Tuesday, 30 June 2015

David Letterman: Innovator, pioneer, original thinker

David Letterman hosting his show back in the 1980s.
Have you ever seen a man drink milk through his nose and shoot it out his eye? How about a guy wearing a suit of Velcro jump onto a wall of the same stuff and just stick there? Or the quarterback of the reigning Super Bowl champion throwing footballs at passing New York City taxis to see how many he can get through the open windows passing by?

These are just some of the hundreds of stunts David Letterman hosted on his late show.

Many of them happened after the end of the 1980s, but the first time I ever saw David Letterman in earnest was when I left home and moved into student residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.

Letterman recently retired, which got me thinking about when I first saw him, and what kind of a true original he was.

Communal TV
In res, we had one large TV in our lounge, and often had to negotiate with the other 30 residents on our floor to see the shows we wanted. The flip side was my floormates introduced me to shows I may never have found myself.

One of the first of those was “Late Night with David Letterman”.

I had heard of the show, and even saw the odd clip on “Entertainment Tonight”, but it was in the late-night hours in the winter of 1988 that I really started watching Letterman, thanks to a floormate of mine named Mak.

He was a night hawk, and I was soon discovering I was too.

It seemed whenever I got back to my floor after midnight, Mak was watching Letterman in the lounge.

The guests were always good, but what I remembered most were all the odd and quirky things Letterman did. The first that comes to mind is rotating the screen clockwise a few degrees every few minutes. Halfway through the show he was upside down and right where he started when the show was over.

Home for the summer
The summer of 1988, my last summer on the farm, I did not have much to do, so I stayed up and watched Letterman.

That’s when I saw one of the quirkier, but also more touching, things Letterman did. There was a staffer on the show named Bridget Huckaby who was getting married but didn’t have much money. The network, NBC, had a pay scale for guests on the show. So Letterman got her to come on the show, pretty regularly, so she could earn the network scale. She’d read the Top 10 List and do other things. Guests who performed an act received more money, so one night Letterman got her to come on stage. Reluctantly, and that’s an understatement, she had a sock puppet she briefly talked to. Good enough for Letterman, and the network I guess, because she got the money for her wedding.

You can read Bridget's own reflections here:

But that seemed to be the kind of guy Letterman was. He’d skewer pompous, ridiculous guests, but real people he treated with caring and compassion.

The years after
As the ‘80s became the ‘90s and beyond, I still recall those odd Letterman stunts and bits. There was the stupid human trick where the guy drank milk through his nose and shot it out his eye. That always left me wondering – how does someone find out they have that talent? There was “bad ass ham” and the episode where he earned money for a charity every time he said the word “psyched”. Emmit Smith was one of his guests that night. There was the top ten list of goofiest driver’s licence pictures. What was number one? Why Letterman’s own picture of course.

I got away from Letterman for more than a decade, but returned for awhile a couple years ago. It was really like visiting an old friend again. He was married and had a son now, just like all the real-life friends I have re-connected with. As expected, he worked his son into his routine. Who would expect anything less?

Parting thoughts
Much was made a few years ago about how David Letterman was the logical, and rightful, successor to Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. It never worked out, as Jay Leno got that job. It also precipitated Letterman’s defection to CBS.

The truth is, Letterman could never replace Johnny Carson. Letterman was his own unique man with his own unique style. Stupid Pet Tricks and the subsequent Stupid Human Tricks, the Top 10 List, the World’s Most Dangerous band, Larry “Bud” Melman, and so much more were all his creations. We had never really heard of intellectual property before but, when Letterman departed NBC for CBS, all of a sudden we heard the term constantly, because NBC claimed all that stuff was intellectual property that belonged to them, not Letterman. That was how valuable NBC perceived Letterman and all that “stuff” to be.

Personally, I have always valued innovators, pioneers, and original thinkers. There was no one more original in all of TV, not just late-night TV, than David Letterman.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Sabonis: Different worlds for father and son

Arvydas Sabonis in his prime in the 1980s playing with the Soviet national
team. Had Communism not prevented him from playing in the NBA in his prime,
he may have been one of the best centres in history. We'll never know.

He could have been one of the greatest basketball centres ever. However, because of the Iron Curtain that had descended over Europe, it would be 10 years from the time he was drafted to the time he actually played professionally. When he finally did arrive, to little fanfare, he was so talented that, even deprived of the chance to play with the best in his prime, he still put up impressive numbers.

I was recently reminded of the greatness that was Arvydas Sabonis because his son Domitas, looking and playing just like his father, hit the national stage in the recent NCAA March Madness basketball tournament.

First contact
The first time I heard of this big basketball player from Lithuania was in 1987, when I was sitting in the waiting room of my optometrist in Lethbridge. Dr. French, the eye doctor was originally located in Coaldale, and I started seeing him after Dr. Batting, my family’s long-time optometrist in Lethbridge, had retired. Dr. French re-located to a larger practice in Lethbridge soon after I started seeing him.

It was actually the last time I went to see him. There was a magazine in the waiting room, but I don’t actually think it was a sports magazine. I read this article on Ted Turner, the founder of the Turner Broadcasting System, Cable Network News, partner of Jane Fonda, and owner of baseball’s Atlanta Braves and basketball’s Atlanta Hawks.

