Brush with greatness · pop culture

That time I met (the real) Batman

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in the late 1980s, the big draw for the World of Wheels show in Springfield, IL was the “The Original Batmobile” along with, “TVs Batman, Adam West.”

The crowds weren’t exactly breaking down the doors to see the show or Adam West when I stopped by with my tape recorder for a radio interview. Yet West could not have been nicer or more accommodating when we spoke during his break.

He was wearing “the suit,” with a flight jacket draped over his shoulders. The Batman cowl was pulled back and he was wearing aviator glasses.

The fact I knew some of his non-Batman work (like this, which he was proud of, and this, which he was less proud of) helped the conversation flow.

The elephant in the Springfield convention center that day was how absurd it was for a grown man to be wearing a Batman costume. West didn’t complain about it. His attitude was, “it’s all show business.”

Besides, even in his late 50s, the Batman costume looked good on him.

We talked about then in-production new (Tim Burton) Batman movie. I was incredulous to learn no one had spoken to him about a cameo. Without irony, I blurted, “But you’re Batman.”

He agreed.

West told me many people he’d spoken to said they would be boycotting the movie because he had been treated so shabbily.

If those folks boycotted the movie, which starred Michael Keaton as the Coweled Crusader, most people did not. It was a huge hit.

In my interview, and in every interview I ever heard/read with him, Adam West came across as a very nice, self aware man with a great sense of humor. I wish I still had the tape. I wish I had taken a picture.

For me, he’ll always be Batman.  And if that wasn’t enough (it was for me), he also was Ty Lookwell.

If you’ve never seen the unsold tv pilot, LOOKWELL (created by Conan O’Brian and Robert Smigel), WATCH IT NOW:

If you don’t think LOCKWELL is one of the funniest things ever made for TV, you and I will never be friends.

Adam West died one year ago. I’m glad I was able to spend a few minutes with him and tell one of my childhood heroes how much he’d meant to me.

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McBarronBlog Bonus

Adam West wore the Batman costume in many unusual settings, like this British Public Service Announcement for pedestrian safety.

From WIRED: Adam West – Batman Forever

 

pop culture

The Skipper, Mary Ann and Del Shannon

In the summer of 1989, my brother John and I went on a road trip to watch the Cubs. But the most memorable moments had nothing to do with baseball..

The Cubs package tour took us to the West Coast in July, 1989. We saw games in San Diego and Los Angeles with a group of senior citizens but the best part of the trip occurred as we prepared to fly home to Chicago.

In the LAX waiting area, we saw Alan Hale Jr., aka “The Skipper” from Gilligan’s Island. We knew it was him because he was wearing his trademark captain’s hat and carrying a small suitcase on which “Alan Hale Jr.” was written in large letters. He and his former Gilligan’s Island co-star Dawn Wells (aka “Mary Ann”) were flying to Chicago for a “three hour cruise” radio station promotion.

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I will go to my grave with some regrets, and while failing to ask The Skipper to hit me with his hat is not in the top 100, it’s on the list.

After that initial excitement, I was casually reading the newspaper when my brother nudged me and remarked, “Hey, that guy looks like Del Shannon.”

Having seen Shannon perform recently in an oldies show, I immediately realized THAT REALLY IS DEL SHANNON!

This was a big deal, as we’d been fans of the singer-songwriter since became famous in the early 1960s with hits like Runaway, Keep Searchin and Handy Man.

Being fans, we rushed at him, which seemed to freak him out. After all, it had been decades since Del Shannon was a hit-making pop star.

He relaxed a little when I showed him my cassette of his most recent album.

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Shannon, who was also flying to Chicago, briefly chatted with us. I recall asking about a rumor he might replace the recently deceased Roy Orbison in the Traveling Wilburys. He said no one had talked to him about it, but it seemed as though he’d like to be asked.

After a few minutes we wished him well and assumed our Del Shannon story was over.

But…

I had forgotten to ask for an autograph. In the air, I summoned up the nerve and the most amazing thing happened: Del asked if I wanted to hear what he was working on!

He handed me a cassette and I rushed back to the seat so John and I could listen.

On the tape were tracks from the album he was recording with producer Jeff Lynne (ELO, Tom Petty, Traveling Wilburys). Some tracks were finished and fully produced while others were works in progress. These had only guitar and voice. Other instruments would later be added.

We thought the finished tracks somewhat over-produced. But the unfinished tracks, with Del’s still-amazing voice as the sole focus, were thrilling.

When we returned the tape, we told him we loved the unproduced tracks and suggested  he release them as they were.

This was before it became a thing for singers to issue stripped-down “unplugged” recordings and Del was incredulous. “There are no drums,” he said.

