Saturday, April 14, 2018

My Days, Happy and Otherwise by Marion Ross

Why I Read It: Come on, she was Mrs. C! I grew up with her as a constant presence on my TV as a kid.

Summary: The autobiography of a television legend.

My Thoughts: I personally picked up n the Marion Ross story in the mid-1970s, which, coincidentally, was when her biggest break hit. She had, by then, already had quite a career, so therefore it's inevitable that reading this book filled me in on details I never knew about the acting life she had led before she joined the Happy Days cast. That last statement has to be couched, though, by the fact that we no longer have to wait for biographies to come out to put the pieces of an actor's career together; if I was more of an IMDB cruiser, I would have had more of the picture.

That said, I would have had more of the picture superficially had I taken that route, but nowhere near as deep. The author is frank about her life, and that includes all facets of it. She tells us all about her family life, from growing up through marriage and divorce. She tells us everything we need to know about the road she traveled to Hollywood (when she believed she was actually on the road to Broadway). And so, when we learn about her roles in movies and television, we read about how she got them, the ins and outs of casting, of Hollywood networking and more. One of her early crowning moments comes when she is invited to a reading at the home of the Bogarts to read with Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall and Claudette Colbert.

One of the happy surprises of this book, and there are many, is the 100-page or so block of interviews with the author's Happy Days co-stars and her children. They're almost all there (Tom Bosley, Pat Morita and Al Molinaro having already passed on), with even Garry Marshall and Erin Moran sharing some of their last words for the book. Ron Howard, Henry Winkler, Anson Williams, Donny Most and more speak openly about both the show and Marion herself.

Ross' overwhelming message is "it can be done." From the time she was young she had a dream. Taking the strength of her mother's character to heart, she never gave up on that dream, forging a wonderful career for herself and instilling in her own children the same spirit.

She is correct in the notion that not all days are happy, but when you live your life like Marion Ross, they can be overwhelmingly so.

Gator by Ron Guidry

Why I Read It: Ron Guidry was one of the most dominant pitchers I ever saw play baseball.

Summary: The autobiography of one of the Yankees most legendary players.

My Thoughts: The book is obviously ghostwritten, and unfortunately not the best written work out there.

That said, Gator was one of the most fearsome pitchers of his time. I'll never forget the feeling of utter helplessness I had as a kid one night, all hyped up for a Red-Sox-Yankees game, and listening in the top of the first inning to "Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, strike three! Strike one, strike two, STRIKE THREE!" coming from my radio. In that one game, he was a man playing against boys.

I don't feel this book told the full story of his life, but I do feel like I know him at least a little bit better than I did before I read it. He is a true Louisianan at heart, and takes a lot of pride in his heritage. I was touched by his relationship with Yogi Berra, something I knew nothing about. And I respect his distancing himself from the "burning Bronx" shenanigans in the George Steinbrenner - Billy Martin - Reggie Jackson days. The stories have been told several times about the interactions between these three and more in the late 1970s. Guidry's book doesn't dwell on the negativity, bit focuses instead on his personal baseball story.

Despite what he did to my Red Sox, I have high respect for the Gator, as any true baseball fan should. He was a standout in his time, someone who made the game much more interesting just by standing on the mound and firing that nasty fastball of his over the plate.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis

Why I Read It: Found it in a discount rack at a local independent bookstore, and couldn't believe it. Like most Americans, Peanuts has been a part of my life since my earliest days.

Summary: A biography of the master comic strip artist.

My Thoughts: I've waffled back and forth a bit since finishing this book when attempting to determine my true feelings about Charles Schulz. I think I've come to a decision.

But first, a few facts. The book is a monster, about 560 pages of nonstop inspection of the life of "Sparky" Schulz, the man we all better knew as Charles M. It takes him from his earliest days (and his family from their original immigration to America) through his death, as any good biography should. But it brings us to a level of perception we didn't know we needed to have about his life. It shows us how Schulz bared his emotions to us through his two-dimensional characters.

