Cornfield Meet

Things collide here.

Two things from the ’80s

I remember a lot of passing, strange tidbits from the 1980s, but twice – before lunch! – on Sunday, I encountered two pieces from the era of which I have absolutely no memory:

  1. Lynne Cox‘s 1987 swim across the Bering Strait from the U.S. to the U.S.S.R. One of the National Geographic Channel The ’80s: The Decade That Made Us episodes included a segment on this, and it struck no chords of familiarity whatsoever.
  2. Duran Duran bassist John Taylor’s song “I Do What I Do” from the  9 1/2 Weeks soundtrack. Kelsey and I were in the car listening to a rebroadcast of an old Casey Kasem American Top 40, and this was in the countdown:

Nope. Don’t remember ever hearing that one. And that’s coming from a guy who still has bits of the lyrics to the other songs on Buckner & Garcia’s Pac-Man Fever LP – an album I didn’t even own – stuck in his brain.

April 21, 2013 Posted by | 1980s, geek, Ohio | , , , , , | 1 Comment

In Which An Idea is Hinted At

Lake Middle School yearbook - 1983

This is the cover of my 1982-83 Lake Middle School yearbook, just about 30 years old. That’s a nice round number.

January 4, 2013 Posted by | 1980s, Ohio | , , , | 1 Comment

Flashback: Pee Wee’s Big Adventure

(This piece was originally written in September 2008, right after I saw Pee Wee’s Big Adventure for the first time. I re-post it today because Old School ’80s pointed out the movie was released on this day in 1985.)

In practically every sense of the word, I grew up in the 1980s: I turned 10 the year they began, when the Empire struck back and Tom Hanks cross-dressed on television. In 1989 I saw Robin Williams make studying poetry rock, graduated from high school, started college, listened to the Cure disintegrate and turned 19. The popular culture of that decade is as addicting to me as a two-pound bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and a two-liter of Coke Classic.

And yet when recently I started to make a list of 1980s movies I hadn’t seen – from the ones that invariably have my friends going, “Whaaat? Seriously??” to others that I just remember from theater previews or black-and-white newspaper ads – I was stunned at how quickly the list grew.

So here I am, at the first of (hopefully) a regular series of reviews and reactions to Eighties Movies I’ve Never Seen Until Now. (2012 note: How’d that work out? Not so hot. Although I did write about seeing Tron for the first time in 2010.)

Oddly enough, the first movie I’m writing about wasn’t even on my list. I just happened to notice it on the library DVD shelves while looking for others: Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

(Go ahead: “Whaaat? Seriously??”)

I was 14 when this movie came out in summer 1985, and though I knew who Pee-wee Herman was, at that point I’d never seen the cable comedy special that launched the character and Paul Reubens into popularity.

My only lasting impressions of the character come from a few years later when I was working at Children’s Palace, a massive toy store and one-time rival of Toys R Us, and for at least one Christmas, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse” toys Were. The. Shit. I remember parents combing through the action figures on their pegs, disappointed at finding only King of Cartoons and Magic Screen hanging there by the dozen. And it seemed like about five minutes later, the clearance aisle was stacked with stuffed Chairys and Pterris marked down and gathering dust.

Of course I know enough about the movie to get references to the “Tequila” bar dance or Large Marge or Being A Loner, Dottie; A Rebel, but I’ll confess this: I never “got” Pee-wee. He was goofy, yeah, but with an oddly adult edge to the humor sometimes. (And that made the whole transition into an actual children’s show even more puzzling to me.) Was he supposed to be a kid, and this was his imagination, like Calvin & Hobbes or what? But … but … he lived in a HOUSE, right? By himself? And – oh, crap, I give up. He was amusing, I suppose, but he never really got me howling.

