Wednesday, 31 July 2013

"I'm on Fire" burned into memory

Tonight I went to a backyard concert put on by a friend of mine. There really is nothing like an acoustic guitar and singing by the fire.

He is an amazing musician, and one of the things he did was play "I'm on Fire" by the fire – a first for me. His partner accidentally lit the paper soaked in gasoline and she was almost on fire.

The song, my favourite ballad of Bruce Springsteen's, brought back many memories for me.

Born in the USA
"I'm on Fire" was one of the seven singles from Springsteen's monster 1984 album "Born in the USA". Singles from the album sat on the Hot 100 charts for two years. The seven singles tied a record for most singles off one album, with Michael Jackson's "Thriller" and Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation 1814". Before that, he had one Top 10 hit, "Hungry Heart" in 1980, and would only have two more Top 10 singles in his career. So seven of his 10 Top 10 hits came from the same album. The songs on "Born in the USA" were all different, but showed the versatility of The Boss and his "E" Street Band, and illustrated how great a storyteller he was.

"Dancing in the Dark" was the first release and Springsteen's biggest hit to that point, which peaked at number two on the Billboard Top 100. The single propelled the album to the top spot where it stayed for four weeks. The video featured a young Courtney Cox being pulled onto the stage during a concert scene. He also won an American Music Award and a Grammy for the song.

The cover for "Born in the USA"
by Bruce Springsteen
Next came "Cover Me", which was on the radio before I really started listening to music, so I only heard it a handful of times. Still, it peaked at number seven.

The third single was the title track "Born in the USA" which, when I first heard it, sounded like Springsteen just screaming into the microphone. Then I actually listened to the lyrics and realized what he was trying to say about war and the American attitude towards it.

"Glory Days" was the fifth single, peaking at number number five. It had this incredible video, of a man re-living his glory days. It started with him pitching balls on a deserted baseball diamond, a powerful image.

There was "I'm Goin' Down" which made it to number nine, and "My Hometown", another ballad that told another great story. The message hit close to home for anyone who lived in a small town. It peaked at number six.

Which brings us to… "I'm on Fire".

Powerful ballad
"I'm on Fire" is a relatively short song, but really struck a chord with me. I love the beat, the driving rhythm, and the video tells a great story. It was the first video that was not a performance clip. In fact it was directed by John Sayles, who directed motion pictures such as "Clan of the Cave Bear", "Eight Men Out", "City of Hope", and "Lone Star" among others.

It was the fourth single off "Born in the USA" and peaked on the Billboard Top 100 at number six.

When I was working in a bar in university, every Thursday night before the crowd came in, the deejay played "I'm on Fire" just for me. I stood in the middle of the dance floor, mirror ball shimmering over me, and sang this song at the top of my lungs, drowned out by The Boss himself.

It is still one of my favourite songs of all time.

Con Games to War Games: The Career of Eileen Brennan

Eileen Brennan in her Oscar-nominated and Emmy-winning
role as Captain Doreen Lewis on Private Benjamin
She came to my attention as the madam with a golden heart in "The Sting" then the tough-talking commanding officer in "Private Benjamin", literally going from con games to war games. It was with sadness I heard on Tuesday night (July 30) that actress Eileen Brennan had passed away at the age of 80 on Sunday, July 28.

She was fantastic in "The Sting", playing Billie, the woman who harboured legendary con man Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). She owned an amusement ride by day, and a brothel by night. She had this cool, detached, tough persona, but you could tell she had a thing for Gondorff.

Brennan with Paul Newman in "The Sting"
Fast forward to 1980, and she played Captain Doreen Lewis to Goldie Hawn's "Private Benjamin". She wasn't done there though. She made the transition to television playing the same character: insecure but gung ho, feminine but macho. That combination of traits earned her an Oscar nomination. Once she made the move to television, and Lorna Patterson was playing Private Benjamin, Brennan won an Emmy for best supporting actress in a comedy.

