Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The double-digit years' gap

Well, I guess this has become old home week.

Yesterday, former high school classmate Jenny Beets and I got together for lunch at Litton's. Gosh, it was hard not to order that famous burger.

Anyway, we got caught up on this and that, life's little moments, ups and downs. Then she asked if I had time to run up to the high school.

"Sure," said I.

So off we went. Jenny chatted with her old dance team sponsor, Tina Perry, in the office. Then, we sneaked into Trina Polston's classroom so Jenny could chat with Mrs. P.

Jenny says the school hasn't changed at all. And, in a lot of ways, it hasn't.

But it never has felt right to me since the spring day I left it in 1996. And, I finally figured out why --

The people made that place. It wasn't the bricks-and-mortar, the stairs that lead to nowhere, the cramped locker room. It was the people.

For good and bad, too. I choose to remember most of it through rose-colored glasses. But, of course, there were folks you didn't like and hope you never see again. And bad memories, too. Some you'd like to forget. Some you can't.

We tried to get in to see Marcia Southern, but she was in the midst of a lecture we hated to interrupt. Maybe next time.

As I drove back to the office, I realized how neat it was to tour that place with a classmate. Whenever I go there alone -- with my work -- I view the old school clinically, as a place to be in order to do a job.

For a few minutes, though, the old memories came back, and the double-digit years' gap seemed but yesterday.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Old friends

Time it was, and what a time it was... Paul Simon, "Old Friends"

Guess there's just something special about old friends.

Hung out with a bunch of them this past weekend. And, you know, even beyond a big trip to Birmingham, reunions and singing sessions, it's the people -- the friends -- that make it memorable.

Decided to take a last trip of summer (squeezed it in before the autumn equinox) to Alabama to hear my favorite singer. So glad I did.

Robin was playing at a quaint little coffeehouse, laid-back, easygoing, appreciative audience. I got there early, ate Mexican at a cantina around the corner, and lost myself in the music for a couple of hours.

Before the show, I sat outside, enjoying what had become a nice night, happy I made the trip.

Sunday meant a drive home and a stop at Maggie Meyers' house for another Spanish III reunion. I guess we all must have been a close group because getting together is always a special time. We laugh and carry on, moving back and forth among the memories.

After lunch, it was on to Fountain City, to practice with Emily and Larry Van for the upcoming "comeback" show. Going over "Broken Lady" and Peter, Paul and Mary and classic country reminded me how vocally out of shape I am. But, I can't wait for our October gig. Singing soothes the soul.

But, as I say, the best part of an even better weekend is hanging out with old friends. They are one of life's most cherished treasures, worth more than all the gold in California.

Time it was, and what a time it was...

Friday, September 18, 2009

'Riders of the Silver Screen'

As our week-long salute to western movies comes to a close, I thought I would share with you my list of favorite B-western stars.

I cherish these films. Most of them were made on the cheap, and yet, the producers still managed to churn out entertaining pictures that are enjoyable even today.

My heroes have always been cowboys, so here are a few of my favorites from the so-called B-westerns:

Roy Rogers The great debate between B-Western fans is over who was better -- Roy or Gene. Truth be told, they both were great. But, Roy has always been my favorite.

Can't really tell you why, other than I just liked his look, his aw-shucks sincerity, his attractive wife Dale Evans and his entertaining TV series. Oh, and his horse Trigger probably has something to do with it as well.

Roy was a gentleman and a great role model for kids. It's too bad his TV series hasn't gotten better treatment in syndication or on DVD.

Tex Ritter How can you not like Tex? He had a fantastic voice, a likable screen persona and an entertaining way about him. Sometimes, famous friends would show up in his pictures, too, like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. His son, the late John Ritter, once said he used to watch his parents' movies as a child and think that was real life. If only...

Hopalong Cassidy Hoppy was a bona fide cult hero during his heyday. William Boyd's character was unusual in that he was a good guy who wore a black hat. Like Tex Ritter, he had a fantastic voice. His films are some of the more entertaining in the genre. A really cool box set (collected in a lunch box!) of his complete films is available on DVD.

