DC at Night

DC at Night

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Changes in the Aftermath of Assassination

Since the beginning of journalism, news reporters have had to bury personal feelings while covering a story. Later, however, in the quiet after the filing of their stories, the feelings often surface with extreme intensity. Such was the case for Robert MacNeil, who as a young NBC correspondent, covered the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

"It had a tremendous emotional impact on me. I fell into a real depression and I'm not a depressive person," MacNeil says. "When I heard the sound of the bagpipes (at the funeral) I just began crying. The salt in my tears actually hurt."

MacNeil even questioned his decision to leave Canada with his family to become an American TV reporter. "I thought - have I brought my children to a country that's not good for them?"

MacNeil appeared at the Newseum recently to discuss the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath. He was joined by his long-time PBS News Hour co-anchor Jim Lehrer, who also covered the killing 50 years ago as a reporter for a local Dallas newspaper.

Lehrer said his most vivid memory of the funeral was the extraordinary silence in the Dallas newsroom as reporters joined the rest of America to view the ceremony on television. "Everything went absolutely quiet. Everybody just sat there," Lehrer said.

Of course, since they reported the story on the scene, both said they are often asked the question - so who really killed President Kennedy? Both said they agreed with the Warren Commission Report that Lee Harvey Oswald was the only one who fired the 3 fatal shots.

"I spent 6 months covering every angle of the story," Lehrer said. "I knew there were no Pulitzer Prizes to be won proving that Oswald acted alone." However, he turned up no credible evidence that there were other shooters.

Both reporters said that the impact of the tragedy has kept the issue alive for 5 decades. In fact, a recent survey showed that 81% of all Americans believe in a Kennedy killing conspiracy.

"Large majorities believe in a conspiracy and it's easy to understand why. It was inconceivable to me that Kennedy had been shot until I found out he had. People find it hard to believe that one man could do that alone," MacNeil said.

Lehrer was asked what he believed was the motive behind the killing. "My theory is no more valid that anyone else's," he said. "I think he (Oswald) was about 2/3 crazy. Who else but a nutty person driven by a bizarre reason would take a rifle and shoot the president? He was just hell bent on doing something terrible."

Both veteran newsmen agreed that the assassination changed the American outlook. "My view is very simple," Lehrer said. "Now everyone knew we lived in a threatening world. Every day since, when I've gone to work, I've always been prepared for something to happen. Even while we're sitting here talking in the Newseum, we all know something awful could be happening."

Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
This is the 2nd post dealing with the MacNeil/Lehrer Newseum appearance. To read a riveting account of what both reporters remember about the assassination and their coverage, read the previous post entitled "The Day The President (And Our Innocence) Died."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Day The President (And Our Innocence) Died

It is said that everyone who was alive in 1963 remembers exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed. And while all may have memories, some memories are more dramatic than others. Take those of former PBS news anchors Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. At the time, MacNeil was a young NBC TV reporter covering the presidential trip to Dallas. Lehrer was a young staffer for one of Dallas' local newspapers. Last night the former long-time hosts of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour appeared at a special Newseum program to recount their memories of the JFK assassination they both covered. Here is what they remember about that fateful Dallas day 50 years ago that changed their lives and all of America forever.
Jim Lehrer (on left) and Robert MacNeil at their anchor desk
At the time, Texas Democrats were politically divided. Republicans didn't exist. It was very much a mixed blessing that the president was coming to Texas. There was concern that there would be some right wing event that would mar the visit. Earlier, someone had spit on Lady Bird Johnson when she and her husband Lyndon had visited Dallas. Now, Dallas officials wanted to put their best front on for the country and the Kennedys. There was excitement, but there was also a lot of anxiety about the visit.

The Kennedys were looking forward to the 1964 campaign. This was a campaign trip. Kennedy was going to give a speech (an advance copy of which we in the press saw) that was going to blast his expected GOP opponent Barry Goldwater for the attitudes he was espousing. It was also a trip to mend political fences in Texas. But there was that anxiety. We were told that the Dallas police force was so nervous about the visit that they had authorized a kind of citizens arrest process ...

That's not true. I was writing about security for the Kennedy visit and the police were anxious but they didn't make any special provisions like that.

Well, that's what we were told.

I was to cover the arrival and the departure from Love Field airport. My newspaper was cheap, but they had sprung for an open line so I could call to rewrite. They even had a table for me to put the phone on. I got a call from rewrite and they wanted me to check to see if they were going to put the bubble top on the president's car since it had been raining. It wasn't bullet proof. It was 3/4 inch plexi-glass. I saw the car and it had the bubble top on. So I asked an agent in charge if they were going to keep it that way. He made some calls to agents downtown. They said it wasn't raining there. The agent said "lose the bubble top." I often wonder what would have happened if the bubble top stayed up. It might have deflected the bullets. Or it could have shattered the window and made shards of glass that could have killed Mrs. Kennedy and the Connollys (then Texas Gov. John Connolly and his wife, who were riding in the car with the Kennedys). What if? What if? The Kennedy assassination is filled with what-ifs.

Mrs. Kennedy had become politically engaged on this trip. She was wearing a bright strawberry ice cream colored dress. At the Dallas airport, someone gave her a bouquet of blood red roses. The sight of her   carrying that against that pink dress was incredible. At the airport, I boarded the 1st press bus, which was about 7 cars behind the president's. On the trip into the city, I kept looking at my watch to see how much time I had to file a story and deciding which quote from that morning's speech I would use. When we got to Dealey Plaza I heard a bang. Was that a shot I thought? Then I head bang, bang in quick succession. I was sitting in the front of the bus and I shouted at the bus driver to stop.  He opened the door and I ran out of the bus. There was all this incredible screaming. I saw parents lying down covering their children with their bodies. I saw police officers running across a grassy knoll. I ran after them. All we found (behind the knoll) was empty train tracks. I ran back and dashed into a building. (It was the Texas Book Depository). I saw a young blonde-haired man who was leaving and and asked him where's a phone. He said he didn't know, but another person directed me. I phoned NBC in New York. I said "There were shots fired, but it is not known if the shots were fired at the president." I went back outside. A small black boy was pointing to the building I had exited and telling officers "I saw a man in the window with a gun." I discovered the president had been shot and had been taken to Parkland Hospital. I thought "I'm supposed to be covering the president and here I am miles away." I raced down the street and flagged down a car. I offered the driver $5 bucks to take me to the hospital. Five bucks was five bucks in 1963. I remember I kept hitting him in the arm and telling him to go faster and disregard the red lights. I told him NBC will pay the fines. When I arrived at the hospital, the pool reporters filled me in. Inside, I saw Merriman Smith, who would win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting, phoning parts of a story in while the nurses kept saying "Sir, you can't use this phone". I found a room with a pay phone. Bob Pierpoint of CBS was on the phone next to me. I began telling my story to Frank Magee and Chet Huntley in New York. Communications weren't working properly, so they couldn't get me live on the air. Magee came up with a plan. I would say a sentence to him on the phone and he would repeat it on air for the audience.

I was eating breakfast at the airport. Suddenly, a waitress came in screaming "they've shot the president." I rushed to the phone and called my office. "We think he's dead. Get to Parkland (hospital)," they told me. I jumped in my car and drove to the hospital. When I got there, it was chaos. Nobody was in charge. Everybody was in charge.

