Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 29, 2018

Candy Wars Part 1

These mortal enemies, one from Nestle, one from Hershey’s (those are Whopper malted milk balls, in case you can’t tell), were fraternizing in the same candy basket at the veterinarian’s office this morning.

It got me thinking about purists, and brand loyalty, and whether anyone really cares anymore, especially in the food industry.

Here, for example, is the shortened Wikipedia version of the lifespan of the Whopper brand:

In 1939, the Overland Candy Company introduced the predecessor to Whoppers, a malted milk candy called Giants. Overland merged with Chicago Biscuit Company, Leaf Gum, and Leaf Machinery, in 1947. Two years later, Leaf Brands reintroduced malted milk balls under the name of Whoppers... Hershey Foods Corporation acquired the Leaf North America confectionery operations from Huhtamaki Oy of Helsinki, Finland, in 1996.

I should have known that the “classic” Whopper candy (one of my personal favorites, BTW) was not developed by Hershey but was acquired by them. Just as Hershey did with Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups (which we’ll get to in a minute).

However, I’m old enough to remember the original Leaf candy company, which may even have still been headquartered in Chicago –where I lived for most of my life –until Leaf was bought and sold a bunch, from the Seventies onward. They also did baseball cards and a few other candy products, and most recently a new Leaf company bought the abandoned Hydrox cookie brand and is trying rmto revive it. Remember Hydrox?

See? Everything old comes back around eventually. Maybe there’s hope for late-middle-aged guys like me, after all.

Ironically, when I moved to Bloomington, IL, I found that I had unknowingly moved to another minor “candy capital”, since Nestle has a large factory here. I believe the above Butterfinger cups are actually produced for international distribution here. I even worked there for a short time, as a subcontractor in corporate security. If I were here today to blow a whistle, I’d have a couple good stories to tell… But I don’t want to be David to their Goliath. Not today, anyway.

What I am here to say is that the above-pictured Butterfinger Cup is clearly a direct rip-off of the much better Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, one of the all-time champs in the candy industry. I believe it was Mark Twain who said “genius borrows liberally”. But Nestle aren’t geniuses– just crass capitalists putting one over on the rest of us. If I were willing to sell my soul, I’d be envious. They know how to work “the long con” very well at Nestle, … though they’re probably no worse than ADM or a half dozen other multinational food processors, producers and/or distributors.

Enough said about Butterfinger and Nestle, though. By contrast, the Reese family, like the Hersheys, were Lancaster County, PA candy-makers. They were direct competitors, both of them heavy-hitters– like McDonald’s and Burger King, but with their actual headquarters practically across the street from each other. Hershey won, of course, by buying out the Reeses in 1956 (merging, really, but we all know what actually happened).

Yes, I said Lancaster County: home to the largest concentration of Amish and Mennonites in the U.S., if not the world. That means the milk in your milk chocolate is most likely from Amish cows. Even in Chicago, as a practicing Mennonite, I have close Mennonite friends (the Belsers) who knew the Reeses on a first-name basis. They grew up with the second-generation Reese brothers, who inherited their father’s lucrative business.

I find myself wondering if there’s a good movie script buried in there somewhere: upstart dairy farmer H.B. Reese stops working for Hershey in the 1920s, makes his candy that kicks Hershey’s ass at their own game, then later sells the Reese brand back to them for billions of dollars… And it remains their #1 product in the U.S., right up to today in 2018.

It’s a romantic idea, anyway. Maybe I’ll develop a “history of candy” podcast series, to look into the cool history of companies like Leaf, Reese’s, M&M-Mars (where I also have contacts) and another Chicago favorite, Ferrara-Pan (makers of Lemonheads and the immortal Atomic Fireballs brand).

What do you know about your favorite candies? Let’s talk about this!

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Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 25, 2018

To Topple Trump’s Power, Topple Trump Tower

The Trumps… Cut off their revenue. Maybe then they’ll stop using the Presidency like some sort of global ATM.

