“Don’t Look, Ethel!” Thoughts on Ray Stevens

You know who’s still alive, as of this writing, who you don’t hear much about these days? Ray Stevens.

Yeah, Ray Stevens! The singer who did all those funny songs, and whose music video collection was endlessly advertised on ‘90s cable TV! He’s still around! He’s 83 years old, and he released a new album last year! It’s called Ain’t Nothing Funny Anymore, and it features a single called “Hoochie Coochie Dancer.

I discovered Ray Stevens at perhaps the ideal age. I was about 10 – before I owned any “Weird Al” Yankovic albums! – and my aunt, who was pruning her vinyl record collection, offered to give me her copy of Ray Stevens’ Greatest Hits. It’s worth noting that this is specifically a release from 1972 with Stevens’s big, laughing, clean-shaven face on the cover. The reason it’s worth noting is that there are a ton of “greatest hits” and “best of” albums out there with Ray Stevens’s name on them.

Wikipedia lists eight: The Best of Ray Stevens, a different The Best of Ray Stevens, Greatest Hits, Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, Greatest Hits, Vol. 2, His All-Time Greatest Comic Hits, The Very Best of Ray Stevens, and 20th Century Masters – The Millennium Collection: The Best of Ray Stevens.

But this is an incomplete list. His official website documents several additional compilations, including Box Set, The Ones You Want, Ray Stevens: The Collection, Classic Masters, Ray Stevens: 12 Hits, All-Time Greatest Hits, Golden Classics, The Legendary Ray Stevens, The Most of Ray Stevens, Everything Is Beautiful and Other Hits, and more.

The same songs appear over and over again on these compilations. I don’t know why this is, or who decides when it’s time to create yet another album with a slightly different track listing. I assume it has something to do with shifting rights and catalog ownerships. But suffice it to say that if you really want to own an album that has “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” or “Gitarzan” on it, you have a wide range of choices.

The Greatest Hits that I got from Aunt Carol featured tracks ranging from the ridiculous to the somber. There was “Harry the Hairy Ape,” which ends with a hilariously nonsensical denouement, and “Along Came Jones,” which finds Stevens having a lot of fun recreating a melodramatic Western movie. There was also the cynical, bitter protest song “Mr. Businessman,” and “Isn’t It Lonely Together,” perhaps the saddest song Stevens ever recorded. It tells the story of a man and a woman who barely know each other but who feel obligated to get married after an unexpected pregnancy early in their relationship. (I did not understand it when I was 10.)

Not long after procuring that record, I discovered my parents’ stash of old 8-track tapes, which included Stevens’s popular album Boogity Boogity. That’s the one with his smash hit “The Streak.” I listened to this 8-track repeatedly, undeterred by the click-pause-click-resume experience that interrupted some of the tracks.

I loved “Bagpipes (That’s My Bag),” which is, as you might expect, sung by a character who’s a bagpipe enthusiast, and which features Stevens’s multi-tracked voice as the various sounds produced by the instrument. I was also really into “Don’t Boogie Woogie,” a rollicking tune about a guy whose doctor advises him to stop eating junk food, quit smoking… and cease jamming out when says his prayers at night.

I really dug “Freddie Feelgood,” in which Stevens introduces us to a five-piece band and proceeds to once again use his voice to demonstrate the sounds of all the instruments (except the piano, which is represented by a piano). And I cracked up at “The Moonlight Special,” which is a complete spoof of an episode of The Midnight Special variety show in just five minutes. My favorite part was where Mildred Queen (a spoof of Gladys Knight) gets exasperated by her backup singers, the Dips.

Years later, after the 8-track tape had worn out, I bought multiple Ray Stevens compilation cassettes, trying to find “The Moonlight Special” but uncertain of the title. The search led me to “The Rock and Roll Show,” a very similar track from the ‘60s, which was a spoof of early rock ‘n’ roll variety shows like American Bandstand. Stevens has never been above recycling ideas – see also “Cletus McHicks and His Band from the Sticks,” a Stevens song from the ‘90s that takes the same concept as “Freddie Feelgood” and applies it to a country band.

Speaking of which, one of the interesting things about Ray Stevens’s career is his genre-hopping. Most of his early work would be categorized as “rock ‘n’ roll.” His ‘60s songs generally sound like the rock music of the era, and most of his “serious” tracks from the ‘70s (like “Everything Is Beautiful”) resemble like the pop and light rock of the day. But at some point, the Nashville-born Stevens made a decision to plant himself firmly in the country genre, and that’s pretty much where he’s resided ever since.

I suspect the success of “The Streak” in 1974 and his cover of “Misty” from 1975 had something to do with it. “The Streak” is distinctly country-flavored, and much of its comedy centers on a country bumpkin who repeatedly encounters the titular streaker. Southerners seem to love humor that focuses on dopey southerners, so Stevens ran with it.

“Misty” takes the classic standard and reimagines it with fiddles and banjos, and it won Stevens a Grammy in the category of “Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s).” It’s one of his best recordings. And then 1984 brought the album He Thinks He’s Ray Stevens and the distinctly country-friendly songs “Mississippi Squirrel Revival” and “It’s Me Again, Margaret.” (Which I just learned is a cover of a song by an artist named Paul Craft. What?!)

Mississippi Squirrel Revival” is about a squirrel getting loose in a Baptist church service, crawling into parishioners’ clothing, causing them to believe they’re being seized by the Holy Spirit, and inspiring them to confess all manner of sins and transgressions. “It’s Me Again, Margaret” is about a guy who keeps making creepy, unwanted phone calls to the same lady. It has not, as they say, aged well.

A common theme in Stevens’s work is the notion that nudity and innuendo are hilarious. Boogity Boogity, the same album that has “The Streak,” also has “Smith and Jones,” which is about two undercover government agents who pose as flashers. “Shriner’s Convention” has a lot of stuff about characters running around in a state of undress. “Gitarzan” notes that its jungle-dwelling musician only wears BVDs.

