June 2013

FEEDING THE CREATIVE BEAST

I just returned from a three-day old-time radio event known as the REPS (Radio Enthusiasts of Puget Sound) Showcase, held in Seattle, Washington. I look forward to this event every year in June. I give my time and efforts by preparing and directing recreations of classic radio shows for those fans in attendance and in return I get to feed my creative beast.

What do I mean by “creative beast”? Well, as any creative person knows, we are drawn—even compelled—to seek outlets for our artistic pursuits. Some are our main passions in life but some are also little joys that nourish us, make us happy, and keep us on an even keel.
We work to live. We do not live to work. Every person has bills to pay and obligations in life. But if we deny that thing inside of us that brings us creative joy and satisfaction, we run the very real risk of changing who we are. For example, I came to Los Angeles in 1990 to become a working actor. I did. But it was not on the level of regularity that would allow me to forego any other kind of work to pay my bills and raise my family. If I went too long between jobs as an actor I became surly and negative. No fun to be around. A gig would come—one scene, one day, one line—I like to say, and I would be filled with optimism and satisfaction. Then no acting job for a few months, and the cycle would repeat.
I have written before of the period when I was deeply depressed over the lack of success of my first feature film that I wrote, directed, and produced. I had gambled on jump-starting a regular acting-directing career and it had not worked. I saw that SPERDVAC (the Society to Preserve and Encourage Radio Drama, Variety And Comedy) was having a three-day convention at a hotel near LAX, close to where I live. So I sought solace in being around people who worked in, or were fans of, Old-Time Radio, a hobby of mine since I was quite young. Just being around those artists and friendly people buoyed my spirits and—even better—inspired me in a new direction.
Through a chain of events over the next few years, I met and interviewed many well-known radio personalities for a documentary film that is still my passion no matter how long it takes to complete. My connection with the radio legend (there is no other word for him) Norman Corwin, coupled with his 100th birthday, led me to REPS in 2010. I was there with Norman. I interviewed him in front of an eager audience of attendees, I facilitated his book signed event there, and directed my very first radio recreation in his honor: a 1944 play he wrote called “Untitled.” One of the regular radio recreation directors there pulled me aside afterwards and said, while smiling conspiratorially, “You’re one of us now. There’s no going back.”
He was right. I was back the next year and the next, each year directing more shows and even acting in some. I got better at it and more confident. These trips to Seattle each year began with creative anxiety (Will this play work? Will the audience enjoy it? Will the actors respond to my direction?) and always ended with a calm sense of pride and accomplishment. And so I always return to Los Angeles, initially exhausted and spent, but re-energized, as if having been nourished with an elixir of artistic success and determination. I have fed my creative beast.
And so it is once again. I look forward to the creative future even as I reflect on the journey that has let me to this point. And it is the creative beast for me, and not the creative soul, that drives me. At first I was going to write about my creative soul until I acknowledged that, at least for me, it is a beast that drives me. I believe that my creative soul is the place where all of my artistic potential resides, but it is the beast that must be fed. It is the beast that demands that I not justdream, but act on those dreams. Otherwise, what remains is an angry, unfulfilled, bitter man with an ironically gentle artistic soul.
And what good is that?
I’m just saying…

Corwin on things not to be neglected.

Among the things not to be neglected are the expressions that have been forthright and persistent in American history, expressions in which the common person is recognized; Walt Whitman’s sense of the importance of the individual.

He’s got a poem in “Leaves of Grass,” the sense of which is: the president is there in the White House for you, not you here for him.

It’s a poem that expresses the value and the almost sacred obligation to recognize, to give dignity to the individual. After all, nature does. Nature respects us.

There are billions of people on this globe. Think of it. No two of them have the same thumbprint.

Corwin on Radio.

My kind of radio is that which takes into account the intelligence of my audience. I do not believe in talking down. I also brought to the microphone my concerns; my feeling about society; my feeling about war and peace; my feeling about man as a species that is developing and for which we cherish hopes, frequently dashed, as they are at the moment. Certainly long delayed. We’re not speaking too long after the terrible event of September 11, 2001.

I really believe that had the great poets of yore been around today, or men of their caliber, they would opt for radio because radio is a medium that sets up the listener as a collaborator. Whereas television, which is by far the richest and more potent medium today, is very literal. Radio demands, requires the collaboration, just as a good book does: the collaboration being between the writer and the reader. Here it is between the writer and the listener.

What radio has the capacity to offer is an embellishment, is thoughtfulness, is an opportunity to express concepts, to witness a war, to comment upon its ramifications, its progress, its justice or injustice, its horror, its goals, with something approaching dignified language. I don’t mean that in the sense of starchy or high falutin,’ but something that is not a gutter, something that is more than a gut reaction.