Sky King I know this was a TV show, but I have to throw Sky King into the mix because a) it's basically a western with the hero using an airplane instead of a horse and b) the star, Kirby Grant, also appeared in several B-movies. Sky King is another character that was/is a great role model for kids. I have no idea why this hasn't been seen on TV in decades. A complete series box set is available, but it's rather expensive.

Gene Autry You can't leave Gene out of the mix. He had the best voice of any of the singing cowboys and could throw a mean punch. I like his TV series a bit better than his movies, although Pat Buttram gets on my nerves. Gene is one of the cowboy legends, no doubt about it.

Allan "Rocky" Lane I can't tell you why I like Allan Lane as much as I do, other than I've seen several of his movies on Marshal Andy's "Riders of the Silver Screen" and have enjoyed them to the hilt. His career spanned nearly 40 years -- and don't forget he was the voice of TV's "Mr. Ed"!

You can see many of these B-western heroes at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays on Marshal Andy's "Riders of the Silver Screen," which airs in Knoxville on Channels 2 and 15. Don't forget about the special live taping of the show at 10 a.m. tomorrow (Sept. 19).

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

'A perfect picture'

At the dinner legendary director John Ford held as he wrapped production on his classic film "The Quiet Man," he reportedly said that this movie would be his epitaph.

And, in a strange way, Ford was correct.

I know what you're thinking. Yes, Ford made movies for another 12 years. Yes, two of them ("The Searchers" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance") are considered classics.

But, "The Quiet Man" was Ford's dream, and as film historian Don Calhoun pointed out in our recent interview, Pappy was never quite the same after his dream made it to the big screen.

Ford bought the rights to the Maurice Walsh short story in "The Saturday Evening Post" for $10 in 1933. He tried for years to get a studio to back the film adaptation, but nobody would touch it, figuring a quaint Irish tale wouldn't make money at the box office.

Finally, he struck a deal with Republic Pictures chief Herbert J. Yates. Republic would finance "The Quiet Man" if Ford would agree to film a western starring John Wayne and Maureen O'Hara (the leads in "The Quiet Man") for Republic. That movie became "Rio Grande."

Much of "The Quiet Man" was filmed in Ford's native Ireland. It centers around the love affair between Sean Thornton (Wayne) and Mary Kate Danaher (O'Hara). It is an idealized portrayal of Ireland, but was shot in brilliant Technicolor (a victory for Ford over the studio, which wanted to use its awful TruColor process), so it captures that country's trademark green countryside in all its glory.

The film's most famous scene is the long, climactic fight between Thornton and Mary Kate's brother Will, played to the hilt by Victor McLaglen. It, and any scene featuring Ward Bond as the town priest, are the best parts of the movie.

"The Quiet Man" was a huge hit at the box office and a personal and professional triumph for John Ford. He won an Academy Award as Best Director for this film.

As Calhoun noted in our interview, Ford never really recovered, though. He made a series of stinkers ("Donovan's Reef" represents the nadir in his long association with John Wayne) and his final film, "Cheyenne Autumn," is meandering and unwatchable.

But, he brought his dream to the screen, and it remains a testament to the best of his moviemaking. As Calhoun put it, "This is a perfect picture. It isn't my favorite, but it's a perfect picture."

Read the print interview with Don Calhoun this week at www.ShopperNewsNow.com. Tomorrow, I'll wrap up this week-long look at westerns by naming my favorite B-Western stars.

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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Film noir, in the narrow margin...

Folks might get the idea that Don Calhoun only loves cowboy pictures. Not so.

During our recent interview (read the printed edition at www.ShopperNewsNow.com this week), the B-Western historian also mentioned that he loves film noir.

Talk about some great flicks.

In its classic sense, film noir refers to pictures released from the early 1940s through the late 1950s, mostly crime dramas, that were quite stylistic and often dealt with sex and moral ambiguity. They were always filmed in an understated black-and-white, which added to the film's overall mood.

