Concrete Beach Blanket Bingo

My beach.

Floating on my back staring at the endless cloudless blue sky, a white hot sun warming the water of my backyard oasis, a breeze tousling palm fronds along the fence line, grooving to the surf rock channel on Pandora through a Sonos wireless speaker, hoisting floaters and jump shots and baby hooks at the poolside basketball hoop, guzzling California Honey blonde ale from Pizza Port in Carlsbad … reminders of summers past, stark realizations of current conditions and situations …

Your humble narrator.

Today, I took shot after shot with my father’s old Voit basketball with a fast leak at the Lifetime Poolside portable basket (the greatest second-hand virtual garage sale purchase ever made) with a feeling of melancholy … the shadow over the pool growing ever longer as the hour grew later, remembering the last several 4th of July pool basketball games with friends and family visiting from out of town and how the Coronavirus cancelled this year’s game … socially distancing and limiting family gatherings and all that. No blood no foul. I still have a scar on my left hand from last summer’s game. My right shoulder screaming in agony with every off balance shot because of three months solid of football throwing in the park down the street due to distance learning and the 13-year-old needing to meet a “gym” requirement. Thoroughly enjoyed the time, but my shoulder doth protest. Every time the ball left the pool and I had to retrieve it, I launched a shot from distance, with varying degrees of success. Every time the ball hit nothing but net, I called out “Squish,” because I was immersed in water for crying out loud.

Each time I launched myself across the length on a boogie board purchased after last year’s summer vacation in anticipation of an excursion this year, I thought of last summer and my birthday swim in the Pacific, and how I almost looked really cool body surfing until that one wave buried me in the surf and trying to get up all suave and still proclaiming, “I am the sea!” Ending the day with 15-year-old Scotch and thinking, “So, this is 50?” And now contemplating a glass of the 18-year-old Scotch that came with 51 …

The wave runner waterproof and water-optimized football harkens back to every beach … playing football on the beach is required … sometimes you have to go all “Johnny Utah.”

Grooving to some Dick Dale.

And then there’s the music … yeah man … digging the guitar riffs of Dick Dale and the harmonies of The Beach Boys … wondering why it took me 12 years to dial up “Surf Rock” (Yacht Rock is just 70s easy listening) on any number of streaming devices or music catalogues … playing air guitar with the pool net/pole to Miserlou, the greatest surf rock song ever recorded … splashing and jumping and diving to Jan and Dean, the Rivieras, The Ventures, the Surfaris … these tunes are where it’s at surrounded by palms while basking in the “warm California sun.” After a few tunes, you start to understand why Quentin Tarantino mines this stuff for his soundtracks.

For a few brief hours on any given hot, sunny afternoon (which there seems to be more and more of these days), I can shed the skin of the grey flannel suburbanite and escape to a beatnik paradise … never mind that it is a suburban terrarium I escape to … I’m Jack Kerouac at Ferlinghetti’s cabin under Bixby Bridge at Big Sur … I’m Daniel Craig as James Bond emerging from the warm Caribbean Sea in the Bahamas in Casino Royale … I’m Captan Jack Sparrow … it’s last summer body surfing in Carlsbad or introducing the dog to the ocean at Carmel by the Sea … I’m anybody I want to be and I’m anywhere I want to be … the only Corona has a lime in it … and instead of a typewriter or a notebook, it’s a MacBook with a killer WiFi connection.

Sometimes you have to go all “Johnny Utah.”

With all the craziness in the world … crazier than usual it seems … the racial unrest, the global pandemic, rampant unemployment (yours truly included), political division, climate change, and any number of issues I could mention, it’s somewhat ironic that a commercial for Corona said it best … find your own beach … but right now … keep your feet on the ground and find one a little closer to home.

My Surrogate Grandfather

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The house in Rochester, N.Y., where I lived from 1974 – 1984.

As many who know me already know, I am a fan of the novelist Stephen King. Leave it to the master of horror fiction to craft a tale that relates and reminds, resonates, and stirs echoes, if you will. In his latest work, a four-novella compendium titled If It Bleeds, the first tale is called Mr. Harrigan’s Phone. The story revolves around a young boy and his relationship with a wealthy, elderly neighbor. As I read more and more about how this acquaintance grew into a friendship, I was reminded of my own childhood experience with an elderly neighbor.

I never knew my grandparents. My father’s parents died before I was born. My mother’s folks … my Korean grandmother passed away in 1953-ish and my Korean grandfather, well, that’s a story for a different day. There’s more to the grandparent narrative, but, that too will have to keep for now.

When I was four years old, we moved into a duplex on Michigan Street in Rochester, N.Y. We lived in the upstairs flat of a house that had oil heat, a spacious backyard, and a two-car garage with a basketball hoop affixed to it. Chain link fences on either side separated the backyard from that of the two next door neighbors. Eventually, we moved to the downstairs flat.

I vaguely remember the neighbors whose house and yard were adjacent to the empty lot at the end of the street, but I remember the neighbor who lived on the other side. My memory is fuzzy on a lot of the details and you’d think the internet would be able to help me fill in the blanks, but you’d be wrong.

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Mr. McKinley’s house.

Mr. McKinley.

That’s all I know of the man’s name. That’s all I never needed to know I suppose. I think that’s how he signed the birthday cards I used to get from him. And I think his return address labels only displayed “McKinley” above the street address. See, fuzzy on the details.

If you have ever seen the movie Monster Squad, then you’d know about “Scary German Guy.” I often confuse this character with the experience the kids in The Sandlot have. Mr. McKinley and his yard were an amalgamation of the two. However, his yard wasn’t unkempt and full of drooling, growling, baseball eating terrors. It had a basketball puncturing menace instead.

I am no botanist and I couldn’t even begin to tell you of the flora that grew in Mr. McKinley’s backyard. I do remember mums, tulips, rhubarb (who the hell plants rhubarb?) and rose bushes. Those goddamn rose bushes. More on those in a moment. Mr. McKinley’s rows and rows of perennials and annuals made my parent’s fence line of geraniums and marigolds look like weeds.

