Friday, June 24, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 6/27/1966 to 7/3/1966

Last week I mentioned my morning television viewing habits in the summer of 1966—but evening and prime time viewing was a different experience back in 1966, too. Nowadays, news junkies can watch news 24-7 if they feel so inclined, but in the 1960s, news was relegated to a rather tight schedule. The three Atlanta VHF stations (2, 5, & 11) and the three Chattanooga VHF stations (3, 9, & 12) each offered a mix of local news and network news. Some channels offered a half-hour of each, while others (Channel 11, for instance) offered 15 minutes of each. Channel 5 opted not to run the CBS network news with Walter Cronkite at all, preferring instead to fill the time with syndicated programming instead. Prime time broadcasts started a half-hour earlier in the 1960s, at 7:30, but that still meant that local stations had  more time slots to fill.

Early afternoon schedules were filled with a mix of syndicated talk shows (Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas), local kids shows (Officer Don and The Popeye Club on WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta, Bob Brandy on WTVC Channel 9 in Chattanooga), and a variety of reruns (Leave It To Beaver, Superman, Maverick, Cisco Kid, Lone Ranger, and so on). Then prime time kicked in—but the summer was the season for reruns, not new programming. Of course, that didn’t stop me from watching television; I was more than willing to sit through shows I had seen just a few months earlier, of course. The concept of summer series and miniseries was pretty much unheard of in the 1960s; instead, the networks would pick the best 13 or so episodes from the prior season (most seasons ran 39 episodes, so there was plenty to choose from) and fill their schedule with those reruns. Local news began at 11pm and ran for 15 minutes (Channel 9), 20 minutes (Channel 12), 25 minutes (Channel 11), or a full half-hour (everyone else). At that point, some channels ended their broadcast day; other channels offered a syndicated movie, while Channels 2 & 3 (our  NBC affiliates back then) offered The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. By 1am, though, the television day was done, and the test pattern would be out only viewing option until it all started over the next morning.

Of course, during the school year, I never got a chance to see the end of the television broadcast day—but in the summer, everything was different! I would stretch out in the floor of our living room and watch TV with my parents (usually reading comics at the same time) until about 10pm, when I was supposed to go to bed… but with school out, bedtime was pretty lax. Instead, I’d get ready for bed, then go to my room, turn off the lights and turn on my portable black-and-white TV, and watch Johnny Carson until the broadcast day ended (or until I dozed off, which happened fairly regularly. Then, on the nights when I actually stayed awake until the end of The Tonight Show, I’d turn the TV off, turn on the box fan that sat about a foot away from my bed, and let it blow the humid Southern summer air across me to provide whatever small bit of cooling it could. Like most everyone, we didn’t have whole-house air conditioning back then, so we did what most everyone else did in the summer—we got by.

Oh so close!… Rome nearly landed direct flights to and from Washington DC this week in 1966… until Eastern Airlines muscled the Civil Aeronautics Board to deny the Southern Airways bid, claiming that they were interested in expanding their once-a-day flight service to Atlanta with two-a-day north and south flights to Atlanta and Chattanooga.

The state of Georgia accepted bids for a juvenile detention home to be constructed in West Rome; the plans called for construction of a $200,000+ facility with space for 30 juvenile detainees. West Romans expressed concern about  the location of the facility, but it seemed that those concerns fell on deaf ears.

How good was the economy in the mid-1960s? So good that, once the 1965 books were audited and closed, the City of Rome posted a profit of $52,000 and Floyd county posted a profit of $138,000. Property taxes were primarily responsible for the profits; both the city and county intended to roll the surplus forward and reduce the tax millage rate for the next year.

And what a great time for savers—both Rome Bank & Trust and National City Bank boosted their savings certificates rate to 5.1%, while pretty much every bank in Rome was paying 5% for savings accounts.

Piggly Wiggly had spare ribs for 49¢ a pound, whole watermelons for 69¢ each, and Sealtest sherbet for 33¢ a half-gallon. Big Apple had fresh whole fryers for 29¢ a pound, Dixie Chef pork & beans for a dime a can, and Oak Hill pickled peaches for 19¢ a can (there was a limit of four cans per customer at this price—was that really necessary? Were there people who tried to stock up whenever pickled peaches went on sale?). A&P had Super-Right hickory smoked hams for 45¢ a pound, Pillsbury canned biscuits for 9¢ a can, and a 12-ounce can of spam for 53¢. Kroger had cubed steaks for 99¢ a pound, Morton’s frozen cream pies for a quarter each, and Hormel vienna sausages for 20¢ a can. Couch’s had ground beef for 45¢ a pound, Aristocrat ice milk for 39¢ a half-gallon, and fresh okra for 13¢ a pound.

Rome’s cinematic week began with Arabesque (with Gregory Peck & Sophia Loren) as the DeSoto Theater, Maya (with Jay North & Clint Walker) at the First Avenue, and a double feature of And Now Miguel and Out of Sight (neither of which has any cast members of any significance) at the West Rome Drive-In. The midweek switch out brought Nevada Smith (with Steve McQueen) to the DeSoto, The Singing Nun (with Debbie Reynolds) to the First Avenue, and an offbeat double feature of Beach Ball (with Ed “Kookie” Burnes) and Las Vegas Hillbillies (with Jayne Mansfield & Ferlin Husky) at the West Rome Drive-In.

