Thursday, August 28, 2014

"Whose Class" Action

Labor Day was always my least favorite holiday. I'm sure I was hardly alone.

Of course, I'm talking about when I was a kid, and so just about every other kid likely joined me in that sentiment.

Labor Day meant the unofficial end to summer, though the calendar says that the season runs until September 21. No matter. The calendar didn't give us kids that long; classes in Livonia, where I grew up, always commenced the day after Labor Day.

It was a final three-day weekend before the baseball mitts and swimming suits were to go back into mothballs, in favor of notebooks, pencils and rulers.

There was one day of excitement, however, in the weeks leading up to the first day of school, and that was the day the class lists would be posted in the school window by the front door. This was for grade school, not beyond.

I'm not sure how we found out that the lists were posted. Probably some sort of loosely designated sentry or Paul Revere type would spread the word. This was some 20-plus years before the Internet became all the rage.

The way it worked was simple. Printed 8-1/2 x 11 inch sheets of paper were taped to the window, face out. The sheets were generally situated by grade. On the top of each sheet was the teacher's name and the grade he/she taught. The students' names were listed below. And all the kids---didn't matter where they lived, they all managed to gather---would frantically search for their names, not knowing until that very moment which teacher they had and which of their friends were in the same class.

It was some pretty intense stuff.

After you located your name, the next step was to search for your friends' and also your enemies'. Soon there would be a cacophony of sighs of relief mixed with howls of disappointment.

Maybe you got the teacher you wanted, but your best friends were in another classroom. Or, vice-versa.

Regardless, when you got the word that the class lists were ready for consumption, you couldn't hop onto your bicycle fast enough.

I recently had a drink with an old grade school and middle school pal. We compared teachers that we had in grades 1-6 and not once were we in the same class. I thought that was pretty amazing.

That "what class are you in?" excitement ended when we all shuffled off to middle school, where you didn't have just one teacher.

It was fun while it lasted, though.

As for Labor Day, I enjoy it now. It means a three-day weekend, which as an adult you treasure.

No matter what kind of class you have.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tears of a Class Clown

"I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room cry
the tears of a clown."

I don't generally like to start blog posts or columns with quotes or song lyrics. I have often looked at that sort of thing as a cheap, hackneyed stunt.

But the first thing I thought of upon hearing the news of Robin Williams' death by suicide was the iconic song by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, "Tears of a Clown."

So I thought it would be appropriate to lead this post with a portion of Smokey's lyrics, because how can you read them and not think of Williams and the many comedians before him who made their living making us laugh while at the same time battling inner demons?

Williams, 63, apparently hanged himself at his California home, sometime between 10:30 p.m. Sunday night and 10:30 a.m. Monday morning.

His manager said Williams was battling "severe depression" lately.

It is fascinating to me, how many tormented "funny men" have graced the stages of comedy clubs, Broadway houses and television specials practically from the time the first brave soul decided to stand in front of a crowd and crack jokes.

There must be some corollary between the thrill of getting laughs on stage and being shy, lacking of self-esteem and, frankly, sad.

Williams, of course, was more than a comedian. He started out playing an alien on a TV sitcom and turned out to be a whale of a dramatic actor who had a knack for playing lovable, vulnerable characters with a big heart.

He was also likely the most manic guest in TV talk show history.

A Williams appearance on Carson or Leno should have required the viewer to be asked to buckle up and put the tray in the upright position.

It was a six-minute exercise in non-stop tidbits, impersonations and story telling, and Williams never sat still during any of it. In fact, he usually wasn't sitting at all.

He made me nervous, truth be told, as a talk show guest but the crowd (and the host) always ate up Williams' shtick.

Williams, again like so many fellow comedians, got lost in substance abuse, which likely didn't do his depression symptoms any good.

He returned to TV full-time last fall in "The Crazy Ones," playing a quirky ad agency man who works with his daughter. The series was Williams' first foray on the small screen as a lead character since his days on "Mork and Mindy" from 1978-82.

