Thursday, May 30, 2013

For The Other Half Of The Sky

In the weeks following John Lennon's murder, Yoko Ono spent most of her time in seclusion at the Dakota, refusing all requests for interviews. Her first public statement of 1981 was in the form of an open letter, published as a full-page ad in major world newspapers on January 18th.

Two days after the letter was published, Yoko completed work on a video clip to accompany the song "Woman", which had been John's first posthumous release. The single came out in the US January 8th and peaked at #2 for three weeks in March and April. 

With MTV still months away from launching, there were few outlets on American TV for music videos. In this case, Yoko decided to give the ABC news magazine 20/20 an exclusive airing of the clip for "Woman". When ABC made the announcement on February 9th, they made it sound as if Yoko had given the tape directly to her good friend Barbara Walters (an angle Ms. Walters does little to dispel in her intro). More likely, 20/20 was chosen because of the Lennons' long-standing friendship with Geraldo Rivera, then a producer and senior correspondent on the show.

The segment aired on Thursday night, February 12th, and was duly taped at the start of A2, our first T-60 cassette. Recording at SLP speed meant the show would only take up the first 1/3 of the tape, and the first 45 minutes or so (with no Lennon content) were later erased by other material.

As for the "Woman" video itself, Yoko combined vintage stills with the last known footage of John (taken November 26th, 1980 in Central Park, not four days before his murder) and more recent film of herself alone in front of the Dakota. Interestingly, Yoko chose to include both of the chilling photos referred to in her open letter, going so far as to dissolve from the Imagine sleeve to the December 11th, 1980 New York Post cover image of John in the morgue.

Now, let's talk about those vintage ads! If I'm not mistaken, that's a young Elisabeth Shue playing gymnast Ginny Barr in the Chewels sugarless gum spot. I also dig the ABC announcer's declaration that "nothing will stop Jaws 2".

There's a cute blooper in the Channel 7 news teaser ("If this is on, let me know. It is?"). I don't remember ever eating at Carl's Jr. (I think we were too far north in California), but I do remember shopping at Alpha Beta ("tell a friend") from time to time. I seem to recall it was the only place to get the new Yellow Series of Topps Star Wars cards when they came out!

[Now that I think of it, that makes no sense. It must have been the Wonder Bread cards I was thinking of. And I'm sure they weren't exclusive to Alpha Beta, I probably just knew some kid whose mom bought bread there and made the connection.]

The low-key soft sell of the commercial for The Competition balances out the gritty one for Fort Apache, The Bronx nicely. And it doesn't look like Savin copiers ended up conquering the business world as they'd hoped.

Finally, I'm disappointed that the tape cuts off just as Ernie Anderson is midway through plugging Charo's appearance on "The Luuuuuuuuuuuve Boat".

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Feelin' Ducky

I celebrated my tenth birthday on January 30th, 1981. Two nights later, I recorded the third item on VHS tape A1, another edition of Disney's Wonderful World on NBC.

Donald Duck has always been my favorite Disney character, thanks to the brilliant stories written and drawn by Carl Barks which I had discovered in my father's comic collection. So it was no surprise that I wanted to preserve This Is Your Life, Donald Duck. The special had made its debut on ABC's Walt Disney Presents back on March 11th, 1960:

Ostensibly a parody of This Is Your Life, it was another excuse to string together unrelated Donald cartoons from the Disney archive. The first four of these ("Donald's Better Self", "Donald's Lucky Day", "Donald Gets Drafted", and "Sky Trooper") had all been released from 1938-1942, during the period when Barks worked in the animation department.

Very little of his influence is apparent in these shorts, the best of which is "Sky Trooper", pitting Private Donald against Pete, his platoon sergeant. Clarence Nash's nonchalant delivery of the line "I've waited all my life for this opportunity" as Donald boards the plane slays me. I also love "Feelin' Ducky", the catchy tune Donald sings in "Donald's Lucky Day".

The Donald shorts from the early 1950's ("Working For Peanuts", "Bee At The Beach", and "Donald's Diary") are drawn in a fussier style, lacking the charm of the earlier efforts; "Donald's Diary" is particularly stale, full of mother-in-law and anti-marriage jokes, with Daisy drawn as Doris Day for some reason.

"Working For Peanuts", co-starring Chip and Dale, was one of the first cartoons produced in 3-D, although it's not presented that way on TV. I remember seeing it in 3-D at Walt Disney World in 1993 as part of a pre-show. The "elephant shoots peanuts from her trunk" gags are dull in 2-D, but Donald gets another catchy song to squawk at Dolores (the pachyderm in question).

