Posts tagged ‘entertainment’

January 6, 2017

#123) Learning from idiots 6: The Cherry Sisters

cherry-sisters-adIf Donald Trump had won the 1896 Presidential Election, he would have found suitable performers for his inauguration in the Cherry Sisters. At first glance, the four sisters from Marion, Iowa and their infamous vaudeville act might seem an ancestor to the “so bad, it’s good” oeuvre of Ed Wood or the car-crash-you-can’t-take-your-eyes-off appeal of the Kardashians. However, close examination shows that the story of the Cherry Sisters just might share some unlikely parallels to that of our president elect.

In 1893, Addie, Effie, Ella (the oldest, who only appeared during the early years), Jessie and Lizzie Cherry decided to put together a performance act to raise money to attend the Chicago World’s Fair. The sisters had recently been orphaned and their brother Nathan had disappeared under unknown circumstances. Although their friends in Marion were supportive, on the road, the reception wasn’t quite so warm. As one reviewer wrote, “Their long skinny arms equipped with talons at the extremities, swung mechanically, and soon were waved frantically at the suffering audience. Their mouths opened like caverns, and sounds like the wailing of damned souls issued therefrom.” The dumpster fire drew the attention of struggling New York producer Willie Hammerstein, father of famed librettist Oscar II. Hammerstein’s rationale in bringing the sisters to Broadway might be compared to that of recent voters: “I’ve been putting on the best talent, and it hasn’t gone over…I’m going to try the worst.” His investment paid off as Cherry Sisters sold out his Olympia Theater, saving it from bankruptcy.

The Cherry Sisters often played the delusional victim (“Although we have the best act in vaudeville and are the best drawing card on the stage, we have no swelled head, as some others have…We have had more knocking since we went into the theatrical business than any act in the history of the world”) and described their modus operandi in a, shall we say, somewhat circuitous manner (“I have recitations and readings; recite and read in costume. Sometimes I have worn men’s clothes. I never dance. I recite essays and events that have happened, I have written up of my own.”) On the other hand, they may have been shrewder than they let on. Author Jack El-Hai argues, “Though undoubtedly lacking in artistry, they exploited badness to stay in the public eye. It was their brand.”

Another parallel-if not directly between the sisters and Trump, between their time and ours-can be seen in the the girls’ relationship with the press. It was darkly symbiotic: terrible performance = scathing reviews = newspapers sold to bloodthirsty readers = publicity for the act = new audiences for more terrible performances. As this NPR article notes, “The journalistic jabbing, which rivaled some of today’s most caustic comments sections, became part of the strange, interactive audience participation that surrounded the sisters.” An early review rings eerily familiar today: “Such unlimited gall as was exhibited last night…is past the understanding of ordinary mortals.” The critic went on to point out, “At one minute the scene was like the incurable ward in an insane asylum, the next it was like a camp meeting.”

A non-symbiotic episode between the sisters and the media was their 1901 libel lawsuit, Cherry vs. Des Moines Leader. The Iowa Supreme Court found in favor of the defendant: “One who goes upon the stage to exhibit himself to the public…may be freely criticised. He may be held up to ridicule, and entire freedom of expression is guarantied dramatic critics, provided they are not actuated by malice….Unless this be true, liberty of speech and of the press guarantied by the constitution is nothing more than a name. If there ever was a case justifying ridicule and sarcasm–aye, even gross exaggeration–it is the one now before us.” (Though, as the Strange Company blog notes, “The popular suspicion that both sides in the dispute were staging a mutually advantageous publicity stunt was probably not unfounded.”)

Whether they were too dumb to know better, gluttons for punishment or secretly enjoyed the debacle, the Cherry Sisters persevered in the face of unrelenting adversity from critics and audiences until the youngest, Jessie, died from typhoid at age 31 in 1903. The older sisters then retired the act and returned to Iowa. In one last parallel, Effie ran for mayor of Marion in 1924 on a platform of “early curfews, efficient garbage collection, and the prohibition of profanity.” Here, her story takes a decidedly different turn from Trump’s; she received 805 out of 10,000 votes.