Some day I hope that there will be enough of an audience so that radio, as you and I know it, can be revitalized, can return. It exists in small measure now. That kind of radio has retreated to higher ground, [at] work that is done by dramatists who are broadcast by NPR, by PRI. Public radio is the high ground.

My last six programs, done with the help and inspiration of Mary Beth Kirchner, were broadcast nationally and they enjoyed the kind of freedom that I had in the days of Bill Paley and Bill Lewis. They had pretty good audiences. I was surprised by the number of people who spent money to acquire cassettes of some of those programs. So it is not as though we’re talking about an extinct form of broadcasting.

Corwin on Promise.

I believe in promises, just a promise. Once we give up the sense of promise, we’re finished. I think that the future beckons us, that there’s a lot of work to be done. Right now, there’s cleaning up to do. The business of purging this world of the menace of sneaky cowardly, vicious, savage terror. I’m talking about anthrax and all of the goodies that appeal to the terrorist.

But any species that can weigh the very earth he’s standing on, that can receive and analyze light coming from a galaxy a billion light years distant from us, any species that can produce a Beethoven and a Mozart and a Shakespeare, and the extraordinary accomplishments of our species, sciences and in medicine and in the humanities, has an illimitable opportunity for promises to be delivered and met.

AT THE MOVIES (?!)

I went to see a movie last week. At least that’s what I thought I was doing. It’s been a while, but has it been so long that the whole paradigm has changed? There are, after all, expectationswhen one sees a movie in the theater. I’ve had these expectations my whole life. Of course some things have changed about going to the movies, but these changes have been subtle… until now.

It’s the “now” that I wish to speak about…

I arrived a half hour early, bought my ticket, and strolled into the theater. The screen was already busy with a kinetic flow of images and dialogue. I had been expecting to hear pop music playing coupled with the projection of local ads and a quaint movie quiz game. At first I thought that I must be late and that the coming attraction trailers were in progress. I saw Liev Schreiber, Elliott Gould, and Jon Voight. What movie is this? Imagine my surprise to find out that it’s no movie at all. Rather, it was a commercial for the upcoming Showtime series Ray Donovan.
This was followed by “info-tainment-mmericals” for some crap on History Channel that has no connection to history (imagine that), and other sundry cable television A&E shows, et cetera, ad nauseam.
TV ads at the movies?! Why on earth would a movie theater advertise to its customers a product designed to keep them at home? There is only one answer. Money. They are paid to run these infotainmentpieceoshit stuff and have little economic choice in the matter. I’ll bet Showtime and History and A&E are paying better than Johnny’s Scrub-A-Dub-Dub local car wash projection slide. Which is really too bad for Johnny… and me. I like to shop locally and now the movie theater has taken the last vestiges of that advertising platform away. (Although I must admit that I hated those tacky slides when they first appeared. Little did I know I was living in the halcyon days of local advertising at the movies.)
Okay. So I tuned the stuff out, as did most of the expectant crowd, who were instead transfixed by their glowing cell phone screens, finding it far more interesting than the Ray Donovan preview. HOWEVER, I must concede that the Liev Schreiber project commercial did at least try to tell a story so as to entice me to watch. The same cannot be said for the movie trailers that unrolled before my eyes.
The lights dimmed and the MPAA billboard flooded every inch of the screen. “The following Preview has been approved for All Audiences.” It was the last intelligible thing I saw.
For the next 25 minutes I was treated to trailer after trailer after trailer of upcoming movies. Did I mention that this took 25 minutes of my life that I will never see again? I couldn’t tell you all of the movies that were advertised because it all seemed to flow together. None of the trailers told a story. Barely any showed an actor actually speaking with their lips moving. Instead I heard voice-overs from their dialogue slapped over hyperkinetic images consisting of CGI explosions and things zooming past the camera. These things could be anything, but the important part is that they zoom with loud sound. ZOOM! ZIP! Then—to give my eyeballs a break—they cut to an actor’s face in close-up with a slow dolly in. The actor, of course, says nothing but stares with intensity as if they were rendered mute by the awesome preceding explosions and zipping, zooming things…
Now I remember one of the trailers! It was for a film called Man of Steel. It’s the story of… well, this guy with a
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beard works on a fishing boat… then… somehow he also saves a school bus from sinking and… then he’s in a costume (no beard) but under arrest and tells the woman that the letter “S” on his chest means “hope”… but the wise-ass woman deadpans that here it is just an “S.”

