Pages

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Downtown

I don't know how many of you remember the old Petulia Clark song "Downtown." I remember hearing on the radio constantly when I was about three or four. There was a time when the downtown districts of towns were their hearts. They were where everything seemed to go on and where the bulk of the businesses were located. It seems to me that at some point in the Seventies (earlier for some towns), downtown districts went into decline. Shops closed and there weren't the variety of businesses that there once were downtown. I think that has changed for some cities, although I can think plenty, particularly small towns, whose downtown districts have never recovered.



Indeed, downtown Huntsville is a far cry from what it once was. Indeed, before I was born we not only had many businesses downtown, but our downtown was historic. It was in downtown Huntsville that the first Westlake Hardware store was opened. For those of you don't know, the Westlake Hardware chain was one of the cornerstones of the Ace Hardware chain. Downtown Huntsville also had a movie theatre, the Roxy, which closed several years before I was born. Huntsville's downtown suffered a blow even before I was born when part of it was cleared to make way for the new bank and the new post office. Still, there were plenty of businesses there when I was young. There was Westlake Hardware, Dave's TV, the drugstore, two grocery stores (Summers and Temple Stevens), and a cafe. Over the years all of these businesses closed. The drugstore and Summers burned. I guess the others just could not make a go of it. The recessions of the Seventies and Eighties took their toll.



Of course, neighbouring Moberly didn't fare much better. At one time downtown Moberly boasted two department stores (J. C. Penney and Montgomery Ward), a Krogers grocery store, two dime stores (Woolworth and Ben Franklin), a Coast to Coast store (a midwestern home and garden chain), and several clothing stores. J. C. Penney, Woolworth, Coast to Coast, and Ben Franklin are all gone now. Even the movie theatres aren't downtown any longer.



I am not quite sure why downtown districts started drying up. I know many of laid the blame at such discount store chains as WalMart, Kmart, and Costco, but personally I am not sure that I buy that. These chains arose in the Sixties and it seems to me that downtown districts really didn't start going downhill until the Seventies and Eighties. I think part of it may have been the phenomenon of the "strip," the length of highway that either runs through or beside many towns. In Moberly many businesses moved out to Business Highway 63, aka Morley Street. Even the theatres are located there now (they built the new Five and Drive beside the Drive In). I think another part could have been the simply the economy of the Seventies and Eighties. It doesn't seem to me coincidence that we went through recessions during these times when so many businesses were closing their doors. In the case of Moberly, I think its downtown was hurt simply by the railrood pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere. Besides the Thomas Hill Power Plant and farming, the railroad was Randolph County's chief industry. I have no doubt when it left it seriously hurt our economy.



At any rate, it does seem to me that downtown districts have recovered to some degree. In Huntsville there is Thelma's Gift Corral, Cindy's Craft Shop, and Cleeton's Flea Market, even though we have yet to get another drug store or downtown grocer. Moberly has a Dollar General downtown and several clothing stores. Of course, Huntsville and Moberly are both small towns. I think it has largely been the downtown districts of larger cities that have really recovered. I remember that Columbia's downtown district was in sharp decline in the Eighties. Now virtually it is filled with an array of specialty shops, everything from Best of the West (specialising in art and jewellery from the American Southwest) to the Danger Room (the local comic book and gaming shop) to several clothing stores.



I can only hope that the downtown districts of small towns recover the way that Columbia's downtown has. There is something to be said for an area in a city where one can go to a variety of shops, even walking from one shop to another. In fact, it seems a lot more convenient that driving to a WalMart, then to an Ace Hardware about a mile away, and then to a theatre that may be a little more further away...

Saturday, January 29, 2005

A Hedge of Thorns

I thought for a change I would subject any readers I might have to some of my poetry. This one is based on the fairy tale "Sleeping Beauty." By the way, her eyes are green because there is a certain woman I have always thought looks a lot like Sleeping Beauty....

So much stands between us two,
a hedge of thorns, a lake of fire.
A sleeping curse e'er keeps you
imprisoned in a castle dire.

So many have tried before
to save the day and win your heart.
Dead litter the castle door,
brave knights and princes torn apart.

Yet I would brave the dragon
to look upon those eyes of green
and to stroke that hair so golden,
to kiss the fairest girl e'er seen.

Where others failed, I shall not
to awaken you from your sleep.
I've a weapon they did not,
a love that runs ever so deep.
Yet I would brave the dragon
to look upon those eyes of green
and to stroke that hair so golden,
to kiss the fairest girl e'er seen.

Where others failed, I shall not
to awaken you from your sleep.
I've a weapon they did not,
a love that runs ever so deep.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Genre Mélangé

For the most part it seems to me that people behave as if literary and film genres possess firm boundaries. A mystery is a mystery, a Western is a Western, and never the twain shall meet. In truth this is often not the case, as most literary and cinematic works tend to cross genre boundaries from time to time. The Ox-Bow Incident isn't just a Western, it is also a psychological drama as well. Pscyho isn't just a horror movie, but also a mystery. There are very few books or films that can truly be said to belong firmly to only one genre. That having been said, there are those times when a work combines two or more genres that are so distinct that it becomes something utterly new. I refer to such works as being genre mélangé or, in plain English, "mixed genre."

In my opinion the perfect example of genre mélangé is the old TV series The Wild Wild West. The Wild Wild West was pitched to CBS as James Bond in the Old West. It was then automatically planned to be a combination of the espionage and Western genres. As the series got underway, however, it emerged with elements of science fiction of the Jules Verne variety and even outright fantasy. The Wild Wild West was then not simply a Western, but also a spy drama and a sci-fi series. Common sense would seem to dicate that such a duke's mixture would not work. Not only would such a series be poor in quality, but it would also probably not see much success. Yet The Wild Wild West is regarded by many as a classic TV series. It ran four years on CBS before going onto one of the most successful syndication runs of all time. In fact, it was so successful that Fox debuted another sci-fi Western in the Nineties. While The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. did not have a long run, it remains a cult series to this day.

