Thursday, December 24, 2009

A video for Christmas Eve featuring one of my favorite holiday novelty songs.

Great work Doug Compton!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Monday, December 21, 2009

Here is the column I wrote in this week's 'paper. I usually have a real conflict about the holidays and family as well as the gap between what you would like to experience and what is the reality of your situation. As I've grown older this gap is more and more apparent. I'm not a Grinch, but the holidays simply to amplify problems.

Part of this feeling came from the 14 years when certain family members elected not to speak with us. I'm very glad that we actually have a friendship with some of these people. Our lives are richer because of it.

Back in the 1980s, I worked as the afternoon talk show host on the late and lamented WREB in Holyoke. One of my colleagues was a veteran newsman named Richard Lavigne.

Lavigne was one of those local legends in the Valley and inevitably listeners who met me would ask, “What is Richard Lavigne really like?”

My response was usually along the lines of “Do you watch ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’? Do you know the ‘Les Nessman’ character?’’

Lavigne was know for his daily half-hour “newscast,” which was really an often rambling combination of items he had gathered from his own sources and the clattering AP teletype as well as his opinions.

An aside: I miss the sound of the teletype in the background of a newsroom as well as the feel of pounding the American-made metal keys of a manual typewriter.

Sometimes Lavigne’s broadcast ran long, something bound to irritate Jonathan Evans, whose afternoon show started at 1 p.m. There was a switch installed in the main broadcast studio that allowed us to turn him off if need be. I think we used it once or twice.

To say that Lavigne wasn’t much an upbeat fellow would be an understatement. He was single, at the top end of middle age and had poor health. He always could be counted to see the dark side of a shiny cloud and I’ll never forget his annual Christmas salutation.

Lavigne would tell people to “have the best Christmas your circumstances will allow.”

I was usually fairly appalled that he just couldn’t say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” or some other socially acceptable greeting.

I, of course, was a bit green – I turned 30 in 1984 – and now that I’m a beat-up, rumpled vet I can see a little of his reason. We put so much emphasis on having a “perfect” holiday. The situations of our lives are supposed to magically be in suspension as we have a day or two of celebration.

At least that’s what we would like to see.

But a two-day Christmas holiday has a hard time fixing the sibling who won’t talk to you, curing the chronic health condition, returning the loved one who is overseas fighting a war, completing a successful job search, asking co-workers who won’t even say “good morning” to you to show a little humanity or satisfying a landlord who wants his back rent.

We place so much hope on having that ideal holiday that anything short of perfection seems to be a disaster, an event that adds to our misery rather than alleviates it.

Although I do see the best of humanity at this time of year – the people who donate to others and perform acts of kindness – that gap between how things are and how things should be can be brutal.

Perhaps Lavigne was asking people to assess their situation and make the best of it rather than set the stage for unfulfilled expectations. I’m sure he was speaking from his own situation.

At this point in history with so many people in the midst of dire events I can only pray they are able to hold back the grim reality of their lives for a moment and relax in the sense of hope the season can bring. I do believe we have the capacity making our lives better.

So to our readers, Merry Christmas and have the best one you possibly can.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A new sheriff – or hangman – comes to town

If you read The Republican or browse MassLive you probably noticed that Larry McDermott, the publisher of the daily for the last ten years, is retiring and being replaced with George Arwady, the publisher of the Newark (NJ) Star-Ledger – another Newhouse ‘paper.

Arwady made newspaper industry news in 2008 by basically telling one of the unions at that ‘paper if the members didn’t accept certain concessions, he was prepared to shut down New Jersey’s largest newspaper.

Concessions were made.

In October, Arwady sent out a memo, according to “Editor & Publisher,” looking for voluntary buyouts in order to reduce the ‘paper’s staff.

He wrote, “We are working on the budget for 2010, and it is clear that we must reduce our staff significantly to offset the continuing steep decline in revenue. My best estimate is that the full-time workforce must be reduced by at least 50 people.”

The Star-Ledger had already undergone significant cuts.

What has happened with many publications nationwide is that with decreasing ad revenues due to changes in how chain stores advertise, publishers have sought economies in cutting human beings, especially those involved in creating content. The premise is that readers will always pick up their daily paper out of loyalty and habit. Local content can be replaced by other kinds of stories.

With the decrease in content, more and more readers elected to find their local news elsewhere. Circulation slipped and advertising was lost. With less revenue, came more cuts.

That’s the cycle that many daily newspapers have for the past decade. I’ve often wondered if anyone at the Republican worried about the long-term effects when the ‘paper lost the considerable advertising dollars from Steiger’s? I believe that was the trigger of the ‘paper’s decline.

So now media watchers wonder what Arwady is going to do. Cut more staff? Drop the Saturday and Monday editions? Adopt the tabloid format for all the weekday editions? Cut back the coverage area?

As I’ve said before, I’m not particularly a fan of The Republican as an institution. The ‘paper has many fine reporters and photographers who do good work, some of whom I view as friends and valued colleagues. I don’t believe this region would be well served from an economic development point of view if it did not have a daily ‘paper.

