Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Funny People"

George Simmons, the actor-comedian character played by Adam Sandler, sports a lot of different teams' wear, including T-shirts for the old New York Titans and the University of Kentucky. But of special note here is a Cleveland Cavaliers jacket he sports during one scene. And, in another moment, his character becomes frustrated while trying to get a Cavs game on TV. Read more!

Friday, July 24, 2009

"The Great Buck Howard": Very Big in Akron

The movie, now on DVD and Blu-ray, stars Colin Hanks as a would-be writer who takes a job as road manager for Buck Howard, a Kreskin-like mentalist who was big at one time.(He made many appearances on "The Tonight Show" during the Johnny Carson era.) But not now. Now, he's playing places like, well, Akron.

"For some reason, the people of Akron, Ohio, went nuts for him," Hanks says as we see Buck exiting an auditorium and greeted by a screaming crowd of fans. One fan holds up a sign saying "Akron (Heart) Buck." (Another major segment in the movie is set in Cincinnati.)

By the way, Tom Hanks, Colin's father in real life and in this movie, did some of his earliest stage acting in Cleveland. And in a small role is Ravenna native Nate Hartley (later seen more prominently in "Drillbit Taylor" and "Role Models"). Read more!

Tim Conway, "Hollywood Palace," Parma

The Tim Conway DVD pictured left has been available for several years, and will be part of a "Comic Legends" DVD box being released on Tuesday. The Conway disc, at least, consists of his appearances on "The Hollywood Palace," a star-laden variety show which aired on ABC from 1964 to 1970.

The sketches on the disc are so-so for the most part, although they do feature Conway's Cleveland-originated bumbler Dag Herford, you do get another look at Conway's taking comic wing and cracking up people on the air; "Fugitive" star David Janssen almost collapses, he is laughing so hard at Conway. (One classic, later example of Conway's gift is of this:)

But while Tim is a local guy, this blog is more about mentions of NE Ohio onscreen. So we'll get to Parma -- after the jump.

A couple of the sketches on the DVD have Tim working with his old friend Ernie "Ghoulardi" Anderson, who was also in Hollywood by this time, and doing some announcing work on "HP." Tim and Ernie had also worked as a comedy duo, releasing a couple of records of their work. And being in Hollywood didn't make them forget their old homestead. One "Palace" sketch from around 1968 has Tim as Dag, in this case the coach of the Olympic team from the "small European country" of Parma. Conway wears a blue sweatshirt with "Parma" on the front in white letters.

Among other things, the sketch has Parma's national colors as "off cream." It has been placing last in every event it has entered, but the team had been plagued by accidents. The high jumper blew up after carrying the Olympic torch -- and cutting through a gas station. The team has only one uniform, which it passes from one teammate to the other; the system worked pretty well -- except in the relay.

Not that all the jokes are at Parma's expense. With the Olympics set for Mexico City, the team simulated competitive conditions; the team "played guitars and drank bad water."

Read more!

"3rd Rock From the Sun": Kind of Kent

After the jump, 1995 interviews with "3rd Rock" creator Bonnie Turner and star John Lithgow, with much about the series' NE Ohio connections.