Another example of genre mélangé is the movie The Crimson Pirate. Made in 1952 at the height of Hollywood's pirate craze, The Crimson Pirate was ostensively a pirate movie. Burt Lancaster played the title character, Captain Vallo, who decided to sell weapons stolen from a Spanish galleon to a rebel leader. Along the way he encounters Professor Prudence, an inventor whose inventions are decidedly advanced for the 18th century! The Crimson Pirate is then not simply a pirate movie, but a sci-fi movie as well. As it is also played tongue in cheek and has a great deal of humour, it could also be considered a comedy. The Crimson Pirate is then simultaneously a pirate movie, a sci-fi movie, and a comedy.

Another cinematic example of genre mélangé is Kronos, known in the United States as Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter. This Hammer classic follows the adventures of Kronos as he battles a new sort of vampire. The movie is obviously a horror film, yet as Kronos wields a sword to great effect, it can also be counted as a swashbuckler. Director/screenwriter Brian Clemens also incorporated elements of John Ford Westerns. Kronos is then a combination of horror, swashbuckler, and Western.

Of course, at times when enough works combine enough elements of enough genres, a whole new genre can be born. This was the case with cyberpunk. Cyberpunk combined film noir elements with elements of science fiction with a focus on computers and other information technologies. What originally began as genre mélangé became a subgenre of science fiction in its own right. Oddly enough, cyberpunk would spawn yet another subgenre--steampunk. Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction using a Victorian or Victorian style setting, but with decidedly advanced technology (usually powered by steam, hence the name). The early steampunk works used the noir elements of cyberpunk and the same anti-authoritarian attitudes, although they eventually grew to resemble the scientific romances of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells more than cyberpunk. Arguably, both The Wild Wild West and Adventures of Brisco County Jr. could be considered precurssors to steampunk.

Anyhow, genre mélangé as probably existed as long as the whole convetion of genres has. Indeed, the past few years have seen Van Helsing, Hellboy, and others. I rather suspect as time goes by there will be more works of genre mélangé.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Good Night, Johnny

This morning Johnny Carson died at age 79 from emphysema. I don't think I have to inform any Americans reading this who Johnny Carson is. After all, he was host of The Tonight Show for 30 years.



Johnny Carson was born in Corning, Iowa, although his family moved across the state line to nearby Norfolk, Nebraska when he was very young. He made his debut on stage at age 14 performing magic tricks as the "Great Carsoni." During World War II he served in the Navy. After being mustered out, he worked at various Nebraska radio stations before getting a job at KNXT-TV in Los Angeles in 1950.



It was at KNXT that he hosted Carson's Cellar, a sketch comedy show. He soon found himself writing for The Red Skelton Show. One night Skelton was injured, so that Carson found himself having to stand in for the famous comic. That was Carson's big break. Carson soon found himself as host of a number of different shows. In 1954, CBS placed him on The Morning Show, their first atempt to compete with NBC's Today. That same year he as then made the host of the quiz show Earn Your Vacation. From 1955 to 1956, he had his own variety show, The Johnny Carson Show. From 1957 to 1962 he aas the host of the game show Who Do You Trust?. It was in 1962 that NBC decided he was the man to replace Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show. He remained its host for thirty years.



Johnny's death saddens me a good deal. Carson was brilliant as the host of The Tonight Show. He was a great interviewer who also had a flair for sketch comedy. And to this day, his monologues are still unmatched for being funny. Indeed, Carson has always reminded me a bit of Jack Benny, my favourite comedian of all time. Like Benny, Johnny could be self deprecating. He often joked about his divorces and even his wealth. And like Benny, he could create laugther with a mere look. Whether Johnny Carson was the greatest late night host of all time is a matter that is up for debate, I suppose, but there are two things that cannot be debated. No one else will probably host a late night show as long as Johnny did. And I doubt anyone else will be as well loved.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Piracy in 1974

I may not have mentioned it before, but I have always been fascinated by pirates. Like many boys I read Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island as a child and eagerly watched any pirate movie that happened to be on televison. With regards to pirates, however, one year in my childhood stands out most clearly in mind: 1974. I don't know if there actually was more pirate related merchandise in 1974, but it certainly seemed that way to me.

Indeed, at least two different companies came out with pirate action figures. One was Mego, which brought out a small line they called the World's Greatest Super Pirates. The line included three figures: Blackbeard, Captain Patch, Jean LaFitte, and Long John Silver. Unlike their ever popular World's Greatest Superheroes line, Mego never produced any playsets to go with their pirate action figures.

That same year, Matchbox, better known for miniature cars, came out with a series of pirate action figures as part of their Fighting Furies series. Initially it consisted of two figures, Captain Hook and Captain Peg Leg. Eventually they added other figures: Ghost of Cap'n Kidd and Captain Blood. Two different playsets were sold in connection with the Fighting Furies line, although both were called the Sea Fury. The one sold at every store except Sears was basically just a vinyl ship that also served as a case. The other, sold exclusively through Sears, was a fully equipped toy ship. Matchbox produced a large number of accessory kits to go with the action figures, from the Hooded Falcon Adventure set to Cap'n Kidd's Treasure. Unfortunately, neither Mego nor Matchbox saw much success with their pirate figures. As far as I know, the World's Greatest Super Pirates lasted only one year. The pirates of the Fighting Furies (there was a Western series) managed to last into 1975.

In 1972 MPC released a series of model kits based on Walt Disney's Pirates of the Carribean ride. Seven kits were released in all--five in 1972 and two more in 1974. The models featured such titles as "Hoist High the Jolly Roger" and "Dead Men Tell No Tales." I have to admit that I am surprised that they did not reissue the kits in the wake of the success of Pirates of the Carribean: the Curse of the Black Pearl. Of course, pirates were nothing new to MPC. They had long been making plastic toy pirates, along with their plastic soldiers, knights, and cowboys.

Speaking of the Pirates of the Carribean ride, I have to wonder that, if there were more pirate related toys in the mid-Seventies, it wasn't due to the popularity of that ride. It opened on March 18, 1967 and soon became one of Disneyland's most popular attractions. Indeed, the apparent popularity of pirates in the mid-Seventies may have started in the late Sixties. While people were buying tickets in Disneyland for Pirates of the Carribean, 1969 a pirate themed fast food restaurant opened--Long John Silver's Fish 'n' Chips. I first became aware of Long John Silvers in the mid-Seventies when they would advertise on the St. Louis and Kansas City TV channels. I remember that they used pirate characters in their commercials. I have no idea why they ceased using pirates in their commercials, as those commercials held my interest much better than the generic ones they use today!

