Category Archives: Movies

The Rise and Demise of Drive-In Movies

Among the many examples of disappearing Baby Boomer culture, few stand out as obvious as the demise of drive-in movie theaters. Once an important component of the film industry, and a popular choice for family fun and teenage hijinks, drive-ins have almost vanished from our landscape. Unlike hula-hoops or 8-track tape players, drive-ins were neither a short lived fad nor a piece of technology that quickly became outdated…drive-ins were around before most of us were, and lasted well into our adulthood. Although they are practically gone, they did leave all of us with plenty of personal memories, and maybe even with a sense of loss.

The advent of the drive-in movie theater goes back to 1932 when Richard Hollingshead came up with an idea which would combine American’s love of movies with their love of cars. Working out of his backyard, Hollingshead, nailing a white bedsheet to a tree and placing a Kodak film projector on the hood of his car, came up with the prototype from which he would create the first outdoor movie theater. On June 6, 1933 in Pennsauken Township, New Jersey, America’s first drive-in theater opened for business. With room for 400 cars, a snack bar and a 30-foot high, 40-foot wide screen, customers paid 25 cents to see “Wives Beware.” That night, an industry was born.

It wasn’t long before a few more drive-ins began popping up around the country, including California, where in Los Angeles, the first drive-in in the state, the Pico, opened its gates in September of 1934. The original appeal of the drive-in theater was the idea of families being able to bring crying babies and noisy children to a film without bothering other patrons, in addition to saving the cost of a babysitter. But it wasn’t long before young adults and teenagers realized that being legally parked at a drive-in provided enough privacy for all kinds of human interaction. Soon, drive-in movie theaters became known as “passion pits,” and were the bane of concerned parents throughout the land.

It was during the late 1940’s, during the first wave of Baby Boomer births, that the concept of drive-in movie theaters really began to catch on. Families started fleeing to the suburbs, where land was cheap and plentiful. Soon, cow pastures, corn fields and apple orchards were being converted into drive-ins, holding anywhere from 500 to 2,000 autos. From 1946 to the end of the decade, the number of drive-ins grew from roughly 100 to 1,000. The first drive-in built in San Mateo County was Palo Alto’s Peninsula Drive-In, which was completed in 1947, followed by Belmont’s Starlite, which opened the following year. Within a few years, the Peninsula was home to about a dozen drive-in theaters, including the El Rancho (Daly City), the Redwood (Redwood City), the Spruce (South San Francisco) and the Mission (Colma).

As a business model, drive-ins had a few inherent problems. First, they could only operate after dark, which meant many hours of daytime downtime. Some locations solved this by using the drive-in lots for swap-meets and flea-markets. Another problem was unpaid admissions, as many young film lovers became proficient at performing the circus clown car routine, and would stuff kids below the backseat and in the trunk in numbers far exceeding the suggested capacity. And, of course, there was the problem of having a screen big enough to be seen well beyond to confines of the theater. My friend John Arnolfo tells me that his dad found a street in Daly City that provided an ample view of the El Rancho Drive-In’s screen, and was able to provide free, if silent, movies for his family. Ken Nichols had a friend whose Belmont house was only a block away from the Starlite, and enjoyed films for years without having to go any further than his backyard. Then there was Scott Anderson who late at night would ride his bike a mile to his local drive-in, hop the fence, and nestle up to a speaker with a sleeping bag…hey, where there’s a will.

drive-inMy first drive-in movie experiences came during the late 1950’s at the El Rancho, which the Daley family considered the “Rolls Royce” of the Peninsula drive-ins. Usually attending a double-feature, our parents would have us dress in our pajamas, in a pathetic act of hope that we would fall asleep at some point…fat chance of that when there was always the possibility of popcorn, candy or soda to be had. Sitting in the back of our station wagon was a big minus for me, not because of the poor movie viewing from there, but because of the infrequency of any treats being passed to that part of the car.

A real game changer occurred in 1965 when the Burlingame Drive-In opened in the area between the 101 freeway and Airport Blvd. Complete with two giant screens, 1500 parking spaces and space-age themed architecture, the Burlingame became the “go to” drive-in for many years. Although I was over the age of 12 by then, my parents still insisted that I wear pajamas in order to convince ticket-takers that I still qualified for the child rate. It was at the Burlingame that I finally was old enough to take a girl to a drive-in, but any chance of romance was short circuited when my date, Mindy Shumway, fell asleep during the film “Airport.” At least I saved money on popcorn.

But by the 1970’s, the drive-in boom started to recede. Drive-ins were now getting competition from home entertainment choices including cable television and VCR’s. Some drive-ins tried to stem the tide by offering specific genres like horror movies or biker films. The Burlingame Drive-In experimented with soft-porn in the late 1970’s, but it became a problem, as the screens could be seen from the freeway, which was an obvious distraction.

Soon, the real estate occupied by drive-ins became too valuable for a dying industry, and during the last decade of the 20th Century, drive-in movie theaters began closing all over the countryside. In more than a few cases, the big screens would stay intact for many months, fittingly resembling giant tombstones scattered across the landscape. In 1959, considered the peak of the drive-in movie craze, there were over 5,000 of them in the United States, representing 25% of the entire movie theater business. By 2013, drive-in movie theaters accounted for about 1% of the country’s movie screens, with less than 400 in operation.