The Secret Service and authorities cleared the hospital, but they didn't look in the room where Bob and I were. I went outside and I saw a white-faced Lyndon Johnson. I asked him "Mr. Vice President, is the President dead?" He walked right through me. Back on the phone, I heard Bob say "Walter, Walter (Cronkite), you can't say the president is dead before they announce it." Today, the whole world thinks Walter Cronkite announced Kennedy had been killed (because of the famous video footage of him removing his glasses and brushing away a tear), but he had time to prepare.

When I heard they had arrested the suspect, I rushed to the police station. I got there as they were bringing the suspect Lee Harvey Oswald in. I still have my notebook. Initially, I misspelled his last name in my notes. We were right there. I asked him if he had killed the president. Reporters were all asking him questions. The chaos was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. Everyone was wanting to know what had happened, but no one wanted to believe that it had really happened. We got a report that a Secret Service agent had also been killed. (That turned out to be false - it was actually agent Clint Hill who threw his body over the president and Mrs. Kennedy and was smeared with blood). Of course, we did find out that a Dallas police officer (J.D. Trippett) had been killed. We all stayed at the station all night trying to get any details we could.
People today can't believe the way things happened. But security just didn't exist at all like we have come to know it now.

As we waited, I began to think about a time sequence. I came to realize that Oswald, if he was indeed in the Book Depository, would have been exiting just as I came in looking for a phone. Years later, author William Manchester, who wrote the 1st comprehensive book on the assassination told me "I'm 95 percent convinced that the person you asked to use the phone was Lee Harvey Oswald".

MacNeil and Lehrer kept filing stories on the assassination, but neither was present when Jack Ruby calmly walked forward in the police station and shot and killed Oswald, forever silencing the suspect and beginning what has been an ongoing debate on exactly who killed JFK. MacNeil was in Washington and Lehrer was in church in Dallas when Ruby pulled the trigger. It would be a decade before the 2 men would meet and form a news partnership that would last 20 years. Ironically, they discovered they had both been standing by the same fence at Love Field, just a few steps from each other, on that Dallas day, so long ago but still so dramatically remembered.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Last night's engaging Newseum discussion was moderated by current PBS correspondent Judy Woodruff, who now reports for the renamed PBS NewsHour. Woodruff  told the 500 Newseum members and their guests that being the moderator had special meaning for her. Twenty years ago this summer, MacNeil, who she calls Robin instead of Robert, had hired her as a reporter for the 1st ever hour-long news broadcast in America. "That made a huge difference in my life and my professional career and I thank you," she said.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted

Ever since the advent of television, 5-year-olds have been influenced by what they see there. In fact, their TV friends often become as important as their real-life playmates next door. Elmo. Barney. Dora. It was no different for Jennifer Armstrong in her 1970's childhood. But what was unusual was her choice of TV friends. One was named Mary. The other was named Rhoda. And they were both characters on one of the biggest hit comedies of the decade, The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

"I was obsessed with Mary and Rhoda," says Armstrong, now an author and former writer for Entertainment Weekly. "I watched everything they did and tried to imitate them. I was Mary sharpening pencils. Or I was Rhoda with a scarf wrapped around my head."

When Armstrong revisited the show in re-runs, she came to more deeply understand the real impact it had on her. "I realized I was really inspired by the show when I was growing up," she said of the sitcom, which instantly became a guiding light for women in the gender-changing era of the 1970's and is credited with helping  increase involvement, responsibility, and visibility of women in television.

As she began to reflect on her own life in her 30's, Armstrong discovered a subconscious patterning. Like Mary, Armstrong had left a relationship, came to the big city (although in this case it was New York, not Minneapolis), and taken a job in media. "It was a little creepy," she says with a laugh. And what about the show itself. "As a 30-something woman, I was responding on a nostalgia level, but I was amazed how it (the show) still really worked," she noted.

So, with all that Mary and Rhoda influence, it's not surprising that Armstrong eventually chose the subject for her latest book entitled Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted and All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic. 

A scene from the series final episode.
Armstrong appeared recently at the National Archives to discuss the book with many devout fans of the show.  "It doesn't seem mind blowing now, but I think this show really did pave the way," Armstrong said.  She noted that during interviews she had conducted with prominent stars Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus, both had acknowledged the great influence the program had on their own comedy work..  The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the 1st comedy show in television history to employ multiple female writers. At the time, there was a belief that women couldn't write humor.  But the show's creators James L. Brooks and Allan Burns wanted to capture the real essence of a single working woman. "The men writers didn't know what it was like to be a single woman in the 70's because they were all married men in the 70's," Armstrong said. She cited one example of where gender played a role in a small, but significant shift change. One of the male writers had Mary say she was going to the bathroom "to get cleaned up." But one of the female writer's immediately kaboshed that line. "A woman wouldn't go get cleaned up - that's a dude thing," she said.

Armstrong alternated between reading snippets from her book and then offering additional insider information on the passages. One such example dealt with Cloris Leachman, the actress who played Mary's snobbish neighbor Phyllis, who also served as a foil for Valarie Harper's character, Rhoda. "She (Leachman) was a genius. She was brilliant on the show and she is still brilliant.  I say I didn't interview Cloris Leachman; I experienced Cloris Leachman," Armstrong told the audience.

In many ways, Leachman was a living embodiment of the dilemma of the new 1970's woman who found herself trying to juggle a marriage, a family, and a career. Trained as an actress, Leachman had left the business for 17 years to raise a family. At the time of her audition, she was 43 years old and had 5 children between the ages of 3 and 16. But, to employ a show business cliche, she immediately demonstrated that she was born to play the role of Phyllis. Arriving 1/2 hour late, she blurted out, "Who makes the decisions here?" She was pointed in the direction of Brooks, Burns, and Mary Tyler Moore's producer husband Grant Tinker. "Well, she jumped in Brooks and Burns' laps and began  messing up Tinker's hair. And Tinker had the kind of hair you didn't mess up," Armstrong said.

After gaining the role, Leachman would often frustrate directors by going off script placement. When questioned about her movements, she would just smile and say, "I just realized that was what Phyllis would do," Leachman would respond. While some associated with the show were disturbed by Leachman's behavior, fellow co-star Harper gave her support. "Just go with your instincts," Harper told Leachman. And that formula must have worked because not only did The Mary Tyler Moore Show win 29 Emmys during its 7 seasons, but both Harper and Leachman were awarded spinoff shows named appropriately Rhoda and Phyllis.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
While the Mary Tyler Moore fans enjoyed Armstrong's presentation, they learned that if it weren't for the current cuts prompted by the Sequestration, they would have had an even better program. Archives event coordinator Doug Swanson told the audience that originally Armstrong was scheduled to moderate a panel discussion on the show, which would, like her own book presentation, be part of a series on 1970's culture being held in conjunction with Archives current exhibition Searching for the Seventies. Three of the original stars of the show had agreed to participate. However, when the Sequestration budget cuts kicked in, the Archives lost its money for travel expenses for program participants. So, once again in DC, it was Bad, Congress, Bad. I bet Lou and Mary could have figured out a way to avoid the completely idiotic Sequestration created by those bickering, partisan denizens of Capitol Hill. Why even Ted Baxter wouldn't have come up with such a doofy, doltish idea.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Great White Jail at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue

Harry Truman called it "the great white jail." Bill Clinton referred to it as "the crown jewel in the federal penitentiary system." President Barack Obama simply calls it "the bubble." But no matter what the name, the terms all point to a major problem for any modern American president - how can he (or someday she) be a man of the people when he is so isolated as president from the realities of everyday life?

