Thursday, May 10, 2012

Playboy, Brunch, and Mark Hamill

I miss the Playboy Club.

Not the TV Show, I don't miss that, but I'm talking about the actual Playboy Club.  Not the reconstituted Las Vegas one, I've never been there.  I'm talking about the actual Playboy Club.

In the 1970's, my dad had a membership in the Playboy Club. I still have his gold card (this was after the cool keys they used in the early days).  Every so often, our family would make the 28 mile drive from our house to the Playboy club at Vernon Valley/Great Gorge, NJ for brunch.  Yes, that's right - a family outing to The Playboy Club -- they didn't do any episodes about that on the short-lived NBC series.

The Playboy Club had a brunch buffet on the weekends.  I was only about 10 or 11 at the time, so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I remember lot of food to choose from and some very nice ladies in bunny costumes would come to the table, bring beverages and occasionally pinch my cheeks.  A few years later, I would have probably been the one doing the pinching.

Eggs, bacon, sausage, potatoes, pancakes, french toast…  all with the unique Playboy touch.  (Okay, so there wasn't a unique Playboy touch, but you can't beat a breakfast buffet -- and I think the Playboy one was the first I had the pleasure of experiencing).

But it wasn't only about the food.  After brunch, my dad took his gold key card to the counter to pick up his magazine.  One of the perks of membership was a free copy of a magazine published by the Playboy publishing empire.  Sadly, it didn't guarantee which magazine, so most of the time they were out of Playboy and my dad went home with a brown paper bag containing a copy of "Oui," a raunchier and less literary sister publication.  While dad was having a small bunny-shaped hole punched in his card to mark the receipt of "Oui," and my mom enjoyed her post-meal cigarette (people smoked back then), I made my way to THE ARCADE.

There was big arcade at the Playboy Club in Great Gorge.  A really big one (at least it seemed big to the eyes of a 11 or 12 year-old boy).  Among the pinball and very early video games was the single coolest game I had ever seen -- a sit-down, swiveling dogfight video game.  And, in the new post-Death Star trench world in which I was living, a dogfight game (even one that had nothing to do with "Star Wars") was the game I would be stacking my quarters on (and this one took twice as many - the first 50 cent game I ever played). The vector graphics were beyond primitive, but sufficient to catapult me into the cockpit of a fighter craft.  I can't remember if it was a space game or a aircraft dogfight, but as far as I was concerned, I was Luke Skywalker in an X-Wing fighter navigating through the Death Star trench.  Later on, actual recreations of the trench run came to arcades in their own sit-down configurations, but this one was enough to make me Luke Skywalker for as long as my supply of quarters would last.

A trip to the Playboy Club made me Luke Skywalker.  My mom bought me a slightly warped lightsaber knock-off called a Force Beam at the Rockaway Sales sidewalk sale, and then my transformation was complete.

Only in the seventies could "Playboy" and "Star Wars" converge in a boy's life. It was a simpler time.  It was a time when Hugh Hefner wore pajamas all day because it was part of the Playboy lifestyle.  Nowadays, he wears pajamas all day because most people his age wear pajamas all day. The 1970s; a time before Midi-chlorians and Trade Federation Viceroys. It was B.J.J.B. (Before Jar-Jar Binks).

Many years later, I was approached about working on a pilot for an animated series.  A friend of mine had recommended me to its producer.  That producer called me one night to discuss the project.

"Hi, Craig. It's Mark Hamill"

The 11-year old inside of me couldn't stop jumping up and down, but I tried to play it cool.  We talked business for an hour, and then a few weeks later we met in person.

He was dressed all in black  All I could think of was Luke's "Return of the Jedi" look.  I glanced at his hand to see if he was wearing a black glove, but there was none -- and I'm pretty sure the hand was real and not mechanical.   The meeting went well, but the project never happened.

A couple of years later, I wrote some interstitials for Disney. One of the characters was a gruff, but loveable fat cat who was constantly plotting to sneak the snacks prepared by the show's host, a cooking dog. Who would you pick to play a fat cat?  Disney picked the man who blew up the Death Star -- Mark Hamill.

Mark is a brilliant performer and a very easy person to work with. He sold every joke.  He punched every punchline. I saw no evidence of ego.  "Tell me how you want it. Don't be afraid to give me a line reading."

Actors hate being given line readings.  Mark didn't.  But, we never really had to.  His timing was flawless, and, I should add, so was Rob Paulsen's - Rob played the cooking dog, ZeFronk, the host of the show.

I put a Jack Benny "Si/Sy/Sue" homage in one episode. Mark loved it and played it beautifully.