The focus of the article was on Turner’s desire to try and improve his basketball team by bringing over players from the Soviet national team. The Hawks had the rights to a guard named Alexander Volkov, but the player Turner coveted was a big, powerful centre named Arvydas Sabonis. The article described him as the perfect blend of size and skill. He had hands as strong as a vise, could cut well to the basket, and could shoot from the field – and he was over seven feet tall.

The problem would be getting him out of the Soviet Union.

Consequently, I didn’t hear about Sabonis or any of those Soviet players for awhile, but when I did, they shook and shocked the basketball world.

1988 Olympics
It was the fall of 1988, and I was in my second year of university. The Summer Olympics were in Seoul, South Korea that year, but I didn’t have a chance to watch too much.

What I heard though, was amazing. The Soviet Union had upset the heavily favoured United States to win gold in men’s basketball. That was an American team that included future NBA stars such as David Robinson and Danny Manning.

Who was leading the Soviets? None other than their dominating centre from Lithuania.

Coming to America – finally
One day in 1995, I’m watching an NBA game, and I hear a name I had not heard in a very long time. He was a rookie centre for the Portland Trail Blazers. At that point I realized his name was Sabonis, not Sarbonis as I had misread in the optometrist’s office so many years before.

At first I wasn’t sure it was the same guy, but the announcers made a big deal of the fact he was an old rookie, and how he had been drafted 10 years earlier. Later, I think it was Sports Illustrated, did a story on Sabonis and the draft class of 1986. While he was a rookie in the NBA, so many of the players drafted the same year were already done with basketball either flaming out, fouling out, or retiring.

Sabonis was almost 31 when he joined the Portland Trail Blazers. He ended up making the all-rookie team, and was runner-up both as NBA Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man of the Year. He would go on to play in the NBA until 2003, with a one-year hiatus. He would play in Europe after that, retiring from basketball altogether in 2005.

Parting thoughts
What a different world Domitas Sabonis lives in from the one his father inhabited in the 1980s. Domitas is free to attend university and play basketball in the United States and still live in Lithuania. Ultimately, the only factors that will restrict where he plays are the ones faced by every other player in North America: skill level; politics; money.

His father had to face a world divided down ideological lines into Communist and non-Communist. Worse, he suffered so many injuries, when the world changed he was not the same man he used to be.

Although Arvydas Sabonis had a serviceable and productive NBA career, I am left with one question: what could have been?

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Joe Cocker in the movies

The gravelly voice was unmistakable, partly because some of the time you couldn’t understand what he was saying. But that was the charm of Joe Cocker, who passed away back in December.

He had a long career, when he died at age 70, but for me growing up in the ‘80s, Joe Cocker will always be synonymous with the movies.

“Up Where We Belong”
“An Officer and a Gentleman” was the movie that catapulted Richard Gere to stardom in 1982. He plays a drifter who finds a life flying jets and love with Debra Winger. It also finally achieved recognition for Louis Gossett Junior with a best supporting actor Oscar for his role as a no-nonsense drill sergeant, after being unrecognized for so long.

That same Oscar night, Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes were on stage accepting an Oscar of their own, for their balled “Up Where We Belong”. The song had a Canadian connection too, as Buffy St. Marie co-wrote the song.

It demonstrated Cocker’s soulful sound, contrasted sharply with Warnes. When they sang it live on Oscar night, it looked as if Cocker was reaching deep down all the way to his toes for each word.

It would be awhile before I finally did see “An Officer and a Gentleman”. Back then, there were three Pay-TV channels, two that carried commercial-free movies. My brother, who lived in Calgary, had one of them and he taped a bunch of movies off TV, three to a tape. He lent me one of those tapes, which had “An Officer and a Gentleman” on it. I watched it one Saturday night with my mom. I had a VCR by then, so it had to be at least 1986.

“The Edge of a Dream”
The movie “Teachers” came out in 1984, starring Nick Nolte as a burnt-out teacher trying to make a difference. It was also significant because it was Ralph Macchio’s first role after his breakout, iconic performance as Daniel LaRusso in “The Karate Kid”.

The soundtrack was much heralded as well. It featured ZZ Top, Bob Seger, .38 Special and much more. The first big single was the title track, “Teacher, Teacher” by .38 Special, and it was awesome. Mind you I’ve always like .38 Special.

I heard the second single off that soundtrack when I tuned in to “Solid Gold” on Channel 7 on the farm on a Saturday night.

It was called “Edge of a Dream”, and there standing hunched over a mike was Joe Cocker to sing it live.

In so many ways it was much like “Up Where We Belong”. Cocker seemed to dig down deep for every word. That gravelly voice has a certain charm.

When I got my VCR for Christmas in 1985, it came with 50 free movies from Baker's Appliances in Lethbridge. My sister lived in Lethbridge at the time, and came out to the farm every Sunday for noon dinner. She started signing out movies and bringing them out. One of the first was "Teachers".

The hat’s all that stayed on
It would be 1987 when I heard that gravelly voice once more. This time it was in a movie about two people who get into a physical, kinky relationship for a short period of time. The movie was called “9 ½ Weeks” and it starred Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger.

There were some pretty risqué scenes, including one where Basinger kind of strips down. If memory serves, that’s the scene set to the soulful sounds of “You Can Leave Your Hat on.” That’s was pretty much all that did stay on.