"It always strikes me how abnormal the president's life is," says U.S. News reporter Kenneth Walsh, who has covered 5 presidents as a chief White House correspondent - Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "How do you have normal everyday reactions with people? How do you keep in contact with the flow of everyday life?"

Walsh tackles that subject in his new book Prisoners of the White House: The Isolation of America's Presidents and the Crisis of Leadership. Recently, he appeared at an Inside Media edition at the Newseum to discuss his book and his observations from his White House work.

Even in the earliest days of America, there were problems with the tug between an imperial presidency and a president of the people. Initially, there was sentiment to call George Washington His High Majesty or some  other such elevated term. "Mr. President will be fine," Washington said.

In Abraham Lincoln's years,  any person could walk into the White House and grab the ear of the president, a fact accurately portrayed in Stephen Spielberg's recent movie on Lincoln.

However, by the time of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the modern world was forcing the president more into seclusion. "Presidents have been trying to break out ever since," Walsh said. For his part, Roosevelt, also inhibited from traveling by his polio disability, had his wife Eleanor tour the country to get a feel for what was going on outside of Washington. "She would travel for him and she spent many hours briefing him over dinner," Walsh said.

Walsh said both Reagan and Obama, although quite different in makeup and political beliefs, did share a common way to keep in touch - both were avid letter readers and writers. In fact, Reagan actually had a young black pen pal in DC that he would secretly visit. Obama tries each evening to read and respond to 10 of the 40,000 emails and letters the White House currently receives daily.

But the physical isolation is only part of the problem, Walsh said. "Every moment (as president) you are focused on as the center of the universe. That's got to change your focus. Maybe you even begin to believe it," he said.

Another drawback to openness is security and protection, which began in 1963 with the assassination of John Kennedy and really ramped up after 9/11. "Right now, it is as intensive as I have ever seen it," Walsh said.

Walsh said that despite the restrictions, Obama attempts to keep himself grounded by trying to have dinner with his wife and their 2 children at 6:30 every night he is in DC. "They talk about the most basic kind of family stuff. But how normal could it be for Melia and Sasha?. They're not everyday people. They're in the bubble, too," Walsh noted.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
As you might expect with President Obama facing 3 scandal situations - the fatal attack on the American embassy in Benghazi, the IRS targeting of tea party and conservative groups for special scrutiny, and the Justice Department's seizure of AP reporters' phone logs - Walsh was asked which one he thought posed the most damage to the president. "We don't know how they're going to play out, but I think the most dangerous politically is the IRS issue. It connects to people's idea that there is too much government, that government is running amok and abusing its power." Walsh said that Obama is facing what some historians have called "the 2nd term curse." During many presidencies, "things go wrong in a very big way" for a re-elected president, Walsh said, noting Reagan's Iran/Contra scandal, Clinton's impeachment, and Bush's handling of the Iraq War and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Dining in DC: The G Sandwich Shop Pop-up

The chicken parm wasn't on the menu
Pop is a popular word in food circles. There is the pop in Rice Krispies, as in snap, crackle, pop. There is the pop in that morning quick food staple the pop tart. And there is the pop of the pop-up restaurants, which have been becoming more of a mainstay in the DC eating scene in the last year or so.

A pop-up eatery is a temporary restaurant. Some operate from a private home, former factory or similar building, or during fixed-time events like festivals. Many of these are set up by young professionals wanting to gain experience and exposure. Others operate in an already established eatery where a recognized chef can test out new dishes or concepts.

The G Sandwich Shop pop-up is a classic case of the 2nd group. Jersey-bred restaurateur and Top Chef star Mike Isabella is using the 1st floor of his popular Penn Quarter/Chinatown restaurant Graffiato as a lunch-time eatery for a few weeks to test out sandwiches and salads that he will offer at G when he opens that new place on 14th Street some time this summer.

We checked out the pop-up G last week. That day the menu featured 3 sandwiches. Judy chose the meatball sub on garlic bread w/ provolone and thai basil. I opted for the Cubano panino, roasted pork w/prosciutto cotta, mustard, pickles, and Swiss cheese. The 3rd offering was a roasted cauliflower hero w/romesco, torn herbs, and pickled vegetables. Although the meatball was good, Judy and I agreed that the Cubano was the superior sandwich. Interestingly enough, we also got an on-the-spot review from a diner sitting next to us, who was with a group who tried all 3 specialties. He said the cauliflower was by far the best of the trio even though he doesn't like vegetable sandwiches. . Actually, that didn't surprise me because the roasted cauliflower I had tried at a previous visit to Grafiatto was the best such small plate I had  ever eaten.

G was also offering 4 house-made sodas. I let our waitress choose for me and she brought the blood orange and lemongrass. Noticing my empty glass, she remarked "I guess you liked my choice." I did.

We finished our lunch by sharing an order of carnival-style zeppole, an Italian dough ball similar to New Orleans famed beignets. The zeppole came in a small brown paper bag which you could shake to redistribute the powdered sugar.

Of course, when it opens, G will be a noontime sandwich shop. However, plans call for a fixed price tasting menu featuring seasonal ingredients to be offered at dinnertime.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Normally here would would offer reviews from Yelp and Urban Spoon, as well as our own The Prices Do DC rating. However, reviewing a pop-up would be like reviewing a Broadway show during previews. You should wait until opening night. So, instead, if you want learn about pop-ups, just click here to access a website dedicated to that subject.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Can't We All Just Get Along?

While the White House and Capitol Hill continue to be awash in escalating division and discord, a 4-member panel of ex-Congress and Senate members easily reached a consensus concerning the best way to alleviate the DC political fighting that has led to gridlock, dysfunction, and a record low opinion of national government.

The key is to form better personal relationships which, in turn, would go a long way to returning proper political function to Washington, the former legislators agreed at a recent program at the National Archives entitled Congress and the White House: Partners or Foes?

"I'm a believer that everything is relationships," said Steve LaTourette (R-OH), who became a Congressman in 1995. "Then we did have the ability to talk with one another. A lot of those relationships I don't see today. When I left, everybody was afraid to leave their foxhole and give an inch. They are true believers. You're not able to buy them off. You're not able to reason them off."

Former Democratic Congressman Vic Fazio (D-CA) agreed. Fazio who first came to Washington as a staffer in the 1960's said he had witnessed steadily deteriorating relationships over the ensuing years. "In the 1960's, the divisions were around whether you were a Rotarian, a Kiwanian, a Lion or a Soroptimist, and there were very few of them," Fazio said with a laugh.

Now the situation is much different. "A lot of people don't reach out - they just don't do it," Fazio said. "When have we ever seen a point when we have so little respect for those we disagree with. If you are in the other party, you embarrass the administration and keep it up. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for fragging in your primary."

The belief was much the same for the 2 former Senators on the panel - Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) and Larry Pressler (R-SD).

Lincoln, who first came to Capitol Hill as a staffer in 1982, said at that time there was "more collegiality, but you could see the things that were being frayed."

Lincoln said better personal relationships must be established.  "It's much harder to be ugly or rude to someone when they are a friend," she maintained. "Leadership is not about control, but about creating an environment where people can come together."

Pressler, who served in the Senate from 1979 until 1997 after 4 years in the House of Representatives, cited several changes that have led to a worsening of relations, both between the Republicans and the Democrats and between the President and Congress.

"The Presidential leadership style has changed. They don't go to Congress anymore and fight it out," Pressler said. "The president must go to Congress."