In 2003, the Burlingame Drive-In shut its gates for the last time. Although I had not been there for many years, I had never got over the habit of checking the Burlingame’s billboard as I drove by, to see what was playing, or trying to make out what was on the screen as I went by at night. Would I still attend drive-in movies if they were available? I doesn’t matter, I miss them anyway.

 

Note: The first drive-in theaters relied on outdoor speakers to provide the sound for the assembled automobiles…The individual speakers with volume control knobs were developed by RCA, and became available in 1941.

English: Apparently the Language of the Universe

As a lifelong fan of motion picture science fiction, I’ve never had a problem with suspending my disbelief in the impossible and supernatural, and have willingly allowed myself to accept all kinds of preposterous concepts in order to be entertained. Whether its monsters, vampires, time travel, turning invisible, moving faster than the speed of light, or any of the powers of Superman, I never let the existence of real science get in the way of a good story. But there is however, one phenomenon that I have come across constantly in my many years as a movie and TV viewer that has never ceased to insult my sometimes questionable intelligence…the idea that the majority aliens throughout and beyond our galaxy, whether they land on our planet, or are confronted billions of miles from Earth, speak English, usually better than I do. Although occasionally, the movie in question will offer a lame explanation for this situation, more often than not, English speaking spacemen do not seem particularly strange to native Earthling characters.

Don’t get me wrong…I am not critical of English being used in such films. Since the beginning of American cinema, Moses, Jesus, Cleopatra, Marco Polo, Napoleon and Hitler have all been depicted as English speakers. This, of course, is poetic license used to make it possible for filmgoers to follow the story, and understand the characters. Having Alexander the Great (Colin Farell) speak Aeolic Greek would have been laborious for the screenwriters, the actor and the audience. And I wasn’t too concerned during “Ben-Hur” (1959) when Judah Ben-Hur (Charlton Heston), Messala (Stephen Boyd), Quintus Arrius (Jack Hawkins) and Sheik Ildirim (Hugh Griffin) all conversed effortlessly despite being from different parts of the Ancient World. My problem is when Captain Kirk (William Shatner/Star Trek) and some space alien from a planet million light years away, meet for the first time, and immediately begin talking like they both shared the same college English professor.

Early examples of English speaking aliens are found in many of the movie serials that were popular in the 1930’s and ‘40’s. In the 13 chapter “Flash Gordon” (1936), adventurer Flash Gordon (Buster Crabbe) travels from Earth to the planet Mongo, ruled by the evil Ming the Merciless (Charles Middleton). Mongo is different from our planet in one respect: Earthlings speak in dozens of assorted languages, while on Mongo only one is used…English. Neither Flash or Ming seem to notice this peculiar occurrence, but maybe in the heat of battle, an oddity of this sort can be overlooked. Naturally, Flash Gordon is eventually successful in causing Ming to be overthrown, but unfortunately Ming returns in the sequel, “Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars” (1938). Ming, this time, is working in concert with Azura, Queen of Mars, in a plot which they hope will result in their conquering Earth. As you might have guessed, English is spoken on Mars, as demonstrated in Chapter 7, when Mongo asks one of the Martian army officers if they were “successful in capturing the Earthman, Flash Gordon?” What was the Martian officer’s reply? “Yep.” After completing one more Flash Gordon serial, Buster Crabbe went on to star in “Buck Rogers” (1939), which takes place in the 25th Century., a time when the Earth is run by a ruthless dictator, Killer Kane (Anthony Warde). Hoping for assistance in ridding his planet of Kane, Buck goes to Saturn, where, of course, everyone speaks English. I don’t know, maybe they all learned it in anticipation of someday visiting Earth…or Mars…or Mongo.

At least the science fiction classic, “The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) had the decency to make an effort to account for the alien Klaatu’s( Michael Rennie) perfect command of the English language, which was apparent moments after he walked down the ramp of the spaceship that carried him to planet Earth. Not only does Klaatu make it clear that his knowledge of English is merely a result of his careful study of our culture, but he also teaches Earthling Helen Benson (Patricia Neal) a few words of his native tongue, although audiences never did learn exactly what “Klaatu barada nikto” actually meant. My only problem is that if Klaatu was really a true observer of America circa 1951, I’m guessing he would have demanded to meet Milton Berle or Howdy Doody rather than the President.

Even when there is a rational reason for English being used in places it shouldn’t, too often the characters in the film don’t seem to care one way or another. In “Planet of the Apes” (1968), astronaut George Taylor (Charlton Heston), finds himself on a planet run by clothes-wearing, gun-toting, speaking apes. Although those of us familiar with the movie know that Taylor was unknowingly back on Earth, Taylor didn’t know it, yet he showed not even an ounce of curiosity over the fact that all of the apes spoke English. Maybe he thought he had landed on Mars…or Mongo (ok, I won’t use that line again).