Parting thoughts
So much of the 1980s was about movie soundtracks. Every movie had to have one, for better or worse. One of the better balladeers was Joe Cocker. He sang with such heart and emotion, seeming to work hard for every note.

Hopefully now Joe you’re up where you belong.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Monopoly: Quality time with my cousin

This is the "Monopoly" board I remember playing on as a child.

When Monopoly recently celebrated its 80th birthday, it reminded me of a time long ago, when we
used to amuse ourselves with games that involved no electricity or even batteries. The best example of that was the game of buying and selling real estate called “Monopoly”. The goal was simple: drive everyone else into bankruptcy.

Cousins – not kissing though
I had this uncle, my mother’s older brother, who lived a few miles down the road from us, to the east and south. He had three children. Two were more my own siblings’ ages, so they had moved out on their own long ago. The youngest was closer to my age, and we used to spend a lot of time together.

She was still four years older, so by the mid 1980s, she had moved out too. She was gone even before that, when she got her driver’s licence and spent more time in town, and with her friends.

But before that, we spent hours upon hours playing board games – most notably Monopoly.

Wheeling and dealing
We played so much Monopoly I can still remember all the properties by heart: It started with two purples: Mediterranean and Baltic. Then three light blue – Oriental, Vermont, and Connecticut. Turn the corner to three lighter purple, St. Charles, Virginia, and States. Keep going to New York, Tennessee, and St. James. Round the corner to three red properties, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. My cousin lost Illinois, so she made her own replacement card. Then on to three yellow properties, Marven Gardens, Atlantic, and Ventnor. Turn another corner to Pacific, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, the green properties, and wrap it up with Boardwalk and Park Place, the two most expensive properties.

There were also the electric company and water works utilities and four railroads – Reading, Pennsylvania, Short Line, and B&O.

The name of the game was to buy property, complete a set and start building houses, progressing to more and more, culminating in hotels. As you developed properties, you were able to charge more and more rent when one of the players landed on them.

Home rules
We had some rules I later discovered were not actual “Monopoly” rules. We threw all the money from properties we bought into the middle. That meant you were almost a sure winner if you landed on “Free Parking” because whoever did claimed all the money sitting there. Later we discovered the money is actually supposed to go to the bank – kind of like in real life.

We also believed if you landed in jail, you could not collect rent on your properties or do anything else. That also was untrue – just like real life.

We had always played on a board with money and game pieces handed down from my cousin’s older brothers, and my own siblings. Our game was so old, we still used pieces made of wood. My cousins from Lethbridge had a fairly new, and complete set, so whenever we visited, we used that, and it had all the modern pieces made of metal and looking like actual objects, like a dog, wheel barrow, iron, and hat. Then one Christmas, I received my own brand new set. That’s where I actually read the rules of the game.

The game
There are all sorts of strategies. One I used was being unafraid to mortgage my existing properties if I landed on a property I really wanted. My reasoning was that it would help me get the whole set, which would then allow me to charge rent and use that money to pay off the mortgage. If I was unable to secure the rest of that particular set, I could trade the property for something I could profit from. I also developed some lower valued properties as quickly as possible. That way I received higher rent when someone landed on them.

Monopoly hits TV
There are also some odd things I remember about “Monopoly” and television.

Watching an episode of “The Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys Mysteries”, I learned the game was based on real properties in Atlantic City. They actually pulled out a game to track the movements of the bad guy. They also would flash to a space on the board, like “Free Parking”, then dissolve to the actual, real-life location. It was pretty neat.

Also, in the summer of 1990, I was living in residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton when “Monopoly” aired as a TV game show. It was paired with “Super Jeopardy”, a huge tournament of champions for the popular quiz show. “Monopoly” never made it past the summer though.

Parting thoughts
It was a simpler time, which I sometimes miss. I’d get a ride from my mom or dad to my cousin’s place, and we’d sit in the living room or her room and play “Monopoly”. In the summer we’d go outside and play on the deck, or even on the lawn. It was a great way to spend an afternoon.

In this day and age of electronics, where there are a million video games children and teenagers can play, I wonder if they really have the same fun we did. I’m sure they don’t, because they do everything alone – just them and the screen. Back in the ‘80s, I sat face to face with my cousins interacting. We practised a little math, learned a bit about finance, and felt the joy in running our family members into bankruptcy.

Board games like “Monopoly” may be a dying art. I sure hope not because it sure was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me”: Finding a second life in the ‘80s

This is one of those, “Which came first, the chicken or the egg” conversations. In 1986 the movie “Stand by Me” came out, and for many people the song came out after the movie.

In reality, as I soon discovered, the song pre-dated the movie by close to 25 years. Originally released in 1961 it peaked on the charts at number four. So the movie actually breathed life into the song, giving it a second chance on the Billboard Hot 100, rocketing it all the way to number nine.

Ben E. King died a couple months ago, and “Stand by Me” featured prominently in all the eulogies.

Heard that before
At first it was kind of strange. “Stand by Me” was on the radio, and I’d heard it before, occasionally, like other songs from the 1960s. Then it played more and more frequently.

Back in 1986, movie publicity consisted largely of commercials on TV and occasionally on radio, ads in magazines and newspapers, previews on shows such as “Entertainment Tonight” and a newsmagazine on CBC called “The Journal”, and trailers in the theatre.

