Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Chuck Barris, The Legend, The Myth, and a Few Versions of the Truth According to Chuck

When the news came that the iconic entertainment jack-of-all-trades Chuck Barris had died on Tuesday, March 21, the first thing I thought of was not “The Gong Show,” but instead the Freddie Cannon hit, “Palisades Park.” It’s less well known that the Prince of Silly TV (my name for him) actually wrote the 1962 hit. It was “just one of those things” that showed Barris had real talent, even if he constantly played a buffoon as the host of “The Gong Show” for several seasons.

Palisades Park, the amusement park is famous outside its home state, mostly due to WABC DJ, Bruce Morrow’s “Star Spectaculars,” featuring entertainers like Frankie Avalon, Tony Orlando, The Sentimentals, and of course Freddy “Boom Boom” Cannon performing there in 1960s weekends. Morrow is better known as “Cousin Brucie,” as he still plays his role today on SiriusXM 60s on 6, and hosts live broadcasts from time to time at Palisades Park in New Jersey. Back in the day, admission there was only $.30; time has changed that!

Chuck Barris Productions began as a series of launching (at the time) slightly racy game shows in 1965, the first being “The Dating Game” featuring favorite host, Jim Lange.” Everyone remembers the horn-heavy popular tv theme:

And then Lange would introduce the three bachelors or bachelorettes hidden away from the contestant, whose job was to quiz them to select a potential date. Many popular celebrities of the day appeared as contestants but they weren’t under any obligation to actually keep the dates that were made. A Barris special caveat, no doubt.

That show was so popular that Barris then launched “The Newlywed Show,” with the ever-smiling host Bob Eubanks.

Newly married couples were quizzed on how well they knew each other, and when they didn’t get the answers right….that’s when the fun began.

Ultimately, though, it would be “The Gong Show” that brought Chuck to the forefront of audiences’ attention. He was constantly laughing on camera; he’d laugh at his own jokes, and the show was essentially a farce created by Canadian producer Chris Bearde, who was also known as the co-producer of “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour” with Allen Blye. The only reason to mention that is that “The Unknown Comic” of “The Gong Show” was Murray Langston, who was also a popular regular on “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour.” Every time he came on, Murray put a brown paper bag over his head, came out to do a few bad jokes, and he never missed the chance to insult Chuck. To Chuck's delight, Murray reprised the role many times over the life of the show.

On “The Gong Show,” America also fell in love with people who would have otherwise been considered “forgotten talents,” including Jaye P. Morgan, Jamie Farr, Arte Johnson, and Rip Taylor among those who could judge the talent (limited as the contestants typically were) and put the audience out of their collective misery by hitting the gong. People loved the parody aspect, they loved to watch Chuck (or “Chucky Baby” as he was nicknamed) crack up at his own creations week after week. They loved Gene Patton, aka "Gene, Gene the Dancing Machine," as he took every opportunity to dance whenever he heard "his" theme song, "Jumpin' at the Woodside." And, he had everyone dancing with him, including Chuck. In real life, Patton was a stagehand at NBC, but when he danced, everyone thought that dancing was his full-time job.

Here are some snippets of their 400th episode, where Chuck said, “And they said it wouldn’t last!” It did.

In rewatching “The Gong Show,” all the favorite things he’d say came back, “We’ll be right back after a lot of 'stuff'” and various other signature catch phrases. But the more I watched him laugh, crinkle his eyes, and throw his head back and smile, it seems almost exactly like Matt Czuchry used to as he portrayed Logan Huntzberger on “Gilmore Girls.” That could be Gilmore overload talking, though.

Chuck Barris lied to get his first job at NBC, a page, if memory serves correctly. He schmoozed his way through a lot of his career, ultimately working as an assistant to Dick Clark, but he was crazy like a fox as he managed to rise in an industry that surely would never have welcomed him in the first place. Truth was not always a necessity in Chuck’s world…in his biography he claimed he’d once worked for the CIA, as an assassin, per his biography “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” and the Biography channel collective. The CIA disavows all knowledge of that being correct of course, and then again, accuracy is in the eye of the beholder.

“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” both Barris’ autobiography and the 2002 movie based on the book may or may not contain the truth, but it was always “Barris’ version of the truth” that audiences saw and enjoyed on TV. That, and probably George Clooney’s directing the movie starring Sam Rockwell (as Barris), Drew Barrymore, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Michael Cera (as a young Chuck Barris), and even Jaye P. Morgan and Dick Clark played themselves.

Here’s an interview from 2007 where he answered a few questions about the shows he created:

Chuck created an image far larger than life, and yet his personal life contained sufficient tragedy. Ultimately, he wrote a book, “Della: A Memoir of My Daughter,” in remembrance of the daughter he lost far too soon, a victim ultimately of drugs and alcohol, fueled by a trust fund she received from Chuck when she turned 16. She defiantly had decided to move out, but Chuck agreed and then provided her means to live on. Ultimately, it ended tragically.

Chuck was actually a prolific writer, given his 1974 book "You and Me, Babe," "1984's "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Bad Grass Never Dies" (2003), "The Big Question" (2007, "Who Killed Art Deco" (2009), and "Della, A Memoir of My Daughter" (2010).

Music gave him a start, television fueled his success, and writing gave him an outlet for his overly creative expression. And who knows, maybe he was a CIA assassin. Or not. It doesn't matter.

Looking back over the body of work Chuck created in his career, we have much to be grateful for and much to laugh about.

Thanks for the hours of entertainment, Chucky Baby, and most of all, thanks for “Palisades Park.”

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Gardner Osborn -- Deep Spirit, Abiding Faith

Rediscovered Treasure...Found some of my favorite "Blast from the Past" profile stories, this one from Bubba Moore's TV Facts Magazine, the week of April 25 - May 1, 2004. Bubba was fighting health challenges and he graciously allowed me to write his columns on whatever I wanted to write about, and Mike Newton served as Editor and designed all the layout. Their only instruction to me was to write about anything that was good news locally. Remember Bubba's motto: "It's good news!" The original images are shared here, but I retyped the story for legibility. Hope you enjoy. DLW

[Ed. Note: Cover Photo Legend: This week our story focuses on the founder of the Prenatal Clinic and the men and women who have helped make it the vital resource for women and children that it is today. Read and be amazed at the misconceptions you probably have about this most necessary medical service, beginning on page 3. Photos by Dawn Lee Wakefield. (Right) Gardner Osborn: Mother of the Prenatal Clinic (photo by Beth Price).]

Gardner Osborn -- Deep Spirit, Abiding Faith

What is it that keeps Gardner Osborn going? That's a pretty fair question to ask, given her recent bout with critical illness. Just seven short weeks ago, Gardner was on prayer lists around town and frankly, few expected her to live.

Those who hoped for her recovery were cautious: they never expected her to bounce back. Thanks to prayers and good medical care, however, she is the vital, dynamic do-gooder sailing into April, 20014, a renewed vision of her exuberant self. Not only did she come back, she's so youthful and vital that it's understandable why some of her fellow parishioners at downtown's St. Andrew's Episcopal Church named her "Lazarita."

She's back and she's busy, preparing to attend a luncheon next Saturday that wouldn't even be occurring, were it not for Gardner and the help of some great colleagues. What's the story behind this dynamo? How does one person grasp a problem and envision a solution, and then rally key leaders to support the cause?

The first thing Gardner will tell you is that "one person never does anything by himself." She means this spiritually and otherwise. Beneath her direct, straight-shooting executive nature, you explore to discover the soft heart of this warrior for women.Then you find her deep religious commitment and hence her motivation and approach to life. It all started as a young age.

Daddy's Little Girl

When young Gardner Golston was growing up in Tyler, she studied carefully how her daddy problem-solved obstacles in his path. Spotting a shortage of party ice to be had on vacation in rural Alamosa, Colorado, her dad simply decided to start a water purification plant, so they could have ice, and a booming business ensued. Saw the need, fixed the problem.

