Sunday, October 21, 2018

pretty hate machine

When does hate begin? Well, for me, it began when I was a kid. 

I grew up in a predominately gentile neighborhood. And by "predominantly," I mean you could count the Jewish families on one hand. Now, I don't mean that as a bad thing or an immediate source of hate, but I was surrounded by antisemitism at every corner. I heard it at the bus stop. I heard it while playing in my yard. I heard it while walking down my street. I even heard it from kids who I numbered among my "friends." It's not that the members of my family were particularly observant Jews (we were not), but everyone knew that we didn't have a Christmas tree and didn't put up Christmas lights and we didn't dress up on Easter. I don't think the fact that we were Jews even registered with our gentile neighbors, but more the fact that we believed in different things. Oh, and that we killed Christ.

There were two families on my block, each with numerous kids ranging in age from early teens to preschool. Their houses were a few lots apart and, coincidentally, the families were related. (I think the fathers of each household were brothers or cousins or something like that.) These two families were hotbeds for antisemitism. I would get taunts from the members of both households — young and old, boys and girls alike. In winter, snowballs would come hurtling from their backyards if I would walk past their houses, accompanied by muffled giggling and high-pitched shrieks of "Jew!" In nicer weather, the taunts would be more brazen with some of my dimmer-witted "friends" joining in because they didn't know any better.

Actually, that's the key to all of the hate I experienced as a child. They didn't know any better. This unfounded prejudice was passed down from parents who learned it from their parents. I remember a joke that I heard regularly in my neighborhood. At a time when ethic jokes were perfectly acceptable (Archie Bunker and Johnny Carson would frequently mock those of Polish and Italian extraction and Don Rickles made and entire career of it.), kids in my neighborhood would tell this one, most of them not even understanding its feeble attempt at humor:
Why are synagogues round?
So the Jews can't hide in the corners when the collection plate comes around.
Pretty stupid, huh? Let's analyze just how stupid it is. First of all, not all synagogues are round. Actually, I can't remember ever seeing a round synagogue. The only structures I can think of that are "round," are sports stadiums — and even those aren't truly round. Plus, it's not as though synagogues are built without some consultation with the folks who are going to use it as a house of worship. No one ever, during the design and construction, adamantly insisted, "Now make sure there are no corners so the Jews can't hide." Wouldn't Jews be making those structural design decisions? Makes no sense. Second — obviously, this terrible attempt at antisemitic levity, was made up by a non-Jew who had never, ever set foot in a synagogue, especially during a religious service. Their only frame of reference was their own religious service experience. If they had done the proper research, they would have known that Jews don't pass around a collection plate. Neither do Muslims or Hindus or any number of non-Christian religions. Collection plates or "offertory" are strictly a Christian ritual. 

Of course, this "joke" is an attempt to illustrate the baseless perception that Jews are cheap. In fact, as a group, they are not. Charity is a fundamental part of Jewish life, from pushkes (coin boxes) in traditional Jewish homes, to mourners vowing to make a donation in memory of a lost loved one to Jewish youth group's efforts for raise money for various worthy causes. In Business Week's list of "The 50 Most Generous Philanthropists," fifteen were Jewish. Considering that less than .2% of the world's population is Jewish, that's a pretty good showing.

Had the budding comedian who originally conceived this unfunny joke done a little thinking, they would have discovered that the basic concept and example given in the joke did not make sense, rendering it not the least bit funny. However, the kids in my neighborhood told this joke quite often and it always evoked laughter. They didn't know why they were laughing, but everyone else was laughing and no one wanted to be singled out as the one who "didn't get it."

And that's how hate begins. Hate begins by not knowing.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

nothing compares to you

If you've been paying attention, you probably know how much I love Disney... especially the theme parks. I've been to Walt Disney World in Florida many times and I've been to Disneyland in California many times. When people find out about my affinity for Disney, they just assume that I like going to all theme parks. They assume incorrectly. To paraphrase Sinead O'Connor: "Nothing compares to Disney." I have been to Universal Studios once and that was one time too many. Actually, my experience there showed me why Disney is at the top of the heap and all others in the theme park game aspire to reach "Disney" levels... and, most likely, never will.

After trying (unsuccessfully) to convince my son that our local Disney Store was Walt Disney World, we broke down and made our first trip as a family to Walt Disney World in 1995. Because we are Pincuses with a penchant for the unconventional, we drove to Florida from our suburban Philadelphia home. We loaded up our minivan with luggage and food and activities for the road and headed south on I-95, stopping along the way to see the sights. As we drew closer to the Florida state line, we passed more and more billboards advertising "FREE THEME PARK TICKETS." We already had our Disney World admission, but my 8-year old son — also an avid Nickelodeon fan — was anxious to get an up-close look at the "Kids' Network" at Universal Studios theme park that had just opened its competitive doors a few years earlier. So, after a bit of cajoling, my wife swung the minivan into the gravel parking lot of a small building on a service road, just off the highway in South Carolina. A young lady behind a high counter greeted us with a smile. She explained that, in order to secure tickets to Universal, we would be required to attend a brief seminar at a soon-to-be-opened time-share complex minutes from the Disney compound in Orlando. My wife and I were young and naive, not fully aware of the hard-sell, pressure-heavy experience that awaited us. We excitedly made a reservation for mid-week to tour the complex, with effortless visions of free tickets to Universal Studios clouding our collective thoughts. We hopped back into our van and I tucked the reservations card away with our important papers.

