Sunday, February 26, 2006

Happy Birthday, Johnny Cash

Growing up, there were three heroes in my life. In order of appearance, they were: George Reeves, Johnny Cash and Jack Webb. I discovered all of them via television.

Reeves died tragically 3 and 1/2 months before I was born. Webb died when I was 23. I'd moved to L.A. just nine months before, and had I known he held court daily in a restaurant just a couple of blocks down Sunset from the record store I regularly patronized, I would have marched in there, pen and paper in hand.

Cash I did meet, in 1991; ironically it was on Sunset Blvd. He was appearing briefly at The Guitar Center to put his handprints in cement for the store's "Rock Walk of Fame." This was a couple of years before he signed with Rick Rubin and once more became hip, so there were at best about two dozen fans present at the event.

I was as nervous as he appeared to be on stage. I shook his hand and stammered "It's a pleasure to meet you," and I think he said "It's a pleasure to meet you, too." Later, after the ceremony, he signed my copy of his first Sun LP. I felt vaguely guilty about that: he'd signed autographs for everyone in the store, and all of them were on old records or books. No one presented any of his recent CDs for a signature. I owned them, and immediately wished I'd brought one. I decided to atone for that sin by buying a ticket to that night's concert at Universal Ampetheatre. It was a good show, what little I recall of it; meeting Cash has pretty much eclipsed all other memories of that day.

Like all heroes, Cash was an inspiration. In my case, he inspired me to pick up a guitar. When The Johnny Cash Show was on the air (1969-71), there was no one with a cooler guitar style. He handled the instrument like a man possessed, playing every inch between the bridge and the nut. I want to play like that, I'd breathe.

And The Johnny Cash Show was the coolest variety program on the air. No ancient crooners, no lame comedy sketches (at least not until the very end of its run) - just great music. There were no boundries on this show. Where else could one see, on the same series, hot country artists like Merle Haggard; vintage Opry people like Homer & Jethro; old and new folkies like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot; the Everly Brothers jamming with their father, Ike; and even Cash, Carl Perkins and Eric Clapton rocking out on "Matchbox." Clearly, Cash had a deep respect for all kinds of music.

Cash passed away in September 2003. This would have been his 74th birthday. I hope that he, the Carters, Carl, Elvis, Roy and many others are celebrating somewhere on high.

Happy Birthday, Johnny! Thanks for sharing the gift with us!

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

A Great Metropolitan Newspaper

Fans of The Adventures of Superman should recognize this building: it's the one used as the Metropolis Daily Planet during the first 26 episodes, which were filmed in the summer and early fall of 1951. Located at 5225 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles and reaching 12 stories high, it was for years the tallest structure in the entire city, with the exception of City Hall... which would double as the Daily Planet beginning with the show's second season in 1953.

The E. Clem Wilson building still stands. Here's what it looks like today:

Notice the "Samsung" billboard that wraps around the top. That billboard has changed a few times over the years.

Here's what it looked like from 1991 until early 2003. When I moved to LA in 1982, Mutual of Omaha Insurance occupied that space.

A question that has puzzled me over the years is why this building did not continue as the Daily Planet for the run of the Superman series. To be sure, City Hall was a very impressive structure (in fact, it is also used in the "Leaping tall buildings in a single bound" upward pan shot, minus the dome), but it was highly visible nearly every week on Dragnet, which by 1953 was fast becoming TV's second-most popular show. Dragnet also had a large juvenile audience, and there had to have been at least a little confusion about why Joe Friday would be working in the Planet building.

Ironically, I discovered the reason for the change just a couple of days ago while watching an old Dragnet from 1952.

This is the opening shot of the Dragnet episode, "The Big Seventeen," which was filmed in August of 1952, although this stock footage could have been made as early as January of that year. This is Wilshire Boulevard, eastbound toward La Brea Avenue, and there's the building on the left... complete with billboard! General of America Insurance was apparently the first to advertise their services in this spot. After doing a little research, I learned that this was the one and only building in all of Los Angeles licensed to have a neon billboard.

By the time Superman's second season began production (in June 1953), the billboard was a fait accompli. Since he apparently wanted a variety of stock shots, as opposed to the same slow downward pan, producer Whitney Ellsworth had no choice: he'd have to change skyscrapers. Which meant he had only one other from which to choose: City Hall.

Incidentally, the white building you see just behind "the Daily Planet" is the Carnation Milk building at 5045 Wilshire. That structure also figures in Superman history - it served as the entrance to the Planet. You can see Lois and Jimmy hurriedly leaving its front door in "Superman on Earth", and all four Planet staffers going in and out in "Crime Wave" - both classics from the beloved first season.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Television and "Our World"

Welcome to "Better Living Through Television." Pretty audacious statement, huh? Ironically, I belong to a club and a mailing list that celebrate Old-Time Radio, and many members of both would like nothing more than to toss a brick through the old "idiot box." I'm tempted myself, when I see what passes for TV programming today.

So, let's go back in time. In the coming days, I hope to showcase that which made television the preeminent form of entertainment... in my home, at least. And I hope you'll chime in with your own memories.

First, I must mention that this blog would not exist if not for John McElwee's Greenbriar Picture Shows: It's a fascinating, eclectic site, and not just for the cinemaphile. What Mr. McElwee does for old movies, I hope to accomplish for old TV. Thanks for the inspiration, John!

Now, on with the show!

One of the first claims made for television was that it would bring the world closer together: every nation would be able to see how every other nation lived, thus reducing ignorance and promoting unity. Lovely thought. Shows like "See it Now" tried to accomplish this goal, but they didn't exactly burn up the ratings. We in the U.S. were more entranced with the idea of watching Milton Berle in a dress than in how or what our global neighbors were doing with their lives.

In the summer of 1967, TV tried again with the program shown above. Most of us have heard of this pioneering program, mostly due to its one lasting aspect: The Beatles' on-the-spot recording of "All You Need is Love." But in reading this TV Guide description, the whole thing sounds fascinating. If anyone out there has a kinescope of the entire program - not just that famous 5+ minutes from Abbey Road - I'd love to know about it!