When asked for examples, Don named one of my favorites, "The Narrow Margin," which I reviewed on this blog in the April 14, 2008, entry. Other titles from the classic period Don named as favorites include "Detour," "Murder, My Sweet," "The Hitchhiker" and "Out of the Past."

"A lot of these were basically B films," Don says. "But they work with a limited amount of money and get good people and do what they can with them."

Don says that RKO Studios produced the best film noir pictures as a whole.

These days, the definition of "film noir" has expanded to include several Humphrey Bogart films (most notably "The Maltese Falcon") and stretches forward as late as 1970.

But, the best by far are the classics from the '40s and 50s. For the record, my favorite is "Laura," a film I consider to be one of the best movies period.

Check back tomorrow for a review of the film Don Calhoun says nearly drove director John Ford nuts...

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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Wild Bill, 'Red Ryder' and the best of the Bs

During our recent interview (read it this week at www.ShopperNewsNow.com), B-western film historian Don Calhoun said that his favorite B-western cowboy is Wild Bill Elliott.

"I just like Bill Elliott," Calhoun says. "To me, he had it all -- the films had (plenty of) action, he was a good rider, had the voice, had the look."

Born Gordon A. Nance in Missouri, Elliott made his first western, "The Arizona Wildcat," in 1927. His big break came when Columbia tapped him to play the lead in "The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok" in 1938. (Columbia president Harry Cohn was the one who renamed him Bill Elliott, by the way.)

Elliott's popularity was such that he was one of the Motion Picture Herald's Top 10 Western Stars for the next 15 years. Beginning in 1943, he made a popular series of eight films as "Wild" Bill Elliott at Republic, co-starring George "Gabby" Hayes.

But his best known work came in the 16 movies he made as "Red Ryder," the popular comic strip cowboy. His trademark was two six-shooters worn butts-forward. His popularity hit such a peak with "Red Ryder" that Elliott continued making "B" westerns through the 1950s.

Tomorrow we'll look at Don Calhoun's thoughts on his other favorite genre, film noir. And don't forget that Marshal Andy Smalls is hosting a special live taping of "Riders of the Silver Screen" at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at the ETP-TV, 1611 E. Magnolia Ave. in Knoxville. The public is welcome.

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Monday, September 14, 2009

'Ride the High Country'

My father says there's only right and wrong -- good and evil. Nothing in between. It isn't that simple, is it?

No, it isn't. It should be, but it isn't.

When I interviewed "Deadwood" Don Calhoun for an article that appears in today's (Monday, Sept. 14) Shopper-News, (read it at www.ShopperNewsNow.com) he reminded me of a classic western, Randolph Scott's last film, "Ride the High Country," from 1962. Rented it from Netflix and watched it again over the weekend.

Put simply: what a beautiful flick.

The film is an elegy in many ways to the end of an era, a tip of the cap to the Golden Age of American westerns. But, it is also a commentary on how a man faces mortality, how a gunfighter meets his fate. It is an unsentimental western released in a time dominated by unambiguous corn.

Scott plays Gil Westrum, partner to ex-law officer Steve Judd (Joel McCrea), who is hired to transport gold from a tough mining community through a rough patch of wild country. Westrum has become a barker in a wild west show and is glad for the work. Judd is getting old but wants to prove he's still got it.

So they join up with youngster Heck Longtree (Ron Starr) to ride the range one last time. Along the way, though, they run into Elsa (Meriette Hartley) and her fundamentalist father Joshua (R.G. Armstrong). Elsa is set to marry a man in the mining camp, played by James Drury, who brings with him an outlaw gang of a family.

Without giving away too much, the gist of this film is that Judd has no idea that Westrum, his former partner, and the youngster Longtree, are planning to double-cross him and steal the gold. He faces all this in addition to the problems that arise in the mining camp.

I won't spoil the ending other than to tell you that director Sam Peckinpah delivers an honest motion picture that doesn't shy away from the sad fact that the world isn't black-and-white, that both good and bad lie within all of us, and that human beings, even those who are basically decent, are also fairly complicated.