Effie was the last surviving sister when she died in 1944. Her New York Times obituary noted, “Maybe the laugh was on their side. Maybe the Cherry Sisters knew better than the public what was really going on. Be this as it may, they left behind an imperishable memory. And they gave more pleasure to their audiences than did many a performer who was merely almost good.” It may be a stretch to speculate that Trump will be remembered in a similar manner, but while we’re waiting to find out, we just might be able to look to the Cherry Sisters for some context on the unusual election cycle we just witnessed.

December 12, 2015

#103) How not to complain #4: Heil…Taylor?

Life’s three certainties are death, taxes and looking silly when you trot out a Hitler/Nazi comparison. The latest individual to break Godwin’s Law is critic/author Camille Paglia, who recently used the term “Nazi Barbie”, referring not to Klaus but Taylor Swift.

Paglia’s essay in “The Hollywood Reporter” has a viable premise: female bonding, particularly in the entertainment industry, can be a double-edged sword. On one hand,”girl squads can be seen as a positive step toward expanding female power in Hollywood.” Paglia also notes however, “Hollywood has always shrewdly known that cat-fighting makes great box office.”

So far, so good, but Paglia loses her credibility by admonishing Taylor Swift to “retire that obnoxious Nazi Barbie routine of wheeling out friends and celebrities as performance props…”

I’m going to take a wild guess and say that Holocaust survivors reading Paglia’s words may find that comparing a pop singer to a Nazi is a stretch. It’s understandable for Paglia to dislike seeing women trying to rise in the entertainment business by latching onto a queen bee such as Swift, rather than “focus[ing] like a laser on their own creative gifts.” Sure, Swift is nothing if not calculating and no one will ever accuse her of being subtle. But when it comes to murders, however, Swift trails the competition by about 11 million. As tempting as it is for musicians like me to say, “Shake It Off” is no “Mein Kampf.”

To her credit, Paglia falls on her own sword, at least to a degree, by admitting, “Writing about Taylor Swift is a horrific ordeal for me because her twinkly persona is such a scary flashback to the fascist blondes who ruled the social scene during my youth.” Fair enough, Cam, but let’s face it: you weren’t the only teenage girl who’s had to deal with fascist blondes.

Anne-Frank-Desk

 

 

 

June 9, 2014

#79) Back in action: Rebooting the world’s most dangerous amusement park

Long-time readers of this blog know that I can be a bit of a roller coaster geek when I want to.  Recently I was doing some geeking out on the subject with a friend of mine who grew up on Long Island and told me about an infamous venue that had somehow been off of my radar: Action Park in Vernon, NJ, which operated from 1978 to 1996.  Of course, I had no choice to Google it when I got home – and I was interested to learn that Action Park is coming back this summer.

Notorious for poorly designed and unmaintained rides, inattentive and sometimes inebriated staff, being its own insurance carrier and at least six confirmed fatalities, Action Park has achieved what might be described a cult status in the years since its closing.  According to a documentary, any who grew up in the area considered visiting–and surviving–the park a rite of passage.  While changes in the amusement park industry will require the park to be more stringent about safety when it re-opens, the idea just might be crazy enough to work.

Though it was badly executed, Action Park’s business model was in fact ahead of its time.  In addition to being often credited as being the first modern water park, Action Park’s concept was to allow the guests more involvement with the ride experience.   In the late 1970s, the various Six Flags, Disney and Sea World franchises were becoming dominant; it’s perfectly understandable that there would have been a market for a rawer, less polished amusement park experience; perhaps a nod to the “Golden Age” of roller coasters such as the Crystal Beach Cyclone, which supposedly had a nurse stationed outside the exit to tend to fainting riders.

Fast forward to 2014.  Disneyland has recently received bad press for running out of Frozen merchandise and for raising its ticket prices to $96 for guests ages 10 and up; Action’s new admission prices are less than half that.  It’s not just about cost, though.  This is the world of “Throwback Thursday” (I’m sorry, #TBT); it’s inevitable that when people find information about a long-lost institution, they’ll geek out over it.  Nostalgia never goes out of style and when one gets a chance to actually revisit a place of their childhood–albeit likely a different version of it–it seems likely that they will take advantage of it.