As I said, I don't know if there were more pirate related items available in 1974 or if I just took more notice of them. Regardless, it helped fuel a fascination with pirates that has stuck with me for the rest of my life. To this day I must confess to fantasies of unfurling the sails on fast ship and hoisting the Jolly Roger...

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Two Great Actresses

This week two great actreses passed on. One was Virginia Mayo, the gorgeous blonde who was equally adept at both comedy and drama. She died on January 15 at age 84 from pneumonia and heart failure after an extended illness.



Virginia Mayo was born on November 30, 1920 to an well established St. Louis family. Her father was a newspaper reporter. She took dance lessons at her aunt's dance studio starting when she was six years old. Following high school, Mayo joined the St. Louis Municipal Opera. Mayo toured with the musical comedy act "Pansy and the Horse," then joined Billy Rose's revue at the Diamond Horseshoe. It was there that Samuel Goldwyn spotted her and signed her to a contract.



She received her first big break in film starring opposite Bob Hope in The Princess and the Pirate in 1944. She would go onto star opposite Danny Kaye in a number of films, among them Wonder Man, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, The Kid from Brooklyn, and A Song is Born. It was during this period that she took a dramatic turn in The Best Years of Our Lives.



Following her years at Goldwyn Studios, Mayo signed with Warner Brothers. It was there that she made one of her best films, White Heat, with James Cagney. She also starred in a number of costume movies, among them Captain Horatio Hornblower R.N, The Iron Mistress, and King Richard and the Crusaders. Of course, she continued making comedies, one of her famous coming from this period--She's Working Her Way Through College.



On stage Mayo appeared in everything from Hello Dolly to Butterflies are Free.



Mayo continued to work throughout the Sixties, appearing in such films as Castle of Evil and Fort Utah, as well as guest starring in such TV series as Burkes Law. She made her last film appearance in The Man Next Door in 1997.



Virginia Mayo has always been one of my favourite actress. She was a striking beauty, with natural blonde and big green eyes. While her beauty was her most obvious quality, however, Virginia Mayo was also a very talented actress. She was equally at home in both comedy and drama. Her talent also transcended genres, as she made everything from comedies to medieval epics to Westerns to dramas. It truly saddens me to hear of her passing.



The other great actress who has passed on was Ruth Warrick. Warrick was best known for her long run on All My Children, but to tell the truth, I did not even know she played in a soap opera until I read her obituary. I have always thought of her as Charles Foster Kane's first wife. She also died January 15, from pneumonia at age 88.



Like Mayo, Ruth Warrick was a native Missourian, born in St. Joseph, Missouri. After graduating from the University of Kansas City, she went to New York City where he joined Orson Welles' Mercury Theatre. Naturally, her film debut was then in Citizen Kane, as Kane's first wife Emily Norton Kane. Warrick would go onto star in several other notable films, among them The Corsican Brothers, Journey into Fear, and Song of the South. On television guest starred on Studio One, Perry Mason, Gunsmoke, and Daniel Boone. She was a regular on The Guiding Light, Father of the Bride, Peyton Place, As the World Turns, and All My Children. She continued to make movies, such as The Great Bank Robbery. She also appeared on stage in the musicals Take Me Along and Irene.



While I must admit to being ignorant of much of Warrick's television work, I also admired her performances in such films as Citizen Kane Journey into Fear, and The Corsican Brothers. Sadly, I always thought Warrick was underused in film. With her talent it seems to me that she should have made many more movies than she did. Regardless, she was very skilled, playing the gracious Mrs. Kane in Citizen Kane and alcoholic in One Two Many. I have to say that her death does make me sad.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Advertising Slogans

Advertising has probably been around for as long as there have been merchants with goods to sell. In the ruins of Pompeii, archaeologists found advertisements for various wares engraved into the walls of the city; however, it was with the advent of printing that advertising really took off. By the 17th century advertisements were a regular part of the English newspaper. The demand for advertising grew as the economies of the United States and United Kingdom did. It was for that reason that in 1843 the first advertising agency, Volney Palmer, was opened in Philadelphia. Naturally, among the advertising agencies' tools is the advertising slogan.

An advertising slogan is simply a short slogan which is meant to promote a product. Ideally, an advertising slogan should help the consumer remember the product, not to mention distiguish the product from other similar products (say, Coke from Pepsi for instance). It must be noted that the best advertising slogans usually bring to mind the brand they are promoting any time that they are mentioned. "Fly the friendly skies" immediately brings to mind United Airlines. "The King of Beers" brings to mind Budweiser.

Of course, while advertising slogans are meant to be memorable, some are more memorable than others. I sometimes believe that Coca-Cola has been responsible for more memorable advertising slogans than any other company. One of its most famous slogans was "The pause that refreshes," coined in 1929. The slogan may have taken its inspiration from an earlier 1924 slogan, "Pause and refresh yourself." Coca-Cola's other famous slogan, "The Real Thing," from 1970, also had its roots in an earlier slogan. In that case, it was "It's the real thing" from 1943.

Of course, Coca-Cola is not the only carbonated soft drink to have catchy slogans. Seven-Up has been the Uncola since 1967. A & W Root Beer has been "that frosty mug sensation" for many years now. Curiously, it seems to me that Coke's rival, Pepsi, has always had a problem developing memorable slogans. The only one I can remember is "the Pepsi Generation," a slogan they adopted in 1964, and I think that is only because they insisted on repeating it in one form or another for literally years.

The best advertising slogans do last literally for years. The New York Times has touted that it has "all the news that's fit to print" since 1896. Morton Salt has used the slogan "When it rains, it pours" since 1911. Maxwell House Coffee has been "good to the last drop" since 1915. FTD has been encouraging people to "Say it with flowers" since 1917. And Wheaties has been "the breakfast of champions" since the Thirties.