Soap operas turned towards the dark and gothic this week in 1966 with the debut of Dark Shadows on ABC on June 27th. The show struggled for its first year until the vampire Barnabas Collins was introduced in 1967.  And in a sign that even the networks realized that there was something special about this series, every episode (except one) of the horror soap opera was preserved, which is why you can buy (almost) complete sets of the series if you want to relive the creepy fun. (You can watch Barnabas all you want—I’ll keep an eye on Angelique, thank you very much…)

The Beatles once again took the number one slot, this time with “Paperback Writer.” Other top ten hits included “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle (#2); “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (#3); “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James & the Shondells (#4); “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield (#5); “Wild Thing” by the Troggs (#6); “Cool Jerk” by the Capitals (#7); “Little Girl” by the Syndicate of Sound (#8); “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones (#9); and “Along Comes Mary” by the Association (#10).

This is also the week that the world was introduced to the weirdness of Frank Zappa & the Mothers of Invention, thanks to the release of their debut album, Freak Out!

Following not he popularity of their Captain America Golden Age reprints, Marvel reprinted a Golden Age battle between the Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner in Marvel Super-Heroes Annual #1, which also reprinted Daredevil #1 and Avengers #2. The latter two books were only two-and-a-half years old and  three years old respectively at the time that Marvel Super-Heroes was released—but the inclusion of a Golden Age tale more than a quarter-century old made this a true event!  (And in an odd coincidence, two of those stories—the Daredevil tale and the Sub-Mariner/Human Torch tale—were drawn by the very same talented illustrator, Bill Everett!)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Nine Father's Days Later...

I remember Father's Day 2007, the last Father's Day I got to spend with you. A quiet day, low-key... lunch at Longhorn's, a couple of hours of conversation at your house, a quick trip to Walmart so that you could pick up a few things. Picked up those tan corduroy kitchen chair cushions that you had been looking at for a couple of weeks. As soon as we got back to your house, you took up the old cushions and put the new ones on, and your smile told us that you liked them.You'd be happy to see that we still have them, along with your kitchen table. (I think of that day every time I see them.)

Most of the conversation was topical but uneventful, but I remember talking with you about Comic Shop News, which had just turned twenty years old a couple of weeks earlier. You told me how proud of me you were, and how happy you were that I had chosen to go into writing as well. Those words meant more to me than you'll ever know.

Miss you every day, Dad. Maybe a little more some days--birthdays... Christmas... and Father's Day. But still so thankful for the days that we had together, even though they ended far too soon.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Some Thoughts About Ron

I just learned that Ron Lester  died earlier today. 

I first crossed paths with Ron when he was a freshman at North Cobb High School. His mom was indefatigable in standing up for her son, who she felt was falling through the cracks at school. I didn't teach Ron then, but I knew someone who did. When she came back from a meeting with Ron and his mom, she said she's try to give Ron extra attention just to avoid having to go through another meeting like that.

Soon after, I met Ron. From the description of the meeting, I had expected Ron to be a spoiled, self-indulgent, disrespectful kid--but the Ron I met was none of those. He was a friendly kid, amiable and personable. He was also large... very large. Ron probably weighed 300 or so pounds back then, with a massive body, a full face, and a ruddy complexion that made him look like he was always blushing. But what I remember was that he had a grin that made you smile.

Ron became almost legendary at North Cobb. There are probably a million Ron Lester stories from his years there, but my favorite--told by other teachers and verified by Ron himself--involved a tornado alert. When the news of a tornado in the area came in, everyone took their classes to the central hallways to take shelter. Ron's class was in a trailer (also known as a "portable classroom," or if it was Paula Millet's or Pam Bottoms' portable classroom, a "cottage"), so the teacher brought the class into the building. Somehow, though, Ron sneaked away. "I just wanted to see if a tornado was strong enough to move me," Ron said. Apparently it was. Ron was standing outside, playing the goof, with his arms outspread, when a tremendous gust of wind slammed him into a trailer. He hit with such force that he actually made a more-or-less-body-shaped dent in the metal trailer exterior. It was just like a bad Chuck Jones cartoon. Ron loved that dent, and made a point of showing it to me more than once.

Later on, I had Ron in my mass media class. The course had units on film study, music, magazines, comic books, and more, and Ron absolutely loved it. The film unit fascinated him; he watched every movie intently, asking questions about camera angles and cinematic effects and visual symbolism and cinematography--questions that were so astute and insightful that other students alternated between being amazed and aggravated. They were amazed that Ron saw all of this stuff that they didn't--and they were aggravated that he loved to talk about it at length when they were ready to move on to something else. There were many days when Ron would come by my class before school or during lunch just to finish up discussions that had begun in mass media.

So imagine my surprise when, two weeks before the end of the semester, Ron quit doing anything. He didn't turn in any work, including his final class project. He didn't even show up to take his final. He failed the class. I was dumbfounded; Ron absolutely, positively knew the material better than anyone else in the room. Had a done something to upset him? If so, he hid it well; every time I saw him in the hall, he was friendly and enthusiastic, with that same unforgettable grin. Finally I called him aside and asked what was going on.

"I'm failing math."

I didn't understand what that had to do with my mass media class.

"I'm failing math, so I have to come back next semester to take math again. I can't take just one class, though--I have to take at least two classes. So I'm failing mass media so that I can take it again, because I really love this class."

Perfect Ron logic.

Just to make sure there wouldn't be problems later, I asked Ron to have his mom call me to make sure she understood the reason for his failing grade. "I do," she said. "It's his favorite class, and he really wants to take it again." She also told me how many times he had come home from school and told her about what we had covered in mass media that day.

I've been lucky enough to connect with a number of students over the years, but never had I known a student who liked my class so much that he failed it on purpose just because he wanted to take it again. But Ron did. Even more remarkably, he was just as engaged and insightful the second time around... I never doubted that he really did love the class.

"I'm going to be an actor," Ron told me at the end of the semester the second time around. I probably raised my eyebrows in surprise, because Ron repeated it, adding "really" to the end of the sentence.

And he was right. He was going to be an actor.