How can you make Superman so uninteresting and lifeless? WHAT IS THE STORY? WHAT IS IT ABOUT? WHY SHOULD I CARE?
A 30-second television commercial for Cialis tells a clearer story than a three-minute movie trailer! How can that be? You have me captive in the theater. I am yours to sell. Make me want to return and spend more money at your theater. Instead I get “sound and fury signifying nothing.” These trailers are edited exactly as if they are the latest Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty videogame commercial.
I actually used to look forward to seeing movie trailers. They were longer than a television commercial, told more of the story, and involvedme (at least the good ones did) for those two or three minutes. Movie preview trailers used to feel like an appetizer before the main course. Now they feel like rapid tequila shots without the warm, fuzzy feeling—leaving only the burning sensation that leaves you breathless and ready to heave.
Can’t be much clearer than that.
I’m just saying…

HONORING FRANK BRESEE AND AMERICAN RADIO HISTORY

On May 19,2013 I was fortunate to be among the attendees honoring Frank Bresee and his wonderful wife Bobbie on the occasion of the generous donation of his vast personal collection of radio memorabilia to the American Radio Archives housed at the Thousand Oaks Library in Thousand Oaks, California. It is the same location that houses the collection of Norman Corwin as well as those of Rudy Vallee, Red Skelton, Carlton E. Morse, radio station KNX, and the Pacific Pioneers Broadcasters, to name only a handful.

The Thousand Oaks Grant R. Brimhall Library was decked out radio treasures from the collection such as microphones from CBS, NBC and ABC, a vintage 1930s Philco Radio, transcription discs, posters and the metal contraption known as “Radio’s Oscar.” Ah, yes, Radio’s Oscar! I will speak more of that later…

First, it’s important to explain just who Frank Bresee is and why he is especially important to me.

When I was around ten years old my mother introduced me to the world of Old Time Radio with LP records and cassettes of some classic radio shows such as Jack Benny, Abbott & Costello, Lights Out, and The Shadow. I was hooked!

One year for my birthday I got a cassette called The Golden Days of Radio. It was hosted by Frank Bresee, and this episode featured highlights from radio comedy shows. For the first time ever, I heard Amos ‘n Andy, Lum ‘n Abner, The Easy Aces, Baby Snooks, Lucille Ball in My Favorite Husband, and much more. I wore the tape out! Later I discovered that Frank had hosted this radio series since the 1950s—including a phenomenal 29-year run over Armed Forces Radio (1967-1996). In fact, the show still airs over YesterdayUSA.com, a streaming Internet-based radio station.

You see, Frank’s voice had introduced me these radio comedies and fueled my interest in this mostly-forgotten epoch in entertainment. So, many years later, when I got to meet him in person, I was a bit star-struck. That’s unusual for me, actually. It must have been a deeply buried feeling of gratitude that welled up in me when I met him. He is the nicest of men and thoroughly a class act. On the occasions I have interacted with his beautiful wife Bobbie Bresee, I am charmed beyond measure.

Now about “Radio’s Oscar.” A few years ago I was visiting Frank at his Hancock Park home in Los Angeles and got a tour of his studio used for interviewing many of the legends of the Golden Age of Radio, the home theater his the basement where he and Monty Hall created “Let’s Make A Deal,” and the famous blackboard with signatures of many Hollywood luminaries who had visited and hung out, among them: Elvis Presley and Natalie Wood. But what I most remember about that visit was something I saw at the foot of the stairs leading to the basement. It was a strange metal device with a curved bar across the top. It was called, Frank explained to me with a gleam in his eye, “Radio’s Oscar.” It was created especially for Cecil B. DeMille to use on the “Lux Radio Theater,” broadcast every week from what is now the Ricardo Montalban Theater in Hollywood.

The strange apparatus was placed directly underneath the hanging microphone poised to instantly transmit the actor’s voices nationwide as

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they guest starred on this high-rated series. The stars of these weekly adaptations of movie scripts were, naturally, movie stars. Some of them were terribly nervous about radio’s live quality and zero chance to redo a line or a scene. Additionally, the theater was packed with a live audience! The pressure caused actors and actresses to wander off-mike (too far away from the microphone) or worse, move in too close! So DeMille, the story goes, had this metal stand built and placed directly under the microphone thus keeping the actors at the proper distance from the microphone and give them something to hold on to! Bette Davis was known to grip the curved handle while giving a performance. Frank showed me a photo of Cary Grant at its side during a Lux rehearsal. Frank Bresee rescued this treasure of broadcasting history when he discovered that no one remembered or knew what it was used for and, during a period when a lot of history was trashed in Hollywood, it was relegated to the trash—literally in the studio dumpster. A tipoff to Frank and he saved the day!

Flash forward to May 19, 2013: I was able to get my photo standing with Radio’s Oscar and gripping the same bar that helped Bette Davis get through her broadcast.

All thanks to Frank Bresee.

I’m just saying…