Schoolhouse Rock Rocked (Mostly)

ABC Television

Back in the early days of my childhood, it could not be overemphasized how important Saturday morning television programming was to us kids. Each year, sometime in late summer, the networks would run their prime-time specials previewing their Saturday morning line-ups for that fall. Those programs built excitement for the upcoming season and they softened the blow of the impending school year. Here’s NBC’s 1974 preview show.

Much of the programming seems awfully silly to me now, but when I was a kid I was enthralled. I know I’m gonna sound like an old man here, but kids today are missing out on the excitement of anticipation for the Saturday morning cartoon shows. See? I sound like an old man.

In 1973, ABC debuted a series of interstitial cartoons meant to educate as well as entertain. It was Schoolhouse Rock! And we kids loved them. (Well, most of them.) They were three minute long cartoons, played during ad breaks or between shows, featuring songs that taught about math, history, grammar, science, etc. They were the brainchild of ad man David McCall. McCall noticed his son was having trouble with math, and yet knew all the words to the pop songs of the day. McCall thought that maybe school lessons set to catchy tunes might help his and other kids learn.

In 1971, McCall recruited Bob Dorough, a musician and songwriter, to write a math lesson song, which became Three Is A Magic Number. Tom Yohe, who worked with McCall at the same ad agency, drew up some illustrations to go along with the song. Next thing you know, they were creating a whole series of songs to animate and put on television.

Some of the episodes haven’t aged very well (Elbow Room especially, despite still having a good tune), but most still pack a delightful punch.

And now a break from the blog for a brief rant…

There he is! Little Twelvetoes!

Schoolhouse Rock! also taught me the concept of overkill. As I recall, certain episodes became very popular indeed and started getting played with much higher frequency. One in particular.

Each time I would see the Schoolhouse Rock! intro, I would plead for one of the less frequently played, but much liked by me, installments:

“Little Twelvetoes! Little Twelvetoes! Little Twelvetoes!” I would repeat as I waited to see which would play.

(I liked Little Twelvetoes. It had a mysterious and somewhat creepy vibe. Sort of an early X-Files thing.)

But, no. It would be Conjunction Junction. Again!

Again?! Sigh.

Or, maybe, Figure Eight.

Both were excellent, but they were seriously overplayed.

Rant over. Now back to the blog.

So, what were my favorites? I thought you would never ask.

As I look through the list on Wikipedia, I’m noticing how many I really like that were written, many of which were also performed, by Lynn Ahrens. In no particular order, some of my faves by Ahrens include: A Noun Is A Person Place Or Thing, Interjections!, No More Kings, Interplanet Janet, Fireworks (sung by Grady Tate), and The Preamble.

There’s one that was written by George Newall and sung by Blossom Dearie that I would put in my top three: Unpack Your Adjectives.

I love the art style of I Got Six.

But, it was Bob Dorough who has the most episodes to his credit and the most of my favorites. I’ve already mentioned the first of all the Schoolhouse Rock! cartoons, Three Is A Magic Number and that mysterious alien Little Twelvetoes. Add to those the following (unless otherwise noted all of these were sung by Dorough): My Hero Zero, I Got Six (sung by Grady Tate), Figure Eight (sung by Blossom Dearie), Ready Or Not Here I Come, Sufferin’ Till Suffrage (sung by Essra Mohawk), and the bestest of them all – Lolly Lolly Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here.

Tom Yohe’s simple illustration style was excellent. I especially like his work on I Got Six. The sketchy yet disciplined linework over a white background and limited use of color is brilliant. There may be some eyebrow raising moments in there, what with the harem and the “prince” character and all, but it was 1973 and people were still learning. Heck, we’re still learning today.

How’s that spelled?

The initial run of Schoolhouse Rock! was from 1973 until 1984. The series returned to Saturday mornings in 1994 with a selection of the originals and eight new episodes, including one called Walkin’ On Wall Street. That one has an amusing typo that slipped by everyone. There’s a shot featuring a newsstand. Look at the picture. Can you spot the error?

In 1993, the series was taken to the stage with the production called Schoolhouse Rock Live! Then in 1996, a tribute album featuring ’90s’ alternative artists’ covers titled Schoolhouse Rock! Rocks. And in 2009, Schoolhouse Rock! released several new episodes direct to DVD covering topics related to the environment called Schoolhouse Rock! Earth.

But my heart belongs to the Schoolhouse Rock! that ruled the 1970s.

“Darn! That’s the end.”

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Please check out our eBay page, as well. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on Apple Podcasts.

Uri Geller To The Rescue!

I’m a skeptic. That means if you want me to accept that someone has supernatural powers I will need some pretty darn good evidence. I need more than just someone’s word or the demonstration of a few parlor tricks. I will need to be convinced the person with special, super-human powers isn’t cheating.

This doesn’t mean I can’t suspend my disbelief and accept that there are such gifted (or cursed) characters in fiction. When I watch movies and television or read novels and comic books, I can accept that Mr. Fantastic can stretch, that Dorothy is in the Land of Oz, that Storm can control the weather, that Mr. Spock can mind-meld, and that Harry Potter is a wizard. It’s fiction. It’s fantasy. And in comic books, if it can be drawn, it can be done.

In the real world, though, it’s a different story.

Uri Geller

Enter Uri Geller. In the 1970s, this young man from Israel caught the world’s attention by bending spoons. He claimed he did it with his mind. However, his hands always seemed to be involved. Hmm. I wonder if maybe he was physically bending those spoons in secret and then using sleight of hand to make it appear as though the utensils were being bent by his mind. Sleight of hand or superpowers? Which seems more likely?