It was on “The Journal” that I first heard about a movie called “Stand by Me” that used the 1960s ballad as a theme song. It was a film about four boys going to see a dead body, based on the novella “The Body” by Stephen King.

Stand by Me – the movie
Initially, I was not interested because, back then, Stephen King was synonymous with horror and I was not really a big fan of horror books or movies, although my sister and my friend Dave both loved Stephen King.

However, “Stand by Me” was not a horror movie. In fact, it was directed by Rob Reiner who, once he escaped the typecasting of his “Meathead” character from the comedy “All in the Family”, would go on to a successful career as a director. Instead, “Stand by Me” was about four boys coming of age. They faced the problems we all do at that age – bullying, puberty, insecurity, and so much more.

The four main actors in "Stand by Me". From left they are
Wil Wheaton; River Phoenix; Corey Feldman; and Jerry O'Connell.
Four amigos
The four boys were played by a variety of actors, some who were already known, others who would go on to solid careers, and some who would meet tragedy.

Wil Wheaton would go on to fame, and some derision, as Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek: The Next Generation”. In fact, that show debuted just a year or so after the “Stand by Me”. He still capitalizes on that role in his frequent appearances on “The Big Bang Theory”.

River Phoenix had already been in movies such as “Explorers”, and would go on to roles in “The Mosquito Coast”; “A Night in the Life of Jimmy Reardon”; “Running on Empty”, where he earned an Oscar nomination; “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, where he played the young Dr. Jones; “My Own Private Idaho”, where he received critical praise and awards; and “Sneakers”. Sadly, he died outside a nightclub in 1993 at the age of 23.

Jerry O’Connell, who played the chubby kid in “Stand by Me”, would go on to turn the tables, playing the hot shot quarterback in “Jerry Maguire”. However, he was best known for recurring roles in the television series “Sliders”; “Crossing Jordan” and “The Defenders”.

Corey Feldman was by far the best known at the time, starring in several movies, such as “Gremlins” and “The Goonies” then later “The Lost Boys”; “License to Drive”; and “The ‘Bubs”; and TV shows such as “The Bad News Bears”.

Get it on video
I never did see the show in the theatre, as it was still pretty hard to get to the city back in 1986. However, I did see the movie on tape maybe six months after it came out. Back then, convenience stores often had kiosks where you could rent movies. I was working at a greenhouse in the spring with my best friend Chris Vining. It was a Saturday night, and we decided to rent a movie after work (Friday nights after work were always reserved for cruising the strip in Lethbridge). So on the way back to the farm, we stopped at the Red Rooster in Coaldale and rented “Stand by Me”, and watched it in the comfort of our living room.

Parting thoughts
The music video for “Stand by Me” featured clips from the movie to accompany Ben E. King standing there and singing. It was the perfect representation of the song and the movie of the same name.

“Stand by Me” signaled so many things. It was a great vehicle for its four young stars to showcase their talent.

It was the first of what would become a series of movies based on Stephen King works that were not horror. “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile” would follow in the footsteps of “Stand by Me”.

“Stand by Me” was also the springboard for Rob Reiner’s career as a director. He had already made “This is Spinal Tap”; and “The Sure Thing”; but “Stand by Me” earned him his first Directors Guild of America award nomination. He would go on to direct “The Princess Bride”; then “When Harry Met Sally…”, where he was nominated for another DGA award; “Misery”; “A Few Good Men”, for which he received a third DGA nomination; and “The American President”, where he was nominated for a Golden Globe. The list goes on and on as he continues to direct.

For me, it was another teen angst, coming of age movie that inspired me to write my own stuff. I could relate to it because I was only 16 and going through many of the same things as those characters. I hoped I could create the same feeling when people read my stuff, that I felt seeing "Stand by Me".

And, this movie about four best friends, was a cool way to spend a Saturday night with my own best friend.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Patrick Macnee: Remembering John Steed and more

Patrick Macnee in his most familiar role as spy John Steed.
I sure hope I didn’t contribute to the recent death of Patrick Macnee. A couple weeks ago, I was working on an entry on “The Return of the Man from U*N*C*L*E*: The Fifteen Years Later Affair” at the Claresholm Public Library. This lady I often a share a table with walked by and saw a clip of Macnee on the screen.

“Is Patrick Macnee still alive?” she asked, just bellowing it out.

“I’m not sure,” I responded. “I don’t think so.”

But, I had the laptop handy and could find out quickly.

“I loved ‘The Avengers’,” she said. “John Steed.”

Sure enough, I was wrong. Wikipedia revealed Parick Macnee was in fact still alive.

At that moment, another acquaintance, a man who’d grown up in Ireland walked by.

“’The Avengers’?” he said. “John Steed. I used to watch that when I was a kid.”

Maybe a week later, my Facebook feed told me Patrick Macnee had passed away at the age of 93.

For a whole generation, he was synonymous with that signature role of John Steed in “The Avengers”, a suave and debonair spy who I associate with a bowler hat.

The show went off the air before I was born, but I became very familiar with its reincarnation a few years later. Beyond that, Patrick Macnee kept appearing on television throughout the ‘80s in various guest roles, and a few odd recurring roles.

Patrick Macnee with co-stars Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt in "The New Avengers"
The New Avengers
“The Avengers” was reborn as “The New Avengers” on CTV in the mid-1970s. However, with the dearth of Canadian programming, reruns aired well into the mid 1980s.