Early one morning, our little family entered the Magic Kingdom, eager to share each other's joy and ride Pirates of the Caribbean a couple of dozen times. Disney, of course, did not disappoint. My son's first taste of a real, live Disney theme park was borderline mind-blowing. We basked in his excitement, as we re-watched familiar sights though a new set of eyes. We were also treated to that signature Disney service. Disney "cast members" filled our day with smiles and friendly words and honest-to-goodness happiness — from ride operators, to restaurant wait staff to the cheerful guy sweeping the walkways. Every Disney employee was willing to bend over backwards to make sure each and every guest had the greatest time.

A reasonable facsimile.
A few days later, we drove down a desolate stretch of Route 192 through Kissimmee until we arrived at the entrance to The Isle of Bali, a construction site with a single tower looming high above the giant piles of debris and dirt-caked bulldozers. The tower, a light brick structure inlaid with an aquatic pattern, was flanked by two in-progress edifices that had not made much progress at all. We found our way to a large conference room that was packed with folks milling about — obviously lured by the promise of free theme park tickets, because no one looked the least bit interested in buying into the sucker-pitch of a time-share. They were all like us — families on vacation. We were directed to a complementary continental breakfast, but no sooner had I begun to smear a lump of cream cheese across a pale, thin bagel than we were interrupted greeted by our day's tour guide. He was a cheerful young man who resembled Tim Meadows before we knew who Tim Meadows was. He shook my hand, tousled my son's hair and led us to a small table covered with a linen tablecloth. Before he began his presentation, he made several persistent attempts at sticking our son in a "kids area" where he would be "more comfortable." When he finally realized that we weren't letting him out our our sight, "Tim" proceeded with the most incoherent pitch I ever heard. We could barely follow what he was saying, as he jumped from tales of overseas vacations to domestic golf courses, to fishing lakes for fishing (I swear he said that!) to the constant mispronunciation of the name of complex itself. He repeatedly called the place "The Bile of Ali." I kid you not! At the end of a grueling two hours (yes! two hours!), we squirmed and declined every single "supervisor" who accosted us after "Tim" failed to lock us into a commitment. Finally, when we just asked for our free tickets to Universal, we were met with scowls and directed to a door. "In there." we were told. I suspected that a blazing furnace lay on the other side on the closed portal. But, no. Inside was a bare room with a bare Formica counter and bored woman in attendance. Without a word, she handed over an envelope with three passes to Universal and sent us through another door that dumped us in a remote area of the parking lot. Whatever.... we got what we came for.

Universal Studios was just okay. We went on some great rides (Back to The Future, ET, Jaws) and encountered typical "theme park" atmosphere (I seem to remember Elroy Jetson and Beetlejuice passing us on a walkway that was dotted with a recreation of San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf just a short distance from the fictional, shark-threatened town of Amity). But, to me and my Disney-loving family, there was something missing. Universal was closer to a regular, no-frills amusement park than the magical wonderment that echoed the dreams and imagination of a visionary artist from Marceline, Missouri. The employees (decidedly not "cast members") were not smiling and sort of trudged around like they had better things to do. The place, while certainly impressive, didn't sparkle with that otherworldly, pixie-dust sprinkled enchantment that we had come to expect from "theme parks" of this magnitude. Sure, it was nice, but it wasn't Disney. It was just a big place with rides.

While we waited in line for one of those rides, we suffered the blistering Florida heat along with our fellow day guests. As the crowd snaked its way through the roped maze of the queue line, a uniformed fellow skirted along the outside of the line carrying a vendor's tray stocked with $8.00 cans of beer. He paced slowly along the line, making sure everyone saw his pricey, thirst-quenching wares and he even had a couple of takers. My family took full stock of this scenario.

The next day, we were back in the welcoming arms of Walt Disney World. The Florida heat was not diminished in the least and we found ourselves in a similar situation, waiting in a fairly long queue for a Disney attraction. In an antithetical reflection of the events of the previous day, a cheerful, brightly-clad Disney cast member slowly walked along the outside of the ride line. She had a large water cooler (the kind you see at construction sites) ingeniously strapped to her back. She was filling up paper cones with ice water and distributing them to every single person in line. Every single person. While the majority of the recipients thanked her and were grateful for the free refreshment, the Pincuses took note. This was a perfect example of why Disney is successful at what they do. Sure they want your money, but they also know how to make their guests happy. And they think of everything.

