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DEC. 31, 2017    OLDIES

The post parades for the Triple Crown horse races serenade us with time-honored songs about their locales.

At the Kentucky Derby, people sing 1852's “My Old Kentucky Home.”

For the Preakness, Baltimoreans use the tune of “O Christmas Tree” with the 1861 words, “The despot's heel is on thy shore, Maryland, my Maryland.”

And the Belmont features “The Sidewalks of New York,” a sentimental 1894 waltz beginning with the words “East Side, West Side, all around the town.”

But stand by!  We have an update.  In 1996, the management of the Belmont decided to try to appeal to younger people, or at least to people born in the 20th century.  They tore up the old sidewalks and substituted a Frank Sinatra recording of “New York, New York.”

Now let's move forward half a year.  When the ball drops at midnight on New Year's Eve in Times Square, we always hear the traditional “Auld Lang Syne.”  As a ten-year-old kid, I was allowed to stay up late, even past the fifteen-minute 11:00 news, to watch Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians lead up to this tune.  Here's what I saw 60 years ago tonight.

But in recent years, the recording of Lombardo's “Auld Lang Syne” cuts off after only half a verse.  Then the music segues into — what else — Frank Sinatra singing “New York, New York!”  What has become of tradition?

In case you crave the old Auld, here's a very auld recording.  The words, written by Robert Burns in 1788, are set to the tune of an ancient folk song.  “And there's a hand, my trusty friend!  And gi'e us a hand o' thine!”


DEC. 30, 2007 flashback   THIS IS OLDSMOBILITY

In a letter elsewhere on this website, I recalled attending a July 20, 1974, performance by a star of an ABC series that was just concluding its five-year run, The Brady Bunch.  I wrote:

When I was home last weekend, on Saturday my parents wanted to go to Columbus to see the Kenley Players production of Annie Get Your Gun, so I went along.  Florence Henderson had the title role.  She's talented, but unfortunately she doesn't have the voice of Ethel Merman.  (Few people do.)

We'd seen Miss Henderson in musicals before; she used to perform for Oldsmobile.

Each August, they'd put together a full-scale production to introduce the new cars that would be coming out in September, and Oldsmobile dealers (including my father) would attend these shows along with wives, salesmen, and others.

The purpose was to get the dealers and salesmen all excited about the new models.  The production traveled around the country; we went to Detroit to see it.

After the show, there was a luncheon at which various Oldsmobile officials made speeches about how great the new cars were going to be.  I remember in particular the year when Olds was introducing its compact, the F-85 (now called the Cutlass).

Part of Florence Henderson's job was to attend the luncheon.  And we noticed that even though she'd undoubtedly heard the speeches several times already and wasn't interested in them anyway, she appeared very interested in what the Olds officials were saying to the Olds dealers.  She applauded at the proper times, listened carefully, and so on.  That's what you expect, I suppose, from a professional actress.

UPDATE  (Ken Levine on April 24, 2018):
The best actor is the one who can commit to a character, connect with his fellow actors, remain firmly in the scene even when he's not talking.  And that requires listening.

When I was in the editing bay I saw all the footage of actors when they were talking and when they weren't.  The good ones were clearly into the scene.  They were reacting, often subtly, but they were engaged in the moment.  The bad actors were standing there blank, just waiting to deliver their next line.

But it causes you to doubt her sincerity when she makes the customary speech at the end of a Kenley Players production, telling the audience how great they've been and how she always likes to perform in Columbus and how she doesn't really mind the infants crying in the balcony.

Now I've discovered the existence of a fifty-year-old original-cast recording of one of those Oldsmobile musicals starring Florence Henderson!

This Is Oldsmobility would have been produced in August of 1957, three years before the show and luncheon that I described attending in Detroit.  Back then, there was a major styling change every model year, and the new designs were a closely guarded secret until the official heavily-promoted public Announcement date in September.  These August shows gave the dealers and salesmen their first look at the cars that they would be expected to sell for the following twelve months.

1958 OldsAt the climax of each big musical number, the cast would step aside and the scenery would part to reveal a brand-new model, such as this 1958 Ninety-Eight four-door sport sedan.

To oohs and aahs and gasps and applause, the car would move downstage on a turntable.  An off-stage announcer described its virtues while it slowly rotated, sparkling in the theatrical lighting, and the orchestra played an upbeat background.

I'd forgotten that the young lovers in these musicals were always called Johnny and Lucille, from the car company's 1905 theme song.  “Young Johnny Steele has an Oldsmobile; he loves a dear little girl.  . . . Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile . . . .”  The 1957 show's Broadway inspirations apparently included Ethel Merman (“I Need a Guy”) and The Music Man (“Back to Rockport, Indiana”).

