotta love the title: it's a "play" on the old Tarzan books and movies themselves, and actually represents truthfully what this "new" character was: none of them were "faithful" to the book, but that didn't necessarily make them bad. And by the way, if you have never seen any Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies, I suggest the second one, I want to say (from memory) that it is "Tarzan And His Mate" but I could be wrong. The first one is good, but the second one is where he and Maureen O'Sullivan (Mia Farrow's mother) really hit their stride.  
The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett
This is not a book about the movie (or the book) but the novel itself. It was published in January 1934, mere months before the movie of the same name came out featuring William Powell and Myrna Loy. By this time Dashieel Hammett was already working in Hollywood as a screenwriter and he sold the option of the story before it was actually published. Because of the close timing of the publication of the book and the release of the movie, the characters are almost indelibly linked to Powell and Loy. I read the book long after I had seen most of the movies in the series, so in my mind while I was reading this I was seeing and hearing Powell and Loy. It's a grand "novelization" of the story and a heckuva mystery, to boot.
That thin man on the cover? It's Dashiell Hammett himself, who unfortunately never wrote another book. He died within a few years of this being published.
BUGS BUNNY: 50 Years And Only One Grey Hare
Who doesn't love Bugs Bunny? As a kid there were two schools: Mickey Mouse Fans, and Bugs Bunny fans. I was always a Bugs man.
This book explains his (rather convoluted) origins as well as his Academy Award-winning film history and then his re-emergence on television. My favorite section is the one about all of his various adversaries. I always liked Elmer Fudd more than I liked Yosemite Sam, but I do admit that Sam as a pirate or politician or a shiek was pretty funny. My favorite was Wile E. Coyote, guest-starring on leave from a Road Runner cartoon, and the mountain lion with the lisp. And the Tazmanian Devil, of course.
The Wizard of OZ
The Official 50th Anniversary Pictorial History
I have read an actual book about the making of the picture, but the details and factoids threaten to drown the wonder and magic. This book, on the other hand, is the perfect mix of facts (Buddy Ebsen was going to be the Scarecrow, then switched to the Tin Man but was allergic to the silver makeup; it almost killed him) and photos. Am I aging myself by pointing out that this is the 50th anniversary edition, and yet there is now a 75th anniversary edition out? Gee whillikers!  

2004 Movie & Video Guide by Leonard Maltin
My friend Greg gave this to me a few years ago and I have used it ever since to mostly research movies I have never heard of! "Marie Antoinnette" starring Norma Shearer? Check. The films of Sidney Poitier? Check. The minutiae available can be mind-boggling, but on the other hand you open this up and you can lose yourself reading about all sorts of movies you never knew existed.  
The Academy Awards: Special Commemorative Edition
This is a book I happened upon during a trip back to Japan. It features two or four pages on every Academy Award year from the first (1928) through 2003. It also features the nominees and other notable winners like songs and the Japanese films that won Best Foreign Film. Of course, it's all in Japanese, too, so I can tell you such bits of trivia as "The Runner On Fire" is the Japanese title for "Chariots of Fire."  It's a well-organized and easy-to-read book (easy for me, anyway, haha) with plenty of photos and all the information that I could possibly need in chronological order.