In another episode, I wrote a big Bollywood finale for Mark's cat character.  He sang "Snack Ho" with an unparalleled level of enthusiasm.

I never told him about my days dreaming I was Luke Skywalker, but, I think he knows. He's a Jedi, right?  The Force is strong in him.

He laughed and joked and generally had a good time during his sessions.  On breaks, he spoke proudly of his family and shared memories of appearing with Miss Piggy on "The Muppet Show."

(L-R) Voice Director Kelly Ward, Rob Paulsen, Mark Hamill, Craig Shemin

Mark and Rob both treated our little 3-minute cartoon with respect and professionalism. They came to the studio prepared and ready to go.  We got an Emmy nomination for best short-form program and I think Rob and Mark's performances had a lot to do with it.

When I was 11, I wanted to be just like Luke Skywalker.

Now, I wouldn't mind being just like Mark Hamill.

Here's a little taste of Mark and Rob at work.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Adventures in Fictional Litigation

"Jaws" is one of my favorite films, but I always wondered what happened to Chief Brody and Matt Hooper once they returned to town (and I don't mean "Jaws 2, 3D, or Revenge"). If the story happened today, the litigious nature of society would certainly result in the following:





This suit alleges the negligence on the part of the defendants resulting in the loss of human life of the plantiffs’ father, Mr. Quint and the loss of property, the fishing boat Orca off the shore of Amity Island in the summer of 1975 and seeks compensation in the amount of $15 million.

Having witnessed Quint’s erratic behavior, beginning with an incident in a special meeting of the Amity council in which he claimed to be able to catch a shark for $10,000, the defendants did not investigate Quint’s professional, medical and psychological history. 

Had they done so, they would have learned that Quint suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome resulting from an incident aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis.  His condition created an unstable obsession with killing sharks, although there is no evidence Quint ever had experience doing so.

Since no investigation was made, the defendants chartered Quint’s vessel, and in so doing placed a very sick man in a life-threatening situation.  The defendants repeatedly ignored Mr. Quint’s erratic behavior, nonsensical exclamations and impromptu explosions of public domain singing. 

The defendants contributed to Mr. Quint’s delusions of grandeur by serving as crew aboard the Orca, obeying his every command – even when Mr. Quint’s psychoses were evident.

The defendants exacerbated Mr. Quint’s history of alcohol abuse by engaging in an all-night drinking party aboard the ill-fated Orca.  

Mr. Brody, a law enforcement professional hailing from New York should have had more than enough experience identifying psychotic behavior, but chose not to bring Mr. Quint’s behavior to the attention of a mental health professional.

Mr. Hooper, an experienced marine biologist with knowledge of basic seamanship failed to identify Mr. Quint’s unsafe seamanship and bring it to the attention of coastal authorities.  Mr. Hooper also goaded and teased the unstable Mr. Quint by making faces and flaunting a vast array of high-tech and ultimately worthless shark hunting equipment.  This behavior, by a city-raised youth more intent on studying the shark pursued, than on the safety of his very ill captain was certainly a contributory cause of the loss of the valuable antique vessel, the Orca.

This suit alleges negligence in the preservation of life and property resulting from the defendants personal needs to kill one abnormally large shark.  As if the negligence in this case were not evident enough, the city of Amity never paid the $10,000 owed Mr. Quint to his estate, nor have they returned the two yellow barrels salvaged from the boat by Messrs. Hooper and Brody.

This flagrant disregard for real property and human life cannot go unnoticed or unpunished.  The plaintiffs in this case are seeking compensatory and punitive damages in the amount of $15 million.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Personal Entertainment - The 1970's Way

I found myself on a bus to New Jersey the other day.  The walk through the Port Authority Bus Terminal reminded me of the first times I found myself there.

My family had moved to suburban New Jersey when I was five years old.  Every now and then, we would return to New York to visit family.  Usually, my Dad drove in one of the large tank-like sedans that everyone drove in the very early 1970's, but on occasion, we would take the Lakeland Bus to Manhattan. My paternal grandmother, who worked for Macy's for an incredibly long time, would meet us and I would get to enjoy a quick trip to the Playland arcade for some Skee-Ball, before we continued on to the World's Largest Department Store to indulge in Nana's employee discount for my back-to-school clothes.