Perhaps Action Park–the promised safety renovations not withstanding–might also find an audience in parents who feel as if the world has become too safe for their kids.  Michael Follett of UK’s Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) says, “[Kids] need to fall over, they need to cut themselves, they need to have bumps and bruises…if [parents] over-protect, [kids] don’t learn resilience.”  According to an article in Pediatrics, “Fixed playground equipment that meets licensing codes is unchallenging and uninteresting to children.”

There’s also the growing CTFD method of parenting (the C stands for “Calm” and the D for “Down.)  I’m not suggesting that parents should disregard their kid’s safety; I’m just speculating that Action Park might be a venue where parents could practice the CTFD method.  After all, with fewer restrictions, likely shorter wait times for rides than bigger theme parks, kids may be able to burn off more energy, helping incubate a CTFD environment on the ride home.

Will these factors make the new Action Park a success?  We’ll see; perhaps–for better or worse–Action Park will put New Jersey on the map this summer for something other than Pauly D.

December 21, 2013

#67) Rosa Parks is the new Hitler

It’s official: Rosa Parks is the new Hitler.

By that, I don’t mean that she’s responsible for the slaughter of 11 million people or that she has a recognizable mustache.  What I mean is, like that of Hitler, Rosa Parks’s name has become a last resort for anyone about to lose a political argument.

It’s generally agreed that during a debate or discussion, if one side has to use Hitler to make their point, by proxy, they’ve admitted defeat.  There’s even a name for the act of bringing Hitler into an argument: Godwin’s Law.  Just as people seem to have no trouble comparing their enemies to Hitler, there’s an emerging trend to conveniently align oneself, or one’s allies, with the civil rights pioneer.  Early adopters were doing it at least as far back as 2001.  After Sandy Hook I had to “unfriend” someone for sharing a photo comparing Parks’s right to sit at the front of the bus with the right to own an AR-15The latest example of playing the “Parks card” comes from congressional candidate Ian Bayne (R-IL).  He compared the plight of “Duck Dynasty” patriarch Phil Robertson–recently suspended by A&E, the channel that broadcasts the show, for making anti-gay remarks–to that of Parks: “In December 1955, Rosa Parks took a stand against an unjust societal persecution of black people, and in December 2013, Robertson took a stand against persecution of Christians.”

On behalf of my fellow political independents who on any given issue usually take the side of whoever sounds the least crazy and desperate, I implore Bayne and his like-minded colleagues to lay low on this one.  Don’t make yourselves look nutty.  Last year the GOP lost what should have been an easy-win presidential election on social issues alone.   Insanity is, as the old saying goes, doing the same thing and expecting different results.

I happen to disagree with A&E’s decision to suspend Robertson, not because I sympathize with his sentiments–I don’t–but because he’s DOING WHAT HE’S SUPPOSED TO BE DOING.  If A&E is trying to earn points by showing Robertson and his family at the dinner table, heads bowed in prayer, they also need to accept the less attractive side of his Christianity.  Punishing  him for expressing homophobic views is akin to Indiana University’s firing of Bob Knight for having too many temper tantrums.  But comparing him to Rosa Parks comes off as a little bit self-important.  The very conservatives such as Bayne who embrace capitalism and preach personal responsibility should see Robertson’s suspension as a market response, not censorship.

Nancy Pelosi recently encouraged her colleagues to “embrace the suck.”  Let’s all make that a goal for 2014.  There are certain issues on which not everyone will see eye to eye; that’s a given.  But we have to start somewhere, and we can begin with making our discourse more civilized and literate.  Whatever the debate may be, let’s just agree to leave Hitler and Rosa Parks out of it.

