Monthly Archives: March 2010

Person: Edward R. Murrow

Murrow's program See It Now took on the Red Scare and led to the humbling of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Uploaded by

Had Adolph Hitler not chosen to subjugate England during the blitz of 1939, Edward R. Murrow might be just another forgotten wartime journalist. But Hitler foolishly kept bombing during what became known as the Battle of Britain, and Murrow’s nightly reports from London’s rooftops riveted even isolationist Americans. When he concluded with “Good night, and good luck,” Murrow inadvertently coined one of the first catchphrases in broadcasting history.

Following his celebrated term as a war correspondent, Murrow came home to the post of Vice President of Public Affairs for CBS, but couldn’t shake the desire to get back behind a microphone. He anchored the nightly newscast on CBS Radio for several years, then began his own program, Hear It Now. But the advent of television already began to eclipse the influence of radio, and the show became See It Now when Murrow moved it to CBS Television.

Clearly the most memorable episode of See It Now was Murrow’s attack on the Red Scare, led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Depicted in the recent film Good Night, and Good Luck, the program used mostly McCarthy’s own words to show his contradictions and paranoia. It was the beginning of the end for the senator, and Murrow is rightly held in high regard for helping to bring that shameful chapter in American history to a close.

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Murrow also pioneered what might be called celebrity journalism in his Person to Person series. He’d visit people in their homes (sound familiar, Barbara Walters?), encouraging them to let down their guard and speak freely. He interviewed a wide spectrum of people, including Frank Sinatra, Bogart and Bacall, Margaret Mead, and John Steinbeck.

Edward R. Murrow is still the standard by which television news is measured. But the man himself was aware of his medium’s limits. He once said, “If we were to do the Second Coming of Christ in color for a full hour, there would be a considerable number of stations which would decline to carry it on the grounds that a Western or a quiz show would be more profitable.”

Song: “Respect”

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Aretha Franklin (Great American Things, July 18, 2009) was already a star before she released “Respect.” But this went all the way to number one on the Billboard chart for two weeks, and became her signature song. When she spelled out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, she took this song into the pantheon of great R&B recordings.

The song earned Aretha two Grammy Awards in 1968 (Best Rhythm & Blues Recording, Best Rhythm & Blues Solo Vocal Recording, Female), and it was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame (yes, songs are inducted) in 1998. It was selected as number 5 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was listed among the Songs of the Century by the Recording Industry of America.

Otis Redding. Uploaded by

There’s a line in “Respect” that always used to puzzle me. The great Aretha sings, “I’m about to give you all of my money, and all I’m asking in return honey, is to give me my propers when you get home.” First of all, I didn’t know what “propers” meant. But it felt wrong for a woman to say she’s giving a man all her money.

That was before I found out that Otis Redding wrote the song, and the lyrics were gender reversed for Aretha. So it makes sense for a man to say, “Hey little girl, you’re sweeter than honey. And I’m about to give you all of my money, all I’m asking is a little respect when I come home.” Ah, okay. Now it makes sense.

First the Aretha take, then Otis Redding’s original version:

Sports: John Wooden

With all his undefeated seasons, record winning streaks, and NCAA titles, John Wooden is most proud of his 19 conference championships. Uploaded by

Under coach John Wooden, UCLA won seven consecutive NCAA men’s basketball championships, and ten in the twelve years between 1964 and 1975. It could easily be argued that what John Wooden accomplished as head coach of UCLA basketball has never been equaled in the history of sports. There are other teams in minor sports that have won more championships, but not against such a high level of competition.

Initially, John Wooden didn’t even want to coach at UCLA. He was waiting to hear from Minnesota, but bad weather prevented a call with an offer from getting through. Wooden misunderstood, and thought the Gophers had lost interest. So when UCLA did call, he somewhat reluctantly accepted their offer. Strange to think that if cell phones were in use at the time, John Wooden may have made Minnesota the greatest basketball program of the era.

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Of course, any coach will tell you that he couldn’t win without great players, and Wooden recruited many of the best. Among those who led the Bruins to NCAA titles were Walt Hazzard, Gail Goodrich, Kareem Abudl-Jabbar, Sidney Wicks, Bill Walton, and Dave Meyers.

Many honors have come Coach Wooden’s way. To name just a few: He’s one of only a few individuals who’ve been inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. Since 1977, the national player of the year trophy has been designated the John R. Wooden Award. And in 2003, he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honor.

It’s interesting to note, in this era of multimillion dollar coaching salaries, that Wooden’s highest salary at UCLA was $35,000. John Calipari probably leaves that as a tip.