Scott finished a brilliant career with this film. He spent several years making average westerns, then jumped to a series of classics directed by Budd Boetticher. (The best one is "Seven Men From Now," which I will review in a day or so.) Peckinpah went on to direct several fine films, including "Straw Dogs" and "The Wild Bunch." McCrea made a few more films, but more or less said good-bye to a good career in this underrated classic. Hartley said she never topped this role, which was her first.

I guess my favorite part is the climax, in which Westrum and Judd decide to go out with guns blazing, heads held high. As Judd says, "All I want is to enter my house justified."

This is a fine western, indeed a fine film of any genre, one you have to see if you pretend to know anything about American cinema. It speaks to our fears about mortality, our thoughts about character, our motivations as the multi-faceted human beings we really are.

Peckinpah directs a western that deals with all of this and gives Randolph Scott a fitting epitaph. See this film, if you haven't. Oh, it's good. Mighty good.

Check back for more this week on Don Calhoun, A- and B-Westerns, TV cowboy favorites and other info on classic oaters. Don't forget that Marshal Andy Smalls will host a special live taping of "Riders of the Silver Screen" at 10 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Knoxville PBS station on E. Magnolia Ave. Show up, have breakfast and enjoy the show. It will air on Channels 2 and 15 at the same time.

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Sunday, September 13, 2009

The day Johnny came marching home

And, so, it's back to reality.

After our dancing in the streets opener against Western Kentucky, Tennessee football fans were brought down to earth last night following a 19-15 upset loss to UCLA. I will leave it to others to talk about Jonathan Crompton's inept performance and a shaky offensive effort that ruined both stellar defense and a beautiful late summer Knoxville afternoon.

No, today, let's talk about the day Johnny came marching home.

In case you weren't there, UT honored one of its legends yesterday. Former head coach John Majors came back in a big way. He led the team down the traditional Vol Walk to the stadium. He was honored before the game. He was at midfield for the coin toss. And, yep, there he was, strolling the sidelines once again, in that trademark coat and tie.

My, how good it all felt, an overdue make-up perhaps, or at least a way to finally put 1992 behind us.

And, in case you weren't there either, here's what happened 17 years ago:

Majors underwent heart surgery before the season started. Serious stuff. UT announced that offensive coordinator Phil Fulmer would coach the team while Majors recuperated.

The Vols jumped out to a 5-0 start, which included unexpected wins at Georgia and against Florida. Majors returned to work sooner than expected (he reportedly just showed up at practice without telling anybody) and coached the Cincinnati game from the press box.

Then things just, well, went to hell. UT lost three straight -- to Arkansas, Alabama and South Carolina. Some fans (and others) jumped on Fulmer's bandwagon. (I never will forget the classless and disgusting chants of "Block That Artery!" at a home game that year.)

Word leaked in the days leading up to the Memphis State game that some kind of press conference would be held on, of all days, Friday the 13th. At it, Majors announced that he was being forced to resign at the end of the year.

To be fair, I should say that 1992 had not been a good year. Majors lost one of his best friends, trainer Tim Kerin. He had complained loud and long about wanting a pay raise during the preseason tour around the state. I have heard that a couple of the exchanges he had with old friends and members of UT's athletic board weren't pretty.

Still, the news was a shock. After all, Johnny was a favorite son, and the team despite its skid finished 8-3 and went to a Jan. 1 bowl.

Majors and some others said that it was part of a conspiracy, that Fulmer and others conspired to get his job. Fulmer denied it, said he'd remained a loyal assistant.

I don't know. I do think it's the great untold story of Tennessee football. Nobody in the local press at the time either had the sources or the guts to tell the real tale. About five people know the truth. Who knows whether they will ever blab about it.

Anyway, Majors left at the end of the year, returning to Pitt, where he'd once won a national championship and was (and is) a beloved figure. He remained bitter about the Tennessee firing and didn't have too much to do with his alma mater until after Fulmer's contract was bought out last year.

Perhaps Majors' biggest coaching flaw was his inconsistency. Legendary sportswriter Marvin West calls it a yo-yo. One step forward. One step back. Blow out Florida one week, lose to Alabama 9-6 the next. People always say, too, that Johnny was too conservative, "up the middle," blah, blah, blah. I hate to tell you this, folks, but not only is that a bit of hyperbole, it didn't stop after Majors went back to Pitt.

