UNMASKING "THE PHANTOM"
A friend lent me the deluxe DVD edition of the 1925 "The Phantom of the Opera" starring Lon Chaney. Or was it 1926? Or 1929? Or 1930?
I never knew this movie had such a checkered history. The "Phantom" expert who provided the commentary said there is no "one" version of "Phantom of the Opera," but that the film has five "pedigrees."
Scenes were re-shot to appease preview audiences; subplots were added and subtracted; the Phantom's manner of death was changed (from heart attack on the organ bench to fleeing angry villagers through the streets of Paris); Chaney was called back to Universal to shoot additional scenes after defecting to MGM; and on and on. All of this was aggravated by the film's re-release four years later with recorded dialogue, music and synchronized sound effects. An unidentified (and rather hammy) actor even spoke for Chaney's Phantom!
Try as I might, I couldn't keep the whole story straight. To accomplish this, I figure you would have to own this two-disc set (which I plan to do) and then revisit it periodically until it finally enters your bloodstream. That is, if you care enough, which I do.
To me, the unmasking scene in the original "Phantom of the Opera" is THE scariest moment in any the horror film. Though "Phantom" is by no means the earliest horror film -- it was preceded by Chaney's own "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), "Nosferatu" (1922), "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), John Barrymore's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920), Thomas Edison's "Frankenstein" (1910) and any number of others -- I still think of the unmasking scene as THE seminal moment in the horror film. I put it up there with "Rock Around the Clock" (the first rock 'n' roll song), "Action Comics" No. 1 (the first superhero comic book) and other milestones that have changed our culture forever.
"TWO TRAINS RUNNING"
On Friday, a freezing cold night, a friend and I caught August Wilson's "Two Trains Running," directed by Lou Bellamy, at the Peter Norton Space on 42nd Street between 10th and 11th in Manhattan. It was a transcending experience.
We had front row seats, a bit closer to stage-right than center. The Peter Norton Space is a small house with a low, wide stage, so the cliche "there's not a bad seat in the house" applies. The action takes place in a dingy Pittsburgh diner in 1969, and set designer Derek McLane took full advantage of the stage's generous width. Just sitting in your seat waiting for the play to begin, you could study the set and marvel at the details ... a battered frying pan, a nasty mop hanging in the back, framed photos of famous black atheletes, a vintage juke box, missing floor tiles, a coffee urn with the red light on, a hint of a street scene. (There were even olfactory touches; at one point in the play, the smell of bacon permeated the theater.)
"Two Trains Running" largely focuses on the hopelessness felt by many African Americans in the late '60s, following the fading promise of the Civil Rights movement and the assassination of two inspirational figures, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. (A rally in memory of Malcolm X is a plot point.) Not that this is a preachy piece; this is one of those plays that can have you misty-eyed one second and laughing the next. Wilson's penchant for characterization via dialogue is remarkable. "Two Trains Running" is a long play, but I never wanted it to end.
The cast is glorious. Frankie Faison (known as Barney, the prison guard who treats Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter with humane decency in "Silence of the Lambs," and Burrell, the police commissioner often at the receiving end of bitter political fallout in "The Wire") is Memphis, the owner of the diner who dreams wistfully of selling it to the city at 500 percent profit. January Lavoy is Risa, the waitress whose profoud self-esteem issues have driven her to self-mutilation and mistrust of men. Chad L. Coleman (another "The Wire" cast member) is Sterling, a young buck recently released from prison who tries to score a job and penetrate Risa's invisible wall. Also in the cast are Ron Cephas Jones as a likable numbers hustler, Leon Addison Brown as a mentally disabled man, Arthur French as a sage-like old-timer and Ed Wheeler as an imperious funeral home proprietor.
I'm sorry to report that the final performance of "Two Trains Running" is today. But I hereafter plan to monitor the work of this cast, not to mention Tony-winner Wilson (who died in 2005), and urge you to do the same.
THE SOUL OF CURLY
You think the strangest things when you're a kid.
In the Philadelphia television viewing area in the 1960s, we kids faithfully watched Sally Starr, a cowgirl kiddie show host, every weekday after school and before dinner. "Our Gal Sal" showed Popeye cartoons and Three Stooges shorts.
We knew, even as kids, that the Stooges shorts were from another time. We could tell this from the cars and the fashions and the haircuts and the music and the lingo. But there was no generation gap here -- all of us kids ADORED the Stooges, especially the manic, hilarious, childlike Curly.
One day, my mom happened to mention that in real life, Curly was dead. (Moe and Larry were still alive at the time.) This bit of sad news FREAKED ME OUT. I couldn't stop thinking about the fact that this sweet, funny man was making me laugh right now, and yet he died a long time ago.