It's been twenty-three years since the events of my little tale unfolded. I haven't been back to Universal Studios since that day in 1995, so I don't know if they stepped up their game. I do know, however, that Disney continues to prove themselves to be "The Happiest Place on Earth." Early this year, I came across this heart-warming photograph taken at Disney's Hollywood Studios in Florida. It rains nearly every day in central Florida. That's why nearly every merchandise store at every Disney theme park showcases a fully-stocked display of overpriced rain gear. I don't begrudge Disney for trying to make a buck. After all, that's really what they do best — make their stockholders happy. But, because they are marketing geniuses, they don't appear to be forcing the foul weather items in your face, rather they are merely offered for sale, if you so choose to make that purchase. But Disney also knows how to make their "guests" feel like actual "guests." As proof of that, I offer this photo of a "Green Army Man" street character silently lending some assistance to a wheelchair-bound guest, who was caught in an Orlando downpour.

This is Disney at its finest. A true depiction of the Disney brand. I hope someone at Universal is taking note.

Sunday, October 7, 2018

a man of means by no means

In the late 1990s, I worked for a local chain of floor covering stores in the Philadelphia area. Among other things, my primary responsibilities were to produce full-page newspaper ads and full-color, multi-page circulars for insertion into the Sunday newspapers, My boss was the owner of the company. He was a soft-spoken, pleasant guy who, due to some extremely wise investments, had  accumulated more money than you or I would ever see in a zillion lifetimes. He founded, and later sold, several well-known retail chains in the Philadelphia market. He was also partners in another business with some of his family members

Did I say he was pleasant? Actually, he was pretty ruthless.

Like most folks in his income bracket, he believed that once you achieved that level of wealth, the rules of society no longer applied. I witnessed him go the wrong way down a one-way street. I saw him park in spaces clearly marked "No Parking." I was present when he negotiated an annual advertising contract with the Philadelphia Inquirer that he had absolutely no intention of fulfilling. He just wanted the rock-bottom price and he got it. As head of advertising for the company, I saw, as the end of the year approached, that we would fall short of our advertising commitment. My boss just smiled and waved me off, explaining that he would just renegotiate the contract in the new year, with no regard for late fees or penalties for non-fulfillment of the contract.

He forged and fabricated documents that were submitted to suppliers for advertising reimbursement. He lied to customers and suppliers about stock, delivery dates and installation schedules. He made up a wild promise to get a local news station to produce a commercial for his stores for no charge.

And, every once in a while, he would stop me from working on an ad that had to hit a deadline, to run out and get him a cup of coffee at Starbucks.

After three years in his employ, I was contacted by a former boss who offered me a position at her current employer. The job paid more money and was thirty minutes closer to my home. I didn't waste a second on my decision to leave my job. I hung up the phone, marched into the office of my boss at the floor-covering company and tendered my two-week notice. He didn't bat an eye. He actually smiled — the smile of a comic-book villain. "Can you give me the weekend to make a counter offer?," he asked with a tone that implied no one ever turned down his offers.

"Sure," I replied, "I can wait until Monday."

So, Monday rolled around and I already made my decision, but I was anxious to entertain his counteroffer. He arrived at the office a few hours after I did. I was busy packing up my personal belongings from my work area, as I knew I would be leaving in two weeks. Once he got settled, I was invited into his office. I came in, taking a seat opposite his large, dark wood desk. He leaned back in his dark brown leather chair and began.

First off, he offered me a considerable raise — an amount of which I had previously asked, but was denied. He wasn't close to finished. Next, he offered airfare for me and my immediate family to Orlando, Florida once a year. He was well aware of my family's affinity for Walt Disney World. Lastly, he offered to pay for my Phillies season tickets. At the time, my wife and I were rabid baseball fans and were the (proud?) owners of three Sunday games seats at the new home of the Philadelphia Phillies Citizens Bank Park. After presenting the final piece of his generous counteroffer, he leaned back in his chair and waited for me to say "Okay."

I did not.

Instead, I felt I had to struggle to keep myself from busting out in loud laughter. Who the fuck did this guy think he was?

I imagined the future of these offers. I would have to beg for the salary increase. This guy wasn't giving up money that easily. I would have to beg for the plane tickets. He wasn't about to buy airplane tickets for a trip he wasn't going on. I would have to beg for the Phillies tickets. I imagined him giving my tickets to his family members or business associates, in order to secure a better deal on product. Oh yeah, I wasn't going to get any of his promises. See, he had forgotten that, for three years I watched him fuck over everyone in his path. I declined his offer and two weeks later, I was working in my new job.

Five years ago, I read that this guy passed away, My wife asked if I planned on attending his funeral. I had no plans in doing such a thing. Mrs. Pincus reminded me of my relationship with him. He had attended my son's bar mitzvah on an obligatory invitation and his wife was a teacher at my son's elementary school. But, I reminded my wife of the callous and heartless boss he was and how he treated his employees on a day-to-day basis. 