Ron did some standup comedy and  took a few bit parts as an extra  before getting his big break in Varsity Blues. The role made him--but it also typecast him. He played much the same sort of character on the TV series Popular. He even parodied his Varsity Blues role in Not Another Teen Movie.

But Ron got tired of being the fat guy, he told me. So he decided to get healthy. He couldn't do it with exercise and diet alone, though, so he had gastric bypass surgery. And it worked--he lost over 300 pounds, shaped up, and suddenly the amiable fat guy looked like a handsome leading man.

"It killed my career," he told me. "Everyone calls me looking for the fat guy. I show up, and they don't want the healthy me--they still want the fat guy."

Ron struggled to find his career again. He had written a screenplay for a NASCAR-focused film, Racing Dreams, that he really wanted to make. He had put his heart into it, and the script was pretty solid. The lead character was pure Ron, all the way through.  He tried again and again to get that film done, but it never came together. It broke his heart, he said; this was the one movie he really wanted to make.

We talked on the phone from time to time, exchanged some emails, saw each other a time or two. At one point, he joked about getting a job at my comic shop because at least I didn't always tell him "I'm looking for the fat guy" when he came by to see me.

I didn't hear from Ron much in the past year or so. The last talk we had, he told me that there were times that he wished he'd never had the surgery. "I had it all, everything I wanted," he said, "but it all went away when I lost the weight." He was somber for a minute--then he made a joke far too vulgar for me to repeat here, laughed, and even though we were talking on the phone, I could see that Ron Lester grin.

The last email we exchanged was about having your dream and not knowing it until it's too late. "I'm a low-budget Jay Gatsby," he said, and suddenly I realized that he had gotten a lot more out of David Merrick's production of Great Gatsby than I ever realized.

At the end of the email, he added this line: "Thank you for being such a great teacher to my dumb ass!"

You weren't dumb, my friend. Never were.

I'm going to miss you, Ron.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 6/20/1966 to 6/26/1966

Peter Graham once wrote, “The Golden Age of science fiction is twelve.” For me, this was not only true of SF, but also of television and comic books and music. The summer of 1966 was perhaps the best year of my childhood, and I enjoyed every minute of it. I was twelve years old, which was old enough to stay up late, but too young to get a part-time job; old enough to watch pretty much anything on TV, but young enough to enjoy comics and monster models and toys in the days when those items seemed to have an upper age limit as far as many people were concerned. And oh, how I enjoyed comics and monster models and toys and television during that summer! During the week, I usually got up by 8:00 or so—just in time to watch Cartoon Carnival on Channel 11 (WAII) out of Atlanta, then switch over to Cartoon Time on Channel 12 (WDEF) out of Chattanooga. Then it was Andy Griffith and Dick Van Dyke on Channel 5 (WAGA)—at which point Mom was usually so tired of my sister Kim and me watching teevee that she sent us outside to play. Once we stepped out the door, Kim and I went our separate ways; we could watch television together, but that was the extent  of our shared interests that summer! I usually got back home by 3:30 in the afternoon to watch You Don’t Say, followed by The Match Game, with Mom and Dad, since Dad usually got home from work by about 3:30 or so (one of the advantages of his newspaper job—he went in incredibly early, by 6am or so, but he got him earlier as a result). We ate dinner at about  5pm, at which point I’d go back outside to hang out with my best friend Gary Steele, or with John & Jimmy Ball.

The weekends were still special for a teevee and monster-movie fan like me, since Friday Night was the right for Channel 5’s Big Movie Shocker, hosted by Atlanta’s very own horror host Bestoink Dooley. Saturdays mornings were filled with cartoons and old movies—I would actually get up early to see the Tarzan movie on Saturday morning, or the latest chapter of the Flash Gordon serial, or a pair of Three Stooges shorts, followed by the Jetsons, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, The Beatles (yes, I watched their cartoon show every week!), Top Cat, and Magilla Gorilla. Saturday night and Sunday morning were mostly television wastelands, although I did sit through a few episodes of Gumby & Pokey or Davy and Goliath n Sunday mornings.  And I almost always had a comic book to read through at the same time—I was a multi-tasker even as a kid, apparently! And I had almost two and a half months of television watching, comic book reading, and model kit building before school started back in late August!

This was a slow news week in 1966; the local highlight of the week involved the loss of one of Rome’s best-known homes. One of Rome’s oldest continuously-occupied residences, Hillcrest on River Avenue, burned to the ground on Wednesday, June 22nd. Firemen from three different companies, including West Rome, were called in to fight the blaze; the firemen remained on duty until 6:30 am Thursday morning, but were unable to save the home. Fire Chief Lindsey Ford said that they were hampered by the large number of spectators (estimated at well over a hundred) who came to see the historic site as it burned. “They just interfered with us in general,” Chief Ford said. “We couldn’t keep them away from the fire. They were in too close. They also interfered when we tried to give first aid to a fireman. The home, originally built in the early 1890s by Arthur Tedcastle, was occupied by the J. Meredith Graham family; the Grahams were staying at their summer house in Ontario at the time of the fire, but were notified by phone.

The cinematic week began with In Harm’s Way (with John Wayne & Kirk Douglas) at the DeSoto, A High Wind in Jamaica (with Anthony Quinn & James Coburn) at the First Avenue, and a double feature of Beach Blanket Bingo (with Annette Funicello & Frankie Avalon) and Susan Slade (with Troy Donahue & Connie Stevens) at the West Rome Drive-In. The midweek switch out brought Arabesque (with Gregory Peck & Sophia Loren) to the Desoto, Maya (with Clint Walker & Jay North) to the First Avenue, and a triple feature of Donovan’s Reef (with John Wayne & Lee Marvin), Blue Hawaii (with Elvis Presley), and Diamond Head (with Charlton Heston) to the West Rome Drive-In.