At Holy Rosary School in the Camden Diocese in the 1960s, the younger grades were taken for a bathroom break every morning. We all stood in line, two-by-two, by the big rest rooms next to the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue. Five us went in at a time, while the others were supposed to stand patiently and wait, something like statues ourselves. Of course, kids being kids, it didn't always work that way. Sometimes, we misbehaved -- whispered or laughed or even shoved each other.
One day when this happened, Sister became angry and said, "Instead of fooling around, gentlemen, you should be saying prayers for the souls in Purgatory." (To non-Catholics: Purgatory was a kind of "way station" where you would go upon your death if you were bound for heaven, but still had venial sins on your soul. I haven't kept up as much as I should, but I believe Purgatory is no longer taught.)
Sister continued: "There may be a soul in Purgatory who needs just one more Hail Mary to get to Heaven. If you say that Hail Mary, and that soul gets to Heaven, he or she will watch over you for the rest of your life."
In my child's mind, I fantasized that I was saying the VERY LAST HAIL MARY that Curly of the Three Stooges needed to get to Heaven. As I finished the prayer, I looked up and had a very strong fantasy that I could see Curly in a flowing white robe with wings and a halo, floating up to Heaven. I could even hear a harp being strummed as he rose. Curly was smiling down at me -- one of those goofy Curly smiles -- and waving.
You think the strangest things when you're a kid.
STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE
Here's a formula I swear I came up with on my own. I did not read about it or find it on the Web or see it on TV. By the same token, I'm sure I'm not the first person to have stumbled onto this. Yet, anyone I've told it to has never heard it before.
Here it is:
The year when your age reaches half your parent's age, that's when you are the age your parent was when you were born.
I know it sounds simple, obvious, elementary. But I've never heard any one say it.
It works with any child and any parent. So if your sister turned turned 29, say, the year your father turned 58, that means your father was 29 the year your sister was born.
Digging a little deeper into this formula: During the year your age reaches half of your parent's age, if you locate the exact halfway date between your birthdays, that is the day when YOU HAVE LIVED ON THIS EARTH THE EXACT SAME NUMBER OF DAYS YOUR PARENT LIVED ON THIS EARTH ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN.
So if your mother was born on, say, March 23, 1969, and you were born on May 10, 1991, she was 22 when you were born. You will turn 22 in 2013, when she will turn 44. Your age will have reached half her age, which means that's how old she was when you were born. There are 48 days between March 23 and May 10, putting the halfway point between those dates at April 16. In this scenario, on April 16, 2013, YOU WILL HAVE LIVED ON THIS EARTH THE EXACT NUMBER OF DAYS YOUR MOTHER LIVED ON THIS EARTH ON THE DAY YOU WERE BORN.
There's more. If you know the exact time of day for both your mother's birth and your birth, and you pinpoint the halfway point between those times -- to the minute, now -- for April 16, 2013, YOU WILL HAVE LIVED ON THIS EARTH THE EXACT NUMBER OF MINUTES YOUR MOTHER LIVED ON THIS EARTH AT THE EXACT MINUTE YOU WERE BORN.
Freak . . . you . . . out.
Of course, thanks to this World Wide Web, there are thousands out there who can probably say, "Hey, buddy, this formula was first espoused in the 12th century by Henry Wadsworth Copernicus. Where've you been?" But just in case I AM the first, I've decided to name it. I've decided to name it after actor Larry Storch, who made us laugh as Agarn on "F Troop." Henceforth, I am calling it The Larry Storch Formula.
Me 'n' Brinie are talking about another double-bill with Mad Jack and The Burners. The target date we've put out to our Fried Brethren is "late March," but me 'n' Brinie have already concluded that this would be a tad optimistic.
With The Burners, the goal is to sift in some fresh material. We've agreed that any new songs added should be "danceable," though not "dance songs" per se. That could mean Rolling Stones or shewdly selected '60s pop or -- who knows? We're still in the fantasizing phase.
With Mad Jack, the ultimate goal is for us to headline -- to break away from The Burners and play three hourlong sets in one magical evening. We're still not ready. Me 'n' Brinie figure one more double-bill should toughen us up enough. We have 36 songs planned. (Twelve songs take about an hour to play.) Seven or eight of 'em are brand spankin' new to us. So our plan is that, while rehearsing our 90-minute set for the next double-bill with The Burners, we'll simultaneously rehearse our ENTIRE headlining show. Are we smart, talented and just plain healthy enough? I'm a paunchy 48-year-old trying to avoid Pop Tarts. Should be fun.