As I mentioned, my garage had a basketball hoop and my driveway might as well have been the Boston Garden from roughly 1976 – 1984. From one-on-one to damn-near five-on-five half court, my driveway was the place to be for basketball. Sure, we could’ve gone to the park on Santee Street that was what, a quarter mile away? What fun was that?

A stray basketball is how I met Mr. McKinley. A carom off the rim and a bit too much air in the ball would sometimes result in a bounce over the fence into Mr. McKinley’s yard, and more often than not, a rose bush and her thorns would grab the rebound. I can’t tell you how many basketballs those thorns ruined.

If he was nowhere in sight, we sheepishly hopped the fence as fast as we could and retrieved the errant basketball as fast as we could, and hopped back over as fast as we could.

If he was out working in his garden, Mr. McKinley would reluctantly return the ball, usually without a word and usually with a scowl on his weathered reddish-pink face. He was approximately 6’2″, 200 pounds or so, his hair was shock white tinged with yellow. He always seemed to be wearing gray slacks, some sort of button-down shirt, and sturdy shoes.

He wasn’t German. He was Scottish. And he wasn’t wealthy. If he was, you’d never know it. I don’t remember when his demeanor toward me changed. Or why.

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A dreaded manual lawnmower.

Before long, Mr. McKinley was routinely inviting me over to help in his garden. I helped weed the flower beds and mow the lawn with one of those god-awful manual push mowers. You don’t know lawn care if you’ve never used one of those suckers. His garage always smelled of fresh-cut grass and motor oil. Did he have old license plates tacked up on the wall? I think he did.

Helping in the garden graduated to sitting in wicker chairs on his closed-in porch and drinking lemonade, and spending interminable Sunday afternoons watching golf on his console television in his austere old person’s living room. I still don’t like golf. I don’t remember what we talked about. If memory serves, much of the time we didn’t.

Mr. McKinley was originally from Scotland, lived alone, was never married, his house had three bedrooms (according to real estate web sites, it only has two), and he slept in them on a rotational basis, and then made all three beds at once. He explained this during the 50-cent tour. He had a sister I think. I think I remember meeting her once. Funny the little details you remember, and the big ones you don’t.

Once you got past the Scary Scottish Guy bluster, Mr. McKinley was a sweet old man who had taken a genuine interest in me. I came to view him as a surrogate grandfather.

In August 1984, we moved one block over to Curtis Street and I’m sad to say, I never saw Mr. McKinley again. At least not that I remember. I don’t know why. I rarely traveled the enormous distance of one block to Michigan Street except maybe while I was out for a bike ride. Most of my friends lived on Curlew Street which ran perpendicular between the two streets or I made new ones on my new street. Before long I was lost in high school endeavors and more provincial pursuits.

In 1987, I graduated high school and joined the Navy. Over the course of the next 10 years a lot of things died – my dog, a few cats, my first marriage … Mr. McKinley. I remember being sad, but I don’t remember when my parents told me he had passed. I’ve tried looking him up – real estate records, obituaries, etc., with no luck.

The houses on Michigan Street are still there, but the garage in my old backyard, the backdrop for many an epic basketball game, is long gone. My old neighborhood is long gone. Mr. McKinley and his wonderful botanical garden are long gone.

I try to live life with no regrets, or as few as possible. I regret I never went back to see Mr. McKinley and offer to help in the backyard or sit on the porch and drink lemonade, or watch a round of golf, or just say “hi.” I was a selfish kid, and in many respects I’m a selfish grown-up. As I read King’s story, I was stunned by what I remembered and what I didn’t, and I was shocked at how well it resonated.

People come into your life at certain times for certain reasons. Some are just passing by, some sit awhile. Mr. McKinley stepped into the breach when he saw an only child next door who needed a wise, older person besides his parents to guide him. I just wish I would have remembered the greatest lesson he ever taught me a lot sooner. Sometimes, it’s just about stopping by, sitting and talking (or just sitting), even if for just a little while. I wish I had remembered to go back and see him and I wish I knew why I never did.

Rest assured, I’ll never forget him.

The King of Fiction

EDUwYotU4AAtzCQAs a published author of horror fiction, it stands to reason that I would have influences. Truth be told, I have several in many different genres. And, as an avid reader, I have favorite authors. Due to numerous reasons and events, I feel compelled to write about one of them – Stephen King. Widely considered a “horror” writer, King is so much more than that. What I don’t think gets acknowledged enough is the creation, and the care and feeding of the King multiverse.

I believe that the first cinematic universe was created by Universal films in 1925 and it extended into the 1950s. From the Phantom of the Opera to the Creature fromthe Black Lagoon, Universal created a world of monsters – human and otherwise – with far-reaching influence. Universal used literature for some of its stories, most notably Dracula and Frankenstein, And, invariably, some of their movies were novelized.

51842368_2157286350984378_569776730923859968_nThe second such “multiverse” began soon after in the comic book world. DC Comics, and eventually Marvel, published interconnected tales and crossovers for decades. I am by no means an expert when it comes to comic books. I will not pretend to be able to explain. Marvel’s recent cinematic universe (MCU) caused DC to try to emulate it, and Universal even got into the fray with their failed Dark Universe and a reboot of their classic monster movies. What DC and Universal couldn’t replicate was the organic, viral nature of the MCU. The MCU started with Iron Man with Robert Downey, Jr., and spawned a total of 22 interconnected films filled with origin stories, crossovers and epic battles to save the Earth and mankind. Whether or not Marvel intended to create this multiverse in the manner in which it did, I have no idea. But what I do know is, planned or not, the MCU worked because of its organic nature. It never really appeared forced with the exception of a few of the films. Audiences were introduced to numerous characters and heroes, for better or worse, folks wouldn’t have sought out for themselves.

36916323_1844562398923443_4002267950542225408_nIn the early 1970s, a fiction writer from Maine began what I think is the most interconnected, intricate multiverse ever created in entertainment. These connections are not merely asides or passing references because many of the stories take place in the same geographic region. The world that Stephen King has created is truly remarkable and it all started with a bullied high school student with telekinetic abilities. Movie adaptations, comic books and TV mini-series round out the King multiverse. The man has said that he doesn’t plot his novels, but there has to be some level of planning that goes into the interconnectedness of everything he does. Whether it’s characters, locations, villains or just references – it sure looks like everything he has ever produced is tied together.