My father also had the Dell comics tie-in to This Is Your Life, Donald Duck, although it contained original stories unrelated to the shorts in the TV special (and no contributions from Carl Barks):

This Is Your Life, Donald Duck was repeated in 1968, 1977, and 1980. During one of the latter two airings, the final scene was partially re-animated to include a brief shot of Elliott, the title character in Disney's 1977 film Pete's Dragon. Here's a latter-day airing of the show on YouTube which mostly matches what's on my tape:


The above is missing a brief chunk of "Bee At The Beach" and all of the segment featuring "Mickey's Amateurs", so I've included the latter in my condensed edit of the February 2, 1981 airing. What remains are all the commercial breaks, giving us further glimpses at NBC's 1981 schedule courtesy of Casey Kasem. Is Buck insane?

Other ads tout the new Bic Roller pen, Orbit sugar-free gum, Come 'N' Get It dog food (beef... cheese... liver... chicken...), Slenderalls, the new McChicken sandwich, High Point decaffeinated coffee, and Cheer (featuring Arrow garments in it's [sic] ads).

Monday, May 13, 2013


There must not have been much of interest on TV in the three weeks following Birth Of The Beatles. The next item on tape A3 was recorded January 25, 1981, when ABC's Sunday Night Movie was 1974's Murder On The Orient Express.

I'm sure my mom was responsible for this one, and I don't recall ever watching it. With Albert Finney as Poirot and names like Bacall, Gielgud, Bergman, Redgrave, and Connery as the suspects, it looks like something I would enjoy, even though I know the ending. However, it didn't hold my interest at age 9, and by 1983 I had erased the first hour of it with From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making Of A Saga.

Here are the announcements over the closing credits, which give a flavor of the period. The US hostages had been released from Iran January 20th, just as Ronald Reagan was being inaugurated, and Superbowl XV had aired earlier that day on NBC. Local interest was high, with the Oakland Raiders winning, which meant that QB Jim Plunkett presumably got to appear alongside Joan Lunden the following morning:


A few days later (the 27th or 28th based on the news headline), another movie was apparently recorded on A3. All that survives is this snippet, which indicates that the film in question was 1944's On Approval, with the immortal Googie Withers. I can't imagine who would have wanted to tape this, but it would be gone two weeks later when a much better movie came on TV, with only the preceding ephemera surviving.

This 60-second remnant came to fascinate me over the years. First of all, it's from the rarely-viewed (in our household) independent channel 26, KTSF. It had been on the air less than five years at that point, and at nights became a pay-TV movie channel, Super Time (soon changed to Star TV).

The ad seen on my tape touts the channel's February lineup of films such as All That Jazz, Being There, and The Electric Horseman. If you didn't purchase the de-scrambler box (and we didn't), all you would see on the channel at night was a fuzzy black-and-white picture, with a looped audio message telling you how to subscribe.

It's also interesting to me that the news anchor, Rose Shirinian, still works at KTSF, which now caters to the Bay Area's large Asian-American population. But the thing that freaked me out the most was the first 20 seconds of this clip. What is that awful-looking pale brown mud spewing and dripping through those industrial machines? Why does it need a sophisticated bank of lights to monitor it? And more importantly, what movie or TV show would have such disgusting images over the credits?

Now that I can Google the names of the directors, I see it's a travelogue filler, possibly Germany - Wunderbar! or Switzerland - A Peak Experience!, and that they are showing us the precision needed to manufacture Bavarian chocolate or something:


Saturday, May 11, 2013

Choochy Face

As 1980 gave way to a new year, television continued to cash in on pay tribute to John Lennon and the Beatles. On January 2, 1981, ABC's Friday Night Movie was Birth Of The Beatles.

This docudrama had been produced by Dick Clark and directed by Richard Marquand back in 1979, when it first aired on US network television November 23rd. A longer version, with saltier dialogue and some nudity, was released to cinemas in Europe during autumn of 1980. IMDb has a comprehensive list of the differences between the two cuts.

Of course, it was the US edit that got aired in 1981 and recorded on the start of a fresh blank tape on our RCA VDT 625 (my father has confirmed the model number, and found the manual to scan in for a future post!).

At this point in my Beatle fanhood, I hadn't read much in the way of biographies, mostly just discographies such as All Together Now and Illustrated Record. I did have Nicholas Schaffner's excellent Beatles Forever, but that focuses mainly on the years following their 1964 US breakthrough. A more thorough account of their early years would follow in Philip Norman's Shout!, published later in 1981, but at the time, it was Birth Of The Beatles that brought the Hamburg years to life for me.