Just to prove I'm not kidding about all this, you can click here to listen.

2018 update

You can also go to this website and listen to a 1959 Oldsmobile song in which Florence Henderson urges salesmen not to allow an undecided customer — the kind who says “Let me think about it and I'll be back” — to escape from the showroom without closing the deal.

Better yet, check out this page or listen to this song.  Or listen to this podcast.



Some 35 years ago, I created an image like this on my computer screen.  For a special purpose, it's a great improvement over an ordinary clock.  The blinking dot in the lower right would gradually move counterclockwise along an arc, picking up speed as it went.  By pressing keys on the keyboard, I would try to make it slow down and stop at top dead center. 

Yes, you guessed it.  What we have here is an Arctangential Error Meter!

All is explained in this month's 100 Moons article.


DEC. 24, 2017    CHRISTMAS EVE

All is calm, all is bright.

Except, of course, down in Puerto Rico, which was struck by Hurricane Maria on September 20.  Tonight, let's remember our fellow Americans who are entering their fourth month of the longest and largest major power outage in modern U.S. history.

According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Col. John Lloyd from the South Hills of Pittsburgh commands the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Task Force for Power Restoration, which is working with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

He said last week that the biggest obstacle to recovery is obtaining materials.  For example, 12,000 utility poles have so far been produced or delivered to the island, yet electricity is still out for 35% of Puerto Rico.  That would be about 1.2 million citizens.

Brig. Gen. Diana Holland estimates that most power will be restored by the end of February or early March, though folks in remote areas could be without power until as late as May.

As the Washington Post reports, "Without electricity, there is no reliable source of clean water.  School is out, indefinitely.  Health care is fraught.  Small businesses are faltering.  The tasks of daily life are both exhausting and dangerous.  There is nothing to do but wait."

DEC. 23, 2017       FOR THE LOST LEXEME

The lady on the right is one of the stars of a movie that opened this very weekend, along with Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, and Kevin Hart.

Because I've always had a soft spot in my heart for redheads, I've included Karen Gillan — or at least her face — in a goofy little account of my own recent world-shaking adventure.

This tale involves a mysterious encounter with a giant old book.  The name of the story is Word Gone Missing.



It's the darkest day of the year.  The sun won't rise hereabouts until 7:39 AM and will set at 4:57 PM.  And tomorrow's sky will be cloudy all day.

That's unacceptable.  Inside my apartment, I've arranged for 14 hours of sunlight.  My living room ceiling is illuminated by bright LED bulbs of the “daylight” color.  They're controlled by a timer that keeps them on from 6:00 AM — my artificial sunrise — until 8:00 PM.

I realize that most people do it the opposite way.  Most people leave their lights switched off all day until they're needed in the evening.  However, I'm trying to avoid any “seasonal affective” disorder.  Winter is sad enough as it is.

And after my artificial sun goes down at 8:00, my apartment doesn't become completely dark.

I have several low-level LED nightlights, including this bamboo-themed wooden thingamajig topped by a seven-inch-long cut-glass 1963 Corvette that my father acquired when he was a Chevrolet dealer.

I don't want to go stumbling around in the shadows.

DEC. 18, 2017    21st CENTURY POSTING

The website you're visiting now had already existed for eight weeks when, on this date in 2000, television and comic book writer Mark Evanier launched his website.

In those days, I only updated my pages monthly.  Recently it's become more blog-like, with about a dozen updates per month.  I'm aiming for twenty.

But for the past 17 years, Mark (seen on the left) has been happily posting an average of four times a day!  He passed 25,000 posts a week ago today, noting “An artist is never so free as when he draws for his own enjoyment.”

At last count, my website had only 994 separate pages.  About 80 of them include maybe ten short posts each, so that would imply about 1,714 individual posts.  My total won't reach 25,000 for a while yet.

While we're waiting, check out Mark's NEWS FROM me.” As a TV guy, I find it humorous and interesting, with intelligent opinions on general topics.  I can almost say I check it four times a day.



The semifinals of this year's College Football Playoff are scheduled for New Year's Day.  Which four teams should participate?  There was endless disputation in the media.

Columnist Norman Chad watched the much-hyped announcement.  “The show began with a shot of the ‘Selection Committee War Room’ — 13 mostly aging white men sitting in front of laptops, a handful of suits evaluating flawed data amid half-empty pizza boxes.