More than we know of Schulz's life played out in the dailies and Sunday strips. He was an amalgam of many of his main male characters. He thought the world was against him, or didn't love him, as does Charlie Brown; he was a classical music aficionado who wished he could tune out his wife, like Schroeder does with Lucy; he had his religious and philosophical side, like Linus; and he played out his heroic fantasies and desire to break free from societal constraints - to just be a bad boy - like Snoopy.

There was a little red-haired girl, in real life. Lucy had her real-life origins. Even his quieter, supposedly secret relationships played out through the strip. It became a medium through which he could communicate without real worry.

But there is, I believe, more than Michaelis discussed. Now, I'm no nickel-a-session psychiatrist, but it seems to me his loneliness in life had far more to do with his father's lack of closeness and his mother's early death (though Michaelis is correct in keying in on them). I've been around many "only children" in my own life, and notice the same constant desire for attention from them, almost to a fault. Schulz exhibited those behaviors, to me, in spades. It manifests itself in the same way that our great stand-up comedians display their insecurities. They constantly seek the reassurance of laughter to fight their own demons. Schulz, the man, was calling out for attention like a little boy. We can all debate whether or not we are better off with siblings, growing up, but can't deny that they at least have an effect on us as we age. Once we stop arguing about who pushed who and who ate the last cookie, we get to share memories that no one else ever can. With both his parents gone, and no siblings, Schulz had no real connections to his formative home life.

His "woe is me" routine got to me by the end of the book, and had me teetering on the edge a bit. I have a tendency to build up some harsh feelings toward such behaviors, for what reason I don't know. But I think spending so much time with him, through the pages of the book, gave me my own breakthrough. There's a hill we all have to climb to reach a state of self-confidence; Schulz' hill, for whatever reason, was bigger than most. With all his achievements, all his accolades, all his money, one would think there would reach a point of contentment, but it was not to be.

Whether he did it for his own selfish reasons or not, Charles Schulz brought - and brings - joy to millions upon millions of people. I don't go a day without seeing his characters, never mind his influence. My sons and I make up our Charlie Brown Thanksgiving dinner every year (toast, popcorn, pretzel sticks and jelly beans) as we watch Snoopy wrestle the lounge chair. Schulz' impact is not going away any time soon.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Coast Guard Heroes of New Orleans by Captain Robert Mueller

Why I Read It: I've been studying and writing about Coast Guard history since 1996.

Summary: The surface operations undertaken by the Coast Guard in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

My Thoughts: As usual, there was much more to this story than meets the eye.

The problem is that the eye can only see what it can see; television news stations only cover what they want to cover. In this instance, with the largest Coast Guard rescue operation in American history, the service assisted approximately 34,000 people. Nine thousand of them were hoisted to safety by helicopters, which made for dramatic TV footage, especially when one shot might show a dozen helicopters hovering over roofs in a particular area, rescuing people one by one.

Why didn't we see the other 25,000? The answer is simple. The footage wouldn't be as homogenized and clean as that of the helicopter rescues. The rescue boats, mostly small punts, did not carry cameras because of the death factor. We didn't see dead bodies floating on TV. We didn't see dead animals floating on TV. Had there been cameras on boats, we might have, and in the case of dead humans, so, too, might have family members of the deceased watching from afar. As such, the boat crews didn't get their fair share of the plaudits for their efforts, in my opinion (not the author's).

Captain Mueller was there, overseeing those boats, and his matter-of-fact descriptions of the situation in New Orleans after Katrina are jarring. One Coast Guard station was destroyed during the storm, others severely damaged. Crews lost their own homes yet worked night and day, living in tents on station grounds. Looters ransacked the stations, with more than 60 brought to justice at Station New Orleans alone, where they had urinated on beds and smeared feces on walls.

