Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Movies No-Longer-On-Demand

The corner video store has turned into the city video store.

Time was that you couldn't walk much more than 500 feet in any direction without running smack into a joint that rented VHS tapes. Then, you couldn't walk much more than 2,000 feet without running into a place that rented DVDs.

Now, you can drive for most of a Sunday afternoon without seeing more than a couple video stores.

They close all the time these days, but locally there is a closing that might tug on some heart strings.

I used to go out of my way to venture into Thomas Video. So did everyone else, because there was only one Thomas Video---literally and figuratively.

Thomas Video, the favorite of the intense B-movie fan, is closing up shop. To many, this is like the news of a loved one with a terminal disease passing away. You knew it was coming.

Thomas Video has been located in Royal Oak since 2009, but I remember visiting when it was on Main Street, south of 14 Mile Road, in Clawson.

Like I said, I went out of my way, even when I lived in Warren from 1995-2007.

I went out of my way because there was no place like Thomas Video (TV).

It wasn't so much about renting movies (maybe that was part of why they went out of business) as it was just taking it all in.

The lighting was drab, the place was littered with old, museum-like television sets and the videos were stuffed onto shelves in a sort of haphazard way. But the appeal was great.

Thomas Video was a destination spot because they carried movies and shlock that no other so-called "big box" store would dare touch.

I'm not talking about Godzilla movies from the 1960s. That was child's play for TV.

You had to be a hard-core movie historian or dweeb to have heard of half the titles that TV stocked.

There were also shelves upon shelves of hard-to-find industry magazines and books. There was also an impressive selection of comic books, almost as a complement to the movies---or maybe to keep with the nerdy theme.

Personally, I only rented a few titles. I mainly went there to browse. Maybe in a way I am partly responsible for the store's closing.

Even TV's owners saw the writing on the wall.

“We probably should have done this a long time ago,” co-owner Jim Olenski told the Detroit Free Press. “Business has been really bad over the last few years.”

TV started in 1977, right about when home video started to take off. But Olenski blames video-on-demand, NetFlix and other movie-viewing platforms for chomping into TV's customer base.


Thomas Video co-owner Jim Olenski in the late-1990s

The sad irony is that while those methods of watching movies have indeed taken down a bunch of video stores, TV prided itself on not being one of the bunch.

The appeal of Thomas Video was that you could find titles there that literally no one else offered. Yet that novelty wasn't enough to keep TV going, apparently.

TV wasn't just a store for hard-to-find titles. It also functioned as an intimate location for cult celebrities like The Ghoul and actor Bruce Campbell ("Evil Dead") to hang out and sign autographs.

Olenski put it best, in a self-tribute to him and partner Gary Reichel.

"We wanted to be the last video store standing, and we almost were."

Olenski and Reichel did better than many others who didn't have the guts or the vision to stock the titles that Thomas Video offered.

In fact, maybe that's why they survived for as long as they did.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Mustang, Untamed

Our daughter just turned 21. And, parked in front of our house as I write this, is the car in which we drove her home.

I remember strapping her tiny, 4-lb. body into her car seat and securing her in the Mustang's back seat that day in June, 1993 in front of Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak. She was born two months premature, and thus weighed just 2-lb, 14-oz. when she was born via emergency C-section.

The Mustang was purchased in September, 1992, just before my bride and I were betrothed. Little did we know that some 21-plus years and 115,000 miles later, we'd still own the car.

But that's OK. It's been a good car. How could it not be, if it's old enough to legally drink alcohol?

It's starting to come apart at the seams now, which is to be expected. Rust is spreading like cancer.

But the Mustang still runs and it gets me front Point A to Point B. We just make sure that the distance between those two points isn't too far. We have a 2003 Mercury Sable for that.

The Mustang almost bit the dust some two years ago. It's a two-door, which means the doors are very heavy and put great strain on the hinging mechanism. It got to a point where you would have to do a lift-and-yank maneuver and then slam in order to properly close the driver's side door.

One day in 2012, I slammed the door shut after getting gas and the driver's side window shattered from the impact. It scared the bejeebers out of me.

So I took it to the collision shop and the proprietor delivered bad news. He could fix the door but it would be a job of monumental labor, because of where things were located and the work it would take to get to said things.