I didn't take his counteroffer. I didn't attend his funeral and I didn't have to get him coffee. 

Sunday, September 30, 2018

praise the lord and pass the ammunition

I did something this year that I have never done before. I went to work on Yom Kippur. And I lived to tell the tale.

I have had a very turbulent relationship with religion my entire life. Growing up, my family was not at all observant. Sure, we knew we were Jews, but we didn't belong to a synagogue. We lived in a predominantly gentile neighborhood and I suffered my share of antisemitic remarks from contemporaries whom I sometimes identified as "friends." I attended a handful of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services with some friends from school who lived in "Jewish" neighborhoods and whose families were members of various synagogues. I figured a day off from school was worth putting on a suit and tie and sitting in a room for hours, full of folks who were chanting in a language I didn't understand. Yom Kippur was the tough one, because not only was I stuck in synagogue until sundown, but it was a fast day, so there would be no break for lunch. While I did go to services with my friends, but not every year. The years I didn't go, I just stayed home from school and watched TV. Even though I wasn't attending services, my mother believed it was better to stay home than go to school and have the non-Jews talk about me.

When I met Mrs. Pincus, I was exposed to a whole undiscovered world of religious observance. Her family was very traditional (not Orthodox, but from my parents' standpoint, they were right out of Fiddler on the Roof.) They belonged to a suburban Philadelphia synagogue and attended services regularly, not just on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They went on Simchat Torah, Purim and a bunch of other holidays I swear they were making up (like Shemini Atzeret.) Hell, my father-in-law went several mornings a week! In addition, my new in-laws maintained a kosher home and I soon was informed that, after Mrs. Pincus and I married, we would observe kashrut in our home as well. I was okay with the new rules in my life. Actually, I found it fairly interesting, especially from an historical aspect. Judaism offers a lot of detailed explanation as to why things are done and the importance of tradition (just like that song from Fiddler on the Roof. Maybe my parents were right.) Unlike the blind following of some other religions, Judaism gives reasons for rituals. I'm not saying they are always clear and concise reasons, but they are more that just "because I say so."

When our son was ready for school, he was enrolled in Jewish day school and went through twelve years of intense, dual-curriculum study. In those twelve years, he grew into what we call a "mensch." But he also absorbed and processed the knowledge was offered to him and questioned every single concept and idea that didn't sit right. And he questioned a lot of teachers. He was respectful (something he must have gotten from his mother), but he wasn't about to let anyone pull one over on him. When he graduated from high school, he was fluent in Hebrew, fluent in all aspects of Judaism but anxious to shed the Jewish cocoon he'd been living in since he was born. He focused his attention on secular studies in college with his goal being employment in his chosen field of broadcasting. And he ceased attending religious services. I, however, did not. I continued to go to services on Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and the occasional other holiday.... I just wasn't sure why. This feeling wasn't new. This was something I wondered about for years. What was I doing here? Religious services really made no sense to me. I am not particularly spiritual. When I was a kid, I went because my friends went. When I got older, I went because my wife went and I thought it would set a good example for my child. But now — here I was and my son was off doing something decidedly not "services-y." I realized I was doing this solely to please others... and I didn't like that.

A few years ago, my father-in-law, a pious and observant man, was unceremoniously and unfairly ousted from duties that he had voluntarily performed regularly at synagogue for years. Despite having the proverbial rug pulled out from under him, he continued to attend services. I, however, stopped. That was the last straw. The turning point. My epiphany. Although religion never played a strong role in my life, I had respect for those for whom it did. I always felt that religion offered a common bond for its followers and offered comfort and serenity and a sense of being. But after witnessing the vindictive and underhanded nature of the scheme to relieve my father-in-law of his sense of being, I saw religion and its followers in a whole new light, although it was a light that I had always suspected. Religion is about people and control and stature and ranking and classes and bullshit. Mostly bullshit. I have seen the old men that gather at early morning services. I have seen them look scornfully at one another in their little cliques and whisper. I have seen them gather afterwards and analyze the day's proceedings like a post-game show after the Super Bowl. "This one didn't stand up at the right time. That one didn't sing the correct tune for that prayer." That's what they discuss. Not the meaning of the morning's Torah passage, but who was on the wrong page and who came in late.

See? Bullshit.

And that's why I went to work this year. I don't care about the tedium of religion. I don't see how standing up or sitting down at any particular time can assure me a free pass to Heaven. I don't think that covering my head while reciting a bunch of words in a language that I don't understand will keep me in the good graces of a "higher being." And don't even get me started on that concept.

I had a pretty productive day at work. And I didn't have to dodge a single lightning bolt.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

hollywood swinging

Last week, as you may recall, I wrote a rambling, near incoherent piece (I know, I know...that describes most of my writing) about the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention (MANC), the annual gathering of all things pop culture from the innocent days of my youth, as well as a contingency of representative celebrities from the same era.