As crews headed out to rescue anyone they could find in a house-to-house search, snipers fired at them. PSUs (Port Security Units) and MSSTs (Maritime Safety and Security Teams) arrived and their members, fully armed and armored, took up positions on the bows of the boats to deter them. Other unsung heroes arrived, like the PGA (yes, the Professional Golfers Association), which set up a massive cooking station to feed the Coasties as they worked.

Katrina was a time of unfathomable effort. Can any of us truly say we understand what it took to rescue the amount of people the Coast Guard, FEMA and other partnering agencies did? This book attempts to share that knowledge.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Vernon Dent: Stooge Heavy by Bill Cassara

Why I Read It: Growing up in the 1970s and '80s, before cable television the Stooges were what Sunday mornings were all about.

Summary: The biography of the one man the Stooges seemed to always be taking down, actor Vernon Dent.

My Thoughts: He just always seemed to be there. If it wasn't Emil Sitka, it was Vernon Dent.

No matter the outcome of their shorts, whether they ended up triumphing over the Nazis or breaking rocks on a pile in Leavenworth, the Three Stooges always had an authority figure to battle. Veteran actor Vernon Dent had that role plugged to a "T."

Dent was certainly a familiar face to the boys, no matter what face he donned for that particular film. Sadly, to most of us, the first two decades of his work has been otherwise elusive. Growing up when I did I did not have access to the many hours of silent film comedies he made with Harry Langdon and others. I had no idea who he really was, other than the big guy who always wanted to bonk Moe, Larry and Curly's head's together.

And so, as biographies go, I learned a whole lot more about the man, and inwardly wept with his passing. I'm a sucker that way. Even though he died long before I was born, and his death was already an accepted fait accompli, it still saddened me for the journey to come to an end.

Dent was from San Jose, started out in music halls (his musical talents would be displayed once in a while in his films) and moved into silent films, a "Fatty" Arbuckle-style comedian, or Oliver Hardy before there was an Oliver Hardy. He was a hard worker, yet retiring. Had he not gone into film, he would have been at ease as a gentleman farmer. He was noted, as his grave marker said, as a "gentle presence." He died just a few weeks before John F. Kennedy, in November, 1963.

The author has compiled, with the help of colleagues, a 50-page filmography, showing the deep extent to which he worked. You may have last seen him as Santa Claus on I Love Lucy (1951), or in his last Three Stooges 2-reeler, Guns A-Poppin' (1957, and it was a "Joe" if you're asking). Or, you may have seen him this past New Year's Eve, during a Stooges marathon. Maybe you'll see him this Sunday morning.

The author has done a wonderful job of combing the early archives of San Jose's newsprint to find the stories behind not only Vernon, but the generations who came before him, exposing the sorrows that no doubt impacted his life at a young age. We get the story from beginning to end, knowing, full well, that having been on so many sets there had to be much more of import that went on in his life. He was in Hollywood during the Hollywood heyday, appearing in features like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart, and others. Had Vernon Dent had the inclination to tell his own story, we might know even more.

This biography shares with us the professionalism, the creativity and ultimately the flaws of the man who gave the Stooges so much trouble on screen, and who helped to propel them to entertainment immortality.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

30 Years of 'Allo 'Allo! by Richard Webber

Why I Read It: Binge-watched the show on Netflix and fell in love.

Summary: Three decades on, where are the cast members now? What's the show's legacy?

My Thoughts: When I was a kid, it was M*A*S*H and the Three Stooges. Later it was Seinfeld and Everybody Loves Raymond. I've always had a background track running in my life.

It's not that I necessarily watch every second of every show. I've always been a multi-tasker, perfectly comfortable to put on a TV show in the background as I do everything but write. I even read with the TV on. In a weird way, the cast members become members of my family. They're the comforting background noise to my life as I go about my work.

And so it came to be with 'Allo 'Allo! Except this time it was a bit different. While I've watched the others on TV, I binged this show on my Kindle on the elliptical. Two episodes per day got me easily through each day's workout. I focused more strongly on the show than I typically do.