Piggly Wiggly had round steak for 79¢ a pound, cabbage for a nickel a head, and a case of Coca-Cola, Tab, or Sprite for 99¢ plus deposit. Kroger had baking hens for 37¢ a pound, creamed corn for 20¢ a can, and bananas for a dime a pound. A&P had boneless brisket for 89¢ a pound, ripe tomatoes for a quarter a pound, and Campbell’s tomato or vegetable soup for 15¢ a can. Big Apple had ground beef for 37¢ a pound, Banquet frozen cream pies for 24¢ each, and Irvindale ice milk for 39¢ a half-gallon. Couch’s had pork roast for 59¢ a pound, 24 ounce bottles of Stockily catsup for a quarter, and  Bama strawberry preserves for 39¢ (and when you finished the preserves, you could use the jar as a drinking glass—this was one of Bama’s advertising pitches in the 1960s, and I know it worked for my family, since I drank out of many former jelly jars in my childhood!).

Frank Sinatra finally got his solo number one this week in 1966 with “Strangers In the Night.” Other top ten hits included “Paperback Writer” by the Beatles (#2); “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle (#3); “Pain It, Black” by the Rolling Stones (#4); “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield (#5); “Hanky Panky” by Tommy James & the Shondells (#6); “Cool Jerk” by the Capitals (#7); “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel (#8); “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful (#9); and “Barefootin’” by Robert Parker (#10).

(And speaking of “Paint It, Black”… Someone dropped me a note last week to ask why I
keep putting a comma in that title, since it’s obviously grammatically incorrect since I’m not telling someone named Black to paint something. Well, ,I put the comma there because that was the name of the song in 1966! Nowadays it’s listed as “Paint It Black,” but the original single and album release included the comma in the title. Some have said it was just a Decca Records error, but that error seemed to have made its way around the world in 1966, with pretty much every label in every country including the comma.)

Those of us in the United States got a new Beatles album this week in 1966 with the release of Yesterday and Today, an “odds and ends” album including tracks from British LPs that had been left off their US equivalents, along with singles and three cuts from the not-yet-released Revolver album. The songs were great
regardless of their lineage, but the album cover generated some controversy: the original cover depicted the Beatles in white butcher’s coats accompanied by decapitated baby dolls and assorted slabs of meat. That was considered too disturbing for 1966, so the cover was replaced with the more traditional “Paul in a trunk with the other lads around him” photo. A few of the original covers got out, of course—and dos have money, Capital just pasted the new cover over a number of copies of the finished album with the old cover, inspiring some collectors to carefully peel the new cover to reveal the socially incorrect original photo. Today the original album covers demand a very high price indeed--but the market has been flooded with so many counterfeit and bootleg versions of the cover that many people assume they have a valuable rarity when they really just have a cheap knockoff.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 6/13/1966 to 6/19/1966

The duck poisoner struck again, a week after poisoning ducks at the Civic Center Pond. This time, almost two dozen ducks were found dead at the big lake in Garden Lakes on Monday, June 13th; local veterinarian Connie Batson confirmed that the ducks had been poisoned, and some of the poison (which had been dusted on pieces of bread) was even found scattered along the banks of the lake. Needless to say, everyone in the area was eager to find whomever was responsible for such an evil act, with some residents promising to set up lake patrols in the area to protect the remaining ducks.

Did you know that West Rome had its very own women’s Home Economics Club? It’s true! With school out for the summer, the Home Economics Club was urging members to bring their daughters to the meeting—and to ensure that the programming was so exciting that no one could stay away, the June meeting would feature a special lesson on flower arranging!

The financial market was so strong that National City bank increased the rate for its certificates of deposit to 5% for a one-year CD; Rome Bank & Trust responded by raising their rates to 5.1%, as did Home Federal. Even savings accounts were paying 1.25% interest at this time--more than a CD earns today!

Rome Antenna Company had their very own Rome’s Finest antenna for only $88.00 installed—and they promised that this antenna was specially designed to pull in “picture-perfect channel reception” from both Rome and Chattanooga. For only $25 more, they would install a powered rotor so that you didn’t have to keep sending someone out to turn the antenna while someone else in the house yelled “Just a little more! Just a little more! That’s too much!”

If you wanted to grill, you had a lot of choices! Murphy’s had a charcoal grill with a 24” bowl and an electric rotisserie motor for $8.88. Sears had a charcoal grill with a 26” bowl, a rotisserie motor, and a hinged cover for $9.88. But if you wanted to go big, Atlanta Gas Light had a gas grill large enough to cook 24 hamburgers at once (bet their hamburgers were smaller than mine!) for only $63.00—and that included installation!

Kentucky Fried Chicken had plenty of choices for the summer: a liver or a gizzard dinner with mashed potatoes and a roll for 59¢, a fried fish dinner with 2 flounder fillets, fries, biscuits, and tartar sauce for 89¢, or a shrimp dinner with 8 jumbo shrimp, fries, biscuits, and tartar sauce for $1.09—and you could add a side order of Brunswick stew to any of those dinners for 35¢ or a small salad for 25¢. (And I didn’t remember that Kentucky Fried Chicken ever served fish, shrimp, Brunswick stew, or salads until I started doing this weekly retrospective, so apparently their marketing wasn’t as far-reaching as they had hoped it would be…) Not to be outdone, Redfords brought back their fish dinners with cole slaw, fries, baked beans, rolls, and coffee or iced tea for only 69¢, while the Shrimp Boat offered a fish dinner with fries, hush puppies, and slaw for only 79¢ or a shrimp dinner with fries, hush puppies,  or cole slaw for 99¢. And of course, McDonald’s was right their in the fish melee with their very own Filet o’ Fish sandwich on sale for only a quarter.