That out-of-whack feeling came flying back during the Big Adventure opening scenes, from Pee-wee’s Tour de France dream through his morning routine. Who IS this guy? What WORLD does he live in? But … but … but…

It faded soon enough, since Burton’s created a great screen environment to just look at, and he jumps into the Quest for Bike story pretty quickly. Once that’s underway – after the overlong “evidence presentation” scene – the Big Adventure scoots along nicely as basically a series of place sketches.

That’s not a bad thing: It worked for me. In fact, I’m not sure another director could have made this movie from the script by Paul Reubens and Phil Hartman and Michael Varhol and pulled it off. The story’s jumps and turns and holes and skips would be roadblocks in any other environment, but this is a Pee-wee Herman movie with Tim Burton at the wheel and that’s pretty much the catch-all answer to any “What the-” moment that comes along.

I was genuinely surprised by the freakish darkness of the nightmare scene with the evil clown ambulance crew – I mean, it’s a Tim Burton movie, so I expected that twisted, off-kilter feeling in a lot of places, but man, that scene is just damn creepy, and I wonder how it played back in ’85 when Pee-wee was weird, all right, but still mostly crayon bright and Silly Putty-scented. (Francis Buxton in the Satan costume, though? That took me straight to John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles, even though Pee-wee beat that one by a couple years.)

Big Adventure didn’t get more than a few out-loud chuckles out of me, though it might have had I seen it at age 14 with a few friends. It still earned a healthy share of smiles – Pee-wee rescuing the snakes, for some reason, is making me chuckle right now in recollection; and as a huge fan of Airplane! I loved that the electric golf carts are given motorcycle engine sound effects during the ending chase.

I enjoyed it: Visually, there’s always something to check out, even during the few slow spots; it was easy to root for Pee-wee; the plot never felt frustrating or manipulative, and even though the happy ending is pretty much a given from the start, Burton and the writers made the ride unpredictable, fun and worthwhile.

August 9, 2012 Posted by | 1980s, Film | , , , | 2 Comments

The Wonder Years: Season One, through Older Eyes

Note: I’m planning to write about seasons and story arcs of The Wonder Years as I revisit the series in its entirety via Netflix streaming. Earlier, I wrote about my personal history and memories of The Wonder Years during its original broadcast run. This blog entry takes at look at the six episodes which comprise Season One. Expect spoilers ahead – if one can be said to “spoil” a show that aired its last original episode more than 17 years ago. I’m also assuming readers are familiar with the main characters of Kevin Arnold, Winnie Cooper, and Paul Pfeiffer, and Kevin’s family, Jack and Norma (mom and dad), Wayne and Karen.

After waiting for so long to see The Wonder Years available for home viewing, I was thrilled to finally queue up the pilot episode on Netflix.

I was also a little wary of how much the original music used in the show would be changed. After all, securing the rights to use the catalog of songs from the TV broadcasts has long been understood as a major reason for The Wonder Years not being available on the home video market. So when the theme song began, and it wasn’t the show’s original Joe Cocker version of “A Little Help from My Friends,” I got a little spooked. (It’s a version clearly recorded to emulate the Cocker version though. According to Wikipedia, this version of the song was played when The Wonder Years originally aired in the U.K.)

Past that, though, the pilot strikes all the same chords it did when it first aired, the voice-overs of Narrator Kevin introducing us to his neightborhood and his family and his friends just prior to the beginning of his seventh grade year at Robert F. Kennedy Junior High. While there’s definitely a not-quite-settled-in feeling to some of the characters and writing, I still don’t think any other show has hit so squarely the tone and feel of a time and place seen through a 12-year-old’s eyes.

Kevin’s father, Jack Arnold, in particular seems a much darker character in these early episodes, brooding with his after-work drinks and prone to loud and angry outbursts that go beyond the usual TV realm of gruff-but-well-meaning dad role. (In a moment that still makes me a little uncomfortable, Narrator Kevin says his father had never struck him, “but he’d given Wayne a beating. Twice.” The revelation is key, given what happens a few moments later, but the show never really goes down that road again.