In 1977, NASA launched Voyager 1, an unmanned spacecraft designed to study the outer limits of the Solar System. In addition to transmitting information back to Earth, Voyager is equipped with a gold-plated audio-visual disc that will give basic information about our planet to any intelligent life form that might come across the craft anytime in the near or distant future. Among the many sounds found on the Voyager disc are of wind, ocean waves, baby crying and assorted wildlife, along with examples of Earth’s music, including the works of Bach, Mozart, and Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”. There are also human greetings given in 55 different languages, under the remote chance that whoever finds Voyager does not speak English. Someone once imagined a scenario where Voyager 1 is discovered by a far off civilization, who return Voyager to us with a short note…”Send more Chuck Berry.”

Useless Trivia: In “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (1938), Robin (Errol Flynn) has a chance encounter with King Richard I (Ian Hunter), who has unexpectedly returned to England from the Crusades. Although Robin Hood and Richard “The Lion-Heart” converse effortlessly, this is historically inaccurate. Robin Hood was a Saxton while King Richard was a descendant of the Normans who conquered England in 1066… Richard I, who spent very little time in England during his 10 year reign as King, never bothered to learn English.

 

Actors Playing Themselves

Among the motion pictures bring released in the summer of 2013, is the film “This is the End,” starring Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel and James Franco. The unique aspect of this comedy is that all of the principle actors in the movie portray themselves, or at least a remote version of who they are. This approach has been a popular trend, mostly on television, for the past several years, as many celebrities have appeared semi-regularly on various programs playing fictionalized , and often, unflattering versions of their true identities. James Van Der Beek (“Don’t Trust the B… in Apartment 23”), Will Wheaton (“Big Bang Theory”), Seth Green (“Entourage”), and Regis Philbin (“How I met Your Mother”) have all made the sitcom rounds giving over the top performances, spoofing their show business personas. Of course, a few personalities have made creating humorous send-ups of their lives the basis for an entire series, as witnessed by Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and Matt LeBlanc in “Episodes.” Although this may appear to be a recent development, the idea of a celebrity playing his or her self is a concept that dates back over 90 years.

Magician Harry Houdini used his fame as a master illusionist in the 1920’s as the basis for several silent films which starred the magician as himself, using his stage skills to solve crimes Decades later, both Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, having established themselves as the motion picture industry’s top screen cowboys, began to exclusively play characters the shared their well known names. In fact, in some of Roy’s later films, the scripts acknowledged that he was a well known movie star, who still found time to battle cattle wranglers during his spar time. Obviously, fact and fiction were being blurred, and even a young boy like me wondered how many cow thieves existed in California during the 1950’s. And why wouldn’t Roy just call the police?

It was Jack Benny who really seemed to straddle the fence between real and fictional, as his long running series seemingly gave us a behind the scene glimpse of his private life. As a kid, I marveled at who much attitude Jack’s butler Rochester seemed to get away with, and wondered how his long suffering girlfriend, Mary Livingston, put up with him. It was only as an adult that I learned that Rochester was actually an actor named Eddie Anderson, and never lived with Jack Benny, unlike Mary Livingston, who did live with Jack, probably because they had been married for several years.

Of course the all time best example of people playing somewhat altered versions of their real life selves was the classic sit-com, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” Starring all four members of the Nelson family, “Ozzie and Harriet” certainly had viewers convinced they were watching a typical American family go through life on a weekly basis. The Nelsons were a real family, and even the indoor sets used on the program were based on the Nelson’s real Hollywood home. But how closely did the show depict the Nelson’s actual life? Well, first of all, they appeared to be living an upper-middle-class existence, unlike the rich show business individuals they really were. Ozzie Nelson seemed to be without a job, constantly hanging around the house, avoiding any possible chores Harriet tried to give him. The real Ozzie was a workaholic, serving as director, producer, writer, as well as one of the principle performers on his show. But the biggest disconnect had to do with Ricky Nelson and his music. “Ozzie and Harriet” often featured Rick fronting a rock and roll band, usually playing in front of the number of people it took to fill his living room. In reality, Ricky Nelson was one of the biggest recording stars of the late 1950’s rock and roll era, and was selling millions of records during his years on the show. Having his records featured on the program certainly didn’t hurt Rick’s record sales, and his presence on the show obviously helped with the ratings, a kind of synergy that worked for another series, that debuted in 1966, the same year “Ozzie and Harriet” went off the air.

Although “The Monkees” was to be a TV show about a fictional struggling rock group, producers at Columbia Studios originally wanted to cast an existing band to star on the NBC series, but most groups were already signed to a record label, prompting the production to use four guys who had never previously worked together. Inspired by the Beatles’ “A Hard Days Night,” “The Monkees” was a comedy show, using music recorded by Mickey Dolenz, Mike Nesmith, Davy Jones and Peter Tork throughout the 30 minutes, a forerunner to the music videos that came into vogue a decade later. Having the four men use their own names on the program turned out to be a good idea, as “The Monkees” soon became one of the most popular recording acts in the country, and fans were never asked to remember more than four names. Eventually, “The Monkees” became a touring band as well, playing reasonable versions of their hits onstage, despite Jones and Dolenz having limited instrumental skills. Ironically, Dolenz-Jones-Tork and Nesmith kept the group together even after the show was canceled, with two or more of the members performing together right up until Davy’s 2012 death. It would almost like if the cast of “Cheers” opened a bar after the completion of that series.