Next, Dad has his favorite brands of groceries, but no stores there carried them, so he built a large supermarket in Colorado and stocked them. That business venture did well! Saw it. Fixed it. Then, he loved lettuce, but you couldn't get fresh lettuce in Arizona, where they spent the winter. You guessed it.

He was the first man to build a commercial vacuum packer for lettuce, and he hauled it on an 19-wheeler all the way to Arizona and had his salads in winter. Getting the picture? Young Gardner grew up never knowing a problem; rather she learned how to troubleshoot towards solutions. That, and never to take "no" for an answer.

The Beginning of The Prenatal Clinic

And so it was in 1985 when Gardner Osborn went to a rather nondescript meeting of the Episcopal Church Women's (ECW) group, and they were there discussing some potential project or other than bored her. Her mind wandered,and she wrestled with what is it in this town where the ECW could "really" make a difference?

At that annual ECW meeting, her subconscious dwelled on one factoid causing her great distress: Brazos County led the nation in perinatal deaths. The perinatal period covers five months before a child is born, and the first month after birth. Most women are familiar with this term. Most men aren't. Truth is, almost two decades ago, we in the Brazos Valley were leaders in poverty. In 1985 you had 30-40 mothers per month going into delivery who'd never had any prenatal care.

You've Got to Have Friends

Gardner then felt moved to action, and she started calling her friends. One of the first people she called was Anne Hazen, a nurse who shared the vision to establish a clinic where low-income pregnant women could come in, early in their pregnancy, and begin a program of prenatal care. Then, there was the call to the ebullient Topaz Hughes, someone she knew as a "mover and shaker." She got on board quickly.

Friend Margaret Ann Zipp publicized the first meeting calling for "anyone who was interested" and 15 people showed up. Gardner and Anne went all over Waco, Temple, Georgetown, and Houston's 5th Ward, exploring what was there as a pattern for what could be. The idea was taking shape.

Next, Gardner called Sr. Gretchen Kunz of St. Joseph Regional Health Center (as it was known then), and she readily donated a room at the hospital's property for $1/year on Osler Blvd. to serve as the first prenatal clinic site. There were two exam rooms, one tiny closetlike office, a small waiting room, and one community bathroom stall. They brought lawn chairs from home to place in the clinic's waiting room.

The local county health department really wasn't in tune with the idea yet. Undaunted, Gardner found a new path, as her daddy would have. She was determined to rub out that infant death statistic. She found a way. Although they didn't know it then, as a pretty good golfer. Gardner found a way to manage her tee times to coincide with those of a few key county officials...and they just thought it was by accident that they ran into her. Eventually, finally, the county offered a small stipend of support. Victory!

Every time state legislator Lan Bentsen needed a ride to the airport, guess who drove him, and then gave him an earful about how we needed help here? Bentsen really carried the flag for prenatal health funding here. Gardner drove the golf balls and the state legislative see the need as her spirit saw the need. And as she was being relentless, for unborn infants and their mothers, who in their right mind could say no? Few did! Or if they said "no," they learned to change their answers.

A few local men were also key to securing excellent funding. Steve Ogden helped tremendously--state health care block grants and funding came our way with his help. Sr. Gretchen and St. Joseph were solid supporters. And Dr. Jesse Parr, Dr. David Doss, and board member Mark Bates, Gardner notes, were dynamic young doctors who saw the need and shared the vision and made the clinic a medical reality.

Who Goes There?

Chances are good you have never met a client of The Prenatal Clinic. But last year, over 700 women were patients of the clinic, and what a difference. It's hard to imagine that children from the clinic's first patients are about to graduate from high school. They very well might not be here if it were not for caring community volunteers like Gardner Osborn and her friends. It's so easy to not think about it, to take it for granted that every pregnant woman we know and care about has access to a good doctor, sonograms, medicines, and knowledge of what to eat and what not to eat or drink while pregnant. But, truth is, the need is stronger than ever. People are now coming here from outside our local area, because they need the services this clinic provides for prenatal care.

Today, the clinic has an outstanding executive director, Steve Koran, and he oversees as the community sponsors and support grows each year. Located next to the Brazos Transit bus terminal, the clinic's clients are able to get referrals to receive help with health, education, and financial assistance programs for which they qualify. There's also a "Baby Closet" for clothing and other items, WIC coupons, and various church women's groups hold Bible studies, and they throw baby showers instead of birthday parties for one another, and the gifts, then, are for the clinic's clients. How refreshing!

Gardner says, "The best news is that 85% of the women return after giving birth to go shopping in the Baby Closet. It's a family atmosphere where they can receive a great start, and excellent care from a nurse practitioner."

She also notes that it's easy to confuse the Prenatal Clinic with other groups with the word "clinic" in their name. She specifies that "all our mothers are low-income women, and very few of the women are in their teens," so that should clear up a few of the misconceptions and confusion. Mothers and babies, it's about the mothers and the babies.

The Gospel According to Matthew (and Gardner)

Matthew 25:33 -- "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to eat. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I needed clothes and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me." And 25:40: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

This dynamic Episcopalian disciple of the gospel according to Matthew has lived this for many years, and she's a modest, humble servant of the scripture, which she serves as best she knows how--head-on and full speed ahead.

Gardner Osborn, a mother whose own five children had grown and left the next, searched her heart and listened to an inner voice for inspiration at a church meeting. Today, we drive down Texas Avenue and see a place where newborn lives are saved, where mothers will cherish the reality of holding their healthy infant sons and daughters in their arms. All this because one woman searched her heart, remembered the teachings of the Book of matthew, and recalled the lessons she learned at her daddy's knee. She made a difference.

Outstanding Women Honored at Annual Fundraiser

This year's "You're the Tops" Luncheon is the 10th annual celebration of women in our community whose volunteering and devotion to civic progress spans organizations that benefit education, children, arts, music, churches, and synagogues. Ten women are to be feted at the luncheon at the College Station Hilton, Saturday, April 24th, with proceeds going to the Prenatal Clinic.

The honorees include Jean Benavides, Mary Broussard, Winnie Garner, Linda Gilbert, Rhonda Kogut, Mary Boone Oxley, Ruth Samson, Brenda Sims, Netta Jackson Simek, Doris Watson, Wanda Watson, and Penny Zent. Each of these ladies is worth of distinction, yet each would tell you that the spotlight should be on the Prenatal Clinic, an organization that makes it possible to provide health care to more than 700 low-income women each year from the Brazos Valley, and now, outside the valley.

It is because of Gardner Osborn, as Steve Koran says, the "Mother of the Prenatal Clinic," and her dear friends that we have a clinic, that we have the privilege of knowing the mothers of 25% of the babies born right here in Brazos County receive care through the Prenatal Clinic. Their statistics are solid. "In the past two years, only 15 mothers delivered without prenatal care, compared to 75 mothers in 1987." Men and women together saving lives, because of the vision and determination of women making a difference.

One more photo from that issue: Caption: "Dynamic Ruth Clearfield, pictured with husband, Dr. Abraham Clearfield, and good friends at her table, is one of the shining stars of the silver screen of Hospice. From the beginning of the Hospice Fundraisers, you'll always find Ruth and Abe's names listed among the top donors. This year they were Golden Globe level supporters!

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Writer Thomas Bähler and Fabulist Aesop Prove "Anything Is Possible" a Powerful Philosophy for Joy

The path to discovering the best book I’ve read in a decade has its own story, but the bottom line is: “Anything Is Possible: A Tale of Aesop” by Thomas Bähler (Æsop Production Company, 2013) is one that belongs in your library if you seek to shake up status quo and change your life. This book can help you change your perspective, using a brilliant teaching method that was taught to Bähler as a child by his father and his grandmother before him. More on how well that turned out later.