The high cost of campaigning and public apathy also play a role, Pressler said "The American public has grown more apathetic and special interests have developed," he said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The special program was presented with the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. This was the 4th such program we have attended at the Archives. During those events, it has become abundantly clear that it was much easier for former Congressman to make sense when they no longer had an obligation to their party nor faced an election fight. Pressler gave yet another example of that behavior. "I wouldn't have said this when I was in office, but everybody's taxes will have to be raised to get us out of this (the current financial and budget crises facing America)." OK, maybe we should try this. We should throw the current representatives out and replace them with their retired counterparts. It appears they have learned much since they left Capitol Hill.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Back and White and Dead All Over

Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Newspapers in big trouble. Ad revenues plummet. Readership declines. Papers shut down. Layoffs now in the thousands.

Indeed, the current situation of the American newspaper industry is extremely bleak. Since 2008, more than 170 papers have closed or have gone to on-line only editions. A recent study said being a newspaper reporter was the worst job in the country. More than 50,000 news employees have lost their jobs in the past 5 years.

Recently, a new documentary on the issue entitled Black and White and Dead All Over: A Film About the End of American Newspapers premiered at the Newseum. The film provides an in-depth look at the newspaper industry as it struggles to remain financially viable and keep the presses rolling. Directed by Lenny Feinberg, the documentary also examines the importance journalism has in our society by following 2 reporters from The Daily News in Philadelphia. The big question behind the film is - if the American newspaper dies, who will conduct investigative journalism and hold public figures accountable for their actions?

Following the showing, a panel of journalists discussed how the dire situation is affecting their own careers and the news organizations that employ them.

"Newspaper are not dead, but the next 5 years will be critical," said Washington Post deputy managing editor of investigative reporting Jeff Lien. "We need to find solutions. Our readership is getting older and they are dying off. There's no magic bullet. There's no single answer."

John Sullivan, who was hired as an investigative reporter at the Post from The Philadelphia Inquirer (also featured in the documentary) said "I lived this (the story of the film) to some degree."

Thomas Jefferson, in an oft-quoted statement, once said: "If we were to have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I would not hesitate a moment to choose the latter." Sullivan said the sentiment behind Jefferson's statement is just as true today. "We need investigative journalism. We need the newspapers," he said. "The newspapers have the weight and the acceptance of the community."

Part of the newspaper decline has been the rapid growth of the internet. And, to date, newspapers have not been able to devise a viable financial model for paying for the content they put online. "It can't continue to be free or it (newspaper reporting) will be gone," Lien said. "All you will have are bloggers in their pajamas writing about movie stars."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
To view the trailer for White and Black and Dead All Over, just click here. To check out a Facebook page devoted to the film and its subject, click here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

One Man's Trash

You know the saying - One man's trash is another man's treasure. But for artist Noah Williams that statement is literally true. For Williams takes discarded items and junk and shapes them into intriguing, imaginative, large-scale works of art.

Given his background, it's not surprising that he creates what he does. Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, Williams received his primary art instruction from his mother, a ceramic artist. Then there was his former day job. Williams was a trash collector.

A sample of his works is now on display in a one-artist exhibition at the Art League Gallery in the Torpedo Factory in Olde Town Alexandria.  Fittingly enough, the found-art sculpture show is called One Man's Trash.

There is a message behind his creations. "His depictions of animals, machines, and masks, both real and imaginary, are intended to inspire viewers to be aware of the waste they create and the alternative uses for disposable materials," the program book on the show states.

Williams' repurposed bottle cap, metal scraps, keys, and abandoned tire creations also prompt a sense of wonder and the fantastic. "Multiple layers of wire, metal, and unexpected objects invite viewers to explore each sculpture and spark their sense of curiosity," the program book notes.

But enough with the words. Visual art is meant to be seen. Here are a few of Williams' unique creations.

Tales,Tidbits, and Tips
If you want to see One Man's Trash in person you still have some time. The exhibition will be on view until  June 3.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Fab Four or Fab Faux?

The Fab Faux have the hardest job in the history of rock and roll and they pull it off damn well. All rock bands want to be like the Beatles; these guys have the nerve to BE the Beatles. Amazingly, they're so good at it you learn new things about the originals.
                                                                                            --- Dave Marsh
      Legendary rock critic and Sirius XM radio host

Can a copy be as good as (or, in some cases, even better than) an original? That is a question for the ages in the arts and nowhere in the arts is that question bigger than in music, especially in rock with its reworked cover versions and tribute bands.

Which leads us to an examination of the relationship between the Beatles and the Fab Faux (a takeoff on one of the original Beatles nicknames, the Fab Four). Of course, you know who the Beatles are. But who are the Fab Faux? Well, they are 5 of the best New York City-based session musicians in music today. If you watch late-night TV you are probably familiar with at least 2 of them. Bass player Will Lee has spent 2 decades as the nightly bassist on The Late Show with David Letterman. Guitarist Jimmy Vivino is the musical director for The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien. They are joined by drummer Rich Pagano, keyboardist Jack Petruzelli, and guitarist Frank Agnello. Individually, the five have performed with a series of stars that reads like a list from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. James Brown. Aretha Franklin. Ray Charles. Diana Ross. The Bee Gees. Carly Simon. Billy Joel. Steely Dan. Ray Davies. Levon Helm. Mick Jagger.

Sixteen years ago, Vivino and Lee kicked around the idea of forming a band to recreate the Beatles sound as they rode up an elevator together in a New York City building. Since that day, The Fab Faux, acknowledged by almost all major rock critics to be the greatest Beatles band ever not named the Beatles, has grown from a quickly tossed-off idea to a sometimes touring band that has headlined the annual International Beatles Festival in Liverpool 4 times.

And this weekend, they appeared at The Birchmere in Arlington for 2 sold-out shows. At the 1st, they performed the Beatles Rubber Soul album in its entirety. On the 2nd night, they performed 30 Beatles tunes in a show billed as From the Cavern to the Roof.

We attended the 1st show, and if we hadn't had a prior commitment, I would have definitely been back for the 2nd. Of course, the main highlight was hearing the songs of Rubber Soul performed as they appeared on the album. Like the rest of the enthusiastic crowd, many of whom, like me, had been introduced to the magic of the Beatles on a February night in 1964 when John, Paul, George and Ringo 1st appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, the powerful, faithful reproductions on stage evoked memories not only of Beatles moments, but of a time now long gone. With "Michelle" I was back in Capt. Bill's fried seafood diner in my small South Jersey town with my Dad, who was introducing me to french fries and gravy as the song played on the 5-songs-for-a-quarter jukebox. Or, with "Norwegian Wood," there I was, a 12-year-old  sitting alone in my bedroom, trying to figure out the mysterious complexities of love with my 1st girlfriend, Vera, and wondering if she would ever make me crawl off to sleep in the bath.

As the Fab Faux played, I couldn't help but reflect on Dave Marsh's quote that I used to start this post. Marsh is absolutely right. You really do learn new things about the originals hearing them live in the 21st Century. It's almost like hearing a song played 1st on a tiny transistor radio (which actually was the case in the 1960's) and then replayed on a modern, multi-speaker, surround-sound, home entertainment system.