I think though that considerable damage has been done to the reputation of the ‘paper and its value to readers and one wonders if Arwady has been sent to fix it or to bury it.

© 2009 Gordon Michael Dobbs

Monday, December 14, 2009

Mae Murray (right) prepares for her dreaded wedding night in "The Merry Widow," Von Stroheim's successful silent adaptation of the popular operetta. One of my favorite stills from my collection.

My vacation book report or what I finished up while trying to fight a cold.

Warning: The following post is for hardcore film fans, fan boys and other people willing to pick a nit with me.

Ever heard of director of actor Erich Von Stroheim? For the casual movie fan, Stroheim’s best known role of the butler Max in “Sunset Boulevard,” a role that Stroheim did care too much about.

Can’t blame him – the role of a washed up silent film director was a little too close to his own reality. Acclaimed for his successful films in the 1920s that presented stories of humanity showing all of our warts, Stroheim’s career was seriously impaired by a series of film projects that became known for going over budget and testing the limits of conventional Hollywood thinking.

The best well known of these was his adaptation of Frank Norris’ book “McTeague” into the film, “Greed.” His edit clocked in at about eight hours and reports by those who saw that version all concur it was a masterpiece. Stroheim wanted to break it into two four-hour blocks with a dinner break in the middle.

The current cut of “Greed,” and the only one available runs under two hours.

Stroheim made his living – after several other films – as an actor for other directors. He was seen by some as a tragic figure, a victim of the system and by others as man with self-inflicted wounds. His films remain fascinating and he as a man and artist is still almost complete contradiction.

I’ve been a Stroheim fan for years and was happy to find the most recent biography of the man by film historian Arthur Lennig. Now in the interest of full disclosure, I’m not a big fan of Lennig as he wrote some unnecessary criticism of my friend the late Alex Gordon in his biography of Bela Lugosi. But I found his Stroheim book in a used bookstore, so I knew my purchase wouldn’t pay him a nickel. I bought it and read it.

Lenning’s scholarship is quite good and he has done much of his homework to present as complete a picture as possible of Stroheim’s films and his life.

However, I amazed that he didn’t include what happened to Stroheim’s third wife Valerie, his mistress Denise Vernac or his two sons?

A biography tells a story of one person’s life, but there are other characters and they deserve an element of closure.

In fact, considering how long Lennig worked on this book and his detailed description of what he did to gather his information that he didn’t attempt to interview any of these key people was surprising to me.

Now I know first hand how difficult it is to get interviews with people who know the subject matter is going to be painful. Dave and Lou Fleischer both each politely turned me down for an interview for my book on the Fleischer studio. Perhaps Lennig tried and was rebuffed.

Interestingly enough, Valerie did do an interview for a 1979 documentary on her husband and her comments used on camera were not unfavorable, despite the fact he cheated on her for about 20 years.

But I was amazed Lennig didn’t see the human drama in the story of the two sons, each of who had successful careers in the film industry. How’s that for irony? Erich Von Stroheim Jr. acted and became a busy assistant director before his death from cancer in 1968. The last film on which he worked was “Medium Cool.”

Josef Von Stroheim was an Emmy-winning sound editor, who died in 2002.

Now here are two men who were working in the 1950s when their father was still alive. What did they think of him? What did he think of them? Did they have any relationship? What was it like being saddled with the name of “Erich Von Stroheim Junior” and working in the film industry?

Although there is much to compliment Lennig for in his book, he missed the boat on what the late Paul Harvey used to call “the rest of the story.”

Here's an even pickier nit:

Lennig implies that “Queen Kelly” – the aborted collaboration between Von Stroheim and Gloria Swanson about a convent girl inheriting a whorehouse and becoming the queen of the madams! – was Joseph Kennedy’s sole effort as a film producer. Not true. The patriarch of the Kennedy family, while not bust cheating on his wife with Swanson, owned FBO studios and played a key role in the creation of RKO.

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs

Friday, December 04, 2009

This is my problem. I actually enjoy the variety offered by my job. It almost compensates for the downsides. Here are two pieces from this week:

Behind Ken Burns’ new documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” is a message.

Burns said in a press conference before his speech at the Springfield Public Forums on Dec. 1 that he wants families “to understand this valuable sense of ownership of the parks and that they would act with their feet and take their families there and do what so many of us who have visited the parks have, [gathered] not just memories of spectacular places, but memories of spectacular places experienced with the people closest to us.”

Burns is perhaps the most honored documentary filmmaker in cinema history. His famed production of “The Civil War” was honored with more than 40 major film and television awards, including two Emmy Awards, two Grammy Awards, a Producer of the Year Award from the Producer’s Guild, a People’s Choice Award, a Peabody Award, a duPont-Columbia Award, a D.W. Griffith Award and the $50,000 Lincoln Prize, among dozens of others.

Burns, a 1975 graduate of Hampshire College in Amherst, received an Academy Award nomination for his 1981 film “The Brooklyn Bridge.”