NBC Entertainment President Warren Littlefield thinks the comedy 3rd Rock from the Sun is sensational and says, "We love all the elements, we love what it is."
It appears to be the most likely series to get on the NBC schedule once one of the network's fall offerings falters. It may make Northeast Ohio residents stand proud. But it also could make you stare suspiciously at your neighbors, wondering where they're really from.
3rd Rock from the Sun involves a band of extraterrestrials who take on human form and set up as family in a university town 52 miles from Cleveland.
Toledo native Bonnie Turner, who with husband Terry has written Wayne's World, The Brady Bunch Movie and other comedies, is a 1973 graduate of Kent State. And she said, "I picked Ohio (for the series) because that's where I went to school."
As for whether any of the professors were as odd as the alien played by John Lithgow in the series, she said, "When I was at Kent, I remember a political science professor who confused the living daylights out of me. He was nuts. ...
"When I was 18 years old and not aware of the world, he would talk about the bigger picture -- a world view. Which was what a universe-ity is about. He would stride around the room and make big gestures and speak in a big voice. He was almost a performance artist. So in writing about this character, I did think about that. ...
"A university is a place (extra-terrestrials) would pick out to go. Where else would you have access to diverse opinions, good minds, you know? ... And my natural mind was to set it in Ohio because I love the state, I love where I was born. And I love it because it was a regular place.
"If you're going to meet human beings, you're not going to meet them in Los Angeles," she said with a smile. "New York, Los Angeles, the South, their environment overtakes who they are, and they become what the city dictates they be. In the Midwest, they are family people, they're consumers, they're church people, they're moral -- they are human in the strictest sense."
Turner wanted to buttress the Ohio connection by calling the college Warren G. Harding University, only to find there was a real school by that name.
"We settled on Pendleton," she said, "because my mother always wore Pendleton wool and she went to the Pendleton store in Toledo. My earliest recollection of the fall, and being cold, and school time, was of Pendleton wool. So I said, let's call it Pendleton State University, and that sounded very Ohio to me."
As if that weren't enough Ohio-ness for one series, Lithgow spent part of a peripatetic youth -- "I went to 10 different schools," he said -- in Akron.
"I was there between '59 and '61 and I lived on the grounds of Stan Hywet Hall because my dad was the (theater) director there," he said. "And I went to ninth grade at Simon Perkins Junior High, 10th grade at Buchtel High and lived right up there on Portage Path in the carriage house. I loved Akron."
Although he was an acting veteran by then -- having made his debut at age 6 in a production of Henry VI, Part III -- Lithgow did give an Akron audience a taste of what was to come. "I played Lt. Rooney in Arsenic and Old Lace at Buchtel," he said.
But the Turners "had no idea that he had even lived there when we wrote the script," Bonnie Turner said.
"We had been writers for Saturday Night Live and he had hosted a couple of times, and we hit it off well and became friends. Then when he read the script and we talked to him three days later, he said, 'Oh, my God, how did you know? Did you know I lived in Ohio?' It was all a happy coincidence."
And far happier than Lithgow's initial reaction to the idea of playing one of four aliens: "Oh, no, not me."
"But about five seconds later I immediately got the comic premise of it," he said. He calls the aliens "marvelous fools, brilliant in their own way, but equally foolish."
They have no special powers but are afflicted both with curiosity and an unvarnished honesty that creates problems in their dealings with humans -- especially in the pilot, where the aliens are adjusting to human form and its accompanying emotions, urges and, um, parts.
The pilot stirred strong emotions among critics here, some finding it funny, others offended by what one writer called "the fixation on breasts, phallic symbols and the uncontrollable hormonal surges."
Turner said, "We are not a politically correct show. We are farcical. I'm always surprised that someone would think I, as a woman, would write anything to offend other women."
And the characters' preoccupation underscores their honesty, Terry Turner said. "I think our aliens have no power except for the truth," he said. "They always tell the truth. Which can be about the scariest power anyone can have."
And, in a way, Bonnie Turner sees that as an Ohio thing -- "an honest existence," she said. The aliens "are honest people, too, and they're going to walk among honest human beings."
Read more!

Monday, July 13, 2009

More on "Route 66"

After the jump is a column I wrote about "Route 66" and NE Ohio, which appeared in Sunday's Beacon Journal. In an early episode of the classic TV series Route 66, one of the main characters turns to the other and declares, ''You know, Youngstown is not exactly on our course.''

In fact, Northeast Ohio in total was not in the path of the beloved American highway. But, as several recent DVD releases show, the series came back to the region again and again — for eight episodes in all.

Route 66 originally aired on CBS from 1960 to 1964. (There was also a short-lived attempt to revive the show on NBC in 1993.) It involved two young men, originally played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, who traveled the country in a Corvette, made money with odd jobs and tried to help a lot of troubled people along the way.

The show tapped into the public sentiment for the highway Route 66, which ran from Chicago to Los Angeles. It had been immortalized in a popular song written by actor-musician Bobby Troup, especially its advice to ''get your kicks on Route 66.''