After completing Rubber Soul to raucous applause and even some Beatle-era screams and shrieks, the band took a short break before returning to stage. "Well, the pressure's off. Now let's rock," Lee said, as the group, propelled by Pagano's driving drum beat, then proceeded to perform an incredible 18-song set of Beatles classics from "Back in the USSR" to the show-closer "Let It Be." There were many highlights. I will  list just 3. There was the performance of the rarity "All I've Got to Do" from With the Beatles (one of my 5 favorite early Beatles' songs). There was a snippet of the garage rock classic "Gloria" which Vivino threw into an extended ride in "Day Tripper (definitely my favorite Beatle track from their middle period). And finally, there was an ethereal, extended version of George Harrison's great contribution to The White Album "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" that was so masterful and haunting that I am getting shivers from the memory as I write this sentence.

The Fab Faux then again left the stage, only to return a final time for a 2-song encore. First up, was a 10-minute version of John Lennon's "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey." The song began with Lee, looking like a hippie-dressed, blonde haired cross between comedian Andy Dick and Detective John Munch from the TV series Law and Order, skipping in time to the opening guitar/bass riff. As the song continued, Lee eventually leapt from the stage, prancing and dancing around the Birchmere club like a dervish caught in the magic of the music.

The final encore selection was "Twist and Shout," which the masterful Bruce Springsteen has been using for years as a show closer for his powerful E Street Band performances. You know, they say you can't turn back time. They say you can't go home again. But they are wrong. The music of your youth can be a time machine. Suddenly, we were no longer in the Birchmere. It was The Cavern or whatever they called the dark, sweaty club for music in your city. And it was no longer 2013. It was 1963 or '64 or '65. It was as if the Diet Coke I had been sipping all night had been poured from the illusive Fountain of Youth. I wasn't 61; I was 16. It was a new beginning ... life stretched before us ... all things were possible. As the notes of the final encore faded, the crowd, now completely twisted and shouted out, used their remaining energy to send one last message. Long live the music of the Beatles. And thanks to The Fab Faux for reminding us just how meaningful that music was, is, and will always be.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
For those of you who weren't lucky enough to hear the Fab Faux at The Birchmere, here is the track list for their Rubber Soul set:

Side One
  1. Drive My Car
  2. Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
  3. You Won't See Me
  4. Nowhere Man
  5. Think for Yourself
  6. The Word
  7. Michelle
Side Two
  1. What Goes On
  2. Girl
  3. I'm Looking Through You
  4. In My Life
  5. Wait
  6. If I Needed Someone
  7. Run for Your Life
  • To see The Beatles 1st performance in America on The Ed Sullivan Show and either relive the moment or see what all the fuss was about, click here.
  • To see the Fab Faux perform "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," in 2003 click here.
  • One final musical note: If you are a Beatles' fan in the DC area,you might want to keep your calendar flexible. Pagano promised that The Fab Faux would be back. And he hinted that they might offer the entire White Album. Of course, that would definitely leave all the DC Dear Prudences, Sexie Sadies, Bungalow Bills, and Rocky Raccoons happier than John Lennon's satirical warm gun.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Three Musketeers Storm the Synetic Stage

By definition, a classic is timeless. But a classic piece of literature is even more. With a subtle emphasis shift or some minor tweaking, a classic story can become a completely contemporary tale. And such is the case with Synetic Theater's current production of The Three Musketeers, based on the famed novel by Alexander Dumas.

The story was adapted by multi-talented company player Ben Kunis, who also plays Athos in the 2-hour production. "This is a story about dreams meeting reality," Kunis says. "Attempting to distill Dumas' serial epic into dramatic form is, in itself, an idealistic venture."

"We found ourselves telling a story about our own generation," Kunis explained. "Graduating from high school at the end of 90's and into the War of Terror and graduating from college into the Great Recession, our generation has been one raised on idealism and confronted with a real world that doesn't quite match our expectations."

"So D'Artagnan (Dumas' main hero) comes to Paris with a dream, and the world is a different place than he expected. When he comes out the other end of his challenges, he has become something new. But this storyline is not one unique to D'Artagnan or our generation, and that's what makes it a great classic," Kunis added.

If you attend this play which is running until June 9 (and you definitely should), expect to see all the trademarks that have established Synetic as an award-winning DC theater company - exciting fight scenes, captivating dancing, mimed movements, provocative sets, and powerful music. However, there is one major difference. Long known for its silent Shakespeare series and no-dialogue versions of other classic stories, The Three Musketeers is filled with words. Founding Artistic Director and CEO Paata Tsikurishvili describes it this way: "What this collision of words and movement has produced is a truly larger-than-life tragicomic romance which, while perhaps not as surreal or abstract as some of our previous works, nevertheless remains a stylized fusion of Dumas' novel."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Here's what others are saying about The Three Musketeers. Just click on links to read the reviews. Three Musketeers Goes Full Throttle on the Senses (The Washington Post).  It dances! It swashbuckles! It talks! Synetic's Three Musketeers Is One for All. (The Washington City Paper) Dazzling Fight Choreography Makes This Synetic Production Shine. (The Washingtonian). To view the official trailer, click here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Asian Culture Takes to the DC Streets

They didn't let it rain on their parade.

Despite occasional drizzle, the annual National Asian Heritage Festival and Street Fair was held on Pennsylvania Avenue today just blocks from the Capitol.

The 6-hour event featured native food, Asian art, culture, live performances by musicians, vocalists, dancers and performance artists, Pan-Asian cuisine, martial arts, a multicultural marketplace, and interactive ethnic activities for kids. And did I mention food?

But I think we'll just let pictures tell the story ...

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Cutthroat World of Morning TV

Every morning when you get up, have that 1st cup of coffee, and get ready for the rest of the day, a fierce ratings war is being waged, a conflict involving the 3 major TV networks, millions of viewers, and more than a billion dollars in advertising revenue.

Until recently, the outcome of that daily battle was never in doubt. For 582 straight weeks, beginning in the 1st administration of President Bill Clinton, the NBC powerhouse Today show captured the number one spot with ABC's Good Morning America in second and the CBS morning show a distant 3rd. But last year, sparked by controversy on the Today show, Good Morning America was able to shake up the industry and move into the coveted top spot.

The story of that victory and the series of moves that have continued in its wake provide the basis of the new book Top of the Morning: Inside the Cutthroat World of Morning TV by Brian Stelter, a media reporter for The New York Times covering television and digital media.

Stelter appeared yesterday at the Newseum to discuss his book and the morning TV world he has been covering for years.

"What goes on in the morning is akin to late night, except with more money on the line," Stelter said. "There's a billion dollars at stake and they (the networks) fight over every last dollar of that. The access has shifted to the morning. There's more fame, more glory, and more money."

Even though people of all ages watch morning TV, the networks have a targeted demo audience - women between the ages of 18 to 54. "That's how they are judged," Stelter said. However, there is irony in that position. "The shows are made for women but they have been produced by men," he noted.
On the set of the Today show
Stelter highlighted the back story behind the fall of the Today show, which resulted from the messy dismissal of Ann Curry, who had been co-anchoring the program with Matt Lauer, who with his $25 million salary, commands the top spot in the morning TV world. "Ann Curry had a few detractors, but her fans truly loved her. The truth is she was undermined from the very beginning. There was talk about replacing her 6 months after she got the job," Stelter said.

Some network executives questioned the wisdom of removing Curry. "Wouldn't  removing Ann Curry be like killing Bambi?" one asked. And so the botched firing became known as Operation Bambi.