There are a couple of great diagrams and flowcharts you can find online that illustrate my point. I found them when I read the first story in the Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger. There was discussion about what the stories of the Dark Tower were tied to. Further investigation brought me to the larger charts.

King, now is his 70s, has written more than 60 novels, more than 20 novellas, and dozens of short stories. His books have sold more than 350,000,000 copies. From a sales standpoint, he is one of the most successful writers of all-time, up there with William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Danielle Steele, Sidney Sheldon, Dean Koontz, Jackie Collins and Nora Roberts.

IMG_0364Not everyone likes King’s writing and the film and TV adaptations are hit and miss. He has branched out into different genres and I think his writing is just as strong regardless of the subject matter. Again, there are those who view him as strictly as a “horror” writer. My only complaint is that sometimes, believe it or not, King doesn’t go far enough.

I wrote something when I finished IT. In that post I mentioned that I haven’t read all of King’s works. I listed the books that I have read. I am pleased to say I have made more progress in that endeavor. Consciously or unconsciously I have decided to at least read everyone of his novels. However, he keeps publishing short story collections and I think his short stories are fantastic.

I was first introduced to King as a kid with the movie adaptations of Carrie, ‘Salem’s Lot, The Shining and The Dead Zone. Creepshow was sandwiched in there. But I didn’t read anything of his until much later. Now I am trying to go back and read his early stuff. The funny thing is as I am trying to go back and read novels for movies I’ve seen, it’s difficult because I have too many preconceptions. I do enjoy seeing the differences between the words on the page and the scenes on the screen. I prefer to read the book first and then watch the film. I think the first thing of his that I read was the Night Shift collection of short stories.

I thought I would take a moment to update the list of King’s works that I’ve read so far knowing I still have a ways to go. You might be surprised to know that The Dark Half is my favorite.

35654820_1808645752515108_6635525069873348608_oIn no particular order:

‘Salem’s Lot
Night Shift
The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger
Pet Sematary
IT
The Dark Half
Needful Things
Gerald’s Game
Bag of Bones
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
Dreamcatcher
Full Dark, No Stars
Doctor Sleep
Joyland
Mr. Mercedes
Revival
Sleeping Beauties
The Outsider

IMG_0379I own the next three or four in the Dark Tower series, Carrie, Finders Keepers (sequel to Mr. Mercedes), The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, Black House (but I’ll have to read The Talisman first), Four Past Midnight and maybe a few others.

I’ve seen quite a few of King’s movie and TV adaptations, several without reading the book that spawned them. The quality is all over the board – even from first film to sequel. Carrie, The Dead Zone, The Shining, The Green Mile, The Shawshank Redemption, IT: Chapter One, The Outsider, the first Pet Sematary, 1408 and Creepshow are among the best. IT: Chapter Two, The Dark Tower, the new Pet Sematary and Maximum Overdrive are among the worst. Christine, Sleepwalkers, and Doctor Sleep are okay and worth a watch. There are plenty more. IT with Tim Curry as Pennywise and Salem’s Lot with David Soul are worth a re-visit.

You might be surprised to know that King isn’t my favorite author. That honor, if you can call it that, belongs to Dean Koontz. Unfortunately most of the movie adaptations of Koontz’s work have not been good. However, actor Corey Haim is probably the one person who has appeared in one of King’s and one of Koontz’s – Silver Bullet and Watchers respectively.

King has dabbled in fantasy, vampires, werewolves, ghosts, demonic clowns, rabid dogs, possessed cars, global pandemics, and all kinds of other baddies. What always seems to come through in his writings and films is that the human monster is the worst of all.

Stephen King isn’t for everyone, but I wanted to share why I enjoy his works and it does seem like the multiverse he has created – purposely or organically – is far beyond what any other writer or movie studio has concocted. Interested in his work but you really haven’t given him a try? There are many entry points to King’s multiverse.

I’ll try to consume what he has created, in no particular order. However, because of King, I have no desire to live in or even visit Maine because that’s where all the scary things are. He has been a tremendous influence on my reading and viewing choices, and certainly on my writing.

The Best Christmas Present in the History of Ever

e609ac07-0160-401e-acea-3deeb82d728e_1.0ab43e92084f38099b22eec8361cf2d6Before Mattel Electronics Football and Coleco Electronic Quarterback, before Madden Football (and numerous other football video games), there was a Tudor Games Electric Football. I got my first one when I was just seven years old. It ranks as the greatest Christmas present Santa ever placed under the Knaak family Christmas tree.

If you are not familiar, the game consists of a metal board painted to look like a football field. The board has a power cord and a switch. A typical electric football game comes with two teams – either painted National Football League teams, or blank paint-them-yourself-teams. Jersey number decals are also included, along with a scoreboard, goal posts, yard markers and foam footballs. Two “triple-threat” quarterbacks (haha) also come in the box. You get two sets of “bases” – either rookie bases that run straight (in theory) or Total Team Control (TTC) bases which feature a wheel that enables you to set players off in a desired direction or pattern (in theory). You also got an order form so you could send away for more teams and/or accessories.

220px-John_madden_footballMy first board was as generic as they come. No NFL branding, no college markings, just two blank teams – one yellow and one white – with associated jersey number decals (black and blue). My father and I were fond of assembling plastic model kits and there was always an abundance of enamel paints (Testors and Pactra) of all colors on hand. My father set to painting the figures. The white team ended up looking a lot like the Raiders (my team) in their road uniforms, and the yellow team, well, let’s just say they ended up yellow and two shades of blue.

I grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and by the time Christmas rolled around winter had pretty much set in. As an only child, cold winter nights got a bit boring. As anyone who grew up lower middle class in the 1970s can attest, we had one TV. I read comic books (and chapter books when I was old enough), played outside with my friends and watched TV with my parents for entertainment. Electric football changed everything.