James Randi

In 1973, Geller appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. Johnny had started his show biz career as a magician, so he had some insights that the average person who was convinced by Geller didn’t. (By the way, some of those convinced people included scientists.) Johnny had his doubts about young Geller and he enlisted James “The Amazing” Randi to help with an upcoming appearance by the spoon bender. Johnny wanted to put in some controls to prevent Geller from cheating. If that was what he was doing, he wouldn’t be able to do his tricks.

Neither Geller nor any of his people were allowed to bring props or to have any contact with those provided by the show. The “psychic” phenom would be presented with the items when he walked onto the set. Not a moment earlier.

With controls, failure.

Geller failed. In front of millions of viewers.

He excused his failure on not feeling strong and he suggested that Johnny was putting undue pressure on him. You can watch the infamous appearance with Johnny and get some more insights on Geller’s “abilities” from James Randi here.

One would think such a public failure would have ended Geller’s popularity, but no. His appearance on the Tonight Show only led to his getting more bookings. He was soon appearing on The Merv Griffin Show and he was definitely feeling strong. From what I’ve heard (I haven’t seen the appearance), no controls were put in place and his powers were in full force.

Huh. Imagine that.

Without controls, success.

Sadly, 27 years after Geller’s failure on the Tonight Show, the middle-aged “psychic” phenom returned as a guest of Carson’s replacement, Jay Leno. And, much like most of Geller’s other showcases of his abilities, no controls were in place. Geller reached into his old bag of tricks, the same half a dozen or so, and his powers were once again in full force.

Huh. Imagine that.

(Did you know Johnny wanted David Letterman for his replacement?)

Enter Marvel Comics. In 1976, Stan Lee knew a good gimmick when he saw one and he called in writer/editor Marv Wolfman. “Marv! I want you to write that amazing young man who bends things into one of our comic books!” Wolfman wrote Geller a guest appearance in Daredevil #133 (May, 1976). Not as a mildly interesting fellow who bends keys, reproduces drawings by others without having seen them, and restarts stopped watches, no, no, no, Geller has abilities in the story that put all those tricks to shame.

In the comic, Geller can communicate telepathically with Mind-Wave, the villain of the issue. He can psychically locate the evil-doer. And he can bend metal pipes. With his mind. And there’s none of that rubbing with a finger and repeating, “Bend! Bend! Bend!” theatricality.

Comic book Geller bending a metal pipe.

I think I can safely say Uri Geller has never bent a metal pipe in his life. Certainly not with his mind.

In the section of the comic book normally set aside for letters to the editor, Marv Wolfman wrote the story behind the Geller appearance. Yeah, he was skeptical at first, people often are, but a couple bent keys and a reproduced drawing later and Marv was convinced. It’s disappointing, but most people don’t know what to look for when a trickster is at work.

Meh.

In more recent years, Uri Geller has winkingly come clean about not really having super-powers. Besides, just how super of a power is bending spoons anyway?

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on Apple Podcasts.

Announcers! Youuuu’re Outta Here! (Or At Least You Should Be)

I’m a baseball fan. I really enjoy watching the games on television. I especially look forward to those Sunday nights through the summer watching the game on ESPN. However, lately, ESPN seems to want me to stop watching.

Something you should know about me is that I tend to get annoyed easily. I get aggravated driving behind someone doing 35 in a 40 mph zone. I don’t want them to speed, I just want them to drive the speed limit. Is that too much to ask?

And is it too much to expect shoppers at the grocery store to push their carts on the right side of the aisle? I want to yell at the oblivious aisle blockers, “What side of the street do you drive on?!”

Am I wrong to be annoyed by these things?

So, how is baseball on television annoying me? Or more specifically, how is the coverage of baseball on television annoying me?

It’s not the announcers constantly referring to all the sabermetrics that have taken over the game. Exit Velocity, Launch Angle, RBI, ERA, OPS, WAR, wOBA, BABIP, 12XU, HOT… The Ideal Copy

Don’t get me wrong. All of that is annoying. I mean, who cares how fast a home run ball left the park? What’s really getting under my skin is the way the announcers are becoming part of the game.

Yes, they already were sort of part of the game, but their part was well-defined. It was usually two fellows (there are some women getting into announcing the game, which I do like) sitting in the booth calling the game. One would be the play-by-play announcer, who would keep the viewers informed on what is happening on the field; while the other, usually a former player, would provide color and analysis. The two would also tell stories of the game and have conversations related to baseball in general.

A good announcing team can be great to listen to as you watch.

But there has been a slippery slope over the years that has seen the announcers encroaching more and more into the game. They are almost literally climbing out of the booth and creeping into the dugouts and onto the field.

For decades, interviews with managers, coaches, and players were limited to before and after the games. And that’s the way it should be. That’s the way the Baseball Gods intended it to be. (I feel I can speak for them.)

But, then, some TV exec had the idea of putting a reporter in the stands who was allowed to talk to team representatives to get some inside information. The reporter would do this off camera, behind the scenes, and then would go on camera to relay injury reports and other bits of information to the announcers in the booth. They are baseball’s equivalent to the sideline reporters in football.

“All right. I’m ok with that,” I would think to myself.

But, then, the idea of putting a small microphone on a designated player was hit upon. The player would be recorded as they played. Then later things they said to fellow teammates, the umpires, or opposing players would be played back. Those moments were called Sounds of the Game™.

“Hmmm. Is this really necessary?”

But, then, the ideas people thought fans would love to hear from the managers during the game. However, they would wait until between innings to talk to the managers. That way the interviews wouldn’t interfere with the manager’s job and could be played back later in the game using a split screen.

“I don’t like where this is going.”