This show marks the first time that I attended of these shows that I did not purchase a single autographed photo. Instead, I approached each celebrity (with a few exceptions), offered words of praise and presented them with color print of one of eight drawings I did especially for this show. It turns out that — believe it or not — celebrities are people just like you and me. Every one has his or her own unique personality. Some are nice. Some are not. Here are the reactions I got from some of this years' special guests:

Ricou Browning. Sure, the name may not sound familiar, but this guy has had quite a career. Starting out performing  in and producing entertainment at Florida's Weeki Wachee water park, Ricou was recruited to star as the terrifying "Gill Man" in Universal Pictures classic Creature from the Black Lagoon, as well as its two sequels. Ricou, who is now the only living actor to have portrayed one of the Universal Monsters, performed all of the underwater scenes while another actor played the dry-land version of the title character. Ricou was also a stuntman and stunt coordinator for films and television shows, including Gentle Ben, Sea Hunt, The Aquanauts and Flipper, a series he created. He was the second unit director for Thunderball, Caddyshack and one of the Police Academy franchises. He served as director for the family films Hello Down There, Salty and the cult favorite Mr. No Legs. Now 87, the once barrel-chested robust Ricou is a small, gentle man who accepted my rendering of his classic role with grace and heartfelt appreciation. Ricou's daughter, who accompanied her father at the show, expressed equal gratitude.

Diahann Carroll. The Tony Award-winning actress and singer can look back on her career with great pride. She was nominated for an Academy Award for the title role in the 1974 film Claudine. She starred in the groundbreaking television series Julia in the late 1960s, a role for which she earned a Golden Globe. Diahann has worked with Sammy Davis Jr., Paul Newman, James Earl Jones, Sidney Poitier and many others, She was married to singer Vic Damone for ten years. When I presented Ms. Carroll, now 83, with a drawing depicting her from an early time in her career, she seemed distracted, commenting that "short hair styles were nice." Otherwise, her reaction was fairly indifferent.

Ed Begley Jr. The lanky blond actor is familiar to most people for his portrayal of "Dr. Victor Ehrlich" in the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere. Since then, Ed has appeared in dozens of TV series and films, bringing a touch of quirky humor to each role. I approached his table at MANC during a slow period and found the actor sitting alone with his hands folded like a schoolboy. When I handed him a glossy print of his deadpan visage as the aforementioned Dr. Ehrlich, he offered a quiet — nearly whispered — "thank you." Then, when I explained that I did the drawing, his fair eyebrows arched and his pale brow wrinkled. "You're very talented." he continued in a doleful monotone.

Kristy McNichol. Known for her Emmy-winning role as "Buddy" Lawrence on the ABC drama "Family," Kristy drew critical acclaim throughout her career. As one of the most popular teen stars of her era, she appeared in theatrical and television films, as well as a co-starring role on five seasons of the sitcom "Empty Nest," and guest appearances on other episodic television. In 2001, she abruptly announced her retirement from acting, much to the disappointment of her fans. Kristy devoted her new-found time to charity work and teaching acting. At the age of 50, she came out as a lesbian in hopes of showing support to younger people who are bullied because of their sexuality. Kristy was very receptive and warm as I handed her the drawing did. She smiled and laughed when I told her I saw Little Darlings in the theater when it was released in 1980.

Trina Parks. An accomplished singer, dancer and choreographer, statuesque beauty Trina Parks has the distinction of being the first African-American "Bond Girl." Her uncredited portrayal of "Thumper," one of the villainous "Blofeld's" cronies was brief but crucial in the plot of 1971's Diamonds Are Forever and forever tagged her as the answer to a pretty cool piece of pop culture trivia. She was also featured in a few "blaxploitation" movies in the 70s, as well as dancing on several variety shows and specials. I waited patiently while a gaggle of lumbering MANC employees gathered around Ms. Parks's table, arranging themselves and snapping pictures without regard for other convention attendees who were also waiting for the opportunity to speak with the actress. When they finally cleared away, I gave Trina a drawing and her face lit up. She complimented me over and over again. I mentioned to her that my wife and I caught her recent appearance of the revival of To Tell the Truth, where she was presented along with two impostors as the game's objective of choosing who was the "Bond Girl." She told me that she was originally contacted by the show's producers with the premise of having the panel guess who was the first African-American "Bond Girl." She further explained when she arrived for the taping, expecting to find two other black girls, she was told plans had changed and the ethnicity aspect was scrapped. Admittedly, I am not a big fan of the James Bond series. I don't think I ever saw Diamonds are Forever, so I was not familiar with Ms. Parks's role at all. However, she was so sweet and engaging that our little tête-à-tête was an unexpected and welcome high point of the afternoon.