I don't remember much about the Port Authority back then - aside from the fact that I used to call it the Port of Authority, but I do recall the cutting-edge entertainment available to travelers awaiting their busses.  Three words: Coin Operated Television.  It was so exciting to me back then, but as I walked through the terminal in 2012 with a messenger bag containing several devices with more computing power than Apollo spacecraft, it seems incredibly quaint.  Imagine a row of waiting room chairs, with small black and white televisions mounted in front of each seat.  A quarter would buy about 15 minutes of television viewing...  Black and white television viewing...  Black and white broadcast television viewing… Static-laden, black and white, broadcast television viewing, which at that time meant, WABC, WCBS, WNBC, WNEW, WOR, WPIX and WNET (Public Television).  That's right, youngsters, there were seven glorious channels to choose from.  It seems incredibly quaint by today's personal entertainment standards, but to a seven or eight year-old child, there was nothing more cool than watching television anywhere outside your home.  I LOVED watching those Port Authority TV sets, so when we had to wait for a bus, my parents (or grandparent) would indulge me with a quarter to feed the TV - that was a lot of money back in the time when you didn't pay for television.

I don't remember what I watched, but it was probably Batman or Star Trek, or WPIX's Vice President and General Manager Richard Hughes delivering his editorial (New Yorkers will remember the solemn fellow speaking with the channel 11 logo over his shoulder; "What's your opinion?  We'd like to know.")  Whatever it was, and however much static there was, and even if I wouldn't watch it at home, watching it in the Port Authority made it cooler.

So, the next time you watch a TV show on your iPad at the airport, train station or bus depot, remember us previous century pioneers of personal entertainment.  

Friday, February 3, 2012

Memories of Drake's Cakes

Hostess is in bankruptcy -- that's the news that spread throughout the media.  Even Brian Williams announced the Twinkie emergency on the NBC Nightly News.  Sure, I'm concerned about Hostess, although I generally prefer their cupcakes and other chocolate covered treats over the traditional Twinkies.  But, frankly, I'm more concerned that the possible demise of the venerable Hostess empire would bring down another brand that only recently became entwined into their corporate structure.

I speak of Drake's Cakes.  Some of you will know the name, others will not, but Drake's Cakes is loved by those of us who grew up in the east.  While Hostess had the Ding Dong, Drake's had the Ring Ding.  Hostess had the Ho-Ho, Drake's had the Yodel.  Hostess had a big fruit pie, Drakes had a package of two, sugar glazed squares of fruit pie dreaminess.  Yes, the Drake's Apple Pie is my favorite: a 400+ calorie package of sweet memories wrapped in a paper sleeve.  I know they're not good for me, but when I taste them, I feel good. I think of an earlier time.

Years ago, on Route 46 in New Jersey somewhere between Denville and Mountain Lakes, there was a Drake's thrift bakery.  This was when the Drake's company was owned by the Borden people. My mom would take me shopping there and we would search for bargains on boxes of snack cakes, each marked by a broad swipe of a magic marker, the color of which would indicate the discount price.  Baskets of individually wrapped cakes would be sold in bulk lots of 10.  And sure, we would also buy some bread.  They sold bread there, too.

We had a large freezer in the basement, so the impending expiration dates never scared away my mom.  And, in my house, in those days before we all thought about what we were eating, the snacks never stayed around all that long anyway.  For me, Drake's Cakes will always make me think of those days in the 1970's and early eighties.  

In 1984 I left for Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, or in snack cake geography, I suppose it was in Hostess or Little Debbie territory. I know we had access to Pop-Tarts.  I'm pretty sure there weren't any Drake's Cakes in the Dominick's grocery store (soon after I arrived there was no Dominick's grocery store either, as it was torn down to make way for a Northwestern research complex).

Shortly after my arrival, I received a large package from my parents.  In it was a little piece of home.  Actually, there were a lot of pieces of home - in the form of Drake's Cakes.  Apple Pies, Ring Dings, Yodels, Coffee Cakes, Yankee Doodles Sunny Doodles, you name it.  Our Norwegian-inspired modern oak dormitory bunk beds had two drawers side-by-side beneath the bottom bunk.  Mine was filled with snack cakes, which I happily shared with my new friends.  I know this may seem like some sappy commercial, but these Drake's cakes and pies were both a link to my past, and a way to make friends for the future.  It was like my parents thought they were smuggling in a carton of cigarettes into prison and I could use the contraband like cash.

A few years ago, the Drake's brand was bought by Hostess, which surprised me when I first saw the two logos side by side on an Apple Pie.  

I always imagined the two bakeries at war - to see them on the same package was like the thought of seeing Dave and Jay hosting a new version of "TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes" together.  But, I unwrapped the paper and took a bite and the pie tasted the same.  It tasted just like it did in 1984 in the two-blue suite lounge in East Fairchild Hall at Northwestern University, only this time, I paid full retail price.  