But, then, the TV people realized that there are players who won’t be playing in that day’s game. The player might be injured or they’re the starting pitcher for the next game, so they’re just watching. Why not talk to them while the game is being played? Heck, we might get lucky and catch some playful hijinks with teammates throwing sunflower seeds at the player while he’s being interviewed.

“Grrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

But, then, the TV execs figured, what the hell, let’s get the managers to talk to the announcers as the game is being played. Forget that between innings stuff.

“This is going too far…”

But, then, the brain trust declared, “Hey! We’ve been mic’ing up players for Sounds of the Game™ for some time now, why not fit them with an earpiece so the announcers can talk to them as the play?! Of course, we’ll only do that during the All-Star Game. (Wink, wink.) It’s an exhibition game. It’s just for fun. It doesn’t count.”

“No! No! No! NO!!

And now ESPN, during the Sunday night games, have their announcers talking to the players during the game. Regular season games. Games that count.

“I knew it! I knew this was going to happen!”

Soon, this intrusion will expand to every televised game. Maybe they will mic up every player and carry out conversations all through the whole game. A hitter will be asked what pitch he expects to be thrown. A pitcher will be asked what pitch he’s going to use. Outfielders will be asked if they plan to dive for the ball or let it drop.

Ok, now I’m falling into the slippery slope fallacy. The intrusion probably won’t go as far as that. But, considering how far it has gotten, do you blame me for worrying that it might?

Last Sunday, I watched the St. Louis Cardinals/Chicago Cubs game on ESPN. They mic’d up Cardinals’ shortstop Paul DeJong. While he was chatting with announcers Matt Vasgersian and Alex Rodriguez, a ball was hit to him. He stopped the conversation, fielded the ball, and threw to first. The runner was safe by about half a step.

Did the conversation and the earpiece coming out as DeJong attempted to make the play cost him a second or two in his reaction time? If he had been allowed to pay full attention to the game, might he have made that play and got the runner out? I don’t know, but if this intrusion continues and gets worse, we are going to have players claiming they were distracted by the unnecessary coverage.

The TV people were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.

Major League Baseball, I appeal to you. Tell the announcers to get their butts back in the booth and let the players play!

Oh, and while you are at it, stop the ESPN people from calling home runs “going yard.”

Gah! I hate that!

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on Apple Podcasts.

A Pedant Nitpicks One of Television’s Greatest Moments

Was it a comedy/drama or was it a drama/comedy? (I’ve given my take on that question in a previous blog you can check out here.) Whatever the answer, none can deny it was one of American television’s greatest shows. I’m talking about M*A*S*H (1972-1983) the groundbreaking series set in a mobile army surgical hospital in South Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953).

One of the most popular characters of the series was Lt. Col. Henry Blake, the somewhat bumbling, frequently befuddled commanding officer of the 4077th M*A*S*H unit. He was played by McLean Stevenson, who at some point in the show’s third season (1974/75) wanted out. He wanted to pursue more lucrative offers, one of which was NBC dangling the possible replacing of Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show when Johnny retired. Of course, McLean would have to leave CBS and M*A*S*H to come to NBC and star in a show tailored just for him for that offer to come true.

Johnny didn’t retire until 1992 and none of the shows Stevenson starred in lasted very long. Was it one of the worst career blunders in television history? Maybe. I’ll let others debate over that.

Stevenson was able to convince the producers to let him leave the popular series. In fact, he was given a season finale send off that has gone down in television history. The episode is called Abyssinia, Henry. The entire episode was built upon the excitement of Henry being able to go home, to get away from the war, to be with his wife and kids again, to pick up the pieces of his life.

A hilarious drunken party was held. Memories were shared. Henry got himself a spiffy new suit. He may have crossed the line with his goodbye to Maj. Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit), a character who was still in her “Hot Lips” phase. I mean that kiss might not fly today. And there was that touching moment when he stopped himself from climbing on the helicopter to come back and give his company clerk “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) a personal goodbye.

Then back on the chopper and off for home.

However, and this is a spoiler if you’ve never watched the show or know nothing about it – where have you been?! – Lt. Col. Henry Blake never made it home.

This is where the episode became cemented in television history.

The producers had decided that Henry should die. It was their way of reminding the audience that war is hell. It’s senseless. And people die needlessly. This was a message the producers stressed when answering angry letters written by fans who were so upset by the death of such a beloved character.

Larry Gelbart, who was one of the main creative forces behind the show, directed this episode. He kept the tragic ending from the cast and crew during the rehearsals and filming. He didn’t want the actors knowing of Henry’s death as that knowledge might change their performances. They were all fine actors, but knowing the story would have such a sad ending might have taken some of the joy away from the meat of the show.

When it came to time to do the last scene, Gelbart called the main cast together and gave them the final part of the script. The cast members were stunned. The scene was shot. It was set in the operating room, just the same as when the episode opened. This time, however, instead of entering to tell Col. Blake that he had earned his points and was being discharged, Radar came in with a much, much different message:

“I have a message. Lt. Col. Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”

He turned to leave as the camera panned across the stunned silence of the OR. A scalpel is dropped which momentarily breaks the silence while at the same time it accentuates it.

Damn. When TV is done right, it is so good.

Packing Pea… Oh, wait! I was going to nitpick this scene, wasn’t I? I almost forgot.

Look, it boils down to three words: “It spun in.”

It’s a phrase that has not sat well with me for a long time. I mean, it is a telegram message, presumably from Army Command, that Radar reads to the hospital staff, right? Written by some clerk to inform Col. Blake’s former command of his death. Why describe how the plane crashed? Why say, “It spun in?” Saying the plane was shot down and there were no survivors would suffice. It would have been efficient. It would have been more military.