John Steed was now a senior agent, and kind of a mentor for two other agents on his team – a female agent played by Joanna Lumley known only as “Purdey”, and a dashing male agent played by Gareth Hunt named Mike Gambit. Later episodes had the title “The New Avengers in Canada” where they moved to Toronto.

There were several episodes I do recall vividly. One focused on robotics, another on biological warfare, and a third on suspended animation. I recall the robotics one in particular, because actual metal parts, such as arms, were grafted onto a human. Another episode, which I believe was the one on biological warfare, had people who had been infected trapped in a giant maze. It was disorienting because it was white, and the villain of the episode watched his prey and kept changing the walls, further disorienting his victim.

“The New Avengers’ was a show that always seemed to be on.

Patrick Macnee as the
demonic Count Iblis
on "Battlestar Galactica"
The unmistakable voice
His voice was easily recognizable. When “Battlestar Galactica’ became a series, the credits opened with a brief monologue. I always wondered, but just recently had confirmed that Patrick Macnee was the narrator. He also provided the voice for the Imperious Leader of the Cylon Empire, and later appeared in a two-part episode of the show as Count Iblis, who may have been a demon of some kind.

Recurring roles
One of the things about living in the three-channel universe of the rural cable network was that CTV, CBC, and 2&7 did not air all the shows aired by the big three American networks. It was a bit frustrating to read about these shows every week in “TV Guide”, especially the special fall preview issue, and not be able to actually watch them.

One such show was called “Gavilan”, and it starred Robert Urich who was a favourite of mine. Initially, his co-star was Fernando Lamas, but he died,  and was replaced by – Patrick Macnee. Gavilan was a former CIA operative who became an oceanographer. It only lasted six episodes.

Another show, which I did see on CTV, was called “Empire” and it starred Dennis Dugan and Patrick Macnee. “Empire” poked fun at corporate America, but really didn’t last that long either, also just six episodes.

Patrick Macnee as Sir John Raleigh, head of U*N*C*L*E*
His turn as Sir John Raleigh, the new head of U*N*C*L*E*, may have turned into a recurring role, but the TV movie never went to series.

Guest starring in…
Patrick Macnee guest starred in a lot of TV shows throughout the 1980s, often turning in unforgettable performances. He had a guest role on “Magnum P.I.” where he played a man who believed he really was Sherlock Holmes. He also guested in “Hart to Hart”, “Murder, She Wrote, and “The Love Boat”.

Parting thoughts
Patrick Macnee is most associated with the role of John Steed, but had a long and productive career. 

It’s funny that a second generation of viewers, including me, got another chance to get to know John Steed through "The New Avengers".

It’s always sad when we lose one of the great ones. Patrick Macnee, strictly based on the role of John Steed, was great. Everything else he did made him one of the best.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Parri and Cody Ceci: Lessons of the father

Parri Ceci of the Guelph Gryphons,
1984 all-Canadian receiver and
Vanier Cup most valuable player.
Awhile back I saw Ottawa Senator hockey player Cody Ceci on the news, responding to the shooting in the nation’s capital. With a name that unique, I wondered if he was related to another athlete named Ceci who electrified crowds on the national stage in another sport 30 years ago.

It turns out the young hockey player is the son of Parri Ceci. For a month in 1984, he captured the imagination of Canadian university football fans, turning in some great performances, and leading his team, the upstart Guelph Gryphons to the national championship.

Prelude to a championship
The University of Calgary Dinosaurs had beaten the Queen’s Golden Gaels to win the 1983 Vanier Cup. The finalists in the 1983 Vanier Cup looked very much like they both would repeat, setting up a rematch in Toronto for the 1984 national championship.

Back then, I cheered for the Dinos, as much as you could, given Canadian university football was rarely on TV. Their star quarterback, Greg Vavra, had graduated to the CFL and the Calgary Stampeders. He was replaced by Lew Lawrick who picked up right where Vavra left off. Lawrick was even a finalist for the Hec Crichton Trophy as the country's most outstanding player. It looked like he would lead his team back to the national championship, maybe even to face the same team Vavra had.

However, the Guelph Gryphons and Mount Allison Mounties had other ideas. The Mounties upset the Gaels 33-11 in the Atlantic Bowl, while Calgary was upended 12-7 in the Churchill Bowl by Guelph, who was led by an all-Canadian receiver named Parri Ceci. I remember exactly where I was when I heard. My friend Shawn was sleeping over on a Saturday night, and I flipped on the late news, specifically to see how the Dinos did, only to be greeted with the disappointing news.

That meant Guelph and Mount Allison would meet at Varsity Stadium in Toronto to play for the 20th Vanier Cup.

1984 Vanier Cup MVP
When CTV aired the Vanier Cup the following Saturday afternoon, I cheered for Mount Allison because Guelph had beaten Calgary. They were the under dog as well, even though Steve Bruno, their coach, had been named coach of the year in the CIAU.

From the pre-game show, it sounded like the Mounties had a good defence. They were led by an all-Canadian defensive back from Winston-Salem, North Carolina named Larry Oglesby. He had won the President’s Trophy as the best defensive player. I was curious to see how he and the rest of the defence would line up opposite that big-play Guelph offence, led by Ceci and quarterback Randy Walters.