"It was all in the way they did it," Stelter said. Stories of the move circulated for months and Curry broke down on a tear-filled farewell performance. NBC viewers, disgusted by what they had witnessed, abandoned the show in large numbers. The day after Curry's final appearance, Today lost 600,000 viewers. "It's not a good thing to fire an anchor in times of high unemployment," Stelter said. "A lot of people out in America liked Ann Curry and many felt like Ann Curry; they too had lost their dream job and found themselves unemployed."

As would be expected, ABC's Good Morning America, was the direct beneficiary of NBC's blunder. "It had been a tossup every week, but this was a giant gift that the Today show handed GMA," Stelter said.

That show was co-anchored by George Stephanopoulos and Robin Roberts. They were joined by 3 others, an innovation that worked. "It's like a party. When you add more people to the party, the party gets more comfortable. They (ABC) got to 5 and that equaled 7 or 8," Stelter said.

"At the core, these morning shows are like family and the networks emphasize their families," Stelter said. The ABC family experienced a shock when it was announced that the popular Roberts, a breast cancer survivor, had contracted MDS, another life-threatening disease that would require extensive medical treatment. She learned about her condition on the same day Good Morning America beat Today for the 1st time. But viewers rallied around the show. "It's what people do. They bring over pot roasts. They bring over casseroles. They want to stay loyal. That's what families do," Stelter said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Brian Stelter
Of course, much has changed in the morning TV world since Today became the 1st such show to air in 1952. "Then there was a question whether viewers would let TV in their homes in the morning," Stelter says. But even more has changed in the news business and the way news is reported and the young Stelter is a prime embodiment of that change. In  2004, Stelter created TVNewser, a blog covering the television news industry. At the time, he was a freshman at Towson University. He sold TVNewser to Mediabistro.com six months later and continued to run it until May 2007, when he graduated from Towson. He joined the Times two months later.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dining in DC: Captain White's Seafood City

Suppose it is a beautiful Spring (Summer, early Fall) day in D.C. For lunch, you want to dine al fresco (sidewalk seating, patio and rooftop, food truck). You want to eat seafood near the water, where you can watch seagulls and toss them scraps (still sidewalk seating, patio and rooftop, food truck, but with options dramatically limited). As the final requirement, you want to stand to eat while you watch customers purchase fresh seafood to take home to cook. Chances are that requirement list would lead you to Captain White's Seafood City, the largest of the informal eateries/markets at the Maine Avenue Fish Market in the southwest waterfront/wharf section of Washington.
Our lunch

And if you like what you find and taste, you will join noted food writer Anthony Bourdain, who praised the fresh crabs and seafood at the local treasure on one of the episodes of his TV show. (Click here to view a video clip of Bourdain's visit). 

My wife chose our most recent visit. I knew what she was seeking; a soft-shell crab platter or sandwich. On this particular day, there were no soft-shells, so we opted instead to share 1/2 pound of boiled, spiced shrimp and a 2-crab sandwich lunch plate special.

Of course, one of the great pleasures of eating at Captain White's is that you can select your own seafood, and, if you want, design your own special entree which comes with southern sides ranging from cooked greens to home-made desserts.

Fish, fish, and more fish
After your meal, you can stroll through the entire site which can lay claim to be the oldest continuously operating fish market in America. Opened in 1805, the local market is 17 years older than the famed Fulton Fish Market in New York City. And although it is located within sight of the Washington and Jefferson monuments and walking distance of 2 Metro stations, it is one of the few historic sites in the city where you can join with-it locals browsing without encountering mobs of tourists.

You can extend your sea lunch by strolling down the walkway and taking in the marinas where dining sea ships, yachts, and houseboats are docked. You can also view the home of the Washington Kastles, D.C.'s champion professional tennis team.

But one word of caution. You don't want to dine or stroll here if you don't like a strong seafood smell. Remember, this is a fish market after all.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
What others say:
The Prices Do DC rating
**** 4 out of 5 containers with extra napkins (this is as informal as dining gets)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century

Journalists and historians are always looking for time periods that serve as pivotal turning points. And Foreign Policy magazine editor Christian Caryl believes he has found one which he explores in his new book Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st Century.

In discussing his work at the National Archives, Caryl contended that 5 events began that year which led to the world we know today. They are:

  • the Iranian Islamic Revolution
  • the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan
  • the rise of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
  • Pope John Paul II's visit to Poland and
  • economic reforms in China
Caryl stressed that his book was the work of a journalist, not an historian. But it does deal with history, albeit relatively recent events. "We study history to know how we got to where we are. When we look at our world we say things like it's quite obvious or it's quite natural or it's always been that way. But there are crucial points of change in history where we find that what is now, was not that way that long ago," he said.

Caryl briefly explored the details of 2 events that he thinks supports labeling 1979 a time of revolutionary change. The 1st was Afghanistan. In the beginning of the 1970's, that country was not the Islamic fundamentalist nation we find today, but a nation appearing to be on the way to modernization. "Afghanistan was one of the hot spots on the hippie trail from Istanbul to Katmandu. In their VW vans, young travelers could mingle with the friendly people whom they described as laid-back, free and happy and they smoked hashish and ate cheap kabobs (with the locals)," Caryl said. 

Although poor and backward, Afghanistan was seen as moving ahead. However, by 1979, circumstances had conspired to force the Soviet Union to invade the country, which in turn, led to an Islamic rise to power  that rejected all contact with western powers and gave rise to terrorists such as Osama bin Laden.

The other example Caryl briefly explored was the drastic change in China. In the 1970's, the small group of Americans who did any business with the then-communist-nation had to follow strict rules. They could only enter the country through Hong Kong. Carrying their own bags, they finally crossed a wooden bridge to the one area where business with foreigners could be conducted. There they filled out endless forms. There was even a required nap period. However, on such a trip in 1979, the foreign businessmen encountered the 1st sign of a changing China - a private market. "A private market in China was like seeing a whale in the middle of the mall," Caryl said. The businessmen were also shown an area that their Chinese hosts said offered great investment opportunities. While the confounded westerners saw only rice paddies and duck ponds, the Chinese saw huge factories. "Today, that area has a population the size of New York City and your iPhone was probably built there," Caryl said.

Caryl maintains that while on 1st glance the 5 events he explores in his book appear unrelated, there is a connection. "There was a conjunction of the way people thought about politics and economics. The heroes of the book, if you can call them heroes, were all counter-revolutionaries, conservatives reacting against what existed before. It (1979) was the beginning of a conscious turn," Caryl said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The book talk was the most recent in a series of special Archives programs being offered to augment the main exhibition now on display at the institution, Searching for the Seventies, the Documerica Photography Project.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Why Me - I Am No Better?

The young Gerda before the Nazis
After surviving 3 brutal years in a Nazi labor camp where all human comforts were missing and an extra crust of bread was considered a great victory, young Gerda Weissmann now found herself facing her biggest challenge yet.

With all the 1945 signs clearly pointing to an Allied victory over Germany, in a last-ditch attempt to cover up their horrific crimes, her S.S. guards were forcing her labor group by gunpoint and whip to trek by foot through winter snows from Germany to Czechoslovakia. Death was everywhere. Some girls fell in the snow, never to rise again. Others were shot by their captors. One of Gerda's best friends was kicked in the head by an S.S. guard when she asked for a drink of water. She died in the night, huddled next to a shivering Gerda.

More than 4,000 young women started that long walk. When the guards finally abandoned the survivors in a large building in a small Czechoslovakian town in May, there were less than 150 left. Gerda weighed 68 pounds. One day shy of her 21st birthday, her hair had turned white. She had watched thousands - including her 3 best friends - die. But she had survived.