“I wish I could”…”I was going to be”….”I never had the chance to”….”Other people get all the breaks”… “I’ll never be able to...” Are any of these phrases part of what you’ve said to yourself as part of either wistful thinking or negative self-talk to reinforce why you are stuck in a rut, wallowing in mediocrity or are a shell-shocked survivor of shattered dreams?

Do you want to make a change? There’s only one thing you have to do. Believe that anything is possible and reframe your thinking to expect that there are no limits to what you can do in life. The book serves one purpose: to inspire and encourage you that there are no limits to your imagination.

Thomas Bähler proves a faithful guide to showing you the way, but he doesn’t do it for you, You must take his hand he offers, walk the path of Aesop, understand and participate in the Socratic method of asking and answering questions, and the outcome is you’ve made your own analyses, decisions, and created your own future by believing one tenet: “Anything is Possible.”

Young children about the age we meet Aesop are already active dreamers and creators and designers. What some children see when they look at the world is what “can be.” Adults may view a child’s drawing at face value, but ask them to explain what they “see” in what they’ve drawn.

If you listen to an adult who says, “You can’t do that. You’re too young. You don’t know. Instead, it’s an ingenious combination of taking a beloved children’s character, Aesop the Fabulist, and following a path the author created to chronicle his life, beginning with the premise “I wonder what kind of life Aesop had growing up as a slave and ending up as the most respected critical thinker in the world in his time.”

Young Thomas Bähler was gifted with an inquisitive nature to begin with—not unlike our book’s protagonist, Aesop. His first exposure to Aesop’s fables was when his father brought home a record of “The Tortoise and the Hare” for young Thomas. That was a start. In terms of Aesop, it was likely far more on a subconscious level that the Greek fabulist made his impression in the concept of critical thinking through puzzles and riddles.

And yet, it would not be until adulthood that the fullness of education provided by considering the path of Aesop would overtake Thomas Bähler’s life. Now at this point, Thomas was a very successful musician, singer, songwriter, producer, and overall creative who had been in demand throughout Los Angeles studio music circles for many years. Anything he tried came out well. That’s another book “What You Want Wants You,” but its genesis began with “Anything is Possible.”

Aesop was born a slave about 620 BC. He was raised by his mother, also a slave, and her attitude, while she lived, was almost identical to Lillian Bähler’s. When an authority figure takes an interest in you, inspires you by overcoming all obstacles to succeed, undergirded by faith in “anything is possible,” the opportunities that others might never see take on lives of their own and present themselves in such a way that you are presented with challenges and you must develop the solutions.

Taking that premise a step further, Thomas Bähler traces the rise of young Aesop from slave to adulthood by asking himself one question…”What if?” and it’s brother “I wonder what it was like for Aesop growing up.” The result is this fantastic book “Anything is Possible.” What you will find inside is truly…up to you entirely. You can read the words, know how to pronounce the names, search for quick answers and spend a few hours entertained and that’s a win.

Or, you can read the words, see the characters brought to life as Thomas’ writing makes entirely possible, and travel the roads with Aesop and Thomas as they journey through life. You will know 21st-century real-life people to match every characteristic of those in the book: Dione, Croesus, Danae, Helena, Hyksos, Theseus and others.

You’ll find yourself identifying with those characters so closely that you begin to see their faces as the faces of the people you know. You’ll visit and re-visit how you encountered these people in your own life, and study why it is that you reacted the way you did, and more importantly, how you can handle these situations better in the future. The journey is the answer. Aesop’s journey is the answer. Thomas Bähler is your guide and most amiable narrator, and new friend.

How you use what you see, among the questions and answers in the book -- through the eyes of optimistic possibility or through the shouts and yells of naysayers -- will determine how you can reach the highest potential of your life, or whether you remember stable and comfortable in the land of status quo. The book is not a how-to manual nor does it provide specific steps to success. However, what it does do, if you will follow the story provided and stay with the journey until the very end, is to imbue you with the clarity to see your dreams as real, as possible. Once you do, you will be entirely surprised with what happens next.

Get the book. Get the book. Get the book. But only if you want to achieve your dreams—if you dream it, you can do it. “Anything is Possible” is honest, insightful, and perfectly splendid. It truly is a pathway to joy.

Do yourself a favor: get your own copy. Click here to order. This review, written originally for, is also found at Bähler's Symphony of Words Inspires Brainstorming, Visioning, and Creative Dreaming

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ruthie Foster and Her Phenomenal Musical Talent

If you didn’t know where to look, you might have missed out on native Texan Ruthie Foster giving what was unequivocally the best show in Texas on Friday, March 3, 2017. Nestled in a warm and welcoming listening space that doubles as a church on Sundays, Main Street Crossing, in Tomball, Texas, the audience saw the roof raised and doors blown off by the electric-acoustic-dynamic rhythm as Foster and percussionist Samantha Banks held forth for 105 minutes that flew by far too soon. Theme for the evening was sharing love, faith, affirmations and the promise of good things to come.

For those who are newer to Ruthie’s music, the woman you see on stage—a phenomenal woman by the book of, and with the affirmation of, Dr. Maya Angelou herself—is today ever as humble, joyful, and talented as she was in 1998, when she was playing locally in Bryan-College Station at night while she ran camera and produced the early morning show at local CBS affiliate, KBTX-TV3.

When she started performing locally, everyone knew Ruthie had major talent and belonged in front of national audiences, but circumstances held her back for many years. Ruthie’s priorities of family and loyalties to friends have always come before fame or fortune all her life.

As a child Ruthie’s heart centered around the small town of Gause, Texas, which is located 11 miles from Hearne and 30 miles from Bryan-College Station. Many songs she sings on stage today were written in honor and in memory of her grandmother (Big Mama), a woman of great faith who was one of the “sisters who arrived thirty minutes before church started so they wouldn’t be late.” Friday night, as always, Ruthie’s song setups are simply conversations as though she were sitting across from the kitchen table with you, reminiscing, laughing, and wistfully looking into the distance at times, as you knew she could see the faces and hear the voices of loved ones in days gone by.

Ruthie’s powerful voice is natural, not forced, and she recalls the words of her mother, who always told her to “Sing, open your mouth and sing!” but her control of her instrument is what’s the most impressive factor to her singing. As a young woman, she took a break from studying audio engineering and music in college to join the U.S. Navy. Naturally, her musical talent was discovered and she toured with the U.S. Navy band, “Pride.” That was one way to “see the world,” for certain, even if it was on a tour bus. That would foreshadow her future in a way she could never imagine back then.

The talented young woman quickly secured a recording contract with a major label in New York City. And, she was on her way to achieving her dreams….when her mother became ill in 1993. Ruthie never gave it a second thought. She abandoned the dream and put life on hold temporarily where she and a great friend would provide tender love and care for her mother in her final days. Ruthie got a job with local KBTX-TV as camera operator and production assistant. Those early morning show hours were grueling but she had a lot of time to be with her mother, who died in 1996.

Then she had new life choices to make. Where to turn? Ruthie speaks of faith often but rarely her personal journey as it’s a personal thing to her. Much of her faith comes through in her songs, and the wisdom of her mother as well. “The secret of life is knowing when to compromise,” Ruthie’s mother often told her. There’s a song in that, she thought. She was right.

Her 2002 album “Runaway Soul” is a collaborative with the highly regarded Grammy-winner, Lloyd Maines as producer. Before she sang the title track, Ruthie modestly related what a privilege it had been to work with him early in her career. He had a great track record for excellence and he’d had tremendous success with the work of Terri Hendrix, his ongoing longtime music collaborator. Hendrix’s song, “Hole in My Pocket” is one made famous by both Terri and by Ruthie, and Foster often performs it in concert, at least when she’s in Texas.

Ruthie said, “When I got the master of “Runaway Soul” from Lloyd, I listened to it and I was astounded. I called him and asked, “When did you hire all those musicians to play the other instruments?” She knew they didn’t have a budget for that. His response was, “Oh, I just played them all myself.”