I play guitar with Mad Jack but not The Burners. But when Mad Jack breaks off, I'm gonna ask The Burners if I can play a little bit of guitar with them. (I gotta get more use out of my wireless unit, or as I call it, my "mid-life crisis toy.") Like, maybe the Maestro can take a three-song break and schmooze with friends while me, Brinie, Jazzy and Bad Bobby do a little guitar-quartet action. Me 'n' Brinie have also discussed adding me as a second guitar on two barn-stormers we would introduce toward the end of the show: "Freebird" and "Layla."
Yeah, yeah, call us corny dinosaurs. But at every single Burners show, some crowd member or other has shouted "FREEBIRD!" It never fails. And dammit, one of these nights, I wanna play it for them. As for "Layla" -- well, we have the Maestro. Imagine him playing that sweet piano part that leads into the final jam? I'll be on the lookout for wet eyes. My OWN eyeliner may be running.
By the way -- all of this is privileged information. Don't tell the Maestro, Jazzy, Bad Bobby, Karch or Fro. Controlling set lists is an art. Too many cooks spoil the broth. If it was up to Fro, we'd be doing Huey Lewis and the News.
It's been 16 months today -- a long time, and then again, a short time.
Stuff still punches me in the stomach. Stupid stuff. The other day, I found a small, Teflon frying pan that I hadn't seen in all this time, and I started wailing. My counselor calls this phenomenon "habituation." Today, the frying pan is a memory trigger. Tomorrow, the frying pan will be just a frying pan.
Whenever Kathy sent me to the Post Office for a book of stamps, she would always say, "Get something pretty." In other words, get birds or flowers or hearts rather than flags or faces or fish.
The other day, I was at the Post Office buying a book of stamps. I had already been rung up when I saw that the stamps were of flags.
"Is it too late to exchange these for something pretty?" I asked.
"Not at all," said the female Post Office worker.
I was given a choice of birds or flowers. I chose the birds.
"I don't want you to get in trouble," she added with a smile.
"Thanks," I said, and then I bawled on the way to my car.
Whenever I hear the Tommy James and the Shondells lyric "Yesterday, my friends were marching off to war" (from their hit "Sweet Cherry Wine"), it reminds me of the time, in the late 1960s, when the second-oldest child of our backdoor neighbors came home from Vietnam. I drew a poster that said, "WELCOME HOME, BILLY." I remember seeing the letters he'd write home; where you'd put a stamp on the envelope, he just wrote "FREE." I always regarded Billy as a hero. He's a cool customer. He kind of reminds me of Peter Fonda.
I have a cousin who did a tour in Iraq last year. My uncle and aunt sent me a photo of him in a helmet and uniform holding a huge gun surrounded by six Iraqi children who look very sweet and very at home next to him. Four boys and two girls. Little darlings.
I keep the photo in a frame at my desk. I hope they're all still alive and healthy and happy somehow.
In the new issue of The New Yorker, the lead "Talk of the Town" item is about the hanging of Saddam Hussein. It has a phrase that stuck with me: ". . . from shock and awe through stay the course to surge and pray . . ." Those cats can turn a phrase.
A friend referred to the president's facial expression during his speech yesterday as "deer in the headlights."
For those who never supported this war, Bush finally admitting that he got in over his head is small comfort.
I've always maintained that the 2004 presidential election was a national referendem on the Iraq War (not to mention the 2000 presidential election, but that's another sad historical chapter). One of the most clever things I've ever heard the president say was his infamous quote, "We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections."
Classic Bush -- bravado and bad grammar vying for sovereignty.
Please don't tell anyone the following. This is just between me 'n' you.
I've been reading those "Dark Shadows" novels from the late '60s and early '70s by "Marilyn Ross" (not his real name).
I just finished "Barnabas, Quentin and the Crystal Coffin." I'm halfway through "Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave Robbers."
"Crystal Coffin" is a bit slow. Something happens, and then the heroine (it's ALWAYS a heroine; this is 40-year-old Gothic "chick lit") discusses it with every other character for pages on end. Then she goes over it in her mind for pages on end. Then she has a nightmare. Then something ELSE happens.
But "Grave Robbers" moves at quite a clip. There's an evil surgeon with claw-like hands, a zombie with fixed eyes, a lady vampire with a painted face, Barnabas (himself a vampire), Quentin (a werewolf), a grave robber with pus-oozing gums and a fat, one-eyed, gin-soaked old lady.