October 29, 2013

#61) Book review: “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” by Peter Biskind

Like many of the films of the “New Hollywood” which it describes, Peter Biskind’s “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is something of a flawed masterpiece.  Biskind tells a compelling story–the rise and fall of the director as film star–taking us behind the scenes of classic films such as  “Chinatown”, “Taxi Driver”, “Apocalypse Now” and more, while delving into the lives of Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and other significant figures of the era.  However, just as New Hollywood did itself in with excess, so too the narrative of Biskind’s book could have used some trimming.

At its core, this is a rags to riches to rags story.  The directors at its center started from financially and socially humble beginnings.  They made the move to Hollywood.  They had a run of successful movies.  Success went to their heads.  By the ’80s, they were at best shadows of their former glory, at worst, irrelevant–or dead (though some in Hollywood might consider irrelevance a fate worse than death).

“Easy Riders” isn’t just about individuals however, it’s about an institution.  It’s about the disconnect between the American “zeitgeist” of the Vietnam era and the safe, forgettable films that the “Old Hollywood” was cranking out.  It’s about the influence of foreign directors–auteurs such as Fellini, Kurosawa and Godard–on American tastes in film and on American film makers.  It’s about a mindset of film making that might ultimately not have worked but still produced some great movies.

Biskind focuses on several central figures but describes many more; as if he’s aware of this, he adds a “cast of characters” index to remind us exactly who’s who.  He takes us into the unstable, lonely childhood of Francis Ford Coppola, who moves to L.A. only to find it not to his liking, settling instead in San Francisco and begrudgingly agreeing to direct a film based on Mario Puzo’s novel “The Godfather.”  He allows us to vicariously travel the journey of William Friedkin, who leaves an unhappy Chicago childhood behind when he wins the Oscar for “The French Connection” and gives legitimacy to the horror film with “The Exorcist.”  He follows awkward Steven Spielberg from Cincinnati to New Jersey to Phoenix and ultimately Hollywood, where he almost buries his career before it begins by running late and over budget on film that no one takes seriously: “Jaws.”  Lesser known figures in the book include Bob Evans, an executive who was said to have taken so many women to bed that he needed his housekeeper to help him keep track and acerbic film critic Pauline Kael who described a comedy as having laughs that were “sparser than an eighty-year old woman’s pubic hair.”

Though he hints from the outset that these directors’ early successes will be paid for later on, Biskind doesn’t seem to take any pleasure in chronicling their downfalls.  In fact, more often than not he sees it as a case of the punishment not fitting the crime.  While he acknowledges that ultimately the New Hollywood didn’t work and that problems from within were as much to blame as those from without, he clearly doesn’t like the producer-oriented system that took its place.  He speculates that even if the directors of the New Hollywood had behaved more responsibly, the movement wouldn’t have survived the blockbuster mentality of the 1980s.

Unlike the directors, actors, writers and executives of New Hollywood, Biskind doesn’t let his ego get in his way, but his writing still has shortcomings that prevent “Easy Riders” from being a truly great book.  Many of the minor characters in the book become forgettable; in detailing their bad behavior, Biskind doesn’t make them memorable and their names are hard to keep straight (expect to have to refer to the “cast of characters” index regularly).  While some of the characters are sympathetic despite their faults and others are truly scum, the majority of them are just forgettable.  Biskind devotes as many (if not more) pages to anonymous executive Frank Yablans than to Michael Cimino, who let the success from “The Deer Hunter” go to his head with “Heaven’s Gate”, the film that is blamed more than any other for bringing down New Hollywood.

The result is a book that, though it could have been more, will still definitely appeal to fans of the New Hollywood and its movies. While  he could have done it better, Biskind still tells a memorable story.  In the minds of many–not just the directors who survived it–the film industry has not changed for the better since New Hollywood.  Perhaps the ultimate point of “Easy Riders, Raging Bulls” is that after all of the fights, drugs, break-ups and deaths, many great movies have survived.