Ruthie laughed as she said, “That’s the kind of man he is; he knew we needed them and he just…recorded them all himself.” Her regard for those who knew her early in life, and in work, never wavers…that’s part of the beauty of Ruthie’s career path. She built a following that has staying power.

"Small Town Blues" is another song from Foster's 2007 album, "Full Circle" that she plays to help everyone remember "their early Ruthie" concert years.

In fact, you’ll find wherever Ruthie has found inspiration to write her songs, to record her songs, and to release her new CDs, a crowd appears. It may not be the same people each time, but anytime you are fortunate enough to see her in concert, she’s the same person you saw when you saw her the first time.

One example of her ability to recreate her original songs without change is in “Another Rain Song,” which she sang Friday night. Here’s a snippet of the song. Whether 1997 or 2017, it does not matter how long, Ruthie’s songs stand true today as yesterday as autobiographical of the passage of time.

Her voice remains unaffected by the legends she joins in concert. She has her own internal compass and knows how to navigate the waters, and she’s been honored and awarded so many times that stranger would be overwhelmed to know just how special she’s considered to be by the power players. She doesn’t say it in concert, but she’s a multiple Grammy Award Nominee (Best Blues Album)—first time was in 2010 for “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster” and in 2012 for “Let it Burn,” and in 2014 for “Promise of a Brand New Day,” but she fails to bring that up in conversation. Ruthie has also been awarded the Koko Taylor Award for Traditional Blues Female Artist of the year in 2016 as she had in 2013, 2012, and 2011, but she didn’t bring it up that night either.

Instead, she talked ever so briefly about playing the Bugle Boy in LaGrange on Saturday night and then on Sunday she would be going to New York. There was a concert she was asked to participate in, she said—an Aretha Franklin Tribute Concert. Humbly, she described her delight on being invited to participate.

Ruthie laughed and said, “Monday night, I’m going to be taking as many selfies as I can before they come and pull me away for taking too many selfies. It’s going to be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, wherever.” That’s where her heart is—not for a minute is she considering herself one of the crowd chosen to honor Miss Franklin.

Instead of focusing on her awards, she mentioned she’d come to performing by an unusual path. With frankness and courage, Ruthie explained how speech was sometimes difficult for her. Recognizing her little one was very shy, Big Mama, her hero, stepped in to help.

“Every Saturday, for hours during the day, and then in the afternoon Big Mama would give me a poem to practice to say the next day in church. And we’d work on it all afternoon. Then on Sunday, I’d get up and say what I was supposed to say in front of the entire church. And that….is how I came to be at home in front of large crowds. She took her time with me.” Shyness, overcome; courage, infused.

The Main Street Crossing is in fact a church, a nonprofit that doubles as a church on Sunday and as an inviting music venue for all genres of music. Future artists include Michael Martin Murphy, Larry Gatlin, Mike Zito, Mark Chestnutt, (Aggie) Roger Creager and that’s just part of what’s happening in March. Marcia Ball, a conversation with Roy Clark, the Hit Men, Suzy Bogguss, in April; The Bellamy Brothers and Bonnie Bishop, Gary Morris and Johnny Rodriguez are due in May. June is Gary Lewis and the Playboys and two nights of Mickey Gilley. Tribute bands are a popular weekend booking as well.

Before Friday night’s concert, the family-style seating at tables (150 seats were filled Friday night) invited conversation and Texas hospitality demanded it. At our table, two people said they’d seen Ruthie several times in the past few years—just loved her. My music-loving friend and fellow writer, Rhonda Brinkmann (“There’s music? Let’s go!”) and I just smiled. The lady across from us said she this was going to be her first Ruthie concert. We smiled again.

The man across from us, the newbie’s date, smiled knowingly and said he’d listened to her latest CD all the way over in the car from his drive. Mm-hmm. Yes, you did. If there was a competition, and there seemed to be one brewing, for who’d been a fan of Ruthie’s the longest, it wasn’t going to be any of them (or me) who won it.

What I knew, that they didn’t, was that Rhonda and her friends used to work at a company in town that, in the 1980s, was also where Ruthie’s brother worked. Naturally, he got folks from work to come out and hear his sister play guitar—she was “really good” her brother said. That’s how long Rhonda had been a Ruthie listener. Two tables over from us were the real winners of the evening’s “how long have you known Ruthie” contest: Renn and Connie Carson.

Renn Carson is a major guitar talent and plays in any band he wants to, whenever he wants to; Connie’s a (recently retired) teacher—their entire family has always been second family to Ruthie from the very earliest and remains so today. But you’d never hear it from them. They are just as proud of and happy for Ruthie as everyone else in the room. When Ruthie was working on her early CD in the Brazos Valley, you’d find Renn and several other local legends on her albums.

During the concert, my mind flashed back to 1998, in the new Christian Life Center of First United Methodist Church in Bryan, where my best friend in volunteering and I had the chance to invite Ruthie to be the headliner for our opening celebration of the new building. We were thrilled she’d be in town for our Sept. 11, 1999 dedication.

She’d already been a frequent performer in Austin and Houston and people just couldn’t take it for granted even then that she’d be in town because her visibility had grown prolifically. The celebration weekend was called our “Full Circle Celebration” as it marked the creation of a magnificent new all-purpose building for what was a flourishing congregation in downtown Bryan.

Very soon after that celebration, she’d relocate and make Austin her home base, where an even larger group of people would support, encourage, and cheer like crazy whenever she sang. Back then transportation was an elderly red SUV that God and a great local mechanic kept rolling down Texas highways. Those days are long in her rearview mirror but her talent and her humility have remained unchanged throughout the years.

People look at today’s famous musicians and think that one day they just woke up and had a national tour and international acclaim. Doesn’t happen that way. Few people see the hours of practice it takes to stay your course, literally and figuratively. Ruthie and her faithful team of musicians and supporters made those late-night drives on Texas highways, crashing for brief rest and food and on to the next gig. Talk about paying your dues, Ruthie’s have long been paid in full. You never have as many friends as when you are doing well.

Here, Ruthie sings “People Grinnin’ in Your Face,” from her 2007 album, “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” She smiled after she performed this one, slightly shaking her head. It’s still true today.

Before the song, she recalled the sisters of the church in the “Amen corner” of the church, who’d arrived early to make sure they were not late. Among them were a very young Ruthie and her “Big Mama” who would be part of that. She recalled it was hot on Sunday mornings, and everyone would have the cardboard fans to keep them cool. There would be “praying hands on one side of the fan and on the other would be greetings from the local funeral home.” Said Foster, “You’d have thought they’d have put some lyrics from the hymnal on there, too, so we could keep up.”

Continuing the visual memory, “They’d raise the stained glass windows and pray for a breeze. You’d hear cars coming past, going down the road. The sisters would hum in unison and one by one, two by two, folks were coming in. Pretty soon you’d hear the unison of the ladies in the church singing…”Well, don’t you mind people grinning in your face.” And with that, Samantha Banks used her tambourine to keep up with Ruthie’s a cappella “Don’t You Mind People Grinnin’ in Your Face.” She invited the audience to sing in later on and it was a good thing, too, because much of the audience was already holding forth with “A good friend is hard to find, because it’s hard with people grinnin’ in your face.” The soaring high notes, though, were all Ruthie’s to proffer, as no one in the audience could match them.

It was a cappella and you thought there was a choir of 14 people up there on stage. Delivery. Presence. Authenticity. Ruthie is true to her gospel roots. She mentions Mavis Staples in reverent tones before delivering a resounding version of one of Ms. Staples’ classics, “The Ghetto.”

Ruthie also sang Patty Griffin’s “When It Don’t Come Easy,” and reflected that “Music is a healer; it brought me through a lot of things and it brought me to a lot of wonderful things.”