A welcome news item at msn.com and/or Business Insider today:

America’s closest allies are furious about Trump’s tariffs, and now an unorthodox idea to go after him

Here’s an edit of some of the highlights:

In the past three months, Trump has hit countries around the world with a 25% tariff on steel and a 10% tariff on aluminum exports to the US. The decision prompted a swift response from US allies, including retaliatory tariffs and a radical departure in treatment from other formerly friendly foreign leaders — from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to French President Emmanuel Macron.

    Op-eds in The Houston Chronicle and the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s suggested the only way to quell the rising trade tensions is to strike at Trump’s businesses. While some countries, such as China, have appeared to try and sway the president through treating his family’s businesses more favorably, countries have not made moves to curtail the businesses’ activity within their borders.

     how you could use trade actions to hit his businesses unless you really tailored some sort of measure targeting key industries like real estate,” Shon told Business Insider.

That would force any country trying to go after Trump to get creative with their response. Scott Gilmore, a social entrepreneur and former Canadian diplomat, suggested in Maclean’s that Canada should use anti-corruption laws to pressure Trump on trade.

Trump-branded skyscrapers in Toronto and Vancouver represent the president’s most prominent business ventures in the country.

    “I propose that instead of taxing the import of American serviettes, we tax Trump,” Gilmore said. “In the spirit of the Magnitsky Act, Canada and the western allies come together to collectively pressure the only pain point that matters to this President: his family and their assets.”

Based on my research into Trump’s former deal-making in New York, with the Genovese Mafia crime family and other proven criminals, it shouldn’t be too hard for other countries to find a smoking gun over there. Get on that, Canada! Find a whistle-blower looking to make a deal, with airtight evidence of Trump’s criminal past, and we’ll be on our way…

Travolta plays Gotti

William DeMeo, Stacy Keach, John Travolta and Chris Mulkey in a scene from “Gotti” (2018).

John Travolta’s long awaited John Gotti biopic (though I’m sure it interprets that word biography quite loosely) is proving to be a flop with critics and at the box office.

I for one am not surprised that the movie is being condemned (whether it’s good or not), and I could see it coming from a mile away.

The media kerfuffle this week, more specifically, involves the Rotten Tomatoes metacritic movie rating site giving “Gotti” a big fat ZERO percent on its critical score rating scale. The film’s publicists and producers then fired back, calling the killer tomatoes’ model and managers all “trolls hiding behind keyboards”, with an agenda of their own.

Bogie Maltese promo still

Once upon a time –and for decades starting in the 1930s– Warner Brothers movie studio was the king of the gangster film. They practically built their entire company on the backs of Edward G. Robinson, Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart’s portrayals of either tough-talking mobsters or the cops and private eyes who fought them. Take Robinson’s “Little Caesar”, Cagney’s scenery-chewing in “The Public Enemy” or “White Heat”, or Bogart’s genre-defining hardboiled detective Philip Marlowe in “The Maltese Falcon” — plus hundreds of other gritty, inexpensively-made, tightly-scripted crime dramas and film noir classics from the studio that specialized in that genre.

But by the early 1960s the big studios (that’s Warners, MGM, Paramount, Universal and Fox, …with a steep drop-off after that– but perhaps including Disney and UA as a sign of changes to come) had lost a lot of their actual power over actors and the production process, which was increasingly independent. Nowadays the big studios exist primarily as promotion and distribution entities. They mostly acquire material developed or produced by independent companies, with whom they may or may not have prior relationships, nor the promise of future deals.

By now, also, the new sheriffs in town –the “tastemaking” social media gatekeepers and various Hollywood hypocrites, be they liberal or conservative (if they say it’s about anything other than money, they’re lying) –have most likely been gunning for John Travolta and this particular movie since the wheeling, dealing and pre-production all began, way back around 2007.

Travolta the Battler

For one thing, “Gotti” has the stink of a Travolta “vanity project” all over it. The surviving Gotti family hand-picked him to play Gotti, which I’m sure feeds Travolta’s substantial ego. However, with the prior stinker “Battlefield Earth” (2000) already on Travolta’s resume, and given the suspicious manner in which most people already treat Scientology and its celebrity proponents, he probably doesn’t get another genuine shot to make a second vanity project, even if it is most likely a better movie than “Battlefield” (and how could it NOT be).