Why did I choose it? A few reasons. First, I love British comedy, from Monty Python's Flying Circus, Fawlty Towers, and Are You Being Served? to One Foot in the Grave and even listening to the audio versions of Dad's Army, All Gas and Gaiters and more. They go places American shows just won't. Second, the Jeremy Lloyd/David Croft combination is always worth a shot. As co-creators and writers they just had the magic touch. Third, the setting was fantastic to me: occupied France during World War II. The familiar themes of the war played out in a French cafe frequented by Germans under whose noses escaping British airmen hid, sometimes in plain sight.

But that's the TV show. As for the book, it's wonderful, exactly the type of follow-up one wishes for when reaching the end of a run. The author recaptures the series year-by-year giving behind-the-scenes stories told by the players themselves. We learn of the practical jokes, the special relationships the formed because of the show and the small jealousies that arose as well. Each of the lead actors is profiled, and even some of the lesser lights. It's, of course, sad to know who is no longer with us, but also very interesting to know who has done what since. Yes, IMDB can coldly tell us that, but the book lets the actors tell us the details through the words of the actors themselves.

The book becomes a reference guide to the show, one to be pulled off the shelf when the questions arise about specific episodes. When did General Von Klinkerhoffen lose his mind? When was Herr Flick hit with the poison dart? When did the Communist Resistance first appear? What was Officer Crabtree's catchphrase? It's all there.

And, thanks to digitization, so is the show. May its legacy last long into the future.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Seasons in Hell by Mike Shropshire

Why I Read It: Re-read it. Remembered it as one of the funniest baseball books I'd ever read. Decided to give it a second try two decades later.

Summary: A beat reporter remembers the Texas Rangers of 1973-1975, with (almost) no punches pulled.

My Thoughts: This book was just as fun the second time around.

Shropshire covered the Texas Rangers during a turbulent time, both for the franchise locally and the nation at large. The Rangers, recently the Washington Senators, were trying to establish themselves in a new market, and struggled out of the gate with Ted Williams and then Whitey Herzog as manager. When Billy Martin arrived, things turned around, but there was one problem: Billy Martin. On the national scene, think Watergate, Vietnam, turbulence in the Middle East and more.

Shropshire's story is semi-autobiographical, recounting how a beat reporter earned his money and his chops in those days, when newspapers still mattered. But mostly it's about the individuals on and around the team, from the players to the owners. We may not remember Bob Short or Brad Corbett for their influences on the game, but as owners they left their marks in baseball history for better or worse during their short tenures.

For me, the book is almost perfectly situated in time. I was born in 1971, and really started following the game about six years later. The names are mostly recognizable for me without having to refer to baseballreference,com or some other informational website. It made the read very smooth.

That said, a little backstory is always interesting. I knew of Fergie Jenkins, of course, but had no idea, for instance, that one spring training he picked up a hermit to help him drive from Texas to Florida so he could get some sleep on the way. I knew that the '70s were a 1960s hangover, with remnants of the free-spirited anti-authoritarian nature of the previous decade manifesting themselves in odd ways. It was a time when baseball owners were experimenting with ways to increase their gate revenues, including such harebrained schemes as "Bat Night" and "10-cent Beer Night." Having recently read a book on the Oakland A's of the same period I had some sense of this atmosphere, but Shropshire lets more of the sordid stories fly.

The story has a sad ending that deals several personal blows to Shropshire himself, leading him away from newspaper writing and the day-to-day Rangers beat. There could have been more, but Shropshire certainly gives us plenty of material to ponder and even laugh out loud about.

Sometimes it can be hard to read another fan's favorite team's books; Red Sox fans generally do not read Yankee history. But this is more about a moment in baseball time than it is about any rooting interest. It crosses a boundary into the wide, wide world of sports that existed in the 1970s.