Even when a company stops using a particular slogan, it may well persist in the public's minds. Kentucky Fried Chicken touted itself as "Finger lickin' good" beginning in 1952, yet, while they long ago abandoned that slogan, it is the one that people tend to think of when they about Kentucky Fried Chicken. For all that M&Ms might proclaim that "Chocolate tastes better in colour," most people probably think of the slogan "M&Ms melt in your mouth, not in your hand (started all the way back in 1954)" when they think of the brand. General Electric abandoned the slogan "G.E. We bring good things to life!" in 2002, but more people probably associate it with the company than other slogans.

It also seems to me that often a company is lucky to get one classic slogan (Coke must be very lucky). In 1971 the classic slogan "You deserve a break today" was used to promote McDonalds. To this day, people still associate it with the brand. And yet the past few years have seen a succession of, in my humble opinion, some rather lame slogans used to promote McDonalds: "We love to see you smile," "Smile," and, worst yet, "I'm Lovin' It." One thing I can say about Burger King; they have never wholly given up on the classic "Have it your way..."

I have often pondered why companies sometimes change their advertising slogans. I would suppose it is to keep up with the changing times, to give the appearance they are still "hip (I don't even know if it is hip to say "hip" anymore...)." As I see it, however, it might be best to simply find a good slogan that the public remembers and stick with it. Everyone thinks of Wheaties when they hear "the Breakfast of Champions." "Leave the driving to us" brings to mind Greyhound Bus Lines. Can anyone tell me the product that was promoted with the words "Generation Next?" That was Pepsi Cola's slogan from 1997. I doubt anyone will remember that slogan 60 years from now...

Sunday, January 16, 2005

The Dime Store

There was a time when the dime store loomed large in American pop culture. The movies Five and Ten, Alice Adams, and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean all involved dime stores to one degree or another. An old song proclaimed "I found a million dollar baby in a five and ten cent store." The dime store was as much a part of the main streets of American towns as the drug store or barber shop.

For those of you who are too young to remember, a dime store was a store which sold a wide array of inexpensive items. Dime stores carried everything from toys to clothing to jewellery to candy. Many items would be priced at five or ten cents, hence the dime store's many synonyms. Dime stores were also called "five and dime stores," "five and ten cent stores," or, more simply, the "five and ten." They were also called "variety stores," due to the fact that they carried a wide variety of merchandise. Dime stores differed from department stores in one important way. Quite simply, dime stores were decidedly downscale from the average department store.

The origins of the dime store can be traced back to the wholesalers Butler Brothers and a man named William Moore. Butler Brothers was founded in Boston in 1877 as a company that sold wholesale to merchants, primarily through catalogues. In 1878 the company developed the idea of a "five cent counter." The idea was that a five cent counter would be placed near the front of the store to attract customers. Customers would come into the store to buy the five cent items and would usually wind up buying some more expensive items as well.

This brings us to William Moore, who operated Augalbury and Moore's Drygoods in Watertown, NY. Among his employees was one F, W, Woolworth, the most prominent figure in dime store history. Perhaps noticing the success of other stores with five cent counters, Moore introduced one to his store. In charge he placed his young employee F. W. Woolworth. Woolworth picked out the items for the counter and was charged with restocking it. On the very first day the five cent counter sold out, so that Woolworth had to order more items for the counter. It was then that Woolworth realised that if a five cent counter could be a success, then what about an entire store filled with items for five and ten cents? Woolworth opened his first dime store in Utica, New York on February 22, 1879. Unfortunately, the store went out of business within a few months. Undeterred, Wooworth opened another store in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on June 21, 1879. The store was a success. Indeed, by 1911 Woolworth had over a 1000 stores. By 1919 Woolworth owned the tallest building in the world, the Woolworth Building in New York City. In 1919 alone the company boasted $107 million in sales.

Woolworth was the most successful dime store chain, but it was by no means the only one. Bulter Brothers, who had set the events in motion that would lead to the development of dime stores, had been among the most successful companies in the United States. By the turn of the 19th century, they had 100,000 customers nationwide. Unfortunately, by the 1920s they had seen their business eroded by the advent of chain stores such as Woolworth. In 1927, then, Butler Brothers decided to open a chain of dime stores under the name "Ben Franklin." The Ben Franklin stores proved fairly successful. Butler Brothers sold the chain in 1959, but it continues to this day.

Another giant in dime stores was the S.S. Kresge Company. The company's beginnings go back to J. G. McCrory and Sebastian Spering Kresge. McCrory opened his first store in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. A year later he entered into a partnership with Kresge and the two opened a store in Detroit, Michigan. In 1899 Kresge paid $3000 to McCrory and gave up his interest in the Memphis store to become the sole owner of the Detroit store. In 1900 Kresge found another partner in his brother in law Charles Wilson. Wilson was to operate store #2 in Port Huron, Michigan. By 1907, however, Wilson had tired of the business, so Kresge bought him out. It was then that S.S. Kresge Company was founded. It was incorporated in 1912, at which point its annual sales exceeded $10 million.

The stores of S. H. Kress & Company may have been better known for the architecture of their stores than their stores themselves. Samuel H. Kress in 1896 opened his first "five and ten cent store" in Memphis, Tennessee in 1896. Eventually, Kress would own 300 stores in thirty states. Their stores stood out from any other dime stores in their architecture. They were built in an art deco style, complete with curved display windows and yellow or buff coloured brick with off white trim. In the late Twenties and Thirties, the architectural division of S. H. Kress & Company had about l00 people in its employ, all to design stores. In 1965 the Kress chain was taken over by Genesco Inc. In 1980 Genesco liquidated the company, making Kress one of the first giants of dime stores to fall.

Of course, there were many other smaller chains. TG&Y was a chain of variety stores that was at one time found across the Midwest. It was named for its three founders: Don Thompson, Les Gosselin, and Raymond A. Young. The stores once covered much of Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and other parts of the western Midwest.

I can remember that Moberly boasted three dime stores at one point. I remember the old Woolworth store from when I was fairly young. I can't remember if it had a lunch counter, as many Woolworth stores did (I think it may have), but I can remember the rest of the layout to some degree. The toy aisles were towards the middle of the store. At the very back was the pets section. There was also a Ben Franklin store in Moberly, as well as one in Salisbury. The Ben Franklin stores were more nondescript than Woolworth stores, although I seem to recall that their toy aisles were towards the back. I have better memories of TG&Y. It opened in 1972 and remained open until I was a young adult in the early eighties. Indeed, I remember Burt Ward (Robin on the old Batman TV show) was there for the store opening (I still have his autograph). Naturally, I remember that the toy section was near the middle of the store. Clothes were towards the right and the records and tapes (yes, we didn't have CDs back then) were towards the left, outer edge of the store.