Her survival raised a question - a question she still asks herself today - Why me? I was no better.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, now 89, like the rest of us, will never be able to fully answer that question. "When I remember where I was, it would be easier for me to reach a star than to be in this incredible place I am in," Weissmann Klein says.

But there are some clues to be found in her harrowing, tragic, yet ultimately uplifting story. They are the things -  both simple and profound - that play a role in all our lives.

Of course, there is luck.  "No matter how much you want to live, it always could have been your last day," said Mrs. Weissmann Klein. Then there were the winter ski boots, the boots that she wore on the death march. When her family was forced from their Polish home by the Nazis, her father ordered her to wear her boots. "Oh, but Poppa it is spring. Why should I wear boots?" the young Gerda asked. But her father was insistent. Gerda wore those boots everyday for the 3 years of her captivity. During the march, while she was in boots, others were wearing sandals. "I saw many girls breaking their (frost-bitten) toes off at night," her voice hesitating as she recalled that particular horror.

There was a pledge. When she was separated from her mother, father, and brother, never to see them alive again, she was told to be strong and survive. "There were many times when I didn't want to go on. But then I would tell myself, at the next stop my brother will be there."

There was her basic life philosophy. "I am very hopeful. If I wasn't an optimist, I wouldn't be sitting here tonight," she said..

But above all, there was, in the face of unimaginable evil, an abiding sense of love. There was a love of family, a love she still holds in her heart today. There was the love of friendship. Gerda remembers the last words of her best friend, one of the millions of victims of Nazi atrocities. "I am angry at no one," she said. And later in life, there was the magic love she shared with her husband Kurt Klein. In fact, their love story rivals any ever constructed in literature. At the time of their first meeting, Kurt, an American G.I, was actually her liberator. He was one of the 2 soldiers riding in the jeep that discovered the survivors of the walk. "I told him I was Jewish. He told me he was Jewish, too." In less than a year, Gerda married Klein, whose mother and father had also been killed in a German concentration camp. They moved to America where they started a new life and raised 3 children together until Klein's death.

Mrs. Weissmann Klein today (picture from Bruce Guthrie Photos)
Last night, those children and their children and other family members, friends, and supporters filled the auditorium in the National Archives to hear Gerda Weissmann Klein, now the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, the author of an autobiography that is in its 68th edition, the founder of Citizenship Counts, and a 2010 recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (the nation's highest civilian honor) tell her story, and equally important, share her hopes for the future.

"When you have freedom everything is possible. We should all rejoice to be here tonight," she said. "I was not Mother Theresa spending my life among the poor. I have not found a cure for cancer. I am just a middle-class woman who has realized her dreams. I wanted to give back to our country. Everyone in the world wants what we have and often take for granted."

"If there is any sort of advice this old woman can give you it is that we all have a tremendous resource of strength. Ninety-five percent of the things you worry about won't happen to you, but, if it does, you can find the strength," she said.

One woman asked Mrs. Weissmann Klein if she had ever returned to her childhood home. She said she had once with her American family. "It was very strange and not very comfortable. We also went to Auschwitz (the concentration camp where her mother and father died). It was painful, but I needed to tell my parents they had grandchildren in the United States."

Another woman, apologizing in advance for her question, asked Mrs. Weissmann Klein if she believed in God. "Yes," she said. "It's not like God is the fire department and, if you call, God will come. But when you hold a newborn baby in your arms, how can you not believe there is more? Maybe when God gave people the freedom to do the right thing, he removed the power to interfere. All we can do is hope. Unfortunately, there is still all this hatred and racism in the world. But we can hope."

Mrs. Weissmann Klein said that hope - along with right actions - can help prevent future Holocausts. "You are the messengers to a time I shall not see. I have great confidence in young people. They need to reach out to each other. We all have the capacity to help each other," she said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips

The event was moderated by Charles Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum.  Haynes said he believed that every American student should read Weissmann Klein's autobiography All But My Life before they graduate high schools. "In this building (the Archives) we have national treasure, but tonight we have an international treasure," Haynes told the audience.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dy-No-Mite: A TV Blast from the Past

Jimmy Walker, on the right, with his 1970s TV family 
Dy-No-Mite. If you were a TV sitcom watcher in the 1970's, hearing the word dynamite pronounced this way made you think of only one thing - comedian Jimmy Walker, the then-young comic breakout star who played the wisecracking J.J on Norman Lear's hit comedy show Good Times. In fact, even today, more than 40 years later, Walker's comedy catchphrase follows him everywhere. "When I die that will be in my obituary," Walker, now 65, says with a laugh.

The Dy-No-Mite catchphrase originated quite by accident. One day, Walker blurted out the unscripted, accentuated word during rehearsal. Director John Rich halted the action. "I think you've got something there," Rich said. "I think we could make something out of that."

But Walker demurred. "I said, John C'mon, people are not that stupid."

"Yes, they are," Rich retorted.

Initially Lear, who took an active part in all his shows, hated the phrasing, especially when it was used 3 times in one episode. But it quickly caught on and Lear was won over. A decision was made to  feature the catchphrase only once a show. "People began to wait for it; they knew it was coming. Sort of like that announcer today who ends with Let's get ready to rumble," Walker says. For his part, Walker exploited the Dy-No-Mite craze with farcial facial expressions and wacky clothing. "I asked myself - how can I make this as ridiculous as possible?" Walker explained.

Walker has even worked out a short comedy bit involving his linkage to the phrase. TV announcer 1: "And now Susan, in tonight's sad news, comedian Jimmie Walker has died." TV announcer 2: "It was before my time, but wasn't he the Dy-No-Mite guy." Announcer 1: "Yes, he was. Now, on a lighter note, 6 puppies where born today at the same time ..."

The story of his catchphrase was just one of many Walker related at his recent appearance at the National Archives to discuss his career and his book Dynomite! Good Times, Bad Times,  Our Times - A Memoir.

Deviating from the normal Archives process, Walker eschewed the podium and instead, like the comedian he has been for almost 5 decades, prowled the stage with microphone in hand, answering questions from the audience, many of whom began by professing their enduring love for both Walker and the show.

Walker said he is still proud of Good Times for its portrayal of strong values coming from a family forced to live in a Chicago ghetto, which was a 1st for television. "We had a strong dad (portrayed by John Amos). . The dad is always the weakest character. He brings home the money and that is it," Walker said.

However, Walker said the cast was never close. "On the show there was a lot of love, but acting was very much a part of it. We really didn't have that much to do with each other. I haven't seen John in 1,000 years," he explained.

Jimmy Walker today. (picture by Bruce Guthrie Photos)
Comedy has changed greatly since his beginning years, Walker said. "Comedy in general is different. The language has really changed. I'm stunned that some of these comics today even have a mom the way they talk," Walker said. "And there is now black comedy. There is Hispanic comedy. There is gay comedy. There are very few universal comics."

Walker believes the segregation in comedy is a reflection of the state of the rest of society. "As you see in our elections, we're very segregated. Race relations are terrible. We're not friends. We very rarely see people of different races together. Go to your favorite watering hole and look around, you'll see what I mean," Walker said.

Although he never reached the heights of Good Times again, Walker continues to perform live up to 45 weeks a year and also guests on game shows. "I learned a lot from Norman Lear. He is as close to a comedy god as you can get. I thought I was working hard, but when I looked at him I wasn't doing anything. He's not a Jimmy Walker fan, but I love Norman Lear. From him I learned nobody works hard enough, you can always work harder," Walker said.