However, I would guess that the most successful television show featuring a star portraying a facsimile of his self was “Seinfeld,” where Jerry Seinfeld was featured as a character that shared Jerry’s real life name and occupation. In the “Seinfeld” universe, Jerry was a fairly successful comedian, living in a one bedroom apartment in New York City, hanging out with ex-girlfriend Elaine, longtime buddy George, and his neighbor from across the hall, Kramer. Although his three companions were fictional, Jerry’s lifestyle depicted on the series may have accurate at one time, but as “Seinfeld” became a hit show, the real Jerry Seinfeld was worth millions of dollars, and no longer had people like “Newman” anywhere in his life.

Reality shows involving everyday people have flooded the airwaves over the past decade, making it, at times, even more difficult to dissemble what is real and what is scripted.. And while that’s been happening, network sitcoms, such as “The Office,” and “Modern Family” are presented in documentary style, reflecting, I think, the notion that everyone of us probably think their lives are interesting enough to be televised. This concept was the inspiration for a movie, “The Truman Show” (1998) where Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) was raised from infancy to adulthood in front of a television camera. The film’s twist was that Truman was the only person unaware of the situation, as his hometown was merely a giant-like bubble filled with hundreds of actors pretending to be his friends and neighbors. When Truman discovers the ruse, he opts for a regular life, and sets out for the real world. One wonders how many of us would have done the same.

 

“American Graffiti” turning 40

If you were ever searching for a candidate for the quintessential Baby Boomer “coming of age” movie, you couldn’t do better than “American Graffiti,” the Francis Ford Coppola produced teenage comedy that will soon celebrate its 40th birthday. Released in the summer of 1973, the impact of “American Graffiti” went well beyond the film’s immediate popularity, and success at the box office. Not only was it the motion picture that propelled George Lucas into the A-List of movie directors, advanced the careers of Richard Dreyfus, Harrison Ford, Cindy Williams and Suzanne Somers, reestablished child actor Ron Howard as a star, and placed legendary cult DJ Wolfman Jack into the mainstream, but also was responsible for igniting a 1950’s, early ‘60’s nostalgia craze, that led to TV shows like “Happy Days,” and “Laverne and Shirley.” But “American Graffiti did much more than make money and launch careers…it struck a cord with audiences, particularly those between the ages of 17 and 30, who proved more than willing to revisit a period that was only a decade earlier, but from which they felt eons removed from.

The origin of “American Graffiti” stemmed from young filmmaker George Lucas’s desire to pay homage to the teenage pastime known as cruising, especially how it was practiced in his hometown of Modesto in the early 1960’s. In addition to recreating the Friday night ritual, Lucas also wanted to incorporate the infatuation he and many others had with the mysterious radio personality Wolfman Jack, which ultimately led the picture to rely on classic rock and roll oldies rather than a typical music soundtrack. With the help of screenwriters Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, a 15 page film treatment entitled “Another Quiet Night in Modesto” was completed in 1971, and pitched by Lucas to several motion picture studios, with no luck. Finally, Universal Pictures stepped in and agreed to finance and distribute “American Graffiti,” giving George Lucas a $600,000 budget, which was increased to $775,000 when Francis Ford Coppola signed on as producer. Filming began in June of 1972, and although it’s set in Modesto, Lucas felt his hometown had changed too much in 10 years, and did most of the location filming in Petaluma.

“American Graffiti” opens at Modesto’s Mel’s Drive-In, as four buddies, on the cusp of adulthood, assemble in hopes of making the final summer night of 1962 a memorable one. Curt (Richard Dreyfus) and Steve (Ron Howard) are slated to fly off to a Northeastern college to next morning, but while Steve is eager to leave his “turkey town,” Curt is reluctant to part from his familiar surroundings. Terry “the Toad” (Charles Martin Smith) seems oblivious to his future, and is more concerned with shedding his image as the town dork. John Milner (Paul Le Mat) is actually already an adult, and one can easily sense his depression that now, even his younger friends are outgrowing him. Milner’s only real accomplishment is his reputation as the guy with the fastest car, and even that is in jeopardy, as he learns that some guy from the valley has arrived in town to take away his title. Soon, the four separate, and the film follows each of their evening’s exploits. Steve spends most of his night in constant battle with his girlfriend Laurie (Cindy Williams) as the two must come to grips with how Steve’s leaving will affect their relationship. Toad, emboldened by being given the use of Steve’s 1958 Impala, somehow manages to pick up the girl of his dreams, the lovely but ditzy Debbie (Candy Clark). Meanwhile, Milner ends up being tricked into driving around with the mouthy 12 year old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips), and spends the night trying to unload her, all while looking over his shoulder for his latest drag-race challenger, Bob Falfa (Harrison Ford).