She also had roles as Tess Skeffington, the secretary of Sam Diamond (Peter Falk) in "Murder by Death", Mrs. Peacock in "Clue", and many other films.

During the 1984-1985 television season, she played opposite Ed Asner in a short-lived TV series called "Off The Rack" that lasted just seven episodes.

Real life tough
She brought a toughness to her characters that she would need in real life. In 1982, she was leaving a restaurant and was hit by a car, suffering leg injuries, facial fractures, a broken nose, and damage to her eye. Brennan was forced to leave "Private Benjamin", and the show went with her, cancelled in 1983.

She would recover from her injuries, but become addicted to pain killers. She beat that addiction, but her struggles were not finished. She would battle, and beat, breast cancer.

However, at the end of her life she had become a housebound pensioner. On July 28, the woman who brought us Billie the madam, Tess Skeffington, Captain Doreen Lewis, and Mrs. Peacock, the curtain fell on her last performance.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Star Trek memories, part one

After recently seeing “Star Trek: Into the Darkness”, the latest “Star Trek” movie in the theatre, I was flooded with all sorts of memories, and realized how much has changed over the decades.

One of the first Star
Trek books I ever read
The first a series of novelizations
of the Star Trek animated series
Book ‘em
"Star Trek" was cancelled four years before I was born, yet from an early age, I was fascinated by it. There were no reruns airing on peasant vision when I was young. My only exposure to the world of "Star Trek" was through books, primarily bequeathed to me by my brother and sister when they left home for college.

There were books authored by James Blish (at left), which were novelizations of episodes of the original series, and Alan Dean Foster (at right), which were novelizations of the animated series. However, the book that really piqued my curiosity was “The Making of Star Trek” by Stephen Whitfield. It appealed to my interest in history, the writing and production of television shows, and "Star Trek" itself. The book contained dozens of inter-office memos about the creation of the show, and the various struggles it had. It introduced me to characters such as Matt Jeffries, the art director responsible for all the props, sets, and special effects.

A very good book
going behind the
scenes of "Star Trek"
An interesting look behind the
scenes of one of the most famous
episodes in "Star Trek" history
Then came another behind the scenes book, “The Trouble With Tribbles”, which focused in on one of the most popular episodes of "Star Trek". It was written by David Gerrold and took me through everything he did that ultimately led to the production of “The Trouble With Tribbles”.

Both these books inspired me to want to be a writer, a television writer back then.

Show time – finally
It happened while I was on a sleep over at Joe Darveau’s in Coaldale. I had read it in the "TV Guide", but it was often wrong, or I misread the channel, because there were so many listed that we did not get on peasant vision. But there it was, on CBC on Saturday morning: "Star Trek". The episode was “Mudd’s Women” and I will never forget. During that same period I also saw “The Corbomite Maneuver”, “Wolf in The Fold”, "Conscience of the King", and others.

When I went to spend a couple weeks in Brooks one summer at my cousin Fred’s, “Star Trek” was on cable TV every night. I caught a few more episodes, from season two, at that time. But alas, again I had to return home to peasant vision where CBC was no longer airing "Star Trek".

Poster for "Star Trek:
The Motion Picture"
Movie first
A really odd thing is that I saw a “Star Trek” movie long before I ever saw a complete episode on TV. Sure, I had seen bits and pieces, and read quite a bit. But now, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was opening at the Paramount Theatre in Lethbridge, and my sister was taking me.

When we got to the theatre in downtown Lethbridge, there was a line more than a block long. Right at the front were my cousins Garry and Doris. I thought to get their attention, but wanted to get in line as quickly as we could. (The next time I saw Garry, he said I should have called him. He would have said, "We've been waiting for you." I never even thought about butting in line).

The line moved quickly, and we were finally in, only to discover the unforgiveable had happened: they had started the movie without us. The theatre was half full, people were lined up for a block, and they still started the movie. We had missed all the previews and the first five minutes, which was pretty important because that's where the villain is introduced.