When I heard about Hostess filing for bankruptcy, I picked up a box of pies to take another trip back to school.  The Drake's name, once again, is emblazoned on the box by itself, the Hostess name appearing only in fine print on the box.

I guess other Drake's loyalists had similar reactions seeing the dual logo.

Hostess people, if you read this, I hope your restructuring is successful. Do whatever you need to do, just save Drake's cakes. It's the closest thing I know to time travel.

Saturday, January 21, 2012


I think everyone will agree that there are some things in the world that can be improved.  Not everyone agrees on what those things are, or how they can be fixed.  But, if the powers that be take a look at my blog from time to time, I'll try to list some of the things that I know for sure are just plain screwed up. I won't pretend to have all of the solutions, but I can certainly spot the problems.  

Here is the first installment of what I hope will be a running feature in this blog (and maybe even  eventually get turned into a book, because that's where the big money is)


Every movie costs the same.  You can go see a low budget supernatural paranormal shot-on-video for $20,000, or you can see the latest 100 million buck Michael Bay bonanza (perhaps even based on Bonanza), but it will cost you the same amount of money at the neighborhood movie house.  At that same movie house, you pay for popcorn according to how much you get, but if you see a 90 minute movie, it costs the same as a two hour movie.  The only thing you usually pay extra for is an extra dimension.

It doesn't really make a lot of sense.

Books are priced according to length, author, size, shape, and any other reason.

At a fast food establishment, you pay for the food according to size/amount.

Even when you buy the movie you saw in the theater on DVD, some are more expensive than others.

One other area where the pay-the-same-price philosophy seems to apply is on iTunes, where most songs, films and TV shows have a set cost.  Most of the time, this seems to make sense, but I have found one glaring instance where the pricing structure seems absurd.  If you go to iTunes, you can buy the Bruce Springsteen classic "Born to Run" for only $1.29.  This is a wonderful thing.  In 1975, when the song came out, a gallon of gas cost 44 cents, the average new car cost 4,250 and a 45 recording of "Born to Run" would have cost you about a dollar .  Wow.  Gas goes up 1000%  Automobile prices are up 400% and music is only up a few cents.

So, if this is such a bargain, where is the absurdity in iTunes pricing?  

While you can buy the Boss' rendition of "Born to Run" for $1.29, you can also buy the same song performed by Suzi Quatro for the same exact price.  Remember Suzi Quatro?  

She is a great singer -- you may remember her hit "Devil Gate Drive" but she may be best known for her hip-slapping-finger-shooting role as Leather Tuscadero on "Happy Days."

Now, I love Suzi Quatro and my 12-year-old self had a minor crush on her (somewhere between Kim Richards and Lynda Carter), but there is no economic system on in the universe in which Suzi Quatro's and Bruce Springsteen's recordings of "Born to Run" should cost the same amount of money.

iTunes isn't totally blind to musical justice, though.  Don McLean's "American Pie" costs $1.29 while The Brady Bunch's cover costs only .99.  However, on closer examination, the abridged Brady Bunch version is only 3 minutes and 38 seconds, or a little more than a half-cent per second.  The full Don McLean version is 8:32, or less than 3 tenths of a cent per second.

Yup, when unit pricing is taken into consideration, the Brady Bunch's recording of one of the most important songs in American music costs more than its legendary original recording.

This day, the day I made this troubling calculation, shall be forever known to me as the day the music died.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


Ken Levine, one of the best bloggers around, periodically posts excerpts from his book about growing up in the 1960's. 

I have decided to periodically post about growing up in the 1970's.   Generally, I really enjoyed my childhood.  It was the decade of "Star Wars," "Happy Days," "Match Game 70-whatever," "The Muppets," "The Odd Couple" and "Musicradio WABC."

But there were some bad things about the 1970's.  Some people would name Watergate at the top of the list, but to a child, that wouldn't even make the list.  Here is the first installment of what I hope will be many postings about...

The worst things about growing up in the 70's.

Number 1: G.I. Joe Feet.  

The 11-inch G.I. Joe action figure was one of the all time best toys ever created.  I had several, including an African-American member of the Adventure Team which broke the color barrier in my toy box and opened the door to an African American Big Jim (Mattel's action figure which looked a little like a muscular Ken Doll) and an African American Action Jackson (the 8-inch Mego figure).  I wish I could say that this was a grand plan on my Mom's part to teach me about equality and civil rights, but my mom usually just bought the toys that were on sale, and in our mostly Caucasian area in New Jersey, the African American Joes were overstocked.  But, the discounts at the Rockaway Sales department store brought diversity to my playtime, and my own G.I. Joe Adventure Team was a force with which to be reckoned.