But it’s Curt’s story that is the most compelling. Early on, he sees what he feels is a vision, in the form of a beautiful blonde in a T-Bird (Suzanne Somers), who seems to flirt with him at a stoplight. While hoping to catch up with her, Curt wanders aimlessly, as he confides with his former teacher, briefly hooks up with an ex-girlfriend, and finally falls in with a pack of hoods known as the “Pharaohs.” As the night wears on, Curt slowly starts to feel out of place, as some of his illusions are shattered, especially when he learns everybody’s favorite myth-like radio personality, “the Wolfman,” is just a guy who never made it out of local radio.

It’s easy to see why “American Graffiti” resonated so deeply with so many Baby Boomers. 1962 was the final year of innocence of a decade that was supposed to be known as the New Frontier. A year later came the JFK assassination, followed by the Vietnam War, social unrest, more assassinations, and finally, the revelations of the Watergate scandal. Although “American Graffiti” was set a mere 11 years before the film’s release, 1962 and 1973 seemed like night and day. Much of the film’s impact is hard to feel in 2013, as 1962 and the events that followed are now very distant memories, but I’m wondering… if today, someone made a period piece movie about 2002, would it have the same effect “American Graffiti” had 40 years ago? What do you think?

 

 

Notes: Strapped with a low budget, “American Graffiti” went on to earn over $200 million dollars, and allowed George Lucas to set aside seed money for next big project, which became “Star Wars” (1977). The “Wolfman’s” radio broadcast, which is featured throughout the movie, included 41 original recordings from the rock and roll era. The licensing rights cost the production $90,000, but since RCA demanded more than could be spared, Elvis is nowhere to be heard. As “American Graffiti” ends, an on-screen epilogue reveals the eventual fates of the four principle characters. Lucas was criticized for not including the females, but he felt that that would have made the epilogue too lengthy. Universal Studios was not happy with “American Graffiti” as the movie title, feeling it sounded like an artsy foreign film. Lucas was given over 60 alternative titles to choose from, but he stuck with his original. An early script had the blonde driven T-Bird motor completely through Mel’s Drive-In after closing hours, revealing both the car and the girl to be ghostly figures, but the budget would not allow for such a costly special effect, and the idea was abandoned.

 

Annette: The Persona That Launched a Million Dreams

As a young boy growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, there were a few things I had in common with almost every other kid my age. Almost all of us wanted to play baseball like Willie Mays, fight outlaws like John Wayne, sing like Elvis Presley, and date a girl like Annette Funicello. Suffice to say, a piece of my heart broke earlier today upon hearing the sad news of Annette’s death at age 70, after a 25 year battle with multiple sclerosis. While our dads had Lana Turner, Betty Grable and Rita Hayworth, and later Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, Annette belonged to us, and the bond lasted almost 60 years. Debuting on Disney’s “Mickey Mouse Club” in 1955, it was obvious almost from the start that Annette Funicello had that hard to define “something special” going for her.

In the early 1950’s, much of Walt Disney’s attention was focused on a project we now know as Disneyland. To help finance the building of his theme park, Disney partnered with ABC, with the TV network providing Walt with much needed capital, while the Disney studio would provide ABC with high quality television programming. Disney’s first effort was the weekly “Disneyland,” an anthology show which included the highly successful “Davy Crockett” episodes during the 1954-1955 season. By the summer of 1955, Disney began working on a kids variety program that would be televised after school on week days, and had his production staff set about casting the show. But Walt made it clear that he wanted “real” kids, not seasoned child actors who often came across as adult midgets. On October 3, 1955, the “Mickey Mouse Club” premiered, and America was introduced to the “Mouseketeers.”

Looking now at the early MMC episodes, it’s clear what made Annette stand out. While most of the other children had what I might describe as stereotypical all-American waspish looks, Annette Funicello had dark curly hair and dark eyebrows…almost exotic, at least for a 13 year old. Within a few weeks, Annette was getting the majority of the fan mail, and the “Mickey Mouse Club” had its first breakout star. The following season Annette, although still a Mouseketeer, joined the cast of the MMC’s popular serial, “Spin and Marty,” which, to my chagrin, completely changed the dynamic of the series. While before, Spin (Tim Considine) and Marty (David Stollery) would ride horses and rope cattle, now they spent most of their time fighting over Annette. Annette returned for the third season of “Spin and Marty,” during the final year of the “Mickey Mouse Club,” and also starred in her own serial, “Annette.”

When the “Mickey Mouse Club” ended, Annette was the only Mouseketeer that Disney kept under contract. From 1959-1962, Annette was kept busy, appearing on Disney TV shows (“Zorro,” Elfego Baca”), feature films (“The Shaggy Dog,” “Babes in Toyland) as well as becoming a recording artist, with hit records “Tall Paul” and “First Name Initial.” But Annette’s biggest post “Mickey Mouse Club” success started in 1963 when she made the first of several “Beach” movies with co-star Frankie Avalon. “Beach Party,” produced by American International Pictures, was a formulistic film, which featured comedy, surfing, music, and plenty of bikini clad girls. Immediately acquiring a solid cult audience, “Beach Party” was quickly followed by “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Beach Blanket Bingo,” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.” Throughout the entire series, Annette, at the insistence of Walt Disney, never appeared in a bikini, opting for a less revealing one piece bathing suit. By the late 1960’s Annette, now married with children, pretty much withdrew from show business, appearing infrequently in “Mouseketeer” reunion shows and other nostalgic venues. It was while filming “Back to the Beach” in 1987 that Annette first started noticing the symptoms that would later to be diagnosed as multiple sclerosis. Annette went public with her disease in 1992, after various tabloids began reporting her difficulty to walk as alcohol related. From that point on, it’s fair to say that Annette Funicello dealt with her illness with courage and dignity.