I just don’t think someone would take the time to paint a picture. His plane was shot down. No one survived. Why say any more?

It’s that line that takes me out of the scene. Admittedly, it doesn’t take me out by much, but I hear the voice of the show’s writers in those three words. And it has bugged me.

That’s the thing about nits, they bug you until you pick them.

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

The World At War

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You could say I’m a bit of a worrier. And you could say I’ve been a bit of a worrier since I was a child. And you would be right. It’s something I do. I’m good at it.

I have gotten much better at not allowing my worrying to keep me from sleeping. (Most of the time.) When I was a kid, though, I could get to worrying about something and that could make falling asleep difficult. I mostly worried about going back to school after summer vacation, winter or spring break, long weekends. I don’t remember why I would be worried, I just was.

Those occasions of sleeping difficulties would mainly happen on Sunday nights. And if I was feeling as though sleep wouldn’t come, I dreaded a certain sound. And that sound was the closing music of the landmark British World War II television documentary series The World At War (1973-1974).

It was sometime in the mid-1970s that The World At War begin airing on American television and my mother would watch it each Sunday night. It would come on at 11:00 and end at midnight. If I was still awake as the show ended, it would be a difficult night. And I won’t even mention how troubling it would get if I heard the closing theme of The Honeymooners, the show that would follow.

All that is in the past.

Today, I own the DVD set. It contains the entire 26 episodes of the series and a boatload of extras. There are 11 discs in all.

The World At War wasn’t the first TV documentary of the war. There were others before it. On American television, there was NBC’s Victory At Sea (1952-1953). That series also had 26 episodes, however these were half hour shows. And Victory was made closer to the actual events and that may be why it feels much more rah-rah than The World At War.

Victory has no interviews. It consists of archival footage and narration, and a very heroic, flag-waving musical score by Richard Rodgers. The music gets tiring and the series has the feel of pro-America propaganda. It also seems to glamorize war. Not overly so, but the rah-rah quality, the hooray for the Allies (which, yes, hooray for the Allies) attitude makes the series feel like a naval recruitment pitch. No wonder the US Navy was so willing to give full cooperation.

The World At War, other the other hand, is careful to make war look like what it is – ugly. War is horrifying. It’s destruction and devastation. It’s insane. War is hell (you can quote me on that). And The World At War makes that abundantly clear as it chronicles the power-hungry fascist dictators wreaking havoc in Europe, Northern Africa, China, and the Pacific.

The musical score for The World At War was composed by Carl Davis. It’s brilliant. It gives the series the proper seriousness that subject requires, while not glamorizing war in any way.

Also, brilliant is the narration provided by acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier. His narration sets the tone for the series in the cold open of episode one – A New Germany:

“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community, which have lived for a thousand years, was dead.”

That’s heavy. Olivier strikes the perfect note of solemnity. This series is not going to be rah-rah.

Like Victory At Sea, there is lots of archival footage. But, unlike Victory, the World At War has lots of interviews of the people involved. From citizens to journalists to soldiers, sailors, and airmen to generals, admirals, and world leaders. From both sides of the war.

The input of people who were there may be 30 years after the fact (and memory isn’t video tape), but it is tremendously powerful. Quite often we are shown archival footage of the younger versions of those being interviewed. We get to hear from military leaders to get their insights on the decision making and strategies. And there is only one historian, Stephen Ambrose, who is interviewed late in the series.

The most intriguing contributors, for me, are the Germans. We hear from ordinary citizens about how Germany was caught up in a kind of hysteria as Hitler provided victory after victory early in the war. And then how terrifying it was to live under that regime. The series interviews the highest ranking Nazi who was still alive and had served his time in prison: Albert Speer. They even interviewed Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, who worked for the Nazi dictator in those last days in the bunker and took down his final statement. Fascinating!

If you haven’t watched this series, seek it out. Some of the episodes are on YouTube. You’ll find the first one here.

Nowadays, when I watch the series, I usually watch it at about the same time of night my mother used to watch it. And, ironically, I’m so familiar with the series I tend to doze off until the closing theme plays. Then I wake up and go to bed.

Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

“Two Down, Four To Go”

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The world received the sad news of the death of actor/writer/filmmaker/historian Terry Jones a couple days ago, so I decided to interrupt my January hiatus (unannounced, sorry about that) to throw in my few cents worth.

It was sometime in 1974, when PBS television stations across America began playing a very strange, very British sketch comedy program. A story a friend of mine tells of his first encounter with the show is of his father gathering the family around the TV console to watch a new (to America) comedy show from England. The company his father worked for at the time was sponsoring the show, so he figured the family ought to check it out. 30 minutes later there were two adults baffled by what they just witnessed and three kids, my friend and his sisters, completely on board. It was silly, irreverent, and the parents didn’t get it. What’s not to love?

My early recollection of the program was that sometimes women’s boobs could be seen. Even at that tender age, I must have been about ten, I took great interest in those bumps on women’s chests. Any show that would put boobs on display and was silly and funny just had to go onto my regular television viewing list.

I didn’t get everything at first. It was very British and that meant certain references wouldn’t be understood by Americans, especially American kids. However, over the years more and more of the brilliance of the show became apparent to me. The troupe of actors/writers and one cartoonist were educated, intellectual (the cartoonist maybe not so much of an intellectual, but he’s a cartoonist, what are ya gonna do?), and more than willing to attack every convention and institution, all while being completely silly and ofttimes in drag.

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The troupe was Graham Chapman (who died in 1989), John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin. They all came from other British TV comedy shows, through which some met and worked together. Eventually everything led to the six of them getting a comedy sketch show of their own. It was called Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974). The men would write and perform on what would become the greatest TV comedy sketch program of all time. (Hyperbole!)