Piggly Wiggly had chicken breasts for 59¢ a pound, locally grown squash for 15¢ a pound, and cantaloupes for a quarter each. Kroger had pork loin roast for 59¢ a pound, 14-ounce bottles of Stokely catsup for 20¢. and a 12-ounce twin pack of Country Oven potato chips for 39¢. A&P had Swiss steaks for 65¢ a pound, Eight O’Clock coffee for 65¢ a pound, and a one-pound jar of Ann Page peanut butter for (you guessed it!) 65¢. Big Apple had sirloin steak for 89¢ a pound (to go with one of those grills you just bought, of course!), American Beauty pork & beans for a dime a can, and Irvindale ice cream or sherbet for 49¢ a half-gallon. Couch’s had chuck roast for 33¢ a pound, locally grown vine ripe tomatoes for 15¢ a pound, and a quart of JFG mayonnaise for 49¢.

If you were looking for a sporty ride with absolutely no get up and go, what more could you ask for than a Volkswagen Karman Ghia coupe? Well, you could have one, complete with radio, a heater, and whitewall tires, for only $1895 this week in 1965. Prefer a VW sedan instead? Well, you could save $300 off that Karman Ghia price! (Having owned a 1964 Volkswagen that I drove until 1976, going through two motors and putting just over 247,000 miles on it, I can see the appeal of the underpowered air-cooled VW. It may have barely puttered along, but it was remarkably easy to fix and it just kept going!)

waiian StylThe cinematic week began with Paradise Hawaiian Style (with Elvis Presley) at the DeSoto Theater & the West Rome Drive-In and The Group (with Candice Bergen) at the First Avenue. The midweek switch out brought Bambi to the DeSoto Theater (so apparently there were no major new movies released that week) and Fireball 500 (with Frankie Avalon & Annette Funicello) to both the First Avenue and the West Rome Drive-In.

The Beatles took number one this week in 1966 with “Paperback Writer.” Other top ten hits included “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (#2); “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones (#3); “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful (#4); “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel (#5); “Red Rubber Ball” by the Cyrkle (#6); “Barefootin’” by Robert Parker (#7); “Cook Jerk” by the Capitals (#8); “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” by Dusty Springfield (#9); and “Sweet Talkin’ Guy” by the Chiffons (#10).

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 6/6/1966 to 6/12/1966

Bad news for those who slacked off, skipped class, or flunked out during the school year: Rome City School System's summer school was slated to start at the inconveniently located and totally un-air-conditioned East Rome Junior High beginning June 13th and running through July 29th, with July 4th off. Students had to pay a $20 fee for each 1/2 unit course they took in summer school, and students could take up to three courses in summer school.  (Of course, this was also good news for those students who were hoping to take a course early to free up their regular school schedule for another elective—I never knew anyone who did such a thing, but there were rumors…)

Younger kids looking for a place to play could head to Elm Street Elementary School, because the city of Rome decided to open the Elm Street playground from 8:30 AM to 11:30 AM and from 2:00 PM to 5:30 PM. The city would have playground supervisors to keep an eye on kids and to organize such activities as Batman & Robin Day, Hobo Day, and Cowboys & Indians Day. In addition, there would be organized horseshoe tournaments, softball, and other activities.

For those willing to drive a bit, Powatan Beach was open once again for the summer of ’66, offering a white sand beach, paddle boats, motorboat rides, fishing, horseback riding, swimming, a train ride, miniature golf, a driving range, and more. Admission was 60¢ for adults, 35¢ for children—but the whole family could get a season pass for only $10! Admission came with free camping privileges for the night as well. (Powhatan was located near where Floyd Junior College—now Georgia Highlands College—would be constructed a few years later.)

Some truly depraved individual poisoned 28 ducks and a giant snapping turtle at the Rome Civic Center pond on Thursday, June 9th. “We’re hoping that no one picked up a duck and decided to make a meal fit,” Rome Parks and Recreation Director Walt Attaway said, “because there’s enough poison there to kill a horse—or a person.”

A nationwide strike of telegraphers shut down the Rome Telegraph Office at the Western Union station on East 2nd Street. And yes, people still sent telegrams back in 1966…

Piggly Wiggly had whole or half hams for 59¢ a pound, squash for 15¢ a pound, and fresh-baked apple, peach, or cherry pies for 63¢ each. Kroger had ribeye steak for $1.89 a pound (and that explains why we never had ribeye steak when I was growing up!), a 6-ounce can of frozen orange juice concentrate for 15¢, and Country Club ice cream for 30¢ a half-gallon (but you had to buy $7.50 or more in groceries to get this special price). A&P had fancy beef liver for 39¢ (I’d like to know what made it fancy), Ann Page mayonnaise for 59¢ a quart, and whole wheat bread for 19¢ a loaf. Big Apple had chicken breasts for 49¢ a pound, okra for 33¢ a pound, and Bailey’s Supreme coffee for 59¢ a pound (with a $5 purchase). Couch’s had flat cans of Unica salmon or 33¢ each, two pounds of cheese food (no, it’s not real cheese) for 69¢, and ground beef for 43¢ a pound.

The cinematic week began with Cast a Giant Shadow (with Kirk Douglas & Senta Berger) at the DeSoto, Last of the Secret Agents (with Marty Allen & Steve Rossi) at the First Avenue, and a double feature of Revenge of the Gladiators (with Roger Browne) and The Skull (with Peter Cushing) at the West Rome Drive-In. The midweek switch out brought Paradise Hawaiian Style (with Elvis Presley) to both the DeSoto and the West Rome Drive-In, while  Last of the Secret Agents hung around for another week at the First Avenue.