In the mid-‘90s, my family went to Branson, Missouri on a vacation. From what I’ve heard, that place has since lost much of its luster, but at the time it was a remarkable tourist destination full of theaters where stars like Andy Williams, the Osmond family, John Davidson, Tony Orlando, and Yakov Smirnoff performed.

My brother and I were thrilled when our parents bought tickets for us to see Ray Stevens LIVE at the Ray Stevens Theatre. It was a highly entertaining show, kicked off by a new song called “Taxes” (about how Stevens doesn’t think he should have to pay taxes) and with a setlist that included most of the hits as well as some less-obvious choices.

At one point, Stevens announced that he wanted to prove he was capable of more than just silliness, so he was going to take a moment to do something serious. He sat down at his piano, which was on a raised platform, and began to play a classical instrumental. As he played, the platform rose up, extending several feet above the stage, and the audience soon discovered that it was being held up by a giant, animatronic, cigar-smoking gorilla. The gorilla glanced around the auditorium for a moment, and then descended back into the stage. The entire time, Stevens never changed his expression. It was hilarious.

A couple years later, my family returned to Branson, but Ray Stevens had left town. His former theater was now the “Country Tonight Theater,” and we ended up going to see the show there. We hung around for a while after the show while the performers were posing for photos, and I asked a cast member if the gorilla was still there. He said it was, but the producers had opted not to use it in their show. How sad it was, picturing that amazing animatronic languishing under the stage, devoid of its purpose.

(Periodically, I will try a Google image search for a picture of that animatronic gorilla, but I’ve yet to find anything. I hope there’s some photographic proof of him out there somewhere.)

I never really made an attempt to keep up with Ray Stevens’s career, but in 2002, I became aware of a 9/11-inspired single he released called “Osama – Yo’ Mama!” It’s as cringe-inducing as it sounds. In fact, I’m not going to link to a video of it on YouTube as I have been doing thus far in this post. If you really want to see any of the songs that follow, you can look them up on your own.

Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, Stevens went full angry white Southern conservative grandpa. In 2009, he released a song called “We the People.” It’s about how real Americans aren’t going to fall for Barack Obama and his nasty old Affordable Care Act. It rhymes “Obamacare” with “Vote you outta there,” and it cites Hannity, Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Glenn Beck as sources of wisdom.

Old Man Ray Stevens did NOT like President Barack Obama. I’ve been perusing his YouTube channel, and I discovered that in 2014, he did another song about Obamacare called “If You Like Your Plan.” It’s dreadful, but the worst thing about it is that it’s actually kind of catchy.

His 2011 song “Mr. President” is about how the then-Commander-in-Chief is always shirking his responsibilities instead of taking care of the country. His 2012 song “Obama Nation” accuses the 44th president of misusing his power and disrespecting the Constitution. Let’s see… He hates presidents who neglect their duties and violate the Constitution, eh? I can only assume he hated Donald Trump. (Interestingly enough, I can’t find any Trump songs by Stevens, pro- or anti-.)

These days, Stevens seems to be focusing on his theater in Nashville, which is called CabaRay, and he’s done an impressive job of maintaining a YouTube presence. His channel is full of animated videos and live performances of his classic hits, live performances from CabaRay (often featuring big name guests), and cheaply made green-screen videos of his recent music. You can watch the music video for the aforementioned 2021 single “Hoochie Coochie Dancer” on YouTube. It’s about a naïve man who believes that a dancer from a carnival is his girlfriend. It’s not a hilarious concept, or very funny at all, but least it’s not political.

But then there’s the title track of his newest album, “Ain’t Nothing Funny Anymore,” a song about how comedy is cancelled and nobody is allowed to make jokes or laugh or smile now. Apparently, the artist responsible for “Ahab the Arab” is upset that people are now more likely to speak up when they disapprove of offensive jokes. The song is oddly fixated on Warner Brothers cartoon characters. In Stevens’s ideal world, Pepe le Pew cartoons would never carry disclaimers and Elmer Fudd would always carry a gun.

So he’s clearly a lost cause at this point. Ray Stevens is a cranky geezer parroting Fox News talking points. That’s too bad. But rather than end this post on a downer, I’d like to present you with this: Stevens’s take on the Beatles song “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” from his late ’70s album Everything Is Beautiful. It’s one of my favorite Beatles covers. I can’t imagine how he chose this song to cover, but it turned out quite well!

A Boy Turns Into a Dog! A Book I Shouldn’t Have Read as a 2nd Grader

When I was in 2nd grade, I read everything I could get my hands on, and at any given time I was reading a book I checked out from the library. It might be an Encyclopedia Brown, a book about movie monsters, or the most coveted volume in the elementary school library, Garfield: The Complete Cat Book.

Among the many library books I consumed was one about a teenage boy who got turned into a dog. I thought about this book occasionally over the years, and although I didn’t remember the title, it stuck with me. I did recall that it had a few dirty words, and was definitely intended for readers older than the ones perusing the elementary school library.

I also remembered a scene where the dog-guy ate some meat that was poisoned, a scene where he saw his mom on the street but she had no idea it was her son, and a scene where he encountered a woman and noticed that her bra strap was visible.

A few years ago, I found myself thinking about this book again and I tried Googling it. It didn’t take long to discover that it was The Dog Days of Arthur Cane by T. Ernesto Bethancourt. Recently I mentioned this to Staci, and in a characteristic move, she ordered a copy for me to surprise me. All these years later, I was curious to revisit the story and see how familiar it would be.

It was not very familiar! I knew there would be a chapter about the titular Arthur Cane waking up and realizing he had transformed into a canine, but I didn’t even remember how he got turned into a dog in the first place: Arthur arrogantly belittles the culture of a friend who’s from an African nation, and the friend puts a hex on him. That’s probably not how that would go in a YA book published today.

After waking up as a dog and realizing his own family won’t recognize him, Arthur wanders around his Long Island town trying to find a temporary home before inadvertently hopping a truck bound for Manhattan. In Greenwich Village, he’s taken in by a blind folk singer who calls him “Awful” because that’s what it sounds like when Arthur attempts to say his name using his dog vocal cords.