But the new series couldn't come close to shaking Williams out of the deep and irreversible funk of depression that would ultimately prompt him to take his own life.



I suspect that comedians and actors who cause moviegoers and viewers to feel a wide range of emotions are often feeling wide ranges of emotions themselves. Their roller coaster sometimes makes one too many bumps and they fly out of the car.

Williams may have been lonely but he wasn't alone. He was a family man---a husband and a father three times over. His friends and colleagues described him---especially in the wake of his death---as kind, compassionate and with a huge heart.

So here we are---the man who dedicated himself to lifting the spirits of others, unable to lift his own.

When someone takes their own life, those who don't know the pain figure that there must have been a viable alternative.

But here's the punch line---the suicide victim instead thinks that the viable alternative that we espouse is a death sentence of sorts, anyway. So why keep going?

Billy Crystal, longtime friend and co-host of "Comic Relief" with Williams and Whoopi Goldberg for 20 years, had maybe the most appropriate tweet after learning of the news.

"No words."

Fitting, because Robin Williams didn't need too many to make us laugh or cry.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tall, Dark and Oklahoman

James Garner was once asked if he'd ever do a nude scene on camera.

"I don't do horror movies," he said.

Rim shot.

Garner, who died on Saturday at age 86, was a Hollywood leading man but a humble Oklahoman at heart.

"I got into the business to put a roof over my head," he once said. "I wasn't looking for star status. I just wanted to keep working."

And work he did, especially in the 1960s, when Garner was often teamed with the biggest female names in movies, such as Doris Day (Rock Hudson is more famously connected with Day, but Garner did his fair share with her as well), Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and Kim Novak.

The film boom for Garner was set up by his work in TV's Maverick, in which he starred from 1957-60, playing old Western card shark and ladies man Bret Maverick. The show went toe-to-toe on Sunday nights with The Ed Sullivan Show and The Steve Allen Show, more than holding its own.

If you were a casting director and could mail order a leading man, Garner would arrive at your office.

He was tall, dark and handsome, and possessed a self-effacing style bereft of cockiness. His Oklahoma lilt, which he never tried to disguise, added to the down home feel that just about all of his characters had.

Garner, left, with Jack Kelly as Bret and Bart Maverick

Garner, for a brief time, even dabbled in auto racing, an interest that was piqued when he co-starred in 1966's Grand Prix. Garner thus joined Steve McQueen and Paul Newman as actors/racers.

But mention James Garner, and even today the first thing likely to spill from peoples' lips is The Rockford Files, NBC's series that ran from 1974-80. Loosely based on Garner's Bret Maverick, brought into modern times, the private investigator Jim Rockford character landed Garner an Emmy Award in 1977.

Some old-timers like yours truly will also recall Garner in a popular series of Polaroid TV commercials in the late-1970s, early-1980s, sharing the screen with Mariette Hartley. The chemistry between the two was so genuine that many viewers thought the pair was married in real life, even though the commercials never really suggested that they were playing a wedded couple.

Garner left The Rockford Files in 1980, not because of poor ratings or disenchantment with the show, but because of the physical toll. Garner, who was an athlete in high school (football and basketball), insisted on doing his own stunts, and the result was significant damage to his knees and back.

In his later years, Garner really used his tall Oklahoman stature to his advantage, often playing rugged, wise cowboys and fatherly and grandfatherly figures. His characters would occasionally fall in love as well.

Speaking of falling in love, Garner did that well, too---and fast. He married Lois Clarke in 1956---just two weeks after they met. He remained married to her until his death.

Despite his own stable marriage, Garner once offered that "Marriage is like the Army. Everyone complains. But you'd be surprised at the large number of people who re-enlist."

And to show how much Bret Maverick resonated in Garner's hometown of Norman, Oklahoma, the city unveiled a 10-foot tall bronze statue of the actor as Maverick in 2006, with Garner present for the ceremony.