220px-Coleco_Electronic_QuarterbackMy father couldn’t stand the game. I begged him to play. He would hem and haw and finally give in and then bail out halfway through the game because his players stubbornly refused to run in a straight line or as the ball carrier was headed for paydirt, he would inexplicably dart out of bounds short of the goal line. So, I learned to play by myself – “solitaire” games as they are called now. My friend Joey got a set within a year or two of me. He got the ABC Monday Night Football edition that came with the Dallas Cowboys and the San Francisco 49ers. I’d go over to his house to play – he usually won, he always won when we played games. I also used to take my game over to other friends’ houses to play.

Within two years, the power switch started to short out. My father, who was really good at fixing things, would get out his soldering iron, some solder and flux, and fix the switch. This happened more than once.

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Christmas 1977. You can see in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo, my first electric football game.

By this time, I had taken to ordering teams and accessories. When I was a kid, Cremora non-dairy coffee creamer came in tall glass jars. We used to keep our spare change, mostly pennies, in rinsed out Cremora jars. I would sit with the order form and roll pennies until I had enough for what I wanted + shipping and handling. The unpainted teams were always cheaper than the pre-painted NFL teams, so I would get blank squads that Dad and I could paint. I would give my dad the rolls of pennies and the completed order form. He would take everything to the bank, get a money order, and then mail off my order to Tudor Games in Brooklyn, N.Y. Four to six weeks later, a small brown padded envelope would arrive with my football dreams inside.

By late 1979, I had more than a few teams and I was playing the game regularly. On December 3, 1979, the Oakland Raiders were in New Orleans to take on the Saints on ABC’s Monday Night Football. I had the mind to play the game out myself with electric football. I had the Raiders and I had the Saints. While my father watched the game on our 19-inch Zenith television in the living room. I set the board up in the floor near an electrical outlet in the dining room. I plugged it in, got the teams out, performed the coin toss, set up for the opening kickoff, kicked off with the triple-threat quarterback, placed the foam football under the kick returners arm, and flipped the switch. Nothing. No telltale buzz. Not even the usual thunk of a closed circuit. Just a dead switch.

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My son has been indoctrinated in the ways of the buzz.

It was a school night. It would be a few years before I would get special dispensation to stay up late when the Raiders were on Monday Night Football. I knew my time was limited. I lost my mind. I was nine and I balled like a baby because my game was broken. My father, after much begging and pleading by your humble narrator, got out the soldering kit and fixed his only child’s game. I was able to stay up a little later and play. The Raiders beat the Saints that night in one of the greatest come-from-behind victories in their franchise history. It’s been my job to tell that story for the last 20 years.

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I won this game on a last-second touchdown pass. Shocking, I know.

Some years later, I finally got a new game for Christmas – the Super Bowl edition. The board was huge and the field was sunken in. Rather than buy labels for the scoreboard, I made my own copying team logotypes, coloring them in and cutting them out in the proper shape for the scoreboard. By this time, electric football had gone from just a game to a full-blown hobby. My dad and I spent hours on end painting teams, often more accurately than what you could buy from Tudor Games. I used my dad’s tape recorder and announced play-by-play for my solitaire games. My cat Siam would crawl up on my shoulder and watch the action.

I also had taken to getting out my dad’s old Remington typewriter and banging out rosters for each of my teams. I eventually had 22 of 28 (at the time). I made schedules and one year I played an eight-game season for the whole “league.” Marcus Allen would lead the Raiders to a Super Bowl title – funny how that worked. Art imitates life (even if the fix may or may not have been in).

images (2)Everyone I knew had the Mattel Electronic Football handheld game. I got the Tudor Games version – talk about brand loyalty. I had the Coleco Electronic Quarterback before that. Neither compared to electric football, but they did help with the long car rides on family vacations, until Dad told me to turn off the, “beep, beep, boobeep.”

I had been in the Navy four or five years and I had taken the game and my teams with me to Washington, D.C., the final duty station of my Navy career. As I was moving from one rental to another in Maryland in 1996, I left everything in the attic of the townhouse where I had been living. I had forgotten one of my most prized possessions.

Eventually, I put electric football away in the deep recesses of my mind. Over time I figured Tudor Games went out of business.

In 2001 (I think), my now wife and I were traveling back east from California. I happened to flip through the Sky Mall catalog and lo and behold, what should I spy with my little eye? A page full of ELECTRIC FOOTBALL! Tudor Games had been purchased by a company called Miggle Toys out of Chicago and the Sky Mall catalog had three sets featured.

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Me trying to use the Electric Football Challenge app as kickoff time approached.

Santa Claus brought me the ABC Monday Night Football edition with the lighted stadium! The game came with the Green Bay Packers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. I didn’t rightly care which teams were included. There was a newsletter in the box. There were leagues all across the country. There were tournaments and a Super Bowl of electric football. Who knew? On Christmas Day, I set it all up and the Packers and the Jaguars had it out in Living Room Stadium on the coffee table. It was 1977 and I was seven years old all over again.

And then I put it away. It went right in the closet. Don’t ask me why. I really don’t know. I didn’t get it out again for more than a decade. Three or four years ago, I dragged it out and taught my now 13-year-old how to play. It was still Jaguars vs. Packers, but it didn’t matter. Last year for Christmas I got him the Raiders in home and away uniforms. We recreated Super Bowl II, a couple of times. We just did again last night (the Packers won 21-13).

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Kitchen Stadium was the place to be last night.

The game is still maddening. The players don’t run in straight lines. They run out of bounds at the one-yard line just before they’re about to score, they run around in circles. The kickers are too powerful and you spend almost as much time scouring the floor for the football as you do playing the damn game. Passing is almost a joke. You need the patience of Buddha and the manual dexterity of Michelangelo to complete a pass. People have come up with all kinds of tricks and workarounds for the passing game.

Tudor Games bought their progeny back in 2012. Now there’s a website where you can order game boards customized for every team in the NFL. There’s even an Army/Navy version. You can get pre-painted teams, you can get blank teams, you can order two types of jersey numbers, players in true action poses, paints and decals, referees, cheerleaders, chain gangs, you name it. Tudor Games is very active on social media these days. There’s even an app that will do the (simulated) kicking and passing for you. I tried the app, it’s more frustrating than playing the game. I’ll stick to the old ways, and the “vintage” game board.