But the TV series ventured far beyond the route of the actual Route 66. One of the show's selling points was that it was not bound by a Hollywood studio; it made its episodes on location around the U.S., a perpetual road show bringing its cast and crew to two dozen states over the series run.

It not only dropped the names of real locations, it showed them. If a road sign said Cleveland was 17 miles down the road, you could figure the episode would end up in Cleveland.

The show has long had a following both because it was often a well-made and serious show and because it made so many memories around the country when the show came to a given town. There are Web sites devoted to the program (as there are to the highway Route 66), including, which discusses the production and locations of different episodes. Some of the information in this story was taken from the site.

Infinity Entertainment has been gradually issuing DVDs of episodes of the series. On July 21, its set of Route 66: Season Three, Volume One (16 episodes, four discs, $29.98) will complete the release of eight episodes in Northeast Ohio.

Overall, they included, from the first season, The Opponent (shot in Youngstown), Welcome to Amity (Kinsman) and Incident on a Bridge (Youngstown); Two on the House and First Class Mouliak, both done in Cleveland and in the second season; and Every Father's Daughter, Welcome to the Wedding and Only by Cunning Glimpses, all in Cleveland and all in the third season.

In 1961 alone, the show set up camp for a month in the region, shooting the five episodes from the first two seasons. And that wasn't the end of the Ohio experience for Maharis and Milner. After the May-June 1961 production, they came to Akron in August of that year as celebrity guests of the All-American Soap Box Derby.

Sometimes there was a rough chronological sense to the Ohio shows when they aired. The three first-season episodes aired over three consecutive weeks in June 1961, and one seemed to lead into the other.

In The Opponent, Buzz says at one point, ''We have a job in Kinsman,'' which is where the next episode was shot. Unfortunately, Kinsman is renamed Amity in the episode itself.

Not that continuity was always evident. First Class Mouliak (with a young Robert Redford) was the fifth episode of the second season, airing in October 1961, and Two on the House did not follow until much later, in April 1962.

Familiar faces would often show up in different roles. Edward Asner, for example, is a fight trainer in The Opponent, then reappears as another character in Welcome to the Wedding, which also featured Rod Steiger.

And there was the odd travel geography, in which these rambling guys seemed to keep circling back to Ohio.

Part of that undoubtedly stemmed from the region providing a variety of interesting locations. Terminal Tower is visible in every episode, and heavily featured in Welcome to the Wedding. In that episode, you can get a good look at the mural, transplanted from the 1939 World's Fair, which long graced the terminal, as well as a panoramic Cleveland skyline.

The famous Octagon House in Kinsman, boyhood home of lawyer Clarence Darrow, serves as a boarding house in Welcome to Amity. When you freeze the DVD at the right moment, you can even see a sign promoting its historic connection (although, again, this is Amity for the show's purposes). Only by Cunning Glimpses includes the Sahara Hotel, Every Father's Daughter the Vixseboxse art gallery.

Start looking with a group of local folks, and you find yourself pausing so they can study long-remembered scenes, old buildings, bridges and back roads.

Besides the locations, Northeast Ohio attracted the show because producer Sam Manners hailed from Cleveland.

''I have a tremendous pride in my home town,'' Manners told the Cleveland Press as the series began shooting episodes in 1962 for the third season. During the shoot, Manners told the Press, ''We shot scenes of Terminal Tower, Public Square, Edgewater Park, a shopping center, the Cultural Gardens, my former neighborhood on West 99th and the James H. Rand home [on Lake Shore Boulevard].''

The shoots could be challenging. Production would begin before actors had completed scripts.

''We worked six days a week, sometimes seven, because we were always behind schedule,'' Maharis said in an interview with the Route 66 News Web site in 2007. ''You got up at 5 in the morning and you get back to your motel at 7 or 9 at night, sometimes even later.''

For Only by Cunning Glimpses, a barn was built in Warrensville Heights and then burned down, with the latter part of a shoot that went all night. (The Plain Dealer reported that Maharis delayed things at one point by complaining that a fight scene was not realistic enough.)

