Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Truth be Told

I feel sorry for those who never got a chance to see "Truth or Consequences."

I don't mean the town in New Mexico, either.

I'm thinking of "T or C" this morning amid the news that host Bob Barker is in the hospital after a fall near his Southern California home.

"Truth" didn't give Barker, 91, his start in broadcasting, but it put him on television for the first time. And there Bob stayed for some 51 years.

It was game show---and reality TV, if you want to know the truth---pioneer Ralph Edwards who passed the torch of "Truth" to Barker, in 1956.

Edwards created "Truth" on the radio in 1940. The premise was wacky yet simple.

The show was among the first "audience participation" offerings of the day.

Regular folks would have to answer an obscure trivia question---always designed for the contestant to fail---and when the answer was wrong, there would be consequences. These usually came in the form of wild stunts that were often embarrassing.

But the people ate it up and to be a "victim" on the show became desirable.

As Edwards said, "Most of the American people are pretty darned good sports."

The mad success of "Truth" in the non-visual medium of radio is a testament to Edwards' ability to use sound effects, audience microphones and his own vivid descriptions to give the listener a ringside seat to the raucous action.

Ralph Edwards didn't paint pictures with his radio show, he made mental movies---as any good radio program did in the medium's heyday.

Edwards moved "Truth" to TV in 1950, once he saw the potential of television and how it fit his stunt show like a glove.

Edwards stepped off camera in 1954, devoting his time to running his production company, which produced "Truth."

After a couple of years with new host Jack Bailey, Edwards turned "Truth" over to Barker, who Edwards had heard doing an audience participation show on Los Angeles radio.

That was in 1956, and Barker continued hosting "Truth" until 1974.

I started watching "Truth" in the late-1960s and now that I think about it, the show is at the tip top of today's family tree when it comes to wackiness on television. Pretty much every show you see on television today that involves crazy physical tasks by its contestants can have its roots traced to "Truth."

"Truth" also spawned similar shows in the days of early TV such as "Beat the Clock."

Before "Truth," nothing on television really came close to capturing the notion of asking regular people to do things that they would never consider doing---even with a few drinks in them.

"Candid Camera" had its niche, but that show preyed on the unsuspecting. "Truth" made no bones about it with its participants: you're going to do something weird and embarrassing. And you're going to do it willingly, and it will be seen by millions of people across the country. Period.

And people fell all over themselves---sometimes literally---to be on "Truth." Everyone wanted Bob Barker to embarrass them on national TV.

Ralph Edwards was right---most of the American people were, indeed, pretty darned good sports.

I was drawn to "Truth" as a young boy because each episode was different. The stunts were creative and slapstick and frankly, it wasn't boring.

Then there was "Barker's Box."

Maybe this is what I liked about "Truth" the most.

At the end of every show, a box was brought down to the studio audience. It had four drawers---three had money in them and the fourth was empty, or had a booby prize in it, such as a phony snake that would pop out. If the selected audience member chose the three money drawers before choosing the empty one, he/she would win the money. That's it. Simple but fun.

"Truth" signed off for the last time in 1974. Barker didn't go hungry. He went on to host something called "The Price is Right."

An effort to revive "Truth" occurred in 1977 but it died a quick death with host Bob Hilton.

I had great fun watching "Truth" as a young lad. Liked it a helluva lot more than "The Price is Right," that's for damn sure.

Bob Barker made a living on radio and TV for over six decades by engaging with audiences. For 18 years on "Truth," those audiences would do pretty much anything Bob asked them to do.

THAT'S some power.

Get well soon, Bob. As you said after every show in your "Truth" days, "Hoping all your consequences are happy ones."

Friday, October 9, 2015

The Great Pumpkin

I do believe that this country has gone out of its gourd with pumpkin.

It's the biggest food takeover in America since the Italians introduced pizza to an unsuspecting public in the late-19th century.

Pumpkin spiced coffee. Pumpkin scented candles. Pumpkin cookies, pumpkin cakes, pumpkin pies.

OK, that last one doesn't count.

Somewhere, in some board room in corporate America, it was determined that pumpkin spice should be sprinkled, mixed, folded, encased and saturated into every possible food stuff we consume.

The ironic thing is that pumpkin, by itself, certainly must taste pretty nasty. It's only edible because of what is added to it.

If you plan on buying a pumpkin for Halloween with the intent of carving it, scrape out a portion and eat it, raw with no helpers.

I dare ya.

Pumpkin isn't invading our food supply, it's the spices added to it that are working their way into our digestive tracts with virulent speed.