My first recollection of Annette was during the original run of the “Mickey Mouse Club” (1955-1958), but I really started to take notice when the program went into syndicated reruns in 1962, giving boys like me the chance to contrast the 1955 Annette to the much developed version we were seeing on “American Bandstand.” I was such a huge fan of Annette Funicello, I actually resented Hayley Mills, who began to grab all of the featured Disney female roles once Annette turned 16. It’s unfortunate that Annette’s only star turn in a major Disney production, “Babes in Toyland” (1961), was not a huge hit.

At first glance, Annette Funicello’s career does not seem that impressive. After the “Mickey Mouse Club,” her TV work became somewhat sporadic, and her time as a teenage singing star was somewhat brief. Her “Beach” movies, while fondly remembered, did not result in any Academy Award nominations for Annette, or anyone else. So what made Annette Funicello an icon? I guess she was, with little or no effort on her part, the embodiment of the perfect, wholesome 1950’s girl…sweet, smart, a bit shy, and unmistakably beautiful. The Disney brand always stood for something wonderfully innocent, and Annette Funicello represented that to the hilt.

My favorite Annette Funicello story: Sometime during the 1970’s, Annette went on a Las Vegas vacation, and was spotted by one of her fans relaxing, with a cigarette and a cocktail, at one of the gaming tables. The woman gasped at the sight, saying, “Annette Funicello, drinking, smoking, gambling?” Annette smiled at the lady, and said, “I have three children, so guess what else I do.”

Note: The second photo shows Annette with the Beach Boys, performing the title song to “The Monkey’s Uncle.”

Celebrities Dying in Threes…Myth and Reality

Recently, a good friend of mine e-mailed me about the passing of Ernest Borgnine, commenting that “Borgnine makes it three.” Of course, he was referring to the notion that famous people seem to die in groups of three. In this particular case, we agreed that Andy Griffith and Don Grady made up the rest of the trio, as both men had died shortly before Borgnine, and all three were prominent sitcom stars during the 1960’s. What I’m wondering now is when did this “celebrities always die in threes” theory start, and how much validity is there to it?

I have to believe that the “deaths in threes” concept has its origin in Western civilization’s obsession with the number three, whether it’s the Holy Trinity, the three wise men or “three’s a crowd.” I’m also guessing that the famous people dying in threes business is a 20th century American phenomenon that reflects our celebrity obsessed culture. Prior to the 1900’s, there were not many avenues to fame in our country, as most of the nationally known figures in early America were statesmen and military heroes. The first case of celebrities dying in threes I could come up with was in 1836 when Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and William B. Travis all passed away at about the same time. I have found no publications from that time period that made any mention of their deaths having any cosmic significance. Of course, it could have been due to the fact that news traveled very slowly back then, and it was weeks before Americans learned that Crockett, Bowie and Travis were dead. Or, it might be because all three men died at the Alamo, making their deaths not so coincidental.

Whereas celebrities were a rare breed in the 19th century, the last 100 years have seen an explosion in the number of famous people. Sports and entertainment have surpassed politics and war in enabling individuals to achieve prominence, with movies, radio and television providing major assistance. Even crime figures such as Al Capone and John Dillinger became household names, some even given cool nicknames like “The Boston Strangler” and “The Underwear Bomber.” So, while it stands to reason that the death of a famous person will undoubtedly get our attention, when did we start grouping them in threes? Surely it came after World War II, as no one applied this practice when Joseph Goebbels, Eva Braun and Adolph Hitler all died within minutes of each other in 1945.

The first time the celebrities dying in threes theory was brought to my attention was in 1977. On August 16th of that year, the world was shocked to learn of the death of Elvis Presley, who died in Memphis at the age of 42. Three days later, comic legend Groucho Marx died in Hollywood, followed by character actor Sabastian Cabot on August 22. It was the day after Cabot’s demise that I heard someone mention that the deaths of Presley-Marx and Cabot were an example of how famous people die in threes. Up to that time, I was unaware of this “fact,” and I have to say that I was skeptical. Although Elvis Presley’s death was a stunner, Groucho Marx was 86, and been ailing, and although I admired Cabot’s work, it wasn’t as if Clark Gable had died. I searched for other examples of the death in threes theory, and the best that I could come up with was John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis (both on November 22, 1963), with the “Birdman of Alcatraz” (Robert Stroud) happening a day earlier. Over the years, several so-called death trilogies have happened, the most talked about probably being the Michael Jackson-Farrah Fawcett-Ed McMahon sequence in 2009. With dozens of examples, am I now convinced that famous people tend to die in threes? Not really.