Embarrassing fact: When I first started watching the show, I thought John Cleese was Monty Python. He seemed to have the most authority. And he was the tallest. “I’m six foot five!” What else was I gonna think?

spam_waitressEach member of the troupe could play the everyman (or woman) and the voice of authority. They could be the gentleman and the creep. Jones played the everyman (or woman) and creeps very well. He was Arthur “Two Sheds” Jackson and the man with three buttocks. He was the flasher who was fully clothed under that trench coat, but he had the look of a masher and a sign which read “Boo!” hanging around his neck. He was the completely innocent fellow wanting to to go for a swim at the beach, but couldn’t find anywhere to get undressed, until he ended up on a stage with an appreciative audience. “It’s a man’s life taking your clothes off in public.”

In their film Monty Python’s The Meaning Of Life (1983), he was Mr. Creosote, a man so large and with an appetite so voracious he literally ate until he exploded. He was Prince Herbert in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975), who just wanted… to… sing… “Stop that! Stop that!” Also in Holy Grail, he was Sir Bedevere the Wise, the knight who knew the best way to determine whether or not a woman was a witch. And he was Brian’s mother in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979). “He’s not the messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”

a75ea56f7f2f49d5baadda5d348909f8--fairy-dust-fantasy-artJones not only performed and wrote for Python, he also stepped behind the camera to co-direct with Terry Gilliam the Holy Grail and direct Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life. Later and apart from Python, Terry Jones would write and host several history documentaries for British television. And he was the author of many books. I especially loved his idea of a children’s book. He produced one called Lady Cottington’s Pressed Fairy Book. A book he wrote and Brian Froud beautifully illustrated detailing the various kinds of fairies with examples “pressed” between the pages. Brilliant.

The man did a lot of work. What a legacy.

In 2015, Terry found out he had a form of dementia that would cause him to almost completely lose the ability to communicate. He wouldn’t be able to speak. For a man for whom language and words were so important to his life’s work this most have been especially horrible. My father-in-law suffered from the same illness. It became more and more difficult for him to get the words he had in his head to come out of his mouth. However, Dad’s dementia wasn’t able to get as advanced as Terry’s. My father-in-law would lose his life to lymphoma before he completely lost his words.

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Dementia finally shut Mr. Jones down this past Tuesday. He will be remembered and missed for a long, long time.

Oh! And before you get upset about the insensitive nature of the headline for this blog, you should know I am quoting from a tweet released by fellow Python John Cleese.

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Packing Peanuts!

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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

 

Rankin/Bass Christmas Specials: Two I Love, One I Hate

put-one-foot-in-front-of-the-otherWell, Holiday is upon us again. (Boy! It sure seems to get here faster each year.) And I thought I’d look at three Rankin/Bass Christmas special classics. Two of which I love, one… not so much.

As with most of us younger Boomers, I really looked forward to all the Christmas specials that would grace our television sets each Christmas season in the late ’60s and early ’70s. When they started showing up it meant that we were inching our way closer to Santa’s visit and all those presents. The specials had the same effect on me as those countdown to Christmas calendars, with each day having a door to open to expose a piece of candy and/or a holiday themed scene. The daily routine of opening each calendar door helped to built the anticipation and to make the time seem to go by a little faster. So, when those Christmas specials started showing on TV my excitement grew and grew.

NorelcoSantaI even liked the ads for Norelco products featuring a stop-motion animated Santa gliding along the snow in the head of one of their electric shavers.

I’m just covering Rankin/Bass specials here. I won’t be talking about the Grinch (my all time favorite) and Charlie Brown. Let’s look at those three, shall we?

Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town (1970)

There is something special about the stop motion animation Rankin/Bass would do. The characters and objects took up space. They had presence and substance. It’s not that I don’t like two dimensional animation, I’m a cartoonist, I love that stuff. But the stop motion had a certain something.

af200d4d04ea755b3bc67daab5d404efThis special tells the origin of Santa Claus. It uses a letter carrier, voiced wonderfully by Fred Astaire, answering questions children all over the world send to the jolly old fella. We get all the dope on an orphan boy left to a family of toy makers and how he grew up to be the world’s greatest gift giver.

Along the way he meets his wife, whose cold heart he melts, an evil warlock, whose cold heart he melts, and a penguin that somehow ended up in the arctic. Santa is voiced by Mickey Rooney and that evil warlock is played by Keenan Wynn and they’re both great. Especially Wynn. He does menacing and humble equally well.

I’ve never been big on musicals, but all of these specials contain songs. I like most of them. In this special, Put One Foot In Front Of The Other is the best song. However, If You Sit On My Lap Today, given it has Santa instructing children to get on his lap and give him a kiss in exchange for a toy, is a little creepy.

Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

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“What the hell is wrong with your son?!”

People have begun to point out, in recent years, the horrible message of this show. A message that strongly implies those who don’t conform with what is considered normal by society should be shunned and shamed mercilessly; unless, that is, the difference can be made use of and the formally shunned had better be grateful for finally being accepted. Even Santa is a complete jerk in his treatment of Rudolph’s parents for having the audacity of having a child that doesn’t fit in. And Hermy the elf is treated harshly for not wanting to make toys. He’d rather be a dentist.

Despite all this, I love the special.

I love its look and the songs. The songs really are great in this one, even the ballad There’s Always Tomorrow. My favorites are Silver And Gold and Holly Jolly Christmas which are sung by the narrator Burl Ives. I also like the Island of Misfit Toys and its king. However, would someone really object to a Charlie in a box? And there’s the great character of Yukon Cornelius.