It’s a pretty good book. The “About the Author” bio tells of Bethancourt’s history as a performer in the Village, and his affection for the artists of the neighborhood is evident as Arthur grows closer to the folk singer and his friends. Arthur presumably learns his lesson by the end because he reverts back to being a human, although he doesn’t go through much of an arc. But the themes of friendship and the mutual benefits of helping others are worthy of a book aimed at potentially selfish, greedy teenagers.

Speaking of which: I was right about one thing. The Dog Days of Arthur Cane is definitely not meant for 2nd graders. I guess standards were different in 1976 when it was published, but I imagine it was intended for high school kids. The word “ass” appears several times. There’s a scene where Arthur and his human friends all get drunk, and a sequence near the end where Arthur finds himself on death row in a pound run by a jerk who hates dogs. He talks a lot about his impending doom and eventually resigns himself to his fate. It’s heavy stuff. I read this when I was approximately seven years old!

I was also right about the scene where Arthur eats poisoned meat. It’s fed to him by a different dog-hating jerk on the streets of Manhattan, a jerk whose apparent mission is to reduce the city’s stray dog population. It was pretty disturbing, but it’s followed by a satisfying moment where Arthur tracks the guy down and attacks him. Sic ‘im, Awful!

I was also also right about the scene where Arthur sees his mom. Arthur/Awful is helping his singer friend pass the hat after a street corner performance, and his mom is one of the passersby, but she never suspects it’s him, probably because her son is not normally a furry quadruped.

But you know what wasn’t in the book? The scene where he sees a woman and notices her bra strap. I was so certain it would be in there, and a few times I thought it was about to happen, but it never did. What’s up with that? My best theory is that it was a scene from some other age-inappropriate book I checked out from the library around that time. But if it that scenario sounds like something you’ve read in a book, please let me know!

I’m glad I read The Dog Days of Arthur Cane again, especially because my memories were so vague that it was almost the same as reading it for the first time. I wonder if the librarians of Dripping Springs Elementary School had any idea what was in the pages of this book that was right there on the shelf waiting for 2nd-graders to find it. Also, I hope I never turn into a dog. I like having opposable thumbs.

I Want a Time Machine So I Can Go Back to All the World’s Fairs

I’m not sure when I first became fascinated by world’s fairs. For much of my youth, I lived near San Antonio, which meant occasionally crossing paths with the history of 1968’s HemisFair and admiring the Tower of the Americas. The first time I went to Disney World, I found that EPCOT Center (just “Epcot” now), the world’s-fairiest of the Disney parks, captured my imagination in a way the other parks didn’t. And when I read Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, I was just as intrigued by the half of the book dedicated to the creation of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago as I was by the true crime parts.

Just a few years ago, I learned from my parents that I had, in fact, attended the last-ever American world’s fair. It was held in New Orleans in 1984, and it was not a success, which may have something to do with the fact that there hasn’t been another one in this country since. I was so young that I have no memory of going, but I was there, and it may have left some kind of deep, subconscious impression on me.

I’m the kid glancing warily at the enormous alligator.

Whatever the reason, world’s fairs are becoming one of my Things as I get older, just like some guys get more and more into World War II or model trains or refrigerator repair.

Why world’s fairs? I don’t know. There’s just something so appealing to me about a big, sprawling event dedicated to celebrating international respect and understanding, and also dedicated to cool new inventions. Sure, a lot of the pavilions at any given world’s fair were sponsored by corporations and served largely to promote their own products and services. But it was done with such a sense of optimism! And alongside all those showcases of culture, art, and science, a lot of them also had fun rides and funnel cakes.

After moving to New York City, I became more interested in the New York World’s Fairs of 1939-40 and 1964-65. When traveling on the freeways in Queens, one frequently passes by three retro-futuristic towers looming over a round amphitheater thing. I’m the kind of nerd who likes to know about the history of places, so I wanted to know as much as possible about these structures.

They’re all part of the New York State Pavilion from the 1964-65 fair, one of only a few surviving buildings from either of the two New York fairs. Back in the day, elevators took visitors up to the observation decks on top, where they got a great view of the fair. Today, you would get a great view of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park and the Grand Central Expressway. Sadly, the towers have been closed for a long, long time and will probably never re-open to the public, although a restoration project is underway.

The amphitheater thing at ground level is the Tent of Tomorrow, which hosted various events – and would years later serve as the filming location of They Might Be Giants’ music video for “Don’t Let’s Start.”

The pavilion was also in Men in Black, a movie I haven’t seen for a long time, but which I should revisit. Here’s a photo I took in 2016 of a fake New York Pavilion outside the Men in Black ride at Universal Studios Florida:

Maybe they could raise money for the restoration of the real pavilion by building a dark ride next door where you shoot aliens.

Learning about the New York State Pavilion sparked a deeper interest in the 1939 and 1964 fairs. I read a book about the 1939-40 fair, and grew fond of the Unisphere, the big steel globe that was built for the 1964-65 fair. I got a little thrill out of seeing the fair reimagined in Iron Man 2 and recreated in Tomorrowland. During a visit to the Queens Museum, I spent a long time poring over the Panorama of the City of New York.

I can’t be in the vicinity of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park without thinking about the fairs. I’m just so captivated thinking about the thousands of people from all over the world streaming through those grounds all those years ago, experiencing all kinds of entertainment, education, and culture. I’m still learning “new” things about them… For example, some people suspect there might still be an underground house somewhere in the park. There’s probably not. But it’s fun to think that there might be!

In recent months, Staci and I, in search of opportunities to move our feet, have made a few trips to Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, which is fortunately large enough to allow for social distancing – and of course we bring our masks. It’s been a lot of fun checking old maps of the fairs as we walk around (“Where we’re standing right now was the American Express pavilion!”) and occasionally coming across fair-related artifacts.