The late "Marilyn Ross" was really Dan Ross, who wrote more than 300 books, many under non de plumes. (His wife's was named Marilyn.) Ross told Craig Hamrick (in an interview published on www.darkshadowsonline.com) that he knocked off each book in about three weeks. He would watch the show to make sure the characters' relationships and the locales agreed. But he hardly ever based his books directly on the TV show's storylines. He figured people would rather read something original. Good move.
"Dark Shadows" geeks are obsessed with how every bit of official "Dark Shadows" media -- the TV episodes, the two feature films, the comic books, the novels -- fit together.
I might have counted myself among "Dark Shadows" geeks -- until I attended a convention 10 years back. Trekkies laugh at "Dark Shadows" geeks.
But I'm still reading the novels because, as my loved ones know, I WORSHIP GARBAGE.
CASUALTIES OF 2006
A year-end wrap-up is an annual tradition for my PAGE X column. I always present a list of selected pop-culture heroes we lost in the previous year -- "selected" because space does not permit me to list everyone. Let me tell you -- some of the chops I must make are painful. So I thought I'd use my Web column to list those folks who didn't make it in print. 2006 claimed:
"Jaws" author Peter Benchley
"The Jeffersons" Tom Willis Franklin Cover
"Rocky Theme" trumpeter Maynard Ferguson
"Green Lantern" artist Seth Fisher
"Superman" Pa Kent Glenn Ford
"Across 110th Street" weasel Anthony Franciosa
"Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man" invisible man Arthur Franz
"Breakfast Club" principal Paul Gleason
1967 "Casino Royale" director Val Guest
Mr. Jayne Mansfield Mickey Hargitay
"Svengali" Trilby Marian Marsh
"Hello Mary Lou" composer Gene Pitney
Christopher Reeve's widow, Dana Reeve
"Village of the Giants" kid Tim Rooney
"Return of Dr. X" director Vincent Sherman
"Interiors" star Maureen Stapleton
"Brian's Song" coach Jack Warden
Ed Wood's widow, Kathy Wood
Regular readers of PAGE X may sense that two cuts were particularly painful: Marian Marsh and Kathy Wood. Make it your mission to see Marsh in "Svengali" (1931). Her transformation from virginal to zombified is amazing. And anyone who can steal a scene from the great John Barrymore, sometimes unknowingly, deserves a lot more respect than Marsh got. As for Kathy Wood -- who was played by Patricia Arquette in Tim Burton's 1994 biopic "Ed Wood" -- she was at poor Eddie's side when he died a homeless alcoholic wreck, and remained one of our vanishing links to the weird world of Wood.
REST IN PEACE.
'ROCKY BALBOA' ROCKS
When I first saw the theatrical trailer for "Rocky Balboa," my reaction was: "Is he KIDDING?"
At the same time, I had an overwhelming desire to see the film.
But I must admit to an attraction for cheezy movies. I'm the only person I know who paid money to see "A Very Brady Sequel" and "The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas" -- not on video, but IN THE THEATER. It's just that I have a loyalty to the characters.
I have no such loyalty to "Rocky" -- the think the series tanked after the first sequel -- but there was something fascinating about that trailer.
Rocky: "It ain't over 'til it's over."
Mason "The Line" Dixon: "What's that, from the '80s?"
Rocky: "Probably the '70s."
It's from the '70s, all right. 1976. I remember seeing "Rocky" as a college freshman 30 years ago. The movie played for nine months! Watch it again -- it's a good little low-budget movie. Great cinematography. Great locations. It's got heart.
So I saw the trailer for "Rocky Balboa," and felt myself getting sucked in. I knew I was going to call my brother. I would say, "I have this urge to see 'Rocky Balboa.' " My brother would say, "Are you serious? Of COURSE we should see 'Rocky Balboa!' "
Well, there we were on New Year's Eve weekend -- me, Brinie and Nephew (who was on winter break from college in New York City). We did it right. First, we watched the original "Rocky." Then, we went straight to the theater to watch "Rocky Balboa." All of the references to the first film were crystal clear to us. This is the way to see "Rocky Balboa."
I HAVE TO ADD: As a still-fledgling widower (it'll be 16 months in 14 days), a lot of the grief stuff that Stallone did rang true for me. I feel Sly really captured the way Rocky would be walking around in a kind of daze, putting up a front, smiling, joking, all the while thinking only of one thing. Says Rock at one point: "My wife, she's gone, but she ain't, ya know what I mean?" For me, it felt real, and I'm a harsh judge. With my newfound, and wholly unwanted, experience, I can spot cliches from 20 paces. To be honest, I resent the cavalier use of those cliches. "Rocky Balboa" touched me.