The thing I remember most about "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was the lasting impression I still have: there were too many special effects. It was boring in places. There were long stretches where the Enterprise was just floating inside this space cloud.

I think I was a bit too young still, because the movie lost me in a couple places, or so I thought. When I got older and saw it again on network TV, I realized I had understood the plot in the first place. It just wasn't that good. However, I did change my mind about some of the special effects. It was still pretty cool seeing the Enterprise in dock while Scotty toured Captain Kirk around it. Then, when Kirk assumed command to confront the danger to Earth, one of the best scenes is still seeing the Enterprise zoom past the planet Jupiter, giant red spot and all.

Still, the movie was savaged by critics and fans alike. If they were to make any more, they would have to be a lot better. They could not keep living off the insatiable appetite of fans who had not had a Star Trek fix in more than a dozen years. They had to have an engaging, entertaining, dynamic, action-packed movie.

Boy did they deliver.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Barney Bentall: From on the radio to live in concert

“Bobby drives a pick-up for a corner store,
Four bucks an hour and he’s hoping for more
He’s 28 years old and he still lives at home,
Bobby’s got ideas, but he ain’t alone.
There’s a million Bobbies across this land.”

~from “Something to Live For”, by Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts

The first time I heard Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts, I was pulling up across from Chris Vining’s house to get him to go to Lethbridge. Little did I know a year and a half later I would see the band that belonged to that voice. These five lines stuck out for me, and the band had that great name – the Legendary Hearts.

Barney and Bentall and the
Legendary Hearts' first album
That's the ticket
It was my second year of university and I was hanging out with Shannon Boan, a girl I worked with, and her boyfriend Mike Kant. Walking through CAB (the Central Academic Building) on the University of Alberta campus, I saw a poster. Barney Bentall and the Legendary Hearts were playing on campus, at the Dinwoodie Lounge in the Students’ Union Building. I was studying with Mike and Shannon one night, and she mentioned she was getting tickets to the concert.

“I love Barney Bentall,” I said.

So she got me a ticket to the concert. It was a night I would never forget – obviously.

Up close and personal
The concert was on a Saturday night, and we all walked there. A couple of Shannon's friends and their boyfriends also joined us. I could not believe how close we could get to the stage. In fact, we were almost right on top of it. When Barney and the band took the stage, I could see the sweat fly off his brow as they got deeper into their set.

The concert was awesome, but they still hadn't played "Something to Live For". What the hell? And they were leaving the stage?

That's when I first learned about encores. All the girls in the group were clapping and screaming, so I followed suit.

It was like magic. Barney and the band came out, and they played "Something to Live For". We were so close that Barney was leaning right up within inches of us. One of Shannon's friends even reached up and touched Barney on the shoulder. I had never seen that before.  It was the perfect end to a great night.

Rockin' the Permafrost
It was my first live concert in a small venue. There really is nothing like live music in an intimate setting. We could see the facial expressions of the musicians, the muscle twitches as they played, the veins popping as they exploded in sound, and we could actually hear the strumming of guitars. Then to actually see someone I know touch the main attraction. It broke some kind of invisible barrier. You know like when an actor on TV talks to the audience.

And to this day, I still have a souvenir. It is a white concert t-shirt for the Rockin’ the Permnafrost Tour. What a great name too, considering they were touring Canada in the middle of winter. In fact, earlier that year, the U of A had to close for a day because it got too cold. It was the first time the university had closed. Not for war, not for influenza, but for the cold. Rockin' the Permafrost indeed.

The Challenger Tragedy: Do you remember where you were?

President John F. Kennedy was assassinated before I was born, but everyone who was alive and aware at the time can tell you where they were when they heard the news. The same goes for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. For my generation, one of those moments was the day in 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up.

“Oh no.”
It was first semester of Grade 11 during final exams. It was Jan. 28, 1986. Most mornings I spent all or part of a spare I had that semester in Ed Ryan’s office. He was our high school guidance counselor and a mentor to me.