74495930_2594066463949360_2116868897775812608_nWhen my friend, colleague and neighbor, Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback Willie Brown, passed away recently, Tudor Games posted a photo of Brown’s iconic 75-yard interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XI in an electric football setting. I got choked up. It was one of the best tributes to “Old Man Willie” that I saw.

I’m 50 now. I can’t tell you what it means to be able to play electric football and share it 43 years after getting my first one. Kids I knew who had a set abandoned it within weeks or months after getting it. Not me. I had electric baseball too, but it didn’t have the exciting gameplay or the charm of electric football.

There’s something about setting up the players in formation, placing that little foam football under a ball carrier’s arm, flipping that switch, hearing the “thunk” of a completed circuit followed by that all too familiar “bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz,” plastic gridiron heroes skittering across that metal board heading for the end zone … “he’s at the 30, the 20, the 10, the five …”

“What are you doing?!?”

Dammit, out of bounds at the one.

My Favorite Christmas Songs

Earlier, I posted my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs as I made the argument for separating seasonal and Christmas songs. For numerous reasons, Baby It’s Cold Outside, which is not even a Christmas song, will not be on this list. As I mentioned in the previous entry, I am curious to know in what year these songs were written, recorded and released. Many of them are just flat out timeless.

I, again, enjoy the original definitive version of these songs, and I really don’t care for any “new” Christmas music. I make one exception.

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree

Brenda Lee recorded this song when she was all of 13 years old and it was released in 1958. I enjoy the rockabilly sound. One of the more popular Christmas tunes, it hit the Billboard charts more than once.

Silver Bells

When I was a kid, I loved the Bob Hope Christmas specials, mainly to see the Playboy (later Associated Press) college football team. I eventually learned about Hope and his efforts to entertain the troops. I also learned to appreciate Hope’s humor and his legacy. On every Christmas special, Hope would perform a duet of Silver Bells. The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans and released in 1950.

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

It may as well be a Christmas anthem. Upbeat and festive, this song, made famous by numerous singers, heralds the arrival of the Christmas season. I couldn’t have this list without something from Mr. Christmas himself, Andy Williams. Williams made Christmas his own cottage industry in Branson, Missouri. He too was known for television Christmas specials.

Mistletoe

This is my one exception. Colbie Caillat co-wrote this with Mikal Blue and Stacy Blue in 2007. I love this tune. I am a fan of Caillat’s music and this song has a story and a melancholy to it I really like.

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Another Christmas anthem that rings in the season, this song was written in 1951 by Meredith Wilson. Numerous artists including Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Johnny Mathis and more recently, Michael Bublé, have recorded versions of this classic. I’ll leave you with Bublé’s version. His Christmas album from a few years ago is a treat.

Santa Claus and His Old Lady

When I was a disc jockey with Armed Forces Radio, we would start the season with one Christmas song an hour and build up the frequency as December 25 approached. I discovered Cheech and Chong’s Santa Claus and His Old Lady, played it for the first time, and fell out of my chair. More spoken word performance than song, it’s hilarious.

Christmas in Hollis

Okay, I lied. There’s another newer, original song I like. I grew up on hip hop music and one of the first groups of which I became a fan was Run DMC. And yes, they did a Christmas song. It has an infectious hook and a great beat. It’s different and a sign of the times, 1987 to be exact, the year I graduated high school.

Little Drummer Boy

I am not a big fan of this song, but Bing Crosby and David Bowie combined for an unexpected version of the song on Crosby’s last Christmas special, and I just had to include it. Katherine Kennicott Davis wrote the tune in 1940 and it was first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951.

Carol of the Bells

The song that everyone sets their computerized outdoor light display to, and the only song of its kind that I like.  Written by Mykola Leontovych and Peter J. Wilhousky in 1914, I prefer Trans Siberian Orchestra’s version.

The Christmas Song

Written in 1945 by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé (The Velvet Fog), this one has become an endearing Christmas classic. Covered by countless artists, this song evokes images of warm Christmas wishes. I prefer Nat King Cole’s version.

I’ll Be Home for Christmas

I spent 10 years in the United States Navy and I spent many a Christmas away from home. I also traveled quite a bot for the profession I have been in for the last 20 years, and missed a few Christmases working. This song hits home for numerous reasons. Written by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent in 1943, it was recorded by Bing Crosby the same year. I like Frank Sinatra’s version.

A Holly Jolly Christmas

I just had to have something from Burl Ives. Written by Johnny Marks in 1962 and included as part of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Ives recorded the definitive version. This is one of the more popular songs for current artists to cover.

White Christmas

I’ll end this list with what has become my favorite Christmas song. I don’t like musicals, can’t stand them, but a few years ago I finally gave White Christmas a shot and I was hooked. The song, written by Irving Berlin, debuts in 1942’s Holiday Inn, but it became a staple when Bing Crosby’s hit musical of the same name took off in 1954. This is one of the most popular songs of all-time. Here is Bing Crosby with Frank Sinatra.

 

My Favorite Seasonal Songs

Something struck me as odd this year. I love Christmas music and I prefer the traditional, definitive versions … and in many cases that means the original. I also started to wonder when some of these songs were written because of the myriad musical styles represented in the catalogue of these songs. But, during the evening commute recently, I was listening to Holiday Traditions on SiriusXM and I realized that many songs we identify as “Christmas” songs are actually seasonal and have nothing to do with Christmas. I can be a little dense at times. That doesn’t mean I like them any less, they just deserve their own lists.  So, I decided to split them up.

Here are my favorite fall/winter seasonal songs.

Winter Wonderland

Winter Wonderland, written in 1934 by Felix Bernard and lyricist Richard Bernhard Smith, has been recorded by countless artists over the years. It’s a fun, upbeat song that we all know and can sing by heart. I prefer Johnny Mathis performing this one.

My Favorite Things

I am not sure how this song, most famously performed by Tony Bennett, got to be associated with Christmas. Perhaps the visuals and references place it around Christmastime. It originated in 1961 with Julie Andrews on The Garry Moore Show’s Christmas special. Andrews performed it in The Sound of Music, both on Broadway and in the film. Written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, this has become a seasonal jazz favorite.