To begin with, there does not seem to be any firm guidelines in place regarding how much time between the first and third deaths to qualify as an official celebrity death threesome. I’ve heard anywhere from one week to 10 days, but 11 days elapsed between Don Grady and Ernest Borgnine’s passing, so who really knows? And what determines if an individual is indeed, a celebrity? Don Grady was an actor who played “Robbie” on “My Three Sons,” and had not been in the public eye for several years….who is to say that joining Andy Griffith and Ernest Borgnine in the famous person death trilogy should have been Nora Ephron, the writer who penned, among other stories, “When Harry Met Sally,” and passed away on June 26, a day before Grady? This brings up another problem…why stop counting at three? I mentioned that C.S. Lewis, JFK and the “Birdman of Alcatraz” all died about the same time. Well, Lee Harvey Oswald, a freshly minted celebrity, was killed on November 24…should he be included instead of Lewis, or should the theory be expanded to four?

I think that it is in our nature to try to place meaning into practically everything that happens. Sometimes events are worthy of reflection and analytical discussion, but not always. Famous people die in ones, not threes, just like the rest of us. But that’s just one of my many opinions, which, of course, come in dozens.

Notes: Since I started writing this piece, I’ve been reminded that there is long term superstition that bad news comes in threes, and it was the tragic airplane crash in February 1959 that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the “Big Bopper” (J.P. Richardson) that began the celebrities die in threes theory. I’d be happy for any further imput.

The Lone Ranger will ride again

It seems that Hollywood will never get tired of producing films based on characters from popular fiction. Superman, Batman, Zorro and Sherlock Holmes have all received plenty of screen time in both television and motion pictures in recent years, sometimes with very profitable results. Joining the list in 2013 will be one of the all-time greatest western heroes, as Walt Disney Pictures will release “The Lone Ranger,” just in time for the 80th anniversary of the masked man’s creation. The intriguing aspect of the upcoming film is the casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto, the Lone Ranger’s Indian companion. With Armie Hammer playing the title role, “The Lone Ranger” has just recently started shooting, ten years after the project was first announced. Moving from Columbia to Walt Disney Pictures in 2007, “The Lone Ranger” is expected to cost $215 million to make.

The Lone Ranger originated as a radio show, created by Fran Striker, premiering on Detroit radio station WXYZ on January 30, 1933. Although the program was a western aimed at children, “The Lone Ranger” soon became popular among adults as well, and was successful enough to be picked up by network radio, eventually landing a spot on ABC radio, and lasting until 1954. It was on radio where the most of the Lone Ranger’s most familiar elements were introduced, including the “William Tell Overture” as his theme, silver bullets, and his horse Silver. His trusted friend Tonto was added to the show during its 11th episode, primarily to give the Ranger someone with whom to talk. Seven different actors portrayed the Lone Ranger on radio, most notably Earle Graser (1933-1941) and Brace Beemer (1941-1954). As the Lone Ranger’s persona became established, a back story was created to explain the masked man’s origin. In this backstory, the Lone Ranger was a Texas Ranger named Reid who survived an ambush by the Butch Cavendish gang, an attack that claimed the lives of five other Rangers, including Reid’s brother Dan. Reid is found barely alive by an Indian named Tonto, and after being nursed back to health by his new friend, donned a mask, vowing to devote his life to fighting for law and order.

By the 1940’s, the Lone Ranger had branched out to other forms of media, including newspaper comic strips, children’s picture books and Saturday afternoon matinee serials. But it was on TV where the Lone Ranger made his biggest impact, as the Lone Ranger television show made its network debut on ABC in 1949. Both Clayton Moore as the Ranger and Jay Silverheels as Tonto gained national fame in their roles, and the two remained closely indentified with their characters the rest of their lives.

The Lone Ranger television series lasted eight seasons, filming 221 episodes, but despite its obvious success, it was always considered a children’s show, never receiving the acclaim given to the so-called “adult” westerns, such as “Gunsmoke,” “Maverick,” and “Have Gun Will Travel.” Reruns of “The Lone Ranger” were part of CBS’s Saturday afternoon schedule for several years, and an animated version of the series also appeared on CBS during the mid 1960’s. Finally, in 1981, the masked man was brought to the big screen when Universal Pictures released “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” with Klinton Spilsbury playing the lead role. Not only was the film a financial disaster, but also a public relations nightmare, as the producers were granted a court order that prevented Clayton Moore from making public appearances in the Lone Ranger costume he helped make famous. The film was subjected to additional ridicule when it was discovered that Spilsbury’s lines were dubbed by another actor. Eventually, Moore won a lawsuit that allowed him to continue wearing the mask.

The upcoming version of “The Lone Ranger” has not been without its problems, changing studios, producers and writers several times before production began a few weeks ago. The fact that Johnny Depp is playing Tonto would lead one to believe that the movie could have a less than serious tone. Although the film is months away from being released, I already have one complaint. Publicity photos showing Armie Hammer as the Lone Ranger reveal an entirely new look. The Lone Ranger’s traditional light blue outfit has been replaced with what looks like a navy blue blazer. If the Lone Ranger can’t catch an outlaw wearing those clothes, he’ll at least have no problem getting into the Friars’ Club.