Furthermore, the main producers and fans of “Gotti” are most likely on the wrong side of the political aisle, in the eyes of Hollywood tastemakers and the “media elites”. From Trump on down (who himself probably made plenty of shady deals with Gotti “front” companies in Manhattan construction over the years, all behind closed doors), it’s old news by now that many old-world Mob figures lean conservative, just on the basis of race, and preserving the old-boy-network and favor-trading status quo.

In my own research about the mid-period Mafia in the 50s and 60s, I’m finding that even in L.A., various New York and Chicago criminal elements had a huge influence, behind the scenes, through such legendary “affiliated” movie, music and tv executives as agent/Universal studio head Lew Wasserman (a close ally of Reagan’s), and Teamsters and Hollywood elite but clandestine lawyer Sidney Korshak.

Whether the Gotti movie is actually good or not is not the point. I’m betting it’s a messy, too-many-cooks, multiple-rewrite script, co-written by longtime character actor Leo Rossi (who also has a biggish role in it), and a younger but clearly talented British screenwriter Lem Dobbs (The Limey, The Score). It is further hampered by the choice to have it directed by actor/director Kevin Connolly (yes, him… the actor from Entourage), who has just a couple of indie films under his belt prior to this big-budget, high-stakes project. Even so, I’m betting the acting, production design and various technical aspects are all good to excellent. Pros are still pros, committed to the work, whether or not the vision of a lead actor, director, or various competing producers and stakeholders win out, in the quality of the final product.

As I said, I have not seen “Gotti” yet, but I may, just for the sake of further research for my work-in-progress novel. My piece is also about New York’s Five Families, but more precisely their stranglehold on the music recording and nightclub business –and thus with inroads into Hollywood– for about forty years. Gotti was around as an up-and-coming soldier in 1959 and 1960, when the plot of my own based-in-fact novel begins. I’ll almost certainly “write him in”, but he’s not at all the focus of my Murder at Birdland story.

Finally, it’s clear to me (not just with “Gotti”, but almost everywhere) that in the slapdash, roll-the-dice world of modern movie promotion via the internet and social media, the old guard of studio executives and traditional advertising agencies are more apt to screw it up than get it right. Unless it’s a comic book movie or multi-film franchise movie based on young adult novels, they’re making the rest of this s&!# up as they go along.

For evidence, look no further than this week’s anti-“Tomato” statement by Warner head Toby Emmerich, himself a producer of many hits, and flops, in a 20+ year career:

“The good movies work better,” he said. “Somebody once said the best business strategy in motion pictures is quality. And I think in a world of Rotten Tomatoes and social media, what’s been proven: the better the movie — particularly in the superhero genre — the better it performs. You can’t hide the bacon anymore.”

What in Gotti’s name are you TALKING ABOUT, Toby? Can’t hide the bacon?!?

“Gotti”, at IMDB… click here.

 

 

 

 

Pooh vs. the Anti-Pooh - Lio comic strip, approx. Dec. 07Presenting again…

in honor of the forthcoming “Christopher Robin” film (2018):

The Milne – Nielsen Type Indicator

(a conceptual framework to discuss personality characteristics)

Those of us who have had some psychological therapy (yes, I have had some — no shame in admitting it), or have taken the test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), will likely have a head-start today on those who have not. Therefore, let me explain the Myers-Briggs briefly, as it will be instructive in understanding the use and usefulness of the Milne-Nielsen indicator (which, by my own admission, is much less scientific… but then, I’m an ENFP, so that explains everything, right?).

The MBTI lays out eight broad, oppositional personality traits that interact within a person along four spectrums. Those four pairings are Extrovert-Introvert, iNtuitive -Sensate, Feeling-Thinking, and Percepting-Judging. Your overall type (like my ENFP above) is determined by your score in each of these areas. It’s not all-inclusive, just a shorthand way of understanding oneself. For example, if you’re 72% leaning toward intuitive, that tells us that you don’t require much sensate, quantifiable or physical evidence as you try to understand the world. This score is not so much talking about an absolute weakness in the Sensate area, as it is talking about an inherent dominance of intuitive methods as your normal way of operating.