Morgan Fairchild. Born Patsy Ann McClenny in Dallas, Texas, aspiring actress Morgan Fairchild landed her first screen role as a double for Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde. Miss Dunaway could do a lot of things, but she shouldn't drive a stick shift. That's where young Morgan's talents first emerged. She went on to make numerous appearances in episodic television, usually handling the type-cast requirements of a conniving vixen. Morgan was a regular on the nighttime soap operas Flamingo Road, Falcon Crest and Paper Dolls. She made a number of made-for-television and theatrical films, including her poker-faced cameo on Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. She was the epitome of over-the-top 80s glamour. Unfortunately, that look does not bode well in 2018. Morgan was cordial when I greeted her with a drawing. Her hulky assistant, however, seemed a bit over-protective, but Morgan (who was surprisingly much shorter of stature than I expected) daintily shook my hand and demurely thanked me for my artistic efforts.

Robert Wagner and Stefanie Powers. The TV power "couple" from ultra-cool detective series Hart to Hart were sequestered in their own, guarded area of the convention floor, curiously treated like royalty. Robert Wagner, now approaching his ninetieth year, was seated behind his table, looking fittingly dashing in an open collar and ascot — begging the question "Does anyone besides fading movie stars wear those things?" I brazenly jockeyed my way past the preoccupied security to the edge of his table as an assistant extended a cautionary arm in my direction. "Mr Wagner is about to attend a Q & A session," he warned. I explained that I merely wanted to gush a little "fan appreciation" and give him a drawing that I had done. Despite graying temples and few crow's feet, Robert Wagner still displays the rugged good-looks that brought him modest notoriety for over fifty years and 148 IMDB credits. He examined my drawing and scowled. He poked an accusatory finger at his likeness and spat, "You made me look like Kirk Douglas!" I offered an embarrassed grin and replied, "Well, you do look like Kirk Douglas!" What I should have said was: "At least I didn't help Christopher Walken kill my wife."... but I didn't wish to cause a scene. As a turned my attention to Stefanie Power's direction, I saw Mr. Wagner drop my drawing on the floor behind his chair.

Wagner's co-star, the lovely Stefanie Powers certainly lacks the sex appeal she exuded in the single season of the spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., but at 75 she looks pretty darn good — kind of like those ladies you see power-walking in the early morning hours around the blacktop track at one of those over-50 gated communities. When I gave Stefanie a duplicate drawing of my Hart to Hart piece, she responded with a polar opposite reaction from her co-star. She literally squealed with delight and showed it around to a group of her travelling companions. She shot me a big smile and thanked me. That made up for Robert Wagner's arrogance.

Tim Reid, Howard Hesseman and Jan Smithers. Three stars of the ensemble cast of the 70s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati were in attendance. Previously-announced and confirmed Loni Anderson had to back out at the last minute. The trio was even further removed from the festivities, as a lengthy queue line was carefully metered for nearly the entire day. Access to their cordoned-off area was tough. However, just as Mrs. Pincus and I had decided to call it a day, I made one last attempt to gain access to the stars of the radio industry sitcom. At this late hour, the line had dissipated and Tim Reid was just sitting at his table fiddling with his phone. I walked up to him, introduced myself and told him I was a fan of all of his work. I quickly scanned his selection of photographs to remind myself of his post-WKRP projects. He chuckled when I told him I even liked his work in the TV mini series of Stephen King's It. I gave him a drawing and he seemed amused as he shook my hand. Tim returned to the pressing matter of his phone as I turned to my right and spotted an ancient-looking bedraggled Howard Hesseman and an frail-looking, gray-tressed Jan Smithers. I felt they didn't need to hear my praise and could do without my silly drawing. I decided I was finished for the day.

Two additional guests that cancelled in the eleventh hour were I Dream of Jeannie star Barbara Eden and Hollywood Squares host Peter Marshall. Mr. Marshall had an emergency family commitment to attend to. Ms. Eden, as we were told, was spooked by the on-coming Hurricane Florence. Signs posted around the convention expressed their regrets and pledged a make-up visit in 2019. I sure hope so because I did drawings of them too. I just hope they don't appear in my "Dead Celebrity Spotlight" before I get the opportunity.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

goin' southbound

Looks like we won't be making it to our destination.

Every year, for the past several, Mrs. Pincus and I attend The Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention or MANC for those in the know. MANC is a three-day gathering of folks around my age (or older) who need to be reminded of the glory days of their youth. Days filled with simple toys like puzzles and board games and simple entertainment like heroic TV Westerns and gentle family comedies. MANC fills that need in spades. Taking over event facilities at the Delta Hotel in Hunt Valley, Maryland, MANC is jam-packed with vendors offering all sorts of pop culture treasures from the past fifty, sixty... even seventy years. Along with the vendors, MANC plays host to a bevy of celebrities —beloved to me and my peers, but nearly unknown to the members of the generations after mine. Sometimes explaining to younger people who some of these personalities are is not worth the trouble, but their names and shows are instantly recognizable to us "baby boomers." At past conventions, we met Oscar winners Patty Duke and Shirley Jones, TV heartthrobs Ron Ely and Tina Cole, movie stars Robert Loggia and Britt Ekland and many, many more. (I've written about MANC several times... herehere and here, too.)