Ruthie’s song “People Grinnin’ in Your Face” is from her album “The Phenomenal Ruthie Foster.” If you knew Ruthie, you’d know that it’s a title she earned, one given her by those who have supported and encouraged her music over the years. She would have never chosen it for herself.

In the same breath that she spoke of her unending admiration for Maya Angelou. She shared, “On my 50th birthday I got a signed copy of one of her books; she had personalized a message for me in the book. I still prize that. She found out that I’d recorded this song, based on one of her poems, “Phenomenal Woman” (you know the one). And I happened to be performing in the area where she was living in North Carolina and I went to my dressing room after sound check, and found a beautiful bouquet of flowers from her there.” Now, her voice trailed off as she reflected on the sheer meaning of those acts in her behalf.” Quietly she said, “Ah, talk about affirmation…”

Affirmation…a litany of CDs written, recorded and released, national awards, international travels and the growing fame associated with her name didn’t mean as much to her as the affirmation of a brave woman who had survived tragedy and misfortune in her youth to rise to be a beacon of hope for all women.

Samantha Banks was Ruthie’s only band member joining her for this evening in Tomball, but she was absolutely all that Ruthie needed for her acoustic/electric evening. Banks, a multitalented percussionist, played a partial drum kit, and a tambourine, some finger shucks, wind chimes, and spoons. Samantha rocked those spoons and made it all look effortless, as she provided perfect accompaniment on every song. She’s toured with Ruthie for years and is always an audience favorite as she sings as well.

Ruthie’s newest CD, “Joy Comes Back” (on her longtime label, Blue Corn Music), is available on March 24. Nearby, there’s a CD release party set in Austin on April 1 at 8 p.m. There, she’ll be joined by Carolyn Wonderland, David Grissom, Warren Hood, and the Peterson Brothers. Tickets range from $20-$44.50 and are available here. Word to the wise: Connie Carson (being family has its perks) said the Ruthie’s new album is fantastic!

One thing Ruthie accomplished in the Bryan-College Station area in the 1990s came about while she was actively touring on the folk circuit up and down the interstate. She made many friends along the way, and she brought them to town. Longtime local music enthusiasts remember the old Double Dave’s Pizza in the two-story building in Northgate. Double Dave’s would deliver your order (upstairs) and Ruthie invited her friends to perform on their Monday nights off between tours.

Attendance was solid every week they hosted them, the musicians made enough in freewill donations and CD sales to pay for their time, and locals had the chance to see musicians like Chicago natives “Small Potatoes” (Jacquie Manning and Rich Preszioso), “The Desberardos” before they became “Chris Beraro & The Desberardos,” and guitarist, Freebo, among others. The traveling troubadours also had a solid meal before hitting the road again. It’s a hard life, living on the road, whether you stay in four-star hotels or crash at a fellow musician’s pad. But when the applause begins, the hardship fades away to an artist who is validated with every new fan who says, “Your music really moves me.”

There’s not one singular episode, record, award, or milestone that Ruthie needs to validate her work as a singer as she searches for the “next” level. The next level simply means that many new people will discover the talent that Ruthie has had all along. She’s not “new here.” Ruthie Foster has always been phenomenal because she remains true to the songs inside her, and will never let the bright lights of the big cities change her.

On Friday night, Main Street Crossing shone brightly as a jewel in Texas music, and as small town blues and runaway soul took their place in the offering, Ruthie Foster took the entire crowd to their feet this weekend, with her always professional delivery, bright spirit, and wise words.

The Brazos River called her back close to home for a visit this week, and we were all the better for it. To keep up with her, visit her web site, and check out her social media links there.

Keep singing, Ruthie, just keep singing and be yourself, and thanks for the concert that took us all back to church one more time. Nineteen years later, it really did all come around again, full circle. We always knew what Maya Angelou would ultimately come to affirm before she passed: Ruthie Foster is a phenomenal woman and musical talent.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Rob Meurer: Overlooked by The Recording Academy but Remembered by Music Lovers

When the 59th Annual GRAMMY Awards broadcast reached their “In Memoriam” part of the show Sunday night, I had hoped to see one name in particular, that of songwriter Rob Meurer, an immensely talented, gifted musician and lyricist from San Antonio, Texas. Sadly, his photo and name were not included on the broadcast. If you know the music of five-time GRAMMY winner Christopher Cross, chances are good that you know the name Rob Meurer. Anyone from “back in the day” in San Antonio and Austin certainly know the talented lyricist and musician.

Rob was the ‘other’ side of the ampersand in the frequent songwriting duo—Christopher Cross & Rob Meurer—on the credits of some of the best songs Cross ever released. On Rob’s official web site, it is noted:

“In terms of pop songwriting, though, my closest and most frequent collaborator by far has been my old friend Christopher Cross, with whom I’ve written nearly 50 songs that are in release throughout the world. When we began writing together I often joined in on the music, but in recent years my concentration with Chris has been as lyricist.”

You likely know “Back Of My Mind,” “Alibi,” “Deputy Dan,” “In The Blink of An Eye,” “Open Up My Window,” “Love is Calling,” “Walking in Avalon,” “Rendezvous”—most of which were early in Cross’ performance years following the multi-Grammy winning album “Sailing” that skyrocketed Cross and his touring career. Although the highly respected GRAMMY winner Michael Omartian played most of the songs he co-arranged and produced, Rob Meurer contributed synthesizer and keyboards to “Sailing,” the album that went 5x Platinum status. Then, too, Rob was Cross’ most prolific coauthor of songs on his subsequent albums.

So, as I watched the 55 photos go by on the late-in-the-show “In Memoriam” segment, seeing Keith Emerson and Greg Lake jammed into one slide for economy’s sake, I kept searching for Rob. Not there. Ones I did see showcased included many I knew had not been part of music careers of over 30 years. In fact, the omission of many far more relevant names patently clear. Those not qualifying for a 3-second TV photo image/name include Gary Loizzo (American Breed founder, and early Styx Producer), Maurice White (Earth Wind & Fire), Jerry Corbetta (Sugarloaf), Tommy Allsup (Buddy Holly & The Crickets), Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane), Al Caiola (guitarist on film/TV themes and scores), and Julius La Rosa (singer, mainstay on Arthur Godfrey’s show) just to name a few. Although their names were on the official Grammy list, but they belonged on TV as well, in my opinion.

Not seeing Rob’s name on the “In Memoriam” segment, I quickly abandoned watching the GRAMMY program (a better use of time) and went online to learn how a recording artist, record executive or member of the NARAS foundation gets on the consideration list. Turns out that Laura Bradley of Vanity Fair had asked Ken Ehrlich, the executive producer of The GRAMMYs, that exact question early. Quoting Ehrlich’s response to Bradley’s question in her story:

"…the research stage takes far longer than actually putting together the video itself. Out of the hundreds of artists and industry professionals who may have passed away, only about 50 can make it into the montage itself—and each can only be displayed onscreen for a few seconds. Who makes it in is decided by a committee of about 12 or 13 people from the recording academy, just one more way that the ceremony tries to make the system democratic and objective—and driven primarily by musical influence. “There are people that I would put in there, but it’s not about me,” Ehrlich told the A.P.. “It’s about the music industry as a whole and all of its parts: classical and rock and pop and Latin and jazz. So it’s a difficult process.”

Clearly, it’s a difficult process, and only the top 50 make the slates on the broadcast. I hoped that at least the head office would have Rob’s name listed on the official complete list of the “hundreds of artists and industry professionals” who’d died this past year.

Sadly, Rob Meurer’s name is also currently missing from that official list (click here). Their introductory remarks explain:

“The 59th GRAMMY Awards telecast on CBS will feature an In Memoriam segment highlighting some of these individuals via a video tribute, and all of these individuals who died prior to Jan. 11 are included in the official 59th GRAMMY Awards program book. The Recording Academy salutes each individual for their respective talents and contributions to our culture and community.”