For example: There’s a set of commemorative mosaics on the path to the subway. This one pays tribute to one of the biggest celebrities at the 1939 fair, the star of the Borden pavilion.

A bench marks the location of the Vatican Pavilion, where the actual-for-real Pieta by Michelangelo was exhibited (It blows my mind that they shipped the actual-for-real Pieta to Queens). And I was astonished to stumble upon a stone column with a plaque explaining that it was a gift to the fair from the king of Jordan – and that it was from a stone temple built in 120 A.D.

A 1,900-year-old column! And it’s just standing there surrounded by folks cooking hot dogs and playing volleyball!

One spot I made a point of seeking out was the location of the time capsules buried at the fairs. They were placed 50 feet underground not far from the New York State Pavilion, and they’re intended to be opened 5,000 years after they were buried. That’s a lot of years! There are probably thousands of time capsules that get dug up way too early or decompose before their time – including, I suspect, the one my 2nd grade class buried on school grounds – but these were done with such care and scientific precision that I bet they’ll stay down there for a really, really long time.

The first time I went looking for the time capsule location, I was regularly checking my phone as Google Maps showed me getting closer and closer. I looked up, and I saw it: A large family using the time capsule marker as a buffet table for their picnic. I could just make out a few letters carved in the stone that was covered by their tablecloth. And because they were eating, very few of them were wearing masks. I was already keeping my distance, but I quickly headed the opposite direction.

More recently, though, we returned to the park, and there was no one using the monument to humankind’s progress for the purpose of serving delicious-smelling flautas. In fact, due to the extremely cold weather, there was nobody anywhere in sight, so I was able to remove my mask for a quick photo.

Center-right: Me. Fifty feet below me: A couple of metal tubes designed to last five millenia

It’s difficult to predict what life in Queens, or anywhere on Earth, will be like in 6940 and 6965. I’d like to think there will still be people, and that they’ll be better off overall than we are. Maybe they will have figured out how to take advantage of the optimism that drove the world’s fairs, and they’ll be using their amazing technology to make life better, and all nations and cultures will appreciate each other.

Either way, I hope they still have funnel cakes.

I Waited 35 Years for a Cereal Box Prize

I’m sure you’re familiar with NERF balls. They’re colorful, round, fun to play with, and pleasantly soft. But what if there were NERF balls that were just as colorful, round, and fun to play with, but they were much smaller and made of hard plastic? And what if they had faces because they were the heads of a bunch of quirky characters from another planet?

That’s the idea behind Nerfuls, which I now realize was a short-lived toy line from the 1980s. At the time, there were two Nerfuls in my house: a guy with a blue head, red pants, a bowtie, and a hat; and a cat with an orange face and yellow fur. I believe the blue head guy officially belonged to me and the cat officially belonged to my brother, but because I was older I probably commandeered the cat pretty regularly. The pieces were interchangeable so you could swap them around, and I had fun playing with them. What could be more fun than a cat with red pants, a bowtie, and a hat?

At one point my favorite cereal (Cheerios, of course) did a special promotion for Nerfuls, which included an exciting offer: by mailing in UPC symbols and a completed form, you could get a FREE Nerful toy! I wasn’t quite old enough to understand how the postal service worked, so my mom did the mailing, and I eagerly awaited the arrival of my Nerful.

And then I kept waiting. And I kept waiting.

And my Nerful never showed up.

It was disappointing, and I still don’t really know what happened. It’s possible something got lost in the mail. It’s possible our UPC symbols arrived at Cheerios headquarters or NERF headquarters just after some kind of expiration date. It’s possible the mailman thought the Nerful looked cool and kept it for himself.

I don’t, however, think it’s possible that my mom forgot to mail the stuff or ignored my request and hoped I would forget about it. I know parents do that kind of thing all the time, but Mom made good on similar mail-aways several times. It’s how I got my Thundercats action figure of Mumm-Ra in his mummy form, not to mention a personalized matching bowl-and-spoon set from the same aforementioned oat-based cereal. They both said “RYAN HELPED MAKE CHEERIOS #1!” I’ve asked Mom about it in recent years, and she’s pretty certain that she did everything required to obtain that Nerful.

I don’t recall when I first recounted this extremely interesting story to my wife Staci, but she has an impressive knack for absorbing things I say and filing them away for later. And thus it came to pass that, when I made a recent trip to the grocery store, she requested that I buy some Cheerios. She doesn’t eat nearly as much cereal as I do, but she likes Cheerios so I thought nothing of it… until a few days later, when I poured some Cheerios into a bowl only to find an unexpected surprise.

It was a plastic bag… containing a plastic bag… containing a Nerful!

And not just any Nerful. This was THE EXACT SAME NERFUL FROM THE CHEERIOS GIVEAWAY. Staci, who is wonderful and silly, had tracked it down on eBay and snuck it into the Cheerios box. (As she later told me, she had very nearly supplemented it with an “official” letter from General Mills and NERF apologizing for the delay in its delivery.) I took it out of the original bag, which probably drastically reduces any later resale value, but heck, I wanted to be able to see it. And play with it.

The toy came with an original paper insert with info on all the Nerfuls, with which I was able to determine that the ones we had in my youth were Bart Ball (the patriarch of the Ball family) and Scratch. Like all the Nerfuls, they hail from the planet Erf. After further research on the website Nerful.org and the blog “My Collection” I was also able to learn more about the toys and their history than I ever could have hoped for.

It turns out the Cheerios Nerful was a special figure only available through that mail-order offer, and he doesn’t have an official name. The original wrapper had the words “13TH CHARACTER” printed on it, and some collectors refer to him as “Visor Guy.”

And now, at long last, Visor Guy the 13th Character is sitting on a shelf in my kitchen, and I’m happy to have him there. Now, who wants to place bets on how long I’ll be able to resist the temptation to bid on all the other Nerfuls on eBay?