Starbucks, for example, only started putting real pumpkin in its pumpkin spiced drinks in 2015---and those drinks debuted in 2003.

Pumpkin is literally the flavor of the day.

But again, the irony is that we're not hooked on pumpkin, per se; we're loving the allure of allspice, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and Lord knows what else is being added to pumpkin to make it palatable.

Still, it's all being served up using the p-word.

Pumpkin (spice) is in our beer. It's in our tea, in our coffee. I haven't looked, but I'm sure there's a pumpkin spiced chewing gum, too.

So how did the pumpkin craze start, anyway?

Well, it didn't start with a spike in pumpkin sales.

Every year since 2010, we've been buying fewer and fewer pumpkins---the actual fruit/gourd.

Yet we're inundated with pumpkin this, pumpkin that.

According to the market research company The NPD Group, sales of pumpkin-flavored items continue to soar, rising 11.6 percent to $361 million for the year ended July 25.

No hard data is available on how much of those items' content actually contains real pumpkin versus some witches' brew of spices and flavorings---natural or artificial.

Here's a non-surprising fact, thanks to Neilsen.

"While 50 percent of U.S. consumers are actively trying to lose weight, they're overlooking fresh pumpkin to satisfy their craving, instead opting for indulgent treats like baked goods, dips and sweets, where sales have steadily increased," the company said in a statement.

The key word, of course, is "fresh."

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Statue of Limitations

In another time, in another era, against another backdrop, a statue of Orville Hubbard outside of City Hall was a monument about which the good people of Dearborn didn't bat an eye.

And not just Dearbornites.

It wasn't just the people who lived in that city that knew what Hubbard, Dearborn's mayor from 1942-78, stood for.

It was an ironic monument, really, because the statue of Hubbard, in an almost welcoming repose, belied the exclusiveness that pocked his reign over the city.

Hubbard was an unapologetic segregationist. That's not opinion.

But those ways were widely accepted by his citizenry, particularly in the first 25 years of his being mayor.

To the people of Dearborn, Orville Hubbard represented the sheriff that kept their streets safe and the town prosperous, despite sharing multiple borders with the city of Detroit.

Everyone knew what safe and prosperous was code for in Dearborn under Orville Hubbard.

No blacks allowed.

Hubbard made no bones about it. African-Americans simply weren't allowed to take up residence in Dearborn.

The statue of Hubbard, sculpted in 1989, came down from outside the old city hall on Tuesday. Dearborn opened its new city hall in 2013, but the Hubbard statue didn't make the trip with municipal employees. 

But now that the statue's original site has been sold to a private entity, it had to be moved.

The only question was, where?

It will be moved to outside the Dearborn Historical Museum, a move that amounts to a compromise.

The statue certainly wasn't going to be relocated outside the new and current city hall. That was made clear by current mayor Jack O'Reilly, whose father John was a Hubbard protege and who succeeded Hubbard as mayor.

“It was never intended the statue would come to the new (City Hall),” O’Reilly said. 

The compromise in moving the statue to the Historical Museum's grounds is that the nod to Hubbard's place in Dearborn history will remain, but by not being near the current city hall, there won't even be a hint that the Dearborn of today is represented by what Orville Hubbard's segregationist views elicit.

Hubbard's extremism when it came to refusing blacks to move into the city unfortunately overshadows the good that he did for Dearborn, and there really was a lot of that.

Under Hubbard, there was a strong parks and recreation system in the city, a Florida-based senior care facility and Camp Dearborn, to name just a few positives.

A museum is exactly where the Hubbard statue belongs.

Museums aren't always warm and fuzzy. Often they're the opposite; the curators fill them with reminders of a past that is disturbing.

The Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford isn't there to put smiles on people's faces.

As for the Hubbard statue, even one of his daughters, Nancy, who served for years on the Dearborn City Council, said "I think it's alright" that it will be moved, though her preference would be to "leave it where it is."

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council for American-Islamic Relations' Michigan chapter, summed things up pretty well, capturing why the statue both needed to come down and be relocated to a museum.

"The vision that Orville Hubbard had," Walid said,  "thankfully, is not the Dearborn of today."

But it can't be swept under the rug, either. 

Friday, August 28, 2015

The Inconvenience of News

"No news is good news."

I always wondered about this oft-used phrase.

Is it saying that there is no such thing as good news, or that when you find yourself without any news at all, that's a good thing?

However you choose to decipher "No news is good news," I have one for you that is without ambiguity.

"The news isn't convenient."

There shouldn't be any confusion over that, but yet there is.

