Monthly Archives: January 2010

Food: Life Savers

In the five flavors roll of Life Safers, watermelon and raspberry replaced lemon and lime. Is that an improvement? Uploaded by

Pep-O-Mint Life Savers came first, back in 1912. The second flavor introduced was Wint-O-Green. The best flavor ever, Butter Rum, came out in the 1920s, and then the iconic five-flavor roll made its debut in 1935.

Though they were called Life Savers from the beginning, the technology to make a hole in the middle of the candy wasn’t invented until 1925. Other flavors were introduced in those early years that weren’t so successful included Cl-O-ve, Lic-O-Riche, Cinn-O-Mon, Vi-O-let and Choc-O-Late. They stayed around for a long time, but never captured the public’s taste.

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The original five flavors, which stayed the same for half a century, were lemon, lime, orange, cherry, and pineapple. Today, raspberry and watermelon have taken the place of lemon and lime. I’m sure that’s in line with tastes today, but it seems just wrong somehow .

Perhaps you received a “book” of Life Savers in your Christmas stocking. What a great treat that lasted long after you’d put away most of the toys Santa brought. As I said, Butter Rum was my favorite, and still is. A friend happened to offer one of these great candies to me this week and I remembered just how much I love them. They taste every bit as good as they did when I was a kid, and you can’t say that very often.

Travel: Venice Beach

Compare the number of people on the boardwalk to the number actually on the beach. That's because at Venice Beach, the scene is the thing. Uploaded by

Technically, Venice Beach is…a beach. It has the Pacific Ocean, three miles of sand, and palm trees. But in reality, the beach is a prop, a nice addition to what Venice Beach actually is: a scene.

On any given day you can find thousands of people at Venice Beach, at least a hundred of whom have found the sand. The number of weightlifters who choose to work out here lends the area one of its nicknames – Muscle Beach. You can also find courts for volleyball, handball, paddle tennis, shuffleboard, and basketball (made famous in the opening of the movie White Men Can’t Jump). Venice Beach is considered by some the birthplace of the skateboard movement. And the boardwalk is a natural draw for dining and shopping establishments.

And then there’s the street entertainment. At any given time you might see a chain saw juggler, a roller skating guitar player, dancers, jugglers, comedians, acrobats, mimes, fortune tellers, and preachers.

When you go to Venice Beach, you become part of the scene. You’ll enjoy some good food, watch some fascinating people, and maybe even see stars in the making. And who knows, you may even go to the beach while you’re there.

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TV Network: Turner Classic Movies

Having theme months is one of the excellent programming decisions that help make TCM such a pleasure to watch for movie fans. Uploaded by

This is only the second television network to be selected for this list, after ESPN (Great American Things, September 9, 2009). But it’s one of the most valuable on the dial, because it allows us to see great classic movies, uninterrupted by commercials.

TCM came on the air in 1994, and its first film was Gone with the Wind (Great American Things, April 28, 2009). There are lots of things to like about the channel. For one thing, it seems to be run by people who really like movies. There’s an intelligence to the programming that isn’t evident at other networks.

Film historian and TCM host Robert Osborne. Uploaded by

Another thing to appreciate about TCM is how it dedicates days to the career of a single actor. For example, Jimmy Stewart (Great American Things, April 8, 2009) was featured recently, with back-to-back showings of six of his films. It gives you the opportunity to see an actor’s career development, and to catch films you may have never seen. Another highlight is its annual 31 Days of Oscar programming during the month of February. Not just Best Picture winners, but films that won in other categories get the spotlight for a whole month.

There was a time when I didn’t care about older movies, somehow deeming them irrelevant to today’s experience. I know, I know. Now I’m a big fan of old movies, when actors and directors made movies work, not computer effects. And I love Turner Classic Movies.

Americana: Hubble Space Telescope

The Hubble Space Telescope took the photograph of this nebula about 5500 light years away. That's either a heck of a big bang, or the creation of one powerful God. Uploaded to Flickr by zen724.