In The Opponent, as Tod and Buzz walk through a crowded downtown Youngstown, you can spot numerous extras unable to stay in character, staring at the actors passing by them.

But it was a big deal to have a TV show in town then. It still is, for that matter. And Route 66 works not only as a TV show, but as a document of the region's past.

Read more!

Friday, July 10, 2009

"All the Marbles": The Triumph of Jaco's

"All the Marbles" is a strange film about two women wrestlers (played by Vicki Frederick and Laurene Landon) and their manager (Peter Falk). In addition to Los Angeles and Las Vegas, scenes were shot in Youngstown and Akron in 1980. This was not exactly a compliment to Northeast Ohio; a rep of the Ohio Film Bureau told the Beacon Journal that Akron was a draw in part fot its "rundown streets in areas with heavy industry." ...
Falk was a major star at the time, known far and wide as TV's "Columbo." Veteran director Robert Aldrich -- the original "Dirty Dozen" and "The Longest Yard" -- was in charge of what proved to be his last film. (He died in 1983.)
According to a Beacon Journal report at the time, Falk was not even meant to be in the scenes shot in Akron. But then the show's crew discovered Jaco's Drive Thru Beverage on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue.
"We don't have drive-thrus in California, so when we found this place, we decided to write a scene into the script using it,'' a producer told a Beacon Journal reporter. The scene has Falk using the pay phone and buying food at the shop.
Jack Gemmell, then the owner of Jaco's, made jokes inside the shop while Falk was working outside in November 1980. He claimed that the film was there "because Falk wanted to meet me."
One Beacon Journal story described this scene during a snowy day of production:
Dozens of men and women bundled in a colorful assortment of insulated parkas and pants, gloves and galoshes were milling about, talking, moving large amounts of equipment and generally being omnipresent.
Some of them were towing an old yellow Caddy convertible through the building.
Some were warming their hands and bodies with styrofoam cups full of coffee.
Others were ravenously shoving heaps of steaming food from paper plates into their mouths.
And still others were huddled in little groups discussing what seemed to be -- at least from the solemn expressions on their faces -- serious topics.

The story noted that several members of the Gemmell family got non-speaking roles. And Madeline Gemmell, Jack's mother, got to meet Falk. "He was just so nice I couldn't believe it," said one family member of Falk's meeting with Madeline.
You can still see Jaco's, in the shadow of Route 8. Jack Gemmell died in 2008, having moved from Akron to Florida 23 years earlier.

Read more!

Saturday, July 4, 2009

"Route 66"

I want to give you a link to fascinating site. It has been looking at the locations where the classic TV series "Route 66" was shot, especially eight episodes shot in Northeast Ohio (Cleveland, Youngstown and Kinsman). ... Three aired in the first season, two in the second and three more in the third.
The production was in NE Ohio for more than a month in May-June 1961 making five of those shows; stars George Maharis and Martin Milner then came to Akron in August of that year to take part in All-American Soap Box Derby events. They competed in the Oil Can Trophy race against Peter Brown, co-star of TV western "Lawman." (It appears that Maharis won. Milner never got out of the gate because a track volunteeer was still holding back Milner's car with a guiding hook.)
I now have the episodes in hand and may post more on this later.
Read more!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Mr. Rock N Roll," "Sports Night"