The pilot story centers on the start of the school year, typical family conflicts (rebellious older sister; butthead older brother), and adolescent friendships and relationships. Where The Wonder Years really defines itself, though, is in the pilot’s final third. To this point, it’s been heartfelt and genuine and funny and just sad enough in a very identifiable way.

And then Brian Cooper dies.

Winnie’s older brother only appears in three episodes of the entire show, and two of those are the pilot and its immediate follow-up. It’s taken me years to realize just how much the impact of that character’s death in Vietnam shapes several significant events over the course of the series.

Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper - The Wonder YearsHaving screwed up royally and gotten in major trouble at school, Kevin rides home with his parents anticipating a severe punishment at the hands of his father. The three of them are met on the front porch by Kevin’s older brother and sister, who break the news about Brian’s death. It’s one of the series’ defining moments, bringing a real weight to the show, and setting up the iconic final moments, when Kevin and Winnie share their first kiss as he comforts her in the woods where they used to play. (MAJOR sigh of relief upon watching this one: Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman” still accompanies this scene. In my mind, this song is as inextricably tied to the scene as Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” is to John Cusack holding up a boom box. Maybe even more so.)

Episode two, “Swingers,” picks up immediately following the events of the pilot, opening at Brian Cooper’s funeral. (1980s pop culture afficionados, take note: The priest at the ceremony is David Lightman’s father – “This corn is raw!” – from WarGames.) Again, I’m incredibly relieved to hear Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” – you know, the “There’s something happening here…” song – playing on the soundtrack.

“Swingers” does a fantastic job of balancing the Cooper family’s with Kevin’s confusion in the wake of his kiss with Winnie, interwoven with the onset of junior-high sex education. Classic moment: Kevin’s gym teacher/sex ed instructor draws a diagram of the female reproductive system.

“Suddenly it became very clear why Mr. Cutlip had never been married,” Narrator Kevin recalls. “Any man who saw women that way would have no reason to.”

Cutlip Class Wonder Years

(This scene cracked my daughter up.)

And “Swingers” just moves from one great scene to another: There’s Kevin and Paul’s quest to buy a copy of “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask),” Wayne’s know-it-all doofus advice, and the post-first-kiss unease that casts Kevin and Winnie’s friendship in a new light.

Episodes three and four – “My Father’s Office” and “Angel,” respectively – establish the series’ approach to stand-alone stories that focus more on the Arnold family than the ongoing junior-high struggles. They also begin to round out a few of these relationships and characters, again setting things up for echoes and recurring themes down the road.

“My Father’s Office” looks at Kevin’s relationship with his dad, whom he accompanies to work for a day. Jack Arnold gets some depth to work with, and there’s a funny fantasy sequence in which Kevin imagines himself as an office boss, with his siblings as his subordinates.

“Angel” – which marks the first major role for actor John Corbett, who later starred on Northern Exposure – is built around on the Vietnam War and the household conflict beween hippie Karen, her new boyfriend Louis (Corbett) and the Arnold parents, particularly Jack. It does a nice job of positioning Louis as both a pompous ass and a guy who’s genuinely scared and upset by what’s going on around him. (Of course, he is totally a dick because he’s a little too Free with the Love for Karen.)

The penultimate episode of season one, “The Phone Call,” introduces Kevin’s first post-Winnie-kiss crush: Lisa Berlini. Junior high society is in full play, with a lunchroom pass-it-on scene and Kevin wrestling with the dilemma of actually calling a girl on the phone. And while it’s a fine episode, it’s really best viewed as a lead-in to the season finale, “Dance With Me,” which has always been one of my all-time favorites. (Other than the series-closer, it’s the only Wonder Years episode I videotaped long before I started trying to collect the whole run.) So let’s get to that one.