Robert Downey Jr. Returns From the Dead to Make Out with Cybill Shepherd: A Movie I Saw

When I was a youngster, I flew on a plane with my aunt Carol. The in-flight movie was Chances Are, starring Robert Downey Jr., Cybill Shepherd, and Ryan O’Neal. The movie was released in 1989, during a phase in Hollywood when there were a lot of movies about people switching bodies and time-traveling and coming back as ghosts and such. I’ll summarize the premise of Chances Are briefly and concisely:

  • Louie and Corinne are a young couple madly in love in the 1960s.
  • They get married, then they’re expecting a baby.
  • Then Louie gets hit by a car and dies.
  • Louie goes to the place in the clouds where souls are reincarnated, and his soul returns to Earth in a newborn human.
  • Twenty-two years later, he’s Alex (Robert Downey Jr.), newly graduated from college and looking for a job in journalism. At this point, he has no memory of his previous life.
  • Then he meets Miranda, his previous-self’s daughter, and soon after that he meets Philip, his previous-self’s best friend.
  • They introduce him to Corinne.
  • Then he remembers his past life.
  • By the way, Miranda has the hots for him.
  • And by the way, Philip has been madly in love with Corinne this whole time.

I guess that wasn’t so easy to summarize briefly and concisely.

Anyway, one thing leads to another, and eventually Corinne realizes that Alex is actually the reincarnation of her dead husband Louie, so they begin dating. Which, of course, is complicated by the fact that their daughter is into Louie/Alex, and Philip is dying to profess his love to Corinne.

On that flight all those years ago, I watched the movie and enjoyed it… right up until a scene where Louie/Alex and Corinne find themselves alone in their house, and set out to consummate their reunion. They kiss a lot, and there are some shots of belts un-clasping and shirts dropping to the floor. As directed by Emile Ardolino (This was his next film after Dirty Dancing!), it’s pretty tame and tasteful. Enough so that film is rated PG.

But Aunt Carol didn’t know it was PG, and she had no way of knowing how far that scene was going to go, and I was still an innocent child. So she covered my eyes, and encouraged me to read the book I had brought. I actually don’t remember whether I resumed watching after the kissing scene, but as years went by, I forgot most of the details. I only had vague memories of a Cybill Shepherd movie about reincarnation.

Eventually, in the Google Age, I was able to figure out what the movie was called. And now we’ve entered the IMDB Freedive Age — the age in which, while idly clicking through the Amazon Fire TV menu, I recently discovered an Amazon channel sponsored by IMDb that’s full of movies you can watch for free, as long as you don’t mind sitting through commercials for detergent and smart speakers. And there was Chances Are! What are the chances? So I watched it.

It’s not bad! It’s not great, but it’s not bad. It’s pretty hard to get past the part of the premise where a guy’s daughter unwittingly lusts after him, but it helps that his memory returns early on so he avoids doing anything untoward. There are elements of Back to the Future, Always, Ghost, and of course Oh! Heavenly Dog, that classic comedy where Chevy Chase dies and comes back as Benji. Chances Are is not as good as all of those other films. But Chances Are manages to do its own thing by balancing the romantic elements with the comedy. You pretty much root for all the characters to somehow end up happy, even the somewhat lunkheaded Ryan O’Neal character. The ending is not 100% satisfying, but it wraps everything up neatly.

Robert Downey Jr. is the MVP of the movie. He strikes the right balance as the reincarnated nice guy who alternates between goofy and dashing, and back to goofy. He does some great physical stuff, especially in a scene where he dances with the rich lady whose donation Corrine needs to keep her museum exhibition open. I guess I haven’t seen much of Cybill Shepherd’s work, but she’s pretty good here at displaying Corinne’s various inner conflicts.

There are way too many remakes these days, but I’d be curious to see how modern filmmakers would handle the same basic premise. There are a few beats that would not be done the same way today, mostly involving characters showing up in bedrooms where they’re not expected. One might want to drop the whole daughter thread altogether. But this isn’t a beloved classic, so Chances Are no one would care if a new version made a few changes for the better.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I did watch the kissing scene this time. I don’t think it destroyed my innocence. Much.

DOWNSIZING and WELCOME TO MARWEN: Two Big Movies About Small People (Both Big Flops)

WARNING: THERE ARE MILD SPOILERS HERE FOR THE MOVIES DOWNSIZING AND WELCOME TO MARWEN. BUT DO YOU REALLY CARE?

On New Year’s Eve, my wife Staci and I stayed home and looked for something to watch on the ol’ Amazon Fire TV Stick. We settled on Downsizing, a movie from 2017, which we had intended to see in theaters but missed. On New Year’s Day, I took advantage of the holiday by going out to see a movie at the ol’ cinema. I went with Welcome to Marwen, which I had only seen negative reviews for, but which I was intrigued by.

I didn’t anticipate this, but it struck me that the two films made for interesting companion pieces to each other.

Downsizing is about Paul Safranek (Matt Damon), who is stressed out by money troubles, and undergoes a procedure to shrink himself so he can start a new life as an alternative to the high-pressure, full-size world. He moves into a community built for miniature people. Most of the buildings have been constructed to scale, but we occasionally see full-size objects incorporated into Paul’s world, like a saltine cracker and a rose that appear huge.

Return to Marwen is about Mark Hogancamp (Steve Carell), who is recovering from being physically attacked, and creates an imaginary world of heroic soldiers as an alternative to the harsh, socially demanding real world. He builds a whole town for a population of dolls who are avatars for himself and other people in his life. Most of the buildings have been constructed to scale, but we occasionally see full-size objects incorporated into Hogie the doll’s world, like a candle that serves as a fireplace.

So both movies are about a guy turning to a smaller version of life as an escape from his problems, but the two films have more than that in common. Both were major disappointments at the box office… which may have something to do with the fact that both of them botch the many opportunities provided by a great premise.