Garner once explained his acting theory, such as it was.

"I'm a Spencer Tracy-type actor. His idea was to be on time, know your words, hit your marks and tell the truth. Most every actor tries to make it something it isn't [or] looks for the easy way out. I don't think acting is that difficult if you can put yourself aside and do what the writer wrote."

Here's the irony in Garner's words: he may have been acting and "putting himself aside," but to watch him on screen was to have the feeling that James Garner was just being James Garner.

He could have done much worse. And so could have we.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Rockets' Red Blare

I'm beginning to think that the celebration of Fourth of July with fireworks is carrying on longer than the Revolutionary War itself.

In our neighborhood, the pop-pop-pop of things with fuses starts in late-June and is still going on, and this is nearly a week after the 4th.

Granted, the pace is slowing, but why are we still hearing things that go boom?

If people still possess these firework-like items, what are they waiting for?

Maybe I'm more sensitive to this because we have a dog, and he's not unlike many other canines who don't appreciate the rockets' red glare. Last night we set out for our evening stroll and just five minutes into it, something went boom and just like that, our pup was making a beeline for the house.

I'm as patriotic as the next guy, but do we need to hear the commotion (sometimes past 11:00 p.m.) for a three-week period?

I could go into the accidents, some tragic, but that's piling on. It's unfair to take pot shots because some of these mishaps are truly not the result of being careless. The highest profile ones to Detroiters---the death of a 44-year-old man and the loss of an eye of channel 7 meteorologist Dave Rexroth---appear to be nothing more than horrible accidents.

Still, this is what can go wrong when lighters are set to fuses, when those doing the lighting are not professionals.

But back to the ever-growing July 4th "season."

I understand the concept of a Christmas season, with decorations going up after Thanksgiving and staying up past New Year's Day. I get it with Halloween as well. It's fun to look at how creative people can get with their homes. Sometimes we like to pour some hot chocolate or coffee and just hop into the car and drive around, looking at the displays.

But those are nice, quiet holiday seasons. Independence Day is all about twilight's last gleaming---and it seems to be every twilight for 21 days straight, at least where we live.

As I write this, I must admit that things are quieting down quite a bit, but it's July 10th, for crying out loud, and the bombs are only just now abating.

I guess my biggest question is, if you shelled out the dough for the higher-end fireworks, why are you holding onto them well past July 4th? It's not like these things are being discovered in a basement somewhere.

I know there isn't a hard-and-fast rule here, and I don't want to come off like a sourpuss (maybe that ship has sailed), but at the risk of sounding like a prude, this does fall into the realm of disturbing the peace, does it not?

Frankly, I quite enjoyed the night of the 4th around here. The celebration lasted for several hours and it was actually pretty cool and impressive, hearing all the rapid fire booming and seeing the pretty colors of fireworks that were mini-me versions of the awesome display we saw in Madison Heights the Sunday prior.

It had really ramped up on the 3rd and carried pretty strong into the 5th. No problem; it was the weekend. I get it.

But this started the last week of June and is only now slowing down. That's about three weeks.

As for the accidents, they're going to happen every year, no matter how many safety tips are floated around. It's sad but true---and inevitable.

But while some of those are unavoidable, what isn't is the setting off of fireworks for three weeks straight.

Or maybe we just chalk this whole thing off to the grouchiness of a 50-something white male living in the suburbs.

That "season" is much longer than three weeks, by the way.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

You Couldn't Better Fretter

Before the commercial airwaves on television were taken over by ads for prescription drugs, lawyers and car insurance companies, there was the wild and crazy pitchman.

Every city had them.

The products being pumped were usually electronics, appliances and used cars.

The ads were low on productions costs---usually all we saw was the pitchman screaming into the camera with an occasional glimpse at what he was hawking.

The emphasis was on the supposed insanity of the pitchman, because the deals were so good, you see.

New York had Crazy Eddie, who pitched electronic gizmos while shrieking maniacally at the viewer.

