Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Glen or Glenda Odyssey, Part Two by Greg Dziawer

Even in death, Ed Wood managed to get bad reviews.

Snips and Snails

You know the storyThe Medved brothers' The Golden Turkey Awards was published in 1980, a few years after Edward D. Wood, Jr.'s passing. The book cited Plan 9 from Outer Space and Wood as, respectively, the "worst" film ever made by the "worst" director of all time. The "so bad it's good" cult film phenomenon didn't start there, but for Wood, it posthumously resurrected his career (shades of Plan 9). Paramount Studios, apparently smelling blood in the water, picked up the rights to Glen or Glenda in 1981 in the wake of Ed's crowning as schlock auteur par excellence.

Viewpoints on Ed and his work continue to morph over time. In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, we're taking a literal snapshot of the life of the inestimable cultural artifact that is Ed Wood's epic Glen or Glenda—I'm dead seriousat an unfortunate point in time in Woodology, yet arguably a point without which having occurred there'd be no Woodology today. 

As reviews and news articles show, the early '80s relaunch of Glenda didn't go as Paramount had planned. I snipped a few newspaper clippings from then, of a consistent and cynical viewpoint. The quoting of (ludicrous) lines that don't even appear in Glen or Glenda really pisses me off! It's also instructive to see how Glenda played elsewhere, the Aussies reveling in the "bad" movie viewpoint then in vast majority, while going far beyond in decrying the film for its cringe-worthy stereotyping. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Happy Vernal Equinox from Vernal Q. Equinox!

Vernal Q. Equinox in his natural habitat.

When I was in junior high and high school, I created a variety of crudely-rendered characters who "starred" in comics that I would pass around every day in class. Some of the characters, like Iffy the Troll and Margin Man, had dozens of little pencil-drawn adventures. Others, however, only appeared once or twice before being abandoned. Even then, I was sensitive to reader feedback. Only the characters that got the best reaction became regulars. One quickly abandoned character was redneck mechanic Vernal Q. Equinox. I must have heard the term "vernal equinox" somewhere and thought it sounded like a funny name.

I'm sure I was influenced by Jim Varney's then-ubiquitous "Hey, Vern!" commercials, plus the Gomer and Goober Pyle characters from The Andy Griffith Show. The illustration above is my attempt to recreate what Vernal would have looked like. None of his original adventures -- and there couldn't have been more than two or three -- survive to this day in any form. The photographic background is pretty authentic. I used to clip out B&W pictures of things I didn't feel like drawing.

Why do I mention any of this? Well, today is the vernal equinox, and it made me think back to those old comics I used to do. I'm the only person in the world who remembers Vernal Q. Equinox, so this blog post is my way of immortalizing him before he vanishes from even my memory. And what is this blog good for if it can't be a repository of my useless trivia from the past? Enjoy this moment, Vernal.

Incidentally, if anyone feels that Vernal might be a marketable character, I'd be willing to sell him very cheaply. Like I'd take a pack of gum for him.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Ed Wood Wednesdays: The Wood Poughkeepsie Odyssey, Part Four by Greg Dziawer

Add caEd Wood, country crooner? It could have gone that way.ption

Mountain Music

Ed does his part for war bonds.
When we think of young Ed Wood growing up in Poughkeepsie, envisioning what he will someday be, we'd be forgiven for imagining a movie-mad boy dreaming of fame in Hollywood. The requisite elements of that story are there: getting a job as usher at a movie theater, childhood idols including Buck Jones and Bela Lugosi, and—the clincher—receiving a home movie camera as a birthday present. The seeds were sown, back home in Poughkeepsie, of the Hollywood filmmaker.

The story does, though, neglect the very real possibility that things could have gone another way. In this week's Ed Wood Wednesdays, we're taking a peek at Ed Wood's career (yes, that's a fair designation) in music, where he had his first breakthrough in the entertainment industry.

The Poughkeepsie New Yorker from October 24, 1943 includes a brief article in which Ed Wood urges the public to buy more war bonds. It's a curious piece, quoting a letter from Ed to the paper. After his war bond pitch, the article goes on to mention a recent letter to Ed's parents, before closing with the detail that's relevant here: He was one of the "original" Sunshine Mountaineers heard over WGY radio. 

The detail that Ed started a band called the Sunshine Mountaineers isn't new; that little factoid is generally mentioned in concert with information that Ed started his own band called Eddie Wood's Little Splinters in his teens and that he played several instruments. Both bands consisted of Ed and his friends, and it appears the Splinters came first. By the name of the band, you'd be hard pressed to know what sort of music they played. A big band, a jazz combo? I found reference to the Splinters being a Country and Western band. And that would make sense, as Ed's hero was cowboy film star Buck Jones. 

Going back even further into Ed's musical roots, 1924, the year of his birth, was also the dawning of traditional mountain music upon the popular landscape. Scottish immigrants brought their musical traditions to North America centuries prior, leaving England in fear of religious persecution, where they had settled after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Settling from Quebec to Nova Scotia and across the Catskills, the Scots' traditional musical forms merged and morphed through the years, from barn dance music to Northern Woods lumber camp folk songs. The name Wood, indicating one who lives near a wood, incidentally, has its roots in Scotland before the migration to England. The motto of the family coat-of-arms is to defend. 