Dime stores are a rare thing today, although they still exist. And arguably, the "dollar store" is their direct descendent. Ironically, the demise of the dime stores grew out of the dime stores themselves. In 1950 a man named Sam Walton opened a Ben Franklin franchise in Bentonville, Arkansas under the name "Walton Five and Ten." Walton went onto found other Ben Franklin franchises. Eventually he fell upon the idea of buying goods wholesale and selling them at discount prices. Walton tried convincing the Ben Franklin chain that his approach was valid to no avail. As a result, Walton decided to strike out on his own. In 1962, in Rogers, Arkansas, the first WalMart was opened.

During this same period, Harry B. Cunningham, president of S.S. Kresge Company as of 1959, set his corporation on a new course. In the years following World War II, competition increased in the world of retailing. Studying various discount stores, Cunningham struck upon the idea of Kmart, a discount chain which would be owned and operated by S.S. Kresge Company. The first Kmart store opened in Garden City, Michigan in 1962, to be followed by seventeen more stores that same year.

One need look no further than the history of Kmart for the fate of the dime store. By 1977, a mere 15 years after the first KMart had opened, KMart stores accounted for 95% of all sales for S.S. Kresge Company. That same year the name of the company was changed to Kmart Corporation. In 1987 the remaining Kresge stores were sold to McCrory Corporation (the company founded by Kresge's old business partner, J. G. McCrory). By 1992 McCrory Corporation would file for bankruptcy. Others also suffered Kresge's fate. Woolworth, the giant of dime stores, would go out of business in 1997. Ben Franklin has survived, but only by changing from a dime store chain to a craft store chain. Unfortunately, the competition from the discount stores such as WalMart and Kmart drove many of the dime stores out of business.

Of course, there are still dime stores in existence. Some are mom and pop operations. Others are run by small, regional chains. Arguably, the dollar stores such as Family Dollar, Dollar General, and Dollar Tree could be considered the descendent of the dime store, although most do not carry the variety of merchandise as sold at the old dime stores. For myself, the demise of the dime is regrettable. Many of the old dime stores (particuarly those belonging to the Kress chain) were beautiful art deco buildings with stylised windows and signs. The interiors of the stores were cozier than the typical WalMart or Kmart. Indeed, it seems to me that items were easier to find in Woolworth than they are our local WalMart. Another superior feature of the dime stores is that, unlike WalMart and Kmart, check out stations were scattered throughout the store (just like the old department stores). One did not have to make his or her way all the way to the front of a store just to pay for an item.

I suppose that with the success of dollar stores it is possible that the dime store could make a comeback in a new form. Unfortunately, I can't see Dollar General adding a lunch counter any time soon or Family Dollar adopting art deco designs for their stores...

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Lost

Last year, at the beginning of the television season, I stated that the word for this season was "bland." For the most part I stand by that. For the most part the shows that debuted this television season have been derivative and unremarkable. Little did I know that there would be one exception to the overall banality of this year's TV offerings, a show simply called Lost.



When I first heard the premise for Lost, I thought it sounded utterly preposterous. For one thing, with today's technology it seems impossible that a plane load of people could remain stranded on an island very long. For another, I thought that a show about people stranded on an island would run out of stories to tell pretty rapidly, unless they played it for laughs (and that has been done before--the classic Gilligan's Island). Little did I know that creator J. J. Abrams had more in mind than a TV version of Robinson Crusoe with more characters.



Indeed, there is more to Lost than meets the eye. Abrams has left many questions to be answered, not the least of which is what caused the plane to crash and exactly where our castaways are. Why don't the compasses point to where north should be? How did John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) miraculously start walking after the crash, when he had been in a wheel chair before? What is the mysterious beastie that stalks the island's jungles? One thing seems clear. This island is like no other. In fact, it might not even be in this reality...



Much of the success of Lost can be attributed to its large and fine cast. Dominic Monaghan (Merry from the Lord of the Rings movies) is perfect as Charlie, the good hearted rock star who is recovering from a heroin addiction. Josh Holloway is all too convincing as Sawyer, the bad guy in the group who always looking to make a quick buck. Perhaps the best performance is given by veteran Terry O'Quinn as the mysterious John Locke, the man who seems to know literally everything.



If Lost has one flaw, it is Abrams' tendency to telegraph his foreshadowing. The perfect example is from the pilot episode. People keep walking in front of the plane's turbines, which are still spinning. It doesn't take much for even a none too bright viewer to realise that sooner or later someone will get sucked into the turbine (and they do...).



For the most part, however, Lost is an enjoyable ride. Even when one starts thinking that the show is a bit far fetched, the show soon traps them once more. Lost is an enthralling show to watch. And the single bright spot in an otherwise dull season.

Friday, January 14, 2005

The 300 Spartans

My DVD of The 300 Spartans arrived from Amazon.Com today. I seem to recall seeing it as a child. I know I saw it a few years ago on TCM. Naturally, I watched it again tonight.



The 300 Spartans is based on the battle of Thermopylae, recounted in Herodotus's Histories. It was at the pass of Thermopylae that King Leonidas of Sparta and 300 Spartans fought King Xerxes of Persia and his absolutely vast army (Herodotus estimates 3.4 million; modern historians number his forces at anywhere from 25.000 to 300.000). Although Leonidas and his are ultimately defeated, they delayed Xerxes long enough for the rest of Greece to gather enough forces to defeat the Persians.



The 300 Spartans was one of the last sword and sandal epics, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1962. Beyond Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson, some of the acting is a bit stilted. Some of the battle scenes seem rather disorganised at times, not quite what one would expect of two highly trained forces of soldiers. And an entirely unneccessary romance is introduced into the plot. But don't let these shortcomings deceive you. The 300 Spartans is one of those movies that is greater than the sum of its parts.