And Detroit had Ollie Fretter.

Fretter, who passed away Sunday at age 91, blanketed the TV and radio ad space with commercials for his appliance store, starting in the 1960s and continuing for about 30 years. He promised five pounds of free coffee if he couldn't beat your best deal.

The appliance wars in Detroit were hot in the 1970s and '80s. Fretter went up against Highland Appliance's creative ads on TV, and Adray Appliance didn't do as much TV advertising, but Mike Adray was in the game. He sponsored lots of little league baseball and hockey teams to help keep his name on people's lips.

We fell in love with the items that Fretter and Highland advertised on television. It was a time when microwave ovens, stereos, color TVs and newfangled refrigerators/freezers hit the market with gusto.

At the forefront was Ollie Fretter, who didn't scream, but who was very prevalent in all his ads, never afraid to look silly and foolish on camera as he shamelessly plugged his metro Detroit locations.


Ollie Fretter, ever shameless

But it was the tag line about the free coffee that became iconic, not unlike Mr. Belvedere's "We do good work," which ended all of those home improvement commercials.

Fretter was hardly the only Detroit-area pitchman on TV at the time.

There was Irving Nussbaum for New York Carpet World ("The BETTER carpet people"); the aforementioned Belvedere; Mel Farr "Superstar" (Ford dealership); and a host of other car dealers, like Walt Lazar Chevrolet and Bill Rowan Oldsmobile.

These days, law offices are all over the dial, but of course it would be unseemly if those types got wacky on the air.

There was no shame in screaming about a steal of a deal on appliances and used cars back in Fretter's day.

In fact, we all waited to see what Ollie's next spot would bring. Each one seemed to want to outdo the previous in terms of silliness.

Fretter shuttered the last of his stores in the early-1990s. His was one of many dominoes to fall around that time as store after store went out of business, outdone by national, big box retail chains.

I always wondered if Ollie ever gave away any free coffee.


Monday, June 16, 2014

Getting Tanked

Today I found out something new and potentially very helpful.

As often happens, lessons learned are done so the hard way.

I used to be a charcoal guy when it came to outside grilling, but in 2008 I broke down and bought a gas cooker at Kmart. If nothing else, my lovely bride would have a much easier time when she had a hankering for tossing some steaks on the barbie before her husband arrived home.

I have come to accept the lack of charcoal cooking in my life, but there was one thing about gas cooking that stymied me and until today, continued to do so.

How the heck do you know when your propane tank is running on empty?

It has happened more than once, where I've been midway through some steaks or chops or chicken and the flames grew perilously smaller and smaller until they finally went out altogether.

And, more than once, yours truly has had to turn off the burners, disconnect the tank and hurry it down to the local U-Haul or Home Depot for a refill---not unlike a pit stop for refueling.

On one of those occasions, several years ago, I asked the young man filling my tank what I could do to determine how much gas I had left with which to work.

He gave a convoluted answer that involved dunking the tank in a tub of ice water or some such thing and looking on the tank for where the water started to bead up on it. Or something like that. I'm sure I'm getting it wrong. Regardless, it sounded like way too much work. So I continued to play Russian Roulette with my propane tank.

This evening I played Russian Roulette and again shot myself in the skull.

Midway through the pork chops, the flames flickered.

I told Mrs. Eno that we weren't likely to make it, which displeased her.



Within moments, the flames were out. So again I went into pit crew mode and ran the tank over to the U-Haul, just minutes before closing time.

I decided to give my query another shot.

"Is there a simple way to tell when your tank is running low on propane?" I asked during re-fueling.

Why, yes there is, the U-Haul guy said.

He said it with such brilliant simplicity.

"Do you have a bathroom scale?" he asked. I said yes.

"Forty pounds is full. Twenty pounds is empty," he said.

That was it.

No dunking tanks. No looking for beading up or whatever.

Just weigh the darn thing.