"Mr. Rock N Roll," a 1999 TV-movie about Akron/Cleveland/music legend Alan Freed, arrives on DVD on Tuesday. A column I wrote about the movie -- and about a snide reference to Akron on "Sports Night" -- is after the jump. I've also posted an interview with Judd Nelson, who played Freed.Here is the column:
Akron is becoming the new Cleveland. And not in a good way.
Much the way Cleveland was once the butt of national jokes, Akron has taken two shots in prime time this week.
First was on Sports Night, which had a character saying carriage rides were in only "if you're from Akron."
On Sunday night, the NBC movie Mr. Rock 'N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story has legendary disk jockey Freed declaring, "Cleveland wasn't the big time but it was better than Akron."
There's a faint historical justification for the line, since Freed (played by Judd Nelson) worked in Akron before moving up to Cleveland and later New York City. But it's still a slap at Akron made worse by the disparaging of Cleveland.
In radio in the '50s, Cleveland was the big time, where a radio station's playing a new record would inspire other stations around the country to follow suit. But that's just one of the many ways Mr. Rock 'N' Roll rewrites or invents Freed's story, from the anachronistic use of songs to fictionalizing the names of radio stations. Besides, Cleveland is played by Toronto.
Most of the effort in the movie seems to have gone into staging a few musical numbers where modern actors mime to vintage rock and roll tracks (by Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and others). The rest of it looks hasty, sloppy and under-budgeted.
If you want to see Alan Freed as a mythic figure, your time's better spent hunting for American Hot Wax, a 1978 big-screen effort with Tim McIntire as Freed, the real Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a young actor named Jay Leno.
Mr. Rock 'N' Roll is just one of several looks at Northeast Ohio in recent days.
This week also included the 20/20 portrait of Audrey Iacona, the Granger Township woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 1997 death of her newborn son. Iacona, also the subject of a Dateline NBC profile in March, was treated very well by 20/20 -- appearing as a combination of Britney Spears and Joan of Arc.
Next week, PBS's Nova will offer yet another TV look at the notorious Sam Sheppard case. WVIZ (Channel 25) will air Nova at 9 p.m. Tuesday followed by a one-hour special Feagler & Friends on the Sheppard case; WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49) will carry Nova at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
A science series, Nova shows how forensic science has been used in an effort to solve the 1954 murder in Bay Village of Sheppard's wife Marilyn, or at least to determine Sheppard's guilt or innocence in the case. That's an ongoing effort that included the recent exhumation and re-examination of Mrs. Sheppard's body.
Nova spends a lot of time rehashing old information but does consider the scientific issues in more detail than some other Sheppard programs.
DNA evidence extracted from blood at the crime at first seemed to point to another suspect, Richard Eberling. "But it turns out that the evidence against Eberling is far weaker than it initially appears," the program's narrative says, nor did all the blood evidence rule out Sheppard's involvement.
Terry Gilbert, attorney for Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, nonetheless went to the news media to spin the findings to his favor, a move the documentary says backfired. In the most dramatic scene in the program, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, then the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, tears into Gilbert and his supposed evidence.
The program ends with the plan to exhume Mrs. Sheppard's body, but with no definitive conclusion on who killed her. Which is pretty much the way things have been for decades.
All things considered, Northeast Ohio probably doesn't need all this attention, especially if it's distorting history and showcasing brutal crimes. We could keep TV producers from crossing into Ohio -- but they'd just use Canada as a substitute.