Birth Of The Beatles covers roughly the period from Stu Sutcliffe joining the Quarrymen in 1960 through the release of "Love Me Do" in 1962. Pete Best acted as a script consultant, and while every detail is not exact and events are often compressed, omitted, or embellished for narrative purposes, the film does a fine job of evoking the era. Even now, when I picture the Larry Parnes audition or the Litherland Town Hall gig in my head, my brain borrows visuals from the movie.

The casting is decent, with Brian Jameson capturing Brian Epstein's soft-spoken mix of rage and vulnerability, and a pre-Chariots Of Fire Nigel Havers as a strangely humourless George Martin. Stephen MacKenna is appropriately charismatic as John Lennon, but it's quite distracting to have a 34-year-old actor playing 20-year-old Lennon. The music by soundalike band Rain is also very good, with only a couple of song choices (such as "Don't Bother Me", written in 1963, being played in Hamburg) jarring.

This movie was the first time I can recall hearing the expression "choochy face". I can't find any instances of the Beatles using that phrase, although Paul did throw it into a rendition of "Baby Face" in 1975. However, I must have heard it in the musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, which contains the Sherman Brothers song "Chu Chi Face", sung by none other than Anna Quayle (Millie in A Hard Day's Night)!

Here are the closing credits of ABC's January 2, 1981 telecast of Birth Of The Beatles, from tape A3 in my library (what happened to A2, you ask? We obviously weren't labeling them in order). It includes plugs for the short-lived series Breaking Away and the "nine resident zanies" on Fridays, ABC's answer to SNL.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Gurning With Lennon

Television played an important role in my life during the period following December 8th, 1980. That evening, I was watching a rerun of Kojak with my father when the program was interrupted with a still photo of John Lennon. "Hooray!", I shouted, not comprehending what it meant, while my father shushed me.

I don't recall whether we switched to any other channels that night for further updates, but I remember calling my Beatle buddy at the time, Oliver, to tell him. His father answered and said he had gone to bed already. Rather than wake him up with the horrible news, I let him sleep and we commiserated the following morning at school. 

I remember watching the Today show the next morning while getting ready for school, and still not quite believing it was all true. Most of the next week was spent listening to Beatles and Lennon music and tributes on the radio. On Sunday afternoon, December 14th, I was at my friend Jenny's house and we watched the 10 minutes of silence in Central Park together live on her TV:

The TV tributes continued throughout the month, and one of the first was a half-hour special hosted by Casey Kasem. He hosted the syndicated countdown series America's Top Ten, and the show's production team hastily assembled "A Tribute To John Lennon 1940-1980" in time to air December 15th in New York:

I'm not sure when it aired in the Bay Area, but my father recorded it as item #2 on our first VHS tape, and I watched it sometime during Christmas week. The show is less a tribute than a cursory overview of his career, with a heavy focus on the Beatle years.

On the plus side, film archivist and major Beatle fan Ron Furmanek supplied the clips, so there was plenty of then-rare footage, albeit in short bursts. Promos for "We Can Work It Out", "Help!", "Rain", "Strawberry Fields Forever", "Revolution", and "Give Peace A Chance" were used, along with various newsreels, TV performances, and a bit of "This Boy" from the Washington DC kinescope.

Of the people interviewed, two were fellow announcers with minimal ties to Lennon (Bob Eubanks had at least promoted their Hollywood Bowl show when he worked alongside Kasem at KRLA). Walter Shenson shares an amusing anecdote, and Elliot Mintz makes a creepy cameo.

It's Kasem who fares the worst, reading a script full of cliches from page one ("Webster defines genius as..." Really, Case? That's your opening line?) to the final account of John's murder ("He fired. Strawberry Fields are not forever.").

I do love the moment ten minutes in when Casey starts reciting the lyrics to "Hello Goodbye". "You say yes, I say no, you say stop, I say go. Oh, no." It reminds me of Dana Carvey on SNL promoting Casey Kasem Sings The Beatles.

This show is unavailable on YouTube, so here is my copy, direct from tape A1 in my library:

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

40 Pounds of Joy

A bit of Googling led me to this great YouTube video of someone showing off their $5 swap meet find:

They have the VDT-600 model, which actually may be the one we owned. I remember using those little levers to set the clock, and he's right - it was an idiot-proof process to replace a blinking 12:00 with the correct time.