In the whirlwind of social media sharing and updates in the wake of the horrific murders of two young television journalists---one a reporter, the other a photographer---in Roanoke, VA on Wednesday during a live interview, we had ourselves a genuine "made for TV" violent crime, and there was much pontificating about what to do with it.

The alleged shooter of reporter Alison Parker and photographer Adam Ward, Vester Flanagan, aka Bryce Williams (on-air name), a reportedly disgruntled and frustrated TV reporter himself, crafted a highly premeditated act that was designed to be as sensational as possible.

Flanagan brought a camera with him (likely his cell phone) and carefully framed the image so that viewers would be able to see Parker being pierced with bullets. Flanagan then faxed a 23-page manifesto (a word that only seems to be associated with atrocities committed by a single person) to ABC News.

But Flanagan was far from done.

The video of the shooting was then uploaded to his Twitter and Facebook accounts, for as many people to see before the accounts were suspended. Flanagan also tweeted some snippets that gave some insight as to his motives.

Flanagan referenced alleged racial discrimination and blasted Ward for going to human resources against him. Flanagan also lamented the hiring of Parker, who he said had made some "racial comments."

But what got the pontificating going were the videos of the crime---both the version shot by Ward during the live interview and the killer's version.

Yes, this was some chilling stuff. Extraordinarily so.

This wasn't Lee Harvey Oswald being gunned down by Jack Ruby, which also happened on live TV, on November 24, 1963.

Parker and Ward, 24 years old and 27, respectively, were just a couple of kids doing their jobs, at 6:45 in the morning, doing a fluff piece about tourism.

All horrific stuff, for sure.

But as stated above, news isn't convenient. It's not pretty and it doesn't always exist to make us feel good. Often times, it makes us feel very bad.

So while those who strongly suggested that the videos of Parker and Ward's murders not be viewed or shared meant well, this puts news gathering down a slippery slope.

Of course, Flanagan's staging and posting and faxing were all designed so that he could "go out with a bang," so to speak. He used the very same media that was once his livelihood as a means to make sure that a record of his victims' last moments would forever exist, somewhere.

Because that's what Flanagan wanted, so many Americans wanted to try to deny him that. It was the least that could be done, they figured.

The pleas to not share or view the videos were made in the name of respect for Parker and Ward.

That's very honorable and well-meaning.

It's also dangerous.

Alison Parker and Adam Ward

We ought not cherry pick which news and which videos we pump and promote, and which that we chastise their viewing and sharing.

Like it or not, what Flanagan did was news. Horrific, disgusting, grotesque news, but news nonetheless.

The notion that those who chose to view or share the videos are somehow less feeling or less human, is misplaced.

To view or share isn't tantamount to approval, nor is it tantamount to gratuitous sensationalism.

Two young TV people were killed in cold blood, live on camera.

That's news.

I also don't know what is hoped to be gained by the discouraging of viewing or sharing the videos.

Facebook and Twitter moved swiftly, yanking down Flanagan's accounts without hesitation. They did their jobs.

But barn door being closed, meet the horses that got out.

Two questions, similar but different.

How does not viewing or sharing the videos of Parker and Ward's killings help things?

And, how does viewing and sharing the videos hurt things?

Frankly, these videos could have been worse. Much, much worse.

We could have seen a head shot. Or blood and gore. We saw neither.

We did see, in Flanagan's video, the muzzle of a gun and we heard the gunshots. But we never saw bullets striking Parker---at least not obviously.

It was kind of like the shower scene in "Psycho." We think we see the knife strike Janet Leigh in the shower, but thanks to clever editing, we don't.

We think we see Parker being riddled with bullets, but we really don't.

Obviously, Flanagan's video doesn't need blood and gore to be shocking. But oh, how much worse it could have been.

News is news. A lot of times, it just plain sucks.

The better question is, what is news?

Invasion of privacy and other matters that masquerade as news are the real bane.

The definition of what is news seems to be broadening as technology keeps advancing.

But there's no question that in the Parker and Ward killings, this was news.

As much as you'd like for it not to be.

We can't decide what others should view or share, in the matter of genuine news.

That's a path we truly should not want to be sent down.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Roses Have Thorns

My memories of Lynn Anderson are rather sardonic, but that's not her fault, necessarily.

Singer Anderson, 67, passed away the other day of a heart attack in a Nashville hospital while being treated for pneumonia.

She was best known for her song, "Rose Garden," which peaked at no. 1 on the country charts and no. 3 on the Billboard charts in early-1971.

But around the campus of Eastern Michigan University in the 1980s, Lynn Anderson became a notorious figure, forever linked to the school's outrageous efforts to keep its football program in the Mid-American Conference (MAC).