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“Arrrrrggghhh!”

Also great about this special and Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town is both effectively make the villains-turned-allies (spoilers) very scary when they are introduced. Both the Abominable Snowman and Winter Warlock are so well done when shown as impending menaces to our heroes. They were genuinely scary to me when I was a boy.

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“Arrrrrggghhh!”

As an adult I see the flaws, but I forgive them and enjoy them to this day. This next special is a different story.

Frosty The Snow (1969)

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This is a two dimensional animation special that just hasn’t aged well for me. I like the cartooning style, but the story is pretty thin, especially when compared to my two previous choices. I know it’s for kids, but it’s pretty lame.

My main problem, though, is the song. Song. One song. The other shows on this list half at least a half a dozen songs each. Yes, they are both hour long shows and this is a 30 minute special, but couldn’t they come up with a couple more songs? Instead we get the title song. Over and over and over. The kids sing it, Jimmy Durante the narrator sings it. He sings it at its regular tempo. He sings it slow. There are snippets of it throughout the show. A verse here, a chorus there.

Over and over and over.

And if you don’t care for the song, it’s a chore to get through. I don’t care for the song.

5492a2ba5edb4062e67cff9102ea3719Also, the pedant in me wonders why it was so urgent to get Frosty to the north pole. It’s just before Christmas. It’s winter. There’s snow all over the place, how warm can it be? And it gets colder right after Christmas, not warmer. Frosty has time. There’s no need to risk little Karen’s life and commit the crimes of jumping a train and trespassing in a greenhouse in order to get Frosty to colder climes.

It just doesn’t hold up. Not for me, anyway.

Packing Peanuts!

May you have a terrific holiday season!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

My Thumb Was Always Way Up

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Dave Letterman’s stock answer whenever questioned about why there were two guest chairs on the Late Night set was always – “Siskel and Ebert.” It got a laugh every time and, for the most part, was exactly right. Rarely did Dave ever have more than one guest on the set at one time (the infamous Lawler/Kaufman appearance and Penn & Teller notwithstanding), but Siskel and Ebert always showed up as a pair.

In the decade of the 1980s, there were two television shows that I rarely missed: The aforementioned Late Night with David Letterman and At The Movies with Siskel & Ebert. I looked forward to each Saturday afternoon to find out which new movies might be worth seeing. And Siskel and Ebert were my go-to guys.

250px-Sneak-previewsMy earliest recollection of their movie review show goes back to about 1980, maybe 1981, when they were still on PBS and the show was called Sneak Previews. I believe it was my sister who introduced me to the show and there is one particular episode, or I should say review, that comes to mind.

They were reviewing the Wings (that’s Paul McCartney’s band from the days after The Beatles broke up, kids, and The Beatles were a fairly popular rock band in the 1960s) concert film: Rockshow (1980). These two old farts (Gene was 36 at the time and Roger was 38) wanted more than just a concert film. They wanted to know the inner workings of the band. How was it to mount a major concert tour, what was it like for Paul having his wife in the band, and what did the other band members think about being on the same stage as rock legend Linda… er… Paul McCartney? None of these questions was answered by the straight forward concert movie. It was all about the Rockshow.

Gene and Roger both liked the music, but were disappointed by the documentary. They both voted no. That’s right – no. This was early enough along that they hadn’t yet developed the famous “thumbs up/thumbs down” system.

My sister was appalled at their verdict. “You know, Wings fans might just want to experience the concert, you jerks!”

I gotta agree with my sister. I mean at the time I really had to agree with her, if I knew what was good for me. But she did have a point. Wings couldn’t go to every city. A concert film was the next best thing to getting to see the band live.

Despite my sister’s reaction, I kept tuning in each week. Their popularity grew and grew and soon they left the confines of Public Television for the greener (read: more money) pastures of syndicated television. And I followed right along.

primary_siskel-thumb-490x370-14981What was it about these two fellows that was so compelling to watch? Sure, there was their mutual love of movies, but I also think it was the competition between the two and the sometimes barely concealed contempt for each other. Each man absolutely felt he was the better critic and the audience could sense that. And they both strongly believed in giving the other the needle. They would often exchange sharp zingers on the other’s intelligence, artistic savvy, and worth as a human being. Well, that last one might be an exaggeration. But they could really dig into each other. There are outtakes of them getting quite snarly with each other. Insults, name-calling, and swearing were plentiful.

There was a real sense of tension to the show. And I think that brought something exciting to their reviews. Something worth tuning into week after week.

And yet, at the same time, they had a great deal of respect for each other. When they were in strong agreement on a film, they would cheer each other on.

All this was evident when watching the show.

When Gene took ill some months before his death (February 20, 1999), he would still appear on the show as often as his health would allow. He would wear a hair piece on the side of his head to hide the scarring from his surgeries. I recall one show he did from his hospital room via satellite. Such was his love of and dedication to movies.

roeperWhen he died, Roger carried on with a rotating roster of other noted film critics, before settling on Richard Roeper as Gene’s permanent replacement. Gone was Siskel and Ebert. It was now Ebert and Roeper. And it just wasn’t the same. How could it be?

Richard was a good film critic and he and Roger did develop a certain chemistry, but it just couldn’t match what had gone before. There would be disagreements between the two, sometimes heated ones, but Roeper tended to be much more deferential toward Roger, the legend of movie criticism. Gene was Roger’s equal. Richard was Roger’s student.

Then Roger had his health problems that kept him away from the show more and more, until he lost his ability to speak. Roeper soldiered on with a rotating roster of film critics and then he left the show. The show limped on with other hosts, but without the thumbs up/thumbs down. There was a format change to make the review program more like Entertainment Tonight. I was appalled. It didn’t last long after that.