Remember all the hoopla back in April, 1990 when the Hubble Space Telescope was launched from the space shuttle? Yeah, I don’t either. Unless you’re a space nerd (and I mean that with more respect than it may appear), you didn’t even notice.

But the pictures the Hubble has taken are nothing short of remarkable. Whether you believe the universe began by creation or a big bang, there’s no denying the incredible size of our universe, as verified by the HST’s images. Consider that a light year is about 5.8 trillion miles. Now consider that the HST has shown images that are 10-15 billion light years away. That’s either one incredible bang – or one amazingly powerful God.

Nebula NGC 6302 with its butterfly wings of 36,000-degree gas. Uploaded by

Iridescent glory of nearby helix nebula. Uploaded by

The Spirograph nebula. Uploaded by hubblesitedotorg

The Cat's Eye Nebula: Dying star creates fantasy-like sculpture of gas and dust. Uploaded by

Actor: Tom Selleck

Tom has recently created the role of small-town police chief Jesse Stone, and I think it's the best work of his career. Uploaded by

Yes, I know, ladies – he’s pretty easy to look at. That alone was probably enough to get him the Magnum, P.I. gig. But then we found out he could actually act. And he’s gotten better as he’s grown older.

Hollywood knew Tom had star power, but couldn’t find him the right vehicle. He starred in six pilots for shows that never made it. His first TV role of significance was a recurring part on The Rockford Files, and then a year later he finally hit the big time, getting cast as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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But wait – Harrison Ford had that role. Tom had signed to do Magnum by that time, and he had to choose between the two projects. He decided to honor his TV contract, which certainly wasn’t a mistake, and was the honorable thing to do. But it does make you wonder what direction his career might have taken.

Tom has starred in a number of pleasant, but not blockbuster movies. Some of his films include 3 Men and a Baby, Quigley Down Under, and Mr. Baseball. However, I think his portrayal in a series of TV movies of Jesse Stone, chief of police in the small New England town of Paradise, is some of his best work. He fights the town’s leaders, struggles with alcohol, and deals with his inability to let go of his ex-wife with great intelligence and restraint. I’ve read the Robert B. Parker books upon which the character is based, and Selleck actually improves them.

Here’s an interesting factoid. Tom appeared on The Dating Game twice – and didn’t get the girl either time. Go figure.

Kid Stuff: The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew

Frank and Joe Hardy were Nancy Drew were more assertive, more independent, and more interesting in their earlier books. Uploaded to Flickr by dougww.

The front covers will tell you the Hardy Boys books are written by Franklin W. Dixon and Nancy Drew is written by Carolyn Keene. No and no. Both book series were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, owner of a syndicate that sold the idea for the Hardy Boys (1926) and later Nancy Drew (1930) to the publishing firm Grosset & Dunlap. All the books in both series are ghostwritten.

Not only have the Boys gone through lots of changes over the decades (Frank has gone from 16 to 18, Joe from 15 to 17), so did the books. As the ghostwriters and the times changed, so did the style. It probably won’t surprise you to know that the earlier books were more complex and atmospheric, and generally darker in tone. As the times changed, there were fewer guns, stranger stories, and less racial stereotypes.

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Nancy Drew came into being because Stratemeyer and G&D wanted a female character to appeal to girls. She too has changed over time, becoming less outspoken and more conventional. Sort of backwards, don’t you think? Of course, the current Nancy has a cell phone and drives a hybrid electric car. Tres current!

I can remember how much I enjoyed reading the Hardys as I was growing up. I thought they were the coolest guys. They’ve now appeared in 190 volumes of the original series and 127 Casefiles books. Nancy Drew appeared in 175 original volumes and 124 Nancy Drew Files. If you have youngsters, that’s a lot of enjoyable reading just waiting for them to discover.