I'd forgotten about the outer rings on the channel tuners that you had to click to receive the various VHF and UHF bands. And there was something very satisfying about inserting a tape and pressing it down with a clunk.

Here is how RCA sold a slightly different model, the 400, complete with a warning about copyright infringement:

And here is a great ad which sweetens the pot by throwing in four blank tapes, a $100 value! Yes, blank VHS tapes cost over $20 apiece in 1980. I think we must have gotten a similar deal, as the first four tapes in our library were identical to those in the commercial, three T-120s and one T-60 (with blue lettering):

Christmas Surprise

Let's rewind to the beginning and watch the 3-digit counter spool down to 000.

It's December, 1980 in Oakland, California. I am a nine-year-old Beatlemaniac who's just had to come to terms with the murder of John Lennon. On my Christmas wish list alongside the usual Kenner Star Wars toys are Shaved Fish and Double Fantasy.

What I don't expect to see under the tree is one of the technical wonders of the age: a brand new RCA Selectavision VCR!

I can't find much about this model online; it was the VDT-625 model, which debuted in 1979 and retailed for around $1300 by the end of 1980. Built to last, this sturdy top-loading machine was our main VCR until the summer of 1987, and then served as a backup for copying tapes. It played tapes for close to 20 years, only losing its ability to record in EP mode.

It came with a chunky remote control attached by a thick wire, which would let you play, pause, and watch in slow-mo. You could program up to 14 channels which were tuned by small knobs inside the fold-down front panel. These corresponded with the 14 buttons on the front right of the console. On the right side, a small tray slid out where you placed transparent green numbers for each station, which would be lit from below when slid back beneath the channel selector buttons. Our main channels would have been 2 (independent KTVU), 4 (NBC affiliate KRON), 5 (CBS affiliate KPIX), 7 (ABC affiliate KGO), 9 (PBS station KQED), and 44 (independent KBHK).

Another cool feature was the audio dub button; which would let you overdub new audio to a video being played back, either from the internal tuner, or (and this was the fun part) from an external microphone plugged in to the front of the unit. In future posts, you'll see how my friends and I took advantage of this feature.

I'm not sure where or when my father purchased the VCR (I bet he still has the receipt), but he kept it hidden in his upstairs bedroom for a couple of weeks until the 25th. During that time, he tested it out with the first recording, on December 14th, 1980. Only the final 11 minutes survived, as the tape was rewound and erased with another show before long:

NBC was in the last year of its contract to air the iconic Sunday night anthology series, Disney's Wonderful World (formerly Walt Disney's Wonderful World Of Color). That night's episode had its origins in the ABC run of Walt Disney Presents. Originally aired December 19, 1958, the Christmas special From All Of Us To All Of You ended up being rebroadcast eight times, of which this was the last network airing.

The content of the special was updated to reflect the latest Disney product; for example, this one has a clip from the 1970 film The Aristocats, which was about to be re-released in theaters on December 19, 1980. In comparing this version to one on YouTube (presumably from the DVD of The Aristocats), I noticed a few racially-insensitive lines of the song "Everybody Wants To Be A Cat" were edited from the broadcast. However, some questionable dialogue remains ("Oh, boy ferras, ret's rock the joint!").

This is followed by Jiminy Cricket's rendition of "When You Wish Upon A Star", from the original 1958 special, with various characters gathering around enraptured (Donald looks bored out of his skull) to listen. The show concludes with footage from an earlier Disneyland special, with a choir singing something ("Silent Night" is dubbed in) in front of the Main Street station, followed by announcer Gary Owens wishing everyone a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Then we get to the good stuff - original ads for Vaseline Intensive Care Lotion, GE's incredible Brew Starter (Janet is MAKING COFFEE!), and a bizarrely-animated holiday ad for Levi's. NBC announcer Casey Kasem touts some cartoon Christmas specials starring the Berenstain Bears and Little Rascals, while the Osmonds team up with Greg Evigan's chest hair and Doug Henning's mustache. And who could forget Peggy Fleming and Tony Randall's ice dancing special!

The credits for Disney's Wonderful World retain the 1979 copyright (the same show had aired December 23, 1979), and after an ad for The Aristocats, Casey is back to tell us about NBC's Wednesday night lineup: Real People, Diff'rent Strokes, and Facts Of Life. I watched all of those shows regularly, not that I'm proud of it.

Incidentally, From All Of Us To All Of You went on to become a holiday tradition in several Scandinavian countries, and still pulls in record viewing numbers in Sweden.