If you were to ask me to pick one episode that best captures everything I love about The Wonder Years, it would be “Dance With Me.” Not to say it’s my favorite ever, or that it’s the best written or most powerful, but for sheer representation of the things that really make the show what it is, “Dance With Me” is tough to beat. Watching it for the first time in a long while, it really struck me how much the writers packed into this 23 minutes of television.

Opening up the morning after “The Phone Call” – adult Kevin informs us that he and Lisa had spent “close to four complete minutes” talking with each other, and his feelings have clearly deepened over this amazing experience.

So, in the wake of a homeroom announcement regarding an upcoming school dance, we get: awkward hallway conversation with Paul and Winnie in which Paul breaks out in itches and sneezes at the mention of a girl who likes him; Paul cluelessly mentioning Kevin’s crush on Lisa, which catches Winnie by surprise; lunchroom flirtation over burgers and fruit cocktail. This is Wonder Years Middle School at its borderline-cliché but fantastic best.

After passing Lisa a note asking her to the dance, Kevin gets that response every seventh-grade boy lives for: the “Okay” with a smiley face in the O. Five minutes later, of course, Lisa gets asked by some prick named Brad – Mark Paul Gosselaar! – face-to-face in the hallway. And she says yes. (Narrator Kevin’s priceless comment: “I had it in writing. Perhaps there was some sort of legal action I could take.”)

At home, Kevin mopes over an I Dream of Jeannie episode – fooooooreshadooooooow! – and then decides to go to the dance after all.

It’s during an Arnold-family music-and-dance montage that I noticed the first musical substitutions made for the newly-streaming episodes of the show. Where Jack and Norma used to dance to “The Girl from Ipanema” and Wayne goofed around to “Louie, Louie,” we hear different songs now. And though I recognized the switches immediately, they’re not game-changers. (Frankly, these are trades I’m OK with, as opposed to the practice of editing the episodes’ content, which happens from time to time in syndication.)

The episode finishes up at the dance itself and hits that perfect mix of nostalgia and melancholy and humor and reality, from Kevin and Paul resorting to trash can basketball with punch cups to Kevin’s heartache at watching Winnie with an eighth-grader to Kevin’s attempt at making her jealous by dancing with a girl he doesn’t even know. We’re treated to a brief, hilariously-imagined scene involving Winnie in the title I Dream of Jeannie role (including laugh track!), and then a classic episode-closing moment and voice over as Kevin and Winnie slow dance to the thankfully-still-part-of-the-soundtrack “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” by Otis Redding.

Watching it again, I think that if the show hadn’t been picked up for full-season release, this would still have served as a great bookend to three hours of really, really good television.

Fortunately, there was more to come.

October 17, 2011 Posted by | 1970s, 1980s, geek, Television | , , , | 2 Comments

Children’s Palace: Peter Panda Unmasked!

George Krstic’s Tweet asking, “Who misses Children’s Palace?“, sent me digging into the Booth photo archives. (Because, well, the answer to his question is a resounding, “I do!”)

I’ve mentioned the occasion of these two photos here on the blog and in Collect All 21!

Peter Panda - Children's Palace mascot, 1989

Click to embiggen and feel the 1980s love.

Peter Panda - Children's Palace mascot - Unmasked!

Click to zoom back in time.

“Classic” logo on the Coke 2-liter? Check.

Dual cassette deck AND turntable stereo system? Check.

Someone in the reflection behind me trying on the ginormous Peter Panda head? CHECKMATE.

I also have this odd tangible reminder of the most awesome of awesomest toy stores:

Children's Palace cup - Peter Panda

"Hey, kids? Mom and dad won't buy you a toy? Ask for THIS: It's cheap, and you can use it every day to remind them that you NEED TO GO TO CHILDREN'S PALACE RIGHT NOW!"

I dunno – maybe it was a giveaway or something, because I certainly can’t imagine that my parents would have paid money to put Children’s Palace ad space on our kitchen counter.