Sadly, not unlike the current forces of the U.S. military from which the G.I. Joe received its name, my platoon of G.I. Joe's had to make do with less than a perfect armory of equipment and weapons.

As I hinted at earlier, my Mom's search for sale prices was paramount in her purchasing motivation as the quartermaster for my troops.  My G.I. Joe Helicopter was picked up as an open-box bargain and thus, had a couple of pieces missing (Who needs landing gear, anyway? Helicopters are for hovering, right?)  My. G.I. Joe headquarters was a very cheaply made, vinyl-covered cardboard fold-up doohickey made by a competing toy company.

My Troubleshooter vehicle was mostly intact - only the windshield was missing, but Mom managed to get a really good deal.  We would never be able to afford a Troubleshooter for my Adventure team on our 1974 household's military budget.

Trades with neighbors brought me an undersea rocket sled and a few other cool items.

Uniforms were very rare to come by. There was no way my Mom would buy me more uniforms for my G.I. Joe when I was badly in need of new Toughskins myself.  One summer, I was able to get a nice short-sleeved jumpsuit for my Joes when a local toy store donated one for the backyard carnival for Muscular Dystrophy I was holding.  (No, I didn't swipe it -- a family member won it and gave it to me as a reward for a doing a good thing for Jerry's kids.  Jerry sent me a certificate, too).

Apart from that very casual and not-very G.I. Joe-like uniform, my Joes usually had to settle for the clothing they came in.  The Eight Ropes of Danger deep-sea diving suit and the space suit were always elusive (until a few years ago when they put out special collector's editions).  

On the other hand, my Action Jacksons had quite a large wardrobe since they were always having closeouts on their clothes at the Two Guys department store.  But, I digress.

While my G.I. Joes didn't have a lot of clothes, that didn't stop me from having them change their gear.  When I was playing with my friends and their Joes, we would always swap outfits.  Unfortunately, the feet of G.I. Joes in that era were not very securely attached to the legs.  Since boots would always go missing, my mom would always purchase the cheap replacement boots in big bags made by a company other than Hasbro.  Some toy company that probably no longer exists would make a bag full of boots, guns and knives that would sell for a ridiculously low price and wait on a peg at the Two Guys for my mom to buy them.

At first it was exciting to get more weapons for the armory and shoes for my Joes, but the excitement would turn to frustration when I tried to pull this ersatz footwear off the brand name feet.  The boots would come off -- with the feet inside them.  

This is probably the first lesson I received in the consumer rule "you get what you pay for."  My personal take on this rule is to add "Usually" to the end of the statement, because thanks to the regular sidewalk sales at the local department stores (this was an era before malls and big box stores), we also got brand name stuff for low prices.  

My dad would get his pair of long nose pliers and perform a foot-ectomy with the precision and experience he gained as an Air Force medic in Germany in the 1950's.  Usually, both foot and boot were separated without damage, but on occasion the boots were sacrificed.  

The feet would be inserted back into the legs and there they would stay… until the next time I took off a boot.  

I can still see the white plastic foot stump sticking out of the boot.  It remains to this day one of the saddest sights in the world. Many of you will never understand this feeling.  Some of you will.   

So there you have it…  The worst things about growing up in the 1970's, Number 1: G.I. Joe Feet.

Tune in for future installments, including the tale of the Aquaman action figure that couldn't be put in water.  (Unfortunately, I didn't find that out until after the water destroyed the thin elastic cord that held his Mego-made body together).

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Near Mint

Altoids are great for convenience. They come in nice easy-to-open tins.  And, after one finishes the mints, you can keep the tins for your collection of souvenir pressed pennies.  
Personally, I don't care for the mints themselves.  I prefer Certs, the most inconvenient mints there are.  Certs are packaged in paper tubes just like Lifesavers.  You have to peel them open and there's no great way to reseal them.

And now, as though that's not bad enough, there are some new problems for Certs.

I visited Amazon to see if I could buy a bulk package of Certs.  After all, Amazon has everything.  I was a little concerned when I saw this.

The word "used" concerns me.  "Used" mints?  Now, I love a good deal, but I prefer my mints to be new and unused.  I don't think that's too much to ask.  There may be some weird people who like a third party to break in their mints, but I'm not one of them.  

This is probably some standard Amazon language, but just in case, I thought I would compose an open letter to the Certs people:

Dear Certs,

1.  Come up with better packaging.

2.  Try to clamp down on the black market selling of used mints.  No one likes used mints.