Let me explain.

By 1983, MAC officials were considering kicking EMU's football program out of the conference, because of poor performance on the field and more importantly, poor performance at the turnstiles. The latter was a direct effect of the former's cause.

The conference pretty much gave the university an ultimatum: lift attendance to a minimum threshold (I can't recall what that threshold was, but I think it was in the 10-15,000 per game neighborhood), or risk being booted.

Being asked to leave a Division-I conference would have cost EMU lots and lots of money in revenue, so the push was on to increase attendance, real quick.

Shuttle buses were sent to dorms to pick students up and drive them to Rynearson Stadium. Ticket prices were slashed, because the ultimatum wasn't based on revenue sales---it was based on the number of fannies in the seats. EMU didn't care what price folks paid to get in, or whether they paid at all. They just needed warm bodies in the stands.

But it was going to take more than the above to get students to take three hours out of their Saturday to watch a football team that was mostly miserable.

So EMU brought in halftime performers.

They brought in stand-up comics (I remember the legendary Skip Stephenson showing up one night). They brought in the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, who were booed because they didn't wear their iconic halter tops and go-go boots because the night air was too damn chilly. The girls ran onto the field wearing blue Lycra bodysuits, and that didn't go over too well with the male fans.

And the university also brought in Lynn Anderson.

Anderson was well into her 30s and her career had taken a downturn by the time EMU signed her up for a halftime performance. This was circa 1984.

Things gut ugly when Anderson was found to be obviously lip-synching, which by itself isn't a crime, but it's one of those things that, if it's blatant, can turn an audience against the performer.

The jig was up when the recording had technical difficulties. You can imagine the effects of that.

Anderson was booed off the stage and in the next edition of the school newspaper, The Eastern Echo, a graphic ran in the editorial section that depicted a photo of Anderson being flushed down a toilet.

Now, whether Anderson insisted on the lip-synching, or if the school decided it would be best due to the logistics of performing outdoors, is anyone's guess. Regardless, Lynn Anderson took the hit and she was mocked, panned and derided.

All told, Anderson had 18 country Top 10 hits, including five No. 1 songs. Among her other hits: "Rocky Top," the Felice and Boudleaux Bryant tune that's one of Tennessee's state songs. Anderson's version hit No. 17 on the country charts in 1970.

"I am a huge fan of Lynn's. She was always so nice to me. She did so much for the females in country music," country star Reba McEntire said in a statement.

I'm sure all of that is true. But on a chilly Saturday night on the football field at EMU in 1984, Lynn Anderson became a twisted footnote in the history of Eastern.

EMU made its attendance commitment, by the way, and stayed in the MAC.

We wore "I survived the Big MAC Attack" t-shirts on campus, a play on a McDonald's ad campaign of the time.

Fun times.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Christmas (weather) in July

I know this: our hot pepper plants aren't enjoying the cool summer we're having in Metro Detroit.

But fie on them.

The mercury hasn't scraped much past the mid-80s so far, and we're in mid-July.

I couldn't be happier.

I don't do well with the heat. The pepper plants do, however, and ours have been struggling to bear fruit, but like I said, fie on them. I can buy hot peppers at the market, although there is a charm to growing your own.

But if that's the trade off---store-bought hot peppers in exchange for summer days in which I can breathe without an oxygen mask, then I'll take it and run.

Normally by now, we would have suffered through oppressive heat, with temps in the high-80s and low-90s, with enough humidity to curl you from hair to toe.

But this year?

So far, so good.

Cool evenings, enabling you to sleep with the windows open, and is there anything better than breathing in fresh night air as you slumber?

Pleasant daytime temps, which don't mandate the use of air conditioning 24 hours a day. I love A/C---I think it was a great invention. But being in it too much makes me feel like I'm living in a plastic bubble and the world outside is so close yet so far.

Now, I do feel for the swimming pool owners out there.

We don't own a pool anymore, but the year we bought ours, in 1998, we were swimming in it (comfortably) in mid-May, shortly after it was installed.

My, has the climate changed.

Despite the aforementioned oppressive heat, those days haven't really started until well into June in recent years, so the pool owners' swimming season has been shrinking steadily.

I saw some pools with their winter covers still on, as recently as two weeks ago!

So you own a pool nowadays and you're spending God knows how much money on electricity for the pump and chemicals for the water, and you can't even dip your toes in the stinking thing---until Independence Day.

I also haven't heard the ice cream truck very much this summer.

But that's still collateral damage in my book.

I'm enjoying the heck out of daytime temps in the mid-to-high 70s and evening lows in the upper-50s.