"So let me get this straight," I said, as if there was a catch. "I weigh the tank and if it's, say, thirty pounds, it's half full?"

That's right.

And if it's 25 pounds it's one quarter full, etc.

Brilliant.

I started to tell the U-Haul guy about the convoluted method and he waved me off before I could finish.

I excitedly relayed this to Mrs. Eno when I arrived with my now 40-pound tank. She was still sour about my running out of propane again and failing to do Google research about propane tanks. Fair enough. I Google a boatload of useless info, so she had a point.

Voila! I now know the method to determine whether my propane tank is in danger of petering out or not.

Which, of course, begs the question.

What are the odds of me disconnecting my tank in order to weigh it?

Somehow I have a feeling that my days of playing Russian Roulette with my propane tank aren't quite finished.

However, judging by the look on my wife's face tonight when I ran out of cooking gas, maybe I'd be playing Russian Roulette with my marriage if I took the lazy way out.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The Bradys' Glue in Blue

The wise-cracking maid/butler/servant in situation comedies has been a trope for nearly as long as folks first started flicking on televisions in the 1940s.

So by the time Ann B. Davis showed up to help stay-at-home mom Carol Brady in 1969, she was hardly the first of the hired help in TV history to get some funny lines.

But Davis, who played Alice in "The Brady Bunch" from 1969-74, will go down as one of the most memorable, if not the most memorable, live-in helpers of all time.

We lost Davis yesterday at age 88, the victim of a fall in her home.

Unlike some of her brethren on screen---before and after the Bradys---Davis' Alice wasn't snarky or mean-spirited and didn't try to steal the scene. Her lines were delivered with a dose of humility and with a good heart.

Davis was more like Sebastian Cabot's Mr. French in "Family Affair"---subtle but omnipresent. You knew Alice was always around, even if she wasn't chewing the scenery and always going for laughs.

Even "Brady" enthusiasts wondered why Carol Brady needed a maid when she didn't work outside of the home, although that wondering likely came when the viewers grew up and turned into parents themselves.

But who cares why the Bradys needed Alice; we're just glad that they hired her.

It's not a reach to say that Alice was the glue that held the Bradys, and by extension, the show together. In the very rare episodes where Alice didn't appear, watching them was very odd.

Davis embraced her role as Alice, always participating in the reunion shows and other get-togethers with the cast. She didn't look back with any bitterness at being joined at the hip with her alter ego, like some of the cast members did (*cough* Robert Reed *cough*).

After the show's initial run, Davis went back and forth between the ministry and acting. But when the producers called her name, she always responded.

Speaking of her name, she explained her use of her middle initial (B for Bradford) thusly.

"Just plain Ann Davis goes by pretty fast."'

Watching Alice in her iconic blue uniform is a calming memory for those of us baby boomers who grew up making sure we were camped in front of the television on Friday nights. Of course, since "The Brady Bunch" is one of the most widely syndicated shows in TV history, we can pretty much turn on the boob tube on any given day at any given time, somewhere in this country, and catch a rerun.


Ann B. Davis (1926-2014)

Davis had the comedic acting chops to be the focus when she needed to be in "TBB", and she could be a straight woman if that's what was needed. She could be the butt of the joke and she could offer gentle advice to the kids if necessary. No other maid or butler exhibited such versatility.

Contrary to some people's belief, Davis' career didn't just come to life starting with the Bradys.

For several years she was the love struck secretary Schultzy on "The Bob Cummings Show" in the mid-to-late 1950s. Her unrequited fawning over Cummings was the joke, but her range was more than that.

She had Michigan ties, too; Davis received her Bachelors degree in theater from U-M in 1948.

But in the end, Ann B. Davis will forever be remembered as Alice, and that's pretty much it. Not that she ever complained.

In an interview with the Associated Press in 1993, Davis tried to explain why Alice was so revered.

"I think I'm lovable," she said. "That's the gift God gave me."

And it was the gift she paid forward to millions of TV viewers, young and old.