April 9, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, geek, Ohio, science fiction | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Sharing Star Wars Memories with Len Peralta

I have been super lame in neglecting my blog lately, mostly due to the welcome challenge of a completely amazing and inspiring career change. I’m still getting used to the home and work schedule again and am playing catch-up on several personal projects, including this one: a podcast about which I’ve been excited for quite awhile.

I’ve written several times over the past year or so about Cleveland artist Len Peralta and his Geek A Week project, which recently wrapped up with Len’s depiction of – and interview with – none other than Stan Lee. Amazingly cool stuff.

While I was preparing for those times I interviewed Len, I read this Q&A, in which he recalled seeing Return of the Jedi for the first time, and from that moment, I wanted to do a Star Wars Memories podcast with the guy, kind of like the ones I did with sci-fi TV writer George Krstic. Even more so after interviewing Len a couple times and going over shared Northeast Ohio pop culture territory like Saturday afternoon Godzilla movies with “Superhost.” Then Len read Collect All 21! and said nice things about it, which was just bonus points on top.

We finally managed to get it done this week, and it was a blast. We probably would have gone on a couple hours if the Empire hadn’t apparently started jamming Skype because we were having too much fun. (And by “fun,” I mean – well, here’s Len’s post-podcast Tweet.)

I wound up dividing the podcast into two parts, and while I still need to finish editing the second one, here’s Part One. (Right click to download.)

March 22, 2011 Posted by | 1980s, Current Affairs, eighties, geek, Ohio, science fiction, writing | , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Turning forty: two photos

A couple days after I wrote this post on turning 40, the result of several months’ worth of conspiracy came to fruition in a surprise party at my mom’s house. (I was expecting a smallish family get-together – turned out to be a hugely awesome gathering of amazing friends old and new and wholly unexpected visitors, from people I’ve known since I wearing plaid pants and watching Sesame Street to others I’ve just come to know in the past few years.)

For my 40th birthday, I received two photos. (Three if you count the baby picture on the birthday cake.)

Here’s one:

Click the photo to embiggen. But don't feel obligated.

This was a gift from my brother & sister-in-law. Ever since my youngest brother and I started running one race a summer, we’ve always been amused by the usually less-than-flattering photo results, from the lower-lip mid-bounce freeze-frame to the eyes-half-closed unintentional pout to the “I’m trying to throw a double-thumbs up and a wink toward the camera but they snapped it too early and I look like an idiot” that my brother has mastered.

I was stunned, then, to find this among the shots of me participating in the relay in this year’s Akron Marathon, because it makes me look, you know, like I’m running, as opposed to simply trying not to keel over.

Just to keep me from feeling almost cool, though, here’s the second picture I got for my 40th birthday:

Is there any way I can avoid this thing without betraying my cool exterior?

September, 1981: I’m 10 years old. Apparently the neighborhood dare-of-the-day was to kiss this tomato worm found in our neighbor’s garden. I’ll pass, thanks. I mean, with my ink-stained stripey shirt and my +2 Plastic Rimmed Glasses of NerdVision, I’m already pushing the boundaries of TOO AWESOME TO CARE, so why risk sucking all of southern Lake Township into a black hole of nonchalance by showing off and smooching a Manduca quinquemaculata?

(Also: Ewww.)

December 4, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Family history, geek, Ohio, photos, running, Sports | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Star Wars nostalgiarchaeology – delicious find!

So I’m waiting for the primer on the walls to dry, and I’m looking for a little bit of flashback to post, and I happen upon … this:

Yub Nub! Icecreamandfudgenub!

Happy 7th Birthday, Nicky! (click for larger versions)

My friends, if my analysis is correct … that is an EWOK on that ice cream cake.

Here’s a zoomed shot:

Let 'em eat cake. And then they can topple a highly superior army.

Short help's better than no help, but ice cream cake beats all.