Downsizing could have explored how Paul adjusts to the differences of life as a miniature human, or the dynamics of how shrunk people and full-size people would interact with each other in a world where the shrinking procedure exists. It could have devoted more time to Paul’s relationship with his wife, who has second thoughts about downsizing herself. It could have included a scene where Paul listens to Steve Martin’s old “Let’s Get Small” comedy bit. But it doesn’t do any of that. About halfway through, it becomes a story about class privilege and saving the planet, most of which has very little to do with the fact that the characters are five inches tall. The filmmakers forget to take advantage of their setting.

Welcome to Marwen is based on the true story (and inspired by a documentary) of a man who was the victim of a hate crime, lost much of his memory, and actually created an elaborate miniature town full of dolls, eventually gaining some fame from his photographs of the fictional world. That’s a compelling story. The dramatized movie, though, appears to be much more interested in showing us animated scenes of dolls fighting Nazis in World War II than it is in diving deep into Mark’s experience. The biggest flaw is the character of Mark’s neighbor Nicol (played by Leslie Mann), who is rarely written like a real person. If you met your new neighbor, and then the next morning he had customized a doll of your likeness and was using it to enact romantic adventures alongside a doll of himself, wouldn’t you at least raise an eyebrow? Even if you were a pleasant person and you were being really polite? But Nicol just rolls with it. The filmmakers are so excited about the fantasy half that they forget to keep the reality half grounded.

Downsizing was directed and co-written by Alexander Payne, who usually makes more down-to-earth films like Sideways and The Descendants. This was a departure for him, which may explain how he lost track of the sci-fi elements while trying to make a statement. Welcome to Marwen was directed and co-written by Robert Zemeckis, who has made some great films that efficiently incorporate visual effects technology like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the Back to the Future trilogy — but he also sometimes puts the cart of effects technology before the horse of the story (like The Polar Express).

If you were to ask me which is the better movie (Go ahead, ask me!), I’d say Welcome to Marwen, which is at least consistent and doesn’t lose its thread the way Downsizing does, and achieves the feat of prominently featuring toys that look like real people without entering Uncanny Valley territory. But I don’t regret watching either one, and Marwen will probably be available to watch at home before too long, so I’d recommend the pairing as a fascinating double feature. Especially if you have a BIG screen.

My Favorite Song Right Now… Is By Selena Gomez?!?

Recently, my wife Staci had our Amazon Echo play the song “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez.  The song came out about a year ago, but I wasn’t familiar with it. I was immediately intrigued, though, by the opening bass part, which I first thought sounded like the Fraggle Rock theme song, before realizing it was actually borrowed from “Psycho Killer” by Talking Heads.

And since that first listen, I’ve probably listened to it 15 more times. How did this happen? WHY did it happen?

Not that I have anything against Selena Gomez. Her hit “Love You Like a Love Song” is catchy, and… well, I guess that’s all I previously knew of her music. I mostly knew of her as a former Disney Channel star who once dated Justin Bieber, and I never thought of myself as part of her target audience. But now I can’t stop listening to “Bad Liar.” Here’s why:

1. The aforementioned bass line (Is “bass line” the correct term? I DON’T KNOW). It’s repetitive, but that repetition provides a firm but groovy foundation that the whole song is built on.

2. The hand claps. Boy, am I a sucker for a song that skillfully employs hand claps, and this one keeps them going from the very beginning.

3. The assorted percussion sounds and echoes and various other sonic effects. Some of which I can’t identify, and one of which seems to be a vocalist going “Oah oh-oah!” Far out.

4. The lyrics. I appreciate song lyrics that combine earnestness with a lack of self-consciousness, resulting in lines that veer precariously close to high school poetry territory. One of the earliest lines in this song is “Just like the Battle of Troy, there’s nothing subtle here.” I love that line. It even manages to comment on itself — there’s nothing subtle about that lyric! In the chorus, she says “You’re taking up a fraction of my mind.” Not her whole mind, just a fraction! And then there’s “Every time I watch you serpentine.” What does that mean? Is the object of her affections part-snake? Maybe!

5. The thing where Gomez’s vocals are so restrained for most of the song, but then at that one part she suddenly gets loud. And going back to the lyrics for just a second, what follows is “Let’s make reality actuality,” which is one of those lines that sounds stupid when you see it written out but sounds great as part of a song.

Yep, I guess I really like this Selena Gomez song. Oddly enough, “Bad Liar” seems to have just been a single, and not associated with any album. So I’ll have to wait under her next LP to see if she sticks with the same style… whatever that style may be. There is a video for the song, which is almost as fascinating as the song itself:

You know, I didn’t have to write this post. I didn’t have to tell anyone how much I like this song. But I know I couldn’t have pretended not to like the song. Because if I had, the true “Bad Liar” would have been me.

Yep, that’s how I’m ending this post.

My Favorite Movie-Going Memories

My dad, who has become an avid blogger, recently wrote a delightful post about his memories of childhood movie-going. These days, the movie theater experience in general isn’t what it used to be, as tickets get more expensive and everyone except me gets more annoying (TURN OFF YOUR PHONE). But I’ll always love the ritual of seeing a movie at the cinema.

Dad’s post reminded me that I’ve been meaning to write something about some of my all-time favorite and/or most memorable movie theater experiences. So here’s that.

The Tingler, presented in PERCEPTO

I don’t go to NYC’s Film Forum often enough. In addition to new art-house stuff, they show a carefully curated selection of old films… It’s where I saw both Footlight Parade and The Bridge on the River Kwai for the first time. But the best choice I ever made to go to Film Forum was when they were showing The Tingler. That’s a 1959 horror movie about a fear-craving creature starring Vincent Price and directed by William Castle, who was famous for his gimmicks.

For their screenings of the film, Film Forum actually replicated “PERCEPTO,” the immersive in-theater technology used for the original release. There were psychedelic lights that flashed over the screen.  There was a skeleton on a wire that swung over the audience. And many of the seats were equipped with vibrating buzzers set to zap us when the Tingler attacked. It was thrilling, especially during the scene when the Tingler escapes from captivity and infiltrates a movie theater — Vincent Price’s line about “The Tingler is IN THE THEATER!” isn’t nearly as effective when you watch this movie at home.

Spice World

Embarrassing true fact about me: I was genuinely surprised when the Spice Girls disbanded after only about five years. Even after Ginger left the group, I assumed they would be around for many more albums. Their one and only movie Spice World, though, does not appear to be a film whose creators took their time to carefully craft a work of art. It’s kind of all over the place, and pretty dumb.  But it’s entertaining.

Yes, I saw Spice World in the theater. I saw it with a few friends, and when we arrived we were surprised to find that, other than a few other youngsters we knew from school, we were the only ones there. At a Spice Girls movie! In a small town where teenagers flocked to the movie theater as one of the only entertainment venues! Where was everyone? Seeing Titanic for the fifth time, probably.

Anyway, the empty theater essentially gave us crazy kids permission to laugh way too loud at the Spice Girls’ antics, sing along with the songs, and at one point, even dance in the aisle. It wasn’t a good movie, but it was a good time at the movies.

What Lies Beneath

Sometimes that small-town movie theater was extremely frustrating. Parents thought nothing of dropping off their awful children and letting them see whatever movie they wanted, which led to some pretty noisy screenings.

But every once in a while, the Uvalde crowd’s more vocal tendencies worked out pretty well. It was fun seeing movies like I Know What You Did Last Summer, Signs, and even Halloween H20 with an audience who came prepared to respond to all the scares without reservations. Robert Zemeckis’s spooky thriller What Lies Beneath starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford stands out as the most memorable instance of this phenomenon. There are a lot of jump scares in that movie, and the audience jumped and screamed and exclaimed at every single one. A few years ago, I watched the movie on DVD for the first time since its theatrical release, and it was pretty cool, but it wasn’t the same.

2001: A Space Odyssey

It seems to be an annual tradition for the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens to show 2001: A Space Odyssey as part of their ongoing “See It Big” series, and I’ve seen it there twice.  Having previously only seen it on a very letterboxed VHS tape on a 4:3 TV, being immersed in a 70mm film presentation on a big screen felt like actually venturing into outer space.

When you see it on the big screen, everything is just… more. The sometimes cacophonous music and sound effects, the remarkable visual effects, the fury of the prehistoric ape-men, and the tension of HAL’s suspicious behavior. It’s all right there in front of you, and it’s completely engrossing.

Muppets Most Wanted

I love the Muppets. Obviously. When they made a cinematic comeback (The Muppets) in 2011 after lying low for a few years, it was pretty exciting. When that movie was successful enough to warrant a follow-up in 2014, it was equally exciting — and then I went to an advance screening a week before it was released and discovered that Muppets Most Wanted was even better, funnier, and more Muppety than The Muppets. That was super-duper-mega-exciting. I’ve now seen all the Muppet movies on the big screen, including five of them during their original release. But discovering Most Wanted for the first time in a theater full of fellow fans may have been the most thrilling.

Cloverfield

My friend and then-roommate Joe and I didn’t know a lot about Cloverfield before we went to see it early in its run.  Nobody did, per the deliberate marketing decisions by J.J. Abrams and the gang. The combination of the mystery, the film’s first-person found-footage perspective, and the familiar New York City locations combined to make it probably the most harrowing time I’ve ever had at a monster movie. ARGH, they didn’t know the monster was behind them!!! YAAA, the monster smashed up the Time Warner Center!!! When I emerged from the theater, I looked around and was genuinely relieved to find that the city had not been destroyed.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade AND Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (a double feature!)

Shortly after we moved to a new town, my dad took my brother and me to see a double feature of the latest Indiana Jones movie and the latest Star Trek movie. I have no idea if this was a nationwide event officially sanctioned by Paramount, or just something the local theater came up with to get folks to come see two summer movies at once. (With thematically similar titles, no less!)

Last Crusade was the first Indiana Jones movie I ever saw and it remains my favorite. I now know The Final Frontier is considered one of the weakest Trek installments, but I was young enough then that every movie seemed like a good movie, so I had a great time. And we got to see TWO movies in ONE trip to the theater!

Superman at Bryant Park

The 1978 Superman will always be one of the best superhero movies. The most memorable of a handful of times I’ve seen it came when I attended a free outdoor screening at Manhattan’s Bryant Park. It’s a great one to see with a throng of all-ages movie fans who are so ready to have a rip-snortin’ good time, and that’s exactly what happened. There was cheering, there was applause… and then, about two-thirds of the way through, the film broke, or the projector stopped. Something went wrong, and suddenly there was no more movie.

We all sat there waiting for something to happen, and then it started, somewhere near the back of the crowd. A guy was singing John Williams’s stirring theme from the film. More voices joined in, and soon it was just about everyone: “Bum ba-BUM! Ba-BUM ba-DA-DUM! Bum ba-DUM! Ba-BUM ba-da BUM-BUM!” Which is surprisingly difficult to type out, but trust me, it was swell to be a part of. When the movie crew got things back up and running, we cheered for them like they were our favorite superheroes.

The Room

The first time I saw Tommy Wiseau’s phenomenally bad “masterpiece,” it was on DVD with a few good friends. That was fun. But a few weeks ago, my wife Staci and I attended a Fathom Events screening, which meant we were watching with a hundred new friends. Some folks were apparently seeing it for the first time, laughing out loud every time they were surprised by another inexplicable line of dialogue or acting choice. Others were obviously devoted members of the cult of The Room — they came prepared to shout at the characters and throw spoons at the screen at the appointed times. Normally this kind of behavior would be intolerable at a movie. But in this case, it greatly enhanced the proceedings. At a certain point, it started to get funnier and funnier every time they let their spoons fly, so I couldn’t possibly be mad at them. After all, if a lot of people loved each other, the world would be a better place to live.

What are your favorite movie-going experiences? Let me know! I want to know!

I Found Little Miss Hard-to-Find and All Her Friends!


Before I forget, I want to reveal the exciting follow-up to my recent post “My Search for Little Miss Hard-to-Find,” in which I detailed my frustrating search for more information and the companion tracks to a surprisingly good pop song found on a children’s audio tape I had back in the day.

I shared that post on Facebook at 2:44 PM the day I published it.  At 6:36 — not even four hours later — I had the answer I had been seeking.  It turns out my friend Nicola had the exact same tape of Little Miss Trouble I had(!), she had gone on the same search for more(!!), and she had found success(!!!).

As Nicola informed me, the Little Miss and Mr. Men songs I sought were written by Bonnie Lee Sanders, Ellen Schwartz, Paul Parnes & Tom Spahn.  That was great to know, but even greater was the fact that they’re all on the website Ellen Schwartz and Friends, which features lots of information on the life and career of the late Ms. Schwartz.

So now I’ve heard all of them!  The versions on the website are not much better quality than the version of “You’re Worth the Trouble” on my old tape, but I’m not about to complain.  And happily, they’re all pretty good. “You’re Worth the Trouble” is definitely the best of them, but I also really like the rollicking “Hey Mr. Messy” and the audio party that is “It’s Noisy in Here.”  “Naughty But Nice,” about a softie who acts tough, is pretty much a joke song, but it’s catchy and is vaguely reminiscent of Elvis Costello. And “You Are the Sunshine” could have been an easy listening radio hit in 1977.  (I mean that as a compliment. Honest.)

Like “You’re Worth the Trouble,” none of these songs talk down to kids, which is an essential part of why they’re so good.  “Shakin’ Like Jelly” pitches up the vocals so it sounds like a chipmunk singing, which would be entertaining to kids, but the lyrics are about paranoia.  “Think It Over” is about overcoming social anxiety. This is a remarkable batch of songs.

I’m happy to have heard all these songs now, and also amazed.  Thanks, internet! Thanks, Bonnie Lee Sanders, Ellen Schwartz, Paul Parnes & Tom Spahn! And big thanks, Nicola!

Sadly, the version of “Scatterbrain” on the Ellen Schwartz website cuts off after just seventeen seconds.  So I still haven’t heard all of all of the songs. My search continues!

My Search for Little Miss Hard-to-Find

When I was a kid, I had a read-along book & tape set of this story, Little Miss Trouble by Roger Hargreaves.  It’s part of the Mr. Men & Little Miss series of children’s books, which are all about silly characters with names that describe their primary personality traits.  Assuming those descriptors are their last names, the implication of the books’ reality is that every member of Mr. Messy’s family is messy, every child born to Little Miss Twins’ family is a twin, and so on.  It would be a weird world to live in.

Little Miss Trouble, naturally, is about a girl who loves making trouble.  This mostly manifests itself in the form of spreading rumors about Mr. Small, which results in Mr. Small getting beaten up by other Misters.  In the end, Little Miss Trouble’s own trouble-making method is turned against her, and she’s relentlessly bumped and tickled by Mr. Bump and Mr. Tickle, respectively, until she expresses remorse.  I suppose the lesson for kids reading the book is twofold: Don’t be a jerk; and if someone is a jerk to you, solve the problem by stooping to their level.

The audio cassette tape that came with my copy of the book was just like most of the many read-along tapes I had. There was a narrator, some actors did funny voices for the character dialogue, and there was a sound effect to indicate when to turn the page. But then at the end of the tape, after the end of the story, there was this song. I can’t guarantee this is accurate, but I assume it’s called “You’re Worth the Trouble.”  It doesn’t retell the story, it doesn’t even mention the characters, and it refers to a completely different kind of trouble.

I no longer own the read-along tape, but recently I was converting some old tapes to digital files, and I was delighted to find that at some point I copied the song onto another tape.  Here it is:

Isn’t that great? The book has a 1981 copyright date, and “You’re Worth the Trouble” sounds exactly like 1981.  The singer is a guy in a quirky, occasionally exasperating relationship — a subject the kids in the book’s audience would know nothing about.  Like I said, it’s not really connected to the story, so there was no reason for this song to be on that tape.  But I love it.  It’s a catchy, genuinely wonderful pop song.

As a nostalgia-prone grown-up in the age of infinite information, I wanted to know more about this song.  Who wrote it?  Who sang it?  Were there more like it? There was a whole series of these books, so it’s only logical that there would be more read-alongs, and more songs.  I’ve been doing a lot of web-searching, hoping to find answers.

Well, call me Mr. Frustrated.  So far I haven’t been able to come up with much.  I can’t find anything online about the personnel involved, and nobody besides me seems to have posted any of the songs online. However! I did discover that there was an LP collecting twelve Mr. Men & Little Miss songs, including “You’re Worth the Trouble.”  It’s called Mr. Men and Little Miss Sing-Along, and it looks like each of the songs is from another read-along.  Some of the song titles I found — “Naughty But Nice” for Little Miss Naughty and “Shakin’ Like Jelly” for Mr. Nervous — lead me to believe they may be pleasant, all-ages pop, just like “You’re Worth the Trouble.”


Just think: Eleven more songs, potentially similar to and as good as “You’re Worth the Trouble!”  I’d love to hear them all.  So I started clicking around in search of the album.

Currently, one Amazon seller is offering it for $266.69.  Unfortunately, I’m not Mr. Wealthy, so that’s a bit out of my price range.  I sent the seller a message asking if they might consider selling it for less than that, so here’s hoping I can talk them down to no more than $213.87!

Meanwhile, I’ve searched Etsy, and eBay, with no luck.  I’ve tried searching YouTube many different ways, but my efforts are impeded by the fact that there have been various Mr. Men & Little Miss videos and TV series, and several people have recorded themselves reading the books out loud.

So my search continues.  If you know anything about this record, or these songs, or if you own one of these read-along tapes, or if you think your Google skills might be up to the task of finding more, please let me know! I won’t give up until I’m Mr. Guy Who Has Heard All Twelve Mr. Men & Little Miss Songs.