May 13, 2013

#54) Tale of four roller coasters (why size doesn’t always matter)




Roller coasters are not only fun, they’re also educational.  They are living lessons of architecture, art and physics.  On our eighth grade graduation trip to Riverside Park (now Six Flags New England) in Agawam, MA, our sales pitch to get our science teacher to ride the “Cyclone” was that if he puked, he would be able to tell how fast it was going when it hit the ground.  But I digress.

Coasters can also provide interesting lessons in business and marketing.  That brings us to the four main players of this story:

The Thunderhawk, formerly the Coaster, at Dorney Park, Allentown, PA

Hercules, Dorney Park

The Beast, Kings Island, Cincinnati

Son of Beast, Kings Island

Dorney’s small wooden roller coaster was built in 1923, and has always been a favorite of enthusiasts.  While bigger, shinier, faster and more expensive coasters have popped up throughout the world, many mavens cherish Dorney’s coaster as a throwback to the golden age of wooden roller coasters.

Needless to say, the Great Depression was not kind to amusement parks.  Even post-war prosperity didn’t help the majority of America’s small amusement parks, as larger attractions like Disneyland became dominant.  But through it all, Dorney’s coaster still delivered thrills to customers.

In the early 1970s, a park called Kings Island opened near Cincinnati, replacing the Coney Island park that had been damaged by floods.  The Racer, a wooden coaster featured on an episode of “The Brady Bunch”, was an instant hit, and in the late 1970s, construction started on a new ride.  When The Beast opened in 1979, it was the tallest, fastest and longest roller coaster in the world.  Although the unorthodox coaster has drawn its share of criticisms (mainly toward the second lift hill, leading to a drop at a mere 18 degree angle, only to hit the brakes at the station), the ride has been a huge success.

In 1989, Dorney Park opened Hercules.  While the ride was not longer or taller than the Beast, its location on a hillside allowed it to break one of the Ohio coaster’s records: height of drop.  While the coaster’s hill was only 95 feet tall, the drop set a wooden coaster record at 157 feet, leading into a wide turn over the water.

Not to be outdone, Kings Island opened Son of Beast in 2000.  At 218 feet, it was the tallest wooden coaster in the world, and had something that no “woodie” before it did: a vertical loop.  (Interestingly, the track was deliberately designed to be about 300 feet shorter than that of the Beast, allowing the older ride to keep its record as the longest wooden coaster.)

But as it would turn out, the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

The smaller Coaster, now renamed the Thunderhawk, proved to be a more popular attraction at Dorney than Hercules, which closed in 2003.  Son of Beast would last only a decade.  In 2006, the vertical loop was removed, but the ride still suffered from maintenance problems.  In 2009, a woman claimed to have suffered a head injury on the ride.  Although the circumstances of her claim were questionable, and although inspections of the ride found no irregularities, Son of Beast was closed as a precaution, and never re-opened.

In hindsight, it’s interesting to consider the fates of these rides.  Just as the movie industry has low-budget “sleepers” that beat the odds, and high-budget blockbusters that bomb, the same concept can be applied to amusement parks.  Innovations that seem exciting sometimes lose out to time-tested traditions; grand spectacle sometimes falls to simple pleasures.

It might be a reach to say that the slowing economy influenced the fall of Son of Beast, but amusement parks do depend on discretionary income, and it’s not unreasonable to think that some might have seen the 200-foot plus ride as a monument of excess.  As for the rider who claimed the head injury, her story was a lot more credible than had the incident happened on the Woodstock Express coaster (formerly known as Scooby Doo.)

But the Thunderhawk and Beast chug on.  While the former lies in the shadow of the enormous Steel Force coaster, it has survived the Great Depression and looks like it will survive the Great Recession to celebrate its 100th birthday in ten years.  And for its criticisms, the Beast continues to deliver the goods, proving that its impressive statistics were more than just novelties.

For a video of a front-seat ride on the Beast, click here.

For a video of Hercules, click here.

August 9, 2012

#44) TV Review: “Shipping Wars”

Can a show that has the word “wars” in its title actually bring something new to the table?  Believe it or not, A&E’s new reality show “Shipping Wars” actually does.