He suggested that I put the Mustang to sleep, due to inordinate repair cost.

Well, this was the Mustang. You don't just put a Mustang to sleep without getting a second opinion.

Collision shop #2 had a brighter outlook. Second opinions are good because you can always play the doom and gloom of the first opinion against the second. Often, the second opinion person likes to play the hero. And, stealing business away from a competitor is never a bad thing.

So second opinion guy said he would give it a whirl, and for a reasonable price.

Over two years later, the repaired door is still working. The Mustang was saved from euthanasia.

I still get compliments and inquiries about the Mustang. Usually it's at a gas station. Another customer will ask me if I am interested in selling.

Mustangs have a mystique.

Some seven or eight years ago, on a Saturday night, I drove the family to Royal Oak, ostensibly to get some food at our favorite Thai restaurant, Siam Spicy. We took the Mustang.

It was evident as we got closer to the city that something was going on. Traffic was very heavy. By the time we got to Woodward Avenue, it was all too apparent what I had done.

I had driven us right into the Woodward Dream Cruise!

I had no choice but to turn north onto Woodward. The bystanders and lookers-on assumed we were part of the Cruise, tooling around as we were in a Mustang.

They urged us to beep the horn and shouted words of encouragement from their lawn chairs, tipping their beer cans in honor of the great American Mustang.

I tried to tell them that I was just trying to grab some dinner with the family. Nobody heard me.

And, Siam Spicy was closed that night. So the trip was all for naught.

But the Mustang got one of its last moments of glory.

It's seen its days in various mechanic shops over the years. It has had brake jobs, new starters installed, new exhaust systems and sundry other work. It's been the Joan Rivers of cars.

But it still turns on when I stick the key in the ignition. And it still is the car we drove our daughter home in, and you can't put a price on that.

You probably couldn't sell it now, but it never was for sale anyway.

Long live our 'Stang!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Utash: We Can Only Hope

Sometimes the 24-hour news cycle gets extended.

Sometimes it's a 48-hour or 72-hour news cycle. And, on occasion, a story manages to stay in the public's consciousness for a week or more.

News stories anymore are like pieces of pasta thrown against the wall. Only some stick.

The Stephen Utash beating has beat the 24-hour news cycle, by far. Now the question is, Will it matter?

The Utash story is right out of a novel or a made-for-TV movie.

White suburbanite hits a young black boy with his pickup truck, in the city. The suburbanite stops to check on the condition of the boy and is then beaten senseless, perhaps to death (that's a part of the story that has yet to be resolved), by a mob of black men.

It's a story that almost had to happen, to provide the most recent litmus test of where we are as a society, particularly when it comes to violence and race relations.

The elements are all there, and if they weren't, the story wouldn't work as well. It would be a flawed test.

The driver was white, the hit boy was black. That's the only way this can work. Any other combo would either not tell us anything we don't already suspect, or it would be less newsworthy.

The white man is beaten by a mob of black men. Again, reverse it, and it's just another example of what so many people already suspect, and what so many other people vigorously try to defend.

The person who intervened and got the mob to stop beating the white man was a black female nurse. Author, author!

The white man lies in a medically-induced coma as the suspects are rounded up. Score another for the fiction writer.

Oh, and whites and blacks come together in churches around town and try to pray the violence away. Money is being raised for the white man's medical bills. Not bad, not bad at all.

And Detroiters did it all by themselves. They didn't need anyone to zoom into town to rally the troops.

The author did a bang up job on this one.

Ah, but it's all true.


Steve Utash

The Utash beating has a shot---an actual, legitimate shot---at bringing white and black folks together in an effort to take a collective look in the proverbial mirror.

Thankfully, the words "vigilante justice" have been rinsed off this story, revealing it to be what it really is---senseless, animal-like violence that wasn't advocating for anyone or anything, other than an opportunity to take something out on a poor man. A chance to get your licks in, for whatever reason.

Unlike others, though, I'm not convinced that the mob saw a white man and decided to go to town. Maybe we will never know for sure. Maybe the five (so far) suspects that have been arrested---four have been arraigned---will start chirping, even against each other. Maybe a motive will trickle out.