First, The 300 Spartans is one of the few historical movies that remains somewhat loyal to its source material. The plot more or less follows Herodotus' tale of the battle, with only a few departures from the text. This is remarkable for any movie based on a historical event, even those made today. Second, while some of the battle scenes could have used better choreography, there are others that are absolutely brilliant. The final showdown between the Spartans and their Persian enemies is appropriately dramatic and accomplishes much without the benefit of a big budget or special effects. Third, both Richard Egan and Sir Ralph Richardson give stellar performances. Indeed, Egan has some of the best lines from any movie, particularly the line "Today we will fight in the shade," in response to Persian claims that their arrows will blot out the sun (the line is straight from Herodotus!). Fourth, the film is beautifullly shot. It has some fine cinematography.



The average film goer today probably has not heard of The 300 Spartans, which is unfortunate. While the film does not match Spartacus, it is superior to many other sword and sandal movies. And it tells one of the most compelling stories straight from the pages of history.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Late, Great Will Eisner

On January 3, 2005, perhaps the greatest legend in comic books died. Will Eisner died at age 87 following quadruple bypass heart surgery in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Eisner not only created numerous comic book and comic strip characters (the most famous of which was probably The Spirit), but also changed the shape of comic books and introduced the concept of the graphic novel. Most importantly, perhaps more than any other single creator, he argued for the acceptance of comic books and comic strips as genuine works of art.

Will Eisner was born in Brooklyn, NY on March 6, 1917. He attended high school at De Witt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where Bob Kane (the creator of Batman) was one of his classmates. Eisner was 19 when he sold his first work to Wow What a Magazine! There he created two features, Harry Karry and The Flame (later renamed Hawks of the Sea).

Wow What a Magazine! folded after four issues, after which Eisner entered into a partnership with friend Jerry Iger to form the Eisner-Iger studio. The Eisner-Iger studio was the first of its kind, a studio dedicated to generating comic strips both for newspapers and the new medium of comic books. The studio employed many artists who would later become famous: Jack Kirby, Lou Fine, and Bob Kane. The Eisner-Iger Studio produced strips for such comic book publishers as Fiction House, Quality Comics, and Fox Publications. It was at the studio that Eisner co-created Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, with Jerry Iger.

Eisner parted ways with Iger in 1939 for a deal with Quality Comics. There Eisner created some of the most enduring comic book characters: Doll Man (one of the earliest superheros and the first with shrinking powers), Uncle Sam, Blackhawk, The Black Condor (co-created with Lou Fine), and The Ray (also co-created with Lou Fine). It was Quality Comics that would lead to his most enduring creation. Everett M. Arnold, Quality's publisher, had struck upon the idea of producing comic book like inserts to be placed in Sunday newspapers. Arnold asked Eisner to develop a comic strip for these inserts. The strip that Eisner created was The Spirit.

The Spirit was criminologist Denny Colt. Mistakenly thought dead after an attempt on life, Colt used his supposed death to his advantage, assuming the identity of The Spirit to fight crime. It was in the pages of The Spirit that Eisner introduced Lady Luck, one of the earliest female costumed characters. She soon got her own comic strip.

The Spirit proved very successful, so that naturally the newspaper strips were reprinted in Quality comic books. Eisner's original run on The Spirit ended in 1942 when he was draughted. Eisner was stationed in Washington D. C. where he practised his art in the service of his country. He created "Joe Dope," a comic strip through which Jeep maintenace was taught to servicemen. He also edited the army journal Firepower.

Demobilised in 1946, Eisner returned to The Spirit. For the next four years Eisner took The Spirit where no comic strip or comic book had been before. Rather than supervillains, The Spirit fought petty hoodlums and cheap criminals. Eisner's style became more cinematic, with unsual angles and panel shapes. His stories became epic in length. Effectively, The Spirit became one of the few adult strips around.

Eisner left The Spirit in 1950 to found the American Visual Corporation, which produced various magazines and manuals. His creation, The Spirit, now in others' hands, ended in 1952.

Eisner may well have been forgotten by all but comic book and comic strip fans had it not been for Jules Feiffer. In 1965, The Great Comic Book Heroes by Jules Feiffer was published. The Great Comic Book Heroes was not only a nostalgic look back at the Golden Age superheroes, but the first book to examine the medium with any amount of seriousness. Feiffer singled Eisner out for praise and included, among the other comic book stories reprinted in the book, one featuring The Spirit. Soon Eisner found himself deluged with requests for The Spirit's return.

Eisner wrote new Spirit stories for much of the Seventies. In 1978 Einser invented the graphic novel with the publication of A Contract with God. In fact, it was Eisner who coined the term "graphic novel." Thereafter Eisner produced at least one graphic novel each year.

Will Eisner was among the earliest proponets of comic books as a literary form. While many of his contemporaries in the Thirties were wanting to break into magazine illustration, Eisner was already looking at the comic book as an artform. He wrote the book Comics & Sequential Art in which he outlined the principles telling stories in comic books. Besides expressing his own ideas and theories on the artform, Eisner argues for its acceptance as an artform. Eisner wrote another book, Graphic Storytelling, which expands upon the ideas he expressed in Comics & Sequential Art.

Eisner was respected as an innovator in the field of comic books. Aside from the many important characters he had created, he had revolutionised the field. Eisner was the first artist to use panels with no dialogue or even thought balloons in which a character's facial expression showed how he or she felt. Einser was the first to address serious issues in the form of a comic book. He was the first to vary panel size, angles, and even lettering to suit the story at hand. With Iger he was the first to establish a comic strip studio. And as pointed out, he also invented the graphic novel. Is it any wonder that the comic book industry's equivalent of the Oscar or the Emmy is called the Eisner?

As a comic book fan, it is impossible to estimate the influence Will Eisner has had on my life. I read The Spirit as a child, as well as stories featuring other characters he had created. As an adult I read his grahpic novels, as well as Comics & Sequential Art. Even had I read nothing written and drawn by Eisner, it would be hard to escape his influence. Virtually every comic book, every graphic novel published today shows his influence in some way. It is for that reason that I am very saddened by his passing. It means that Plot, to be published later this year, will be his last work. It is doubtful that comic books will ever see one as great as Eisner.

Sunday, January 9, 2005

Computer Games

I saw on Amazon that Sid Meier's Pirates! is now out. I never really played the original version of Pirates much, although I played plenty of other games Sid Meier created, and other computer games as well.