Tips, Tidbits, and Tales
While most of Walker's talk was positive, there was one big exception - his thoughts about Tonight Show host Jay Leno. When he was in his biggest star phase, Walker had both a young Leno and David Letterman writing jokes for him. Today, Walker says that while he admires Leno's talent, he believes Johnny Carson's replacement  "has destroyed stand-up comedy. He's been on 30 years and he has not broken one new act. I'm not asking Jay Leno to do something miraculous, I'm only asking him to do something that was done for him"

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Real Inglorious Bastards

Fake fictional heroes ...

.. are no match for the real thing. From left, Weber, Wynberg, Mayer.
In 2009, film director Quentin Tarantino released Inglorious Basterds, the Academy-award winning fictional story of two plots to assassinate Nazi Germany's political leadership, one planned by a French Jewish cinema proprietor and the other by a team of Jewish-American soldiers.

But even Tarantino's vivid imagination proved no match for the real-life story of Operation Green Up, a daring spy tale of bravery and cunning in which 2 American Jews and a captured anti-Nazi Austrian pilot teamed up to conduct a behind-enemy-lines series of OSS actions in Austria that has been called the most successful operation of its type conducted during World War II. In the team's most incredible exploit, group leader Frederick Mayer negotiated the surrender of Nazi stronghold Innsbruck, Austria without a shot being fired.

Last night, a documentary on the incredibly harrowing Operation Green Up (and 3 of the men involved - Mayer, his friend and fellow European ex-patriate Jewish radio operator Hans Wynberg, and Austrian local contact Franz Weber) entitled The Real Inglorious Bastards was premiered before military and Congressional leaders at the Visitors Center theater on Capitol Hill.

Following the showing, film producer Ed Barrevold and Patrick O'Donnell, author of They Dared Return, the book on which the film was based, discussed the incredible events and characters in the Green Up operation.

O'Donnell, who said that he has talked to more than 4,000 World War II veterans for books he has written, called Mayer "the greatest person by far I've ever interviewed.. He shies away from publicity, but Fred Mayer is the real deal."

Fred Mayer today
For his part, in the film, Mayer, who demonstrated the resilience, cunning, and courage of multiple James Bonds, said the reason for his actions were simple. "I hated the Nazis and I loved America," he said.

Although Mayer appeared quite articulate in the film, Barrevold said it was difficult to get him to talk about his adventures, in which he was captured and tortured by the Nazis but incredibly, eventually convinced them to surrender to the oncoming Americans. Several times during the sessions Mayer would snap at the interviewer, saying "you've already asked me that question." The interviewer however would plod on, countering by saying "but you didn't give me an answer."

The producer concurred with O'Donnell's assessment of Mayer's bravery. "Fred had the biggest balls you can ever imagine," Barrevold said. However, that war courage was kept hidden by Mayer's modest ways. The hero now lives in West Virginia and when his neighbors were shown the film, they were totally surprised. "They said 'we didn't know anything about what Fred did in the war. He never talked about it,''' the producer said.

Mayer declined to attend last night's showing saying "It will be late and I've already seen the film." .

But O'Donnell believes there is still one more chapter of the tale that must be written. Mayer should receive a Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions. "What this man did merits a medal of honor. There has been a request, but it is being treated as a process and that is an outrage. This medal is bigger than Fred Mayer. He represents a generation and this is a generation that is dying off. It (the so-far-unawarded medal) represents the generation, and the OSS and Mayer's incredible achievements."

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The premiere of The Real Inglorious Bastards is part of the 7th annual GI Film Festival Reel Stories, Real Heroes which is now underway in DC. To see a complete list of all the films offered, click here. To see the trailer from The Real Inglorious Bastards, click here. To see the trailer for the Tarantino film, click here.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

TV Detective Munch Tackles Real-life JFK Mystery

Richard Beltzer and Dick Gregory confer
For 20 years, actor Richard Beltzer, as his character Detective John Munch, has been employing his fictional investigative skills, 1st on Homicide Life on the Streets for 7 years and then on Law and Order: Special  Victims Unit for the past 13 years. In fact, Beltzer holds a TV record for portraying the same Munch character on 11 different shows ranging from Sesame Street to The Wire.

But Beltzer has been using his real-life investigative skills for twice that long, spending the past 40 years trying to unravel the truth behind the assassination of President John Kennedy and the cover-up that Beltzer believes began long before the shots that killed JFK were fired on that sad November, 1963 day in Dallas, Texas.

Last night, Beltzer appeared at the National Press Club to discuss the latest book he co-authored with David Wayne entitled Hit List: An In-Depth Look at the Mysterious Deaths of Witnesses to the JFK Assassination.

Beltzer contends that the JFK hit list contains more than 50 witnesses who died under mysterious circumstances ranging from accused murderer Lee Harvey Oswald (whom Beltzer believes was just a pasty set up by the American government. "He was there, but he didn't fire a shot.") to a Dallas stripper with the stage name Delilah, to national correspondent Dorothy Kilgallen, to U.S. Congressman Hale Boggs. "Anyone who had any knowledge was eventually murdered," Beltzer said. "The sheer number forces us to ask whether their deaths were coincidence?"

"This is the greatest murder mystery of all time," Beltzer added. "It's Sherlock Holmes on speed."

So how did the cover-up that Beltzer alleges begin? "It was the height of the Cold War. People said 'Holy shit! Somebody in government killed our president. We have to cover up." he contends. "I don't think there is one great big conspiracy, but there are a lot of sharks in the water."

So who did plot and carry out the Kennedy assassination? "The real question is who didn't kill him. I know that is glib but there were elements in our government and elements in the mob. President Kennedy was planning many changes," Beltzer maintains. "But it was 50 years ago. It just goes on and on. There is no reason not to tell the full story now. It's only the ongoing contempt for the American people and that to me is very, very disturbing."

Beltzer said that leaders in authority have been able to link the words conspiracy and theory and delusional together. "It's easy to marginalize people who question authority," Beltzer said.

Beltzer's Press Club talk came on the same day Hit List made the New York Times best seller list. This came despite the fact the The Times regularly refuses to review Beltzer's books on the JFK murder. "The New York Times doesn't review my books, so, if I may, I say fuck the New York Times," Beltzer said. "Certain people don't want people to know what I am saying because it is the truth."

Tales, Tips, and Tidbits
Beltzer was joined last night by his surprise special guest, comedian, social activist, and, like Beltzer, active informal investigator into Kennedy's death Dick Gregory. "Just to see Greg alone is worth the price of admission," Beltzer, who began in entertainment as a social comedian said. "He and Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce redefined for us what comedy can do: it can inform us, it can educate us, and it can make us think about who we are. Dick Gregory inspired me early on. I remember when he told an audience 'if you don't laugh, I may move in next to you.' He told the truth. He made us laugh and he made us think." Several times during his hour-long presentation Beltzer employed his comedic skills. For example, he convulsed the crowd when in response to the question if he feared for his own life because of his continued probing, he said no and then immediately collapsed to the floor in a quite convincing, sustained death scene. And then there was his closing remark. When presented with a National Press Club coffee mug he replied. "Hey, I'll put this on the set on my desk. And I want you to know, of all the rewards I've received, this is the latest."

Blog Archive

Popular Posts