That day we were talking about hockey, when his phone rang. He picked it up, listened a moment, then half out loud mumbled, “Oh no. It just …”

I thought I heard him say “it blew up”, but I couldn’t be sure. If so, what blew up? By then, Shuttle missions were routine and no longer drew that many front-page headlines. In fact the footage above is the only live broadcast that occurred of this mission, Challenger's 10th and the shuttle program's 25th.

He hung up and told me that was his wife. Sheila Ryan was the news director for CJOC-Radio in Lethbridge. She told her husband the Challenger had blown up.

With our own eyes
At that moment, we scrambled upstairs to the library where Mr. Kanashiro, the school librarian, had the TV going. That was the first time I saw the footage with my own eyes that was seared into all our minds. It was the Shuttle sailing through the air toward outer space then bursting into flames with pieces hurtling in various directions leaving trails of smoke.

By the time I got home, it was all over the news, from Entertainment Tonight to The National. That’s where I learned about the true tragedy of the situation.

The crew of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986.
In back from left are Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe,
Greg Jarvis, and Judy Resnick; while in front from
left are Mike Smith, Dick Scobee, and Ron McNair.
These astronauts were not unknown: Judy Resnick, was the second female astronaut; and Christa McAuliffe was set to be the first teacher in space.

I kept wondering if they were alive when it blew up, then died in the crash into the ocean. I tried to imagine the horror of being trapped in that small space. There was nowhere to go. Over the days and months to follow, various ideas and hypotheses came out about those final minutes.

There would be no shuttle missions for 32 moths, and a thorough investigation was conducted. As in tragedies such as this, there was plenty of blame to go around.

It was sad, and grounded the program for years. We all came to believe they learned from the tragedy. It could never happen again right? Well it would.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Venus teaches the atom

It is one of the most poignant episodes of television I have ever watched. Maybe because I trained to be a teacher, and maybe because of the clever writing, but when deejay Venus Flytrap explains the atom to a gang banger teenager on an episode of “WKRP in Cincinnati” it created a memorable moment of television.

The gang banger is the son of the station’s cleaning lady. She’s worried he’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, and asks Venus to talk to him. When he does, the boy says he doesn’t understand anything. Venus asks him what’s he’s studying. He tells him stuff like the atom. Venus tells him he’s not stupid. Then he bets him all the money he can find that he can teach Arnold the atom in two minutes.

What follows is a truly inspiring moment. Venus equates the parts of the atom to street gangs and Swahili words. Arnold learns, and by the time Venus is done, he teaches him the atom. However, he took longer than two minutes.

The show ends in comedic fashion. Fellow deejay Dr. Johnny Fever was asleep in the back, and woke up to hear Venus work his magic. He offers to buy him and beer, then asks, “You think you can teach me about magnets?”

The episode won a 1981 Humanitas Award (an award for film and television writing intended to promote human dignity, meaning, and freedom), and was nominated for a primetime Emmy for its direction.

Social conscience
“WKRP in Cincinnati” lasted for four seasons, and broke a lot of ground for its time. Not only was it one of the best comedies on television, but it tackled a lot of social issues.

There was an episode about payola, where a new deejay was taking cocaine in exchange for playing certain records. Fever discovers the payola just when station manager Arthur Carlson walks in. They tell him it’s foot powder. When the Deejay asks Fever what Carlson will do, the answer is simple: “Carlson’s no idiot, he’s going to put it on his feet.”

There was an episode addressing the real-life trampling deaths of fans at an outdoor concert in Cincinnati, an episode where we discover Venus is actually a draft dodger, and episodes addressing alcoholism, mental illness, and much more.

It’s still funny
At its best, it was just plain funny. There was the episode where Carlson arranges an airplane drop of turkeys at Thanksgiving. “As God is my witness I thought turkeys could fly,” he exclaims. Obviously they cannot.

There was the episode where Venus and Johnny have their reaction times checked as they get drunker and drunker. The problem is their reaction times get better and better.