So if you ever get a chance, take the multiple choice MBTI test, have it scored, and get a little window into your personality that you may not have had up until now. But we’re not here to talk about MBTI today. We’re here to see if you’re a Pooh, or a Roo, or a Rabbit, Tigger, Kanga or Piglet. Or maybe you’re an Eeyore with moderate Kanga tendencies. Or, God forbid, an Owl with strong Rabbit tendencies.

If you’re familiar with the A.A. Milne characters, especially as presented in the two novels (for a book has more depth than a movie can usually muster), then you probably already sense what I’m driving at. Note also that I’m not including Christopher Robin in the MNTI, for reasons which I will explain later. The basic premise is this, that it is somewhat possible to lay out the Milne characters along several spectrums of personality types, and to loosely place oneself within a certain range upon those spectrums.

The challenge in developing this model was in determining the oppositional pairings, for even though it is easy to discuss the ways in which Pooh and Rabbit are different, it is more difficult to find the polar opposite of Piglet, from among the characters that Milne created. In other words, it takes a lot of bending and twisting, and some compromising, to fit some of these round pegs into my square holes.

Nevertheless, and Without Further Ado, here is my best attempt:

Pooh-Rabbit: primarily about ease, wisdom and groundedness vs. control, organization, and activity — but also involves measuring characteristics like loyalty, courage, acceptance of the natural order, creativity, and graciousness (or “grace” vs. “works”, in the Christian sense of these terms)

Piglet-Kanga: primarily about personal sense of security and peace, but also involves a measurement of maturity, nurturing, and need for control

Roo-Owl: primarily about maturity and sense of wonder, but also involves physical energy, speaking style, and intelligence measurements

Eeyore-Tigger : primarily about ego-strength, but also an introvert/extrovert measurement

It works out nicely that there are eight characters, each with certain personality strengths (and weaknesses) that match up fairly well with one other character. And while the goal is to choose what one character is your most dominant tendency, make no mistake: there are probably two others that are strong seconds. So do not be so quick to stake your claim that you are one type and not another. For there are ways in which Pooh and Tigger are also oppositional types, not to mention the fact that the temptation to deny one’s bossy, Rabbit-like tendencies can be very strong. You see my point, yes?

As a strongly intuitive, Poohish sort of personality, I have not determined a specific set of questions or other method for measuring where one falls on the MNTI scale. (Tests? Who needs tests when we can just guess?!) So that’s one reason why I’m calling this a working draft. There’s still more Work To Do. And as a Pooh with Tigger and Owl tendencies — who would rather sing or eat or bounce around like a hyperactive child or talk about work than to actually work — I may never finish what I have started here.

Nevertheless, it’s workable like this, just as a model to spur one’s thinking about how you think, how you prefer things get done, what your favorite leisure activities might be (for example, a Pooh type likes to eat, with a friend, whereas a Rabbit type likes to plan and plant and harvest a food garden, in the most efficient method possible).

So I will ask again? What type are you, and what other types are strongly present? Are there two oppositional types that are “at war” for dominance within you? (I know, I sound like Obiwan Kenobi here. Sorry.)

I look forward to your thoughts and comments, or even your challenges, in the comment area below.

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 12, 2018

Moanin’ w/ Blakey, Lee Morgan and the Old New Kids

I intended to let y’all listen to some classic hard bop jazz from October 1958, and as a bonus ALSO see some silly footage of Cary Grant and a chimp from “Monkey Business” (1952)…

Monkey Business (1952) – IMDb

https://http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044916

Nov 07, 1952 ·  Directed by Howard Hawks. With Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe, Charles Coburn…. A chemist finds his personal and professional life turned upside down when one of his chimpanzees finds the fountain of youth.

 

But the youtube won’t play… maybe a copyright thing…

So instead, here’s another version of the song, performed live…

As for the music, the song  Moanin’  was originally written for the album pictured below, and penned by the pianist here, Bobby Timmons. But it’s been covered many times since 1958, and had vocalese lyrics added by the great Jon Hendricks, and it’s become a terrific standard in jazz ever since.