The new documentary series aired on PBS explores the history of how the parks came to be and is more than just a travelogue or tips on how to visit the parks, Burns later said.

He admitted that picking a favorite park is difficult as they are “so beautiful, they’re like your children – you can’t chose one.”
He told the near capacity audience at Symphony Hall that filming the sequence on Yosemite Park awakened a long-forgotten memory of his father taking him, at age six, to visit Shenandoah National Park in Virginia.

Burns stressed the unique place in history the American system of national parks have. “For the first time in human history large tracts of land were set aside not for kings or noblemen or the very rich but for everyone,” he said.

“It’s an utterly democratic idea,” he added.

The parks are facing many threats, Burns said, from budgetary problems, including an estimated $8 billion in deferred maintenance. Climate change is also a real concern, especially at Glacier National Park in Montana where the glaciers are disappearing “at a terrifying rate.”

Apathy is the biggest threat to the park system according to Burns, who while he was in production on the series, met many people who assumed the parks had always been part of the country and would always be part of the country. The parks system was formalized in 1916 by legislation signed by President Woodrow Wilson that created the National Parks Service with the charge to maintain and protect the then 40 national parks and monuments.

Burns said that in all of his films he addresses the division between Americans but seeks to “figure out a way to speak to all sides.”

Burns has not been tempted to follow in fellow documentary filmmaker Michael Moore’s footsteps by producing a movie with a readily apparent point of view.

“I wish to engage everybody,” he said.

While he readily admitted to having points of view that are easy to see in his own films, he said of Moore’s documentaries, “I don’t believe his films make any converts.”

While he said that Moore was talented and funny, he couldn’t share Moore’s approach.

“I just think it’s important to me to speak to as many people as possible,” he explained.

There has been a proliferation of documentary filmmakers, and Burns did acknowledge the success of his production of “The Civil War” “had a kind of dramatic sea change coming as it did at the real explosion of cable [television].”

“All of a sudden there were all of these channels and what you needed to fill them with wasn’t expensive drama but so-called reality,” he continued.

Burns was quick to add with a laugh that shows featuring people choosing their mate or eating bugs wasn’t “reality” to him.

The digital revolution in film making technology has also contributed to the increase in documentaries, but Burns noted, “you can put a camera in everyone’s hands, but that doesn’t make them a filmmaker.”

“You have to figure out how to tell a story,” he added.

Burns is currently working on six projects all in various stages of production. His new films will include a sequel to his popular “Baseball” series, “The 10th Inning;” a production covering the 1989 Central Park jogger rape and attempted murder case; a biography on Theodore Roosevelt and his cousin Franklin Roosevelt; and a history of the Vietnam War.

And here's the other:

SPRINGFIELD – Ox Baker spent his adult life as a wrestler audiences loved to hate, but there was a fair amount of respect, if not affection when Baker made an appearance at the recent Big Time Wrestling Show in Chicopee.

Selling autographed pictures and copies of his cookbook, Baker was certainly friendly with fans. That might be temporary, though, as the old Ox Baker – the man who used to wear a T-shirt that read, “I like to hurt people.” – may be back.

Baker will be making a special appearance as the manager of Bruiser Costa in a mixed-gender tag team match that will be the main event for “Old School Professional Wrestling.” The show will be at 7 p.m. Dec. 12 at the Knights of Columbus, 2071 Page Blvd.

Promoter Richard Blake is a local and longtime wrestling fan who remembers the sport before the advent of national television shows and the World Wrestling Entertainment.

“We do the real stuff,” Blake told Reminder Publications. “We’re not a soap opera.”

Blake said his shows are family oriented. “You’re not embarrassed to bring your kids,” he added. “We do it the way when you used to sit on your dad’s lap and watch TV.”

Blake started thinking about running his own wrestling promotion in 2006 and 2007 when he scouted the area for potential talent. He said he knew then he wanted to get rid of “all of the soap opera, glitz and sex.”

His show on Dec. 12 will feature seven matches and an appearance by former WWE star Antonio Thomas.

His first show was in 2008 and he’s happy with the reception from the fans. He believes each show is getting better, while still remaining “old school.”

Blake added there is no one more old school than Baker, who wrestled around the country before the start of national broadcasts and was known to be ruthless in the ring.

His infamy gave him the opening to appear in two movies, “The Big Brawl” with Jackie Chan and “Escape from New York” with Kurt Russell. On the DVD commentary for “Escape to New York,” Russell revealed that Baker didn’t hold his punches much during a climactic fight between the two men.

Baker confirmed that he was a “little mad” about being paired up with a “punk kid” in his first movie and took some of his frustration out on the star.

Although in his seventies, Baker still cuts an opposing figure at six feet five inches in height. Seeing this reporter’s microphone, he launched into a rant about how he was bringing a “secret weapon” to the match to assure Costa’s victory.

“Are you going to be there?” he asked this reporter while putting him in a modified headlock. I assured him I would be.

“You better not be lying to these people,” Baker replied. I said I wouldn’t.

Tickets will be available at the door. For more information, log on to

© 2009 by Gordon Michael Dobbs