Film: Bull Durham

Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh some of the basic lessons of baseball - and life. Uploaded by

If the book Ball Four by Jim Bouton demythologized baseball books, Bull Durham did the same for baseball movies. Most had been upbeat, almost heroic. I’m not sure Bull Durham was “realistic,” but it definitely didn’t put the players on a pedestal.

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This was the first movie in Kevin Costner’s baseball trilogy, along with Field of Dreams (Great American Things, June 13, 2009) and For Love of the Game. He had the role of Crash Davis, a life-long minor league catcher whose final mission was to groom the meteoric Nuke LaLoosh (Tim Robbins), while contending with him for the affections of a baseball groupie (Susan Sarandon).

Writer Ron Shelton played minor league ball, and used his experience in writing the script. It’s a beauty. Here are some wonderful quotes from the movie:

Crash Davis: “Relax, all right? Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring! Besides that, they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls – it’s more democratic.”

Annie Savoy: “The world is made for people who aren’t cursed with self awareness.”

Crash Davis: “Man that ball got outta here in a hurry. I mean anything travels that far oughta have a damn stewardess on it, don’t you think?”

“Nuke” LaLoosh: “A good friend of mine used to say, ‘This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains.’ Think about that for a while.”

And then there’s this great scene:

Americana: Drive-in Theaters

The golden era of drive-in theaters was the 1950s and 60s. But the best part of all was the concession stand. Corn dogs! Uploaded by

To me, the extinction of drive-in theaters is one of the saddest changes of my lifetime. Regardless of all the technological advances – you can watch a movie now on an i-Pod in the palm of your hand – the drive-in experience was always great. It didn’t even matter what movie was playing.

I think the last movie I saw at a drive-in was Barbarella with Jane Fonda. Tell me that’s not a quintessential drive-in picture. Probably the most memorable experience (and I don’t even have to disclaim this for a family audience) was seeing the movie Woodstock in 1970. It wasn’t playing in my hometown of Newport News, and the only place around showing it was a drive-in all the way over in Norfolk. So we made the trek over in what seemed at the time like a road trip.

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Believe it or not, the drive-in was the brainchild of one man – Richard Hollingshead of Camden New Jersey. In 1933 he worked out the spacing of cars by trying them out in his driveway, with a sheet on the garage for a screen. That was enough to get a patent, and a craze was born. Within a year the new idea had reached the West Coast.

By the early 60s there were more than 4,000 passion pits, er, drive-ins across America. They were great for dates, and also for parents of young children who could fall asleep in the car. Unfortunately, as real estate grew more expensive and technology improved in regular theaters, drive-ins went into steep decline. A few still remain, however, using modern ideas such as LCD screens and micro-radio transmitters.

One aspect of drive-ins I still remember fondly is the concession stand. While regular theaters were limited to popcorn and candy, you could get “food” at the drive-in. Pizza, hot dogs, corn dogs. All with a great jingle and talking popcorn boxes onscreen to tell you, “Let’s all go to the concession stand…”

Person: General George S. Patton

Clearly, General George Patton wasn't a happy man unless he was either planning combat or in the midst of it. Uploaded by

General Patton was politically incorrect before the phrase existed. His strong opinions and unorthodox tactics were the reasons why he was valued as a fighting general and unable to assume the highest levels of command that his military success would otherwise have entitled him.

Patton attended VMI for a year before entering West Point, from which he graduated in 1909. His first major military action was in Mexico, chasing Pancho Villa with General John J. Pershing. During World War I he was assigned to the newly created U.S. Tank Corps, and led troops in the world’s first tank battle in the Battle of Cambrai.

That experience led to the command of the 2nd Armored Division at the outset of World War II. He was soon promoted to lieutenant general due to his success in the North Africa campaign, and then received command of the Seventh Army in preparation for the Allied invasion of Sicily.