To be fair, given the vast nature of the music industry, and those who pass away during the course of a calendar year, it’s invariable that some names will escape notice. But then, it’s on the shoulders of their friends and colleagues in the music business to submit their names to The Recording Academy just to make certain they’re not omitted, one would think.

Another favorite Cross & Meurer co-write is "Alibi":

Rob had been a vital part of new music for well over 30 years. It’s not like anyone is asking for something undeserved; his work deserved remembrance, if not recognition. After a 12-year hiatus from making a studio album, Cross would return with “Doctor Faith.” As a May, 2011, promotional YouTube video notes Cross reflected:

“This album has 13 new songs that were written by myself and my good friend and collaborator, my long-time collaborator, Rob Meurer. Rob and I met each other when we were about 16 and we were in San Antonio playing in bands and he was the keyboardist in the early band, the early records, and then he and I started collaborating as songwriters first in 1988 with “Back of My Mind.” It’s a relationship and a friendship that I feel very blessed to have and I just look forward to continuing the work that Rob and I do.”

Arguably one of Cross’s most successful tours was for the “Dr. Faith” album, and a DVD/CD recording of “A Night in Paris” was released. Rob remained at home in California, and singer-songwriter Kiki Ebsen handled keyboards and vocals on that Dr. Faith tour, as she’d toured frequently with Cross over the years.

Cross’ stock rose from that tour and it wasn’t long before he was destined for revisiting classic rock favorite-type Yacht Rock tours and enjoys continued popularity on the road today. Good music lives forever and audiences want to hear it.

Although Rob was not on the road for “Doctor Faith,” he was busy with one of his most important passions, writing musical theatre and working with promising young musicians in the Rising Star group that his wife, Beth, founded. Of the Los Angeles-based Rising Star, Rob described on his web site “…kids age 8 to 18 learn the art of Musical Theatre and have a whole lot of fun in the process. I also participate, and have found it to be more rewarding than I ever could have imagined.”

Rob remained steadfastly creative, as he also worked with individual promising young musicians, some the progeny of his former Texas colleagues and friends. For one musical theatre project, Rob was again lyricist on a production called ‘Helldrivers of Daytona,” and it was well received. He was a frequent contributor of time and talents to their church home, and his work Rising Star proved to be among the most fulfilling of all his achievements.

Even though he was living in Studio City, Rob and Christopher continued to work together on Cross’ 12th album, “Secret Ladder.” Yet, this time it was working across the Internet, rather than in person, as the duo would send files back and forth over the Internet as they worked on the songs.

Eleven of the 13 tracks on this album were billed as “Music & Lyrics by Christopher Cross & Rob Meurer.” Cross released this album in September, 2014, on his own label. A modest offering, still it was given a great launch with a national broadcast of the CBS “Sunday Morning” program prior to release.

One or more songs should have naturally found their way to radio play, but the state of terrestrial radio is almost as sad as some of last evening’s GRAMMYs segments. Even if they have a string of GRAMMY awards on their mantle, a solid artist can’t seem to catch a break. It’s up to the artist to tour, play every venue they can book, and provide the PR for their own music, but Cross didn’t tour with “Secret Ladder.”

At Rob’s memorial service in Studio City, Christopher Cross delivered an emotional eulogy that included humor, honesty, and truth:

“Rob was so many things but most of all a devoted friend, he forgave all my trespasses….we were brothers. We were also very dedicated to our work. It’s a rare gift to meet somebody so young in life to be able to sustain that kind of kinship for 40 years. We shared the mystical journey of songwriting. It was like God let us in on a secret no one else knew about. I got a much-needed chuckle out of Beth and Anne the other night at the house when I told her about a conversation I’d had with Rob after our “Secret Ladder” had come out, and had sold 12 copies. I said to Rob, ‘Why do we keep doing this?’ And he answered in a very reverent tone, ‘It’s because it’s what we do.’ And I was humbled to think that he could feel like that. And then he followed that immediately with ‘You didn’t think that we were doing this for the money, did you’?”

Scrolling back on Rob’s Facebook page back last summer and early fall, 2016, whenever visitors would comment, even if not his personal Facebook friends, frequently they’d post a thank-you to Rob for writing lyrics for several of their favorite Christopher Cross songs that they had just heard in concert the night before.

Some even remarked ahead of attending a Cross concert: “Hope they play some of your songs, Rob,” even though that was a likely given. To all posts, though, Rob replied personally, with thanks, and the most humble and gracious remarks you’d ever hope to read. In fact, some of them bordered on slightly self-deprecating as they might include, “Thank you for even remembering these songs!” It was overwhelming to think that the collective genius he possessed was something he was entirely unaware of. He just wrote because “it’s what we do.” They were his songs, too.

At the time of Rob’s passing, Christopher Cross posted this message on his own web site:

“To try and explain how I feel, or to try to imagine how his wife Beth and daughter Anne feel at this moment is impossible, but I felt I wanted to share with you the tremendous love and respect I had for this man,” Cross said. “He was quite simply the smartest guy I ever knew, funny, kind, devoted to his family and friends, and talented beyond measure. Not just with the work he and I did, but his own solo work, and his musical theater projects. His love of the craft was as deep as anyone I’ve ever known.”

One of the best examples of Christopher and Rob in sync is their duet on “Minstrel Gigolo,” on the stage of the Galaxy Theatre. Christopher is playing guitar and Rob is playing dulcimer. Two great friends making beautiful music. That’s the way I want to remember them, like the 66,000 other people who watched this particular video, of hundreds online.

To watch this video (pictured right) click here.

Rob’s time on Earth passed far too quickly. And it would be beyond poignant that, on the other side of the ampersand, the Cross & Meurer compositions would include “Blink of an Eye”:

…'Cause it could be gone in the blink of an eye

It could be dawn in the blink of an eye

Isn't it time that you reached for the sky

And let yourself go

There's a fire deep inside

I said baby baby

Let's steal the moon and let love have its way

Burning like a falling star until we are

A million miles away"

Journal archive Music Dish noted

“Rob Meurer first came to prominence as a keyboardist and arranger on the Grammy-sweeping debut album by Christopher Cross, with whom he has since written and produced several albums. He served as Music Director for Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theatre and Billy Crystal's A Comic's Line and has also worked with Carole King, J.D. Souther, and Van Dyke Parks, and written with Paul Williams & Jennifer Warnes as well as Nashville hitmakers Rory Feek and Sandy Knox…Rob has written books and lyrics for four musicals…and he taught a songwriting course, Lyric Lab for the Music Talks Educational Center.”

“And” Rob Meurer, indeed.

Three separate memorial services were held for Rob: a life celebration service was held in San Antonio, Texas, hosted by Rob’s sister Margaret Ann Hill and her family in October, 2016, for family and longtime friends from the area to remember him.

A private service for family and close friends was held in November in Studio City, California, and the children of the Rising Star Musical Theatre outshined themselves and the other musicians and speakers present with their amazing gifts of music. A video of the service is also posted online.

In December 2016, in Austin, Rob’s wife, Beth, and their daughter, Anne, hosted a celebration of life which allowed so many of their Austin friends to pay their respects.

One exceptional tribute well worth the time to read is by Gregg Barrios (click name to read), a journalist and longtime friend of Rob’s from their high school days in San Antonio (Rob went to Antonian College Preparatory High School and Cross went to Alamo Heights High School as teenagers).

Anyone who wishes can make a tax-deductible contribution to the Rob Meurer Scholarship Fund. His widow, Beth, wrote a beautiful tribute to his work (click here).