It was a defensive struggle punctuated by turnovers. Mount Allison threatened early, but was intercepted in the end zone. That opened the door for that lethal combination of Walters to Ceci. They hooked up on an 89-yard play for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead. The play was the longest in Vanier Cup history.

What I remember most about that game, beyond Ceci, was a Mountie defensive back named Scott Cameron. He closed out the first quarter by intercepting Walters. That left the score 7-0 after 15 minutes of play.

Mount Allison got on the scoreboard early in the second quarter as kicker Terry Baker hit a field goal to close the gap to 7-3. Paul Henry would intercept another Walters pass, but Baker missed the ensuing field goal, and another attempt after that.

Cameron struck again shortly after. Guelph was punting on third down and they botched the snap. Cameron scooped up the ball and ran it in for a touchdown and a 10-7 lead. He intercepted another pass, but Baker missed another field goal, leaving the score 10-7 at halftime.

Baker had the only points of the third quarter with another field goal to make it 13-7 with 15 minutes to play. I recall, at the time feeling uneasy about that lead. All those field goal misses were mounting.

Early in the fourth quarter, Guelph drove again. This time Walters threw a pass up for grabs that Ceci jumped up and took away from defender Peter Estabrooks for a 38-yard touchdown to tie the game at 13-13. That gave Ceci 127 yards on the day. The Mounties blocked the convert so the game remained at 13-13.

Later in the quarter, Mount Allison gambled on third down and came up short in their own end. Guelph capitalized, moving into position for the go-ahead field goal and a 16-13 lead with just over three minutes left to play.

Mount Allison could not respond. Guelph got the ball back and gave it to Jed Tommy who ran it down to the one-yard line, then plunged in on the final play of the game for an insurance touchdown and a 22-13 victory.

It would be Guelph’s only Vanier Cup championship to date.

For his efforts, and two game-breaking touchdowns, Parri Ceci was named the most valuable player of the game.

It would be the last highlight of his career.

Parri Ceci would be drafted by the Calgary Stampeders in the 1984 CFL draft, but a knee injury ended his career shortly after.

Notable and not-so-notable names
There were some players from that 1984 Vanier Cup who went on to the CFL. Terry Baker played 15 years with Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, and won a Grey Cup with Saskatchewan in 1989. Jed Tommy moved up the road and had a productive career with Hamilton, where he won a Grey Cup in 1986, then Ottawa. Larry Oglesby had the makings of a pro, and the Stamps had his rights too, but he just seemed to disappear. It’s too bad.

Parting thoughts
TSN posted a column comparing Parri Ceci to his son Cody, saying Cody learned from his dad’s CFL disappointment. One of the things Parri taught his son was to make the most of his education, because the elder Ceci regretted not making more of his time at Guelph. Ultimately, he had to go back to school to upgrade, taking computer courses that led to his current job with the federal government.

Cody has taken his education seriously, and is now patrolling the blue line on defence for the Ottawa Senators.

The lessons of the father were not lost on the son.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Anne Meara: Remembering Archie Bunker’s cook

Anne Meara as Veronica Rooney on "Archie Bunker's Place"
She may be best known right now as Ben Stiller’s mom, but to me she will always be Veronica Rooney, Archie Bunker’s cook when he and partner Murray Klein bought the bar Kelsey’s.

A few weeks ago, Facebook told me that Meara’s family was reporting she had passed away at the age of 85.

Archie Bunker’s Place
By the 1980s, “All in the Family”, which had made Carroll O’Connor’s character Archie Bunker a household name, had begun to run its course. Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, and Jean Stapleton, the other three main cast members, had all left or were in the process of leaving.

So, Archie bought his favourite hangout and Archie Bunker’s Place was born. Along with the name change came a whole new cast, led by Martin Balsam as the aforementioned Murray Klein.

That’s when Anne Meara, who I had never seen before, joined the cast. She played Irish cook Veronica Rooney, who was also a recovering alcoholic.

One of the most touching episodes I recall featured a visit by her ex-husband, played by none other than her real-life husband Jerry Stiller. They end up back at her place where he convinces her, after she does resist, to have a drink. It spirals into a bender from there. The next thing we see is both of them passed out on the couch, before they even have a chance to sit down to eat the meal she had lovingly prepared. She awakens to find, of all things, a spoon in her bra. She has to get ready for work and says they will do what they always did before. They’ll have the main course as leftovers and eat dessert for breakfast. Ultimately, since she has turned over a new leaf, she has to cut loose the love of her life.

It proved how good an actor Jerry Stiller actually can be. We already knew how good Anne Meara was.

Parting thoughts
Anne Meara had already had a successful career when she joined “Archie Bunker’s Place” and would go on to have more success, including a Writers' Guild Award for co-writing “The Other Woman” in 1983. She would continue to act, often along side Jerry Stiller in shows such as “The King of Queens” and various comedy reincarnations of their act.

Together, they also had two children, including son Ben, who seemed to eclipse his parents. Most people seem to know Jerry Stiller from his energetic roles as George Costanza’s father in “Seinfeld” and Carrie Hefernan’s cantankerous father in “King of Queens”. Yet, few connect him with Anne Meara. I even wondered if they were still married.

Personally though, I saw Anne Meara long before anyone named Stiller, neither Ben nor Jerry (and I am resisting an ice cream joke right now).