The album overall was identified by jazz critic Scott Yanow as one of the 17 Essential Hard Bop Recordings. The Messengers performing on this track and throughout the album are as follows:

Other than Merritt, every other player here is a giant in jazz. The role of Blakey as a mentor should never be forgotten, either.

 

Blakey LP cover

Any serious jazz aficionado is likely aware that Blakey’s bands over the years, even into the 1980s, gave many a young player a great headstart in the big leagues of international jazz performers. He often auditioned or discovered them in their late teens or early twenties, and helped them “level up” in a big way for a few years. The people I’m most familiar with are trumpeters, like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Wynton Marsalis, even Chuck Mangione (who I don’t see listed below in the list taken from Blakey’s Wikipedia page… a controversial player, but I’ve always liked Chuck’s melodicism and tone). But besides the trumpeters, I really dig Chick Corea and Horace Silver on piano, and Wayne Shorter on sax… heck, one really can’t go wrong with the solo work of most people in the list below. That so many went on to lead their own band is a testament to the teaching of Art Blakey, and the atmosphere he created.

While we are on the subject of Lee Morgan, I highly recommend the fairly recent documentary about him that’s up on Netflix: I Called Him Morgan.

lee morgan doc capture

It’s sort of dark in tone– as it should be with such a tortured genius and his weird story. Similar to the equally good Nina Simone documentary (also still up on Netflix, I believe). But the Morgan one also gives a better flavor for the jazz scene in the late Fifties and early Sixties in general. So if you’re into that kind of thing…

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 14, 2018

WHERE THE WILDEST SPIRITS FLY from The Pinkerton Raid

Where the Wolves Are…

I met this band The Pinkerton Raid awhile back in Chicago, though they’re actually from North Carolina (and also from MA, and probably another locale or two).

Good musicians, great storytellers, honest purveyors of alternative Christian Americana (who needs Nashville?!).

Listen up and see for yourself. They have a new record out. Plaintive singing, interesting indie rock or folk song structures and arrangements, and a cast of characters in the songs that rivals early Springsteen’s lovable losers and hopeful hungerers for righteousness.
https://youtu.be/pvIx6vxE4ls Pinkerton raid live demo

This is what Sendak’s “mad” Max would dance to when he turned 21 and finally went on a pub crawl out in Chapel Hill with his friends.

http://pinkertonraid.bandcamp.com/album/where-the-wildest-spirits-fly

[Speaking of Wild Things, here’s a bonus item: a FanTheories reddit piece about Max going off to live with hoboes…

https://youtu.be/pvIx6vxE4ls reddit Max

reddit Max, we love you. Come home.]

Mingusithicus homo stoopingus, a rare species, at play

.

1. Charles Mingus pays tribute to tenor sax great Lester Young, released on Mingus Ah Um in 1959:

Goodbye, Porkpie Hat (the original) on YouTube

.

2. Joni Mitchell – Mingus (Studio album, 1979):

—-> Joni w/ Charles, shortly before he died via YouTube

  • Re the Joni album, via Wikipedia:

The album is quite experimental, featuring minimalist jazz, over-plucked, buzzing acoustic guitars, and even wolves howling through “The Wolf That Lives in Lindsey”. All of the lyrics are by Mitchell, while the music for four of the songs was composed by Mingus, three being new tunes, a fourth being his tribute to saxophonist Lester Young from his 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um, “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat“, for which Mitchell wrote a set of lyrics.

.

3. My poem in tribute to all of them (Young, Mingus, Mitchell, plus The Beats), as inspired by a section- on jazz and its effects- of Jack Kerouac’s novella The Subterraneans (1958) :

.

Boplicity on Bleecker

I walked, slinked really,

(or is it slunk? I’m slightly drunk,

and was so at the time)

like Garbo out slumming among the proles in an evening gown,

only mine was just a rose-print cotton thing.