The easiest way to describe the show would be as a mix of “American Pickers” and “Storage Wars.”  It follows independent truckers who ship cargo that is considered too high-risk for larger shipping companies.   Items featured on the show include the last car that Elvis ever owned, a statue of Willie Mays making “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, a food truck, two live rodeo bulls, and more.  At the beginning of each episode, the truckers bid on jobs, and the show follows them on their journeys from pickup to delivery.

There are several interesting elements to the show that keep it entertaining.  The truckers, of course, must “guesstimate” their expenses and consider the risks involved with each item when placing their bids.  Unexpected obstacles invariably come up, and they often have to improvise and incur additional expenses.  In some cases, they can offset their out-of-pocket costs by picking up extra cargo.

The show also keeps things interesting by following the truckers across the country, on hauls of all distances.  It takes on an “American Pickers” flavor as it travels America’s back roads, meeting all kinds of people and coming across all kinds of items.

If there’s any weak spot in the show, it’s the characters.  Many of their onscreen personas have obvious “Storage Wars” counterparts, and while it’s interesting to see how they solve the problems presented by the unpredictable nature of their job, the show would benefit from less trash-talking and more actual stories (only two jobs are followed in each episode).  Nonetheless, you find yourself rooting for them to drop off their cargo on time and in good condition.  You wince when they get pulled over or have a flat tire; you breathe a sigh of relief when a customer gives them good feedback and they turn a profit.

Will “Shipping Wars” last?  Will it stand out from all of its competitors?  Like the truckers it follows, it might not be perfect, but it gets the job done more often than not, and will likely have a good run for itself in a saturated market.

July 13, 2011

#16) Learning from the couple I (used to) love to hate

Ten years ago, I was jamming with some musicians, and we were joking about the “Boy Band” craze that was sweeping the nation.  One of the guys said, “You know, we’re laughing–but they’re laughing harder.”   Back then, if someone had told me that I would be writing a blog entry about Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, apart from not knowing what a “blog” was, I would have said, “Dude, you’re high.”

Yet that’s just what I find myself doing.  Pop culture phenomena that make everyone roll their eyes are common, and most of the time, they fade quickly.  (How have those record sales been lately, Paris Hilton?)  But every so often, one of these products passes the test of time, and I must tip my cap, however begrudgingly.

This was how I felt when I heard that Justin Timberlake is buying a share of Myspace.  I felt oddly impressed by this: the former N*SYNC-er (or is it Backstreet Boys?  Or New Kids On The Block?) is obviously welcoming the challenge of helping resurrect a dying institution.  I like that he’s not resting on his laurels.  Looking back over the last ten years, I have to admit that there must be something that Timberlake’s done right.  I refuse to believe that there is a single honest note in any of the music he has produced (hey, this isn’t “Positive Music Place“, I’m calling it like I see it); everything he’s done is 100% calculated.  But he’s gotten results, and I’ve got to give him props for that.

But what of his ex?  Britney Spears, at this point, reminds me of an outmatched boxer who simply refuses to fall to the canvas and tires out their opponent (kind of like Mark Wahlberg in “The Fighter.”  Speaking of Wahlberg, he’s another one who’s impressively moved past the skeletons in his closet.  Back in the 90s, when I was taking a music business class taught by a lawyer, he told us that the “low point” of his career was bailing Marky Mark out of jail, and we all laughed.  But it seems to me that this “Dawchestah, Mass” native has had the last laugh.  But I digress.)

Back to Britney: I used to like joking that maybe she was just some genius whose work went too far above my head, and that the other three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles – were the ones that sucked.  But her weird ability to survive makes me feel like perhaps she is in fact some kind of evil genius.  We love building people up, we love tearing them down and we love it when they come back.  But few people besides Spears actually survive this process.

I highly doubt there will ever come a day when I am genuinely inspired or moved by anything either of these former Mousketeers has done, but it just goes to show that sometimes lessons can come from unlikely places.  I have to keep reminding myself that every time I want to open my mouth about Britney, a lot of what has been said about her was also said about the other three Bs.