06APPRAISAL-articleLargeRoger Ebert returned to PBS in January, 2011 with Ebert Presents: At The Movies. He didn’t host the show, but he would contribute a film review that either used a computerized voice or it was read by someone else. The show came to an end in December, 2011. Essentially ending movie criticism on television.

Roger died April 4, 2013.

Thanks to YouTube, we can relive many of those great shows Gene and Roger gave us. We can thrill to their excitement over a great work of art and we can chuckle nervously as they apply the needle to each other. Check ’em out.

Packing Peanuts!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

 

The Hilarious House Of Frightenstein

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I had this vague memory going back to 1979 or 1980 or so. I was in junior high at the time and I was an early riser. I would get up earlier than I needed to for school, so I could leisurely eat breakfast and prepare for my day. I could even get in a little television viewing before heading to the bus stop.

And the memory is of a kids’ TV show with monsters. There was a vampire, a witch, and a wolf man. I remember Vincent Price being involved somehow. The most vivid part of this memory was of the wolf man character dancing to 60s pop songs. But I never saw more than a handful of episodes. And it disappeared quickly.

So, it faded into the vagaries of my memory. In fact, as the years piled up, whenever a memory of that show would pop into my head, I would question whether such a thing actually existed. Maybe I dreamed it.

Well, thanks to the wonderfulness of the internets and social media, my memory was confirmed. Someone posted the image above on Facebook and asked if anyone else had watched it. I thought to myself, “Could it be?” I found some episodes on YouTube and, I’ll be damned! There really was just such a show!

It’s called The Hilarious House of Frightenstein. It was produced for Canadian TV in 1971 and it starred Billy Van. In all, 130 episodes were produced for this daily kids’ show. Many of which are on YouTube. Click here for an episode which includes a short feature about the series.

I wouldn’t say the show was exactly hilarious. It is pretty bold to put that in the title of the program, but I suppose it was necessary for a kids’ show, so that parents wouldn’t think their little ones would be scared. Still, Frightenstein is amusing and fascinating to watch.

The barely scripted show, most everything was improvised, has a main story dealing with Count Frightenstein who has been banished from his beloved Transylvania to Frankenstone, where he lives in Castle Frightenstein. He and his servant Igor (Fishka Rais) are tasked with bringing Brucie (a Frankenstein monster prop on the set) to life. Doing so would pave the way for the Count to return home. Of course, they never get Brucie to come alive.

The rest of the program is filled with various segments featuring a cast of bizarre characters, most of whom are played by Van. And, as in the daily attempts to revive Brucie, these other segments are also mostly improvised.

Van played eight characters: Count Frightenstein, Grizelda the Ghastly Gourmet, Bwana Clyde Batty, Dr. Pet Vet, The Librarian, The Wolf Man, The Oracle, and The Maharishi. I’ll give a brief description of each.

frightenstein

Count Frightenstein’s segments were mostly with Igor and centered around dealing with the lifeless Brucie. However, the Count would also interact with a couple of the puppets on the show to read stories or “viewer” mail. He was also an inventor of worthless or dangerous items.

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Grizelda was a witch who would cook up some zany recipes that always flopped. She was hip and groovy and thought she was a delicious dish herself.

 

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“Ooga booga!”

Bwana Clyde Batty was a British adventurer, sounding very much like Michael Caine, who would show films or slide shows of wild animals as he gave basic information about them. He would encourage kids to visit their local zoos. However, in the video I linked to above, we see the sad state of zoo life in the early 1970s. Just animals in a cage. Very sad.

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Dr. Pet Vet would bring in more or less domesticated animals to tempt Igor with, but Igor would never get permission from the three-toed sloth in the dungeon to keep them. It’s a thing they did on the show.

frightenstein-librarian

The Librarian was a grizzled old fellow who would attempt to frighten viewers with stories that weren’t scary. The makeup for the show was very good and The Librarian’s was the best.

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The Wolf Man was a super cool disc jockey spinning 60s pop songs and dancing to them in front of screen with a psychedelic light show. He would be joined in his dance by Igor. Because of music licensing issues most of the shows on YouTube do not have The Wolf Man’s full segments. The set up is still included, but the songs and the dancing are gone.

A brief aside.

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Wolfman Jack

In a television interview done in 1978, Billy Van claimed to have never heard of the world famous DJ Wolfman Jack prior to creating his Wolf Man Character. Hmmm. Let’s see, Van’s character is a DJ with a raspy voice, who howls, has a groovy attitude, and calls himself The Wolf Man. Wolfman Jack was a prominent DJ with a raspy voice, who would occasionally howl, while he displayed a groovy attitude and called himself the Wolfman. Jack had developed this persona in the early 1960s.

And Van never heard of Wolfman Jack prior to playing The Wolf Man in 1971?

Hmmm. I suppose it’s possible. It’s quite a coincidence if it’s true.

Brief aside over. Now back to the blog.

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The Oracle character was a fortune teller, who used astrology to give advice to viewers. Van used a Peter Lorre impression mixed with a little Chinese accent which would be looked on today as a bit, as the kids say, problematic. There’s some yellow face going on.

maharishi-cremasco

The Maharishi showed up to make odd, nonsensical statements that were meant to sound like some kind of Hindu wisdom. He would then be deluged by a mass of flowers. This character would also be frowned on today due to its brown face nature.

There were two other regular characters I will mention. The Professor and the Narrator.

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The Professor was played by Dr. Julius Sumner Miller. He was a real-life physicist who had done a lot of children’s television. His segments were dedicated to teaching some science to the viewers. He was presented as a mad scientist, but his demonstrations were quite sound.