And here is the Nelson interview:
When Alan Freed died in 1965 at the age of 43, he was, in journalist John Morthland's words, "a poor man, unemployed and unemployable."
The former Akron and Cleveland disc jockey had been driven out of the radio business during the payola scandals of the late '50s and early '60s, when he was the most visible entrepreneur caught taking money from record companies in exchange for playing their tunes on the air.
But Freed has maintained a claim to fame, not just in Northeast Ohio but around the world, as one of the key figures in bringing black music known as rhythm and blues to a white, teen-age audience under a new name: rock and roll.
However dishonored he was in his time, Freed has an honored place in rock history, including posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year, a major biography in 1991 (Big Beat Heat: The Alan Freed Story, by John M. Jackson) and, at 9 p.m. Sunday, an NBC TV movie, Mr. Rock 'N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story.
Based on press materials about the movie, it's going to look especially closely at Freed as a force for social change, from his playing of black music on the radio in Cleveland and later New York City to his battles with ABC after singer Frankie Lyman danced with a white girl on a Freed-hosted TV show.
That fits in with other recent NBC successes, including The Temptations and The '60s, which blended social issues with nostalgic soundtracks. Mr. Rock 'N' Roll uses about 20 vintage recordings, from Buddy Holly, the Clovers, Moonglows and other artists.
(It also, probably not coincidentally, sticks the knife into CBS by getting on the air before that network's four-hour, birth-of-rock movie Shake, Rattle & Roll arrives in November.)
Judd Nelson, who plays Freed, was only 5 years old when the DJ died but was aware of him even before making the movie.
"I'm a big blues fan," Nelson said during a recent telephone interview. "And I knew that he was one of the few people that helped kick-start (radio) integration."
Indeed, Nelson believes that Freed's later troubles were a result of his stand against racism.
"A lot of disc jockeys were guilty of payola, but only one was drummed out of the business," Nelson said with a touch of hyperbole. "The reason must be in his social positions. He created a lot of enemies by not seeing color in music. Other people didn't want the races mixing."
Indeed, Morthland -- writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll -- has said, "Playing black music by itself did not make Freed such a revolutionary figure; any number of black DJs . . . were already doing that. Freed was, however, among the first to program black music for a white audience, and for this he . . . suffered legal harassment well before his fall in the payola hearings."
Nelson was intrigued by playing Freed, so much so that he went to work on the movie within days of finishing another project. He scrambled to research Freed via the Internet and studied surviving film of Freed. To be ready, he said, "sleep was getting sacrificed."
Besides, Nelson said, "I like working." Since getting out of the series' grind by leaving Suddenly Susan earlier this year, he's worked on about seven projects, from the Freed movie to independent films to a Spin and Marty revival movie for ABC.
And in researching Freed, he found someone with plenty of flaws, from hard drinking to a hard-driving business sense.
"Any ambitious guy is going to overlook things," Nelson said. "In his case, he sacrificed his family for his career. But he had had that car crash (in 1950) and the doctors told him if he didn't smoke and drink, he might have another 10 years. So he thought he had a lot shorter time to accomplish things than most people."
Nelson said his performance is not a mimicking of Freed, who called himself "King of the Moondoggers" on the air and whose '50s radio style might sound grating to '90s ears. But it was still a kick to step back in time when the movie was being shot in Toronto.
Now, he said, he'd like to get back to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. His one trip to the city included a visit to another local landmark: Jacobs Field -- which he loved.
Of course, he had some mixed feelings about the team that plays there. Born and raised in Maine, Nelson is a longtime Red Sox fan

Read more!

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"The West Wing": "Mr. Willis of Ohio"

This blog took a break while I was on vacation, but I expect to get some new posts up soon, starting with this one, about the sixth episode of "The West Wing," called "Mr. Willis of Ohio."

The episode is important in the history of "West Wing" because of several plot threads, notably a bar confrontation involving Zoey Bartlet which leads to the president making comments which foreshadow the Zoey kidnapping later in the series. But the title of the episode, written by Aaron Sorkin, points us to the great civics lesson in the telecast, with an ordinary citizen proving wiser about the good of the nation than the professional politicians around him.

Toby is trying to get votes for a census issue. One of them is Joe Willis, an eighth-grade Social Studies teacher appointed to complete the term of his late wife.
He apparently has no plans to run for her seat -- he pointedly declines to be called "Congressman" early in the episode, and at the end indicates that he will only be casting one vote in the House before he leaves.

The issue -- involving whether to use a population sample or a head count -- is full of political implications. But Toby carries the day when Willis, who is African-American, agrees to support the White House proposal. He has been persuaded by Toby's argument that the Constitution can be read flexibly on how to count the population because it counts a slave as just three-fifths of a person. (Willis knows this because of his teaching Social Studies.) At the end of the show, Toby, full of admiration for Willis, pauses before a staff poker game to see the telecast of Willis casting his vote.

Willis, by the way, is identified solely as a congressman from Ohio, rather than being from a specific district, although "West Wing" did at times toss around references to individual congressional districts. But it is reasonable to think of him as being from Northeast Ohio, since that was the home base of Louis Stokes, the first African-American to represent Ohio in the House of Representatives. A year before "The West Wing" aired, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, the first African-American woman to represent Ohio in the House, had been elected to Stokes's seat after his retirement. Of course, both Tubbs Jones and Stokes were veteran politicians, while Willis is not.

There is also a band from Switzerland called Mr. Willis of Ohio.

Read more!