When my wife and I first attended this convention, it was one of several that I frequented to feed a little hobby that I started nearly twenty-five years ago — collecting autographed pictures. The set up at these conventions and collector shows is a little unnerving and it's one of the negative aspects for Mrs. Pincus. (She finds it a bit on the creepy side.) Celebrities are seated at tables covered with 8 x 10 glossies depicting highlights of their careers. For a nominal fee, fans can spend a few fleeting moments with their "idols" and take home a personally-inscribed souvenir of the encounter. The unwritten rules have changed considerably since I purchased my first autographed photo (for five dollars) of Butch Patrick, little "Eddie" on the 1960s horror send-up The Munsters. Over the years, the prices have escalated at an unreasonable and baseless rate. The celebrities now come complete with a menu of ala carte services on every table, delineating the cost of an autographed photo, an autograph on an item that you brought to the show, a photo of the celebrity, a photo of you with the celebrity or any combination of the above. (Some have even broken it down further, with different prices for black & white glossies or color.) I have amassed quite an array of photos and the fame of these celebrities ranges from Tom Hanks and Gene Kelly to my wife's cousin who is a field reporter for the NBC affiliate in Virginia Beach. (Hey, he's got more Emmy Awards than you do!) I also accumulated quite a few amusing anecdotes (good and not-so-good) about my "brushes with greatness" that I have related for years. I look forward to MANC every year to add to both collections.

However, this past February, I lost my job. Although I was eligible to collect unemployment insurance, Mrs. Pincus and I were justifiably panicked. We immediately cut back on expenses where we could. Luckily, Mrs. Pincus's eBay business was thriving. We were prompted to assess our possessions and begin selling non-essential items. Items that were tucked away in closets or gathering dust in a corner were the first sacrifices. Next was our collection of advertising figurines and plush characters, followed by our Flintstones and Superman collectibles. Then, we made the difficult decision to purge our extensive Disney collection. As discussed earlier on this blog, liquidating a thirty-plus year assemblage of thousands of pieces of Disney memorabilia was a mixed-bag of emotions. At first, I was very discerning about which items I selected to be offered for sale. But as more items sold and more inquiries about the items were received, I gained a new (and surprising) outlook. Now, I was on a mission! Every weekend, Mrs. P and I sat side-by-side at our computers and listed item after item on eBay at a breakneck rate. Seven months later, the shelves are shockingly bare and the "famous" Pincus Disney collection is unrecognizable. Even though I secured new employment in April, we have not ceased our goal of seeing that room empty for the first time in thirty years. Plus, we are having a great time spending time together and seeing what sells.

So, based on our efforts to sell off our Disney collection, I couldn't justify spending money on autographed photos. For whatever reason, the once-prominent collector in me has vanished. Gone. All done. I still want to meet the celebrities. I just don't feel the need to spend upwards of thirty dollars to have them drag a Sharpie across a photograph of a role that made them semi-famous a lifetime ago. Instead, I drew a bunch of portraits of this year's guests and made a plan to distribute them to their subjects, offering a few words of praise and appreciation. I have done this in the past, and sometimes — sometimes — I appealed to the particular celebrity enough that I got an autographed picture in exchange for my portrait. (Cindy Williams, Jay North and Stanley Livingston each complimented my talent.) So, I made my decision to end my collecting of autographed pictures.... unless I can get them free of charge... which I have. And, again, instead of being upset, I found the decision very freeing. The pressure was off. The sort-of guilt I felt in the past over spending hard-earned cash for something that brought brief pleasure and really no actual value was gone. Now I would really enjoy this year's convention in a different way.

Just after I purchased tickets online for MANC, Mrs. Pincus and I decided to stretch out the weekend of the convention into a little vacation. We planned to head further south at the show's conclusion, driving as far as we liked, getting a hotel room for the night and then continuing on the next morning. Our ultimate destination was South of the Border, the kitschy tourist oasis that lights up I-95 in Dillon, South Carolina. While some travelers zoom right past the place, we love it. Sure it's hokey and silly and filled with cheap, useless souvenirs that we never buy. Sure, it proliferates racist stereotypes with its numerous billboards featuring mascot Pedro, a cartoon Mexican of the highest insult. But, we love the nostalgic aspect of a place that really shouldn't exist in this day and age. A place that just seems out of place.

But, alas, our plans for a Southern road trip were dashed by the onslaught of Hurricane Florence, a fluctuating Category 3 storm that couldn't decide on which path to take. National and local weather services painted a bleak scenario, making predictions just short of a tidal wave washing away the entire Eastern United States. It appeared that Wilmington, North Carolina and surrounding areas would be bearing the brunt of Florence's anger. Dillon lies 90 miles west of Wilmington — and seems to be the shortest distance between two points. We didn't wish to be anywhere near the chaos of both the storm and the residents vacating their homes. MANC is held just north of Baltimore, Maryland — well out of the predicted storm zone and would only experience just a little rain. And as they say, "into one's life, a little rain must fall." 