Now, I remember Nick’s Return of the Jedi Throne Room Duel cake, but this one had completely eluded memory. If I had to guess, I’d figure this was in the Dairy Queen adjacent to the Gold Circle department store on Everhard Road in Canton, in the same shopping center as the four-house movie theater and the Funway Freeway arcade where Aaron and I fought Golden Axe to the death.

Given the amount of time and energy I’ve spent digging up pretty much every corner of my Star Wars Memory Yard, it’s fun to find something like this.

May 8, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Family history, geek, science fiction | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

8-bit time capsule

My brother Nick showed up yesterday to watch The Greatest American Hero (courtesy of our new Netflix Wii disc!) and as if that weren’t flashback enough, he brought this over, too:

If I could save time in a cheap plastic bin...

According to Wikipedia, the 2600 wasn't officially retired until 1992. NINETEEN NINETY FREAKING TWO. (click to embiggen)

Now, that’s not our first Atari, obviously, but it is the cheap second-generation 2600 that Mom and Dad got after we apparently played the first one to death. And let’s see … >countcountcount< I’m positive that 15 of these cartridges are from our family’s original collection. (Others, I’m guessing, are games that belonged to friends which were loaned or traded and just never made it back to their homes.)

I have no explanation for the duplication of E.T. cartridges, although as far as the two RealSports Football games go, I have a hunch one of them might actually contain Combat, because at some point, I got adventurous and thought I’d see if I could switch the boards between cartridges, just for fun. (Because come on, how fun is it to imagine your friend’s face when he goes home and pops that borrowed game into his Atari only to see Combat show up? That’s classic, right?)

Sadly either the console or the power supply is shot, because I couldn’t get the system to fire up, but in my brain, it was like dynamiting an avalanche.

As with things like Star Wars figures and trading cards, there’s a fantastic tactile memory embedded in holding these cartridges and feeling their particular weight and texture. And the label art and the fonts and even the different casing structures that different game companies like Activision and Imagic and Coleco used once they entered the market – all these little things just trigger recollections and sensations, and I can see myself turning to this picture for some throwback writing in the not-too-distant future.

April 16, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Games, geek, video games | , , , , , | 3 Comments

Television – 6/17/82

Time enough for another quick visit to June 1982, courtesy of the final edition of The Cleveland Press. Today: TELEVISION LISTINGS.

Star Trek or Ironside ... Star Trek or Ironside...

TV listings: June 17, 1982. Click to see what's on.

This being the June after fifth grade for me, I would have been in summer TV mode, so I would absolutely have taken full advantage of WUAB-TV Channel 43’s morning slate of The Jetsons and Battle of The Planets. (Which was not called “G-Force,” despite what some people seemed to think when we were all growed up.) Maybe even a Rocky & Bullwinkle before starting my day for real. And had this still been during the school year, I would have absolutely come home and been glued to Lost in Space at 4 p.m. Depending on the weather, etc., I may also have partaken of some Brady Bunch. (Later on, you’ll note Channel 43 was home to The Rockford Files and Sanford and Son. Until I was a teenager, this was easily My Favoritest Channel.)

Also notable: Nickelodeon’s daytime programming at the time was still the five-hour block of Pinwheel.

Just-after-dinner viewing might have included Family Feud or M*A*S*H.

Now, it’s June, so Prime Time is reruns-and-movies territory, but you can see that  NBC (Channel 3) hasn’t reached its Golden Thursday era yet, with Fame still preceding Diff’rent Strokes and Gimme A Break before Hill Street Blues. (Seems weird to me that Fame was the 8 p.m. show, while the goofy sitcoms were on from 9 to 10 p.m.)

I also kind of like the large empty blocks where sations just WENT OFF THE AIR >gasp!< (Or, if they DID run informercials, they sure as hell didn’t advertise them in the listings. Screw you, Guthy-Renker.)

April 13, 2010 Posted by | 1980s, eighties, Ohio, Television | , , , | Leave a comment

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