The Rolling Stones held on to the first place slot for a second week with “Paint It, Black.” Other top ten hits included “Good Lovin’” by the Young Rascals (#2); “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by Bob Dylan (#3); “Kicks” by Paul Revere & the Raiders (#4); “Sloop John B” by the Beach Boys (#5); “You’re My soul and Inspiration” by the Righteous Brothers (#6); “How Does That Grab You Darlin’?” by Nancy Sinatra (#7); “Message to Michael” by Dionne Warwick (#8); “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge (#9); and “Gloria” by Shadows of Knight (#10).

Spider-Man’s two part confrontation with the Green Goblin reached its dramatic conclusion in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man #40 this week in 1966. “The End of the Green Goblin!” the cover proclaimed—but we know that most definitely would not be the case! This was the second issue illustrated by John Romita and Mike Esposito; Romita stepped in when Steve Ditko left the book, and while his style was very different, he quickly became a fan favorite.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Going Commercial

I blame RCA.

Back in late 1977, I got my very first VHS videocassette recorder--an RCA SelectaVision VBT-200. It could record in 2-hour mode (SP) or 4-hour mode (LP) on a cassette that cost somewhere north of $25 plus tax if you bought 'em locally, or $20 each if I ordered a case of twelve from a mail-order supplier in California.

The VBT-200 didn't have a wireless remote--just a wired pause/play-record switch with about fifteen or so feet of cord. When I was watching a TV show I was recording, I'd routinely pause the unit during the commercials to conserve tape--but since much of my recording was done for time-shifting purposes, that wasn't feasible. So about 20-25% of what I was recording was actually commercials, end credits, etc. That

I was actually the second person in my family to buy a VBT-200. My dad bought one two months before I did. Which meant that we had access to two machines. So once every couple of weeks, I'd lug my machine to Mom & Dad's and we'd hook up the output of one machine to the input of another to dub off tapes.... and of course, we'd pause the recording unit during the commercials, editing them out to conserve tape.

Shortly after that, I bought a second VHS unit and could edit recordings in the comfort of my own home... which I did on a regular basis.

And thus began my rejection of commercials.

Today, when I look at recordings of old shows (yes, I can still play back my VHS tapes and my Beta tapes on a few old units I have that are still functional), I wish those commercials were still there.

That's the funny thing about commercials. At the time you're watching commercial programming, you want to see the show, so the commercials are an intrusion that delays instant gratification. Skip ahead a few years, and you see it somewhat differently, though: the commercials are a link to the past, a shard of culture and society that creates a link ot another time in our lives.

I have a dozen or so tapes and DVDs of old commercials, carefully preserved by popular culture historians and aficionados who recognized the value of such gems. Cereal commercials, toy commercials, car commercials, antacid commercials--they're all here, along with ads for movies and television shows and so much more.

When I was a kid, I watched commercials routinely. I had no choice. Sure, we would all use some of that time to grab a snack, or maybe to go to the bathroom, but for the most part, we watched. We talked with other people in our family about commercials. We made purchase decisions based on them. Kids like me made Christmas lists and grocery-store wish lists based on what we saw advertised on TV. Heck, we even bought records of music originally done for commercials ("No Matter What Shape Your Stomach's In" by the T-Bones, or "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" by the New Seekers).

Pay-TV cemented the anti-commercial sentiment. We could pay extra money each month and watch movies without commercials. then came Sirius and XM, which allowed us to pay extra money each month and listen to music without commercials.

For a while, I've edited out commercials on TV shows that I record on my Mac. As I convert the recording from MPEG-2 to MP4, I tag the commercials and drop them out of the transfer; it's an easy enough process, and it saves me about 18 minutes of recording time for an hour-long program. But I didn't edit out all the commercials; I began leaving in a few commercials that I liked. For November and December programming, I began leaving in even more commercials as a sort of memory tag for the holiday season.

A few weeks ago, I drifted away from my iPod, from Pandora, and from Sirius-XM and began exploring the FM dial once again. I found a few stations I enjoyed listening to, and I found myself listening to the commercials as well. Concert ads, jewelry store ads (Tom Shane, anyone?...), grocery store ads, TV programming ads... they're all still there on various radio programs, and many of them made me remember the ads I used to hear on WKLS-FM 96 Rock back in the 1970s. The first time I ever heard of a new hamburger chain called Wendy's, I was listening to 96 Rock. I first learned about Peaches Records through a radio ad, and made the two hour drive from Cedartown to Atlanta to experience the wonder of a record store the size of a Kmart.

There's something about a commercial that creates a connection, a link to a larger world. And every now and then, I find a commercial that is as good as--or even better than--the program itself. 

Don't get me wrong--I'm still going to edit out commercials on some programs. But I'm going to leave the commercials in on others, just as a way of saving a little slice of life. A few years from now, I think I'll  be glad I did.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Happy Rebirthday to DC!

(If you are obsessive about spoilers, come back and read this after you've read DC Universe Rebirth #1.)

One of the first comics I ever read was Superman #127, the Titano the Super-Ape story. I got that, along with an Archie, a Richie Rich, and a Classics Illustrated, just prior to having my tonsils taken out. At that point, I was hooked on comics in general--and on DC in particular. I was fascinated with this world where a chimpanzee sent into space could return as a giant ape with super-strength and kryptonite-beam eyes (you'd think that Reed Richards would have heard about this before he sent himself and his three best friends into space, wouldn't you?). I wanted more! Thus began my decades-long fascination with DC.

I haven't been a happy visitor to the DC Universe lately.

I have no problems with iconoclastic, deconstructionist, realistic-bordering-on-naturalistic comics. I was right there reading Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns with everyone else, and eagerly waiting for the next issue. What made these series so popular, though, was that they were different from the norm; they took comics in a new direction, telling a great story that couldn't have been told in the standard comics of the day.