And it all started with the pilot where Johnny Caravella freaked out on air as the format changed from easy listening to rock and roll, and in the spur of the moment became Dr. Johnny Fever.

The proof was in the ratings. After it was cancelled, "WKRP in Cincinnati" became one of the most successful syndicated sitcomes over the next decade. It outperformed most of the shows that beat it in prime time, and all the other sitcomes produced by its production company.

You watch an episode now, and it still holds up. It was a funny, funny show, that still made you think, and nothing made you think more then when Venus taught the atom.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Lionel Richie’s “Stuck on You”: Crossover hit

Lionel Richie's 1983 mega-hit
album "Can't Slow Down"
There are songs that have crossover appeal with success on more than one chart. One of the first ones I recall I heard just the other day: “Stuck on You” by Lionel Richie.

Long before he was just Nicole’s dad, he was a singer and songwriter who occupied the charts for much of the ‘80s. First, he was the lead singer of The Commodores, then went solo and really hit it big with the album “Can’t Slow Down”. The biggest singles off that album were “Hello” and “All Night Long”. However, it was an album that just kept producing single after single, from “Penny Lover” and “Running With the Night”, to “Stuck on You”.

What made “Stuck on You” different was that I did not hear it as much on the pop charts, but instead in a very unlikely spot: CJOC, a country and western radio station broadcasting out of Lethbridge that my parents listened to. They had this old green radio that seemingly only got one station: CJOC.

Normally, as I got ready for school I got washed up then sat in front of this furnace in our kitchen waiting for my hair to dry. I always wrapped a towel over my head, and around my ears, like the sheiks I saw on TV. Usually, I tuned out the country songs until, one day, I heard this song.

“That sounds like Lionel Richie,” I thought. But what was he doing on CJOC (or See-Jock as we pronounced it)?

I hopped on the bus and low and behold that day, I heard it on 1090 CHEC, the top-40 station playing on the radio in the school bus. It was Lionel Richie.

Eventually, I discovered through the magic of “Entertainment Tonight”, my primary source of that kind of news, that “Stuck on You” was climbing up the Hot 100 chart, where it peaked at number three, and the country music chart, where it peaked at number 24.

Richie would find even greater crossover success a four years later when he teamed with country music sensation Alabama for the single "Deep River Woman". It was another song I heard on CJOC and CHEC at the same time. It eventually peaked at number 10 on the country charts, but topped out at 71 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Never would I have imagined that one of pop music’s icons could be a country music sensation. Now, country and western fans are highly critical of songs, complaining many are indistinguishable from pop music. It is interesting how the shoe was on the other foot 30 years ago.

T’Pau: Star Trek meets pop music

Band names come from the strangest places. Sometimes they have some sort of story or history to them. Sometimes they refer to something common or cryptic.

When I first heard the song “Heart and Soul” was sung by a band called T’Pau, I really didn’t believe it. It couldn’t be, could it? I was stunned. Had someone cool actually named their band after a fairly obscure character from "Star Trek". After all T’Pau was the female leader of the Vulcans who helped Spock through the  pon farr in the episode “Amok Time”. It was also noted then that she was the only person who had been offered a seat on the Federation Council but refused.

It in fact was true. T’Pau, a band from Britain, had taken their name from Star Trek and their song which, near the end of Grade 12 (the spring of 1987), started playing on the radio and moving up the charts. According to the website'Pau, "In 1986, the name 'T'Pau' ended up being adopted by a music band led by Carol Decker, who took the inspiration from 'Amok Time' playing on a television she was watching while doing some ironing. Decker recalled, 'I just thought it was a really snappy onomatopoeic word and I ran it by the band'."

Their first single was "Heart and Soul" and it went all the way to number four on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1987, and number one in Canada on August 22, 1987. That was by far their most popular song. Their next single was "China in Your Hand", which went to number one in the United Kingdom, but barely caught a sniff on the Billboard charts, and only rose as high as number 20 in Canada.