That’s me, slinking down the crusty summer sidewalk

At 2am, just outside the Village Vanguard,

on my way to meet a friend at Nick’s.

I stumbled sleepily in halfmoonlight, suddenly waking,

as a young couple spilled out the door,leaving me listening, arrested, listening,

leaving me listening, arrested, listening,

meditating on Mr. Mingus’ Musical Musings

(based on “I Got Rhythm” changes)

for the first time.

Soon it’s me waving,

a finger dance lightly over my head,

feeling like toddler at play in the surf.

Rage, hope, dread –all of it poured out:

–all of it poured out:

the bloody history of Charles,

and how much he missed Charlie,

and also of Mr. Evans’ vague regrets

(played only on a piano’s black keys),

and of a trumpeter and a tenor sax axe-grinder

wrestling like puppies,

frolicking in sunlight at midnight–

all of it suddenly a mystical Unity

expressing itself in waves like electricity,

or p’raps a howling: hungry, hunting

for tasty, tongue-tingling ecstatic Life,

in a certain sound,

then springing, like a puma from a branch,violently extracting that Life

violently extracting that Life

from a gorgeous C Major Seventh chord–

the direct word, the holy Word,

divinity described

in God’s own private language,

heaven’s gates stormed

by tongues and lips and fleshy fingers,

by fleet-fingered pulse bringer

(don’t call him a drummer),

suggesting loudly

the salvation of perfect vibration,

intimation of nuclear fusion,

by cymbal-crashing of two souls

together, joining their atoms,

pure sex, soulful sound, drippingwith

drippingwithsweat,

and yet

also the call-and-response of the gospel choir,

the gospel choir,

the “smile in sound”,

the living insinuation of possible perfection,

just out of reach, dodging us,

wriggling and tangled and fraught with contrast,

every few bars, just a hint of dissonance, never complete or pure,

never complete or pure,

never resolved or final,

but always aspiring.

Charles Mingus reached out and grabbed me,

kidnapped me,

through that closed door,

all wooden and innocent-looking —

just like his bass fiddle–

but actually, behind the mask

of what some would call entertainment,

sneering and cruel and fraught with sadness,

sheer honesty, and harmonic empathy–

and harmonic empathy–

all in 5/8 time, in the key of Y–

on a misty, lonely night

in the biggest little village ever.

Grown from the seed below, in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans :

“she stood in drowsy sun suddenly listening to bop as if for the first time as it poured out, the intention of the musicians and of the horns and instruments suddenly a mystical unity expressing itself in waves like sinister and again electricity but screaming with palpable aliveness the direct word from the vibration, the interchanges of statement, the levels of waving intimation, the smile in sound, the same living insinuation in the way her sister’d arranged those wires wriggled and tangled and fraught with intention, innocent-looking but actually behind the mask of casual life” –pgs. 34-35

Posted by: Mark Nielsen | May 10, 2018

A small but classic Robert Downey Jr. reddit

When Burger King is the low that one has sunk to…

“Just because you’ve hit bottom, doesn’t mean you have to stay there.”-RD Jr

http://www.mtv.com/news/2592934/robert-downey-jr-on-burger-king-in-iron-man-a-disgusting-lifesaver/


.

Research and writing for my forthcoming historical fiction novel Murder at Birdland  continues, at an increasing and invigorating pace these past few months (circa Spring 2018).

I had been on the fence about a few of the chancier elements of my approach, namely how heavily to incorporate real historical figures from the era (late 1958 thru perhaps the JFK assassination in ’63). My conundrum is about which real figures to include or exclude, especially in the frequently overlapping fields of entertainment, politics, and literature. Not to mention how to feature them without letting them “take over”.

I haven’t completely solved that problem yet, but it’s fun to play with that tension: how much can I safely blend fact and fiction, or real historical personalities and invented character traits or events, all for the sake of my own original story. But as a test case, I just discovered a current news item this past month, believe it or not, that is pushing me to create a more significant presence in my narrative for two major entertainment figures of the era: actors Kirk Douglas and Natalie Wood.