Happy Holiday

This is another song that is commonly associated with Christmas although it was written for a movie encompasses all holidays. Written by Irving Berlin and performed by Bing Crosby and Martha Mears in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and yes, the hotel chain was named after the film), this version references the holiday-themed hotel Crosby’s character opens.

Sleigh Ride

This is another song that I really don’t know how it became associated with Christmas. It is my favorite fall/winter seasonal song and Johnny Mathis’ version is the one I prefer. This great tune has been recorded by countless artists as well. Written by Leroy Anderson in 1948, Sleigh Ride is considered an orchestra standard and it was first recorded by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in 1949. Mitchell Parish added the lyrics in 1950.

Jingle Bells

There’s a theme here. I have no earthly idea how this song became associated with Christmas. It just might be the oldest seasonal song that surfaces during the holidays. Written by James Lord Pierpont in 1857, zipping along in a one-horse open sleigh might have been the preferred method of transportation during the winter months when the song was composed, although it was supposed to be a Thanksgiving song. Numerous variations of the lyrics have been recorded over the years, including what would be considered politically incorrect (by today’s standards) references and accents regarding winter in Mexico most notably recorded by the Glenn Miller orchestra. Let’s go with Ol’ Blue Eyes.

Marshmallow World

This song was practically tossed on the scrap head of forgotten seasonal songs until SiriusXM resurrected it, and when it was recently used in a commercial. Perhaps the best version was recorded by Dean Martin. Written in 1949 by Carl Sigman and Peter DeRose, the song celebrates playing in the snow. I like the version with Martin and his pal, Frank Sinatra. “Hey, how about an eggnog … ?”

Let it Snow

Written by Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne in 1945, this song doesn’t exactly celebrate snow, rather extols the virtues of staying in and getting cozy. Since this list is pretty male heavy, let’s go with the great Doris Day for this one.

Coming soon – my list of my favorite actual Christmas songs. Thanks for indulging me. Happy holidays, everyone!

 

Childhood Thanksgiving Memories

Norman-Rockwell_Freedom-from-Want

I wrote this a few years ago and I find it be pretty comprehensive. I can’t think of any specific one-off Thanksgiving memories so I thought I would re-post this piece.

I get nostalgic this time of year. I may live in Northern California where we barely have seasons – I think we may have two or three – but I grew up in western New York where we had all four in abundance. This year, 2017, seemed to feature the never-ending summer. Fall didn’t arrive until damn near Halloween.

Christmas creep, as much as I despise it and as bad at it has gotten, has me thinking about how things used to be.

I grew up thinking my Aunt Carole’s (my father’s only sibling) house was out in the country. The drive out to Scottsville, N.Y., seemed to take forever. It was picturesque as we drove past the horse farms that lined the road along the scenic route. For some reason I always took note of the rambling white fences that paralleled the road. As mom, dad and I approached the turn off, empty fields and barns dotted the landscape. The topography, architecture and open spaces cried country.

The house had once belonged to my grandparents, whom I never knew. My father’s father died in 1959, and my grandmother passed away in 1966, three years before I was born. My grandmother bequeathed the house to her two children – my father and his sister. I don’t know the whole story but Dad didn’t want to live in the house, my aunt ended up with it and lived in it with her husband, my Uncle Freddy, for the better part of her life.

The driveway wasn’t paved. A basketball hoop that hadn’t felt the touch of a net in years was loosely attached to the front of the rickety detached garage. There was well water. Eventually a pack of the meanest shepherd mix dogs I’ve ever known took up residence in that garage and adjacent fenced-in yard. You had to walk up a small embankment to get to the well-worn path to the house. I say path because the sidewalk that led away from the house went straight out to the road and had nothing for you if you were coming from the driveway.

This was my Aunt's house. It was built in 1906 and belonged to my grandparents. I spent many Thanksgivings in this house.
This was my Aunt’s house. It was built in 1906 and belonged to my grandparents. I spent many Thanksgivings in this house. This photo is a Google Maps street view from 2012.

My parents and I would carry our dishes to pass, mostly my parents carried them, and I was a lazy ass who couldn’t be bothered with such things as a child. Aside from pies, the only dish I remember Mom making was a sweet dressing made with prunes and apples. Mom made a great pie crust, however, her apple pie filling left a little to be desired. Apple pie filling isn’t supposed to be gray, is it? Don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, it just could have been better. My aunt made a great apple pie filling that looked the part, golden honey. One year Mom and Aunt Carole combined forces…oh, man, was that a pie. I am partial to apple pie. I hate pumpkin pie, absolutely hate it.

More on pie later.

We had a rather old-fashioned, misogynistic (almost chauvinistic) kind of Thanksgiving, my four first cousins and I. My aunt and her three daughters – Tammy, Debbie and Shari – toiled in the kitchen with a little help from Mom, as we menfolk settled in for a day of feasting and football watching. Aunt Carole would tend to the bird, which I am sure routinely tipped the scales at 22 pounds or more. I don’t remember much of what the oldest, David, did while all of this was going on, I just remember what it was like when he was of working age. School friends, later boyfriends and girlfriends, then husbands/wives, and kids would join us for dinner.

My father, my uncle, my cousin David, my mom and I (and later other invited guests), eagerly awaited the feasting while watching the Detroit Lions in their annual Thanksgiving match-up. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade had already been watched at one house or the other. For whatever reason, I always seemed to root for the Lions no matter who they played. I still do.

I was a finicky eater as a child. And to this day, there are certain Thanksgiving staples I don’t like. I won’t touch cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes (yams) or squash. Just give me turkey, mashed potatoes with butter, salad, soft fresh rolls, and mom’s sweet dressing and I was a happy boy. David would pile his plate a mile high at least three times. The army of cats would benefit from the leftovers.

Then there was pie. Apple. Mincemeat. Lemon meringue. Key Lime. Pumpkin. Oh boy, was there pie.