But, there he was yesterday, sporting his coat and tie, looking older and grayer, but still that same "I Did It My Way" coach that brought us so many good memories. Let's not forget (yeah, it was way before my time) that 1956 season, 10-0 before the bowl, single-wing tailback Majors losing the Heisman Trophy in a stunning and controversial vote to Paul Hornung, who played on a Notre Dame team that won two games that year.

Let's not forget that in 1977 Majors left Pittsburgh, the No. 1 team in the country, to resurrect a UT program that had hit a nadir. Let's not forget the 1982 win over Alabama, 1985, the '86 Sugar Bowl, the 11-1 team in '89, the 45-3 blowout of Florida in 1990 and the Miracle at South Bend. And let's never forget our fast-talkin' favorite son.

At the start of the fourth quarter, UT showed a video tribute to the ol' coach on the jumbotron. It showed his classic pregame talk in Memphis after the resignation announcement. It showed him roaming the sidelines in his coat and tie. It showed Andy Kelly throw a bomb down field.

Then it played a line from one of my favorite songs, and when I heard it I thought, "This is one of the classiest gestures this university has ever offered, one heck of an olive branch."

I'm the No. 1 fan of the man from Tennessee.

Welcome home, coach. You've been missed.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

A turn of the page

Funny how things go.

I figured that Sunday night would be one of the worst of my life. Come Monday, I thought, I'd be in mourning.

But, as often happens on this crazy journey we call life, that simply didn't happen.

Said good-bye Aug. 30 to what has been a big part of my world for the last three years. Robinella's regular weekly gig was ending. Which meant the final night would be a farewell to my Sunday night family. It was going to be a wake, an elegy, roll the credits and turn up the lights.

Instead, it felt like one heck of a family reunion.

I sat at the front table with Mike Finn -- the good buddy I met through Robin's shows, his wife Judy, and good friends Dave, Terri and Jake Felde. Mike and I met because we always kept showing up at the concerts. He liked my attempt at singing country with Robin. So, we got to talking and found out we both like microbrewed beer and the Detroit Tigers. A bit later, Mike asked me to enjoy Thanksgiving with his family.

And that, by the way, has been the best part of this whole thing -- meeting new friends, shaking hands and slapping backs with good people. Robin and her husband Webster Bailey (and her son Cash!) have become pals. Bassist Taylor Coker and lead guitarist Mike Seal were real nice to this ol' boy from Halls, too.

Anyway, Robin's ex, Cruz Contreras, showed up, as did steel guitar player Tom Pryor. And, man, was it something.

I have a bias for country music. They nailed it, and a lot of Robin's best tunes. Cruz played that mandolin like only he can; Pryor made the pedal steel wail. It was as if we were riding the waves of time, pushing the sun back up into the clouds for an hour or so.

The second act featured several new players. It rocked the house. The standing room only crowd went nuts. None of us wanted it to end.

But end it must. When it did, I hugged necks, shook hands, tried not to tear up. I asked Mike what we were going to do on Sunday nights now. He said we'll either meet at his house to drink beer or at mine to watch the Tigers.

Mike had given Robin some live cuts he recorded with home equipment through the years. She mixed it and called the resulting CD "A Sunday Kind of Love." Let's just say it's one slice of sweetness. I'll review it in a day or two.

Speaking of which, Robin is working on a new studio album, which will be out by Christmas. She will play a couple of more road shows and then take a well-deserved break to take care of her family.

On my way out, I hugged Robin's husband Webster and told him I wouldn't have missed this for the world.

And it's cool. I don't much like endings. Never have. At some level, as Robin wrapped up "Georgia on my Mind," I knew that Sunday, Aug. 30, 2009, would forever be an elegy to three of the happiest years of my life.

But as I drove home to Halls in the unseasonably cool night, I realized that this isn't really the end. Not at all.

It's just a turn of the page.

Thanks for the memories, Robin. I can't wait for the next chapter to begin.