I was already including Natalie, since she briefly dated one of my main “real” characters, Morris Levy. Levy was part owner of Birdland and several other important NYC nightclubs, plus the co-founder of Roulette Records, …and reportedly doing all of that as a semi-legit front for the Mafia (he finally got convicted in the 80s, but that’s another story…). When Morris’ brother gets killed at Birdland in early ’59 (the inciting incident for my novel, including its insider look at the aspiring fictional sax player who works for Morris), it was never clear if the murder was mob-related, or just a random beef with a lowlife patron. Needless to say, for the sake of high drama, I’m going with the Mob angle. And Natalie Wood, it turns out, apparently had a thing for “bad boys” like Morris Levy, both before and after being involved with two-time hubby Robert Wagner (no angel himself). Not that she had a thing for Kirk… that s%!# was all on him!

Meanwhile, I had already been considering including Kirk Douglas, since an important secondary theme of my “coming of age” novel is prejudice against artists in the Ike and JFK era, whether for racial, homophobic, gender-based or ideological reasons. Case in point: Douglas’ big-budget movie Spartacus (1960) was reportedly the first film to break Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist Hollywood blacklist. By openly crediting blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in 1960, Kirk’s actions as a producer put him at the center of a major change in how American performers and intellectuals finally “broke” the McCarthy blacklist. (See the Brian Cranston movie about Trumbo from 2016… it’s stupendous… as is the Coen Brothers’ more comic treatment of secret commies and gays in 2016’s very underrated Hail, Caesar!) Kirk Douglas was quite powerful from the 50s through the early 60s, the same period when the major movie studios were gradually losing their power to independent producers and other economic forces. In that, and in other respects, Kirk was very much the Harvey Weinstein of his day (though Weinstein apparently never performed himself… insert your own double entendre here…).

As for the resurgence of the Natalie Wood rape story, it’s another sad chapter in the #metoo saga of 2017 and 2018… even though Wood’s situation reportedly occurred sometime in late 1955. Wood was just 16, and Douglas was one of the first Hollywood stars with enough power to start a successful independent production company of his own. Earlier in 1955, strong rumors had circulated around town that Wood had been in a consensual affair with the much older Nicholas Ray, her director on Rebel Without a Cause. We’ll leave that one alone for the moment, since the ambitious but needy Nat was likely on-board with it… even though it IS pretty skeevy on Nick Ray’s part, I will admit.

On the other hand, the true “rough stuff” for Wood came when Douglas invited Natalie to his hotel room, theoretically to read for a part in some upcoming film. (Not that he ever hired her… to add insult to injury.) She later told friends he said he had always wanted her, and he didn’t take no for an answer. The drunken rape by Douglas was reportedly fairly brutal, and Wood was quietly taken to the hospital by her nut-job stage mother– the same mother who made her keep quiet, lest Douglas ruin her chance for a career as an adult actress. But Natalie did tell a few people that she was close to over the years, plus her family, including her daughter Natasha Gregson-Warner –which brings us to Robert Downey Jr., and 2018.

Downey was in the film Two Girls and a Guy with Gregson-Warner and Heather Graham sometime in the 1990s, and they became friends from that point onward. With both Natasha and Robert being children of movie figures from the 1960s, that enduring friendship only makes sense in retrospect. So apparently Natasha told Robert about her mother’s rape, …and now that Robert is safely back on top in Hollywood (having been WAAAAAY down near the bottom in the 1990s, with his own drug and domestic problems), he took it upon himself to call foul on Douglas. The occasion was the recent Golden Globe awards, which honored Douglas, who is currently 101 years old and appeared onstage at the awards with his daughter-in-law Catherine Zeta-Jones.

For the whole convoluted explanation of how it is somewhat provable that Downey was the “anonymous” commenter on an important Hollywood blog, I’ll direct you to the link below, rather than explain all the cloak and dagger research.