Film: The Sixth Sense

If M. Night Shyamalan never makes another terrific movie, at least he made this one. Uploaded by

“I see dead people.” One of the best-known taglines in movie history also summed up the main storyline in four words. The Sixth Sense is usually classified as a horror film, but not by me. I consider it a dark thriller.

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis starred in this tale of the supernatural that featured one of the best surprise endings in movie history. (And please, don’t anyone spoil it for those who haven’t seen the movie yet.)

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The Sixth Sense was produced on what today passes for a modest budget ($40 million) and almost earned that on its opening weekend. It was the number one movie at the box office for five consecutive weeks and earned a worldwide gross of $672.8 million. A pretty good return on the dollar, wouldn’t you say?

Six Academy Award nominations verified the film’s impact. They were for Director and Screenplay (M. Night Shyamalan), Supporting Actor (Osment), Supporting Actress (Toni Collette), Editing, and Best Picture.

M. Night Shyamalan may yet come up with a worthwhile follow-up to this spooky thriller, but he hasn’t so far. He may join the ranks of other directors who burst onto the scene with great promise, never to match their initial offering. But if that’s his destiny, he can always take comfort in knowing that he wrote and directed a classic American film.

Americana: Advertising Jingles

The Oscar Mayer Wienermobile comes directly from its hit jingle. Uploaded by

The older you are, the more of these ditties you have rattling around your brain. And just when you think you’ve put them away forever, some crazy blog guy comes along and brings them to the surface. And you find yourself humming them all the next day.

Some of the best jingles lasted for the entire sixty seconds of a commercial, yet one on the list is only four notes. But they all achieved the advertiser’s goal of keeping the product’s message alive long after its thirty or sixty seconds on air.

Before I list my top ten, here are some of the runners-up that could easily have made the top. Let your mind go back and relive:

“You’ll wonder where the yellow went when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”

“M’m m’m good, m’m m’m good, that’s what Campbell’s soups are, m’m m’m good.”

“Double your flavor, double your fun, with Doublemint, Doublemint, Doublemint gum.”

“I love Bosco, it’s rich and chocolaty, chocolate-flavored Bosco is mighty good for me.”

“Brylcreem, a little dab’ll do ya, they love to run their fingers through your hair.”

“When the values go up, up, up, and the prices go down, down, down…” (Robert Hall)

“Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven, and Pillsbury says it best.”

“From the valley of the Jolly (‘ho ho ho’) Green Giant.”

“I’m a Pepper, he’s a Pepper, she’s a Pepper, we’re a Pepper, wouldn’t you like to be a Pepper, too?”

“Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.” (Almond Joy/Mounds)

Those are excellent, but here are the ten that make my list:

10. Maxwell House: “Percolator” No words, just a memorable product tie-in.

9. Coca-Cola: “I’d like to teach the world to sing” A beautiful song that expressed the Coke vibe.

8. Meow Mix One word that combined the brand and its market.

7. Kit Kat: “Give me a break, give me a break” Can eating a candy bar be this much fun?

6. McDonald’s: “You deserve a break today” McDonald’s at the height of its cultural influence.

5. Intel: “4 notes” Simplicity itself. I like the new version with employees singing the notes.

4. Chevrolet: “See the USA in your Chevrolet” This jingle hasn’t been used in almost 50 years, and I can still sing it.

3. Chili’s: “I want my baby back ribs” So popular that it’s parodied in an Austin Powers movie.

2. Alka Seltzer “Plop plop, fizz fizz, oh what a relief it is.” Alka Seltzer had some of the best advertising from 1950-2000.

1. TIE: Oscar Mayer: “Oh, I’d love to be an Oscar Mayer wiener.” and “My bologna has a first name.” I couldn’t choose, and they’re both brilliant.

Singers: Talking Heads

You may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? Uploaded by

It’s not unusual for bands to be formed by people who are in school together. A clue to what made Talking Heads so unique is where they went to school – the Rhode Island School of Design. They were as unique in their performance as in their sound.

David Byrne photographed by Annie Leibovitz. Uploaded by

Much of the credit for that has to go to lead singer David Byrne. The Talking Heads came along during the height of the music video, when prime rotation on MTV could make or break a song. The videos of the group’s “Once in a Lifetime” and “Burning Down the House” were hugely popular, largely on the basis of Byrne’s distinctive appearance and vocal phrasing.