“Think about this sad state of American affairs:  From the moment the Ohio State-Wisconsin game ended until the moment ESPN announced the national semifinalists 12 hours later, the CFP selection committee spent more time deliberating on playoff seedings than the U.S. Senate did on a 479-page tax bill.

“It's a crooked system weighted toward the richest schools.  The solution is simple, makes more money for everybody and remains one of the five best ideas I have ever had:  LET 'EM ALL IN!”

Mr. Chad advocated a 128-team playoff in which every school would participate.  That might prove rather impractical.  I imagined a field of 64, excluding teams with losing records in the regular season.

This year there were 82 teams with at least .500 marks.  Of those bowl-eligible schools, 78 were actually invited to bowl games.  I seeded the list according to the AP rankings, then according to records, and consigned the bottom 14 to consolation bowls.  That left 64 teams, which I inserted into a tournament bracket.

(I made a few adjustments so that, in the first two rounds, no two teams from the same conference would have to meet.  For example, #64 Duke, the only 6-6 squad in the field, would have drawn #1 Clemson in the opening round.  But both schools are in the ACC, so I reassigned #64 to Georgia State.)

The 32 games of the first round would be played at campus sites during the weeks of December 9 and 16.  Unfortunately, many would be blowouts and others would match mediocre teams.

During the latter half of December, the winners would meet in the second round, played at 16 various bowl venues.  Then the next round would be held about January 5, the four quarterfinals January 12, the two semifinals January 19, and the national championship the week before the Super Bowl.

If everyone “held serve,” #1 Clemson would need to defeat 6-5 Georgia State and 10-4 Fresno State in December.  Then, with the bracket pruned to 16 top teams, Clemson would have to defeat 11-3 LSU, 14-2 USC, and 15-1 Alabama on consecutive weeks in January to reach the title game against 17-1 Oklahoma.

According to Mr. Chad, a more inclusive playoff “beats the current system.”  At least there would be many more meaningful games, and winning the trophy would be a tremendous achievement.


DEC. 15, 2017    RADIO SILENCE

I'm in the habit of starting my day listening to Pittsburgh radio, specifically WDVE-FM.  This station has been playing classic rock since the days of the hippies, when “DVE” alluded to the dove of peace.  Nowadays from 6:00 to 10:00 AM during the week, it's something different.

“Randy Baumann and the DVE Morning Show” is mostly talk and comedy, with a heavy emphasis on local sports because WDVE is also the flagship station for Steelers broadcasts.  Every hour of the Morning Show promotes the hometown NFL team, including commentary and phone interviews with players and national pundits alike.  With off-season draft speculation and training camp news, it's a year-round Black and Gold obsession.

Except, that is, for this time of year.  After staging a Christmas music and comedy extravaganza at a local establishment two nights ago (broadcast on tape this morning), the Morning Show folks are taking almost three weeks off for the holidays.  These familiar voices won't be on the air previewing and postviewing this Sunday's big game against the Patriots, nor the final two regular-season games that follow.

Our friends talk to us every morning all year — until the climax of the season.  Now we get coal in our stockings.  Hmmph.



Each December around 1960, when my family lived on Hoskins Pike, we decorated the glass on our front door using a stencil and spray-on "snow."

When I returned home from school in the late afternoon, it was still daylight outdoors.  Once I got inside the house and looked back out through the glass towards Arby Cramer's place across the road, the decoration appeared gray (as I've simulated in the upper picture).

We had electric candles in every window and I was impatient to switch them on, but I knew it was too early.  No one outside would notice that they were glowing.  Mustn't waste electricity.

But around 5:15, when it became darker outdoors than inside, I noticed that the "snow" on our glass had turned white.  That was my signal that it was time to go around to all our lights and plug them in.

Merry Christmas, everybody!


DEC. 12, 2007 flashback   THE INITIAL MAKES THE NAME

When we read, we skim over the material to get the sense, but we don't necessarily look carefully at every letter.

Last week, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Anthony Smith boldly "guaranteed" a victory over the undefeated New England Patriots.  On Sunday, Tom Brady burned Smith on a couple of long passes, and the Patriots easily won.  On Monday, Pittsburgh pundits roundly criticized Smith for his foolish boast.

Then on Tuesday, there was more bad news for the Steelers defense:  During that Patriots game, Aaron Smith tore a biceps muscle.  He'll be out for the season.  "Does this count as irony," I wondered, "or just bad karma?  Either way, this has not been a good week for him."  But as I read further, I found no mention of the rash "guarantee" that had been so widely discussed only the day before.  Finally I realized that the injured player was a different A. Smith, this one a defensive end.

