Category Archives: Random thoughts

The play’s the thing

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I went to a play this week, A Doctor in Spite of Himself. It was hilarious. It poked fun at the medical profession and how health care is delivered. It poked fun of the rich. It poked fun at politicians. It poked fun at itself and the audience. I haven’t laughed that hard at a play since I don’t know when. And Moliere wrote it in 1666. Which just shows you that great writing never grows old.

This production went from Seattle to New Haven to Berkeley, where I saw it. Check it out if you’re in the neighborhood! Photo courtesy of kevinberne.com.

Happy birthday, Susan B. Anthony!

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I missed wishing everyone a happy Valentine’s Day, so I looked up holidays for February 15. Check it out! Some good ones. First off, Susan B. Anthony’s birthday.

Susan B. Anthony was born to Quaker parents with long activist traditions on February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts. She campaigned for the abolition of slavery, women’s right to their own property and earnings, and women’s labor organizations. In 1900, Anthony persuaded  the University of Rochester to admit women. She was a tireless supporter of women’s suffrage and was arrested in 1872 for voting, but legal maneuvering meant that her case never went to the Supreme Court. Women did not win the vote until fourteen years after her death.

Also celebrated on February 15: Galileo’s birthday. Born in 1564 (or so), Galileo was an Italian physicist, mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher. His achievements include improvements to the telescope; his astronomical observations advanced the Copernican theory that the earth and other planets revolved around the sun, the discovery of the four largest satellites of Jupiter (named the Galilean moons in his honour), and the analysis of sunspots. The Inquisition tried him for heresy and found him guilty, and he spent the rest of his life imprisoned in his house.

John Sutter was born on February 15, 1803, in Baden, Germany, came to the United States, and settled in California. He qualified for a land grant and was given 48,000 acres to farm. He established a town, set up a trading fort, and propered—until 1848, when James Marshall saw gold in his stream, launching the gold rush. Squatters came by the thousands, destroying his crops and butchering his herds. By 1852, the town was devastated and Sutter was bankrupt.

February 15 is National Gumdrop Day! (Possibly also known as Happy Dentist Day.) Gumdrops were invented in the 1800s, and although Congress has never sanctioned National Gumdrop Day and no president has honored it with a proclamation, Milton-Bradley did immortalize the confection in its Candyland board game. First introduced in 1949, the game includes Gumdrop Mountain and Gumdrop Pass. Chew on that, my friends!

The lost weekend

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Yeah, not the way Ray Milland lost it in the 1945 movie. In the movie, Milland goes on a four-day bender and sees how he screwed up his life. Generally speaking, a right jolly film and a mention just in time for this year’s Oscar season. For those who want to know, The Lost Weekend was based on a semi-autobiographical novel written by Charles R. Jackson and won four golden statues: for best actor Milland, director Billy Wilder, best picture, and best screenplay (Wilder and Charles Brackett). In the movie, the Ray Milland character is also a writer, and he pawns his typewriter (1945, remember) for a drink.

My lost weekend was not exactly lost, certainly not this way, just sort of misplaced. I wanted to work on my own book, but my characters are stuck in a car half-way across Nevada. What are they supposed to do now?

So instead I worked on other people’s books. And it was a very productive time, peaceful and sometimes needing a bit of a push, like hatching an egg, I suppose. I felt happy. Except I just don’t know how to get those people out of the car and out of Nevada.

Not just another pretty face

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While I was sick last fall and then over the holiday break I caught up on old TV shows. Well, “catching up” is the nice way to put it. I was glued to the set. One of my all-time favorites: Perry Mason. This show has run seemingly continuously with different actors from the 1930s (in movies back then, starring first Warren William and then Ricardo Cortez and Donald Woods), and then in the 1960s TV series with Raymond Burr playing Perry, and then the 1970s, with Monte Markham, then back to Raymond Burr in the 1980s and 1990s again.

The show often featured well-known guest stars (Bette Davis, Jackie Coogan, Dick Clarke, Cloris Leachman, Fay Wray, and many others), which is always fun. Another thing I like about the show is that although all the lead actors are attractive, most of the supporting cast is…not necessarily. Maybe the casting falls into stereotypes sometimes. You’ve got a Rancher, an Insurance Agent, a Shopkeeper, a Businessman, a Housewife. They all look like people you might know. Usually none of them is anything remarkable in the looks department.

Only when the plot calls for a “pretty girl” (you can practically hear them call Central Casting: “Hey, Joe! We need a looker on the set!”) do you actually get a conventionally attractive young woman on the screen. And she might be a Good Girl or a Bad Girl, but her looks often have something to do with the plot. The character’s looks often helped propel her into the action for one reason or another, good or bad.

This is also true for another show I watched: Police Story, which originally ran for six years from 1973 through 1978 and starred at least briefly at least every working actor in Hollywood. In the case of Police Story, it’s less about pretty girls than good-looking guys: some of them are, but plenty of them–maybe most of them–aren’t. The show is gritty. Watching these tough, tired guys at work, you feel like you’re watching real cops, which is not something I think when I watch the current batch of police shows.

Perry Mason was a character that the lawyer and crime writer Erle Stanley Gardner created. Gardner wrote many books before the movies or TV ever beckoned. Police Story was created by Joseph Wambaugh, a 14-year veteran of the Los Angeles police department, who wrote crime fiction and nonfiction before he became involved with television and wrote 95 episodes for the show and consulted on its development.

Perhaps it was a consequence of my feverish flu, but I’ve been wondering why these old shows didn’t employ more drop-dead handsome actors. Hollywood certainly had plenty of them. Today, you can’t turn on the tube without finding zillions of shows full of people who, despite their many professional acting talents, could also win beauty pageants by the score. Some of these new shows I like to watch, because the writing is good and the acting is fun. But many times I find these shows really depressing. Whose lives look like that? Who knows these people? It seems like the producers look for two or five pretty faces and think, Let’s put on a show! And the story can come afterwards.

Maybe I like Perry Mason and Police Story so much because with these shows, the writing came first. The writers created those characters, and those characters didn’t have to be gorgeous to get you to watch. They just had to be interesting.