The group’s lyrics also appealed to an audience that craved creativity. Here are a couple of examples. First, from “Life During Wartime”:

I got some groceries, some peanut butter
to last a couple of days
But I ain’t got no speakers
ain’t got no headphones
ain’t got no records to play

And from “Once in a Lifetime”:

You may find yourself in a beautiful house
With a beautiful wife
You may ask yourself
‘Well, how did I get here?’

Director Jonathan Demme filmed one of the band’s concerts, and released it as Stop Making Sense. It’s one of the most remarkable concert movies ever produced, building from a solo beginning with David Byrne singing “Psycho Killer”, one of the band’s signature songs, and increasing in complexity through the rest of the show.

For a band that had a limited number of chart singles, Talking Heads was a major part of the new wave music scene and still influence artists today. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (Great American Things, August 31, 2009) in 2002. From Phish to Radiohead, the innovative music of Talking Heads continues to influence the music scene. But nothing is better than hearing – and seeing – them for yourself:

Kid Stuff: Looney Tunes

Over the course of a decade, the amazing animators at Warner Bros. created a host of unforgettable characters. Uploaded by

It’s hard for me to imagine now, but Looney Tunes – and its sister Merrie Melodies – both originated because Warner Bros. wanted short films to feature their extensive music library. What followed was an enduring American treasure, running in theaters from 1929 to 1970.

Not surprisingly, the original creators of the series came from Walt Disney’s animation studios. At first, Merrie Melodies were in color and Looney Tunes in black and white, but after 1943 both were in color and featured the same characters. About all that distinguished them was their introductory music.

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The first big Looney Tunes star was Porky Pig, introduced in 1935. Daffy Duck came along in 1937, and Bugs Bunny in 1940. The list of characters Warner Bros. created became popular with adults as well as kids. Just look at WB’s astonishing cartoon cast: Elmer Fudd (1940), Tweety Bird (1942), Pepe Le Pew (1945), Sylvester (1945), Yosemite Sam (1945), Foghorn Leghorn (1946), Marvin Martian (1948), Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote (1949), Speedy Gonzales (1953), and Tazmanian Devil (1954).

The cartoons have been on American television almost nonstop since the mid 1950s. They’ve also appeared in India, Denmark, Ireland, Indonesia, Israel, the UK, Singapore, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, and Japan.

Several of the giants of animation helped make Looney Tunes such an international hit. Chuck Jones directed many of the most famous WB classics, including the Bugs Bunny/Elmer Fudd “Hunting Trilogy.” Friz Freleng directed more cartoons than anyone else, and was instrumental in developing many of the most popular characters. And Tex Avery is credited not only for creating Porky Pig, but also Chilly Willy for Walter Lantz Studio.

Looney Tunes have been nominated for 25 Best Short Subject Academy Awards, and won five. And four Looney Tunes have been selected for the National Film Registry. Here are some wonderful memories:

Architecture: Washington National Cathedral

When Teddy Roosevelt spoke at the laying of the foundation stone in 1907, most people wouldn't have dreamed the cathedral would take 83 years to complete. Uploaded by marius

When many of us hear the word “cathedral,” we associate it with the great structures of the Roman Catholic faith. The National Cathedral however, whose official name is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, was commissioned by the Episcopal Church.

Architectural credit for the building’s design goes to George Frederick Bodley, a noted cathedral builder of the late 19th century. While he created the master plan, he didn’t live to see much of the actual construction. I don’t imagine anyone who saw Teddy Roosevelt speak at the laying of the foundation stone in 1907 saw the finished cathedral – since it took 83 years to complete.

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The cathedral’s is designed in the gothic revival style, and is constructed of 150,000 tons of Indiana limestone. Its central tower is 30 stories tall, and it features more than 200 stained glass windows. Located in the northwest quadrant of the District of Columbia, it occupies one of the highest vantage points in all of Washington.

Since it is the National Cathedral, it hosts an unusual mix of spiritual and civic activities. Among the historic events it has hosted include: the state funerals of four U.S. presidents (Wilson, Eisenhower, Ford, and Reagan) and a memorial service for another (Truman), a memorial service for victims of the September 11 attacks, a national prayer service on the day following the inauguration of every president since Ronald Reagan (except for Bill Clinton), and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last sermon.

The cathedral has been voted the third favorite building in American architecture in a public poll conducted by the American Institute of Architects.

TV Show: Jeopardy!

Alex Trebek has been hosting Jeopardy!, with and without mustache, since 1984. Uploaded by

I realize as I write this what a geek – and what’s worse, an old geek – it makes me, but I can’t help it. One of my bucket list items is to appear on Jeopardy!