Unfortunately, too many people assumed that the iconoclastic, deconstructionist, realistic-bordering-on-naturalistic was what made these books successful, and not the great storytelling. So over the years, those elements became the norm in comics, gradually invading one comics universe after another.

And finally, in 2011, DC fell to the invasion when The New 52 became the norm. The characters we knew were gone; in their pale were younger versions of the heroes in Nehru-collared costumes, armed with bad attitudes and invested with revamped continuity. How different were they? Well, comics legend George PĂ©rez walked away from Superman after a few issues because it wasn't his Superman; he wasn't enjoying the character whose exploits he was presenting. George was the canary in the coal mine that DC had fouled up... but things only got worse, not better.

Until now.

With DC Universe: Rebirth #1, the company offers us the first tantalizing glimpses into a DC Universe with optimism and happiness and hope. And it all begins with the Flash, which is appropriate: it was the Flash, after all, who launched the Silver Age of comics back in 1956 with his appearance in Showcase #4, so he should be the one who relaunches a revitalized DC Universe now.

But it's actually a later Flash, Wally West (who we first met as Kid Flash almost six decades ago), who is the real catalyst. He is the link to a universe that has been forgotten, and he has been forgotten as well... wiped out of this reality. He wants to return, but he needs a link—he's DC's Tinkerbell, needing someone to believe in him before he fades away entirely. And ultimately, it's Barry Allen who becomes his anchor point, paving the way for a growing realization that something has been missing... intentionally.

And very appropriately, it turns out that it's the most powerful figure in The Watchmen who is responsible: Dr. Manhattan. Metaphorically, the book that changed the tenor of comics becomes symbolized by its aloof hero who has created his own reality... one that contains a skewed version of the true DC Universe.

Superstar storyteller Geoff Johns is the man who brought it all back. That's appropriate: now he's the iconoclast, rejecting the formerly-iconoclastic norm and saying "These are heroes... these are legends... these are stories that inspire us."  Along the way, he manages to avoid recasting Dr. Manhattan as a Darkseid-level villain, which is admirable; he isn't condemning the grim 'n' gritty revolution, after all, just saying it's time for a return to something better, something that has been forgotten.

And along the way, we get the return of the classic Batman as a master detective and the classic Superman, the epitome of ethics and justice. Farewell to the New 52 Superman, who was much better in his dying than he was in his living; welcome back the Superman who inspired us--and watch as he now inspires his and Lois Lane's super-son to follow in his footsteps.

Can other writers follow Johns' road map and make the various Rebirth oneshots (and the ongoing series that follow them) equally exciting? I don't know--but I have high hopes. And isn't "hope" what the DC Universe was all about?

Friday, May 27, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 5/30/1966 to 6/5/1966

Summer was so very close this week in 1966. We were in our final week of school; seniors got a shorter week than the rest of us, since they finished up two days earlier than the rest of us to give them time for graduation practice (graduation wouldn't come around until the next Monday, June 6th). The week began appropriately spring-like, with highs in the upper 70s and lows in the upper 40s, warming slightly to the low 80s and the low 50s by the end of the week. Compared to so many Georgia Mays that end as early warnings of a hot summer to come, this was a great way to wrap up a school year… The end of school also meant the end of spring sports; there were no track meets, no baseball games, no golf matches this week in 1966.

Imagine if West Rome had been given its very own interstate! That was the idea that was being promoted by T. Harley Harper; Harper announced the formation of a group to promote the creation of East-West Interstate 30, which would run from Columbia SC to Memphis TN, passing through Huntsville AL and Rome GA in the process. The proposed Interstate would have come within four miles of West Rome High School. (Like many great projects that could have benefited Rome, this one never came to pass…)

The Batman phenomenon was going strong in 1966, thanks to the success of the ABC-TV series starring Adam West and Burt Ward. That explains why Belk-Rhodes was advertising that they were Rome’s “Batman Headquarters,” complete with “Bat Man” T-sirts, hats, masks, and capes. (And yes, they managed to misspell Batman as two words in their big ad... bad form, Belk's!).

Piggly Wiggly had Swift’s Premium ham for 59¢ a pound, Morton’s frozen cream pies for a quarter each, and tomatoes for a quarter a pound. Kroger had fresh fryers for 29¢ a pound, cantaloupe for 33¢ each, and Sealtest ice cream for 49¢ a pound. A&P had turkey breast for 79¢ a pound, seedless grapes for 19¢ a pound, and Poss’s beef stew for 53¢ a can. Big Apple had spare ribs for 39¢ a pound, French’s mustard for a dime a jar, and Hormel vienna sausage for 20¢ a can. Couch’s had pork steak for 59¢ a pound, Showboat pork & beans for 19¢ a can, and Maxwell House Instant Coffee for $1.49 a jar.

The cinematic week began with The Trouble with Angels (with Hayley Mills) at the DeSoto, Promise Her Anything (with Warren Beatty & Leslie Caron) at the First Avenue, and a double feature of Money Trap (with Glenn Ford & Elke Sommer) and Girl Happy (with Elvis Presley & Shelley Fabares) at the West Rome Drive-In. The midweek switch out brought Cast a Giant Shadow (with Kirk Douglas & Senta Berger) to the DeSoto, Tiko & the Shark (with no one you’ve ever heard of) at the First Avenue, and Last of the Secret Agents (a spoof wwith Marty Allen & Steve Rossi) to the West Rome Drive-In.

The Rolling Stones took the number one slot this week in 1965 with “Paint It, Black” (is this tune mournful or malevolent?… you decide!). Other top ten hits included “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful (#2); “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel (#3); “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge (#4); “A Groovy Kind of Love” by the Mindbenders (#5); “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (#6); “Monday Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas (#7); “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown (#8); “Green Grass” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys (#9); and “Barefootin’” by Robert Parker (#10).