Still, I remember "China in Your Hand" on the radio. One day, Chris Vining, my best friend of the time, asked me if the lead singer was singing “China” or “Chinar” in your hand. After spending time around the English over the years, I am still no closer to telling the difference.

I never gave T'Pau a second thought after Grade 12. Until, just over two years later in my third year of university, I would hear them perform on the University of Alberta campus at the Butterdome at Bear Country. I recall my friend Kevan Farrell bringing me one of the posters after the concert was over.

It seemed like an eternity between Grade 12 and third year, but so much more happened every year then, than it does now.

Friday, 12 July 2013

The voices of sports in the ‘80s

The last few months have been tough for sportscasters. If you grew up in that gray zone that straddled Canadian and American TV sports, you certainly would remember three names, or at least the voices that were recently silenced: Johnny Esaw, Pat Summerall, and Geoff Gowan.

Canadian television pioneer
Johnny Esaw
Johnny Esaw was synonymous with CTV network sports. He broadcast Canadian football for years, and was the one interviewing Phil Esposito after Game 4 of the 1972 Canada-Russia Summit Series when Canada’s captain addressed the whole country. Much of this was before my time. What I do remember of Johnny Esaw was his role in broadcasting the Olympics, and figure skating in particular. Skate Canada was I think where I first saw him on TV. It was only later, through highights, that I saw Esaw on the sidelines or at ice level. That's when I realized how good he was. He understood the power of timing, like when he just let Esposito go. He didn't try to cut him off, or steer him in any particular direction. Anyway, by the time I started watching TV, he was doing specialty sports and building an empire. Still, he was responsible for the CTV productions I did watch.

Pat Summerall
Voice of the NFL
Long ago, before specialty sports channels, the only way you could see NFL football on peasant vision was after the CFL season ended, which meant after the Grey Cup in November. At that point, the CBC started broadcsting NFC games, and CTV broadcast AFC games. Most of the NFC games, especially back in the early ‘80s, featured “America’s team” – the Dallas Cowboys. The voice I equate with that period, and for the next couple decades, is Pat Summerall. He was the voice of the national NFC game. A few short years later, he was joined by former Oakland Raiders coach John Madden, and they formed an entertaining duo.

Summerall had played the game, but he was not your typical retired player sharing war stories. He was a good narrator of the action, stern and serious, but not dour or gloomy. I just recall his broadcasts being like old news reels from the war years – and I liked it.

He eventually moved over to FOX Sports when it outbid CBS for the NFC broadcast rights. He retired a few years ago, but I heard him back in 2010 do a game between Ole Miss and Oklahoma, because I recall his forceful pronunciation of the name “Dexter McCluster”. That may have been his last broadcast.

Geoff Gowan
Track and field legend
Whether it was unbeatable athletes such as hurdler Edwin Moses, decathlete Daley Thompson, or sprinter Carl Lewis, or Canadian favourites such as sprinters Desai Williams, Tony Sharpe, and yes Ben Johnson, hurdler Mark McCoy, decathlete Dave Steen, high jumper Debbie Brill, or heptathlete Diane Jones-Konahowski, I was introduced to them all on CBC Sports by Geoff Gowan.

He had an immense knowledge of track and field, and a keen analytical mind. For example, I recall in the 1984 Olympics how Edwin Moses was unbeatable. Yes, Danny Harris had ended his years-long winning streak earlier that year, but there would be no repeat. One of the dark horses was the third American, Tranel Hawkins, but Gowan said he was too inexperienced. Then illustrated how. Between each hurdle, Moses had an even number of strides to the next hurdle and flowed over each one. Hawkins, by contrast would jump, land, run, then chop his stride as he approached the next hurdle, thus limiting his speed. It was just one example of how Geoff Gowan did more than just describe the action on the field. He analyzed it, and gave us a unique insight.