Ed Wood's boyhood hero Buck Jones
By the early part of the 20th century, two forms of mountain music had emerged: the "hillbilly" style out of Southern Appalachia, and the more somber strain hailing from the Catskills. It was then, in the latter half of the 1920s, that the hillbilly stereotype came into being. Popular radio and record bands included The Rex Cole Mountaineers, and some bands took the stereotype to its extreme, dressing in straw hats and overalls, bearded and barefoot, toting jugs in addition to their string instruments. In your typical mountain music band, you are likely to find a guitar or two, a banjo or bluegrass mandolin (in Appalachia) or dulcimer (in the Catskills), a fiddle and/or a bass fiddle. 

This style of mountain music would remain popular right into World War II. By the late '30s, however, both country and western influences began to take root in America. In the post-war years, the genre eventually known as Country and Western would supplant traditional mountain music. Naming his band—or possibly renaming the Splinters—The Sunshine Mountaineers would situate a particular style of music in the minds of the audience. Though mountain music was waning, the Catskills, the mountains west of the Hudson River, remained a foothold of the tradition. 

Debuting in 1922, the pioneering WGY was the first radio station launched by General Electric. The station could boast of its range, reaching London and Havana, as well as its accomplishments. Within mere months after launch, WGY performed the first full-length live drama on radio—two and a half hours long, complete with the medium's first-ever use of foley effects. The station's home was Schenectady, New York, just north of the state capital of Albany, and an hour and a half's drive due North from Ed's hometown of Poughkeepsie. 

The Wood family—as we know from the 1930 US Census Record that oddly captures this bit of information—possessed a "radio set" Before he fell in love with movies, Ed was surely introduced to the world of entertainment via the radio. And it's worth noting, too, that the Bardavon Theatre, where Ed worked as an usher in high school, was also a full-fledged performing arts venue, staging vaudeville acts and playing host to every form of popular music. 

While the details behind Ed being "heard over" WGY as one of the "original" Sunshine Mountaineers remain unknown, we can surmise a few things: 
  • Of the instruments Ed could play, a string instrument or two was likely among them. 
  • Ed's initial artistic ambition, and breakthrough, was musical, heading a band.
  • The style of music Ed's bands played was country and western, to a significant if-not-dominant degree influenced by the popular regional mountain music styles popular on the radio when he was a child. 
  • The Sunshine Mountaineers continued performing even after Ed left the group.

The pioneering WGY. Note the GE logo on the side.
WGY increased its broadcasting signal strength a few times through the years, and in 1938 built the largest radio tower in the world, standing half the height of the Empire State Building. WGY dropped all programming immediately after Pearl Harbor, devoting itself entirely to the war effort (and no doubt urging listeners to buy war bonds). 

Exactly when and how often The Sunshine Mountaineers played on WGY, we can't say. (Presumably Ed and his friends would have driven north to the studio and performed live, as was customary) Nor do we know how The Sunshine Mountaineers scored the gig or what their background was. What we can say is that, sometime circa 1938-1941, Ed played in a band heard by what could fairly be described as a worldwide audience. 

Fighting in the South Pacific came next, and then a brief pursuit of life in the theater after he returned from the war. Finally, Ed began work in the medium for which he is best-remembered: film. Years later, in 1963, he would script Shotgun Wedding, drawing on hillbilly stereotypes, as had become common practice in the pop culture from Betty Boop to Hee Haw. He even purportedly wrote a spec script for the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies that was never produced. (Side note: The Beverly Hill Billies was also the name of a mountain music band that made its first recordings in 1930.) Little did we know that his kinship with this iconography lay deeper.

And little do we still know about Ed's career as a musician in his teen years. But we'll keep digging, and we'll travel back again to Poughkeepsie, right here at Ed Wood Wednesdays.

Special thanks to Raleigh Bronkowski, who shared the newspaper article of Ed hawking war bonds, and whose blog The Scene of Screen 13 is a mind-boggling treasure-trove of exploitation film newspaper ads. Further thanks go to Bob Blackburn, co-heir of the Wood estate, who shared priceless scans from an original copy of Buck Jones sheet music.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sgt. Snorkel is ready for his closeup

I find this version much more true to life.

Barney Google, Olive Oyl, Blondie Bumstead, Fritzi Ritz. What do they all have in common? They were all the stars of their own comic strips before being pushed aside in favor of more exciting, audience-pleasing characters. Fritzi became Nancy's aunt. Olive became Popeye's girlfriend. Blondie has long toiled in the shadow of her lazy, sandwich-scarfing husband Dagwood. And poor Barney was reduced to rare cameos in a strip he nominally co-headlines with Snuffy Smith. And this phenomenon isn't limited to old-timey funnies either. Such latter-day strips as Funky Winkerbean and Bloom County gradually changed focus, too. Funky is still an important character in the strip that bears his name, but his friend and former classmate Les Moore is now arguably the protagonist. And wry, bespectacled Milo Bloom never left Bloom County, but he couldn't compete with the likes of Opus the Penguin or Bill the Cat for the public's affections.

Could such a thing happen to Mort Walker's super-long-lived military farce Beetle Bailey? After all, the strip already underwent a major format change in 1951 when its title character dropped out of college to join the military. Is it time for Beetle himself to step aside and make room for one of his co-stars at center stage? Above you will see a pilot episode for a proposed revamp called Sarge, concerning the adventures of Sgt. 1st Class Orville P. Snorkel, long a second banana and comic foil to Beetle. I think this new version compares quite favorably to the original