I even know what I’ll talk about during Alex Trebek’s interview with me during the Single Jeopardy round. I’ll tell my story about the time Bill Murray sang happy birthday to me. What stories I’ll tell during the days and weeks that follow, as I return again and again as defending champion, I’ll have to figure out.

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Jeopardy! was created by Merv Griffin way back in 1964. Its original host was Art Fleming, with the redoubtable Don Pardo as announcer. Back then, clues were worth $10-$50; now they’re up to $200-$1000, and $400-$2000 in Double Jeopardy. And now you can stay on as champion as long as you keep winning. You probably heard that Ken Jennings won 74 consecutive games and more than $2.5 million on the show.

Of course, no mention of Jeopardy! (like Yahoo!, incomplete without the exclamation point) is complete without mentioning the brilliant parodies on Saturday Night Live (Great American Things, April 9, 2009). With Will Ferrell as Alex Trebek and Darrell Hammond as Sean Connery, the recurring parody stands out as one of SNL’s funniest franchise bits.

I’m sorry. I meant to say “What is one of Saturday Night Live’s funniest franchise bits?” I could get penalized for not phrasing it in the form of a question.

Actor: Morgan Freeman

Morgan Freeman is the only African-American actor or actress to have appeared in three Academy Award Best Pictures. Uploaded by

Morgan Freeman isn’t one of those actors a director chooses so that his film will make money. He’s an actor who gets chosen so the film will get respect.

By my standards, Morgan Freeman has one of the three best voices in movies. (The other two would be Sean Connery and James Earl Jones.) So when he speaks, he carries an innate dignity that makes you pay attention to the character he plays.

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Any actor would be fortunate in a lifetime to have had these three roles: Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy (Great American Things, November 4, 2009 – Academy Award nomination), Red in The Shawshank Redemption (Great American Things, June 29, 2009 – Academy Award nomination) and Eddie “Scrap Iron” Dupris in Million Dollar Baby (Academy Award winner).

Maybe you remember Freeman from his days as Easy Reader on the kids show, The Electric Company. He said he stayed there too long, lulled by the economic security it provided. It’s quite a career arc to go from such a limited continuing role all the way to multiple Oscar nominations. Very few people have the acting chops to make such a transition.

Before he made the film of Driving Miss Daisy, he appeared in the play during its off-Broadway run. About playing the character Hoke, he said, “All these Southerners would come back wiping their eyes and talking about how nostalgic it made them feel. How their grandmother had a chauffeur just like that. I was like, ‘Damn it! I made these people nostalgic for the good ol’ days!’ But, then, I had some black friends see it, and they said, ‘Oh, my grandfather was exactly like that.’ So that made me feel okay.”

Film: Toy Story

Woody and Buzz Lightyear are rivals and partners. And great foils for each other in both films. Uploaded by

This post honors Toy Story (1995) and Toy Story 2 (1999), both of which are among the best animated features of all time. In the original, Woody is Andy’s favorite toy until he’s challenged by the new toy – Buzz Lightyear. And in the sequel, Woody is taken to be part of the highly collectible Woody’s Roundup set, and his toy friends come to help him get back to Andy’s house.

The wonderful Pixar people created these films, and they possess the magical ability to make movies that can be enjoyed by all perspectives, from preschool to adult. What appeals to kids is obvious, but adults appreciate seeing the toys of their childhood brought to life in a smart, witty, and visually enchanting manner.

Part of the films’ success comes from the excellent voice characterizations provided by the likes of Tom Hanks (Woody), Tim Allen (Buzz), Don Rickles (Mr. Potato Head), John Ratzenberger (Hamm the Piggy Bank), and Wallace Shawn (Rex the Dinosaur). They obviously love their roles, and their enthusiasm is easily conveyed to the audience.

Technology advanced so much between 1995 and 1999 that the sequel’s animation is visibly more fluid, and the animators took advantage to create a bigger world for the characters. Toy Story 2 became the first movie in history to be entirely created, mastered, and exhibited digitally.

Coming in June 2010 will be Toy Story 3, in which Woody, Buzz and friends are dumped in a daycare center when Andy goes off to college. Among the stars voicing parts in this new film are Robin Williams, Michael Keaton, Whoopi Goldberg, Bonnie Hunt, and Ned Beatty. I don’t think Pixar will let us down, do you?

Here’s the haunting “When Somebody Loved Me” from Toy Story 2…and the trailer for Toy Story 3: