Friday, August 31, 2007
  The animated Wally Wood

Wally Wood's colorful Alka-Seltzer print ad, "Stomachs get even at night," was a huge success, winning a 1967 Art Directors Club Medal. The ad received such a favorable response that Wood was hired to convert it into storyboards, and this 1968 commercial was the result.

Sketches ©2007 Wood Estate

“See you in the funny papers.”
—1930s catchphrase

“See you in the darkness.”
—Gary Gilmore, January 1977

Worlds were created while the radiator clanked. On crescendo streets below, junkies trudged beneath crimson neon toward Needle Park, but in the silence of the Wood Studio on West 74th Street in 1968, the ink flowed in perfect curves with no ragged edges.

One night I broke the silence: “Why do you do this?” I saw Wood’s back twitch, startled, as he realized what I was getting at, but he continued to ink Superboy and didn’t turn around. Ralph Reese remained silent, delicately bringing up the backgrounds on another page.

“Why do I do what?” asked Wood.

“This super-hero crap. My God, you’re as great as any of the world’s greatest humorists. No one can do what you do the way you do it in your writing and your art. It’s your own. So isn’t this inking job just a waste? What does it have to do with you?”

The truth of this hung in the air and then spiraled away. There was no prolonged response or discussion because there was, we all knew, no answer that quite fit the circumstances. Later, a country music station played “Streets of Laredo.” The ink flowed into the night.

Wallace Wood would have loved the headline the Los Angeles Times ran above his obituary: “Gut Level Characters Made Him Famous,” a pun referring to his ad for Alka-Seltzer. I can imagine him clipping this obit, leaving it on the upper left corner of his drawing table and squinting at it occasionally while continuing to quietly ink panel after panel after panel. Someone leaning over his shoulder to glance at the headline and remark on the importance of such media attention would prompt only a smile and a muttered, “Yeah, but they got that part about the TV commercial wrong.” Later, the clipping would vanish from the drawing board into one of the dozens of file folders of work by and about Wood—all labeled “ME”—in his filing cabinets.

I remember the week Wood sketched the storyboard for that commercial (which LA Times writer Dana Kennedy cited as his “best known work” while confusing it with the print ad). The full color “Stomachs get even at night” ad, showing angry vegetables preparing for a midnight attack inside a stomach, had caused a sensation at the ad agency after publication. Had Wood picked that moment to acquire a top agent, possibly he could have ridden the wave all the way in—but even when the surf was up, what he sought was that perfect, impossible wave.

For TV, the agency wanted the vegetable characters to do something, despite the frozen moment of anticipation that gives the print ad its tension And so the storyboard—which looked like he had whipped it together in an hour—introduced a human character, a shocked guy in striped pajamas leaping off the sheets as vegetables march across the bed. The dark strangeness of the original concept had been sanitized for TV. The difference bothered me, but I didn’t remark on it.

“Are you going to follow through on this?”

“How do you mean?”

“Well, are you going to protect it? Make sure they animate it in your style?”

“No,” said Wood. “Why bother?”

I was baffled by this attitude but said nothing. The board was delivered to the agency, and Wood moved on to other projects. Months later, at an impromptu party in Washington, I glanced at a TV set flickering the opening of the commercial I had not yet seen. I quickly explained to everyone present that it was by Wood, and we all watched. No one reacted. Whatever was artful in the storyboard, already a dilution of Wood’s original imaginative concept, had now dissipated completely.

Many of Wood’s projects were like this—a brilliant flash of intensity that soared and skyrocketed before arcing downward to sputter into nothingness. Compared to the famous R.O. Blechman Alka-Seltzer commercial of the talking stomach and the other popular Alka-Seltzer commercials of that period, this one was disappointing and forgettable. The animation was TV routine, and the characters had lost Wood’s comic malevolence, replaced by mere cuteness and silliness. Did Wood, I wondered, know the battle was lost even before he drew the storyboard? He once said to me, “An editor is someone dedicated to destroying the work of a creator.” His interest in self-publishing developed out of a genuine feeling that he was being victimized in the commercial world.

From "There Are Good Guys and Bad Guys" ©2007 Bhob Stewart

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007
  Origin of vocalese
Bee Palmer
Long before Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, Eddie Jefferson, James Moody and King Pleasure, there was Beatrice C. "Bee" Palmer (1894-1967). Here she is singing Ted Koehler's lyrics to Bix Beiderbecke's improvised solo on a 1929 recording of "Singin' the Blues" with the Frank Trumbauer Orchestra. Bee Palmer was best known as a shimmy dancer, vaudeville performer and Ziegfeld Girl, who toured with her Oh Bee! show. Her test recordings were rejected and never issued by Columbia.

A more listenable vocalese version of "Singin' the Blues" was recorded in 1934 by Marion Harris (1896-1944).

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007
  Vocalese: More Lambert, Hendricks and Ross (with Ocie Smith)

Dave Lambert, Jon Hendricks, Annie Ross, Ocie Smith, Count Basie and His Orchestra, live in Paris, July 20, 1961. Count Basie (p), Thad Jones, George Cohn, Lenny Johnson, Snooky Young (tp), Henry Coker, Benny Powell, Quentin Jackson (tb), Marshall Royal, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Charles Fowlkes, Albert "Bud" Johnson (sax), Freddie Green (g), Eddie Jones (b) and Sonny Payne (ds). "Everyday" was recorded by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross on Sing a Song of Basie (1957), leading off the album and followed by "It's Sand, Man." For the earlier LH&R post (with a different performance of "Everyday"), go to "Archive>February 2007."

Creed Taylor, producer of Sing a Song of Basie, commented: "Irv Greenbaum and I recorded this entire project on a 1/4” 15 IPS analogue monotape. Dave Lambert’s arrangements for voices, i.e. “instruments,” were recorded (overdubbed) one track at a time. The trumpet parts were sung by Annie Ross. The trombones and saxes were Dave and Jon. Annie, Dave or Jon performed the solos. We recorded and mixed each track as we proceeded to build the finished recording. Once completed, there was no turning back to remix the project. The technology that was to come was not available."

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Thursday, August 23, 2007
  Dennis Potter's Cream in My Coffee (1980)
Cream in My Coffee is one of my favorite Dennis Potter teleplays, shot on location by Potter's own production company, PFH, for London Weekend Television. An elderly married couple, Bernard and June (Lionel Jeffries, Peggy Ashcroft), revisits the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, East Sussex. During the 1930s, prior to their marriage, they had stayed there in a room overlooking the swimming pool.

With the young Bernard (Peter Chelsom) called away, June (Shelagh McLeod) deals with the advances of an apparent precursor to Potter's Singing Detective, the hotel's big-band crooner Jack Butcher (Martin Shaw), who sings "You're the Cream in My Coffee" and other tunes from the period. The sound of wooden handles on cords dangling and clicking at the window is Potter's transitional device for interweaving past and present. Destiny made audible, "like someone tapping on the lid of your coffin." Peggy Ashcroft won a BAFTA Award for her performance. Dennis Potter on DVD

The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007
  Franklin Booth illustration (1940)

This illustration by Franklin Booth is scanned from the book, Mimeograph Illustration Inset Portfolio: Drawings by Foremost Artists on Stencils Ready For Printing, published by the A.B. Dick Company (Chicago) in 1940. Customers could order "Mimeograph Photochemical Stencil Insets" from this loose-leaf catalog of images, and these could be inserted into stencils, as explained: "A sharp knife or razor blade and adhesive Mimeograph Cement is all that is necessary for applying insets to stencils." The catalog itself was mimeographed, as noted: "This book in its entirety has been printed from photochemical stencils."

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Saturday, August 18, 2007
  Celeb chef Anthony Bourdain meets Harvey Pekar
Friday, August 17, 2007
  Slightly Sane

From Squa Tront 12 is this 1948 collaborative drawing by Wally Wood and Martin Thall (aka Marty Rosenthal). It was created, according to Thall, while they were both drunk. Wood and Thall at lower left, with salesman Ed McLean at upper right. Roy Krenkel and Harry Harrison at lower right. Burne Hogarth, with foot in cleavage, is in the center.
Saturday, August 11, 2007
  Trigger Finger
Three years ago I had a magazine assignment to do an interview with Rodney Dangerfield. It was one of his last interviews, only a few months before his death.

I asked him about the unusual and offbeat nightclub acts he appeared with during the 1940s and 1950s, before television drove hundreds of those clubs out of business. Dangerfield described a family vaudeville act known as The Shooting Mansfields: "The act consisted of the mother, the father and their two kids shooting things from the stage. Before the show, they'd be in the basement rehearsing--shooting their guns."

Instantly, I recalled the sharpshooter and his wife who drove into the small East Texas town where I lived from 1952 to 1955. The day this couple arrived to give a performance at the school auditorium in 1954, the high school classrooms emptied as everyone packed into the auditorium to see what promised to be an exciting event. Actually, so little happened around there that any show would have been exciting.

The rifleman's wife arranged various objects and targets on the stage, and then he shot at them while standing in the aisle in the middle of the audience. For one segment of the show, he used a metal disc containing a circle of white ping-pong balls. The disc was mounted vertically on a stand about four-feet high. The wife held her hand flat against the disc with two of her fingers spread apart and a ping-pong ball in the space between. As he aimed his rifle and successfully smashed a ping-pong ball to smithereens, she rotated the disc to the next position, and he fired again. When only one ping-pong ball was left in the disc, he grinned and said, "So... is there anyone here who would like to take her place?" This brought a few chuckles, followed by gasps and guffaws when other students saw that I had volunteered.

I could see he was fascinated by the audience's reaction to my raised hand. He walked over and talked to me in a low voice, asking me a few questions. People in front began twisting around and looking back, trying to hear this conversation. Then he said, "Okay. Go on up there." I stood up amid much laughing and hooting at the very notion anyone would be foolish enough to do this.

When I stepped onto the stage, the wife immediately began talking to me in a quiet voice, giving me instructions about what to do, where to stand, how to hold my hand flat, and so forth. While she was doing this, the rifleman was entertaining the audience with jokes at my expense.

I stood with my fingers stretched as far apart as possible. He got ready, took aim –- but then lowered his rifle and told another joke, getting bigger laughs each time he did this. My finger muscles tightened as the seconds ticked away. "Wider, wider," whispered the wife.

The tension in my hand increased. I wondered if a sudden muscle spasm might cause my fingers to snap shut at the very moment he pulled the trigger. Finally, he aimed, and the room fell silent. He fired. The ping-pong ball shattered. I held up my hand, showing all fingers intact. The audience burst into wild applause with screaming and cheering. The wife smiled. The sharpshooter grinned. He shook my hand as I went back to my chair.

Later that week, I wrote about the experience for my weekly column in the mimeographed high school newspaper. To illustrate the column installment I drew a cartoon showing a large drill press-type hole through my hand -- just like the big cookie-cutter bullet holes in Al Capp's Fearless Fosdick.

Years passed. The incident faded into the back alleys of my brain as the decades flashed by. But about ten years ago I started thinking about that day in terms of the present. Between 1995 and 1999, there were a startling number of incidents where students brought guns into schools and began killing their classmates. Every few months, another news story. This prompted some schools to adopt what they called a "zero tolerance policy" – which meant they began to closely examine items they interpreted as weapons or drugs. One six-year-old was suspended because he gave a friend some lemon candy, and another kid was kicked out of school because his mother had placed a bread knife in his lunchbox. A little girl's Looney Tunes keychain was confiscated.

Recalling the sharpshooter, I wondered what schools in the 1990s would allow a stranger to ride into town and aim his rifle at students. But wait! Why would a school allow such even in the 1950s? Why didn't a teacher speak out and say, "Sir! Don't shoot at our students, please! Just shoot your wife, okay?" But no teacher stepped forward. Why?

As I thought about this, the answer suddenly became clear. Certain people must have been told in advance that no real bullets were in the rifle. With that realization, I immediately understood how the trick was accomplished.

The wife used her left hand to hold the disc steady. With her right hand hidden from view behind the disc, she was able to shatter a ping-pong ball at the precise moment the rifle fired a blank. I remembered she had positioned me so that I never got a glimpse at the rear of the disc. With the sound of the rifle echoing through the years, the final pieces of the memory puzzle fell into place.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007
  Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks: "Evenin' Breeze"

Unfortunately, the Dan Hicks videos on YouTube are very spotty. It's hard to find one where the image resolution, performance and audio quality all come together. But "Evenin' Breeze" will hold up even at full screen. Click for recent Bayside Jazz audio clips. Listen to ASCAP Audio Portrait, tunes and interview.
Tuesday, August 07, 2007
  Sizer Does Matter

This is a mural Paul Sizer did for the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. He does illustration, comics, design, graphic novels, blogs, reviews. He's a juggling juggernaut. Here's his review of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home.
Masquerade of the albino axolotls

My Photo

is the editor of Against the Grain: Mad Artist Wallace Wood (2003), reviewed by Paul Gravett.

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