She will always be Veronica Rooney to me, the cook at Archie Bunker’s Place. It was a role with many layers, from the sarcastic wit of the Irish-American, to the poignant sadness of the alcoholic beating an addiction when the love of her life could not.

That’s what made both “All in the Family” and “Archie Bunker’s Place” so good. They both mixed comedy, satire, and wit with drama. Once Gloria, and Meathead, and Edith moved on, It was Murray and Billie and Veronica Rooney who took over, and they were just as good – just in their own way.

In the midst of it all was that Irish-American cook with the sharp tongue.

Rest in peace Anne Meara. Your role was one of a kind.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Glass Tiger's “Someday”: Lamenting a Friday night

Things in high school always seemed to be so much bigger, more dramatic. One night in particular involved a high school football game, a couple beers in a buddy’s basement, and a whole lot of self-recrimination.

Friday night lights
Grade 12 was the first time I went to a high school football game, and I never missed one after that. Back then, the entire league played their games under the lights at the Sportsplex field in Lethbridge. That meant the Kate Andrews High School Spartans of Coaldale played every Friday night for more than a month.

I started going to games for a few reasons. Obviously, I wanted to cheer on the Spartans, and players I knew, like my best friend Chris Vining, and the other guys I grew up with.

The bigger reason though, was that I liked one of the cheerleaders. I jumped at any chance to see her, get her attention, and maybe even impress her.

I would get my chance soon enough.

Loud mouth
Kate Andrews was playing the mighty Cougars of Catholic Central. The Spartans really weren’t very good. They didn’t win a game all year, and really didn’t even score that much.

After the Cougars scored, the girls trotted out to lead us all in a cheer. It was one of the “We’ll get them next time” variety. All I remember is it starting with, “Awwww shucks…”

I saw my chance.

It wasn’t long before Catholic Central scored again. Out came the cheerleaders.

“Awwww shucks,” they started.

This time, just as they said “shucks” I yelled out “Shit!” I thought it was funny.

The crowd fell silent. My favourite cheerleader glared in my direction.

I was crushed.

Drowning my sorrows
It was about that time I started spending nights in town at my buddy Dave’s house. I started hanging out with him the second half of Grade 11. He lived in a house that was pretty small, too small to have friends over.

However, his parents moved into a new, bigger place with a fully developed basement. He was anxious to have friends over, and always invited us to stay.

That night, me, Dave, and his little brother Doug who was in Grade 10, cruised around Lethbridge after the game, got something to eat, then headed back to Coaldale and his place. I’d arranged with my parents to spend the night. They’d pick me up in the morning on their way to Lethbridge, because we went shopping in Lethbridge every Saturday morning.

I was obsessing on what happened at the football game.

As I soon discovered, Dave would tend to turn in early. Doug and I would hang out, shoot the breeze for hours, and talk about girls.

He also liked to dip into his dad’s beer. I had never really drank with friends to that point. This night though, I was really down, so every time Doug offered, which was only like twice, I accepted.

It seemed like we re-hashed everything for hours. In my teen angst-addled mind, I had blown it with the girl I liked. Doug, dutiful friend he was, just sat there and listened.

Eventually we turned in.

It was the next morning that I discovered how alcohol could be a depressant. I had not had near enough beers to get drunk, but it had disturbed my sleep. The lack of sleep put me in a funk the whole next day.

My folks picked me up on the way to Lethbridge, and I ruminated on everything all over again.

"Someday" was on the 1986 debut album
"The Thin Red Line" of Canadian band Glass Tiger.
My mom and I often went for coffee at Eaton’s, and we did that morning. Instead of talking, I had this brainwave for a song and a play I was writing at the time. I scribbled ideas furiously on a paper napkin. I still have that napkin, and those ideas will likely appear somewhere on this blog. While I scribbled, “Someday” by Glass Tiger played on the sound system. I would hear that same song an inordinate number of times that day, so it was burned into my memory. It also kind of signified the mood I was in.

Mom never asked if anything was wrong, and I never sought her advice.

Back then, we never talked to our parents about stuff like that.

When I went to school on Monday, the girl of my dreams had no idea what I was fretting about – at all. Another friend named Dave had even asked her point blank.

Such is the life of the self-absorbed teen – whether it’s 1986 or 2015.

Parting thoughts
It’s always amazing how music can evoke memories. To this day, when I hear “Someday”, I think of a high school football game, a goofy cheer, and a teenage boy trying too hard to impress girl who had no idea how he felt about her.

Life was like a John Hughes movie.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Turning 18 away from home

In today’s day and age, turning 18 is a rite of passage around here that usually involves shooters, too much booze, and likely vomiting, due in part to the drinking age in Alberta being 18. It mostly happens in Grade 12 while still living at home as well.

For me, it was few of these things, but something just as memorable and exciting.

The years before
When we were growing up, periodically my friends and I would count out exactly when we were turning 18. For me it was February 18, 1988. That was a long time after all my friends and classmates. I was five years old when I started school, born in 1970, and they were all six, born in 1969. There were actually four kids just like me in my class – Mike, who was 11 days older, Meriel who was a month or so younger, and me.

It caused a lot of interesting issues for me. A lot of things were done by age, so I was grouped with the kids a grade below me. The worst example was the year we all signed up for soccer. Mike and I were also neighbours, and pretty good friends at the time. Soccer was run through a community recreation board. They asked for our ages saying teams would be made up of boys and girls in a two-year age group. Mike and I dutifully put down our correct birth dates because it should not have mattered.