The Beatles made another appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night, June 5th—this time taped, not live, featuring the premiere of the music videos for “Rain” and “Paperback Writer.”

The Dick Van Dyke Show presented its final episode on Wednesday, June 1st—an episode that had Rob Petrie (played by Dick Van Dyke) selling the television rights to a book he had written about his career as a television writer! What a perfect way to end one of the best situation comedies ever made…

Tower Comics’ THUNDER Agents was doing well enough that the publisher added a spinoff title, Dynamo, this week in 1966. This double-length issue (Tower Comics were 64-page books priced at 25¢ each, while most other publishers were offering 32-page 12¢ comics) included work by such talents as Wally Wood, Reed Crandall, Mike Sekowsky (best known for his work on DC Comics’ Justice League of America), and Steve Ditko (who had just left Marvel’s Amazing Spider-Man and the Doctor Strange feature in Strange Tales). Meanwhile, the cover of DC’s Batman #183 depicted a Caped Crusader who was too busy watching the Batman TV show to respond to an emergency call! And demonstrating the this was the week of zany covers, The Flash #163 featured a Scarlet Speedster staring straight at us, holding his hand up and ordering us to “Stop! Don’t pass up this issue! My life depends on it!” Go-Go check trade dress and strange covers—that’s what DC was best known for in the 1960s!

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Fifty Years Ago This Week in West Rome - 5/23/1966 to 5/29/1966

Garden Lakes residents met with Rome City officials at West Rome High School on Monday night, May 23rd, to discuss the annexation of Garden Lakes into the city of Rome. The residents were eager to have their children become Chieftains, pointing out that they were much closer geographically to West Rome than they were to Coosa. (We know that the annexation never came about, which seems odd, since the newspaper article talks about how overwhelmingly positive the residents were about the annexation.)

A Rome News-Tribune investigation into Rome and Floyd County Head Start expenditures revealed that the per-pupil cost for each preschool child taking part in the five-hour-a-day head Start during the January-August time period was $631—more than twice the cost of attending a private nursery day-care preschool program for nine hours a day, two-and-a-half times the cost of sending a student to private kindergarten, and almost exactly the cost to send a student to Berry College or Shorter College for nine months. The cost was far, far above the initial estimates for $360 per student per eight-month term. (Wait a minute… you mean that the government spent a lot more money for something than they initially said it would cost? That’s crazy talk!…)

West Rome’s JV track team won the Floyd County Junior Varsity Track & Field Championship on Tuesday, May 24th, with 101 points. They defeated Model (80 points), Berry Academy (76), Darlington (61), Georgia School for the Deaf (48), Armuchee (33), and Cave Spring (7). Roger Weaver took first place in the hundred yard dash, while Wayne Worsham took first place in the high hurdles.

The fourth annual Rome-Floyd County Tri-Hi-Y and Hi-Y recognition banquet was held on Saturday, May 28th, at the General Forrest Hotel in downtown Rome. The Hi-Y and Tri-Hi-Y chorus provided the musical program, “Sounds of ’66.” West Rome principal Dick McPhee was the host of the program. bestowing awards and commendations on individual members, sponsors, and on various school clubs for their outstanding work during the 1965-1966 school year.

Kentucky Fried Chicken (they hadn't become KFC yet) was still pushing that Brunswick stew that I can’t seem to remember: their combination special for the week was a half-pint of Brunswick stew, one piece of chicken, french fries, and two biscuits for 89¢.

Summer was coming, so various stores were pushing window-mounted air conditioners. Economy Auto had an 18,200 BTU Temp Master air conditioner for $248, while Sears had a 20,000 BTU Kenmore for $275.

The cinematic week began with Inside Daisy Clover (with Natalie Wood & Christopher Plummer) at the First Avenue and Where the Spies Are (with David Niven) at the West Rome Drive-In. And at long last, the DeSoto Theater reopened on Thursday, just in time for the mid-week switch out; the theater renovation brought new seats, a new screen, improved air conditioning, and other renovations to Rome’s premiere theater. The DeSoto reopened with The Trouble with Angels (with Hayley  Mills & Rosalind Russell), while the First Avenue and the West Rome Drive-In both showed the country music concert film Music City USA (complete with the tag line “So big, gay, and musical that it’s playing two theaters in Rome!”).

Piggly Wiggly had pork steaks for 59¢ a pound, corn for 6¢ an ear, and watermelons for 99¢ each. Kroger had baking hens for 37¢ a pound, tomatoes for a quarter a pound, and medium eggs for 33¢ a dozen. A&P had stew beef for 69¢ a pound, strawberries for 39¢ a pint, and Blue Bonnet margarine for 31¢ a pound (“Everything’s better with Blue Bonnet on it…”). Big Apple had prime rib roast for 69¢ a pound, Happy Valley ice milk for 39¢ a half-gallon, and Heinz pork & beans for 12¢ a can. Couch’s had Armour Star bacon for 69¢ a pound, Libby’s beef stew for 49¢ a can, and JFG coffee for 79¢ a pound.

Percy Sledge held on to number one for the second week in a row with “When a Man Loves a Woman.” Other top ten hits included “A Groovy Kind of Love” by the Mindbenders (#2); “Paint It, Black” by the Rolling Stones (#3); “Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?” by the Lovin’ Spoonful (#4); “I Am a Rock” by Simon & Garfunkel (#5); “Monday Monday” by the Mamas & the Papas (#6); “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35” by Bob Dylan (#7); “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” by James Brown (#8); “Green Grass” by Gary Lewis & the Playboys #9); and “Strangers in the Night” by Frank Sinatra (#10).