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And there was the Narrator (I guess that’s what he could be called) he was played by the wonderful Vincent Price. Price’s job was to open and close the show and to introduce the regular character segments. All his lines were done in rhyme. Having Price as part of the show gave it a little more of a Hollywood touch.

According to Wikipedia (where I got much of this information), Mr. Price knocked out all his parts in four days time. He was paid $13,000 for his work. That’s more than $82,000 in today’s money. Not a bad four day work week. And he didn’t phone it in. Vincent Price was a professional.

Still the show was really Billy Van’s baby. He was certainly a talented performer, if not the funniest improvisor. This was for kids, so the humor couldn’t be too sophisticated, but he drove that show. It’s work for which he has a right to feel enormous pride.

And I’m so glad my memory wasn’t giving me a bum steer.

Packing Peanuts!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.

The Jack Paar Open

I realize this isn’t a big problem and I’m just being an old crank, but this sticks in my craw. (Actually, this may be a very tiny problem, but my craw gets irritated easily.) There’s a podcast, which I really like, called The Greatest Generation. No, it’s not about the World War II generation. It’s about Star Trek. It’s a humorous look at each episode of the legendary sci-fi institution starting with Star Trek: The Next Generation. TNG is their favorite of the many Star Trek television series, which is why they started there. The podcast, hosted by Benjamin Harrison and Adam Pranica, had wrapped up the TNG series a while back and are now reviewing each episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. If you are a fan of Star Trek, you should check it out.

The Greatest Generation has developed a whole slew of inside jokes and terms over the years, so if you are new to the podcast it would be a good idea to check out this site to get caught up on everything. Or you could start listening from the beginning. They just started season five of DS9, so you’ll have plenty of listening enjoyment ahead.

Oh, yeah. This craw thing. Ben and Adam frequently use the phrase the Maron Open. The phrase refers to the opening segment of their show in which they talk about or do some activity that is otherwise not very related to the main topic of that particular episode. This is something comedian/podcaster Marc Maron does on his very popular podcast WTF. Hence the phrase Maron Open. And it’s not just The Greatest Gen using the phrase! I’ve heard it on other podcasts.

I, being an old crank, became indignant. “Why these darn kids and their thinking they just invented the wheel! Don’t they know the ‘Maron Open’ is almost as old as the talk show format itself?”

For shame!

Look I haven’t been around forever (and I didn’t write the very first song – 10 points if you get the reference), so I don’t know who started that little talk at the start of a show before getting to the guest or the main topic. But I do know that The Tonight Show’s second host, taking over for original host Steve Allen, Jack Paar was well known for it. I kid you not.

He may not have been the first to do it, but he really did set the template that most late night television talk shows follow to this day. Steve Allen’s Tonight Show was more of a variety show with singers, comedians, and sketches. There may have been some interviews, but that wasn’t the focus of the program as it was with Jack Paar.

Paar was an innovator and pioneer in talk shows. He brought a level of sophistication with intelligent conversation, but still added plenty of laughs to the proceedings. He loved to bring on great storytellers such as the actor Peter Ustinov and Paar was quite the raconteur himself, as in when he would tell an amusing anecdote to open the show. Sound familiar?

He was an emotional, temperamental man who could be unpredictable. That helped make for great ratings, but it also led to him abruptly quitting the show. Not ten minutes into the February 11, 1960 broadcast, Paar announced he was upset with NBC and walked off the set, leaving cohost Hugh Downs to finish the program. (Paar had warned Downs beforehand that he was going to quit.) The indignant host was, however, convinced to come back a month later. His first words upon his return to the show were, “As I was saying before I was interrupted…”

Why did he quit?

“There must be a better way of making a living than this.”

It was over what would be considered today to be the mildest of mild jokes. The joke contained the initials WC which Paar made certain the audience understood meant “water closet”, a euphemism for bathroom. He told the joke to the live audience, but, when the show went on the air later that night, the network had cut it and replaced it with a short news item. NBC thought the joke was in bad taste. Paar was not informed the joke had been cut and became angry when he saw it had been removed. He walked off the show the next day.

What was the joke?

“An English lady is visiting Switzerland. She asks [a Swiss resort manager] about the location of the ‘W.C.’ The [manager], thinking she is referring to the ‘Wayside Chapel’ [as in a church], leaves her a note that read ‘the W.C. is situated nine miles from the room that you will occupy… It is capable of holding about 229 people and it is only open on Sunday and Thursday… It may interest you to know that my daughter was married in the W.C. and it was there that she met her husband… I shall be delighted to reserve the best seat for you, if you wish, where you will be seen by everyone.'” (Source Wikipedia)

Pretty tame, eh?

Well, then, what of the Maron Open? As I said, Marc Maron didn’t invent it. Jack Paar might not have either, but it would make more sense to call it the Paar Open or the Jack Paar Open. (I bet you thought the headline meant this blog was going to be about golf, didn’t you?) As I also said, I have heard other podcasters refer to it as the Maron Open. Or I thought I had.

In preparing this blog, I Googled “Maron Open”. I expected to find a Wikipedia page or an entry in the Urban Dictionary providing the definition I gave above. A definition stating it is a phrase popular among podcasters. But, I didn’t. The only reference was to The Greatest Generation podcast as one of their many inside jokes. It is something exclusive to them. And that’s different than a whole bunch of young podcasters thinking they just invented the wheel. My craw is unclogged.

Though, I swear I thought I heard it on other podcasts. I’ll keep my ear peeled.

Packing Peanuts!

Feel free to comment and share.

Images used under Fair Use.

Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.