Note: Due to a contract dispute, Clayton Moore did not play the Ranger during the third season of “The Lone Ranger.” Producers, thinking that the Ranger’s unique outfit made the role easily transferrable, replaced Moore with John Hart, but the public wasn’t fooled, and Moore was brought back, but not before Hart had completed 52 episodes.

Trivia: “The Green Hornet,” introduced on radio in 1936, was actually a spinoff of “The Lone Ranger.” It was explained that Britt Reid (the Green Hornet) was the grandson of Dan Reid, the brother of the Lone Ranger who was killed during the Cavendish gang ambush. The ABC television version of the Hornet made no mention of the Lone Ranger connection. The 1966-67 series featured Van Williams as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet and martial arts legend Bruce Lee as Kato. Lee once joked that he got the part because he was the only Asian in Hollywood that could pronounce “Britt Reid.”

“The Three Stooges”…..irreplaceable

On April 13, 20th Century Fox releases “The Three Stooges,” the much publicized attempt to recreate one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams. Whether the film should be seen as a tribute the original Stooges, or an attempt to reestablish a new version of the trio, one thing is certain…it will be almost impossible to duplicate the success of the real Moe, Larry and Curly. In a career that spanned over 50 years, The Three Stooges went from vaudeville, to motion pictures and eventually to television, and although their physical prime years were 1935-1941, it was in the late 1950’s that they achieved their everlasting status as Baby Boomer icons.

The Stooges started out in 1925 as part of a vaudeville act headed by comedian Ted Healy. Moe Howard, his older brother Shemp and Larry Fine combined with Healy to form, “Ted Healy and his Stooges.” It was Healy who originated the Stooges tradition of physical abuse, as he constantly pounded on his three associates onstage, whenever they seemingly stepped out of line. Shortly after the act began receiving small parts in motion pictures, Shemp quit the group, pursuing a solo career. Moe convinced his younger brother Jerry to join the team, and soon the character of Curly was born. After appearing in several movies alongside Ted Healy, the Stooges accepted an offer from Columbia Studios to star in a series of 20 minute shorts without Healy. Now billed as “The Three Stooges,” the trio’s “Woman Haters” (1934) was the first of 190 comedy shorts that the team would do for Columbia over the next 23 years. It only took a small handful of films for the Stooges to develop their own comic style as well as their individual personas. Moe was the self appointed leader, who took over Healy’s role of slapping and eye-poking his two partners. Larry, with his wild hair, was the neutral Stooge, whose main goal was to somehow stay on Moe’s good side. But it was Curly who usually stole the show, as Jerry Howard, despite no show business experience prior to becoming a member of the team, quickly establishing himself as a comic genius. Portraying the ultimate man-child, Curly was a energetic marvel, performing all sorts of physical stunts, as well as having the ability to convey a wide range of emotions without using actual words. His signature laugh (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) and his high pitched “woo-woo-woo-woo,” heard whenever he became overly excited are still often imitated today.

The beauty of “The Three Stooges” was that they could be placed into any setting. Even though their characters seemed totally incapable of even the simplest tasks, Moe, Larry and Curly would be cast as plumbers, carpenters, cooks, airplane mechanics, and even doctors. It was certainly a surreal world where such incompetent men could consistently find employment, but such is poetic license. Of course, some of the most memorable “Three Stooges” episodes occurred when the boys were placed within high society, where the more fancy the setting meant to more intense the inevitable the food fight. Although “The Three Stooges” did not invent pie throwing, they probably perfected it.

Despite the success of the “Three Stooges” comedies, and the team’s popularity as a live act, Columbia never elevated the team to the level of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, keeping the trio in Saturday afternoon minor-leagues.

Problems developed for “The Three Stooges,” in the late 1940’s as Curly Howard’s deteriorating health forced him leave the team in 1947. Shemp Howard reluctantly rejoined Moe and Larry, returning only because he knew the Stooges would probably fold without his help. Shemp stayed with the team until his untimely death in 1955. Although Moe and Larry soldiered on, replacing Shemp with Joe Besser, their days with Columbia were numbered, as television began to eat away at what was left of the 20 minute, comedy short-subject market. In December of 1957, Columbia Studios did not renew the trio’s contract. Now middle-aged, Moe and Larry were out of work.

In the late 1940’s, motion picture studios found a new source of revenue…leasing old films to TV stations. In January of 1958, Columbia made the “Three Stooges” shorts available for television, introducing them to the new, massive Baby Boomer audience. The Stooges 20 minute comedies were the perfect fit for a half-hour time slot, and some markets began showing two Stooges’ shorts a day, five days a week. Now getting daily, national exposure, “The Three Stooges” were hot again, and Moe and Larry were back in business. Hiring Joe DeRita (Curly Joe) as their third Stooge, the trio was welcomed back to Columbia, making several full-length features over the next several years. The “Three Stooges” worked all through the 1960’s, performing live and making numerous television appearances, up to the time of Larry Fine’s 1970 stroke. Although Moe Howard and Larry Fine both passed away in 1975, their work has continued to be admired, through countless airings on television, as well as from various “Three Stooges” DVD packages.

I certainly hope the new “Three Stooges” film does well, especially if it encourages the younger generations to check out the real thing. How successful can the new Stooges be? Let’s see if anyone is watching them in 2082.