“Your voice is what people want to hear,” we insisted.

After his initial success in the early 60s, Del found hits hard to come by. Though he only had one top 40 in the last decade of his life (Sea of Love hit #33 in 1981) he never stopped performing. He was always appreciated by his contemporaries and rockers who care about musical roots.

He influenced people like Tom Petty,  who name-checks Del on Runnin’ Down a Dream and who produced Drop Down and Get Me, the last Shannon album released in Del’s lifetime.

Del thanked us for the feedback, but clearly didn’t agree. He wanted hits and believed Lynne, the hottest producer in pop music, was his ticket back to prominence.

It was not to be.

On February 8, 1990, Del Shannon, who’d been fighting depression and other issues for decades, took his life.

Lynne finished the album and Rock On was released in 1991. Despite decent reviews, it was not a big hit.

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Del Shannon was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999. He’s cited as a link between Elvis and the Beatles.

It’s not always wise to meet your idols, but we were thrilled for the chance to tell Del Shannon, born December 30, 1934, how much he meant to us and how much we loved his music.

Happy birthday, Del. Rock On!

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Movies · pop culture

Holiday Inn reservations

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Every Christmas season I make it a point to revisit certain movies and TV shows I consider essential parts of the Christmas experience: A Christmas Carol (Alastair Sim version), Elf, Christmas With the Letterman’s and a few others.

But, none of these gives me more enjoyment than the 1942 classic, Holiday Inn, which I first saw as a boy.

The plot of Holiday Inn was merely an excuse on which to hang 14 Berlin songs. Crosby, Astaire, and Virginia Dale are a musical act, which breaks up when Crosby decides to retire to a farm. But Crosby quickly grows bored and decides to turn his farm into an inn and nightclub, which will be open only on national holidays. He then teams with a new partner, played by Marjorie Reynolds. Suddenly, Astaire, jilted by Dale, pays a visit, and the two men’s musical and romantic rivalry starts up again.

Why do I love Holiday Inn? It has Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire at their singing and dancing best, along with songs by Irving Berlin. Each song is related to an American holiday including Happy HolidaysEaster Parade and, most importantly, White Christmas.

As holiday entertainment it’s nearly perfect.

Nearly…

There is this one song about Abraham Lincoln’s birthday…

That’s why we celebrate
This blessed February date
Abraham, Abraham

When black folks lived in slavery
Who was it set the darkie free?
Abraham, Abraham

If the lyrics weren’t bad enough (and they are), Abraham is performed by Crosby and co-star Marjorie Reynolds in blackface.

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Whites in blackface was a tradition of “Minstrel Shows,” a popular form of 19th century entertainment still considered acceptable as nostalgia well into the 20th century.

There is plenty available online about the history of minstrelsy. I’ve read a lot on the subject and thought about it. Despite that, I just can’t answer, “Why?”

Why blackface?

I don’t get it. I don’t get why blackface was, a not-so-long time ago, so popular.

It boggles the mind.

One can only agree with this assessment:

In short, early minstrel music and dance was not true black culture; it was a white reaction to it.[117] This was the first large-scale appropriation and commercial exploitation of black culture by American whites.[118]

By the mid-1950s, blackface was no longer considered acceptable by mainstream American audiences (though it remained a staple of British TV into the 1970s), but Irving Berlin was more popular than ever. So, Hollywood decided to remake Holiday Inn in 1954, in color and without blackface. The result was the much more famous and popular White Christmas, starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye.

While I realize White Christmas is many people’s favorite vehicle for the Berlin songs, I think the story is inferior and I know Danny Kaye is no Fred Astaire.

What to do?

You can see White Christmas on the big screen, at noon on Saturday, December 16, at the Catlow Theater in Barrington.

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Or,

If you want to stick with the original version, use the fast forward button on your DVR or DVD player to skip over Abraham. Should you decide to watch the entire film with the family, use the opportunity (during or after) to discuss why this scene is in the film and why it is racist and demeaning to African Americans. Here’s a thought-provoking essay on blackfaceAnd another.

Should Holiday Inn, as a whole, be trashed? I don’t think so.

Abraham is an embarrassment, but Holiday Inn is an excellent 1940s musical with great songs and terrific work from Astaire. Skipping Abraham will not diminish your enjoyment of this film. It certainly hasn’t diminished mine.

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McBarronBlog Bonus

  • Spike Lee’s angry satire Bamboozled makes an irrefutable case that the repeated use of racist/demeaning images, especially blackface, corrupts public attitudes toward minorities. The film was was underrated when it was released. Look for it.