Rob may well be “a million miles away” now, and he may not have made it onto the GRAMMY broadcast or even onto the official list of The Recording Academy (yet), but he is forever remembered. It’s not always easy living on “the other side of the ampersand” in any talented duo, but perhaps in the future, lyricists and musicians who are integral to the music we all love and buy will be heralded and championed during their lifetimes more prominently, so we don’t have to worry about them being forgotten upon their passing. Rest in peace, Rob…and…thank you for all the music.

Robert Alvah Meurer

September 28, 1950 - September 24, 2016

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Mike Connors, star of action detective show “Mannix,” dies at age 91

I didn’t get the memo where my childhood was about to be flashing in front of my eyes at least two consecutive nights but here we are. Today, when the news came of actor Mike Connors’ death, it was sad. Sadder still was the Facebook trending topic—“Mike Conners”—as the social media millennials didn’t quite realize how his name was spelled. I’m convinced they couldn’t do a better job with Krekor Ohanian, Jr., which was his name at birth, on August 15, 1925.

No matter how well we think we know our childhood television favorites, because they’ve been in our living rooms as our guests all our childhood, we really don’t know them at all. And yet, we feel like they’re family, or at least I perceive many of us feel that way. And yet, at age 91, it’s not entirely unexpected that we’d lose another beloved actor at this point, but seeing it happen the day after we lost Mary Tyler Moore was sad.

Sources shared that young Ohanian served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, and upon discharge attended UCLA on a basketball scholarship, majoring in pre-law. Legend has it he was discovered while on the basketball court. From the web site,

"In an interview with the website Party Favors, Mike stated that after the game, Bill Wellman told the coach, "Ask the kid if he'd be interested in being an actor." When Connors replied, "Yeah, sure." Wellman promised to give him a call the next time he directed a picture." Days later, Mike was asked by the head of the UCLA drama department if he'd be interested in trying out for plays. Although a law student, Mike was soon bitten by the acting bug. He began taking acting lessons at the university and eventually gave up basketball for a career as an actor."

Ironically, the source failed to mention that Connors was playing basketball for iconic Coach John Wooden at UCLA.

This image is by Boris Yaro of the L.A. Times, at a dinner at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in 1973. Coach Wooden and his wife were the celebrities but clearly it was Mike Connors whose presence also brought an extra special spotlight to the occasion.

Mike met his wife, Mary Lou, in the 1950s when they were students at UCLA, as columnist Bob Talbert learned when he interviewed him. They had two children, son Matthew Gunner Ohanian (1958–2007) and daughter Dana Lee Connors (1960-).

At the time of the article in 1973, Mike was 46 years old and pulling in over $20,000 for each episode of “Mannix.” Imagine the modest weekly sum compared to the millions per episode earned by actors in half-hour episodes of “The Big Bang Theory.” Today’s actors have no real concept of what little the stars of yesteryear, beloved stars, and high-caliber dramatic actors at that, had to live on and make it last.

Nor, do any of these modern-day stars know what it was like to take the Sunday newspaper TV magazine or “TV Guide” and circle the episodes you wanted to make sure and watch each week. Printed on paper, not a sequence of shows scrolled through on your smartphone. But enough about the grand old days of Baby Boomer youth. Or not. Just one more thought.

The commitment of television stars to a TV series was driven by ratings and advertising dollars, then as now, and yet just like the compensation for professional athletes over the past 40 years, the discrepancy in base pay and reward pay is absurd. And yet, it’s the nature of the business.

Fortunately for audiences in the 1960s and 1970s, viewers could count on substantially more quality back then each week than today, when we complain because there are 300 channels and “nothing on worth watching” at times. In the 1960s and 1970s, you had CBS, ABC, NBS, and eventually PBS. And you got up and walked across the room to change the channel on your black and white. Middle America didn’t have regular color TV sets with remotes in every living room until many years later.

And, while we’re comparing, an episode of “Mannix” would stand up every bit as strong as does an episode of “NCIS” or even an episode of “Murder She Wrote.” in reruns today. Crime dramas are ever as popular among audiences today.

“Mannix” was co-created by the team of Bruce Geller, Richard Levinson and William Link. TV fans should recognize those names instantly. Bruce Geller, credited as “Developer” also created “Mission Impossible as well as wrote scripts for several popular 1950s and 1960s shows including “Zane Grey Theatre” and “Have Gun—Will Travel.” Geller was also a songwriter and scored stage plays in his talent repertoire.

You probably know Levinson as a writer and producer who, with Link, co-created “Murder, She Wrote,” and “Columbo” and “Ellery Queen.” William Link also created “The Cosby Mysteries,” which lasted for 18 episodes in the mid-1990s, and he wsa co-developer of “Ellery Queen.”

Now you remember the NBC Mystery Movie rotation with “Columbo,” “McCloud,” and “McMillan & Wife? For one year, 1970, the rotation included “Ellery Queen.” Those were the days of a guaranteed prime-time mystery for at least two hours each Sunday. So, looking at Mannix, you recall Joe Campanella in the first five seasons portraying Lew Wickersham and even Robert Reed was in 22 episodes as Lieutenant Adam Tobias, which was a breakout role for him. Of course, Reed would ultimately star as Mike Brady in “The Brady Bunch.”

One of the most progressive shows at its time, when few African-American actresses were cast in lead roles, Gail Fisher portrayed Peggy Fisher, Mannix’s assistant, whose husband was a police officer killed on duty.

“Mannix” ran from 1967–1975 and began as the final show produced by Desilu Productions, before transitioning to Paramount Television. In all, 194 episodes were filmed and broadcast. Just like “Mission Impossible,” the catchy opening theme of “Mannix” was written by the iconic Lalo Schifrin: There are bonus points if you remember what company Mannix initially worked for. (Hint: it begins with the letter ‘I’.)

Ironically, the show was almost “killed” by the people who brought it to life.

“ At the end of its fifth season, ‘Mannix’ has climbed to sixth in the overall rating game, a superb place. Last year CBS layed it in against NBC’s Mystery Movie (that means ‘Columbo’) and the ABC movie blockbusters like ‘Patton’ and Love Story.’ It was ratings murder even ‘Mannix’ couldn’t solve.”

Ironic, then, because “Columbo” was created by two of the three people who created “Mannix,” Richard Levinson and William O. Link. Don’t you know they had to be sitting there smiling all season? Either way, they won.

Precious free time away from filming the show (per the Cincinnati Enquire (8.14.73, page 29) would find the Connors family “watching son, Gunnar, play Little League shortstop and daughter, Dana, riding in horse shows.” Mike and Mary Lou also spent much time with dear friends Marty Allen and his wife, Frenchie, and they were often spotted eating at Nicky Blair’s on Sunset Strip and playing pinball at the arcade next door.

Another weekend both the Connors’ and the French families “flying to Dallas with Bob Hope to entertain some 500 POWs in the Cotton Bowl.” We who grew up in those days know, but millennials have no idea, of what it was like to have Bob Hope’s leadership in entertaining the troops when they returned home or were away from home overseas. He was always successful in securing America’s favorite entertainers and celebrities to join him in those tributes.

Outside of his acting, you couldn’t say that Mike Connors was a high-profile celebrity. He and his family remained cloistered away from the brighter lights and followed his instincts to live conservatively and save his money. In 2009, the four-time Golden Globe winner was interviewed by Bill O’Reilly, who asked, “Did you fit in with the Hollywood mentality?” “When you first got successful in this business, most people that I started with went off the deep end with big, fancy cars and houses they couldn’t afford, and I tried to stay away from that. I tried to realize that everything comes to an end and to try to accept what was there at the moment.”

Years before “Mannix,” Connors was the character Nick Stone in the TV show, “Tightrope,” an undercover police agent who infiltrated the underworld to expose gangsters and every episode he changed his name. It aired from 1959 through 1960 and was described as “He walks a tightrope between life and death as a police undercover man!” The show’s theme was composed by the great George Duning, and you’ll see from the credits he was billed as “Michael Connors.” You’ll enjoy the vintage “Aqua Velva” commercial, too as well as Connors’ pitch for Williams ‘Lectric Shave’ as the J. B. Williams Company also made Aqua Velva!