I'm okay with a little rain.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

I've got a little list

I started going to concerts with my son when he was in high school in the early 2000s. Because of our shared love of eclectic bands and music that was decidedly off the mainstream, we frequented venues that were small and intimate. We had no interest in any bands that were booked to fill the large arenas. And never stadiums! Stadiums — as far as we were concerned — were reserved for sporting events, not musical performances. We gravitated towards single room venues that were reminiscent of the dark smoky coffeehouses of the beatnik era, where patrons sat at too-small tables and watched a singer try not to step off of the too-small stage.

Due to the small capacity and close quarters of these places, my son and I were usually in very close proximity to the stage. So close, if fact, that we became pretty adept at reading the set lists that the artists would place around the stage prior to the evening's performance. These little, hand-scribbled agendas served as a reminder to the singer of what songs to sing. Used primarily as a guide, most performers would often stray from the predetermined list, though some would stick to it to the letter. For us, reading these lists was no easy task since — from our vantage point — they were upside down. However, reading them would spoil the spontaneity of the show. But sometimes, we couldn't help ourselves. After the show, my son would stealthily snag one of these set lists. No one looked our way as my boy would carefully remove the thick gaffer's tape that held the list in place during performances.. The more shows we went to, the more his collection expanded. For years, no one seemed to care. Not the band members. Not the owners of the venue. Not the audience members. It was as though he was picking a used tissue off the stage. If someone did notice my son taking a set list, the act was usually regarded with a scowl or a puzzled look that silently questioned, "Why on earth would anyone want one of those?"

One night, after a raucous show by Austin "bad boys" The Asylum Street Spankers at Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania's now-defunct The Point, my son greedily (or accidentally) grabbed two set lists from the recently-vacated stage. As we rose from our stage-side table, Spankers singer Wammo approached us and politely — almost sheepishly — asked my son to return one of the lists. "We kind of need them from show to show." he explained. I understood. The Spankers were a small,  scrappy, self-reliant, independent band that traveled around in a rickety van, packed with musical instruments and few personal possessions. I suppose they didn't have the luxury of writing out a new set list for each show, the way a Bruce Springsteen or a Bob Dylan might. My son relinquished one of the two identical pages and Wammo thanked him.

Father John Misty's "fake list"
My son continued the practice of sneaking a set list for years and years. He eventually stopped, however, for a couple of reasons. One - he got bored, I guess. He had a several folders stuffed with torn, sticky and folded set lists and it was time to move on to something else. Two - other people, we noticed, picked up on his little hobby. We began to see other audience members making a move toward the stage near the end of a concert, edging closer and closer as the shows drew to a conclusion. This sometimes resulted in a friendly (or not-so-friendly) confrontation over set lists. Other times, roadies would just hand set lists over to the prettiest girl nearest to the stage. Lastly, my son is a DJ on a local Philadelphia radio station. Through his job, he was become friends with some of singers from whom he nicked a set list or two. So, nabbing a torn piece of paper pales in comparison to meeting and interacting with these folks.

Don't take her music charts.
(Photo by E.)
One of those singers with whom my son maintains a friendship is Nicole Atkins. (A quick Nicole Atkins story, then right back to our regularly scheduled blog post.... At the end of June, the residents of the tiny 100 block of Mole Street in Philadelphia held their annual Molestice Festival to welcome the longest day of year with food, drinks, games and live music. This year's headline performer was Nicole Atkins. My son and I gathered, along with hundreds of other folks, at the far end of Mole Street about twenty-five feet — and a sea of people — away from the temporary stage that was set up for the day's performances. Four or five songs into Nicole's set, she approached the microphone and picked my son out of the crowd, pointing to him, waving and offering a friendly "Hi E!" But she wasn't finished. She squinted and announced to the crowd, "I see you brought your dad Josh with you." I was so embarrassed.)

Now... where was I...? Oh, right.... Nicole Atkins, a wonderfully talented singer-songwriter, is currently on tour in Europe with her band. A few days ago, she posted this cautionary statement to Twitter:
It appears that, after all these years, I have been enlightened to two types of lists lying around on a stage after the show is over. It also appears that audience members feel they are entitled to take whatever they wish once the performers have abandoned the stage for the isolated comfort of the "green room." A handful of audience members, I have noticed, now viciously clamber for those set lists (or whatever else they can grab) like vultures fighting over a coyote carcass in the desert,

Back when my son first started collecting set lists, no one — I mean no one — bat an eye when he picked one off the stage. Now, it has become a thing. A real thing with unwritten rules and protocol. Not all artists welcome nor appreciate the taking of set lists. Some are okay with it. Now, I would just ask first.

Or perhaps, if you really want to show your appreciation and support for your favorite singer, buy a t-shirt or other merchandise after the show.

I think Nicole would like that, too.