Well, I feel like I’m just reciting the movie now. The film starring George S. Scott is apparently very true to the facts and character of the famous general. Instead of more biography, let’s see some of Patton’s stirring – and controversial – statements:

*** “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week.”
*** “A pint of sweat saves a gallon of blood.”
*** “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”
*** “If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking.”
*** “Sure, we want to go home. We want this war over with. The quickest way to get it over with is to go get the bastards who started it. The quicker they are whipped, the quicker we can go home. The shortest way home is through Berlin and Tokyo. And when we get to Berlin, I am personally going to shoot that paper hanging son-of-a-bitch Hitler. Just like I’d shoot a snake!”

Singer: Bobby Darin

Mack the Knife is in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and Bobby Darin is enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Uploaded by

When Bobby Darin’s “Splish Splash” hit the charts in 1958, it could have been seen as just another one of the novelty records popular at the time. Another “Purple People Eater,” maybe, or “Witch Doctor.” Then Bobby Darin’s next hit, “Queen of the Hop”, threatened to stereotype him as another teen idol. With Fabian and Frankie Avalon.

Neither of those options was good enough for the ambitious singer, though. Nor should they have been, and his next three releases proved it. “Dream Lover” went to number two in 1959, and was followed by Darin’s only number one single, the amazing “Mack the Knife.” His next single was my favorite, though it “only” made it to number six on the charts: “Beyond the Sea.”

Uploaded to Flickr by RETRO-KIMMER.

Bobby Darin’s talent allowed him to move across the pop, jazz, and country landscapes with ease. Before reaching stardom he wrote songs for leading singers of the day, including Connie Francis. She remembered that sometimes the two would go to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to hear entertainers like James Brown (Great American Things, Sept. 17, 2009) and Ray Charles (Great American Things, May 27, 2009) and would be “the only two white people in the audience.”

Darin’s life was cut short due to heart problems, and he died following unsuccessful surgery in 1973. He was only 37 years old. And yet, during his life he had extensive professional accomplishments. He had eleven top 10 singles, had his own TV variety show, was hugely popular as a headliner in Las Vegas, and was influential in producing songs for others, including Wayne Newton and Roger McGuinn.

Song: American Pie

“American Pie” is an eight-and-a-half minute epic, written in symbolic language that caused everyone to wonder who were these people – the Jester, the King and Queen, Jack Flash and the others. It was a great tune and all, but what did it mean?

“American Pie” became an instant hit upon its release in 1971, and stayed at number one on the chart for four weeks. It sold 3 million copies, and was named by the Songs of the Century education project as the number five song of the twentieth century. But what did it mean?

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If you’re seriously interested, let me recommend the Web site Understanding American Pie. Author Jim Fann gives this general impression, though the song is dissected in great detail on the site:

“Coming as it did near the end of this turbulent era, American Pie seemed to be speaking to the precarious position we found ourselves in, as the grand social experiments of the 1960s began collapsing under the weight of their own unrealized utopian dreams, while the quieter, hopeful world we grew up in receded into memory. And as 1970 came to a close and the world this generation had envisioned no longer seemed viable, a sense of disillusion and loss fell over us; we weren’t the people we once were. But we couldn’t go home again either, having challenged the assumptions of that older order. The black and white days were over.

“Bye bye, Miss American Pie.”

But what does the songwriter himself say? Don McLean has only acknowledged that “The day the music died” refers to the death of rock legend Buddy Holly in a 1959 plane crash. Beyond that, he refused to explain. McLean explained to the Web site The Straight Dope:

“As you can imagine, over the years I have been asked many times to discuss and explain my song “American Pie.” I have never discussed the lyrics, but have admitted to the Holly reference in the opening stanzas. I dedicated the album American Pie to Buddy Holly as well in order to connect the entire statement to Holly in hopes of bringing about an interest in him, which subsequently did occur…You will find many “interpretations” of my lyrics but none of them by me. Isn’t this fun?

“Sorry to leave you all on your own like this but long ago I realized that songwriters should make their statements and move on, maintaining a dignified silence.” –Don McLean, Castine, Maine