The first letter is most important in recognizing a word, at least for me.  If I'm not careful, Anthony and Aaron appear to be the same.

I remember a similar confusion when reading Albert Schweitzer's biography of Johann Sebastian Bach.  In Leipzig, Germany, there were several Lutheran churches including St. Thomas's, St. Nicholas's, and St. Peter's.  I couldn't keep them straight.  "Where was that cantata performed?  I don't know; St. Somebody's."  It's much easier for me when the churches' German names are used: Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, and Petrikirche.  The initials are completely different, and therefore the names are quite distinct.



Eric D. Snider's relative asked 3-year-old Summer, "Are you getting excited for Christmas?"

"We already had Christmas."

"But we're going to have it again."

"Another Christmas?"

"It happens every year."

"It does?  Wow!"


DEC. 7, 2007 flashback   EVERGREEN MUSIC

Contrary to my expectations, some types of popular music are more than just passing fads but remain with us for decades.

Hippies drove Volkswagens when I was in college at the end of the 1960s, and rock music was producing new hits on a weekly basis.  But I'm talkin' 'bout my generation.  I assumed that "my" songs would soon be consigned to the oldies bin and new generations would listen to their own music.  Thus I was surprised, when I walked through the Syracuse campus in 1985, to find student housing with VWs parked outside and the same rock classics blaring from the stereo systems.  Even today they can still be heard on radio stations catering to us aging baby boomers.

If we go back another decade, we find that most of the music that was popular when I was a kid in the 1950s did fade away, with two major exceptions.

Some Italian restaurants still play a lot of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

And at this time of year, we hear Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Nat "King" Cole, and others of their era.  More than one generation has grown up listening to their Christmas classics, and the holiday season is certainly a time for tradition.


DEC. 5, 2017    D'OH!

On at least a couple of occasions I've recognized someone, struck up a conversation, then realized to my embarrassment that I was actually talking to a stranger.

Have you ever encountered a famous person who turned out to be an ordinary person?   A retired television writer, now living in Santa Monica, blogged about this phenomenon.  He imagined an episode of the long-ago TV series The Twilight Zone.  Here's how I think that episode might go. 

Submitted for your approval:

You're a successful salesman named Willy Highman.  But you're in a predicament.

Other people might not consider it to be a problem, but you have the looks of a movie star!  A specific, recognizable movie star.

And the trouble with resembling a celebrity is that people think you are him.

People mistake you for Bob Hope.

They expect you to tell jokes.

You finally get fed up.  You have plastic surgery.

They unwrap the bandages, you look in the mirror, and your face is entirely different.

Now you're Bing Crosby.

The doctors insist that you sing “White Christmas” for them.



DEC. 2, 2017    OTD

At Thanksgiving time in 1950, the Great Appalachian Blizzard dumped four feet of snow on West Virginia and nearby states.  The Michigan-Ohio State football game was a disaster.

I was living in southeastern Ohio at the time, and my memory is very hazy because I was only 3½ years old, but I think I recall my father putting chains on the wheels of the car and setting off towards town with my mother and me.  Despite all precautions, our car spun around on Highland Avenue, a complete 180°.  I applauded in glee.  “Do it again, Daddy!”  I think that's what I remember.

The next week, on December 2, 1950, another college football game was played in the industrial town of Evansville, Indiana.  The winters there are typically very cold, wet, and windy.  The average mean temperature On This Date in Evansville: a chilly 39°.

Believe it or not, it was a bowl game — the third annual Refrigerator Bowl!  And one team, visiting from Minnesota's Gustavus Adolphus, was known as the Gusties.

However, not all the weather omens were unfavorable.  In the snowstorm the week before, Evansville had escaped with only four inches.  And “Refrigerator Bowl” did not refer to the local climate.  Bowl games are named for local products like cotton and sugar — and kitchen appliances.

On that Saturday, quarterback Ted Sitton (shown here) led the Abilene Christian College Wildcats to victory.  That completed the school's only unbeaten, untied season.  Sitton would later become ACU's head coach.

The high temperature reached a balmy 72° that day.  You can look it up.

(Why did I look it up?  That “Refrigerator Bowl” title caught my eye.  I thought maybe the game was played in Alaska, or at least Green Bay.)



In the final month before 1968 began, I received a promotion.  After a year and a half as my college radio station's Sports Director, I learned that for the next semester I would move up to become the Program Director.

Later in December, a friend and I attended a Carol Service at a local church.  Even later, I looked at things that are blue and things that are green. 

Click here for the second installment in a 14-month series recalling my life 50 years ago.  It's a short installment.  The holidays were coming!