Saturday, July 23, 2011

The '80s

What I remember is lying on my stomach in my grandparents' living room, watching television on that big brown piece of furniture.

Too much of it, truth be told. "Scooby Doo" and "Inspector Gadget" and "The Dukes of Hazzard" at first. Stuff like that. Peanut butter dipped straight from the jar.

I can remember watching "The Greatest American Hero" one Friday night with my sister. Somebody broke in to a neighbor's house across the street. "Don't go outside," they told us, just before they went outside. I can remember suspecting that somebody was creeping up the back steps.

Seems like it was always Saturday, cartoons, chocolate milk and egg sandwiches eaten from a Pac-Man TV tray. "Captain Kangaroo," "Muppet Babies," Bugs Bunny and Pee Wee Herman. Mr. Wizard and "Mr. Ed."

I never minded it when the president would interrupt my favorite shows. I loved the man. I really did. I thought he was everybody's grandfather and this was before I was old enough to understand or care about Republicans and Democrats. I liked the way he talked. I think I could sense his confidence. No matter what happened, we'd be OK. Ronnie would make sure of that.

It was never more stark than that cold and awful Tuesday, the day the shuttle fell. We were off from school. But the weather cleared enough so that just before noon we were at Pardon's Jewelers on North Broadway. My grandmother came back to the car.

"The shuttle exploded," she said.

My aunt screamed and I became agitated and we watched Dan Rather when we got home. I can still see him trying to explain what happened while holding that miniature model. I remember seeing the explosion, over and over again, blinking every time. My aunt sat in front of the TV for most of the afternoon and cried. I thought about that teacher. It made it real. It brought it home. I can remember being bothered by it all and wondering if maybe their ghosts would return to earth and haunt my dreams.

But Reagan told us that they had slipped the surly bonds of earth to touch the face of God. That made me feel better. It really did.

Wednesday nights were with my dad. We'd watch "Head of the Class" and "Growing Pains" and, for awhile, "Magnum, p.i." I can remember staying up late to see the finale. Was Higgins Robin Masters? Yes. No.

More than that, I remembered when Magnum got shot, went into a coma and walked around unseen while the show wrapped to its end. "Sometimes I fly like an eagle; sometimes I'm deep in despair." It was supposed to be the final episode, but they renewed the show unexpectedly, probably because Tom Selleck's "Three Men and a Baby" had become a hit. It should have been the end, my friend, because what ultimately became the last episode didn't tie up a damn thing, even though they called it "Resolutions."

When I didn't like what was on I'd curl up on the couch with those blue-spined "Hardy Boys" books. I wanted a boat and a jalopy, even if I wasn't quite sure what one was, and I really wanted to be a detective. I got my mom to buy me a magnifying glass and baby powder to find fingerprints. Mostly I made a mess.

Radio was WIVK and U102, "We Are The World" and "We Built This City." Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys, George Jones and John Conlee, Elvira and All the Gold and I'm a Common Man, Drive A Common Van. (My dog ain't got a pedigree.)

Early memories recall Cronkite's farewell and the "M*A*S*H" goodbye. I can remember the aftermath of "Who Shot J.R.?" and the outrage when Victoria Principal dreamed the 1985-86 season. Nobody talked about "Dallas" much after that.

It took forever and it was gone in a flash and it seems like a long time ago.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'McPaper' still gets it...

Stumbled across a copy of Peter Prichard's "The Making of McPaper," a 1987 look at the founding and early days of USA TODAY. Read it a couple of weekends ago and had a good time.

Which wasn't a surprise. I've always enjoyed the newspaper once derided as "McPaper." Founder Al Neuharth just seemed to "get it." He read the surveys that said readers rarely made the "jump" whenever a front page story was tagged to an inside page. So he forced his writers to write concisely. But he also made sure they jammed the stories full of information.

OK, so maybe the graphs are basically pointless, but USA TODAY was the perfect paper for the TV generation. Heck, Neuharth even had his circulation guys design USA TODAY paper boxes to look like TV sets.

I made it a habit to read the paper when I was in college. You could get it anywhere on the UT campus in those days. It was always a quick, fun read. Plus, it gave you a nice summary of the news in the days before the internet really got going.

The other day I picked up a copy of USA TODAY at the gas station. And, I noticed what I thought was a mistake.

In a story about Betty Ford's funeral, the writer appeared to be saying that Mrs. Ford's husband, former president Gerald Ford, died in 2007. I remembered that he'd died in December 2006, so I sent an email to the corrections editor.

About a day or so later, I got a personal response from somebody on the news staff saying that the writer had constructed an awkward sentence, thereby "creating" an error. She thanked me for the email and said a clarification would run in Friday's edition. Sure enough, it did.

Not only was I impressed with the newspaper's commitment to accuracy, but I was blown away by the personal response. Over the years I've sent letters to reporters, editors and writers at newspapers of much less reputation and significance than USA TODAY -- and never heard a peep! And yet, despite all the correspondence Gannett's national newspaper must receive daily, here came the note.

Quality customer service is hard to find. Getting that email made me feel good about forking out a buck to spend valuable time with the USA TODAY. The paper's smartphone app is the best one of its kind. Its website has gone interactive with polls, video, bells and whistles. I hear its iPad version is pretty cool, too.

After all these years, McPaper still gets it.

UPDATE: After I posted this blog, USA TODAY's social media team found it on Twitter and responded with thanks and kind words. USA TODAY, you have a reader for life! As I said in the tweet, reading your paper is like spending time with an old friend.

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Friday, July 15, 2011

Guess I never was meant for glitter, rock and roll...

Nope, I didn't go stand in line to see "Harry Potter."

What did that Piratehead poet say? Guess I never was meant for glitter, rock and roll...

It's crowdin' midnight as I type this and I'm in my PJs, listening to Vic Damone sing "Till There Was You" on Peter "Hollywood Squares" Marshall's radio show.

Channeling his best game show host, Peter proffers bits of trivia. The year Doris Day delivered a song. The name of the guy who conducted on Sinatra's "At Long Last Love." (Yep, it was Nelson Riddle.)

Peter says today (well, yesterday) is the late Gerald Ford's birthday. He asks if we knew what Gerald Ford's real name was. I remembered enough to recall Leslie King Jr. Found that out when we visited Mr. Ford's museum in 2005.

After I wrote an article about the trip I received an email from a reader who once met one of Ford's half brothers on the King side. Small world.

Peter's playing Dionne Warwick, live on the Sullivan show circa '69, singing "This Girl's in Love with You." Man, you just can't top Bacharach/David. If not I'll just die...

I can only imagine the chaos at the cinema tonight. Channel 6 was going to do a live remote from one of the Regal multiplexes.

Me? Well, here I sit, me and the oldies, the music of my life, 40 years too late.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2011

The day it all began

The greatest career in the history of popular music began, rather unassumingly, on this date on 1954.

A young truck driver named Elvis Presley had gone to Sam Phillips' Sun Records in Memphis to record a couple of tracks with guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black. He really wanted to be a singer, you see.

Their first two efforts, "Harbor Lights" and "I Love You Because," weren't working out too well. So, or so goes the story, the guys took a break.

One of them started riffing on Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's 1946 blues song "That's All Right." The other two jumped in and the joint started to hop.

Phillips stuck his head out of the recording booth and said, "What are you all doing?"

Moore reportedly said, "Uh, we don't know."

"Well, whatever it is, figure it out and do it again," Phillips replied.

"That's All Right" became a regional hit on the Sun label and by 1956 Elvis had signed a huge contract with RCA and was on his way to superstardom.

All because of a little jam session on a hot summer day in Memphis...

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