Maybe had the driver been black, he would have been beaten, too---once identified as the man who hit the boy. Again, we may never know. But we may, eventually.

The fact that no one in the beating mob---according to witnesses' recounting of the incident---appeared to show any concern for the boy's physical condition before they started whaling on Utash, is the most damning piece of this horrible crime.

And that's why the vigilante label doesn't fit and has been ripped off, rightly so.

You can't have vigilante justice if you don't know what the heck you're justifying.

The facts, of course, weren't all in when the mob sprang into action. They didn't know---or didn't care---that the child stepped off the curb into oncoming traffic. The boy was 10 years old---certainly old enough to know not to step into the street without looking both ways.

But that's another discussion entirely.

It's terrible, but often it takes something terrible to finally drum something into people's heads.

We can only hope that Steve Utash---and let's hope he survives and regains his wits---evolves into a turning point of sorts. He will not only be a man but a landmark.

Then again, the beating of Vincent Chin didn't necessarily change anything.

But that's the thing about hope. You're willing to throw the history books out the window and say, "Maybe THIS time."

Maybe this time.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

See You Later

It's not easy to be a trailblazer when so many of the trails have already been blazed, but David Letterman somehow managed to blaze one anyway.

You may think that late night television was an already-mined resource by the time Letterman, 66, came along in 1982, hosting "Late Night with David Letterman" on NBC.

It's true that TV at the witching hour was nothing new in 1982, having been first attempted some 30 years prior and being refined for 20 years by Johnny Carson when NBC gave Letterman a late night slot, following Carson's "Tonight Show."

But it turned out there was still plenty that Letterman found to do that not even the iconic Carson managed to discover.

Letterman announced today, somewhat shockingly during the taping of "The Late Show with David Letterman," that 2015 will be the year of his retirement.

"This (retirement) means Paul (bandleader Shaffer) and I can finally get married," Letterman said to a crowd that seemed to need the laugh to digest the news. But Letterman was serious---about the retirement part.

The longtime late night host said he had a phone conversation with CBS president Les Moonves not long before tonight's taping and informed Moonves that 2015 would see the end of Letterman's run on "The Late Show."

Letterman was a morning loser when NBC gave him a mulligan---a big time mulligan---and put Letterman where his milieu clearly was, in late night.

Letterman's morning show, which lasted just a few months in 1980, was a critical success of sorts (two Daytime Emmys) but a ratings disaster.

But he was back less than two years later, after midnight.

Where Letterman was able to forage---and where Carson either chose not to go or simply never thought of going---was in the mostly unexplored forest of pulling life's non-celebrities into the party.



While Carson would occasionally interview folks like an old lady who collected potato chips that looked like people and animals, Johnny's genius was in his gregarious chats with the famous and in his sketch comedy bits.

Letterman made 15-minute celebrities out of the every man with bits like "Stupid Pet Tricks" and "Stupid Human Tricks." He also made Larry "Bud" Melman---real name Calvert DeForest, a little-known actor but his day job was working for a pharmaceutical company---famous with Larry Bud's strangely humorous appearances, which many times made it seem like the joke was on Melman.

While Carson ventured into the crowd for bits like "Stump the Band," Letterman took it one step further and blended crowd games with cameos from comedic actor Chris Elliott, with hilarious results.

And while Carson had Doc Severinsen and Tommy Newsome leading the "Tonight Show" band and functioning as occasional kibitzing partners, Letterman and Shaffer formed almost a tag-team comedy duo, chatting during the first 10 minutes of each show like they hadn't spoken with each other all day.

It's no coincidence that pretty much every late night show after Letterman's employed a band with a leader who tried to be Paul Shaffer Light.

Sid Caesar and company started doing "Man on the Street" bits in the 1950s (something Carson never really did), but Letterman again turned it up a notch, beseeching the regular folks to partake in stunts and pull pranks on other unsuspecting folks---their colleagues, so to speak.

There are many other directions that Letterman took late night comedy and talk, but they are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say that while the genre had been discovered, Letterman took that block of clay and molded it.

"The time has come," Letterman said today in announcing his retirement a year hence.

He wasn't emotional, he wasn't melancholy. He sounded like a man comfortable in his place and with his timing.

It was as if he was saying, "My job here is done."

Which, it is.