In fact, one of the first computer games I ever played was Civlization. The computer game was based on the popular board game of the same name. As in the board game, one selects a particular civilisation which one will build from the Stone Age to Space Age. One competed with other civilisations, played by the computer (unless one had the multiplayer version of the game...), with whom one could even go to war. It was essentially a game of strategy, very fun but not particuarly easy.



As much as I loved Civilization, I loved Civlization II even more. Civ II was essentially a more advanced version of the game, which even allowed one to play different scenarios (such as the Crusades or World War I). It was even harder than Civilization, but even more fun. A few years ago a Civlization III was produced, but I never did care for it. It didn't seem nearly as fun as either Civilization or Civ II.



Sid Meier also created a game called Colonization. It was like Civlization in many ways, only instead of creating a civilisation, one was trying to colonise the Americas. Complicating this task were the Natives and other countries attempting colonisation. It was also a fun game and considerably easier than any of the Civilization games.



I also enjoyed SimCity, a game which is still quite popular. In Sim City, one essentially built and ran a city. It could be a difficult game, especially when it came to polution down and the population happy. I also enjoyed the other "Sim" games. SimEarth allowed one to build a planet. Perhaps becuase of this, it was a lot harder than SimCity. It seems like my worlds always overheated or blew up. SimFarm was fun as well--one basically just ran a farm. It was also not that difficult. I never played The Sims, which seems to be the most popular of the games that Maxis has produced. It just doesn't look that interesting to me.



One of my favourite games was Cuthroats!. Unfortunately, it is no longer in production. In Cuthroats!, one was essentially the captain of a pirate ship. It involved a good deal of strategy and even a bit of micromanagement. One had to keep his or her crew happy, which meant getting as much booty as possible while keeping plenty of rum and food in stock. It is a shame that this game is out of print, as it was probably the most enjoyable game I ever played short of Civlization II.



Of course, I played plenty of role playing games, but I have yet to play EverQuest. Quite simply, my computer won't handle it. I have heard from a very reliable and lovely source, however, that it is a very enjoyable game. Indeed, there are times I wonder that she isn't addicted to it...



At the moment I have no games on my computer. With its tiny hard drive and its advanced age (the machine is six years old), it doesn't seem the wise thing to do. But I rather suspect that when I get a new computer, I probably will put some games on it--Sid Meier's Pirates!, EverQuest, SimCity, and one of the Civ games at least...

Friday, January 7, 2005

The Decline of the Movie Musical

On Christmas night NBC aired It's a Wonderful Life and ABC aired The Sound of Music. Much to my shock, The Sound of Music soundly beat It's a Wonderful Life in the ratings. I still cannot believe it. To me It's a Wonderful Life is the greatest Yuletide movie of all time. As to The Sound of Music, well, I view it as a symptom in the decline of the movie musical.



With the advent of talkies came the movie musical. Throughout the Thirties, Forties, and Fifties, musicals filled theatres across the country. While MGM and RKO are the two studios best known for producing musicals, nearly every studio made them. And musicals did big business. It was in the early to mid Fifties that the movie musical reached its artistic peak. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Singin' in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris were all released between 1951 and 1954. In other words, the four greatest musical movies (at least in my opinion) were released in a space of three years. Unfortunately, as the Fifties wore on, musicals did worse and worse at the box office. By the late Fifties, it seems as if Hollywood stopped producing original musicals (such as Singin' in the Rain), their musical output consisting solely of stage adaptions (Mary Poppins was a rare exception). Many of these adaptations also number among the greatest musicals of all time: Gigi, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, and Oliver! among them. At the same time, however, there were a number of musicals produced that were, in my opinion, artistically (and sometimes financially as well) flops.



For me The Sound of Music falls in the category of an artistic flop. Oh, I love its score. The Sound of Music features some truly great songs. And Julie Andrews is charming. Unfortunately, the movie itself is one, huge bore. If the stage version was as dull as the movie is, it is a wonder it was a success at all. As to the movie, I cannot believe that it was a smash hit or that it has somehow become one of the most beloved movies of all time. Indeed, I don't know of anyone who likes the movie. In fact, those who hate the movie the most seem to be the ones who love musicals the most!



In the wake of The Sound of Music came a number of poorly produced, very bad musicals. As dull as The Sound of Music was, Dr. Doolittle surpassed it, draining all the charm out of Hugh Lofting's novel. Worse yet, with the possible exception of "Talk to the Animals," the entire score was forgettable.



As bad as Dr. Doolittle was, the 1969 musical remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips was even worse. The 1939 classic film was a charming tale of a teacher and his life. The 1969 musical is the same story with any life whatsoever drained from it. The score is not only forgettable, but borders on amateurish in my opinion. It is quite possibly one of the worst musicals on film.



Star!, based on the life of actress Getrude Lawrence (with Julie Andrews in the title role), was not nearly as bad as Dr. Doolittle or Goodbye, Mr. Chips. The songs and musical numbers are impressive. Unfortunately, Star! drags when there isn't a musical number. In fact, its worst fault may be that it runs much too long.



Even when it seemed that there was no way a musical could go wrong in the late Sixties, somehow it did. Hello, Dolly! was based on the excellent stage musical. The film's director was The Man himself, Gene Kelly, the master of the Hollywood Musical. The sets and costumes are great. The film cannot be faulted for its production values. Unfortuately, what could have been a great film is undone by the casting of Dolly Levi. Barbara Streisand?! I can only wonder what they were thinking...



OF course, Hello, Dolly! only had Barbara Streisand really going against it. Man of La Mancha had much, much more. On paper, adapting the great stage musical seems like an excellent idea. This was a successful musical version of the tale of Don Quixote, with a score that had done well on the charts. The film that emerged, however, was wretched. The movie moves slower than a snail. No one can sing. Even the sets look terrible.



This is not to say that there weren't truly great musicals still being produced in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Oliver! was a truly well done version of the stage musical. And Fiddler on the Roof is, quite simply, one of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Unfortunately, these would not be enough to save the musical movie. In the Seventies only a few musicals would be produced and only one, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, was any good. Grease and Annie are both so terrible that they leave me longing for Dr. Doolittle. Or even Goodbye, Mr. Chips!