Eventually, we’d settle down and watch the Lions, and maybe we’d catch some of the Dallas Cowboys game, have more turkey or pie. I never knew the Cowboys game was much of a Thanksgiving tradition – I would learn later that this was a mistaken belief. My cousins and I sometimes ended the day with board games. If I was feeling adventurous, and the ground was covered with snow, I’d go sledding in the dark and careen through the scrub brush.

We’d have as few as eight or nine, and as many damn near 20 for Thanksgiving dinner. As I got older, many of us took up smoking as a habit and we’d crowd on the enclosed porch (healthy) if it was too cold to go smoke outside.

The house itself had a distinct aroma, it was charming in some parts, dilapidated in others. It always seemed to be organized chaos. It certainly had something after the wood-burning stove was installed in the living room. Sometimes it felt like a sauna, even in the dead of winter. If it got cold, my uncle would just throw another piece of wood in.

All four parents are gone now. All that’s left of those Thanksgivings are memories. We didn’t take many photos of those events, despite my father’s shutterbug tendencies. I couldn’t find any pictures of Thanksgivings past. There could be slides somewhere, I’m still a little bit of a lazy ass. Maybe my cousins have some.

We weren’t rich people – far from it. We certainly were not the embodiment of the Norman Rockwell painting. But we did it this way every year with very few exceptions. I was in the Navy for 10 years, so I missed some. But when I did get back and attend, it was like I had never left.

Say what you want about what we did or how we did it. These were our Thanksgivings. We enjoyed them and each other.

The Expressway exit off 390 South.
The Expressway exit off 390 South.

I reset the trip-o-meter on a drive from my parents’ last house to my aunt’s house once. I had to know. I had driven out there a few times on my own as an adult. I still thought of it as the “country.” As I got older, it became less and less rural and more and more suburban. To me, that’s the saddest part aside from the dissolution of the get-togethers altogether.

Nine miles. An online driving directions site says just over 13. Not quite over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house.

You know what? I’ll always remember it as a drive in the country to Thanksgiving at my aunt’s house. Those fences and those horse farms will always line Route 31, that barn a few hundred yards from the corner of Scottsville Road and Chili Wheatland Town Line Road, will always signal the turn.

These were our Thanksgivings and I wouldn’t have traded them for anything.

I miss them.

Drum Roll Please … The Top Three

The Countdown of My 100 Favorite Horror Films comes to a close with the Top 3. Thank you for reading. I hope you found something worth watching on this list.

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1933

This is my favorite movie of all-time. That may surprise a lot of people considering my affection for Gothic horror. A film crew goes to a remote island to film what has never been seen by any “white man.” Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) is the intrepid filmmaker who drags destitute Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) along on a a voyage helmed by Captain Englehorn and first mate Jack Driscoll (Bruce Cabot). Driscoll falls for Ann along the way.

After landing on Skull Island, Ann is kidnapped by the natives and offered as a sacrifice to Kong, a giant gorilla. The crew encounters all kinds of prehistoric creatures as they try to rescue Ann. Eventually, Driscoll rescues her and Denham hatches a plan to take Kong to New York, with predictable disastrous results.

This film, a pipe dream by Merian C. Cooper, pioneered so many movie making techniques and effects. Willis O’Brien established himself as one of the great effects people in Hollywood, and I have a special place in my heart for sound effects man Murray Spivack.

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1978

I don’t like slasher films but I like this one. This is the quintessential Halloween scary movie. Jamie Lee Curtis carries on her mother’s scream queen legacy and Donald Pleasence continues his run as a horror movie veteran. P.J. Soles is also in this one. Six-year-old Michael Myers murders his sister and comes back 15 years later on Halloween after escaping from the mental asylum that has kept him. You never know what drives his murderous rage.

It’s suspenseful, there isn’t a lot of gore, the soundtrack pulses throughout the movie.

There are some fascinating tidbits. Myers iconic mask is actually a William Shatner mask with the eye holes enlarged. If you watch one slasher movie … watch this one.

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1973

Ellen Burnstyn, Max von Sydow and of course, Linda Blair, star in what I believe is the scariest movie ever made. I know what’s coming, I’ve seen this film numerous times, I know what’s coming and I still jump. It gets me every time … every freaking time. This is the movie that define demonic possession movies for all time. Nothing comes close.

I grew up sort of Catholic and this movie speaks to me on so many levels. Watch the extended version with the “crab walk” scene if you can.  Watching The Exorcist is my Halloween tradition and I will be watching the Director’s Cut tonight.

Happy Halloween everyone.

And remember…

There are such things.

Catching Up as the Countdown of My 100 Favorite Movies Winds Down

My humble apologies for the past few days. Life and work got in the way. We are really getting down to it now. I’ve got a 10-pack of great films to get us back on track for tomorrow night’s final three.

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1976

Gregory Peck and Lee Remick star as the cursed couple who bring home the antichrist in the form of little Damien. Born under auspicious circumstances and switched at birth, Damien makes life hell for everyone around him as minions before to flock to him to support and aid him.

Peck’s character, the U.S. ambassador to England, finally starts to believe the clues and evidence and finally decides to do something about it. Peck ignores the warnings of a doomed priest before teaming up with a photographer who has a vested interest.

The remake with Liev Schreiber and Julia Stiles was not good. The original is a classic. This film spawned a franchise of films that were uneven at best.

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1982

John Carpenter directed what some consider the greatest horror movie ever made. Although I don’t agree with that sentiment, it is pretty damn good. Based on the short story, Who Goes There, with serious H.P. Lovecraft influence and overtones, The Thing touches on numerous themes common in better horror films – isolation, fear of the unknown, mistrust and more.

The crew of an isolated Antarctic research station is plagued by The Thing from Another World (see what I did there) that can imitate any lifeform. Kurt Russell stars a helicopter pilot MacReady, the only member of the team that seems to have any common sense. One by one, members of the team are assimilated in spectacular practical effects fashion.

An all-star cast including, Wilford Brimley, Keith David, T.K. Carter, Richard Dysart, Richard Masur, Donald Moffat, et al, do battle with the otherworldly oogedy-boogedy.