In the late 1990s, given his deep unforgettable voice, he was selected to voice the character Chipacles in the TV series Hercules, In 2007, Connors final credited appeared in an episode of “Two and a Half Men,” and my hunch is that Chuck Lorre had been a Mannix fan as a kid and well, you know. In 2009, Connors and his wife would celebrate 60 years of marriage and he joked, “The first 59 were the toughest,” adding, “I just try to enjoy life and realize how lucky I’ve been.” In 1976, Philadelphia TV writer noted that Connors “did a pilot for a series that was to have been called ‘Ohanian,’ about a former homicide detective who ran a charter boat service.” At the time Connors recalled “ABC convinced me that they wanted more action (than Mannix) in the pilot. Then when it ran, they said, ‘It looks like Mannix on the water.” That’s often a problem with actors who make a series or character so believably lifelike that they can easily get branded for the rest of their careers. At least the TV show was to be named for Connors’ real-life name, even though it didn’t end up as a broadcast series.

Connors was most proud of his Armenian roots, and in 2014, he was honored at the ARPA International Film Festival (presented by the ARPA Foundation for Film Music and Art), celebrating independent cinema, and in the beautiful tribute material online, they shared a favorite quote by Connors:

“If nothing else…just do the right thing.”

Absolutely, the wisest thing said all day. #RIP Mike Connors and thanks for all the years of entertainment you gave us.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Mary Tyler Moore, legendary entertainer and producer, dead at age 80

Is it okay to say you’ve lost a family member when that person isn’t even a relative? Well, she wasn’t a relative, but I’ve lost one of my very favorite actresses of all time, who at the very least was like a favorite cousin. The first years I ever “knew” Mary Tyler Moore was as Laura Petrie.

As a proud owner of “The Dick Van Dyke Show” book by Ginny Weissman and Coyne Steven Sanders (1983, St. Martin’s Press), there’s instant access to all the episode summaries for the entire series. Immediately coming to mind without even checking the book are the Petrie home address, 448 Bonnie Meadow Road in New Rochelle, NY. Neighbors were Jerry and Millie Helper. Son Ritchie’s favorite series of lines, “Daddy, did you bring me anything today?” “How about a stick of gum, Rich.” “Yay!”

Favorite episodes where Laura/Mary showed her dancing and singing style (“The Talented Neighborhood” where Doris Singleton’s “Mrs. Kendell” would con Rob into heading up the talent contest, and Mary would audition “a little something.” Then Eleanor Audley’s “Mrs. Billings” pushed Rob to the theatrical “Somebody Has to Play Cleopatra,” again showcasing Mary’s theatrical talents. Or, the “Too Many Stars” episode with Sylvia Lewis, competing with Laura for the prime spot; each of these episodes is a classic.

Probably my all-time favorite episode is “The Alan Brady Show Presents,” where the entire Alan Brady Show (Carl Reiner) staff perform in lieu of a scripted comedy.

The Alan Brady Chorus, hands down, delivers the most hysterical musical episode of the lot, at least in this writer’s opinion. Quick, before you watch, who is ejected from the chorus first and in what order? You know you know this!

Moving forward from 1966, when “The Dick Van Dyke Show” concluded, until 1970 when “The Mary Tyler Show” debuted, time passed very slowly for me. But in 1970, entertainment returned as MTM was back, this time in a James L. Brooks-Allan Burns brilliant creation that they also co-produced, together with Grant Tinker. How many times does a retro TV special include this dialogue?

Lou Grant: "Mary, You've got spunk."

Mary Richards: “Thank you, Mr. Grant.”

Lou Grant: “I hate spunk.”

And so, the show opened in 1970 with “Love is All Around,” written and sung by Sonny Curtis:

“How will you make it on your own? This world is awfully big. Girl this time you’re all alone. But it’s time you started living. It’s time you let someone else do some giving. Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have the town. Why don’t you take it? You might just make it after all.”

Sonny Curtis sang the opening and closing themes on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show" from 1970-1977. And all of America who will admit it, can sing right along with the song that (re)introduced America to beloved character actors who held regular roles including Ed Asner, Gavin MacLeod, Ted Knight, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, John Amos, Lisa Gerritsen, and Joyce Bulifant.

Her MTM Enterprises flourished in its number and quality of primarily comedy shows produced through the years. Daily operations were headed by co-owner and Mary's former husband Grant Tinker, who died just last November, 2016 at age 90.

Together they were an amazing production team, giving us so many shows we can name right off the tops of our collective heads: “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “Rhoda,” “Phyllis,” “Lou Grant,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “St. Elsewhere,” and “Remington Steele,” to name a few.

Oh, let’s not forget the iconic music and characters of “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The “Big Guy” Arthur Carlson, portrayed by Gordon Jump, and “Little Guy,” Herbert R. Tarlek, Jr. (Frank Bonner), Howard Hesseman’s “Johnny Fever” (et al.), Tim Reid’s “Venus Flytrap,” Loni Anderson’s “Jennifer Marlow,” “Andy Travis” (Gary Sanders), Bailey Quarters (Jan Smithers), and everyone’s favorite reporter, Les Nessman (Richard Sanders), who gave us all newfound respect for the Silver Sow Award and passed on the knowledge that turkeys indeed cannot fly. These shows and the legendary characters are essentially all thanks to Mary Tyler Moore.

As the years passed, the final season show opened with (Sing along, go ahead)

“Who can turn the world on with her smile? Who can take a nothing day and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile? Well, it’s you girl, and you should know it. With each glance and every little movement you show it. Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re going to make it after all. You’re going to make it after all.”

You remember the cat meowing at the end of each show?

That was Mary’s own cat, Mimsie, set to be the MGM lion in training. MGM, MTM…you know.The only time it took on a different voicing was when Bob Newhart recorded his own voice saying, “Meow.” Classic Bob.

Back then, it wasn’t well known, but MTM Enterprises actually co-owned the CBS Studio Center, in Studio City, California; hence, most of the MTM series were shown on CBS. That meant ratings gold for the network and Saturday night programming was locked up at one point in the 1970s with the MTM branding.

As TV Line has just reported Mary’s death at age 80 today, I don’t think about the four Emmys she won, the dancer she was, or even the Hotpoint little wisp of a fairy she was. Some of you are too young to recall the very first days of her career. I just think of a woman of classic beauty, dignity, style and grace, who was a guest in my home for 90% of my life. Sometimes I’d have to go to the movies to see her, as she was capable of handling comedy, musicals, and drama with equal skill.

As a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, we were aware that she had battled the disease throughout her life. We also know that she lost her son far too young and yet, despite her pain, she pressed on with her career. Even after her divorce from Grant Tinker, she continued to entertain us. And she found love again, with a devoted husband, Dr. Robert Levine, who survives her.

In 1979 she starred in an ill-fated one-season series, “The Mary Tyler Moore Hour” and despite a sterling cast (Dody Goodman and Michael Keaton), it fizzled, but not before garnering an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Art Direction for a Series (of course, fellow credit watching devotees will recognize René Lagler and Carl Carlson as experts who’d likely garner an Emmy nod for building a set out of popsicle sticks—they’re that good).

In fact, Mary Tyler Moore’s world was defined by, expanded by, and graced by some of the most iconic character actors, production executives, network executives, and behind the scenes pros. Together, these teams gave us decades of joy, laughter, entertainment, escape, and inspiration to enter a business where everything is exciting, day after day, because it is to bring joy into the lives of others.

As Sonny Curtis sang, “Love is all around, no need to waste it. You can have the town, why don’t you take it? You’re going to make it after all.” And the MTM cat meows, knowingly. As Valerie Harper’s character, Rhoda Morganstern, used to say, “Thanks, Mer..” and lots of love.