In recent years it seems as if the movie musical might be making a comeback. Moulin Rouge was a hit (although I have to fault it for their choice of music--only "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend" are good songs). Chicago did even better at the box office and picked up an Oscar in the process. What is more, it is a truly fine musical. I can only hope that more musicals like Chicago come out and such films as The Sound of Music, Dr. Doolittle, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, Grease, and Annie will be forgotten.

Wednesday, January 5, 2005

January

Have I ever mentioned that there are times I really hate the month of January? As I see it, January is essentially the Monday of the year, and I am not just saying that because January is the first month of the year and Monday the first day of the work week. Let's face it, one works all week and then Friday comes and one is off for the weekend. One can do what he or she pleases. With regards to the year, one works all year and then come the holidays. Now most of us have to work at least part of the holidays, but at least it is a time of celebration and fun. Then comes January, the start of the year, and it's back to business as usual. No more Yuletide carols. No more decorations. No more evergreens. No more mistletoe. Just work and the bleak January landscape.

And speaking of the bleak January landscape, that is another reason I hate January. Now I don't mind snow. In fact, snow is very lovely to look at and very fun to play in. Like many I've enjoyed my share of snowball fights. The problem is that in Missouri we are more likely to have ice storms, which is what we have had today. I was all set to go to Texas to visit relatives and other loved ones when this thing came in. Now there is no way I can make it down there. The fact is, right now I would have trouble making it downtown...

Worse yet, beyond New Year's Day and Martin Luther King Day, January boasts no holidays. This makes the month rather dull. I am not surprised that January is the month of white sales, as the month is a lot like the colour white--dull and boring. Nothing is going on except the occasional ice storm.

Oh well, I suppose I have ranted enough. It is probably just the ice storm and the prospect of not getting to Texas that has me in a foul mood. I mean, things could be worse. It could be July...

Sunday, January 2, 2005

The Doris Day Show

One of the shows I remember as a child is The Doris Day Show. I think there are only three reasons I remember the series. The first is that it starred Doris Day, an actress well known for her motion picture career. I am not sure that I saw any of her movies before The Doris Day Show, but I rather think I did while it was still on the air. The second is that it was on Monday night, when my family's TV set was tuned to CBS. After all, this was the night of Here's Lucy, Mayberry R.F.D., and The Carol Burnett Show. Finally, I remember the show because it seemed as if it changed format with every season!Indeed, The Doris Day Show demonstrates in miniature the changes that were overtaking television in the late Sixties and early Seventies.

The origin of The Doris Day Show are interesting in and of itself. In April 1968, Day's husband Marty Melcher died. Melcher's death brought to light the fact that he had been using Day's fortune to make various investments. Quite simply, Day was effectively bankrupt. His death also brought to light a deal Melcher had made with CBS in the spring of 1967 to star Day in a TV series. Day had no knowledge whatsoever of the deal. Although Day didn't particularly care for television, she needed the income from the series to win back the money she'd lost in court, not to mention to place her more solid financial ground.

The original incarnation of The Doris Day Show cast Day as Doris Martin, a widow and mother of two sons (Billy and Toby) who moves back to the ranch of her father Buck (Denver Pyle). The Doris Day Show was then effectively both a family comedy and a rural comedy, focusing on Doris's efforts to raise her childen and to readjust to life in the country. The second season brought a bit of a change to the series. Doris became the excecutive secretary to Mr. Nicholson (McLean Stevenson), editor of Today's World magazine.

It was the third season that brought a major change to the series. Doris and her two sons moved to San Francisco in order to be closer to her work. They lived in an apartment over a restaurant owned by Louie Pallucci (Bernie Kopell) and Angie Pallucci (Kaye Ballard). Doris still worked at Today's World, even acting as a reporter from time to time.

The fourth season still saw Doris Martin working at Today's World, but mysteriously she had become single with no kids in sight. Her new boss was Sy Bennett (John Dehner). I remember being somewhat puzzled at this change as a child. I wondered what happened to her children. After all, the series in its fourth season made no reference to them whatsoever. It is as if they not only ceased to exist, but ceased to have ever existed!

The Doris Day Show was very successful from the beginning. In its second season it ranked #10 in the top 25 shows for the season. In its third season it ranked #20. In its fourth season, even after the radical changes to the show, it ranked #23. The only reason the show ended was that Doris Day decided she could go nowhere else with the character of Doris Martin.

As I said, earlier, the changes in the format of The Doris Day Show reflected the changes that faced television in the late Sixties and the early Seventies. When The Doris Day Show debuted it was a family comedy, one of a number that would debut in the late Sixties (The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family were two others). It was also one in a long run of rural comedies (The Andy Griffith Show and The Beverly Hillbillies being the most popular). Unfortunately, for rural comedies, the networks had discovered demographics in the Sixites. It was not enough to know how many people were watching a TV series, now the networks wanted to know who was watching it. The Madison Avenue advertisers wanted shows that appealed to young urban professionals (what would come to be called "Yuppies" in the Eighties). Because of this, the networks started purging their schedules of any shows that appealed to rural or older audiences. ABC cancelled The Lawrence Welk Show. CBS went even further, cancelling nearly all of their rural comedies, some which were still getting very good ratings (Mabyerry R.F.D. was still in the top twenty). It was then wise for Doris Day to move her character and her sons to San Francisco with the third season. To have done otherwise may have well killed the show. By the 1972-1973 season, the family comedies that had debuted in the late Sixties were on their way out. Both The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch would leave the air in 1974. Among the hit series of the early Seventies was The Mary Tyler Moore Show, so it made sense to turn Doris Martin into a single career woman. The Doris Day Show then reflects the changes that occurred in American television from 1968 to 1973 quite well. It went from a rural, family comedy to an urban, family comedy to a comedy about a single career woman.

I rather suspect that the The Doris Day Show is rather unique in televison history. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any shows that changed their formats nearly as often. In fact, I have to wonder if the final incarnation of The Doris Day Show should not be treated as a different show, but with the same title and the same name for the lead character! At any rate, the changes in format didn't seemed to hurt the series in the ratings, even if it confused me as a child...