There are so many other broadcasters who were there explaining sports to me. We remember the big plays but sadly, only when one of the people describing them to us passes on, do we remember them. So, thank you Johnny, Pat, and Geoff, for teaching me about axels and lutzes, four-down football, what ten sports make up the decathlon, and so much more.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Jean Stapleton: More Aunt Mary than Edith Bunker

Jean Stapleton during her hey day on "All in the Family"
It was 33 years ago that Edith Bunker, beloved wife of that loveable bigot Archie Bunker, died of a stroke. It came just as the 1980s was beginning. Now, 33 years later, Edith Bunker’s alter-ego Jean Stapleton has just passed away.

Although I was too young to truly understand the nuance and cleverness of Norman Lear, creator of "All in the Family", I do recall Edith Bunker. More it was the things Archie said to her: “Shut – up – you”; “Ding Bat!”; “Stifle yourself”; and so on. I watched the show in reruns, but it did not appeal to me back as a child in the 1980s, as it did a decade later when I was an adult.

Instead, what I will remember most about Jean Stapleton is a role she played in a TV movie I was lucky enough to see twice, and wish I could find on DVD. That movie was simply called, “Aunt Mary”.

Mary Dobkin: inner-city champion
Jean Stapleton and he real Aunt Mary Dobkin
"Aunt Mary" was Stapleton's first role after she left "All in the Family". She played Mary Dobkin, a disabled woman and baseball fan living in Baltimore. She helped the children in her neighbourhood by organizing and managing their baseball team. She opened the team up to everyone, including a young African-American boy and eventually girls, and battled the backlash that ensued. The whole time, she fought a disease that took her leg and left her first using a crutch then a wheel chair.

It was based on a true story, and I recall reading in TV Guide that Mary Dobkin’s efforts led to thousands of children registering for little league baseball.

I had seen enough of "All in the Family" by that point to have this distinct impression of Edith Bunker as flighty and a dizzy. What really impressed was knowing that, and seeing Stapleton play pretty much the exact opposite type of character. Mary Dobkin was a woman battling racism and sexism, while facing personal disability and loss. There was not a lot to joke about. I thought she had been nominated for an Emmy for this role but, upon further research discovered she was not. She really should have been.

In any case, it was the combination of baseball and compelling human interest that affected me the most, and why more than three decades later it is the reason I most remember Jean Stapleton.

The real Mary Dobkin
This article written after Aunt Mary died in 1987 explains her life the best:

(Below is an interview Jean Stapleton did for the Emmy Awards where she talks about Aunt Mary)

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

“Striker’s Mountain”: "Heartland" of the '80s

The poster advertising "Striker's Mountain"
on that ancient medium – VHS
It seems that Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood has been in just about everything. Watching him play Captain Christopher Pike in “Star Trek: Into the Darkness” made me swell with pride, as I always do when I see a Canadian actor make it big in the States, especially in a high profile movie. But it also reminded me of what could have been.

“Striker’s Mountain”: Launching pad?
The low Canadian dollar in the 1980s led to the creation of a robust Canadian film industry. Production moved north and a whole industry of Canadian filmmakers, technicians, and support staff developed. Much of the work was American TV and movie production, but there were Canadian projects too.

One of those productions was primarily filmed in Alberta in 1986 and debuted on CBC in 1987. It was called “Striker’s Mountain”, and could easily have served as a pilot for a TV series. It could have been a “Heartland” of the 1980s. Yet, it never did. Still, I was lucky enough to see it on TV a couple times.

A trip to “Striker’s Mountain”
The story was uniquely Canadian but with universal themes. The clash of generations, battling progress, resisting change, they were all part of "Striker's Mountain". The movie is set on a ski hill owned by a family that has been there generations. Now, things are tough and a wealthy developer has made an offer they can't refuse. If the Strikers cannot find another way, they will lose control of their livelihood, and with it who they are.

Jake Striker is the patriarch of the family and owner of the ski resort. Paul Striker is his brash, rebellious son, who sees opportunity beyond the ski runs. Ultimately, it is only when they set aside their differences, and face the threat ahead, do they begin to listen to each other and save the day.