Gawker points to the Downey-Douglas-Wood story

So… now for me to decide, among other conundrums:

  1. How intimate did Wood get with my guy Morris Levy, yet another older man?
  2. How long were they involved, and should I bend the truth about either real person’s relationship timeline or their sexual proclivities? (Did they date, or cheat?  Or, more accurately, did SHE cheat?, …since I know that he did, with any number of partners.)
  3. From a believable fictional character perspective, how “damaged” was Natalie, … by the Kirk Douglas rape, by her family’s economic and emotional dependence upon her, and/or by the whole Hollywood studio system that she grew up within (especially at MGM, which specialized in screwed-up child stars)? Elizabeth Taylor, Debbie Reynolds and Judy Garland all certainly got more tabloid ink about their romantic exploits than Natalie. But Nat was, to my eyes, a very insecure and sexually adventurous person in her own right. One look at her relationship with infamous Hollywood dog Warren Beatty in the early Sixties proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Granted, I’m writing fiction. But I’d like my characterizations to be true to history. Be they my own versions of real people, or my own amalgams of various representative figures from the era, my goal is to ethically create honest characters, without resorting to cheap and sordid sexual fireworks. Besides, it’s already a finely woven work of fiction, with several romantic subplots, and it’s really not so much about Natalie Wood anyway (nor should it be). But I can’t see leaving it out, either. My secondary reason to bring her in at all, aside from the brief dalliance with Levy, is that she was also the West Side Story Maria for the 1961/62 movie… while several of my novel’s real and fictional main characters are involved in the original Broadway run of West Side Story (which was huge in ’59 and ’60) as musicians or dancers.

What’s a stand up guy like me to do?… when Downey, one of my heroes in a way, is at odds with Douglas, who I also until recently thought was pretty terrific, and heroic (for his progressive politics, if not his acting talent, which was consistent even when the material was not great)?…

Now, for me at least, Kirk’s gone the way of Kevin Spacey, Bill Cosby and Louis CK: massive talents with apparently massive ethical blind spots or repugnant mental/sexual disorders.  I’m still bothered about contemporary society’s apparent (and perhaps twisted) need to scapegoat and tear down these monumental men, but if it’s all true (and I believe it is), then as with the Blacklist and the Confederate flag, it’s time for the rest of us to move toward a brighter future. Here’s hoping that, like Robert Downey Jr. (and, dare I say it, Mel Gibson and Rosanne Barr), Douglas and the others can conquer their personal demons, get some help, and eventually recover some semblance of a reputation and career. That is, if we are willing to let them… which is an interesting pyscho-social question of its own, but I’m afraid it’s one for another day.

 

I first came upon singer and mandolinist Chris Thile’s music thru the terrific newgrass group Nickel Creek, probably in the late 90s, on a public radio show out of southern California (I caught it on the web.)

He then went on to semi-stardom (for a folk musician, anyway) as a founding member of the Punch Brothers, and as a replacement host –with big shoes to fill– at A Prairie Home Companion, when Garrison Keillor retired.

Now, I’ve discovered he also (or instead? I’ve not checked in on Prairie in awhile… ) is doing a music and ensemble comedy public radio show called “Live from Here”– with here apparently referring to both the off-Broadway Town Hall in New York, and/or their original home base at the Fitzgerald Theater in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

It streams live as a video broadcast on Saturday nights, from 5-7pm CST. The audio version –at a length of just under two hours– also streams the rest of the week, starting after lunch on Sundays.

Get it here. They package a highlight version as a podcast, if you prefer, including the great comedian Tom Papa’s regular segment “Out In America”. They unfortunately can’t do a podcast version of the whole show, however, due to legal and music rights restrictions. But by using the web, you can also pick your poison, by going into the archives to hear gems from the likes of Calexico, Janeane Garofalo, David Crosby, Shakey Graves, Spoon, Maria Bamford, and a cast of thousands. Chris’ house band is pretty great, too, including members of Punch Bros. and various session greats and special guests.

Here’s a bunch of links and samples:

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Video and audio of a recent show.

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This show is folkin’ great. Tune in live, or catch it whenever you want online.

Keep public radio alive, too!!! –before the orange-haired Philistine sells all of our granola-lovin’ souls to bail out the 1%ers, or replaces the Kennedy Center with Trump’s Tune Town, or shuts down all publicly funded art like this in its entirety.

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