Instead of grouping with all our friends who were a year older, they grouped us with everyone a year younger. It was okay, but not a lot of fun, because we were way better than everyone else, mostly because, although the proper age, we had developed more quickly because we were always with older kids.

The next year, Mike and I made sure we lied about our age.

A similar thing happened when my mom signed me up for swimming lessons. I was with all these kids who were much younger than me in school, although the correct age. That was no fun either.

Any time there was a contest in school or the community based on age, I was either too young or in a different group than my classmates and friends.

I never resented that though, except in the soccer and swimming incidents, because I took pride in being the youngest and being different. Besides, no one ever made an issue of it.

Still though, when I meet people and we get to talking about high school days, they ask how old I am. Normally, that indicates grade. Every time I have to say my age and Grade don’t match. Grad ’87 students are born in 1969. So, if I’m 45, as I am now, I’m either 45 or Grad ’87. Other 45-year-olds are Grad ’88. Grad ‘87s are now 46.

The next time it had an impact on my life was when everyone started to get their driver’s licences. We all got our learner’s permits when we turned 14. For me that did not come later, because I was not that interested initially in getting my learner’s, in Grade 10. Most of my classmates started getting their driver’s licences in Grade 10.

I did not turn 16 until the middle of Grade 11, and did not actually earn my driver’s licence until the summer just before Grade 12. Again, no big deal because I initially had no huge interest in driving – until I saw the freedom it provided in getting off the farm

Turning 18
This is all prelude to that pivotal 18th birthday. Some of my classmates entered school later, so classmates started turning 18 in November and December of 1986. The avalanche began in 1987, and most of my classmates were 18 by the time we finished school. A few more turned 18 during the summer, and up until the end of the year.

By then, I had gone off to university in Edmonton, where I lived in Kelsey Hall with my best friend Chris Vining.

We lived on the 10th floor, which was the very top of the tower. We got accustomed to riding elevators, and seeing how everyone else lived because we were always the last stop on the ride up.

That year, Kelsey Hall was the only tower with an all-girls’ floor. It was Fifth Kelsey, right in the middle of the tower.

A couple of the girls on 5K had a friend on our floor. We got to know them pretty well, and they introduced us to all the other girls. We spent a lot of time down there, as it was a lot of fun. It really was a unique place in res.

University is different from high school in that first semester ends at the end of December. It does not carry over until the following January.

So, by February of 1988, I had a full semester of university under my belt. January meant new classes, including one called Education Practicum 251. It was the first round of student teaching, and involved spending four Thursday afternoons observing in a junior high and another four afternoons at an elementary school.

First up was Dan Knott Junior High, one of the newest schools in Edmonton, located in the deep south community of Millwoods. My cooperating teacher, who I would observe, was Cal Jensen. He taught phys ed and was the boys’ basketball coach. It was a very good placement.

And a very long bus ride.

I ended up travelling with the team for basketball, and even had a spot on the bench beside Coach Jensen. It was cool.

We had a game that night of February 18, 1988. It was against D.S. MacKenzie Junior High School, in their gym which was not that far from campus. We won that game, and it was quicker for me to walk to a bus stop and catch the bus back to the U of A.

I was not expecting what was waiting for me. My feet were a bit sore from walking in dress shoes, and I was not used to a button-up dress shirt and slacks. All I really wanted to do was lie on my bed for awhile.

As I walked down the tunnel to Kelsey Hall, a couple people passed and wished me a happy birthday. I thanked them, but they were gone before I could ask how they knew. I got to the base of the elevator and stood there waiting for it. When it opened, more people wished me a happy birthday. After they emptied the elevator I discovered how everyone knew.

There was a sign posted in the back of the elevator that read: “Happy birthday Rob Vogt, roomie and the girls from 5K.”

When I got back to 10K, my floor was waiting to wish me a happy birthday. Later, I went down to 5K. I took the other elevator, and there was a sign in that one too, that read, “Happy birthday Rob Vogt, girls from 5K and roomie.”

They had a chocolate cake waiting for me. They sang happy birthday, and let me cut the cake. Vining tried to sneak in a piece, and I recall instinctively trying to swat his hand away – with the knife.

It was Thursday night, which was Ship night. The Ship was a bar in res that everyone went to Thursday nights. It was always a good time, right up until the day I left res nine years later. From then on, the birthday took on the shape of most 18th birthday parties. I drank too much. Campus bars closed at midnight, but Angelo’s, a pizza place across the street from res was not on campus. It stayed open until 3 a.m.. We took the party there, and I recall, barely, two girls from 5K helping me home.

The next day, Vining told me he’d never heard me snore that loud before.

Turn about is fair play.

Parting thoughts
When you leave home, you leave a whole world behind. I was in the odd position of leaving home when I was 17, and would not turn 18 for another six months. And it would happen in unfamiliar surroundings with strangers.

At least that would have been the way it looked in September of 1987. But, by February of 1988, res had become my new home, filled with friends, some who became like family.

There has always been a part of me that has feared no one will remember me. That completely faded away with a simple gesture from one of my oldest friends, and a whole floor of new found friends.

It could not have been a better 18th birthday.