Star power
“Striker’s Mountain” was not an anonymous movie with no-name actors. Bruce Greenwood played Paul Striker, while venerable Canadian actor August Schellenberg played Jake Striker. Leslie Nielsen, who played serious roles in Canada and Hollywood for decades before "The Naked Gun" and "Airplane!" came along. They were mostly bad guys, and this was no different, as he was the evil developer Jim McKay.

Another interesting note. Jessica Steen played Lowni Striker, a competitive skiier and daughter of Jake Striker, who is injured on the ski hill. Steen now plays the role of Lisa on "Heartland", so she did eventually land her recurring TV role.

The movie was written and produced by Wendy Wacko, who was one of a group of emerging Canadian filmmakers that also included Anne Wheeler.

Heartland of the '80s
It's unfortunate that nothing more came of "Striker's Mountain". It certainly was as good as some of the stuff on American network TV at the time. Whether it was funding, will, or timing, we will never know if it could have made it.

In fact, I believe it could have been "Heartland" in the 1980s. There are similarities to the current CBC drama. Both are centred on strong families, with their fair share of conflicts, running unique businesses. "Striker's Mountain" laid the groundwork to explore the same themes "Heartland" does, especially the clash of generations, resistance to change, and progress. Both are filmed in Alberta, exploring unique aspects of Alberta culture – the mountains and ski culture in "Striker's Mountain", the horse and ranching lifestyle in "Heartland". CBC really missed an opportunity 26 years ago. Twenty years after Striker's Mountain, they didn't make the same mistake twice.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

From "Star Trek" to “Body of Proof”: Remembering “Legmen”

Bruce Greenwood and
J.T. Terlesky in 1984's "Legmen"
What do “Star Trek Into the Darkness” and “Body of Proof" have in common? And what do they have to do with the ‘80s?

There are places – or shows – I remember
Back in 1984 there was a show that caught my eye called "Legmen". Two college students went to work for a bail bondsman to earn some extra money, and got more than they bargained for. We never really found out how it worked out for them because the show only lasted six episodes.

There may only be a handful of people who remember "Legmen". It was a show that appeared on Channel 2&7 on peasant vision in the latter part of Grade 9. It was paired with another mid-season replacement called “The Master”, featuring Lee Van Cleef and Timothy Van Patten. More than the show itself, I remember one of my classmates who just raved about it. That's what actually kept me watching it, more than being interested in the show itself.

Legacy of "Legmen"
It's interesting how things turn out. The title characters, Jack Gage and David Taylor, were played by Bruce Greenwood and J.T. Terlesky respectively. Although neither of them has been a breakout star, they have both had long careers in TV and movies.

This year, Canadian actor Bruce Greenwood resumed his role as Captain Christopher Pike in "Star Trek: Into the Darkness”, a role he created in J.J. Abrams 2008 re-boot of “Star Trek”. He has been productive the past 30 years in movies such as "Super 8", "Barney's Version", "I, Robot", "The Sweet Hereafter", and "Exotica", and television shows such as "St. Elsewhere", "Road to Avonlea", and "Knot's Landing". He also turned in an amazing performance as American president John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis in "Thirteen Days".

Meanwhile, John Terlesky has been busy directing episodes of TV shows such as the ABC procedural “Body of Proof”, starring Dana Delany; "Castle" starring Canadians Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic; "Revenge" starring Canadian Emily VanCamp; "Criminal Minds"; "Gossip Girl"; "Drop Dead Diva"; "Boston Legal"; "Grey's Anatomy"; "Ugly Betty"; and much more.

In the span of a few days, I'd seen both those names – Bruce Greenwood and John Terlesky – and they rang a bell. Why? I thought. Then it came to me. John Terlesky used to go by J.T. Terlesky.

Even though it only lasted six episodes almost 30 years ago, it is imprinted in my mind along with so many other memories of the end of junior high. No matter what they have accomplished since, whenever I see those two names, I think of a simpler time back in St. Joeseph's Elementary/Junior High in Coaldale, Alberta. Because that's when I saw "Legmen".