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Evil Dead, Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn, Army of Darkness, and Evil Dead
1981, 1987, 1992, 2013

One of the reasons my best friend is just that is because of our love for the Evil Dead franchise. It is a lifelong bond that started while we went to midnight movies to watch films like Re-Animator, From Beyond, Heavy Metal, Rocky Horror Picture Show, and of course, Evil Dead.

Bruce Campbell, who I saw in person at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco as he introduced a screening of Evil Dead 2, created an iconic character known simply as “Ash.” Campbell’s lifelong friend Sam Raimi helmed what started as low budget “cabin in the woods” gore fests and created a sub-genre in the process. The films also led to the Ash vs Evil Dead television series on Starz.

Army of Darkness plays more as a horror comedy, even though the first two movies could be considered the same. You can take almost anything you want from these movies, but I will say this … if you are a horror movie fan, then you are a fan of the Evil Dead.

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1979

Sigourney Weaver, Tom Skerritt, Veronica Cartwright, Yaphet Kotto, Ian Holm, Harry Dean Stanton, and of course John Hurt, star in this sci-fi horror film. This is the first horror film that got my attention with it’s marketing campaign. “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream.”

Ridley Scott’s claustrophobic sets aboard the Nostromo and in the derelict alien ship on LV-426 really add to the film. The story, the acting, all superb. It spawned an entire universe and led to a mash-up with the Predator franchise. Although there are a few good follow-ups, especially Aliens (more action adventure than horror), this is the film that started it all and it still plays today.

Some might argue that science fiction is not horror. Well, in this case they’d be wrong. This is one of my favorite films of all-time. The franchise has gone off the rails, but this movie still plays and it always will.

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1960

Alfred Hitchcock’s best if you ask me. Anthony Perkins is brilliant as Norman Bates. Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis’ mom, stars and meets her end in one of the most iconic scenes ever filmed in any genre.

Hitchcock would have you believe that Bates’ mother is running amok at the Bates Motel. Wonderful acting, fabulous sound, atmospheric sets and one helluva twist make for one of of the greatest movies ever made.

The high-pitched violin in the shower scene has become the stuff of legend. Hitchcock weaves a web of intrigue and suspense and then pulls the rug out from under you. He breaks the conventions of traditional storytelling.

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1975

This is another one you can’t tell me isn’t a horror movie. Steven Spielberg directed this tale of an extra large, rogue, great white shark that feasts on the summer crowd in the friendly island town of Amity.

Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw star. Shaw’s performance as Quint is wonderful and there are so many quotable lines. The mechanical shark didn’t work half the time during filming, which made for a more suspenseful film, aided of course by John Williams’ fantastic score. I struggled with labeling this a horror film until I watched it again. I tend to watch it every time it comes on TV.

Yup, horror film. I first saw it at the drive-in movies (remember those?). The Daily Jaws (@thedailyjaws) twitter feed is epic. The last two years they have live tweeted the week of the 4th of July as if the events of the film were happening in real time.

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1941

Lon Chaney, Jr., plays Larry Talbot and Claude Rains plays his father, Sir John Talbot. The prodigal son returns to England after the death of his brother. Larry tries to woo a local shopkeeper, who happens to be engaged to another. During a night at a traveling gypsy carnival, Larry is bitten by a werewolf, played by Bela Lugosi in human form.

Larry turns into a werewolf during the next full moon and the rest is, as they say, movie history. Maria Ouspenskaya plays Maleva, the gypsy woman, Bela’s mother, who tries to help Larry. Ralph Bellamy also stars.

Tod Browning of Dracula fame directs Curt Siomak’s screenplay. Jack Pierce’s make-up effects and the transformation scenes are spectacular. There are several sequels and the best thing about them is the consistency of Chaney as Larry Talbot throughout the franchise.

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1931

Colin Clive and Boris Karloff headline the film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s epic tale of science gone wrong. The monster is brought to life and Karloff brings it to LIFE in the role Bela Lugosi turned down. As much as horror story as it is the first true science fiction tale, Frankenstein explores many themes.

Universal’s genius James Whale directed this picture that enabled Karloff and Jack Pierce to start a franchise. Karloff is brilliant as the monster, Clive is masterful as the tortured mad scientist, and Dwight Frye is … well … Dwight Frye.

The films, starting this one, have always focused on the creation of the monster, which the novel did not. However, Whale makes Francis Edwards Faragoh’s screenplay work. The set pieces and make-up are iconic. When you think of Frankenstein’s monster (unfortunately mistakenly referred to as Frankenstein in most cases now), you think of Karloff and you think of Pierce’s make-up.

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1935

Oh what a sequel this is. I think this is the best film in the entire Universal Horror canon. Elsa Lanchester plays the bride brilliantly in The Bride of Frankenstein, the long-awaited sequel. Interestingly enough, the “Bride” is the only Universal monster that does not commit a murder.

The prologue depicts conversations that led Mary Shelley to write her seminal novel, the vacation with Percy, and Lord Byron. Dr. John Polidori is left out of this scene. Whale is brilliant yet again as Frankenstein is extorted into creating a mate for his original creation with the help of the nefarious Dr. Pretorius.

I can’t even begin to describe what makes this movie so good – from the score to the symbolism to the set pieces, you just need to watch it. Screen it back-to-back with the first movie for a complete story arc.

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1931

Bela Lugosi defined the screen vampire for decades to come as he took his stage performance to the movie house. Parodied, lampooned, copied, imitated, and above all, revered, Lugosi’s performance is iconic and defined the genre. Hell, it created the genre. This is one of my favorite films of all time, not just horror. Most people today wouldn’t find it scary or frightening, but I’m sure moviegoers of 1931 sure did.

Based on Hamilton Deane’s theater production rather than the novel, the movie strays from the source material in many ways. Carl Laemmle, Jr., the son of the head of Universal, was allowed to make horror films for the studio but wasn’t given much a budget, so the play was adapted rather than Bram Stoker’s novel.

Regardless, Bela Lugosi, who they didn’t want initially (Lon Chaney, Sr., was to play the part but died before filming began), set the bar for all who followed. It’s slow-paced, some say the Spanish version is better (I’ve watched it, meh), is minimalist in many instances, tells rather than shows in some instances, but, given my affinity for vampires, I love the film.