I'm basking in the low humidity and the ability to take in a deep breath of air without nearly passing out.

I have no idea how much longer this can last. I keep bracing myself for a heat wave.

And despite the lack of heat thus far, I'm sure I'll still grumble and bitch the first day the thermometer scrapes 90 degrees.

But until then, I'm enjoying Christmas in July.

How about you?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Many Degrees of DVP

Which Dick Van Patten would you like to remember and mourn today?

Is it the actor Van Patten, who most famously seeped into our consciousness as Tom Bradford, the patriarch of the TV family on ABC's "Eight is Enough" from 1977-81?

Is it the tennis player Van Patten, whose sons got some of the old man's genes and did pretty good on the court as well?

Is it the animal activist Van Patten, who worked tirelessly for our furried and feathered friends, including founding National Guide Dog Month in 2008?

Is it the entrepreneur Van Patten, who co-founded Natural Balance Pet Foods in 1989?

Take your pick---or take them all, if you'd like.

Van Patten passed away on Tuesday at age 86. Some reports blame the cause of death on complications related to diabetes.

There was some juice to the Van Patten name in the entertainment industry. There was Dick, of course, and there was his younger sister Joyce, a fellow actor. There were the Van Patten boys---Vincent, Nels and Jimmy---who were all actors.

It's so fitting that Dick Van Patten made his most pop culture hay as family man Tom Bradford on "Eight is Enough" because his own family tree is pretty interesting and runs like an artery through show business.

In addition to the aforementioned, check this out.

Van Patten's sister Joyce married actor Martin Balsam, and the couple had a child---actress Talia Balsam.

Talia Balsam's first husband was George Clooney. You may have heard of him.

Talia Balsam is now married to "Mad Men" actor John Slattery.

Van Patten's son Vince is married to soap star and current reality TV personality Eileen Davidson.

Dick's other son Nels is married to former "Baywatch" regular Nancy Valen.

For some, it may seem like "Eight is Enough" lasted longer than just four seasons, but that's a testament to the show's impact. It hit the small screen four years after "The Brady Bunch" filmed its last episode, and American TV viewers were ready for a family show featuring a large brood that was a little more grown up.

With "EiE," entire episodes weren't spent on trying to find the family dog or teaching kids lessons about humility. The show was about (mostly) grown-up kids who had more convoluted issues.

Of course, by the end of the hour, all the loose ends were tied up, but not before some laughter, some crying and some reflection.

Real-life tragedy was dealt with, as well.

Actress Diana Hyland was originally cast as Tom Bradford's wife but she succumbed to cancer four episodes into season two. Her untimely death wasn't ignored, like the shows from the 1950s and 1960s would have done---replacing the passed away actor with someone else playing the same character.

Instead, the producers of "EiE" dealt with Hyland's death head on, writing it into the show, and the cast's mourning on the screen was real.

Betty Buckley was brought in to play Tom's new love interest (and eventual second wife), Abby, for seasons two through four.

Leading it all was Dick Van Patten, whose character was based on real-life newspaper columnist Tom Braden, who chronicled his large family with an autobiographical book also titled Eight is Enough---a reference to Braden's (and Bradford's) eight children.

Dick Van Patten was hardly the leading man type---thin-haired, slightly paunchy and with a round face. He looked more like your neighbor---which was likely why Tom Bradford resonated on the screen. Van Patten looked like a guy who had eight kids and who worked for a newspaper.

Van Patten's Tom Bradford was also unlike other TV dads in the sense that he wasn't written as a buffoon who somehow got a pretty, smart girl to marry him. The kids didn't zing witty one-liners at dad's expense; rather, Tom Bradford was a true patriarch who had his kids' respect.

Van Patten was acting on stage and screen for some 28 years before he got the "EiE" gig, but he was treated by many viewers as a virtual unknown until 1977. Such is the power of being a lead actor on a successful TV show.

Van Patten was also a favorite of comedian/director Mel Brooks, who cast Dick in a number of films.

Such was Dick Van Patten's varied interests that he even served as a TV commentator for the World Series of Poker from 1993-95.

Trivia: Van Patten named his son Nels after the character that Dick played in his first TV job, a series called "Mama" (1949-57).

Dick Van Patten didn't light up the screen. He wasn't that type of actor. But you were always aware of his presence.

Unlike some of his brethren who felt typecast and button-holed by roles they played on television, Dick Van Patten embraced Tom Bradford.

"I appreciate 'Eight is Enough'," he once said. "It made me recognizable."

But he was influential in so many other ways, and for that so many are grateful.